Silly Putty


by Ihab Hassan



        I write about these events many years after their occurrence. They concern one man but clarify a squalid and unavowed aspect of my life. I write about Oliver Keane, betrayed by fame, and my own failure to nudge destiny after he departed.



*


        Keane was my transubstantial father, erudite and perverse. Women adored him with a raw look in their eyes. A letter addressed to him simply as Dionysus in America reached him at Brampton College, where he taught. That was during the sixties, when Esalen flourished, Leary clowned, Ginsberg howled. He knew the literary figures of his time, sparred with Mailer and smoked pot with Kerouac. All that was before someone fired a sawed-off shotgun point blank in his face.

        Perhaps that’s why I can’t recall Oliver’s features, an irony he would have savored, since he spent his career praising the “polymorphous perverse life of the body.” He was tall, yes, with a thin, salt-and-pepper goatee and a polio-stricken arm—that much I remember. And his saturnine face could be called handsome if you overlooked its heavy, tellurian sadness. But his features have faded into time—they never bore any resemblance to those of my real father, anyway.



*


        In Cairo, I grew up in a haphazard villa overlooking the Nile. My father owned a library of many volumes bound in buckram and morocco, which he never read. Absorbed by his thwarted political career, he took down books at random and returned them in the wrong place. I was bookish, plundered his shelves when Mother looked the other way—“chéri, you’ll ruin your eyes”—and squatting in quiet corners of the house, avidly read about the heroes of myth and romance. I was ambitious—inordinately, my parents hinted—and stories of high deeds gave my ambition scope. But paternal neglect—perhaps just vagueness of intent—had fed my illusions and left me quirkily naïve. I knew no people of genuine fame in Egypt, except the singer Um Kulsoum, a second cousin who sometimes visited my mother, whiling away an hour with tea and sweet loucoom. Hollywood stars shone from another galaxy with a flickering light, a shade spurious. Later, when I came to America to study—I studied and stayed—I told myself: mold yourself now to a higher purpose. I sought intellectual heroes, not matinee idols, to vindicate…what? My own fecklessness? With a stellar faculty, Brampton was among the elite colleges of America. I was stunned when they offered me a job and didn’t know why they did, except that I ran the marathon and the Dean was a resolute runner. (He interviewed me while we jogged across several rock-strewn fields.) Later, I discovered he wanted someone foreign-born to “enrich the mix” of his school. I would have thought Oliver Keane enriched enough his mix.

        From the start, I sought Keane, not like a needle seeking true north but like an errant pinball searching for the jackpot.



*


        Oliver’s enemies—they were legion—said he was a wounded man: look at his withered arm. But I doubt that even the OSS, which he brilliantly served during the Second World War, could decipher the man. Rumors clung to him like wet, muddy leaves: rumors about his drunken, Irish father, his mestiza Guatemalan mother, his early years scarred by poverty and abuse. A scholarship had taken the prodigy to Cambridge University. There, young Oliver flaunted his scorn for local icons, including the Cambridge Blues, the Goldie Boathouse, and the River Cam itself.

        At Brampton, Oliver was known to teach by provocation. At the end of his lectures, he would look balefully at his students and say: “You must be reborn, you rats.” True, he had taken a Double First in Classics and History. But did that qualify him to impersonate Calvin, and Nietzsche? Still, everyone agreed that Keane could project his charisma to the last row of any auditorium: his low, indigo voice kept everyone entranced.

        For reasons I understood only late, Oliver took me under his bat-like wing. I enjoyed sharing with him the forbidden fruits of knowledge but did not relish his need to humiliate disciples. Let the Lord of Gadflies sting other heifers, I told myself. Besides, I smoldered in those days with postcolonial pride—oh, it was touchiness more than pride, a curse of the southern tier.

        A single wall separated our offices: mine a glorified closet, his a large, carpeted space, strewn with books, skulls, Pre-Columbian knives, and prints of Escher and Blake. Coming and going, we engaged in collegial gestures, though Oliver sometimes passed me in the hall, looking right through me as if I was made of cellophane. It didn’t prevent him from being excruciatingly nasty.

        Once, I knocked on his door and tried to borrow ten dollars at the end of a spendthrift month. (You can borrow from an older friend in Egypt without shame.) Oliver promptly reached for his battered wallet and flung a bill on the floor. I stalked out without a word, thinking of revenge, how I would contrive to spit figuratively in his face someday.

        Another time, grading papers late at night, I saw his head pop like a goblin’s through my half-open door. We stared at one another for a moment, waiting for the other to speak—Oliver used silence to intimidate—and when I began to say, “There is…,” he cut me off, mouthing the word “NOTHING” before fleeing back to his office. Long after that, I heard him howl with laughter, as if he had discovered the secret of the universe.



*


        While colleagues puzzled over Oliver’s stunted arm, his histrionic attitudes, and his vicious idealism, I looked elsewhere to comprehend my tainted admiration for the man: I looked into his wife’s plain and open face.

        Penny Keane was a snub-nosed woman, brown-haired and olive-skinned; your glance would slide off her face till you realized, with a startled double take, that she was indefeasible. Her un-frightened, wide-apart eyes assured you that she would allow nothing to harm her family or scar her marriage. Penny ignored both Oliver’s antics and fame, and dealt with his philandering in her own occult way—even when campus wags began whispering loudly about the “Winslow Affair.”

        Older faculty liked to remember Bunny Winslow as the “scion of a New England family.” Younger men knew her as a vamp with the cheekbones of a Vogue model. I recall mainly her jade eyes and jet-black hair. Why should I recall more? I married Julia, a lovely, freckled girl, with a clear spirit like a sun-dappled mountain stream, who still knew how to rebuff the advances of Oliver without indulging the Brampton tongues or putting him to shame.

        I don’t deny that Bunny approached me when I had just started dating Julia. Her husband, Gus Winslow, a geologist who liked to wear red hunting caps to faculty parties, was away on one of his forays into the Burgess Shelf. Bunny proposed an afternoon ride in her Austin-Healey to the top of Rock Hill, a formation of scrub and stone that overlooked a squalid stretch of the countryside. No one went there because no one could envision romance at the end of a pot-holed road, past shanties and trailers rusting in the spring snow.

        Bunny wore a serval coat, looked lean and feral, and when she put her head on my shoulder, I smelled her perfume, deeper than musk. We parked in a clearing and Bunny made her offer without taking her hands off the steering wheel. But nothing in my Egyptian upbringing had prepared me for this moment, and I was already half in love with Julia. Shocked, I kept looking into her jade eyes; the jade hardened as my silence stretched; finally she said:

        What is it? Are you having an affair with Oliver?

        I pulled back as if the serval had bared its fangs. Her nostrils flared:

        You can’t be, darling. Because I am. And I’m dumping him.

        She started the engine, the mufflers growling with that throaty Austin-Healey sound, and drove down the hill as if a wolf was snapping at the rear tires. By the time we reached the main road, though, she had recovered her icy calm. Pulling up to a stop sign, she tilted her head, smiled, and said through white teeth:

        Now get out! It’s a short hike, little man.



*


        I surmised that Bunny’s innuendos had laced the usual Brampton rumors with venom. Oh, but it was a more subtle substance than venom; it was the melody of a spiteful flute. The rumors kept varying on certain themes: how Bunny had dumped Oliver, that cripple with negligible sex; how his Egyptian friend, a closet fag, had tried to proposition her as a cover-up; how she considered most faculty fakes, all talk and fiddle—where were the Nymphs and Satyrs of yore? The campus was isolate, the cold spring interminable; for weeks, the Panic flute played out of tune.

        Then John Cage—renowned avantgardist and one of Oliver’s best friends—came to offer some seminars at Brampton. Cage opened his mouth wide, laughed soundlessly like a Zen fool, and the gossip subsided. He would say to a malicious interlocutor: “Don’t play lullabies to those who can’t sleep.” Or: “I have nothing to say and I’m just about to say it.” Or: “Let’s meet a year from Tuesday and talk about that!” All the while, he invited us to enjoy quotidian sounds: birds, laughter, pianos, the wind.

        After one of Cage’s seminars—they always seemed to me both zany and profound—I caught his eye as I walked up to shake his hand. He knew that Oliver was my once and present mentor. Thinking to ingratiate myself, I shook my head as I approached him and exclaimed: “Rumors!” He winced—was it the word I uttered or the acute arthritis in his wrist?—and in his cracked voice said: “Egyptians once believed in the divine Ka. Words can’t foul the soul’s breath.” He then dropped his jaw, nodded cheerfully, and turned to a student next in line.



*


        The rumors about Oliver melted away with the dirty snow. But in the misery of late March I began to nurture misgivings about the project of my life. Oliver was still my example, and however much or little he betrayed his gift, he had the gold. Had I been lured by ambition bereft of talent, a fool’s gold? Would I ever become worthy of Julia’s love? Night after night, I dreamt of reordering the books in my father’s library. During the day, I looked at the earth patched with mud and the trees looking like rust, and moped. Then the Dean asked me to introduce Keane’s Phi Beta Kappa Lecture on “Apocalypse: The Resurrection of the Body in Our Time.”

        The college had found no lecture hall large enough for the expected crowd and chose the Brampton Memorial Chapel as suitable venue. With its rows of dark, empty pews and stained-glass windows filtering out the thin New England light, the chapel always seemed to me forlorn. How should I introduce Keane in that cavernous place? Everyone knew about him anyway and he always glowered during introductions. I sought an apt, unexpected gesture, a sullen flourish you might say, and decided to refrain from all introductions: I would let Oliver Keane walk up the aisle alone.

        Oliver liked my idea: it got me out of his way. He may have also wondered—as I did myself—if my austerity was due to humility or pride. Vested in a charcoal black suit, white shirt, and thin black tie, Oliver looked every bit the clergyman. He stood mutely at the high lectern, shrunken arm at his side, looking down at his audience. No one stirred. Then he began to speak, enunciating every syllable as if angels recorded it for all time. When he finished, applause seemed to lift the roof before finally setting it back in place.



*


        For all that, Julia never liked Keane. Brampton gossips whispered that she was secretly drawn to him. I declined that explanation. Perhaps she intuited that Oliver never liked her. Perhaps she resented his influence, considering it a threat to our marriage. Then again, her dislike might have come out of some obscure, sisterly devotion to Penny. In any case, Julia never thought of excluding the Keanes from our wedding.

        We had opted for a simple ceremony, conducted by a JP in our saltbox cottage—white clapboard, freshly-painted, green door and shutters—followed by an intimate reception. It’s all we need, Julia said, tossing her russet hair; it’s more than we need, I replied. The Keanes were the last guests to arrive.

        As Oliver came through the door, he extended his blighted arm a few inches toward Julia. His fingers held a small packet. She looked up swiftly at him and saw the ancient sadness. He kissed her chastely on both cheeks:

        A wedding present. May it help you shape your happiness.

        Bending confidentially toward Julia, he added under his breath:

        Plasticine.

        With a mock frown, Penny pulled her spouse by his good arm into the living room:

        He can’t keep a secret.

        A week later, Oliver Keane was dead.



*


        It was a stupendous blow—but where, precisely, did it strike me?

        I still don’t know why I chose Oliver as my mentor. His fame played a part. But so did his intransigence, so different from the complaisant cynicism of my native land: ma’lesh, ma’lesh, Egyptians said, and the Nile flowed.

        Not that Oliver ever held my work in great esteem. He used to drop in on my office at odd hours and curl his mouth: “Still squeezing out those précis of novels, are you?” (His ideal was not scholarship but thaumaturgy.) But I did feel a subcutaneous sympathy between us, a kind of bond between self-made outsiders. I also believed that Oliver always wanted to save me from what he perceived as creeping mediocrity.

        Anyway, I was in my office on the afternoon Oliver died, reaching precariously for my copy of The Gay Science on the top shelf of a narrow bookcase, when I heard a tremendous thud next door and nearly lost my balance. I jumped down from my chair and thrust my head into the corridor in time to glimpse a youth with blond dreadlocks running for the fire exit. Oliver’s door was half-open. I peered in and saw him sitting bolt upright behind his desk, without a face. The desktop was splotched with blood and gobbets of brain.

        Brampton College neither hushed nor bruited the murder of its eminent professor. A quick investigation by campus and town police revealed that the killer was a disturbed youth with a history of both violence and sexual impotence, according to the county hospital. While working at the local Colt factory, the youth had audited every class Oliver Keane offered in the last two years, and was known among regular students as “that weirdo from firearms.” Only Keane knew that the quiet boy with blond dreadlocks wrote papers about the need for human sacrifice to appease the “living gods.”

        The media were not as discreet as Brampton College: they stirred ink and gore and splashed the news on their pages, giving every fact an aura of lucrative titillation. This was college gossip gone global. But celebrity is expendable: before the Dean could call me about Oliver’s memorial service, “Dionysus” had faded into a local fable.

        Why me? I asked.

        I could imagine the Dean at his mahogany desk, his patrician mustache perfectly trimmed, choosing carefully his words:

        You knew him well. Your office was next to his. We want a younger person to memorialize Oliver because he was ahead of his time.

        True enough. But some knot tangled my feelings:

        Please give me a day to think about this, Dean Dunham. I’m not sure I’m your man.

        Of course, of course.

        The telephone clicked. But I still held the receiver as if Oliver’s voice would come over the dead line, promising me remission from banality and failure.



*


        That day, I went home early: I needed Julia’s clarity. I could hear her pottering in the kitchen but stopped first to pour her and myself a half-glass of Riesling. After our long kiss and hug—never perfunctory—I leaned against a counter and watched her move about. Julia gave me her freckled smile, a shade quizzical that evening:

        Well, are you going to do it?

        That’s how we talked to one another. I answered her with my how-do-you-know look.

        Penny Keane called. I think she wants you to speak at the memorial.

        Why? Because my office was next to his.

        Julia didn’t frown. She washed and strained the oak-leaf lettuce while I sipped my wine. After a moment, I said irrelevantly:

        I didn’t introduce Oliver Keane that day at the chapel. Why memorialize him now?

        Julia began chopping a sprig of parsley. Desperately, I added:

        He scorned all the hooey, anyway.

        Without looking at me, Julia put down her knife, wiped her hands on her apron, and fetched a small box from a cabinet where she kept some choice wedding gifts. Placing the box on the kitchen table, she opened the lid. An amorphous lump of pink Silly Putty squatted on the bottom. Holding now my gaze, her voice serene with finality, she said:

        Oliver may have scorned hooey but he envied you.

        After a quiet dinner—both of us avoided scraping dishes or tinkling glasses—I went up to my study and wrote a one-page memorial, the truest page I ever wrote. As I penned the statement in longhand, the image of my father’s library kept flickering in my mind.



*


        Oliver Keane died long ago; Penny followed him some years later. Bunny Winslow retains her high cheekbones but her green eyes have widened in an institution that cares for Alzheimer patients. My dear Julia died of a stroke just a few months back—is that why I write about all this now?—and our two boys are somewhere in the Middle East, doing their best to amend the forgetfulness of history. But I know that my life changed that evening Julia sent me upstairs to write the memorial for Oliver Keane.

        The putty is still in its box, hard as stone.



Appearing in Prairie Schooner (Fall 2012)


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