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Nolo Contendere  

By Stephen Lewis, Published in Pangolin Papers, Summer, 1998

The tower of the Humanities Building pushed its gray bulk against the black sky. The steel and glass tower sat on the original squat, ground loving brick and mortar structure. From a distance, the tower looked like a crane about to lift itself from the murky shallows to climb with steady wing up into thin atmosphere. Snow fell in an intermittent and laced pattern of white and black. At the very top of the tower, one window cast a square of uncertain light into the night. The snow thickened, and the yellow square disappeared behind the dense white curtain.

Paul's worn shoes slapped against the tile floor of the empty hall outside the lighted office, the sound dying slowly as though reluctant to yield to the enduring silence of the deserted building. Wet snow clung to his hair, and moisture fogged the thick lenses of his glasses. He bumped along the wall like a mole emerging from its burrow into unfamiliar daylight. His thin body shook as with a fever, and his hand trembled on the doorknob. His visit had been more disturbing than usual. It had shocked his system to the marrow, and he did not know how many more jolts he could survive. Yet, he also realized he would continue, that he would return every night to the gleaming white table, and the tube pulsing liquids, red and gray and brown from the inert body.

He sat behind his desk and looked through the window into the black and white convergence of snow and night, his mind recapturing that other night, five years before, when the wet flakes had coated the tracks, and the cold air had hung heavy before Charlotte's uncompromising smile, and then her breath had gathered into one last, frozen farewell. He wondered if she would now join him in his nightly vigils, though she then had refused to share his bed and to suffer his simple subsistence. The train had disappeared into the darkness at the edge of the town, the clatter of the steel wheels engraving her words into his memory, my poor Paul, she had said, I was not born to share your suffering or to endure your purity, the words encoded in his brain and punctuated by the rolling rattle of the wheels over the hard rails.

Dawn served a sliver of sun between lowering gray clouds, and a light breeze promised warmth. Paul rubbed himself awake and peered out of the window, down to the cement walks below to green hemlocks wearing white crowns that would soon yield to the sun. A melting icicle plopped from the overhang of the building onto the sill. He slid off his chair and stretched his legs. He waved his arms in circles to the side and back as though to locate himself in the office, and after a moment, satisfied that he was in his familiar environment, he scurried back to the desk. He removed a small vinyl case from the top drawer and walked down the hall to the men's room. As he walked, he felt in his pocket for the key and found it wrapped in a bill.

It was early, and he knew that the custodian would not be by for another half hour. He slid the key into the lock and pushed the door open. He sought the light switch on the wall to the left, found it, hesitated, and then flicked it on. The sudden white flash bounced off the pale green tiles of the floor and the wall and reached his blinking eyes with a dizzying rush that filled the still room with unwanted images of the night. He squeezed his lids shut until the images disappeared. 

He approached the sink and turned the faucet. He jerked his head back from the cold spurt of rust colored water until his hand sensed warmth, and he rammed the stopper down. He shaved, rinsed his face off, and then released the stopper. He shivered while he took his shirt off to wash his chest and arms with a soggy paper towel. He scrubbed his hands, rubbing them until the skin felt raw with a bar of lava soap, like that used by mechanics to remove grease from their skin. He studied his palms until he realized that the red stains in the center would resist his most vigorous cleansing. He dried himself with the blower, put his shirt back on, and returned to the office.

Joshua Stern's huge body filled the hall. Paul forced a smile, and eased his hands, holding the vinyl case, behind his back. He freed his right hand, and extended it to the department chairman.

 Joshua swallowed Paul's frail hand between his own.

"I was hoping to catch you. I had heard," his blue eyes twinkled, "that you are often up and around with the dawn."

Paul felt a maniacal grin begin to curve the corners of his mouth, and he struggled to frame his lips into a normal expression. What else, he thought, had Josh heard?

Josh motioned Paul into the office. Paul took out his key, opened the lock, and walked to his chair behind the desk. He moved his head in nervous dips and bobs until he assured himself that he had not left any personal articles in view.

"Paul," Josh said after a while, "you know you can't stay here much longer."

Paul stiffened his back against his chair. Not for me, she had said, to suffer your purity while you seek your vision. He relaxed his body and sighed.

"I know, I guess, but I didn't realize it would be so soon." He hesitated and then asked, "Have there been complaints?"

"About you staying here?"

Paul nodded.

"No, about that, not really, though it is an unusual circumstance. When people ask, I just tell them that it's a temporary measure, and I still have enough juice to protect you in that regard. That is I was able to until recently, until this came." He pulled a letter out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Paul.

Paul read it over and then placed it flat on the desk, smoothing its wrinkles.

"But it isn't signed," he said.

Josh shrugged.

"Is it true?"

Paul started to shake his head, but then he nodded. Josh threw up his hands. "This is no mere eccentricity," he said, "to be tolerated because of your brilliance. And since you no longer hold a position at the university, it's not really a case of academic freedom, although it would be a hell of one, if it ever came to that."

Paul leaped to his feet.

"It is certainly not. It is my choice and my life."

Josh grasped Paul's shoulders with his large hands. His eyes sought to hold Paul's.

"Explain it to me, then, tell me why. Maybe I can still do something."

"You would have to come with me one time. Then perhaps you would understand." 

Josh seemed to consider, but then he dropped his glance as though to study the floor.

"Impossible," he said.

Paul smiled. He would have liked to take Josh along, to share his vigil, but he accepted the answer, pleased that he could still recognize his friend's needs, and after all, wasn't acceptance what it was all about, what Charlotte had not been willing to do, to accept?

"It is something I simply must do," he said, "whether you can share it with me or not. Look," he twisted his face in concentration, "it's like this building, this office separated from yours by six floors of empty offices and classrooms, and then your floor, in the squat part of the building, and me perched up here in the empty top. Don't you see, it's just the same as the building, it's form occupying space at a particular time. Neither is constant, and only their intersection should concern us." 

"And that is why you 'study' at Blanchard's?"


Josh rubbed his beard, his eyes closed. He seemed to be seeking an alternative.

"Is there no other way?" he asked.

Paul shook his head.

"Will something good come out of it?"

Paul opened the top desk drawer and handed his manuscript to Josh.

"It is almost finished."

Josh scanned the thin sheaf of pages, and then studied the first one. He scowled, frowned and then smiled.

"You have something special here," he said.

They looked at each other in silence. Josh seemed to be searching to find the right words. He stroked his beard, and then he cleared his throat. He placed the manuscript on the desk in front of Paul.

"I am both proud to claim friendship with its author, and envious of his genius."

"Nonsense!" Paul interrupted. "There's nothing in this you couldn't do and better, if you took the time."

"No, I don't really think so. And I wish I could encourage you to finish it."

Paul picked up the manuscript and turned to the last page, which announced the beginning of his conclusion. He looked up to see that Josh's face was again dark.

"If I were to encourage you," Josh said, "it would be like telling someone to execute a beautiful swan dive off a twenty-story building. It would be done once, and it would be magnificent, but that would be that. All I can do is try to buy you a little more time."

"That is all I ask," Paul replied. "I do not need much."

The man had died from cancer, his large body ravaged by the disease, his skin drawn tight over his thick bones, and bearing fresh scar tissue from a futile operation that had opened him up in a ragged line from his chest to his pelvis. The trocar is slammed into the body, cutting through cold flesh and splintering bone until it finds the stomach. A gray fluid is drawn out and through the tube, flowing smoothly, no troublesome chunks or strands of food, testimony to the liquid diet that has sustained the collapsing bulk of his body. The technician has some trouble locating the heart, but finally does, and sucks out the black blood, which gushes its escape from the poisoned body into the quietly austere sink where Paul adjusts a fitting on the tube.

Nicky's Neapolitan Pizza Parlor was empty except for the owner, a sad faced little man, leaning on the counter at the rear of the store. His forearms, crossed in front of his chest, were covered with white flour that obscured the coiled snake on one arm, and the anchor on the other. When Paul reached the counter, he looked behind the ledge and saw a whole pie missing one slice. He began to say that business must be picking up when his eye caught the half-eaten slice on the small white paper plate next to the old cash register.

"How's it going, Nicky?" he asked.

"Not bad, not good, but I'll make out."

Paul smiled and felt in his pocket for the two quarters between the dollar bill. Nicky cut another slice and tossed it into the oven. Paul started to place the money onto the counter, but Nicky stayed his hand.

"Next time," he said. His grip was surprisingly firm. "You'll pay for this," he paused, "when you're more settled. Next time," he repeated.

Paul sat down at the chipped Formica table near the door. He looked out through the window and watched the cars turning into the new mall across the road.

"What can you do?" Nicky asked from behind the counter, and then he shrugged.

"You still make the best pizza in town."

"Ah, what's the use when only you know about it."

Paul bristled.

"The important thing is that it is the best," he said, "and that you and I know that." His eyes caught Nicky's for a second, and then he shifted his glance to the picture of a younger Nicky, his arm draped around his Rosa, two beaming faces smiling at him from a gilded frame at the corner of a weary counter.

"I received a phone call from Charlotte, yesterday," he said. "I don't know how she found me." Nicky froze with his hand on the handle of the oven, and then he swung his head back toward Paul.

"No kiddin', what she say?"

Paul steadied himself.

"That she wants to see me. That she'll be here tomorrow."

Nicky walked over to Paul and sat down next to him.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

Paul reddened and seized Nicky's arm.

"I'm not sure I want to see her. Not now."

"Of course you do," Nicky began, but then he said, "maybe not right now, huh?"

"No, not now," Paul repeated.

Paul had first seen Mr. Blanchard when the mortician was shoveling snow in front of his establishment. He was a lean and bent man of eighty with a shock of neatly combed white hair, blood red complexion, and sparkling blue eyes. He had been shoveling without pause, his breath coming at even intervals, dotting the air in front of his mouth with a steady flow of frozen vapor puffs. Without a word, Paul had picked up another shovel that was leaning against the door, and together they had cleared the walk.

Mr. Blanchard ushered Paul into his office. Paul saw that the old man had unpleasant news to deliver.

"You've been assisting us now, for three months, wouldn't it be?"

Paul nodded.

"And we've kept our end of the bargain, now haven't we, let you watch, and occasionally perform some minor functions?"

"Yes, just as I wanted," Paul said, and then anticipating the next step, "and I never asked for, nor did you offer, any money for my participation. I have volunteered my services, just as I helped shovel your walk, in exchange for the opportunity to witness."

"Ah yes, to witness," Mr. Blanchard said. "Most people don't realize the art involved in our procedures."

She had been eighteen when she drove off into the black night over rain slicked roads to meet her lover, an older man of business who filled her ears with travelers' tales and she had felt his life's excitement radiate from his body into her emptiness, and that is why, perhaps, she had not held the turn, her black eyes not really seeing here and now but turned inward to her mind's dreams, those dreams, now shut behind and beneath the plastic caps that hold her still eyelids closed. Her flesh colorless except for hands and face which are cunningly restored to a natural bloom, and on her lips, sewn into an eternally seductive pout with a string drawn through her nostrils, a tale carrying red lipstick she would never have worn to meet her married lover.

"Yes, the art," Paul said.

Mr. Blanchard smiled.

"You understand, of course," he said, "that it is not by my choice that I'm after telling you this, but you cannot come here anymore."

Paul had known this moment would come. It was just another bill of acceptance wrung out of his exhaustion.

"It is my life," he said.

"Nonsense," Mr. Blanchard demurred.

"It is but a stage, or if more than that, why do you not consider joining our profession?"

"I will leave instructions," Paul answered slowly, "to be brought here when the time comes."

Mr. Blanchard rose and shook Paul's hand with his own, cold and odorous from years of fluid now ingratiated into the tissues of his skin. 

"Ah, yes, but not for a long, long time. It'll be my son's son who will take care of you.

The night had come hard upon him as he sat one more time in his office. His things were gathered into a neat pile, his vinyl case and clothes in a paper shopping bag, his books in a battered leather briefcase. He would leave his manuscript, now completed, for Josh on the clear desk top. He placed an envelope with the two quarters and the bill inside and addressed to Nicky. Next to it, he put the keys to the office and the lavatory. No note. Words were no longer useful. 

He walked down the stairs and through the halls laden with silence and unfulfilled promise. He paused before one classroom where he thought he could see Josh in an animated pose, his large frame thrust forward as he lectured, his rich voice booming into the emptiness of the room, his students, though, settling their frames into the tablet arm chairs, dry bones raising dust and rattling against the worn wood, and the hollow sockets of their eyes glancing listlessly to the humming clock on the wall above the door, and as the hands on the clock spun with accelerating speed, he moved on into the night.

Paul turned his face up into the rain, removed his glasses, and allowed the warm water to splash over his hot flesh. The outline of the squat lower section of the building with its ridiculous tower, looking almost like a misplaced Gothic spire, blurred into a soft, sensuous shape in the graying air. He rejoiced in the softening of the stark lines of the building, found a brief surge of energy in the transformation of its form, and then he turned his back on the campus.

Nicky's was boarded up. A rough piece of plywood, secured by two-by-fours, covered the glass doors and windows. The first rays of the sun slid over the plywood sheets and sought a crack between the door and the side of the window. Paul peered in and could just discern the blunt oblongs of the coffins, stacked one on top of another, their patient interiors waiting beneath unscrewed lids.

The rain beat down, now in the fullness of its warmth. He could no longer walk without effort. He pitted his thin body against the gusts of wind and bunched his overcoat around him. His brain beat her words into his ears, the familiar melody easing his strain while he dragged his feet over the dripping pavement, the drops splattering the message once before drummed by the steel wheels, Not for me your mad pursuit, she had said, it is not mine to accept your folly.

The rain had coated his glasses, but he could still see Blanchard's sign swinging before him, waving its serpentine invitation like a loosely coiled rope. The old man, his face a splash of white hair and teeth, was talking to a woman whose long black hair cascaded over her bare shoulders, her translucent flesh revealing the red bones, standing hand on hip, just a shadow of black between her legs, gathering the first crimson glow of the morning.

Not for me, she had said, not for me.