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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Fourteen

Jeb woke up a few hours before sunrise, and since there wasn’t any heat in the shack he preferred to go to the library and get started on the day. This was just as well, of course, since he didn’t have any running water and had to use the showers at the school pool for his morning ablutions. Not for a bathroom, however, at least as far as his morning piss was concerned. Even in the middle of the night he’d stagger out of the hut to urinate, always careful to walk a good twenty feet away from the door of his home. He’d miscalculated the carrying power of his own stench in his first few days of living there. He held on to more serious business until he could get to campus, but this usually wasn’t much of a problem. He was a light eater.

As it was, the urinous smell behind one of the cement pillars holding up the overpass was becoming pretty powerful. He liked to think it helped to keep stray dogs away, although now, as he aimed his stream from a spot out of sight from the cars passing by on the road, all he could smell was the powder-like dirt raised by the gentle arc of his stream, flickering like a golden braid in the early morning moonlight.

Duty done, he went back to the shack, gathered up his things, and walked over to campus for his morning shower. After that he had a glass of orange juice in the cafeteria, then went off to the library to study for the day’s classes. This meant going over the Greek and Latin texts with the word lists he’d prepared the night before, as well as making up flash cards for as many words as he had time for. He tried to anticipate questions that would be asked of him in class, although what this really amounted to was studying the grammar and the syntax as well as he could, and then asking questions about anything he didn’t properly understand. What made this difficult for Jeb was that he was more worried about things that he felt he should already know, and therefore didn’t want to betray his ignorance to his professors and the rest of the class. Which is patently ridiculous for any student, of course, especially for someone reading Socratic dialogues. It’s a student’s job to take correction from the teacher, and these were, after all, difficult ancient languages.

Since he was early (it was only 8:00 and on Thursdays he didn’t have class until 11:00), he decided to break one of the rules he’d set for himself by ducking into the student computer room and work on his own poems for just a little while. He’d made some changes on the typewritten drafts he’d printed out on weekends, when (given the luxury of available time) he allowed himself a few hours to work on his own poems.

He had finished about thirty poems, first on the yellow legal pads he carried around with him always. He was spending less and less time on his work for school and more and more time working on his own stuff. Still, there were just a few of them that he thought were perfect, the status he felt was achievable in each poem. Some poems would always be better than other poems, but every poem should be exactly what it was supposed to be, and because he thought this way he was having a difficult time finishing many of them. So he kept after it by annotating the sheaf of paper from a yellow legal-pad he kept in a pee-chee folder, the same kind he used for each of his classes.

He was, of course, thinking a lot about Diana. Not in an explicitly romantic way; quite frankly, he just didn’t want to go there. He wasn’t afraid, he didn’ think; he just wanted to keep things on the up and up. It wasn’t her looks, which were rather plain, but her manner. He’d noticed her figure, although he hadn’t spent a whole lot of time undressing her in his imagination. He’d done so with other women, definitely, and not just in his mind, either. With Diana he was conscious that this would be a little crude – a transgression, even. Then he wondered: could it be that he didn’t think of her in an explicitly sexual way because she didn’t think of herself in this way? Possibly, but it was hard to say exactly how she thought of herself. She was certainly attractive enough; there was no doubting that. But did she think so? And however restrained Jeb may have been, some of the other customers obviously were not.

He also wondered what might the church have to do with this. Maybe she was a celibate at heart. That certainly seemed possible. Those who seemed to take Catholicism most seriously were celibate, weren’t they? She certainly seemed to take it seriously. ‘Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’ was the phrase he remembered from his childhood at the Kingdom Hall. How can anyone make himself a eunuch? It seemed painful, although Jesus must have meant it metaphorically. Maybe it was easier for women.

He thought about the conversations they’d had together so far. He had to admit that he had performed pretty abysmally. Too many half sentences, which he couldn’t finish because he’d, started thinking of something else after he’d opened up his mouth. Why was that? He thought it had to do with this church thing she had going on. And what was that all about? He just didn’t understand it; it was something out of the middle ages. She seemed to making her way through life without too much trouble. He could understand why she might not be completely happy with her job, but it was hard to see how church could help her with that. Whether it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Diana’s Catholicism, religion seemed to Jeb like a big black censor box in front of everything. On the other hand, Diana was obviously an intelligent woman, and perhaps she knew something that he didn’t know. The church wasn’t for him, but obviously there was something in it for her.

From pondering this he switched to pondering his poems for a while, here and there making a few changes in each. He realized that he was running out of time to prepare for class. So he put his poems back in the pee-chee folder and brought out flash cards and his copy of Euripides, and went to work. It was hard work.

He didn’t care as much about his Latin class, although he liked Latin well enough. He just didn’t like the teacher. He was enjoying the author, Sallust, but the teacher was terrible. He was fairly young for a professor. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and roumor had it that he had recently been through a messy divorce from his wife, who lectured in Romance Languages and Literature. He’ was also in the midst of a fairly torrid affair with yet another professor (he’d been decent enough to move on to the German department), evidently in retaliation for an affair his wife had had a year or two before with a visiting scholar from England. The stress was showing. He sat at the front of the seminar table, and spent most of the time listening to students translate as if he were just waiting for them to make a mistake. Even his questions seemed designed to find those mistakes, which gave the impression that the languages were more difficult than they actually were, which was difficult enough. He scowled a lot, actually furrowing his eyebrows with a pained, impatient expression on his face. If he ever laughed, it was in a rough house sort of way, usually directed at one of the students, maybe a little slower than some of the others, or maybe because he just didn’t like students. He’d been tenured for a few years, was well published (if not so well read) and was obviously settling in for the long haul.

Each of Jeb’s classes met twice a week for an hour and a half. On Mondays and Wednesdays it was Euripides with Professor Charles Callahan, the very best of the university, and in fact one of the very best in the field of Greek poetry. A product of Jesuit education through college, like Jeb of Irish descent, and because of that had perhaps taken a special care for someone who was in fact only a slightly better than average student. Although Jeb worked hard at his studies, his rank was simply a matter of talent.

In fact, Callahan took an interest in all his students to the degree that they took an interest in Greek. His style seemed at first intimidating, vigorously examining each student and pointing out just how well their translations reflected an accurate understanding of the grammar. Published translations are in such great abundance now, the refined product of many centuries of classical scholarship, and it was relatively easy for a student to lazily work his way through the grammar with a ‘crib’, itself an argot from another era, brought out and polished by Callahan for his students. They would have the name for their corner cutting, if nothing else.

Callahan’s own knowledge and understanding was awe inspiring because of his insatiable appetite for details, which, as he told his students, were the real foundation for clarity of thought. Intuition and Insight there must be, but these were not paranormal activities, based on somehow mysteriously channeling the spirit of an ancient author after a cursory skimming of a hidden translation, but the proud product of such hardscrabble labor as rereading, memorization, and an ongoing interrogation of the Liddel and Scott Greek Dictionary, as well as Smyth’s Greek Grammar.

This semester he was leading the class through Euripides’ Elektra, covering anywhere from 25 to 125 lines of the play in class, depending not so much on the difficulty of the passage as the degree to which Callahan would pursue the meaning or syntax of a particular word, the history of scholarship, or even the rare story about one of his own teachers, whose books he often brought to class, along with various dictionaries, comparative grammars, and anything else that might shed light on particular problems in the text.

On these 100 lines or so Jeb could easily spend eight hours and still come to class just passably prepared. He carefully wrote down all the vocabulary on flash cards and kept them in groups of a hundred, held together with an elastic covered in fabric. It was an okay system, though a bit unwieldy in the classroom, and of course nothing could compare to the vast memory banks of Callahan’s mind.

But this day was one of those days when Callahan brought a surprise for the class. As a rule, these surprises had something that he himself was working on for publication in one of the many scholarly articles he wrote, although it might also be a passage that illuminated the text they were actually trying to finish. Or maybe it was just a passage that he happened to like – he knew them all so well. It didn’t really matter what his reasons were, but the result was always the same: one poor student was forced to translate a passage at sight, entirely unprepared. Today the esteemed professor had brought in photocopies of a page from Iphegenia at Tauris, and with a mischievous smile on his face he called on Jeb.

Jeb began reading the passage aloud in Greek, haltingly at first, then rushing ahead, none of it coming close to a recognizable rhythm.

gar oneiroisi sunei-
een domois polei te patroi-
ai terpnoon hupnon apolau-
sin koina charin olba
.

When he had finished Callahan waited for a moment and said, “Well, yes, that’s alright Jeb, the meters in these choral passages can be fairly difficult. Now let’s see what you can do by way of translation.”

Jeb then did his best to put it into sensible English.

“For . . . in dreams I used to go to the house. . . houses and . . . the paternal city . . . of pleasant sleep, uh, not sure why that’s plural there . . . to enjoy riches . . . the common riches . . . a grace, maybe?” He looked from the page to Callahan, then back to the page. Callahan sat there, stone still. Jeb was lost, but he also knew he was on his own. He thought he shouldn’t ask for help, because that might be a sign of weakness. Eventually just muddled through to the end on his own: “A grace common . . . in the sense that, for everybody?” He tried to suppress that question mark at the end of the sentence, but could not.

Callahan then stepped in. “It’s not a question now, is it? No? I didn’t think so.” Jeb stared down at the page while Callahan fired off questions about the text. Jeb did his best to respond, but his thoughts were as scrambled as the pile of flash cards on his desk, which he sorted through as quickly as he could, just this side of panic.

olbos, masculine. . .”

“But it’s olba. . .”

“I’m not sure what the case is . . .”

“If it’s masculine it really doesn’t make much sense, does it? Which is why it’s daggered there, and we can see from the apparatus at the bottom that it has vexed other scholars. So we need to come up with some sort of solution.”

At this point all eyes in the class, in unison, run down to the bottom of the page and began searching the finely printed list of textual emendations offered by various scholars for this particular crux.

Callahan continued in his clipped, knowing tone, “No, olba doesn’t fit at all, because there’s no such ending for the word as we know it – might well have been invented by some monk deep in his cups after an extended meal in the refectory. Yes, we need to come up with some sort of solution – or rather you do, and I want to hear more about this from you next time.” And then Callahan went on to give a detailed description of the history of the transmitted text, along with several anecdotes about his own experience in the British Museum back in the sixties. Jeb had actually gotten off easy, and he knew it. The class never did learn the reason why Callahan had chosen this particular passage to spend a day on.

After class Jeb spent a few minutes talking to one of his classmates. He thought about going back to the library to work on the task Callahan had just given him, but decided that a beer sounded better. Diana would be there, and after seeing her he would certainly be better inspired to work.

When he got there, she wasn’t. Steve was already behind the bar, placing new bottles on the shelves in between filling drink orders. Jeb ordered a beer and took a chair at one of the long tables close to the bar, hoping that Diana would come out from the back dining room after counting her till. He wasn’t about to ask Steve where she was, so he ordered a second beer and drank it slowly, just to give her some more time. Diana never showed, but just as he was finishing his beer a woman came and took a seat at the other end of the table.

It was the same woman he’d seen entering the bar as he was leaving a week or so before, wearing the same blue suit, but without the same man at her side. He put her in her late forties or early fifties. Very womanly, very good looking. Disconcertingly so.

“Is this seat taken?”

Jeb shook his head.

They sat there for a while, listening to something that wasn’t Bob Dylan. He wished that it were. He was a little surprised when she initiated a conversation.

“So how’s your day going?”

“Going okay.”

“That well, eh? I guess that’s my day. What brings you in here?”

“On my way home.”

“Me too. Looks like you’re about done with that one. Can I buy you another?”

“Can’t refuse a free drink.”

“Not from a lady.”

“What my mother told me.”

“Is that where you got the red hair?”

“It’s orange, actually, but yeah.”

From the waitress stopping by she asked for a glass of wine for herself and said “another for my friend way over there at the other end of the table.”

“I think I’ve noticed you in here before,” ventured Jeb.

“I”ve noticed you noticing.”

“You were going in as I was leaving, had some guy with you.”

“Just the husband.”

“Just the husband?”

“Actually, he’s now the ex-husband. It’s official.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Not really.”

“Right. So you come in here often?”

“After work sometimes. Or on the way in.”

“How’s work?”

“Great. How’s school?”

When he looked surprised, she pointed to the bag next to him, half open, revealing the books inside.

“Great.” He wondered whether she trying to make him feel like a kid. Then he decided that might not be a bad thing, and merely asked, “What do you do?”

“Sales. Marketing. Real Estate. That sort of thing. What do you study?”

“Latin. Greek, that sort of thing.”

She laughed before saying, “Not what I was expecting.”

“What? You studied it in school?”

“No. Some Italian. I just know a couple of words.”

“What words?”

“I forget. Let me think. . .” She paused for a moment, then whispered one with a lovely hand placed at the side of her mouth to keep anyone else from hearing her. “and maybe a few others.”

“Ah yes. . . good words,” he answered, raising his eyebrows in a deliberate expression of surprise. She must have had a couple of drinks somewhere else, he could tell. Not that she was out of control, but confident.

“So what are you going to do with all that Latin and Greek? Besides sit around in bars.”

“Teach it to others, maybe.”

“Sounds like a worthy goal.”

“I guess so. At this point it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake, although someone said that it’s always going to end up somewhere.”

“Ever think of going to law school?”

“Not at this point, no, although a lot of people in my classes are planning to.”

“What about writing?”

“That I would like to do. Something I do now, when I have the time.”

She adjusted herself in the stool, and Jeb couldn’t help but steal a glance at her nylon-covered legs. They sheer stockings sparkled from the bar lights shining down overhead. He noticed an elegant shoe dangling from her left set of toes. When he looked up again she was smiling at him. She didn’t say anything, but moved again, this time crossing her legs so that her left knee was pointed directly at him.

They continued chatting for a while. She was mildly evasive, which he thought probably had something to do with the ex-husband. For himself, Jeb was surprised at his own ability to carry the conversation at all, particularly after being so tongue-tied in front of Diana. Why was that? More likely because he was putting pressure on himself, he realized.

“Do you want another beer?”

“Sure,” answered Jeb.

“What do you say we grab it somewhere else?”

“Sure again.”

Could things really be happening so quickly? He remembered the good words and his mind raced. As he followed her out of the restaurant, she pointed out her car on the street. A nice car, he noticed, although he couldn’t say what. Sleek and silver; there seemed to be more and more of them on the streets these days. The car chirped and blinked, and he let himself in. Inside it was spotless, so much so that he felt a little out of place in his black jeans and heavy leather boots. He worried that he might actually smell bad in such a controlled environment.

She started the car, turned to him and said, “Andiamo!

“Yeah!,” said Jeb. “I mean, Si! Andiamo!

“Hang on to your seat!”

She squealed away from the curb just as he was reaching for his seat belt. She’d started so quickly that he was thrown back into the leather before he’d had a chance to get settled. He left the seat buckle where it was.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Well written. I wasn't sure I wanted to know all that stuff at the beginning, and I found it a bit hard, but not impossible, to believe that Jeb would be homeless. But good on the class, and the bit with the woman from the bar.

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Many thanks for sticking with it, Anon. Yes, there will need to be some cuts. I did know a guy in grad school that lived in his car for at least the first year (I've had to justify Jeb's shack to myself, as a matter of fact).

    That's an actual passage from Iphigenia at Tauris, actually. I'm a little shaky on the grammar in question myself, but it really is a beautiful passage. See the Lattimore translation for nice rendering – I can't find it at the moment.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    "actual" … "actually"?!? Yeesh. Time for bed.

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