A cross section of the sharp young minds who flourished under his tutelage will slowly be reduced to paper towels. The ink will become wet black splotches suspended in liquid purple. A dendrochronology more than seven years deep will melt away, one moment running into the next, lost.
Before that, the fourth bottle of merlot slips out of Harold Calfe’s hands and falls onto the orange throw rug on Harry’s tiled office floor. The hands on the clock read 2am. Harry falls to his hands and knees to arrest the fallen bottle’s leaking. Not to save the saturated carpet but to save what wine remains. Looking at the soaked mess, Harry changes his mind and drops the bottle into the open filing cabinet drawer. It CLANKs loudly against the other three, then drains on the wonderful examples of young critical splendor he had hurriedly photocopied before returning, one after another, over years.
Harry will then pass out on his floor, his white button-up shirt pressed into spilled fermented grape. His collar will be askew. His mouth will be half-open, doglike, casually drooling. Like this, Professor Harold Calfe will spend his last night in his office in the English department on the third floor of Petonga University’s illustrious Main Hall in northern Wisconsin.
“There are many ways of measuring time.”
Run the tape in reverse, and the bottles jump out of the filing cabinet drawer. Papers blow up and out of it and into Harry’s hands, like leaves catching a breeze. The comfy couch with big arms slowly mends, its charming rips and tears unfraying. One by one, its coffee and whiskey stains moisten and shrink, then leap up into mugs and glasses, held by people who grow tired and sober, then disappear in motion blurs. Harry’s hairline slowly advances. The hands on his clock run counter to their arbitrary norm. The painting hanging over the couch slowly lightens as the tar is sucked back into the air, merging with smoke that flows back into growing cigarettes that, whole again, go back into the pack. Late at night, the door opens, Chloe backs out of it, and it closes again. Standing before it, she turns and notices Anne Peebles walking backwards to the bathroom.
Nothing prevents us from viewing all events this way. Families gather in churches to see the groom abandon bride to father. Cars drive backwards onto lots, stickers are applied to them, and they are shipped on trucks that drive them in reverse to factories for disassembly. Killers save people from a priori wounds, sealed by sucking bullets back into guns. Knives act like sutures. “If effects precede cause, there is no morality.” Fire restores structures. Men with saws assemble forests, one tree at a time. Gravity is a repulsive force. Entropy measures what keeps the energy within a system perpetually growing. The universe is shrinking; the stars move closer to us. People are dug out of coffins, are sent to hospitals where they burst to life; they grow healthier, join their families in old age, shrink, and go back inside their mothers. Sperm swim tail-first from eggs and invade the male, making him grumpier. Couples always seem to smile more as they near the inevitable day they will say goodbye for the last time.
Or as Harold Calfe put it in Shakespeare Time(s), “Forward is just an arbitrary designation based on position. A tape played in reverse is still the same tape. A story told in reverse or even sideways is still the same story. The effects that ensue from narrative sequence, then, must not be confused with objective textual elements, like dialogue or action. All effects stemming from juxtaposition are only epiphenomena of perception, not unlike cinema’s montage or someone who looks at a painting from an angle that illuminates the whole in new, subjective light. To claim motivation from past events is demonstrably as fallacious as thinking a statue’s outstretched hand is an erect phallus, as seen from behind.”
At 6am, Oliver Neary enters Harold Calfe’s office and immediately suspects suicide. Harry will be lying face down, his white shirt and the orange carpet under it thick with a purplish red, as if moving him would reveal a harpoon in his gut. Oliver calls the other janitors, emptying the trash in other offices.
At 7am, the EMTs will determine (1) that this fluid is not blood but merlot, (2) that Harold Calfe doesn’t have a scratch on him, and (3) that Harold Calfe is dead just the same, though not in that order. Nonetheless, Oliver’s first impression of suicide will have been right, after a fashion.
When the prologue ends, the actor speaking it goes off-stage to don another character’s garb.
It’s March 2009, and Harold Calfe, the responsibly trained academic saluted for his profound mental paring knife, deeply educated in rigorous and specialized literary analysis, this man who had passed all the hurdles and the hazing to at last receive his prize, this Harold Calfe has taken a young student for a lover. He does not know his own motivation. Perhaps he feels that he deserves a reward, or that his newly-minted privileges need exercise. Perhaps he thinks of his dead father, unsatisfied to the end with his life of labor. Perhaps he simply likes the oral sex in his office from this young thing with her life ahead of her. It need not have been anything more psychotic than a contrast with his past. A juxtaposition. But it was, for him, a heaven, at least as much in recollection as experience.
Had the play stopped there, it would have been a comedy, a farce about this elder statesman of a professor, young tits entrusted to his care dancing over his knees in the late-night artificial warmth of his office, wine poured into coffee cups and shared with this underage beast.
Chloe had a story too, her own reasons for flirting with him in the mild way students often flirt with their professors. Something in her past led her to him, to feel good with him, to feel beloved and bohemian and wonderful as she was taken on that worn couch over wine by the distinguished intellectual with an animal inside him. Perhaps she had always already felt different, at odds with the stupid boys her age who knew nothing of themselves or the world, much less her. At odds with the stupid girls who talked of make-up and boys and dresses while she thought about the lies her parents told her and the incomprehensible stupidity of a world in which adults merely pretended to have earned their status by having everything thought out.
Harold Calfe guesses some of this but is smart enough to know that he can only be certain of her flesh against his, of youth, of wine and easy blowjobs. Motivation being a product of perspective, an illusion, like persistence of vision or how three-point perspective makes squares trapezoids and distant mountains shrink.
It’s March 2009, and Harold Calfe is pouring Chloe another full mug of wine. He does not yet know he loves her.
A year and nine months in his future, at 9pm, Harry will be alive in his office, still on the evening’s first bottle of merlot. He will call her back. She won’t pick up.
It’s November 2010, and Chloe has stopped seeing Harold. His lawyers advise him not to call her. He knows they only want what’s best for him, though they fail to understand he no longer shares this goal. He stops short of showing up drunk at her dormitory door, but he can’t keep from calling, even after she tells him that her parents are considering a lawsuit. She doesn’t want to break things off, but it’s out of her hands. She cries into the phone. He drinks.
It’s hard hiding things from someone who lives in the same room. It’s April 2009, and Chloe’s roommate Alison is getting curious about the late-night calls summoning Chloe to Main Hall. Tonight, Harry calls again. Chloe agrees to come across the quad and up to his office. Alison, suspicious, tentatively asks Chloe outright if she’s sleeping with Harold Calfe. And Harry’s young lover, his reward for all that hard work, confesses everything. Understandably. Inevitably.
At 10pm, Harry will be starting his second bottle in his office, calling her again without response. A drawer will be open on his filing cabinet, one empty bottle already inside.
It’s May 2009, and Alison’s drunk at a party, telling yet another student about Chloe and Harold. The undergraduate grapevine, already hard at work. Every one of his students knows, sits there thinking he or she possesses some secret insight into his private life. They watch his exchanges with her in class, and it seems so obvious.
It’s September 2010, and Anne Peebles is talking in her office with Jaime, a student she’s taken under her wing. Anne is talking about power dynamics in relationships, using teachers and students as an example. Anne and Jaime talk about how they’re up against university culture: half of Petonga’s married professors have former students as spouses. Jaime says that students hear these rumors, and they undermine learning. She mentions Harold and Chloe, assuming Anne already knows. Accustomed to such matters at Petonga, Anne takes no action.
It’s February 2008, and the office phone is RINGing. Harry answers it and hears his father has succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He looks above his couch and sees the blind leading the blind. It has never seemed more accurate.
“Hamlet’s father is not killed on stage, though we are made to feel it. The presence of Hamlet’s father, although ‘absent’ except as a ghost, is felt throughout the play. Iago is only given motivation through slight reference to a past we are neither shown nor made to feel. Shakespeare’s masterful temporal play makes absent times forever present through implication.”
By midnight, Harry will be starting his fourth and final bottle. He will call her for the final time. By now, he knows she’s ignoring his calls.
It’s August 2010, and Chloe is moving into her dorm room, one she doesn’t share with Alison. The first person she calls, before the semester has even started, is Harold Calfe.
It’s October 2010, and Anne is at the office late, grading papers. Tea steeps in the corner of her desk. The pot empties. Her bladder fills. She goes to the bathroom. On her way back to the office, she sees Chloe in a long winter coat knocking on Harold’s door. Chloe sees Anne and looks away. Harold’s door opens. Chloe enters. Harold’s door shuts again. Anne enters her office, finds herself angered at how flagrant this behavior is. She composes an e-mail to the university ombudsman’s office, which takes anonymous complaints, and hits send. The computer CHIMEs, indicating she can’t take it back.
It’s November 2010, and Harry is at a liquor store, buying a case of merlot. He drives it to campus and takes the box upstairs, placing it under his desk. Even amidst the investigation, he fantasizes that one day Chloe will answer the phone and come to his office, late at night, share merlot, make love like they once did so regularly, and all will be right in his collapsing world.
One month in his future, the ink is running, bleeding black and red. It’s running now.
It’s January 2008, and Harold Calfe is completing his application for tenure, not certain whether he’ll win a job for life or, as happens to all rejected for tenure, lose his job. Of the three categories for tenure, Harry’s teaching record and service to the community (e.g. public lectures) are exemplary, but he lacks publications. At a major school, he’d be instantly rejected, but a small private liberal arts college like Petonga can do what it wants, and it values teaching especially highly.
It’s March 2008, and Harold Calfe is learning from his department chair that he’s been granted tenure. Both smile. Harry feels relieved. He has a job for life.
A decade earlier, the same department chair is lecturing to a twenty-year-old student who will one day become his wife.
It’s November 2009, and Harold Calfe is hearing other rumors. In his own department, a tenured creative writing teacher named Julian Darius is said to be dating a student, though he’s only seen with her in town and not on campus. In fact, she is enrolled only in rumors that presume her a student only from her youth. Harold Calfe does not know this. Believing the rumors, he comforts himself with the thought that he is not alone. He sees Professor Darius in the halls but says nothing, only smiling. Tradition seems too ensconced at Petonga to ever change, even in the wake of political correctness and mandatory classes on minority literature.
It’s November 2010, and times have changed. Ombudsmen’s offices have to act upon reported violations. Everyone doing it is no defense. A process has begun that no e-mail can stop.
In Harry’s mind, it is a humbling. A selective prosecution. A hounding. The polite academic equivalent of tabloid journalism. An attempt to tear down a great man, lest others have to live in his shadow. To rend a statue back to marble. He does not know who ratted him out. Could have been anyone.
“In Shakespeare’s trope of the play within the play, we consistently find absent pasts and futures rendered present. It will take Hamlet two more hours to ‘enact’ what he has already staged to ‘catch the conscience of the king,’ what he has already demonstrates he knows is his inevitable future. We know almost nothing of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew’s framing sequence, except what we abstract from the play within the play (there, the main text). The work within the work always signals the future, so that this future is always already present before it chronologically arrives.”
Two days after Oliver Neary finds Harold face down in a pool of wine, a Petonga medical examiner will rule the cause of Harold Calfe’s death as alcohol poisoning. A few days later, Oliver Neary and other janitors will return to Harold’s office to pack his possessions into boxes.
Bookshelves are being emptied. A copy of Shakespeare Time(s) falls into the box, its significance unnoted.
It’s Februrary 1998. Harry is in a graduate seminar on the intersection of postmodern theory and Shakespeare when he realizes that Derrida’s theory of the supplementation (or the mutual dependence of presence and absence) could be applied to Shakespeare’s use of time. He doesn’t yet know this moment will change his life.
Upon death, the cliché goes, one’s life flashes before one’s eyes. Some moralists have proposed that each man relive his life upon his death, an endless loop of guilt and shame and triumph. Every moment of weakness is preserved forever. We have only ourselves as tormentors.
It is March 1999. Chloe is a decade in Harry’s future. His dissertation occupies his every waking hour. He has fallen asleep while working again. Tonight, he dreams in footnoted text. He swims through sentences, then dives into footnotes, running from one to the next and back up into the main work, only a hundred pages later.
Upon waking, he realizes this is a metaphor for the work itself. The text is linear, but the entire book exists at once, though one can leap from page to page, moment to moment, time to time. This must be how God feels, on some higher dimension, looking at our lives. He brews himself coffee, puts these idle thoughts aside, and begins to work again.
Harry is standing in academic regalia, receiving his Ph.D. It is March 2000. It is November 2001. Harry opens a letter from a university press and learns that his dissertation has been accepted for publication. A year later, Harry is opening a package filled with his author’s copies of Shakepeare Time(s). Still eight years later, one of these copies is sitting on his office bookshelf, observing mutely its author’s life disintegrates.
Harry sits, reading another review praising his book, heralding it as a major new take on Shakespeare. It is January 2002. He tears out the page and places it on a pile of similar clippings, mostly positive. A few reviews claim the book does violence to its subject, but their attention only signals the book’s prominence. Beside the clippings sit letters from universities, offering to pay his expenses to come interview for tenure-track positions.
It’s 2008, and the thousand or so copies of Shakespeare Time(s) now sit largely unread in university libraries, irrelevant even to the closeted community that had praised it – or had praised its connection to intellectual fads. Harry now knows there will be no follow-up, but it doesn’t matter. He is firmly ensconced in a third-floor office of a castle-like humanities building with columns to impress the parents, as seemingly invulnerable to attack as had once been his fame. One day before, his department chair informed him he had a job for life.
In August 2002, a union worker screws a metal strip with “Harold Calfe” engraved upon it into the wood of his office door. It sits empty except for the university-provided metal desk, chairs, and filing cabinet. Before adding anything else, Harry hangs the painting. Tenure lies six and a half years in his future. Chloe one year farther.
It’s 2006, and Harry is working on his follow-up to Shakespeare Time(s), producing volumes of notes and only slowly realizing he has nothing more to say. One night, Harry falls asleep, frustrated at his lack of productivity. In his dreams, he is imprisoned in the pages of Shakespeare Time(s), at once immortal and never able to escape, his consciousness diffused into decaying pulp in libraries throughout the world, gazing down and screaming. When he wakes, he feels the presence of something large and frightening, some horrible realization he can’t quite wrap his mind around or express in language.
It’s 2007, and Harry is talking to his mother about his writing block, realizing only as he hears himself say the words that he’s never going to finish it. There’s no statue inside that marble he’s carving, only slightly less rectangular blocks. He knows this places his tenure in jeopardy and hopes his teaching will compensate for this book with an engine that could never seem to pull its way onto the freeway and ride. He is a teacher now, his one burst of scholarly brilliance behind him, its origin and insight forever mysterious.
“In understanding the future’s presence, we redeem the sculptor’s claim to only reveal the work already inside the marble. We redeem Plato’s claim that teaching is only uncovering a priori memories. We redeem Prospero, who has always already broken his rod. And we redeem time itself, with all its hesitation, its exiles, its wasted years.”
In March 2009, Chloe is fellating Harold Calfe in his office. She still looks so young. He thinks of all the vitality he has invested responsibly rather than used, rather than lived. The secrecy of the liaison excites them both in different ways. Her breasts rub against his knees, and he thinks of all the years spent on committees, on politicking, on paying dues.
Nine months after Harold’s death, Anne Peebles enters Harold’s old office, where his replacement is preparing his fall classes. Outside, a worker screws an engraved strip of metal into the wooden door. Inside, Anne Peebles is referencing Harold’s death, which the replacement has not yet heard about. Everyone assumes someone else has told him. An hour into the future, Anne has left, and he is still sitting at his desk, distracted, his new office feeling vaguely haunted. His bookshelves are filled with scholarly works on Shakespeare, including Harold Calfe’s.
“In the world of the play, what separates Hamlet from his ‘undiscovered country’ is a moral choice: ‘to be or not to be.’ But objectively, all that separates the two is time. He’ll get there in another hour or two. We will all get there in time. ‘To be or not to be,’ while phrased with gerunds as a moral choice, is actually a question about an unknown future, the ‘undiscovered country’ in which all afterlives must be located, from the perspective of the living. Yet this future death is always already present and inevitable. He has died countless times on stage and in our memories. He cannot deny it, only appear to delay it. In fact, he is always already there.”
While the hands on his clock read 2am, Harry will be kneeling on his soaked orange carpet, holding the fourth bottle in his right hand, stabilizing himself against his desk with his left. Having righted the bottle, his only drunken concern, he will look down and realize that he has no hope of salvaging the soggy carpet. This will feel like a metaphor for his life. He will know this won’t be his office in another month or two, once the investigation becomes a kangaroo court. His left hand will slip against the desk – not enough to make him fall but enough to make him realize how drunk he is. This combination of thoughts and events will spur him to drop the bottle, unfinished, into the open drawer. Even now, the bottle is falling, the clock hands moving. The bottle will CLANK against the others and begin pouring onto photocopied papers, reducing them once again to wet pulp.
Thomas, Harry’s childhood friend, is handing Harry a gift, occasioned by his friend’s appointment to a tenure-track position. Thomas explains that the painting is an illustration of the blind leading the blind, which he thinks appropriate for academia. It is March 2002.
At 9am, Oliver Neary will be talking with other janitors, recollecting all the secrets they’ve learned over the years, all the affairs discovered and whiskey bottles left out, all the tiny panties found on office couches, and they’ll marvel at how these professors live. By then, Harold will be cold.
Right now, in November 1980, a six-year-old Harry is playing with Thomas in Philadelphia.
At 5am, Harry will be lying dead in a pool of wine on his orange office carpet.
A month after Harold’s death, Petonga’s English department will begin a search for a new Shakespeare professor. It will be able to fill the position for the fall, since it will not have to wait at length for Harold’s formal removal.
It is February 2009. Harold Calfe photocopies a paper Chloe has submitted to his Freshman Studies class, then returns to his office, opens the filing cabinet drawer, and places it inside.
“Grammatical tense is always relative to a shifting present, and because of Shakespeare’s break with the classical unities, his shifting present shifts as inconstantly as the moon Juliet chastises Romeo for swearing on. In an unbroken scene, sixty seconds may comprise a minute; as we jump to a later scene, sixty seconds may comprise a year. Past and future tenses reference neither past nor future, signifiers lacking any static signified. They are always already statements about the past or future of the current, ever-shi