As I walked farther along, I kept my eyes down, hoping trouble wouldn’t find me, but suddenly I saw a grotesque flash of red. Blood red.
Getting closer to the bridge, I could see an open cardboard box of Holy Bibles with improbably garish and cheap-looking leatherette red covers. In the whirling dense crowd of students, those covers were like a fiery distress call – or a warning.
“They’re back,” I thought wearily. The preachers were back. I stopped where I was.
Every spring, SUM was hit by a blight of these thin and fevered preachers, who passed out Bibles at most of the campus crossroads and bridges, occasionally bursting into tirades as if they were singing waiters at a religious restaurant. The preachers were as dreary and startling as the enormous, strident crows that had become as common a spring sight on campus as the squirrels and raccoons.
Today the lurid box by the bridge was guarded by a meager-fleshed young man in a crumpled blue suit, his forehead a flaming relief map of pimples that made the red binding an even more unfortunate choice. As students and faculty passed, he stabbed Bibles at them with the spring of a malevolent troll. Though the day was cool, he looked hot and sweaty – fired up by his mission, no doubt. He must have been expecting some kind of martyrdom, since people like him were often heckled on campus, and sometimes threatened. Maybe he’d even been reading the letters in the student newspaper, where the presence of preachers on campus was attacked or defended in the kind of intemperate language the paper loved because it generated controversy.
The preachers descending on campus were strange and geeky clones: all of them in plain, unattractive suits and haircuts that made them look like rejects from the Lawrence Welk Show, each one with false thunder in his voice. Doling out their Holy Bibles, they sometimes hectored students to “Save yourself!” as if Michiganapolis were as steeped in moral degradation and evil as New York, Los Angeles – or Ann Arbor. Whenever I walked past them, I had an image of myself as trapped in some weird kind of carnival with barkers offering salvation instead of rides or teddy bears.
I didn’t understand why they were even allowed on campus, but I guessed that university officials simply wanted to avoid an argument with the local religious right.
I stood and watched the action. Most students crossing by today’s preacher on the Administration Building bridge bent away from him or darted past his outstretched hand, but some seemed pathetically eager to receive any kind of gift, and he blessed all of those. I could imagine their loneliness or confusion. Many students at SUM came from Michigan towns barely half the size of the university and felt hopelessly overwhelmed and disconnected (which was probably why the administration cut counseling services every year).
Two EAR colleagues passed me, locked in conversation: boring Carter Savery and grim, miserable Iris Bell. I’d never seen them together before – what could they possibly have in common? Iris was perpetually complaining about being under-recognized in EAR, and Carter was as blandly self-satisfied as Jabba the Hutt. Neither of them paid me any attention in the department.
I let them get a good distance ahead of me before I finally approached the bridge. I veered away from the young man and his box so that I wouldn’t get a bloody-looking Bible thrust at me. And so that I wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed by saying “No, thanks” or something equally inadequate to the occasion. When people ring my doorbell at home to share what they claim is the word of God, that’s different: I always tell them I’m offended by their invasion of my privacy. It satisfies me to leave them nonplussed. But here at the bridge – an open, public place – I felt constrained. And I was a faculty member – my nutty outbursts were supposed to be saved for departmental meetings.
Safely across, I took a seat on the edge of one of the wide steps of the terrace that was just west of the bridge. I wasn’t teaching today, and it was dress-down Friday anyway, so I had jeans on and didn’t have to worry about getting dirty.
The preachers gave me the creeps; they made me feel that we here at the university were nothing more than a bunch of campers huddled over a dwindling fire, trying to pretend the hungry wolves weren’t just beyond the edge of light.
And their presence made me worry about SUM.
See, no one was really in charge at the university right then, so we were a little like a former Soviet republic, drifting while various power centers prepared themselves to compete for control. The provost had left after a sexual harassment scandal, and there was fierce competition on campus to fill the plum position, even though there was a pro forma national search going on. My own chair, Coral Greathouse, was a front-runner in this race.
There’d also been a shake-up on the Board of Trustees, and our moronic president, Webb Littleterry, was continuing to provide uninspired, uninvolved leadership. That wasn’t surprising, since he was SUM’s former football coach, and his election to the board had proven the scornful observation in some quarters that SUM wasn’t much more than a football program with a university attached. If only it were a winning program …
I tried to relax into the day, tried to enjoy the life all around me here: toddlers waving and flapping at the ducks, gamely flinging bits of bread; students taking time off from classes to just sit and drink pop, chat, catch some rays; other students coming with more elaborate plans for picnics that included Frisbees, board games, and puppies. It was a combination park and town square, and if you stayed there long enough, you were bound to run into people you knew.
Juno Dromgoole, the rowdy visiting professor of Canadian studies, dashed across the bridge toward Parker Hall, her chic black leather briefcase clutched under one arm like a large purse. Headed in the other direction was Polly Flockhart, an annoying neighbor of ours who was a secretary in the History Department.
From the bridge now came what sounded like fierce quotations from Revelation or a Stephen King novel. I tried to block out the noise and the image of that angry pimpled face so that I could enjoy my thermos of Kenyan coffee and my smoked turkey breast on focaccia.
Lev Raphael. The Death of a Constant Lover (Kindle Locations 385-394). ReQueered Tales.
About Lev Raphael
Lev Raphael has wanted to be an author since he was in second grade, and he’s not only achieved his dream, he’s published twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery to erotic vampire tale; had his work translated into fifteen languages; seen one sell close to 300,000 copies; appeared in two documentaries; won various prizes; done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents; sold his literary papers (92 boxes!) to the Michigan State University Libraries (MSUL); been the subject of scholarly articles, papers, and book chapters; and seen his work taught at colleges and universities around the country. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew?
After close to twenty years of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops as well as editing at http://writewithoutborders.com.
Re-published by ReQueered Tales
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