Friday, June 20, 2008

Short Story: Orbit

My Dear Reader,
I'm not sure if I like this story or not, and therefore I'm not sure how much you will enjoy it, Gentle Reader, but I thought I'd give it a try. This story stems from an assignment to write a story in first-person. Since I think that first-person narratives tend to be cheesy, I tried to be a little creative and write it in letters. I was also kind of mad at my professor when I wrote this, and you will no doubt find this reflected in the text.
17 December 2029 Cape Canaveral, FL
Dear Milagros,
I write this letter to inform you that your duties from this point on are about to go through a drastic change. I imagine that you were a bit surprised when you arrived at the house today and found my things missing. You needn’t worry; all is well. While you were on vacation, I decided to take a break from my regular schedule for a while—for a very long while—but I will still need to keep the place tidy in the meantime, so you should continue to make your daily rounds.
I suppose that you are at this very moment wondering how long my leave of absence will be, and to be blunt, you may expect me back promptly at 8:00 on the morning of December 30th, 2034.
Milagros, something that you do not understand is that nothing can excite the mind like T. S. Eliot, no, not a thing. It’s no wonder that there are but a few people these days who truly understand his genius. No one knows anything anymore. Or, perhaps, I should say, no one really knows anything. They might think they know everything, like those brown-nosing upshots from Montana who litter the hallways with their empty heads and old discoveries. One thought of the pubescent huddled masses is enough to remind the loneliest of men of the virtues that come from solitude.
Of course, when I use the phrase “the loneliest of men,” do not suppose that I am referencing myself, Milagros. Only a fool would have such a grave understanding. As the Bard said: “Men at some time are masters of their fates: /The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” It is unbecoming of a person such as me to disagree with Shakespeare, and since I then have no one to blame but myself, I graciously accept the situation that I am now in without qualm. Besides, this is where Eliot is, and Eliot takes time.
My colleagues thought me strange when I made the decision, though there were few who expressed a desire for me to stay. I tried to show them the ad I had found that morning in the paper, but it did not have the effect to the others that it had on me. The ad is now framed and ready to hang on the wall. It reads:

One extraordinary person for the experience of a lifetime!
Call to find out how YOU can be a solo space station operator!
No one can weigh you down in space!
Be your own boss, travel the solar system in style!

It touched me so deeply that I didn’t even notice the comma splice until I’d read it a second time. I made some inquiries and found out that the space station operator duties consisted mostly of living on a space station and monitoring the systems. This includes, among other things, checking for computer malfunctions and supervising the collected data that is sent back to Earth on a continual basis. I then found that, by lucky chance, the Pluto position had not yet been filled. Normally, the employment lasts one one-hundredth of a planetary orbit (the length actually depends on the planet, and since Pluto has an orbit of approximately 248 years, the space program has deemed shifts of two and a half years appropriate). I was feeling bold that day, so I went ahead and signed up for two shifts. Now, since it takes two weeks to get there and two weeks to get back, the total time comes to almost exactly five years, or, to be precise, five years and thirteen days. The leaps that mankind has been able to make in the past few years are truly amazing, Milagros, and they tell me that it is possible to transmit data to me by Extranet at three times the speed of sound, which turns out to be a delay of two months or so.

This brings me to the true reason that I am writing this letter. Part of the terms that that I negotiated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration allowed for me to send and receive all of the mail that I desire during my five year absence, and since I am spending my now ample spare time committing myself to the explication of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, I will of course need to be constantly updated with the academic research that will take place in my absence. Therefore, I would like you to collect scholarly articles and pass them along to Mr. Garth Fleming at 300 E St. SW, Washington, D.C. Mr. Fleming will, in turn, be sending you the articles on Eliot that I intend to be writing; I know that you will be able to put them in the right hands for publication.

Now, I know you must be worried about me, but I assure you that your feelings in this matter are quite useless. I will be well-fed, and all of the instructions I need to correctly operate the station will be given to me on my two-week trip to the station. You should be happy for me, in fact, because I have finally found the only possible way that I can do my work without having to teach, and being spared from those illiterate hot-shots is more enough compensation for the sacrifices that I have decided to make. This, I hope, will convince you that I am doing this for my own personal freedom rather than because of the incident that happened in November. After all, I have put Miss Keen far behind me. As Eliot said, “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,/Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

You will find that I have already put all of my affairs in order. You will receive your salary as promptly as ever; all I ask is that you see that I get the academic articles and that my articles get published in a timely fashion. That said, I wish you a happy and prosperous five years.

Richard Schnebely, Ph.D.

6 March 2030 Pluto Observation Center

Dear Milagros,

I apologize if I wasn’t clear in my last letter, but I am well prepared for the isolation that my five-year assignment entails, and will not be needing any human interaction during this period. I request the scholarly articles that I mentioned previously; no more. Your letters, while fairly considerate, are a distraction from my studies. I am so engulfed in thought and contemplation that I barely have time to read them, much less devote time to a regular correspondence with a four-month gap. I will kindly ask you to stop sending them while I inform you that this is the only response I intend to send back.

Still, I feel I must answer your question about Miss Keen’s latest accomplishment. I managed to get around to the article she published, and I briefly glanced over it, but as I’m sure I have told you before, she is still valuing her style over her content. Her voice is too strong and her use of split infinitives is quite appalling; it’s hard to believe that she was ever a student of mine. To be frank, it’s hard for me to see how she could ever truly contribute to this world that she was born into, much less the academic society that she is attempting to permeate. She thinks too much of herself to be of any real use; she drowns her theses in hubris. Personally, I wouldn’t even hire her to be a maid of mine, for after all, even you know where to put your semicolons.

In conjunction with my previous admonition, I must inform you that I have absolutely no need for your assessments of the articles you send me. I prefer to have them untainted by your opinions. You may think that your reviews of Eliot’s work incredibly clever, but until you have studied Eliot in an academic environment, you cannot truly understand the context, the mechanics, and ultimately, the artistry. Unlike Miss Keen, Eliot has the experience and intelligence to create a polished body of work that excites the traditionally trained mind in a way the unlearned cannot possibly fathom.

As for my personal life, which I remind you is absolutely none of your business, it has progressed as planned. I have covered a lot of ground in The Wasteland, at least as much as I had thought I could do by this time. It is so much better than my previous duties as professor, where I had to be continually bothered by teaching and grading, which were a constant distraction from my research. Now, it’s as if I was paid just to pursue the study of literature, which is all I’ve really wanted to do since I first stepped foot on a college campus. Now, the only thing that disturbs my work is the infrequent visits I have from a couple that travels the solar system to check on all of the space station operators. The husband is a physician and the wife is a psychologist, so I’m sure you can imagine how irritating they can be, especially when they arrive without notice.

Their first and only visit so far was a disaster. Milagros, I tell you that if I had known that they were coming I would have dressed accordingly, of course, but as it was they found me in nothing but a pair of miss-matching socks. It took me at least four hours to convince the wife that I didn’t have some kind of mental disorder. Women just don’t understand how constricting clothes can be. She tried to convince me that I was suffering from an extreme form of loneliness that was changing my perception of reality. I told her that I love solitude and that I would much prefer my job to hers, because at least I don’t have to make a living by trespassing on the privacy of others. Sufficed to say, it is lucky for me that their “rounds” can take up to six months or more, but that also means that I’ll have to see them at least nine more times before I leave this sanctuary of mine. I was looking forward to having no neighbors during these five years, but now this couple has ruined the sense of peace I feel knowing that there is not another living soul within thousands of miles of me. I’ll just have to keep them out of my mind long enough that I’ll forget about them.

As I said before, this is the last letter that I will send back to you, Milagros, so don’t bother writing me again. I am pleased that your son is doing well, but don’t send his comparative literature papers to me; he must learn to do things for himself. If you treat him like a baby at the beginning of his college career how will he be able to turn into a man? Your son is a bright boy who has the potential to do more in this life than you can ever imagine. You must put more thought into what you do before you do them.

Richard Schnebely, Ph.D.

20 December 2030 Pluto Observation Center

Dear Milagros,

I can’t take your misinformation and wild speculation any longer. What happened between Miss Keene and I was a private affair, though I assure you that nothing inappropriate took place. I have not yet had the chance to read her book, nor do I have any desire to do so, but I a sure that the character in question is not a direct reference to me. You should know better than to think that your description of him bore any likeness to me. From what you said, this fictional Dr. Smiley is arrogant, self-righteous, overbearing, and too caught up in convention to see the facts. I admit, I have seen this behavior exhibited by some of my colleagues from time to time, but to my knowledge no one has ever accused me of having these character flaws, and it seems to me that Miss Keene has created more of a caricature than the sort of character that people like to read.

That said, I cannot account for the success that Miss Keene has experienced since her novel was published. Caricatures only make it to the New York Times Best Seller List if they are part of a satire. I am somewhat relieved, however, that she has shifted from her pursuits in academic writing to something a little less challenging, though it is obviously not as rewarding. In fiction, she will find that there are less people who will notice her flaws, for most of her readers won’t know the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause, to say nothing of semicolons and split infinitives. You may be equally suited to the task of author, Milagros, for your letters to me over the past year or so show a remarkable aptitude for creativity and word manipulation.

As I previously mentioned, what happened between Miss Keene and I is only our business, but I will break the rules of propriety this one time so that you can truly understand the nature of the academic relationship that I had with her, and perhaps that will convince you that her novel is not about me. I first met Miss Keene in my English Language 353 class, a course which focused on grammar and usage. I have taught the class every semester for the past twenty-two years, and every semester I have at least one student who refuses to accept the traditional view of language, but Miss Keene was quite unique in her rebellion. Not only was she fairly disruptive in class through her rude behavior and inappropriate comments, she was also starting to attract other students to her cause. It became very difficult to keep order in the classroom, and you can imagine the kind of stress that came from her actions.

One day, after I had had more than enough of her attitude and disrespect, I asked her to come to my office after class to discuss her behavior. She arrived fifteen minutes late, threw her things all over my previously organized space, and stared at me with crossed arms and raised eyebrows. I tried to explain to her that grammar was a list of rules that governed writing in order to make it uniform and structured. She responded by saying that she was about to graduate from the university and only had my class left as a requirement. Then she quite forcefully explained that in her almost-four years of university studies she had never had to use the laws of usage I presented in lecture and didn’t see how she would ever need them in the future. I countered by explaining that it would be necessary if she was planning on attending graduate school or somehow contributing to the academic community. I also informed her that it would be very useful to have a good grounding in grammar if she intended on doing any professional writing, scholarly or otherwise. You should have seen the way she sat in her chair and twirled her hair around as she listened. It was clear that I wasn’t getting through at all. I tried to reason with her; I tried to use logic to support my case, but it seemed in the end that there was nothing I could do to dissuade her from her inappropriate attitude. When I saw that I had used every weapon in my arsenal, I reminded her that class participation was a factor in her grade and that she couldn’t expect high marks unless she showed a marked change in behavior. She looked a little shaken by what I had said, and I felt some satisfaction for finally getting through to her, but it wasn’t until then that I noticed that my face had gotten red and my voice was loud and severe. I excused her and she left, and I was grateful that she was gone and I could return to the paper I was writing about James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The rest of the story you already know, about how the political cartoons started appearing in the university paper, and how they raised the attention of the dean and eventually the president. They were spread out over a course of two months, but by the time the “series” was over there was a total of ten cartoons in all. The way I was depicted was absurd, of course, but I had already known that Miss Keene was dating a student double-majoring in art and political science, so I suppose I could have anticipated this form of retaliation; however I never thought that it would be taken to such an extreme as it was. It was lucky for me that I had left my office door open and that my office neighbor, Dr. Janet Woodhouse, was able to hear most of the controversial conversation and stood up to me when accusations arose about my threatening a particular student with a failing grade for using her first amendment rights. It just so happened that I found the ad for this job in the paper the very next day, and that I spent the next two weeks making arrangements for my departure. As a result, I was never able to hear about what happened to Miss Keene, though it appears that she has focused her energy on publishing substandard articles and works of fiction. I was assured before I left that I was more than welcome to return whenever my duties orbiting Pluto had ceased (the university seems to have a hard time finding professors to teach 353), so it is evident that Miss Keene did not have the affect that she and her boyfriend intended. It is but a small matter though. I’ve almost forgotten about the whole ordeal by now.

Milagros, I hope that this account will squash these romantic notions you have about a villain terrorizing a helpless maiden, when we both know that I would do nothing of the sort. Please do not continue to bother me with your undeveloped observations; I have a lot of work to do. Let me know when you have something more substantial to say.

Richard Schnebely, Ph.D.

3 June 2031 Pluto Observation Center

Dear Milagros,

I am devastated to hear about the death of your son, Trevor. Words cannot express what I feel for you in your state of loss, and though I am aware that your news is now two months old, I am sending this letter back with Mr. and Mrs. Greer, who you will remember as the husband-and-wife team that travels the solar system to visit the space station operators. They are going back to Earth immediately, and will therefore get there faster than Extranet can send this message. It turns out that my first shift on this station expires on the July 24th, and in light of current circumstances, I have elected to forgo my second two-and-a-half year journey and return to the house. I have already made all of my arrangements, and you may expect me promptly and 10:35 A.M. on August 8th. I would have accompanied the Greers myself, but I was informed that I could not leave the station until my replacement arrived. You may be interested to know that the name of my replacement happens to be a Miss Jennifer Keene, who I believe is accepting this position in order to escape from a certain negative reaction she has received from her last book, which attempted to expose some kind of non-existent government conspiracy. I hope that she will find my old home suitable for her needs, and I have decided to leave her certain tokens of my esteem that will greet her as she arrives.

Please inform the university of my plans to return, since I will not be able to do so in a timely manner. I intend to teach as soon as the new semester starts, and I believe that Miss Keene’s novel, which I eventually got around to reading, has inspired me to add a few new things to the class that might make it more enjoyable for the students. I think that Trevor would have approved. I don’t know if you will know me when I return, dear Milagros, for your letters and my period of isolation have managed to change me in a way that I didn’t expect. I hope it is for the better.

Richard Schnebely, Ph.D.
-Cecily Jane

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The beginning and body were very engaging. I don't understand the ending with Trevor dying. This was a clever way to open the eyes of your professor. I wouldn't have the guts to do it. MJH