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Professor Pogg drove that morning to work in the rain. There had been a violent storm the night before, which had repeatedly interrupted his reading of the nineteenth century French novel he was in the middle of. Whenever Marie, it seemed, was about to declare her love for Eduard, the front windows of his house (in uncanny collusion with the plot of the novel) would fill with light.
      It was because the rain had been so heavy that morning that he had missed the student's hearing. Alexander Frisch, an unsympathetic fourth-year honors student from Pogg's European novel class, had lost his entire family in a plane accident. The family had been flying to Miami on a holiday the young man had been unable to attend due to a crucial mid-term paper on Flaubert which Pogg had refused to accept as a late submission. Pogg was surprised the student did not mention this at the meeting, but he decided not to press the point in conversation with colleagues. The boy was obviously too upset by the deaths of his family members to recognize, let alone give thanks for, the role that both Pogg and Flaubert had played in saving his life.
      In the Department corridor Pogg did not have time to meditate on this for long.
      “Damn it, Pogg, give us a shot. I know you have it somewhere.”
      “Murray, I have no idea why you persist with this. I don't drink.”
      “Damn you, Pogg. I know what you've got stacked up under that desk of yours.”
      In a version of Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, Pogg’s office neighbor—the department's medievalist— marched into his room once a week to demand alcohol. Pogg found the spectacle a pathetic sight: a fifty-seven-year-old man, the scholar of a spiritual, world-denying age, staggering from colleague to colleague in search of a drink. The campus was a rural one, with no possibilities for refreshment. The department chair had given Professor Murray's name and photograph to the nearest liquor store, three miles away. Professor Murray had been warned about his behavior several times and, in the end, prohibition had been the only option.
      Professor Pogg was not happy in his department. The building was small, cramped and musty-smelling; the physical dimensions of the faculty forced all thirty-three members into frequent moments of unavoidable proximity. Cronyism and factions were rife. The sixteenth century was the favored era, with Romanticists and twentieth-century Americanists also a blessed epoch. There was no respect for Africa, Victoria or the European novel. Pogg was allowed to teach it only because he knew the Department Chair had had an affair, in the summer of 1998, with a visiting Milton scholar. It saddened Professor Pogg that he owed the survival of his entire syllabus to a ten-second glimpse of two naked bodies in a closet one Saturday afternoon. Had a pair of ageing academics not chosen to grope one another like animals that fateful day in July, an entire generation of students would never have known the names of Tolstoy, Balzac or Manzoni. The fact gave Professor Pogg indigestion if he thought about it too much.
      Down along the corridor, coming from the other direction, Pogg saw the Department Chair now approaching, his feet shuffling so narrowly that he almost gave the impression of gliding towards him.
      “Just sign this when you're ready, Pogg, and give it back to Jane.”
      “What's this?”
      The Chair smiled and made downward-motion gestures with his hands, as though Pogg were a plane he was trying to land.
      “Oh it's nothing, just an early graduation form for the Frisch boy. Just sign it when you're ready and give it back to Jane.”
      “A graduation form?”
      But the Chair was already gone. Pogg returned to his office, sat down to read the form and then swiveled round on his chair to look out the window. Heavy rain had darkened and distorted the world outside the glass. The strip of sky above the college horizon was almost black with rain. In the grey, wet distance, he saw clumps of hurrying, anorak-clad students, running through the rain to their next lesson. Suddenly Professor Pogg saw himself as well,  there on the path outside, jogging with a pair of books in his arms towards a black, hooded figure at the other end of the quad. Professor Pogg peered at the figure his doppelganger was running towards, but couldn't recognize it. It had a sharp, blade-like instrument in one hand, and what looked like a toy plane in the other. The path that led to it was straight and suddenly free of students. Pogg watched as the hooded figure began to kneel down, as a mother might receive a child running towards her. From nowhere, it seemed, the rising hum of a jet engine filled his ears.
      “Professor Pogg!” the engines screamed.
      “Professor Pogg!”
      He turned around and saw three of his students standing in front of his desk. The secretary—a stern-faced woman whom Pogg had not spoken cordially to since Christmas 2006— was also there, jabbing at the students with her finger.
      “Your class is waiting for you, Professor. They've been sitting there for ten minutes.”
      “I curse you,” said Pogg, slowly and with feeling.

Pogg forgot about the graduation form for the next couple of days. Other, more pressing matters, took up his attention. The course on Chateaubriand had to be prepared for the next semester; an article on Stendahl and the animal kingdom, submitted to Montmartre, the college journal, had to be evaluated (Pogg, finding the topic vulgar and not seeing any reference to his own work in the journal, had already made his decision); the second chapter in his own work-in-progress, a biography of Victor Hugo's biographer, was barely half-done;  and finally, a priest was coming that Friday to exorcise a ghost from his house. Professor Pogg's mind was filled with a hundred mental Post-it notes.
      He lived in a house he now called home, although the process had taken over fifteen years to complete. There were five other houses on his street, and he had quarreled in turn with four of them in the rotating manner of the Open Field System, with one neighbor resting each season in preparation for their shift. Two of them were professors in the same department, a fact Pogg found both unfortunate and distasteful: Professor Kahn, who mistaught Spenser to roomfuls of vulnerable, uninformed youth each spring, and Professor Fisher, a Faulkner scholar with a lisp. Next door to him was an old Catholic Korean woman, Mrs Seong, whose name he always mispronounced. Mrs Seong was convinced she had seen a ghost in his garden.
      Pogg, who believed in neither ghosts nor God, who read Voltaire and Zola every night before going to sleep, was going to allow a priest into his house for an hour. He could hardly believe it was happening. The Father would come at four o'clock, escorted by Mrs S.'s daughter. For sixty minutes, the man would be stalking around his house, mumbling Latin and throwing spoonfuls of ludicrous holy water over his sofa, bedspread and kitchen table. It was a truly depressing development.
      “It's going to give my mother some peace,” said the daughter.
      “You know perfectly well why I'm doing this,” said Pogg. “It has nothing to do with feeding your mother's morbid superstitions.”
      “Now, now, Professor. Don't be mean.”
      “If it isn't down by Tuesday, you'll be hearing from me.”
      Mrs S.'s daughter was from New York. She spoke with a Brooklyn accent so thick Pogg had to lean slightly forward to understand her.
      “A deal's a deal, Prof.”
      “And please don't talk to me like a taxi driver.”
      “Sure thing, Prof.”
      “And please tell your mother to stop coming up into my garden to talk to me. I don't speak Korean.”
      “I gotcha back, Prof.”
      What did that even mean?
      Inside Pogg's house a frozen calm reigned. In the morning, sunlight filtered through the front windows and reminded him of all the books he had no time to read: Gibbon, The Arabian Nights, Hegel, five years of the Times Literary Supplement, still in their plastic, shiny wrappers. A coat and hat stand stood in the corner, still holding a certain selection of scarves and jackets. In the kitchen, a fading sheaf of opened letters lay nestled between a biscuit tin and the tiled wall. Pogg had read of a Turkish dictator's palace where all the clocks were stopped at the exact moment of his death and it occurred to him that his own house was held by a similar stasis. In the hallway, the shoe rack still had exactly eleven pairs of shoes in its wooden teeth.
      When Pogg awoke, the tree was always the first thing he saw. Its dark outlines stood out against the window whose curtains he never drew. Its branches sometimes waved, as though it was trying to cheer him up. There was even a gap in its trunk which, at certain times of the day, resembled the grinning face of the department's linguist. But Professor Pogg never grinned when he saw it. For Pogg, the tree was looming closer like an asteroid. Although his neighbor’s arborist denied it, he knew its shape was larger than a month ago. In dreams it sometimes appeared, with a human face and open arms, to hug him in the middle of some pleasurable activity, hug him harder and harder until the dream version of himself could no longer breathe.

“What do you say, James, coffee?”
      They had sent Sally from Linguistics to talk to him—a jolly, frizzle-haired, positive soul with freckles that seemed to endear her to everyone she met. Sally’s appearance was always a sign they wanted something from him. Wondering what it was, Pogg allowed her to buy him two perfectly round sausage patties at the university diner. Pogg gazed into their meaty depths for a moment.
      “Are they okay?” Sally asked.
      He nodded.
      “Are you okay?”
      He nodded again.
      “You're still in the same place, right?”
      “I'm still in the same place,” said Pogg, looking up to speak to her. “I have a priest coming tomorrow at four.”
      “Yes, you said,” said Sally. “Do you have to . . . be there?”
      Pogg shrugged, and began to stab at the patties.
      “I think it's quite insensitive of them,” said Sally. “Knowing what you've been through.”
      “They're Asians,” said Pogg. “Any appeals to humanism would be pointless.”
      “Well, at least you'll have one worry rid of.”
      “Harakiri. Divine wind. Shogun. Sun-Tzu. It’s another civilization, another Weltanschauung. I'd be wasting my breath.”
      “They'll keep their promise, right?”
      “I read somewhere that there's no word for "I love you" in Mandarin. Where did I read that?”
      “Have you seen this— ”
      “No,” said Pogg. “Not a thing. But Mrs Samsung says she sees her all the time.”
      “Is that her name?”
      “I think it's just the name of a camera. I always forget her name.”
      Pogg paused to place an entire sausage patty in his mouth.
      “She's loopy,” he said, almost to himself, his mouth half-full, staring out through the cafeteria windows behind them. “Completely loopy.” 
      They sat a moment in silence. Youth surrounded them on all sides; kids in T-shirts with Greek letters or names of bands Pogg could not recognize but only interpret ironically: Muse, Turning Point, Get A Life.
      “James, I need you to focus, because I'm going to ask you a question.”
      “I know what you're going to ask, and the answer is it's too soon.”
      Sally sat back, confused.
      “They want the house, right?” asked Pogg. “The faculty want to take the house back.”
      “No, it's not that at all. It's the Frisch boy. They want the signature.”
      He stopped eating his patty and looked at her.
      “I see.”
      “He needs to graduate. They keep asking you, but you won't sign the leaving sheet.”
      “Is that all?” asked Pogg, putting his fork down upon his place. “Is that all this is about?”
      “Why won't you let him graduate?”
      “Because he hasn't finished his essay,” said Pogg.
      “His entire family died in an accident.”
      “I believe he still has a brother somewhere.”
      “A half-brother,” said Sally.
      “It's better than none.”
      He pushed the fork into the other patty, and then stopped to look at it. Its brown texture, partly crispy, partly glistening and fatty, resembled the surface of a distant, dried-up planet. A planet on the far edge of another system, circling in darkness on its own, abandoned by the fading sunbeams of a dying star.
      “James. I'm losing you.”
      “I'm right here, Sally.”
      “Talk to me.”
      “If he hadn't had to write that paper, he would've been on that plane. Why aren’t people more impressed by the … the randomness of things? The very least he can do is finish the damn thing.”
      Pogg was trying to articulate something that resisted articulation. He pushed the other patty in his mouth without taking his eyes off Sally. The whole thing lacked a sense of gratitude—not to him, but to the superfluity of life, the joyous idiocy of things. He demanded from the boy, on absurdity's behalf, if not a thank-you, at least some degree of respect.
      Sally looked at the empty plate and sighed.
      “Are we done?” she asked.
      “You go on. I think I'm going to try their pancakes.”

That night he watched television until three in the morning. The only light in the room, apart from the flickering rectangle in front of him, was a small IKEA lamp sitting like a terrier by his feet. Pogg had a stack of DVDs to go through—mostly French cinema from the Thirties—but tonight he preferred to wade through the local morass of his culture, stumbling from channel to channel: storm warnings, cancer warnings, anxiety warnings,  Mexican soap operas, a news bulletin about a man who shot a neighbor’s chicken, Henry Fonda trying to feed his family, a new, Paul Newman telling Elizabeth Taylor he didn't love her—indeed, had never loved her. Pogg lingered on this final scene for a moment before clicking the red button and sending the room into a deeper darkness.
      He didn't go to bed, but remained sitting there, on the sofa. The priest was coming tomorrow to exorcise the ghost of his wife. Pogg's neighbor was repeatedly seeing shapes in their garden at hours when no-one was in the house. A female figure was supposed to be walking around the lawn at the back at night, while Pogg had been in Belgium at a conference. “Why didn't she call the police?” he had asked the daughter.
      He got up now and felt his way to the kitchen. He reached for the light, but then let his hand drop away and waited for the darkness to dissolve. There was the green dot of a microwave timer, the two angry red eyes of an oven, and silence. Last night Pogg had heard the sound of someone drinking water here. In the morning he had found a glass, half-full of water, in the middle of the table. Even after he realized it was his own glass used from the day before, the sight had chilled him.
      He walked around the breakfast table once, listening to nothing, marveling only at the sadness of a silent, empty kitchen. So many utensils, and plates, and appliances, now only half as useful as they had been.  A superfluous number of napkins. A needless number of chairs.
In the morning, a small body stood by the bed and tugged at his arm. Pogg woke up with a shout.
      “It's you,” he said. “I'd forgotten.”
      “Do I get a hug?”
      “No,” said Pogg. “Let me get back to sleep. Go and fix yourself breakfast—how old are you now?”
      “Six,” said the boy.
      “Go and fix yourself breakfast. You're old enough.”
      The boy padded into the kitchen. Pogg laid back and looked up at the ceiling. Suddenly he shouted, “Billy!” The boy came back into the bedroom. “Did your mommy drop you off?”
      “Did your mommy drop you off?”
      “No, Sheila did.”
      “Ok, go and fix breakfast. Today we're having a priest come to visit us.”
      “Mommy said you don't like religion.”
      Pogg looked at the boy for a moment. He seemed bigger than the last time he had seen him.
      “Not everything your mommy says is true. That's the first thing a little boy should know. You got that?”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “What did I just say?”
      “Not everything my mommy says is true.”
      “Excellent. Now go and fix breakfast. Make coffee for two.”
      Originally, Pogg had planned to spend the whole day working on the biographer's biography, or re-reading all of Maupassant's stories for a monograph he was planning. Today, instead, he spent the whole afternoon on the internet. The boy stayed in the same room to organize a civil war between two different sets of Lego people. Occasionally, without saying anything, Pogg surveyed the state of progress between the blue-brick people and the red-brick people. Whenever the boy caught him watching, Pogg quickly turned his eyes back to the computer.
      “Are you playing games on the computer?” asked the boy.
      “Hell, no. I'm doing some work.”
      The boy trotted up to the desk.
      “What kind of work?”
      “I'm trying to find out something about another boy.”
      “Like me?”
      “No, someone a lot bigger.”
      The little boy looked disappointed. Pogg stopped typing and almost promised to play with him.
      “When I'm finished we'll go out for an ice cream. Before we meet the fucking priest.”
      “What's a fucking priest?”
      They drove out to an ice cream parlor in the middle of a shopping mall Pogg spent most of his time trying to avoid as it was usually filled with people he knew. The boy was delirious with joy at the thought of the imminent ice cream. “What the hell does she do,” thought Pogg, “beat and starve the poor wretch?” As they drove, the boy read out every sign they passed until Pogg told him to give it a break.
      “Why are you angry?”
      “I'm not angry. I'm unhappy”.
      “Why are you unhappy?”
      “Because my wife died three years ago today. Your grandma. Do you remember her?”
      The boy shrugged. He grew quiet.
      “Are you unhappy too, now? Because I told you about grandma?”
      “I'm unhappy because I can't remember much.”
      “You're a clever kid,” said Pogg, really to himself.

They were sitting in front of a fountain in the middle of the mall when Sally called his cell phone. The little boy was trying to grab some of the coins people had thrown into the water.
      “Where are you? What's that awful music?”
      “I'm in a shopping mall,” said Pogg. “You're phoning about the Frisch kid, right?”
      The Frisch kid. The phrase made him sound like a chocolate commercial or a serial killer.
      “James, it's just a signature.”
      “He's adopted,” said Pogg. “The parents he didn't fly with weren't his real parents. I looked it up.”
      “It's on the internet. You can get everything you want on the internet.”
      “Just sign it,” said Sally. “We all know you’ve been through a lot. But don’t put the kid through this.”
      Pogg mentally parried the attempted jab at his conscience. A shameless tactic. He wondered if he should tell her, but Sally had already hung up.

The priest arrived on time. Pogg listened to the sound of his own shoes as he walked down the hallway to the front door, holding the largest copy of Nietzsche he could find.
      “Professor Pogg. I’m Father Evans,” said a young man on the doorstep, stretching out a hand Pogg refused to shake. After a moment the man let it drop.
      “Where’s the Noo Yawker? Whatshername, the daughter?”
      “Mrs Seong called me to say she can’t make it. Something came up at the last minute.”
      He let the man inside. Father Evans. Vicar of Christ. Late twenties, early thirties. Curly brown hair like a cabbage patch doll. Small eyes, set like raisins in the middle of a white pudding-cake of a face. He looked the priest up and down once.
      “How long will this take?” asked Pogg, tapping his book. “I was in the middle of something.”
      “The Antichrist!” laughed Father Evans. “I love the bit where he blames the Germans for Luther.”
      Pogg stared at the man. If he disliked priests, he abhorred progressive priests.
      “Of course you would; you’re Catholic. How long will it take?”
      Suddenly re-assuming a mantle of formality, Father Evans said he wouldn’t be more than twenty minutes. There wouldn’t be a reading out of the whole ritual—just a few phrases from each chapter. Pogg paused, fascinated against his will that someone could write an entire manual on such a subject. He considered whether to take the priest’s coat, but decided against it. No need to encourage the fool. The priest turned around to look at the house, as though it were woodlice or cockroaches he had been called to get rid of.
      “Where exactly has the spirit been seen?”
      “There is no spirit,” said Pogg. “It doesn’t exist. We’re doing this so that my neighbor will agree to chop down her damned tree.”
      “I understand,” said Father Evans, visibly recalculating. “So, where does your neighbor say she saw this apparition?”
      “The outhouse,” said Pogg. “And the garden.”
      Pogg told the priest to just go straight ahead, through the house out to the back. He followed the priest from behind, as though worried he might steal something. Out behind the house, the day was starting to die. A soft amber light was beginning to flood the rooms. When Father Evans began murmuring something that could only have been Latin, Pogg had to physically check the anger that rose in him by passing the book behind his back from one hand to another, repeatedly.
      “Here as well?” asked the priest, pointing to the garden pond.
      Pogg nodded.
      “She sees shapes, apparently. I think she drinks.”
      The twilight grew softer as Pogg watched the priest move across the garden, blessing shrubs and bushes, whispering fragments of a dead idiom over the ericas and rhododendrons. Interesting way to earn a living, thought Pogg, on whom the possible analogy to his own profession was not lost.
      Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum, adveniat regnum tuum…
      The priest was now leaping around the garden. It all seemed quite cheerful for an exorcism—Pogg had imagined a more somber affair. He continued to watch, bemused, as Father Evans moved in circular patterns around the green like a spiritual lawnmower. Pogg, who had hated his own religious upbringing, smiled at the irony. Having never been to church in decades, religion had, in effect, come to his house.
      “That should do the trick,” said Pogg.
      “What about the other rooms in the hou—”
      “No, no, no,” said Pogg abruptly, waving the remark away. “You don’t need to do that. This should be fine.”
      The priest laughed as he walked back towards him, a little out of breath. He had the air of someone who had just completed an aerobic exercise.
      “So no spiritual beliefs at all then, professor?”
      “None at all,” said Pogg. “We’re just animated biology.”
      “Ahh, I see!”
      “Religion’s just a glorified coping mechanism. No offense, Father.”
      Father Evans laughed again. Pogg thought he would try to stay and pick a fight, but on the contrary, the young priest now seemed eager to leave. As Pogg ushered him back into the house, he looked across at his neighbor’s garden, and saw the ghostly face of Mrs Seong, peering out from one of the fake Tudor windows at the back of the fake Tudor house. In an exaggerated, almost theatrical gesture, he pointed at the tree with his finger in a stabbing movement, but the woman gave no visible reaction.
      “I have to run now,” said Father Evans. “But perhaps we could have a drink together sometime. I’m a huge fan of European literature.”
      “Yeah, maybe,” said Pogg.
      They were back in the hallway. The priest looked at the rows of shoes by the door, and seemed to remember something.
      “Perhaps next week. I’m free most days except Friday and Sunday. Oh, and I do want to say how sorry I am for … recent events. Coming so soon after the loss of your wife…it must have been terrible.”
      Pogg stared at the man. His mouth went dry, and for a moment his thoughts scrambled for a reply, but no reply came. It was as if the air had gone completely out of his lungs. The priest noticed the moment—realized he had said something he shouldn’t have. He had wanted to ask the age of the boy, but now he kept the question to himself.
      “Well, good day, Professor Pogg.”
      Pogg could not even bring himself to say goodbye. He nodded, his eyes watering, as though the priest had just punched him in the stomach. Through the open crack, he watched the black back of his visitor shrink slowly towards the car parked in his cul-de-sac. When the priest turned around to get into his car, he stopped, noticing that Pogg was still watching him. After a moment the small figure waved briefly, ridiculously, before getting into the car and driving away.

The house returned to silence as the sound of the priest’s car faded into the distance. Pogg closed the door and turned around, pushing his back flush against the wood. To his distaste, he noticed that his hands were trembling. For the first time in his life, he saw that it was a beautiful house. Everything in it— each surface, curve, panel, join—had a smooth, polished, oaken feel. He went into the living room, sat down to sign the short form that had been sitting on top of his bureau for almost a week now, and then turned in his chair to look around. At the back of the house, a branch rapped hard against the side of a window.
      “Is that you, Billy?” shouted Pogg.
      But nothing in the enormous house gave him any answer. To his left, almost as an act of remembrance, a large box of Lego sat carefully packed away on the floor.

© Arthur Mandal 2024

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