Short Fiction

Campus Vacuous
Matt Johnson
January 24, 2002

Dr. Benjamin Gray walked through the grounds of the small college campus, taking in the smells of springtime: freshly cut grass and sweet blooming flowers tended neatly in little patches by the arts and humanities building. As he walked up the steps to the front door he noticed in the distance a small group of smartly dressed men and woman, faculty members he guessed, digging through a dumpster by the student center and smelling its contents with great enthusiasm.

As Gray pushed through the twin front doors and stepped into the lobby, his ears were assaulted with a noise blasting from a large stereo system in the corner that sounded like the tone for the Emergency Broadcast System. A cluster of students and faculty members appeared to be dancing to it. Gray passed a buffet table covered with several empty dishes and platters. A woman passed by with an empty paper plate licking her fingers and told him to “try the pâté! It’s exquisite!”

Gray nodded with a sheepish smile and continued to make his way toward the front office. He noticed a television on the other side of the room that displayed a jumble of black and white snow and hissed with the static that it received from a channel that didn’t exist. A group of students sat around the screen eating popcorn from a large bowl, watching and listening vacantly. Two students were chuckling while another seemed to have tears in his eyes as he murmured, “beautiful, just beautiful.”

Gray stepped into the front office and closed the door behind him, grateful to block out at least a small portion of the noise. He smiled at the plump secretary behind the desk.

“Good afternoon, Rebecca,” he said with a smile.

Rebecca looked up from the novel she was reading, a book Gray noticed had no words on its pages. “Ready to move in, Dr. Gray?” she asked, and he nodded. “They’re having an end-of-term party in the lounge,” Rebecca said as she sifted through her desk drawer for his key.

“So I noticed,” Gray commented as he picked up a nearby copy of the student newspaper and leafed through some of its the articles. All of them began with the words, “Lorem ipsum.”

Rebecca produced a key from her drawer and handed it to Dr. Gray with a smile. “Room three-twenty-three,” she said. Gray nodded, thanked her, and stepped back out into the chaotic party. He made his way around the corner and started up the stairway, glancing briefly at the large painting on the wall—a huge blank canvas with an ornate frame. Gray jogged up the two flights of stairs and stepped out onto the third floor. It was a long, dark corridor, and Gray walked slowly toward room 323. He noticed the door stood open, and light from inside spilled out onto the hallway. As he stepped through the doorway he could hear some classical melody drifting out like a sweet audible breeze.

It was a small office, and appeared all the smaller with the bookshelves standing against every wall. All but one of these bookshelves was empty, and Gray guessed by the sealed cardboard boxes on the floor that the books were now packed away. On the wall was a large framed reproduction of Raphael’s “School of Athens,” and on the desk in the middle of the room—along with a framed picture of his family—was a middle-aged man with a head of brown hair going gray and fading fast. He was busy leafing through a dog-eared copy of the Plato’s Republic when he noticed Dr. Gray.

“Hello,” he said with a nod, “I’m Benjamin Gray.”

“And I’m John Peterson,” the man said. “I didn’t think you’d be moving in so soon.” Dr. Peterson plunked his book into an open box next to him, stood from his chair and started to lift books from the shelf and dump them into the box: a two-volume set of the works of Shakespeare, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Federalist Papers, along with works by Dostoevsky, Dickens, Aristotle, Locke, Pascal, and too many to count before they were dumped into the cardboard cube.

Gray chuckled. “You didn’t fit in here, did you?”

Peterson plunked the last of the books into the box, sealed it with a roll of brown tape, shrugged and looked up at Gray with a smile, “How’d you guess?”

“I’m familiar with the kind of academic standards colleges now demand,” Gray said with a knowing roll of his eyes. “They want to create a sensitive environment, completely devoid of value judgments, and you don’t fit the mold. Your books tell it all—they have ideas, thoughts, and reasoned convictions. You’ve probably read them all, highlighting passages and adding annotations.”

Peterson stared at Gray, then broke into a smile. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” He paused and said, “You know, the tenure board told me that I wasn’t a good match for this campus. They said I just didn’t fit in with today’s faculty and students.”

“You know what your problem really is?” Gray asked. “You think, and that’s a very dangerous thing. Your ideas and opinions are considered insensitive. They create a hostile environment to the atmosphere the administration here tries so hard to maintain—one that is open-minded, tolerant, and devoid of any opinions that might cause offense. That’s why you’re now busy packing your things away.”

Peterson nodded, and gave Gray a pained look. “But why on earth do you want to have my job? Don’t you realize what they’ll do to you once they discover what kind of man they hired?”

Gray smiled deviously. “No one has to know that. I can play their game. I don’t have to express a single solid idea, opinion, or conviction. At least, not yet. I can pretend to be one of them until I get tenure. Then, when it’s too late to get rid of me, I’ll start sharing my ideas with others on campus, or at least to my own students.”

Peterson grinned, his eyes twinkling, and he nodded. “Bless you.”

Just then, the door burst open. In the doorway stood Dean Struthers, naked as the day she was born. “Rebecca told me you were here, Dr. Gray,” she said beaming. “I’m hosting a costume party downstairs, but I wanted to come up and welcome you to our campus first.” She was holding eight completely blank pieces of paper in her hand, and she waved them in Gray’s face. “Very impressive vita, by the way. I think you’ll fit in just fine here.”

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