The Test

ng, again. What did your psychiatrist tell you? When this happens, you have to focus). It floated back to the departmental (mental? Stop it.) staff meeting earlier that day. Why was Kathy, the new Professor of Medieval Music, looking at him like that? And what were those glances that passed between her and Jeff, the new director of the College Orchestra, who was onstage now and who the college president thought was a genius? Even Amy, the secretary who took the minutes, kept peeking up from her laptop and looking at him liked he owed her twenty dollars. What was going on? Maybe Kevin was right. Poor old Kevin, his senior colleague, who wept to him over coffee last week, who had given his life to Moss and was now being edged out in a crypto-putsch engineered behind the scenes, most probably, by Jeff and Kathy.
“Watch out, Dan. They’ll be coming after you, next,” Kevin had told him, bleary eyed and bereft, put out to pasture with no pasture in sight.
All those little confabs between Jeff and Kathy in their spanking new offices in the new building. Dan was relegated to his tomblike cubbyhole in the old building. (Why hadn’t he piped up and demanded an office in the new facility when it was in the planning stages? Damnit, he had to learn to be more assertive about stuff like that, just like his wife was always telling him).
He looked up at Maestro Jeff onstage, flailing away at the college orchestra (of which Dan used to be the Director). Some conductor. This guy couldn’t conduct electricity in a bathtub with a wire in his mouth.
Looking down at the test papers, he gave Donnie Maxwell a C minus. (Dumb as toast, that kid. He spelled flute: floot…Mozart’s Floot Concerto. Oy vey ist mere.)
Yes, what was all that tittering between Jeff and Kathy? Thick as thieves. Were they having an affair? Everyone thought so, married though they were to their requisite, tag along academic spouses. Hell, Dan had been on both search committees when they’d applied for their posts and had voted for both of them, albeit with reservations. He snorted out loud, then covered his mouth and coughed. Well, pal, your reservations have proved well founded. First, they’ll oust Kevin, then they’ll open their jaws and come after you. Dun dun dun dun. Do something about it. Anything. Be a man, for God’s sake.
He was once held in high esteem here at Moss. Back in the day, his lectures were packed, kids hanging on his every word. Now, he ate his macaroni and cheese alone in the faculty cafeteria. What had happened to him? Where did his mojo go? Simple, he thought, looking down at the liver spotted hand that shook slightly as it held the cheap college bookstore pen. Simple: you got old, boychik.
He gave Tessie Rosenthal a C. Smart girl. She should be doing a lot better. I wonder if she’s dating that big jock who sits behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off of her all semester.
Hell, I still have it, he thought. I can still turn it on in the classroom and get the kids to sit forward in their seats and scratch their heads trying to follow the thread of my invective, my firebrand bravado, challenging them, exhorting them to get off their butts, to put down the Dominos pizza and get the heck out of their dorm rooms, and live… live, damnit!
Who was he kidding? What mojo? What bravado? He’d be lucky to make it to retirement before they gave him the boot. The whole thing made him furious. He threw the cheap pen down onto Polly Eckhart’s exam paper and it broke apart, spewing ink all over the page. Great. How to explain that to her? Sorry Polly, my (non-existent) dog attacked your exam. Polly looked like her name. Her face was pinched and pointed like a beak, a beak with acne. How can I make up for this, dear? Polly want a cracker? Polly want an A?
“Polly want a roll in the hay?”
That startled him. Had he really said that out loud? That might have been overlooked years ago, but now, nothing could get you fired quicker than a stupid sexist remark like that. Your age is showing. You’re not Frank Sinatra. There is no Rat Pack. Get a grip, damnit. He took a quick look behind him. The Armenian prof from the Psych department was giving him the hairy eyeball. Mind your own business. Dan knew what his wife would say right now (second wife, a dancer, from the mountains of Tennessee, God help him. What was he thinking when he married her?). She would say that he was having a spell, that he was “tetched”. He wasn’t having a bloody spell. He wasn’t cracking up. He was having a spate of righteous and richly deserved indignation. Still, he reasoned, he’d better make sure he was OK by administering the test, the Epstein family test his brother had made up.
His older brother, whom Dan had visited that on that last night at the Overlook hospital, told him that if he ever thought he was losing his mind, to take a simple test. Robbie had leaned over his food that night, leaned across the orange plastic table, smiling, leering, actually. It must have been the Thorazine that created that white residue around the corners of Robbie’s mouth. Dan couldn’t get rid of that image, the last thing he could remember about Robbie. Well, at least they’d fired the attendant who left the door to the roof unlocked.
“Danny, listen…” Robbie had hissed conspiratorially, as if the orderly in the corner of the room gave a damn about their conversation, “…if you ever think you’re, you know, going…”
He raised his plastic spork to his temple and made the universal circular gesture for “cuckoo.”
“…just administer this little test to yourself: Recite three clear, undeniable facts. Recite them until you calm down. If you can recall three disparate things that you know are true, you aren’t going bonkers. Trust me. It works. It restores your belief in… uh…you know…”
He held the spork up like a scepter.
“…the sanctity of objectivity.”
If this test produces such therapeutic results, then why are you here, Robbie, Danny thought at the time. Why are you sitting in front of a plate of spaghettios and mashed potatoes with a spork? How could this happen in our family? Dad used to take us into the city, to Lutece for Mother’s Day, for God’s sake. Two glasses of wine and you’d hold forth on Huntley and Brinkley and bring down the house. I’d go home afterwards and transcribe your discourses by memory. What happened to you? Why’d you jump off the roof an hour after I left? Did you take the test and fail it? Did you…
“…run outa facts?”
Whoa, that was loud. Dan’s breathing became labored and he felt himself wheezing. Oh, God.
He could feel the Pysch prof still eyeing him ruefully from behind as the Bach ground to a conclusion onstage. Suddenly, Dan felt giddy, giddy and naughty. Hang on, Dr. Kasadorian, he thought, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The night is Jung, baby. Get it? He giggled, but he didn’t like the sound of it, so he stopped.
Alright, that’s about enough of that. Time for the test. Three facts. Quick. Just pop them out. He mumbled them to himself and ticked them off on the fingers of his left hand, which was hidden in his lap:
“A Sherman Tank has 5,437 parts.
The natives of Easter Island called their statues the Mo’ai.
Paul McCartney’s working title for “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”
There, he did it. Boom boom boom. Bang bang bang. Presto chango. Hey, he felt better already. Thanks, Robbie.
But, he was still having trouble focusing on his kids as they botched the ending of the Bach and his mind floated again and he happened to glance at the stained glass doors that lined the south wall of the chapel. That was when it happened. That was when everything changed.
The Exit light above the center panel began to flicker on and off. At first, he dismissed it as the random sputtering of a fried wire or something. But he couldn’t take his eyes off it. Then, he made the connection. He realized what was really happening. When it blinked twice, the orchestra sped up. When it blinked once, they slowed down.
He looked around. How could nobody else see this? What the hell? Was it signaling just to him? Was he receiving some special communication from somewhere? He knitted his brow, glared at the center door Exit light, and willed it to blink. It did, three times, quickly. Simultaneously, the oboe player squeaked and stopped playing. Hmm. He glared at it, again. It blinked slowly, four times in succession, then completely burned out. Just as that happened, Maestro Jeff scratched his rear end with the hand that wasn’t holding the baton, which threw him off and he messed up the beat pattern at the end of the Gloria and the orchestra ground to a halt, like a record that slowed down if you suddenly unplugged the turntable. There were a couple of stifled titters from the kids in the balcony, then the (ersatz) Maestro leaned forward, covered his mouth with his palm, uttered some measure numbers sotto voce to the orchestra, and the Bach resumed once again before lumbering to a close.
With a dizzying rush of clarity, Dan realized that he had just altered the performance. With his mind. Why hadn’t he known that he possessed this power before? He wondered what else could he do? He cocked his head quizzically at the stage. Jeff, who had been given the directorship of the orchestra a year after he came onto the faculty, and who might or might not be having an affair with Kathy from Medieval Music, was now flogging the kids through a strident and soulless reading of the Barber Adagio for Strings. Maybe it should be called the Adagio for Springs, because it sounded like the orchestra was jumping up and down on a bed.
But see, everything is different now, now that I know I have the power. It’s a beneficence, a benevolent visitation. St. Dan the Benign. The lights over the two outer doors were still functioning. Suddenly, they started blinking as well, beaming something to him, just to him, like Morse Code, like Semaphore flags seen from the deck of a storm-tossed ship at night… Bravo… Yankee. Bravo… Yankee!
“This means something. This is important.”
Jeez. That came out way too loud again. The psych prof was probably still glaring at him but he was past caring. She could figure this out later, or she could just read the monograph he would publish in The Lancet, he thought, giddily. Who knows what he might be able to do next? He turned around, gave her a wink and said, in his best Barrymore stage whisper:
“The night is Jung, Professor Kasadorian.”
Her eyes popped open.
He pointed to the lights, the busy, busy lights.
“This means something. This is important. Isn’t that what Richard Dreyfus said in “Close Encounters”? And why is the college handing out defective pens?”
His attention drifted away from her. She opened her mouth like a fish and he couldn’t look at that. The lights. He read the messages. They were coming faster and faster, almost too fast for him to process in real time. Everything was spinning, speeding up and whirling around. Bravo Yankee. They were spelling out “Bye Bye”. Bye bye to what, to whom? I mustn’t miss anything. In Close Encounters, Dreyfus was trying to explain to Terri Garr why he was sculpting a replica of the Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes. Potatoes. Robbie had potatoes on his plate at Overlook. Connection! Dan Quaile misspelled potatoes to a bunch of first graders. Ruined his political career. Connection! Wait. Wait. Reel it in. Reel in your mind, like Robert Shaw tried to reel in the shark in that other Dreyfus flick. Shark. Potatoes. Potato Shark! Dun dun dun dun dun.
Get up. Now is the time to act, now that you know you have the power. Who knows how long it will last, how long the sirocco will blow? The sirocco! There’s a good fact for the next test. Fact: There has been a law on the books in Sicily since the time of El Cid that said you could kill your wife and blame it on the sirocco, the hot wind that blows up from Morocco and has the power to drive men insane. Dun dun dun dun dun.
He was jarred back to reality by a particularly bad screech from the violas. No. No. This sacrilege cannot go on. What would Barber say? Samuel, not Sweeney. Well, for that matter, what would Sweeney say, Sondheim’s malevolent barber, Sweeney Todd. He giggled at the connection and he realized he was able to hum the overture to Sweeney Tod at a fourth below the tonic of the Adagio, in triplets to the quarter, as it rolled off the stage. Deedle -ee deedel deedle-ee.
One isn’t given this special knowledge for nothing, Dan. Time to act. He had to save the Barber. Save the Barber and save himself. Save the Barber, kids!! Forget the whales. Forget global warming. Save the Barber. Yes, those kids, up on that stage, they needed to hear the big G flat chord that was coming up in the climax. They need to hear it played right. Right!! He felt himself rising, standing. He would seize the moment and seize the baton! He felt like he was being jacked with a thousand volts, coming up from the bowels of the earth. The lights. Maybe he was siphoning electricity off the faltering electric circuit in the chapel. He began to move up the center aisle towards the stage. Bravo Yankee. Bye bye.


“Dan. Can you hear me? Professor Epstein… look at me… look at me, please.”
His eyes popped open. God. It was Doctor Wang, leaning over him. What was happening? He had a tube coming out of his arm. He was wearing hospital pajamas. He was flat on his back and Wang was peering at him.
He made a mental note to change doctors. Wang exaggerated his diagnoses. This time, though, he would beat Wang to the punch. Ha Ha. Whatever was happening, he had the right to ask for a second opinion. Why not? He tried to speak. His voice was a raspy croak.
“Good evening, Doctor Wang. Before you say anything, I wish to consult with your colleagues Doctor Dang and Doctor Doodle.”
Wang nodded to a nurse, who elbowed her way to his beside and stuck him with a needle before you could say Jack Robinson, only no one had said Jack Robinson in quite a while, not since…Jackie Cooper…Treasure Island…Wallace Beery…har…har… freakin’ hardy…har…har…
***
Professor Epstein extended the pebbled green cocktail glass out in front of him and let the sun play on it as it sunk beneath the horizon. Two weeks had passed. Turns out, Moss College was more concerned with the fallout from a headline like: “Professor Goes Nuts at Concert” than with reprimanding him. Suddenly, it seems, he had a vacation coming. Oh, joy! Manna from heaven. Better manna from heaven than pennies, which were practically useless… useless. He looked at the liver spots on the hand holding the glass…useless… which brought to mind another fun fact for the test: That was John Wilkes Booth’s last word, as he looked at his hands in the burning barn: “Useless”… and he held the Margarita glass up to the sun, there, on the veranda of the Mayapan Suite of the Ritz Carleton in Cancun.
The waitress from room service refreshed his drink. He gave her that winning Epstein smile. Never failed. He winked at her like Caesar Romero had winked at Catwoman and rolled out his schoolboy Spanish:
“El noche esta joven, senorita.”
She giggled in response.
“Si, yo estudio El Espanol en la Escuela Major hace cincuenta anos”.
“Oh my, senor. Your accent is very good.”
“Si, cara mia, me olvido mucho, pero me recuerdo mas bien despues de tres margaritas.” He tried to say “margaritas” like he was Warren Oakes in “Pancho Villa”. Then, he winked at her. She giggled again and walked away. See? He’d be in jail for that up north. Down here, it was just part of an elaborate and time-honored courting ritual.
He stumbled back into his room and flopped on the bed. He swept his wife’s legal papers onto the floor and flipped on the tube. Marx Brothers. Duck Soup. Groucho, singing “Hail Fredonia”. Flipped a channel. The heck with CNN. Flipped another channel. It was a car commercial out of Playa del Carmen. All the employees were draped over the cars in the dealership showroom wearing plastic Groucho Marx noses and moustaches and singing some jingle.
He leapt out of the bed like it was on fire.
What was this? What was he supposed to do about this? He pointed to the screen accusingly, like Spencer Tracy at Nuremberg, standing in the middle of the room and weaving left and right. Do you mean to tell me this was just a coincidence? Groucho on one channel and car salesmen pretending to be Groucho on another channel. No. No way.
“This means something. This is important!”
He bounded onto the veranda. He had to put it together. The sun was going down. Everything was beautiful. The sea shimmered. Maybe the Potato Shark was out there. The palm trees waved. Here he was in Paradise and Groucho was trying to tell him something. Fredonia! That’s it. He’s found it. This is his Fredonia. Unable to restrain his exuberance, he threw his glass as far as he could into the swelling dark. It bounced off a beach umbrella two floors down and exploded onto the tiled deck next to the pool, where it startled a couple in the hot tub.
Daniel Epstein wept with joy. He sobbed, leaning out against the railing. Then, he drew himself up and saluted into the night, saluted and shouted above the crashing waves in the Gulf of Mexico, shouting through his tears: “Hail, Fredonia. Hail, Fredonia. Hail, Fredonia!!!

Rob Tomaro is currently in his twentieth year as Music Director and Conductor of the Beloit Janesville Symphony in Wisconsin. He holds a Master of Arts Degree and a Ph.D. in Music Composition from New York University and a Bachelor of Science degree in theater from Northwestern University.

Categories: Fiction

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Shawn Berman runs The Daily Drunk. You can follow him on Twitter @Sbb_writer.

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