“A Record of the Graduate Execution” by Zac Walsh
(written before the author received his scores – so as to avoid any and all possibility of bias or error)
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
– William Butler Yeats
It was a crisp day in early November. We all had better things to do. I have used the strategies of definition and elimination to come to this answer and I feel confident with the bubble I have chosen. I have filled it in completely and realize that a failure to do so may result in castration. I am onboard with this policy and consequently will continue.
I woke up at five in the morning, figuring this would give me enough time to make a pot of coffee, eat a protein rich breakfast for focus and stamina, and still leave a window of study time so that I could read a synopsis of Paradise Lost. I saved this for last because my research had told me that questions on Milton showed up most often on the Graduate Record Examination – the test that would define the rest of my professional, and thus emotional, life. I had it all planned out.
I walked into our bedroom at 6:55 and kissed Cole on her forehead. I caught a wiff of her sleep and that, mixed with my anxiety, almost caused me to forget that due to Elizabeth’s reign and the new found confidence in the English people at or around 1588 the concept of “otherness” became an issue (note in margin *ex: Catholics, Blacks, Jews).
I was in my truck by 7:01 which meant I was only one minute behind my future plans and things still had potential. When I cranked her over “Born to Run” came blaring out of the radio and I felt like someone was looking out for me. I was sure I would be able to parse Anglo Saxon pluperfects. The subjunctive modifier in a negative clause was no match for me and the Boss. Hell, as I drove toward the highway and Bruce, Max, Clarence and the gang kept belting away, I had no doubt that I would be the first tramp to successfully recall the Battle of Hastings and its impact on the development of Middle English, identify a random quote from Northrup Frye, correctly decide the true meaning of the word “beloved” out of a ghost stream of consciousness passage from Morrison and still be able to differentiate between rhyme royal, the villanelle, the iamb enjambs pentambic ptolemiac participles in Jane Austen’s translation of The Sound and the Fury and the sestina. Everything was going to hold. Yeats would be proven wrong. My center was strong. And no one asked you, Mr. Achebe.
I arrived in Berkeley at 7:30 which gave me a full hour until the 8:30 report time advertised as the last moment to step into the doorway. If you report after this time, the official GRE test registration and admission ticket informed me, you will not be allowed to enter and you will not be allowed to take the examination. You will forfeit your registration fee ($130) and you will be forced to take the examination the next time it is offered (in four months – too late to apply to graduate schools and fellowships which means too late to remain an adult. Back to mom and dad’s because none of us taking this exam can do anything else). We are the bubble generation. Speaking of bubbles – if you bring in a mechanical pencil you will be dismissed.
Showing up this early seemed slightly compulsive, but with all that was riding on getting through those doors and into a seat, an hour really wasn’t that bad – and in the grand scheme (AbAb, or AbAc – fuck – Petrarchan or Elizabethan? – goddamn me) of things, an hour seemed reasonable (as long as no one let Woolfe in to make it any longer than that). Turning the corner of the Berkeley High gymnasium I was stunned to see a crowd of young adults all frantically flipping note cards like early combustion engines on the fritz and looking up into the sky, mumbling to themselves – sometimes going to the next card and other times hitting themselves in the head and trying again. I had no cards and I blamed Spenser for this. Or was it Milton? No, no. It was that sneaky punk Whitman. All this “don’t take things second hand but filter them from yourself” bullshit. Didn’t he know what this test meant? I can be so gullible when a beard is involved. “Maybe,” I thought, “if I go the Ned Ludd route and pull the plug on their engine cards, just go berserk and destroy every card, we will all be even again and I will still have the hopes of the score I need to convince somebody in admission at USC or Illinios or Rutgers that they should keep reading – that I am indeed a worthwhile candidate with brains and something to offer, someone.”
Instead I sulked. I started doing the math on how much money I had been able to save per year delivering pizza and stretched out over the course of the next 50 years what my ING retirement account would look like barring any health problems or kids. Then I thought about how much a ticket to Walden Pond would cost, but before I could get too romantic, a kid sneezed on me, reminding me what my early American Survey professor told me about Walden now – over-crowed, dull, loss of authenticity, loss of any love. Then I looked at this sea of my peers. Yeats came back into my head – I swear before the dawn comes round again / I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
With the amount of applicants most graduate programs are getting these days, a standard measuring stick is needed to give them some way to rank candidates, and for the large programs, the GRE becomes a simple way to sift the wheat from the chaff. Grade Point Average measures almost nothing, besides a student’s willingness to figure out each professor’s psyche. It says little about your ability to be an interesting scholarly voice or an effective teacher in a classroom. Letters of Recommendation are helpful, but they take time to read, unfortunately. So the GRE provides a level playing field that produces objective scores with which programs can decide who moves on and who starts packing. This is America, after all. We know how important objective scores can be. But the test is a mind fuck, in many ways – or at least a mine field. It covers everything from the Greeks to Ishaguru. And in the end it becomes a trivia game. How many answers can you discard based on your knowledge of the period? How good is your ear for the difference between Coleridge and Wordsworth? Are you a fantastic memorizer? Do you know Chaucer as well as your hometown?
The troublesome thing about this affair (and yes, let us pretend there is only one, for now), is that what each student is trying to accomplish, namely – get into a PhD program so that they can begin becoming a specialized researcher in their chosen field – runs counter to the skills the test requires. And everyone knows this. Two hours and fifty minutes with 230 bubbles to fill will change your life – will make all the work you have done for the last six or so years valid, giving you another nest before you are forced to fly, or it will tell you to get that thumb back in your mouth and get the hell out of our paper stack. Things have fallen apart.
As 8:30 neared the tension in the crowd put the murmuring surrounding me out of tune. The strings needed to be loosened. The falsetto laughs around me began to fade and everything moved to a silent point between the two doors keeping us from our test. Once 8:30 passed and nothing had melted or disappeared many began to worry. 8:30 had come and gone and we were all still there waiting. Beckett laughed. I tried not to. Many weeped and gnashed inside – you could see it on their faces. Some went through their note cards with quickened angst while other more Franklinian folks walked around the building to make sure we were all at the right door. There was no piper to be heard, but I began fearing a leap to come.
By 8:50 sentences could be deciphered from the people around me. “What is happening? It is past 8:30 and the admission ticket clearly stated… I mean, what if? What if they’re … not … what if we can’t?” Part of me was filled with simple spite for these sorts. I began finishing their sentences in my head, fueling a pity-laced rage. “Then you will get a damn job and live and love and maybe even find some Eros along the way. You’ll be lonely and fuck up a lot too – same as you would if you aced this damn thing and got into your number one program with the fat fellowship and ripe research stipend.” But another part of me was just as scared and mad that this test was not infallible in its execution. It was executed like most things I had come across. Big claims and less than that results. How long oh Lord, how long? But even the prophet of Patmos would not be able to make any of us feel better in the cold of 9:01.
I needed a distraction. I began looking around more closely and putting people in their places. Not everyone here was taking the Literature subject test. Some were there for Math, Science, or History. I began to guess, but before I did, I developed a ranking system.
If you had a knapsack or rucksack of any kind you got a literature point. However, if this bag had an Einstein pin, as one did, you were back to zero. Relativity appeals to all of us.
If you had extra large note cards you got a point for Science and Math, and the faster you went through them the better chance you were there for Math. Math people have amazing memories.
If you were in a large group and did your best to act like nothing was bothering you, equal points were given to History and Literature. However, if you had short stubble or were involved with corduroy in any way your score skewed to Literature. Long beards tend to be people with an eye to the past, but in a Ken Burns manner – measured and stable (minus Zinn). The Lit stubble is a hint at Death Cab for Cutie undertones, something a true history buff would never be subjected to.
If your bangs seemed to define your personality you were there for Literature. Five points.
If no one in your group made eye contact with each other you had a Science test on deck.
If you were standing alone being a judgmental coward trying to think of all the reasons why an upcoming bomb job on the most important test of your life was not your fault you would be writing about it all later.
I saw a girl next to me who I thought was the same girl I had sat next to on a flight from Amsterdam to SFO.
“Do you want to play a game?” I asked.
“What kind?” she said with a look of relief.
“I’m guessing which test various people are here for based upon several scientific factors.”
“Ok, what test am I here for?” she tested.
“Literature – no doubt about it.”
“And how do you know this about me, scientifically?” she smiled.
“Your bangs are off-putting and cute at the same time. Nobody in Math or Science could pull that off. And you seem too alone to be into History.”
“I’m a Math Geek,” she chimed as she spun away.
The doors opened.
Once inside, past the ID checkpoint and the test verification line, and at desk G18 my mood settled. All the Plath was out. Taking the test on the third story would be no problem. Berrryman was leaving me alone. I got both of my pencils sharpened and the grading noise and oaken smell flicked my memory – sending it briefly back to Mrs. Furlongs fifth grade classroom and the tally wall and beautiful ebony Sheai catching hold of one of my first erections with her eyes while standing in line for recess. Two sharp points and back to my desk.
I decided the time for whining was up. It was high time I acted like a man and take this test head on – with a clear mind free of any associations or thoughts of fairness. I had read my Camus. I should have known better by now anyhow.
Our proctor was a tall, young brunette with a tight green tankie that was hell-bent on giving her belly button the floor. She began passing out our test booklets and answer sheets. I wiggled a bit, cracked my knuckles, and hunkered in deep. Then I read the cover before I was instructed to do so.
Do not break the seal until told to do so.
Goddamnit. I was so close to being Buddhist about this whole thing. But of course the cover of this test would have to have an allusion to the Book of Revelation and of course I had to get a degree in Biblical Studies instead of English so that now, instead of knowing about the Romantic Lyrical Poets or having any fucking clue why Chaucer is involved in every fourth question, I can’t stop scrolling my head for “seal” references in John’s crazed manifesto that ends God’s Word. I’ll only offer one.
And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the book and break its seals?”
I began to doubt my worth – doubt why I was even sitting here about to be emasculated by this examination. Why I would let my career be killed off by multiple choices. Maybe I could teach Composition Studies at a Junior College the rest of my life. I knew many fine and bright people whom I respected who did such a thing. Or maybe I could convince Cole to move to some Alpine area where I could fight fires during the summer and where we could live in a cabin in the winter and cook bacon for dinner with our husky dog at our feet narrating a novel in his mind we would never read. If nothing else, I was sure I still could pull off Evangelist. I had been studying false preaching my entire life. This Literature thing was really a new endeavor, if you thought about it.
I took the test. Things seemed to be going fine. They even had five questions on Genesis 1:1- 2:8. I aced all of those. I don’t think I missed one question related to American Literature and as I was going from bubble to bubble, struggling hard with all of the Anglo Saxon and early Renaissance material, I began to feel some pride that I in fact did know something about what I had read. I just had not read the test’s canon. And that, by question 150 or so, was okay by me. I could almost taste the consolation beer.
On question 225 I pushed my shoulder blades together by trying to touch my elbows behind my back and there were pops and a sense of easy release. My body went medium all over. I bent back over the bastard for the last five when I heard the proctor say, “You now have twenty more minutes to finish your exam. If you finish you may not leave past this point until the entirety of the testing period has been completed.”
I was instantly back to angry. I finished the last five and calmly walked up to the young lady.
“Hey, hi. So, I know these aren’t your rules and all, but could you just tell me, for the sake of my curiosity or whatever, why it is I could have left if I finished one minute ago, but now I cannot.”
“Sir, as I stated before, you are not allowed to ask questions during the testing period.”
I desperately wanted to talk to Robert Coover. Somehow I knew he would understand. He would help me talk to this woman. We wouldn’t even need capitalization or periods to get our point across. But no – it was time for me to fight my own battles and leave the rest of them to be at peace on my bookshelves.
It’s what competence is all about.
The scores came. I was a reasonable intellect. I was good. But I was not great. And I certainly did not bubble my way to entrance into the land where only Doctors of Words can tread. I was broken.
Cole came into our office and saw me re and re and re-reading the letter.
“Zac, stop it.”
I kept reading.
“Zac, don’t be a fool. You know what that test means and what it does not mean.”
I kept reading.
“Zac, fucking stop reading that thing.”
Then I looked up at Cole, the girl I met and fell in love with in graduate school, the girl that helped me come out of the requisite deposits of delirium tremens suffered at twenty three, the girl who convinced me without ever having to say a goddamn word about such things, that life was worth going after.
“Cole. Everything is fucked. Now my master degree means nothing. Fucking waste.”
I walked past her and to the fridge. I dug out the first of many aluminum caves for the night.
“What?” she almost yelled at me. “So you are just going to get drunk, then? That’s your plan? Manhood? Is that it? You and fucking Papa Hem and Jacky Kerouac and Scotty Fitz and all your beloved bums? Huh? Gonna read some Baudelaire later and blare The Doors till dawn? Come in reciting lines to me? Bullshit, Zac.”
“The fuck do you know about this?” I volleyed. “What would you like me to do, Cole? Consult Netflix? The fuck you want me to do right now? This test mattered to me! Failure matters to me.”
She unfolded her arms as if she was a present. She put her hands behind her head before taking one soft small hand and placing it on the whaleship furnace billowing beneath my cheeks. She was glacier engulfed in flames. Her eyes killers.
“You remember the “Tremens” piece you wrote?” she asked.
“You remember how beautiful that piece is? How good you felt when we all read that in class and cried? You remember what you called that night?”
“Yeah, Cole. I called that night salvation.”
I felt pneumonic. Like all the words I had to say to her at that moment to defend my impending drunk apathy were merely noises, not meaning.
“Cole, writing like that is hard on me. It takes a lot out, you know?”
She smiled, then leaned in and kissed me on my forehead.
“What do you think we does to me? But I still do us. You need to write this thing. I’ll go to my folk’s house for as many hours as that takes. But print it out and put it on the bed when you’re done. I want to read it.”
“This is not fair. You can’t make me write.”
She walked past me towards the door and slapped me hard on the ass. Baseball slap that woke up some bygone pride. I felt strong.
“Call me if you need me. Do something great,” she said as she opened our front door.
“Okay, Cole. Get the fuck outta here. I gotta be great alone!”
We shared a laugh. Goddamn me right now if that did not feel right.
Borges, in his essay “Blindness,” claims that he always knew he had a literary destiny. He claims that he knew he had to convert his life to words, but mostly the hurtful parts of life, because, “happiness is its own end.” And that is where I sat that night, between the crossroads of Cole and disappointment, present and future, courage and fear. She had tore back some sheet. She had unveiled some small warm thing. I had never felt the gut resentment that love like she was offering can create. But this was it.
I wrote. Words poured. The essay you are reading now, everything up to the line “The scores came,” came forth that night as if demanding to be shown to Cole – as if they were flowing back to their source.
I had left behind many words when I lost God years before, but that night, something was summoned back from the abyss of Nietzsche and Sartre and Heidegger, the abyss of my ever growing mind and quickly shrinking heart. It felt like I was back at the altar, a young boy with flooded eyes, crying out to the ceiling, to the sky, to the God of my grandmother, and feeling listened to. I was just a whiney vessel, but my soul was shouting and ranting and laughing and breathing again. Thanks to Cole.
After the words stopped I went back to the fridge. I grabbed the half-full case and sat Indian-style on the linoleum, building and tearing down ceremonial stacks, like the patriarchs I read about when I was a child and the Old Testament was the only book I knew. When Leviticus or II Kings followed Honey Nut Cheerios Monday through Friday, and Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes substituted for syrup on the weekends.
I was terrified to go forward with a life in which I could not hide behind what I knew. Knowledge, my mind, I could trust because it allowed me to loath it. It didn’t talk back. But my heart, this soul-thing, would demand to be loved if I would expect it to work on my behalf. Cole knew that better than I.
That night, with a stomach full of cheap beer, a head full of hate for the standardized prigs who knew nothing of what it takes to be wise or good or true, and a heart aflame with fear and thanks for a woman who chose to call me out, I decided to get to work. I would begin again to court my soul and I would do this wooing with words of my making. There were, indeed, worlds yet to be made.
Zac Walsh is contributing editor of the Arroyo Literary Review. He won the 2009 Robert V. Williams Award for Fiction and his work has recently been published by Cimarron Review, Alligator Juniper, The Platte Valley Review, Gulf Stream, Big Lucks, The DuPage Valley Review, The Whistling Fire and ZAUM. He teaches English at Chabot College in Hayward, Ca. and Writing at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Ca.