Episode 12: The Swindling

One. That’s all Spenser wanted, all he asked for. One whiteboard marker. A whiteboard marker. Singular. To communicate with students, relay information — contact info and due dates, record ideas, render ephemeral threads of classroom discussion into two dimensions for the visual learners in the room.

Institutional operating budget: 1.43 billion dollars. The answer: buy your own.

And so he finds himself sitting at his desk, thinking about that. About how much whiteboard markers might go for. Tries to divide the price ($1.50?) into 1.43 billion (call it 1.5 for ease of division) but can’t get the decimal point to stay fixed in his mind and then all the zeroes spill away, and so he gives up. Tries to float outside his body and film the movie of his life, quiet on the set for this moment and its communal, windowless office, its silence, its white walls, its middle-aged man with horrible posture, its dried-up whiteboard marker with the terminal diagnosis. It feels like this will be an important scene when the final cut is finished, so let’s really pay attention to detail and get this right.

Does he want to make a stand? Does he want to stir a bit of dirt, make a fuss? Maybe even raise his voice? Yell about value and sacrifice? Respect. It’s about respect. How about a little respect. Let’s try it like this: How about a little respect, and maybe a minor flourish with your hands, palms up in a way that suggests both exasperation and the universal plea of the destitute.

Is this the hill you want to die on? This, he knows, is really the question. Melodramatic, perhaps, but he thinks the arc of his career is almost certainly a tragic one and so Spenser wants to let the thought play out. Is this the hill you want to die on? Are you willing to make a scene, go down for this, take the long, shameful walk, all because you have to buy your own whiteboard marker? He doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But it can’t be tragic, can it? Because that suggests some sort of acknowledgement at the end of it all, acknowledgement of sacrifice, of commitment, even of fatal shortsightedness and all the mistakes along the way. Someone at the end of it all looking back on his life, comprehensively, mining it for tiny shards of dignity and meaning. Tragedy means he dies in ignorance and his sacrifices only mean something to other people, and he’s so tired of everything always being about other people, everyone else always having a clearer sense of the bigger picture than he does.

So it’s comedy then? This seems like a better fit, but also insufficient. There’s a humorous pathos in all of this, yes, but comedy pushes toward some sort of happy resolution. You are the butt of all jokes, but maybe you end up getting the last laugh, or at the very least some portion of what you truly want. A goddamn whiteboard marker. Roll credits. But Spenser is long past dreams of happy endings.

He thinks he should have been a professor 50 or 60 years ago. Tweed patches in smoky lecture halls, elegant disputations on long walks between faded brick buildings in the fall, maybe some leaves tumbling orange to yellow and light rain falling, black umbrellas blooming all around. Not cigarettes, but pipes. How he loves the oaky sweetness of pipe smoke. Chalkboards and the arcane thrills of card catalogues. Wooden bookshelves and greasy leather spines with embossed titles, dust motes coiling with uncanny grace. Ink-stained fingers. Write a few seriously untheoretical articles, maybe even grind out an untheoretical book of detailed close readings. Typewriter ribbon and typewriter clack.

Wistful for a past that never was. What a joke. But maybe that’s the one true genre: tragicomedy. Everybody always a generation late to the Golden Age.

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