Occasionally Ray and I grew tired of the gutted canvases and cracked sticks of our neighborhood pool hall, so we'd head to the Dresden Center for its high-gloss Gandy tables complete with leather pouches and finished oak racks. Sliding up in one of the glass elevators through transparent tubes, we caught blips of outdoorsmen without time for the outdoors mounting the 100 foot climbing wall on the ground floor; pony-tailed stick-figures rounding the 100 meter track on the second floor; business majors carrying rackets in hand and laptops under arms en route to squash courts on the third floor; emeritus cyborgs clunking by with braces clamped over every joint toward the basketball courts on the fourth floor; until hydraulics hissed and we stepped out at the billiard room. We recognized a few of the turtlenecks under sport coats; a $250 million athletic facility takes a while to build, and during the construction they visited our pool hall once in a while, snickering under flickering overhead lights. We knew what they were up to, so when they invited us to play doubles at Dresden, we politely declined. "No thank you. We're just mansioning."
Dresden was president during the university's basketball team's first trip to the NCAA tournament, led by power forward Hephaestus Brown, who was rumored to have made more money as an undergraduate than he later did with the Dallas Mavericks. The football team gained million-dollar gates with games against prominent ACC and Big 10 opponents. The Dresden Center was the university's way of honoring this scholastic success. How humiliating for Dresden, how utterly beneath him it must have been, to trudge up a flight of stairs into the rickety philosophy hall, to brush shoulders with intellectuals, congregate with students in a classroom with crumbling plaster walls lined with base heaters, just to eek out a living.
Dresden read from Kafka's "Three Parables" on the first day of class, his voice that of a porn line operator or eulogist. I wondered how this man could bring himself to the gray gutter of Kafka. This plump little man with thinned white hair swept to one side in a coy comb-over, leather elbows on tweed coats, brown sock ties dangling over the curve of his paunch, blue stretch nylons peeking between the hem of Dockers and rubbery orthopedic contraptions--this man expected me to believe that he knew this life. The artist is willing to die for it and throw it all away, stand up against the establishment and then burn a life's work, not manage the money-machine of public university, then call in a professorship to pick up the change to pay for those imported Venetian blinds he had his eye on.
For my term paper I wrote on Sartre's atheism. It was my best work yet, an account of a man who stood against prevailing French bourgeoisie and pointed toward Nietzsche's uberman in the form of the working man, as only the underclasses truly stand alone, outside God, which was nothing more than a sterile idol used by the middle classes as a focal point of social networking. The men who toil without promise or hope--those are the true existentialists, I wrote, not stale old academics who dissect and paste. The paper was returned covered in red ink. Next to my accomplished phrase "Sartre stepped out from the impenetrable canopy of deity" Dresden wrote, "I appreciate these touches, but would appreciate a clear understanding of the text even more." In the novella on the backsides of the pages he wrote, "Your writing is good, if sometimes precious, but in no way demonstrates the least analytical skill."
So it was on. Dresden marked everything I loathed about university, the upper middle-class conspiracy to wrap frigid talons around thinkers until no thought remained, only theory, the reduction of revolutionaries to no more importance than, say, Joseph Campbell. These people always remained above the works, above the thinkers, translating passion to algebra. Our guidebooks were their tour books.
I knew them by their shoes. The running shoes of the recently tenured; the spit-shined oxfords of the newly hired; and those thick-heeled things worn by Dresden. Every day before class I dropped by the restroom and removed my knit cap, to repair whatever damage done to my pompadour, tugging at smashed bangs in front of the mirror. Dresden was always in one of the stalls. Beneath the steel side panel I saw those shoes piled with trousers. For whatever reason, I began to detail his shitting. My emissions were tragic, marred by the middleman's baby laxative and a diet of Ramen noodles. Dresden always passed three solid turds, judging by the trademark plop-plop-plop. Flush, a short sigh, trousers and boxers ascended, then the scratch of the lock sliding open, at which point I busied myself washing my hands. Dresden walked out, nodded to me, and went off to class.
I thought how immaculate these droppings must be, like baseballs spun through pitching machines at batting cages. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Plop-plop-plop. So clean that the man didn't even need toilet paper. What a regular, healthy diet such consistency must require. This early-afternoon regularity required a hearty, steady breakfast. Toast with lightly-spread butter and preserves, oats and milk. The slightest deviation in diet might result in a squeal or flutter from the sphincter. I imagined the turds swirling around the basin when flushed like Asian meditation balls orbiting one another in my hand.
As spring approached the hair situation was more stable, although the occasional rain shower necessitated reconstruction of reanimated gel, and there was always the possibility that I had something stuck in my teeth, so my visits to the restroom remained constant. Of course, there was also Dresden, and my compulsion to bear witness.
Clank. Clank. Clankclankclank. Dresden pushed then jiggled the toilet lever. No gush of water. I caught my wet, broad smile in the mirror. I looked over my shoulder to the stall. Dresden's feet, now in Birkenstocks, faced the toilet. Clankclankclank. I walked in front of the stall door. A curt groan. He'd come out and say "You might want to use another stall" and I'd say "Oh no, this one is just fine, thanks." In his eye there would be a certain expanse not there before, and from that point on he would know that I saw his shit. Quaint little things floating like fishing bobs, the sort of thing that inspires whistling.
The scratch of the lock.
I looked to the tile so to jerk my head up when he opened the stall, for dramatic effect, to make him all the more self-conscious. My eyes fell on his feet. A mallet of a big toe. The nail was thick, yellow, striated. Layers of cuticle were busted, exposing more coats underneath. A purple crescent spread across the base of the nail, under a knot of fine black hairs stretching from below the joint. The toe widened, I suppose as Dresden stepped forward. Pale pus squished through to the tip, bubbling before settling into a thin paste.
"Sorry, I think you'd better use another stall."
I jerked my head up, Dresden's voice pulling me back to him.
"Yeah. OK. Thanks."
Joe Jarvis lives in the general filth of Edgewater, Chicago. He feels a certain peace while playing badminton and is anchor on the Columbia College Chicago intramural team. He may be contacted: firstname.lastname@example.org.