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Authors: Roger Rosenblatt

Beet

BOOK: Beet
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Roger Rosenblatt
Beet

A Novel

FOR MICHAEL J. ARLEN

“Tomorrow we start shutting down the college.”

“But Professor, where will the students sleep?”

“Where they always sleep—in the classroom.”

—HORSE FEATHERS

Contents

Chapter 1

“DON'T BOTHER TO COME HOME IF YOU STILL HAVE A…

Chapter 2

“SHITSHITSHITSHITSHIT!” SAID THE POET MATHA POLITE (pron. “Pole-eet”) when she…

Chapter 3

LIVI WAS ON A TEAR AGAIN. HER EYES BLAZED GREEN,…

Chapter 4

SO IT WENT FOR THE FOLLOWING TWO WEEKS, WITH STUDENTS…

Chapter 5

THE OCCASION OF THE PORTERFIELDS' NIGHT OUT WAS THE visit…

Chapter 6

WHILE NEARLY EVERYONE WHO WAS ANYONE AT BEET COLLEGE had…

Chapter 7

MATHA POLITE HAD RETREATED FROM LAPHAM AS SOON AS the…

Chapter 8

“THE MEETING WILL COME TO ORDER,” SAID HUEY. “WE should…

Chapter 9

THE BETTER TEACHERS AT ANY LEVEL POSSESS INVENTION AND imagination.

Chapter 10

IN THE WEEK BETWEEN THE INCIDENT AT MACARTHUR HOUSE in…

Chapter 11

THAT YEAR, PARENTS WEEKEND WAS COINCIDENT WITH VETERANS Day, November…

Chapter 12

“WE'VE GOT IT!” PROFESSOR HEILBRUN ANNOUNCED. FOLLOWED by Professor Kramer,…

Chapter 13

BUT TO RETURN TO FERRITT LAWRENCE: HE HAD BEEN HAVING…

Chapter 14

DID PEACE HAVE FRIENDS OTHER THAN DEREK MANNING? HE had…

Chapter 15

THE THOUGHT OF DISRUPTING A CCR MEETING STRUCK Matha as…

Chapter 16

HOW QUICKLY, HASTILY, IT ALL HAPPENED. PACKING GAVE way to…

Chapter 17

BY NOW THE BEET STORY HAD BECOME A STAPLE OF…

Chapter 18

BRICOLAGE—THAT'S ALL IT WAS. THE NEW CURRICULUM Peace had devised…

Chapter 19

IF A DECEMBER DAWN IN NEW ENGLAND WERE DISTINGUISHABLE from…

Chapter 20

WOULDN'T IT BE SOMETHING IF THIS STORY ENDED HERE, with…

“DON'T BOTHER TO COME HOME IF YOU STILL HAVE A JOB,”
Livi Porterfield called to her husband as he hustled their two groggy children into the 243,000-miles-and-still-rattling Accord, to drive them to school. He blew her a kiss.

The job she referred to was on the faculty of Beet College, forty miles north of Boston, where eighteen hundred handpicked, neurotically competitive undergraduates were joined with one hundred and forty-one handpicked, neurotically competitive professors to instruct them. Beet was a typical small New England college, fortified with brick and self-regard—the sort of place people call charming when they mean sterile.

There Peace Porterfield, the youngest full professor in the school's history, taught English and American literature—which is ordinarily enough to mark a person for disaster. If that didn't do the trick, he also believed in what he did, being committed to an academic discipline said to have exhausted both its material and its usefulness, and patronized by institutions of higher learning like a doddering tenant no longer able to come up with the rent. And if those things didn't do him in, he believed in the value of a liberal arts education, and in colleges in general, from whose sacred wa
ters, he further believed, civilization flowed. Need one glaze the duck? He believed in civilization.

The same may not be said of the redhead knockout Olivia Weissman-Kelleher Porterfield, M.D., Peace's wife of thirteen years and mother of Beth and Robert, their bellicose progeny of nine and seven. Livi had the face and temperament of a despotic ingénue. While she gave an occasional nod to civilization, she thought of colleges and universities as—how did she put it?—fucked up beyond belief.

She waved good-bye and wished him “Bad luck, Candide!”—what she called him when she was especially exasperated by his even temper. He needled her by adopting the nickname.

Voltaire probably pictured someone like Peace. Eyes as blue as daylight, hair the color of damp sand that flapped over his forehead. Six foot one, give or take. An athlete's careful lope. And a stoic expression, created and often tested by the name his 1960s-generation parents had burdened him with. His less respectful sister Love, a parole officer in Newark, legally changed her name to Athena. Peace was more naturally serene, which came in handy at times as tense as these.

And why were these times tense? Because the board of trustees of Beet College was threatening to shut the place down. Since eight o'clock that morning, they had been meeting in the Temple, the imitation Parthenon atop College Hill, under the leadership of Joel Bollovate (known as “the man in the iron belly” to his colleagues, competitors, and to his family as well), chairman of the board and CEO of Bollocorps, the largest developer in five of the six New England states. And why close the college? Because Chairman Bollovate reported that Beet's $265 million endowment had been reduced to nothing, and the school was going broke.

“Jesus, Mary, and Moses!” Livi would say as often as she could. “A two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old American institution down the toilet in three short years. The Bollovate legacy.”

Livi lacked what is known as the patience of a saint. When the Porterfields had first arrived at Beet, she could find no openings
nearby in her specialty in hand surgery, and was forced to cool her heels working in the ER at Boston North. That diversion, she hoped, would be as short-lived as her husband's employment. She looked for any opportunity to free her family from what she called “the graves of academe.”

But she was right about Beet's distinguished place in American history. Given every advantage at its birth in 1755, the college profited from the shortcomings of institutions of higher learning that had preceded it. Harvard College was founded in 1636, but in 1718, at the urging of Cotton Mather (whose urgings were rarely ignored), a group of New England conservatives who felt Harvard's standards were slipping decided to found Yale. A few years later another group, who felt Yale's standards were slipping, decided to found Princeton (1746). Not long after that yet another group, detecting more slippage still, created the University of Pennsylvania (1749), then Columbia (1754), until the groups of roving college founders felt standards had slipped so much and so rapidly, they could no longer find them. It was around that time Beet came into being.

That was thanks to a gift of Nathaniel Beet (1660–1732), an American divine and the wealthiest pig farmer in the New England colonies. Beet bequeathed his library of one hundred books (half on religion, half on animal husbandry) and his pigs, which were of much greater dollar value, to establish a “Collegium for Young Men in the Service of Almighty God and Livestock”—thus the college motto, “Deus Libri Porci.”

Beet was to be God's beachhead on a pagan continent, created to produce the sort of young man that England and her motley intermarrying kings and queens had failed to produce since 1066—a learned, ruthless Christian who knew the value of a penny. Small wonder Beet was where the term “capitalist pig” originated, though not as a pejorative.

“Love ya, Dad!” Beth and Robert shouted as Peace dropped them off, just before they shoved each other in the small of the back when Dad drove away. Then he too headed off to school, as he had done his whole life, from the age of three to thirty-six—St. Paul's,
Harvard A. B., B. Litt (Oxon.), Harvard A.M., Ph.D.; a year teaching poor and neglected kids in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (where he and Livi met); his first job, at Yale: school, school, and more school.

He drove down the dirt road, which became the macadam road, which became Main Street of the town of Beet, and he winced. If the college closed, so would the town. Everything in it—the This Little Piggy Muncheonette with its fourteen-by-twelve-by-ten-foot fiberglass shocking pink pig standing at happy attention on the roof; the Pig Out Diner; the Pen and Oink Bookshop; the Bring Home the Bacon butchers; Marty's Swine & Cheese; the Pigs-in-Blankets Bed 'N Breakfast and its High on the Hog Lounge; and businesses with similar stage names, too many, all except the town bank, which had rejected the most obvious name for fear of appearing breakable—relied on the college for its survival. As did its citizens, who, with not much to do, depended on Beet's extension courses to teach them ceramics, photography, macramé, origami, quilting, quilling, and the sketching of nudes.

A fork left, a quick right, and onto the interstate that exited at the county road that exited at the old horseback highway in the woods that wound round to the high black iron gate at the college entrance. Past Gregory, the barely intelligible security guard, who welcomed him with “Flingle!”; past the clusters of students in jeans, sweatshirts, and baseball caps; down into faculty parking. Four years this had been his routine. When the Accord's engine finally stopped wheezing, he tried to deny the accompanying sinking feeling, and applied his natural buoyancy, explaining to himself that his wave of depression was due merely to the cumulative effect of any of life's habits.

He settled in his office to work on the latest batch of student papers. Mrs. Whiting, the department secretary, sat at her desk and sorted mail. They were the only two in the building doing what they were being paid to do. The other department members, ten in number, were gathered at the windows like winter houseflies buzzing and banging themselves against the glass, peering up at the Temple on the hill.

Standing at the Temple window, Chairman Bollovate looked
down. “Are we agreed?” he said. He had the taut mouth of a necrophagous animal and spoke with paratactic abruptness (“I go. You stay”) but without the courtesies often implied by the style, and he never sounded as if he were asking a question even when he was. “Are we agreed?” was heard by his fellow developer trustees as “We have a deal.” They laughed like gunfire, especially Beet's President Lewis Huey, a born picaroon who, once he determined a certain reaction was permissible, reacted with extra oomph. Then the board shook hands all round with greater gusto than the situation seemed to call for. “Who'll tell them?” Bollovate asked and declared.

“You do it, Joel. It was your idea.”

So Bollovate walked from the building and proceeded down the hill with a jouncy royal gait, such as the gait with which Henry VIII undoubtedly had waddled, or perhaps one of Nathaniel's prize pigs, down toward the campus, which spread before him like a village ripe for sacking.

Directly below lay the quadrilaterals of the two Pens, Old and New, like two large stockades with five-story brick buildings occupying the four sides of each, and square lawns in the centers. The Pens contained the academic departments, classroom buildings, and Bacon Library—not a pig joke; it was named for Francis. They were joined (or separated, depending on one's perspective) by College Hall, a long gray structure where President Huey and the deans kept their offices. Student dormitories clustered east of the Pens, and beyond them the parking lots and college gate. To the west lay the athletic fields, hockey rink, tennis courts, track, and gym. On a terrace to the north were the college museum, the Faculty Club, Health Services, the Campus Store, and frame houses for sundry societies and extracurricular activities like the student newspaper, the
Pig's Eye
. To the south was Lapham Auditorium, where concerts and readings were given, speeches delivered, and plays played.

“Plotinus!” thought Bollovate. Isolated names and words from what he defined as his “wasted four years” at college haunted him whenever he found himself on campus. He shivered with horror and contempt. “Who the fuck was Plotinus?”

The Old Pen presented itself like differentiated functions of the mind—History, Classics, Languages, Philosophy, Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Government, Economics, Peace's own English and American Literature, and so on. Nathaniel's Tomb, the size of a toolshed, was squeezed between Philosophy and Economics.

“Tiresias! Who the fuck was Tiresias?”

The more recent disciplines had homes in the New Pen, and their names were painted on signs rather than carved into stone, so that they could be replaced at a moment's notice. Ephemeral or not, they brought in the dollars, though apparently not enough to forestall closure. They included Communications Arts; Native American Crafts and Casino Studies; the Sensitivity and Diversity Council; the Fur and Ivory Audiovisual Center; Ethnicity, Gender, and Television Studies; Little People of Color; Humor and Meteorology; Bondage Studies; Serial Killers of the Northwest; Wiccan History; and the I Am Woman Center, connected by a walking bridge to the Tarzan Institute, which housed the Robert Bly Man's Manliness Society. Bliss House—not a department but a counseling service for students and faculty, described by its curator Professor Donna Dalmatian as “a safe haven where the mind meets the heart”—stood off by itself.

The New Pen was what the college had become in the Bollovate/Huey years. Before them, the Beet curriculum was like that of any self-respecting college—boring but harmless and offering a general education that allowed the more motivated students to enter the outside world relatively unimpaired. In contrast, the new curriculum presented an array of courses and programs specifically designed for popularity. In this effort, certain members of the faculty—particularly those who deemed themselves hip to the sensitivities of undergraduates—cooperated, though unwittingly, by mounting a curriculum meant to draw greater numbers of students by bucking up their self-esteem.

“Postcolonial Women's Sports?” Livi erupted when she'd heard of the latest. “Are you shittin' me?”

Two results ensued, both unfortunate: The outside world
showed not the faintest interest in bucking up the self-esteem of anyone, so the student who was prepared for four years to think well of him-or herself did not get a job or soon lost one, causing an extreme drop in self-esteem and the onset of lifelong psychiatric attention. And the college lost money anyway, which would have been less upsetting had anyone recalled that the institution was supposed to be nonprofit. Bollovate himself had no such recollection. More than once he told President Huey, “The property alone is worth more than anything the deep thinkers are doing, or ever did! Ha ha ha!”

Peace continued to grade papers in his office, until his friend Derek Manning blustered in.

“I told you so,” said Manning. “The bottom line. As soon as that phrase crept into the language, country was cooked.” He strode back and forth in front of Peace's desk.

Manning held the Samuel Beer Professorship in Public Policy, and like the Harvard scholar for whom the chair was named, was the straightest of shooters. He was built like a boxer and had a boxer's nose—earned legitimately when he was growing up, or trying to, as the one Jewish kid on an Italian block in Providence. The fight of his life, however, he'd lost two years earlier, when his thirty-three-year-old wife Margaret died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, akin to mad cow. It caused an encephalopathy, beginning with headaches, moving to disorientation, then loss of motor function and body function. Her dying took eight months. The terrible suddenness of the disease, mixed with the mystery and futility, gave Manning a look that seemed grim and combative at first glance, but when one searched it, showed fear. Yet he had a proleptic gift for argument and a forward tilt that read: Do you really want to start with me?

Usually Peace did not—he liked him too much—except on the basketball court, where the younger, taller Professor Porterfield creamed the forty-six-year-old Manning one-on-one, four out of five.

“Will you please sit down! You're freaking me out.”

“Look at them, will you?”—continuing to pace and pointing to
the office window. “Our esteemed colleagues panting like dogs, waiting for a sign from Joel Bollovate to tell them about the rest of their lives. The Day of the Bollovate. A hundred and forty-one people study and overeducate themselves for decades, only to wind up at the mercy of a man like that.” He sang, “Money money money money money.”

BOOK: Beet
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