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updated: Jan 07, 2012, 10:00 AM
By Frank Frost
Professor Mason was standing outside his office trying to remember. Had he gone down the hall to the bathroom deciding to come back and finish some work? Or had he finished, locked up, and only gone to the bathroom to avoid urgency on the way home. He couldn't remember. There was no light under his door and it didn't seem important to him so he walked to the stairway door and began the long spiral down through the stairwell.
Professor Mason always used the stairs even though his office was on the sixth floor. He reasoned that he got no other exercise. He certainly wasn't going to run around in his underwear, as some of his younger-- and even older-- colleagues were doing. Nor did he wish to visit a club where he could use strange machines to raise his heartbeat and smell the sweat of many other people. Besides, he was a historian of science and was aware that until about 1965 no intellectuals had ever exercised. Yet their age at death was quite a bit later than other statistical groups, including military personnel, professional athletes, and criminals, all of whom had obviously been required to exercise repeatedly during the course of their lives.
Nevertheless, the professor enjoyed taking the stairs twice a day, or several more times a day if he went to the library or to lunch with a friend or graduate student. The tall, dimly lit tower of the stairwell was featureless concrete, had no associations with any other part of his life and therefore was conducive to concentrated thought as he slowly plodded up and down. He was accustomed to setting himself some specific problem of finite duration, usually the phrasing of a footnote or a slight change in a syllabus, to contemplate on the journey up or down. He was rarely disturbed in his solitary stairwell because the students at his university, although glowing with vigorous Southern California health and wearing expensive running shoes and sportswear, all seemed to prefer the elevator, even to the Sociology department on the second floor.
It was rather unusual therefore when he heard a door open on the next landing, echoing up and down the concrete tower. He had lost track of the floor he was approaching, having been distracted by trying to remember whether the Library computer read umlauts as fuer instead of für or simply ignored them. Actually, come to think of it, he had been descending for some time.
He rounded the corner of the stairs and there below him were Morgenstern and Cathcart, one Political Science and the other Anthropology. It wasn't second floor Sociology then. Or not necessarily. They were both looking at him.
"Hello there, Mason," said Morgenstern. "Good to see you, John," said Cathcart. "Shall we walk down together for a bit?"
"Yes, hello, hello. Please join me," answered Mason. "Although it's hard to talk here in the stairwell, it always echoes so."
In fact it was not echoing now at all. "Something atmospheric," thought Mason.
And then, as his two companions chatted, he remembered something about Morgenstern. Hadn't he died recently? A sudden stroke on the golf course? Or had that been Morganson, Physics? And Cathcart. He hadn't seen him for weeks, even months? He realized he had come to a halt. So had Morgenstern and Cathcart, and they were regarding him gravely.
"I've had a sudden terrible thought," he said.
His companions only looked at him. They seemed unusually sympathetic and concerned for fellow academics.
"I'm dead. That's what, isn't it?" he said.
His companions were silent for a moment. Then Cathcart spoke.
had some questions."
"It's the exercise thing, isn't it? I knew I should have been jogging or something; everyone seemed to be doing it. Although I don't remember anything but standing outside my office. Is it always that way? You don't remember?"
"Not at all, John," said Morgenstern. "You were in perfect health for a man of sixty-two."
"It was quite unexpected. An accident," added Cathcart. "Do you know Drake in your department well?"
"Yes, of course, Renaissance. And the big course in Western Civ. Good Lord! Is he dead too?"
"No," said Morgenstern, "But he should be."
"Yes," went on Cathcart, "He had a crazy student named Cogelshatz, who got a "D" from his teaching assistant. Cogelshatz phoned Drake in an absolute rage and demanded a grade change. Drake firmly refused."
"And with his usual bad grace," said Morgenstern. Drake adored children but famously had no patience with lazy college students.
"But what did that have to do with me?"
"It didn't, of course."
"Cogelshatz, you see, got off the elevator on the wrong floor. Drake's office is right below yours. Cogelshatz burst in the right door, but on your floor."
Morgenstern took up the story. "He had picked up a fire axe walking down the hall and he sank it deep into your skull."
Mason's hands flew to his head.
"No, no! There are no marks!"
"There never are," Cathcart added helpfully.
"But that's terrible!" cried Mason. "And Cogelshatz! What's happened to him?"
"Well. He tried to turn the axe on himself."
"Not at all as easy as with a firearm," added Cathcart with a wry smile.
"No," said Morgenstern. "Poor Cogelshatz made a mess of everything. Western Civ, you, and himself. He will need extensive cosmetic surgery before his eventual journey to an institution for the criminally insane."
Mason stood silent there in the hall. For they had evidently emerged from the stairway onto a long hall, wood paneled, with soft gray carpeting and concealed lighting. He was trying to figure out what he thought of all this. His wife would have been hysterical, but she had died several years ago. His two children lived far away with their own families and called rarely, usually to advise him on investment strategies, advice he never took. He had no research burning to be published; only his long actuarial study of academic lifespans in various scientific disciplines. He had long ago admitted to himself that he didn't care what patterns emerged. But, but, but...
"But what happens now?" he stuttered.
"Ah," his companions said together.
"We're getting to that."
* * *
They were walking down the long hall. Now and then there was a door, as if to an office. Once, in an alcove, there was a telephone. As they passed it rang.
Morgenstern picked it up.
"Hello?...Yes, yes....everything is fine-or at least as it ought to be....No, no, he took it very well." He turned to Mason. "I've told them you took it well."
Mason felt a bit cross. "I'm not so sure I've taken it well. You haven't given me much time to think about it. And who in the world are 'them'? And if 'they' are so all important, why did they let Cogelshatz off at the wrong floor!" He felt himself flush.
"John...I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken the liberty of assuming anything about your attitude." Morgenstern looked honestly contrite, almost pained, and Mason's anger waned as rapidly as it had risen.
"We'll be off in a bit," said Cathcart. "And the last thing we wanted was to have you upset."
"No, no, I'm quite alright now. It's just that I have no idea what I'm doing, or if I'm going to be doing anything at all."
"Oh yes, John. In fact you're going to be doing quite a lot."
They had arrived at a glass door looking out at a bus stop. Cathcart was no longer with them.
"Cathcart's off now, John, he's done his bit. And after a little while I'll be taking off too. That's the way it works."
"Could you explain the rules?" asked Mason. "It would help me do whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing."
"John," said Morgenstern, "All we're supposed to do is help our friends over the shock. Then, I assume, everyone's best instincts take over and we act as we always have--ladies and gentlemen helping past friends get used to the idea of..."
"But what happens? I mean, for instance, what happened to Cathcart?" John Mason was a little annoyed at himself for sounding nervous and high strung. He wasn't quite sure when his best instincts were going to click in.
"I have no idea," said Morgenstern. "I just know that during our brief time helping our friends adjust we get this feeling that in some way we are finishing a long, long job and that some marvelous new life is about to start. John, you're about to start your part of the job. Don't you feel it a bit?"
* * *
Mason strolled down a path into the park. He was evidently to serve for a little while as a Collector. A sort of interim guide. He had to admit that his colleagues had made the transition less upsetting than it might have been. The trees were in full spring foliage, squirrels scurried across the lawns, and birds hovered above the luxuriant flower beds. Not far away he could see a small lake with swans and ducks going about their business on the surface. A small girl was now approaching from the left along a long avenue of plane trees. When she saw him she started skipping until she was facing him. She studied his face seriously.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"John," said Mason, thinking that "Professor Mason" would be a little formal. "And what is yours?"
"Um. It used to be Debbie. But that's all over. And I'm so happy!" She gave a little hop, then twirled around twice.
Mason had expected someone, probably male, of his age and station, and he had no idea how he was expected to console a little girl, especially one who needed no consoling and who seemed to know exactly where she was. But she didn't need his help to keep the conversation going...
"This is just like I used to dream!" she said. "Back then I had these awful, heavy leg braces. And thick, thick glasses. And my tongue hung out and looked all yucky." She demonstrated, not very successfully. "I was ‘suh-verely dee-velop-mentally dis-abled,'" she said carefully, pronouncing every syllable. "I could hear, you know, and see a little bit, and feel, mostly hurting. I knew people, like the nurses and my mother when she came to visit. She cried a lot," she confided. Then she tried another twirl.
"But I used to dream and in my dream I was like this, pretty, and...Am I pretty, John?"
"You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen," said Mason. And indeed the little girl had the sweetest face, with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a light yellow summer dress in a small flowered pattern that was a little too short for her long coltish legs.
"I was always pretty in my dream, and it was sunny and I was in a meadow with flowers, and I could dance and sing. It was marvelous. I always had the same dream. And then this one time I was in my dream and when I woke up I was here. And it's funny, you know, that I know all those words-like 'dee-velop...op...' you know what I mean-and even 'meadow.' I know I never saw a meadow. And now I'm here and I even know what I'm going to be doing!"
Mason wished he knew what he was doing. He wasn't sure he'd be able to speak at all what with the lump in his throat, thinking about the awful past life of this little girl, and thinking about his own little girl when she was seven or eight-the girl who was now a thirty-five-year-old mother of three in Portland, Oregon and whom he'd never see again now. But Debbie gave him no chance to speak. She pointed to a hill in the distance.
"Here comes another girl," she said. "She's going to need help. Her mother's boyfriend hit her until she was dead. Isn't that terrible!" she said matter-of-factly, as if a picnic had been interrupted by rain. "And there are supposed to be others. Can you help me when they get here? We can get them all talking, or in a game or something"
Now Mason knew there was something wrong. And as he looked wildly around he suddenly saw a telephone set into a square recess in an oak tree. He'd never seen a telephone in a tree before, except maybe in a comic strip once, but now it seemed entirely natural and he immediately walked over and picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Professor," he heard a pleasant woman's voice say. "How are we getting along?" He had always been annoyed by the patronizing "we" used by persons who were in no way involved in one's problems but now he was too concerned to notice.
"I'm afraid there's been a terrible mix-up," he said. "I thought we were to 'collect' people we had something in common with, people we could sympathize with and help through their dismay and confusion. But..."
"It's odd you should say that, Professor, what with all your work with children. Could you explain..."
But Mason suddenly knew what had happened. The poor maniac Cogelshatz was supposed to have killed Drake all along! Drake was to have been the designated Collector. Drake, who adored children. Drake, who volunteered hours every week counseling abused children. Drake, who read aloud to a mesmerized audience of children every Saturday morning in the public library, readings that had been glowingly described in a Sunday Times feature story.
"You know, I'm positive it's Professor Drake who's supposed to be here all along!" he said with some urgency. "All these little girls! When they get here I'll probably just get all upset and choked up and not be able to say a thing! This is absolutely a job for Drake!"
"Well, you know," said the woman. "We have been having trouble with this new software... Let me check back at the last window. Hm… I'm not really sure how to get there from here."
"Maybe I can help," said Mason eagerly. Eight years ago he had learned, slowly and painfully, to operate the computer programs so necessary to his statistical studies and now he could even help colleagues with relatively simple problems.
"Oh, I wish you would!" said the woman, with relief. "The person who's supposed to be running this program is away for a while and I only know how to do it when it's running smoothly."
"First of all," asked Mason. "Is your computer a Mac?"
"A Macintosh. Uh, does it have a little picture of an apple on it?"
"Oh, I know what you mean. The apple with a bite out of it. No. They didn't think that would be appropriate. But this doesn't have any name on it. Ah! There! I got back to the last window. Now what was the name? Drake? Uh oh! It looks like you're right, Professor. His file is highlighted for uploading. But to upload him I'm going to have to delete..."
"No, no, no!" said Mason, hastily. "Don't touch anything for a moment. Let me think..." And he pondered the various programs he knew, the alternative and never very certain scenarios for taking back an action and substituting the right one. Years ago in a fury he had cursed the computer geniuses who had designed programs with no tolerance for wrong steps and he had wished them all dead. Now, he realized, they were dead and were here doing the same thing.
"All right," he announced. "Let's move carefully here. First, drag the current window off a bit so you can see Drake's file."
"Okay, I see what you mean."
"Now activate my file, just click on it anywhere."
He could see Debbie skipping across the grass, going to meet the newcomer. There was a pair of butterflies flirting above her head.
"All right, I've done that."
"Now. What do you get when you pull down your File menu? It should be up at the top there somewhere."
"Let's see. Okay. It says, new, open, close, save, finalize..."
Mason was sure he didn't want to be finalized. "Try clicking on save," he said.
"Okay," she said. "This is great, Professor. I'm sure glad you know what you're doing!" Mason was by no means as sure, but he went on doggedly.
"What options do you have under save?" he asked.
Up the hill two more girls now appeared; one white, one black. The white girl seemed to be crying.
"It says, save changes or cancel or restore."
Mason realized he was going to take an awful chance. Save changes probably meant that he was stuck here. Cancel just plain worried him. Restore, if the programmers had any wits at all, should restore him back outside his office, where this all started.
"All right," he said, trying to sound confident. "Listen carefully. Your first step is to bring up save. Then click on restore. Then when my window disappears, you click on Drake's file and activate him. That should do it. Is that all clear?"
"Oh it certainly is, and it all makes sense, too, Professor! I can't thank you enough! Okay! Here goes!" Mason saw that Debbie now had two of the new girls by the hands and was leading them his way. They were all smiling and the other girls were tagging along. It was a beautiful day and he almost wished he could stay for just a bit.
* * *
Professor Mason stood outside his office trying to remember. He'd just gone down the hall to the bathroom but he couldn't remember whether he was coming back to finish something or just to go home. The office seemed to be dark under the door so he concluded that he had already locked up. Hard to remember when you're trying to recall how the Library has catalogued German titles.
He was trudging down the stairwell when he heard a roar and a terrible shriek from the floor just below his. "Students make more noise every year," he thought. And he went home.
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