(First 10 pages
6:30 AM. João‘s boss was from Recife, like him. He didn’t care what time João showed up, as long as the work got done. If you wanted any nightlife at all, you had to drive the two hours to the city and back. Nothing in this cow town. Then straight to work, and sleep all afternoon.
Bless Hall, oldest building on campus. Housed the President’s office, Comptroller’s, too many VP’s. No one who’d come in early, that’s for sure. Culos doces. Lazy asses.
Except for her.
Vacuum pack strapped to his back, João felt like a ghostbuster, which he’d watched in dubbed Portuguese that weekend. Quem você vai para chamar?!
He heard it before he’d unlocked the building. Yip! Yip! Yip!
“Raio do cãozinho!”João thought to himself, and not for the first time. “Damn little dog!”
One of those “sausage dogs,” and the thing never shut up. But it was the President’s baby; she took it everywhere.
He’d never seen her in this early. Now he’d have to come back and clean her office when she was out. But he would have an excuse to check in with President’s assistant, find out when the office would be empty. Kathy. Gostoso! Delicous.
He clicked on the vacuum, started on the hallway. At least this would drown out that yipping! Went through him like a knife.
But when he got to the President’s door, the machine began to whine. Hadn’t he just emptied it yesterday? He turned it off.
The sound didn’t stop. And it wasn’t a whine; it was a high-pitched howl.
He fumbled for his keys, unlocked the door.
Before he could get a good look at what dangled inside, the sausage snarled like a panther and leapt for his throat.
“I’m the Chaplain.” That voice, familiar to Captain Brasten, was the polar opposite of a snarl. Soothing as mint tea in the Al Mufti café, stressless as the late afternoon breeze over Jerusalem, yet firm in soul as the Western Wall and just as unmoving. The “lent” in “relentless” — he would lend you his own sense of inevitable rightness and safe outcome, replacing your own fears and self-doubt. Everything would be okay. The Peace Chaplain was here.
“Let him through, Barry,” the Captain called from inside the President’s office. The sergeant barely lifted the black and yellow tape. The new arrival’s shoulder creaked as he bent underneath. Still, he craned his neck all the way back as he ducked through.
“Thank you,” he smiled. Sincere. And unsubserviant. At the same time, somehow.
“Was just about to call you, Professor,” the Captain began.
“Mindi, you graduated eleven years ago. And we’re friends. It’s alright to call me – y’Boozdinak! What the hell?!”
“Is that Hebrew? Or Arabic? And it’s Melinda in front of the troops, please.”
His name was Noa. Or Noah. Depending on which side of his family was spelling it. Half-Jewish, half-Arab. Important distinction, to some. But he pronounced it the same, either way. As had his Episcopalian wife, of blessed memory.
He was Chaplain of the College, as well as tenured Humanities Chair. A clergy person, interfaith, of course. Commissioned by the Peace Priory International. Its motto: “To help us to love the ways that others love God.”
At that moment, there was very little love, God’s or anyone else’s, in the President’s office.
Suzanne Inman, D Div., DBA, President and CFO of Bless College, hung from the brass light fixture over her desk. Naked. Her body a universe of yellow and purple supernovas, exploded and uncountable. Her noose, a black and white checked keffiyeh. Her arms outstretched, cruciform, floating in air impossibly, until one noticed the fishing line suspending them from the grid of the dropped ceiling.
And the aberrant oddness didn’t stop there. The outline of a long, thin heart, in what looked black magic marker, traced its way around the meticulously manicured pubis of the President. That heart and her vulvaec slit were bisected by a horizontal infinity symbol, likewise in black marker.
Noah took a step forward, staring; pushed his fingers through his still thick head of hair as if trying to hold his brains in. Then one could almost see the gears shift. Mindi. His former student. He turned and offered a ginger-laced almost-smile to her. Concern and reassurance. He’d actually grown the mild reddish beard and moustache (now flecked with grey; salt and paprika) on the advice of a clergy-mentor. “Tone down the pearly whites,” he’d said. “It’s misery people love; they’ll tolerate well-being, but will crucify joy, every time.”
He knew Suzanne Inman had been anything but joyous.
The Captain nodded, bolstered. Like always.
“Walk around her,” she said.
It was only then that a look of terror unpeaced the chaplain’s face. He glanced around furtively. Melinda Brasten laughed out loud.
“The dog’s outside. The admin assistant took her to do her business.”
Noah’s shoulders retreated from his ears, where shear panic had shot them like twin volcanic mountains.
“Jorgey hates men,” his voice imitating an embarrassed little boy. Nearly.
“Knew I liked that dog.” Now the Captain returned his near-smile. He’d been the first she’d told, sophomore year, in his office. Last summer, he’d married her and her partner. Her best friend was her man of honor.
Mindy motioned for him to follow. She circled the desk.
Something black, rubbery, and . . . elongated protruded from the President.
Noa looked away and out the bay window. Or tried to. The letters BLF had been spray painted in black, one letter on each of the three panes.
“You know what that means?” the Captain asked.
He turned back.
“And that, I’m afraid.” He nodded toward the desk clock. Digital. Stuck at 5:31 AM.
“And you saw her last when?” Mindi was asking.
They sat on the green and gold striped divan with the scroll arms in the President’s reception area. Very proper.
Even seated, she needed to look up at him. He had to be six-foot-three. With not a hint of stooping. She was five-foot-one in her duty boots, sandy blonde, diminutive. No one thought she’d get this far. Including her. Except him.
“When you want something with all your heart,” he’d told her the day she decided on the Captain’s Exam, “the entire universe conspires to help you to achieve it.” He’d pulled his chair from behind the desk and sat with her, as he always did with students. Everyone.
“That’s not mine, by the way.” Self-effacing smile that never crossed the line to deprecation. “Cars depreciate,” he liked to say. Then he’d looked right at you. “I appreciate.”
“It’s Paulo Coelho. Remember we read him in Spiritual Quest class? The question is ‘What does all your heart want?’”
She’d sat beneath the framed photo that looked like indiscriminate waves hovering. “Potential actualizing,” he’d called it.
“You see, we build out interior houses out of the available emotional materials,” he’d told her. “It’s all we have at the time. Yours were, ‘I’m little. I’m a girl. I’m blonde and cute. I’m doomed.’”
Her mom had grown russet marigolds that would barely bend toward her in the light breeze. He nodded his head toward her just a bit.
“It’s terrible hard work — unbuilding that house. But you have entirely different available materials now, Sergeant Braston. MA in Criminal Justice. More citations than my thesis.”
Was there a breeze from somewhere? Potentially?
“And, no matter what you choose, you’ll have my entire respect. And support. Promise.”
She’d received the highest score in the exam that year.
“Very early this morning. She’d asked me to come by right after my meditation. I left her about 5:30 AM?”
They all had their signature moves in the classroom. Piersen, the Econ prof, wouldn’t dismiss a class until each member had said, out loud, one thing that had stuck with them from the lecture or discussion. No repeating! (Many a frustrated, next-period instructor had waited outside his door for that last student to remember something. Tenure is a wonderful thing.)
Shonah Weiler, the Humanities adjunct, led her students in yoga at the beginning of each Creative Writing class . “We do yoga for the same reason we write,” she would extol as her cow raised its head from its cat. “To heal ourselves.” She had a very supportive Chair.
Meditation was Noah’s professorial signature. He opened every class meeting with it, “on the grounds that stress, and pressure, and anxiety are terrible deterrents to learning anything.” As chaplain, he led twice-weekly open meditation sessions in the small, interfaith chapel — upstairs, in the choir loft, where they had neither organ nor choir, but lots of donated pillows and mats. Most days, there was hardly room for everyone.
“And you meditate when . . .?” Mindi asked.
“Dawn. Every day, at home. Then I get in the Smart Car and head here.”
His little yellow Smart Car was a fixture on campus, with its “Jesus was a Liberal Jew” bumper sticker, and “I’m Already Against the Next War.” Didn’t seem to fit a former Mossad officer. And no one could believe he fit his whole frame into the car itself. He never left it locked. “Who’s going to steal it for parts, Tonka?” he’d joke with his students. “You have my complete permission to sit in it anytime you like, you’ll see how roomy it is!”
It was like that song. “Everything you do endears you to me.”
“Sort of early for a meeting, wasn’t it, Profes . . . , um, Noa?”
“I thought so, too. But Suzanne always started earlier than everyone else — and she promised to leave the dog in the bathroom.”
“Why did she want to see you?”
“She didn’t say. Just that she needed to talk with the chaplain.”
Mindi’s fingers few over her iPad.
“You can write on those things? Without a keyboard?” Noah tilted his head like a puzzled canine.
“Yes, Mr. Technology. For quite some time now.” The Captain grinned. She could see him saying, upon arriving at each class meeting, “Ah, the angels have turned on my computer again. See, God helps those who can’t help themselves!” (No one liked to see their best-loved professor fishing blindly around the edges of a monitor. He helped those who fumbled. And they showed up early).
“What did you and the President talk about?” Mindi didn’t look up from the screen. Until a moment or two had passed, silently.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” Noah said, without a hint of admonishment. Was the word in his lexicon? “Clergy confidentiality. She specifically called me in as her chaplain, not an employee.”
“The Chief may not see the difference.”
“I’m aware,” Noa sighed.
Jake MacElroy, Chief of Police for the town of Blagden, did not share others’ enthusiasm for Reverend Doctor Noa(h) Shalaam. On the contrary, he had been one of the very few students ever to receive an F in a Noah class. Jake had been Bless’s star tight end, with all the assumed privilege that accompanied it. Had done nothing in World Religions but make remarks that would probably have earned him expulsion under the Hate Speech section of the college’s handbook. But Noa had taken him aside. A simple apology and a commitment to not do so again was all that was needed. Jake never showed up to class after that, and never withdrew, trusting his eighteen touchdowns in one season to make both apologies and attendance unnecessary. He was three credits short at graduation; refused to take a summer make-up class with Noah, instead driving to another school. An accident on his way back (involving alcohol) ended his athletic career, and launched his unwavering hatred for all things Bless College, and for its chaplain in particular. He would refuse internships to the school’s Criminal Justice majors, and railed at town meeting about “secret associations of an unamerican nature” up at the College — the school’s Islamic Students Club. Noa was its faculty advisor, and Hillel’s.
“Ok, then,” and Mandi closed up her iPad. Looked with uncompromising professionalism — and personhood — at her old professor. “Tell me how you got along with President Inman.”
In Mossad, they had taught how not to gulp perceptively, no matter the stimuli.
“We were friends.” Noah said, and his Adam’s apple agreed.
“And the Coup?” Mandi added, matter of factly. “Did you stay friends after that?”