The Chancellor’s Last Day
by Mark Spencer
Ted Raleigh, who has been chancellor of a small university in Kansas for twenty years, awakes before sunrise his last day. He slides across the king-size bed to his wife of thirty-five years, admires her attractive face, and watches her eyes moving under their lids.
“Honey. Honey, I’m going to the new house to do some work.” He nudges her shoulder.
Her green eyes open for a second. Her lips make a soft popping sound as they separate, but she says nothing.
“The movers will be here at seven to pack.”
He kisses her cheek, notices that her eyes are moving under their lids again, and then bounds out of bed and into the shower, where he sings “Time Is on My Side.”
Six months ago, when he announced his retirement in the university theater with all the faculty and staff present, even grounds keepers, he couldn’t talk for several long seconds. He could only look out at his audience through his tears, his head bobbing like an old turkey’s. As poignant as his decision was, he now anticipates his retirement with excitement.
Instead of his trademark navy-blue pinstripe suit, he puts on new, stiff jeans and a very old tee-shirt with the Golden Gate Bridge on the front that he got on a trip to San Francisco.
As he’s driving his Mercedes away from the Chancellor’s Residence, he looks back and wonders at the hugeness of the weeping willow in the front yard. The day he moved into the house, the tree was little more than a stick waving in the Kansas wind.
* * *
The new house is rather large for just him and his wife, even larger than the Chancellor’s Residence. His footsteps echo from the marble entrance and then from the hardwood floors as he flicks on lights. When he stops walking, the white walls stand silent. There’s not a sound anywhere, as if he were the only person in the world who’s awake. When the air conditioning kicks on with a bang, a chill runs down his spine. He starts walking again, his sneakers now slapping on Italian tile.
He tells himself he likes the house very much. It will be good for entertaining — and the price was excellent because the house was a foreclosure and has been neglected for a while.
As the sun rises and dew glistens on the lawn, he carries trash bag after trash bag up a long brick walk way to the curb. The previous occupants took most of their furniture but left piles of old newspapers, paperback books, and a closet full of board games. They also left a bulky lounge chair upholstered in ox-blood leather. It seems almost new. It’s strange, Ted thinks, what desperate people leave behind.
Resting, he sits in the lounger in front of the French doors in the living room and squints at the backyard, which is weedy and treeless and surrounded by a ten-foot privacy fence.
He mentally checks off his list of goals for the day. His last day. He speaks the words aloud in the large empty room. He has done almost nothing at the university for the past six weeks, a transitional period during which the new chancellor has for all intends and purposes taken over.
The Regents selected a stout, gruff woman with a bulldog’s face, a niece of the governor. She has consulted him only twice. She marched into his office, her short arms swinging and her thick neck bulging like a wrestler’s. She called him T.R., something no one ever called him before. “Explain something to me, T.R.” She tapped her foot as he spoke and then rushed out with no more than a nod of her head with its short, straight hair-do that looked like an iron-gray helmet.
As he’s pulling out of the driveway of the new house, he slams the brake when a boy on a skateboard zips out of nowhere. The boy looks back over his boney shoulder, his baggy red shirt flapping, and shouts, “Loser!”
* * *
University maintenance workers on ladders are hanging red banners from all the lampposts in the bright morning. The banners look like serpent fangs. The white letters on them spell “Renaissance.”
“Good morning. What is this?” Ted asks a worker, but the man ignores him, doesn’t even look down from his ladder.
Ted is on his way to the Comparative Literature Department. He has put in a request for emeritus status and an office. He plans to write an article on Dante’s Inferno. He published two dozen articles and a couple of books, one on Kafka and one on Proust, back in his whiz-kid Assistant Professor days before he turned thirty. He taught in jeans and tee-shirts and strolled into class, singing operas or folk songs in French or German or Italian; he won teaching awards; his scholarly achievements intimidated his colleagues; and a series of long-haired and long-legged coeds spent their nights in his apartment, one of four large units in what had once been a Victorian mansion. The ceilings were eighteen feet high.
He has been toying with the idea of teaching a class once in a while. He hasn’t taught in nearly thirty years, and the idea excites him. He will wear jeans and let his hair grow. He will flirt with the young women, tell them to call him Ted instead of Dr. Raleigh.
The only person in the Comparative Literature office is a student worker, a lanky girl talking on her cell phone behind the receptionist’s desk. She holds up a finger to him and mouths, “One sec,” a tongue stud wagging. Then into the cell phone, she says, “He’s nobody. Forget him. Anyway, I gotta go. Put some clothes on.” She lays the phone on the desk. “Can I help you?”
“I was supposed to see the department chairman about an office. I put in a request a few weeks ago.”
“Are you a new prof?”
He smiles. “Kind of. Old really . . . rather than new.”
“Yeah, well, new to us. The chair’s not going to be around this morning, but he left something in an envelope for somebody named Raleigh. That you?”
It’s the request form Ted’s administrative assistant filled out and submitted to the new chancellor for approval. Rubber stamped in red across it is the word “REJECTED.”
Ted blinks fast several times, clears his throat, smiles at the student worker.
“Is it what you wanted?”
“Yes. No. I mean...”
“Are you an easy grader?”
Ted turns away.
Outside, he stands at the top of the steps to the Humanities Building and watches one of the new banners flap in the wind. He has always prided himself on being able to see another person’s point of view. He understands that the new chancellor may feel intimidated by his continued presence on campus, but when he took over as chancellor, he treated his predecessor with nothing but all due courtesy and respect. His predecessor didn’t request an office, but if he had, Ted would have given it to him, completely unafraid that the ex-chancellor’s presence on campus would cramp his style.
As he’s walking to the Administration Building, he passes two deans but fails to catch the eye of either, and they miss his nod and smile.
When he arrives at his office, no one is there he has ever seen before. Men are moving the new chancellor’s things from her temporary office down the hall into his office. The receptionist is a very tall woman who looks as though she could be a former fashion model. She’s emptying a file cabinet, dumping the contents into a large trash bag. He clears his throat. He smiles at the men carrying furniture and boxes. But all these strangers ignore him. On his office door is one of the red banners.
Finally, he speaks to the back of the secretary’s head. “Excuse me. I would like to see the chancellor as soon as possible.”
She turns, looks at him, turns back to the file cabinet, slams one drawer and pulls out another. “The chancellor is booked all day every day for the next month. You might try to make an appointment in August.”
“I put in a request for an office and it was rejected.”
“I know nothing about office requests.”
“I’m Ted Raleigh.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Raleigh, but —”
“Is my next request going to come back rejected, too?”
“I don’t make that decision, Mr. Raleigh.”
“I want to work on an article.”
“University facilities are limited, you know.”
“I know. Of course, I know. But I wanted to start my article today. I suppose I could use the library. Can I use the library?”
“Yes, I can. I know I can.”
A man carrying a cactus into the office smiles at the secretary as he passes. She smiles back, her face suddenly radiant.
“I just might,” Ted says.
“Use the library.”
* * *
The day has become windy and sweltering. He sweats through his tee-shirt, and his laptop is heavy in his right hand. The red banners snap at him all the way down the sidewalk.
On the third floor of the library, in a dimly lit hallway, dusty former chancellors hang. They all wear dark suits and are clean-shaven back to 1899. They all look like manikins. He thinks again about letting his hair grow. And maybe a beard. Maybe he’ll get a tongue stud. Or at least an earring.
Nearby he finds a vacant carrel. He closes the door and boots up his computer. He sits awhile, looking at the blank word-processing screen. He types “Dante’s Inferno is...” He shakes his head, deletes the words, and signs onto the internet. He reads the first sentences of news stories about the economy and about the war. Then: Britney Spear’s marriage is in trouble; Jessica Simpson’s marriage is over; Tom Cruise appears happy, but reliable sources claim he’s faking it.
When someone knocks on the door, he says, “This carrel is occupied.” The knock comes again. In a louder voice, he says, “This carrel is occupied.” But the knocks become more insistent.
Still seated, he opens the door, and a woman’s round, red face comes at him, hissing, “I know it’s occupied, you arrogant son of a bitch!”
He stares at her.
She glares back. When she finally blinks, she backs off, stands up straight, wobbling on her thick ankles. She is obese, middle-aged, her mousy hair curled elaborately, her make-up heavy, and her green eyes wild. Her dress is pink and frilly, like something for a huge three-year-old.
“Do I know you?” Ted asks. He tries to recall all the recent faculty who have been denied tenure.
Her small, pink mouth drops open. She turns away from him, turns back, flings her flapping arms up, lets them drop. Tears well up in the corners of her eyes. “You really don’t know who I am?”
She sags. She speaks softly, “You ruined my life.”
He almost shouts, “I ruined your life?”
While the fat woman nods sadly, a librarian comes over to them. “The two of you need to take your quarrel somewhere else. Are you faculty? Do you have ID cards?” The librarian is a frail-looking young woman with a rash on her chin.
Ted steps out of the carrel and says, “I don’t have it with me. Nobody ever asks me for it.”
“Which department do you teach in?”
“Oh, well, I haven’t actually taught in decades.”
“I don’t know you. I need to see an ID.”
The fat woman says, “I know you. Boy, do I know you.”
The librarian looks him up and down. “I don’t believe you should be here.”
“Listen, I know you probably just started working here,” he says to the librarian. “I’m the chancellor.”
“The chancellor is a woman.”
The fat woman flares up again. “You know people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge every year,” pointing at his tee-shirt. Then turning to the librarian, she shrieks, “This bastard flunked me!”
“I flunked you? What are you talking about?”
“You flunked me. World Lit.”
The librarian says, “You need to take this outside.”
“I dropped out of school because of you.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t remember...”
Her jowls quiver. “I used to be beautiful.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that can be done now.”
“I didn’t read Madame Bovary or any of that Kafka crap you gushed so much about.”
“Well, then how can you blame your failure on me?”
“You were so nice to me. I thought you’d let me by with at least a C.”
“Outside. Both of you,” the librarian hisses. “Or I’m calling security.”
“I couldn’t have given you a C. That wouldn’t have been ethical. And why wait thirty-five years to complain? This is absurd.”
“But I slept with you!”
Ted feels like an elephant trainer who has just been kicked. He glances at the librarian, who frowns severely, her chin rash brightening.
“I was in love with you. When you flunked me, I knew you didn’t love me. I dropped out of school because I couldn’t stand seeing you any more. I’ve thought about you every day.”
“I’m calling campus security.” The librarian hustles off.
“I’ve had five husbands! I’ve been in the hospital for depression sixteen times!” The fat woman squeezes into the carrel and sits down. The screen of Ted’s laptop displays a photo of Tom Cruise. “What the hell you looking at on here?” Then she bursts into tears. Her big shoulders tremble.
Ted shakes his head. “I’m sorry. What is your name?”
When she tells him, he still can’t remember her.
The librarian returns with a young campus policeman.
“Hello,” Ted says.
“Sir, do you have an ID?”
“I’m the chancellor, young man.”
“Can you show me an ID? Sir.”
“I just told you no.”
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Sir. Immediately.”
The fat woman says, “Go on, you bastard. I’m through with you.”
* * *
When he reaches the Chancellor’s Residence, he’s drenched in sweat, and his key won’t work in the lock. He continues trying until a well-dressed man he has never seen before opens the door on his way out. Ted steps back, then catches the door. The entrance is crowded with stacked boxes. In the living room, all the furniture is gone. The windows have all been striped of their drapes.
At the bar in the den, a local businessman who occasionally makes donations to the university is making himself a drink.
“Hello, hello,” Ted says. “How nice of you to stop by.” Ted steps down into the sunken den and approaches with his sweaty hand extended. “Mr. Davenport. Sorry I’m a mess. Place is a mess. Moving is hell.”
A martini in his left hand, Mr. Davenport stands open mouthed, shaking his big silver head. “I’m sorry. I’m here to see the chancellor.”
“Oh.” Ted freezes, drops his hand. “Why, yes. Of course.”
“You might be able to help me, though.”
Ted’s wife appears from the back of the house. She’s almost as svelte as she was thirty-five years ago when she lounged naked on over-sized pillows in his apartment and the smoke of her marijuana drifted up to the pressed-tin ceilings of that old Victorian. She’s carrying a small suitcase and continues down the hallway without a glance in Ted’s direction.
“Honey. Honey! Excuse me, Mr. Davenport.”
“Wait. Do you know when the chancellor will be here?”
“No. No, I don’t.”
“Do you know if the chancellor has any scotch?”
“First shelf down on the right under the bar.”
“But it’s not here.”
“Sorry. Excuse me.”
Ted hurries out of the room, down the hall, and through the front door.
She is driving away in the Mercedes. He waves and calls her name. The setting sun blazes through the huge weeping willow.
Behind him, the door of the Chancellor’s Residence closes with a definitive click.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Spencer