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SUBLIMITY
By Michael Washburn

 

 

 

Hey, you there. I recognize you. How could I not? You probably won’t recognize me, if you should happen to turn your head and gaze through the window of the coffee shop where I’m sitting, on your left as you move up 10th Street NW. Nor do you probably retain even a vague memory of our shared history. But based on the time of day and what I know about you, Brandon, I infer that this coffee shop is a few doors down from your office. You’re stepping out to get lunch. I happen to know that you’re a highly paid corporate partner at a law firm epitomizing the term “white shoe.” You’re not solely a litigator, oh no, you work on all manner of high-profile cross-border deals, but going after people is what you love best. Many are the polluters of streams and crops who have trembled and wept and shit their pants because of you, Brandon. Your role as a prosecutor ended two years ago, when you returned to private practice. Even so, I’ll be extra careful to drop my cup in the recyclables bin. You have this aura of self-righteous vigilance, Brandon. You wear it like a cloak as you saunter down the street on this placid afternoon in D.C. I know people who’d like nothing better than to stick a knife in you and twist it around a thousand times, but I’ll content myself with some reflections.

It’s been so many years since graduation, so many faces and voices have displaced my experiences as a callow teen with intellectual pretensions. What do I recall of our alma mater? The Upper Midwest is always exquisitely beautiful in the fall, regardless of how people may behave. The campus where we studied history and philosophy and languages was a fortress of erudition amid thousands of square miles of cornfields, a beacon amid the weird beliefs and customs of a state that goes red, if not every two years, then at least every four. The faculty and students assert their pride in their diversity. Here on this isolated campus, you can be whatever you want and express yourself however you want, as long as you agree one hundred percent with the rest of the community. Here, sociology profs and women’s studies profs can educate you about the irrelevance of an accusation’s truth or falsity, about the need to consider what the charge may be calling the world’s attention to, without regard for conventional ideas of evidence and due process. Professors can get you to cultivate feelings about feelings, to have empathy even for, or particularly for, someone society has branded as a serial killer, provided that figure is on the correct side of the divide. Here, in this mecca in the cornfields, the students will boo and jeer any conservative who has the temerity to get up and give a speech. There are principles to uphold, after all, and they don’t involve giving the floor to Neanderthals.

But even at this enlightened college, the bad old notion of the Big Man on Campus is still around. The BMOC is you and you are he, Brandon. Maybe your status as BMOC should not be surprising, for anyone who voices progressive sentiments as often and publicly as you do deserves glorification, it’s just part of the culture of the school. Inevitably, your progressive views come across most forcefully in adversity. Nothing helps you frame an argument or a position quite like your loathing for somebody and your wish for others to join you in mocking him. The opportunity comes in the form of one Dennis Rowe, a kid with straight dirty blond hair parted down the middle, the way I imagine a Branch Davidian leader of Waco fame wore his hair at the same age, an outcast and a recluse who sits stiffly at parties clutching a cup of beer, not seeming to grasp that the burden lies on him to take initiative and burst out of his isolation. Not that I wish to minimize how snooty, how downright nasty, a fair number of the privileged kids at this college are. Here are 1,200 rich kids who could not shut up about their oppression.

Dennis’s biggest sin is not to sit in his room reading his Bible aloud on Sunday mornings, although that’s a whopper. His most serious transgression against the church of political correctness is to call things as he sees them in class discussions in American History I led by a professor who has attended her share of peace marches and pot parties. One afternoon the talk turns, as it so often does, to the status of minorities in America, and you, Brandon, need to voice your opinion as someone who hails from a city on the front lines, though I’m not sure how wealthy residents of Santa Monica are in danger if they never actually venture down to Florence and Normandie, flashpoint of the riots not six months behind us. You talk about the persistence of the Klan mentality in American life. Dennis, who comes from a town in Indiana, dares to contradict you. He suggests that by at least one measure, namely the propensity to commit violent crimes, the Klan is a marginal if not irrelevant force in contemporary America, and that if the Klan were to disappear tomorrow, the homicide rate in the U.S. would be essentially the same as it is now. To your mind, Brandon, the implication is clear enough. If minority communities want to solve what ails them, they had better look inward. Dennis has the gall not only to contravene liberal dogma, but to make this suggestion in front of a class of thirty. He has no grasp of the liberal notion of progress, of the course of history, of an eternal war against bigotry and repression in all their guises.

So here’s Dennis, sitting on a couch in a house across the street from a row of campus buildings, clutching a plastic cup full of beer, barely able even to do that without awkwardness. Now at last there are signs that Dennis is beginning to find a way out of his isolation. He controls his impulse to swill that delicious beer long enough to begin to form words, to speak in the direction of the lovely blonde to his right wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of the football team which has an important if somewhat ambiguous status at this progressive school. You really have to be a jock or a progressive to get on here, and Dennis is neither. That doesn’t stop him from having opinions about the team, which he begins to share with the girl. She doesn’t hang on his every word, but nor does she evince the hostility or disdain that Dennis has come to know so well in his four semesters at the college. She turns toward him and listens with earnest eyes, and then, when Dennis makes a crack about our beloved school needing to foster “football for poets,” she actually laughs. When she begins explaining to Dennis that the team in her opinion really isn’t so bad, he replies with a reference to the warrior-poets of Homeric legend, and she finds his witticism uproarious. That’s quite enough for the BMOC. You, Brandon, are the embryonic corporate lawyer, the future leader.

“Hey Dennis. What are you doing here in that winter vest?” you ask.

It takes Dennis a moment to pull himself away from his sexy interlocutor. As soon as he does, it’s kind of astonishing that the BMOC is addressing him.

“Huh?”

“I said, what’re you doing here in that ugly vest?”

“I don’t understand, Brandon.”

“Wear your Klan uniform, dude!”

Dennis looks as if he’s swallowed used toilet paper.

“My what?”

Now you address the whole room. Kids clutch their plastic cups, looking on in apprehension.

“Dennis here thinks the Klan’s gotten a bad rap. Just listen to him in American History II. ‘If you don’t kill as many people as the Crips on a given weekend, you’re okay.’”

“Brandon—no, I didn’t mean—”

People begin to pull away from the interloper sitting there in his winter vest, to assume positions along the walls in expectation of a scene of violence that perhaps might not rise to the level of poetry. Instead of violence, there is mockery. You lead the charge.

“I’ve seen this guy in the gym showers, folks, and I think I have a fair idea of why he needs to be the opposite of quiet in class. I mean, the opposite of puny! Don’t any of you fucking go near him if you care about your rep!”

The laughter rises. Calls come for Dennis to leave, and he does. Thanks to you, Brandon, people understand that if they care about their popularity, they must never look at or acknowledge Dennis when they should chance to encounter him on campus.

The lights glitter above the Potomac as the cruise ship bears its cargo of eighteen associates, five counsel, and two partners through the mild spring evening. You, Brandon, are one of the associates, and you’re speaking with the senior partner, an esteemed M&A lawyer whose hair has begun turning silver, on the deck of the vessel as the other associates content themselves with a less risky engagement with the counsel, who are so much more approachable and so much slower to take offense than a senior partner of one of the world’s top law firms. The other partner on the ship, the one who got his promotion in spite of a speech impediment and whose anger finds expression in ways too halting and monosyllabic to be truly frightening, is below deck somewhere.

Allow me a digression here, Brandon. Whence all the terror about partners? Who are they, after all, what is the secret nature of this lofty race of beings? A partner is an equity shareholder of the firm, practicing law under its auspices. The latter part of the definition, of course, is not exclusive to partners. So the term partner signifies, above all else, an economic arrangement. There’s nothing about being a partner that is inherently impressive or awesome or fearsome, in and of itself. When some people say partner, they mean an executive of the firm whose judgment is always final and whom one dare not provoke. To me, the term evokes a balding overweight person whose voice carries whiffs of Suffolk or Westchester County and who flagrantly mispronounces res judicata and force majeure and tortious interference and lex talionis and various other phrases he’s had to memorize in order to pass the bar exam, oversee intricate cross-border matters, and win promotions. I concede that for many people there is something about partners that puts them off limit to contradiction or questioning, as I’m sure you found, Brandon, once you entered the partnership of one of Washington’s most esteemed firms. Colleagues who could not argue around a point, who lacked the legal expertise or the rhetorical flourish to win an argument, tended to say, in a threatening tone, “Maybe it’s time to get some partner-level input here.” You nodded in browbeaten assent. If you didn’t think this represented a very high level of argumentation, you kept your view to yourself.

But to return to your experience that evening. You are in conversation with that senior partner who, let’s be fair to him, has closed deals for the purchase of an Italian garment maker, a Japanese stereo maker, a top U.S pharma firm, and one of the world’s top cable providers. Just looking at this partner as an individual, without regard for the superstitious attitude so many people have about partners, maybe he does deserve some respect. The cruise ship moves up the river. The senior partner gazes at you above his glass where the pinot grigio glitters enticingly, reflecting the light from a passing quay. This partner’s eyes have a gleam, a spirit, of their own. The attorney leans toward you and tells you of his faith in you as a transactional lawyer. You are eager to prove him right. You engage directly with him, talking about corporate deals, demonstrating your grasp of the disparities among antitrust regimes in different jurisdictions and the wildly varying conceptual vocabularies and negotiating skills that come into play when uniting numerous parties and doing a deal across borders.

The senior partner reclines in his chair, enjoying the absence of callow young associates with their bad manners and ignorant questions. He regards you with the lucid intelligent eyes that have seen so many mergers take place across so many borders, speaking figuratively, since that isn’t something you can actually see, and he sips his wine again before informing you that your grasp of the intricacies of disparate regimes and the ways to achieve harmony among them is what makes your legal sensibility so fine. You like the way he puts it. So fine. The lights are glittering on the dark water in this pathway between centers of power as you recline in your seat and acknowledge the admiring gaze of the partner sitting across from you and meditate about your future within one of the most awesome hierarchies ever formed.

I went to pay Dennis a visit on one of those mornings when I’d have expected to hear verses from Leviticus and Matthew coming through the walls of the dorm. I stood outside his door, calling his name, but he did not answer. I placed my hand on the knob. I opened the door, tentatively. Perhaps the biblical horrors this young man had alluded to were as nothing compared to what he wished to unleash. But here was Dennis, sitting on the edge of the mattress covering a gray-blue metal frame, his eyes turned toward the window that offered a view of a patch of pavement before the entrance to a building filled mostly with classrooms. If he lifted his gaze a bit, I thought he could perhaps make out the bare branches of the trees lining the western edge of the campus, and the pale unkind blue above. How I wanted to engage with Dennis, to drive home that he had most of his life ahead of him, that everyone knows how unhappy undergrads tend to be, but it all changes in time. Dennis sat there with his fingers clutching his knees and his gaze fixed on some point beyond the rectangle of glass. Now I thought I knew what he was looking at. He was looking to the corn. The miles and miles of corn partaking with sublime silent faith in an ancient ritual of coming to maturity under the nurturing sun of this rural state. At once stunningly beautiful and too commonplace to remark on, the corn was utterly indifferent to the bipeds that shuffled and talked and cried and slept and dreamt on this block of concrete and grass within the vastness of the fields. How easily your soul could get lost out there forever amid the corn, I used to think on my morning runs, when in the words of Matthew Arnold, the world seemed to lie before me like a land of dreams. Dennis clearly was pondering no such possibilities. His social life began and ended on this little campus and all was right in the corn out there, and its rightness would mock him to no end should he venture out there all alone, his soul a sick passenger in his gangly body, the shadows growing inexorably all around. I sensed that I must not disturb Dennis, but now I wish I had tried. Oh, how I wish it.

That was the last time I saw him alive. He swallowed the potassium cyanide two days later. Now here is what gets me. After ingesting the murderous chemicals, he felt the reactions in his body. Oxygen could no longer reach his cells and all manner of terrifying sensations rushed forth. In vain he cried out to the others in the dorm, urging them to call an ambulance. I have tried, in a wary kind of way, to imagine what it was like to be Dennis Rowe in the moments after he took the cyanide and before his body ballooned hideously as fumes spread throughout the floor, necessitating an evacuation. For all my efforts, I can scarcely imagine his precarious position, between a resolve not to go on living and a terror so ferocious it made him repudiate that resolve, made him cry out against it, even though nothing on the outside had changed, all the factors that had made him suicidal would still be there if he could somehow live. Imagine such a state. Try. Just you try.

I’ve done a bit of due diligence on your law firm, Brandon. When I mentioned earlier that it is more or less synonymous with the term “white shoe,” I didn’t divulge all the fruits of my research. Then again, I learned nothing you don’t already know, however much you might wish the firm to conform to an abstract notion of purity, of sublimity. I investigated the case of one Adrian Lewontin in depth, and I came to grasp the magnitude of his crime, the brazenness of his betrayal of his clients’ trust. Lewontin was a young partner who worked a great deal with clients making stateside acquisitions.

No one was more aware of the potential for mergers in the U.S. Drooling over these opportunities, the clients hired Adrian to advise them, planning to deploy their funds as soon as the partner in whom they’d placed their faith closed a deal and inspired the popping of corks from bottles in European suites and satellite offices on this side of the water. To paraphrase Orwell, such, such were the joys that the clients gave little thought to what a partner at a white-shoe firm might do, to how he might misrepresent his billable hours as the partner assigned to their account. He might bill for hundreds or even thousands of hours that he hadn’t actually worked, and no one at the client’s end was too meticulous, even if Adrian was charging well over $1,200 an hour. They’d granted that rate practically as an afterthought, with a view to streamlining deals. Adrian proceeded to rip them off, but even that wasn’t his worst crime. Oh no, he sexted with teens, seduced them with promises of a share of his largesse, and ran naked down the street in pursuit of a couple of kids trying desperately to get away and forget they ever met him.

I have never forgotten about the Adrian Lewontin business. But what does it have to do with our contemporary lives? You’re a partner of one of the most venerable white-shoe firms on the planet. I’m the head of one of the most exclusive event planning companies in the capital.

Even though I run a small company, I spend lots of time not doing anything, or at least not being productive in a Taylorist, industrialist sense. It’s not solely because I’ve come into a large inheritance. What did H.P. Lovecraft write about searchers after horror, the haunters of strange, far places? “The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands.” When my beloved Lovecraft died, way back in the year of our Lord, 1937, he was the age you and I are now, Brandon, or a year older. Forty-six. He had a sense of the world, and my own sense overlays Lovecraft’s in ways that are imperfect if not downright awkward.

Yet I can’t ignore the parallels. I have odd whims, Brandon. One of the strange places I haunt is a bar in Georgetown where comedians and thespians tend to come in the wee hours, after auditions, or shows, or getting out of rehab once again. They come in, emotionally wrecked, seeking refuge in the cliché of the struggling alcoholic actor, on the reasoning that a negative stereotype can comfort you and even insulate you from a worse fate. These strange, far places I haunt, but not without reason or purpose. I do not fill my days with the great weighty things you do, Brandon, but I do fill them. For years I’ve been looking for ways to remind certain people of a point in their distant past. In your case, it really should not have been that hard. The history we’re talking about has such a nice discrete character.

For all the pressures that afflict me from day to day, I have passed a fair amount of time at the bar on K Street, where all the used-up people tend to drift in. So I’m sitting there, looking up at a screen where one team I cannot name is doing its best to demolish another team I cannot name, raising a glass of amber liquid to my lips and occasionally making abortive attempts to engage with one or another of the young women, who during the day stride up and down marble halls in ancient buildings and report to politicians who constantly invent slogans, mottos, and rhetorical tricks to divert the loathing of their constituents. This anxious young man comes in and I quickly notice his resemblance to the late troubled Johnny Lewis, with his dirty blond hair and mischievous smile. Johnny Lewis committed suicide by jumping off a roof after murdering the woman who owned the house. This stranger looks like he’s ready to do something pretty crazy. It’s kind of thrilling when he sits on the stool next to mine.

He asks me whether I think cutting his wrists of jumping off a building will end his life faster and with less pain. I tell him that both options sound pretty horrible but in either case there is, admittedly, little time to experience any conflicted feelings. I suppose that when you are falling through the air, there is a possibility of regretting your decision, but the situation is not quite as awkward as another I can describe. The stranger appears to find my talk engaging, but I am beginning to upset others at the bar. I pay both our tabs and invite the stranger to accompany me outside to the curb.

We sit down, resting our feet on the street, which is smooth and pristine like so many in the capital. I ask him his name. Scott Gardner, he says. An ordinary name for an extraordinary failure, for that is clearly what he considers himself. I bring up the theory that the notion of one’s pending death can infuse every moment of life in ways that are utterly extraordinary. I will give Scott $100,000, and he can check out after spending it any way he wants, he travel the world, hang out with terminally ill people on the binge of their lives, visit the nudist resort in Cap D’Agde, get ripped on coke and booze every day if he enjoys that, he can really, you know, go out with a blast or in a blaze or whatever, if he’ll just do one simple thing for me.

I have fought hard for the privilege of organizing this event for your firm, Brandon, and now the great hall is ready. I am in the projection booth above the entrance, facing the stage and screen at the back. The guests begin to arrive. You are here, Brandon, and you should be in awe. The lawyers’ suits vie for supremacy, with values hovering between $1,200 and $1,500 or in some cases four and five grand. The habiliments of the senior partner with whom you talked while sipping wine on the Potomac are easily in the latter range. His colleagues, and by that I mean the handful of other senior partners of the firm, don’t look shabby either. They take seats in the spaces between rows of associates, counsel, paralegals, administrators, journalists who’ve maneuvered their way into the event, and wealthy client-donors who’ve come to view the firm as an ally in bet-the-bank corporate deals. The senior partner whom you, Brandon, know personally mounts the stage, takes the mike, and launches into a speech in which he makes a point of thanking the client-donors, not mentioning the figure that each of them has paid to attend this event, but indicating that he is aware of it. “I’m so glad you chose to use some of your substantial resources to join us this evening.” The senior partner then delivers a speech extolling the value of transparency in the practice of law in this day and age. It’s all stuff you’ve heard before, Brandon, in an embellished form. The senior partner is looking directly ahead, toward the entrance to the great hall, but his mind’s eye is on the rows below filled with wealthy client-donors.

Here is my moment, for I, too, believe in transparency, at least of a certain variety. I subscribe to the notion of total openness about the history of a firm, and in this case, I believe in sensationalism, shock value, and the necessity of colleagues, clients, and donors seeing a certain former partner of the firm à poil if that will serve a purpose.

The screen behind and above the senior partner, who oversees one of the most awesome executive structures of any firm in the world, who grasps the intricacies of different regulatory regimes as no one else does, and who shares sublime concepts with subordinates as the lights glitter over the Potomac, comes alive at my command.

There, filling the enormous screen, is an image of Adrian Lewontin, the disbarred lawyer, fully naked, running up a street with his cock in his right hand. It’s only a still, but you can tell the hand is pumping furiously. You can’t see whomever Adrian might be running after, but that hardly matters. Many of the professionals, clients, and donors here in this great hall have come with a bit of knowledge about the case. If they had no prior knowledge, they are learning fast. I can hear you wail in the rows below me, Brandon. I can hear you scream.

The senior partner drones on, unaware of the monstrosity behind and above him. But in the audience, the reaction is swift. There are cries, laughs, jeers, breathless questions. Didn’t the firm settle the Lewontin case? Was this firm ever deserving of respect? People begin jostling, kicking, and punching their way into the aisles and thence toward one of the exits on either side of the stage and screen. The rush becomes a stampede. At last the senior partner turns around and sees the image of his naked masturbating former colleague. The senior partner turns again. He wants to call out to the fleeing donors, to make certain points, and corollaries and addenda to those points, but he cannot get their attention. Without warning, Scott Gardner comes rushing from the left exit toward all the fleeing people, who can’t fail to notice his state of total nudity, his hand on his cock, and the joyous look on his flushed young face. Most of the donors disperse in terror and look for another route out of the great hall, for a way out of the life of this horrible law firm. But a few are so angry at the naked man’s impudence that they begin to fight him.

You, Brandon, are lucky to get out alive, or to put it a bit more precisely, you are most unlucky. Scott Gardner is not just a reminder of Adrian Lewontin’s antics. He is also the bearer of some shocking news about your early collaboration with the disbarred lawyer. You encouraged him, you practically ordered your junior colleague to bill for hours he hadn’t worked. Now you have a date with the courts, Brandon, but before that eventuality, you have an appointment with a senior partner who is ready to share some deeply sublime thoughts about the firm and your future in it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud, The New Orphic Review, The Long Story, Valley Voices, The Tishman Review, and other publications.

 

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