THE DAY OF my car bombing starts out typically enough, but probably all car-bombing days do. The element of surprise is a given. Note to self: start using public transit. Better yet, walk for the exercise. Avoid death by detonation and get healthy, possibly also avoiding longer-term, incremental dangers, if that’s even a consideration now.
That morning I park my car beside a gigantic SUV belonging to a diminutive colleague named Ron Brewer in the Small Hall parking lot. At this very moment Ron is hoisting a gigantic (see a pattern here?) hockey bag onto his shoulder like a body he’s disposing of after a long night spent effacing all traces of the crime with bleach. Ron’s and my bio-rhythms are synced in this single respect, that we always seem to arrive and depart at the same times every day. Out of my car window I shout, “Ron! Leave your junk in the trunk! Haha! Just kidding.”
“You know what?” Ron says. “I think I will!” And he tosses his bag back through the still-open hatchback. Go figure.
Ron Brewer is Vice-President of Research at our university, a husky little guy of about 5’5” who favours jacquard-pattern sweaters and wears his hair in a slick razor-like shark’s fin on top, easily giving him an extra inch and a half in height. Ron plays intramural sports and talks hockey and football incessantly. Given that he’s been seconded from Rehabilitative Medicine—his ‘wheelhouse’, as he likes to call it, has something to do with catheters and the elderly—I think he’s compensating.
Case in point. During the winter months, Ron is constantly seen lugging that hockey bag around the corridors of his little fiefdom on the third floor of Small Hall. The pretext is that leaving it in his SUV risks getting it stolen. Everybody solemnly nods their heads at this, but I don’t buy it. Is somebody really going to jimmy open a hatchback in broad daylight in that parking lot everybody stares out at from their office windows all day? I confronted Ron about this once and said I had a theory that the hockey bag was filled with those little air pillows Amazon uses for packing. I thought Ron would find this funny, but instead of laughing he got really huffy and said, “You should try lugging this around.” At first I was like “whaa… ?” but reflected later that maybe it wasn’t the physical weight Ron was complaining about, but the burden of pretense. Maybe what he was really saying was, You should try lugging this around, this burden of the false self. Maybe I was right about the air pillows?
So Ron has reason not to like me—to which I say, get in line.
This morning, however, we’ve made a breakthrough. Ron and I enter Small Hall together. Assorted small talk. We split up at the elevators, since Ron is headed to the third floor, minus the air pillows or murdered lover, whichever. And me? I’m headed to the basement where my own little unit, the Academic Integrity Office, is located. The Integrity Office operates under the auspices of the Vice-President of Student Programs, whose offices are also in the basement because—student programs. We’re not a priority.
But that’s okay. Down here in the Integrity Office we make our own fun. It’s called student discipline. More on that presently.
And, yes, I know what you’re thinking. Small Hall? Really? Small Hall is peopled not by actual academics, as in people engaged in teaching and research, but by university administrators, a group often collectively identified with the building itself, as in Small Hall is downloading budget cuts to the teaching faculties yet again, yadda, yadda, yadda. Without going into the full inanity of the building’s provenance, let’s just say it’s named for the university’s founding president, one William Midgley Small (the middle moniker, I believe, his mother’s maiden name—how’s that for a maternal legacy?). Like many other such buildings at many other such universities located under the big skies of North America’s Great Plains Region, Small Hall is built in the monolithic style of mid-century brutalist architecture, but on an incongruously small scale. It looks like a turtle with elephantiasis, though some bitter people in the humanities call it the Tumour.
I love walking through Student Programs saying good morning to the staff. Everyone seems to like me—at least they say good morning back. There’s this one guy, though, a program advisor named Mason, who’s been around forever and who obviously has his doubts. Mason thinks he has my number. Even if he’s wrong, a thing like that can still freak me out. Mason links all his emails to his Goodreads page. Very lame, though I have to say, the guy can write a memo, very concise. His shtick at meetings is to step on everyone else’s ideas by saying, “We already tried that. It didn’t work.” I’m pretty sure Mason wants my job. Suffice it to say, I despise Mason, not for the meetings thing, because otherwise I’d be the one doing that, with less credibility, or even the job thing—he’s a non-academic, he only has a BA!—but the Goodreads thing. So he works at a university and he reads. Who cares if he only gave Wuthering Heights two and a half stars?
The Integrity Office proper consists solely of me and my wonderful executive assistant Chelsea. I love Chelsea, but it’s not what you think.
You see, I’m an imposter. Not a literal one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the real deal. I’m a bona fide academic, Professor Myles George, PhD. I produce scholarly publications that other people cite in their scholarly publications that other people cite in theirs and so on and so forth et al. Or at least I used to. And no, I’m not talking about some kind of needy Imposter Syndrome. I’d know if I were a psychosomatic imposter, though there’s probably a fine line. I’m real enough on paper—in almost every other respect, not so much. I’m more an imposter of the spirit. In the most essential sense, I’m a complete fake. Thanks to Chelsea, this is no more evident with me than it would be with someone less obviously unsuited for the job. Chelsea takes good care of me. Right now she’s preparing for one of our periodic performance reviews. Fingers crossed.
Okay, so that’s out of the way. We need never go there again (but we will, right?).
As soon as I enter my office, the long downhill slide begins. It’s a very slight gradient—this is the ivory tower after all—but steep enough for things to get incrementally worse as the day gradually approaches its flaming roadrunner-and-coyote-style finale. It’s mostly meetings, one after another ad infinitum until mid-afternoon when I attend a fancy wine reception at the Physical Plant Building where they’re opening a spectacular new Materials Management Office. Small Hall spends any money not reserved for ‘competitive’ administrative salaries on major office renovations, and I mean major—gutting, shifting bearing walls, sometimes relocating entire administrative units across campus and then moving them back when the novelty wears off, only to start the cycle all over again. We support each other in this by attending each other’s openings, kind of like art galleries minus the passion and business sense. Your modern university is a vast sea of austerity dotted with tiny green isles of plenty. I get a pretty good buzz-on at the reception.
There’s just one more thing before the fireworks begin. At day’s end, I cap it off with student interviews. These are never easy. In keeping with my official duties, they involve cheating. The students, not me.
They can really bring you down, some of these kids. It sounds cruel to say this, but the desperation just makes me want to punish them more. There’s a reason we like Batman villains. If you’re going to break the rules, own it, wear it—ideally, get away with it or at least go down showing a complete lack of compunction. Because if you’re sitting across from me down here in the Integrity Office, that’s all you’ve got left. Things can only get worse. For you, not me.
I get a good bunch today. First up, I metaphorically drop a baby grand piano on a kid who got excused from his mid-terms on the basis of an organ transplant. The case is documented with official letterhead stolen from his mother, a receptionist in the office of a leading kidney specialist. I’m not even checking for a scar. This isn’t Cory’s first offence, so he’s out. He seems okay with it, though. Says he has other fish to fry.
I also have a strange, drawn-out interview with an intense young lady named Arianna who cut-and-pasted an entire first-year English essay on The Handmaid’s Tale from, as we say down here, ‘various sources’. Arianna seems completely unfazed when I tell her she’ll be losing course credit, intent only on getting me to acknowledge what a clever job she did. It is, indeed, a seamless piece of work. It’s her first time, but this girl’s a natural. I expect to see Arianna down here again for exactly the same offence—it’s obviously not just about the grades with her—in which case the penalty will be much harsher. She breaks down just as she’s getting up to leave. Chelsea, bless her heart, will sit with Arianna by the elevators and talk to her in a low kindly voice until she pulls herself together. It’s a good system.
Now for the big bang. Chelsea pokes her head in to let me know interviews are over for the day. I sit in my office a little while longer answering emails, then stand at my cellar window gazing up at the fleeting, disembodied legs of random passersby. I’m thinking about Valentina behind the bar at the Lucky Duck. I expect to be sitting at my usual place by the draft taps in about twenty minutes time, give or take. Valentina specializes in a particularly cruel brand of insult comedy. All of us regulars/submissives love it. Then I put on my coat, grab my weathered Mr. Chips satchel and make my exit, pausing near the elevators to make sure the cut-and-paste queen isn’t still there crying her eyes out. All clear!