An Excerpt from The Stagnant Pool, Scholars Below Sea Level©
by Nancy Maveety
(University Press of the South, 2000)




Carondelet University was a bit like the city that housed it, always poised on the edge of distress. It had a genteel, wilted feeling, like a once-crisp seersucker suit worn through too many summers. None of the ornate buildings quite matched, which gave the campus a quirky, lopsided quality, not unlike many of its students and faculty. The life of the mind was a placid, casual affair at Carondelet, as it competed for attention with so many other, more bodily urgencies. The university sat comfortably, complacently on the periphery of scholarship. Barb wasn’t even sure why she had come here in the first place, to study moral philosophy. Perhaps it had been that fellowship stipend, which even now, she could see sparkling in black type on her smooth, creamy letter of acceptance. Whatever had moved her this far south, she had fallen in love with New Orleans, a bowl in which Carondelet was soggily nestled, its slight seediness imparting charm to its otherwise undistinguished facilities, and denizens.

     But that charm had proved a fragile, temporary thing. Now, every ungroomed lawn, every crumbling plaster molding, every droopy professor shuffling further into academic obscurity, bespoke loudly of Carondelet’s decline, decay, demise. And unfortunately, Barb’s fate was wedded with the institution’s: she was doomed, about to be sucked down too.

     She gazed morosely out the window of the streetcar, lurching away from the Carondelet campus. Her stipend, her miserable livelihood as a graduate student, was to be cut off the next academic year. Worse was that all of the graduate student stipends in her department were to be cut, as the university tightened its belt for lean, competitive times in the new millennium. Graduate programs, particularly in philosophy, were an expensive luxury. One had to choose: training a new generation of scholars, or a football team. What this boded for the meaning of graduate degrees from the university was too depressing to contemplate, even for the preternaturally cheerful graduate studies director of her department. Barb, and a few of the other philosophy grad students, had just met with him, an hour ago, to learn of their situation. She saw his face, smiling wanly, as he picked twitchily at his nose hairs.

     “My colleagues and I are just as devastated by this as you all are.”

     Surely not, Barb thought. You people have jobs.

     This was the depressing conversational topic she would be broaching with Steven, when she got downtown to his apartment. Barb sank into a reverie of self-pity. Wasn’t this kind of life-altering, personal defeat supposed to rally you, to make you strong? Steven would think so. Steven was a professor at the same university where she was a graduate student, though not in the same department. Of course not in the same department—that would be unethical. He was in Political Science. But Barb thought of him as her alter ego, her ballast, and her equal in spite of their difference in status—which was a veritable gulf in the self-absorbed community that was the university. Barb labored hard to close this gap between them with her own finely-honed sense of sarcastic nonchalance, and normally she was successful, except that sometimes—sometimes—Steven’s own well-developed cynicism prevented him from fully appreciating the small tragedies and large indignities that graduate students suffered. Or, at least, it seemed that way. He approached things with a wry wit, and a calm lack of surprise about how badly things could sometimes go. Mostly she found it helpful, refreshing even—particularly since her graduate student friends tended toward the opposite: frantic melodrama. Of course, in the depths of her current, authentic despair, she had no desire to be jauntily philosophical, or listen to someone else be, on her behalf. Steven was probably out reading on his balcony—the image of a carefree, newly tenured associate professor. Damn lucky bastard.

     She had met him over a year ago, at Leigh’s Thoth party. New Orleanians observed odd, but oddly reassuring customs during carnival. (Never call it “Mardi Gras” unless you’re speaking about Tuesday itself.) One of those customs was the neighborhood parade party, given by someone who lived along—or even just near—the parade route. The purpose of these parties was not so much to watch the parade, and clearly not to catch any of the trinketry thrown from the floats—most of which all New Orleanians had coffin-size boxes of in their attics. No, the purpose of these parties was to drink, and to provide spectacle for the inevitable and often innumerable “Mardi Gras” visitors who tagged along with each invitee. Visitors were expected to watch the parade and enthusiastically clamor for beads from the float riders, while the real party goers observed from the porch or balcony or front lawn and occasionally waved at their tourist friends scrabbling on the ground like madmen, as they sipped a fresh Bloody Mary.

     Thoth was a day parade, actually a morning parade in Leigh and Barb’s neighborhood, so Bloody Marys were important, if not critical, to the party’s success—or even turnout. Leigh understood this, as she understood so much about the city and life here, even though she wasn’t a native. Leigh was one of those expatriate Yankees—from Chicago, New Jersey, no one could really remember which—who, once transplanted to New Orleans, was unable to leave. It was a familiar, sad phenomenon—particularly to those other, less contented transplants who were desperate to leave and were finally on the verge of escape. But Leigh had no understanding of such poor, benighted souls, and reveled in every occasion for celebration that the city provided. It was what made her such a wonderful friend.

     Leigh had been a graduate student, once, which was how Barb knew her and came to be her neighbor on Annunciation. Leigh had found Barb her current apartment, which was down the street from Leigh’s own tiny shotgun house, where every party was festive because the rooms were so small. Guests spilled amiably, tipsily, from the kitchen through Leigh’s cluttered bedroom to the front rooms and out onto the narrow front porch.

      Barb had been standing on that porch, when Steven emerged, laughing, through Leigh’s front door. She had noticed him, a tall, thin guy with glasses and a goatee, talking with Leigh in the kitchen. He was familiar: a youngish political science professor who turned up periodically at talks she attended at Carondelet and at the larger parties given by the older, more invisible graduate students she happened to know. Barb had never really spoken to him, except for a brief, slightly drunken exchange over the buffet table at a reception for a very important scholar, who had been invited to the university to give what amounted to a very unimportant lecture. Still, graduate students like Barb never passed up those opportunities for free food.

     Steven had approached her on the porch, smiling shyly.

     “Food isn’t as good as those university receptions, is it, but Leigh’s drinks are stronger. Have we actually met?” he had asked.

     “Not actually,” Barb had replied, insufficiently fortified with vodka to overcome feelings of girlish nervousness.

     “Well, I’m Steve Frank. You’re a grad student, aren’t you? In Philosophy?”

     “Yes, I’m one of the Few, the Proud, the Underfunded.” Chilling to recall those words now. “I’m Barbara Gallinero.”

     “Well, cheer up, Barbara,” he admonished, “it’s worse being an assistant professor. Less camaraderie, and no thesis advisor to bitch about. Only yourself to blame for all your shortcomings.” He winked at her, still smiling.

     “Great. Something to look forward to,” Barb smirked, with blase bravado. Is this simple academic ribbing, or is he flirting with me, she wondered.

      “Are you heading out to the parade? Or are you one of Leigh’s friends who’s above all that?” He was descending the front steps, but hesitating.

     “As it happens,” Barb said airily, moving toward the stairs, “I’m planning to knock over a few old ladies and step on some children in my quest for beads. Care to join me? You’re tall—you could be useful.”

     “Sure, I think you’ll get a lot of stuff thrown at you. And I’ll be right there—to step in front of you and grab it all,” he said, playfully. Steven had big horsy teeth, but his blue eyes twinkled when smiled.

     And so a romance was born.

     Affairs between professors and graduate students occasioned little real scandal, even as flagrant violations of contemporary university sexual harassment codes (listlessly enforced at Carondelet). Not only was sexual intrigue expected in the hothouse climate of the university, there was a stamp of intellectual credibility, a kind of Martin Heidegger-Hannah Arendt cachet, that attached to an affair between a junior and a senior scholar. Or so the people involved told themselves. (Spectators to the affair normally had another take on things.) Steven and Barb’s relationship was typical, for academics: conversational flirtation, quick, witty banter between two bright but socially awkward people; they seduced each other verbally, and their bodies ineluctably followed. They went to bed and then it was too late to look back. Barb was excited that an older man—and, yes, dammit, a professor—was attracted to her and so interested in her. She could play the ingenue, but the ingenue who read Immanuel Kant. Going out with Steven boosted her confidence, because he was smart and funny—someone whose attentions clearly mattered. And he helped her, too, helped her grow up, because he’d been through it all already—he had perspective about academia. It was just that sometimes he was so smug, a little too worldly-wise in his sarcasm, that he made her feel naive. Barb did not consider herself naive, not really, and she resented being reminded that she might be.

     But now, as a financially-terminated doctoral candidate, she was wracked with self-doubt. She worried that she really didn’t have what it takes to be a scholar. What would she do? She needed someone to comfort her, to console her, to tell her that she was good, that she would rise above all this and write a brilliant dissertation. She knew that Steven would be that someone—that he would see how devastated she was and would know the right things to say. It was just that she worried that, even as he said those things, he really didn’t believe them. And so neither could she.

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©Nancy Maveety, 2000
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