Den, the Vomitous 

Isaac was in love with his T-shirt. It was pure, breathable cotton, size L, with sleeves that hit just below the hard knot of his biceps. Across the front was the simple proclamation big state U, and across the back, it said Not your parents’ university. That didn’t really apply, in his case. His mother was dead, so he held nothing against her. Quite the contrary, and he wouldn’t have cared if it was her university; he would have been proud that she’d gone to college. But neither of his parents had gone beyond tenth grade. His dad, Randall, was what he’d been for many years—a cat hoarder in a shack in nearby Covington, who scavenged and sold junk and scrap metal. He had done what he could for Isaac and his sister, Jasmyn, which wasn’t much. He’d found a trombone for Isaac. The band director, Wyatt Wright, had done the rest. He’d worked with Isaac after school and driven him to competitions; he’d found him a better trombone, eventually. He’d done an awkward jig and shouted and hugged him when Isaac told him the news of the scholarship to Big State U.

Isaac had been in love with Big State U since he first set foot on its flagship campus in University City, not really noticing (neither had tens of thousands of students before him) that whatever parts of the campus weren’t architectural achievements of smooth concrete, brick, and glass were landscaped green spaces. These beckoning, groomed green spaces played well to alumni donors (Isaac didn’t realize this: “donor” wasn’t in the impoverished Martins’ vocabulary) and provided backdrops for photos of casually attractive students, photos used to seduce the next class, and the next, to feed the ravening tuition-Moloch that sated itself on their parents’ tuition payments, together with money raised from the aforementioned donors, and government funds with highly politicized strings attached. Who would have thought that it was not knowledge at all, but money? Money! That it was money which fueled the burning soul and engine of higher education in this twenty-first century.

What the photos didn’t show was what would happen if you did anything that might, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, endanger the Moloch’s food supply.

Isaac would have loved his T-shirt anyway, but on the cold floor of the holding cell in the county jail, it was a thin layer of warmth and insulation. It was white no more. The back was grimed from the dirty floor. There was a bunk, but it looked nasty, and he didn’t want to lie on it. For a moment, he wished he was back in Covington, where everyone knew he was different and had gotten over it—where you didn’t get thrown in jail for tossing an empty Juicy-Splash singles bottle at someone and writing random thoughts in a notebook.

It was four in the morning. Twelve hours ago, he’d been walking out of his choir rehearsal, singing. He loved to sing things over and over. To hear his voice pour out of his throat like a fat-tailed, healthy animal. He loved his choir director, Dr. Nolan. He loved his voice teacher, Dr. Benton, and his low-brass prof, Dr. Zhang. After choir he’d gone to the library to pick up some books for his psychology paper; it was not due for five weeks, but he needed to know it was under control, and unless he started work immediately, he would not know, and then he would be lost.

Right now, on the floor of the jail, he felt more lost than he had since Adrianna, his mother, had died. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but the jail floor was cold as a morgue table. He was exhausted and couldn’t wake and wouldn’t sleep; the past hours were playing in his mind like a video. From the library to the dining hall, where he’d sat by himself and had the same alfredo, vanilla pudding, and veggie wrap that he always had and stuffed two bagels in his pack for later, with the books, and back to the dorm. LeFevre Hall. He loved LeFevre, too. Because now that it was just he and his sister Jasmyn, and their father holed up with his cats and his junk, LeFevre was like having a normal family. To his amazement, the other students in the dorm accepted him.

No one asked him why he made lists of everything in a small notebook that he carried everywhere. Some of the girls joked around with him. Even Den, from Malta, who nobody liked, really, because he was a douche, was okay most of the time.

Den was a percussion composition major. He boasted to everyone that he was trying to start a new musical movement, “ghodda percussion” (ghodda meant “tool” in Maltese). The idea was to take large implements of metal and bang on other large pieces of metal with them. Den’s prized percussion instrument was a length of heavy steel with an irregular metal wedge welded to one end of it and a grip of duct tape wrapped around the other end. He had a variety of metal pieces that he banged on with it: mostly industrial bolts or screws. Den spent a lot of time banging and notating, when he wasn’t drinking and annoying people. It was the consensus in LeFevre that most of Den’s compositions were vomit-triggers.

Isaac slept and froze and woke and slept. He’d never been in jail before. No one would have expected this. He’d been charged with several things, amounting to threatening, endangering, bullying, and stalking Den from Malta. He didn’t know for certain how grave the charges were, but he knew they were serious, and he was afraid.

And confused because he had not done what he’d been arrested for. He had not stalked, bullied, endangered: he’d thrown an empty Juicy-Splash singles bottle—four-inches of light plastic, about half an ounce—and written a ramble in his notebook. But the confessions dragged out of him by the campus police were enough for them to arrest him. Each time he woke, he forced himself back to a half-sleep so he wouldn’t have to think about it.

Early in the morning the bail bondsman arrived. He looked at Isaac, shivering and dirty, and Isaac saw an expression in his eyes that he’d seen sometimes in his hometown of Covington. He’d seen it when Wyatt Wright gave him the new trombone. It was not pity, but it was right on the edge. Bond was two thousand dollars. Isaac was sick at the thought. You only needed 10 percent to get out, but there was no way he even had two hundred dollars.

“You know what? I’ve never done this in my life, but there’s something about you . . . Isaac? Is that it? I could use some good karma right now—and I know you’re going to show up in court and I’ll get it back, so I’ll post your bail, and you don’t need to pay me.”

He held out a business card. “Appreciate it if you’d pass this along. To a friend, you know. Just in case.”

Isaac took the man’s business card. “Thank you,” he said. He hoped it was what he was supposed to say. Sometimes he screwed up social interactions.

The bondsman handed him a second card. “Call this guy right away. Joe Allison. He’s a dynamite attorney. He’ll take care of you and set up a payment plan. Good lawyer, good guy.”

Then the bondsman gave him a ride back to campus. Isaac was shaking. He walked up to his room in LeFevre and ate the dry bagels in his backpack from dinner last night. His roommate came in and fell on the bed and groaned.

“Are you all right?” he said to his roommate, after a minute.

“I’m so cooked and done,” said his roommate. He didn’t explain. Then, “Where were you last night?”

“In jail,” said Isaac, still chewing on dry bagel. He got up and plugged in his phone to charge.

“Ha! You in jail! That’s funny,” said his roommate. They didn’t like each other much.

Isaac didn’t answer. Half the time he just didn’t say anything because he never knew when it would upset this guy. He’d had to work up his courage to make friends in LeFevre, but somehow he had. Except for his roommate. And Den.

He drank half an energy drink to clear his head, and called Jasmyn, his sister.

“Oh, Isaac, no,” she said, when he told her. “Why did you write that?”

“It was in my notebook,” he said. “I can write in my own notebook, there’s not a rule against that.”

“How did it get in his room, though?”

“I was trying to work on my psych paper, and he was banging on his big screws. I went to ask him to be quieter, and I guess I put it down or dropped it. I couldn’t find it, but I hadn’t started my paper outline, so I just used one of my backup notebooks.” Isaac always had at least half a dozen pocket-sized notebooks for backup, rubber-banded together in his desk.

“I can’t believe you, Isaac,” she repeated. “You can’t write stuff like that. I think maybe you just got yourself expelled.”

Expelled. It rhymed with hell, bell, knell, shell, all of which had doom connotations.

“Give me the number, and I’ll call the lawyer.”

“Will you come with me to talk to him?” He could hear his voice shaking.

On the line, she drew a breath. “I’ll have to ask off work. But I’m always with you, Icey. You know that.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t tell Dad?”

“He won’t care.”

And that, thought Isaac, was true.

He went to class, even though he’d hardly slept in the jail. The majors had all their music theory classes together, and Den was there. Not everyone knew what had happened. Their prof didn’t know yet, but Isaac felt like he was in a fishbowl with everyone looking at him; not like when he performed, where he wasn’t different, he just got up and played or sang, and it was what he’d prepared for, and he just did it and didn’t think about anyone. He avoided looking at Den now. He glanced once, and Den just looked like the vain but tolerable douche he usually was.

In the middle of class, Isaac got an e-mail from the Office for Protective Rights and NOKLU. He didn’t know what that was. He read the e-mail on his phone, in his lap. He was suspended from campus, and LeFevre. He had forty-eight hours to be out of the dorm. Den was looking in his lap, too, and Isaac could feel the heat of Den’s vindictiveness poisoning the very air around him. In choir, Isaac was the better singer by a mile; in class he was the better student; in the dorm, most people liked him, and most people didn’t like Den. But somehow, Den was surging into the lead. Isaac had not been aware that there was a competition on.

After class he went to the dining hall and swiped his ID and got a meal and carried a lot of food out in his pack; for a little while he could pretend he hadn’t seen the e-mail. After that, he knew how to find food, if he had to stoop that low. His father’s education had stopped at tenth grade, but his survival schooling was ongoing, and he’d taught his children. In a pinch, Isaac knew how to find food in a restaurant dumpster and could sleep on anything, anywhere, anytime. (Den’s parents, in Malta, owned a yacht and a plane.)

Isaac had an appointment with Joe Allison at four.

In the lawyer’s waiting room, Jasmyn kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, and Isaac knew she was scared, too. “How much is this going to cost?” he whispered to her.

She shook her head and didn’t answer. She wore a V-neck sweater and brown patterned leggings and sueded wedge booties that looked as cheap as they probably were. There were a few cat hairs on the leggings; she must have been visiting their dad.

Jasmyn was pretty, nicely curved, and she knew how to apply makeup. She had big tits and a self-sufficiency that came through, even sitting still. Guys looked twice at her. Always.

She leaned over and whispered to him, “I don’t know. Maybe eight thousand dollars?”

He felt a desperate, animal terror at the hopelessness of the amount. Eight thousand dollars? The bondsman would not have sent him to a lawyer who would charge that much, would he?—not when he knew Isaac didn’t even have two hundred for bail.

Isaac started to sweat. He’d changed, into another Big State U T-shirt. They were most of his wardrobe now; a lot of them had been free. He’d been getting by on free T-shirts and pizza and the dining hall, and he’d found a used tux that worked for performance. Jasmyn had given him some money to buy books, so he didn’t have to accept the loans that had been offered.

Then Joe Allison opened the door and showed them back to his office. He was blond, grave-faced, and subtly cocksure: a piece of not-yet-fully-baked politician dough. He shook hands and avoided staring at Jasmyn’s breasts. Then he explained what he could do, and how serious this was. Isaac shouldn’t worry about the suspension from Big State U too much, he said—the legal charges were much more serious. That would be their main concern, but he would help Isaac with the NOKLU investigation, too.

“What does NOKLU stand for?”

“No clue,” said Joe. He didn’t crack a smile.

Joe had to talk to Isaac in private, so he showed Jasmyn to yet another waiting area just outside, with a beanbag chair and a bead maze for children, and then came back and shut the door.

“Let’s talk about what happened,” he said to Isaac.

Isaac told him:

The night of the arrest, after he got back to LeFevre after dinner, he went to his room and started looking through the library books; he preferred books to online sources because you could hold them and smell their authority and see where other people had marked the same passage you were using, or the one after it, and had written abstractions with exclamation points in the margins: distinctly devious!

Also, there were actual page numbers to cite.

He always started with an outline in his notebook. His roommate was lying on his bed pretending to be passed out drunk, even though it was Monday. He did this a lot, and Isaac ignored it.

Then the banging started. If there had been even a shred of grace to it, a scintilla of fleeting beauty, it would have been at least provocative, if not impressive; but instead it sounded like a bell choir was being savaged by brutes with lead pipes. Den lived a floor above, and when he was performing his tool percussion, the banging was more than distracting—it was simply impossible to think. Isaac’s roommate got up and left. Isaac always had trouble thinking, even when it was only a tiny noise: a fan blowing or a ticking clock. But this was way beyond that.  There was an idea teasing him for a thesis, but he couldn’t settle his mind and nail it. Den the vomitous Maltese screw-banger with the large banging tool was making it impossible. He wrote this in his notebook, condensing slightly to fit it on four lines: Den the vomitous large-tooled Maltese screw-banger is making it impossible to think.

He thought his roommate had gone upstairs to tell Den to be quiet, but apparently not. The noise kept coming. Isaac could go to the library, but tonight he didn’t want to. It was raining.

After fifteen more minutes of failing to concentrate, he went upstairs, notebook still in hand, and knocked on Den’s door. The banging halted, and Den opened.

Isaac stepped inside. “Hey,” he said. “Sorry, Den. I’m trying to work on a psych paper. Could you go down to one of the practice rooms?”

“Fuck you. Fuck you, Isaac,” said Den.

Isaac was surprised. “What the hell, Den?” he said.

“I’m composing, and you interrupted me. Go write your psych paper in the practice room.”

“The practice rooms are for practicing,” said Isaac.

“So go practice writing your paper there,” said Den. “Or I’ll have to tell the RA that you’re giving me shit because I’m from Malta. I could ruin your life, Isaac. You know that? You’re a shitty little hick-from-a-small-town life. Who do you think they’d believe, if I reported you? A guy with buckets of family money, or the winner of the Local Yokel Tractor-Pull Scholarship?

Isaac was startled. “What?”

“You heard me.”

Isaac was confused and rattled. He went back to his room, and the metallic banging began again, but after just a few minutes, it stopped. He couldn’t find his notebook, so he got another out of his desk drawer. He fell into his work.

He had just finished his outline when suddenly all hell seemed to be breaking loose in his hall. Men were speaking loudly, almost shouting. There were more raised voices, footsteps. Then an explosive hammering on his door: “Isaac! Isaac! Are you in there?”

Isaac got up and opened the door. In the hall were the RA, Douglas, and two campus police. He realized they wanted to question him. First semester they’d been over here a lot about weed, but that had calmed down. He didn’t know anything bad anyone had been up to.

“I don’t know anything,” he said.

“I think you do,” said one of the cops, who was more in charge.

They came into his room and Mirandized him. He had the surreal feeling that he was in a TV crime series. Should he ask for a lawyer? But he didn’t know how, when the cops kept yelling at him nonstop. He tried to think: A lawyer would cost money just to come; and he hadn’t done anything he needed a lawyer for. It was confusing, but they’d gotten some wrong tip or information. Maybe it was his roommate they wanted.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Isaac said, looking to Douglas for help.

The RA avoided his eyes. “Den told me what’s been going on,” he said. That you’ve been harassing him for being Maltese. I had to report it.”

Now the senior cop produced Isaac’s notebook.  He opened it to the page where Isaac had written Den the vomitous large-tooled Maltese screw-banger is making it impossible to think.

“Did you write this?” said the cop.

If he explained, they’d see their mistake.

“He was making a lot of noise upstairs, and I couldn’t think. That’s why I wrote that.”

“You wrote ‘Maltese’?”

“Yes,” said Isaac.

“You wrote ‘vomitous’?”

“Yes.”

“‘Large-tooled’?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what that means?”

“He has this large tool that he bangs with,” said Isaac.

Douglas looked disgusted. Isaac realized the second cop was writing everything down, and that both police had body cams. “I was just asking him to be quiet so I could write my paper,” said Isaac. The world was spinning.

“Did you write ‘screw-banger?’” said the second cop.

Isaac was starting to tremble. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

The cop wrote this down.

“Did you write ‘Maltese’?” the second cop asked.

“Did you leave this notebook in Den’s dorm room?” said the first cop.

Isaac shook his head. “Not on purpose. I was trying to start my psych paper outline. If you turn to the next page, there’s the start of my outline.”

“This doesn’t look like a psych paper,” said the senior cop. “Don’t you write your papers on the computer? This is 2017.”

“I always start with pencil and paper,” said Isaac. “It helps me think. I was just trying to think, and he was making a lot of noise.”

“What kind of noise?”

“He was banging with his big tool.”

The cops handcuffed him and led him out. In the hall, the residence hall staff were helping Den carry his possessions out and move him to another dorm, where he wouldn’t be “in danger” from Isaac.

“That’s it?” said Joe Allison. “That’s all you did? Told him to be quiet and left the notebook in his room?”

“During orientation week I threw a Juicy-Splash singles bottle at him from a car window.”

“One of those three-ounce kids’ drink bottles?” Joe was taking notes this whole time. He wrote down the information and asked, “Why did you do that?”

“We were all just screwing around. Someone said to throw it, so I threw it.”

Joe didn’t comment on the immaturity of this action. “Did it hit him?”

“On the arm. It was almost empty.”

“How far away were you?”

“About five yards.”

He was still writing. “How much does one of those bottles weigh?”

“Less than half an ounce,” said Isaac, who had looked it up online.

“And that’s all? That’s everything.”

“I didn’t like him,” said Isaac.

Joe Allison said, “That’s not illegal.”

The confrontation and arrest happened halfway through his freshman year, only ten days into the second semester. To Isaac, who was still figuring out dorm life and the music school and what the world was like outside Covington, it was overwhelming. He was not yet accustomed to all the e-mails you got in college that you were supposed to pay attention to. Now someone named Eyrie Ardor, “Office of Protective Rights Investigator II/ NOKLU,” began to send him e-mails almost daily reminding him that he could withdraw from classes. If he chose to stay enrolled, he would have to work remotely and not set foot on the property of Big State U, since he was a danger to campus safety.

“Why am I a danger?” Den asked Jasmyn, as she walked him through the mass of e-mails. She was very good at interpreting them—better than Joe Allison. If she hadn’t had to work all through high school and had gotten some scholarships, she could be in law school now instead of working at the nursing home.

“They’re covering their ass, Isaac. If anything else happens, they can say they banned you and they aren’t liable. You threw a kiddie juice bottle with nothing in it. That’s assault. Or something,” she said.

“Assault with a half-ounce of plastic,” said Isaac.

“They’re covering their ass,” she repeated.

Before his forty-eight hours was up, he’d moved out of Lefevre. He crept out in the middle of the night with his backpack, a laundry basket of his stuff, and his trombone. Though he’d officially been given forty-eight hours to vacate, he was also summarily and officially banned from campus from the moment he opened that first e-mail, and he wasn’t sure what would happen if he was caught leaving the dorm. Which official communication trumped the other—his forty-eight-hour stay, or his immediate suspension? If the latter, would he be arrested again?

There was a church near campus that housed and fed the homeless; he’d heard about it in freshman seminar, where they made a big deal about the service-oriented community surrounding Big State U. The seminar teacher hadn’t mentioned that that was where you could go if BSU threw you out in the street with no warning for leaving your notebook in the room of the wrong person, but it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Isaac went there for dinner the first night after leaving the dorm and ate ham and beans at round tables with a black man who stared at a ragged bible in his lap and a partially toothless white man named Cecil in a quilted jacket that stank and a spry, spotted, bony octogenarian named Betty, who greeted him like an old friend and made him feel welcome—until he realized she had dementia and thought he was someone else.

The after-dinner worship, upstairs in the sanctuary, was about two minutes of preaching to the homeless about not being ashamed of themselves, followed by singing along with a praise band. It did not suck as much as such bands usually did. Isaac went because it seemed polite; they’d fed him, after all. He was not this kind of religious, but when the band started playing, he couldn’t not sing, so he sang, and his voice poured out, deep and true, and people gradually noticed.

At the end of the second song, the pastor, who played guitar and did lead vocal, pointed to Isaac and beckoned him up. He pushed the microphone in front of him and leaned over and said in Isaac’s ear, “I saw you in the paper. The Pharisees are still alive and kicking in 2017. Thanks for coming up. It’s all yours.” Then he moved away and sang backup while Isaac followed the words projected on back wall of the sanctuary. That was how he discovered that his arrest had made the news—first local, and soon the national media picked it up. And how he ended up as a music leader to the homeless, in exchange for one of the church’s homeless beds and two meals a day.  The church provided lockers for clothes, and he could keep his instrument in the office. He could stay as long as he wanted, if he helped with the music. When he told Jasmine about it, she said, “As long as it’s not a cult.”

“It’s not,” said Isaac, though he wasn’t quite clear what the pastor had meant about the Pharisees.  At any rate, it was his only option, other than going home.

Months on, after the arraignment date came and went, and no charges were filed, he would understand that he was never going to be charged, that it had all been a show of force by Big State U to smooth the feathers of any potentially ruffled donors and demonstrate the school’s commitment to promoting tolerance (but hadn’t Den been the one who started it all, who’d threatened Isaac and insulted his small-town background)?

For the short term, he didn’t understand all this, and he and Jasmyn waited and held their breath, wondering if prison would be his next home. Isaac’s father wanted him to move back, but Isaac had no desire to return to Covington, where news spread like lice in a kindergarten, and old classmates were posting slander and Photoshopped pictures of him wielding clubs and beating on foreigners in their social media (it was all the kids who hadn’t gotten scholarships and were still living at home and working at Pizza Casa or the Farm Store). He would not have thought that people would turn on you just so they could be on the right bandwagon. But it turned out that they would, and did.

The day the story broke, his old band teacher, Wyatt Wright, the one who’d helped him get his trombone and his scholarships, texted Isaac.  Are you okay?

He couldn’t think what to reply. A few minutes later, Wright called. “What’s happening?” he said. “I don’t believe this. I know you, Isaac.”

Isaac told Mr. Wright what little he could. Joe Allison had forbidden him from giving away any information about their defense. “It’s not like the news makes it sound,” he said.

“I believe you,” said Wright.

Forever after that, Isaac would understand that the truth was not always what everyone said or thought they knew. You could be arrested and be innocent, but everyone had marked you guilty. People could lie about you. Vomitous Maltese percussionists could deliberately fabricate self-serving stories. And the moment the lies left their mouth, you would be convicted in the public imagination.

 

For the first few days he was in shock. He slept badly because the homeless bunk was a bulgy slab; and at a certain point very early each morning, when the temperature bottomed out, the church’s old radiators started banging, sounding like Den with his big tool and jolting Isaac out of his sleep, from which he woke, heart pounding, T-shirt drenched. After the fear faded (it never wore off) and his life fell into an interim pattern of solitary waiting, he no longer looked like he was shell-shocked; he only felt sick. Sick, sick. Every day, every moment.  He was an exile. Since he couldn’t set foot on campus because he’d thrown a bit of plastic at someone, he couldn’t participate in choir or band and would have to drop them and never see his friends, who were busy practicing.

He could still take studio lessons, if Dr. Zhang and Dr. Benton would meet him off campus. He e-mailed them right away to ask. They didn’t reply, but almost immediately, as if she was spying on his e-mail, Eyrie Ardor of NOKLU sent him a stern reminder that in her previous communication (Which one? There were dozens.) he had been informed that until it was determined that he was not a danger to faculty, any communication between him and his teachers was strictly forbidden. He replied to ask how he could practice or work on his academic subjects if he didn’t even know what he was supposed to be working on; and almost instantly he received a stern e-mail reminder from Joe Allison that he was not under any circumstances to communicate with Eyrie Ardor or anyone else from Big State U, since it could jeopardize the legal case.

Only one teacher contacted him, out of the blue, of his own accord: Dr. Bey, the music history prof, who was older than dirt and had taught at Big State U for forty years, and who didn’t like Den because he asked stupid, posing questions. Bey was kind of a joke in the department because once, decades ago, a few bars he’d composed were used in an episode of the original Star Trek. He still got royalties; and every few years, someone rediscovered him, and he was invited to speak at Comi-Con.

Bey sent him an e-mail saying he was sorry to hear of Isaac’s arrest, and could he please call him about class. When Isaac called, Bey gave him his assignments over the phone.

“I don’t e-mail much,” he told Isaac. “Never put it in writing if someone can see it who might have something against you.”

Isaac wished he’d had this advice earlier.

Then Bey told Isaac not to take the arrest and suspension personally. “At BSU they do this all the time. They’re quaking in their boots about what this could do to enrollments and federal funding—the fact is, it’s not going have any effect at all, if they just let it die down. If you could be a fly on the wall in the chancellor’s office, you’d see them all running around, wringing their hands, sending e-mails around trying to figure out what to do about you.”

“I don’t think I want to be a fly on the wall,” said Isaac.

“Me either. I had one on my office wall once, stuck there.  Dead, upside down and backward, wings plastered to the wall.  How did that happen? Should have been its feet stuck to the wall, not its wings.”

“Weird,” said Isaac, for lack of a better response.

“But to get back to the subject: Did you ever see that Star Trek episode with Nomad?” Bey asked. “It’s about a space probe that gets screwed up when it collides with an asteroid. Its programming shorts out, and it starts trying to eradicate all biological life. You see what I mean?”

“I’m not sure,” said Isaac.

“Big State U is Nomad. The asteroid is Den—that guy’s a terrible percussionist, by the way. The university’s internal programming is all screwed up. You’re Lieutenant Uhura, just trying to make music, but the probe decides to wipe you out because all the administrators are just running around wringing their hands. But I guarantee, it will all turn out okay in the end. BSU has a big stick but a small mind.”

“What if they expel me?” said Isaac.

“Transfer and write a symphony and fill it with all your wrath.”

Isaac was not sure he felt wrath, and he didn’t know what to make of this, so he thanked Dr. Bey for the assignments and the insight and said goodbye.

At first he had flashbacks to the arrest almost every day, but by the second week, in the quiet of the church, at least, they started to fade. On day ten of his ordeal, Eyrie Ardor sent an e-mail informing him that he’d been cleared to continue his coursework remotely and to communicate via e-mail with faculty. He used the church to do his homework for the classes he’d been allowed to stay in.  He practiced his music in the boiler room, and sometimes he fell asleep in a pew in the late afternoon.

While they waited to find out whether Isaac might go to prison, he learned several new terms from Eyrie Ardor, OPR Investigator II/NOKLU, who signed each e-mail “With warm respect,” though they were not warm or respectful.

NOKLU, he learned, was Big State U’s acronym for “Not OK Language Use.” One of the other new terms he learned was URT. That was the Unbiased Resolution Team that would decide about Isaac’s case. Joe had already talked to him about URT.  “Don’t be deceived, Isaac. It’s about as unbiased as Fox News. They’re going to try to crucify you as an example of their commitment to protecting every student,” said Allison. He winced as he said it, and Isaac knew they were thinking the same thing. That until such time as he was no longer enrolled at Big State U, he was a member of that set which contained “every student,” yet he was not being protected at all from the noxious Dens who prowled around looking for rivals to take down. Or from the hand-wringing administrators that Dr. Bey had warned about: the ones with big sticks and small minds.

To reach their resolution, URT employed a dubious investigative process that basically came down to he said/he said. Eyrie Ardor would question Den and his “witnesses.”  (In fact, Den had no witnesses because no one had been in the room except Isaac and Den when Isaac asked Den to stop banging and left the notebook.) Then she would question Isaac.

“What about my witnesses?” said Isaac.

“Not allowed,” said Joe. “The NOKLU investigation only allows witnesses for the student making the complaint. Den doesn’t have any, obviously, which works in our favor. But you can’t call yours, which works against us.”

“That’s bullshit,” said Isaac. He had given Joe a list of witnesses, mostly friends in his classes and LeFevre. Two of them seen Isaac throw the Juicy-Splash singles bottle and could testify that counter to what Den had told campus police, Isaac had not yelled “You Maltese piece of shit, I hope you die,” when he’d thrown the bottle. He hadn’t yelled anything, and it had not hit Den between the eyes and caused him to go back to the dorm with double vision, as Den claimed. It had brushed his hand, and then he’d stomped on it and smashed it.

Now, it seemed, none of this testimony would count. Ardor would interview Den, who would lie. She would interview Isaac, who would tell the truth, but not the whole truth because he could only answer what was asked. She would not interview anyone who had seen the bottle incident; or those who had heard Den routinely snap “Fuck you, asshole” at guys who annoyed him or were better liked or more talented and thus provoked his jealousy. “Unbiased,” it appeared, meant “incomplete.” In short order, all the information gathered by Eyrie Ardor would be passed along to the OPR and NOKLU director, a woman named Marie Nero, who would make a final call within six days. As it turned out, Nero herself was the Unbiased Resolution Team. An URT of one. A team with a single member.

Isaac conveyed all this to Jasmyn, and she read it on her phone at work at Covington Manor, in between bathing the Alzheimer’s patients and feeding them thickened soup from a spoon. She looked up Marie Nero online and e-mailed Isaac a link to her photo, which showed one of the least formidable-looking people he could imagine: curly-haired, pixieish, and tiny, Marie Nero could have been one of the teachers at Covington High.

“She looks harmless enough,” said Jasmyn.

Isaac wasn’t so sure.

On a sunny day in late February, he woke much later than usual. For the first time in weeks, he felt like he’d had enough sleep. It had been warmer, and for the past few days there had been no radiator banging at 4 am. No panicked waking, no flashbacks to that fateful evening.

He looked across at the opposite bunk; then he sat up and climbed down the ladder at the end of his bed. The room was empty, where normally there would be other men, older, mostly. Homeless, all of them; sleeping hard. Recently he’d discovered that sleep, like death and perhaps the afterlife, was one of the great equalizers. No one is poor in their unconscious slumber; no one is rich; no one is exiled, except possibly in their dreams.

A smell of cooking came up from the basement. He was the only one still here in his bunk room, an old Sunday school classroom that currently slept six. He got up, changed his underwear, and put on a flannel shirt over his Big State U T-shirt. He knocked on the bathroom door, but everyone was down at breakfast, so he went in and used the facility and brushed his teeth. Then he went downstairs and sat with the usual crowd, all the people the world had rejected. He was one of them. It was and wasn’t his own fault, just as it was and wasn’t theirs that they’d ended up here. He could have thought nicer things about Den; or at least not written his true thoughts down. He could have seen the poison in Den and avoided him, which was what most of the Lefevre residents did. The eggs were flavorless circular patties meant to go on a breakfast biscuit, but here the volunteers slapped them on platters and zapped them in the microwave, put salsa and ketchup on the side, and it fed the five thousand—or however many. The toaster waffles were cold. He thought about the breakfasts in the dining hall at Big State U. There was a pancake and waffle bar, and an omelette bar. There were biscuits and gravy. There were ten kinds of cereal in a row of dispensers. Coffee.  Exotic juices. Hot chocolate. Three fat-levels of milk. Fresh pineapple. His childhood had included regular trips to the food pantry. He’d rarely had access to so much, and such varied food as he’d had in that first semester at Big State U. But he would eat wood, no complaints, if they’d just let him back in.

He went to the boiler room and practiced. He was giving it everything he had, and it wasn’t the best. He thought about Mr. Wright and felt guilty. “If you’re giving it everything you have, it’s not good enough,” he could hear Wright saying to them. “Give it everything you want to have.”

He picked up his trombone and thought about what he wanted to have. He wanted . . .

He played, and it was better, but in the middle of his best piece, Isaac put down his trombone and started to cry.

His phone buzzed.  He wiped his eyes. It was a text from Joe Allison.  “Read your e-mail and call me,” it said.

Office of Protective Rights and noklu: notice of immediate change in urt investigation procedure read the memo subject line. It had come from Eyrie Ardor. Marie Nero, the URT of one, was cc’d.

Immediately on its heels, a second e-mail had come, directly from Marie Nero. Isaac read them and felt dizzy. To be sure he understood, he forwarded them to Jasmyn. She was giving a resident a shower, but she stepped away in the middle of it and called him. He could hear water running and someone droning in the background.

“I might have to hang up and call you back, okay?” said Jasmyn.

“Okay,” he said.

“What this first one is saying is that there’s a policy change. If Den is able to produce witnesses and/or anything was thrown at him, the URT doesn’t even have to meet.”

“It’s just Marie Nero. How can she meet with herself?”

“Well, that’s a moot question because you threw something at Den. And this second e-mail says he has witnesses.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. That’s what it says. ‘Multiple witnesses.’”

“It was just him and me in his dorm room. And only my friends saw me throw the Juicy Splash bottle.”

“I know that,” she said.

The background droning stopped, and he heard a door opening or closing. The water shut off.

“Hey, I’ll call you back,” she said.

“Sure.”

But before Jasmyn called back, Joe Allison called him. “Isaac, there’s some behind-the-scenes bullshit going on here,” he said. “You saw the e-mails? So, the automatic decision is suspension because of the Juicy Splash bottle and because of Den’s witnesses.”

“What witnesses?” said Isaac, feeling sick and sicker.

“Hell if I know. But it looks like the decision is made. We can appeal, if you want.”

Isaac thought for a minute. “Will it do any good?”

“If you might ever want to take any legal action, you need to make the attempt,” said Joe Allison. “Otherwise, you won’t have a leg to stand on.”

“How much will it cost?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Allison. “It’s covered in what your sister paid me.”

Jasmyn had used her car savings. He’d guessed, but not wanted to know that.

 

Some days later, via a grapevine that had tendrils in the chancellor’s office, Isaac learned who Den’s “witnesses” were: his parents in Malta; and an apparently hearing-impaired drummer who followed his tool-banging posts on Instagram. He called Joe to ask whether this was allowable.

“NOKLU’s policy states that witnesses do not have to have seen, heard, or otherwise obtained knowledge of the offense beyond knowledge gained through intercourse with the complainant,” Joe told him.

Intercourse?  For just a moment Isaac imagined that Den was having sex with his family and his deaf Instagram follower—but it was not funny.

“But if he has witnesses now, am I still not allowed to?”

“Exactly. ‘Any attempt of the accused to produce witnesses or other evidence contrary to the harmed individual will be construed as proof of retaliation and will be cause to lengthen the interim suspension by up to ten times the original duration,’” Joe said, obviously reading from some of the reams of documentation they’d all received.

So Isaac waited. Meanwhile, Joe Allison drafted and sent the appeal, which went to NOKLU’s highest-in-command, a man named Kiernan Overwand whose salary, Jasmyn learned, was $435,000. Isaac couldn’t understand how someone earning that much money wouldn’t even do their job of explaining why his appeal was rejected—because that was what happened.  Within a week he had his response, an e-mailed PDF of a letter:

Dear Mr. Martin,

Regarding your request to appeal the decision made by NOKLU’s Unbiased Resolution Team, the party requesting the appeal must show that the grounds for the appeal request have been met. Please note that OPR/NOKLU is not required to communicate the appeal criteria to any accursed party. 

Your appeal meets none of the established criteria. I wash my hands of the case. No further appeals are permitted.  

The sanction that has been determined is a 29-term suspension and concommitant campus ban, to take effect immediately following the current semester. 

Yours most cordially,

Kiernan Overwand

Assistant Vice-Chancellor and

Appellate Officer/NOKLU

 

Isaac read the letter and forwarded it to Jasmyn.

She called him two minutes later.  “Accursed?” she said. “Was that supposed to say ‘accused’?”

“No,” said Isaac. “I think they got it right.”

A long, long time afterward, after Den went back to Malta, after Jasmyn got a much better gig than the nursing home and Isaac had moved past it all to graduate school, after Kiernan Overwand had moved up and out and Eyrie Ardor vanished to Reykjavik, and Marie Nero simply vanished, a strange number appeared on Isaac’s phone one day.

He almost didn’t answer the call, but his hand fumbled, and he accepted it accidentally.

It was Dr. Bey. “Would you believe I got your number from the alumni office?” he said.

They talked about what Isaac had been up to with composition, and then about Bey. He was still teaching. Still at Big State U, now older than even Paleolithic dirt.

“I was telling my class about Star Trek last week, and I thought about you, and I wondered if you’d like to stop by sometime.”

“I’m still banned from campus,” said Isaac.

“No kidding?” said Bey. “Man, they were evil to you.”

“I was accursed,” said Isaac.

Bey didn’t seem to catch this. “So, tell me this. Was there any good that came out of that whole mess?  Anything? Did you learn anything at all? I’ve always wondered.”

“No,” said Isaac. “Not a thing.  No-thing. Nothing.”

But later, he pulled out his notebook.  He still kept a notebook, and wrote things down so he could keep his life from flying in all directions and his own composing on track.

I learned that institutions are big machines that don’t care about people, and the people who work for them don’t care about the machine, either, but they have to act like they do, he wrote.

I learned that a government should educate its young people, not make institutions jump through hoops for money

That sometimes people will turn on you whom you’ve known since kindergarten 

That academia used to be about knowledge, but that was a long time ago

That it’s okay to write something, if it’s true

That I loved Big State U, and I only wanted to belong

Evelyn Somers is associate editor of the Missouri Review, where she has edited fiction and nonfiction and advocated for authors for many years. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Georgia Review, the Collagist, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, the Florida Review, Copper Nickel, Potomac Review and others. Other nonfiction and interviews have appeared at TMR, the Millions, and Bloom, where she is a contributing editor. Evelyn is also a recipient of a Barbara Deming Foundation grant for her writing about women’s issues