And once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,
his spirit veering black, impure, unholy,
once he turned he stopped at nothing,
seized with the frenzy
blinding driving to outrage-
wretched frenzy, cause of all our grief!
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, ln. 217-222
About Dr. Smilnik, Chairman, or to be politically correct, Chair, of the Department of Philosophy, there is little to say. He is not the kind of person to generate gossip and anecdotes about him do not circulate through the university or the community the way they do for other personalities. On the surface, his life seems uneventful. His undergraduate education is superlative. He survived, but only barely, a mandatory encounter with the US Army, and upon discharge, he immediately returned to graduate school. He completed his studies promptly, married exceptionally well, and began an academic career at SUC that saw him rise on schedule through the ranks to professor. He became a department chair at an extraordinarily young age. What a bore. But he shared a bed with Lou Foque when she was the hottest dancer at The Humble Harlot’s and the most formidable whore in all of Carolina.
Dr. Smilnik is uncertain how he became Chairman of the Philosophy Department. In fact, Dr. Smilnik is uncertain about most of everything in his life. He is, for example, uncertain about where he came from. He was raised in Washington, DC, or more specifically, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, but his parents, like many people in Washington, came there from somewhere else, and being temporary, never came to think of Washington, DC, or its surrounding area, as home, or anything like home. Since his parents never considered Washington, DC, home, neither did Victor, as Dr. Smilnik was addressed before he became Dr. Smilnik. In his parents’ case, home was somewhere in Montana, or possibly Idaho. Somewhere that meant nothing to Victor. At some point between the time he left home and the time he started keeping part of his wardrobe in Lou’s bedroom closet, his parents left Washington, DC, to return to Montana, or possibly Idaho, but he was also uncertain about how that came to pass. Or why.
When he was 18, he left Washington, DC, because he graduated from high school, and because he had nowhere else to go, he went to college. Where he went, he can only now remember by reading his transcript. He majored in—well, his transcript would show that too. Somewhere he learned to read ancient Greek. Of that he was absolutely certain. But he was uncertain how that came to be. He can’t remember struggling with its alphabet, its verbs, its complex nouns or its nightmarish declensions. In fact, he is so uncertain about how and where he learned to read ancient Greek, a skill that even he agrees is as esoteric as it is useless, that he assumes he never learned it but acquired the language in his mother’s womb. Might have been something she ate.
He graduated from college, but he couldn’t say just when. And then—was it the next day or a year later? The Army got him. It was common enough in those days. The threat of creeping communism, especially the form then skulking through the jungles of Viet Nam, required every male to become a soldier. Well, every male too poor to buy his way out or too stupid to make other arrangements. Victor wasn’t rich and had been too stupid to make other arrangements.
He was absolutely unprepared for the savagery and brutality of basic training. The physical strain. The searing heat. The sand. The rain. The brutality of the sergeants. The illiterate vulgarity of his fellow trainees. He heard the stories of life, and death, in Viet Nam and was barely able to contain his fear, his fear that whatever basic training might be, the future held things much worse. When orders came, he was assigned to an explosives demolition training company, which frightened him almost as much as the prospects of Viet Nam.
But when Victor arrived at his duty station, the First Sergeant, Charles Donaldson, greeted him as the new company clerk. Victor didn’t object that he knew nothing about being a company clerk, but thought he could fake his way through it. Hell, he reasoned, anyone able to master ancient Greek could surely master what little a company clerk had to know. Particularly anyone motivated by fear of the alternative, as Victor was.
Over the next 18 months, the First Sergeant, a fantastically ugly, ill-tempered man, both shocked and sheltered Victor. Offensively competitive, indeed aggressive, savage and uncouth, the sergeant’s fearlessness was tempered with precision and attention to detail when it came to explosives. Not that Victor had anything to do with the explosives, but he heard the stories about First Sergeant Charles Donaldson.
Compared to the First Sergeant, Victor was a complete jellyfish. Sergeant Donaldson scared Victor half out of his wits, which was something less than the thought of Viet Nam scared him. Eventually, Victor understood that Sergeant Donaldson intended to scare everyone because he really didn’t like people. It was his way of keeping everyone away. Incidentally, fear of Sergeant Donaldson motivated everyone around him. The Army called this leadership.
But as long as Victor did his work, the sergeant left him alone and indeed sheltered him from many of the Army’s less desirable duties. Sergeant Donaldson assumed that company clerks are sissies in the same way that cats have hair. All he expected of Victor was that he clerk competently, and as long as Victor did that, Sergeant Donaldson was not inclined to torment Victor. Or to allow anyone else to do it. Victor repaid the sergeant by working carefully and relentlessly. He did everything he could to make his work prompt, precise and flawlessly accurate.
So under Sergeant Donaldson, Victor learned a work ethic he could never have acquired as a civilian, a work ethic motivated by the fear of pain, suffering, and possibly death; by fear of what Sergeant Donaldson could do to him; and finally by the fear of failure and of being humiliated by letting Sergeant Donaldson down. Victor would remain convinced of the instructional efficacy of fear. Later, as a professor, he would argue firmly for the virtues of stark and utter terror as a teaching method. But he also knew that civilian education lacked both the tools and the will to instill sufficient terror to motivate students. Consequently, Victor cynically regarded teaching as pissing into the wind, and his colleagues admired and trusted him simply for this scornful attitude. He was held in great esteem. Nonetheless, Dr. Smilnik loved the university because it was the one place that would pay him to read Greek.
Those two lost years in the Army were an important watershed for Victor, a watershed that divided his life into two eras. One he called Before the Army or BTA. The other, After the Army or ATA. BTA was an era of disjointed memories, debris that arose like random flotsam in his mind. Images from the BTA bobbed momentarily in his consciousness only to sink back into the black sludge of his subconscious. They were glimpses of a bygone, forgotten age. These peeks into the past were always discomforting, but Victor was no Freudian. He rejected these visions. They had nothing to do with him.
Life in Victor’s new world, the ATA, was equally curious, uncertain, and inexplicable, but it was at least a coherent sequence of vivid and vivacious events. Victor had no doubt what he would do in the ATA. He would read Greek. Philosophers. Tragedians. Comics. Historians. There was nothing he liked better than reading Greek, so he would read Greek. And he did. He read Greek at William and Mary and then at the University of North Carolina. At UNC he wrote a doctoral dissertation on lines 217 through 222 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. He intended to examine more of the play, but his advisor insisted that Victor narrowly focus his inquiry, and everyone agreed that his 512 page dissertation was the final and definitive word on those six lines.
Next he took a job at State University, Carolina, in Statesthorp. There he could teach Greek, which he seldom did since demand was never great. But he could teach about the Greeks, their literature, their philosophy, their civilization, and that was good enough because once he finished those minimal and enjoyable tasks, he was free to read Greek to his heart’s content. And, like most classical scholars, he often joined archaeological excavations. He wasn’t picky. Anything in that vast Hellenistic World would do. And that is how he became close friends with Dr. Condor.
Shortly after his colleagues made him their chair and leader, Wolsey Mullin, SUC’s 18th president, closed the Philosophy Department for no apparent reason except the unbelievable rumor that it was because the SUC’s Women’s soccer team won a national championship. There were mutterings in the Philosophy Department that Dr. Smilnik wasn’t doing his job or that he should at least fall on his sword in protest. When Wolsey Mullin suddenly reversed his decision, all was forgiven. Dr. Smilnik must have played his cards close to his chest. He had acted with finesse. His political maneuvering was astute if not brilliant. Dr. Smilnik, however, never spoke of how he got Wolsey Mullin to change his mind. And little wonder why. Adultery. Kidnapping. Blackmail. Murder. A variety of lesser crimes and indiscretions. Not to mention fortunate coincidences and a large measure of good luck. Nothing becoming to a serious scholar. By the time Wolsey Mullin announced that he would not close the Philosophy Department, Dr. Smilnik’s life had entered a third era well beyond the ATA, one where impulse and betrayal were commonplace. There in that new world, he might be a snake in the grass, but he was no longer a jellyfish.
Dr. Smilnik veered into this new black, impure world by virtue of a mistake he hardly noticed at the time. He got married. Sue Aiakos studied home economics at the University of North Carolina. They dated. He appreciated her good looks. He enjoyed her demure company.
The Aiakos clan was one of the South’s scion families, particularly well established and influential in Carolina’s western Piedmont. He thought this immensely entertaining, even impressive. So he ignored the slight unease Sue’s presence caused him and soon enough found himself a curiosity in a very posh Presbyterian Church with a seating capacity of 1,500 followed by a country club sit-down dinner for 750. The governor and his wife attended, as did the mayors of several towns and two cities. The press was there along with two TV stations and a similar number of Episcopal Bishops. During that ostentatiously tacky dinner with those 749 other people Victor’s vague feeling of discomfort turned into animosity. He knew he had made a mistake but felt certain that in time he could pull Sue away from her aristocratic family and their friends. He would reshape her into a person of his own handiwork even though he was uncertain what the design should be. He would reform her.
Sue was unaware of any of this and didn’t reform worth a damn. Opulence and privilege were hers by right, of that she was certain. She would not be tricked out of any of it, least of all by a professor, as much a show piece as one of her hybrid orchids. As long as he did what he was supposed to, to rise in rank and prestige, she would be satisfied. As long as he did what he was supposed to, she hardly need take notice of him.
They moved into the palatial house bought for them by Sue’s daddy. The house was well beyond the means of any assistant professor and conspicuously so. She redecorated the house and furnished it with antiques painfully pricy even by museum standards. Every direction he turned reminded him that he lived on handouts. He suffered his humiliation in silence.
Sexually, Sue was reserved if not frosty, and she completely rejected his attempt to introduce the reading of Greek poetry into their love making. She devoted herself to the country club, the Cotillion, the DAR, the Daughters of the Confederacy, her bridge club, several Presbyterian Church organizations, the Republican Party, the Statesthrop Garden Club, the Bascomb County Orchid Society, and the local chapter of her college sorority. Despite everything, they rapidly produced three children. Well, two, since a pair of them came in a single package. The children, casually indifferent to achievement, participated in ballet, piano lessons, karate, soccer, and other fashionable activities at their prominent private schools. Dr. Smilnik, unable to abide them, avoided the trio as much as possible.
As often as possible, Dr. Smilnik escaped to archaeological excavations scattered about the eastern Mediterranean. This occupied many a summers though Sue scarcely noticed he was gone. Neither did she notice that he spent ever more time at the office, administrative duties providing him an excuse she never really demanded of him. He never turned down an opportunity to attend a convention or meeting of any sort.
He also began popping into this bar or that for a couple of beers with friends or colleagues after work. Dr. Condor introduced him to The Humble Harlot’s after his return from Africa where he had dumped The First Mrs. Condor, a debutant every bit as pretentiously aristocratic as Mrs. Smilnik. It was not, in fact, Dr. Condor who did the dumping but the other way around. Had Dr. Condor left The First Mrs. Condor, he’d have been crucified. The First Mrs. Condor, however, could do as she chose, and when she chose to leave, Dr. Condor ceased to exist as far as the aristocracy was concerned. He became untouchable, but the nobility bore him no hostility.
Dr. Smilnik understood completely the implications for himself. No matter how bitter he became, he could not leave Mrs. Smilnik. Not if he expected to keep a job at SUC. Dr. Smilnik was envious of Dr. Condor’s good fortune, and he must have come out of it pretty well, too, judging by the house and land he bought The Second Mrs. Condor, the little African as black as an eight ball that he brought home with him. She was rumored to be a witch, something Dr. Smilnik suspected to be absolutely true.
Of all the local drinking establishments, Dr. Smilnik liked The Humble Harlot’s best. It was to be avoided on weekend nights—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—when crowds of rowdy students turned orgiastic. If a SUC football game coincided, things got worse still. But Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it was a convenient place to stop for a sandwich and bottle of beer on his way to his own home. On his way home to his own cooking, generally, since Sue was seldom around evenings. Neither were the children, thank heavens. University faculty or administrators seldom frequented The Humble Harlot’s. The atmosphere, unsuited to academic posturing, kept them away. Consequently, the few university people who dared cross its threshold were assured considerable confidentiality.
What talk there was did not center on the byzantine university politics like it did at every other gathering place in town. In fact, there was little conversation between patrons. Rait’s Place next to The Humble Harlot’s was for conversation. At The Humble Harlot’s, bargirls might sit with patrons on slow nights. Provided they were supplied with drinks. Steadily. Their capacity astonished Dr. Smilnik until one of them confided that he was paying $7.50 for 6 ounces of tonic water with a little gin sprayed over the top to give it a deceptive bouquet. Patrons were given full strength drinks and had to buy themselves a drink every time they bought one for a waitress. Each fifteen dollar round increased the false impression that the girls were drinking themselves into a lubricious haze. The patrons, drunker by the sip, tipped extravagantly or became cross as sore-tailed bears. Or both. But The Humble Harlot’s maintained an impressive stable of bouncers with blackjacks as big as mule cocks prominently sticking from their jean pockets. Dancers, waitress, bouncers and bartenders shared the tips and a cut of the liquor sales, their only pay for an evening’s work. When Sally, the bargirl who regularly served him, hinted at her take-home pay, he was dumbfounded.
“You don’t make me buy you drinks,” Dr. Smilnik protested to Sally, who had once taken a course from him and who was still enrolled at SUC.
“Professors are different. We don’t like to fleece our teachers. On slow nights, as long as you have a drink the bouncers will leave us alone. On busy nights, it doesn’t matter who you are. The drinks are kept moving as fast as I can swallow.”
For Dr. Smilnik, conversation with the bargirls was the main attraction of the Humble Harlot’s. Sally would sit at the table, her bared bosoms bouncing when she tittered, her long legs in pink fishnet stocking, emerging from a tight skirt barely covering her fanny. Sometimes she’d be joined by Bridget or Morgan. Most bargirls and some of the dancers were students or wives of graduate students, but the unspoken rule was that they were always bargirls, never students, inside The Humble Harlot’s. Anything the bouncers allowed was fair. What the bouncers didn’t allow was touching the girls—girls could touch customers, customers couldn’t touch girls, and even with the girls’ touching, there was a fine line. Sex talk, however, could go as far as the participants pleased.
Dr. Smilnik, however, avoided the erotic chatter and stuck to subjects like philosophy, politics, sports, current movies and movie stars about which he knew nothing, and auto racing about which he knew even less. For the girls these topics were a relief. He was surprised, but knew he shouldn’t be, by their conservative, if not libertarian, opinions though they often contradicted themselves three times in a single simple sentence. Most claimed to be born over again Christians and saw no paradox between their convictions and topless whiskey hashing in a jiggle joint. Several were adamantly anti-religion in any form. There was no in between. Most agreed with the assertion of one of them that, “George W. Bush is a manifestation of Jesus Christ on Earth.” In the same breath they’d damn American involvement in Iraq while wishing death and destruction on Moslems everywhere. They favored strong government that could act with impunity but regarded a policeman even walking into The Humble Harlot’s as harassment. “Hell,” said the redhead with small tits who was majoring in economics, “they aren’t protecting us or protecting the customers. They’re sniffing after bribes. Or a piece of tail. But that’s the same thing, isn’t it? Just a different kind of currency, that’s all.”
Their society wasn’t egalitarian either. Bargirls and dancers were of different sorts. The dancers would sometimes come out and sit in the hall but when they did, they were always dressed head to toe and chattered only among themselves. If they sat with patrons, they did so selectively, choosing from among regulars and favorites. Sometimes they would sit with a stranger who had tossed a lot of cash on the stage, but when they did, they positioned themselves to be simultaneously close to a bouncer and one of the two doors leading to the back stage. Sally told Dr. Smilnik, “If there’s trouble, nine times out of ten it involves a dancer. I walk around nearly naked, and sure I get pawed, but I can generally turn’em before things get to the point where I need a bouncer. But the customers can really get nasty with the dancers. I guess watching all those lewd acts gets ‘em so lathered they just don’t know what they’re doing. Watching it, you don’t come away with a very high opinion of humans. Well, of men, anyway.”
“Sally?” Dr. Smilnik asked. “What are you majoring in.”
“Early childhood education. Why do you ask?”
The dancers’ performances were lackluster on weekdays, a fine example of profit motive, the silent hand of the market at work. On weekdays, dancers were unmotivated unless a work crew came in. Then they quickened the pace and spiced up their acts in a hurry. But even so Dr. Smilnik imagined this was soft stuff compared to what the dancers could do on weekends when they turned the crowd into a pack of free-spending, sex-crazed maniacs.
No, weekdays were slow and Dr. Smilnik barely paid the dancers any attention. Except one. Lou Foque, the blonde with dreadlocks as thick as sheep’s wool and an obscenely titivated pelvic region of remarkable conformation and ceaseless shimmy, twist and grind. She danced solo or sometimes with another blonde, Crystal Laze, who appeared to be a few years older. Even lackadaisical and indifferent, Lou had more drive, more forward motion, more callipygian effrontery than any other dancer. Daring, risqué, wanton, she was a maelstrom of unhinged carnality and contemptuous depravity. She, unlike so many of the dancers, enjoyed what she was doing or put on a convincing act, anyway. He learned from Sally that Lou was the Happy Harlot’s main money earner, that she danced only on weekends and on Tuesdays, and that she’d shot the manger’s big toe off while she was in bed with him. “How does a girl do that?” Sally wondered aloud.
He watched Lou only on Tuesdays when he happened to drop in and his happening to drop in became habitual. He looked forward to seeing her, but of course, she paid no attention to him. He didn’t expect her to. He sat in the back center of the hall where he couldn’t have thrown money onto the stage if he’d tied it to a brick, and in the dark where he sat, she couldn’t see him anyway. He did nothing to draw attention to himself.
Then came the Tuesday evening when she surprised Dr. Smilnik by boogying to a fast rock an’ roll number, “She’s Got a Cute Pussy She Keeps So Nice and Clean,” with unusually raw gusto. He was captivated but horrified by his turgid condition especially with Sally sitting next to him, topless, her hand moving slowly in his lap. And he imagined that Lou stared right at him all during the spectacle, but he knew that couldn’t be true. She couldn’t have seen anything from the brightly light stage.
She ended her act in a naked sweat, and he had hardly recovered his when she came through the right stage door. A black leather motorcycle jacket with silver studs over a white t-shirt. Low cut jeans plastered to her like furniture wax. Motorcycle boots. To his surprise, she marched straight toward him, and when he realized that he was definitely her destination, he started to rise to offer her a seat, but she was quicker and had seated herself reverse style before he could finish rising.
Extending a shockingly sensual hand, soft and warm with long fingers tipped with carefully manicured, frog-green nails, she said, “Hi, I’m Lou Foque and you’re Dr. Smilnik, and Sarah,” she said to the bargirl who had already stood to take orders and leave. “Bring Dr. Smilnik a jar of whatever he’s drinking and bring me my usual and put it on my tab cause this is my buy cause Dr. Smilnik and I got business and tell the bar ape to leave us alone so Dr. Smilnik and I can do the business we got to do but I guess I said that already, that we got business, so scram along now Sarah darling and God how I hate people who are all the time calling people darling and honey and sweetie, don’t you, but this job does provoke some of the damnedest bad habits ever. I hear you speak Greek.” She said it all except the last as one breathless sentence. She said the last like it was a punctuation mark.
“Sally,” he said.
“What?” Lou asked.
“Sally. The girl’s name is Sally”
“Oh yea that’s right but keeping them girls apart is a chore since they all look alike unclothed but anyway it was Sarah, one of your students or maybe she used to be one or your students, and maybe it was Sally told me you know Greek, and she said you’re a pretty good teacher even if you’re tough as an old shoe. So what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?” he asked.
“Speaking Greek, what else do you think I’d be wondering about, maybe Sally jiggling your love muscle like she was. Under the table.”
Dr. Smilnik and Lou talked quietly, he getting used to her funny style of speech, until she rose and said, “Time to go back to work so you hang around and I’ll prance just for you and the next time you come around you bring one of them Greek books cause I’d like to hear you read from it, the Iliad, since it’s the best. Ain’t that so?” And the dance she did was somewhere between some sort of Greek thing and a Turkish belly dance only she started as near to naked as the law allowed and ended in the same predicament, and he wasn’t sure what came between.
She would take him back into the dressing room where it was quieter than in the hall. He read to her in the Iliad’s chant-like decameters in a room full of glitzy women, some dressed, some half naked, and some more than all naked, and none of them gave a damn about him, even if he’d been reading from the phone book. And only she could understand what he read, and she understood only because she listened with some part of her body that wasn’t her ears. And none of them cared except her, but in their not caring they were indifferent, not hostile.
And then one Wednesday afternoon she stopped by the Philosophy Department. She said she was on her way to Wolsey Mullin’s office which puzzled him at first. Sue, thankfully, seldom came to his office where her presence always made him awkward. He would become uncomfortable and sometimes felt belittled or humiliated. He had never told Lou not to come to his office and was surprised by her visit, surprised by how proud he was of her. She set the secretaries abuzz, not because they knew what she was or even thought she was what she was but because her demure gray pinstriped business suit and her brown display case that made her look, as she intended, like a business woman contrasted dramatically with her richly hued dreadlocks and her speech, that mountain twang dancing through her threadless paragraphs.
Sitting in his office facing him, those magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows behind him, she told him with indifference about her meretricious commerce with Wolsey Mullin, SUC’s 18th president. She told that she had fallen in love with the Iliad when she pulled it at random from one of his shelves and read that first line about sing oh goddess, “…cause for some reason he likes to keep me waiting. He’s just funny that way.”
Dr. Smilnik sat through the revelation with an amused look on his face, his right eyebrow slightly raised to give him a worldly but stoic air while inwardly he was stunned, bewildered almost beyond words, but not by the sordidness of her story, but by his reaction to it. Almost as an afterthought, she asked, “…can you come to supper Sunday that is if you can tear yourself away from the Mrs cause we won’t mix well cause I don’t like wives much cause they don’t like me. Much.”
“Ah Lou, I can’t afford you,” Dr. Smilnik protested.
“Dr. Smilnik, I ain’t hustling but inviting friendly cause Sunday is the only day we cook so we can eat and then you can read to me in Greek so be sure to bring that pretty little book with you and I’ll fry chicken just to insult Wolsey who don’t like chicken in any form at all. He’s just funny that way.”
After she left the room, Dr. Smilnik sat quietly bathing himself in her perfume and contemplating what he had just learned. First there was his relationship with this strange woman and his fear, now a certainty, of where it was leading. A fear that, he now admitted, was really expectation, anticipation and hope. Until just then, he had denied her, but when she unbusomed herself and told him about Wolsey, he was engulfed by an overflowing of lust. And he recognized then what he had known all along: that his reading of Greek to Lou was purposefully salacious. He read to Lou because Sue would never allow it, and reading to a whore in a room full of naked women, all of them undoubtedly whores, added a masterful stroke of revenge.
Then there was the matter of Wolsey Mullin. He had been so shocked by the revelation because Wolsey had only recently announced the closure of the Philosophy Department. The unexpected edict mortified Dr. Smilnik. He had failed his colleagues, and while they remained polite to him, he knew what they thought. Dr. Smilnik, along with most of the tenured faculty, would keep his job by being transferred to another department, probably English, while the untenured faculty and the staff would be let go. This alone made him look like a weasel since surely he had known about the announcement before it was made. And even now, he did not, indeed could not, act. He felt like a groveling worm, and he hated Wolsey for it.
Wolsey, of course, had intended insult, even though Wolsey wouldn’t have known Dr. Smilnik from a June apple. Being the product of industry, if only in the sense that the industrial production of chickens had made him rich, Wolsey hated the intellectuals he now supervised because they exposed him for what he was, or believed himself to be. Small. A wool-hat chicken farmer disguised as a university president, a job he had bought and everyone knew it. Shutting the Philosophy Department, the most serious intellectuals on campus, relieved his sense of inferiority, and affirmed his position of power and dominance. Though insult was intended, there was nothing personal about it, but for Dr. Smilnik, that insult was so personal it was as if Wolsey had placed his balls on an anvil and beaten on them with a hammer.
Now Wolsey had added more insult. It wasn’t that Lou was a whore and Wolsey had hired her. It was that his hiring her wasn’t just for her whoring but so that he could humiliate her as well. He enjoyed insulting her. He enjoyed keeping her waiting. He rubbed her insignificance in her face. Even at $2000 a tumble, or maybe precisely because it was $2000 a tumble, he could take what liberties he wanted with her, including the most important of them all, to treat her as a mere convenience. A nothing. It wasn’t that Lou was a whore and Wolsey had hired her, he thought to himself. But then, correcting himself, he said aloud, “No, that’s precisely the point. Goddamn you, Wolsey. Besides everything else you’re trifling with her.” Dr. Smilnik was jealous. He was also, for maybe the first time in his life, angry. And that made him very dangerous.
He got his first taste of revenge that Sunday night. Lou and Crystal Laze shared an apartment in what had once been a large Victorian house. He learned their real names, Easter’s Lynn and Polly Coe. He learned that, no, neither of them had had chosen their vocation and neither relished it. Easter’s Lynn admitted, “For me, weren’t many choices but sex cause I’ve only a third grade education, married when I was 15 and the bastard got himself sent to prison rather permanently when I was 18 so I come down here and Polly helped me get started though she wouldn’t be doing this herself but for being betrayed by a mule fart of a man and she didn’t know no better even if she is educated. She’s been to high school.”
He learned that Easter’s Lynn could speak in simple, though ungrammatical sentences, when she was calm and thoughtful. He learned, even though they offered him a drink, bourbon of an exceptionally good make, and his choice of water or soda, that neither of them drank. He learned they couldn’t cook, either, and neither of them cared. He did not learn, so much as surmise, that the two women were lovers deeply devoted to each other in some odd way. Unlike Easter’s Lynn’s commercial transaction with Wolsey Mullins, the affair between Easter’s Lynn and Polly Coe didn’t offend him but knew he’d better respect it, if only because the two women expected him to do that. But he learned the most that night as he read the Iliad to her in the privacy of her room, and as he left late that evening he felt he’d squeezed some satisfaction from Wolsey. But not nearly enough.
Over the weeks that followed, Lou kept coming around to his office on Wednesdays, and when that maniac attacked her on the campus, it was Dr. Smilnik she asked for. He was with her at the campus clinic as the doctor put stitches in that beautiful breast. He was with her when the policewoman took her statement. There would be no charges against her, of course, but there remained the possibility of a law suit. She had given the fellow a thorough beating, the policewoman observed. What she meant was that Lou had given him what a civil court might consider a thoroughly unnecessary beating.
He was with her frequently in her apartment but not so frequently that he might irritate Polly, or so he hoped. Lou allowed him, encouraged him in fact, to move in several changes of clothing and a few toilet articles. And it was there in her bed that she told him the story of how Willis Chapman, the manager of The Humble Harlot’s, became Toeless Joe. He could see the un-patched bullet hole from where he lay next to her. He asked her if she weren’t afraid of a vengeful Toeless Joe and that’s when he learned about Pork Chop Donaldson, owner of that open-air nightclub on the Roanoke Highway. “He come down off that mountain to have a little talk with Toeless Joe while he was still recovering, and when Charles Wesley has a talk with you, you knew you’d been talked to. That’s true.”
“Ah, Charles Donaldson? He hasn’t been in the Army, has he?” Dr. Smilnik asked. And that’s when he learned that his old first sergeant, a man he both feared and admired, both loathed and respected, was the infamous curmudgeon, conservationist and outdoor tavern keeper in the mountains north of Statesthorp. He pondered what he should do about this revelation. Should he make a special trip to renew their acquaintance? He decided no. Theirs had been a relationship of convenience, like so many in the Army, and while Dr. Smilnik still felt respect and something like gratitude for Charles Donaldson’s indifference, the very name still sparked fear. Becoming a civilian, apparently, had done nothing to temper the sergeant’s, well, temper. He could imagine explaining to his former sergeant, “Well I was in bed with your cousin. The one that’s a whore down in Statesthorp that calls herself Lou. She told me about you.” He could imagine it, but maybe he didn’t want to.
Easter’s Lynn never asked about his wife or the children. Neither did she let him talk about them. Paying customers, she explained, could talk about what they wanted to talk about. It was their time, their money. But boy friends were a different matter. Dr. Smilnik had another life, and she didn’t care to know anything about it. It was none of her business. Frankly she didn’t give a damn about families, didn’t like wives or children, and didn’t give a damn if his home life was happy or not, so let’s stay off that subject. Please. So her call to his home to bid him, to command him, to summons him to her apartment as soon as possible came as a surprise. He left immediately without bothering to tell Sue. Not that he could have. She wasn’t home, anyway.
Sitting at the same table where they ate badly fried chicken together, Easter’s Lynn explained that a man, Stetson Grady, had called her to his table after one of her performances. He claimed to be SUC’s head accountant, and he knew about Wolsey and her. He was intending a scam that amounted to blackmailing her. She wasn’t about to put up with it.
“Fine, what are we to do about it?” Dr. Smilnik asked.
And it was Polly who explained to him that Easter’s Lynn was going to do a little blackmailing herself. She was going to take Wolsey Mullin to the cleaners for something like $250,000 and was going to do it the very next day and that would leave Stetson out in the cold. In more ways than one.
“What makes you think he’ll pay up so easily?” Dr. Smilnik asked.
“Cause I caught every word we ever spoke on a little digital recorder and it’s right here on this little CD and he’ll want to be buying it from me cause it wouldn’t hurt me none if it get out but it’d be something else for him if it got out that he was paying a whore more than $50,000 a year out of university funds, cause I don’t think Wolsey wants to go to prison at his age, the poor, fat, worn out old fart. That’s why.” She didn’t mention that she’d be selling only one of many copies because she assumed Dr. Condor would know that, while he was so naïve it never occurred to him to doubt that she was selling her only copy.
“Okay. I get it, but where do I come in?” Dr. Condor asked.
It was Polly again who explained that part to him. When she’d finished, he agreed without pausing to consider, to consider that he was risking everything, his job, his reputation, his wife, his children, his freedom and maybe his life, on a reckless escapade with a pair of whores in the back alleys of a small southern town. He saw only the opportunity to gain some satisfaction, and for that, he’d risk everything. He asked only one thing from the women.
“There’s one thing, though, Easter’s Lynn,” he said when Polly had finished her story.
“Yes what’s that?” Easter’s Lynn asked, and Polly thought: Oh, God, he’s going to want a share of the money.
But instead, he said, “While you’re at it, see if you can persuade him to change his mind about closing the Philosophy Department.”
And the next evening, as Easter’s Lynn explained to Wolsey Mullin about her little digital recorder, downloading and other technical matters she had in fact learned from Polly, and as she explained about the note Wolsey would write in his own hand ordering Stetson to his office the following afternoon, and as Wolsey Mullin wrote that note, signed it, and then counted out a terrific pile of cash from the President’s Discretionary Fund kept in the vault in the basement of the Aphlak Administrative Building, Polly and Dr. Smilnik were busy kidnapping Stetson Grady. Stetson never understood the seriousness of his situation, not to the last. He didn’t know Polly from his own scrotum and was puzzled that Dr. Smilnik was involved in this game, because that’s surely what it was, a game, a practical joke. He’d humor them. But his turn would come.
It was Dr. Smilnik who drove him to the alley, but it was Polly who gave him the first drink of that awful whisky. And then the second. And the next. And he was shocked when Dr. Smilnik put that little five shot .32 caliber pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger, doing it, in one swift motion like he’d been doing it all his life. Dr. Smilnik, for his part, was shocked by the pistol’s report but more by the satisfaction he felt. And he knew in that moment that he had passed into his life’s third era well beyond the ATA, one he didn’t have a name for yet, but one where nothing would ever appear again to be what it seemed to be. But the killing didn’t happen until after Easter’s Lynn had emerged from the night. She stood there and watched without expression as he murdered Stetson and then placed the note written in Wolsey Mullin’s own hand in Stetson’s pocket. And they all left.
Sometime around 10 AM the next morning rumor began to spread that Stetson’s body had been found behind Colonel Steller’s Drugstore, the victim of an apparent suicide. Over a period of several days more and more evidence emerged to confirm the initial suspicion. There were rumors about a large amount of cash missing from the President’s Discretionary Fund, and there were rumors about an angry note from President Mullin about the President’s Discretionary Fund found in Stetson’s pocket. There were rumors that Stetson was hopelessly drunk when he shot himself in the right temple with a .32 caliber pistol.
Two days after the discovery of Stetson body, Wolsey Mullin announced at a press conference that he was asking for an audit of the President’s Discretionary Fund. And he wasn’t fiddling around either. The audit would be done by the State Criminal Investigation Division. That afternoon he quietly announced that after a careful reconsideration of SUC’s financial situation, the university’s educational goals, and the role of the Philosophy Department in meeting those goals, the Philosophy Department would remain open and its faculty, in fact, increased.
Dr. Smilnik’s reputation was restored instantly. He wasn’t a poltroon after all, but an accomplished political tactician. Many said they had though he was doing nothing while the whole time he was working quietly behind the scenes. Others claimed to have known all along about his intricate skullduggery. Nobody ever put together the two events, the suicide of Stetson Grady and the decision to keep the Philosophy Department open, possibly only because they were such disjunct events nobody had any logical reason to connect them.
They had agreed that he should avoid the two women until things to cooled down. He wished he hadn’t agreed to that because he was afraid what his reaction to Easter’s Lynn might be after a murder and weeks of separation. Or her reaction to him. So, it seemed an eternity before Easter’s Lynn dropped into the Philosophy Department office and asked if she might see Dr. Smilnik.
This time she was dressed casually in skintight jeans and a frog-green SUC t-shirt, and looked more like a whore, which is to say, an average SUC co-ed, than the business woman she had seemed to be once upon a time. She was told that Dr. Smilnik had a student in the office, but if she would have a seat, it would only be a moment.
After 20 minutes, the student left, and she was told she could go into Dr. Smilnik’s private office.
She walked in and closed the door behind her. He was sitting with his back to her, looking out those ceiling to floor windows that made the office so beautiful but so painfully hot in the summer. She stood silently, as if afraid, and said nothing.
Finally he said, “Yes, what is it,” without turning around to face her.
“I come to ask if you’d take supper tonight or tomorrow night or any time really, cause Polly and I ain’t dancing at The Humble Harlot’s no more, and we got ourselves a little house to live in, all paid for, and I’d like you to see it, and your togs is hanging there in my closet so if you ain’t going to come around to supper, you’d better come around and get ‘em, but if you do come to supper, bring that Greek book with you so you can read to me cause I’ve missed that. Cause I’ve missed you.”
He sat in silence without turning around for a long moment while he savored his satisfaction, complete at last. And it was after dinner that night, after the eating of the badly fried chicken, but before the Greek reading began, that he asked her if she would take him to the mountains. Sometime soon. Because he was eager to meet her cousin. “That fellow, what’s his name, Charles Donaldson?”