Three days before my first year of graduate school began, my father helped me lug two suitcases and a few boxes up the stairs to the room I’d rented in a house owned and refurbished by a psychology professor. A month earlier, when I’d signed the lease, I’d been relieved to find a room that came with a kitchen to share, but with my father standing in the room, it began to shrink.
The room had been small and shabby, and now it was tiny and miserable. My father opened the single window that looked out over the back yard. Below it and to the right was a small roof over the entrance to the back door. “This is your way out of here if the house catches fire,” he said. “You won’t have much time. This place is a tinderbox.”
I concentrated on hanging my half dozen oxford shirts in the small closet, but he wasn’t finished. “How many boys you say will be living here? Seven? That’s a lot of boys to rely on not being stupid.”
Before he left, I told my father everyone in the house was a senior or, like me, a graduate student. He nodded as if twenty-one-and-over made no difference in the odds on a house fire.
Al, one of the seniors who lived downstairs, spotted me in the IGA Market later that week. When he approached me, smiling, I was happy he found me a guy he liked. Al pointed to the two checkout lanes in the small store. “Make sure you get your Cleveland Indians game card when you pay,” he said. “It could be worth something.”
He walked back to the house with me, and I handed him my game card. When he peeled it, there was the face of 3B Max Alvis. “Another Alvis,” Al said. “I already have six of him and four of this one,” showing me C Duke Sims.
We were closer to Cincinnati than Cleveland, but the promotion was more about luck than rooting interest. Back at the house, Al showed me the six players he had multiple cards for and explained the game. He would win $5,000 in the “Cleveland Indians Lineup Game” if he completed the infield. A complete outfield would earn him $100; a full battery of pitcher and catcher won instant small cash.
“The season’s almost over. The Indians suck like they always do, but if you want to help me win this, I’ll cut you in for half.”
All he needed was a first baseman or a center fielder or a pitcher. If I distracted the checkout woman, he’d steal a stack of game pieces from under the other checkout lane counter. “They’re always sitting there,” he said. “There’s never women in both lanes at the same time in the afternoon.”
We ran the routine three times, maybe 150 game pieces in less than a week before Al decided somebody must have noticed. “It’s like three years-worth of trips to the grocery store,” Al said. “It’s like we’ve gone to the IGA three times a day every day since the contest began.”
After we opened the first twenty game pieces, I could see this was hopeless. We found four more of Max Alvis and five more of Duke Sims. We found doubles of SS Larry Brown and 2B Pedro Gonzales. In fact, every one of the first one hundred we opened matched the six players Al already had. We needed 1B Tony Horton, CF Vic Davalillo, or P Sam McDowell, but they weren’t anywhere in that stack of 150 game pieces.
“Not even instant cash,” Al said. “Not even ten lousy dollars.”
But he had forty-six of Duke Sims and thirty-nine of Max Alvis. “It’s fixed,” Al said.
“You bet it is,” I said right away.
“I hate the damn Indians,” Al said.
A month into the semester, Professor Agnew, the chair of the department, called me into his office. He taught the development of the English novel, Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30, and I’d written my first seminar paper on social climbing in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. “Mr. Fincke,” Professor Agnew said, “what you’ve produced here is an example of literary shibboleth.”
He paused, but I couldn’t even muster an “oh” of surprise. All I had to go on was the tone of his voice. I wasn’t about to admit I’d never heard the word “shibboleth” before, and he wasn’t explaining.
Incredibly, Professor Agnew had a copy of all eleven books I’d cited piled upon his desk. He lifted four, bindings facing away from me, pushed them to his left and said, “You need to distinguish which scholars are valued and which are unreliable.” He didn’t give any clues as to how this was to be accomplished, and he didn’t reveal which books had become the goats in his re-enactment of Revelation.
He handed me my paper, which was so thick with marginal notes on the first page I began to feel like throwing up. “Learn from this,” he said and began to busy himself with some sort of recordkeeping that signaled I was to get out.
When I left I hoped another student would be waiting, that Professor Agnew was right that second producing another stack of books researched carelessly. But the hall was empty. If someone else was guilty of literary shibboleth, he had spaced the interviews widely.
I had a C+. I’d never received a grade lower than A- for anything I’d written. That success was why I was an English major in a Masters degree program, that and Vietnam, which was waiting for me if I didn’t stay in school and keep my student deferment. Two Cs or one D and you were dismissed. I’d learned that from a second-year student after an early class. When I asked if that actually happened, his answer was “frequently.” The week before I’d asked him why he wore a coat and tie to class, and he’d told me he taught a composition class for his assistantship, an arrangement that I’d somehow never heard of because I hadn’t sought help from professors when I’d applied only to three schools, the same procedure I’d used to apply to college when I was in high school.
I looked up shibboleth in the thick, unabridged dictionary on display in one of the seminar rooms. There were plenty of entries:
A word or saying used by adherents of a particular belief or sect usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning; a widely held belief; a truism or platitude; a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from another. From Judges 12:6 as a test for distinguishing Gileadites from Ephraimites.
It looked as if my sin was not recognizing that what I thought were my ideas had already been recorded often in books and articles, so often that they’d become hackneyed.
For years, stretching all the way back to elementary school, I’d written perfectly punctuated, grammatical sentences based on borrowed ideas. In fact, I’d begun by simply copying from the encyclopedia for my fourth-grade report on Chicago, and later, in junior high school, term papers on volcanoes and alcohol that I’d at least borrowed from three or four books, abandoning the encyclopedia my mother had bought over a period of a full year, volume by volume discounted by the grocery store as a way to induce customers to spend a bit more to reach the minimum purchase for the discount on their receipt.
All of us had girlfriends who lived somewhere else. Beginning around 2:00, whoever was home began looking for the mail, which, for a month, arrived around 2:30 every day. When, for two days in a row, it arrived at 4:45, Ken, one of the seniors, confronted the mailman. “You used to bring the mail before three and now it’s almost five. Why are we your last stop now?”
“We’re sorry for your inconvenience,” the mailman said and turned away.
“We know why you’re late. We know where you live.”
I was struck by the mailman’s unbroken stride and the collective pronoun Ken was using. A half block from where we were standing, the houses were almost entirely occupied by black families. The small black neighborhood of this college town began less than a hundred yards away.
My parents had insisted I bring a Bible with me, and one night in October, with my second paper soon due in English Novel, I lifted it out of the cardboard box where it lay under sweaters in makeshift storage. I turned to Judges, chapter 12, to see what the source of shibboleth was all about. There it was, in three verses. The Gilead army, victorious, guarded the Jordan River to catch any fugitive Ephraimites that were trying to return home. According to the story, the men from the opposing armies looked so much the same that the Gileadites devised a way to identify who wasn’t one of them: they asked the man to say Shibboleth.
The men from Ephraim had no sound for “sh,” and they would answer Sibboleth. The consequence? “Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”
Some test, I thought. I was glad that I hadn’t even repeated the word in front of Professor Agnew, let alone attempted to argue for a higher grade.
The guy across the hall lived in the other single room, but his was nearly 50 percent larger. He was about to complete a thesis for a masters in psychology, and he offered to give me a test for depression—unofficial, of course, he said, just to give you a feel for what I did for my thesis.
I was depressed, all right, guilty of shibboleth, and three hundred miles from home with no car and a ten-dollars-a-week budget for food that led me to stuff myself with mac and cheese, baked beans, and ground meat. My luxury was orange juice, which I drank with every meal, hoping the vitamin C would keep me healthy.
Mildly depressed, Lando, the bulky, blond Swedish about-to-be psychologist, said after he scored the test. I was disappointed. I wasn’t even threatening craziness. “I thought I was worse.”
“That’s what I sensed,” Lando said. “You talk like somebody who’s depressed, but you’re a long way from worse.”
A few weeks later he would be gone, I thought, and I’d move into his room for the second semester, gladly paying twenty dollars more not to be embarrassed by the tiny size of my room. I saw that the porch roof was to my left now. I was sure I could reach it.
The last Tuesday in October there was a B- at the end of my paper on satire in Henry Fielding. “Somewhat better,” Professor Agnew had written beside it, but I understood that I remained a borderline failure.
On the reverse side of the last page, Professor Agnew had printed what he titled “a brief note of advice.”
“Much of the class often laughs when you speak during our discussions, but there are those who think you funny in a way that you may not imagine. For example, you twice use the word ‘e-pit-o-me’ within your paper, but in class you pronounced it ‘ep-i-tome.’ Consider your language when you speak as well as write.”
In early November, I stole a cube steak from Ken, who was watching a movie upstairs, the late show hosted by some aging celebrity who ad-libbed beer commercials, displaying empty Schoenling bottles as if he drank while watching, like us, a double feature of chillers, three hours of giant insects, mutant reptiles, and even, one weekend, deadly, oversized, ravenous rabbits.
It had been more than a week since he’d jammed a banana in the box for the black mailman he considered slow delivering letters from his girlfriend. He’d promised “coconut next time” in case the postman missed the point, and I’d rebuked nothing about his rant of slurs after he found banana mashed on the doorstep, footprints leading to the next rental’s box.
It was satisfying to swallow that heavily salted meat, though even then I couldn’t claim eating that steak as a formal protest, not half-drunk past midnight, overspending my paltry budget by three dollars for two six packs, that mailman likely asleep because he looked to be forty or more, married according to the ring he wore on the hand he’d used to wrestle that fruit from the mailbox, which I witnessed because Ken had left to go through the house declaring his joy to whoever else happened to be home, shouting it had been “a great show” as if there were tarantulas below that had swollen into the size of dogs.
After I finished the meat, I ran scalding water over the greasy plate and stacked it on end where all of us kept our carelessly cleaned dishes, concealing a crime so small it was barely shameful, so easily admitted that I might as well have confessed, though any of the other five guys who lived there could have stolen that cheap, gristly meat. Or, like I had done, cleaned up that ruined fruit after Ken left the house, scrubbing the doorstep, my back to the street so I could imagine I was being re-evaluated by a stranger.
Professor Agnew invited the class to his house for the final night, and he smiled and shook everyone’s hands as if no one had turned in shibboleth for his or her final paper. His wife served desserts and coffee. She’d made all of the pastries by hand.
I managed a B in English Novel and better than that in my other three courses. My father didn’t mention house fires over Christmas. My mother asked if the boys I lived with had turned out to be nice. I said sure, and she didn’t ask me to elaborate. I knew my parents were pleased with my grades when they paid for my bus ride back to school. Neither of them had ever gone to college, and here I was getting nearly all As in a school even more advanced.
Ken and Lando had both graduated. Al, because he lived near Ken in Cleveland, told us that Ken was trying to enhance some vague disability to dodge the draft. Lando, our landlord psych professor told us, was 4-F because he had the blood pressure of an imminent stroke victim. The professor stopped in the first night back in January to ask if we knew anyone who was interested in renting because now there were two vacancies.
At 5:00, every weekday, I watched Perry Mason reruns with three of my housemates. At 5:30 we each chose a character as the real killer and put a dollar in as a wager. Perry’s client, for sure, was never guilty. To keep things fair, we chose in a different order each show, though it turned out not to be a disadvantage to choose last because our predictive success wasn’t much above the mathematical probability. But it kept us all waiting for that moment, just after 5:50, when bulky Raymond Burr would somehow coerce a public confession in the courtroom from the real killer. When Perry was defending someone, jury duty was easy. Nobody ever had to vote.
Four dollars on a one dollar investment. The weeks when I won twice, I could buy beer. The weeks I didn’t win, I drank water instead of orange juice. Once, when I won three afternoons in a row, Al bought a newspaper to check the television listing to see if I was watching Perry Mason on a different channel earlier in the day when everybody else was in class.
At 6:00 we stayed tuned for Cronkite, because war news was almost always the lead story. During the first semester, there had been promises of light at the end of the tunnel and assurances that we were winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, but on January 31 we discovered that Tet was a Vietnamese national holiday, another way of measuring the beginning of the year, and North Vietnam had chosen their New Year’s Day to launch a major offensive that seemed to be succeeding.
“We’re all screwed,” Al said, and no one disagreed. There would be troop number escalations. Our draft deferments would disappear. Al had won the Perry Mason lottery that day, but he was looking as glum as the rest of us. When a reporter mentioned it was now the Year of the Monkey, nobody even mustered Who cares?
I had school to distract me. I started to research for my thesis on Ambrose Bierce, whose cynicism struck me as an attitude everyone should have. Besides all of Bierce’s stories and his Devil’s Dictionary, I read late Mark Twain, Puddn’head Wilson and The Mysterious Stranger, for another dose of bleak humor. I followed that with a dozen scholarly books and a host of articles, making sure I wasn’t following an idea highway paved years before. I was going to be reclassified 1-A on July 1, but I could finish class work before then because I wasn’t on assistantship or fellowship.
On March 31 everyone in the house watched Lyndon Johnson’s speech from the Oval Office. He started with troop limits and the line he’d drawn at the Twentieth Parallel, so familiar a list of policies I was ready to leave until the television returned to normal programming. But then Johnson, looked the camera in the eye and announced that he was no longer a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. All of us cheered. Deferments for first-year graduate students were a thing of the past, but suddenly there seemed to be hope.
Two nights after Johnson’s speech we called our landlord to tell him we had an outbreak of flying termites upstairs. When he showed up, I pointed out the closest swarm, a cloud that had materialized from the floorboards in the hall. “Flying ants,” he said.
“Termites do this,” I said, reaching back to tenth-grade biology. “They grow wings and migrate.” I was counting on his anxiety about the property he’d invested in to clear up this crisis.
In my old room a throw rug of flying termites rose and fell along one wall in a way that made me nauseous. “I carry a gun for this sort of problem,” he said. “It’s never let me down. Couple of shots of bug juice will do the trick. Of course, you’ll probably want to sleep downstairs for tonight.”
True to his word, he sprayed in the old tradition, the way DDT billowed from trucks when I was a boy, and those flying bugs, whether termites or ants, didn’t return.
The next morning, in History of the English Language, I asked Mary Waller how her preliminary oral exam had gone the day before. “I failed,” she said straight out. “Both parts. The thesis defense and the reading list.”
I felt a hot flash in my chest. Her thesis was on Faulkner. I imagined her spouting two hours of received opinion, or worse, choking on her words, maybe crying in humiliation. Shibboleth—the word hovered in front of me like the ghost of testing’s future. Mary Waller was on fellowship. She was an academic star who’d received an A in Development of the English Novel. “I have until August,” she said. “You get a second chance and then you’re dropped from the program.” I started to tabulate how many large gulps of the Penguin Summary of British Literature I’d swallowed in the past two weeks, accumulating platitudes about writers I’d never read.
“Don’t you have Dr. Kessler like I do for the British Literature part? You thought Agnew was tough in English Novel? Kessler is way tougher, so get ready.”
I drank a glass of cheap wine before I walked the mile to campus, imagining that the alcohol would make me relax and be more like myself, a personality, someone capable of discussing literature without falling back on ideas that everybody knew. All it did was come out of me in sweat, the day so warm in early April that students I immediately envied were lounging outside in town and everywhere on campus while I hiked up a flight of stairs and into the men’s room where I mopped myself with paper towels for ten minutes.
I was solid with Ambrose Bierce. This was my project. I quoted The Devil’s Dictionary. I talked about Bierce’s Civil War experience and the uniformly bleak stories that came from it, including “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with which Rod Serling had piqued my interest when he aired it on The Twilight Zone while I was in high school. After an hour we shifted to the reading list, beginning, I was pleased to discover, with American Literature.
But with half an hour to go, coming into the conversation exactly with the chimes from the campus library clock, the British Literature expert broke in, steering me toward Lawrence, Woolf, and Joyce, writers about whom I knew only the basics. “What did the thunder say?” Dr. Kessler said at last, as if a storm had rolled in with the heat wave.
“The thunder?” I said, buying time.
There was nothing for it but to say, “I have no idea.” My answer seemed to satisfy him, as if he’d rather listen to an admission of ignorance than a string of superficial remarks.
“You find out before the final orals,” he said, and moved backward in time to the Victorians. Twenty minutes later all three professors shook my hand as if I’d wowed them. What, I thought, had Mary Waller said to achieve failure?
I practically ran back to the house, the sweat of joy soaking through my shirt, my tie pulled loose from my throat so I could unbutton the collar of my shirt. I stopped to buy four six packs I carried in two brown paper bags. I could afford to celebrate with my housemates, and they were happy to toast my success for free. I could drink water for two weeks or trust my luck with Perry Mason, but before the killer was revealed, a news bulletin broke in about Martin Luther King Jr. who’d been shot and killed in Memphis. We picked up our dollar bills because everyone knew Mason wasn’t coming back.
The news shifted back and forth from Cronkite to the Cincinnati news team. At first, both suggested the likelihood of unrest in black neighborhoods. Before long, both began showing films of what that meant when it materialized.
The banana episode rose in my throat. The mailman might not realize Ken had graduated. Bulk mail still arrived once or twice a week in his name. The mailman might be pleased that no more mail came from the girlfriend, imagining her with someone who wasn’t as big an asshole. Regardless, everyone in our house was guilty by association.
Two hours after the first announcement there were voices in the street. “Screw whoever’s out there,” Al said, but I got up to look. The crowd wasn’t large by television standards—maybe twenty, all older boys or men, all black. I looked for the mailman in the crowd, but couldn’t pick him out.
As I watched through the front window, I sipped a beer from my second six pack, the other two gone to my housemates. What looked to be a bag of trash hurtled into the tiny front yard, and one of the men held a cigarette lighter to it until it ignited. It alternately smoldered and flared about fifteen feet from the house. I imagined it full of junk mail, the fire starter as our mailman.
While I was wondering whether that small fire was enough, whether outrage needed a larger blaze, our landlord walked in the back door, down the hall, and shouldered past me to the front window. He carried what looked to my untrained eye to be a shotgun, and he stared so intently through the window that I half expected him to break it open with the butt of the gun like any number of cowboys I’d watched in movie theaters.
I was relieved, minutes later, when the small group of name callers moved on and the fire went out. “I’ll stay and keep an eye out,” our landlord said. “You go back to what you were doing.” I was still holding my beer. Nearly twenty empty cans were strewn around the common room where my housemates were watching a report on a large fire in Cleveland, the Hough District, and nursing their last beers. None of them had bothered to come to the front window.
“You should be watching this,” Al said. “God damned Hough. You should see it for real.” The announcer, by now, was repeating himself, saying “unrest” and “shock” and “rage” while standing among firemen and police, telling us what we already knew.
Every inner city seemed to be saying the same thing—broken windows and overturned cars and looting and fires. Because of where we lived—Cincinnati. Because the country recognized the names—New York, Baltimore, Detroit.
And right then, Cleveland, shouting, like all of them, something that translated to “the hell with everything,” already sounding familiar from the flames.
Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.