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Short Story

Major Change

A short story by Michael Wreen, with apologies to Raymond Chandler.

The door at the end of the hall was slightly ajar. A sliver of light the thickness of a broken bottle tried to crawl out but two careless feet kicked it back in. Whoever it was didn’t like noise but thought that imitation Chanel was next to godliness.

I walked to the door, gave it a push, and said: “After hours is no time for student conferences. And if you’re looking for the next exam, you’ve just flunked. I expect cheats to know enough to use a flashlight and close the door.”

Waltina Weber was about as surprised as a bride on her wedding night. Only a faint smile told me that she had a sense of humor.

“Professor Marlowe, I didn’t know where to go. It’s my brother. He’s a freshman and has been here only a month. But he’s in big trouble already.”

I looked at the pulled-back blond curls, the maroon sweatshirt, the loose blue jeans, the three-colored Nikes, and the backward baseball cap. Straight off the student assembly line, except for the whiplash smile and the soft sky blues behind wire-rims. It was hard to tell how many lies she had in store for me. At least a dog hadn’t eaten her homework.

“Trouble runs in the family, Waltina. Breaking and entering isn’t tossing a frisbee.”

“Listen, Dr Marlowe, I’m sorry I picked your lock. There’s no way to turn the hall lights on, and I just couldn’t sit there in the dark.”

I pulled out my pipe and packed it tight. The article on Aristotle would have to wait for another night.

“Will you help me, Professor Marlowe? My brother won’t last another hour without your help.” “Okay Waltina, I’ll bite. What’s the problem?”

“I can’t tell you here. Come with me over to the Student Union.”

•••••• • • • •

We were there in ten minutes. Sixteen thousand students jumped, shouted, drank, and yelled. A rock band not louder than a bazooka played ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” with every fourth note missing. Brains were in short supply, but there was no demand anyway. I looked for the door.

“There he is, Dr Marlowe. That’s Jason in the back, standing on a table and lecturing to the crowd. His fraternity brothers are all around him.”

“Why do they look like dogs who just discovered a threelegged cat?

“That’s the problem. Jason pledged Phi Sigma Tau as soon as he arrived here at State, and no one was a better brother. He chugged a quarter keg his first day at the house, and the next day he was thrown out of class for saying crude things to the teacher. His brothers loved him and everyone else preferred Typhoid Mary. But last week someone put a copy of the Critique of Pure Reason on Jason’s bed, and for some reason he read it. All 700 pages. The next day he dropped his accounting major and declared philosophy. The worst thing is that now he never stops talking about synthetic judgments, a priori truths and paralogisms. His brothers want blood.”

Jason had about two minutes left. There wasn’t even enough time for him to finish his explanation of space as the form of outer intuition. I could have driven a tractor-trailer in there and scared one or two of them. I could have picked up the chapter president and thrown him against the wall. I could have pistol whipped the sorority group. Instead I opened my mouth.

“That doesn’t explain why space has three dimensions but time only one,” I yelled “And what about Einstein’s space-time continuum?” Several heads turned but it wasn’t enough. I had to let Jason have it.

“Isn’t this all a matter of opinion anyway?” I shouted. “And aren’t you really just playing with words?” Jason looked like I had applied a cattle prod. His mouth dropped, he got down off the table and he stared blankly at one of his brothers. He was looking but he wasn’t seeing. Amazement popped up on the faces around him like dandelions. The brothers were happier than circus clowns. When somebody gave him a beer, I yelled: “Now that’s reality!” A cheer went up, Jason smiled and drank, and I elbowed my way to the door. What did it matter that a refutation wasn’t any good as long as you weren’t sleeping the big sleep?

© Michael Wreen 2001

In between doing Marlowe impersonations, Michael Wreen is a professor of philosophy at Marquette University, Milwaukee.

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