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."
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
"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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
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."
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?"
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."
"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, 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
"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
"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
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
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?"