Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 18 / Carnivorous Plants

Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 18 / Carnivorous Plants November 10, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost17 / Vacant Hearts


Eli sat in his office, sipping a Coke. Outside his window, starlings swooped and darted. Their yellow beaks slashed like knives. The birds roosted in the thick ivy, hundreds of them. Sometimes Eli reached his hand through the window and shook the branches, just to see how many he birds he could flush. The campus was hard into November now, and with the coming of winter, and the rains, he wondered if the birds would soon be gone.

The phone rang. “Hello, Eli, hello. James Pritchard.”

“Dean Pritchard.”

“James, James, Eli.”

“James.”

“I’d like to host you this afternoon, Eli. In my office. No big deal. I make a point of meeting all new professors.”

Eli had seen enough of Pritchard, even at a distance, to know this was just one of the lies Pritchard would routinely tell on any given day. He spun the can of Coke with his fingers, and the image materialized in his mind, him smashing the can against Pritchard’s forehead, crushing it to the flatness of paper. “Today doesn’t work for me, James,” he said. “I teach again this afternoon, at three. I’m going to need the next few hours to get ready for class. And I have office hours immediately after class, from four to five.”

Pritchard paused. “Hmmm. Not good. Not good. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your preparations for class, of course. Hmmm. What should we do about this?”

“What about tomorrow?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, Eli, it is quite important we speak today. What say you come by after five o’clock? After hours, so to speak.”

“Sure,” Eli said. “No problem. I’ll see you then.” Eli hung up the phone. He opened his briefcase. He retrieved his checkbook. He noted the balance – $165. And he had only just been paid the previous week. That was not good. He pulled Wednesday’s Racing Form from his drawer, glancing at the front page, half of it a preview of the Breeders Cup, only one week away now, reluctantly slipping the Form back in the drawer, turning to the reading for this afternoon class, a minute later, putting down his book, pulling out the Form again, beginning to handicap.

What are we to make of Eli’s actions, his descent (if that’s what to call it)? What feeling overtakes him when he sees the Form, with its riot of numbers, its seductive promise? Horses run through his dreams at night. They are large, he is small. They gallop around the homestretch turn with mouse-sized jockeys bedazzling in a rainbow of silks, dozens on each horse, clinging to crest, shoulder, flanks and withers. Eli stands silently in the center of the track, at the finish, waiting. His legs sink like roots in the loam. He bears witness to something, but what could it be, except a type of self-cancellation?

Eli had prevaricated away $600 over the most recent weekend, most of that on Sunday, which was to have been his comeback day, the day he would close from the clouds, swooping past tiring handicappers like a starling, like Betsy’s Baby, picking off race after race. He’d stayed up to study his Form, his charts, his numbers until 5:00 am the previous morning. But Sunday turned out to be a day of judgment. He dropped almost $500, half of that in the seventh when his horse, whipped to froth by Blade T, failed to hold a four-length lead into the stretch and lost by a head bob at the wire.

On the drive home, Harry counseled patience. Eli had experienced beginner’s luck in the first week. Now he was doing the real work of learning how to see races. Eli could imagine that might be true. But in all honesty, he hadn’t even been having fun at Rose City. He wasn’t even sure why he continued to drive out with Harry (although he could imagine easily how Tobias would characterize this typology of declension, via the proverbial dog that returneth to its vomit). This pattern of return seemed a reflex, as if there was no choice to be made. Three or four times a week, Harry would show up at the house an hour before the first post, toot the horn of his Triumph, and off they would go.

Of course, Jane, who missed nothing, raised an eyebrow, but Eli had become proficient at masking his losing days. If she offered him dinner in the aftermath, he’d plead too much work, open a can of chili, and retreat to the third floor. On those rare days that he arrived home a winner, he’d crack a beer with Gerald and relive the afternoon.

Gerald enjoyed those moments. He’d known Rose City in its glory years. “There’d be 20,000 people at the Old Rose on Derby Day,” he’d say. “They didn’t drug the horses like they do now. Boy, you’d see some races, horses running fit as a fiddle, not all broken-down and doped on painkillers.” He remembered how the champion three-year old, Dancing Starlight, won the inaugural Oregon Derby in 1938. “I was eleven years old,” he said. “The horse won by a country mile and went on to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Made Old Man Kroll a pot of money.”

Then Eli, still aglow from his own success that day, would tell Gerald he should come back out to the Rose with him some time. Gerald never took him up on it. “Those days are behind me, Eli. I haven’t been to the track in decades. That was part of my youth.”

* * *

A delegation of black students, led by Fiske Newton, and joined by Laurel Modigliani, awaited Eli when he returned from the afternoon class. Blade was with them, leaning against the door, gently probing his teeth with a fingernail. “We got a bone to pick with you, Pro.” he said. “Yeee-eh.”

“Why don’t you let me handle this, Tracy?” Fiske Newton said.

Blade jumped aside, miming great deference. “All right there, Fiske Newton. You the man, I guess. You handle it, brother!”

Eli waved them in and settled into his chair. Fiske Newton seated himself in the only other chair in the room. Blade stared at Eli’s books, fingering them, pulling them from the bookcase, slipping them back irregularly. “Melville,” he said. “That dude’s everywhere. Omoo. Typee. Sounds African. He been to Africa, man? He go on a slaver?”

“South Pacific,” Eli said. “Whalers, not slavers.”

“What’s this shit,” Blade said, eyeing the glass-encased first edition Moby Dick. “Who’s Bulkington?”

“He’s Melville’s Aryan asshole demigod,” Laurel said.

“I assume you’re all here to talk about what happened this morning.”

Blade turned away from the display case. “You got that right, Pro,” he said. “What happened this morning? This shit happens every morning.”

Fiske Newton sighed. He removed his glasses. He held them in his hand while he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his suit jacket. “We’re concerned with the spirit of the class, Professor, that it has been captured by white students unwilling to open their minds and their hearts.”

“You better tell that motherfucker, Jackson, not to show his face in class again,” Blade said.

“We have a problem, too, with the content of the course,” Fiske Newton said. “I have to say, I agree with Shahid. Why don’t you provide slave narratives, why in a course on resistance to slavery, is there not more written from the perspective of the slaves doing the resisting?”

“I’ll stomp that motherfucker,” said Blade. “He won’t know what hit him.”

“We want to engage you in a constructive dialogue on these matters,” Fiske said, “but our sense is that you side with our white brethren, that you do not ride above the fray, so to speak, as an impartial adjudicator and mediator.”

“What you’re asking for sounds like special pleading,” Eli said coolly. “I can’t just silence students.”

“Yes, you can,” said Blade. “You say, motherfucker, shut the fuck up.”

“It’s not special pleading,” Fiske Newton was saying. “But the climate is hostile, and the substance is bleached of meaning for African-American students.”

“This isn’t a standard history course,” Eli said. “It’s an effort to reimagine how we think about history. We’ll be reading accounts of slave rebels. But the point of the course isn’t to provide students with a victims’ narrative. You can get that in other classes, maybe, but not in this one.” Eli was pissed. He was pissed about the track and pissed about how poorly his students regarded his course. He wasn’t yet ready to consider how he might have brought this upon himself.

Laurel stood up quickly, her impatience evident. “You know, it would take me about an hour to call a thousand students to the quad to protest this crap,” she said. Laurel turned out to be tougher than she looked. Eli had been waiting since the term began for a gentle word to fall from her lips, so far not a single one. “Right out there on the quad,” she said. “Right by the statue of that Indian butcher on the horse. I doubt Gamson-Clark will waste much time telling you to shape up once the TV cameras start rolling.”

“I don’t care what you do,” Eli said. He glanced at Blade, who was still leafing through the books by Melville, as if they genuinely interested him. “As for you, Mr. Blade T, you’re lucky I don’t kick you out after what happened this morning.”

Blade smiled at Eli. “Look, man, I’m cool. If Jackson pulls that shit again, though, I’m going after him again. That’s just a fact.” He spoke evenly. He’d mastered his anger. Eli couldn’t tell if losing himself in the books had anything to do with it, or if this was just a discipline Blade acquired as a jockey. Or if his combustibility was only an act.

* * *

Harry was flirting with Rebecca when Eli entered the outer office, hanging over her desk, dangling a bunch of grapes above her mouth. Mild surprise registered on his face when he saw Eli. He placed the grapes on Rebecca’s desk.

“What’s up Eli?”

Eli pointed in the direction of Pritchard’s office. “Leaf Boy,” he mouthed. “He wants to see me.”

“He’s not here, Eli,” Harry mouthed back. “No need to whisper.”

Eli sat in the chair by Rebecca’s desk. She smiled at Eli and popped a grape into her mouth. “Did you do something naughty, Eli?” she said.

“Yeah, I soaped his windows,” Eli said. He looked at Harry. “Why does he want to see me?”

“No idea,” Harry said. “But that would be normal. I have no idea what goes on here most of the time.”

“The students sure seem jumpy. I practically had a race riot in my class this morning.”

“Yeah, I heard. I ran into Fiske Newton. He said your white students are provocateurs.”

“Something like that. To him, they’re provocative. To me, they’re just morons.”

“Those aren’t mutually exclusive categories,” Harry said.

“What have we here? A cabal, methinks. A conspiracy of rogues. Out with it, men. Tell me all you know, or you’ll feel the heat of the cat o’ nine.” Pritchard stood in the doorway, head cocked, feigning amusement.

“You think he’s kidding, but he’s serious,” Harry said to Eli, straightening up. “Rebecca and I were just leaving, Jim. As for you, Eli. Should I come by to get you on Wednesday? Our usual time? The card is sweet; don’t you think? Jamal in the fourth?”

Eli nodded, following Pritchard into his office, swallowed by the mist and the sweet odor of hypertrophied plant life, suddenly expectant, recalling now Harry’s grudging regard for the scientific mind lodged between the dangling earlobes of James Pritchard’s oddly misshapen head.

“Pritchard brings more than your garden-variety Carlos Castaneda shaman shit,” Harry had told Eli. “Our crazed Dean has no trace of the mystic in him. He’s a serious molecular botanist who wants to revolutionize how we activate and control brain functions. In the earlier stages of his career he published foundational research about the interaction of various phytomolecule compounds with the blood brain barrier, particularly using an olfactory transport system.”

“And now? In the latter stages of his career?”

“And now, he’s not just publishing research.” Harry bugged out his eyes. “He’s a full-fledged mad scientist, Eli.”

* * *

Pritchard gently, but deliberately, swung the door into its casement, and only later did Eli realize he never actually heard the door click shut. The impression instead was that he had entered a sealed chamber within which the door itself had entirely disappeared (and with it any connection to the world outside). Now sequestered and self-canceled, the room itself almost palpably sighed and bloomed. A host of smells swelled and rolled upon Eli in pungent waves, of mint, honey, thyme, salt, raspberry, bitter root. Attended by an increase in air pressure and humidity and a backgrounded grid of new sounds – hisses, hums, clicks, sucks, scrapes. Eli, suddenly light-headed and dizzy, steadied himself against a richly upholstered, high-backed wing chair.

“You and Associate Dean Hamish attend the races together,” Pritchard said abruptly. He turned and smiled as he spoke, but his words were flat and unamused, not posing a question, only declaring a statement of fact. In the white, hot light, filtered by the mist, shimmering with green, he looked like a strange plant himself, some type of aquatic reed. Bending at right angles, he slotted himself precisely into an identical wing chair. Without adjusting his tone, he motioned Eli into the chair opposite his. “Please, Eli. Seat yourself, my boy. You’re pale.”

With some active exertion of will, Eli reclaimed himself and sat down in the wing chair. He was mindful of the need to avoid disclosing weakness while in the presence of Pritchard. “Are you a horseplayer?” he gulped.

Pritchard laughed, although again with no hint of mirth. “No, Eli. I don’t play the horses. Unlike my colleague, Associate Dean Hamish, I don’t really play at all. That seems more a child’s mode of being, don’t you think? When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Corinthians, Eli. A lesson we might all with profit learn from.”

“I see,” said Eli.

“Come here, Eli. I want to show you something.” While Eli had not seen him rise from his chair, Pritchard was now standing by the window, though it didn’t much matter, since the shades were drawn. The starlings rustled in the ivy outside of Pritchard’s window, clearly a source of irritation. He grimed his face with his hand, then rapped the window with a fist. “I would like to eliminate these annoying passerines,” he said as Eli approached the window, expecting that perhaps Pritchard would fling open the shades and the window itself and slash at the birds with his own spliced nose. “Somehow, their insistent chatter and swarming behavior undermines me. They are not a native species, you know. They arrived on our fabled shores 100 years ago, the unwelcome gift of an Anglophile cadre determined to enforce upon us every animal species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.”

Pritchard sighed and turned from the window. He pointed at a cluster of rosettes planted in a broad glass terrarium the size of a coffin. “Do you see this plant? Meet Dionaea muscipula.” He lifted the lid on a small metal box next to the terrarium, reached in, and pulled out a cricket. He dropped the cricket into the terrarium. After a moment, the cricket hopped on one of the broad fronds branching from the base of the plant. Thwipp. The fronds slowly lifted and closed around the cricket.

Eli was duly impressed. A minute later, Pritchard pried open the fronds and the cricket lay upon one of them, drenched with mucilage, already dead. “Venus’s Fly Trap,” Pritchard said. “Old stuff. Now, look at this.” He directed Eli to a much larger plant, with deep, brightly colored, cup-like leaves rising from its base. “Can you name this plant?”

“I don’t know. A Pitcher Plant?”

“Precisely, Eli! Excellent! It’s Sarracenia flava! An extremely rare subspecies of this plant found atop lonely, fog-shrouded tepuis in Venezuela. Its enzymes are especially fast-acting and potent. Watch.” Pritchard reached into a small cage resting on a shelf below the plant. He pulled out a little brown field mouse by the tail and hung it over the pitcher plant. “Good-bye little friend,” he chuckled, and released the mouse into the dark recesses of the pitcher. The mouse scurried around inside the plant, mewling in fear. After a while, its movement slowed, and the plant closed over it. “In two days, nothing will remain of this mouse but a limp, dry carcass. Phenomenal hydrolytic activity, Eli. Very high levels of malic and citric acid. The plant’s enzymes will rapidly dissolve the bones and teeth of this mouth, its brain, heart, fur, and claws. Sarracenia flava just loves it all.”

Eli recoiled. “You do put on a good show,” he said uneasily. “Though it seems gratuitously fatal.”

Pritchard held up one finger, as if to admonish Eli. “I’m just the facilitator, Eli. Just the facilitator. All credit goes to Sarracenia. Still, I must admit it’s only a parlor trick. For no mouse in its right mind will run into a pitcher plant. Come. Look over here, now. This is a plant I’ve altered genetically. It’s not a passive trap.”

“It looks like a senior version of your Venus’s Fly Trap,” Eli said.

“Right you are, Eli!” Pritchard smiled proudly. “You’re looking at Dionaea pritchardia. I like to think of it as the double-wide, postmodern version of Dionaea muscipula, tailored like a bespoke suit, or a custom pair of cordovans, to precisely meet our specifications. Dionaea is a remarkable plant, long known to indigenous peoples for the immunological, anti-bacterial, and other healing properties of its tannins and related metabolites. Phenolic acids, Eli. You will know the pleasing aroma of these tannic acids from berry and fruit varietals – pomegranate, blackberry, strawberry. But they are present in especially abundant quantities in the Flytrap species. The protein-annealing qualities of these acids so well-suited to inflame the plant’s thirst for blood.”

Pritchard laughed, his delight palpable. He extended a long, wiry arm and tousled Eli’s hair. “It all fits, Eli,” he said. “It all works. We are liberating these acids to deliver the incredible cancer curing properties, and a multitude of other benefits, via pathways that breach the blood-brain barrier. All that’s lacking to trigger these effects in a controlled manner is an effective distribution mechanism.”

The plant sat in a large, shallow pot, at least five feet in diameter. Its broad, spiky fronds extended several feet from the base of the plant. Pritchard had brought another mouse with him. The mouse stretched its neck and looked pleadingly at Eli. Pritchard placed the mouse on the rim of the pot. “Watch, Eli. No gratuitous fatality here. The mouse is free to move around as it will. But look, Dionaea pritchardia’s scent tantalizes our little friend.”

The mouse paused briefly on the rim of the pot, sniffed, then scuttled on to one of the fronds. Continuing to sniff, it walked slowly toward the mucilage at the far end of the frond, closest to the base. THWIPPP. In less than a second the opposing frond had swung down upon the mouse. The frantic creature swung around and bucked from within the pool of mucilage, but the opening had sealed.

“Eureka!” Pritchard crowed. “And thus, Eli thus you witness how nature adapts and thrives in the most ingenious ways.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Eli said dryly. “Another would be, this is how science corrupts, a perversion of natural harmonies, bringing together life forms that have no natural affinity or need for each other. You’re playing God. This is your childish plaything.”

Pritchard moved back toward his desk. He appeared not to comprehend Eli’s meaning. “You know, Eli, Darwin himself was very interested in the properties of carnivorous plants. As for me, you might say they offer a metaphor. As Dean, I hope to apply my own ideas about natural selection here at Tillamook State. There is in society a need to create educational environments that select for certain qualities. Science can and should intervene in the process, don’t you think? None of this liberal hogwash about the marketplace of ideas, about promoting tolerance, diversity, and self-esteem. We offer to humanity a higher understanding of educational teleology. It’s perhaps more an Aristotelian concept, don’t you think?”

Eli retreated toward the door, or at least toward where the door had been. “This is all charming, James, but was there some special reason you needed to speak with me?”

Pritchard laughed. “Sit down, Eli. Sit down again! No need to rush off. No need to feel jumpy. Don’t worry. I haven’t yet developed a Dionaea with a taste for human flesh. But there are several other matters we must discuss.” He gestured toward the wing chair facing his desk. “Come. Sit.”

Reluctantly, acting against his own mouse-like survival instincts (when in danger, scurry, madly), Eli reseated himself in in the wing chair. Pritchard, who increasingly reminded Eli of a wire sculpture, with a tuft of white cotton batting pasted on top for hair, lowered himself into the chair behind his desk. He leaned forward and smiled again. “How are your classes, Eli? Shahid. He behaves?”

“Shahid’s strange,” Eli said. “But he’s been okay. He’s not posed a problem.” Eli had no interest in mentioning the flare-up that morning. He assumed Pritchard already knew about it anyway. According to Harry, Pritchard planted spies everywhere.

I apologize for that mess regarding Shahid’s enrollment in your class, Eli. Wish I could have backed you up. Political pressures, you know.”

“Right,” said Eli.”

“I chatted with Hugh Smalley the other day. He tells me plans proceed swimmingly for the Chalmers in February. Your father will attend. And the two of you, father and son, will participate together in the Roundtable. That’s splendid, Eli. You must be thrilled to appear on the same dais with your father.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled. It may add spice to the event.”

Pritchard nodded, a little impatiently, as if he had suddenly grown tired of the small talk, too. “Eli, I did have something in mind when I called you today. This one is strictly on the QT, though. Do you understand? I don’t even want to learn you’ve spoken with Associate Dean Hamish.”

“Depends on what you want to discuss,” Eli said.

“Well, something has recently come across my desk concerning you. Do I need to explain what that might be?” Pritchard held up a manila folder. He pulled out a photocopy and handed it to Eli, who glanced at it for a moment. He stared at Pritchard. Gently, almost delicately, he tore the paper into long strips then neatly placed them on Pritchard’s desk. He stood up. “I have to go now, James.”

“Come, come, Eli,” Prichard said. “No need to take umbrage. Tell me about it.”

“You can discuss it with my lawyer.”

“The publicity would not be favorable, Eli. In the time it takes Dioneia pritchardia to shut upon that mouse, you would lose your job. You would never obtain another academic position. I suggest you sit down.”

Eli sat down again. “I was 17 years old. I was cleared of anything related to his death.”

“That’s an ambiguous way of stating the case, Eli.”

“That paperwork was to have been destroyed when I turned 18.”

“Well apparently the system broke down. Uncanny, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Uncanny.”

Pritchard stood behind his desk, his face swirling in the mist. Eli could no longer hear the mouse. “I’m Dean of this university, Eli,” Pritchard said. “I make it my business to know as much about my colleagues as I possibly can. I wouldn’t be serving my institution well if I did not, wouldn’t you agree? The mission of this school demands we employ faculty who meet only the highest ethical and moral standards.” Pritchard bent forward and peered intently at Eli. “If you were cleared, all the more reason to speak freely, wouldn’t you agree?”

Eli stared evenly at Pritchard. “You already know the facts, I’m sure. You wouldn’t be serving your institution well if you did not master them, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Touché, Eli. You’re right, I do know the facts!” Pritchard laughed delightedly. “I have them right here, in the police report.” He held up another piece of paper and waved it at Eli.

“Are you enjoying this?”

“No, I am not enjoying this, Eli. I am just trying to refresh your memory.”

“You don’t need to bother. My memory is clear enough.”

“Ah, then you admit culpability.”

“I admit nothing.”

Pritchard nodded. “I see. Tell me, Eli, what does your father make of this little, shall we say, indiscretion on your part? Tobias and I passingly knew each other when I was a graduate student at Princeton. He was a young professor then, although already well-established. This would have been the early 1960s. You must have been only a lad at the time. He was quite the rake on campus. I know Tobias always relished the spotlight. Unlike his son, it seems. But I’m sure he didn’t enjoy the public attention you received for your implication in this heinous event.”

“You’re probing a tender spot,” Eli said.

“Just doing my job, Eli.”

Eli stood up again, his cheeks aflame. “Are you done?”

“No, Eli. I’m not done. We have some other business to discuss. It will take another few minutes. You see, we have a problem, Eli. Three weeks from now, on the Monday following the Thanksgiving break, the Week-Old Cheddar will publish a story, based on a confidential report, about the adoption, for Oregon state universities, of Afrocentric teaching materials developed here in the state for public schools. The story is likely, I’m afraid, to generate controversy.” Pritchard leaned toward Eli. He touched Eli’s shoulder, patted the wool of Eli’s sweater, straightened the fabric. He smiled, eyes limpid, watery blue. “Fortunately, we have an esteemed expert on Afrocentricity on our faculty. And I’m going to ask him to perform a small task on our behalf.”

When Eli left, half an hour later, the giant Dionaea in the corner had opened to reveal a stew of a mouse, half digested, the eyes already gone from the skull, fur, claws, and organs like aspic within the pool of enzymes. Eli caught a faint trace of fruit in his nostrils as he closed the door behind him and left the building.


Next in Calvin’s Ghost19 / Pace Makes the Race

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