A year ago
He sat on the field berobed in orange and black with two thousand other fellow graduates at Reser Stadium, hoping the speaker would hurry up and finish so that the diplomas could be handed out. His friend Kenny sat to his right; to his left was another friend, Paige. All three were cripplingly hung over, he in particular. His mouth felt stuffed full of cotton dipped in battery acid, and his stomach kept churning violently. One particularly loud gurgle caught Paige’s attention, who gave a pained smirk in his direction.
Besides these two, only one other was here to cheer him. Certainly it wasn’t his father, whom he hadn’t spoken to in almost three years.
He thought of Mom. Truth was, she was all he could think of. Long after the others had passed out in his apartment, he continued drinking. A song he liked came on, and he slurred along:
When everything turns to black
You don’t know where to go
You need something
To justify your soul
You don’t know where to go
You need something
To justify your soul
It had since become an earworm and impulsively echoed through his mind as perspiration streaked down his face in the oppressive afternoon sun. He fought not to think of upchucking.
What was he going to do with the rest of his life? And how was he ever going to get over the guilt of how he had treated Mom in her final weeks? Would that ever go away?
And Marcus ...
Parole repeatedly denied, Marcus had remained in prison. The next parole meeting was still a year away. Gideon had shown up for every meeting and had spoken passionately in his defense, but it hadn’t helped. He worried, perhaps irrationally, that his presence had in fact hurt him.
Mom had willed each of them twenty-five thousand dollars. Marcus’ was in a trust. Gideon put his in a savings account and dipped into it only when he absolutely needed to. Guilt demanded nothing less.
When the press learned of his intent to go to OSU, he was hounded incessantly: “Are you going to play for the Beavers?”
He had answered honestly each time: “I have no intentions of returning to football.”
The Beavers’ jackass of a head coach was interviewed. When told of Gideon’s decision, he grunted into the camera, “We don’t need a pretty boy on this team. We’ll do fine without him.”
The Beavers finished the season 4 – 7, the fourth losing season in a row, and the jackass coach was fired by the university’s new president, Dr. Hanford Calliwell. A week after that the president called and asked him in to talk. Gideon agreed. He’d be starting classes in the new year.
He walked into the large office after shaking Dr. Calliwell’s hand. “Please, Gideon. Sit. Something to drink? Eggnog?”
“No, thanks,” he replied quietly.
He had prepared himself for a recruitment speech. He went to one of two plush armchairs fronting the large oak desk and sat. The floor-to-ceiling view behind it displayed the campus’ colorful, sprawling grounds. The latest storm had passed, and everything fairly gleamed.
Hanford Calliwell was just a semester into the job as president, having begun the same month, September, that Gideon’s application for admittance was approved. Most of his credits from UH Manoa had transferred, effectively making him a sophomore. Calliwell, Gideon noticed, had his transcripts, which lay on the desk.
“First,” started Dr. Calliwell, “let me say with complete sincerity that I don’t care if you ever suit up for us. That said, I watched almost every collegiate game you played. You have a special talent, Gideon. I got my undergrad at UCLA, but found myself cheering just as hard for you and
as I did the Bruins, who, I’m sure you know, went on to win the National
Championship that year. If you knew how big a Bruins fan I am, you’d be
“Thank you, sir,” said Gideon, taken aback. If this wasn’t a recruitment meeting, then what exactly was it?
“No sirs in here. I’d like to think over time you’ll come to consider me perhaps a more experienced friend or mentor. That is, if you’ll accept me in that role.”
“I’ve kept up with your story,” Dr. Calliwell went on, “for longer than you can imagine. I’m very sorry for the loss of your mother. I know that you two were very close.”
Gideon still couldn’t think of her without his heart skipping and his eyes stinging. Fighting both, he stared down at the carpet between them.
“May I ask how Marcus is doing?”
“He’s ... in prison.”
“I’m aware. I’m sorry for that too. You must feel very alone.”
When he was sure he could look Dr. Calliwell in the eye without having to see through tears to do it, he murmured, “Marcus is as comfortable as I suppose he can be. I’m just glad he’s in medium security.”
“Are you close, you and Marcus?”
“No. Not really. But ...” He shrugged hopelessly, thinking of the last time they met and the surprise hug Marcus gave him.
“But you’re in prison too,” said Dr. Calliwell matter-of-factly. He stood and came around the desk and sat in the chair next to his.
“You made the Dean’s List three times while in
three semesters you were there. A three-point-eight-five GPA, second highest on
the team. All while making sports pundits’ heads spin every time you touched
the ball. All while your mother lay dying three thousand miles east.”
He didn’t know what to say, so—“Yeah. Thanks.”
“So what do you think is waiting for you here at
? Why did you apply?” Oregon
After a time, he shrugged again, and then thought of Mom getting on him for doing so (“Sit up! He’s the president! Stop moping!”). “I ... I don’t really know. I wasn’t planning on coming back to college. I decided to stop by admissions and pick up an application, so I did. I’ve always tried to do that—listen to my instincts.”
“It’s what made you such a great running back. It’s what all the sportswriters said about you. So you applied it to coming here. What do you think the payoff will ultimately be?”
“I ... honestly don’t know—” he stopped himself before saying “sir”—“Dr. Calliwell.”
“That effort you put on the field and into your studies while in
Hawaii ... Do you think it’s still there?”
“Sure,” he nodded, a little puzzled, “yeah.”
Dr. Calliwell studied him. “Grief can change a person, especially when it’s as intense as yours. Life is laid bare. All the nerve endings are exposed. ‘I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.’ I believe you know who said that.”
One of the required courses at UH Manoa was simply called Research Essentials 101. To pass it required an acceptably written research paper of at least eighteen pages, not including bibliography or footnotes. He chose to write his on CS Lewis, who was Mom’s favorite author, and was surprised when Dr. Calliwell rose and went to the file with his transcripts and produced it. He came back and sat and began flipping through it.
“For a freshman effort, this was quite good. I too would have given it an A. When I taught, A’s were very hard to come by.”
“You ...” Gideon fought to summit this latest surprise “... you had the professor send you my research paper?”
Pride swelled in him when he saw the big red A on the cover page.
“Ah,” said Dr. Calliwell, who had continued reading, “I used to have this quote on my wall at the high school I was principal of back in Iowa: ‘Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.’ ”
He continued reading for a minute more, and then laid the paper on his desk. “My experience is that grief does one of two things: it either bleaches a person’s values, dilutes them, corrupts and weakens them, or, certainly more infrequently, it affirms and strengthens them. Sometimes new values are adopted. Sometimes new disvalues are adopted. Before you start your education here, Gideon, I want to see to it that you approach this opportunity being very clear about your values. Your mother’s death and your brother’s incarceration could be prime means to find out just what those values are and begin applying them rigorously to your life.”
When Gideon didn’t answer, OSU’s president went on. “You’re how old now...? Twenty-one?”
“Twenty-two. A little more mature than other sophomores you’ll be getting to know. Any thoughts on what you’d like to study? Any leanings?”
Gideon shook his head.
“Business? Economics? Engineering? Education?”
He shook his head again after a time. He felt increasingly like he was wasting Dr. Calliwell’s time (“I said sit up! And stop your shrugging and moping!”), so filled in the awkward silence following with, “I just ... I just feel kinda lost. I honestly don’t know what I want to study.”
If Dr. Calliwell was becoming impatient, it didn’t show. He gave him instead a sympathetic stare. “That’s why I’m here. It’s why I wanted to see you today. I think I can help you—that is, if you’d be open to that. May I suggest a course schedule? You’ll be starting in the middle of things, but I can pull some strings to make matters easier. Interested?”
He stopped himself before nodding again. Mom was right: moping was out. This guy was trying to help—so why not listen and try to be more involved? He sat up and collected himself. When he did a little of the despondency and depression sloughed off. It was enough to make him sigh. “I am interested, yes, thank you,” he responded slightly louder, making sure to speak in a complete sentence.
“Then allow me to be completely frank with you,” said the president. “A college degree is worthless to someone like you—from a lower middle-class background who will need to pay for it by loans. The expenditures—tuition, fees, textbooks, all the rest of it—just don’t justify the payoff. You are planning to attend on student loans, am I correct?”
“You’ll never pay them off. Not even after grabbing a good job with a degree from what OSU considers its premium programs—business or engineering.
“Higher education in this country is in a state of collapse,” Dr. Calliwell continued. “There are a few—too few, unfortunately—who have noticed the trends and have made the correct inferences, as I have. If those trends hold, in thirty years there won’t be even half the colleges and universities that currently exist, and liberal arts education will be all but extinct. It will all be geared towards the wealthy, and of the ninety-nine percent of the rest of you, well, you’ll get nothing more than morsels from the master’s table. It isn’t just gross economic inequality that’s occurring, but educational inequality too. And it’s only going to get worse—much worse. So I ask you, Gideon: Why are you here? What do you want for yourself, knowing that the piece of paper at the end of it will have about the same value as a square of generic toilet paper bought at the McKay’s down the street?”
He couldn’t shake the disdainful, judgmental image of his father: “You could go pro and make millions. Instead you sit around here wasting your life on your goddamn mother.”
Mom was gone. So why not throw up his hands and try for the pros next year? If he started today, he’d be in shape in time for the NFL Combine next spring. It would probably be a long-shot, but even a third-stringer made half a million dollars a season. What was keeping him from going back to football?
He’d become more and more concerned about concussions, especially recently in light of the medical research being reported about them. But that wasn’t it.
Marcus? Sure. Marcus was the only family he had left, and barely that. Maybe those final, fraying threads were worth hanging on to. Maybe that was what he was doing—hanging on to them. Hanging on to anything.
Mom was gone. And Dad?
That asshole had actually thrown a party celebrating her death. He had called it “The Bitch is Dead” party, and held it at his mansion the weekend following her funeral. A hundred showed up, including one of Mom’s sisters. That was it for Gideon. He didn’t confront his father over it; he simply refused to speak to him ever again. He told Marcus, who growled, “Fucker is a dead man.”
“You don’t want to stay in prison the rest of your life, dude.”
“I don’t know how, but I’m going to make him pay for that. Swear to fuck I’m going to.”
“Then we’ll do it together. But let’s do it in a way that doesn’t land either of us in jail, huh?”
Marcus didn’t respond save to say again, “Fucker.”
So where did that leave Gideon? Why not return to football?
The answer was Mom, of course. She was the reason he had stuck with it in the first place, had trained off-season when his schoolmates—and many teammates—were out getting stoned, had devoted himself to a gym membership and working himself out every morning, had committed to a daily five-mile jog, rain or shine, had struggled to maintain a sterling high-school GPA. The weaker Mom got the more devoted he became, as though hoping some of the extraordinary good health he enjoyed could somehow transfer to her.
Of course it didn’t happen that way, and now she was dead. And so was any continuing desire to play.
Dr. Calliwell patiently waited for a response. Bullshit wouldn’t work. This man was far too smart, that much was plain as day.
“I ... I guess I feel like ... I don’t know ... there’s a world out there I really don’t have a clue about, and the truth is,” he shrugged lifelessly, “I really got into my classes at UH. The world sucks and is going to hell, but maybe I can do something ... I don’t know ... at least not to add to the misery.” He became frustrated with what he inwardly condemned as a bullshit answer, and finished impulsively with, “Fuck, I don’t know,” and then: “I mean—sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
Dr. Calliwell stared. “What you mean is that you didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
He didn’t look up at him. The fuck of it was, bullshit or no, his answer was truthful and from the gut. But it sure sounded like bullshit.
Dr. Calliwell continued watching him in the following silence. If he thought his response was crap, the compassion in his eyes didn’t show it. He held his gaze on him for an uncomfortably long time, then walked around his desk to his computer. He pressed a button on the keyboard, and the printer on the fancy side-table against the left wall hummed to life. A moment later it produced a single page of white paper, which he retrieved and handed to him. Gideon looked at it.
The top read:
GIDEON MCDOUGALL (SOPH) CLASS SCHEDULE SPRING 2014
Following was a list of classes:
Moral Philosophy 200 (Chambers) 8-8:58 (3)
College Algebra 159 (Higby) 9:10-10:08 (4)
Elements of Composition 201 (Laurenz) 1:15-2:13 (3)
Beginning Research Methodology (Hope) 2:25-3:23; Lab Thu 7a (5)
“Say the word, and that will be your schedule this spring,” the president offered. “You won’t even have to go online to schedule them or fight to get into them. And I assure you,” he went on, “every one of those would be a bitch to get in, especially at this late date. And did I tell you?” He smiled. “You won’t have to pay a penny for them, either now or in the future.”
Gideon blinked. “I don’t understand. They’re free?”
“Oh, no,” chuckled Dr. Calliwell. “None of it is free. But for you, it is already paid for.”
“Who’s paying for it?” demanded Gideon, bracing himself for the inevitable, “Your father is—as long as you take the classes he wants you to, it’s all free.” Because that was something his dickhead father would do. It would be yet another way to retain control and to continue bullying him.
Dr. Calliwell stood and came back to the chair next to him and sat. “Here, I suppose, is where things are going to get a little weird, so do your best to let me talk. Deal?”
“Yeah, okay,” murmured Gideon, flabbergasted. This entire meeting had gone from unexpected to totally surreal.
“Do you remember the estate sale after your mom’s death?”
“The will stipulated that you and Marcus both receive twenty-five thousand dollars, and that the rest should go to settling all your mother’s debts, medical and otherwise. Remember?”
“Her attorney handled all that,” replied Gideon. “I didn’t see any reason to question any of it. Wait—” he went on when it slammed into him that OSU’s president knew all about Mom’s will and what was in it—“how do you—?”
Dr. Calliwell held up his hands. “Just hang on and I’ll answer your questions.”
Gideon waited, his mouth hanging open.
“Here’s the thing, Gideon. Your mother had no debts. The divorce settlement saw to it. Oh, your father sued and sued her and you and Marcus into near poverty, but she had several nearly priceless antiques in storage from that settlement, ones your father fought tooth and nail to get back, but lost every time. I’m sure you know about them. She and her lawyer constructed a very clever smokescreen to keep your father from contesting the will after her death, as he threatened to do many times. He even threatened to contest the money she publicly gave you and your brother—the twenty-five grand you two received. She and her attorney worked very hard to protect you two over and beyond that, and it worked. The money made from the estate and those antiques went to pay the attorney, and the rest went into an offshore account. Her medical bills were paid for in full by her insurance, which was paid for in full by your father. That was part of the original settlement, one he couldn’t get out of despite repeated tries.
“Your mother and I were very close growing up. She was my best friend. Her sisters, your aunts ...” He shook his head. “... Let’s just say they weren’t the nicest of folks. We all went separate ways after high school. I went to college at UCLA, and your mother got married to your father. I was by her side when she had you. He wasn’t there. She was twenty-seven and still looked like she was eighteen. It was then that I realized that I was in love with her.”
He shrugged sadly. “Of course, nothing ever came of it. She stuck with your dad, for better or worse, and I went back east to teach. But we never lost touch. There wasn’t a week when we didn’t communicate, either by letter or by phone. I fell in love with the woman who was to become my first wife, and got married. Your mother was there, and so were you and Marcus. You were four, Marcus two. Do you remember being there?”
Gideon blankly shook his head.
“I shook both your hands. I had a very odd feeling that you and I, in particular, would see other again someday.”
He went silent for a moment, as if to gather his thoughts. “Life happened. I got divorced and remarried—two more times, as it turned out—and your mother’s marriage to Gordon McDougall fell apart, as I knew it had to. Your mother was a true angel in many ways, but she had her faults. Growing up, she couldn’t stop from dating bullies and jerks. And then she married one—maybe the worst one of them all. I know about the party he threw after she died. Unbelievable. And unforgivable.
“The OSU job came open in an almost miraculous fashion. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I knew what was going on with you and Marcus, of course, and I was there at your mother’s funeral. You didn’t see me. You were too overwhelmed to see anyone, I’d wager.
“When I applied to the position, I knew I’d get it. I had no doubts. I made a promise to your mother, Gideon, that I’d look after you. She wanted you to go back to school and football. Not here, though. But hey—” he lifted his hands—“we don’t get everything we want, not even, I suppose, in death. You’re here now, and that money is waiting to be spent. She gave me power of attorney to manage it. In that way your father and his legal leeches stay in the dark.”
The silence following stretched into a full minute, then on. Gideon had since taken his incredulous stare and brought it to the carpeted floor just beneath the desk, unaware that he was shaking his head.
“I ... I don’t get it,” he murmured. “Any of it. What if ...” he glanced up “... what if I didn’t want to go back to school? Isn’t that my and Marcus’ money? I mean, aren’t we adults and can do what we want with it?”
“Yes. Of course. Again, Gideon, your mother gave me power of attorney in order to protect that money and hide it. If you want it now, I’ll sign it over to you, no questions asked. I was going to contact you in the beginning of the New Year. You saved me the trouble. Your father’s legal sharks will find out in short order, however, if you take that money, and will probably sue you both in order to get his greasy hands on it. This way it stays hidden. When you decided to apply to OSU—another miracle, in my opinion—you made not just my life a whole lot easier, but yours as well. At least financially. I’ve already processed the paperwork for a fake scholarship which you won—the KCM Academic Fellowship Award. It’ll throw your father off the trail. You won it, don’t you know?”
“The ‘Kathleen Carol McDougall Academic Fellowship Award,’ yes,” answered Dr. Calliwell, grinning, “though publicly I’ve attached different words to those letters, which right now I don’t even remember. Something very education-y.”
Gideon’s face began to hurt from all the gaping. After a time he grumbled, “This doesn’t seem real. I mean ... how could I have not known about this? My dad ... he used to hire private investigators to watch us and the house. They used to tail Mom even when she went to the store. One time we found a bug on the phone. She went to the judge and he issued a cease and desist order....”
“I’m sorry, Gideon. I don’t know what to say.”
Mom had seen to it that if he wanted to go to school, he could, and for free. Wouldn’t it be better to just collect his share of the cash and hire a personal trainer and get to work for the Combine? She was dead! She was gone! His world was completely fucked! Marcus was sitting his rageaholic ass in medium security! What was holding him here in this shithole backwoods dumpster-town?
He glanced at the president.
“You’re wondering what’s the point. Right?”
“What’s the point of getting an education if my predictions turn out to be even half-true, right?”
Gideon nodded again.
“I’ll tell you,” said Dr. Calliwell. “You’re a boy. You’re not a man. I know you’re twenty-two, and I’m not here to insult you. But that’s the truth. You want to make a difference, contribute to the world? Here is where that starts. But not on the football field. You don’t need to be a big star to make a big difference. I’ve been around long enough to know that big stars, taken collectively, do far more damage than good to the world. Look at their examples, at how so many of them live their lives.” He pointed a stern finger at him. “I don’t want that for you, and neither did your mother.
“Here’s the thing, Gideon. I think I know what you’re thinking. Mind if I give it a go?”
Gideon shook his head.
“You’re thinking about the NFL Combine, and you’re thinking about what your father has probably said to you, too. Am I right?”
He didn’t feel anger that Dr. Calliwell had nailed it, and he didn’t feel relief. He didn’t, at this moment, feel anything but disbelieving numbness like a great, soaking, cold swamp.
“I’ll take it by your silence that I’m right. Okay ... here’s the thing. And I realize that I’m being wildly predictive here, but I think I’m standing on pretty solid ground. You’ll go to that Combine, and you’ll wow the crap out of them. How could you not? I’ve never seen a back with your drive, with that hard-earned talent. You’ve got the size, too, to play pro.
“You’re probably a fifth-rounder, even with all the time off.
take you, or Tennessee.
Maybe Chicago or Jacksonville. Camp’ll come around and then
preseason, and soon you’ll be wowing everyone all over again. You’ll make the
team, probably third string. But you won’t stay on the bench. Just like Hawaii, they’ll somehow get
the ball into your hands, and first downs will happen. Then touchdowns. The
world, just like that, like a big, big tsunami, will come crashing against your
door. And that, Gideon, will be the beginning of the end of you.”
He waited for him to respond. When it was clear no response was coming, he asked, “What are you thinking? Do you agree with me, or do you think I’m talking out my ass?”
Gideon sighed. “I agree with you.”
“It’s time for you to grow up, Gideon. I want to help you to make that happen. College won’t be your means to get a white-collar job so you can join the cogs. It’ll be your means to find yourself while learning about the world. It’ll be your means to find the key that will someday unshackle you from your grief and loss, from the dysfunction of your family, from your father. It’ll be your means to help Marcus when the time comes. Do you follow?”
Another sigh. “Yeah.”
“Then let’s take these steps together,” offered the president. “Classes start January 25. Buy your books and enjoy this vacation, because your true training camp begins then, and I’m going to be as tough a coach as you’ve ever known.”
But not in the way Gideon imagined—stern, grumpy, yelling, finger-pointing, berating. Hanford Calliwell was a natural teacher, it turned out, with a real gift for pushing a student to excel without making that student feel harangued or nagged or like a ten-year-old child. Coach Ephy was like that too. It was why
Hawaii was now a perennial top-25 team, even
without Gideon on it.
Despite Dr. Calliwell’s incredibly busy schedule, he still insisted on meeting with him at least once a week. They started out formally enough, more like reporting to one’s superior officer, but eventually became more relaxed over time. Gideon finished his first semester at OSU with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, the first of his entire life. Calliwell took it in stride, but still popped the top on a couple of celebratory bottles of beer , saying, “She would’ve been proud. Damn right she would’ve.”
Summer break came. Instead of taking it off, Gideon took three classes, pretty much finishing his general ed requirements. Once again, he finished with a perfect GPA.
“Any leanings?” asked Dr. Calliwell in mid-August, just two weeks before fall term began. Gideon, having returned from yet another disappointing parole hearing for Marcus, glumly shook his head.
“You’ve got an aptitude for mathematics ... logic ... and the written word,” observed the president, glancing through his file folder and samples of his work, which he collected by way of his okay.
“I’m not interested in engineering,” Gideon grunted, followed by a listless laugh.
Dr. Calliwell, sitting next to him, shrugged. “Good, steady work. Lots of opportunity. Engineers used to be paid tons of money, but that, like the middle class, I’m afraid, is gone. Still, you’d be solidly employed.”
Gideon glanced into his eyes, and that was enough for a man of Dr. Calliwell’s intelligence.
“You want more from life than to be a nine-to-five cog.”
He snorted. “Is there anything more to life than that?”
The president closed the file in his lap. “There is, but now we’re talking about a very narrow path, and a rocky and dangerous one at that. Less or no security. Fewer if any friends. Solitude and sometimes isolation. The doubt and the scorn of others as your regular bedfellows.”
“I already have no friends,” he murmured, and then relayed what happened to him last May, just before school let out for the summer. He had decided to take a walk after a long session studying in his apartment. As he passed fraternity row, several frat boys recognized him.
“Yo, look at this. It’s Gid-e-on McFailure. You know, the fucker who won’t play for the lowly Beavs. What’s up, Giddy?”
They all looked stumbling drunk from the house two up, which was bright with lights and thumping with loud music. The speaker wore a white power tattoo on his forearm, and was almost his size.
Gideon walked off the sidewalk into the street to avoid them.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, McFuckface! I’m talkin’ to you!”
An empty beer can struck his shoulder. He kept walking.
He thought he would have to turn around to keep from being jumped, but he heard another say, “Leave him alone, dude. C’mon.”
Heart pounding, he took the long way home to avoid the street. When he got inside, he stopped and thought about the negative press he’d received this semester from the school newspaper and the local rag, both of which ran fairly scathing editorials of him and his decision not to play for the Beavers.
“The new coach asked about you,” said Dr. Calliwell after saying, “I’m sorry that happened.”
“He asked me permission to speak to you about joining, full ride, the works.”
Gideon shook his head. “I haven’t even thought about football. Not even when I go jogging or do some lifting. Not once.”
“Well,” said the president, “I told the coach that he didn’t have my permission, that you were mourning the loss of your family, and to leave you alone. I trust that both he and his assistants and the players have followed through—?”
“I haven’t talked to anyone from the team.”
Dr. Calliwell held up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “It’s going to be a problem; I need to make that clear to you. People in this town want the Beavers to be the talk of the state, not the Ducks. They hold grudges. Just between you and me, I’d be surprised if the Beavers win four games this coming season. I’ve assured the new coach that he can take a few seasons to rebuild, but ... my, do they suck. At least right now they do. Adding someone like you to the squad might get them a bowl bid right off the top. You’re at least four victories for them. If they win just three more games on top of that, that’s a 7 – 4 season and a sudden threat in the conference. That’s a big deal. Folks around here are football-savvy. They know full well what you could do for them.”
The new term began. Gideon filled his schedule with philosophy and mathematics classes. Both subjects interested him a great deal. A new teacher, Professor Montgomery from England, he had met during the summer, having literally run into him as he hurried around a vending machine corner on his way to class. He helped the professor up, who lay sprawled as though struck by a steamroller, apologizing repeatedly. Professor Montgomery was an older man, with white hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. He dusted off his tie and coat and said, “It’s all right. I believe I’m still in one piece ...”
His gaze sharpened. “I believe I know you. You’re the famous local footballer, are you not?”
Gideon shook his head. “No. No longer, sir.”
“That’s right,” said Professor Montgomery. “Some controversy surrounding your decision not to play for the local squad.”
It felt impossible, or very rude, to say “Yeah” to this man, so he said, “Yes, sir.”
The “sir” didn’t seem to bother him. Gideon took the initiative and introduced himself, holding out his hand. “Gideon McDougall, sir.”
The professor took his hand. “Archibald Montgomery, Mr. McDougall. Good to meet you. Or be slammed into by you.”
When Gideon went to register for classes, he made sure he got into Professor Montgomery’s Epistemology 212 class.
It turned out to be a turning point for him, as did the Analytic Geometry course he took that semester as well. Professor Montgomery was as good a teacher as Gideon had ever encountered; and giving him a run for his money was Professor Hammerly, who taught Analytic Geometry. The Beavers finished the season 3 – 8, and the student newspaper ran an editorial in early December essentially calling Gideon a traitor to all values civic and moral.
Christmas break commenced. He was used to sitting in Dr. Calliwell’s office by this point, and did so now with his latest report card—four A’s and one B. Dr. Calliwell examined it, then handed it back.
“You couldn’t quite get to the summit in
Gideon chuckled. “He’s tough. Half the class dropped out before the drop deadline. I don’t think anyone got an A in there.”
“He likes you,” commented the president. “I met him at a Thanksgiving mixer. He mentioned you by name. I shared a little more of your story with him than the papers report—I hope you don’t mind.”
Gideon shook his head, smiling sadly. If he wanted anyone else to know about the shit show of his life, it would be Professor Montgomery.
“I didn’t think you would. We got very lucky getting Professor Montgomery. He taught at
Oxford for sixteen years,
then decided to come to the States for a while. If there were a Philosophy
Teacher Hall of Fame, he’d be in it. He’s published all over the place, has a
handful of non-fiction bestsellers, and has even appeared on British TV a fair
number of times. He debated Richard Dawkins on live TV—the BBC, no less—and
won. He’s no joke. Very, very smart man.”
“I’ve read some of his work,” admitted Gideon, not aware until then of Professor Montgomery’s celebrity status.
“Really,” said Dr. Calliwell, impressed. “Even while you were buried in the homework he was giving you.”
“I’ve decided to double-major. Philosophy and mathematics.”
Dr. Calliwell wasn’t an effusive man by nature, but it was clear he was pleased with this decision. “Noble pursuits, both. So you think you’ve found your narrow, rocky, dangerous path, have you?”
Gideon shrugged. “Life is short.”
It’s what one of his teammates used to say in
just before taking the field. As far as profound statements went, it had a lot
to be desired. But for Gideon, it always struck him hard.
“Indeed,” said Dr. Calliwell. “Indeed it is.”
He stared at his final report card. His cumulative GPA over four years at OSU: 3.95. He looked above that line, printed in white, to the solid column of A’s across from his final classes. Those were printed in black.
Paige leaned over from the arm of the sofa and kissed his cheek. “Pretty fuckin’ cool, McDougall.”
He had met her last year. She too was majoring in Philosophy. They fell into bed after a study session in the spring, and a few times after that, but decided to call it off when she admitted that she wasn’t ready for any kind of relationship. Neither, in truth, was he. Kenny, who was majoring in Mathematics, was due over with his girlfriend for a little party. Kenny had been accepted into the graduate school at Case Western, having finished the top of his class. Gideon had clung to him at times, especially during all the hellish non-Euclidean geometry he had to take last year.
He had vowed to ace every single class he had with
after that lone B, and did. Despite the fact that they got along, Professor
Montgomery played no favorites, and in fact seemed to go out of his way to
challenge him even more than his classmates. His philosophy classes were
tougher than the toughest theory classes he took in math.
“He wants you to go to graduate school,” Dr. Calliwell informed him at the end of April.
Oxford,” finished the
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“I’m not,” said the president after a short chuckle. “He really thinks you’ll do well there, and fit in. He wants you to pursue a doctorate.”
The surprised smile on his face faded. Dr. Calliwell, as he had long since learned, already figured out what was going on behind his eyes.
Gideon nodded somberly.
“ ‘The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see; like bringing a horse back and back to the fence it has refused to jump or bringing a child back and back to the bit in its lesson that it wants to shirk.’ ”
Another CS Lewis quote, this one from his Senior Thesis paper—the same paper that Professor Montgomery had awarded an A, and by doing so, bringing his class grade from a B to an A.
Dr. Calliwell, Gideon also knew from long experience, was trying to tell him something without being explicit about it. He glanced up from the floor, where he had been staring.
“He knows I can’t go.”
“He knows for you to go would be the wrong thing—at least at this time it would. He’s leaving in early June back for
I think he’d really like it if you dropped by before he takes off. He won’t be
able to make graduation.”
“Come in, Gideon, come in,” said Professor Montgomery, opening the door to his office all the way and motioning for Gideon to take a seat. Gideon stepped in and sat in a very comfortable brown leather chair, the near one. The professor’s office was small but comfortable, and aglow with yellow lamplight. “I was hoping to say good-bye before I left for home,” said Professor Montgomery as he closed the door. “I take it you spoke to the president?”
The professor smiled as he went to the opposite chair on the other side of the serving table between them. There he reached for the silver tea pot and poured himself a cup, then poured him one without asking. Gideon reached for it when it was handed to him. “Thanks.”
Professor Montgomery took a sip, as he did. Earl gray. Even unsweetened, as it was, it was delicious.
“Do you like tea?” asked the professor.
“Iced tea,” Gideon answered honestly. “Though this is good.”
Professor Montgomery chuckled silently. “I didn’t know what I was going to face coming here,” he said after taking another sip and putting the cup on the saucer on the table. “For the most part, this has been a good assignment; and I can honestly say that a large part of that goodness has come from teaching you, Gideon.”
High praise indeed! Gideon was floored, but managed to get out, “Thank you. I mean, thank you a lot, Professor. That means ... I mean ... that means a lot to me. I just wish I had had more teachers like you.”
Professor Montgomery was not a popular teacher. His toughness, his accent, and his inclusive, tolerant, liberal views were not welcome in this town overrun with white supremacists, Trump supporters, fascists, and others who made it very known that they wanted him to go and never come back. His home was vandalized with red spray paint (swastikas and “MAGA” everywhere), and his wife of forty years was recently accosted by a screaming woman in the McKay’s for “not being American” and to “go back to Europe and fuck George Soros!” That was likely why he was leaving, not because he only had a four-year stint here. Gideon knew about these incidents, and it enraged him. To his credit, Professor Montgomery never let on about them in class, nor did it seem to affect him while he taught.
And here he was saying this was a “good assignment”!
“I’m sorry for ...” Gideon stopped.
The professor waited.
Gideon shrugged. “... people.”
Professor Montgomery shrugged too. “I suppose what one has to do is focus on those few who truly want to find themselves and by doing so be a genuine force for good in this world.
has sixty thousand living in it; one can reasonably expect five or six to have
such courage. Like you, I suspect.”
“Thank you, professor.”
Professor Montgomery took another sip. “I would like very much to keep in touch with you.” He put down his cup. “On a couple of conditions.”
Gideon, yet again surprised, waited.
“The first condition is that we write to one another. Email would be fine. I write lengthy, in-depth letters. I enjoy ‘thinking out loud,’ as it were, on the page, even if it is digital. The second condition is that you do the same. I’m not interested in empty, ‘I’m fine; how are you?’ or any of that claptrap. I expect in-depth from you, too. I know very well you’re capable of it, having graded many papers from you. I’ve been very lucky in my life: I’ve got four such correspondents, and their words have all been a great treasure over the years. So if you want to say no, I’ll be disappointed, but not nearly as much as if you say yes and then take this request lightly or you ‘blow me off’ afterward. Understand?”
Gideon suppressed an incredulous laugh. This man—this great man—wanted to keep in touch with his hick ass? How was that possible?
“I ... yes, sir. I understand. I’m looking very much forward to it.”
“Good,” said the professor. “Very good. You can expect a letter—or email, as the case may be—every one to two months. I’ll expect a response in the same time frame. Acceptable?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, sir.”
“I should think that someone with your overall intelligence, Mr. McDougall, would recognize that education isn’t so much books and exams and the like, but the transmission of knowledge and even wisdom via friendly one-on-one correspondence, or a quiet fireside chat, or even coffee at Starbucks. This is all just surface stuff,” he went on, “and it’s fine for most people. I strongly suspect it won’t be for you. You were my top student during my tenure here, and one of the top students I’ve ever had. But not by means of natural gifts. As with your athletic career, I suspect, it was very hard work applied over many years that brought you into prominence.
“So let’s talk about your immediate plans after graduation. I would very much like to hear about them.”
When he shared the news that Professor Montgomery wanted to stay in touch with him, Dr. Calliwell smiled. “Congratulations. If you knew who else is on that list, you’d shit your pants.”
Rain or shine, he had visited Mom’s grave every week without fail since her funeral. Two days before graduation, he went to sit there again. He often stayed an hour, many times more, rarely less. It was sunny today, and windy, and warm.
Few people were here. Few people were ever here. For that reason, he spoke to her aloud, and without any restraints on the volume of his voice. That was a good thing, in the beginning especially, when he screamed and raged and cried at the unfairness of it all, at God, at the grass, at his father, at his guilt, whatever was front and center in his mind that moment. Many times it came out incoherently, incomplete sentences, gurgling, tears streaking down his face. Fucking endless tears.
What was he going to do with the rest of his life?
“I think I’m going to look after my brother Marcus,” he had told Professor Montgomery, “at least help him get back on his feet, get him reestablished in the community. After that ... I honestly don’t know, sir.”
He repeated himself, word for word, here. The grass fluttered with a passing gust in response.
He sat down and leaned against the headstone. When the tears came, as they inevitably did, he let them, his mind empty, the deep throbbing ache in his soul so familiar now it felt like a friend.
His row stood and made their way towards the stage. One by one they mounted the steps and waited for their names to be called, where they crossed the stage to receive their degrees, often to smatterings of applause or whistles and shouts, or marine horns being tooted loudly. Dr. Calliwell was handing out the degrees himself.
“Gideon McDougall,” said the announcer. Gideon started across the stage.
Boos cascaded down from all around the stadium. It was the first time in a football stadium that he had ever been booed. Even when he was playing away from home, the opposing fans didn’t boo. If they did anything, they stayed silent.
The Beavers had stayed awful all this time. Last season they won only one game. Dr. Calliwell, whom Gideon was now approaching, fired the coach, and the student and local papers were now calling for his ouster as well as well as repeating their insults that he, Gideon, was a traitor and a lazy sell-out.
At the podium, Dr. Calliwell handed him his degree and shot a dark look out towards the audience, who continued booing.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m sorry, son,” answered the president, who gave him a firm pat on his shoulder.
He walked off the stage.
What was he going to do with the rest of his life? He was going to start a business with Marcus, who was set to be released in just a few months.
How was he ever going to get over the guilt of how he treated Mom in her final weeks? He wasn’t. It would remain always his lifelong burden, and perhaps a lifelong spur never to be so cowardly again towards anyone.