Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fiction #49: Colin Snowsell

The Soul Patch of Brad Park, Dean of Arts

Tenure at a college is a lot like settling in the Kootenays: the perks are obvious, but it takes a strange breed to call either one the big time. We don’t all of us end up at Princeton or in Paris, and learning to appreciate the arc of your life’s actuality, I think that’s necessary unless you fancy daily despair. But I think it’s still important to keep an eye on thwarted ambition and shattered dreams – if only to ensure that you don’t make the mistake that Brad Park did. If you throw out your own measurements for a successful life, and with them the knowledge that you’ve done so, what’s to stop you from imagining that where you ended up is where you wanted to be all along?

I first met Brad at the SSHRC Congress a few years ago, when it was at UBC. I guess I should talk a little about that, in case you’ve never been, even though I feel like if I tell you the conference, for professors and researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities, used to be referred to, by its organizers and participants, as “The Learneds” you’ll have learned everything there is to know. First of all, if you want to know what a goatee Armageddon looks like (The Great Unanswerable: is there such a thing as a good goatee?)…

But the spectacle – and keep in mind, this is an event where the keyword “spectacle” appears in, approximately, one third of all abstracts – is certain to disconcert. Is anyone here cool? Is everyone here cool? Why are there so many turtlenecks? What one would normally condemn as fashion faux pas, you have instead to scrutinize as irony. You have to assume inside each ungainly, but not hideous, outfit, exists a professor studying: the history of guncheck plaid; Brooks Brothers as a cultural institution; the dichotomy of Oleg Cassini – fashion innovator/feminist villain. And when you start thinking about that, doubt seeps in, and when doubt seeps in, if you’re me, you step out for a smoke break. Which is where Brad Park comes in.

Three things caught my attention, and Brad’s facial hair was the least of the three (but since I’m on it: a wispy soul patch, strings of hair tangled past his chin, and all of this a mimicry of shoulder length black hair, in a 80s Swayze wave). One: Brad Park remains the only person I’ve known who smoked cigarettes with blue surgical gloves. He saw me looking at them, and it was clear he’d explained them many times. “So the wife won’t find out,” he said. “I promised her I’d given up the habit for good.” I asked if his wife was with him at Congress, and he told me that no, she was back in Castlegar. “But,” he said, “I’ve gotten so used to smoking with these gloves, that I can’t stand stink hand anymore.” He stepped on a butt and extended his right hand, still in its glove. His name was first announced in smoke, the tip of a cloud from a Craven A: “Brad Park,” he said (that was #2), and before I could ask, “Yes, exactly like the hockey player, except his real first name is Douglas, and my real name is Byeong-cheol, so if you ask me, I’d more Brad Park than Brad Park, and there’s like ten thousand Korean Brad Parks having this same conversation at any given moment in time.” I told him he was my first Brad Park, Korean or Bruin.

I was a PhD Candidate from Dalhousie. The contingent I’d travelled with was dull, even by the standards set by the Canadian Society of Medievalists (if I heard one more Sir Gawain joke…) so when Brad asked if I wanted to ditch the rest of the afternoon I needed no persuading. He adopted me for the remaining three days of the conference, and I guess, if I’m being honest, I had an angle from the beginning, because the truth is I’d gone stale. I’d interviewed for every medievalist position in the country for six years and so far all I’d landed was a term teaching an intro lit course to engineers at St. Mary’s: trying to teach Aristotle’s rhetoric to future mechanical engineer? Death, that was death; like the danse macabre, which I’d delivered a paper on earlier in the week (it was the same paper, except for a new title, that I’d delivered at ten previous conferences throughout North America), and I was well aware that, like so many of us, I’d become my research and it was just too bad that, in my case, my research was living death.

Park was the Dean of Arts at Selkirk College, and what a medievalist would do at a two-year teaching college I had no idea. But Park liked me, he liked me from our first smoke break, and I just had a feeling, and a lot of it was the soul patch, that this was a man who fancied himself a maverick, a mover of heaven and earth; he was just the sort of guy who might take on a medievalist precisely because it made absolutely no sense.

About a month after Congress, I received an e-mail from Brad encouraging me to apply for a new position in the College’s Department of English. I got short-listed, flew out to Castlegar, and delivered a 30-minute interactive lecture on Kenneth Branagh and Beowulf. Easily, the most accessible talk I’d delivered in my entire career. Brad was on the hiring committee. His questions were strange: if you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be? – I’m serious, that was the ice-breaker. If you were a tree, what tree? For the record: raven, and, I don`t know what I said for the next one, because Poe was easy –he’d copped to it in his likes on FB – but there was nothing there about trees, and mostly I wondered: trees? As an interview question before 10 a.m.?

I got the gig, and you don’t know relief like that, you don’t – I’m confident issuing that as a flat statement, a challenge; I don’t care about your trials, where you’re from – my hardships measure up, don’t ever think otherwise. I’d accumulated a hundred thousand dollars in student debt. I’d been in school since I was 19 and here I was now, what? Thirty six, 37 – when asked I kept it vague like that, kept my consonants soft. The 7-11 clerks from my high school owned homes. The shop studs had children, drove 4x4s, they parked Sea-Doos in their driveways; I’d see them there, covered in tarpaulin when I returned to Brockville on Christmas holidays. Until I met Brad I’d never heard of Selkirk College, never heard of the “Kootenays” let alone Castlegar. But when they hired me for an eight-month term contract, with the possibility of a continuing position, I got up to speed, not just quickly but with the meticulousness of a historian: on the Doukobours, the Vietnam draft dodgers – I had plans to use Tolstoy as an entry point to Peter Verigin’s unsolved murder on the Kettle Valley Railway, that shit inflamed me when I read up on it.  I was prepared to do anything to make my year turn into a career, and, as we know now, that’s exactly what Brad Park figured on, he’d cultivated me for my desperation.

You’re teaching four classes each term – 300 students a year, all new preps (no teaching assistants), and in a discipline for which you’re not really qualified:  it feels like you can’t breathe, not hardly. In a job intended to occupy your mental faculties, you’re naturally weak in precisely that area; after classes you’re mush, you’re good for giggling, for G&Ts. I was too tired to notice what Brad was doing.

Even If I’d got wiser sooner, what was I going to do?

So much about our job is timing. Selkirk College had all the bloat, all the excrescence of any place like that, any institution what had bigged up its ranks in the 90s, under consecutive provincial socialist governments, all sorts of jokers who were as surprised as anyone that they held a permanent position, like they could hardly make eye contact with any new hire who had a Doctorate, because they didn’t, they’d really never been close to close, and, mostly, it hadn’t been for lack of trying. A friendly place? Don’t kid yourself. But the cold shoulder from my colleagues served mostly to make Brad Park’s solicitations all the more desirable.

The second week of our Christmas break, Brad invited me to his house, for a celebration of Winter solstice. People tell me I look like a medievalist, with all the awkwardness and buttoned-down Oxfords that implies; there exists no sort of academic tedium in which I cannot thrive. Ok, but Brad’s solstice party? That shit was bizarre.  It was the first time I suspected that Brad wasn’t just quirky, Brad was deranged.

The chairs in the living room were set in a circle. I wasn’t rowdy out in Halifax, but I liked a Guinness and dark wood. White carpet, bright lighting, and chairs in a pattern? It was everything I’d spent my life ridiculing, and yet here I was, asked to take a seat across from the man to whom I owed my salary. Brad was the only light, much fainter than the halogen bulbs hanging from a track in the ceiling, my professional career presently knew. He welcomed us, and said he’d like to start the celebration with a question: in a word, not two, how would each of us define contentment?

I wanted to say “contentment,” only because circular reasoning suited best our spatial arrangement, and I think I must have chuckled slightly in anticipation because Brad glared at me – the soul patch seemed to point towards me in accusation – and I felt myself feigning a cough. And when my turn came – I’d been beaten by “family” “green” “pants” and “clitorises” – I settled on “Chaucer” and for that (this actually happened) Brad stood and began to applaud, and so did the rest of the circle until my blushing matched the glass of wine I drained, in acknowledgement of my triumph, even though I wasn’t a Chaucerian, I thought that dude was basically ass.

That was just for starters. The party milled for a while. Through his I-pod Brad played Enya, and, because he himself must have sensed that was too easy, a range of songs that segued better into the second act: Nine Inch Nails, Michelle Shocked, some shit Wim Mertens: finally, The Faint’s “Agenda Suicide” ushered us into Act II; so: cheese, dated, mid-Western goth-industrial, and some home-made mead (it tasted like jet fighter gin, Jesus, it burned my eyebrows), served to us in rustic blue glass goblets, by a woman named Charlotte-Rae (she told us she came from Winlaw). All of that before any reasonable chance to excuse yourself.

Again, I just want to point out: I was aware, never doubt it, how far away I was from “The Learneds”, how remote mahogany and Grecian columns and old men, bearded, yet with no fucking soul patch, smoking pipes, beautiful pipes, not glass ones filled with B.C. Kush.  I longed for a second chance, for some reversal; I’d vow never to re-purpose my research for easy conference credits; I’d promise – I did so as I sat there – never to quibble with my dissertation supervisor, always to make the recommended changes. Just – couldn’t I be spared the singing? 

For it was singing which came next. Singing directed by Charlotte-Rae, and not any regular sort of singing. The advantage – you have to give her credit for this – of her homebrew, was that after a glass and a half, every single person in the room was blitzed, we felt like belting croons. The drunker I got the more Brad’s soul patch bothered me: it seemed to come alive, Medusa-like (I’m telling you – that “mead” was poison). It struck me then that the man was a tinfoil-hatted delusionist flushed fully with surges of self-grandeur tuned to apocalyptic visions of species annihilation from whose ashes he – and his (slightly singed) soul patch – would emerge, the symbol of renewal: a new hope.

The lights went out: I could not have been happier. Charlotte-Rae lit a single candle and placed it on a stool in the centre of our group. Everyone looked ghoulish, recessed in new shadow, and I couldn’t see Brad’s soul patch anymore, but I could feel it, could sense the slithering. I wanted the lights back on. We all held hands. Charlotte-Rae said that to celebrate light, and remember the cleansing power of fire, we were all to yell, or yelp – to get it out however we could – a sound from deep within, a sound that pre-dated culture. Make a sound, she said, to purge yourself from yourself; celebrate the pagan within, and you’ll expel all of society’s corrosive effluvia (I’m not making that up: she said “effluvia”).

I tried to make eyes with Brad, but not only did he not see anything to ridicule, he started to pound out a beat, palms to knees, and, when I saw that, I closed my eyes, just as Charlotte-Rae… “sang”? (I want to say “sang” except this was no singing, this wasn’t even a wail, not in a Bob Marley sense; this was as close as I’d ever been to a hospital delivery room and my back went rigid with fright): I must have been squeezing too hard, because the woman on either side of me, released herself from my grip, and instead each gave me pats on my back, I suppose meant to reassure. The sounds were terrible and sublime. At three-second intervals all of earth seemed to open itself up to a chasm, located directly beneath our feet, and I re-took the hands in mine: 1) because I was afraid of falling in; 2) because my turn was next.

I have to live with the memory of the sound I made for the rest of my life, and with the knowledge that as I stand in front of lecture halls filled with freshmen, I am one and the same man who can, under the right mix of jet fuel and peer terror, produce a death-devil sound of such vile darkness. I was like Caruso getting ass-fucked by the demon sea monster Forneus as I fell from a cliff into an inextinguishable lake of fire. Turns out, I can shock and silence even the most seasoned Winlaw wicca. When I opened my eyes, it was to a room filled with huge eyes, and no one touched me anymore. It took a few seconds before Brad said, “Intense, brother. We recognize and honour the truth inside of you.”

For the rest of the Christmas break, I scoured the usual places for positions opening up the following fall, positions at universities in cities I’d actually heard of. There was nothing of course. Even if there had been I hadn’t helped my cause by accepting work at a college; quite the opposite. It’s easy to descend to the lower leagues, but once you have, it’s like Dante down here, there is no way out – this is you for all eternity, this is your best-case. I tried to make the most of it: for a few nights around New Year’s I booked a King suite at the Hume Hotel in Nelson, and that was a proper town. I consoled myself with its proximity. I was making the best money I’d ever made, and here, (for the first time in my life) I was a star, a stand-out with the ear of the Dean. Brad went over all of these same points during my end-of-year evaluation, and it was then, for the first time, that he made me his proposition. 

He told me he’d wanted a medievalist for a long time, to help him string together a narrative that could be used to stage a spirit-summoning performance, and in doing so accomplish two related things: 1) establish for himself a national reputation as seer and visionary (for the good of the college); 2) convince a lot of fellow travellers to part with sizeable cheques (for the good of the college). As a term lecturer, I had no employment for the summer, and, Brad told me, there was no other work the college could offer me. But, if I was prepared to help him script and stage a special “fundraising séance,” he had a summer research grant he’d been planning to slide my way.
I didn’t accept immediately. I spent an entire week personally working each of my contacts in the Academy. Most of the colleagues with whom I’d gone to grad school were in plum places: NYU, Northwestern, there is hardly a research university in Canada that doesn’t employ someone I know. All of them were sympathetic; I believe all of them really wanted to help. But there was no help for me, I was beyond that point. And so, the same week my term contract ended, I started with Brad on a research project he’d titled: “Séance and the sane: a critical dialectic on the praxis of spiritualism.” I had to give Brad credit for that: he had the wool so far over the eyes of Selkirk College’s Executive, he could show up naked to board meetings, and the poor saps, them in their old money and pleated chinos, they’d offer him and his dong some newly conceived commendation for innovation.

The research was actually pleasant – I got into it. I shipped out from Halifax most of my books, and seven or eight years’ worth of back issues of Florilegium, the Canadian Society of Medievalists’ journal (including the 2005 issue which contained my one – and only – peer-reviewed publication); Selkirk College had a decent library, they subscribed to all the essential academic databases, and Janice, the librarian at the Inter-Library Loans desk, was efficient. It was the good old days all over again: me, lost in the stacks, using everything I’d learned – including Latin, Middle English and a working knowledge of Old Norse – to crack open a new problem. It didn’t even bother me after a week or so that the problem assigned to me was how to communicate with the souls of the ancient dead. Antiquity had long been my quotidian, and to me, at first, the question seemed legitimate. The modern world was an obvious and almost incalculable degeneration; only fools didn’t know that we’d forgotten much more than we could ever hope to discover anew. To me it was axiomatic: it was always in ruin that we’d find our salvation, and through forgotten fragments of text I considered myself born to dig. I still thought Brad Park was a charlatan, but it was looking like there could be a research paper in it for me; and, no matter what happened, anything beat starving.

I was constantly entertained by my readings, but after two weeks, the conclusion was easy: necromancy was for imbeciles. I knew before I began the project that the chances of a third-rate intellectual happening upon an unique formula, discovered previously by no scholar of any era, that provided instant easy-peasy communion with an obviously fictional place called “the spirit world,” was unlikely, and I considered the whole undertaking so embarrassing that I told no one exactly what it was Brad Park hoped to discover. I couldn’t figure it myself: sure, the guy was off-kilter, but was he fully and utterly unhinged? That Park had, before the age of 45, managed to rise to a full-blown Dean of Arts despite his highest credential being an MBA from The University of Phoenix, a for-profit distance education degree mill, and with only two years teaching experience, at Northwest Community College in Terrace, was one of the true marvels of the age.

I’d seen him at Winter solstice. If that was an act, he was Stanislavski. But if he was Stanislavski then it was possible that he’d perfected his method so expertly that he’d forgotten the distinction between backstage and the show. That was the gamble I took. That he’d become the mountebank so thoroughly that for him the show never stopped. And I knew – hack that I was – that if I couldn’t string along some soul-patched spiritualist with the worst possible graduate degree in North America, than I truly was as worthless as I often felt. And so I set out to see if I could outkid a kidder.
First of all, I said, the Egyptians tell us no congress with the realm beyond is possible without a pyramid: it’s the three points that Christianity later appropriates: father, son, holy ghost.

Easily done, he told me a few days later: I’ve reserved the pyramid at Summer Hill winery in Kelowna for Summer Solstice. Does solstice help?

It doesn’t hurt, I said, it doesn’t hurt. But after I left his office: Okanagan wineries have pyramids? Motherfucker!

To buy myself more time, I tried a new gambit: which spirits in particular did we wish to summon? Did we have a Top 10? Brad must not have liked my tone because he bade me shut the door, and asked me to take a seat. “Let me clear something up for you,” he said. “The afterlife is real, that’s something people of all races and religions have believed throughout human history.” It turned into a two-hour lecture on his family, which had emigrated to Canada in 1960, part of the great Canadian Korean Christian migration. In Vancouver, where Byeong-cheol was born two years later, his father served the diaspora as a Minister in the Vancouver Korean Presbyterian church, the denomination of the Canadian missionaries under whose guidance he had undergone his conversion. “What we are doing,” Brad told me, “is no more unbelievable than what happened in my father’s church every Sunday morning. But people today don’t go to church expecting miracles; and so they don’t find them. Anyone willing to gather in a pyramid expects miracles, they want to believe: all you and I are doing is facilitating this desire. You give me something credible to start with; I’ll provide the incredible. Ok?”

I said it was fine, but if all he wanted was a séance, it seemed to me like Charlotte-Rae, she and almost the entirety of his present social circle, could provide better, and more current, guidance. That’s kid’s play, he told me: I’m not talking about Ouija board, Aaron Spelling hocus pocus – I want a ritual so spectacular (there was that word again, like a virus) and so grounded in research that no matter what happens, something has happened. He repeated this, as he stroked his soul patch, his eyes focussed on a far-away place: “no matter what happens, something has happened.”

Rebuffed, yet reassured, I went back to my books. After a few weeks I came across something – I guess you could call it a ritual – ancient, well-documented and bizarre; something that, given all of
Brad Park’s trimmings, seemed certain to carry Brad’s name to all corners of the nation.
Unfortunately, it involved a goat.

Perfect, Brad said: Carmelis Goat Cheese is 10 minutes south of Summer Hill. The “goatgonzola” is to die for.

Goddammit!

I told him I didn’t think they’d sell us a goat, not when they knew what we needed it for.

“A sacrifice?” Brad asked. “Are we sacrificing a goat?”

“Not we,” I said, “You. The high priest must do the sacrifice.”

“I’m the high priest?” he said.

“Well, I’m not,” I said.

“What do I wear?”

I opened my messenger bag, and produced a series of photocopied images, which I handed across the desk. Brad began to giggle. “It’s excellent,” he said. “I better run these over to Charlotte-Rae this afternoon. We’ve only got a week to go.” He asked if I wanted a robe too. I said it wasn’t necessary.
He said of course it was.

To be fair, after I’d read up on Summer Hill Winery I didn’t even think they’d mind Brad Park sacrificing a goat inside the structure they’d built to finish their organic wines. They celebrated it as a “sacred space” where various ceremonies just encouraged people to BE. I didn’t think what I was proposing was all that out of their ordinary. Besides, I told Brad, the word “pyramid” means fire in the middle, and basically that was my plan: sacrifice, then goat feast bacchanalia. Nonetheless, we agreed it best to keep the sacrifice a surprise. I’d never sacrificed a goat before so I didn’t know what unholy forces we’d unleash; but I’d put together a completely implausible concoction of Incan mythology, the usual amount of basic paganism, and some standard Aleister Crowley-type Baphomet worship, more or less basically invented whole cloth from various graphic novels about The Knights Templar, also some Dan Brown. Once I knew that Charlotte Rae was coming, with her mead, I pretty much said fuck it; two glasses of that and Brad Park’s soul patch in candlelight, inside a pyramid – with a goat? You wouldn’t bet against anything.

The three of us made the five-hour drive together, me in the backseat with the robes and mead. Before she’d get in the vehicle Charlotte-Rae insisted on anointing each of the tires of Brad’s Murano with a pentagram. She also told us to visualize a blue pentagram stretched out over the hood of the car as we drove. I tried, but all I could think about was the goat.

I entered Carmelis alone. I asked first, I will say that, but the guy working refused categorically to sell me one. The truth is he gave me ten seconds to leave. We drove a few feet back down the road until we were out of view of the cheese shop. Brad asked me if a goat was important. Of course, it is, I said, and we can’t get one, so we should call the whole thing off.

Brad looked at Charlotte Rae; together they shook their head. Then together they nodded. Brad told me I had to steal one.

 “How am I going to steal a goat?” I yelled.

Brad asked me what I planned on doing in the fall; because whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be at Selkirk College if I didn’t skulk back up that road, hop that fence and bring him some Pan. There were sixty people waiting in the pyramid, he reminded me: a who’s who of prominent B.C. spiritualists and Selkirk alumni (surprisingly often, one and the same).

I said, well what if someone sees me?

Brad ran his fingers through his hair. “I got it,” he said, “the robe.” He got mine out of his vehicle and threw it at me. I put it on. It billowed down past my ankles, black with a crimson hood. On the front was stitched a golden pyramid, inside of which shot forward the blood red horns of a goat.

“What about fingerprints?” I said.

Brad reached inside his blazer and produced a pair of blue surgical gloves. “Kid gloves,” he said.

“Not funny,” I said, but I put them on.

“May the goddess protect you,” Charlotte-Rae said and forced a bottle to my lips. It burned, dear Lord how it burned.

I had tried the robe on once for size, but its design was purely ceremonial. I kept tripping over the hem as I walked uphill. It was after six so the shop was closed; there was no one to stop me, except myself. I was up to that challenge.

The fence wasn’t even that high, but the fabric of my robe wrapped around a pole and I flailed there, in my black Satan robe, my blue gloves, upside down. I kicked and I swore, but I was stuck and I couldn’t get free. Blood rushed to my head and I didn’t see those two goats charge me, it was only when I felt their horns butting against my head that I knew. That hurt, but obviously nothing stung as much as my pride. 

“Goat to Satan: No Kidding!”

“Horny Cultist Says ‘Cheese!’”

“Goat of the Week: Medieval-Knievel”

The media had a field day, and I’m told that Carmelis hangs a picture of me, hanging on their fence, inside the shop; the free publicity sent their trade through the roof. I don’t mind that, but I still don’t get how Brad Park got away with it. I heard the Murano squeal off, just as I’d been sighted, and then the two men from Carmelis came running; oh, they remembered me just fine. Brad and Charlotte-Rae proceeded back to The Pyramid and improvised some sort of ceremony. When the police interrupted them, some thirty minutes later, Brad, I am told, broke down, and said he was just happy they found me alive. He said I’d got drunk on the drive from Castlegar and ran away screaming, something about the blood of a goat.

“I knew he was bitter about the way his life turned out,” Brad told the reporter from Global, “but I never imagined him capable of anything like this. Funny way to repay the one guy who tried to cut him a break.” He said that I had set back a legitimate and vital study on contemporary regional practices of ancient spiritualism – one reason he’d accepted a position at Selkirk in the first place – by a decade. I’d made a mockery of the sacred, that the only thing he ever wanted to see people sacrifice was themselves, in the cause of a greater good.

Vice President, Academic and Student Development, Brad Park is a fraud, I guess that’s all I’ve been trying to say; that, and – even though I’m an untenurable ex-con sleeping in my parents’ basement – at least I don’t have a fucking soul patch, Christ.

*

Colin Snowsell is the author of the novella The Frollett Homestead (The Okanagan Institute 2010). His writing has appeared in Event, Maisonneuve, PopMatters, Prairie Fire, Ryga, and This Magazine, among others. He lives in Vernon, B.C., where he is a professor in the Department of Communications at Okanagan College.

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