Part V - Subterfuge
Paul continued to rub the area on the back of his head. It had felt like a jolt, but was unlike any electric shock he had ever received before. He glared at the research material sitting in his chair. His latest book, and its importance to his career, was consuming him. Once a Keynote Speaker, he was barely invited to participate in second tier panel discussions anymore. Paul did not know how to handle his diminished relevance. He set the bar; he didn’t strive to meet it.
He was so tired of Sir George Puttney’s theory on Teutonic lore, it choked him. Everything about his elite field choked him lately. He wished he could go back to resting on his laurels.
“Oh that sounds like fun! Paul?” He heard Janie say.
“Charlene wants to go into St. Remy tomorrow and find the hospital where Van Gogh stayed. Then we can drive back at sunset and take pictures of the countryside. What do you think? Doesn’t that sound groovy?”
“Groovy?” Paul replied.
Janie’s smile retreated. “That’s what Charlene said. Groovy.”
Paul smirked and shook his head. This was an old argument he never seemed to win with Janie. She concealed her brilliance by sounding base, and it infuriated him. He was struggling to remind the people in this room and in general, that he was considered a great mind and Janie insisted on catering to the common denominator. She reasoned that she loved their company, not their SAT scores; even her argument was below her level.
“I have it,” Charlene said sweeping a strand of hair from her eye. “Let’s take Fred with us and see if the good doctors can do anything with him.” The others looked around in confusion. “Fred,” she repeated, pointing at the destroyed statue from upstairs. “Good God, people. Keep up!”
Thomas, sensing Charlene was not going to become more charitable the more she drank, made for the kitchen area which was becoming his spot of refuge in this complicated evening. It was unremarkable as kitchens go, only about fifteen feet across and just enough width to turn yourself around. There was a window that sat high up the wall. It was eye level with the school playground next door. Small feet with scuffed loafers ran past during the day. The kitchen walls, unlike the smooth walls in the rest of the house, were dotted with interruptions – cabinets, a water heater, shelves, pipes. There was something about the exposed nature of the kitchens utilities that gave Thomas comfort. The walls held everything behind their plaster; which would be fine as long as nothing emerged. The casings were thinning tonight.
Thomas walked to the wine cave. It was not an actual cave, but an area of the kitchen beyond the appliances and counters. It had been poorly carved out by untrained hands and its design implied a strictly utilitarian use. Its crude appearance held mystery and was a favorite point of interest of the group. Charlene said it was an opening to another time, Alan said another dimension. Paul thought it added the right amount of Roman feel to the otherwise modern décor in the house. Janie thought it held the house’s secrets.
Thomas reached in for bottle of wine just when another cold breeze whirled about the room. It entered the wine cave and ricocheted around the interior. Thomas felt a sharp pain on his hand and pulled it from the cave quickly. Searching, he found no blood, only a small cigarette sized mark with the characteristics of a burn.
“Got ya, did it?” He jumped at the sound of Charlene’s voice from behind him. She held up her hand that had been shocked by the wall and exposed a similar mark.
“Raul has something on his mind, that’s for sure.” She said with no humor.
“Hey Paul? How about you refill the glasses for once?” Thomas said, looking at Charlene.
“You’re standing in front of the cave, why do I have to get up?” Paul called back.
“Because we want to dance!” Charlene made a dramatic display with her arms and pointed toe.
As Charlene and Thomas comically spun around the space, bumping into the counters and knocking over the items on them, the others cheered with applause. Brittany said she would get the wine. Paul turned to get to the kitchen before Brittany could. He reached in a pulled out two bottles; one was fifteen years old.
“Ooooh, cool label.” Brittany said picking it up. Paul clenched his teeth. Wine should not be selected because it’s pretty; nor should a woman, for that matter. Unable to release his clench, Paul gave her a curt smile. Brittany looked at him wide-eyed. “Can I get a straw?”
Paul went behind her to get a bottle opener. As soon as he passed her, Brittany smiled to herself. She wasn’t so dumb she couldn’t have fun. She cared little about the quality of Paul’s wine; she still longed for some tequila. She grabbed a handful of peas and returned to the couch.
The cork Paul pulled from the bottle gave an angry pop when it was freed. He wished they had bought more cheap wine. The others weren’t appreciating anything the way they should. Paul had studied wine and could tell them everything about each vintage’s character and flavor and texture. But no one asked; no one cared. Whenever Paul tried to teach them something, the eye rolls and sighing began.
Paul and Janie had both had been number one in their graduating high school classes; Paul included this in the story of them often. He omitted that he had ranked at the top of a small private school whose graduating class numbered in the 20s, whereas Janie graduated from a prestigious prep academy with a graduating class of 200. The give and take of their intellectual relationship was lopsided. Paul found college more challenging than he had expected and his grades faltered. His placement in the senior class of Harvard fell into the double digits. Janie sat at number two. She didn’t know this because it hadn’t mattered to her.
In the top five percent with Janie was Virginia Mathis. Jinny was considered by most to be on a path to nowhere. She was depressed, consumed anything that removed her from her reality and often had accidents that resulted in small gashes or bruises – always in the same places. When Jinny went down the rabbit hole, her work was disjointed and unnerving, albeit intriguing for the true scholar. But when Jinny was awake and present, her work was unparalleled.
Paul wanted to be valedictorian. He kept his senior thesis strictly between himself and his thesis writing partner; not even Janie was asked to help. Paul’s thesis partner was an exchange student who had been studying abroad for several semesters and whose work schedule kept him primarily off campus. Paul called him Raj, which Paul said was short for Rajahassad.
In actuality, his partner was Jinny Mathis and convincing her to go along with his idea had not been easy. They wrote on the same topic from two approaches; his was literary and hers political, focusing on war. Paul convinced her that this approach would set them apart from the others; and then he convinced her being set apart was something she wanted. Paul met with the thesis advisor on their behalf, catering to Jinny’s distrust of authority.
All Jinny’s notes were in her head and she typed in long form on an archaic manual typewriter – no carbons. She tore any draft she disliked from her typewriter with her usual drama and tore it to shreds. Her final paper was the only copy that existed. Paul offered to pay to have both their papers bound and carried them to the copy center off campus himself.
Six months later, Paul went into the record books for the highest graded thesis in 72 years. Virginia Mathis did not graduate due to failure to submit a thesis. The university was appalled at her casting spurious allegations against one of their most notable graduates during drug-induced rants. the thesis advisor testified he had never heard of her. Jinny Mathis disappeared.
That is, until Alan dropped her name like a brick at Paul’s feet. And now Jinny had become the seventh member of the party, here in Arles.