Professor William Cooperman hated teaching in the summer. The information was always the same no matter the season, of course, but for Cooperman it was more about the students. If you were taking Introduction to Hydrology in the middle of July, that meant you’d spent the entire year avoiding it, or had failed it in the fall and only now were thinking that maybe you’d spend a few weeks getting the F off your record, maybe earn yourself a D and be done with it. That was the problem with students today. No one ever thought that understanding how water worked on the planet was vital, never even paused to consider how something as simple as sprinklers had changed the course of human development, or that it was eventually all going to turn to shit in this world and water would be a commodity you’d kill for; no compunction whatsoever.
No, he thought, sitting behind his narrow desk at the front of the lecture hall, his thirty-five students midway through the fifth pop quiz he’d proffered to them in just two weeks, these students today just didn’t want to fail water. His students couldn’t see beyond the moment, couldn’t understand that the ripples they were causing would eventually be tsunamis. Didn’t matter if it was water or gasoline or not caring about their bodies, kids today just didn’t grasp the enormity of the predicament.
Kids. That was the other thing. Cooperman was only forty, still felt pretty much like a kid himself, like he could just as easily be sitting on the other side of the desk. He’d sit in the third row, next to Katie Williard. She seemed nice, and everyone in the class sort of gravitated around her during breaks, not only because she always had Altoids, which was true, but also to ask questions or to see if she wanted to study with them. She wasn’t pretty, at least not in the classic sense, was actually sort of fat and not in that Freshman Fifteen kind of way, but rather as if she’d always battle with her weight. If she had kids, man, forget it, she’d be huge, but Cooperman thought that if she just sort of lived her life normally, didn’t bother to procreate, she’d be . . . stout. He frankly liked that in a woman, if only because it told him she actually was a human being who might eat a cheeseburger every now and then.
He checked his watch. It was 2:13. Cal State Fullerton required him to hold class until precisely 2:30 each day, so that the students would get the exact amount of contact hours they needed, lest some state accreditation auditor pulling undercover duty in the class was just waiting to pounce on the college for skirting the rules. And then he had another section at 7:00, which meant his whole day was lost. Cooperman thought all of them at the college were a bunch of fucking Communists as it was, but this slavish dedication to time didn’t jibe with his thoughts on higher education, which is perhaps why he was just an adjunct professor. The way Cooperman figured it, education shouldn’t keep a clock. If it took five minutes to teach something, what was the use of sitting around for another hour talking about it? Especially in the summer. And on a Thursday, everyone’s last day of class? It was useless, so the pop quizzes were his way of getting around that issue of talking, of actually fielding questions. Invariably someone would finish the quiz before 2:30, but the social Darwinism at play in the lecture hall essentially forced them to stay seated until a reasonable point, which was usually about 2:15. But for some reason the students were spending more and more time on the tests, as if they were actually thinking about each question, and the result was that class was not only going the prescribed length, sometimes it went over, and that just wasn’t going to work today.
Cooperman had a business meeting at the Sonic over on Lemon at 2:45 and really couldn’t afford to be late. The guy he did business with, Bongo Fuentes, wasn’t real big on excuses and apologies. He said he wanted to meet at 2:45 at some crap-ass drive-in fast food restaurant and you got there at 2:50? Might as well not show up at all. It occurred to Cooperman that working in academia and working in the illegal drug trade weren’t all that different: people expected a certain level of punctuality, which, when you thought about it, was a really bent business model. If any two fields demanded fluidity, it was academia and drug trafficking.
The professor stood up. “Excuse me,” he said, and when that didn’t elicit any response, he said, “Pencils down,” and then the entire room came to a full stop. It never ceased to surprise Cooperman how conditioned students were. He could have taken a shit on his desk and no one would have even looked up, but utter those two words together and it was holy sacrament. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling too well. Today, everyone gets an A on their exam. Just be sure your name is on your Blue Book when you pass it in.”
There was a slight murmur in the class and immediately Cooperman knew it meant bad news. Normally, a professor says “everyone gets an A” and no one bothers to ask for any kind of explanation, but Cooperman had set a poor precedent on Monday. He’d asked everyone to turn in a two-page essay on what they perceived to be the most fascinating aspects of hydrology and then accidentally left the whole lot of them in the trunk of his rental Ford Focus, which wouldn’t have been a huge problem had he not torched the rental in Mexico after it became clear he had to lose that car and lose it fast after a regrettable shooting incident. After making up a suitable lie (“I’m afraid I left all of your essays at an important conference in El Paso this past weekend.”), he gave them all Bs on their papers, which caused a tribal war to break out between the Good Students, the Katie Williards of the world, and the Back Row of Fucktards, like those three frat guys whose names he intentionally didn’t learn, since he was pretty sure he’d separately seen each of them purchase weed from Bongo sometime in the last year.
Predictably, Katie raised her hand.
“Yes, Ms. Williard?”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Cooperman, but I’d like to finish my exam and get the grade I earn. I think most of us feel this way.”
He liked it when she called him Dr. Cooperman. And though he wasn’t a PhD, he didn’t bother to correct her. A little bit of respect went a long way in Cooperman’s book. All these other kids? Half of them didn’t even address him at all. Worse was the preponderance of adult students who’d found their way into the college after getting shit-canned from their jobs at the post office or were bounced from the police force and now found themselves in GE level courses with a bunch of kids; those students always thought they should be able to call him Will or, worse, Bill. He blamed the geology professor, James Kochel, for that particular slight, since Kochel let all of the students call him Jim or Jimmy, said it was the pedagogical difference between teaching and fostering and he preferred to foster.
Katie, she had a little class. A respect for authority. He kept thinking that he should Google her name from home to see if she kept a blog, see if maybe she was harboring a small crush on him. Who could blame her?
“Yes, Katie, I understand,” he said. He liked the way her name sounded in his mouth. It helped that it was also his ex-wife’s name, though that was just coincidence, he was sure.
“That makes perfect sense. So why don’t we do this. Everyone, take your quizzes home with you. Complete them at your leisure and bring them back, and all of you will get the grade you’ve earned.
That was enough for the Back Row of Fucktards, which meant it would be enough for the Good Students, since all the Good Students really wanted in life was to be like the Back Row of Fucktards, the kinds of people who managed to pass their classes without any mental exertion at all. The whole school was filled with future middle managers anyway, Cooperman thought. It really was no use being like Katie Williard. Ten years from now, someone from the Back Row of Fucktards would be her boss regardless.
* * *
Cooperman felt absurd pulling up to the Sonic in his white-on-white Escalade, but it was important to convey a positive image while doing business. It was the rap music he had to blast out of his speakers that really bothered him, particularly now that it was 2:44 and there was no sign of his business associate, which made the fact that there was a middle-aged white guy dressed like a professor sitting by himself listening to The Game all the more obvious.
It was all that bitch and ho shit he couldn’t stand — he’d grown up on LL Cool J and Run-DMC, even liked Public Enemy despite their anti-Semitism and Farrakhan crap, always sort of thought Chuck D had his head wired for revolution, could have been like Martin Luther King Jr. if he hadn’t been saddled with that clown Flavor Flav. The big joke was all that drug hustling rap music. They even had a media class at Fullerton on the subject; it was called Street Documentary: The Socio-Economic Impact of Rap Music, and every semester kids lined up to get in, as if that class would ever save the goddamned world from itself.
Anyway, he only listened to gangsta rap now so that he could figure out what the hell people were saying to him, both in class and on the streets, and so guys like Bongo Fuentes, who was now officially late for their appointment, wouldn’t think he was a complete asshole.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Fresh out of graduate school, Cooperman got a top-shelf research job working for Rain Dove, the sprinkler industry equivalent of being drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys. Within a year he was the big dog in the Research & Development department, but by his fifth year on the job he was thinking about even bigger possibilities. The sprinkler industry had always been about making the world green, about giving customers the impression that no matter where they happened to live, they were in lush surroundings; that their backyard could look like the eighteenth hole at Augusta if only they purchased the latest automatic sprinkler system. It was a successful model — one only had to visit Rain Dove’s corporate offices in the middle of the Sonoran Desert of Phoenix for tangible proof. Nevertheless, Cooperman saw the future one night while watching a Steven Seagal movie, the one were Seagal plays an eco-warrior who, after breaking fifty wrists over the course of a two-hour period, makes an impassioned speech to save the world from the disasters of human consumption. As far as epiphanies went, Cooperman recognized that this was one he’d probably have to keep to himself, but what he realized while watching Seagal pontificate was that change was coming — that if even marginal action heroes were taking time out of their gore-fests to admonish the very people they entertained to conserve, hell, it was only a matter of time before the offices of Rain Dove would be picketed by some fringe water-conservation terrorist cell or, worse, Seagal himself. Better to be ahead of the curve than be the curve itself.
He spent the next two years developing new technology that would actually limit the need for the expansive sprinkler systems Rain Dove was famous for. He migrated Doppler technology into existing systems to measure air moisture and barometric pressure, developed a probe that would constantly measure soil dampness, linked it all to a master program that calculated exact field capacity reports which would then decide, without any human interaction whatsoever, when exactly the sprinklers needed to go on. Or if they ever needed to go on. And that was the rub. Test market after test market determined that most people who were buying Rain Dove systems actually lived in places that needed absolutely no irrigation at all. Grass would grow and die in precisely the manner it had since the beginning of time, with or without a system, and specifically without Cooperman’s vaunted RD-2001.
At the time, he had a huge house in the Sunny Hills neighborhood of Fullerton (the locals called it Pill Hill because of all the doctors who took up residence there); he and his now-ex, Katie, were talking about having kids (which meant he’d have to cut down on his weed smoking, since their doctor said it was lowering his sperm count to dangerous levels) and seriously considering a little condo in Maui. Still, he always had the strange sense that he was living in the opening shot of a Spielberg movie, right before the aliens showed up to turn the bucolic to shit.
He shouldn’t have been surprised, then, a week after the last test market showed everyone just how cataclysmic the RD-2001 would be to the sprinkler industry, to find himself out of a job. But that was his problem. He was like one of his goddamned students, never thinking about ramifications, never watching the ripples, even when his own fear system kept setting off alarms.
A month later, he was out of a wife.
A year, he was living in his parents’ house in Buena Park and making pro/con lists about his life, trying to figure the relative value of killing himself.
Two years and he was using the RD-2001 technology to grow some of the most powerful weed in the universe.
Three years, he was supplying.
Cooperman checked his watch again. It was now 2:55 and The Game was pledging allegiance to the Bloods though suggesting even Crips could enjoy his rhymes. Where the fuck was Bongo? In the years they’d been doing business, Bongo had never been late for anything; in fact, Cooperman couldn’t remember showing up to a meeting and not finding Bongo already impatiently shifting from foot to foot like a five-year-old needing to piss. Back in the day, when Cooperman just bought weed for his own consumption, Bongo was his connect. Now they were essentially partners, though he never really got the sense that Bongo liked him. They didn’t have much in common, of course, apart from the weed, but they’d made each other a lot of money, and because of that they often shared moments of happiness together, which Cooperman thought gave their relationship a unique value.
At 3:00, Cooperman’s cell phone rang, the opening strains of “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” replacing his preferred rotary dial ring tone. It was one of those songs that he thought would make him sound authentic if anyone he needed to impress happened to be nearby when the phone rang, but that was never the case. No one ever called William Cooperman because he usually didn’t give anyone his number. Still, when he looked at the display screen and saw Bongo’s digits he felt inordinately relieved.
“You had me worried,” Cooperman said when he answered.
“You wanna tell me again what the fuck happened in Mexico?”
“I thought we were meeting.”
“You at Sonic?”
“Then we’re meeting.”
“This is bullshit, Bongo,” Cooperman said.
“So was shooting a motherfucker in the face,” Bongo said. “So now we’re even.”
The problem in dealing with criminals, Cooperman had learned, was that most of them were paranoid and narcissistic, which isn’t an ideal combination. Everything was a personal affront. There were only so many ways of telling someone that you weren’t going to fuck them and that you respected them completely, before you started to think of ways to fuck them and disrespect them just to change the conversation. Cooperman hadn’t reached that level with Bongo yet, but he recognized that his problem in Mexico was probably a subconscious manifestation of that very thing. Since losing his job at Rain Dove, he’d read several books on leadership structures and realized that he was guilty of doing that very thing with his RD-2001. Made sense he’d do it again. But that didn’t mean he wanted to lose this job, too.
“Listen, Bongo,” Cooperman said, “it was completely my fault. I got nervous and everything fell apart super quick. But I want you to know that I’d never fuck you, and I completely respect you and your position.”
“You shot a motherfucker who couldn’t even read,” Bongo said. “You realize that? You killed a motherfucking illiterate.”
“The failure of education isn’t my problem.”
“You think this is funny?”
In fact, Cooperman did think it was funny, if only in the way everything seemed off kilter to him these days, as if each moment were separate from the next. He liked to think that he’d finally learned how to compartmentalize, finally got over his obsessive tendency to overanalyze all things, what Katie used to call his “ego-driven OCD.” But the truth was that once he set something aside, he never even bothered to think of it again. Cooperman realized this likely meant he was losing his fucking mind, but even that got shoved aside in time. Like this Mexico shit. He’d driven down to Tijuana with a trunk full of his reconfigured RD-2001s to sell to a contact of Bongo’s, who was then supposedly going to move them to some influential people in Nicaragua, who, if they liked the system, would bankroll an entire development program. Or at least that was the story. But when Cooperman finally met up with the contact — he was just a punk, really, maybe eighteen or nineteen, who didn’t look all that different from the faux gangsters and frat boys who rolled across the Fullerton campus en route to their Freshman Comp sections — a switch flipped in Cooperman’s head. He finally saw the ripples in their entirety: The Nicaraguans would take his technology, backwards engineer it, and he’d be out of a job in two months, maybe less. This adjunct teaching shit, which he only did so he could pay off his monthly alimony, would be his entire life. Teaching Intro to Goddamned Water to a whole legion of consumers who wouldn’t change anything for the better, would just perpetuate the world’s problems, so that in ten years, or twenty, when people were really staring at the end of things, they’d eventually ask who was responsible for teaching these morons how to conserve, and that’s when fingers would start getting pointed at the educational complex and guess what? He’d be out of a job again anyway.
Cooperman ran it all through his mind from several different angles to make sure he wasn’t overreacting, examined the empirical evidence, and then he shot the kid in the face.
It wasn’t even like it had happened without Bongo’s complicity, really. Bongo had asked Cooperman months before if he wanted a gun, since Cooperman refused to have any additional security at his house, apart from the rent-a-cops who worked the gate at the Coyote Hills Country Club, and since Cooperman thought the neighbors would find it odd that a bunch of gangsters were loitering around the community pool. So he said sure, absolutely, since it sounded like the type of thing he really should want, even if the idea of shooting a gun went against all of his previous political inclinations. Yet, once he had his handsome chrome-plated nine, Cooperman started going to the Orange County Indoor Range in Brea to shoot, and found he rather liked unloading into the bodies of the various people who’d done him wrong over the years, at least metaphorically. The problem was that Cooperman wasn’t much on metaphors, and after a while he started thinking about making a trip out to Rain Dove’s corporate offices in Phoenix to discuss further his anger regarding his termination. It wasn’t like he wanted to kill anyone, specifically, only that whenever he left the range he felt positively Republican for the first time in his life. Like the kind of guy who handled his problems versus having his problems handle him.
So when the switch flipped, Cooperman did what those leadership structure books always advocated: he rightsized his problem.
Crazy thing, it felt pretty good. Taking the power back. All that.
“I admit my mistake, Bongo. What do you want me to do? The kid shouldn’t have stepped to me. You know me. I don’t G like that.”
Cooperman heard Bongo sigh. It wasn’t a good sound.
He’d already sketched out for Bongo a general idea of how things had gone down in Mexico the day previous, substituting the moment of self-realization for a hazy recounting of the kid waving a knife in his face and trying to steal his car. He knew when he told Bongo the story the first time that it was filled with holes, so he tried to cover his tracks by saying things like, “And I’d never seen so much blood!” and “I can’t sleep now, Bongo, I keep seeing that knife blade in my face!” and “It was all slow motion. One minute, we were sitting there in the Focus, the next he was jabbing a knife at me. What was I supposed to do?” Cooperman thought his mania would make Bongo realize he’d been really scarred by the event, since it wasn’t every day Cooperman killed somebody, and that it was therefore only reasonable things weren’t lining up correctly.
“All you had to do was hand him a couple fucking boxes. That’s it. No reason for you to feel threatened in the least. It wasn’t even illegal. And this is what you do? You make some shit up about a knife?” Bongo said. “That kid had parents, Dog. Relatives. Motherfucker had an existence, you know? That shit went over five fucking borders. You think the Nicaraguans are going to just let that shit slide?”
“I highly doubt Sandinista death squads are coming for me,” Cooperman said, but as soon as he said it, he began to think of it as a real possibility. “This is Orange County.”
“You think that matters?”
“This is America!”
“Dog, this is what it is. Place don’t matter in the least.”
“I’m just a scientist,” Cooperman said.
Bongo sighed again. It was an especially pitiful noise coming from him. He was one of those Mexican guys who looked like he had some Samoan in him, his torso like a barrel, his hair always shaved close, though sometimes he grew a rat tail off the back of his head, which he then braided. He had a tattoo of his own name on his stomach, which Cooperman thought he must have gotten in prison, though he didn’t even know if Bongo had done any time, but who would be bored enough on the outside to get that done? Funny thing, though, was that Bongo was actually pretty easygoing. Married to a woman named Lupe, whose face he had tatted up on his forearm. A kid. Coached soccer. One time Cooperman even saw him at the Rockin’ Taco eating with his family, and they just nodded at each other. He had some hard knocks in his employ, there was no doubt about that, but Cooperman always admired Bongo’s approach to business—apart from the timing issue—which boiled down to the simple credo tattooed in Old English on the back of his thick neck: Not To Be Played.
“I left what I owe you in the bathroom, second stall, taped inside the toilet tank,” Bongo said. “I can get you twenty-four hours to get ghost. After that, I don’t know you.”
“That’s not going to work,” Cooperman said. “I’ve got a job. I’ve got a life here. I can’t just get ghost. Let’s be reasonable. Bongo? Bongo?” Cooperman pulled his phone from his ear to see if he’d lost the signal, but it was still four bars strong. He called Bongo back, but the phone just rang and rang, didn’t even go to voicemail.
“Well, fuck you then,” Cooperman said and set the phone down on the passenger seat. Thinking: I’ll just let it keep ringing. See how annoyed that makes him. Let him know I’m not just going to lie down. William Cooperman doesn’t get played, either. Cooperman reached under his seat for his nine, shoved it into the front pocket of his Dockers and got out of his Escalade. He circled around the Sonic once to make sure there wasn’t a SWAT team waiting for him, and then entered the restroom. The only person inside was a Sonic carhop, still in his roller skates, washing his hands at the sink. The only sound was the running water and the constant ringing of a cell phone, which sounded like it was coming from inside the second stall.
“Oh,” the carhop said when he saw Cooperman.
“What’s up, teach?”
Cooperman looked at the carhop, tried to see his face, but he was finding it hard to concentrate on anything. Bongo had been right fucking here, the entire time; probably got off watching him stew in the front seat of his car, probably thought about killing Cooperman himself. Probably should have. Christ.
“Who are you?” Cooperman said.
“Ronnie Key?” He said it like a question, like he wasn’t sure that was his own name. “I’m in your Intro class.”
“Where do you sit?”
“In the back,” Ronnie said. “I know, it’s stupid. I should sit up front. All the studies say people who sit in the front do better, but, you know how it is when you have friends in class, right?”
“Right,” Cooperman said. The longer he looked at Ronnie, the less he seemed real, the less the words he said made any sense. Maybe it was that constantly ringing phone that was making everything skew oddly. Maybe it was that he could feel his nine pulling the front of his pants down, making him aware that he looked like one of those slouchpanted thugs he avoided at the mall. “Was there a big fucking Mexican in here a minute ago?”
“I’m not sure.”
“There is no ‘not sure,’ Ronnie. Either a human being meeting the description of a big fucking Mexican was in here or was not in here.”
“Professor, I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
Professor. Of all the times to finally show some deference. It never failed to amaze Cooperman how often people could astonish you, because even the way Ronnie had said the word indicated a kind of awestruck reverence for the moment, for all the time Cooperman had put into his place of academic standing, even if the truth was that he’d put in shit for academics, it was all just the sprinklers that had brought them to this shared moment. Or maybe it was just confusion Cooperman heard. Either was fine with him.
Cooperman stared at Ronnie Key for a moment and tried to decide what to do next. His options seemed simple enough. Shoot him or let him roller skate back into his mundane life. The realization that those were his two best choices sealed the deal.
“I have to take a shit,” Cooperman said. He walked over to the second stall, opened the door and closed it behind him, then waited until he heard Ronnie skate out the door before he dropped Bongo’s ringing phone into the toilet. The cash was right where Bongo said it would be, but there wasn’t much there. Maybe ten thousand. Enough to get out of town, but then what?
This whole thing was ridiculous. At his house in the Coyote Hills Country Club, where he’d lived a grand total of six months, he had another fifty, maybe more, plus his entire harvest growing in his backyard, which would net three times that much this month. Probably closer to four. He wasn’t a big mover. Cooperman had no delusions about that, he was just happy to provide a niche market, so maybe he’d been wrong ever thinking globally with this whole Nicaragua thing in the first place; but he’d realized that in time, that was the ironic thing now.
Cooperman just wanted to go home, spark up a bowl, grade some papers, and forget this mess, but going home didn’t seem all that prudent. He realized Bongo was trying to do him a favor, realized that Bongo could have killed him if he wanted to, could have alleviated this now-international incident without a problem, but didn’t. Cooperman didn’t know what to make of that precisely, except that perhaps Bongo felt a level of loyalty. Another surprise. Getting out of town was a gift from Bongo, but where would he go? He’d lived his entire fucked up life in Orange County, and it’s not like moving to Palm Springs was going to somehow change the end result that a bunch of angry Nicaraguans were now looking for him. He stepped out of the stall and saw that the sink where Ronnie Key had been standing not five minutes before was now overflowing with water, the tile surrounding the sink a growing lake of piss-colored water. His natural inclination was to turn the faucet off and conserve the water, but then he thought about where he was standing; thought about how just up the street there used to be groves of orange trees that grew wild from the water in the soil that had, nevertheless, been ripped up and paved over; thought about the chimpanzee and gorilla that lived in a cage next to that weird jungle restaurant on Raymond back when he was a kid and how no one seemed to give a shit that it wasn’t in the least bit natural; thought about how nothing in this place has ever lasted, how it’s always been a course of destruction and concrete gentrification. And what did that produce? Nothing came out looking any better, Cooperman thought. No one had figured out a way to make the Marriott across the street from campus as pretty as the citrus trees that once lived in the same spot. No, Cooperman decided as he walked back out into the furnace of the late afternoon, the faucet still going strong behind him, no one ever recognized the ripples.
* * *
The indignity of teaching adjunct at Cal State Fullerton extended beyond the known quantities of indignant students and the horror of keeping a clock. On top of it all, William Cooperman, who’d invented the most technologically advanced piece of sprinkler machinery ever, who thought he should be held up as a paragon of conservation and awareness in this new “go green” world, who’d figured out how to grow marijuana in an environmentally sound way that actually heightened the effectiveness of the THC in ways that could probably help a lot of cancer patients (and in fact, that was what Cooperman had always thought he’d use as his alibi when he was finally busted, that he was growing a mountain of weed in his backyard as a public service to those poor souls with inoperable tumors and such), “the William Cooperman,” as his ex used to call him, had to share an office.
It was up on the second floor of McCarthy Hall and overlooked the Quad. During the term, it wasn’t such a bad view. Cooperman even sort of liked sitting at his desk and watching the students milling back and forth. As long as he didn’t have to teach the students, he actually rather liked the idea of them, of their determination to learn, their collegial enthusiasm for stupid things like baseball and basketball tournaments, their silly hunger strikes protesting fee hikes, the way every few years MEChA would demand that California be recognized as “Occupied Mexico” even while they happily wore Cal State Fullerton T-shirts and caps. Back in the 1970s, riot police beat the shit out of students in that Quad, but now things were much more civil. Protest was just as cyclical as the tides and, in a bizarre way, it comforted Cooperman during the school year. It also made the prospect of sharing his space with fostering Professor James Kochel less offensive since there was something to occupy his vision other than Kochel’s collection of “family” photos, all of which were of cocker spaniels, and shots of the geology professor in various biblical locales.
In the summer, however, it was just the two of them with no view to speak of, since the students who liked to protest and march and rally in the Quad typically avoided summer session. Cooperman didn’t know where they went and didn’t really care normally, but the loneliness of the campus this evening made him nervous as he walked from the faculty parking lot to McCarthy. He paused in the Quad and looked up the length of the building to see if his office light was on, and sure enough he could see Kochel moving about. Cooperman found it strangely comforting, especially since he’d left his gun in the car, figuring he’d just run upstairs, grab his laptop, maybe heist a few other laptops from open offices since they’d be easy to sell along the way to wherever, and then . . . get ghost. Bringing a gun onto the campus might awaken his worst
traits, a likely scenario since he was supposed to be teaching another class within the hour, and that meant a few students might show up early wanting to talk.
He harbored a fantasy, momentarily, that when he got to his office Katie Williard would be waiting for him and he’d grab her, too, and they’d run off and start a life. Tend the rabbits together, Cooperman thought, and realized the sheer folly of it all, but that’s what fantasizing was for.
Anyway, he hadn’t figured out where, precisely, he was going, but had a vague notion that the Pacific Northwest would be a hospitable place for the world’s finest weed grower, even sort of liked the idea of finding himself in a place like Eugene or Olympia or Longview or Kelso, particularly since he’d spent the last few hours liquidating his bank accounts and now had forty thousand dollars in cash stowed in the
Escalade, a couple RD-2001s, and, finally, a reason to leave. The idea of living in near constant rain had a sudden and visceral appeal, and it astonished Cooperman that he hadn’t thought of living in Oregon or Washington previously. He liked apples as much as oranges.
Cooperman climbed the two flights of stairs up to his office. He was surprised by how light he felt, how clarity had lessened the weight he felt about all of this crap. It wasn’t just about water anymore; it was about living a more principled life. He’d stood for one thing for a very long time and what had it earned him? Cash, of course, but in the end no one cared that he possessed the key to saving the world. What good was
it being a superhero if no one respected your superpowers? Proof was right in front of him, even: Professor Kochel’s name plate was above his on the little slider beside their office door. Respect was dead, so fuck it to death. Maybe I’ll get that inked on my neck in Old English, Cooperman thought. Fuck it to Death.
“There you are,” Kochel said when Cooperman finally opened the office door.
“Have you been looking for me?”
“Your phone has been ringing constantly. I took some messages for you.” Kochel handed Cooperman a stack of Postit notes. The first was from Katie Williard, another was from Enterprise Rent-A-Car — a problem Cooperman hadn’t quite taken care of yet — and another still that had one word on it: Bongo.
“What did Katie Williard want?”
“Lovely girl, isn’t she? So bright.”
“What did she want?” Cooperman heard a new tone entering his voice. He liked it. Thought it made him sound like the kind of guy who just might have some neck ink.
“Candidly? I think she’s upset about your afternoon class.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“Briefly. She indicated to me that she just wasn’t satisfied in the level of teaching. It’s no reflection on you, William, I’m sure.”
“I’ve had Katie in other courses and she’s just very particular,” Kochel said. He had a look of smug satisfaction on his face that Cooperman recognized as the same face he used when he talked about how his faith in Christ allowed him to see that many of the great mysteries of science were merely God’s way of testing us.
“Someone named Bongo called?”
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Kochel said. “That’s what the name sounded like. I could barely hear him.”
“He say anything?”
“It was very strange,” Kochel said. “I thought maybe it was a wrong number. All he said was to tell you that he couldn’t get you twenty-four anymore. I have no idea what that means. Do you?”
Cooperman looked out the window and down at the Quad, half expected to see an army of men already massed. But it was empty save for a lost seagull picking through an overflowing trash can. It was still sunny out, would be for another hour and a half, two hours, not that it probably
mattered. The more frightening aspect was that Cooperman couldn’t remember ever giving Bongo his office phone number. This was not good.
“No,” Cooperman said. “Must have been a wrong number.”
“Anyway,” Kochel said, “you should really ask for voicemail in the fall.”
“I won’t be here,” Cooperman said. He was still looking out the window, but wasn’t sure precisely what he was hoping to find. Something or someone that seemed out of place. Like a guy walking around with a MAC-10. Across the Quad, a black SUV pulled up in front of Pollack Library. A man holding a stack of paper walked out of the Performing Arts Center. A gust of wind through the breezeway picked up a Starbucks cup from the ground. What he wouldn’t give for the Quad to suddenly fill with riot police.
“I’ve been offered a job back in the sprinkler industry,” Cooperman said.
“It really is a despicable profession, if you must know,” Kochel said. “From a geological and religious standpoint, if you must know.”
“Who must know anything?” Cooperman said.
Kochel started listing the people who must know things, starting with the media and the Muslims and all of the impressionable students who were being led to believe that science was the one true God. The Starbucks cup hovered in the air and then fell and then was swooped up again in
another gust. Wind technology. Maybe that’s where he’d make his second wave.
“What time did this Bongo call?” Cooperman asked when Kochel eventually ran out of righteous steam.
“Now who must know something?”
Cooperman turned from the window and found Kochel staring at him in beatific glory. Why had he left his gun in the car? A dumb mistake, really. But he wasn’t used to being the kind of person who was always packing, at least not on campus. “What fucking time, Professor Kochel,” Cooperman said, his voice finding an even deeper register than before, “did this fucking message come in?”
“Ten minutes ago,” Kochel said. “Okay? Ten minutes ago.”
“Thank you,” Cooperman said. He fixed his gaze back out the window. A man got out of the backseat of the SUV in front of Pollack and walked in a semicircle, a cell phone pressed to his ear. Cooperman couldn’t make out his age or his exact race from his vantage point, but could see just from watching his body language that the guy was confused about something. It was probably nothing.
“If you want my opinion,” Kochel said, as if Cooperman had just asked him a question, “you might want to look into anger management courses. Your attitude in a corporate environment will be a real detriment. Not everyone is as easygoing as I am. You get back with a bunch of MBAs and those egos, well, I’m just saying it might be a bad fit.”
The man from the car was walking toward McCarthy now, his cell phone in his hand. He looked like his head was on a swivel — looking this way, that way, back behind him — and when Cooperman looked back up at the library, the SUV was gone.
“I’ll work on that,” Cooperman said.
“I know this isn’t your speed, Will, but you might also start thinking about your relationship with the Lord.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Cooperman said. The man was in the middle of the Quad now, and Cooperman could finally make him out more completely. He was older — maybe fifty — and wore white slacks and a black shirt, had on wraparound black sunglasses, nice shoes. Cooperman thought he was maybe Mexican, but couldn’t really tell. He tried to think if he knew the difference between a Nicaraguan and a Mexican, at least in terms of appearance, and once again cursed himself for having lived in Orange County all of his life.
It didn’t really matter, anyway. Cooperman was getting the fuck out while he still could. He grabbed his laptop, a few books that meant something to him — Forest Hydrology and Groundwater Hydrology — and, just in case, the Post-it with Katie Williard’s phone number. Maybe once things settled down . . . well, it never hurt to have options with shared interests. He tucked everything into his messenger bag while keeping an eye out the window. The man was on the move again now, his pace more brisk, his direction absolutely clear.
“And anyway,” Kochel was saying, and Cooperman realized his office mate hadn’t ever stopped talking, was actually quite animated about something, “what you might find out is that everything has consequences, Will.”
Cooperman turned to Kochel and studied him seriously. He didn’t hate Kochel, didn’t even really think about him on a regular basis, though he never enjoyed being around him. It wasn’t even the religion that bothered him. It was the presumption Kochel had that he was always right.
“You know, this is all very fascinating. I’d like to learn even more about this, James. Can we continue this conversation after I get back from my car?”
Kochel brightened. “Of course, of course, I’ll be right here.”
Cooperman took one last look outside before he exited his office, saw that the man was now only twenty yards or so from the building, and closing fast.
Professor William Cooperman stepped out of his office and closed the door lightly behind him. No panic, no fear in the least, just a person skipping out of his office briefly, just a person, just anyone at all. He looked down the hallway and saw that a few students were loitering down by the vending machines, another couple were lined up in front of the photocopier, two were sitting on the floor in front of his classroom reading from their textbooks. None of them bothered to look back at Cooperman, so they didn’t notice him slipping Professor James Kochel’s nameplate out of the slider and into his messenger bag, though Cooperman did pause for just a moment before exiting out the back of the building, to look at his own name. He liked how it looked on the slider by itself, thought that it looked esteemed and powerful and worthy of intense respect.