TIPTOE STANCE by ATTILA PÉTER
THERE IS A ROADBLOCK up ahead guarded by two state troopers. I glance at my watch as I downshift: eleven sharp. Arms akimbo, they wait for me to halt before the older one ducks under the barrier with a loud grunt and lumbers over to my car. He seems pretty fat for a trooper. You would think that the police have weight requirements for these guys. I take one last puff at my cigarette, flick the butt away and greet him as amiably as I can. The campus is closed, he informs me, beads of sweat trickling down his clean-shaven cheeks; he needs me to turn back. Closed?! I cry out as if in pain. What on earth for? On account of Governor Wallace’s visit, he says and wipes his forehead. I grab my jacket from the passenger seat, go through the pockets and hand him my identification card. I have a class to teach in less than ten minutes, I say in a pleading voice. He squints at the card in the glaring midday sun and gives it back with a hint of a sneer, saying I may not be doing any teaching today. My students are bound to be late if they decide to show up at all, he goes on. Every student has to go to the Northington Campus for identification. The governor’s the main attraction today; he’d sure take the day off if he were me. I tell him that’s not an option. He shrugs and signals his fellow trooper to remove the barrier, his porcine face now a wide smirk. I wish them both a good day as they wave me on, and I light up, cursing under my breath. Wallace’s publicity stunt had completely slipped my mind. I saw him on Meet the Press a while back when he pledged to stand in the door when those two N**** students were to enroll. Evidently that’s today. Will he really be standing in the door, though? And which door? It sure sounds like a dopey promise to make.
On my way to Montgomery to pick up Pat, I always turn the radio on. None of the stations in the area plays any jazz, it’s mostly stuff for teenyboppers, but at least it’s a distraction, taking my mind off my divorce, thinking of which is my main preoccupation whenever I drive over to Barbara’s place. The divorce and reminiscing about our marriage, but the two go hand in hand, I suppose. And Pat having been born. I oftentimes wonder what my life would be like without her even though there is no point: I have no life without her even if we only spend about half a day together on alternate weekends. It’s been like that for the past three years now, but I still haven’t really gotten used to it. While I don’t think I alone am to blame for the collapse of my marriage, it is plain that my failing as a husband resulted in my turning into a father who is not around. Sometimes I have a guilty conscience because of that, which is why I tend to be a bit awkward when spending time with Pat. I doubt that she senses anything, but it’s bad enough to think that I’m failing as a dad too. But who could ever claim that he’s doing everything right? You can be loving, caring, devoted, but it’s only in hindsight that you can accurately assess yourself as a father. How did your child turn out? Being a parent also reminds me of my parents and how their lives were snuffed out in a blink. That may be another reason for my unease around my own daughter. God, not that song again! I twist the dial when that Japanese fellow starts crooning. This tune is ubiquitous and, worse still, sentimental to the point of inducing nausea, even though I can’t understand a single word. Frazer had quite a tantrum the other day, beefing about this song and how it might even make it to the top of the charts. He was furious, which I found amusing at first: why would an associate professor whose chosen field was metaphysics give a damn about something so trivial? Then I remembered that he’d lost his brother at Pearl Harbor.
‘‘Not all philosophers have been atheists surely?’’
‘‘No, most certainly not. In fact, some of them were deeply religious. Pascal, Kierkegaard... But many of them were atheists, and an awful lot of them agnostic. This is what I love most about philosophy. Its ... how shall I put it? Its multifarious nature. Also, that’s what keeps it alive.’’
They all gape at me while I wait for a comment, but there is none forthcoming; they just stand there in complete silence, yet each with an expression that speaks volumes. They’re probably wondering what they have done to be subjected to the ramblings of this madman. The white fellow even appears to have forgotten about the cigarette in his mouth, and now his eyes follow the bit of ash that breaks off, tumbles through the air and lands on the top of his carefully polished shoe. I have killed this conversation all right, and I decide it’s best to put them out of their misery, so I point at my empty glass with a grin and walk off. All of a sudden, I feel famished, and I make a beeline for the buffet, which is still littered with food. I am helping myself to some shrimp skewers and hushpuppies, surveying the table for some desserts at the same time, quite oblivious to the people around me, when someone calls out my name. I turn around, somewhat startled.
‘‘All by yourself, Professor?’’ Lorraine asks with a smile that reveals her pearl-white teeth.
‘‘Ms. ... er,’’ I mumble, stealthily giving her orange sheath dress the once-over.
‘‘Coleman. But please call me Lorraine.’’