THE ADMIRABLE VICE PROVOST
Here is a man in the men’s room of Grendel’s Bar, beneath Grendel’s Restaurant, washing his hands and looking in the mirror, wondering if he’s handsome, imagining that he must be somewhat. He admires his hair. He is not vain. He just likes his hair. It does things for him. It just does things, period. He runs a hand through it. Now it does something new. This man is me; I came into the men’s room to interrupt my sitting alone at a table, convinced that the other people in the place care that I’m sitting alone, even if I am obviously waiting for someone—Van Zandt Hall, whom I haven’t seen since I was twenty four and lived in this city. Van didn’t leave. He’d landed a job with the University administration before we finished law school five and a half years ago. He signed on in the Office of the Provost and began his push to become Vice Provost himself this year, at thirty. When I turned up back in town, I called Van and suggested that we get together for a beer and French bread pizza or popcorn shrimp.
I am still in the men’s room. Before I exit I look for red-letter graffiti on the condom-vending machine. The second-best bit of commentary five and a half years ago was etched on the machine at the Sazarac Grove, near the Institute: THIS GUM TASTES FUNNY. I think Sazarac had closed even before I left town. I should have offered to buy their machine. The prize remark is on the dispenser at a place called Shea’s across the street. FOR REFUND, it reads, INSERT BABY. There is nothing competitive here.
My kid sister bitches that she spends half her social life waiting for other people. As a rule, I don’t wait: I make my own fun. But I will wait to see Van because I’ve missed him. I’m watching the door when someone steps from my periphery and sits down with me, another guy I knew when I was living here and who stuck around and discovered Grendel’s Bar, beneath Grendel’s Restaurant.
“Didn’t you—?” Brian Woederhoff begins and I don’t let him finish. I tell him that I did and that it’s good to see him again, too, but I do not try to hide that I cannot be bothered to remember old times and catch up on the past half decade with someone I haven’t missed all this time. I hardly look at Brian Woederhoff, I look alternately at the door and at my watch and I seem anxious about something. “Well, it’s good to run into you,” says my classmate and he withdraws. I keep watching the door but less theatrically now. I stop looking at my watch.
When I knew I was coming back to the city, I called Van and suggested that we meet up and Van said, “I look a little different.” I’d already figured that he’d be completely bald, since he’d been mostly bald in law school, though he’d worn it, or borne it, or bared it well.
I am lighting matches patiently when Van walks in and at first I am surprised that everyone else in the bar doesn’t turn to look—or just look, if they don’t need to turn, and maybe stare a little—at my friend. Then I realize that maybe everyone else here tonight has seen this already and it’s new only to me because I’ve been away and out of touch, but I see Van for the first time in a long time and I have to suffer my other least favorite feeling: that someone I used to be on par with, even if he is a friend and I wish him only well, has accomplished a whole hell of a lot more than I have in the same amount of time. He was giving me fair warning when he told me he’d look different. Van sees me and walks toward me, evidently happy to see me again after five and a half years. And I am happy to see Van and I am at once delighted and envious that he has a full head of flame. We shake hands and I think: if I were inclined to hug him, I might not for fear of being burned, but damn if I’m not agog.
There is no smoke, and there is no ash. Nothing is burning, but atop Van’s head, like hair, is a licking incandescence. I light a match and hold it up to Van. There is a similarity. I shake the match out and Van sits down. I say, “I’ve got a beer. You need one.” Van looks for a waitress and a waitress comes and she asks, “What are you missing?” “Hefe weizen.” “Any food?” Van scans the laminated happy hour menu card. “One of everything,” he orders at a dollar fifty an item. “For fuel,” he mentions to me. “So how’ve you been?” he asks. “And where?”
When the waitress brings Van’s beer he pays for it and tips her, and as she walks away she squeezes his shoulder and I put my finger on something. I ask Van if he knows her and he says that he doesn’t and I realize that the other people in the bar with us tonight are looking at my friend, they are stealing glances, but they’re looking at him with not the admiration and ambition I’m feeling but a sadness, though not an abashed pity as one would have for a person with a disfigurement or a deformity but rather a sympathy as for someone who has obviously lost a parent recently. Yet Van’s manner is cheerful and I think it should be.
While we talk, he is looking me in the eye, as no doubt his years with the Office of the Provost have trained him to do. I am staring at his scalp, which is blue, where the flame must be the hottest. The greatest part of the crown is orange, the tips of the tongues are red. While I am watching Van’s fire, my friend runs his hand through it and I flinch but Van is not harmed and I am impressed anew.
“Are you thinking about moving back here?” Van asks. I know that he’d enjoy my being around. The best I can do is promise not to disappear again for so long, but only because I have no plans yet to disappear again for so long. Should I, though, I will expect Van to be Provost when I return.
“How are your mom and dad?” I ask. They’re well, Van tells me, but all I wanted to hear is that they are still alive and I realize that the other people in the bar had me spooked despite myself. While we are talking I notice Brian Woederhoff and his party pay their tab and leave. Good riddance. Brian Woederhoff has always had very thin, very pale hair and has aspired to precious little.
Van lights two cigarettes in his aura and hands me one, which I am proud to smoke. “Tell me a story,” Van says. “One thing that you did in the past five years.” But I’d rather not, so I tell Van this: I was on an occasion somewhere that any number of literati might be. I heard a horse approaching. I looked up and a woman in very large boots came into view, rounding a corner in an echoing hall; the woman passed and smiled at me as if she were acknowledging my recognizing her as one of the literary world’s attractions. It turned out she is a poet of some note, but I was thinking of her at that moment not as someone famous but as someone who was making an obscene amount of noise just walking. “Maybe,” Van says, “that’s really all being famous is.” Van doesn’t let on if he’s disappointed by my story. His: for the first three months of his time with the University administration the mail service thought that Van Zandt Hall was a new building on campus they hadn’t been told about, and everything addressed to him ended up in the school’s dead letter office. Talk about being the opposite of famous, Van had literally not been on the map.
We pay our tab and leave Grendel’s Bar, where I imagine the mood then improves some. It is snowing in the city. The snow melts in my hair but vaporizes well above Van’s corona. Van is not doused. He does not jar out or blow out! There is a bookstore on the next block that I say I’d like to step into but Van says with a slight grimace it pains me to notice that perhaps we should not. Let’s stay outside now, let’s walk off dinner, let’s walk to the commons.
“The Admirable Vice Provost” appeared in the Sycamore Review, Winter 1999, and Spout Magazine, Summer 2000.