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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Enjoy Chapter Four of Angel!

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Chapter Four
The Day We Met

CALLIEL WAITED patiently for the westbound 903. A woman eventually joined him. They stood silently at the curb.
The bus came up the hill ten minutes later. He got on it and took a seat at the front. My stop was six up the line. When the bus pulled up to it I stared.
There I was.
I stood like a war refugee. It was written all over my person: tired sloping shoulders, the wide-eyed stare of astonished fatigue, the restless stance. I gripped the handle of my briefcase like someone was going to steal it, secured as it was with oh-so-valuable homework and pencils and ibuprofen.
The doors opened. I was the first to board.
I don’t recall doing it, but I glanced down at Calliel, who smiled up at me.
“How are you this fine morning?” he asked politely.
I walked on as though I hadn’t heard him, though I’m sure I did. I watched as I took a seat near the rear, as I always did. I crowded up against a window and stared lifelessly out.
Hopeless. I was hopeless.
I watched as a woman sat next to me, watched as I squeezed harder into the side of the bus as though she had the bubonic plague. I was clearly irritated.
The doors closed and the bus got on its way.
Calliel made no attempt to look back at me the entire way to the trolley. He engaged the driver in small talk: “How are you this fine morning?” which the driver returned with a jovial, “Every morning is fine with the Lord watchin’ over ya.”
“So true, so true,” replied Calliel.
The driver was an obese black man with a smile that covered his entire face and a constant sheen of sweat on his brow, which he’d wipe after taking off his hat. He was a regular on this route, and a driver I’d come to like, because he was very conscientious and safe without being slow. “Just gotta learn to let go,” he said. “That’s the trick to life—learnin’ to let the little things go.”
“Pretty tough trick sometimes,” said Calliel.
“Life ain’t easy. No sir! Ain’t easy at all. Ain’t fair neither.”
“It’s not at that.”
“Faith,” said the driver, holding up a finger to emphasize the point, “ain’t for wimps.”
“Not the kind that counts,” said Calliel.
“Are you a man of faith?”
The driver looked over his shoulder at him.
Calliel grinned. “You could say that.”
The bus pulled into H Street Station. As Calliel stood to go, the driver, glancing up at him, said, “You have a good day, man o’ God.”
Calliel gave him a pat on his massive shoulder and stepped off, me tagging along. I’d taken the occasional glance behind me, at me. I had sat there staring out the window the entire time, and now made my way out the back exit. The driver was wishing passengers to have a good day, which surprised me, because until now I’d never heard him do so. Something told me it was something he always did.
Calliel stopped in the shade and rolled up his sleeves. I—the I that was holding the briefcase—did as well. There were many seeking shade; it was (as I recall) going to be a hot, muggy day. He didn’t look back at me, though I was just five feet behind and to his right. Like earlier, I stood there like a civvy who’d just emerged from a bomb shelter after the shelling stopped.
I couldn’t remember what I was thinking as I stood there. It shocked me somewhat, because it came to me then that I couldn’t remember anything I had ever thought or done the countless times I stood waiting for the Blue Line. I was a cipher. In a very real way I didn’t exist.
I floated over Calliel’s shoulder and stared at me. I was a void—a void with flesh and bones. I felt more real as a disembodied spirit or mind or point of consciousness or whatever I was now than I felt standing there, corporeal and substantial.
The Blue Line rumbled to a stop a few minutes later. It had become habit for me to check the time when it did, and I watched as I did so now. The corporeal me dropped my wrist and went to board, expressionless. The Blue Line’s timeliness determined to a large extent the kind of day I was going to have. If it was tardy it practically guaranteed that I was going to be a surly, miserable asshole the entire day.
Hell, I might as well have flipped an unfair coin! How many days had I squandered as a result? Surely it was more than half of them!
I couldn’t recall if this day, the first day I met Calliel, was one of those days. Then I thought of how I had treated him, and knew.
One seat was open. I watched as I got there before a mother with a small child in her arms could. She glanced down at me resentfully. The doors closed and the trolley lurched forward.
Calliel remained standing, holding on to a pole. I was four seats behind him. A cipher. A void.
What is it about life that makes living so hard? Is it other people? I was convinced of it. People suck. People are murderous and greedy and deceitful and treacherous. They’re filthy and loud and rotten. If I was doing anything sitting there, it was precisely that: I was judging, for the millionth time, the whole of humanity.
It was people, for a pertinent example, that made the Blue Line late. It was people, for another, that shit out kids in a world wholly overpopulated and baking to death as a direct result. That’s why I had no compassion for the mother standing there. She deserved the misery she got. She was part of the problem.
On my office door was a quote from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, offered in big black block letters: “Any man of merit will hardly be free from a certain touch of misanthropy.” I’d put it there for two reasons. Most of all, of course, I very much believed it to be true. But I also put it there to intimidate students, and even staff. Don’t fuck with Dr. Wilms, that quote conveyed. Don’t waste his time, and don’t pretend you’re in the same intellectual league he is, because you’re not.
That was the quote that justified ignoring a mother with a child and bulky stroller, whose back was probably aching and would only get worse through a long day.
But—how smart was I really?
The literal flip of an unfair coin—the tardiness or not of the Blue Line—determined how the great Dr. Ray Wilms’ day was going to go.
Ashamed of myself, I looked away.
Calliel hadn’t bothered looking back at me at all. At Barrio Logan a man seated in front of him got off. Another went to sit in the vacant seat, but he stopped him. “Hang on,” he said. The man, glaring, stopped. Calliel turned to the woman. “Ma’am, there’s a seat open right here.” He motioned to her to come forward.
The glaring man looked like he was going to take it anyway, but stopped after glancing around at everybody, who silently fired on him from all sides with disdain. The woman approached, gave Calliel a relieved smile. “Thank you,” she said.
She sat. Her baby didn’t wake. He took her stroller and secured it behind her. She thanked him again.
Had I—the miserable, corporeal I seated back a bit—noticed this forgettable little transaction of mercy? I turned to look, but stopped. I didn’t want to know; and it didn’t matter anyway.
I watched as I marched up the stairs leading into Lory Hall. Calliel followed two dozen paces back.
A student approached and began speaking to me before I could disappear inside. It was obvious that I didn’t want to be bothered, and as I left the kid standing there, I felt another wave of shame flush through me. I couldn’t remember the exchange, and it was clear that he was troubled about something.
Calliel mounted the stairs. The student was still standing there. He had the look of someone contemplating a jump off the Bay Bridge.
“Excuse me,” said Calliel. “I’m looking for Professor Wilms. Could you point me in the right direction?”
I recognized the student then. He had been in my 10:30 Calculus for Engineers course.
(I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was experiencing the past, that this moment occurred many months ago.)
“He’s in the math office on the right,” he said glumly, adjusting his backpack. “Can’t miss it.”
Calliel eyed him, then gave an understanding smile. “Rough day?”
“He’s a jerk,” said the kid. “Fair warning.”
“You don’t like math.”
The student stared at the ground like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He shook his head. “I fucking hate it. But what are you gonna do? If I don’t want to go on loans I have to be an engineer like my old man. He won’t pay my way otherwise. Fuckin’ sucks …”
“What do you want to do?”
The kid shrugged.
“You know,” said Calliel. “Tell me.”
It had to be Calliel’s super angel powers or something that kept the student there. Despite nervously shifting his backpack from one shoulder to the next and averting his eyes like he wasn’t comfortable talking to this dude in the cowboy get-up, he didn’t leave.
“Say it,” ordered Calliel. “Name it.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by religion and history,” admitted the kid, who took a chance and looked up into his eyes. “The History Department here is pretty good, and they offer a Master’s in Religious History. I’ve even had a few good talks with one of the professors. But … I can’t. The old man holds all the purse strings, you know? ‘It’s a worthless degree.’ That’s what he always tells me just before he threatens to take away my tuition again.”
“Your old man is unhappy,” said Calliel. “He only became an engineer because that’s what his daddy was.”
The student gawked.
“Tell you what,” said Calliel. “Switch majors today, and you won’t have to go on loans. Your needs will be taken care of. You have my word.”
“How do you know that?” demanded the kid. “How can you say that? How do you know my old man?”
Calliel held up. “What you suspect to be true sometimes is. It depends on the person, what’s inside him. You’ve got that thing, so don’t blow it. Down the hall on the right? Thanks—and good luck to you.”
He held out his hand, and the young man took it.
Calliel gave him a sure shake, gave his shoulder a hearty pat, then turned and walked into the building.
I stared back. The student goggled at his retreating back through the mullioned windows in the door. I watched as he adjusted his backpack one more time, then descended the stairs and hung a hard left. McCowen Hall, where the History Department was located, was in that direction.
I’d like to believe he went for it. Perhaps my churlish attitude towards him was as much a spur as Calliel’s encouraging and spooky words were.
It had been a long time since I gave a shit about inspiring students. Even if I’d managed to do it in a negative fashion, that still counted, didn’t it?
Calliel looked up. He was under the small sign that announced he’d arrived at the math office. He opened the door and went in.
Betty Landis was the department’s secretary. She was a lifer; she’d been at that post over thirty years. It was one of the few things I knew about her.
She glanced up from her computer screen.
Calliel gave her a smile. “Mornin’, ma’am.”
“Good morning to you, too,” she said. It was obvious that she liked his looks.
“I’m here to see Dr. Wilms. Is he available?”
“He just walked in. Let me check his schedule.”
She clicked her computer mouse several times, gazing at the screen.
“He’s got a nine o’ clock. But it’s a lab, so he should be back in half an hour. Want to wait here?”
She really would’ve loved that, judging by the gleam in her eyes.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I think I’ll have a walk around your lovely campus. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
He gave her a friendly nod and left.
I’d never bothered to get to know Betty. There was always something more important to do. Plus, I was a Doctor of Mathematics. She had, at best, an associate’s degree, if that (I didn’t know, honestly). There was a pecking order, and she was at the very bottom of it. I wasn’t alone with upholding that pecking order; I knew many other Ph.D.s with the same attitude. You really weren’t worth knowing without an advanced degree.
But was that valid? More relevantly (considering my present circumstances), was it right? Should a piece of paper or what you did to get it determine your worth?
What had I known about Betty—I mean really known? In the last few months of my life, I took the time to learn more about her. But here, now? I knew she was a grandmother, and I knew she had a hysterectomy not so long ago (I believe), or some such procedure, and that she was married, or remarried. That was it; that was all I had really bothered to learn about her to this particular point in time. Jesus!
Her first husband had died. I didn’t know at the time if an illness took him, or a car crash. (He rear-ended a stalled garbage truck.) I remember all the time off she took, and I remember her replacement, who turned out to be a real ditz. The office was utter chaos that year. I tore that young woman a new butthole on several occasions.
The faculty gave Betty a nice present when she came back to work. I couldn’t remember what it was. Something nice. I do remember resenting the cash outlay for it.
I didn’t want to continue with this trip down my oh-so-photographic memory lane. I couldn’t quit thinking of how I’d treated her replacement. Last night I saw what I looked like when I lost my temper. It wasn’t epic; it was pathetic. No, it was epically pathetic. That’s it.
I sighed. More epic pathetic was just around the corner.
Calliel exited Lory Hall via the back doors. There was a wide plaza back there, very pleasant. Students sat under shade trees with open books, or on planters with their various electronic devices, staring down at them. Two were tossing a Frisbee at the far end. He watched them with a smile before continuing on. I had no idea where he was going. He didn’t seem to have a destination.
His smile disappeared. He said (to himself? to me?): “I need your help.”
Was he talking to me? Did he know I was attached to him? Could I somehow interact with him, even though this was the past?
When the silence stretched on, I said, “What do you want me to do?”
“Two percent,” he said (to me?). He shook his head.
I remember that number. Two percent was the lousy chance that he could save me, according to supernatural Google. He wasn’t talking to me. Was he praying?
(I wondered: Who calculated that number? Other angels? Mathematician angels? Were there actuaries in Heaven, or did it come from a higher source? How could he be sure it was accurate? Was there a peer review process?)
“I’m out of my element,” he murmured, continuing his walk. “Please grant me the wisdom and courage to see this through. Please forgive me if I fail. I promise I’ll give it my very best.”
He glanced up from the sidewalk, looked left.
A girl sat by herself under a sycamore. She wasn’t studying, but was watching the Frisbee throwers. He brought his full focus to bear on her, then stepped into the grass towards her. As he drew close she looked up at him. Her face was red. She’d been crying. He crouched down, reached out and touched her knee.
She flinched when he touched her, but didn’t draw away. “Who are you?” she asked.
“You know who I am,” he said.
She gaped, then shook her head as if to clear it. “No. You don’t exist. Go away.”
He withdrew his hand, but he did not leave. “Sometimes life is unbearable, Katie. It’s unfair. Sometimes there just isn’t any light in the world. That’s all true. You’re going to have to learn to accept that. It isn’t easy. Suicide won’t change that.”
“At least then he’ll feel bad!” she cried.
He shook his head. “He won’t. He’s a jerk. You don’t believe it now, but you’re much better off without him.”
“He used me!” she sobbed. “He used me and threw me away like toilet paper!”
He held out his hand. “Take it.”
She collected herself. Very hesitantly, she reached and grasped it. He squeezed.
She seemed to go somewhere else. Her red eyes went blank and closed, and her mouth opened slightly. A full minute passed in silence.
She came back, opened her eyes. She gaped, her jaw slack.
“Th-Thank you,” she whispered. The tear that streaked down her cheek was nothing like its predecessors. It glittered with surprise and hope.
“Yo! What happened?” I shouted, frustrated. Did he just communicate with her telepathically? Did he “heal” her somehow? Did he give her some hopeful vision? “Damnit!”
“Think nothing of it,” Calliel said, releasing her hand. He glanced right, at the Frisbee-ers, or whatever you call them, and pointed. “See that good-lookin’ stallion with the Frisbee?”
She looked, nodded. Amazement still colored her countenance.
“His name is Jamie. His cell phone is dead. His friend doesn’t have one. Without a working cell phone he’s going to miss a very important appointment. In about six minutes he’s going to check his and discover he’s up the creek without a paddle. Yours is charged up, isn’t it?”
“I … I think so …”
He stood. “He likes smart girls. He likes independent-minded girls. He likes girls who refuse to be used, who stand on their own two feet. He’s been lookin’ over here at you. He’s worried about you. He thinks you’re prettier n’ a sunset in Heaven. He’s wondering if you’re his type. He’s had enough of the other kind. You are, aren’t you, Katie? Are you his type?”
An unsure moment passed. She nodded again.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “So you made one with a jerk. You don’t need to make another. Let it go.”
He gazed at the student he somehow knew was named Jamie. She did, too.
“So, Katie, the question is—” he looked back at her—“are you ready for a real relationship and real love? Six minutes.”
He gave her a wink, then turned and walked away.
Like the kid outside Lory Hall did earlier, she gawked at his retreating back. Before he got too far, she said, “Thank you … guardian angel.”
She stood and collected herself. She took her cell phone out of her pack, checked it, then turned her attention towards Jamie the Frisbee-thrower.
“Right down the hall, third door on the left,” chirped Betty as Calliel closed the door behind him.
He gave her a quick smile and made his way to the hallway, turning right. He got to my office door, which was closed (it was supposed to be open while I was in it, per university dictates, but I’d refused to comply), and promptly gave it a couple strong knocks.
I remember those knocks. I remember them surprising me. Students’ knocks were much softer and meeker; and most of my colleagues never bothered talking to me one on one, choosing to do so only at staff meetings and the like.
I heard myself say, “Yes?” I could hear the irritation in my voice, and wondered if Calliel did, too.
He opened the door.
I was seated at my desk, reading glasses halfway down my nose. I wasn’t looking at homework or planning a lecture; I was going through my bank statement. I was sure there was an error (there wasn’t). I stared up.
“Dr. Wilms?”
“Yes?” I said again. The impatience suffusing that word made me squirm.
“Do you have a minute, sir? I need to speak to you.”
Sir? He actually addressed me as sir? Why don’t I remember that?
He took a couple steps in. I didn’t stand and offer him a seat; I didn’t ask his name; I didn’t shake his hand; I didn’t turn in my swivel chair to let him know I was going to give him my full attention. I just kept staring up at him.
“What can I do for you?” I asked. It was obvious I wanted to do nothing for him.
I waited, more important pen in hand.
I stared down at me, embarrassed and ashamed. “You sad little fuckhead,” I said. “Look at you.”
Calliel went to close the door, but the great Dr. Wilms stopped him. “Please leave it open.”
“What I have to say you might want to hear in private,” Calliel offered.
“Leave it open.”
I had judged this man top to bottom within the first five seconds of seeing him. Calliel looked like a hick in that white button-down shirt with the silly blue snap buttons and the denim jeans and shitkickers. A dumb, dumb hick. He probably hadn’t even graduated high school. Was he a parent of a student? Was he some salesman, someone trying to get my vote, what?
He glanced left out the door, then back at me. He set himself. He seemed to root down like a redwood right there in my tiny office.
“All right,” he said, very seriously. “Dr. Wilms … your life is nearly over.”
I grimaced without blinking.
I had honed that grimace over many years to deliver a full fatal dose of disdain and contempt. I was as proud of its effect as I was anything. People did not screw with Dr. Ray Wilms.
Looking at it now, I did not feel cowed. I felt nauseating shame and even pity.
I stood and pushed my reading glasses into my head. Usually that was the cue for everyone in the immediate area to dive for cover.
Calliel didn’t waver. I remember thinking that he had to be a zealot or simply too ignorant to know the danger signs.
“What did you say to me?” I demanded. I blinked with practiced gravitas, waiting.
“You’re going to die soon,” he said gently. He was trying to keep his voice down. “There’s no point dancin’ around the bush. Your life is almost over. I was sent to save you.”
Yep. A zealot. Worse: a lunatic.
“Get out,” I ordered.
Calliel didn’t move.
“Get out or I’ll call the campus police.”
A redwood. That’s what he was that moment.
I reached for the phone. “Have it your way,” I said.
I dialed as he watched me. He crossed his arms.
Shame and pity. That’s all I could feel watching me say, “Yes. This is Dr. Wilms in the Mathematics Department. I have an intruder in my office. Please come here at once. Dr. Wilms, yes. Please hurry. Thank you.”
I hung up.
“Get out,” I repeated with more volume.
Calliel said nothing.
“Get out!” I yelled. I remember being shaken by his silence. “Out! Out!”
“We can do this the easy way,” said Calliel with that same gentle-but-very-serious tone, “or we can do it the hard way. Truth tell, I’m hopin’ you choose the hard way. I like a challenge.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I bellowed. My face had gone the same plum hue it did when I humiliated the customer service agent at the cable company. Floating over his shoulder, watching me (and scarcely able to), I cried: “Who the hell do you think you are, you fucking idiot? Jesus H. Christ! This is a goddamn angel sent to save your sorry ass! Listen! Listen!
“My name is Calliel. I was sent by God to save you before you died.”
The great Dr. Wilms stared at him like he was violently insane. Calliel had dug himself the deepest possible hole by being honest. It occurred to me that he had also taken the best possible strategy by doing so. Don’t fuck around: tear the patient’s shirt off and crank the voltage to maximum and let the sparks fly. Two percent demanded nothing less.
“Betty! BETTY! Get in here! I’ve got a lunatic in my office! BETTY! ANYBODY! ANYBODY!
Betty showed up in a breathless rush. “Good gracious! What in the world is going on?”
She stared at Calliel, who smiled over his shoulder at her.
The city, not campus, police arrived seconds later. Two officers, a man and a woman.
“Arrest this man!” I shrieked. “He’s a dangerous lunatic! Arrest him!
Several more of the staff showed up. They watched, wide-eyed, over the cops’ shoulders.
“What’s going on?” demanded the woman cop.
“Best arrest me,” Calliel told her, “because I’m not done with this man by a damn sight.”
Floating over his shoulder, I shuddered. He wasn’t.
The great Dr. Wilms blew a gasket.
They cuffed Calliel and led him out. He offered no resistance.
I wasn’t done shrieking.
I did indeed.

Chapter Five


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