The Fall of Rome

Anthony Varallo

He shouldn’t have worn sneakers. That was a mistake. A shower would have helped, too. Why could he never remember that skipping a shower didn’t lend him a feeling of rebelliousness, as his mirror would like to have him think, but only made him feel slimy, insecure? Conner stopped to retie his shoelace in front of the library. The library was closed now, as were the dining halls, the student center, and the university bookstore; a week ago Conner had sold back his books for Professor Palma’s course, Ancient Rome. Forty-one dollars and ninety-three cents. Conner felt guilty for selling these, and so had kept The Twelve Caesars by way of apology. He’d imagined Professor Palma watching him from a hidden window, nodding.

The campus in summer had always pleased Conner. He walked through the rose garden watered, dusted, and weeded only for him, it seemed, and across the quad, where frisbees no longer sailed; through the memorial tower archway, whose marble crest Conner had never taken the time to read—it was a luxury that he could now, if he wanted to. If he wanted to, he could do just about anything. He stepped out of the way to let a grounds crew pass. 

When he entered Professor Palma’s office, the professor greeted him by saying, “Looks like you’ve been shorn.”

“Shorn?”

“Your hair.” Professor Palma gestured Conner to a leather chair. Conner sunk into it, so that his eyes were barely level with Palma’s desk. “You’ve cut off your long hair.”

“Oh,” Conner said. He hadn’t cut his hair. It was odd, seeing Professor Palma seated behind a desk. Conner had never noticed, until now, how mottled his beard was. Up close, you could see patches of red, brown, blond. 

“My mother always used to call that a summer cut. Every June she’d take me and my brother to the barbershop. They’d put a wooden board across the chair, to make us higher. Afterwards, we’d get to pick a prize out of a plastic barrel. It was called Joe’s Secret Barrel. How do you like that? Joe’s Secret Barrel.”

“Joe’s Secret Barrel,” Conner said. “Well.” He felt himself smiling his nervous smile.

“Comic books, mostly. And bubble gum. Bazooka Joe.”

What would happen, Conner wondered, if he never got around to asking his question? “Professor Palma,” he said. “I have a small problem I’d like to bring to your attention.”

Professor Palma nodded. “I see.” In class, Professor Palma sometimes steepled his hands across his face in the middle of lectures. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he’d say, “let me submit the following.”

“It’s about my final grade,” Conner said. “You gave me a B-, which I totally understand, because of the midterm and everything, but the thing is—” Conner suddenly had no idea how he was to finish the sentence. How did anyone know how to finish their sentences? Professor Palma was looking at him like he was explaining how to butter toast. “The thing is, I was wondering if there was any way you could change it to a B+.”

Professor Palma drew his lips together and nodded. “I see.”

“I’m really sorry to ask,” Conner said. “I know how annoying grade change requests can be. That’s why I didn’t email you about it. I thought a meeting would be better.” He offered a clumsy smile. 

“A meeting,” Professor Palma said. 

“Right.”

“Face to face. Mono e mono.” Professor Palma chopped the air with his hand.

Conner nodded. Behind Professor Palma, he noticed a bulletin board crammed with postcards, cartoons, photographs. In the largest photograph, Professor Palma was standing atop a windy mountain, a woman beside him, a little girl in a pink baseball cap clutching Professor Palma’s leg.

“I’m not quite sure where to begin,” Professor Palma said. 

“I’m sorry,” Conner said. “I’m only asking because I think my participation towards the end of the semester really picked up and I didn’t miss a class all year and,”  Conner felt himself losing some sort of advantage, “and if I get a B+ I’ll be able to go to the honors graduation ceremony next year.” Why did he always say more than he wished? He felt his face grow warm. “My parents are coming,” he added, idiotically.

“Well, that’s quite a lot for us to think about, isn’t it?” 

“Yes.”

Professor Palma next addressed his fingers, which were quite large, Conner noticed. “Please know that I’m not in the habit of giving grade changes, although my students seem to be forever in the habit of asking for them.”

“I know.” 

“Students seem to think that a grade is something negotiable. I’m not sure why this is,” Professor Palma said, then raised one eyebrow, “but I have my theories.”

Conner, expecting one, was surprised when the professor only opened his desk drawer and rummaged through. The open drawer gave off a smell of chalk dust and damp wood. “As I was saying, I have my theories. A part of me wonders if the feeling of negotiability arises from a student’s sense of entitlement, a problem I’ve wrestled with all my academic life, but more in recent years. I wonder if there’s a new breed of student on the rise, quick and on the make, philosophically opposed to failure, but morally blind to failure’s lessons. Do you see what I mean?”

“Mmm.” 

“And another part of me wonders if, as students evolve, as a university certainly hopes they will, their thinking evolves too, and, attendant to this growth—I think of it as peeking over a high fence, for some reason—is the slow realization that all grades, as all knowledge perhaps is, are inherently subjective. Am I right? That question of ‘What really is the difference between a B- and a B+,’ or that nagging question ‘What are the clear, defensible, and unalterable criteria for an A?’”

“Right.” The flesh around Professor Palma’s eyes nurtured a single brown mole. “I see what you’re saying, but it’s more that—”

“The Unanswerable Question!” Professor Palma laughed, as if this had been a joke between them all along.

“Right.”

Outside, two pigeons landed on the sill of Professor Palma’s window. They made a noise like iced tea pouring into tall glasses. 

“I wouldn’t ask. Normally, I mean.”

“My wife says I have too many theories about things. A little secret for you to remember: no one knows you better than your wife.” 

“Right.”

Professor Palma looked at his watch. “I’m sorry, but I’m meeting someone else at noon.” 

“I’m sorry to ask for this,” Conner said. “I really am. But I’m not asking because I think an exception should be made for me.” He tried to read Professor Palma’s expression, but the expression conveyed only imperfect vision, cloudy skies, and a single, unasked question: was it Colin or Conan? “I’m just asking because I think I’ve earned it.”

“Well, I’m sympathetic,” Professor Palma said, “to a point. But you most certainly are asking that an exception be made for you. That’s without debate.” He continued before Conner could point out that one of the pigeons had now made its way inside the office and was currently bobbing towards the glinty magnifying glass atop Professor Palma’s Oxford English Dictionary. “But I suppose that’s the human condition, isn’t it? Thinking an exception will be made for us. Hoping the universe is Godded indeed, and hears our call.”

As if a punchline, the phone rang. 

“Excuse me.” Professor Palma picked up the receiver. “Yes, speaking,” he said. “The Camry. Right. Yes, I spoke to Henry about that. I said I spoke to Henry about that. Right.” The pigeon, forgetting the object of its desire, was now sitting just inside the window. It looked at Conner without really looking at him, somehow. Eyes like shrunken pennies. “That’s not what Henry said at all.” The professor shook his head. Was the change of grade form in his desk? Conner wondered. “Well, you’ll have to let me talk to Henry about that,” Professor Palma said. “I said you’ll have to have to let me talk to Henry about that. Right. Fine. Yes, that’s my home number. Right.” He hung up. “Mechanics,” he sighed. “But of what?”

“Professor,” Conner said.

Professor Palma checked his watch again, then pulled a carbon ledger from the desk drawer. “I will keep this with me,” he said, “as a reminder of our meeting.” He filled in a few lines, then folded it in half. “I will keep this with me and think about our meeting.”

Conner felt the advantage swing his way, like a hurled rope. How could he mention that the form needed to be submitted by tomorrow? “Thanks,” Conner said. “There’s just one more little thing. It seems that the deadline—”

At that moment, Professor Palma’s door flew open. A beautiful, impossibly skinny woman entered the room and immediately began swatting the pigeons away with a rolled-up newspaper. “Dirty, filthy birds!” she cried. She knocked into Conner’s chair. “Why do you let them do this, Gerald? Why?”

“Calm down, Magda,” Professor Palma said. “Please.”

Magda closed the OED with a sudden, thunderous clap. “Making filth on these beautiful books. Please to go! Go!” She chased one pigeon out the window, then cornered the other near Professor Palma’s bookcase. The pigeon bobbed its head and spread its ugly wings. For a moment Conner was afraid the pigeon was going to fly around the room, when Magda unrolled the newspaper like an enormous catcher’s mitt and, with one, startling motion, scooped the bird up and deposited it out the window. “There!” she said. She pushed the window down, which screeched to a close. “Filthy birds.”

It would be hard to say that anyone looked attractive scooping a live pigeon into a newspaper, so how had this woman managed to do so? Perhaps it was the breath heaving in her chest, or the way she now brushed her gorgeous, silky hair—it really was silky—from her eyes without the least trace of self- consciousness. Maybe it was the clothes she wore, a white halter top and strangely dark, European-looking jeans, cut low enough to expose her brown stomach, with its taut belly button like a punctuation mark. But, more likely, it was because Conner had been in love with this mysterious woman all semester. Magda. This woman who sat in the front row, challenging Professor Palma with her sharp, angry questions, flipping the pages of her exotic notebook with a barely contained rage, crossing and recrossing her long legs from which expensive-looking, high-heeled shoes dangled, even on snowy days. His friends had a name for her, one of Conner’s inventions. Frenchy.

“Do you know Magda?” Professor Palma said. “Magda, this is—”

“Conner,” Conner said. He shook her hand, which had rings on every finger.

“Magda is helping me on a dig this summer,” Professor Palma said. “In lovely Tunisia.” He laughed like this, too, was some sort of joke.

“Oh,” Conner said.

“These filthy birds, I hate them. Why do you let them have their way, Gerald?”

Professor Palma made a beats me face. “I suppose I’m too soft,” he said.

Magda made a tschh noise, then pulled a spool of tape from her purse and tossed it onto Professor Palma’s desk. “This won’t work,” she said. “They fall down.” She removed a bundle of yellow flyers, half-sheets of paper bound with a rubber band. “Please try something else.”

“Magda is helping me look for volunteers for the dig,” Professor Palma explained. 

“Every one, down. I go back, try again, but forget it. Down again.” Magda lifted a stapler from Professor Palma’s desk. “Maybe this,” she said. She tried stuffing the stapler in her purse, but it wouldn’t fit.

“I was just telling Conner that I was on my way to another meeting,” Professor Palma said. “With Dr. Ancusi.”

Magda threw her hands up in the air. “Why? We’re never going to get out of here. Already it’s—” she checked her watch. “Please, come on, Gerald.”

The rope that had once swung so close now made a second appeal. “I could help,” Conner offered. “I mean, with the flyers. It’s no problem.”

Professor Palma looked not at him, but at Magda. “Sounds like you’ve found a volunteer,” he said.

Magda sighed. “Fine,” she said. “If this is how you do it, Gerald.” She handed Conner the stapler. “But we’re leaving soon, right? I’m so hungry.”

“Right,” Professor Palma said. “We’ll meet back here in fifty-five minutes or so.”

“Fifty-five minutes or so,” Magda said. “You American men. Can’t even say ‘an hour’ without covering your tracks.” 

When they were about to leave, Professor Palma glanced at Conner and said, “I’ll be thinking about our meeting.”

* * *
Outside it was getting cloudy. It would be a rainy day after all. How had Conner not noticed the saplings along the college mall offering up their silvery undersides like raised pom-poms? Clouds gathered above the administration building, blanching the gold from its dome. He and Magda walked along the mall, where work crews were repairing the pedestrian walkway, whose intricate brickwork had always secretly pleased Conner. He liked it that the university lavished so much attention on his walk home, to the dining hall, to the classrooms where he was so often a star. “Already they fall apart,” Magda said. She kicked a small stone a remarkable distance. “A quarter million dollars, for what?” “Yeah,” Conner said. “It’s crazy.” He had already given up on flirting, from the moment Magda descended the history department stairs in twos and threes, leaving him to his hurried, but cautious single steps behind her. But maybe he’d given up too soon. Although it was growing darker, Magda donned a pair of enormous yellow sunglasses. “This whole place is crazy,” she said. “Look!” She pointed to the workmen walking the scaffolding outside the geology building. “The whole place falls down. They throw money away on nothing!” Conner nodded. Listening to Magda, with her waving arms and mirrored lenses, was like being scolded by a gorgeous, fantastic insect. “I know,” he said. “This place drives me crazy.” They separated to place flyers on the notice boards flanking the walkway entrance. The boards were freckled with concert notices, sublet announcements, weeks out of date. It saddened Conner to think of the old notices; he didn’t like their suggestion of empty apartments, darkened stages, of good times long gone. He stapled Professor Palma’s flyers atop posters for free condoms. Want To Earn $$$ AND Discover The World? the flyers began. Conner couldn’t imagine Professor Palma thinking up the dollar signs. Maybe those were Magda’s idea. She returned to him now, and began her conversation again as if no time had passed whatsoever. “They throw away what is worth keeping and keep everything that is junk. Junk!” She ran ahead to the next board and stapled three flyers in the time it took Conner to staple one. “This is a junk place, right? Just look around. Tell me this isn’t!” Before Conner could answer, Magda grabbed a handful of his flyers and began stapling them to a large tree. “Uh, I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” Conner said. Magda turned an angry look on him. “Why?” She punctuated her question with a punch of the stapler. “Why should we care when they don’t? Tell me why.” “Well—” Do not say, Because I like these trees. “Because I don’t think that’s what Professor Palma wants.” “Ha!” Magda said. She ran ahead to the next tree and stapled another flyer. “There! That’s what Professor Palma wants.” Conner, sensing whatever chances he had of gaining Magda’s interest slipping beyond his reach, grabbed one of the tree flyers and tore it in half. “I don’t think so,” he said. He stuffed the torn flyer into his pocket. Magda looked at him with what seemed new respect, he thought. “Ha!” she said, then raced to another tree, stapling two flyers at once. “Not the trees,” Conner said. He tore the flyers down, but Magda only laughed and darted across the quad, where a grounds crew was distributing mulch beneath a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Garden was intended to make Jefferson look deep in pastoral contemplation, but somehow conveyed the sense that he was horribly lost and preposterously overdressed, a wedding guest wandering from a wrecked car. When Magda passed the crew, the three crew members stopped working, gawked. “I’d run too, boy!” one of them called to Conner. Conner turned to acknowledge him, but only caught Jefferson’s bronzed gaze. “You have very high morals,” Magda said when Conner reached her. She swiped the rest of Conner’s flyers from his hands. “You are a moral person, right?” She laughed, then stapled a clumsy row of flyers along a low tree branch. “A good boy.” Conner was about to contradict her, when the clouds opened up and rain began to fall. He pulled the flyers from the branch. “It’s starting to rain,” he said. “But not on you,” Magda laughed. She kept stapling the branch, testing him. “Not on the perfect student.” I’m not the perfect student, Conner wanted to say, but, in a way, he was. He had a high grade point average, arrived early to every class, pledged the best fraternity, volunteered to lead blood drives, food donations, Toys for Tots. Would you like to lead this class? one professor had written across the bottom of his essay exam. Let me know when you need a letter of recommendation— please! But, for all his other successes, Conner had failed to gain Professor Palma’s admiration. Every day, he’d sat in the front row, taking copious notes, raising his hand to nearly every question. He’d memorized whole passages from Suetonius, and occasionally worked these into his responses, hoping Professor Palma would recognize them, but Professor Palma only nodded, dismissing him. “Yes, well, there’s that, of course,” he’d say, then call on someone else, his gaze passing over Conner like a swift cloud. When Magda spoke, Professor Palma nodded enthusiastically, said, “Yes, right. Good observation,” or, most aggravating to Conner, “That’s perfectly said.” Each week Conner kept a private count of who had raised their hand more often, him or Magda, making sure to keep ahead. Now, he watched her staple another flyer to a sapling still tied by ropes, and wondered if she and Professor Palma were sleeping together. “We should get out of this rain,” Conner said. Magda ignored him. “Who cares if it rains?” she said. “Well, I’m going back.” Magda turned to face him, revealing, for the first time, the outline of her breasts through her rain-soaked shirt. She smiled a crooked smile. “So, go back, then,” she said. There were tiny beads of rain on her sunglasses, like jewels. It began to pour. Conner was deciding whether he really wanted to leave or not—what did that smile mean?—when Magda broke into a sprint and ran to the Jefferson statue, where the grounds crew had since fled. Conner followed her without trying to appear to. Magda was eyeing the Jefferson statue for a likely staple spot, when she took one flyer and speared it over Jefferson’s bronze quill. The flyer sagged in the rain, but Magda had places for others: the points of Jefferson’s three-corner hat, his pondering finger—raised, as if asking a question—even, against all physics, the tip of his nose. Conner stood behind her, watching her handiwork. Then he stepped closer and found himself touching her shoulder, her damp, exciting shoulder. “Magda,” he said. But Magda sped away, laughing. Conner followed. “You made him into a clown,” Conner said, when he reached her under the memorial tower archway. He wanted his tone to be conspiratorial, but it came out as an accusation. He could not catch his breath. Magda was watching the rain, her arms hugged to her chest. She shrugged. “This place makes lots of clowns.” They stood that way for a while, not talking. Conner wondered whether he’d done the right thing, touching her, then felt angry at himself for worrying about that. Why wouldn’t Magda face him? “Do you know they want to get rid of Professor Palma?” Magda said. “They do?” Magda nodded. “They say they want him to retire, but they just want him out.” “Oh.” “But Gerald wants to stay. He wants to stay, but they want him to leave.” Magda made a noise that Conner thought might mean tears, but when Magda faced him, she was not crying. “It’s crazy. Even his wife—his own wife!—wants him to leave. Can you believe it? For what? So she can play golf and drive a big car. Gerald would die living that way. Can you see him playing golf?” Conner could very well see him playing golf—he was surprised he didn’t already, actually—but shook his head no. “No,” Magda said. “But his wife—” she waved her hand. “Don’t let’s talk about her.” Conner stepped close enough that he could see the gooseflesh of Magda’s damp arms. A thin bracelet clung to her wrist, made entirely of string. In class, she sometimes pared a large apple with a small knife while Conner watched, the lecture a sudden jumble of slides and maps, Professor Palma’s voice a radio from a passing car. “I’m sorry,” Conner said. “For what?” Magda said, then began to cry. When Conner placed a hand on her shoulder, Magda pushed it aside. “You shouldn’t pay attention to a woman’s tears,” she said. She walked to the other side of the archway, peering out at the rain falling across the quad. At times, the rain blew in from the archway, but Magda did not move to the middle where Conner stood, so he wondered if he should approach her again. “I’m so hungry,” Magda said, to no one in particular. “Yeah,” Conner said. Once, he’d followed Magda after class. Just for a few moments, until she turned towards south campus, walking against the traffic lights, her notebook clutched beneath her arm. Conner stopped at the light, feeling suddenly ridiculous and creepy. What was he doing? “I’m so sick of this,” Magda said, but Conner couldn’t tell if she meant the rain or university or something else altogether. But he knew one thing, and it was a surprise to him: he was about to approach Magda and put his arms around her, gently, if she would have him. If she would have him, he would lean in for a kiss. “I’m so sick of waiting,” Magda said. She wiped her eyes. “I really am.” And, before Conner could reach her, she was off running again, through the rain and across the quad, puddles exploding from her feet. Conner hesitated, then followed. Thank God, he thought, as he reached the history department, where the door was still flung open wide, rain blowing in. Thank God I didn’t.
* * *
Conner found them in Professor Palma’s office, Professor Palma donning an enormous raincoat thirty years out of style. Magda was behind him, looping a thick belt through the coat, straightening the shoulders. “Rain gear,” Professor Palma said. “Ah, who knows the caprices of the weather?” “Please keep still,” Magda said. She reached the belt around him, then tightened it in the front. “You move, it’s not going to work.” “I’m under strict orders, as you can see,” Professor Palma said. He had his arms raised like a child. “I see,” Conner said. “I was just telling Magda, as it turns out I didn’t have a meeting at all,” Professor Palma said. “I had my days mixed up.” Magda clicked her tongue. “You get everything mixed up, Gerald.” “I make no argument. Guilty as charged,” Professor Palma laughed. Conner offered a weak smile. How good it would feel to leave this office. How good it would be to leave this campus. Why had he come here in the first place? “But I’ll have you know I made a nice hour of it, listening to the rain and catching up on my reading. It’s a fortunate day when I can find the time to catch up on my reading.” Conner was about to mention the deadline for the grade change, when Magda pulled a floppy rain hat down over Professor Palma’s ears. “There,” she said. “Well,” Professor Palma said, “as you can see, it looks like we’re about to depart.” Magda placed a folded umbrella in his hand. “Whose is this?” he asked. “Yours,” Magda said. “Let’s go, Gerald. I’m so hungry.” “We’re going to eat,” Professor Palma said, “but I’ll be thinking about our meeting, won’t I, Colin?” “Thanks,” Conner said. “Gerald,” Magda said. She tugged his sleeve. “You can leave the rest of the flyers on my desk,” Professor Palma said. “I hope I can trust you to close the door behind you until it clicks, if you don’t mind. We seem to be having a small food emergency here.” Magda pulled Professor Palma out the door. “Oh, he’s very trustworthy,” she said. “He’s got high morals.” Professor Palma seemed not to hear. He gave one last look at Conner, his smiling head pinched between the folds of his rain hat, a look that conveyed how happy he was to be bundled in his coat, a meal on the way, the pleasure he took in being someone who could be looked after and adored, whose most minor requests were matters of consequence, someone who, despite all his years, still mattered, who deeply, deeply mattered. “Until it clicks,” he said. Conner stood in the office until he could no longer hear their footsteps. The rain beat against the windowpanes, closed now. He placed the flyers on the desk and was about to leave the office when he saw a solitary piece of paper in the trash can. The grade change form, still folded in the middle. Conner unfolded it to find that Professor Palma hadn’t filled in a thing, except, absurdly, his signature at the bottom. The signature was oversized, nearly illegible. Conner folded the form into his pocket. And it wasn’t his walk across the rainy campus that perplexed Conner, nor was handing the slip to the woman at the registrar’s office, who barely read it over while chewing a pen, nor was it the ease with which he’d found himself saying, “It’s an A,” when she asked what grade to enter—none of these things troubled Conner on his walk home. Only this: why, with all the rain shading them from the world, with its sudden loan of permission, why hadn’t he the courage to kiss Magda?
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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ANTHONY VARALLO is author of This Day in History, winner of the 2005 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Fiction Prize. His stories have appeared in Epoch, StoryQuarterly, New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, and other journals. He has received a fellowship from the NEA, and he teaches at the College of Charleston.