The blood pressure cuff gripped my upper arm so hard I nearly squealed. Then a macabre thought came over me. I imagined that my sainted father was reaching out from the grave and seizing my arm, as if to say: See, I was right. Life is one crisis after another.
The nurse taking my B.P., innocent of my dark thoughts, mercifully let the air out of the cuff. It sighed like an old man.
‘High this time, Arnie.’
‘Not surprised. I could feel the pounding in my head. Don’t even tell me the numbers.’
‘Okay, but Dr. Roth will be taking it again when she comes in.’
‘I’m sure Eileen will have a lot to say.’
Eileen Roth was my friend as well as my doctor, and I felt free to use her first name. She was my concert companion and, together, we saw most of the orchestras, soloists, choral and chamber music groups that passed through the town and the college. I was grateful for her company − neither my wife nor my daughter has much interest in classical music − and for the discussions we had after each performance. We had a rule on such occasions: never talk about medical matters. The most obvious reason for this was that Eileen wanted to be off duty. But perhaps, in the face of the perfection of a Mozart or a Beethoven or a Brahms, it was almost obscene to talk about the very imperfect art of medicine.
When Eileen arrived in one of her trademark pashmina shawls − she was her usual forty-five minutes behind schedule − I told her I was worried about my blood pressure. She looked harried, but I did not take it personally.
‘Worrying just makes it worse. Let’s take a look. And stop humming.’
I then realised that I was humming the main theme of Mozart’s piano concerto number twenty-two. I suppose I was trying to relax myself. In any case, I stopped in mid phrase.
‘Thanks. That was twenty-two, wasn’t it? Mozart?’
‘Yeah, well, your pressure’s not good. Just be quiet and let me concentrate.’
After she finished, Eileen told me the numbers, and they were indeed high.
‘We have to get this under control, Arnie. I should probably up the dose on your medication. Is something going on? Your life okay?’
‘Do any of us ever know the answer to that?’
‘I’m asking a serious question, wise ass.’
‘Sure. My marriage is good. My kid is doing well in the world. I am gainfully employed.’
‘But you hate your job.’
‘I just kvetch about it.’
‘We will want to run an EKG. Just to make sure your ticker is okay.’
Now I was more worried. Eileen handed me a tired looking hospital gown and told me to remove my shirt. I should put the gown on so that it was open in the front. As I did so, I felt a bit like a child in the process of being shamed.
Eileen opened the examining room door and called for an EKG machine. A nurse wheeled one in on a cart. It was the kind of dull and anonymous device one would expect in a medical situation, off-white in colour and boxy. I briefly wondered why medical machines could not be manufactured in cheerful colours and fun shapes. I was told to lie down, and then electrodes were placed on my ankles and various parts of my chest. An autumnal feeling came over me. I wondered if I had just crossed a Rubicon, from a life of relative health to one of machines, probes, readouts, more and more pills. I could almost see my father nodding.
‘What the hell?’ said the nurse as the machine began spitting out paper. Now I was scared.
She finally handed the readout to Eileen, who pronounced it normal. I let out a long breath.
‘You know,’ I said to the nurse, ‘it’s not a good idea to say ‘what the hell’ while somebody is lying there getting scanned.’
‘I just thought the machine wasn’t working right for a second there,’ she said. I gulped, literally swallowing my annoyance.
Eileen ended our visit with a lecture about avoiding salt in my diet. Low sodium all the way, in everything. I had never followed such a strict protocol before, and, by the way, I love salty things. I felt ten years older than when I had entered the examination room. I put my shirt back on and prepared to go.
‘Hey, Arnie, it’ll be okay,’ Eileen said, patting me on the arm.
I waited for my father to weigh in, but fortunately he remained silent.
Even though it was not a work day for me, I decided to amble by my office. Perhaps doing so would take my mind off my medical concerns.
I head the writing department at Adams College. We are like a first aid station, or perhaps service station is a better way of putting it, for students who cannot put two sentences together. We do not have much status among the professors, who send us the problems they do not want to deal with. I suppose I should not mind our relative lack of esteem on campus, that I should content myself with thinking that what we do is just as important as what the faculty does. But it can be a teeth-grinding experience to work with a student who, though she or he somehow made it into a fancy college like Adams, writes like a seventh grader. Worse, most of the students we work with simply want their hands held to get through the next term paper. I like to believe that to learn to write is to learn to think, and that I and my colleagues offer young people a key to unlocking their minds. I suppose I am a bit grandiose, but such are the ideas and hopes that wander through my tired old head on any given day.
It was only a few days since graduation (limited by the pandemic to the graduates and their immediate families), and nobody in my department was in their office. Our little lounge had a faint smell of stale coffee that I liked to imagine was the scent of past earnest conversations. The tiny offices for my staff were little more than cubicles. Marcy, my best writing counsellor, had a sign on her door that said: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. I suppose she wanted to show that she knew the classics, but I thought the joke was lame and had come close to asking her to take it down. As it was, no student had seen the sign since the campus was vacated due to the pandemic. But all that was about to change. The students were coming back.
I had the corner office which was, perhaps, half the size of the office of an average Adams tenured professor. I unlocked my door and, the air being stale, quickly opened the one window. Our department was on the ground floor of Palmer; I had a perfect view of the Quad in all its fertilised, manicured glory. Soon students, vaccinated and eager to escape their pandemic exile, would be returning and filling the Quad with their comings and goings. Today, however, there was a single person walking across the open space: Matt, who had the largest belly of all the members of campus security. He saw me in my window and we waved. Sometimes Matt would pass by and hear me playing Bach or Bartok from a speaker on my desk. He called it my ‘fancy’ music.
‘You ready for the invasion?’ Matt called.
‘No. Are you?’
‘Yeah. I miss having them kids around.’
‘You want my job?’
‘No thanks. I like mine just fine.’
I took a seat at my desk. I liked my revolving office chair; it was nice for thinking and daydreaming. I allowed myself to ponder the near future. The first wave of incoming students was in the Summer Academy beginning the last week in July. This was Adams’s special program for new students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Academy was supposed to give them a leg up on college level work, an extra month of preparation before the regular fall semester started. The Writing Department had a big role. I would introduce my staff to the Academy Kids, as they were known, and offer seminars on college level writing, in particular how to establish and support a thesis. It was the time of year when I and my five writing counsellors felt the most wanted and respected. And now, after many months, we would be working with flesh-and-blood students again.
But, following my disturbing doctor visit, I was not quite ready to plunge into academic work. Therefore I was neither thinking nor daydreaming. I was dithering. I decided to do what people do when they dither: look at email. Almost all of my messages were administrivia or solicitations for donations. One message, however, jumped out at me. It was from a student I had worked with the fall semester before the pandemic. Manuel Elizondo was Honduran, from a middle-class family in Tegucigalpa. He was a math genius who had been admitted two years ago with an endowed science and engineering scholarship, the first in his family to attend an elite American college. He was assured a brilliant future − as brilliant a future as one could have in this unstable, climate crisis-plagued world − but for one thing. Though he spoke English well, he could not write. He could follow the logic of advanced mathematics, but the logic of written words apparently eluded him. I and my team had worked with any number of students who had extreme difficulty writing, but none of them had shared Manuel’s level of brilliance. It made no sense to me. If writing is a key to unlocking the mind, why would the key not fit such a mind as Manuel’s?
I will admit it: I became obsessed with Manuel Elizondo, and not just because of the conundrum he posed for me. Frankly, I also liked him. He had a handsome, sad face and piercing eyes that looked like they could see through to the end of any problem. He was earnest in a way that was rare in my experience with American students.
But Manuel was in trouble. Adams was a liberal arts college; all students must take a certain number of humanities courses. Manuel was taking classes in history and English and, by the time he was referred to me, was well on the way to flunking them. I thought that if I could just teach him to produce passable term papers, I would build the foundation for his college career. I would get him through those humanities classes, or die trying.
The truth was, I failed Manuel. In my zeal to help, I in effect wrote his papers for him. I did not make them suspiciously good, just good enough for him to pass his English and history classes. A lot of students in his position would not have cared. But Manuel, who did such excellent work in mathematics, knew very well when he was otherwise a fraud. He did not tell me this in so many words; I believe he would have thought it disrespectful. Instead, he responded to the situation with mathematical precision. He took an indefinite leave of absence. It was spring term, when all the students would soon be chased away by the pandemic in any case. But I heard nothing from Manuel Elizondo after that, despite my emails inquiring after his health and wellbeing. The Dean of Students also had no information about him. Had he experienced some kind of breakdown?
And now here I was, sitting in front of his email. Here at last was the awaited message from the prodigal student. It was brief. He said that he might be returning to Adams in the fall. If so, would I work with him again on writing? He would be most appreciative.
I wrote back quickly. Yes, I would work with him again. Furthermore, if he wanted to get a head start, I would be happy, in an unofficial capacity, to do some writing with him over the summer. He just had to say the word.
When I sent the message, I sat back in my chair and at least imagined that my blood pressure was lower.
That evening Becky made lasagna. I could not remember if lasagna contains a lot of salt, and realised that I probably should have told my wife about my blood pressure regimen before she bothered cooking. I ate my dinner without saying a word about it, instead mentioning my message exchange with Manuel.
‘Oh dear God, not Manuel again. He was all I heard about for weeks, remember? Arnie, you are not losing your mind again over this kid. I will not allow it.’
I promised her I would not get obsessed about Manuel, should he come back. In response, she grunted, which is what she always did when she did not believe me. She slid the lasagna pan out of the oven. It sizzled and steamed invitingly. A few strands of Becky’s graying hair slid down over one eye. Suddenly I felt a flood of affection for my wife who was, after all, really looking out for me. I remembered about her friend who had breast cancer, and asked about her.
‘It’s all a matter of one day at a time. There is nothing else to say.’
I could not argue with that. I decided not to bring up my own relatively trivial health concerns. Tomorrow would be my turn to cook dinner. I would make something without salt, and casually mention that this was a case of doctor’s orders.
Soon I dove back into full time work. There was a lot to get organised, especially for the Academy. I had to whip up enthusiasm in my team to get them out of their pandemic heads and working in the offices again. We would need a meeting, maybe two, to decide our protocols this year for divvying up the work. Also, to raise the visibility of my department on campus, I was instituting a series of extra-credit seminars on college writing during the academic year. Though it was early, I went ahead and reserved a lecture hall for Sunday afternoons beginning in September and began to plot out a series of lecture topics: the good sentence, the good paragraph, the thesis, the development, the conclusion. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I was going to steady the ship while I hit the ground running.
And I waited to hear back from Manuel Elizondo.
A follow-up visit to my friend the doctor revealed a lowering of my blood pressure. Eileen patted my shoulder and told me that I was on the right track. She would not increase my blood pressure medication. Of course, then there was the question of my cholesterol. But, now that the one issue was almost resolved, we would begin to tackle cholesterol with a statin drug.
Yup, said my father. Here comes another pill.
I was so happy about the blood pressure news that I almost forgot to tell Eileen about the email notification I had just received that morning. At the end of August, right before Convocation, the Brooklyn String Quartet was visiting the campus. They would be performing, among other things, Beethoven’s first quartet, his Opus Eighteen, number one.
‘We are going,’ Eileen proclaimed. Then she began to hum the main theme of the first movement and I joined in. We lasted a few bars. Then somebody in the hall outside the examining room applauded.
Somewhat to my surprise, I was stirred by the sight of students returning to campus for the Academy. I had forgotten that there is something about an army of young people that changes the atmosphere − a scent of sweat and hormones, perhaps, or just a feeling of being surrounded by people who are going to be alive well after you are gone. Most of the students were grinning from ear to ear, clearly thrilled to be liberated once and for all from quarantines and restrictions. Poor things − they were soon to be buried in crash courses in science, mathematics, the humanities and, of course, writing. It only took a week before it seemed as if the students were there all along. Had we really spent all those months talking to kids on computer screens?
One of the Academy students happened to be from Honduras − not Tegucigalpa, but a small town near El Salvador. Her name was Esperanza, a very appropriate name for a hopeful young woman. She reminded me of Manuel − that same earnestness. Esperanza was thinking about becoming a teacher, then returning to her town and starting a school. More power to her.
That night I dreamed that Manuel had invited me to his city. I have never been to Central America, but I managed to add Latin touches to my dream − front doors of houses that opened onto the sidewalk, windows covered by ornate grills, a square with a bright yellow cathedral, children selling knickknacks from carts. Manuel and I were sitting on a bench in the square. His face was blurred; I could not tell if he looked happy or not. I asked him if he was returning to Adams College. He said nothing. From somewhere in the square, somebody played a sad song on a flute. I woke up with my heart pounding, and the conviction that I had to find out what Manuel was going to decide.
I am a strong believer in boundaries, and I never wanted to involve my daughter Leah in my work life. But the next day I called and begged for her help.
Leah was a fluent Spanish speaker, having taken two years after college graduation doing volunteer work in Nicaragua. She parlayed her language ability into a job with a startup, selling electric scooters and bikes to Central and South America. I now asked if she could somehow get a phone number for Manuel and then have a chat with him in his own language about what he intended to do. I did not have much to go on to help her, just a post office box in Tegucigalpa, and the fact that his father ran a car business. Fortunately for me, my daughter both loved a challenge and the idea of doing an end run around a college bureaucracy. She said she would work on it. I expected not to hear from her for quite a while. Instead, she got back to me in little more than an hour. She said she had a nice chat with Manuel. I asked her how she had found him.
‘It wasn’t that hard, Dad. Tegucigalpa is a big city, but I contacted directory assistance and found the number of the car business − there is only one Elizondo Automotive. I got one of the brothers on the phone right away. He gave me a phone number for Manuel. Your dean of students couldn’t have figured this out?’
‘Well, they don’t call college the ivory tower for nothing.’
‘That’s why I’m not an academic. Anyway, Manuel was happy to talk.’
‘I was speaking Spanish and I am almost a peer. That’s why you asked for my help, right?’
‘Well? What did he say?’
‘Dad, did it ever occur to you that he has a real life in Tegucigalpa? His father’s business is good, and Manuel has taken over the accounts. He might own the business someday if he wants to.’
‘I thought there were gangs and murders in Tegucigalpa.’
‘There’s gangs and murders right here. Look, Dad, there are things he gets down there that he can’t get here. He has family there. In some ways, life is slower and kinder down there. People have a certain warmth they don’t have in the States. Adams College must have seemed very cold to him, and I don’t just mean the weather.’
‘But what if he wants to be an engineer?’
‘There are colleges in Tegucigalpa, even if they are not as fancy as Adams.’
I sighed and drummed my fingers on my desk.
‘Leah, why is this guy not communicating with me?’
‘He feels guilty, Dad. You spent hours and hours helping him. Some part of him thinks he is supposed to live the big American success story, but some part of him doesn’t. He’s confused. He doesn’t know what to say to you right now.’
‘Well, does it seem to you like he will ever contact me again?’
‘He swears he will, before the fall term.’
Someone knocked on my door. Probably an Academy Kid.
‘I’ve got to go. I don’t know how to thank you, Leah.’
‘When you visit, take me out to dinner at an expensive restaurant. I was brilliant.’
‘That’s a promise.’
The Summer Academy appeared to be a success. Some of the students did not need our help, others were set on a good writing path quickly, still others would clearly need aid during the year − but that was what we were there for. Near the end of the Academy, a member of my team, Mark, informed me that he was leaving his job to join his girlfriend on the West Coast. This did not come as a shock to me. I liked Mark, but he had never seemed particularly happy at his work and was not, like Marcy, a much sought-after counsellor. I was not worried; I never had trouble finding new people even at the last minute. But when I informed the powers-that-be that I was down one staff member and would be searching for a replacement, I was in turn informed by a terse email that there would be no replacement. The financial wizards in their ivory tower had determined that my department had been overstaffed, and they were eliminating what had been Mark’s line from the budget. Meanwhile, as I had read on a faculty news list a week earlier, there was serious consideration about funding a new business major.
I took the rest of the day off and drove to a state park, where the sounds from a waterfall drowned out my curses. I tried to vent as much as possible, so that I would not carry my rage back to Becky. When she finally did see me, I was home calmly making dinner even though it had been her turn. It was, though low sodium, a minor triumph: baked chicken glazed in a mixture of mustard and honey, rice almondine, lightly steamed green beans. I admit I almost shed a tear at the table as I told her what had happened to my staff.
Becky got up and put her arms around me.
‘Oh well,’ she said. ‘That’s show biz.’
My remaining people were angry and discouraged to hear the news, and Marcy half-seriously offered to picket the administration building. What she did do, I noted, was take down her Abandon Hope sign on her own. In its place she put a wordless poster of a Rocky Mountain scene.
During this time there was, at long last, a message from Manuel Elizondo. He said he was not returning to Adams. He would continue with his father in the auto business. He thanked me for all the pains I had gone through trying to teach him to write well, and wished a good life for me and my daughter, whom he liked very much.
Once I read that message, I told myself that I would never go overboard with a student again, never be so confident that I knew what the right future was for him or her. I felt relief and sadness both, like a defeated soldier returning from a war that made no sense to begin with, ready to settle in and till his own small plot of earth.
Thompson Hall was crowded, not a normal sized audience for chamber music at Adams College. You could feel the electricity in the air, the triumphant sense of return, the self-congratulation, now that all the students were back in residence and the fall semester had begun. The college president and her physician husband were playing the power couple, shaking hands with or hugging members of the administration and faculty. Everywhere there was laughter and shouts of greeting. Eileen and I managed to get seats in the middle of the hall, giving us both a nice view and a good position to take advantage of the acoustics of the hall.
Four empty chairs and four music stands waited onstage. The lights dimmed, and people began to take their seats. The herd noises of the crowd died down. Several people coughed.
The visiting quartet walked onstage to great applause. They bowed as one and sat. They tuned up, then the two violinists and the violist lifted their instruments to their chins; the cellist put his bow to his instrument and sat erect. There was that brief moment one experiences watching a small group of musicians prepare to play, a sharing by the audience of their tension and concentration. Then they launched into the cheerful theme of Beethoven’s first string quartet, Opus Eighteen Number One. It was an effort for me not to hum along with them. I glanced at Eileen. She was smiling as if she had just tasted ice cream. She was wearing an especially striking pashmina shawl with gold thread for the occasion.
Suddenly I felt a pain in my chest.
The pain was not excruciating, just a bit sharp. Perhaps it was simply a gas bubble passing through. Now the pain was getting a bit worse.
Should I break the no medical conversation rule and whisper to my friend that I had chest pains? But what if the chest pains meant nothing? And how could I interrupt this sacred moment, the start of the first concert at Adams in two years? Even just walking out on my own seemed beyond imagining.
Beethoven’s confident, youthful phrases began to fade. The pain suddenly took shape in my mind as a person, some world-weary, benign, fatherly man, perhaps, who spoke to me gently. He said I had lost the struggle for Manuel Elizondo, so let it go. I would always have second-rate status at my institution, so let it go. If I was not having a heart attack now, I would probably have one later, because that was how my father died. So let it go.
I did not have time to ponder this phantom’s advice. The music started coming back to me; the chest pain seemed to level off. I straightened up in my seat. I would now experience the perfection of Beethoven’s Opus Eighteen Number One, sitting with my friend the good physician. I would listen all the way through to the pregnant silence that followed the last chord, even if I had to die trying.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.