Ir wißt, wie wir in tiefverruchten Stunden,
Vernichtung sannen menschlichem Geschlecht…
Goethe, Faust, Part II
(You know, you who were with me in the darkest hour,
how we planned to destroy the whole human race…)
Prologue in Iowa
English oaks, imported to the prairie at great expense by some long-forgotten alumnus, edge the green lawn in the center of the campus. Since they were planted to memorialize students who died in the First World War, some morbid wag of the twenties named them Belleau Wood, and the joke has stuck, even though the students sitting under them now assume that the donor’s name was Mr. Belleau. Some of these young men, dressed in white shirts open at the neck and khaki-colored chinos, are destined to die in places with exotic names like Vietnam and Cambodia, but at the moment, in the early sixties, those countries lie far away from a small private college in the heartland of America. The oaks, grown to a respectable size, nod in a summer wind that makes the heat just bearable. Flies circle ham sandwiches and bottles of Coke; students wave them away with a slow hand and wonder why they bothered to sign up for summer school.
Dr. John Wagner is beginning to wonder the same thing. He has just left a faculty meeting, or perhaps it was a council of war, in which he and his fellows in the College of Sciences made hopeless noises about gaining a bigger share of the school budget for the autumn semester. Realizing that pharmaceutical chemistry, his own subject, falls very low on the administration’s list of priorities, well below agricultural science and certainly as far south as Hades compared to the football team, has ruined his day. Hell is in a way very much on his mind; he orders the faculty dress code to take up residence there as he pulls off his tie, crams it into the pocket of his tweed jacket, then takes the jacket off as well and slings it over one shoulder.
As he strides across the green, he can feel the sun pounding down on his bald spot. On the edge of the shade sit coeds, plaid skirts decorously tucked over knees, white socks pulled up high over ankles and calves, white blouses buttoned up to round collars. One girl wears a string of pearls. Blue jeans and black leather boots, miniskirts and tie-dyed tank tops are only distant rumors to these girls. As he looks at their gleaming helmets of sprayed hair, Wagner can summon not the barest trace of lust. He does wonder if all those things you read about “free love,” the supposed goings-on in places like New York and London and San Francisco, are true. He doubts it.
The faculty office building lies on the far side of Belleau Wood, three stories of fake Gothic, topped with a belltower, approached through a courtyard with an arched ambulatory. Inside, the warren of tiny rooms sports mullioned windows and diamond-paned glass. In spite of the thick stone walls—there is no air-conditioning—Wagner’s cubicle swelters. He moves a stack of books from the sill and opens the one window to lean out. Far down below he can see students ambling toward the shiny new dorms at the edge of campus. They seem to be laughing, and he hates them. As he remembers his own college years, back in the 1940s, it seems to him that he never laughed unless he was dutifully acknowledging a professor’s joke. The memory must be wrong. He hopes so.
Off among the shrubbery toward the faculty parking lot he notices an animal moving, heading toward the office building. Some student’s dog, he supposes, a big black animal, a poodle, maybe, trotting purposefully along, as if it’s escaped from a backyard somewhere and come hunting its master. For a moment Wagner watches it sniffing a hedge, then leaves the window.
He flops down onto the swivel chair with a puff of dust from the cracking leather cushions and wonders if he should put his feet up on his desk in a raffish gesture. If he tries, he’ll only dislodge and scatter heaps of books. Facing him like an enemy sits a pile of student exams, waiting for his grade. If he were a professor in some large college or university, such as Yale or Harvard, schools that he can only dream about, or even Caltech and Western Reserve, schools where he applied only to be turned down, he would have graduate students to grade these measly multiple choice quizzes and laboratory notebooks. As it is, he picks up a red pencil and scoots his chair to the desk.
Scattered on the pile by an indifferent secretary lies his mail, three advertisements and a letter from some college in California. The advertisements he tosses into the wastebasket, the letter he reads, skimming at first, then backing up to read more slowly, to savor, to doubt, to read again and confirm. Yes, a small college just outside of San Francisco, not a famous school, but certainly superior to this miserable hole where he teaches, is asking him, John Honus Wagner, to read a paper at a special conference in August, the theme of which is “Methodology in the Synthesis of Organic Compounds,” his actual specialty, his island in the vast sea of modern chemistry. How did they even get his name? A scrawled note on the back of the letter explains. An old student of his, his best student—Hell, his one and only good student ever—has just received his doctorate from the University of California, is doing the scut-work of organizing a conference like this, and has dared to broach his mentor’s name to the committee. Not only was Roger his one good student, but he’s grateful. Wagner’s eyes fill with tears, which he brushes away fast and hard.
The problem, of course, is money. The conference pays an honorarium, barely enough for a one-way ticket to San Francisco, if that. Not only is Wagner’s salary small, but a large chunk of it goes every month to his ex-wife. The college has made it quite clear that “advances” happen only in science, never in the Accounting Department.