I’m the reason David Rodriguez cradles a revolver in his palm when he walks from his suburban driveway to his front door. I’m the reason my co-worker (I would never call him a colleague) finds his silver Civic’s tires slashed in the school parking lot. And I’ll take credit for posting the dean’s address on the Internet’s extremist outposts for the next Unabomber to see.
David’s been receiving death threats marked with his address, but not his name. They’re written in care of Alec Lazarus, a half-white and short-tempered police academy dropout. Out of over seven billion living people, only I know why.
It’s two weeks ago. Novia’s abdicating the English Literature department chair, and I’m her logical successor. Unlike my baby-faced colleagues, who are forced to self-publish their research like holistic witch doctors, I’ve been published thrice in the PMLA. That’s like winning three Grammys.
David Rodriguez has scheduled our meeting in a windowless, narrow classroom with poor ventilation. Dusty bookshelves swell with academic journals no one will ever read.
"Sorry, my office is being renovated," the dean says while settling into his padded chair at the end of a long, broad table which fills most of the room. I sit at the other far end–the head of the table. David peers at me, glances at the seat next to him, and shakes his head.
David thinks I’m arrogant, but he’s just unaware. When I was young, my mother could only afford to dress me in thrift-store hand-me-downs, such as designer shirts with chalky armpit stains. That invited my status-conscious classmates to name me "Hairball." Being a hairball relegated me to the edge of the lunchroom next to the 19-year old senior and the racist kid who didn’t brush his teeth. Not even the quivering techie nerds would hang out with me; I refused to affirm their presumed intellectual superiority.
I wondered aloud why no one wanted to be my friend. My mother’s advice, "Don’t be so hard on yourself," was typically useless.
I spent my lonely teenage Saturdays in the public library searching for the wisdom my peers refused to share with me. One day, I glimpsed the words "TOTAL CONSCIOUSNESS" set in metallic gold letters against a matte-black hardcover spine. It’s one of those Machiavellian self-help books, with chapter titles such as "Apologies are never enough: How to make your enemies work for you." It eventually became the subject of my graduate thesis, two of my seminars, and over half a dozen published articles.
That may sound obsessive, but I never accomplished anything until I learned how power really works. After becoming Totally Conscious, I got to sit with the normal kids at lunch. I lost my virginity. I even married a football cheerleader. And I’m going to get promoted. To ignore the only possible way an ex-loser like me could evolve so quickly would be irresponsible.
David starts flapping his muppet mouth. "Geoff, I have a lot to do, so I’m going to be blunt. Chastity’s going to become the next department chair."
Chastity’s our feminist. Whenever anyone mocks long division for social justice, she defends it.
"Geoff, are you all right?"
"Chastity? Are you aware that she teaches an entire class about how sexist Disney movies are?"
"And yet her peers overwhelmingly endorse her."
"That’s ridiculous. One, I’ve been published three times in the PMLA. Two, I was the keynote speaker at this year’s Critical Readers’ conference. Three, my students love me. I have to post office hours to keep them from taking all of my time. The only reason anyone visits Chastity is to affirm their fear of lower-class male sexuality."
"Firstly, grad students suck up to all faculty; you’re not special in that regard. Secondly, Chastity has mentored several fine students, one whom has also been recently published in a major journal."
"I’ve been here almost 13 years. Chastity hasn’t been around for half of that."
"You’re a good professor, Geoff, but you also say things which could be interpreted the wrong way."
"Like what?"
"Some of your colleagues say that you create a borderline hostile work environment."
"You know better than to accuse me of that."
"Calm down, I’m just trying to put things into context."
"I am calm."
David shrugs. "Do you remember two weeks ago, when we were talking about unemployment?"
"What was your explanation why unemployment was so high?"
"If you’re asking me, then you know what was said."
"I do. You said, quote, ‘unemployment benefits last 99 weeks. Perhaps that discourages some people from looking for a job.’"
"I know. It was insensitive and ignorant." I don’t believe that, but it’s the appropriate response.
"And it was offensive."
Damn it. It would be one thing if I bombed The Pentagon, but being offensive–that’s unforgivable.
"You basically said all poor people are lazy, which is very disrespectful. Do you know how much it sucks to be on welfare?"
"David, let me explain."
"What’s to explain? You’re from Kansas, right? What if I said that all Kansans are fat and stupid?"
"Listen, I was only playing devil’s advocate. I actually heard that on NPR, and I thought it would be an interesting point to explore." I don’t listen to NPR.
"It’s not."
"Okay. So what should I do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I can make a public apology. I can take sensitivity classes."
"Listen, I know I’m not perfect; I can acknowledge when I’ve made a mistake. But you have to give me room to breathe; I want to grow within this institution."
"Geoff, if this was just about your ability, you’d be as good a chair as anyone."
It’s been three days since that talk. I’ve cancelled my seminars again. I haven’t shaved, I’m wearing the same t-shirt I slept in yesterday, and my teeth feel as if they’re covered with moss.
Every time I try to watch TV, sleep, or grade a paper, I think of how David forced me to tell Blessing that we can’t get that bigger house after all. My wife didn’t marry me for my personality, David.
David blamed my colleagues for my non-promotion, as if they’re the ones who made the decision. But I know what impressions I’ve left on people, and precisely how to manipulate them. The sole reason that my entire adult life has been wasted is that David refuses to read his lines.
My work desk is wedged into the corner of my dim, spare bedroom. Sitting at the beige, pressed wood workstation, I Google: "How to dominate office politics."
I could back-bite David, dragging his reputation under the water until it drowns, but that would make me look childish.
Google: "The Art of Seduction."
I could sleep with David’s wife. She’s a rescuer, drawn to troubled men she can control. But she’s unreceptive to my charms.
Google: "How to curse someone."
I print David’s photo from his faculty profile and carry it into the kitchen. As the paper blackens and curls over my stovetop, I think very, very hard about a semi-truck pushing his sedan off the freeway.
In the spare bedroom, the dean’s likeness still stares at me from the monitor. Greasy, rosacea cheeks. A head full of short black hairs, prickly enough to scour dried eggs off a frying pan.
The good book says, "An attractive conspiracy theory can seduce any audience, no matter how educated."
Google: "Alec Lazarus."
Last summer, Pharaoh Fielder, a skinny, 22-year old, black student, was cutting through strangers’ back yards on his way home from his evening classes. At the same time, Alec Lazarus, the half-white fatty, heard his German shepherd barking, and stepped outside to shut it up. That’s when he saw Pharaoh standing inside his fence, offering the growling mutt a greasy stick of beef jerky. Beyond that, no one’s been able to weave a narrative that satisfies all our prejudices.
The court-sanctioned story is that Alec confronted the victim, and that started a fistfight. Forensic evidence suggests that the boy was able to mount Lazarus like an MMA fighter, until Lazarus grabbed a rock and murdered him with a cheap strike to the temple.
Even though he clearly started the argument, Mr. Lazarus was acquitted. Self-defense. White people feared that black communities would light up again, but that never happened. Still, it’s more polite to say the N-word in Atlanta than it is to mention Alec Lazarus.
Luckily for me, the killer looks just like David Rodriguez. So I posted Alec’s name alongside David’s address online. With a throwaway phone, I called local activist groups and reported that Lazarus is living here under a pseudonym. Eventually, the rapper A.T.L. Jizzy tweeted this info to hundreds of thousands of his fans.
In reality, Alec Lazarus disappeared days after the trial, leaving his family behind and his bank account untouched. Some say he moved to Idaho, which may as well be Kazakhstan from an urban standpoint. Others say he was murdered by political activists. In the absence of any real answers, manipulative conspiracy theories fill the void. And few people are easier to manipulate than the deliberately outraged.
Today, the school, responding to thousands of complaints that they’re harboring Alec Lazarus, fired David Rodriguez. Rumor has it that even though we can prove several ways that David is indeed, David, the college doesn’t want to be branded "racist." Rumor has it that after David was told this, he kicked his office door off its hinges. Novia’s been called out of retirement to temporarily take his place.
I engineered this, so I’m the smartest man in the damn world, right? Too intelligent to forget that everything I post on the internet form home can be traced to a single IP address (in other words, I really wasn’t anonymously smearing David). Too intelligent to dismiss the fact that David’s computer literate. He created our department’s webpage, and wrote the program we use to catalog all our documents.
I could spend a thousand years studying power, and it wouldn’t protect me from my inexcusable lack of focus. A more pragmatic person would have used a fake login to access one of the school’s hundreds of public computers. A more pragmatic person wouldn’t have let his mouth cost him his career to begin with.
It’s 9:00 a.m., too early for a Saturday, but Blessing’s standing near my side of the bed, jabbing my shoulder. The sunlight powering through the sheer curtains shows her neon green and blue workout clothes stretched around her curves.
"What’s up, Baby pie?"
"You can’t hear that?"
"Hear what?" I squint, as if it helps me listen.
"Gay people matter! Gay people matter!"
"What did you do?" Blessing asks.
"Damn it," I push myself up and roll brownish gunk out of my eyes.
"Shut up."
With one finger, I push down a single window blind, careful not to buckle the thin metal. Over a dozen protestors are clustered on the wide sidewalk in front of my home, their picket signs bobbing with every step. Most of them are middle-aged, male teamsters, navy t-shirts with union shields betray their blue collars. A few are twenty-year olds modeling wrinkle-free flannel. A baby powder-white young woman holds a sign which proclaims, "EVERYONE DESERVES THE FREEDOM TO MARRY." She leans the slender, wooden plank against a car when a naval-gazing young man approaches her, refusing to make eye contact. Baby Powder nods impatiently until the boy finishes, and then uses her free hand to tug a ring of keys out of her pocket and drop them into his open palm.
Blessing’s pouting in the hallway, out of sight of any windows.
"Are you okay?" I say while allowing the blind to snap into place.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. I want you to get rid of these people."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"You’re my husband. Figure it out."
The protestors think I’m against gay marriage, even though I donated $200.00 to Marriage Equality Now, just enough to make it show up in the public records. As professors are wont to say, they just need to be educated.
I step outside, letting the front door seal shut behind me. Their chanting dissolves. Across the street, my neighbors are standing in their yards, gazing at this drama as dutifully as they watch the fireworks every July 4th.
"Good morning." I smile as big as I can fake it. "How are all of you today?"
Baby Powder pouts and steps on the edge of the sidewalk, dipping the tips of her sneakers into my yard, daring me to tell her she’s trespassing. "We’d be better if we didn’t have to protest your intolerance."
"Yeah, I see your signs. You know I support gay marriage, right?"
They stare at me blankly, like an audience waiting for a bad comedian to make them laugh.
"Listen. I was so offended by proposition 29, I donated my own money to fight it. You can look it up."
"So if you’re so tolerant, how do you explain this?" She thrusts forward a flyer. Beneath the headline, "ENTITLED PROFESSOR HAS A HISTORY OF PROMOTING HATRED," are excerpts from an editorial I wrote when I was fifteen–before Total Consciousness. It was published in the South County Register, circulation 5,000.
"And just so you know, I sent a copy to every major news outlet, as well."
"Okay," I sigh.
"May I quote you, sir?" Baby Powder says.
"Go ahead."
"Quoting Geoffrey R. Carson: ‘My faith tells me that when two people get married, they are doing so within the boundaries of tradition. Their tradition has never recognized same-sex unions as part of marriage, so there is no compelling reason to force our views on those who don’t share them.’"
"Did you read the part where I supported civil unions?"
"Yes. It’s right next to the part where you support separate but equal water fountains."
My cheeks ache from restraining my angry grin.
"You know, I once kicked a student out of my classroom for promoting misogyny. It was covered by major news outlets, too. Glenn Beck even spoke out against me."
"Did you write this editorial, sir? Are these your words?"
"Yes. I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better."
"It doesn’t matter how old you were."
A totally conscious person knows that it doesn’t matter how good of a person you are, but how compassionate others think you are. So I support the right politicians. I say the right things–mostly. One unguarded moment later, I’m out of a promotion and ancient sins are dropped on my doorstep like dead rats.
"He looks pissed off." I overhear a rough whisper.
"Listen, as you know, I’m a professor. At my school, we have the resources to help you get heard. Money, networks. Instead of a dozen people protesting outside some dude’s house, you could be leading hundreds, even thousands. You could make an actual difference."
"With all due respect, I don’t trust any organization that would employ Alec Lazarus."
"Fine, so what do you want already?"
"I want people to know that hate has no place in a democracy."
"I agree, so what’s your problem?"
"You’re kidding, right? You’re the one who wants to decide how two consenting adults love one another."
"Did you even read the editorial? It said nothing about hating anyone. Your opinion is purely subjective."
"It’s a fact."
"Are you serious?"
Baby Powder’s face is stone and regal, but she’s breathing quickly like a hummingbird.
"Listen, you illiterate little girl. I know I’m a supporter of gay rights, and if you don’t get off my property now, I’ll give you an actual reason to protest."
She begins to march in the other direction. "Hold on," I say while grabbing her marshmallow shoulder.
She jerks away with black belt force and bellows, "Don’t touch me!" The men with peppered hair close rank in front of her as she scurries onto the street. Expletives shoot from their pearly yellow mouths.
Something hits me in the kidneys and I fall forward onto the sidewalk, leaving a thin layer of my palm on the cement. As I roll onto my back, all I can see are frowning teamsters and a panting twenty-year old boy looking down at me–bottom view of a football huddle.
As if I fell into a gorilla cage, I stand one vertebrae at a time and backpedal into my yard, closer to my porch than I am to them.
"I’m sorry. I was completely out of line," I say to their leader, who’s now flanked by her aspiring white knights, begging for me to give their lives meaning.
"You know, my friend’s mother can’t read," her voice breaks into a squeaky and furious pitch, the kind of sound female pro wrestlers make when they want to get booed.
"What would you do if you moved to a country and everyone made fun of you for not knowing their language?"
"I didn’t know. I’m sorry."
"Sorry isn’t good enough," she says. I can’t help but to smirk.
"Do you think this is a joke?"
"I’m sorry. I’m honestly sorry; I’ve never been in situation before."
Baby Powder huffs and stares at her phone, sliding her thumb across the screen.
"Listen. Is there anything I can do to fix this? Can I take classes? Donate to GLAAD?"
"What you did was pretty offensive," she says without looking up.
"So what do you recommend?"
"Did you just say you’re quitting your job?" Blessing asks from the hallway after I latch the deadbolt. Outside, the protestors are whistling and cheering as if they just rescued a baby from a wolf.
I wrap my arm around Blessing’s waist and kiss her closed lips. It’s the most confidence I can fake.
"Baby, I’ve got it under control."
The sky is burnt orange as I step into my yard to pick up empty soda cans and cigarette butts. A silver Honda Civic with tinted windows is parked next to my mailbox. The paint on its hood is blotchy and chipped, the kind of damage that comes from being egged. Its headlights flash on and off. I suppose that’s for me.
I step towards the car, arms up, palms out, as if I’m approaching a cop. The driver-side window whirrs open.
"If you really want to end this, you’ll get in," David says.
I peer into the back seat.
"Just so you know, my wife is watching us. And we have your license plate number."
"Damn it, I’m not going to hurt you."
At David’s two-story house, he uses a flashlight to show me a dime-sized, misshapen lead pancake lodged in his stained-green wooden porch. Inside, rooms are mostly empty except for piles of brown, mismatched boxes stacked along the walls. We eventually find ourselves standing in his dim, bare kitchen, sharing local beers.
"I forgot you had kids," I say while pointing to a bright yellow, thick plastic slide in another room. David doesn’t reply.
The only chair is here is an old, slender, wooden one with a stack of hate mail on it. When I start to lift the pile, David chirps, "I wouldn’t sit there if I were you."
"That chair’s falling apart. I’m going to throw it out." Even though I believe him, it sounds like concern trolling.
Usually a home is filled with sound: A television, a radio, other people–white noise to fight off the suburban banality. But David’s TV is packed.
"Are you really going to quit your job?" David asks.
"I have to. If I don’t, my bones will probably end up in the foundation of the new football stadium."
"That doesn’t seem very brave."
"It’s not about bravery."
As if we’re on a bad date, the conversation sputters again as we wait for each other to speak up.
"Geoff, I’m going to be blunt. Did you spread the rumor that I’m Alec Lazarus?"
"I not only spread it, I started it."
David’s forehead doesn’t furrow; his jaw doesn’t clench. He already knew.
"Because you used a minor faux pas as a pretext to keep me from being promoted."
"Jesus, Geoff, not everyone thinks like you do."
"Then what were you thinking when you promoted Chastity? You’re smart enough to know that I don’t hate poor people; I’m not some white trash tea-bagger."
"Did it ever occur to you that I could have meant what I said? That you really didn’t get the job because you make people feel uncomfortable? It was my responsibility to make sure everyone felt like they belong."
"David, I go out of my way to promote an inclusive environment."
"I understand that. But you must be aware of how you come off to others. You just can’t say what you did about unemployment and not expect someone to come to the conclusion that you hate the poor."
"First of all, I do know how I look to others–that’s my expertise. Second of all, if you know that I don’t hate the poor, and you’re not challenging people who claim otherwise, then you’re allowing that idea to spread."
"Geoff, we’ve never had the best working relationship, but I don’t believe that you would purposefully demean any group of people. But knowing everyone else thinks that, and I do mean every single one of your peers, I was obligated to represent their concerns."
"Then you’re a coward."
"It’s not about bravery," David says.
This is the most sincere conversation I’ve had since I was fifteen.
"Here’s the deal, Geoff. As you can see, my family and I are moving. If you keep screwing with me, you’re going to be arrested."
"Fair enough. If I see any more idiot protestors harassing my wife, I’m going to shoot you."
"That’s a little extreme," David says as if he doesn’t believe me.
"Don’t underestimate me. I’ve been studying power since I was a teenager."
"And how’s that working out for you?"
Without knocking on her open door, I step into interim dean Novia Royal’s chilly, temporary office. A heavy, dark grey, metal desk sits in front of a six-foot wide window, blinds drawn open. Novia’s deep-set, sea-green eyes register my appearance. Even at 65, her neck-length hair is so black and straight that it could serve as a model’s wig.
I’m here to resign, but still collect a paycheck. Unfortunately, that means using one of the few people I actually respect.
"Sick of retirement already?" I say.
"Geoff, I’m glad you’re here. Please close the door."
Maybe the college already heard about the protests, and I’ll be offered the same kind of severance David got. That’ll save me a lot of effort.
"Geoff, what I’m going to say stays between you and me. Do you understand?"
"Have you heard about David?"
"Yeah, he got fired. Everyone thinks he’s that guy who shot that black kid."
"David was murdered last night."
"What are you talking about?" My DNA’s in his house.
"I need you to see something."
Novia swivels her broad, rectangular monitor towards me. The entire screen is blank, and then the word "JUSTICE" appears in jagged white letters. Sun glares off the windows of a two-story home with a stained-green, wooden porch.
"Is this real?"
There’s a screen door, unlocked. Up carpeted stairs, and then down a hallway. A smooth, but hairy ivory hand pushes another mahogany door open.
"Novia, if you were showing this to someone else, would you have given them a trigger warning?"
There’s a large, dim bedroom littered with creased moving boxes, a six-foot long exercise mat covered with a bed sheet, and a crusty, plastic cereal bowl. Streaks of light blaze into the room around blankets that have been unevenly folded and nailed over otherwise bare windows. David Rodriguez is gagged and bound by several layers of thick, silver duct tape to a cheap, four-legged, wooden kitchen chair. Two figures wearing black knit ski masks stand behind him. A small handgun rests on one of the boxes.
The camera lurches back and forth over wide, oak floor panels.
"Take the camera, anus." The voice belongs to someone who’s passed puberty, but can still see it in his rearview mirror.
A boy wearing a knit, full-faced, green and white children’s dinosaur mask stands over David while unfolding a sheet of notebook paper. Assuming this isn’t staged, there are four intruders in all.
"Am I in the frame?" The Dinosaur says.
"Yeah. Go ahead."
"Mr. Alec Lazarus. I bet you’re wondering why we’re here."
David glares at the kid.
"Mr. Lazarus, sir, the corrupt American justice system has allowed you to eat this community’s food. It’s allowed you to sleep in this community’s home. It’s…" The Dinosaur pauses, paces towards the window, and pushes one of the curtain-blankets aside to illuminate his handwriting. But his gaze links to something outside.
"Crap, there’s another car in the driveway."
"Who is it?" Another barely legal voice peeps as the boys crowd around the window.
"Oh snap, it’s his wife!"
David tries to push his voice through the duct tape, but it sounds as if he’s screaming through a pillow.
"Is the front door blocked like we talked about?" The Dinosaur asks. No one answers.
David, still bound to the chair, grips the seat underneath him, and uses his toes and ankles to hop inches off the floor, landing on the same skinny, front-right leg almost every time. He repeats this until the leg splits with a loud crack. After he falls on his shoulder, he wrestles his calf free.
"What are you doing?" The Dinosaur walks over and lifts David upright. The ex-dean kicks him in the shin.
"Ow!" The lead terrorizer shoves David onto the floor while his friends laugh. David props himself up with his elbow and free limb, and starts to bounce on another chair leg until it snaps, too.
"Holy shit!" One boy giggles.
"I’ve got this. One of you–downstairs."
David stands, arms are still bound, the chair seat pressing against his butt. His face is flush and his nostrils are flaring as he charges at The Dinosaur, misses, and breaks a window with his skull–the crash is muffled by a blanket which just fell off the wall. Sunlight fills the room, causing the kidnappers to shield their eyes with their hands.
David squirms under the comforter, eventually pushing it and what’s left of the chair over his head, letting them fall beside him. His torso rising with every breath, he starts fumbling at the duct tape covering his mouth.
"Shoot him!" someone yells.
"I don’t have the gun!"
"Will somebody please go downstairs!"
David’s eyes spread wide as he holds out an index finger, still trying to pry a digit under his gag.
"Hurry up!"
A flash. Garbled audio. A black screen. White letters. JUSTICE.
Novia clicks something and the video disappears. "Jackie wasn’t attacked, thank God."
"Why did you show me that?" I ask.
"Well, I was wondering if you could apply your expertise here. What do these men really want? What’s their next move?"
"How should I know? I’m not a monster."
Novia nods. "I’m sorry. I should never have forced this on you."
Both my legs are thumping up and down like pistons, but I should be used to this. I’ve seen thousands of fake murders on TV.
"Are you okay?"
"I’m fine."
"I’m going to call security."
"I said I’m okay. Do I look like I need help?"
"No. Of course not."
Immense pressure comes from my eyes and they start to sting. I blink repeatedly to keep myself from weeping for the first time since a girl I liked signed, "most likely to become a sex offender," in my freshman yearbook.
"Geoff," Novia places her hand over mine. She has no idea I videotaped part of our affair from eight years ago.
"Stop. You don’t even know why I’m here," I say and pull my hand away.
"It’s okay, have some water."
"Leave me alone," I shove Novia’s lipstick-stained mug towards her.
"You need to drink something."
"Shut up," I say, rubbing my eyes until they’re too dry to produce any tears.
"I didn’t know you would be so affected by the video. I should have warned you."
"It’s not that."
"Novia, I did that to David."
"Geoff. No one blames you for what happened."
"I did it. I put the rumor out there."
"The Alec Lazarus rumor?"
"I started it."
"Do you mean you shared it?"
I stand up and draw my shoulders back, pinching my spine. "Listen to me. David’s the reason I wasn’t promoted. So I started the rumor that he’s Alec Lazarus."
"Please, sit down," Novia softly snaps.
"I can show you the comments. They’re tied to my IP address."
"Geoff, this isn’t your fault."
"What’s the matter with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why can’t you believe that I’m capable of this?" I drop into the stiff, steel chair. Novia crouches and places her cool hand on my knee.
"Geoff, you just scolded me for thinking you’re a monster. What exactly do you want me to believe?"
"Don’t touch me," I say. The pressure in my eyes returns. "You don’t know what I’m capable of."
"Are you finished?"
I try to recall what a totally conscious person do in this scenario. But a tear escapes, and my upper lip trembles. A totally conscious person wouldn’t do that involuntarily.
"What’s wrong with me?" I whine as Novia cradles me like she would a two-hundred pound toddler.
"Geoffrey, don’t be so hard on yourself."
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