by Reagan Pettigrew
I lived off the corner of Tustin Ave. I was a student at a nearby university. I did not like to spend time with students. But instead, I was someone who very much liked routines. Tuesdays, I walked to a local park where I took my lunch. Thursdays I would buy groceries, and Friday, that day, was my early day for dry cleaning. I had two shirts and three slacks to be pressed by ten am, as I had planned a dinner with my mother. The dry cleaner was a small shop, with two racks, and a polite man who stood behind a white countertop. He never liked my questions: How do you clean the clothes? How exactly does one dry clean a shirt? What exactly was even dry cleaning? He never responded to me. The man would sit in silence, I’d pay, he’d nod, and I would leave.
One day, after leaving the dry cleaners, I noticed a professor of mine by the name of Maximus Dolarhyde. He gingerly walked into a bar two hours before my class with him. I knew it was him, because he had a particular pair of wide-brimmed black spectacles, a purple smoking jacket, and in his hand, he always carried a hidden sword cane made of Mozambique blackwood that his father apparently had earned in the war. I knew all of this about the cane, because, one time he held the class hostage for over an hour to discuss the importance of legacy, and passing things down.
Professor Dolarhyde walked into the bar, a simply named, Fling Cocktail. It was a local establishment riddled with drunks, crackheads, down-and-out cougars, and musicians who had lost the plot on cocaine in Hollywood, and somehow ended up in Orange County. The professor went to the door, bounced his cane into the air and the bar swallowed him whole, almost like he never existed. Normally, I never engage in American dive bars or the banter that goes on inside them. But after placing my clothes inside the car, I was reluctant to go home. All I could do was walk up to the door, minus the exuberance of Professor Dolarhyde, and go in.
Upon entering, my eyes took a moment to adjust, as the whole room was pitch black. The first thing that came into view, was the bar itself, as it had been illuminated by neon rope lighting. Second, were the blood-red booths that reflected the lighting, and thirdly, a black box stage, set in the middle of the room with bronze railings on all sides. Lastly, Professor Dolarhyde sat opposite the bartender.
The barman approached me, “What’ll it be?” I stood frozen, as I did not want my professor to notice me, so quickly I sat down and ordered a vodka soda. The bartender poured from the well and handed me the drink with a perfectly placed lime atop its rim. The drink itself was mostly vodka with a splash of soda, so much so, that it hit me in the back of the throat and caused me to cough. Still, I tried to not draw attention to myself, but every once and a while I’d glance over at my professor.
Maximus Dolarhyde would sip his drink, smacking his lips, open a book he had, read for thirty seconds, close the book, take another drink, and exhale. It was like a ritual. He performed this continuation of sequences five times over the span of ten minutes, while I watched. Finally, however, on the sixth, he caught me staring and asked,” Are you gonna just sit there, or have a drink with me.”
I responded that I was sorry for staring. But Dolarhyde was easygoing and waved me over, telling me not to be worried, just to come and sit down.
I stood up and took the seat to his left, and upon sitting he exclaimed,” McCormick, Right?” unfortunately he was wrong, as I told him my actual name was Castell. “ A Welshman, that’s a fine thing,” he said. I was aghast, as I had not been home in Swansea in five years, and thought I had all but lost my accent. The Professor rejoiced and raised his glass and began to sing,
“I TOOK A STROLL ON A OLD LONG WALK OF A DAY I AY- I AY.
I MET A LITTLE GIRL AND WE STOPPED TO TALK OF A FINE SOFT DAY I-AY.”
The song was “Galway Girl.” It was Irish and not even of the same country, but close enough. Still, it reminded me of home, the rain, and the soft blow of the wind coming from the shore. In the harbor, there was a small pub called The White Rose. They had a bakery, and occasionally the owners would make ginger teacakes. I enjoyed them with tea and whisky, and always on cold winter nights.
The Professor seemed to mean well. But reminiscing about home made me feel terrible, as I hadn’t felt like myself since being stateside. And so, I told the professor, I’d prefer not to speak about it, and if he wouldn’t mind I’d like to change the subject. The professor inhaled and exhaled slowly, in deep contemplation, before downing the rest of his drink.
“I understand this,” he said. Some of us just don’t belong anywhere.” To this, I felt even worse off, but he said it in a way that sounded like he understood. So, I asked him what he meant. He ignored me and motioned over to the bartender, asking him poor two more whiskies. He then told me was from Cornwall and came over 40 years ago to make something of himself. I told him I understood, and he looked at me like he knew that I knew what I was talking about.
I took a hit of my drink. Suddenly, I felt like someone else maybe knew what it was like to be me. I found myself forgetting that he was my teacher and told him things that I never spoke of to anyone. I told him about my routines, and how I felt that I was my mother’s only connection to Wales, as my Father worked very hard for us but was hardly ever around. I told him how I had gotten into photographing the mountains in the Sierra Nevadas, but somehow, had lost the taste for it. I told him how I didn’t think I belonged in the states or even back home anymore. All the while, the professor just sat there and listened, and listened, until finally, I lost steam, and we both sat quietly.
“You’ve stopped living boy, that’s your problem, and once you stop living, it’s damn hard. It’s like iron when it cools.” I was utterly drained, and so I told him that I didn’t know he was English. To this, he responded,” Nobody does.”
Professor Dolarhyde grew quiet and sat up straight against the bar table, and asked me if I had read The Divine Comedy. He became very serious.
I didn’t understand his somber attitude, or why he would ask me about that. Professor Dolarhyde flipped over the book he kept with him, revealing it was his first copy of The Divine Comedy. He told me, he thought it was a question that could determine everything you need to know about a person. I smiled and nodded, but he could see that I didn’t understand his meaning.
“I came here forty years ago with that book. I’d read a few pages and would think on it, hoping it might guide me through. I was eighteen and had just left my family to start a new life. I took a job as a deckhand on a Merchant Marine ship. Went to every port between New York and Florida.”
Professor Dolarhyde began to tell me his life story in a sporadic manner. Jumping forwards from 1965 when he came over, to 1966 when he jumped ship in New York, and hitchhiked across the country. He talked about his experiences with Mescaline, and what he called his moments when,” God Touched me.” The professor’s hands moved through the air, re-creating the moments, claiming he almost died at sea during a hurricane, off the coast of Martinique. He said that inside his jacket he always kept the book safely wrapped in the sheets of a trash bag. He told me how the world bloomed inside him, and it came out in poems and music. His eyes blazed and his face was red like a cherry, as he huffed and laughed. Animating it all was his face; the lines of his age began to fill in, and his youth returned to him.
I was astounded by his stories and asked the professor: “What next?” Because he knew something, something I needed to hear, something that no one else could tell me. He knew my story. He understood the steps that I would take. I grew so excited that my brain was caught by fever and forgot where I was, who he was, and I gripped him by the arm.
“Finally! Finally, you know. You know about life. Tell me, tell me everything!” He looked into me with a far-off gaze.
“I remember I went to Antarctica. And it was so cold. I wore three jackets lined with bull fur, but it did nothing and the cold crept in. I remember it distinctly because I had just gotten to Purgatory in the book, the last circle of hell, just before Dante finds his way out and into Heaven.” He took another swig of his drink and turned on his chair, leaning closer to me, “The Devil was stuck in the ice, and in his teeth were Judas, and I knew that could never be me.”
He continued, “I must have read that chapter ten times in the five weeks that we were out there… one morning I was coiling hemp rope. It was frozen, so we had to get the cooks to boil scalding water and pour small amounts at a time on the rope to keep it from snapping in half. If we poured too much, the water would turn to mist and snow before it touched the coil. And when the cook was pouring the ship rocked, and he accidentally poured some on my hands. And I didn’t feel anything. Not the excitement of the Northern Lights at night, nor fear of the flowing white abyss around me. It was all dull now. And off in the distance I saw the moonrise before me, and behind me, the sun was setting just like Dante saw when he was in Hell. And I knew in my heart it was time to leave.“
The professor began to fade out and mumble under his breath,” Maybe that’s why?”
But I didn’t understand, what did he mean? “That’s Why” I sat and waited, because how he said it, it wasn’t energy, it wasn’t inspiration, it was defeat. And that wasn’t the man I saw moments before. He was someone else now. I sat and hoped that his silence was the answer; maybe he was trying to teach me something.
But when he broke, he said,” I don’t know kid. I never made it through the book.” He held it in his hands,” My dreams were just dreams.” Professor Dolarhyde seemed shaken by our conversation, almost like he had awakened to something long forgotten.” I’d only gotten halfway through,” he said, before picking up his drink and swishing it down. He seemed like an old man now, as he had lost the vigor he held before. Now he sat in front of me shyly with his elbows pointing out in either direction, his neck crooked down into his jacket. He sat there quietly, for five minutes murmuring to himself, and I felt terrible. Something inside my stomach told me I had gone too far and hurt him in some way. It all built up inside me, and my brain felt numb like my head was no longer attached to my body and I was in a trance.
”Professor?” I asked. “Why did you come to America?” I had to know what he was searching for. Was it a woman, did he once love someone? Was it an adventure?
Professor Dolarhyde looked up, and then down at the shelves of alcohol on the bar, and then told me that he didn’t remember. The professor opened the book and scanned through it, and all throughout the book I saw hundreds of dog-eared pages. He shot back and forth in the book frantically,” I can’t remember where I was,” he said.
Professor Dolarhyde became manic, and breezed through the pages, revealing whole lines underlined with notes and drawings and journals. He tugged at them, tearing their edges.
“Professor,” I said.”We really should be going, class is soon.” The alarm on my phone went off, causing me to jump and quickly scamper to shut it down. I tried to pull him away, I even brought over the barman and paid for his tab–thinking maybe it was money that was the issue and that this was an act.
“Professor,” I barked when he firmly grasped ahold of my hand.
“I never made it all the way through,” he said. The professor’s eyes were wild with excitement, “Look,” he said, shoving the book into my hands. I told him I had to go, as he was frightening me, but he wouldn’t listen. “Look!” he said forcing the book into my chest.
In his hands he held a section of the book between his forefinger and his thumb, a chunk of the book, that was completely untouched. ”You see,” he said. “I never made it through.” The professor grabbed the book from my hands and stabbed a pen into the back page. “Yes, Yes,” he shrieked like a man possessed. Mumbling to himself, crossing out words until finally, he held it up and gave it to me again.
And I didn’t understand the words. I couldn’t read them- it was as if they were written in tongues. It was horrible, because he seemed like he had gained something, a part of himself that he had lost, and I wanted to understand. But as he looked up into my eyes, he could see that I did not. He stared at me, at first smiling, but slowly the grin went away.
“It’s alright, it doesn’t matter,” he said. The professor turned away and picked up his cane off the table, leaving his book in my hands.
“Professor,” I shouted after him.” I don’t understand!”
He stopped before the door and said, “The fires gone boy.” He walked forward and pushed open the door. A bright light engulfed him on the other side. I squinted as I put my hand to my face to block the light. But when my hand came back down, the professor was gone-almost as if he never existed.
Reagan Hale Pettigrew found his love for reading and writing while in the military. After his discharge, he began a new life on the road that took him from America to Europe. Suicide In Slow Motion is his breakout novel.
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