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Grad Student Detective

by Jason A. Feingold

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

It was a misty night in College City. The haze drifted over the airport tarmac like the miasmic droning of a history professor. Thesis: cold air. Antithesis: warm ground. Synthesis: haze.

I walked from the commuter jet, from which I had just deplaned, toward the terminal with my coat over my arm and my hat in my hand. I wished I could light a cigarette, but the Surgeon General and the airport authority both frowned upon it.

Marcel Proust writes about four in the morning, but he never spent that hour in an airport, the lucky bastard. Of course, Proust would never have taken anything so déclassé as a red-eye flight. There were no commuter jets to Combray. I should know.

My name is Sam Dupinski, and I’m a graduate student. Literature is my game.

I was tired. Half of me was still back at the conference on Motifs of Alienation in Mid-Twentieth Century Free-Verse Poetry. I somnambulated — I had learned that word while studying for the Graduate Record Exams — around College City’s tiny airport, hoping to find a cup of coffee to keep myself awake long enough to get home to my tiny studio apartment.

The only place that was open was the airport bar. A weary-looking man sat over the counter, giving the place a bad atmosphere along with the aviation knick-knacks nailed to the walls and an incongruous painting of a sad clown hanging above the top-shelf rotgut. His swizzle sticks were arranged in front of him like the sails on a windmill, and his lemon wedges were arranged above it, reassembled to look like the sun. His ashtray was overflowing and smouldering. The drink in his hand clearly doubled as the albatross around his neck.

I sat down at the other end of the bar.

The bartender was sitting on a low stool, his head leaning against the cash register, looking underpaid. He shot me a dirty, weary look from one half-open eye.

“Coffee,” I ordered. “Black.”

He moved slowly toward the coffee pot, poured a cup and managed with a great effort of will to set it in front of me without falling asleep. “Seven-fifty,” he demanded through a yawn.

“For coffee? What is this, Starbucks?”

“Airport, man,” the bartender said, his voice trailing off as he started to fall asleep.

I tossed down some bills. Each one was dear to me in its own, special way, and I mourned their passing from this life to the next.

“Are napkins extra?” I asked as he scooped up my money as if each bill were etched in lead.

He put a cocktail napkin on the bar along with my meager change and a heap of resentment. He then returned to his meditation by the cash register, a commercial Siddhartha awaiting enlightenment from the money tree.

I sipped at my coffee experimentally. It was as old and stale and as warm as Master of Fine Arts students are to each other in a creative writing seminar. I pulled a face and groped around the pockets of my raincoat for a cigarette. All I found was an empty pack.

The drunk at the other end of the bar suddenly turned into someone I wanted to befriend.

“Hey, Mac,” I said across the bar. “Got a cigarette?” He turned toward me and without a word reached slowly into his breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette case. He tossed it to me. Badly. I fetched it deftly from the air and snapped it open. I chucked the case back to him.

I started to light the cigarette, but at the last second I noticed I was about to light the filter end. I turned it over and tried again but, inexplicably, there was a filter on the other end as well. “There’s something wrong with this one,” I said.

“No, there isn’t,” the drunk slurred.

“Are you kidding? It’s got two filters.”

“They’re all like that.”

“How do you smoke it?”

“I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.” He gestured toward the ashtray where his attempts to smoke lay burning themselves out. I looked closely at the cigarette. The brand name “Derry Dha” was written at the base of each filter. I’d never heard of them, but I’d seen a lot weirder stuff being smoked in College City. There was tobacco in the middle, between the filters. It was spooky, like the time I found underwear in my wash that I had no recollection of owning, buying, or wearing.

After a little thought, I pinched one of the filters off at random. Pleased with myself, I lit up and shot a smug look at the drunk.

“That’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of the thing,” he complained. “You have to follow the dictates of the form.” As if to prove his point, he tried to light a Derry Dha from the middle and failed. “You have no appreciation of the aesthetic. You’re like a child ripping open Christmas presents without even looking at the wrapping your parents stayed up all night to do. Don’t you understand? The tobacco’s not important. It’s the form that should concern you.”

He gestured toward his empty glass. The bartender moved to make him another drink with the speed and enthusiasm of a man headed for a high colonic. Then he squirted something on the counter and started wiping it with a dirty rag. It looked like he’d squirted the cleaning fluid out of his chest. I shook my head to clear it.

“Form is, to a degree, indicative of content,” I replied, puffing at the Derry Dha and forcing down more antique coffee. “If form makes the content of whatever thing we’re examining inaccessible, then there can’t be any content. It’s just an enigma.”

I waved the cigarette around. “The basic idea of ‘cigarette’ was so altered that it, in fact, was not a cigarette when you handed it to me. It only became a cigarette when I altered its form to look like and function like a cigarette.”

“You kids today!” the drunk shouted, turning a shade more pink than the usual alcoholic’s flush. “You’re all goddamned Platonists!” He downed his drink and broke the glass over the bar. “I’m going to cut you until your ‘form’ looks like hamburger!”

I took out my pocket-edition MLA style manual and held it between me and the drunk. I knew it would hide me as well as it hides anything that’s obvious, but the obfuscation wouldn’t last for long. I thought that if I could get my hands on those lemon wedges, I could shoot the juice into his eyes or on a paper cut or something.

Before I had time to put any plan into effect, the drunk stopped, dropped his broken glass and brought his hand up to his head, which had been struck by medium-sized rock. He looked at it for a second and then fell into a confused heap on the floor. I turned to the bartender in time to see him begin to snore.

If it hadn’t been the bartender, then who had intervened?

I looked toward the entrance of the bar. A mime stood just outside the doorway, leaning on some imaginary ledge, with a sling of David dangling from his hand. He waved at me once, clicked his tongue loudly, and then let his arm oscillate back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.

“Thanks,” I said, putting my style guide back into the pocket of my raincoat. I always knew it would come in handy for something. When I looked up again, the mime was gone.

“What the hell just happened?” I said to no one in particular.

“Hey,” the barman said. “You killed my customer! He was tipping!”

I looked closely at the bellicose drunk. His chest was still rising and falling rhythmically. “He’s still breathing,” I offered. “Besides, it wasn’t me. It was a mime.”

“Mime? What mime?”

“I don’t know. Out there somewhere.”

“You need to go,” the barman said. “I don’t want any trouble. Especially with mimes.”

Neither did I, so I left, in no way sad about abandoning my stale coffee.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Jason A. Feingold

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