The Iron Way: A Narrative of Crisis
By JOHN SOLOMON BAIN
The following is the first chapter of John Solomon Bain’s novel, republished here with permission from the author
I am at the beach now and it is getting dark. No one is here. I sit watching the sea birds circle each other perpetually as the crimson sun slowly burns its way into the ocean. The light is dimming now, and the blue-green ocean has begun to take on an ashen color. The waves roll in, bringing with them a collection of sand, shells, and dirty seaweed. The waves roll back out, returning everything to how it was. The sun is burning out...too quickly. If only I could hold on to the light for a moment longer. If only I could see the laughing face of a friend before that orb sinks below the horizon.
The Sisyphean nature of the ocean is strange to me. The coast haunts me. I miss the wide open plains of the Midwest. I miss the changing of the colors and the biting wind of winter. Here, in this tropical southern clime, nothing changes, not really. I see a dead fish wash up upon the beach, or what’s left of him: a gaping head, a spine, a bit of entrails tangled in the seaweed. He is rolled about in the waves and tangled in matter beyond his will. The whole place stinks of putrefaction. Florida is full of rotting fish and rotting people. The holiday atmosphere is merely garish lead paint; the mold penetrates everything.
I think of my children at home. It is as though I blinked and now they are young men. They have big ideas and exciting plans for their future. But I sit in the dark now. The sun has gone down. The birds are silent. I sit here in the dark, lighted only by my memories. But even they begin to fade, leaving only the emotional residue. It is strange to feel a memory but not be able to recall it. It is bizarre to look at those you have known your whole life and see strangers.
It is as though I sit on the banks of the river Styx. This beach is full of death, rotting, and the ghosts of others. Life slowly becomes invisible to me. We are all crawling on this beach, groping at each other blindly, searching for we know not what. We avoid words out of fear of revealing ourselves, we whisper only false names. We all wait for Judgment now, for what else is there? It is our only hope, our only fear.
Herman Melville sat on a beach like this once, after he deserted ship and took refuge with cannibals. After spending some time with native people, he found the West to be lacking in vitality, in reality, in authenticity. Certain types of men always long for the past, but these men are also generally well-read enough to know that in the past one will merely find other men glancing over their shoulders. I look back to Melville only to see him looking back to Shakespeare. But one cannot go back, not matter how strong the nostalgia. The world that is longed for does not exist. And it did not exist in the 1950s, nor in the 1800s, nor in any century before that—unless perhaps we were to go back to Eden. And maybe that is what we long for in the end. Or maybe I am just wrong.
There is a feeling that has haunted me my entire life: that the world is somehow off, that things are not quite how they ought to be. But ultimately, I am powerless to change the cosmic tide. The world is broken, and has been since the days of our sire. Even in ancient times you had writers like Hesiod who thought he lived in a fallen time, and looked back into the mists of legend and dreamt of a time when mortals lived freely with the gods.
But it is dark now on the shore of the Kali Yuga. The beach is only a tan smear and the ocean is a black void. I am sightless, but can still hear the churning of the waves, like the engine of some eternal cosmic machine, slowly pushing the shells up onto the beach only to drag them back out again. The moment has passed and I no longer draw any emotional pain from watching the sunset. With the pain gone I am left with apathy, so I slowly get to my feet and begin walking up the wooden steps that provide my exit. In the shadows I see a man lying under the steps. I see the hot coal of his cigarette make his face glow like a lurking demon. At night, as the flocks of seagulls leave they are replaced by flocks of homeless men.
I make it to the parking lot and get into my rather new car My family would be so proud of me being able to afford it after my years of destitution. It even has that new-car smell, which people love, even though this smell is really just carcinogenic gas from the plastic. But that is modern society in a nutshell: we love what destroys us. We throw away apples and drink corn syrup and soybean oil. I prefer my poison to be a little more traditional. I fumble under the passenger seat for the pint of whiskey and quaff some for the ride home. I think of Hemingway. Who else would a forty-year-old professor of literature think of in a moment of drunken recklessness? Perhaps Dr. Smith?
Dr. Thomas Smith is my boss, the Dean of Humanities at Helvetti College where I work. I suppose in some ways he was the ignition switch for what happened after. I had set a meeting with him to talk about my teaching schedule. I wore my best suit that day as I stepped into his office. As dean, he sort of has an office-in-an-office. First I had to step into the large waiting area where his secretary sat, Cindy. We aren’t supposed to call them secretaries anymore. Nowadays they are referred to as “executive assistants.” Cindy, the executive assistant, mostly typed things up or made coffee for Dr. Smith. She was in her forties and single. She wore low-cut shirts even though her cleavage didn’t look too great. The main problem with Cindy was that she looked flayed, as though she had walked through the lower circles of hell with Virgil. But she hadn’t been in any horrific accident. Rather, she was one of those people who thought it was attractive to tan herself until her skin was blotched and damaged beyond repair. She greeted me when I walked in with one of those chipper voices that somehow simultaneously expressed exasperation. I imagine she drank a lot of wine and rubbed lotion on her legs at night.
Even though I had an appointment for 2:00, I had to sit in the room with Cindy for almost half an hour. His office was the sort that has large windows surrounding it, so I could see him in there talking on the telephone. He had one of those loud, booming voices which he occasionally punctuated with a laugh. It wasn’t a genuinely jovial laugh. It was more the sort of laugh you made when you wanted something from someone. The sort of laugh you learned from a book.
After the ridiculous wait I finally got to meet with him. I had been working on designing some new literature course ideas that I wanted to propose to him, to see if I could get them on the schedule. He stepped out of his office and smiled at me like a shark, and extended his hand. Dr. Smith was a red-faced man with white hair plastered over like Hitler. Like most administrators, he looked like he was about to sell you a phone.
“Dr. Bain, so sorry to keep you waiting! You know how things are. Please come in!”
Once we were seated in his huge office I began telling him my idea. The entire time I was talking he kept nodding and saying “uh-huh,” in a way that is very annoying. The problem was that he would say “uh-huh,” not at the end of a thought, after one had been telling him a connected set of ideas. This is how most people do it, as a sort of polite acknowledgement of what you just said. But this isn’t what Dr. Smith does. He just seems to say “uh-huh” at set intervals, and at points that do not make any sense.
“So I was taking a look at-”
“Uh-huh,” he said, as though a 30 second timer had gone off in his brain. It was really starting to piss me off. It seemed as though he thought his responsibility when meeting with a professor was just to spit out an “uh-huh” every thirty seconds or so, smile like a shark, and then usher the person out. I quickly became aware that this man was not listening to anything I was saying. So I quickly wrapped up my thoughts and waited for the negative response I already sensed. On the wall hung an ugly picture of a sailboat and a PR poster declaring our college to be #1 at something or other. I wonder if the PR people believed their own horseshit.
I was then subjected to a twenty minute canned response that included such phrases as: “the needs of the institution,” “our changing demographic,” “state funding,” and “optimal tuition ratios.” The Dean of the Humanities never once mentioned anything that would give someone the impression we were having a conversation about education. To be honest, I wasn’t really listening to him either. I was as interested in maximizing institutional profits as he was in the pursuit of knowledge. I noticed, while he was talking, that he had buttoned all three buttons of his suit coat. You would think he would at least know how to properly wear a coat.
On the wall hung his diploma: PhD in history, Boston College. I remember him telling me once that he wrote his dissertation on Yugoslavian social history, or something equally inane. He wasn’t always the dean. At one point he was in the history department and no one much paid attention to him. I first met him some years ago after a faculty meeting. We all went to lunch afterwards, which included drinks. Somehow or another we ended up being the last ones there after everyone else had left. He was completely drunk and I had had quite a bit myself. He was even more red-faced that day. But that was before he smiled like a shark. I think becoming a dean brought that on. Somehow he had talked me into heading south with a friend of his who had showed up. I was in one of those drunken hazes where people seem to randomly appear and you can’t remember when they got there. The next thing I knew we were headed south on the freeway, with two people up front I didn’t know. I was in back with Dr. Smith and it was evening. He was telling me about how he had been cheating on his wife with some girl in HR. He bragged about how he would have sex with them both in the same day. Then he started singing some song.
Somehow we ended up in some strip club south of Miami. Except it wasn’t even a real strip club. It’s hard to remember exactly what happened, but this place must have been private or something because we just parked on a random street in a shady neighborhood and then the guys leading us opened what looked like a warehouse door and suddenly there were tables and blacklights and people lurking around in dark corners. My inhibitions were gone at this point and the insanity of the whole situation somehow sucked me in. There is a real part of me that is mad, and I have to be careful with him. If he gets out I don’t know what might happen. These were different times: Dr. Smith was just a history professor and I was a nihilist heathen. A few hours later and we were snorting coke off of a stripper’s ass on a couch. I remember it being the most beautiful ass I had ever seen, and the white powder was mixed with the blue glitter on her ass cheek. I don’t think I ever saw her face. Then Smith was asking me to walk outside with him because he was trying to get a hooker and wanted some protection. I thought the situation funny so I went with him around the back. In retrospect, the entire operation seemed illegal, so I’m not sure why we had to go outside. In any case there was a black guy out there with dreadlocks who looked far too stereotypically like a pimp to be believable. Before I saw this guy I didn’t think people like him actually existed. He was wearing a purple suit and had a walking stick with a silver ball at the end. Every single one of his teeth seemed to be covered in diamonds. He was offering up a very fat and pimpled Hispanic girl who couldn’t speak English. Whatever Smith got only cost $25. It was a weird night.
And after seeing him pay $25 for his STD I now had to sit and listen to this fucker lecture me on optimal tuition ratios. The end translation of all his blather was that I was never going to teach literature here, not really. I was going to teach basic Freshman composition to a bunch of mouth breathers that should have never even graduated high school. But the good news was that I only had to do it for another 25 years and then I could retire happily, sit down on my couch, and die. All those years I spent with Dr. Wolf (my old doctoral adviser) doing research was for nothing.
I take another quaff of my whiskey and watch a cop drive by before starting my carcinogenic vehicle. It’s past midnight and October but I still have to turn on the AC in this climate. I glance at my phone. No calls from my wife but Facebook notifies me that someone has posted a new picture of their cat. I feel hot tears on my cheeks as I weep for the stupidity of my existence, for the naïve dreams of my youth. The streets are empty now and I creep my way home slowly. As I pull up in the driveway I see all the lights on in the house. She gets nervous when I am out late and always turns on all the lights. I think of my electric bill momentarily.
As I step into the house my wife looks up from the couch. I can feel her eyes hot upon me but she says nothing. I know she is trying to gauge what mood I am in, whether she should talk to me or not. I walk into the kitchen and put some ice into a glass, pull my whiskey out of my pocket and pour the last of it. I look up and the wife is standing there. I can see the concern in her eyes but I also know she won’t say anything about it. We have been together for nineteen years and she can tell what mood I am in by the way I am standing. There is a tinge of fear in her eyes. Not of me, but rather for me. She knows that I lose all inhibitions when I get in certain moods. She just wants a peaceful bourgeois life, and I can’t blame her for that. It’s what a good woman always wants. She comes up and makes a flirty face at me and puckers her lips. Her tactic works and I laugh and embrace her. I spill the whiskey glass as I pick her up and carry her into the bedroom. I allow the debauchery to wash over me, allow myself to forget my despair for the moment.
John Solomon Bain
is a professor and author dedicated to learning, strength training, spirituality, and living his life with a purpose. Happily married to a stay-at-home wife who cooks him delicious meals. Father of four sturdy sons. Hopes his writing will help improve the life of others and help men reclaim the lost vision of masculinity. His debut novel The Iron Way: A Narrative Of Crisis is available now on Amazon.