Tuesday, January 17, 2017

From the freezer: no recess

Hey. Been busy finalizing a batch of short stories en masse, which means I haven't had much time to update this sucker.

When we were reviewing a few items from my catalog of abortive writing projects last month, I mentioned the possibility that I might post the first dozen or so pages of a stillborn comedic novel/novelette if things ever became stalled here. Well, I believe that time has come.

What follows is the beginning of what was going to be a much longer project. I'm one of millions who has recurring nightmares about going back to high school for some inexplicable reason, so I thought it might be fun to write a story about a scenario where it actually happens. For a while, it was kind of fun.

And then it wasn't. But I still like how it gets out the gate.


It's late July, and I've been thirty-three years old for a little over a month. I can't say thirty-three's an age I never thought I'd live to see; I guess I didn't think I'd get there this soon. When I was seven years old, when seventeen was almost unimaginable, my parents took me to see Back to the Future Part II at the movies. The next weekend we rented the first Back to the Future at the video store and I must have watched it maybe four times before we returned the tape to Video Towne a day late. Marty McFly— a seventeen-year-old who travels through time, shreds on a Gibson guitar, fights bullies on a hoverboard, and has a girlfriend and a driver's license to boot—wasn't precisely a prospective model for my teenage years, but even if he didn't nurture expectations, he did suggest possibilities.

And then I got out of bed, took a shower, popped an overripe zit on the tip of my nose, and shaved my increasingly uncooperative mustache hairs one morning before school and holy shit I was old as Marty McFly, and here I was without a hoverboard, a time machine, a rock band, a girlfriend, or a car. Heavy.

But I did, however, have a PlayStation, and seventeen was when I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy VII—a game about a mercenary named Cloud Strife who, after a brief stint blowing up power plants as an ecoterrorist, travels the world as a veritable superhero fighting robots and aliens with a giant sword and having sex with buxom martial artists. Cloud was twenty-one years old, and he was the coolest person imaginable. Again, it wasn't that I imagined Final Fantasy would be my future, but I saw Cloud foremost as an adult, a dispatch from the twentysomething age bracket to which I'd be admitted in just four years.

And then one bleary April morning I woke up, managed to make it to a toilet stall in the steaming dormitory bathroom before puking, and oh my god I was twenty-one now, I'd been twenty-one, and I'd be turning twenty-two in three months. And then I don't think it was until I was twenty-five or maybe actually twenty-seven that it occurred to me that now Marty McFly and Cloud Strife were basically just kids, and I, who worked a cash register at Whole Foods and a copy machine at an internship, played World of Warcraft, and watched late night stoner cartoons with other stoners (including my Whole Foods bosses) was the real man, the bona fide adult.

Thirty-three is the terminal milestone. Thirty-three is how old Jesus got to be before he pushed his luck too far. It's a strange thought: in one more year, I will be older than Jesus Christ—whom two billion people on this planet agree is the man, if ever there was a man. Next year I will be thirty-four, and Jesus himself would be someone to whom I'd condescend from the heights of seniority. Thirty-three is when it might occur to you that if you were ever going to astonish everyone at the high school dance with your guitar skills, become a cyberpunk mercenary alpha male, or retire from your carpentry career to foment a millenarian cult movement that dominates half the world in your name and memory, you'd have probably done it by thirty-three—or at least have made appreciable progress in that direction. Or you might, for instance, work a nine-to-five job in the development branch of a Washington, DC policy research nonprofit called the Bennett Center, live with your girlfriend Colleen in the Takoma Park house you've rented together for the last two years, and spend most of your evenings researching sensible stock options for a retirement nest egg before turning in for bed before eleven. So far it's been working out for me.

In youth, you look to the future; in old age you dwell on the past. When you're thirty-three you think mostly about the present, and you're not trying to make sense of it so much as make the best of it. Your life is less On the Road than Travels with Charley, and you're perfectly fine with that. At twenty-three, my idea of a good weekend was driving with a cadre of buddies out to a music festival, ingesting enough MDMA to keep us all wide awake and dancing for sixty consecutive hours, having ecstatically profuse and profoundly inane conversations with rolling, tripping, tweaking girls who weren't wearing clothes so much as adorning their bare summertime bodies, and then hoping to god nobody got infected or pregnant. At thirty-three my idea of a good weekend is sleeping in until nine, biking to the donut shop down the street for some coffee and crullers to go, getting back into bed with Colleen to listen to Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me! on NPR, and then spending the afternoon reading a book, watching documentaries on Netflix, or taking on some leisurely house-and-garden project.

And that's pretty much been my Saturday so far. It's about quarter to two; Colleen and I are sitting on the wicker couch on our front porch, watching the joggers and the dog walkers, listening to the cicadas, and eating burritos from the hip little takeout place up the road. From a combination of the muggy Maryland heat and the habanero sauce in which I've doused my burrito, I've become so thirsty that I'm on my second bottle of Magic Hat when my phone buzzes. I don't recognize the number, but the area code is from northern New Jersey—where I grew up, and where my folks still live.

The woman on the phone tells me her name is Hildy Ferraro, and she's calling from the main office at Morris Grove High School. She does not get right to the point. She has a voice that's somehow suggestive of brittle orange-red hair, lurid pink lipstick, and nicotine gum, and she speaks as a woman patently invested in her work. She is proud to tell me about the generous bequest from real estate developer, philanthropist, and former Morris Grove student Arnold Snodgrass, which has allowed the district to invest in the infrastructural and technological improvements that will help the Home of the Lions (the name of Morris Grove’s football team) rise to meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century as it continues to prepare students for their endeavors and successes as adults. (I'm paraphrasing, but I recognize all her tropes from the annual reports I compose at work.) A portion of the sum, she says, has been allotted to contract database management iconoclasts SFiT Solutions, Inc. to reformat, consolidate, and integrate five decades' worth of student records in its award-winning academic database software, Yearbook.

I would like to tell Hildy she doesn’t need to explain SFiT to me—I use their ImburSoft system to keep track of grants and donors at work. (I know that SFiT is short for Simple-Fi, the T stands for Technology, and I guess Fi is maybe short for Fidelity.) But Hildy doesn't make it easy to get a word in. As a woman who spends several hours a day dealing with fretful, furious, or unreasonably idiotic parents over the phone, she aggressively suppresses remarks and questions as a matter of procedure. But eventually, she tells me the reason for her call.

"Patrick, when your permanent record was transferred to Yearbook, it found a discrepancy in your grades. I've already called your mom to let her know, but she gave me your number and asked me to call and tell you directly."

"Okay," I repeat. For the last ten minutes I've said nothing to her but 'okay.' Colleen, meanwhile, has finished her quesadilla and is photographing the amours of the cowbirds on our front lawn.

"It seems Ms. Rauchen made an arithmetical error in adding up your final grade in her precalculus class during your senior year," Hildy says. "She reported your final score as a 63. But when all of your fourth-quarter scores were transferred to Yearbook, the software calculated a final score of 58."

"Okay." I open my third beer. Colleen looks at me over her shoulder, raises her eyebrow and mouths what is it?

I roll my eyes and shake my head.

"This means, Patrick, that you should not have graduated," Hildy goes on. "Actually, what it means is that you haven't graduated."

"Okay," I say, determined to get back to Colleen and my lunch. "Can I call you back?"

Hildy lets me get off the phone without too much more fuss. She doesn't even ask when a good time to call back might be.

"That was my high school," I tell Colleen. "They wanted to talk to me about my permanent record."

She thinks I'm joking, but doesn't ask again.

Hildy said she already spoke to my mother. I get the feeling I should call Mom about this, but I don't. I feel a little guilty about it, as usual. Mom says she wishes she heard from me more often.

By Sunday night I've already forgotten about Hildy's call. Colleen and I have both taken this next week off for a mid-summer staycation. On Monday we go hiking at Great Falls in Virginia. On Tuesday we visit five different Smithsonian museums. Now it's Wednesday, and Colleen is getting her car inspected and renewing her registration. I'm rolling up my sleeves and undertaking a long-overdue deep clean of the kitchen, and have conscripted the help of Erik, who's subletting one of our two spare rooms. Colleen and I both like Erik, and have come to regard him more as our roommate than our tenant. We don't see much of him—he works at CVS and at a bar down the street, so he keeps late and irregular hours, and he spends a lot of nights out clubbing in DC. He's also a bit of a pothead, and Colleen is glad that he's discreet about it and never smokes indoors—not when she's home, anyway. For my part, I'm glad that he sometimes smokes me out when Colleen isn't around. (Getting high eventually got a little boring to me, but I don't mind doing it once a month or so.)

Erik and I have just finished emptying the refrigerator and pantry of unwanted, expired, and/or unaccountable condiment bottles and half-empty cereal boxes, and we're sitting at the table to smoke a joint before restoring some semblance of order to the kitchenware cabinets. He's telling me about the rocky times he's having with his boyfriend Theo, and how he's on the verge of tossing it all and trying to enjoy sleeping with women again when my phone vibrates. I don't recognize the number, but the area code seems vaguely familiar.

The woman on the phone asks if she's speaking to Patrick Roselle. For a moment I fear it's Hildy Ferraro again, but she introduces herself as Joyce Zwingli from the Office of the Registrar at Freeland College, my alma mater. She mentions Hildy Ferraro by name.

"I spoke with her," Joyce Zwingli tells me, "after a disturbing fact in our records was brought to our attention."

One of SFiT's selling points is the interconnectivity of its various systems and databases. If the information pertaining to an item in one database changes in such a way that it would alter that item's status in another database (such as a plummeted credit rating, for instance, or an arrest record), the information is automatically relayed. That is precisely what happened here: SFiT's Yearbook software at Morris Grove told its sister system in the Freeland College Office of the Registrar that I never earned my high school diploma. Joyce Zwingli informs me this is very serious.

"Okay," I tell her, passing the join to Erik.

"In light of the misinformation contained in your application materials, you should not have been eligible for matriculation here at Freeland," she tells me, and goes on to say that the system has automatically notified the relevant parties at the Departments of Admissions, Communications, and Alumni Relations. Following a conference with the Dean of Studies, they have decided that the best way forward—to honor the selectivity on which the College prides itself—is to revoke my diploma. Or, rather, to allow it to be revoked: the SFiT database has already placed a red X in the "Graduated?" field on the student profile of ROSELLE, PATRICK, and Joyce Zwingli and her colleagues have elected not to override it.

"Okay," I tell her. This is starting to sound like something I should probably be concerned about. "But this is all just a mistake. A clerical error."

"Then please get it sorted out. Once we receive notification from Morris Grove, we will take the appropriate steps on our end."

I hang up the phone. Erik has smoked the rest of the joint without me.

"That was my college," I tell him.

He laughs. "Oh, yeah. I hate that. They're always bugging me for donations. I tell them if I had any money, I'd pay off my student loans. And they still keep calling."

That's the end of it. Erik and I stand up and get to work on those cabinets.

On Friday morning, my phone buzzes in my pants pocket. My pants are on the bedroom floor, but I'm in bed with Colleen, and it would be discourteous to her to stop what I'm doing and take the call.

I wait until Colleen has excused herself to the bathroom before checking the phone. It was Don, my boss, and he's left a voicemail asking me to get back to him as soon as I can.

I hit the call button. I do not have a good feeling about this.

Don answers after the first ring. "Patrick. My man. We've got a problem. I just got off the phone with Joyce Zwingli over at Freeland College…"

Now I am taking this very seriously.

Don tells me what HR already told him. HR uses SFiT's all-purpose OnDeck software to manage hiring, scheduling, background checks, and the like. On Thursday they received a procedurally generated notification of a record correction at Freeland College.

"I'm sorry. Believe me, I'm not doing this," Don says. "This is coming from HR. And it's coming from my boss."

I found the Bennett Center job through an Indeed.com listing. Explicitly stated on that listing was the requirement of a bachelor's degree. In the fine print of the contract I signed was a list of options that the Center may reserve should the undersigned individual be found to have relayed misleading or false information during the hiring process, and the Center has chosen to avail itself of those options.

"You can't be serious," I tell Don. "I've been doing this job for four years. You told me I'm next in line for a promotion, for god's sake. Can't you do something?"

"I was overruled. It's out of my hands. I'm sorry."

"So you're firing me?"

"No. No, not necessarily. I'm hearing we can treat this as an unpaid leave of absence if you can get this thing ironed out in the next month or so." He emphasizes the word if.

Colleen returns wearing a yellow towel, and in each of her hands is a postcoital watermelon-mint popsicle. (They are homemade; we got the watermelons at the farmers' market and grew the mint in the little garden plot she and I have been keeping out back.) I tell her to give me a minute as I throw on my robe and head to the back porch to have a chat with Hildy Ferraro.

Hildy tells me she knew she'd be hearing from me again soon. She says it the way she'd speak to a kid who left his jacket in the main office.

I'm told that since I'm a former Morris Grove student in otherwise good standing, and since the situation isn't entirely my own fault (which I'm sure is the closest to a mea culpa I'll ever get from Hildy), she has done some clicking around in Yearbook and the district policy manual on my behalf. It looks like I'm eligible for a post-graduation aptitude exam. All I have to do is take a precalculus test. if I ace it, my final grade could go up by five points—more than enough to bring me up to a passing D, entitling me to my high school diploma from Morris Grove High School, retroactively qualifying me for admittance to and accreditation from Freeland College, and restoring my eligibility for the Bennett Center position at which I've received consistently stellar performance reviews for the last four years.

"I can open up SFit right now and schedule you to take the test at the proctoring center nearest to you, I you'd like," Hildy says.

It is done. I've got an appointment to take the test two weeks from tomorrow. I hang up, immediately regretting that my last words to Hildy were "thank you."

When I come back upstairs and tell Colleen what's going on, she's unbelievably cool about it—as usual—though she's pretty blown away by the stupidity of it all. She reminds me how gentle and supportive I was during those three months when she was between jobs last year, and promises that a two-week unpaid absence on my part while I set the record straight is nothing she'd ever think of sweating.

I'm sitting in a plain, dingy room on the campus of the Seventh-Day Adventist university a few miles from my neighborhood. The wooden chair in which I'm stooped was constructed with posture in mind, not comfort, and I'm the sole occupant of the thirty-odd desks arranged in straight rows. But I'm not alone in the room. A bald man in a tucked-in plaid shirt, probably in his forties, stands at the rostrum in front of the blackboard and watches me closely. His hands are folded and eczematous, and next to them sits a little timer that’s going ticktickticktick.

I’m thinking: how did this happen?

The exam is sixty questions. I have ninety minutes to answer them all. Maybe twenty have already ticked past. That would mean maybe 1200 ticks, and that's the extent of the mathematics I've been competent to perform this morning.

The test is beating me. Badly. What's happening here is a fucking massacre.

I never learned any of this. I have no memory of anyone ever trying to teach it to me.

What do these symbols mean? Where did all these Greek letters come from? Is this some kind of sick joke?

How did this happen?

Didn't I study? Did I study? What have I been doing these last two weeks?

My strategy becomes one of harm reduction. When I don't know a problem or realize it will take at least five minutes to work out, I move on to the next one.

I have skipped a lot of problems thus far.

What are the properties of factorials again? What are the permutations of sine squared? What the hell are triangular numbers?

As I chew on my no. 2 pencil and try to make an educated guess as to how one divides a polynomial by another polynomial, the proctor coughs into a scabrous fist. I don't notice until he says "excuse me," prompting me to look up at him and then back down at my scratch paper to find I've completely lost track of my computations.

I move on to the next problem. It's about natural logarithms. I can't answer it.

The next one is about the area of an octahedron after its side have doubled in length. I scratch down some ideas, second, third, and fourth-guess myself, and move on without answering it.

The next question is about two cars approaching each other on the highway between Dallas and Albuquerque…

Oh god. Is that the bell?

Am I really handing over a blank Scantron sheet?

Holy shit. This is actually happening. I'm losing my job.

The proctor looks over the Scantron sheet. He looks like he's about to say something.

What can I do but run out of the room as fast as I can?

I'll bet Marty McFly would have handled this with more aplomb.

When I return home I smile, very naturally, and tell Colleen I'm pretty confident about how the test went.

While Colleen is at work on Monday I call Joyce Zwingli at Freeland College to inquire about the relevance of a GED to my case. An hour later I receive a call from Gladys Duncalfe of the Freeland College Department of Admissions.

"You have to understand, Patrick, that Morris Grove High School has consistently been in the tenth percentile of public high schools nationwide," she tells me. "A ranking like that carries considerable weight in the consideration of a prospective student here at Freeland."

It just so happens that my first project at the Bennett Center was a study of the gross inequalities inherent in a public school system where district funding is contingent on local affluence, and I don't even have to summon old talking points to tell Joyce how unfair it is to allow a factor like high school rankings to further skew an enrollment system that already favors students from wealthy backgrounds.

Gladys ignores me. "Think what a GED communicates about a prospective student," she says. "Less than five percent of GED holders do not go on to earn an undergraduate degree. Only thirty-three percent even complete the first semester of an undergraduate program. In light of these statistics, you can understand why we here at Freeland College very much prefer a high school diploma."

I remind her that I've already completed the first semester, as well as the seven subsequent semesters, for fuck's sake.

"We here at Freeland College pride ourselves on the selectivity of our enrollment process," she answers. "To lower our standards for one admission would be a disservice to our alumni, the current Freeland community, and future students seeking accreditation from a selective and highly respected liberal arts college."

I tell Gladys she's out of her goddamn mind, and I call her a few things I'm very glad Colleen can't hear me saying. Fortunately for me, none of this is up to Gladys.

A week later, Hildy Ferraro calls me to tell me I flunked the test. I am very grateful to her for not mentioning my score.

"I think we've exhausted our options at this point," she says when I ask if there's anything else that might be done.

"Are you sure?"

"Well. I'm looking at Yearbook now, and I…" She doesn't finish her sentence.

"What?" I ask.

"That can't be right," she says to herself.

"What is it?"

Hildy has found my name in the Yearbook admissions index. The names of students eligible for enrollment in the upcoming academic year are displayed in white letters. The names of students ineligible for enrollment are displayed in red letters.

Her mouse cursor hovers over the name ROSELLE, PATRICK. The letters are white. When she double clicks those letters, a window pops up, requesting she confirm or deny the enrollment of ROSELLE, PATRICK for the upcoming academic year.

I ask Hildy to click "Confirm."

"This can't be right," she repeats.

"It has to be," I remind her.

Keystrokes and mouseclicks on her end. Then: "We might just be in business, Patrick."

Die by the machine, live by the machine. Who is Hildy Ferraro to argue with SFiT Solutions, Inc.?

When I get off the phone with Hildy (thanking her for her help a second time, fuck my life) I open up the fridge and drink a few beers. Colleen gets out of work early today and should be home in maybe an hour. I don't anticipate she will be especially happy about my failing the test, or about my apparently having to go back to—god, I don't even want to say it.

Colleen isn't especially happy, but she is exceptionally understanding. I tell her—truthfully—that I don't expect this to last more than a month, at most. It can't. I'll show up for class. I'll talk to my teacher. I'll talk to anyone who will listen. Once I confront these people as a reasoning and reasonable human being instead of a database item, they'll have to acknowledge how ridiculous this whole thing is, they'll have to give me a passing grade and send me on my way just to spare us all any further embarrassment. But just in case it doesn't happen right away, I cut Colleen a check for my share of the next two months' rent.

It's not going to be a big deal, really. I'll visit on the weekends. I'll call her every day, and we'll Skype every couple of nights. We'll be texting each other all the time, anyway. And we concur that sometimes it's nice to get some relief from the slight but persistent pressures of cohabitation, and this is a fine opportunity to allow some absence to make our hearts grow fonder.

The next day I throw some clothes and supplies in a couple of suitcases, and Colleen drops me off at the Greyhound station. As I board the bus I make up my mind to invest in a rental car, no matter what the cost, for as long as this thing lasts. I'd let Colleen elope with Erik before I set foot on a school bus again in this lifetime.

My mother picks me up at the bus station. ...


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for saying so!

      Whenever I look at it again I sort of want to pick it back up and finish it...but then I think harder about it and chicken out. Following through with the premise would entail putting this guy through the whole academic year. By month six he's going to be so broken down, and the situation is going to have become so normalized, that the story turns into a narrative of a person going to school and taking tests and eating cafeteria food and so on. So THEN what? I DON'T KNOW

  2. Many years after graduating from college I took a college class (for fun) with a bunch of 19 yr old kids and I had a blast. I thought I would hate it but something about it made me feel like pulling all-nighters, drinking absinthe and watching Rohmer's seasons cycle back to back with teens that were *impressed* and *excited* by it instead of the paunchy dudes talking about soccer in my IT job.

    What if Patrick Roselle did not hate his return to HS? I'm not American and as such I have no idea what a big public school is like in this country, but I could see this becoming a story of a guy's renaissance, followed by hubris and then the inevitable fall.

    Anyway, great intro.