No one will know that I’m leaving, just that I’m gone. I carry the final box from my office to my packed up car. I open the tarnished gold trunk, the small lamp inside the trunk had long burnt out and the bulb is a pain to find. I push aside the empty quarts of oil and place the last box of books and research files over the bare spare tire. Something rustles in the woods and I turn to see what it is. Nothing is there, probably a rabbit or a deer. I take one last glance at the university, empty at night but illuminated against the dark. Turning back towards the woods I peer through the branches, I can see the barely illuminated shards of leaves and tree trunks. The nighttime panoply of flora set in a deadened relief where all specificity is lost by the sodium vapor lamps.
I can still feel the polished wood of the Vice President’s desk, my hands clammy against its surface as she slid the agreement towards me. She reminded me that my employment was at-will. A part of me didn’t want to sign but I surrendered. I didn’t foster a sense of community. I seemed removed. These are things I know about myself but I realized her words were code for something deeper reflected by the change in administration, a budget line, student complaints, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s done.
To open the door of my car I have to hold the handle and then turn the key, because it is broken and I haven’t had time to fix it. A faint rustling again. I toss my coat onto the passenger seat and leave the door open. The dark wild spreads before my car. Something moves, maybe a dog? I peer deeper into the wood. Nothing. Nothing moves. I reach for the plastic handle of the door to close it when I hear the rustling again and a faint breath that sounds close. I twist the knob on the dash and the car lights carve a space in the small forest with uneven light from my headlamp.
A sound that belongs in the back of the throat, from a voice that is short of breath comes from the wood. It says nothing. I open the door wider and place a foot outside my car.
Are you ok?
I shout this into the woods and hear only silence, only branches touching together, some leaves move. I can feel my heart beat.
Do you need me to call security?
Now standing outside of the car, I try to gaze deeper into the thicket. The headlamps reveal a form, partially covered by leaves.
Right side pocket, left side pocket, back pocket, jacket pocket – I pat myself for my phone but can’t seem to find it. Did I lose it? What a useless dance, I do it multiple times a day. I left it in the office. Damn it.
Are you hurt?
I ask, and walk past the door toward the hood of the car. It pings a faint tone that wavers in its dying pitch. My foot leaves the pavement and crosses into the grass. The figure breathes heavy. A pale hand is thrust out from its prostrate body, curling up like the dehydrated husk of an insect.
I push back a branch and look upon the figure’s back draped in a long tan coat.
…I couldn’t sleep.
It says to me, in its metallic voice. Like speaking to me through a device, or metal tube. My shadow cuts across the figure cast from my dim headlight. It is a man; he must be drunk or high. I step through the brambles brushing the vines aside. He is older than most students.
I needed to talk.
His voice is muffled yet somehow clear inside my head. Hair flops over his shoulders; his pants are in tatters and his ankles exposed. No socks. I turn to look at my car. I wish I was in it. Beyond my pathetic vehicle I see the small blue light of the security phone.
Well, let me call security, OK?
I say, thinking of the student emergency plan. Number one: stay with the student. Number two: call for help. Or maybe that was number one? It doesn’t really matter now. I’ll never need to know the student emergency plan.
OK, do you trust yourself?
He asks. I stop turning around and look at his back. In this light, his long brown coat appears not to be fabric but an intricate mosaic of moss and mold. I look closely. It decays and blooms in front of me. Some trick of the light.
I ask, and he continues.
Do you trust yourself?
No one will know that I’m leaving, just that I’m gone.
A red glowing rectangle glares at me from the dash with uneven eyes – a plus sign and a winking minus symbol. Mocking me. I’ve been fired. Terminated. Let go and I can’t even remember how long this battery light has been on because it’s been on so long. Beneath the battery light for at least the last week sits an odd shaped orange lamp lit in, what I guess is, the shape of an engine. Damn it. I just wanted the car to last me to the end of the semester. Turns out I won’t even last that long.
I would listen to the radio but it stopped working a year ago. Actually it was the CD player, everything was an “error” and then it just kept my copy of John Coltrane’s Ascension. I know it is still in there. Then the radio stations got fuzzier and fainter, like someone was pulling a veil over the broadcasts in both AM and FM or I was moving further and further away from their source. Then it was just static. Nothing. No Public Radio. Just white noise and then silence. Right now the stereo is on but the sound that comes out is a random series of clicks and pale hisses.
Out the windshield the sky looks weird, smeared like the backside of a dirty prism. The trees are backlit against these final moments of sunset, a twilight frame holding the sky above me as the earth turns my side towards darkness.
What if I bump into one of my students? It will take forever to extract myself and not explain that I won’t be in class. Ever. I can’t see past this. That I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I don’t. I don’t know who I will be.
The engine groans a painful sound as I hug the country road. No streetlights back here, just the woods pierced by highbeams. Only one of the lights seems to be working, illuminating a phalanx of tall trees. I keep my attention sharp for the wandering orb of a deer’s eye.
I slow down to let a lone car pass me. Flick off the highbeams out of courtesy for the pickup. Probably a student, maybe another professor, leaving to return later. Unlike myself who will arrive and leave without ever returning. Termination is a funny word. I’ve been terminated, my presence will be erased. I will no longer be on the department website. It feels like a death.
I turn down the lonely evening drive, above me the monochromatic yellow sodium vapor lamps illuminate my way to the faculty parking lot.
I look back to the car from the woods, the dull yellow beams of my headlight and then back to his form. Connecting him to the ground is a fine filament, a pale pink web in the dying headlamp, illuminated as it terraformed. I think of fake cobwebs at Halloween but something about it is way more eerie. He continues talking;
What are the things perceived by your senses?
Excuse me? Listen, what is your name?
I say crouching down to get a closer look at the intricate weaving of the pink web. It grows and becomes brittle in seconds then flakes away.
What if you distrust your senses? And deny the existence of things, what then?
Hey, man, let’s just go. We can have this conversation later?
I push, this guy is on some trip. I reach out to him and touch his shoulder. My fingertips upon contact became cold causing me to withdraw them quickly. He does not stir. My fingertips are blackened. I recoil.
What the fuck?
He is unphased.
To exist is one thing, but to be perceived is another.
What’s wrong with you?
I ask, but he is silent. Rubbing my fingers on my jeans I sit back on the ground to get further away. They are numb as if brushed with a topical analgesic. The ground is covered in a thin mist. After a moment he continues;
Can you exist without being perceived?
The mist appears to go as far as I can see, obscuring the details of the ground.
What are you talking about? Were you in one of my courses?
I say, and stand up quickly. I look him over again, his awkward body under the mist, a mist that now seems to be pouring from him. I wave some of it away. On the skin of the ankle I can see a tessellation of green triangles that merge and unmerge a glitching pattern for his skin. I feel like I might throw up, but I hold it back.
Would you agree that nothing can exist but in a mind that perceives it?
He inquires, the mist dissipates. From underneath his form long red thin tentacles emerge, a multitude of them searching behind him through the loose leaves and soil.
What are you?
I find myself saying the thought. Stepping backward I feel a fear that collects as a ball in my stomach. Immediately after stepping back the red tentacles are overtaken from within by larger yellow tusks that shatter their worm like forms in the soil. Like oversized stamens in some strange extraterrestrial flower.
Do we have the qualities to secure the reality of external things?
I don’t know. Sure.
I play along. His shoulder turns toward me and small buds seem to bloom from the variegated stains on the coat with a pattern of more mycologic forms.
I despair that this cannot be proved.
Jesus. Don’t despair, what’s your name?
I try and engage him and he turns away from me exposing his back. His hair transforms from black to white and grows into the soil like roots planting themselves.
My name isn’t important.
I think it is?
Placing my back against a tree trunk the dying light of my headlamps exposes neck ripples beneath the white skin as if the entire musculature was changing. Decaying, reforming, shifting from solid to plasma, back again, then to liquid.
I see you are resolved not to understand me.
He says disappointed. I begin to speak but every pore on his neck erupts in a thin red-orange hair straining tall before wrapping itself around a hair next to it and devouring it. I’m hyperventilating now. I try to slow down and control my heart rate.
I’m trying, I really am.
All of my life has been in vain.
He says as a silver frost spreads out from his body, beneath the now powdered tusks that emerged from the red worm like forms.
Ok, not in vain. I get it. So you’re trying to say that our ideas do not exist without our minds.
You take me right.
I relax. He seems to relax, the decay relaxes – it seems to slow. I play along.
No one would steal anything out of my car. That is, unless they want some student papers or a pile of empty Starbucks cups. To get out of this rust bucket I have to lift the lock with one hand while pulling the inside door handle with the other and push the door hard.
In the distance some students in their own parking lot go to their cars as I walk past the static vehicles of the other faculty teaching their evening classes or grading. The students’ segregated forms are faint, somewhat bulky in their sweatshirts and tinted yellow by the parking lot lamps like a scene behind a scrim of amber but entirely distant. Teaching does that to you, your own recollections of college are consistently plastered before you. Heraclitus said you could not step in the same river twice and he was wrong.
Swiping my ID card I open the door to the Humanities Building and can hear the floor being waxed beneath fluorescent lights, the smell of antiseptic cleaners, the electricity from Xerox machines and of reams of fresh paper. I put the card in my back pocket of my jeans. The yellow linoleum tile reflects my form back to me as I make my way to the office. A student sleeps wrapped in a hooded heather gray sweatshirt on one of the crimson benches. I pass by and turn at the hallway for the Religion Department. Marcus stands there in his Securitas parka, checking his phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other.
Evening Professor Seriot.
He says to me walking closer to my door, his black boots squeak on the linoleum.
I respond admiring the large Karl Barth poster my Theology class put on the threshold to my office. Clearly blown up from an image found online. When you look closely you can see the pixels. Barth’s gray and white hair is disheveled and he peers out from behind his black horn-rimmed glasses. His eyes droop and peer back at me from behind the aged folds of skin and into the empty hallway. There is a small yellow post-it note over his wrinkled mouth. It says:
The black marker graffiti still makes me laugh. In some ways I feel proud, for some reason my theology students love Barth. Or they enjoy the clock winding down as they get me on a tangent about him and his opposition to natural theology.
Your cart is in your office, I just need your ID.
Marcus says to me, indifferent, and I surrender the plastic ID. I was happy in that faded picture, it was the first picture from the first year, when everything looked open before me. I never got a new picture for the last five years.
I open the door to my office for the last time.
Here you go.
Thanks. I’ll be out here. Let me know when you’re ready to go.
He says to me and goes back to his phone. I walk inside and take a look out the window onto the green as a student couple, holding hands, crosses the green oblivious to my voyeurism. The night has grown much darker in the time I’ve been in here. Marcus’ radio echoes through the hallway as he walks away from me. I wonder if I would know if that student couple even existed if I didn’t see them right now out of the window. Would they exist if I did not even see them? I look for them again. They disappear out of view. They cease to exist.
We have a moment of silence. A détente. I continue,
Ok. Ok, then what about external things, like these woods or our bodies?
He doesn’t pause,
Yes, real things have a real nature. Fixed. In our minds it is just a copy. They require our minds. Well, to be more specific, your minds.
He turns toward me and I truly see its face. Though human in overall shape, it consists of three large black eyes in a row, round and primordial like the most basic insect. Or maybe a cave dweller, some creature that would need large eyes to get as much light inside of them as possible. To perceive as much as it could. There was no nose. Just a small slit for a mouth. My headlights gleam palely on the three black eyes.
Alright. I feel like I’ve had this conversation before.
I know not what to say to this.
The mouth doesn’t move, my heart beats faster.
Are you talking right now?
I hear. Again the mouth does not move, its large eyes peer into mine. It feels as if they were peering into mine, they seem to be able to see everything in the night.
But you’re not speaking.
No. Not with my mouth. I know why you’re here.
I saw you and thought you needed help.
No, it’s an end.
You could say that.
I confess. In the skin on the face each fragment separates out and folds over the next form. Behind the scales of skin emerge long yarn-like tubes, sticky with glistening viscera.
There will be more.
It says to me.
Are you dying?
Yes. I think so.
Turning its head to face the canopy of trees above him, bright yellow and pink and white tubes begin to expand and fold back onto his face like cilia. Goosebumps erupt along my arms. I want to run. It speaks again;
I’m failing. I know my perception perfectly since what I do not perceive of I know can be part of my ideas. Yes.
Listen, let me call security—
He commands and from the side of his body smaller tendrils blossom across the leaves, sticks and mossy stones. I back up onto the tree again. When one on the tendrils touches the sole of my shoe it freezes, curls, and disintegrates.
Can I help you though?
No. I find it is impossible for me to conceive how anything but an idea can be an idea. No idea can exist with the mind.
I am a failure.
It says in defeat and then turns again to me, one of the eyes deflated like an old grape. Waves of decaying flagellum emerge and pass over his body. Ripping through the old mossy coat, displacing the green scales on the exposed ankles uncovering a new layer.
Are you in my mind?
It says it so matter-of-fact but with a voice strained, the coat merges with the dirt and the face turns to me and a black viscous fluid pours from the mouth. I can smell the musk of it, like a deep iron rich soil. Like the interior of that Toyota. An entire eye is coated in a slimy film of yellowing bacteria.
How can you communicate with me?
I ask and it pauses, I can sense the beams on my car are fading. The battery dying, I think of that agitated rectangle on my dashboard – the one that is supposed to symbolize my failing battery winking at me in some cruel design. The one I keep putting off fixing. The one that seems to know its forthcoming failure and my inability to remedy it. I wipe some sweat from my brow. I think security can jump the car.
I start removing my books and placing them in the boxes provided for me. I empty my file cabinets of my syllabi and research in the hanging army green file folders. I toss armloads of paper; committee minutes, student papers, memos, advising sheets, everything into my small trash bin that overflows. I shed this life I lead. I make quick decisions and get rid of the chaff. Then stack it all in my car.
As I turn from my department the lights in the hallway go out from where I once was standing.
I call out. No one answers. I look back at the poster of Karl Barth, and decide to leave it there. To let someone else clean it up. I wave my hands in the air, like an idiot. The lights click back on in a bright flash.
I look ridiculous. No one answers.
The student who was mummified in their sweats is no longer snoozing on the crimson bench but I can see the outline they’ve left in the upholstery. I know if I touch it the imprint will still be warm. The buffers’ hum is gone. I push the heavy cart listening to the lights above me, the soda machine down the other hallway towards the History Department, I can hear the Xerox printers turn on. I push the glass door out to the parking lot. A Prius passes by me and turns on its lights.
I hear a young voice and I slow down. Damn it.
Dr. Seriot, hi.
I turn to see Michaela, Michaela Pauchot from one of my theology classes. Tuesday. Afternoon. She holds a stack of books and stands on the gray sidewalk.
Were you teaching tonight?
She asks. I shift my box to my hip.
No, I just, I just had to get some things. Did you have a class?
She walks closer shifting the books in her arms.
No, I was at the library. Can I ask you a question? I’m having some trouble.
Ok, with what?
The whole class.
I say nothing, she continues,
I’m trying to understand more, but I feel the more I understand the less I understand. Does that make sense?
She says it quickly as if unburdening herself and widening her eyes.
Well now is not really a good time—
I feel bad.
I say this to reassure her.
No one talks about these ideas or theologians in church.
Ah, I see.
Like I’ve never heard of them before.
She says, and lets her books rest on in her arms.
Well, people talk about St. Augustine often in church, or really his ideas.
I grasp for an example.
No but I mean they just contradict each other so much. Like Augustine and Barth. I just feel that after a few years here I maybe was deluded. Like there’s more.
She looks at me and her look pierces me. I can hear the wind rustling through the branches.
I say, maybe sounding shocked.
Not by you, but—
No I get it.
Yeah, that now I have maybe more questions.
I say and she laughs then holding her books on her leg she swipes her hair from her face.
Sometimes the knowledge causes us unrest. And it should.
The smell of burning of wood is in the distance. The sky still looks strange as it turns black, starless but somehow occluded by a lens.
I just feel as if the more I learn about theology, it’s like, it’s like dissolving what I thought I knew.
She asks and her eyes in the night plead with me.
Yeah it’s ok.
I was raised in a really conservative Biblical home. But I’m not like them.
Yeah, me too.
I’ve never been like them. I just…
I’m sure you’ve felt that way for a while.
I have. Thanks.
Michaela hoists up the books into both arms and nodded.
Yeah, I just had a rough week. Thanks, Dr. Seriot.
Sorry, see you next week.
I lie, even though I want to tell her the truth about next week. Instead I watch her waddle off into the darkness. I know I won’t see her ever again. I know eventually I’ll forget her face and her name, and she’ll forget mine, and I’ll erase this place, this conversation. It might as well have never happened. It will all be like some dream, some passing pit of memory.
I now clearly see it was a mere dream. There’s nothing in it.
It says to me.
Nothing in what?
Nothing? In this, the back and forth.
A white pulse leaves his hair and illuminates across the encroaching fuzz on the dirt.
Are we arguing, I’m just trying to help—
Just let me finish.
It says so I close my mouth and thrust my hands into my jeans, all while taking in the iridescent decay of his body.
What you see is not inherent to what you see. Those things come from your mind. My mind… our mind. Without the mind we do not know what a color or sound or object is. With no mind, there is nothing. But we cannot be perceiving things all of the time.
At that he lies there and breathes, or exhales, it sounds metallic. I watch small crystals form and disintegrate across his body. Then build up, this time in silver formations, then eliminate themselves as if cycling through the geologic record.
Without a mind the world would cease to exist?
You are listening.
He says, sounding proud but does not stir. His skeleton has congealed into something else, rudimentary plants and ferns grow and shrivel over what remains of his form. As if his form, or existence, poisons them.
I say quietly. Soon we’ll be in total darkness. I don’t mind.
You’ve heard this before. How can a mind always be present?
It can’t. I have heard this. But it can’t.
I say very matter-of-fact.
But it can.
Blinking I step closer, seeing the tentacles from his body raise on my shoe like lifting cooked spaghetti out of the pot. Flaccid. He is dying.
No, there’s no mind to conceive of everything at the same time.
I say in confidence. I can hear a car engine approaching. Security finally.
And at this he is silent. Green lights flash all around me. I crouch beside the outline of him made of organic materials laying in the dirt, the crystals and sludge, the metallic hinge of iridescent skeleton, the transparent follicles limp amidst the ground, rings of rust colored fungi and ethereal molds. I turn to my car behind me and the beam winks out, the yellow of my dingy headlamp extinguishes into a soft orange point forever. A white security truck with its flashing green sirens pulls alongside my car. The air is lighter in my lungs.
There’s this moment after I was fired, or terminated, let go, that the world I knew dilated to a fine point. What once was this labyrinth of egos and schedules that sprawled massively before me revealed itself to be a dense speck. It hurts because in being a part of the sprawl, now without you, means nothing. It too has condensed its mass. Pushed you out.
I turn around to what is but a halo of his form and I poke at the masses left behind.
Are you ok?
I hear Marcus call out to me, it sounds as if it was across a large canyon. As I turn to face his voice I can sense the disintegration all around. The trees separated into vertical strata and gravity appear to be released from our particles. I can’t see Marcus but can hear the echo of his inquiry decay across the expanse between ourselves. There are just fragments of green and ochre light across an abyss and the sensation of light being diffracted. Of everything being torn apart.
But I still call out, perhaps in vain, but I still call out.