Is today Monday, or could it be Sunday.
I really don’t know how to find out.
Am I drunk now or sober? Is the week over?
The days and the nights are still jumbled about.
Maybe it’s Sunday. It feels more like Monday.
Where’s a newspaper with a date that will tell.
Tuesday morning in October. Sitting at the bar at Pig Farm Tavern in Chapel Hill. 11:57 a.m.
Siler was in the position. Leaning his right elbow on the bar. Coffee in his left hand. Dumb look on his face. Carly Simon on the juke box, the volume turned down to a whisper.
I was half-way through a takeout container of soup, split pea with ham. On my second heavy mug of genmaicha tea.
A scorching shower put some life back in me. Then I had wrapped the meeting with Mallette. We spent 15 minutes discussing the defense and more than an hour talking about life. It was always like that with Mallette
“James,” he said, “the doctoral defense is a custom, a ritual. We honor our history through these kinds of rituals. So on the one hand, it’s busy work. The quality of your dissertation is unquestioned. On the other hand, it’s a ritual that celebrates the commitment to creative contributions to a body of knowledge.”
Mallette was flipping through my music CDs and pulled out a Hasil Adkins selection and put it in the spinner. The crazy West Virginian’s voice peeled paint off the wall. Mallette lowered the volume.
“I’ve always believed the university host make doctoral defenses as public events,” he continued. “We are the people’s university. We should post bills across campus. Invite the public to fill the auditorium. To be part of our tribe as we honor years of work that add one more piece of knowledge to our collective understanding of the world. Taken alone, any individual dissertation seems meaningless. Taken together, all the dissertations from a discipline cover a whole lot of what we know about the world.”
“I’m good with a public event,” I said. “The comprehensive exams were the tough spot. The dissertation defense should run fine.”
A little Hasil goes a long way. Mallette kept flipping through the CDs while we talked. He swapped out Hasil for an Iris Dement CD. Hymns.
“I’ve Got That Old Time Religion,” scorched through the speakers. Mallette raised the volume.
“Something I’ve never asked you,” I said. “All those times. When I was sinking in London. When I was in trouble in St. Pete. How did you know to call? Your timing was spooky.”
Iris kept singing. I refilled our mugs of hot tea.
“I’d love to tell you that I had some kind of line in to the angels,” Mallette said. “I knew mountain women who had a kind of intuition that intrigued me. And frightened me. I used to dream that the mountains would make me a mystic.”
“And they did?” I asked.
“No. The mountains filled me with empathy,” he said. “Taught me how small we are in the world and how big we can be in the moment. If we choose to be. If we look outside ourselves. I’ve spent my life trying to identify those moments. Those moments when I could do something big, when probably nobody else was going to do anything. It haunts us when we miss them.”
Made sense. He always found moments when my life was suspended in mid-air. Moments when my stomach felt like it does when the roller-coaster crests the very tip-top of the steepest rise, in the split second before gravity pulls everything down. When weightlessness made me feel sick and magical at the same time.
“However you did it,” I said, “I’m grateful. Something more than grateful. It’s difficult to express. I believe the mountains made you generous, also. A generous man in a world folding inward on itself, sucked into a black hole of tweets and selfies.”
Mallette laughed. He hummed along with Iris. Lined up the edges of the row of CDs.
“Generous at moments, perhaps,” he said. “More and more, I’m selfish with my time. It’s like water running through my fingers. Time. I just need quiet moments, time. To read and think. I used to have hours. Now I steal away minutes.”
He picked up his coat.
“Well, you found another moment,” I said. “The University needs you in South Building, running things. We all need your time.
I shook his hand.
“The defense is a ritual,” he repeated. He covered my hand in both of his. “Remember. We’re like the third little pig. We build slowly. But with brick.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said. “I’ll look for moments to put all of this research to some good.
“Monday is a moment for you,” Mallette said, “and you’ll have plenty more moments to come. The trick is not to have them haunt you. To be big in the moment.”
He walked over the stone path to the big house, to see Fats. The hymn from Iris matched his steps on the rocks.
Right then, nearly every cell in body had wanted to nap. I overcame the urge and grabbed my backpack. Headed out across campus. Walked right into this barstool at Pig Farm. For soup. And tea. And Siler’s conversation.
I didn’t feel like a millionaire. But I felt something. Fats had left me a company iPhone. There two numbers programmed in. One was her private cell. The other was the black car. I now had a driver. I now had two phones.
Siler was settling up winners and losers from his weekly NFL pool.
I met Siler when we were both 18 years old. He was tall and skinny and carried a tennis racquet on campus and a joint behind his ear. He strutted into Chapel Hill from the far western mountains of North Carolina, a math major who got most of the answers right.
Tough thing is, most of the answers isn’t good enough when you come down from the mountain.
By sophomore year, Siler was a music major. He carried a harmonica in his pocket and a guitar strapped over his shoulder. The tennis racquet was on the roof of Cobb Dorm, home to 363 girls. Siler had a thing for a girl living on the fourth floor of Cobb Dorm. In an instance lacking his usual genius, he was trying to get her attention late one night by tossing a pebble up to the window. When the pebble didn’t reach that distance, he tried a tennis ball and then his tennis racquet. It landed on the roof and stuck. She never emerged at the window. He was a Romeo left wanting for his Juliet on the balcony.
Siler was pretty good at a lot of things.
He had found success as a roadie for various Texas musicians and troubadours. He became a master carpenter during a stay in New York, making fancy cabinets for rich folks. Now, besides Pig Farm, he has a small side business rebuilding engines for old BMWs. Very private, word-of-mouth referrals only. If he decided to take your case, Siler would rebuild the engine with the same care of a mama doting on a newborn.