The self-deprecating, handsome, reckless Dr. Rhodes arrived in Madison at 11:20 p.m. on a Wednesday night from Chicago by Greyhound bus. He was flat broke.
The interview for the assistant professor position was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on Thursday. He wondered if his god-given charm would save him the cost of a hotel for a night, and he hadn't made a reservation. So he went to a bar on Washington Avenue and started making friends.
He found a little hidden place with 18 rotating craft beers, 150 bottled selections, and over 70 whiskeys. No jukebox, no television. Just quiet dark talk. He decided to make up a fake name, just for the heck of it, just to avoid questions. He called himself Marcus Donatello, and paid in cash.
He overheard a group of young people arguing about who was the better writer, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. He could talk for hours on that subject, so, he thought they would be good marks. Three guys were in animated debate, two bearded and one clean shaven, and two women, one dark-haired, a ball-buster; and one blond, slim, under five feet, the way he liked them. He charmed them quickly, and they started buying him drinks.
It was a girl just like the blond one who cost him his last job, at that other university. That girl, the one who ruined his life, approached him after the 12th class day with a “C” on her first quiz, and asked if there was anything she could do to raise her grade. Her lips were raw pink salmon. He said she should study harder.
When she came to his office hours at the other university two weeks later, with 76% on the multiple choice quiz, difficult, yes, but not so much if you actually read the chapters and attended class. He was at a loss for what to tell her. She had already missed twice. He offered to tutor her. They cracked the books and he started explaining, asking her to repeat the ideas back to him from time to time. She seemed to get the hang of it, after a while. Or so he thought.
Next, still at the old university, one of the graduate students was having a party. So he went. He told himself not to drink too much, as he was often wont to do, but the rowdy boys trapped him in with political conspiracy stories and hard liquor. He went a little too far.
He was trying to escape, get away, get home, when he ran into her in a hallway outside of the bathroom.
She was coming on heavy, with her moist pink lips, trying to negotiate with sex for a better grade. And she looked fine, mighty fine. He didn't mean to let it go so far. They kissed and he felt her up quickly, until he came to his senses, and lunged for home.
When she dropped his class a few days later (now nearly 6 months ago) he didn't think much about it.
Until near the end of the semester when the dean called him in with the human resources girl and they told him about the harassment charges. She said he touched her breasts. He only vaguely remembered that part, but he didn't deny it. By the end of the summer they decided to not to renew his contract. He wasn't tenured, so he didn't have protection against such things. He had to pack up his office of 10 years with only a week's notice. He thought he'd be at that other university until he retired.
This new job, now, in Wisconsin, was tenure-track. He wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
But here it was, 4:00 a.m., closing time. No place in town stayed open any later The ball-buster was taking a shine to him, and he had to stay somewhere. He didn't even know where the closest hotel was.
But he didn't like the ball-buster. She was too big and loud and dark. He liked the pretty little quiet blond one, who was so drunk she could barely stand up.
So, he asked her where she lived, and she couldn't even spit that out. She had lost her shoes and phone somewhere, so he had to rifle through her purse to find something with an address on it. It said Duluth. So he tracked down one of her bearded friends.
“She's clueless, that girl. She'll never make it to graduation,” he said with some disdain. “I think she lives at the Towers,” he said. “Up the street. You can't miss it.”
“Come on,” said Professor Rhodes, and gently hoisted her up over his shoulder. She made a soft squealing sound, but didn't seem to protest much. It was his sincere intention to get her safely home, crash on her couch, and disappear before she awoke in the morning.
But that was not to be.
Outside of the bar, she realized that she had lost her shoes and her phone, and she began to panic about it. She wiggled her way off him, and hit her head hard on the cement coming down. She seemed okay at first, kind of laughing it off.
“Who are you and where are you taking me?”
“I'm a professor and I'm taking you home.”
“You are?” she said, starting to glow. “I've always wanted a professor to take me home. But they never seem to notice me, you know, professors. I mean, I guess you noticed me. So maybe you're different.”
“I don't know why nobody notices me. But they don't. I just kind of blend into the background. I try to speak up, you know, in class, but what I have to say, it just, doesn't seem that, well, important. Sometimes I just feel like a number.”
“Nothing that anyone says in class is really that important.”
“Really? That's so nice of you to say. Who are you again?”
“It doesn't matter.”
“The fence is tomato batter.”
“The fence is tomato batter. I had cookies but somebody erased his face...”
Then she started crying.
“Aw. Now. Don't, I don't like it when girls...come this way. We need to walk this way.”
“Okay. But clover toes on the football...” she muttered, trailing into sobs.
“I think I see the Tower. Let's cut down this way,” he said, holding he hand gently.
And then she started vomiting.
“Oh, great,” said Rhodes, “You got my shoes.”
They were in an alley. She started holding herself up on a brick wall with both arms, bent over. She continued to vomit violently. Every few heaves she would stop, wipe her mouth with her arm, catch her breath, and mutter, “I'm okay I'm okay I'm okay I'm okay.”
And he said, “Yes, you're going to be fine. Now what's your apartment number?”
But before she could answer, she threw up again.
“Good god, how much did you drink tonight?”
He looked up at the big 3/4 waxing gibbous moon in a dark nearly starless sky, and waited. It was so almost full, so imperfect. Some part of him, deep inside, wanted to say a prayer for the girl. Or for himself. But he had forgotten how.
And then, she crumpled up and fell.
That's what it sounded like, a small crumpling up, like a pile of dirty laundry, falling on the floor.
When he looked over, she was laying on the ground like it was a bed, her toes turned inwards, her hands curled up on her chest, as if she was holding a blanket. Her long cornsilk hair covered her face crosswise.
He called over. “Come on. You've got to get up.”
She didn't move.
“Come on, um...” Shit. Forgot her name. “Sandra? Um, S-sarah?”
Something was wrong.
He moved to her, stumbling from all the booze in his own system, and the worry and shock and dread all coming at him at once...
“Sarah. Wake up. This isn't funny. You can't pass out here. We've got to get you home...”
He lifted her blond hair back, and saw her wide open eyes and slack jaw. His life was over.
He stumbled back to the brick wall, gasping for breath. It couldn't have possibly happened. It couldn't have actually gotten worse. This was supposed to be a new start for him. Where was that guardian angel who always saved his ass, his charmed life, that the young Turks he taught so admired?
Crying. He heard crying. Was she alive?
He looked over at her, desperate to see movement. No. It was him. He was crying.
He shook it off. He got down and crawled over and felt her wrist. It seemed cold and stiff already. No pulse. Check the neck, none there either.
What had happened? This wasn't just the drinking...he had seen the drinking before...
He reached his arm around her small thin shoulders, lifted up her head. An observer would think he meant to kiss her. But he was trying to see her open eyes in the moonlight.
The left pupil nearly filled the iris. The right was a pale blue sky with one tiny black dot.
He put his face very very close to hers. She was so pretty. Her skin was so perfect. She smelled like babies. But there was nothing. No breath. He put his ear to her chest, and listened, listened hard.
He heard a loud grunting shout. The kids were still partying somewhere near campus.
But there was no heartbeat. He knew it. He had seen death once before. He was with his mother when she passed of cancer. This, this was the same.
No. Maybe just a coma. Maybe still alive.
So...he should take her to the hospital. That would be the right thing to do. Drop her off on the curb.
No, what if someone saw him. There would be questions. There would be reporters. Police.
He couldn't risk it.
He sat with here there. Holding her hand. In the alley. He talked to her, a long time. About all the mistakes he made. About the girl that got him fired back at the other university. About the one he should have married, but cheated on. How it broke her heart when she found out. About what a lie his degree was. Oh, he could do the work alright. Read and write for hours on end. But he didn't really deserve to have any position of authority over anyone. He could barely take care of himself.
By the end of his confession, her lips were steel blue.
There had to be something else. He pulled out his cell phone and pulled up the maps.
The blue dot showed him in Madison, Wisconsin. There was lots of blue nearby. Lakes. Wingra. Mendota. Monona. Waubesa. Upper Mud.
He picked up her lifeless frame, and carried her, across the streets, across the park. He followed the smell of water in the moonlight.
At the shallow water on the banks, he let her roll off his body again, with as much care as if they had just made love. She floated gently on her back, face up, eyes now serenely closed, and her hair flowed out and away from her body like fairies as her head started to sink.
He held onto her ankle. If he let her go, there was truly no going back. No explanation could ever suffice to make it okay in the eyes of the law, or of rational people, as to why he hadn't just called an ambulance, or the police.
But it was better this way. It was right. He would just have to live with it, like he did with so many of his secrets, of the stupid things he kept doing, maybe because of drinking, maybe in spite of it. He was flawed, and he knew it. It was his fate. He had no choice.
He gave a firm push on her small stiff body, and let the water take her away, across the lake. In a few months, she'd either have found her way to the Mississippi, or she would appear as a decomposing body on somebody's morning walk.
In any case, she would be famous. The missing college girl from Wisconsin.
Everyone would notice her now.
As he watched her go, he felt the greatest longing, the greatest sorrow. As if god himself had abandoned him there on the lake. But he didn't believe in all that anymore. It was him. He was responsible.
Maybe he would just get back on the bus. Go down to Mexico. He had a buddy down there he could stay with. Maybe he would quit drinking for a while. Try something new.
Naw. He was going to go in there and get that job. And everything would just stay exactly the same.
What would his mother think?
What about that poor girl's parents, back in Duluth?
In the early dawn, as the sun began to rise, he traced his steps back to the bus station.