Halliday narrowed his eyes at me. He wasn't buying it.
"In that case why don't we put your hypothesis to the test, Doctor?"
Before I could protest he turned and began appealing to the crowd for ideas, working the house like an old vaudevillian. The suggestions that came back ranged from the silly ("Make her swallow a goldfish!") to the sadistic ("Convince her that her hair's falling out!"). Someone shouted we should give her a glass of water and convince her it was champagne, a suggestion I found privately amusing in light of the fact that the fellow who'd made it was at that moment drinking a dilute solution of ethyl alcohol that some bootlegger had sold him as "gin."
After a minute of this Halliday shook his head, dismissing the uninspired suggestions wholesale. Fearing he was losing his audience, he seized me by the elbow, hissed a few inches from my ear, "For God's sake, Finch, I thought Jews were supposed to be clever! Now come up with something quick, before you make us both look like fools."
There it was. Jew. I'd always suspected the question of my race shadowed me about campus, but until that moment I had never encountered the rumor firsthand. That it was incorrectFinch was short for Finnochiaro; I had been raised a Roman Catholicwas beside the point. My face grew hot. My hands clenched into fists. I felt the cocktail of adrenaline and alcohol in my bloodstream threatening immolation....
And then a sudden, anesthetizing calm. It settled over me like a narcotic shroud, cooling my blood, suffusing me with an unearned confidence. I looked at the hypnotized girl awaiting my instructions. Looked at Halliday.
"Something clever, you say?"
"Preferably before the New Year, old sport."
"Something she wouldn't dream of doing awake ..."
"Otherwise where's the fun?" asked Halliday with a wink to his audience.
"All right," I said, and, turning to Halliday's girl, instructed her, "Kiss me."
A stunned silencethe sound of the crowd's drawing a collective breath and then holding it as they awaited Veda's response. At first she showed no sign whatsoever of having heard, but then, after a delay of several seconds, a faint smile appeared on her painted lips. My heart thrilled as her cool arms encircled my neck, everything happening in an uncontrollable rush now, like the moment gravity seizes your sled and you begin hurtling downhill. Suddenly we were kissing, or rather she was kissing me: hungrily, with open mouth and tiny noises from her throat I can only describe as feral. I would like to say I glimpsed Halliday out of the corner of my eye going white as a ghost, but that would be a lie. The truth was, I was too busy being devoured to be aware of anything beyond the catcalls of the crowdUntil the scream.
They came scurrying across the Oriental carpet, two dozen healthy adolescents scrambling among leather brogues and ladies' boots. They were bald as Trappist monks, their tiny pink scalps shaved smooth for stereotaxic surgery. I knew because I'd been their barber, as well as caretaker. I heard a squeal as one of my rodent charges met its demise beneath a Louis heel, and, shoving Veda aside, I threw myself headlong into the throng. More screams and, floating above it all, some prankster's cruel laughter. I crawled on all fours through the forest of trouser legs and shapely ankles in silk hose, trying to round up as many rats as possible. But no sooner had I corralled a wriggling armful than I took a wingtip to the temple that dropped me to the carpet stunned, spectacles knocked askew. The rats scattered to the four corners of the room and one by one met their fate beneath the feet of the stampeding herd of flappers and philosophers.
An hour later I waited in an uncomfortable chair outside the office of the chairman of the psychology department, Dr. William McLaughlin, a man I had never met. That our introduction would take place under such inauspicious circumstancesthe middle of the night, in the aftermath of an incident that had left thirty laboratory rats dead or missing and a faculty member's experiment ruinedonly deepened my depression. To be perfectly honest, it wasn't the dressing-down I most feared. It was being fired.
Copyright Joseph Gangemi 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Viking Publishing.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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