ALTERNATIVE JUSTICE

Three damn minutes.

The young man moved slowly through the empty fourth floor hallway, hunched with an air of resignation, long uncombed greasy hair covering most of his strained face. He had never needed all night to complete an assignment.  While professors could be harsh, both actively and passively, it was unusual for one to relish in being cruel – to wait upon a small detail in which to exercise some random power to disappoint students, and most notably, in as anonymous a manner as possible.

The note on the door was clear. After 9AM class assignments would not be accepted; there would be no exception.  The young man had known this, of course, as it had been clearly stated from the first day of the term.  What was not stated was this date was mutable – based on a putative academic and travel schedule and apparent random whims of this professor. And he knew it took vigilance to follow these wanton alterations, since classes were often cancelled abruptly, with only a hand-scrawled sign posted by the secretarial pool members in the front of the half-filled room. Of course, there was an expectation of students to complete some schoolwork for the ensuing class. The young man always found this demotivating; why should he care to complete some wanton assignment, when there was no reciprocity, no partnership, in the learning process? While the young man had been a somewhat reasonable student, he had let his grades drop to a precarious level due to such waning enthusiasm for academic pursuits; his pecuniary needs to support himself; his need to play. Consequently, the ability to maintain even this measure of performance was becoming more and more difficult; the young man needed to take on more work hours at the local convenience store to pay upcoming semester bills.

In his past years, the young man had liked secondary school, and had studied diligently from a love of learning – as opposed to achievement of a grade or mark, which were to him both pedestrian and unimportant. School also acted as a diversion from family, what was left of it, torn apart by the prevarications of both unintentional and intentional hurt. His older sister had stormed out of the house during one of the many inveterate arguments between their mother and father – one of the more violent ones, not with physical abuse, but with escalating accusations of excess and infidelity being hurled across the kitchen as easily as the dishes and picture frames filled with happier times before. The young man had helplessly listened, standing outside the kitchen in the darkened, musty smelling hallway, until he could stand the invective no more; he locked himself into his small, dirty basement room, simultaneously hearing his sister’s car screech out of the driveway and pull away.

It was the last time he saw his sister.

It was the last argument he witnessed between his parents.

The police report noted a broken bottle of Johnny Walker Red on the front seat of his sister’s black rusty Chevy Impala. Her right hand still grasped the dismembered neck of the cap-less whiskey bottle, when found several hours later along northbound Interstate 93. At the funeral, that hand was discretely placed below the other to conceal the cuts from whisky soaked shards caused by the impact of the car into the side of the ravine near the Andover exit. The young man stood behind his parents, whose eyes raw and emotions frayed from burying a child, spoke not one word to one another during the procession, leaving in separate cars after the casket had been laid into the ground. The young man stayed after the small crowd of attendees had dissipated, and watched in the fading light as the funeral workers used a large yellow mud-streaked mechanical hoe to cover the descended casket with freshly dug earth, and move the headstone into place. He walked the two miles to an apartment he and his father now shared, remembering times when, as children, he and his sister would walk along the Charles River, planning out their lives, fervently hoping to grow beyond what they were to what they could be, always ending with the Mandarin statement, “Duì le? Duì!” even as they grew past adolescence into young adulthood. The young man pushed his way into the apartment, quietly closed the door, and vomited into a trashcan.

While his father had done everything he could to support his son’s education, the textile mills in Lawrence were dying. Large, loud, faceless machines housed in unpronounceable foreign countries had replaced men who had grown up with the mills, who could do nothing else; they could not compete against a foe which was faster, cheaper, and had no human needs, as did these men.  They had been labeled by the state as unskilled laborers, in that their skills were no longer relevant, wanted or needed, these older men now frequenting the crowded welfare lines and unemployment offices; grey men who all looked very much the same, as if in an old black and white daguerreotype – voiceless, unmoving, each having a vacant, pervasive stare of mocked disbelief and hopelessness. The young man’s father sat amongst the others, head bent, hat askew, eyes searching the floor for nothing in particular, a paragon of silent despair.

Not one day previous the deadline for submission had been on Monday, the 8th, at 9AM, providing the weekend for last minute corrections, revisions and clean-up of the final copy.  When a classmate living on campus had informed him the time had changed again to the Friday previous – the next morning – the young man was caught not only unaware but unprepared.  He worked frenetically through the short night, cursing his reliance upon the lost weekend to complete the effort, having spent much of his previous “spare” time at the Charles River in one of the school’s single fiberglass shell boats, a vessel whose deep reddish brown paint reflected in the water with the hue of dispersed blood cells, cutting through the water’s depths, a stroke at a time. The young man liked to casually coast from the Pierce Boathouse to the BU Bridge, turning then to row past the Harvard and Longfellow Bridges at breakneck speed, and begin to slow before arriving at the river basin, where he would begin his return. This was his therapy – an ability to be free, to cause effort with abandon, to push youth as it should be pushed, to excess. Each stroke built to the next; speed created; arrogance intensified; realities escaped.

But reality weighed deeply now. He needed to pass this course in order to maintain the modest amount of money the university provided, to maintain the “gentleman’s B”; otherwise, he would indecorously exit, and join the world his father inhabited.  He knew he did not have the courage to make daily pilgrimages to the High Street unemployment office, only to be told he did not have the requisite skill or skills for the limited specific jobs that might be available.  He could not face the inanity of being repeatedly disappointed only to return and expect or hope it would be otherwise some ensuing day. The convenience store where he worked was sufficient right now – but the minimum wage job would not be enough to support his father and him; it was just sufficient to pay for his books for the year. He needed to keep his scholarship money – but despite all his efforts, and regrets, his blue thesis books were stamped “9:03AM” – late, and without doubt to be given no credit.

The young man emerged from the faculty offices, noticing for the first time how hot the day had become. He had been so preoccupied with getting to campus his perception of anything but his quest he’d ignored. There was almost no wind, and in the stillness and humidity, it seemed everything had a surreal quality; slow, languid, silent. Unconsciously he made his way along Memorial Drive, and migrated toward the Boat House, a destination he often arrived at in times of indecision or distress.

He entered the Boat House and walked past the wooden columns smelling of old New Hampshire pine, which reached high to the ceiling buttressing the cages of hulls, over to his favorite gleaming boat. The room was empty, and through the partially open large doors the young man only saw Patrick, who maintained the boats, on the dock. Spontaneously, the young man pulled off his shirt, and threw it into one of the open corner lockers, leaving him in only his sleeveless T-shirt and red shorts. As he pulled down the lightweight boat, he noticed an older boat had been removed – one with a wooden hull and steel locks, unlike the fiberglass and aluminum construction he now held on his shoulders. As he pushed through the double door onto the dock, he was surprised to see Patrick talking with an older man, who had the wooden boat already in the water. The young man swore to himself, having hoped he could maintain his solitude on the river, without having to share with even one other. When looking more closely, the smallish stature and shock of white hair of the old man made him think once again of his professor, of his classes, of his predicament; a wave of anger rose within the young man, as he pushed his boat into the water.  He only vaguely heard the conversation between the older man and Patrick, and quickly put his oars into the locks securely.  He did not acknowledge Patrick’s stern admonition regarding the heat, and began to row to the center of the river, hoping to provide himself at least the perception of being alone.

The old man had begun to row along the young man’s starboard side near the north end of the river, disturbing the young man’s solitude. Irritated, the young man began rowing faster to leave the old man behind, in an attempt to restore his desired seclusion. But the old man seemed effortlessly to move his boat through the water, and distance himself farther and farther ahead of him with each stroke of those old wooden oars. Subconsciously, the young man began to increase his rate of speed, in order to keep the old man visible in his periphery.  He felt the sweat begin to drip and sting his eyes, blurring his vision and requiring him to fully turn to help clear his sight, and get bearings on distances to the bridges, rather than looking along the banks of the Charles as he usually did. These extra efforts caused his irritation to turn to anger, and he began to loathe the old man – for his effortlessness, his spoiling of the solitude of the river, his generation’s control of his future. And with this anger the young man rowed faster, and with each subsequent stroke, his anger turned to hatred: of his professor, who’s perceived randomness had been as unfair as it was to be influential; of those foreign lands, which had deprived his father of the only livelihood he’d ever known; of his father, who had given up on his life; of his mother, whose indiscretions had fractured the family; of his sister, whose death had left him alone in an unforgiving world. He was rowing at full speed, stretching his arms and back as far as they could go, driving with his legs, feeling every muscle in his body, his heart pumping in his chest and exploding in his brain. He turned and saw the Longfellow Bridge, and with one last effort and angst-filled cry exploded into a stroke that propelled him to the crest of the bridge.

With that stroke, he saw the old man, whom he had forgotten was on the river, move into the shadow of the arch. The young man closed his eyes, turned his boat around with his port oar, and began to sob heavily. As he floated gently on the river, his sobs began to subside, and he wiped his eyes with his sweat-soaked shirt. The heat made the ground seem like it was swimming upward and evaporating around him. Only the river was clear, cut by the hull of his boat, where he now was alone, with only the sounds of the water’s wake softly lapping against the paddles of the oars.

 

BERTRAND LIANG

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