(dis)respect the position
From The Intimate Newspaper, Rene Magritte, 1964
by Hawa Allan
He’d relied for so long and without serious challenge on the force and volume of his voice than on what he was actually saying that, right then, he had no idea how to respond to the question posed by the elfin young man staring up at him from the auditorium aisle.
“I’m sorry, could the gentleman repeat the question?” he asked, even though he’d heard damn well what had been said. That was just one of many in Dr. Don Parker Jr.’s baggage of tricks—asking folks to repeat themselves. It served, at once, to stall for time and, together with his imperious-tho-fatherly tone, rattle the assuredness of his instant adversary, particularly one who was much younger. Indeed, he hadn’t discussed anything in a long time, and by that meaning really discussed—that was, engaged in a conversation in which he actually listened, his attention seizing upon every word spoken, with every word spoken a step on the path toward revelation surely suspended somewhere waiting to be concretized in speech. That kind of listening had, for Dr. Don Parker Jr., long given way to simply waiting to talk again. Words, though, still came quickly to Dr. Parker Jr. in the way they seemed to come naturally to someone reading from a teleprompter.
Dr. Don Parker watched the lad repeat the question. He noted the way the young man leaned in all tentative-like toward the mic stand as if he were respecting its right to personal space. He took in how the tips of the guy’s thumbs dipped into the pockets of too-narrow corduroys. He followed the trajectory of the kid’s gaze, zeroed in on something up and to the left until he was finished with the question, at which point the boy looked at Dr. Parker squarely in the face.
Having sized up his opponent, Dr. Don Parker Jr. began addressing the gist of what he’d heard. The thing was that he’d only picked up on a term of art from his field—not something he’d expected to hear from a kid dressed like that. In his well-worn experience, kids who dressed like that tended to ask lightweight meandering questions about ending world hunger, in response to which Dr. Don would have to mouth something high-minded and ostensibly concerned that made him feel like a finalist in a goddamned beauty pageant. Dr. Parker Jr. wasn’t too rattled, however, having waybackwhen formed a view on the matter that he’d been defending ever since. So he just reiterated it to the boy, all the while savoring the deep, mellifluous quality of his voice. How it resonated above the workaday heads nodding in the chamber. Worthy of rafters, his voice was! The boy stared back patiently, blinking only twice.
Dr. Parker was ready to move on when the kid piped up again. “Sir, sir,” he began, looking up and to the left at some patch of the auditorium that Dr. Don couldn’t see, “with all due respect, that doesn’t address my question.” Dr. Don hmmmed internally, the kid just with-all-due-respected him—a phrase that everyone knew was addressed to persons whom the addressee did not, in fact, respect.
Dr. Don might have, someyearsback, actually listened to the kid—really heard him out, given some thought to what he was asking. But it had been way too long since he’d actually listened. Anyway, listening didn’t matter anymore, if it had ever mattered at all. That, at least, was the thing Dr. Don knew that this kid didn’t. It was cute, Dr. Parker thought, how this kid figured he could just go about life reasoning with people, could actually bring them around to embrace whatever nuance or insight he was raising in flat-toned questions. As if Dr. Don or anyone else who really mattered had all the time in the world to listen to this kid and his “challenging” questions, questions which—Dr. Don Parker Jr. mused to himself, as he set his jaw into a position that aped contemplation—didn’t matter anymore, if they’d ever mattered at all.
Nobody had time for questions, Dr. Jr. reckoned as he tilted his head slightly to the right; they wanted answers. And they wanted them delivered quickly with something that sounded like conviction. If the kid ever wanted to be up on the stage, sitting where Dr. Don sat instead of down there occupying a musty seat with the rest of the boobs in the audience, Dr. Parker discerned, then he’d have to learn that. Everybody who became anyone always did.
Dr. Jr. tried to pick up a few more key words in the kid’s question. As he did so, he wondered who the hell did this kid think he was, anyway. Most of the folks Dr. Parker had to deal with humbly took his directives, smiled weakly and laughed through their noses at his jokes. All the others were so intimidated by his preceding reputation that they nodded gravely at his utterances or, when they dared chime in, let him re-construe what they’d said to suit the progression of his digressions. This youth must know the Rule. Well, not that his wife did, now that Dr. Don chewed on it; but she didn’t really count, hadn’t given a damn about what he did for years, and over time had taken more and more pleasure—pleasure that turned on sadistic—in letting him know.
It was only his buddies—the guys he’d gone to school with, battled through exams and sparred over the established permutations of their school of thought—it was only them whom he could really talk to. Their verbal jousting on abstract matters of the utmost importance had been displaced, over time, with war stories and one-upmanship, which Dr. Don looked forward to after a hard week. Like wine, the stories got better as they got older; unlike wine, their vintage was unlimited and could be slurped ad infinitum.
Dr. Parker watched the kid go on, gathered that the youngin’ had no idea what it had taken for Don to get to where Dr. Don Parker Jr. was. All the creeps he had to take out, all the know-it-alls he had to put back into their places. Dr. Don had watched his grandson play a video game one interminable day when he’d visited his mooching daughter. The boy sat there like a dolt—dull-eyed and breathing through parted lips, fidgeting with some controller in his grip. He was operating a little elf that darted across the screen, leaping and ducking to evade snapping jaws of three-headed crocodiles and singes of fire-breathing bunny rabbits. Dr. Parker actually experienced, watching the elf battle his way through one treacherous Technicolor terrain after another, a moment of solace. This is my life, something whispered to Dr. Don from a void, I’m watching my life.
Rapt, Dr. Parker watched until the elf ultimately slew the rabid cockatiel, whose beak disconnected from its face and hurled across the screen like a decapitating boomerang; the elf soon bopped into a castle the defeated cockatiel had been guarding, picked up a giant jade-colored jewel and jerked its head to a peppy track. Dr. Don was absorbed by the victory screen, which looped again and again until his grandson abruptly shut it off. Dr. Parker harrumphed himself back to attention, asked the boy what the hell was he doing. The kid, like the dolt he was, told him that he wanted to start the goddamn game over from the very beginning. What a dope!
Anyway, Dr. Parker, himself, in the flesh, had won; eventually, finally, had assumed his rightful, unalterable position, and was battle-tested, albeit –scarred. Untouchable. And that is what that kid with his wandering eye and “important” questions didn’t get, that—with a guy like Dr. Don Parker Jr. —if he’d just play along and not try to be so “challenging,” that a big guy like Dr. Parker might give a kid like him a leg up sometime. What that lad didn’t know and what Dr. Don Jr. knew was that after you’d got the basics down pat and maybe taken some early highly-visible risks, made a little splash, if you will, you’d just float to the top like a good shit.
Dr. Don Jr. responded again, that time taking a closer look at the boy as he expounded an answer that incorporated some key words he’d picked up on. The whippersnapper was slight, of average height; his thumbs were still tucked in his pockets as he slouched into himself and rocked a tiny bit back and forth like a goddamn special needs child. Dr. Don Parker should know, as he used to be one himself, had been cast out with the lot of them after his fifth grade teacher noticed him drawing his finger across the page and mumbling to himself when he read. A couple of weeks in a room with those kids—with their spasms and caterwauls, who burst into tears without provocation and stared with impunity—jolted Dr. Don right out of that habit; after much protestation and pleading he was returned with the “regular” students and his fingertip never touched another page again.
To boot, Dr. Don pretty much stopped reading. He’d found that there was a trove of information that he could accumulate to his advantage if he paid very close attention—to other people, that was, not so much to the subject at hand. Liberated from the tedium of the handbook, textbook and godforsaken novel, he read faces and tones of voice, analyzed postures and subtle movements, went spelunking into the depth of eyes. That way, he could know without having to actually “know.” But he did know quite a lot: the only thing that moved on a liar’s face when he talked was his mouth; insecurities constricted throats and caved chests; most cowards had bebe gun laughs and connivers laughed too hard. Yes, Dr. Don Parker Jr. had honed the skill of perusing people the way one whet a sword.
Dr. Parker finished his answer, the timbre and roundness of his voice signaling authority, then he cleared his throat. But he couldn’t believe it when that damn brat piped in again, actually addressing Dr. Don Parker Jr. by name and prefacing whatever the hell it was he was going to say with “as you know.” As you know, Dr. Parker seethed to himself, the nerve! Certainly, as Dr. Parker knew, ‘as you know’ is what you says to folks who you presume don’t know. Dr. Don would have burked his question if it hadn’t been for the direct gaze the boy was challenging him with. No longer up and to the left while he spoke, the look was laser-like in its focus and bore a message unto itself, separate from the boy’s slightly nasal and cadence-void utterances.
The problem was—Dr. Jr., confirmed to himself—that he couldn’t read it. Between Dr. Parker and the boy was a long, deep channel where a message in a bottle bobbed out of his reach. Dr. Don may not have “known,” but he always knew, prided himself on knowing how to size people up, assess their assets and weak spots with a refined once over and some well-placed prodding, the way his wife probably did in the produce section. He usually knew right off the bat whom he could intimidate, with whom he had to tango. But in those days, since he’d become Untouchable, whether he was among friends or enemies, Dr. Parker Jr. finally divined, he was always among people who understood the Rule.
And that was it, the message that Dr. Don could now read, ink-blurred and dimpled from within the bottle: the boy didn’t get the Rule. Since Dr. Don Parker Jr. had assumed the status he’d assumed and become what he’d become, it was as if he’d been endowed with a potent amulet that warded off affront. Really, he wasn’t even a ‘he’, so to speak, anymore; Dr. Dr. was an avatar, an embodiment of honor and accomplishment that could neither be legitimately challenged nor sullied by quotidian concerns. He was no longer some Joe Blow on the street, thronging and toiling among the hoi polloi for god’s sake. And part of the Rule was to acknowledge that. To respect it. The goddamn Rule was the baseline for all human interaction, the bedrock against which he’d developed his own secret powers—powers, he adjudged, which had not been adapted to battle contenders who didn’t play by it.
Dr. Don sat there, as the boy—a goddamned android rocking back and forth—droned on. Why wasn’t anyone stopping this, he thought, spotting the coordinator on the other side of the auditorium, a drab woman with a shrill laugh who’d invited him to speak. Then he glanced about at the audience, row after row of dimly-lit, obedient suckers. He decided he despised them. Why was he even there, anyway? Who authorized this? Dr. Parker resolved, as he once again cleared his throat, to excoriate his assistant the next time he made it into the office. This was absolutely unacceptable. Unheard of, even.
That was when the room changed. The lights had flickered, though no one other than Dr. Parker Jr. seemed to notice. And when they stabilized, everything took on a granulated texture. At the same time, a monophonic tune filled his ears; perplexed, he listened as it looped every few phrases. Dr. Don looked down at his hands, which were no longer stubby and cluttered with freckles and veins; in fact, they did not have any qualities resembling skin—they, along with the rest of him, were made up of these tiny squares, pixilated. He drew his arm closer to his face and could see the myriad of multicolored dots that formed the appearance of his suit jacket. He spread out his palm and, before he knew it, a fireball launched out from under the cuff of his shirt and impacted with a shuddering boom on the auditorium ceiling. Funnily, though he could see the mechanically animated figures in the audience climb over seats and over each other to run for their lives amid falling embers and debris, he couldn’t hear them—only the music that bounced along jauntily in the background.
The boy, though, still stood there, his mock jaw chomping up and down at the hinge before the mic stand. Dr. Don Parker Jr. stood up from his seat on the stage, emboldened to find himself towering at three times his usual height. He was going to enjoy this.
About the Author:
Hawa Allan is a writer of cultural criticism and fiction whose work has appeared in, among other places, Best African American Essays and Tricycle magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has been published in Transition, a special fiction issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Amazon’s Kindle literary magazine, Day One, and the Chicago Tribune‘s premium literary supplement, Printers Row Journal. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Columbia Law School, where she was a fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Culture.