FROM DAVID SCHICKLER’S MEMOIR THE DARK PATH
Privately I’m still fairly sure that next spring I’ll join the Jesuits and become a priest. But last month when I confided my plans to Father Tillermacher, my Jesuit spiritual advisor, he gave me a hug and then squeezed my ass for several seconds past what might’ve been an acceptable football field butt slap from coach to player. I haven’t spoken to him since. I’m trying to pretend it didn’t happen.
It is September and I’m in my second, final year in the Columbia University MFA writing program. To earn extra money I’ve gotten a job as a writing tutor in the Learning Center. On my first day I work with an Israeli exchange student, then I check the sign-up sheet. Written in my next time slot is the name Melvin Duggles. I look around.
“Is there a Melvin Duggles?”
“Psst,” hisses a voice. “Over here.”
The two large ficus plants in the corner are whispering to me. I approach and see a human figure crouched behind them.
He emerges from behind the plants. He has bulging, froggy eyes and greasy black hair, and he wears a hooded gray sweatshirt with a flamingo on it. The sweatshirt is covered with coffee stains. Melvin has a picked-last-on-the-playground air about him.
I think, Be priestly, Schickler. Help the greater assembly. Help Melvin. We sit at a table and Melvin shows me a paragraph he’s working on for his English class. His assignment is to describe a room and a person entering it, and he’s been told to “set a mood via description.” As I read, Melvin watches me intently.
“I like you,” he says. “Looks-wise, you have a real Mel Gibson thing going on.”
His paragraph is single-spaced in caps and bold type. It reads:
THE MAN WALKED DOWN INTOO THE BASEMINT, WHICH WAS DRAK AND DICKENSIAN. ALSO THERE WAS A BAT IN BASEMINT AND THE BAT WAS ALSO DICKENSIAN. THE MAN DINT HAVE A NAME BUT HE WAS DICKENSIAN. PHANTASMAGORIA. THE MAN DINT LIKE THE BAT, ‘AH’ YELLED MAN, HE STEPPED ON BAT, THE BASEMINT WAS IN WALES.
My first ungenerous thought is to wonder how the hell Melvin ever got into Columbia. It turns out that he’s a gifted math major, but he needs to pass English Logic and Rhetoric to graduate and he failed it last year. I try to ignore his scent. He smells half soapy and half sour, like a hospital floor scrubbed with too weak a detergent. Get past it, I tell myself. Help the community.
“Let’s talk about diction, Melvin,” I say. “You’re trying to set a spooky mood in this piece, but-”
“You’re right!” Melvin crows. “Halloween is coming up and I want this essay to be creepy. And Dickensian.”
“Okay. But ironically ‘Dickensian’ isn’t a very Dickensian word. For example…which word sounds more powerful to you, ‘stab’ or ‘violent’?”
Melvin blinks at me with his owlish eyes. “You’re saying the guy should just stab the bat instead of stepping on it?”
“What? No. It’s just…you’re trying to write a dark piece, but ‘phantasmagoria’, for example, isn’t a dark-feeling word. It’s scientific-sounding.”
Melvin crosses out a sentence on his paper and writes over it. “I’m just gonna do what you said and put in lots of stabbing.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“No, you’re right,” says Melvin. “Life is violent. I’ll tap into that.”
Maybe Melvin read my subconscious, because violence has been on my mind since Father Tillermacher’s Ass Grab. I’ve always been skinny, but suddenly I feel defenseless. And increasingly pissed. I love God but no one gets to just grab me. In the
TV show Kung Fu, which I watched as kid, Caine is a contemplative monk but he’s also a lethal mofo. I decide that I’ll be like him.
I start taking Shotokan karate in the Teacher’s College gym two nights a week.
Wearing a gi – a karate robe – I learn punches, kicks and blocks, and I do hundreds of push-ups on my knuckles. My knuckles hurt all the time from this, but I can feel the bones in them getting denser, stronger.
One Monday night after karate I trudge to my apartment building on 121st Street.
My place is on the ground floor and through its open front windows I can see into my living room, where a crowd is having a party with my apartment mate, a Mormon law student named Tom Gumm. The university housing board threw us together.
I enter the apartment, go to the kitchen, get out my favorite stein and fill it with two bottles worth of New Amsterdam beer. Then I head for the living room.
“Hi,” I call to the group. I lift my stein in greeting and take a big swallow.
Everyone turns and stares at me and my beverage. It turns out that this isn’t a party, but a Mormon tradition called Family Home Evening. It’s a time for strengthening bonds of Christian love (with no alcohol allowed, I soon learn).
I talk with three Mormon girls in a corner, all of whom are openly hot for Tom.
“Tom took me to see Bob Roberts last Saturday,” says one.
A second girl says, “Tom took me out for soul food in Harlem.”
The third girl, Lurlene, is a hotel concierge and she alone seems uncomfortable discussing Tom, with whom she’ll soon have her first date.
“Isn’t it hard for you all to like the same guy?” I ask.
“Well,” says the Bob Roberts girl, “a true union can’t be based on jealousy.
You’ll learn that, David, if you ever experience true intimacy.”
I stare into my beer and think of my long lost college girlfriend.
A guy sidles up to me. “Bro…you look upset. Mind if I give you something?”
He pulls from his pocket a Book of Mormon and presses it into my palm. “Just think about reading it someday and, for now, enjoy your alcohol.”
“Okay,” I say.
I stash the Book of Mormon in my boxer shorts drawer, feeling it would be rude
to throw it out and misleading to display it. Then I go to the fridge for more beer.
Soon Tom Gumm begins exclusively dating Lurlene the Mormon concierge.
They often come back from dates holding hands and cooing to each other.
One evening Tom and I are in midtown and we stop in to see Lurlene at the hotel.
She introduces me to another woman concierge there, Sabine, who is a couple years older than us and not Mormon. Sabine is funky hot, with long black braided hair and she’s a slender six feet tall. She and Lurlene wear matching pink vest-and-skirt uniforms.
Standing tall in her shiny pink get-up, Sabine looks like every gilded female archetype – the Prom Queen, the Blushing Bride – that I’ll soon have to leave behind for celibacy. Her cheeks glow each time she smiles.
I get her phone number. Back at my apartment I tell myself that it’s okay to call her.