Story : Off To School I Go

~Sunil Nepali~

The sudden drop in water pressure and the croaking shower awakened me to the muddy reality swirling around my feet. I stepped aside for a moment, but the water stayed murky, slimy. So I killed the shower and moved to the washbasin, but the faucet gushed forth something equally fetid. The signs pointed to a major breakdown at the city waterworks. Cursing under my breath, I hurriedly scrubbed myself with a towel and brushed my limp, sticky hair the best I could. I even spit into my handkerchief and tried rubbing off the more visible stains, but dark, oily streaks still tainted my face and body.

Skipping this last day of orientation was out of the question, because the Chairman of the Department, Dr. Wallace, was to decide today on my induction into The Jesters’ Club, a decision that would determine my career as a jokester. It could propel me into the ranks of stand-up comics and celluloid funnymen, or consign me to the fate of coloured wigs, billowy pants and oversized shoes. ”Check with me on Friday about that, young man,” he had said with an enigmatic smile, when I had sought his signature for approval. “But do attend the Club orientation lectures in the meantime,” he had added after a thoughtful pause.

The weeklong wait had puzzled me, because all my incoming colleagues had already been granted membership. Perhaps Dr. Wallace wanted to observe me up close, I reasoned, and once he witnessed my dedication, my excitement and humour, his doubts would certainly vanish. I had thus been on my best behaviour all week and hoped to impress him by attending the orientation despite my condition. Besides, in my clean jeans and pressed white shirt, I felt my crazed appearance could pass for an attempt at slapstick. So I strapped on my backpack, took a deep breath and plunged into the humid late-summer day.

Unlike other mornings, the campus swarmed with green-faced students, all walking backwards. Yet another piece of fraternity-sorority silliness, I thought, waving back at those who pointed at me. I dashed up the steps of the imposing Jay Cole Hall and stopped outside the classroom to catch my breath, my body bathed in sweat. Patting my stiffening hair, I glanced at the clock in the hallway before gently turning the doorknob and tiptoeing to the rear of the room. The stupefied class glared at me with green fluorescent faces. I shook my head, but everyone remained unmistakably green.

Dr. Wallace squinted through his black-framed glasses in annoyance. “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” he asked, wiping a palm on his crumpled khakis and straightening the collar of his blue short-sleeved shirt.

I didn’t mean to stand around like a lost fool, but all the seats were occupied, and the incandescent greenery held me speechless.

“Well, do we understand English?” he asked with a straight face.

“Yes, yes, I – don’t you remember me, sir?” I replied, grinning. Everybody kept glowering at me.

“Pardon me?” he said.

“Yes, I am indeed part of this group,” I replied, but he shook his head in exaggerated incomprehension.

“We only speak English here,” he remarked with a smirk.

“Of course, sir, that goes without saying,” I said.

He cocked his head and surveyed me. Then in one graceful burst of energy, he raised his right hand and jumped into the air. As soon as he landed, everyone broke into song: “My house is my house/ and your house is my house/ the more we live together/ the stranger you’ll be…” Dr. Wallace guided the voices with sweeps of his hands and rhythmic flicks of the wrists, his eyes sometimes closing in apparent ecstasy. I listened for a minute and clapped heartily, but everybody sneered at me. They sang passionately and eventually stopped in perfect timing with the professor’s final, emphatic nod, his fingers curling into fists.

He beamed at everyone, pushed up his glasses, and proceeded calmly with the lecture.

“There are cultures with more concepts of time than our English tenses,” he lectured, scratching his thin upper lip and staring at me: “That’s why non-native speakers are usually bedevilled by our simple notions of time.”

Sure, I was slightly late, but not because I had misunderstood the tenses, I wanted to assure him. And what was with all this melodrama, I wondered, shifting from one foot to another, could this be one of the masterful practical jokes the department was renowned for?

“You could get a chair from another room, you know,” Dr. Wallace suggested after awhile, and I hurried out to comply, unwittingly slamming the door behind me.

The hallway flowed with green students walking backwards, and I followed suit, bumping into five people in my search for a chair. Unfortunately, the other classrooms were either occupied or locked, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to return empty-handed. I decided instead to grab some breakfast, and later straighten things out with the professor and inquire into his decision.

*

I back-hiked towards the main thoroughfare under a dark, threatening sky. Along the way, I began enjoying myself, having learnt to use the corners of my eyes and a different set of muscles. The motion tired me a little, but sharpened my senses in unexpected ways. Tickled by my newfound skill, I back-strutted down Hamm Street with a grin on my face. Clusters of haggard green youngsters – in punk, Rasta, hip-hop, and anarchist outfits – stared in puzzled reticence as I passed by, carrying my condition like a unique fashion statement.

I wolfed down some scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns at The Squealing Hogs Restaurant, and tried to overlook the rude stares and bad service. But the heavy, palpable silence soon drove me out the door. As if on cue, lighting flashed across the sky, groundshaking thunder ensued, and the rains lashed down in a fury. I raced backwards towards the University, slipping at times in the downpour, all the way to the looming Jay Cole Hall. Leaving a trail of water in front me, I bumbled up the stairs and stopped outside Dr. Wallace’s half-open door.

He sat at his table, buried under stacks of papers-books-files, using both hands simultaneously to mark separate sets of paper. He worked with tense diligence, his thin, plucked eyebrows twitching incessantly, and I felt guilty knocking. Even after glancing up and chin-directing me to a padded chair across from him, Dr. Wallace continued scribbling away with balanced determination. But the paper piles appeared not to diminish. Perhaps he should grow an extra pair of hands, I had just joked to myself, when, lo and behold, he lifted his right foot above the table, bent his head a little, and puffed at a cigarette stuck between his toes. I was dumbstruck by his lithe athleticism, his flouting of the no-smoking policy, not to mention his dark, overgrown toenails.

“Yes, can I help you?” he finally asked impatiently, his bespectacled eyes turning gray and blue intermittently.

“Well, sir,” I began, hypnotized by the verdant radiance of his skin and those flashing eyes: “About this morning…”

“You acted unlike a graduate student, were late for class, rudely slammed the door, and skipped the lecture,” he completed for me, raising his foot to take another drag.

“You understand my English!” I said.

“I do now,” he replied, blowing an immense cloud of smoke that briefly obscured his emerald face: “You do surprisingly well for a foreign –, I mean, you know.”

“Thank you,” I said grudgingly. “By the way, I was quite impressed with your jesting this morning, sir, pretending not to recognize or understand me and…”

“Jesting, huh?!” he chuckled: “But then, it is understandable that you would perceive it that way.”

“But, sir, the song… green faces … people walking backwards …!”

“See, you definitely need to work on your diction and syntax as well,” he said triumphantly, pushing up his glasses: “Language, after all, is everything in a comedian’s profession.”

Then to my surprise, he kindly extended a packet of Lucky Strikes towards me. I accepted one out of courtesy, fighting a growing itch across my chest. He placed a lighter in front of me and sat back to caress his graying hair. Feigning nonchalance, I casually pulled off my slushy right sneaker, peeled off my smelly white sock, and inserted the cigarette between my toes. Then hunching forward a little, I lifted the foot with my shaky left hand to light the cigarette. This painful, strenuous effort rekindled my admiration for the professor’s graceful agility. The first puff made me cough myself hoarse, but as soon as I regained my breath, I started to apologize for being seven minutes late and…

“Late is late, young man,” he cut in sternly, fumes leaking out of his eyes.

I exhaled a thick stream of smoke in response, the cigarette-foot crossed over my left knee for easy access. A trickle of water traced a shiver down my neck, and my wet clothes grew heavier by the minute. “As for my appearance, sir…”

“Yes, have you checked the mirror today?” Dr. Wallace interjected, smoke curling up from his beaked nose.

“Yes, I have, and…”

“And you still chose to attend class in this state?”

“But, sir,” I said, wondering if he’d ever let me complete my thoughts: “I can explain everything.”

“Excuses, excuses,” he grumbled, his gray eyes flashing with indignation: “Late for class, unwashed face, strange hairdo, rude behaviour, and, of course, absolutely no greenery on your skin. All in one morning, too! Now tell me what you would think of such a student?” He asked the question with such sincere exasperation, with such pathos, that I almost spoke against myself.

“The thing is, it keeps getting worse,” he continued: “Now even your clothes are soaked, and you’ll probably miss classes because of a cold or something.”

I was about to protest his assumption, when a vicious fit of sneezing wracked my body, and I had to blow my nose into my handkerchief and flick away water droplets from my face. I began shivering as well.

“What on earth’s going on with you, young man?” he asked, raising his foot for a puff: “Is this some cultural thing? I mean, I just don’t get it.”

Your role as a music conductor and your turning green, are those cultural, too, I wanted to counter. But pressing my itchy back against the chair, I said, “I have learned much this week, sir, and I assure you that you won’t have to worry about me in the future.”

He nodded approvingly. “All right, good,” he said, deftly stretching his foot to drop the cigarette into an ashtray on the table: “I’m pleased you’ve finally begun to see things clearly. Once you get the full picture, everything should work out just fine. Good luck now.” Then being the busy man that he was, he abruptly returned to work, seemingly unaware of the central purpose of my visit.

“Thank you, sir,” I replied, sneezing and blowing into my handkerchief again. I dipped my cigarette into the puddle on the floor and flicked it into the trashcan with my fingers. “Before I forget,” I said, pulling out the form from my damp backpack: “I just wanted your signature on this, sir.”

He scowled and stood up and sat down at least ten times before deciding to remain seated.

“You said to come by today,” I reminded him: “Besides, everyone in class is already a member of The Jesters’ Club.”

“Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, of course, yours being a singular case,” he said, fumbling with the cigarettes and lighting one between his fingers. Then with smoke seeping out of his beaked nose, big ears, and thin lips, he whispered: “You first need to fulfill all the requirements.”

“But I have, sir.”

“Well, what about the test in spoken English then, the Let’s Speak English Test?” he asked, his fine eyebrows twitching uncontrollably.

“Excuse me?” I exclaimed, wiping water droplets from my face: “I thought Graduate School, based on my records and their interview with me, recommended a departmental waiver to you.” “More importantly,” I continued, “You’ve conversed with me and heard…”

“Son, if it were solely up to me, I’d accept you into the Club like that,” he cut in, snapping his left fingers: “But in all sincerity, I am unable to grant you a waiver; you must take the exam. My hands are tied on this one.”

“Well, why wasn’t I…I mean, that would be fine, sir, except the test was conducted last Wednesday!” I said: “And the next one isn’t until December!”

He raised his right palm, with the cigarette pointing down, and shrugged.

I tried to catch his eye to make sure he wasn’t playing an epic practical joke, as master jokesters are wont to do, but he resolutely avoided my gaze – remaining as green as ever – and nervously tapped his cigarette on the ashtray. I fidgeted in my clinging wet clothes and fought against a sneeze that fizzled out. My entire body throbbed with itchiness.

“Well if you don’t mind…,” he mumbled.

A tangle of questions surged up, only to stick in my throat, and I scratched my neck and forearm with abandon. But that further inflamed my condition.

“No need to take all this too seriously, young man,” Dr. Wallace advised, looking past me: “After all, let’s not forget that we are a department of clowns.”

“Mampakha-beshyaka-khwasah,” I cursed swiftly, as I stooped to tie my shoelace with trembling hands.

“Whawuzzat?” he asked, his blue eyes flashing suspiciously.

“Oh, I said ‘Many thanks for helping me understand, sir.’”

July 2004

(Source : Suskera.com)

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