Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Life Sentences

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Life Sentences

Article excerpt

The bitter internecine wars of the faculty were long past, consigned to reminiscence and hallway anecdote, and Jeremy Fox missed them. No longer did his colleagues bellow and spume at one another over adding women's studies to the curriculum (and women to the faculty), or while staunchly defending the verities of Plato, Shakespeare, and Keats. (And sometimes threaten too: when begged, Fox would recite the tale of a certain wild old man who, after one such debate 30 years before, had rushed home to fetch an ancient service revolver. He'd waggled the gun in a rival's nose for some little while before firing at last and mortally wounding a commons-room sofa.) Often enough in their youth they'd threatened the dawn as well, with bourbon and cigarettes and argument over things that mattered.

In these latter days of the century, however, Fox could only retreat after a department meeting to his office on the third floor of the humanities building. His gut would be rumbling in outrage and despair, aroused not by some principle worth blood on the floor, but by the petty scurrilousness of younger colleagues.

On a gloomy February afternoon Fox was doing just that, trudging heavily up three flights of steps. Despite himself, he halted on the second landing, panting for breath. A door burst open somewhere overhead, and a moment later he heard, then saw someone descending awkwardly toward him. Naturally, it was Ryan McKnight-it was Ryan McKnight whose future the department's tenured members had just been debating with considerable passion. Because of the diabetes he'd developed as an adult, McKnight's balance was uncertain and his legs stiff. Each step on the staircase was an effort. On level ground he could treat his cane as a jaunty prop. But the stairs demanded he lean heavily on it. Fox hoped he would have the good grace to keep going with a nod.

Instead, the black man paused one step above the landing and flashed a wry grin. "Come from deciding my fate?"

As usual McKnight was wearing a beret, an affectation that Fox had early on expected to despise but found himself rather envying. He pursed his lips. "Can't discuss it-you know that," he said. "Besides, nothing's decided yet."

McKnight laughed a booming laugh that rocketed through the stairwell. "Six years waiting for a secret decoder ring and still not there yet. Well, I guess I can be a good boy a few weeks more." With a salute of the walking stick at his senior colleague, he resumed his labors down toward Ascension Hall's main door.

Fox paused a moment longer to gaze after him. McKnight was cocky, sure of himself-full of himself-with a sharp disdain for certain others on the faculty hidden not at all discreetly. Some wanted to kill him for slights real and imagined. Famously, at McKnight's very first public presentation-while visiting the campus on an interview-a member of the search committee had offered a question. It glistened with theoretical fashion. Dialogic this. Discourse analysis that. Lila Wallace was merely preening, of course, a demonstration for the small audience that she remained intellectually hip. Very likely she didn't even expect an answer. Others in the classroom wearily endured her little pretensions-they'd been similarly guilty often enough. Ryan McKnight gazed at Dr. Wallace for a moment with that wry grin of his, sizing her up along with the question. "I can talk that talk," he said at last, stroking a goatee that already showed streaks of grey, "but I won't walk the walk. It's not what I do." Thus dismissed, the woman flushed and laughed shrilly. Intentionally or not, McKnight had made an enemy for life.

But students adored McKnight. He gave himself up to them for conferences and extra study dates and simple bull sessions in a way that few colleagues would imagine any longer. Too much pressure to publish these days. Too long a commute, since new faculty rarely chose to live in the college's remote village. …

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