I didn’t bother to tell Ms. Doubletree I was back from the Near East. School was starting back up in only a couple of weeks, and not reporting in saved me from having to make up an excuse about why I wasn’t back in hot pursuit of the Muse. Actually, I was in hot pursuit of the Muse; it just happened to be Clio, the Muse of History, rather than one of her more literary sisters. And although one of my adolescent fantasies was to do a pair of sisters (doomed to remain unfulfilled, it seemed, since Anne didn’t have a sister), Clio demands absolute fidelity. “If you’re going to leave me, then just say goodbye and get the hell out,” she told me back at the start of the summer when I first started two-timing her. “But this namby-pamby ‘I still love you honey but I need my space’ shit has got to stop.” Clio was never one to use flowery language, as her sisters Calliope or Erato were inclined to do, when a good expletive would serve her purpose just as well. I was glad to be back in her loving arms, and told her with such frequency and intensity during my first week home from Skokie that she forgave me my little indiscretion.
I used the time to rough out a proposal for my doctoral thesis. The position and approach that the paper would take, an outline, and a summary of the evidence. I sifted through the contents of the shoebox, selected six of the least sanguine fragments of the scroll—you could actually make out the writing on them—and had them framed under glass. The Carbon14 dating report came back, signed and certified on official-looking letterhead, confirming that the document in question dated from between 30 B.C. to 90 A.D. There was even time to draft the introduction before I shelved the project and spent the last weekend before classes started helping Layl’Annie move back into her dorm room.
With no classes left to take and only one tutorial to teach under the agreement between Dr. Giles and Dr. Sandeman, my schedule was the paragon of flexibility. All of which enabled me to be waiting with time to spare for my Monday afternoon appointment with Dr. Giles.
Marcie, tanned and stunning, was back in her usual spot behind the receptionist’s desk at the history office. I confess to being a little surprised to see her there. I figured—uncharitably, I’ll admit—now that she’d caught a husband, she could find more valuable things to do than work at such a menial job. Sexist! The Grail chided. You should be ashamed of yourself in this enlightened age (I wasn’t tempted to respond).
“Brad,” Marcie exclaimed as I walked in. “It’s great to see you.” She jumped up and gave me a Chanel-Number-Whatever-smelling hug that was a little too friendly to qualify as sisterly and a kiss on my cheek that was a tad too wet to be classified as a peck.
“Brad, nothing like this has ever happened to me in my whole life,” she whispered once we were both seated, leaning across the desk so that possible eavesdroppers in the next office couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Truly there is a fairy godmother who answers the dreams of fat girls. And although I can’t claim to understand how it all works, I know that somehow she is you.”
“Marcie, it was you, not me,” I answered, a little embarrassed by the adulations, although not as embarrassed as I would be if Dr. Giles walked in while we were huddled there. “All of the will and the desire were there inside you. My comment was just the straw that broke the hippo’s back, so to speak.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute, and I refuse to consider it.” She lowered her voice a little more. “I think you have some magical power that you haven’t told anybody about. Some magical ring or amulet—I think I would have noticed a wand—you use to reach out and bless people at random. And I just want you to know that I’m an appreciative recipient of your bounty.”
I was a little startled but decided to play it just that way. “I don’t know how you found me out,” I murmured back in my best conspiratorial tone, “but you mustn’t tell anyone. If you ever do, I’ll have to get out of the fairy godmothering business.”
“Don’t worry, Merlin,” she whispered back (her random shots were falling closer all the time). “Your secret’s safe with me.”
She settled back in her chair and started telling me how she was going to try to get in school here—not in history, but maybe one of the other arts—but hadn’t gotten back in time to apply for the year. And although she was sure that Gerry could pull a few strings and get her in, she wasn’t all that certain that she could do the work. She guessed that if she decided she couldn’t, she would go to the University of Houston or somewhere. But she really liked her job—not to mention that it kept her near Gerry (here she and The Marquis simultaneously conjured up a vision of ongoing lunchtime delights in the good Doctor’s office that made her blush and him pant, while I just hoped they’d learned to lock the door) and didn’t mind continuing it until she decided what she was going to do.
I could hear Dr. Giles coming down the hall, talking to someone as he walked, so I had to hurry. Feeling like a meddling busybody on one hand and Professor ‘enry ‘iggins creating his own version of Eliza Doolittle on the other, I touched The Grail and looked her directly into her eyes.
“Marcie, you’ve already proven you can do anything you set your will to. Going to school here is no different. Just decide what you really want, then go for it.”
About that time Dr. Giles walked in, saving her from having to simper and me from pouring it on too thick. It was obvious he hadn’t spent as many hours working on his tan as Marcie had—his sabbatical in the Aegean must have included a modicum of obligations other than drinking ouzo and sunning with his new bride—but he looked plenty brown and healthy compared with the average guy. Smug, too. Well, I’d spent a few hours in the Mediterranean sun myself, and wouldn’t have swapped my summer vacation for his, particularly if it came with a swap of lovers.
Ten minutes later, the impact of what I was showing him had swept a summer’s worth of cobwebs from the corners of his mind and he was once again the brilliant, aggressive young up-and-coming history professor.
“What you’re showing me is irrefutable evidence that the historical Jesus is far different from the biblical version. Actual pieces of a scroll, complete with certified carbon dating. Enlarged photographs of it in its original state. A transcript in the original Aramaic, obtained through computerized digital electro-optical enhancement. And a translation into English. This is the biggest historical find of the century, maybe in the modern era. Your thesis will propel you to prominence as a renowned scholar, and the history department won’t mind hanging onto your coattails. Hell, yes, I would be honored to be your thesis advisor for such a project. I’ll let the English department know this very afternoon.”
So now you see the last piece of the scam, the myth of computerized digital electro-optical enhancement. In those days, computers occupied whole floors of buildings and had less power than the chip in your cell phone today. They were new, they were the leading edge of modern technology, and to most people, they were either magical or divine. Who could doubt the power of the almighty computer to decipher the faint lines on the photographs, even if the human eye looking through a magnifying glass the size of a tennis racquet could not? If this transcript had been made by a computer, well, then, it must be the real thing. Scholars might worry over the niceties of the translation, but the original text—which of course was no such thing, only the translation that Dr. Shapiro had made—would never be questioned.
So I was a historian once again, facing a ridiculously easy year in which to complete my thesis. Particularly after Dr. Giles insisted I give up my tutorial so that teaching freshman about the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Smoot-Hawley Act wouldn’t distract my progress on the greatest historical find of the century. Four hours a day tops, I figured, leaving nights and weekends for Anne, at least when she could tear herself away from her own studies.
But Dr. Giles wasn’t finished yet. “There’s a meeting of the history department this afternoon. I would like you to make a summary of this same presentation to them. Let them in on what you are doing.”
There’s an old Atlantian adage about every jar of ointment having a fly in it. I couldn’t see a single benefit in having the history department in on our frankincense and/or myrrh of my thesis from the early stages. (I forgot which is the ointment. Or is it spikenard?) But even with The Grail’s help, I couldn’t talk him out of it, lost in the throes of his pretensions as he was. Well, not seeing any big problem, I didn’t try all that hard.
Most of the department was already there when I got to the seminar room. And what an assembly of veteran professors they were. If any one of them had even experienced a twinge of boredom in the dry halls of academia, he had long since excised that minor demon. They savored the semester in front of them, with the prospect of a thousand and one papers on the history of the Venetian blind not detracting in the least from the glassy-eyed adoration of the freshmen or the dawn of enlightenment among the sophomores. Or whatever else gave them their jollies, besides having summers off to sun with their new brides in the Mediterranean.
Dr. Giles had snuck me on the schedule without giving a single hint of the subject matter. ‘Mr. B. Schuster’s thesis synopsis,’ stuck between a half hour of wrangling on whether sophomores should be permitted take-home examinations and a proposal to move freshman Modern European History lectures from Hermann Hall to the chemistry building. So when I stepped up to the lectern, they looked up at me with the polite interest with which professors have viewed students since the foundation of the University of Mesopotamia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. I’ll be brief. I have recently unearthed a first century manuscript relating to the historical Jesus, strong evidence that he was not who many people believe him to be. I intend to present this evidence in my doctoral thesis.”
There was a buzz of excitement punctuated by an angry outburst somewhere on the left side of the audience, but I forged ahead. Laying out the bare facts (and fabrications): how I had found the scroll in a cave in the Negev, the circumstances of its destruction, and how the text had been resurrected by modern computer technology (omitting that I had been guided by the ghost of Mary Magdalene, or that the scroll had been destroyed beyond legibility).
Ten minutes later, when I opened the floor for questions, the showdown began. Old Dr. Hobson, seventy-five years old and a fixture at the university since before World War II, was asking for details about the validity of the language obtained through the enhancement process (the years hadn’t taken the edge off Dr. Hobson’s keen mind, and I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to bullshit him), when Dr. Albert, who used his history of religion course—in particular, the unalienable right of professors to grade however they please—as a bully pulpit to spread his own particular version of the truth, stood up and interrupted him.
“The entire topic is scandalous. Such a proposition is obviously inspired and indeed manipulated by Satan. I strenuously object to the department or the University sponsoring such a transparent attempt by the godless communists to pollute the high moral fiber of our students.”
While age had not dulled Dr. Hobson’s intellect, it had definitely shortened his patience, particularly when it came to being interrupted in public by a man barely fifty. “Henry,” he said, deliberately insulting his colleague by eschewing the formal ‘Doctor’ that professors call each other in public forums such as this, “we’re not your latest batch of students to be harangued into submission. Would you kindly sit down, stop rudely interrupting, and wait your turn?”
“No sir, I will not. I will not sit idly by and be a party to this travesty.” Dr. Albert turned to the room at large. “Is there no one else who feels as I do about this?”
Well, of course there were a few. Even at the height of American liberalism, before Reagan and the moral majority dragged us back into the swamp, even a room full of the intellectual elite contained its share of the modern-day descendants of Father Ignatius, ready to do whatever they deemed necessary to defend their faith. In moments the room had broken into clumps of excited people shouting and waving their hands. Dr. Hobson and Dr. Albert were at the center of the largest group, screaming at each other from a distance of a few inches. I started to use The Grail to restore calm to the situation until The Marquis asked, What’s your hurry? Unable to articulate a compelling answer, I held my own council and watched the amended proceedings.
Suddenly the press of people behind Dr. Albert caused him to stumble into Dr. Hobson. “By Jove, Henry, interrupting is bad enough, but putting your hands on my person is the last straw.” Hobson stepped aside, throwing Albert off-balance, then smacked him across the butt with his cane as he staggered past.
Now you would think that in a gathering as staid as a department of history professors, a single mild act of physical violence wouldn’t degenerate into a bar brawl, but in seconds that’s exactly what happened. Dr. Joe Johnson, reputedly named after the Confederate general, punched Dr. Hobson in the face. As he went down clutching his bloody nose, Dr. Martha Whitson, her half-century age and diminutive height less of a liability in a rumble than her three-foot breadth and pugnacity were assets, screamed “You filthy beast, how dare you strike an old man!” and nailed Dr. Johnson up beside his head with her oversized purse. The pushing and shoving and punching and kicking quickly spread to the outer groups and circles. Even Dr. Giles got in the act, trying unsuccessfully to pick Dr. Albert up by his collar and the seat of his trousers and toss him out the door.
I hadn’t touched The Grail and yelled, “Fight like a bunch of hormone-crazed teenagers,” but it certainly seemed like it. It was the most fun I’d had in a classroom since the day the Jones College powder-puff football team streaked the Economics 201 lecture and some enterprising hero had locked the door while they were still inside.
The lions were getting the upper hand over the Christians—no real feat, considering that the lions outnumbered them three or four to one in that academic haven, where many people who proclaimed themselves Christians secretly worshipped Fredomia, the god of intellectual freedom, above all others (I could well imagine how such a brouhaha would end up on the outside, where the numbers were ten or twenty or a hundred to one the other way)—when I decided I’d better intervene before someone was seriously injured. I took The Grail out for maximum effect and yelled at them to stop behaving like children and get back in their seats. With their fighting blood up, it took me several tries to get everyone’s attention and bring the room back into some semblance of order.
When I later related the story to The Boomer, he bemoaned that I hadn’t had a camera, since without hard evidence nobody would ever believe what had really taken place.
But clearly people believed something had happened. A writer from the Chronicle called me the next afternoon to verify whether in fact I had discovered a scroll that proved beyond a doubt the existence of Jesus Christ. I downplayed the whole thing, needless to say. I told him that yes, I had found a scroll, but no, the mundane truth was that it contained the disjointed and rambling writings of an early scribe that would be of interest only to the academic community. I did verify that my presentation had been misunderstood at first, resulting in an extraordinarily vigorous difference of opinion among the faculty, but that it was a private university matter and I frankly would not discuss it further. The reporter wrote for the feature section of the paper, and had obviously already gotten much more than he could use in the space left over after the wedding announcements with their accompanying beautiful pictures of homely brides, since he accepted my decision with good grace.
The Post reporter was a lot more tenacious. He was waiting at my door the following afternoon when I got home from the library, demanding an in-depth, face-to-face interview. Within a few questions it was obvious that he’d already gotten a lot deeper into the incident than his colleague who, although he had broken the scoop, hadn’t dug into the matter. I hadn’t seen his article before the Post reporter showed it to me, since reading a daily paper requires a lot more curiosity about and commitment to the real world than I’d possessed since the Vietnam war became a daily news feature. In it Dr. Albert described me as “a lackey of Satan” who had incited the entire incident, “cackling with glee and waving some Unholy Grail around as I blasphemed the Heavenly Father.”
I hate it when random shots fall so close that the shrapnel whangs off the concrete and stings the hide. I tried to soft-pedal what happened as I had the day before, and I certainly didn’t invite the reporter in, but he was a lot harder to shake than his predecessor had been. What exactly was in the scroll? (I wasn’t prepared to discuss it in depth, but I could assure him that it contained nothing of general interest). Could he have a transcript? (Not at this time). Could the paper buy it? (I’m sorry, it wasn’t for sale). What part did the goblet that Dr. Albert described play in the sequence of events? (I could not imagine what Dr. Albert had been talking about. He was obviously mistaken. This was a history department meeting we had been attending, not a wine tasting). Finally, after we had gone over it all twice and were starting back around the third time, I got angry enough to overcome my conditioned Southern politeness, refused to discuss it further, and left him standing there outside my door.
I did make the effort to buy a Post the next morning to read what he had written and judge how bad the damage was. It was pretty dire. Front page of the Metropolitan section. Dr. Albert’s version had gotten the majority of the space, since his was the kind of sensational story that draws interest and sells papers. Glorifying his part in the brawl under a picture that still showed the bruised puffiness in his face. Describing the heresy that had forced him to stand up for his beliefs, as Jesus had commanded his disciples (I didn’t remember The Grail mentioning that part). A generic description of the so-called ‘Unholy Grail’ that fortunately could have described any metal goblet sold at Foley’s. In the interest of fair reporting, I suppose, the reporter had included a small paragraph at the bottom of the page quoting the President of the University that it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding and certainly not worthy of all of the space the Post was devoting to it, but even that was written in a tone implying that everything he’d said was part of a cover-up.
I wasn’t mentioned at all until the continuation on page seven. “The young graduate student who apparently sparked the whole affair, Mr. Bradley Schlister, was extremely uncooperative when it came to discussing his part in the incident. He refused to talk about the contents of the controversial scroll, much less allow this reporter to see it. He even denies the existence of the goblet that Dr. Albert described, although his expression made it evident that he was hiding something.”
Just great. My quiet year in pursuit of academic fame was off to a booming start. Now reporters would be coming out of the woodwork to find out what I really knew and why I wouldn’t talk about it. National Enquirer waving ever-larger contracts under my nose. Maybe there was still a Watergate burglar not yet in jail available for hire. High class talent who, for a pardon and a little cash to live off of while he completed writing his tell-all that vindicated himself while blaming the Democrats, would ransack my lodging.
For two days I worried about it, staying away from the apartment except to sleep. Although the newspaper stories fell off dramatically, as they always do when there are no new facts to hang a rehash of the story around, I continued to get calls three to five times a night, as late as two in the morning. (I didn’t answer these, but assumed they had to be either reporters or lawyers—who else would be so rude as to call at that hour?)
Anne finally put an end to the harassment. She spent four afternoons and evenings in my apartment, answering every call, telling the callers that I had left the country and returned to Israel for an extended dig. She was all gushing politeness and East Texas charm, with a lot of goshes and golly-gee’s, but in the end the only useful suggestion that she could think of was that they try leaving a message for me at the Holiday Inn, Tel Aviv.
For a day or two, I thought I might be allowed my year of working on my thesis in peace after all.