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A Quick Study

Michael Alan

You're a nihilist," Frampton said.

It was the fall semester at the University of Maryland, 1981. Frampton, a short, pudgy young man with a lipless mouth and two brief square thick blotches of hair for eyebrows, was sitting with his roommate Roddick Bowman at a picnic table in front of a local campus sub sandwich shop. Frampton wiped mayonnaise off his lip with a yellow napkin.

Roddick bit into his bacon club and said, holding his mouth up so nothing would fall out, "Who cares?" He glanced through the window of the shop at one of the women working the counter, building sandwiches, taking cash, stamping frequent patron cards. Roddick's hair was so unkept it looked intentionally sculpted that way. There was an affable air about him, mixed with a slightly suspicious look due to his right eye being bigger than his left, making it appear that he was wearing a monocle. He had a slight over-bite and his ears looked fished away from the side of his skull like dolphin fins.

Frampton shook the ice in his cup and took a sip off the straw. "I don't know, man," he said in response to Roddick's inquiry. He had shoulder length orange hair divided in the middle and pressed hard against his scalp and behind the ears. Both of them were wearing t-shirts, baggy shorts and sandals. They were two young men who did not easily admit the approach of the cooling season.

The young woman from behind the counter of the sub shop stepped out onto the sidewalk, rolling up her apron. It was exactly who Roddick was hoping would come out. He squeezed his kneecaps with moistening palms. There was a seahorse shaped piece of romaine lettuce dangling from his chin. Frampton noticed it and considered notifying his friend in a subtle way so that the woman wouldn't notice, say with a quick prodding of Roddick's shin with his foot as he scratched his chin, but then he thought, who cares, and let it go. The young woman looked down the street, not noticing Roddick, let alone the vegetation emanating from the end of his chin.

"Hi Mandella," Roddick said. He had gotten her number two weeks ago, called her that night, left a message, and she had yet to call him back. They had an ethics class together, currently in its second month, and they had spoken a few times after class. Roddick always let her leave class first, his head still dropped in his notes, silently begging her to say something to him. He believed he was most attractive to her while reading, which he wasn't. After she passed him unawares he caught up to her in the hallway or out on the sidewalk, always with a witless humor-attempting comment about the lecture.

She looked down at him sitting on the bench and offered a half smile. "Hello," she said. Frampton could not help but admiring Mandella's fine choice of clothing that cool fall afternoon. Jeans that indicated the exact structure of her legs and ass, the long sleeve, low cut shirt and thin burgundy scarf wrapped once around her neck. Her eyebrows started in the area that her eyes met her nose and kept going, sumptuously across her brow, then dipped toward her earlobes at an angle that would make an architect blush. A very small person could ski down her nose and claim there was no greater skiing experience on earth, unless he then embarked down the rest of her face, across her lips, over the chin, and down into the low cut shirt.

"How's the book coming along?" Roddick wanted to know, in a tone suggesting he already knew, she was loving it. He ran a finger over the ragged, chipping edge of the table.

"It looks good," Mandella said. "I can bring it to you on Monday."

"What did you think of it?" Roddick said, smiling, offering up for her approval his oversized front two teeth. He hoped that his pounding heart was not causing his t-shirt to ripple in an observable way. He propped an elbow on the table and rested his fingers across his chin. He felt a chunk of food fall away but he didn't take his eyes off her. The piece of lettuce hit his shirt at the chest and fell no further. It bobbed up and down from his pounding heart.

"I don't really have time to read it, sorry," she said.

"Keep it," Roddick said. "Take your time."

Mandella pointed down the road with her thumb. "I gotta run."

"Bye," Frampton said.

She crossed the street and headed down the sidewalk into campus.

Roddick wrapped up his half eaten sandwich in the aluminum foil it came in and squished it into an unnatural shape. He noticed the piece of lettuce on his shirt and flicked it away. It landed on the edge of the sidewalk directly in the path of a black ant speeding on an excursion for new things to report back to headquarters, a survey of the territory. It was an ant that was not very adventurous. It did not seek new lands, whole new worlds to occupy and populate. It was not a free spirit like many of its cousins who sometimes never returned. It was content to concern itself with the task at hand, within range of the closest hill, looking for food in the well trodded empire of the sub shop. It didn't pause at the sudden green boulder fallen in its path. It quickly inspected the lettuce, then strode over it without looking back and cruised on down the sidewalk, sometimes going over and cruising along over the edge, then back up. Where one sidewalk crossed another at the edge of the street a professor of biotechnology, Kyle Hicks, walking home from a lecture by a visiting professor regarding the threats of global water resources mounting decade by decade and due to rupture into a universal crisis sometime around the middle of the first decade of the next century, stepped on the ant with a brown loafer and continued on, unaware of the tragedy he wreaked beneath him.

"I wonder where she goes," Roddick said, not seeing the professor.

Frampton took a last bite and crumpled up his foil. He tossed a hook shot toward the trash can by the door and scored. He took Roddick's foiled ball and did the same with it. "I don't know, man."

"Every Sunday afternoon," Roddick said. "Leaves work and goes back into campus."

Frampton examined one of his fingernails. "I don't know, man."

"Let's follow her."

Frampton squinched his nose, squashed his shoulders together, and looked up at a cloud. "I don't know, man."

"I'll buy you a pitcher of beer after we find out."

"Let's go."

They hustled across the street and down the sidewalk until Mandella was within a reach that could not be shaken by sudden changes of course, and which could not be reasonably interpreted as a deliberate following. They passed the Department of International Students, a trailer that was converted into a small global landing pad. Next to that was the Student Union, the perpetually upgraded building on campus with very slow roving support structures attached to it. The main campus was on top of the largest hill in town and was threaded by one road that curved along the crest of the hill. It was lined by oak trees whose lowest branches were mercifully allowed by university planners to hang in a natural state, so low they brushed the tops of the tallest cars like a breeze-blown carwash brush. The construction trucks heading to the Student Union sent swirling to their gutter death the leaves of the trees that were now fired by the tints of autumn. Behind the Student Union the hill made a steep descent, at the bottom of which a new parking garage was being built. The hill the main campus was on was u-shaped, and across the valley between the Student Union and international students' mobile home were a few fraternity mansions and an administration building. In the valley between, next to the parking garage, was the university stadium. At the apex of the u-shaped hill was a World War II stone tower memorial with bells that rang every twenty minutes after and twenty minutes before the hour. Roddick and Frampton curved along the sidewalk following Mandella round. They passed an 80 year old statue in front of the History building of a teacher with his hand on the shoulder of a student.

"History," Frampton declared, looking up at the bronze student as they passed.

"The unmoved mover," Roddick said, not taking his eyes off the very determined seeming Mandella.

"History makes me thirsty, I think," Frampton footnoted.

"Just looking at it makes me thirsty," Roddick said. "Can you make it to the bar?"

"I'll try. Keep talking about the future."

Roddick held his hands out in front of him, palms up, and squeezed. "She'll go out with me. Eventually."

Frampton brushed down the hair on his forearm. "I don't know, man."

Mandella cut across the street and headed around behind the Humanities building, which was originally built as a parking garage and converted, coincidentally, the year after the school football team failed to win a single game. They followed her.

"Look at her," Roddick said. "She's perfect."

"Every woman is at her most sexy crossing the street," Frampton said. His tone was lofty yet matter-of-fact, almost poignant without being pretentious. He had clearly given the subject no inconsiderable meditation.

"How about crossing a hallway," Roddick said, not thinking, watching Mandella.

"Not even close. It's the street. It has something to do with the outside elements. It's elemental. Florescent lighting complicates the event. The electric hum."

"What about a woman humming while crossing the street."

"What's she humming."

"Depends on how many lanes the street is," Roddick said, wondering what Mandella hummed whenever she hummed.

"The curbs frame the crossing," Frampton said, ignoring his friend's humble notion. "It's a stage. The size of the street doesn't matter. Though cobblestone alleyways are clearly more sexy then an eight lane interstate."

"But the interstate takes much more time to cross."

"Too dangerous. Not sexy."

"Danger is no aphrodisiac?"

"The interstate is wider, but you go by her too fast."

"So women are only sexy crossing streets when you're in a car, going at her?"

"I'm saying you're always in a car when you're seeing an interstate in any detail."

"I'm thirsty."

Frampton wasn't finished explicating his theory. "When the woman steps off the curb, onto the street, she lights up, in a way. Her sexual attractiveness increases a hundred fold. When she hits the opposite curb she disappears, and we look for the next."

"It's the only reason why men buy cars."

"The perpetual dream of a handjob while driving."

"With other women crossing the street."

Frampton put his arm across Roddick and slowed down. "Hold up. What's she doing."

They had walked down a sidewalk halfway down the hill, past the Science Library, the newest building on campus, past the ROTC barracks, past the Language building, the smallest building on campus, really just an oversized lunchbox, and past the Science building. Other sidewalks from others parts of campus spiraled down the hill and joined their sidewalk right before the base of the hill, where a lower street marked the end of them all.

Mandella stopped on the curb and looked down to her left. Roddick and Frampton positioned themselves behind a tree and waited, watching.

"Bus?" Frampton said.

"No, not there," Roddick said. "Somebody must be picking her up."


"Could be going somewhere with a friend."

A brand new black 1981 Mercedes two door coup rolled up in front of Mandella.

"Who's this idiot," Roddick demanded under his breath. A man in his early thirties and a tieless suit got out and came around the hood of the car.

Mandella threw her arms around the guy's neck. They hugged, then kissed. They smiled and rubbed noses. Mandella stood on her tip toes.

"She looks happy," Frampton admitted.

The guy opened the door for Mandella, then closed it after she got in and went back around the hood. The Mercedes rolled on down the street and turned a corner. Roddick picked up a rock and threw it at the car, side-armed to keep it low and avoid the hanging limbs of the tree. It hit a limb and fell into the grass.

Roddick bent at the waist, hands on the sides of his head, head between his knees.

"Come on," Frampton said. "I'll buy you a pitcher of beer." They started walking. "We'll get her back for you. Let's go drink heavily and discuss it in depth. We'll plan. We'll write maps on napkins. Carve drunken songs of longing into the tables."

They finished off the sidewalk and walked down the street the way the Mercedes had come. They walked through the parking lots of a few fraternities then down another hill on the other side. The streets of town were the States, in the order they were admitted into the Union. They hit Kentucky and headed north into downtown. Large early twentieth century houses lined the street behind the coloring trees, houses filled mostly with students paying single rents on their rooms upstairs.

"Wasteland," Roddick said.

"This is not the best time for you to be thinking about things, Rod," Frampton said. "Clear your head. Think nothing. Maintain your nihilism."

"I am thinking nothing. This god forsaken nightmare that is America. Look at it."

"I don't know, man," Frampton said, sounding curious. "Those gorgeous antique houses behind the yellow orange leaves of the overhanging trees. I suppose I can see what you mean."

"Everything in America is the same. All the same shit. Doesn't matter where you look. Everything's made of plastic. Plastic food. Plastic people. Plastic art. Plastic values. Nothing dynamic is happening here. It's a race for sameness. One giant glob of sameness. And do you know what that sameness is?"

"Something similar?"

"It's nothingness."

Frampton looked up at another cloud. "I'd hate to see your reaction if you had actually had a chance with her."

"We're nihilists. Americans."

"All of us?"

"I can prove it."

"Rod, I'm just wondering something here. I'm thinking out loud here, as we walk. I'm wondering if being dissed by a woman is really the best reason to start hating an entire country."

"Who cares?"

"The bar. I see the bar. I've got it in my sights."

They sat in a maroon booth at the back of the bar, and a couple hours later had finished their eighth pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Roddick said, "I can't understand this. Mandella dating that Mercedes driving sleazeball. This whole thing is beyond the scope of reason."

"Maybe he's nice," Frampton said.

"Nice?" Roddick said, squinting, grimacing.

"I'm going to go sleep in the park," Frampton said, and belched.

"One more pitcher."

"We've had nine."

"We can't stop on an odd number. You know that."

"I'm going to sleep in the park for a few hours," Frampton repeated. "Then I'll be back. You stay here. Keep drinking."

"Order another for me on the way out."

Frampton got up and took the empty pitcher to the bar, bumping only twice into the edges of other booths.

Roddick drank one more pitcher, on a stool at the bar, then made his way out into the sun. He stumbled through the narrow high rows of a used bookstore next to the bar, then back outside again and around a corner in need of some coffee.

Mandella was sitting at a table outside the café. There was a full double mocha in front of her and an unopened New York Times. She was leaning over the front page, her long black hair brushed behind her ears. Her being alone proved to Roddick that the kiss he had earlier witnessed was to a close and beloved cousin who took the opportunity to pick her up and give her a lift downtown because he wanted to return some books he had borrowed from her that she needed for research in a topic she probably was now waiting for Roddick to discuss. She looked up at him as he approached, offered him some recognition, then looked back down at the paper.

Roddick leaned on the wrought iron fence between her mocha and him. "Hi Mandella." The lid of his smaller eye drooped halfway closed.

Mandella smelled heavy alcohol content in the air, and matched that with the position of the hands on her watch. It was four o'clock. "Hello again," she said, looking back up. Roddick was the exact height of the shadow cast from the sun falling behind the building across the street, and the very top of his hair was lit up as the rest of him rested in shade. Mandella smiled her signature heart-quickening smile. "This is a little embarrassing," she said, meaning for him, not her, "but your name has slipped my mind."

Roddick took that as a dishonest way to tell him she wasn't interested. A water jug delivery truck came around the corner and parked on the side of the street. A woman with orange hair and a thick ponytail that went through the gap at the back of her size-adjustable corporate delivery cap hopped out of the doorless truck and went around to the back where she unhooked a red-black dolly and began lifting out light blue water jugs.

"I'm Roddick," he said, smiling, pretending he took her name inquiry as a sign of interest. "Hey, can I mind, if I may, if you don't mind, ask you, I know you're busy and I'll let you get back to me, ask one question, one thing, would you mind?"

"Okay," she said with a glance at the patio door of the café.

Roddick looked at the other people sitting around tables nearby, reading and chatting, one couple playing chess. He leaned over the top rail of the fence, elbows on the iron rods. "Sstupid question, really. Ssilly, but. Do you, think I'm, nice?"

Mandella's eyebrows, those Pythagorean blessed eyebrows, that portion of her body Roddick thought most about, surfed many a dreamwave upon their silky glide, raised and squished together in a vibe expressing adorable patheticness. She was agitated, mildly amused, a dash flattered, becoming nervous, sad, and after all he was oddly good looking in an alien sort of way. "Of course I think you're nice."

Which was no answer at all. It was utterly unsatisfactory. She continued to dance around the issue. Was she clouding the truth in cliché, words in a chain, a typical formula of chit chat, or did she mean it? She smelled fantastic. She smelled of mocha and rosemary. It was a divine smell, an odor of beatitude. It was chocolate-pine bliss standing there, leaning over her, being nice. It was all he could do to keep his eyes from closing and leaning his head against her shoulder, nose on neck. His smaller eye began to blink repeatedly as the larger one seemed glued open. "Wwould you, would you like to go out some time, with me?"

The patio door of the café opened and the Mandella kissing Mercedes guy came out with a small white tea dish on which a brownie and sciotta lay crossed. Roddick rolled his eyes and pushed himself back to a quasi-erect position. The guy put down the dish on the table and kissed Mandella again before sitting.

"Roddick," Mandella said. "I'd like you to meet my boyfriend, Claude."

"Yeah, sure," Roddick said.

"Claude has read that book you gave me to read," Mandella pointed out.

"Cute book," Claude said. "Read it back in high school."

Roddick, unsteady, wobbling slightly like those oak tree branches in the wind, puffed out his chest. "Cute?"

Claude smiled at Mandella. He was a pro at belittling her naïve suitors. "Very."

Roddick pumped two middle fingers into the air and said, "Fuck you."

Unfortunately for Roddick the gestures and slur were not directed at Claude. They were directed at Mandella. The one that he loved.

Claude stood up and stepped over to the fence, pointing at Roddick. "You shouldn't insult the lady."

Roddick began to backpedal on the sidewalk. "How egalitarian of you," he said, and pumped two middle fingers up at Claude. "How cute."

Claude picked up his pace as Roddick began to jog backwards. He looked over his shoulder and noticed that Claude's Mercedes was parked in front of the water truck. He ran around it and unzipped his shorts. He faced Claude and pissed on the brake lights of the car. He swirled it and soaked the tire, the license plate, and then with a lofting arch, he drizzled the back windshield.

Claude put his whole body into the swing and broke Roddick's jaw with his fist. There was a loud crack of bone. Roddick fell into the street, still pissing. He got up on one elbow and spat on the Mercedes. Claude kicked him in the stomach and Roddick was immobilized.

Claude grabbed Roddick by the neck and dragged him down to the back of the water truck. There were groups of light blue water jugs sitting around the back, ready for delivery. "You might need some water for that hangover," Claude said. He picked Roddick up and threw him into the truck on top of the jugs. Roddick bruised a few ribs and sprained an ankle. Claude went away. Roddick lay still where he landed, seeking breath, body woven amidst the bottles, his swelling cheek resting against one of the bottle's cool plastic. He kept thinking Mandella might hop up in the truck and help him out. He looked inside the bottle, through the plastic, into the pure clean water. Seeking a reflection, he fell asleep.

When he woke back up the truck was moving down the highway. The back door was closed. There was a small open window into the cab of the truck. Roddick made his way passed the bottles, hobbling, to the window. He put his head through and watched the highway and landscape passing by.

He looked at the driver and said, "What does one of these water jugs go for?"

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