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Fiction: A Bit of Harmless Mischief


Published December 18, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Jim Duval

My office is a busy place during final exam week, when students imagine, wrongly, they can negotiate making up the work they've failed to do all semester. Still, I was surprised to see a third-year student named Rebecca Page standing in my office doorway on Friday, the very last day of the fall semester. "Becca," as she's known, wasn't my student. I knew her through the volleyball club. I'd served as the club's coach since joining the faculty the previous academic year.

"Hi, Becca," I said, lowering my laptop screen halfway. "Want to come in?"

With a portentous sigh, Becca entered, reaching my desk in long, ungainly strides that reminded me of the tall girls on the volleyball team.

"Dr. Gwen," she said breathlessly, and plunked herself down. Her round, wire-framed eyeglasses were so fogged with condensation that I wasn't sure she could see me.

"He did it again." She held back her blond dreadlocks to remove her glasses, then snagged a tissue from the box on my desk, almost knocking over my coffee with the sleeve of her hay-colored overcoat. "He effing did it again."

I closed my laptop. "Who did what again?"

Becca dried her lenses and took a deep breath. "Carlile."

"Oh. British Lit?"

Becca nodded and slipped her glasses back on over blazing green eyes. "The N-word. He used it again." She huffed. "Unbelievable."

"When was this?"

"Last Friday. Our last class. I'd have come sooner, but I was waiting — we all were — for an apology. And then, you know, exams. Anyway, I'm here now. And I'm not happy."

"I can tell. Any context for why he might've used—"

"Not might. Did. We're studying Othello."

"OK," I said. "There's a racial theme in the play."

"But no one uses the N-word in the play."


"Carlile was talking about offensive language, you know, the things characters in the play call Othello. And he said, 'That would be like using the N-word today. Except he — Carlile — used the word. A bunch of us walked out. All three students of color plus me and a guy who'd been on his tablet the whole time and thought class was over because some people got up to leave."

"I see," I said. I turned to look out the window. The steady snowfall made a gauzy white curtain, as if to draw the semester to a close, mercifully. Alas.

I didn't know what to say next. A part of me wanted to defend Carlile, another part wanted to condemn him, but mostly I felt like I didn't know enough to do either.

"Can you do something?" Becca said. "Like, talk to the provost?"

"I can talk to the dean. I think she's in her—"

"No. This is strike two for Carlile. The provost."

"Fine. The provost. But you realize you can also speak to the provost."

"It won't have enough impact. Remember last time?"

I stared into the blank white canvas out my window and recalled the time to which Becca referred.

Right around Halloween, the college provost, Dr. Aaron Fenster, had sent out a campus-wide email about a "bias incident," as we call them here. The incident referred to "racially insensitive terminology" that an unnamed teacher had "reportedly" used in a class discussion. No consequences were noted, just a reminder to students to "appreciate the full context within which charged language is used."

At volleyball club that afternoon, I heard Becca and some other students call out Carlile as the culprit. I think his class had been reading Dickens' Bleak House, in which the objectionable word appears in Old English form. According to the gossip, Carlile had mistakenly translated the word into its contemporary American epithet for his students.

"Will you please do something?" Becca said, her tone softer. "I mean, you seem to get it, Dr. Gwen."

I took that as a compliment, though I wasn't sure how I'd earned it. While it's true that one of the academic concentrations in my interdisciplinary training was African American studies, the others were art history and media studies. I doubted that anything in my professional or personal background — I'm as white as Becca — had given her the impression I was qualified for this task. Maybe she was just stroking my ego by considering me an ally. In any case, it worked.

"I'll do something," I said, though I wasn't sure what that would be.

"Thank you," Becca said and stood.

"I'm very sorry this happened. I hope you have a relaxing break," I said.

"One more exam to go."

"Try to put this out of your mind so you can focus on the exam."

Becca let out an acrid little huff. "Won't be easy," she said. "It's Carlile's exam."

I considered my options. I could've done nothing, since the semester's end was mere hours away, and then everyone would scatter for winter break. But that seemed cowardly. I had no reason to doubt Becca. But I was also compelled, for whatever reason, to give my elder colleague the benefit of the doubt.

So I walked upstairs to Carlile's office. Through his half-open door I saw him standing at the window facing the quad and the lake. Our building, Scullin Hall, is perched at the city's highest elevation, and the view from Carlile's window in the topmost office had to be among the best in town. To the west, he could see the lake. To the east, he could take in the stately architecture on the nearby state university campus. Not even the provost had west- and east-facing windows.

Something seemed to be troubling Carlile as I nudged the door open. He was shaking his head of impressive, bleach-white hair and muttering under his breath. One hand was in a pocket of his wool trousers, and the other cradled a coffee mug. As I stepped into his office, he raised the mug, took a delicate sip and winced.

"Doug?" I said softly, not wanting to startle him.

He gestured out the window with his mug. "They want to knock down the statue of our founder," he said.

"He wasn't our founder," I said. "Just our namesake."

"Precisely." Carlile took another sip. "And what was his crime, again? He lived 400 years ago. That was his crime."

"Well, there's a bit more to it than—"

Carlile turned his head abruptly. His angular jawline came to a point at his chin, which seemed to take aim at me. "Shakespeare lived 400 years ago. The ogre. Imagine the audacity of the man to have lived 400 years ago!"

Carlile looked out the window again.

"Speaking of Shakespeare," I said, "I had a student in my office a few minutes ago."

"The students," Carlile groused. "Such disappointments. Forgoing, year after year, the opportunity to effect a little prank, a bit of harmless mischief. Look at that statue. Why, he just cries out for a lacy brassiere. Maybe a big sombrero. No, instead the students want to tear him down. I ask you, where's the fun in that?"

I paused to craft carefully the phrase forming in my mind, which included the terms "patriarchy," "power structures" and "colonialism."

A knock on Carlile's door, and in stepped Wilton McKelvie. He's the college's only Canadian studies expert, a title he broadcasts by wearing a hockey jersey every day of finals week. With his florid face and curly red hair, he cut a more convincing figure of a maniacal Toronto Maple Leafs fan than of a professor.

"I heard you were serving tea," McKelvie said. He crossed to a small table wedged between two bookcases where Carlile's Mr. Coffee machine belched like a dragon preparing to burn down the building. "Fancy a cup, Gwen?"

"I'm good," I said. "Go Leafs."

McKelvie poured a cup and sat in Carlile's desk chair. He opened the bottom desk drawer, pulled out a whiskey bottle and spiked his drink. "What time's your exam, Doug?"

"At 3:30," Carlile said. "The scholars will record, for posterity, their breathtaking ignorance of King Lear."

McKelvie nodded at me. "You finished, Gwen? Any exams?"

"No exams," I said. "Just some papers to grade."

"And then we party like it's 1999," McKelvie added.


"It's a Prince song—"

"I know the song — shoot. The department party's today, isn't it? I forgot."

"Well, don't miss it," McKelvie said. "Fenster's stopping by. Says he has a big announcement."

"About the statue?"

McKelvie shrugged and sipped his coffee.

Over at the other window now, Carlile began to cackle. "Ah, Witherspoon, you magnificent, cheeky bastard," he said.

McKelvie arched an eyebrow over his mug.

"'It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe a troop of horse with felt,'" Carlile said, and cackled again. "Well done, Witherspoon. You prankster. You Puck. Ah, but I'll even the score."

McKelvie shot me a concerned look. "Doug, you all right?" he said.

"They're cocky, those Andover boys. But they leave themselves open to attack. They're rather proud of their new Zamboni, wouldn't you say? The latest model, Witherspoon bragged." Carlile stepped away from the window. "Be a shame if someone..." He hesitated, seemingly puzzled by our presence, as if we'd snuck in on him.

McKelvie pushed his chair back and rose. In that instant, I saw that Carlile's fly was unzipped. McKelvie walked over to Carlile, blocking my view. He said something to the elder man that I couldn't hear.

Carlile muttered something incomprehensible in response.

"See you at the party, Gwen?" McKelvie said.

"Right," I said and turned to leave. "See you then."

Back at my office, I still couldn't figure out what to do — the interaction with Carlile hadn't helped. He was old-fashioned to a fault, an irascible preppy of another era — the era of off-the-cuff Shakespeare quotes and a nip of whiskey in one's afternoon coffee. Was that a crime? The man was pushing 80 years old. I knew this because I'd looked up his CV on the college website before my campus interview for the job. Carlile had chaired the search committee that hired me.

Not that any of this mattered now. A student had come to me with what sounded like a valid complaint. She trusted me to do the right thing. So I emailed Fenster, asking for a quick meeting. His reply coincided with footsteps thumping down creaky staircases as my colleagues rushed to their 3:30 exams. I shut off my computer, put on my parka and headed for the provost's office.

I took my time, following a route that wound past the statue of the college namesake. I stopped in front of it, imagining how I'd vandalize the object if I were in a mischievous mood. I tugged at my scarf, as if to yank it free to drape around the neck of the old bronze colonialist dog.

"Dr. Gwen!" someone called from across the quad.

I turned to see Becca plodding toward me. "You're not going to believe this," she said.

"He didn't."

"What? No, not that. Here's what he did, though: He gave us our exam — on King Lear!"


"We never read that play! The exam was supposed to be on Othello."

"Yes, I remember," I said. "So, did you speak to him?"

"I tried. We all tried. But he wouldn't listen. First, he yelled at us. Called us insulin."

"Insolent. Go on."

"And, then—" Becca took out her phone and held it up. "I showed him the syllabus. I showed him where it says 'final exam on Othello.' He just laughed."


"Yes, laughed. A kind of creepy laugh. He said, 'Oh, you Andover boys, I'm onto your tricks.' When I tried to show him the syllabus again, he walked out. Just, like, left."

I looked toward Weare Hall, where a few students were clustered near the doorway as if waiting out a fire drill.

"What do we do?" Becca said. "I'm not taking that exam. This is so weird."

"It sure is."

I started for Scullin Hall.

"Dr. Gwen, aren't you going to talk to the provost?" Becca called.

"I will, yes. I have to do something else first."

I felt foolish jogging across campus on nothing more than a hunch. But when I reached Scullin Hall and saw that Carlile's office lights were out, I was pretty sure I knew where to go. I ran to the parking lot and got in my car.

Just as I was pulling up in front of the university's hockey rink, a police cruiser pulled in next to me. My stomach clenched. The cop behind the wheel was a woman I recognized from the gym. I gave her a nod and a fake smile as I got out of my car.

I walked briskly toward the building, hoping to avoid chitchat. As I yanked open a door, I heard the officer's radio squawk, "Man's got a shovel."

"Stand back, give him some space," she responded.

Inside, I jogged to the garage at the far end of the arena. There I encountered a stocky middle-aged guy in a blue staff windbreaker standing 20 feet or so from a gleaming white Zamboni. The machine threw off a thin aura of steam, and water dripped down its slick sides into a grate in the cement floor.

Carlile stood at the rear of the Zamboni, gripping a snow shovel with both hands, baseball-bat-style.

"Doug," I said.

Carlile whipped his head toward me and drew the shovel back. It dinged off the side of the machine.

"Damn it all," the middle-aged guy grumbled.

"He's harmless," I said.

"Maybe. But tell him that rig cost a quarter million dollars."

"Doug," I said. "Come on. Put the shovel down."

"That's right," said a voice behind me. The cop strode ahead and stopped, hands on her hips, facing Carlile. "Sir, drop the shovel, please. Then I'm going to ask you to stand with your feet apart and your hands on the Zamboni."

Carlile searched our faces, wide-eyed, as if looking for someone familiar.

"Sir, please," the officer said. "Shovel down. Hands on the Zamboni."

Carlile lowered the shovel to the floor.

"I caught him trying to let air out of the rear tire," the guy in the windbreaker said. "He wouldn't back off."

"A harmless prank!" Carlile shouted and let the shovel fall to the ground with a clang.

The cop flinched.

"Officer, it's OK," I said. "I know him. He's not dangerous, just confused."

"Can you get him to step away from the Zamboni?"

"I'll try," I said. "Come on, Doug. It's me, Gwen."

Carlile stared at me for a long moment, then cocked his head, eyes narrowed. After a few seconds, I stepped toward him. He didn't recoil. "This would've been a prank for the record books," I said. "Just imagine the looks on their faces, the Andover boys."

A faint smile broke across his face.

When I was close enough to touch Carlile, I rested a hand on his shoulder and pulled him gently toward me. He didn't resist. "'Jesters do oft prove prophets,'" he said and chuckled.

No one said anything as I ushered him out of the garage.

A couple minutes later, as I was driving us back to campus, Carlile rolled down his window and let the chill evening air blast through. "'This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen,'" he said, shouting to hear his own voice over the wind's roar.

I hit the child safety lock.

Carlile closed his eyes, leaned back in his seat and let the wind buffet him. He seemed serene, as if we were aboard a sailboat and not in a Subaru fording frost heaves and potholes. I couldn't ask him about what he'd said in his British literature class. I wasn't sure where he was. We rode without speaking at all.

"Do you know why we hired you?" he finally said, his voice sounding so lucid that it startled me. Scullin Hall had just come into view.

"Because my doctorate is in interdisciplinary studies. That's what the ad in the Chronicle of Higher—"

"Pah! I'm not sure I even know what interdisciplinary studies are. No, we hired you because you'd done some volunteer work. In that prison."

One little line near the bottom of my CV describes two years of GED prep work I did in the Ohio Reformatory for Women, in Marysville, between my undergraduate and graduate years.

Carlile smacked the dashboard. "I said to the committee, 'All the candidates have good ideas. They're brilliant intellectuals — to a man! Well, what about hiring someone with some humanity?'" He smacked the dashboard again.

"Huh. The prison," I said. "I haven't thought of that place in a while. That was a tough gig."

"Some rough sledding, as we say."

As we left the parking lot on foot, our colleagues were visible in the brightly lit formal lounge of Scullin Hall. "Looks like there's a party going on," Carlile said. "I hope it's for me."

I refrained from reminding him that we'd discussed the party an hour or so earlier in his office. I was just happy to have him back on campus — in time, I hoped, for the provost's big announcement.

Fenster was the first person to catch my eye as Carlile and I stepped into the room. He smiled a thin smile. Next to him stood an older woman I'd never seen but who was unmistakably related to Carlile — the neat bob of snow-white hair, the angular jawline and prominent chin. She wore an elegant mohair topcoat and black leather gloves, which she began tugging off at the sight of Carlile.

Carlile left my side and approached her, shambling the last few steps as if to tumble into her embrace.

A student waiter offered me a glass of Champagne. I took it and crossed to the French doors facing the quad.

I'd hoped not to talk to anyone just yet, but the provost himself peeled away from Carlile's table and caught me midway.

"I received your message," Fenster said, leaning in close enough that I could smell honeyed peanuts on his breath.

I took a half step back. "Maybe we could talk after?" I gestured toward Carlile, who was in the midst of telling a story to McKelvie and the woman in the mohair coat. She must have been his sister.

"No need," Fenster said. "Your student Becca Page briefed me."

"I see." Blood rushed to my face.

The provost drew back and surveyed the room, as if to see who might be listening. "We'll reiterate our bias policy with a message in January," he said. "A more strongly worded message than last time."

"And what about Carlile?"

Fenster smiled coyly. "Hold that thought," he said and returned to Carlile's table.

Outside the French doors, the dusk had dimmed to smoky darkness, but in a light-post glow across the quad I could sense the outlines of our college namesake standing stalwart. I imagined snow piled upon his shoulders like epaulets on a military uniform.

Tapping on crystal shushed the room's murmuring as the provost cleared his throat. "First, I want to congratulate you all on making it to the end of a challenging semester," Fenster began.

His voice faded to background as I strained to see the statue more vividly in my mind's eye. I didn't care for the statue, aesthetically speaking. But what would go in its place if it were removed?

I caught sight of my reflection in the French doors — standing in leisurely repose, Champagne glass in hand, as I snobbishly bemoaned the ugly contours of a statue. Already, it seemed, I'd moved on from pondering objects and words that might cause our students pain.

How quick I'd been to cut a doddering old white guy some slack just for being doddering and old. A part of me still wanted to — another measure, I knew, of my distance from the kinds of experiences that hurt others. As if that had nothing, really, to do with me, a lowly assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies. Whatever that even meant.

Fenster's white-noise monologue took shape around the words "34 years."

Applause. I leaned away from the window, as if the noise might shatter the glass. In the reflection I saw Fenster shake Carlile's hand. The woman in the mohair coat pulled Carlile close.

McKelvie began singing, "For he's a jolly good fellow."

So that was the big surprise: Carlile would go. Not the statue. I wondered how long Carlile and Fenster had been keeping this secret. Whose decision had it been? The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

I made my way toward another student waiter, this one holding a tray of the food-service samosas for which I'd developed a taste. I helped myself to three. The provost was right: It'd been a challenging semester, and it wasn't over yet. I still had papers to grade, grades to calculate and then the inevitable student complaints to address about their grades. I didn't face as messy a chore as Carlile's botched Shakespeare exam, but I had my own version: an apology due Becca Page. I'd start there.

On this, apparently Carlile's last day, I felt strangely kindred with him. He was a half century my senior, but we were both aging into an alien world in which the questions were more complicated than they'd ever been — and in which the easy answers were almost always wrong.

The gathering, led by McKelvie's warbling tenor, was singing, "...Which nobody can deny! / Which nobody can deny..."

Carlile's sister wiped a tear from the old man's cheek.

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