Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Skeptic

The Skeptic
by CWK

             Over the last year I’ve gotten 100’s of requests for some explanation of how my friendship with Dr. Calvin started. How did I come to be his biographer? the Plato to his Socrates? the chronicler of his uncanny adventures? I’ve read articles that even assert that I am the real genius: that I am the one who is responsible for unraveling so many mysteries, and solving a slew of remarkable crimes. Nope. The truth is pretty much as it seems. I was a student of Calvin’s who became his assistant, and then his biographer.
            If I do deserve credit – and I deserve very little – it is for being in the right place at the right time, and for being the voice to compliment Calvin’s silent heroics. Given his naturally reserved demeanor, I doubt he would have ever gone public with his talents. The world may thank me for introducing it to Calvin; Calvin has never thanked me for introducing him to the world, and I doubt he ever will.
            The first time I had any sense of Calvin’s startling ability to solve mysteries is, to me, still a bit of a mystery. It happened slowly. It might have happened more quickly, but before I’d ever met Calvin, I’d hear rumors of him. My sister, who is 5 years older, attended Whitfield College before me, and had taken 3 classes with Calvin. She and her friends would often sit around and tell horror stories about him. I was told that Calvin was cold, rude, and harsh with his students. I was warned that he didn’t like students wasting his time, that he liked to make girls cry, and that he enjoyed failing the weak. To cap it all off, during her sophomore year, my sister got a B in his Classics class. She’d never made a B in her life. This caused a minor family crisis, and several tear filled tirades from my sister and my mom.
            Then, when I actually did meet Calvin, it seemed the rumors were confirmed. I enrolled in Whitfield in the Fall of 2003. I dreaded the first day of class with Calvin, and tried – to no avail – to switch to another section. Alas, all the other sections with Dr. Morrissey – the most popular prof at Whitfield – were full. I’ll never forget sitting in the back of Western Civ on that first day, and cringing in my seat as Calvin insulted our intellect and dedication. I vowed that day that I would avoid eye contact with him, never ask a question in class, and run from any class he was teaching. 
            I still remember many of his one liners from that semester:
            “Don’t forget – if you do raise your hand – I’m a lot smarter than you.”
             —  his response to almost any request for clarification, “Do you even know what a (fill in the blank) is?!”
            — he repeated this one almost weekly, “What year were you born Mr. (insert name)? No. Impossible. Someone would have taught you to read by now.”
            — after we told him we spent our Spring Break, “getting a tan,” – “We are turning over world history to you?! We won’t need contemporary historians because you fainéant’s won’t do anything worth writing about.”
            — after our class turned in a set of uninspired papers on Napoleon, “How could you not find something – anything! – interesting in the life of Napoleon? He’s one of the most interesting men in history. I fell asleep reading your papers last night. And, it’s a good thing they don’t give the guillotine for bad grammar – our class would be empty.”
            Still, even after coming in with such prejudice, and even after a semester of having my manhood questioned – still I ended up gravitating to Calvin.
            Why, you ask? Basically, I somehow got past his thorny exterior and realized I had a lot to learn from this guy. He seemed to have a higher capacity of seeing. He perceived things, and knew things, more clearly than anyone I had ever known. As a communicator, he was usually abrasive, and often stolid and dry, ‘put-you-to-sleep’ boring. However, if you got past the insults and boredom, and listened – just listened – then you were taken into a world of sharp truth. As a teacher, he was below average; as a thinker, he was riveting. Listening to him was like listening to elevator music; he was esoteric, and monotone; he often muttered. Listening to his ideas was like being in the front row of a Metallica concert. It was the intellectual equivalent of watching a fireworks display on the fourth of July.
            The other thing is, after I thought it over, I realized his critiques, while cutting, were usually right on the money. I looked up fainéant after he called me one, and decided he was right. After he wrote, “Your writing is hard to follow. Bad grammar. You write like a chimpanzee in possession of a scrabble set,” on my first paper, I started paying attention to my grammar – and realized I wrote like a chimpanzee in possession of a scrabble set.
            Thus, I ended my first semester at Whitfield with a D in Western Civ, and admirer of a man almost no one admired.
            This led me, despite Calvin’s repeated discouragement and obvious annoyance, to hang out at his office. This led to me taking every class he taught, and working extra hard on every paper I submitted to him. My hard work led, I’m pretty sure, to him asking me to be his teaching aid. I say “pretty sure” because I still don’t know why he picked me.
            So, in December 2005, I found myself sitting in Calvin’s office, grading papers for his Intro to Greek class. His office was located on the second floor of the Whitfield library, nearly buried behind the school archives. Earlier that semester the administration of Whitfield had asked Calvin, along with all the other profs, to move offices from the library to the brand new faculty office building. All the other profs moved. All of them, that is, except Calvin. His explanation was simply, “I don’t want to move.” So, he was the sole faculty member with an office in the library. And, the library had used all the old offices space around his office to store the school archives. This made it difficult to reach his office. You had to navigate in and out of moveable bookshelves to get there. Still, for some reason, he would not part company with this office. The consensus among the rest of the faculty was that he wanted to make it even more difficult for students to find him. I didn’t buy this explanation. I figured, at the time, that he liked being in the library because of his romantic attachment to books. I was, I came to find out later, partly right. This episode illustrated for me, early in my dealings with Calvin, that he had some strange ways: ways which were often misunderstood: ways which often had a deeper meaning.
            Anyway, being in Calvin’s office on this day, at this particular time, led to the first instance of him including me in a ‘case.’ Now, I’d seen Calvin perform near miracles now and then in class. And, by this point, I knew – though no one else did – that he’d been involved in exposing the lurid crimes of a high profile politician. Yet, this is the first time I truly grasped what a gift he had. This is the first time he went from being my professor to my mentor, and the first time I realized he might be able to use my help.
            I was tired that day. I had just fought off a bout of pneumonia. My parents had announced, the week before, that they were getting a divorce. My girlfriend of 3 years had broken up with me that Fall. That wound was still fresh. It was, looking back, the hardest period of my whole life. That is another story.
            I remember, after about 4 hours of grading, getting lost in Sigmas and Alphas, and gazing out the window. Snow was falling in large clumsy chunks. According to the local news, a blizzard was coming. But just now the snow fell at a lazy and friendly pace.


            The cold outside made me more tired. It wasn’t so much that I was physically tired. Rather, I was weary. I was spent. Somewhere, I hoped, there were reserves of strength. But, I couldn’t at this moment access them. They were just out of reach, beyond my finger tips.
            Just then, when that startling realization hit me – just then, I had a visitor.
            Bam! Bam! Bam! – someone knocked ridiculously loudly on the Calvin’s door, and began fiddling with the lock.
             “Doctor Calvin, it’s me! Open the door! It’s a life and death matter!”
            I detected an English accent
            “Calvin’s not in,” I answered.
            “I know you are in there!”
            The knocking continued, more loudly, more rudely.
            Bam! Bam! Bam!
            I heard shouts, “She finally confessed! I need to see you. Open this door!”
            I quickly realized that whoever was on the other side of that door was determined to carry on a conversation with me – closed door be damned.
            I listened to a few more garbled sentences, and finally lost patience.
            To make a long story short, after about 20 minutes of talking through the door, I ended up opening it. Maybe I opened the door out of compassion. How could I say not to someone in such need? Maybe I opened the door because I was too exhausted to argue. In any case, I opened the door.
            Before me stood a middle-aged man with horn rimmed glasses. Into every life, now and then, there walks a person who inspires immediate queasiness. This man was such a person. You feel, in such moments – whether right or wrong – that this person is not to be trusted. You want to run away. The feeling of uneasiness in my gut was so profound that I really did want to run away. However, I was cornered. He stood in the door, and there was no escape.
                My first impression of my visitor went quickly from annoyance to bewilderment. He looked kinda funny. He was wearing a fedora, and the super fashionable clothes of a much younger man. His pants and shirt were way too tight. He looked a mix between Indiana Jones and Mick Jagger. The image before me, taken in all together, was almost silly. To say the least, the man didn’t fit the clothes; to say the most, the clothes didn’t fit the man.
            My guest looked at me skeptically – hoping, I’m pretty sure, that I would suddenly morph into Calvin. He paced, and muttered something about a letter. I invited him to have a seat and wait.  
            “Where’s Calvin?” he demanded.
            “Doctor Calvin will be here in about 30 minutes,” I answered.
            He replied, “Are you sure this is still his office? I thought they moved faculty offices over to the admin building. I went over there, but everyone is gone because of the blizzard. I found a student, and he told me that Calvin’s office is in the school archives.”
            “Yeah, this is still his office,” I answered.
            He responded, “Serves him right. He is, himself, after all, a school archive.”
            Then, he chuckled wildly.
            Not really eager to engage in conversation with a wisecracking Indiana Jagger, I told him I was busy, and sat back down to grading.
            I managed to accomplish a minute’s work before he broke in, “How do you know if your wife is trustworthy? Faithful?”
            I shrugged, and tried to ignore him. I looked down at the papers before me, and composed one of those, “Can’t-talk-right-now-because-I-am-concentrating-on-this…” looks.
            But, on and on he went – louder and longer – as if he hoped, by sheer volume, to overpower me into listening to him. After about 10 minutes of disconnected trivia, he asked once again, “How do you know if you can trust your wife?”
            “I don’t know,” I answered, “I guess you marry a woman you trust, and then you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing.”
            My visitor relaxed. He sat down on top of a stack of books, and muttered, “Brilliant. That was my mistake! I married her. I should have known.”
            For the next 20 minutes I learned a great deal I didn’t want to know about my acquaintance. His name was Dr. Willis Murdock. He was a Professor of Sociology at Jackson State. He spoke with an English accent, but judging from his story, he was from New Jersey. He had come to Dr. Calvin about a year before on the brink of divorce because his wife was, he said, “chronically unfaithful.”
            Calvin had saved their marriage then, and convinced him that his fears were all in his head. But now, his old suspicions were revived. And now, he had proof.
            As he spoke, Murdock’s face turned red; his eyes narrowed; his voice grew more and more gentle – to the point he was nearly whispering, and I had difficulty hearing him. He spoke with less and less passion, but more and more fury. He struck me as an angry man with very good – maybe even contrived – manners.
            Murdock continued to ramble on, and to tell the truth, he started driving me a little crazy. His words were piling up more quickly than the snow outside. The real blizzard was in the office. Soon, I found myself in the difficult position of having to calm a man on the edge of insanity who was, slowly, driving me to insanity.
            “How can you be so sure? Sure that your wife...” – I asked.          
            I couldn’t finish the sentence. I couldn’t say the words, “…had an affair.”
            Murdock finished for me, “Had an affair? She confessed. Even told me some of the details.”
            “What’s next? Are you going to…” – again, I couldn’t finish the sentence.
            Again, Murdock finished for me, “Get a divorce? Of course. I can’t even look at her now. My lawyer is drawing up the divorce papers this week. I just hope it doesn’t get ugly. I hope we can part gracefully. She’s hurt me. Nearly killed me. But I just want it to be over. I don’t bear her any animosity. I feel sorry for her, actually.”
            This last speech made me soften a little bit toward my intruder. He seemed to have a genuinely good heart.
            He went on, “Calvin will probably try and talk me out of the divorce. He’ll probably still try and defend her. But, I have proof.”     
            “Proof?” I asked. Suddenly, a morbid curiosity overtook me.
            Murdock rifled through his pocket, produced a letter, and proclaimed sorrowfully, “I found this hidden in her purse.”
            Then, Murdock handed me the letter. I held it like a condemned man holds a death sentence. My hand felt corrupted. I didn’t want to hold this letter. I didn’t want to look at it. But, like I said, a morbid curiosity had hold of me by now. So, I sat my pile of papers aside, and sat the letter out before me on the desk. The letter, written in neat female handwriting, read as follows:
            My dearest. I miss you so much. How long has it been since we had a few quiet moments alone? We have both taken on too much, and I know our love has suffered. Then, there is ‘you know who.’ I can’t stand it any longer. I wish I could tell you how I felt, how I really felt, but I am afraid of what may happen. I wish I could break free from all this and run away with you – far from all these pressures, far away from ‘you know who.’ Can’t we just run away? Do you know how much I miss you? I often think about how it might be if all this was in the open, and…

            The letter ended, apparently unfinished. I had visions in my mind of Murdock’s wife writing this love letter behind his back, and thinking he’d never see it.
            After reading this, a couple of sensations came over me. The first was that – if I had any doubt before – now I had none: this guy’s wife was cheating. Second, I concluded that I’d been too hard on Murdock. It was understandable that a man dealing with such trauma would be so hysterical, and so talkative. I even started to admire him. He was, after all, hoping to end things graciously.  
            We talked for another 15 or 20 minutes. He told me that her infidelity had begun soon after their marriage. He suspected she’d had as many as 5 affairs. He knew, without doubt, that she had affairs two of his colleagues at Jackson U, and even one of his former students. He couldn’t prove all the previous affairs, but she’d finally slipped up with this letter. This confirmed all his prior suspicions. She’d confessed to him the details of the latest tryst: the guys name was Oscar; he was an accountant; she’d met him at the Mall, and been seduced by him at Starbucks. As we talked, a feeling of injustice swelled in my chest. This man had been betrayed in about the deepest way imaginable. He was a sad sight. He looked so pitiful, so wounded, and alone. 
            “To this day I can’t see a Starbucks coffee cup without breaking down. I can’t even drink coffee,” he lamented, near tears.
            I noted an empty Starbucks mug behind my pile of papers, just out of his sight. I was thankful he hadn’t seen it. With great stealth, I slid it further out of sight.
            I couldn’t help saying, “Yes, it seems there has seems settled...”
            “What is settled?” a shrill voice in the still open door quipped loudly, and with disdain.
            At last! Calvin had come to my rescue.
            Calvin barreled in the door, and repeated more loudly, “What? What, Mr. Kendall? What, exactly, is settled?”
            Murdock and I were both shocked by the disdain in Calvin’s voice. In unison we rose, and fearfully took a step back.
            “My wife is cheating on me,” Dr. Murdock asserted timidly.
            Calvin cast him a disbelieving glance, and – I swear – giggled. He then went about his business. He started unloading a huge pile of papers from his bag.
            “I need these graded by Wednesday – Wednesday, no later,” he said to me.
            I stuttered, “No problem Dr. Calvin.”
            Calvin seemed oblivious to Murdock. He spoke to me as if Murdock wasn’t in the room. He went over standards for grading, and told me that several students would probably fail. He asked my how my grading for the day was going. He asked me if I’d heard the latest weather report.
            Finally, he looked around the room, and said, “Have you seen my coffee mug?”
            I shook my head, and bit my lip, trying to silently signal to Calvin that coffee was a subject which should not be broached.
            Calvin continued to ignore Murdock as he turned over stacks of papers searching for his mug. Meanwhile, I continued to slide the mug further out of sight.
            Murdock, however, was determined not to be ignored.
            He spoke up, “I tried to tell you this a year ago. Remember?! No one believed me then – not even you. Now I have proof. She has been unfaithful.”
            Calvin turned slowly, like a gunslinger getting ready to draw his pistol, and sized Murdock up. I could feel tension in the room. Murdock seemed surprised by Calvin's lack of empathy, and communicated as much by casting a pained glance. Calvin shot him a cold stare, and I sensed that each man was, in his own way, trying to intimidate the other: trying to assert dominance. Murdock picked up on this unspoken dare, and responded by straightening his posture and squinting slightly. The two men eye's locked in an awful gaze. Calvin proceeded to stare Murdock down -- again, like a gunslinger. The look in his eyes spoke volumes, "You don't really wanta do this kid. Just throw your gun down."
             Murdock was the first to look away. As soon as he did, Calvin began speaking. He spoke with swift severity -- so quickly that it was hard to completely follow him. Yet, his speech was clear, and pronounced, punctuated with staccato rhythm. To this day I have a hard time remembering exactly what Calvin said. What I remember more is the tone of what he said. The tone was of absolute authority.
            Then, Calvin asked Murdock series of questions in rapid fire. Most were way above my level of comprehension – questions about logical fallacies, syllogisms, and epistemology.
            Then, the conversation drifted into a wide variety of subjects. Most did not seem relevant to me, or Murdock. Calvin talked skeptically of the skeptical philosophy of Rene Descartes, then the Enlightenment. Finally, I don’t know how, Calvin ended up talking about the work of a foreign director named Kieslowski.
            But the conversation always came back to Murdock’s all consuming theme: his wife’s infidelity.
            “I know she cheated,” Murdock said repeatedly, probably 20 times.
            To which Calvin always responded, “Haven’t you heard anything I said? A man can’t build knowledge on skepticism.”
            The conversation finally built to a crescendo when Murdock shouted, “She has betrayed my trust forever.”
            “No she hasn’t,” Calvin answered, with a surprising amount of certainty.
            I say surprising. It was surprising to me. I knew Murdock’s wife really had cheated. That seemed to me already established. Calvin, however, had not yet grasped this fact. I assumed, given my respect for his intellect, that he simply wasn’t paying attention to what Murdock was saying. He was too interested, I figured, in intellectual mind trivia to care much whether this man’s wife was truly unfaithful.
            “Yes, she has,” Murdock argued, with just as much certainty, “she most certainly has. I can’t believe she would do this...”
             Murdock trailed off. A moment later he collapsed onto Calvin’s couch – which was, actually, more a book shelf than a couch. He leaned back, and sighed, clearly exasperated with Calvin. Tears came to his eyes. I hoped that now, at last, Calvin would actually listen to his story and show him a drop or two of compassion.
            But Calvin showed no mercy, “Oh! Please! She hasn’t done anything.”
            Murdock glared, and said sternly, “This is all her fault.”
            Calvin answered, even more sternly, “It is all your fault.”
            Murdock replied, “Really? My fault? Well, I found a letter in her purse, and she even confessed.”
            And then, for the first time, real sadness came onto Calvin’s face. I thought this sadness was a mark that Murdock had finally gotten through to him. Finally convinced him. I was wrong.
            Calvin’s grief turned to a snarl, “Why were you snooping in her purse? And you say she confessed?”
            Murdock ignored the questions, and continued his tirade, “This letter proves everything. It’s proven. It’s certain. Of course, I always knew she could not be trusted...”
            Again, Calving showed no mercy, “You always knew no such thing. You always assumed it. There is a difference.”
            Murdock hung his head, but then looked up triumphantly, and began his plea again, “Perhaps I have seemed neurotic in the past. I admit it, but this time there is no denying it!”
            “Yes, there is. I deny it,” Calvin inserted, rudely.
            Murdock leapt to his feet, nearly bowled me over, and grabbed the letter. He was hysterical now – “I knew you would defend her. Well, then, defend this!” he shouted.
            He thrust the letter into Calvin’s hand, and with a look of bizarre glee, added commentary as Calvin read – “And, after I found the letter, she confessed everything,”   
            Calvin bit his lip, and said, “Shhh! Let me read.”
            Murdock however, continued his commentary, “I found the letter almost two weeks ago. I confronted her, and she confessed. If I am wrong, then fine. Show me. I am, as you know, a man of analytical bent, and scholarship. I deal in reason, and proof, and the proof is clear. I am afraid there is no denying the proof. I can’t be wrong.Didn’t you hear me? She has confessed!”
             The grief returned to Calvin’s face. He refolded the letter, and let it fall from his hand back onto the desk.
            Finally! I exclaimed to myself. Finally, he gets it. He’s is going to see he is mistaken, and ease up on this poor guy.
            After a long pause, Calvin said, “Confessed? Really? Yes, this is certainly bad. Worse than I feared. Confessed, the whole thing, huh?”
            Murdock nodded.
            Calvin looked as if he’d seen a ghost – and not the good kind. Not the kind of ghost that is an old relative that brings you a comforting message. But the bad kind. The kind that you see on Ghost Hunters.
            Murdock took Calvin’s stark demeanor as a sign he’d won the day. He seemed to actually gloat for a few moments. Then, he composed himself in victory, and said, humbly, “Now, if I were wrong, I would want someone...”
            Calvin interrupted, this time with biting sarcasm, bordering on rage, “Then, let me just go on the record and say it, as clearly and strongly as I can. You are wrong! You are mistaken! You are totally, completely, utterly wrong. You are wrong, wrong, wrong!”
            “What? How?” Murdock responded, “It is not just that I have some unsubstantiated suspicions, like last time. I have a letter to prove it.”
            Calvin walked over to the window. He lit his pipe. He peered out the window at the snow, which was now piling up on the window sill. The blizzard was starting. I began to wonder if he would ever engage Murdock again. 5 minutes went by. Seriously. 5 minutes of silence. I know, because I was watching the clock. 5 minutes of total silence. It seemed like 5 hours.
            I’m sure you have experienced awkward pauses before. This was different. It was awkward, sure. But it was purposefully awkward. Like Calvin turned up the awkward meter as far as he could, and then ripped the knob off so there was no going back to normalcy.
            Murdock looked at me for an answer. I looked over at Calvin. Then, I decided something had to be done – if not for Murdock’s sake, for mine. I couldn’t take it anymore. Remember, I was still recovering from pneumonia, and a double broken heart, during this time. I found that I had a hard time with any kind of confrontation during this whole period, and for most of the next year. Having been so shattered physically and emotionally, I just didn’t have the strength for it. That’s another story, but for the purpose of this story, you need to know that, at some point, I was ready to get out of that office even if I had to climb out the window. 
            So, I tried to ease toward the door. I nodded to Murdock, and whispered to Calvin, “Dr. C, maybe I should come back… I mean… you’re busy with…”
            “Busy, but never hurried,” Calvin said softly, “No. Stay. I’ll only be a minute  with Professor Murdock.”
            This interchange is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first time I called Calvin “Dr. C.” Second, I’m pretty sure that Calvin asked me to stay because he wanted me to stay. I know that sounds redundant. It’s not. I think Calvin realized that I could help him in some small way. Maybe he knew he needed a Robin to his Batman. Maybe he wanted to share his gifts with the world, but felt too distant from the world. Maybe he saw his own gifts, but also his weaknesses in communicating them – like a Mozart who can compose, but can’t write, music. Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he never planned for me to chronicle his adventures, or be his literary sidekick. He certainly hates all the attention. That’s the thing about Calvin – he always has a plan, but he hardly ever shares it with anyone.
            The important thing to know is – I did stay. I sat and listened to the rest of a remarkable interchange, and from that day forward Calvin included me in just about every adventure that came to his door step.


            After asking me to stay, Calvin turned on Murdock and stared him down.
            “Murdock,” he began, “how many times must we go through this? When will you start using words in their plain and honest meaning? You are so reckless with words. They’ll sue you for libel one day. Consider your constant and inaccurate use of the word ‘prove.’ You stated that you have a letter, and that this letter ‘proves’…
             Calvin let the word ‘proves’ ring through the office.
            – “…proves your wife to be unfaithful,” he continued, “however, at the most, this letter is evidence, not proof.”
            “What’s the difference?” Murdock responded, asking the question I wanted to ask.
            “The difference,” Calvin answered, “is in the other word that you often butcher – the word ‘know.’ You don’t ‘know’ your wife to be unfaithful. You simply assume it at this point – you assume it on insufficient evidence. Unless, of course, you can tell me that you actually saw her with this man. Even then I would require at least one more witness before I would consider the thing proven. Have you caught her in adultery, and if so, is there another witness?”
            “No, I have not caught her, but...” Murdock seemed to be on the verge of a profound idea.
            Calvin interrupted, “Therefore, your letter is not ‘proof’ of unfaithfulness on your wife’s part; it is evidence in a case that is not yet complete. It might be evidence of infidelity. It might be evidence of a million other things. Perhaps even… fidelity.”
            “Fidelity?!” I said, and nearly hyperventilated.
            Calvin shot me a disapproving look.
            “Fidelity?!” Murdock seconded me.
            Calvin nodded, “The point is, you have evidence, but you do not yet have sufficient evidence upon which to base your conclusions. So, all that you have produced so far is mere evidence. There is proof, however, of something else – a case already solved.”
            “Of what?” Murdock demanded.
            “Proof you are an incurable skeptic,” responded Calvin “you social scientists are a bizarre race. You exalt man to the level of gods. Then, in a trick worthy of Houdini, you cast a cloud of arrogant skepticism over the face of the whole earth. You believe that all have reached the glory of God, but somehow fallen short of the glory of man. All, that is, except for yourselves. Heaven help you, Murdock.”
            “Heaven help me?” Murdock answered, obviously not sensing his need for Heaven’s, or even Calvin’s, help.
            “Yes, you!” Calvin shot back, “But, there may be no helping the situation.”
            Murdock was, for the first time, actually moved a little with a sense of some kind of plight.
            He stammered, “No helping her? Is that what you mean – that if she has cheated on me, then there is no chance that I will take her back?”
            Calvin answered, softening his tone a bit, “I am worried about her taking you back. I thought we had made a great deal of progress last year when you first came to me. Because she is so faithful to you, she has been willing to put up with your cruel doubting year after year, despite the toil it has taken on her. You have backslid into the same old skepticism, but now, now... I believe she is tired of it.”
            “What do you mean?” Murdock said, sitting down in despair. He took his hat off and began to fidget with it anxiously.
            “You said she confessed,” Calvin answered, “if she has confessed, then things are dark indeed.”
            Murdock replied, “Yes. Last week. She confessed the whole thing. His name is Oscar. He is an accountant. They have been seeing each other for 5 years. They met at the Lakeshore Mall. The Mall, of all places...”
            Murdock trailed off, overcome by this last sad fact.
            Calvin just laughed, and said, “Can you be serious, man!?”
            At this point, Murdock finally had enough, and I could hardly blame him. He headed toward the door. He took his hat and placed it on his head. He glared momentarily at Calvin, cast an angry look at me, and turned about face.
            Calvin walked with an air of cordiality toward the door, and blocked Murdock’s departure. I surveyed both men and was struck by the resounding difference in their apparel. Murdock was dressed richly in the clothes of a younger man. Calvin was dressed poorly in the clothes of an older man; very likely, he had gotten his clothes from an older man: his grandfather, or perhaps a thrift store.
            There was the old corduroy jacket that he always wore; the brown shoes that needed polishing; the pants worn around the bottoms; the plain tie from a bygone era. The one thing about him that had the air of youth was his eyes. They were bright, curious, and lively, though now surrounded with deep lines of care. Yet, even now, they shone, and darted about as if searching for something, some distant hope.
            The two men before me were a study in contrasts in the way they chose their clothes, or in Calvin’s case, the way he didn’t choose, but rather fit into, his rags. You might say that this jacket, these pants, these shoes, this tie, had chosen him. Murdock, on the other hand, had chosen his clothes with meticulous care with a view of appearing a certain way. Therefore, they didn’t fit him. I found the whole thing amusing, in a macabre sort of way.
            I was brought back to the gravity of the situation by surveying the face of Murdock, who was not amused, but furious. His eyes were not lively, but empty and dead, even cold. Cold, I assumed in that moment, from being so betrayed by his wife, and now so ignored by Calvin.
            Murdock took another step toward the door, and pronounced, “I won’t be insulted like this. I am not the kind of man who sits around and listen to lectures on lexicography. I wrote a book on the sociology of lexicography! I’ve studied it thoroughly. I’ve given my share of lectures on the subject!”
            Calvin stood aside to let his guest past.
            “Perhaps,” he replied, “too many lectures. If you must leave though, I have a final request.”
            “I doubt I can honor it,” Murdock answered.
            Calvin went on, untrammeled, “When you see her, I hope you will apologize to your wife properly. First, you will need to lighten her up. Why not watch something comical? How about The Office. Oscar’s character – you know, the accountant – is one of my favorite. He’s hilarious. Then, get her a gift.  I would suggest an accounting text book. If she hopes to keep inventing a fictional character, she should know something about his occupation. On second thought, that gift is a little dry. I know. Why not give her a gift certificate to the mall? She spends a lot of time at the mall, if I remember correctly. That was another thing you two always fought over. But, this time you are in the wrong. So, make it a large certificate to... what is her favorite store?”
            Murdock stood, frozen for a moment.
            “You’re right,” he finally said, “that is an odd assortment of details.”
            I had not yet caught onto Calvin’s logic.
            Finally, he illuminated, “If Clarrisa wanted to make up a fictional affair, she could not be less creative. Oscar, the accountant? He’s not a real man. He’s a character on a fictional TV show.”
            “What about the Mall?” asked Murdock.
            Calvin smiled broadly, “How often does Clarissa go to the Mall?”
            “Frequently, weekly even,” Murdock responded.
            “Again,” Calvin answered, “too obvious a choice. I would almost say she was toying with you with such a description, but it’s much bleaker. She’s not toying with you. I fear she just doesn’t care. Her made up affair is not even romantic. She threw together a few anonymous details when you confronted her this last time, and it was part desperation, part exhaustion. that came up with such a bland description of such a fictional character.”
            Murdock was stunned, “But why? Why would she admit to having an affair if she didn’t?”
            Calvin answered, “But you proved that she did. You knew it. You have known it for years. In your eyes she has always been guilty. What hope was there for her to defend her innocence? There is such a thing as an innocent person who so continually has a noose around their neck that they finally give up and opt for hanging. I suppose she finally confessed, though falsely, so that she might have a little peace. It is what you wanted, after all. She gave you what you wanted – no, what you had to have. That’s why I feel the situation is so desperate. She is so tired of your suspicion that she has satisfied it with a lie to make you happy.”
            Murdock took his hat off and let it drop to the ground. He let out a sigh of grief and lamented, “I have been a fool, a fool. What have I done?”
            “Is there any hope,” Murdock asked, “is there any hope for this mess?”
            “I don’t know,” Calvin answered, “when you told me about the confession ... I feared that you have once for all extinguished the gentle goodness of a kind woman...”
            Calvin squinted, and his eyes went blank for a moment. Then, suddenly, they filled with ever brighter light. They began to dart quickly about the room, searching for something. Finally, they rested on the letter. He reached for it, picked it up, and smiled.
            He gazed at the letter, and said, “Yes, I feared there was no hope... and then I remembered a few lines from this letter. Perhaps there is more...”
            Murdock’s grieved demeanor disappeared, and his suspicious brow arched again, “The letter! I had forgotten the letter. For a moment I really did believe she was faithful, but what do you have to say for that letter?”
            Calvin ignored him and read over the letter again. He spoke distinctly, to himself, “Yes, there is hope. A woman who would write this...”
            Murdock could bear it no more, “What are you talking about! Are you insane? How can that adulterous trash be hope for my broken marriage?”
            Calvin laughed out loud, crumpled the letter into a ball, and flung it at Murdock.
            He yelled, “That adulterous trash is written to you. You imbecile!”
            Murdock yelled back, “What are you talking about?”
            Calvin answered, “You are so blinded by suspicion that every corner of the world is dark. So blinded, you can’t account for real love: the real love that – and only heaven knows why – the real love that your wife bears for you. Rather, the you that she speaks about missing. I admit it.  The letter is open to interpretation. Every line could be to a paramour, but every line could also be to a distant husband. Yes, this letter is evidence, evidence of things not seen: evidence for hope.”
            Murdock, still not convinced, replied, “Tell me, then. Who is this person that she speaks of in the letter as ‘you know who?’ ”
            “You tell me,” Calvin answered.
            Then Murdock’s face colored and he answered his own question, “She is talking about... I didn’t know that she...”
            Words hung on Murdock’s lips. He looked like a child teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon. He mumbled several things, but I could only make out, “She could not know.”           
            I have never had the courage to ask what Calvin meant by his next sentence, “You know, Murdock, suspicious people are often guilty, and they declare everyone else guilty by association. But, there’s a line in the old book – to the pure all things are pure.”
            At this, Murdock slumped over in profound defeat. He picked up the crumpled letter, and put it in his pocket. He moved toward the door, but did not acknowledge me as he left. He did, however, shake Calvin’s hand in a hearty and thankful manner. He said “thank you” repeatedly as he walked out. I peered out the door after him, and saw him knock over a bin of archives as he stumbled along.


            I knew that I would likely never know the resolution to this encounter, but my desire for closure overcame me as Murdock walked away, and Calvin started rifling through a box of books.
            He saw curiosity on my face, and tried to change the subject, “Where is my copy of The Enchiridion? And where is my coffee mug? You’re my assistant. Assist me. Don’t just sit there.”
            “Dr. C,” I began.
            He responded with impatient joviality, “Yes, Mr. Kendall?”
            I had to ask, “Do you believe they will work it out?”
            He picked up a book and thumbed through it, took a puff from his pipe, and as he exhaled, said, “I don’t know, but I do hold out hope. That letter! It shows determination on her part. The very letter that Murdock took as indubitable proof of infidelity was just the opposite – indubitable proof of persevering love. Take note of that man, Mr. Kendall, and steer wide of his philosophy. That’s what skepticism does to you: it makes a love letter into a tryst. It leaves you in a boat without rudders on an infinite sea. If Murdock hadn’t been a snooping rascal she would have finished it, and I dare say the end product would have brought much healing. Still, it may yet work its intended purpose. God’s words are not the only ones that never return void. Only now, Murdock will read it in a quite different light: the light of his own pronounced folly. Still, I am not betting much on old Murdock. But Clarissa, well, that’s  a different matter.”
            “I have one other question,” I inserted.
            “Don’t you have papers to grade?” Calvin replied.
             I went on, “How did you know? You believed in her from the beginning, and never seemed to doubt. I read the letter as Murdock did. I suspected her implicitly. How did you know she was innocent?”
            Calvin responded, “I didn’t know, but I believed. I believed in order to know. Now, I know.”
            “I’m not following you,” I said, “are you saying you trusted something you didn’t know was true, and it became true?”
            Calvin twisted his face with agitation, “No! Just the opposite. I believed something that was always true. My believing didn’t make it true, but I would have never known it was true, if I hadn’t first believed. The path to knowledge cannot be traveled except by some kind of faith. Didn’t you hear anything I was saying earlier about Descartes, and skeptical philosophy, and sufficient knowledge, and all that other stuff?”
            I walked out into the snow with a stack of papers ungraded. It was going to be a long night. I struggled through a white wall of snow that surrounded me on every side – so dense I was nearly blinded. The going was treacherous, but there was a sidewalk beneath my feet that I could not see, but believed, and then with every step knew, to be there. And so I trudged on, papers in hand, with a mind cleared by cool air. I had a sense that this would be the first of many adventures with Calvin. I had a sense that he had invited me into his world. I didn’t feel so tired anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment