TUESDAY: Dr. Davis’s Anniversary

BY ROBERT CURRELI

Copyright is held by the author.

MAX LINDER, with his Canon slung over his shoulder and his tripod clutched in his hand, sauntered along the paved path through Stony Brook Park. The increasing humidity helped permeate the air with the odor of swampy decay of Palmer Lake’s shore. Max didn’t mind the smell. It reminded him of the saltwater marshes of south Jersey where he used to vacation as a kid with his family.

He looked up over the evergreens and the palms at the setting sun. Soon the sky would be drenched in color and Max would photograph it sinking into Palmer Lake. He had just made his way around the bend in the path where foliage grew thick and tall when he noticed a man standing in a break in the foliage on the shore of the lake holding a gun at the temple of his head.

Max froze, disbelieving his eyes. When reality hit a second later he shouted, “Hello!  Hello, there!”

The man dropped his arm to his side and turned to Max’s voice. He looked angry — angry enough to shoot Max. Instead, he stuffed the gun in the pocket of his baggy shorts.

“You okay?” Max said.

“I was until you showed up,” the man said. He wore his white hair on the long side. He was thin and the white Yankees polo shirt hung baggy on him and down past his hips.

The man’s voice sounded familiar. Max took a step closer. “I’m sorry. I . . . I . . .”

“Shouldn’t you be on your way?”  The man crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Max.

“I just want to make sure everything is okay,” Max said. He stared at the man wondering what to do. I didn’t just imagine this guy pointing a gun at his head, did I?  Then he noticed his mustache, the large bushy type akin to those worn by Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. “Dr. Davis?” he said his brow furrowing.

An astonished Dr. Davis peered back trying to make out who this person was. “Do I know you?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s Max Linder.”

“Who?”

Max approached Dr. Davis. “I was a student of yours at Caldwell. In fact, I had you three times.”

Dr. Davis stepped away from the shore and on to the path. He squinted, studying Max. “Yes, yes. I remember you. Max – Maxwell. I called you Maxwell. I like the name, Maxwell. How are?  Of all the places to be running into an ex-student.” Dr. Davis’s mustache edged into his cheeks as he smiled.

Max breathed a little easier. Perhaps it hadn’t been real. It couldn’t have been. “How are you, Dr. Davis?”

Dr. Davis flushed with embarrassment. He put his head down and slowly shook it as if he were thinking, What could possibly be next? “I’m an old writer, an old professor,” he said and looked sheepishly at Max. “How could I possibly be?”

From his response, Max realized that indeed the man had had a gun pointed at his head. It wasn’t so much what Dr. Davis said, but how he said it that was so revealing. “I heard you retired,” Max said. His discomfort was palpable. After all, what’s more personal than blowing your brains out?

“Yes, two years ago. Not that I wanted to, but . . .”  Dr. Davis shrugged.

“I wish I had known. I would have liked to . . .”

“I refused a party — a send-off. I just wanted to make a quick getaway. It wasn’t really a very happy time for me.”

“I understand. Though, look at all the time you have now to write.”

“Ha, there was always time to write during my teaching years. One of the most attractive parts of being an educator is the time afforded for personal work. It seems though, age dries up not only the body, but the brain as well. Writing for me, now, is about as possible as fathering a child. If you know what I mean? I do miss the students, though.”

“And I’m sure they all miss you. I know I do.” Max gestured to a bench a few yards away on the other side of the path. “Would you like to sit a few minutes, Dr. Davis?”

Dr. Davis looked around. He placed his hand over the bulging pocket of his shorts. He sighed, forced a smile. “Just for a few minutes, Maxwell. You can fill me in on your life since graduation.”

In front of the bench, Dr. Davis held out his hand. Max took it and shook it noticing the firmness of Dr. Davis’s grip. He also noticed the mud on his white sneakers and going up his socks. He glanced at the spot where Dr. Davis had stood about to shoot himself. Water gently lapped filling in his footprints in the mud.

They sat and Max placed his camera on the bench beside him and his tripod on the ground. Dr. Davis slapped his legs and looked at Max with an ersatz enthusiastic smile. He said, “Okay, tell me all about yourself – your recent self. You wanted to be a writer. I trust you still do. Your favorites were, John Irving, Edgar Allen Poe and Jonathan Swift – eclectic to say the least. You were one of the few students I had that not only wanted to write fiction, but journalism as well. As I recall, you wanted to become the next Woodstein or Sebastian Junger. You also told me a while after you finished the book Iberia by James Michener, you weren’t sure if you had visited Spain, or was it the book that painted such real pictures, that it supplanted actual memories with literary ones. I’m afraid I know very little of your personal life other than you come from quite modest means. And I know this only because you used to complain about the cost of education and how working horned in on your writing time. And you said more than once, that you came from quite modest means. In fact, those were your words.”

“Oh, my God, Dr. Davis! That’s incredible. How could you possibly remember all of that? I’m not only extremely impressed but honored that you’d remember all that about me? And you say your brain has dried up? That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Dr. Davis through a mouthful of laughter said, “If only writing were as easy as remembering some facts about an excellent student.” Now, Dr. Davis fixed his gaze on the patch of shore where he had been standing when Max called to him. He rubbed his eyes. “My eyes, they get tired and water often. Part of aging, I guess.”

“My dad has the same problem,” Max said.

Dr. Davis chuckled. “Yeah, right. So, tell me, Maxwell, what are you doing now? And why are you here? Are you vacationing?”

“No. Although, I wouldn’t mind being a snowbird. Sure gets hot in the summer. And I miss the people back north.”

“Ah, the people, yes. Too many of us here, huh?”

Max looked questioningly at Dr. Davis.

“Old people, coots, fogies. We’re all over the place. I’ll tell you, I certainly don’t like that part. There are very few pretty young things down here.” Dr. Davies chuckled. He ran his thumb and index finger over his moustache. Max smiled at Dr. Davis’s old habit. “So, what are you doing here?”

“I really had no choice. My father lost his job and decided to retire. My mother retired as well. They sold the house and moved down here. My sister and I, being paupers, moved with them. She just started at USF. Bio. She wants to be a doctor. Good luck.”

“And you, Maxwell?”

“I’m going for my teaching certification. High school.”

“Are you? That’s good. That’s good.”

“I’d go for an MFA if I thought it would do any good. I’d love to teach at your level.”

“They replaced me with three adjuncts. Securing a position directly for a university is near impossible today. Writing?”

“Everyday. Just like you drummed into us.”

“Good.”

“In fact, I’d love for you to read a sample or two of my work. Tell me what you think. There’s no opinion I respect more than yours, Dr. Davis. I’m sure you know that.”

Dr. Davis said nothing. He stared straight ahead over the brush out over the lake. The bottom of the sun touched the water and wisps of clouds began to take on orange and pink. In the quiet, the sound of water sloshing was barely perceptible.

“I mean, if you have time, or if you haven’t had your fill reading students’ work after all these years.”  Max looked at his old professor waiting for his reply. He was prepared to ask again. He would force the issue. It was a way of getting him to talk — perhaps to somehow change his mind. Max presumed that Dr. Davis knew that he saw the gun. Maybe that was enough to stop him, at least for now.

Dr. Davis turned from staring at the water to peer into Max’s eyes. He brushed his mustache with his fingers. Max could almost read his thoughts. Dare I tell him what I was about to do?

Finally, he said, “I don’t think that would be such a great idea, Maxwell. I fear I’ve lost my interest. I haven’t read anything in a while. I watch a lot of TV now. Fall asleep in front of it. One of the perks of being old – or maybe not.” He nodded towards the camera. “You here to take pictures?  You’re losing the light. You better get going.”

Max sighed. “Oh, that’s okay, Dr. Davis. I’ve got time. This is a real nice park, isn’t it?”

The old professor shook his head. He again, ran his fingers over his moustache and down his chin. “It’s alright, Maxwell. You may leave.”

“No, not yet.”

“I would like to be alone, now. I come here every evening and watch the sun set.”

“I can watch it with you.”

“It’s a solitary endeavour.”

“I don’t think I should leave.”

“Look, I’d really like to get this over with. It’s a perfect day for it.”

“A perfect day for bananafish?”

Dr. Davis stared straight ahead.

“Are things that bad, Dr. Davis?”

“You have no right to ask me that. It’s none of your business.”

“I can’t let you do this.”

“Why the hell not?  What am I to you, an old teacher — an old man, someone with whom you had contact for a short period in your life? People come, people go. Let me go in peace.”

“How could I leave you here to . . . to . . . ?”

“Kill myself?” Dr. Davis stood and crossed the path. He stood on the grass before the brush and the trees guarding the lake. “That’s easy. Just get up and leave, Maxwell. Take your camera and your tripod and walk away. Come back in a half-hour and take some pictures of what’s left. You’ll be a big hit with social media.”

“I can’t. I’m going to have to walk out of here with you. If you’re going to kill yourself, it’s not going to be while I’m around.” Max stood, the backs of his legs pressed against the edge of the bench.

“Look don’t be ridiculous, Maxwell. You’re smarter than that. There’s nothing you can do to prevent this.”

“I can call the police. I can call right now.”

“By the time they get here, I’ll be dead. Imagine the explaining you’d have to do. And if you attempt to physically stop me, I’ll shoot you first,” Dr. Davis said and blatantly put his hand in his pocket with the gun.

“What about your family, Dr. Davis? What about the people who love you.”

“Oh, come on Maxwell, what have I told you about clichés? Look, I’m not going to sit here and explain why I want out of this life. I don’t need to justify my suicide to you. Now, just go away. Be off with you.” He flicked his hand dismissively.

Max moved away from the bench edging closer to Dr. Davis. “Don’t you see, if I let you do this, I could go to jail. It’s illegal if I know you’re going to kill yourself and do nothing about it.”

“That’s not true, Maxwell. It may be illegal if you aid and abet me in any way. If you merely scamper off and not say a word to anyone, you’re in the clear, my boy.”

“I’ll tell you what. Tell me why. Tell me why you’d want death over this.” Max spread his arms as if presenting to Dr. Davis all the beauty before them.

Dr. Davis scoffed. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

“Come on Dr. Davis. Give me a break here. What would you do if you were in my situation?”

“I don’t care about your situation and I don’t want you to care about mine.”

Max stepped to the centre of the path. He stuck his hands in his pockets. The men said nothing for a while. The sky’s saturated colours indigo, pink, violet and orange reflected off the lake. Snowy egrets flew over the water landing on the shore a few yards away.

“If you’re here to photograph the sunset, you’re missing it,” Dr. Davis said. “Too, bad. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s only a hobby. You often said the writer needs an outlet to keep the art fresh.”

“Forget what I said. It’s all bullshit.”

“I’ll tell you what.”

“Here we go again.”

Max took his hands out of his pockets. He gestured with them punctuating his request. He paced gradually shifting closer to Dr. Davis. “Give me something. You have to admit, this is one hell of a story here. Tell me what brought you to your decision. Don’t let your death be in vain. Maybe I’ll do you proud, not that you’d be around to see it, and instead of publishing in these petty little E-magazines I’ll make it to The New Yorker or Harpers, Glimmer Train or The Paris Review. Unless of course, you help me with it. You can change the ending or not. It’s up to you. If you’d like we can write it up to the end when you come here, stand at the water’s edge and blow your brains out into the water. Then, I’ll go back and finish it.”

After a healthy laugh, Dr. Davis said, “What you do after I’m dead is of no consequence to me. If you absolutely must know why I no longer want to be here, and since I am more determined than ever to take my life tonight, I shall tell you, Maxwell. I am tired. Simply put, it is finished. I am not particularly depressed — no more than I have intermittently been my entire life. I am in perfect health for a 71-year-old man. I am financially secure. I see my children a few times a year – as well as my grandchildren. My wife, I suppose, loves me. She has a life outside of ours. I suppose, I’m really nothing more than an old habit to her — something difficult to break, but once broken, eventually not missed. I am just tired — so tired. And now I must go.”

Dr. Davis slid his hand from his pocket. He pointed the gun at Max. “I’ve given this much thought, Maxwell. It’s not a new idea. It’s time tested, as they say. I’ve thought about it every day, in fact. Now, would you like to run along?”

“No.”

“Then you prefer to watch?”

“Dr. Davis, please don’t.”

“I must.” Dr. Davis sidestepped to the clearing where he stood when Max found him holding the gun to his head. This time he held the gun in the direction of his onetime student.

Max slowly followed him.

“If you come for me, I will shoot you, Maxwell.” Dr. Davis moved to the shore. He stood with his feet in the water.

Max gradually got closer. His muscles tensed in preparation to leap at Dr. Davis, his eyes wide with vigilance.

“If you promise to behave, Maxwell, I’ll let you come just a bit closer. I want to show you something.”  Dr. Davis stepped farther into the lake as Max neared him. There was a swash in the water behind him. “Do you see?”  Dr. Davis glanced towards the water. “Do you see him, Maxwell?”  He turned back to watch Max, his eyes huge and his voice enlivened. “We’re good friends. We’re good friends, he and I. He’s a bull. Largest damn alligator I’ve ever seen. I’ve been coming here for months and we would just stare at each other. But I know what he wants. He’s the big man — the man in charge of this congregation. If you look closely, they’re all over. See behind the big one. It’s getting dark so it’s hard to see. But if you look closely in the water in the reeds, along the shore.” Dr. Davis kept his eyes on Max as he spoke, exuberance animating his face. It was as if he were engrossed in delivering one of his heated lectures.

“Come out of there Dr. Davis. Please come out of there.”

Dr. Davis turned towards the water. “Sure, there he is. He’s ready. He’s ready today.”

The huge alligator stared from the water. Only the eyes, the tip of the snout and barely the long top of the body from the upper back to the tail, showed from the murky water. Water lilies floated around it and the others, their eyes black and piercing, locked onto Dr. Davis.

“Let me tell you, Maxwell. This day is special to me. It’s an anniversary, actually.”

“Please come out of the water, Dr. Davis. Tell me about the anniversary from up here.” Max’s voice quavered. His pulse drummed in his ears.

Dr. Davis’s demeanour had become lighter, almost cheerful as if he were telling a story at dinner. “Fifty years ago this very day, my very first article was published in the National Geographic magazine. I was twenty-one years old. It was the start of a wonderful career and a wonderful life. You know what the subject of that article was?  Of course, you don’t. How would you. It was my friends, here, the alligator. Yes, I know. Hard to believe. Me, writing about alligators. Back then, Hemingway was my literary hero. He wrote about bulls. Me, alligators. Anyway, I figured I should show my appreciation to these beautiful, but perilous creatures. And what better way than a bullet through the head and I’m dinner?” The old professor laughed.

“No, Dr. Davis. No, Dr. Davis. You can’t be serious. Don’t do this.” Max panicked. His knees wobbled. He couldn’t think.

“I would leave now, if I were you. If you stay and watch I’m sure someone with your sensibilities would be scarred for life.”

Max pulled out his phone.

“I hope that’s to take pictures,” Dr. Davis said. He put the gun to his head.

Max dialed.

“Hastening my death are you?”

“There’s a guy in the water at Palmer Park! Alligators are all around. He needs help quick,” Max yelled into the phone.

Dr. Davis turned, facing the motionless bull. He stepped into deeper where he slipped and fell to his knees. The gun popped from his hand into the water. Frantically, he ran his hands along the bottom of the lake searching for the gun — his fingers grabbing nothing but mud and silt.

Max dropped the phone and rushed to the water.

Thrashing about, struggling to get to his feet, Dr. Davis slipped again plunging back into the water. He rose from the lake coughing, spitting and gasping for air.

The huge alligator, whipping its tail, slithered through the water towards Dr. Davis with the others close behind. “Hurry!” Max yelled. He charged into the lake, his arms outstretched to pull Dr. Davis to the shore.

From his knees, he reached for Max. Their hands clasped. The alligator roared. Its jaws clamped down on Dr. Davis’s thighs. He screamed as his fingers slipped from Max’s hands. He screamed until the great alligator pulled him back and under the water.

Max fell back, scampered to his feet and ran to the bench. From there he watched the alligator sweep the body of Dr. Davis through the water. The congregation of alligators growled and roared, water splashed and jaws slammed, tearing and ripping apart the body of Dr. Davis.

Max retrieved his camera and in the fading light photographed the bloody water littered with shredded white clothes, pieces of flesh and bone and feeding alligators until the police arrived.

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