Q & A
By Emily Alice Katz
Leaving the candidate’s file on the mahogany desk, in his study at home, was the first thing that Moss Erlich fumbled that day. It was only after he’d walked down the hill, his new loafers chafing his heels the whole way to campus, that he realized his mistake. It occurred to him just as his fingers touched the greasy metal handle of the front door to his building.
“Shit,” he said, just as Penley, the senior scholar of European intellectual history, was exiting. He braced himself for the enveloping cloud of coffee breath and intestinal rot.
“Oh, Moss, do you have a second? I know it’s early,” said Penley.
“Not early enough. I’m already behind for the day. Is Mandy in? I need her to print some documents for me. I left the job candidate’s file at home by accident.”
“Listen,” said Penley, coughing into his sleeve. “We’ve got to talk.”
“I know what you’re going to say. It’s about the one who got upset in my office the other day. She’s not my student, you know. I’m not her advisor. Though I did offer advice.”
“We all know you’re not a mean guy,” said Penley, “just emphatic. But the first-year PhDs don’t know the difference yet.”
“Another time,” said Moss. For God’s sake, he thought, did the man never brush his teeth?
Mandy’s swivel chair sat empty behind the front desk of the department office. Moss checked his watch. Where the hell was she? There were a million things for which he could use her assistance. No longer being chair of the department didn’t mean his workload had lessened. Far from it. He supposed he could print up the files himself but he doubted the documents were on his computer anymore; he liked to joke that deleting emails kept his wrists limber.
No amount of wrist exercises, alas, could have helped him hoist open the windows in his office on the second floor, which seemed to have swelled shut in the late summer heat. Wet circles bloomed under his armpits, and he rolled up his sleeves. He humped into his chair. It took him a second to recall the candidate’s name but, once he did, he found her two published pieces online—she worked on gender and the occult in early modern Jewish culture—plus her CV. Jewish history didn’t interest him (and he resented the implication that it should), but he knew enough, from over the years, to bluff. He wasn’t even on the search committee, after all. He only needed to read enough of her work to lob a couple of questions at her during the Q & A after her talk. Duty fulfilled.
His office phone rang. He wedged the receiver into place, a twinge of stiffness in the muscles between neck and ear.
“Moss, I caught you. Great.” It was the scholar of Soviet women’s history. “My son has been up vomiting all night. I can’t take the job candidate to coffee this morning.”
No, she wasn’t kidding. This was not exactly how she wanted to spend her day, she said. He protested: he knew nothing about this candidate’s area of expertise, it was going to be hard enough to make the talk with everything else he had going on today, never mind the lunch beforehand, and now this. You’re damn right you owe me one, he thought, smacking the phone into its bed.
He had just a few minutes now to spare. He blew through the morning’s emails. Two from the dean of humanities. Subject Line One: “Tête-à-tête
.” Subject Line Two: “Meeting today?” Both covered the same material: the dean wanted to know if Moss could come by, tomorrow at the very latest, to discuss a subject “of some concern that has lately come to my attention,” whatever that meant. The man was a champion equivocator. If he wanted to go mano-a-mano
over Moss’s proposed changes to the undergraduate major, fine with him. Delete, delete.
Only one email was from his wife. Of course this latest miscarriage broke his heart, too, and he made a mental note to follow up with his daughter by phone later that day. He couldn’t yet face his daughter’s tremolo of grief. Or his wife’s spiky stoicism. As if it were somehow his fault that he couldn’t drop everything, like his wife could, and fly off to Portland to console his daughter. As if he wouldn’t just be in the way.
He arrived at the student center coffee shop only a few minutes after the appointed time. He hadn’t set foot in the student center in ages, certainly not since the multi-million-dollar renovation. The place still smelled like the tiles had been mopped with sticky buns. The job candidate looked as he expected she would: like a grown-up version of one of his daughter’s long-ago Hebrew school classmates. (The mere thought of Hebrew school sent a chill down his spine; that had been his wife’s bailiwick, when their daughter was young.) Elena Mintz-Heller wore a checked blazer and a longish skirt and her hair was a perfect helmet of auburn. A wig? Orthodox, then. You never knew with the female Jewish studies scholars. If she were Orthodox, she wouldn’t want to shake hands with him. He decided to play it safe and kept his right hand stuffed into his pocket.
Her flight had been fine; she had arrived the night before and had had a chance to walk around. “Beautiful campus,” she said. “And I can’t complain about the weather.”
He gestured her toward the café. The floor vibrated with bass, the sound system cranked up as if for a party, though it was early enough in the morning that the only student around so far was the one behind the counter.
“Do you think you could turn down the music?” Moss said.
A vaguely familiar young man had raised his hand in greeting. Short twists peeking from a cap, a silver hoop in one ear, toffee-colored skin.
“It’s Drew,” said the kid.
Elena Mintz-Heller looked at Moss expectantly, so he opened his mouth to launch into the memory-jogging game—remind me, young man, which class you took with me?—when he was suddenly fighting to be heard above a gravel-voiced ejaculation of rhyming profanities, over the speakers.
“Jesus,” he said. He turned to Elena Mintz-Heller. “The n-word, yet. Every third utterance, the n-word.”
She emitted a giggle or perhaps a hiccup and covered her mouth with a manicured hand. She was very young, wasn’t she? How long had she been out of grad school? He couldn't remember, though he had read her CV not half an hour before.
Now epithets were exploding from the speakers like rapid-fire bullets. The rapper was either fucking someone or stabbing her.
“What the hell is this?” he said. “Who put this on?”
“Oh gosh. It’s a playlist,” said Drew, worrying the string of his apron. “We don’t really control it. Would you like me to see about changing the music, Professor?”
“Yeah, I would. That would be dandy.”
Drew vanished. A minute passed, and then another. The kid hadn’t even gotten the coffee order started. Call him crazy, but Moss was sure the music was getting louder.
“Hello?” he yelled. “Anyone? This is nuts.”
The stereo buzzed once, then went silent.
The manager came out. She looked to be barely older than Drew-the-hoop-earring-wearing-former-student, who was now half-hidden behind the pastry case.
“I’m very sorry about this, sir,” said the manager.
Her placidity was an affront. “How can you listen to this?” Moss fumed. “You like hearing the n-word, again and again? In a coffee shop where you work? You? You think it’s appropriate? How do you think your grandparents would feel if they walked in and heard this playing over the speakers? Is this what we all struggled for? It makes me sick.”
“I understand. We can assure you it won’t happen again,” said the manager. “Can I offer you a free coffee and the muffin of your choice?”
“Why don’t you offer it to her,” he said, nodding his chin toward Elena Mintz-Heller, Ph.D., who looked very pale, suddenly, in her wig, if it was in fact a wig. “We’re trying to recruit this young lady to our faculty. Not exactly a stellar introduction to campus life.”
“No, no, nothing for me,” said Elena Mintz-Heller, waving her hands in front of her as if someone had tried to pass her a snake. She probably kept kosher and couldn’t eat the pastries. “I’m okay.”
The manager put Moss’s morning-glory muffin on a plate. “And here’s a gift card for ten dollars.” She pushed it across the counter like ransom money. “Please accept our sincerest apologies.”
Moss inhaled deeply and exhaled, as his wife was always telling him to do. “All right. Okay.” Breathe in, breathe out. “I appreciate it,” he said. “This is what good service looks like,” he added, as if to an audience, though there was just one person in line behind them. The manager disappeared into a storage closet.
“You know, you’ve got a point, Professor,” said Drew, behind the register once more. “I’m thinking about my grandma. She’d say the same thing. That we shouldn’t be putting these kinds of messages out there, with young impressionable minds all around. Someone might take the wrong lesson. It’s important to show respect for history. I get that.”
Moss nodded. The coffee smelled fabulous. Like a dark velvet ribbon caressing the inside of his nose. When was the last time someone had told him they were sorry? And really meant it? He had to admit it: it felt good. Very good.
“You know,” Drew was saying to Elena Mintz-Heller, who was studying the tiles under her feet with laser focus, “Professor Erlich’s class was one of the best I’ve ever taken. And I’m not even a history major. I never knew about that stuff before, the Catholic Church hoarding all the land and selling indulgences and then the princes were like, wait a minute. And then, boom, down the line, you have the nation-state. I know I’m simplifying greatly.”
Moss cracked a grin at Drew and shot an arm toward him, to shake hands. “What’d I give you for a grade?”
“Smart kid,” Moss said, tapping his own forehead.
And then Mandy from the department appeared, short of breath, her hair falling out of its ponytail. She was really, really sorry to be late; she was ready to take Dr. Mintz-Heller to her next meeting, with the research library staff; and was there anything she could do to help Professor Erlich get that grant proposal submitted today?
“In fact,” said Moss, “I could use some help getting a few things off my desk.”
He smiled a princely smile and took a long, slow sip of coffee from his paper cup.
Moss flipped down a seat in the second row, the glass of wine from lunch gently sloshing in his belly. It had been a very good lunch. Better than he expected. So good that he had stayed for the entire hour, despite the grant proposal on his desktop awaiting revision. No matter: Mandy the Department Assistant was on the job. Best of all, Moss hadn’t had to say a word to Elena Mintz-Heller since the incident at the coffee place that morning. At lunch she was seated on the opposite side of the table and too far away even for an exchange of pleasantries. He sighed now, thinking of the two plates of bruschetta he had downed, and the chicken with rosemary, and the potatoes. He closed his mouth around a belch. He tasted green olives.
Several more faculty members drifted into the auditorium, plopping their satchels onto the floor beside them. Moss turned in his seat. He caught sight, at the back of the auditorium and to the left, of the first-year PhD who had cried in his office last Friday. She sat among a cluster of fellow graduate students. She didn’t make eye contact with him but the student next to her did. It wasn’t a friendly look. The clutch of them sat stony-faced, as though awaiting a trial. He remembered grad school as a garden of earthly delights; why was this new generation of students so humorless?
The wall-eyed woman with the dual appointment in history and religion—a specialist in Japanese shamanism, or animism, or something—made brief remarks. So pleased to introduce, articles on this and that, Mellon Fellowship, book project in the works, visiting assistant professor at a regional liberal arts school that Moss never failed to confuse with that women’s college in Virginia. Or was it Maryland?
Then Elena Mintz-Heller took the podium. She cleared her throat and tucked a hank of her Nancy Drew bob behind an ear. Moss’s stomach thumped once, twice, and settled. The material started out more or less like the article of hers he had skimmed before lunch. Her mouth moved. The word “liminal” stroked his ear a few times. She launched into an explanation of the amuletic properties of the names of angels in the kabbalistic tradition. The belief that voicing those names in particular combinations could alter the desires and functions of the body and thus manipulate the very workings of the universe. At least that’s what she seemed to be saying. Moss found himself wandering along a cliff, high above the coastline, and then he was stumbling along a burned-out landscape. He knew it was Spain, somehow. A mendicant reeking of pigs was hard on his heels, forcing him to walk too fast along the rocky path, and he kept losing his footing, and then, clear as a bell, he heard his daughter saying “Daddy” in a tone of such unadulterated sorrow that he awoke with a jerk.
His notepad had fallen off his lap. As he collected it from the floor, he thought he heard a titter from the back of the auditorium. Elena Mintz-Heller clicked to the next slide. A recipe or spell of some sort, from sixteenth-century Prague. Then she analyzed a passage of a recently discovered Yiddish folktale about a man who awoke as his sister and was subsequently married off to the devil by the siblings’ unsuspecting parents. A folktale discovered by Elena Mintz-Heller, or by someone else? It wasn’t clear. He began to scribble a question on his pad and then put his pen down, thinking of his neglected grant proposal. He shifted to mask a burbling of intestinal ferment.
And then everyone around him was clapping. Elena Mintz-Heller stood erect at the podium, smiling with her lips closed. She clasped her hands behind her and lifted her chin and asked if there were any questions. His foul-breathed colleague Penley tossed her a softball. So did the Holocaust historian. One of the junior women asked her to speak at greater length about her concept of “embodied reversal” in gender hierarchies of the family in the early modern period, and Elena Mintz-Heller obliged. She was starting to wander a bit, it seemed to Moss, digressing. She made a limp joke. Sure, it had been a long day for her—for all of them. But what was the point of this charade? If the woman had made it this far, she must have the muscles for something more rigorous. Moss raised his hand.
“There’s much of interest here,” he said, over the pinging and sighing of his stomach. And then he got to the point: Wasn’t this essentially the territory Scholar X had covered twenty years ago? Perhaps he had missed something, but where was the contribution? “Help me understand what’s new here,” he said and sat back, crossing his arms. “Because, frankly, I just don’t see it.”
Silence. Elena Mintz-Heller opened her mouth, closed it again. She raised a hand to her brow as if she were on a mountain looking into a vast distance. She laughed once. Then she clutched the sides of the podium, hard, with both hands.
“Well,” she said. “My contribution. Well. I think you’ll find…if I may refer you to my earlier argument. If you recall…” She licked her lips, mid-sentence. And then she stopped speaking altogether.
It was as if a wind had blown into the room and she was a tree, creaking in its wake. And then the space behind the lectern was empty. On the floor, her legs were visible from one side of the podium and her arms from the other, like a magician’s assistant sawed in half. The woman had passed out cold.
Behind Moss, someone gasped. In the row ahead, a voice called for an ambulance. One of the grad students leapt to the stage and grasped Elena Mintz-Heller’s wrist between his fingers. She was stirring already. Everyone in the auditorium was on their feet, all except for Moss. He rose, wobbly, felt the whoosh of his seat as it swung up beneath him.
From the aisle, Penley leaned in close to him, glowering, pointy-eyebrowed. “Jesus, Erlich,” he said, shaking his shaggy gray head and turning away. Penley, who could usually be counted on for his plodding mildness, for his confounding habit of seeing things from every perspective! The passel of graduate students was huddled now beside the podium. They were looking at Moss—talking about him, no doubt about it, their eyes slivered in righteous judgment. Everyone was looking at him. The entire universe is conspiring against me, thought Moss.
The buzz of voices dropped away then and Moss became aware of the rhythmic swish of blood through his veins. It must have been a trick of the light: Elena Mintz-Heller was suddenly bathed in a pellucid swath of brightness, her small and crumpled form turned to its side, her eyes squeezed closed. Someone was gently cradling her head. Strange how much she looked like his daughter, from this angle. Strange.
And then Moss was standing, alone, in a glowing column of light, almost floating. He knew he wasn’t dreaming. He was in perfect command of his reason, his senses. This had happened only once before. It was the year he turned ten, when he had fancied himself one of God’s chosen and lived for signs of his own anointing. He had sat in his suburban pew on Yom Kippur beside his beehive-bedecked mother and his sweating, besuited father, and felt his heart expand to fill the room, the earth, the sky. Elected to holiness in a triumphant blaze of light that only he could see. Here I am, God, he thought then, eyes cast heavenward from his perch on the cushioned synagogue bench.
Here I am, he thought now, as the paramedics made their way down the aisle toward the stage. But there was no victory in this accounting. Only a constricted heart and, at its center, one tiny, hard grain of remorse.