There's always someone out there in worse shape than you. Doesn't that make you feel better?
The events described at length in this story are mentioned very briefly in a story I wrote many years ago called “Watching.” I know you don’t care. I just thought you should be aware.
What am I afraid of? It's just a blinking cursor. There's nothing that blinking cursor can do to hurt me.
What is there to fear? Failure? Failure is nothing to fear. To hear self-help gurus talk, failure is something to which one should continually aspire since those people think it's the only learning tool always at our disposal.
Success? Yes, success can be scary, especially when success adds to the weight of expectation that already smothers you, suffocates you.
Sometimes, of course, failure is inevitable. This realization can have an adverse effect on a person, especially a person who has dedicated so much time and attention to completing and succeeding at a task that will never see an end, much less any measure of triumph from the enterprise.
Whenever these thoughts take hold of me and I ruminate on and regret and lament my own past failures, it always makes me feel better to remember Nixon.
It wouldn't surprise me to know that Nixon comes into the minds of many of my colleagues—the ones lost in the dark forest of academe, exhausted by walking and full of despair every time they realize they've passed the same tree four or five times. To think about Nixon in relation to their own stalled careers surely might invigorate them no matter what evidence exists in their lives to elicit the opposite reaction.
I guess I should clarify: I'm not talking about Richard Nixon, though his is not a feel-good story of career-based achievement, either.
When I mention Nixon I mean Kurtis Nixon, a former associate professor at Kilter Community College, where I am still employed.
Though Nixon, like most of us from time to time, was required to teach courses nobody enjoys teaching—freshman composition, the 101s and 102s of English and American lit, business writing—his interest as an academic leveled its gaze in the direction of only one writer, someone named Janowitz, and had somehow decided to zero in on a work of hers called A Cannibal in Manhattan.
After he'd been with the Kilter English department for a while, nobody dared ask him how his book was going. To ask this question was to invite interminable blather about the most recent element of A Cannibal in Manhattan that had caught and held Nixon's interest. The man never tired of talking about that book. There seemed no end to the number of ways it delighted and surprised him.
This would have been fine if Nixon were writing a critical analysis of, say, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, or Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.
Neither I nor anyone else in our department could recall this writer named Janowitz or the novel A Cannibal in Manhattan. We made this clear the first time Nixon mentioned it, and reminded him many times afterward. Yet, Nixon always seemed truly shocked at the blank stares and deep sighs when he brought up the author and her book.
It was unnerving to some of our co-workers, but I had experienced this type of obsessive behavior with other colleagues in the past.
Mary Sarah Walton, a former professor of British Literature at Kilter, was convinced that one of her sophomore students was the reincarnation of Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place. With this weird drum beating in her head, Mary Sarah hounded the poor girl to visit a psychic to prove or disprove Mary Sarah's theory. The student ended up transferring from Kilter to a college three states away, and Mary Sarah quit teaching to open an aerial yoga studio.
Paul Lemley, who died by his own hand three years after joining the faculty, was researching a biography of Saddam Hussein (with an emphasis on the romance novels written by the Iraqi President/dictator) when he began indulging in student-supplied cocaine on a regular basis. One morning following a weekend bender, Lemley leaped from the Interstate bridge that loomed over Highway 323. It was rush hour. So.
No one knows if Nixon was high on drugs or suffering a nervous breakdown, but one afternoon he left a class of freshman English lit students alone during an exam.
Of course, that doesn't sound so bad. A lot of instructors step out of the classroom for one reason or another—to make phone calls, to fetch some forgotten book for a lecture, to speak briefly with students under advisement. I've done this hundreds of times, even during exams. It's no big deal.
Nixon, however, stepped out of the classroom and made his way down a corridor and through the front doors of the building. As he walked, he removed articles of his clothing. By the time he reached the quad, the only thing left for him to remove were one sock and his boxer shorts.
Luckily for Nixon, Jeffers, a creative writing professor, and a student were smoking together and saw Nixon before he was noticed by many other people. They rushed to him and, shoulder to shoulder, created a human shield, pushing him back into the building and through the doors leading to a stairwell beside the entrance.
The student gathered up Nixon's discarded clothes and took them to Nixon, whereupon Jeffers helped his friend and colleague get redressed. Jeffers told his student to go check on Nixon's class while steering Nixon toward the small suite of shabby offices from which they both worked.
When they came out of Nixon's office, apparently, Nixon walked past the classroom he'd abandoned earlier and repeated his exit, this time stepping outside with just his socks on.
Campus security had been summoned and were talking to students who'd witnessed Nixon's first trip to the quad. They were much quicker to act than Jeffers and his student had been, but were much more forceful in their removal of Nixon. Each officer grasped an armpit and lifted a screaming Nixon and carried him inside, handcuffing him after they pulled his polo shirt over his head then manhandled him into the rest of his clothes.
They escorted him off the premises, but not before the VP for advancement ordered other security officers to confiscate the telephones of students who'd been shooting video and photos of the spectacle to share with contacts and to upload on platforms like TikTok and Snap Chat.
No charges were brought against Nixon, but he was completely relieved of his duties on that fateful day. Jeffers has never told anyone what he and Nixon talked about that day in Nixon's office, maybe to protect Nixon but probably to eliminate any future culpability on the part of Jeffers.
Meanwhile, there's still this cursor surrounded by letters adrift on a white sea. Watching it makes my heart race, makes me hold my breath from time to time. I have no idea why.
It can't punch me or hit me or trip me or kick me, it can't slap me or put handcuffs on my wrists. It can't have me committed to an asylum, or have divorce papers served to me.
Poor, crazy Nixon.