Fiction: The Dean by Steven Torres

April 30, 2010
By

If Dean Alan Miles had simply turned into a roach, this would not have been such a bad day for him. After all, he was a biology professor who had fed thousands of roaches to reptiles in his time, so it would have made a certain amount of sense. Plus, there was the previous example of Gregor Samsa.

Instead, in front of all the colleagues he was supposed to lead, at the start of his first time chairing a division meeting, just as he had called the group of thirty professors of mathematics and science to order, and as he was about to read off the first item on the agenda in his slightly trembling right hand (a call to approve the agenda as amended via email earlier in the day) he collapsed, his clothes crumpling on top of his shoes as his two hundred or so pounds turned into just so many roaches of various, but normal, sizes.

He had, he noticed, the complete and undivided attention of all the professors present for several seconds before the first scream. Then there was mayhem as should not have been expected from a group of scientists. The greater part of the assembled body (the faculty that is) headed for the door, jamming it with PhDs, pushing hard until the lead person fell to the ground and others fell on her. Three professors fainted. Three others stood on their chairs. Several, hard to count how many, showed some scientific curiosity and neared him.

As dean, he felt the need to both calm his colleagues and restore some order. The agenda hadn’t even been approved, not to mention the minutes from the previous meeting from the semester before, one he had not yet been hired for. He reached out to them, or tried to. All of them. At once. He scurried in multiple directions at the same time. He had not just a job to do, but also a desire to get out of the heavy, dark suit he had been wearing. It was smothering him.

One of the curious professors, a physicist named Burns, poked the deflated suit with a clipboard. Another professor, a woman named Martha whose last name Dean Miles couldn’t recall, put her foot down on a small group of the roaches Dean Miles had dissolved into. It was unexpected, like a kick in the shins. In fact, it was a kick in the shins, since the insects she killed had been part of his shins a minute earlier.

Professor Burns took several steps back from the pile of clothes that was still emptying and stepped on two of the Dean’s toes, or what had been toes, as they were running to help a professor who had hit her head while fainting. He used his clipboard to flick Dean roaches off his right shoulder just as the dean was approaching his ear to tell him to please take a seat.

The pileup at the only door to the room had cleared by then, some professors helping others showing a level of cooperation he had been warned by the outgoing dean not to expect.

Dean Miles tried to coax the professors who had taken to standing on their chairs into using their seats in the more conventional manner. As a swarm of him approached them – all in the back row – they each jumped down and ran for the door, crunching down on pieces of him, some of them unmentionable.

By this time – Martha had continued her crusade of stomping and was really quite good at this – Dean Miles was not feeling his usual self and so decided to leave. The quorum had run out the door anyway.

He made his way across the Quad to the Deanery and paused at his office door. He had left his keys in his jacket pocket and his jacket in the classroom where the division meeting had been convened. He would have liked to have been able to make a smooth escape from public scrutiny. His secretary was screaming, and a student who was an hour early to meet with him about a grade protest vomited. He slipped all parts of himself under the door.

Inside the office – rather brighter than he really wanted at the moment because he had fought for a corner office with two windows in the contract negotiation – he tried to collect himself. The student was still retching, and the secretary, still screaming. His first important public act as dean had been an unmitigated and somewhat embarrassing debacle. The thought crossed his mind, however, that if there was really no meeting, there wouldn’t have to be any minutes. He felt safe in assuming all would agree that the meeting hadn’t properly begun before it – and he – disintegrated. That there would be no permanent record was a relief.

As he calmed, he began to reform himself into the man the college had hired. First, all the roaches that had been his feet gathered, then those that had been his legs climbed atop, then his thighs and so on. And as they joined together, they melded into each other and left off being chitinous and shades of brown to being pasty and pudgy as always. The process took several minutes. In that time, he heard his secretary calling for security and the student continue to retch and then dry heave. Both of them left. When he heard one of the reception area doors slam closed, he gave his head a little shake and recognized the peril of his position. He was a newly appointed dean standing naked before his office window. He dropped to his knees and crawled to the nearest window and peered down at the Quad below. Students strolling as though no dean had just flashed the campus. He drew the shades at that window and the other, then took the seat behind his desk.

He tried to go over the events of the last few minutes to see if he could make sense of it all, but it was very difficult. After all, for much of the last few minutes, he had been several thousand roaches with ten thousand or more eyes. And none of the eyes had been looking in the same direction. Some eyes, in fact, had been on roaches that flew erratically around the meeting room trying to get people back into their seats. Some of his eyes had been on roaches whose last vision was the ever-growing blackness of a boot or flip-flop bottom coming to squish him. Those little parts of him were probably still stuck to people’s soles.

Upon reflection, the one thing he knew for certain was that he was desperately hungry. Hungry and hot. And naked.

Soon, there was banging at the door.

“Dean Miles,” came through the oak. It was the head of security, Vernon Something. The doorknob jiggled.

“In a minute,” Dean Miles called out.

“That doesn’t sound like a roach,” he could hear Vernon say.

“Not a roach, a thousand roaches. Besides, what does a roach sound like?” That was the voice of Martha; she sounded ready for more stomping.

There weren’t as many options for a naked dean in his office as one might think. There were, in fact, only his doctoral cap and gown. Dean Miles hurried into them, made sure the tassel dangled on the left, and opened the door. In the corridor, the security guard and Martha were at the front of a large group of people, some faculty, some staff, some students.

“Can I help you?” Dean Miles thought he might as well be bold if he had to answer questions in nothing but academic robes.

“Where are the roaches?” Martha demanded.

“What roaches? I haven’t seen any roaches,” Dean Miles answered. Of course, there weren’t any.

“Can you step aside, sir?” Vernon asked sweetly. Dean Miles smiled. He wanted to say no and close the door. He knew he looked ridiculous in cap and gown, but how could he say no to a civil request?

“By all means,” Dean Miles said moving to one side. “But please excuse the mess; I’m still unpacking.”

Martha entered with Vernon, but while the guard searched under the desk and behind the cabinets, Martha just glared at the dean and fumed. Everyone else stayed in the hallway, some because they had seen the dean turn into roaches once and they had no intention of being in an enclosed space with him ever again if it could be avoided. A few minutes later, Vernon shrugged. No roaches to be found. Martha jutted a finger in the dean’s face.

“You’re through here,” she said.

“I’d watched my tone if I were you,” Dean Miles responded.

“Or what? You’ll turn into a thousand roaches again?”

Dean Miles laughed. “A thousand roaches? What are you talking about?” He looked out the door, appealing to the mass in the hallway. “I think someone’s been sniffing the formaldehyde again.” He laughed. Those in the hallway who had seen his earlier dissolution could only muster wan smiles.

“This isn’t over,” Martha responded. She waded through the people in the hallway, and Dean Miles shut the door to his office.

He sat at his desk again and tried to replay everything that had happened at the meeting that went so poorly, but a lot was already a haze. Perhaps it was the hunger affecting him.

It was only a few minutes before his supervisor, the Dean of Academic Affairs, Edgardo Ruiz, knocked on his door.

“We need to talk,” Dean Ruiz said through the door.

“The door’s open.”

Dean Ruiz was invited to take a seat at the side of Dean Miles’ desk. He paused a moment seeing Miles in his academic regalia, but decided to leave that issue alone.

“This is very hard for me, but several members of your division report … well, they report that… that you turned into a … pile of roaches…”

Probably because he felt ridiculous, Dean Ruiz trailed off there.

“Who says this?”

“Well… to be frank…every single member.”

Dean Miles let the statement hang in the air for a moment before beginning his defense.

“But you see how that’s not possible, right? I mean, you see how they must be mistaken.”

Dean Ruiz nodded his agreement.

“But… they’re adamant about what they saw.”

“Can I explain what they probably really saw?” Dean Miles offered. He had just thought of something that made some sense.

“As you know, I’ve just moved into town. Well, I don’t have the best apartment in the world, and one of the problems is a bug infestation. I probably brought some bugs into the meeting with me. That whipped some of the professors into a frenzy, and mass hysteria ensued. Yes, I caused it, but I swear it was accidental and it will never happen again.”

Dean Ruiz looked like he would have preferred to go – rose halfway from his chair – but thought better of it.

“But your clothes…” he said.

“Well, the little buggers were too much even for me. There were a lot of them – I don’t deny that – so I got out of my clothes. It was the best strategy. “

“But the clothes are all still in the classroom,” Dean Ruiz said.

“Well, if I had brought them here…” Dean Miles gestured at his office.

“But the clothes weren’t undone. I saw them. The pants were still zippered up, the shirt was buttoned, the tie was done up, Hell, the shirt was even tucked into the pants.”

Dean Ruiz ran out of steam there. Since a question hadn’t been asked, the two men just looked at each other for a few quiet seconds.

“Some of your faculty members are pretty upset with you.” There still wasn’t a question, so Dean Miles just smiled.

“So you might want to consider taking a few days off – let things settle down. “

Dean Miles saw right through the ploy. With him at home, his office could be packed up and the legal department of the college would figure out a way to get his contract terminated.

“It won’t be that easy to get rid of me,” Dean Miles said.

Dean Ruiz nodded as though he fully understood what Dean Miles was going through – all except the roaches part. He got up to go.

“I’ll talk with some of your colleagues, but I can’t promise anything,” Dean Ruiz said.

“You don’t have to promise me anything,” Dean Miles replied. “I have a contract.”

Dean Ruiz left and Dean Miles had just enough time to think about where to get food before there was another knock on the door.

“Alan, we need to talk.” It was the president of the college with a British accent and nervousness dripping from his voice.

Dean Miles opened the door and waved the president in along with Dean Ruiz. They closed the door behind them and took seats.

“How can I help you, President Brighton?” Alan asked. He glanced at the clock on his office wall since his watch was with his clothes. After the division meeting he was supposed to have taught a class; there was still time for him to do that, but he’d need to get a candy bar or two first, and it would be nice if he had at least a few minutes to prepare himself to meet the lesson.

“Well, I heard of the incident at the division meeting, and I need to express my deep concerns over that. I must admit that in my nearly twenty years at this institution, something like this…like what has been reported to me… has never happened before.”

“You mean a member of the faculty turning into a thousand roaches?”

“Precisely.”

“Well, as I explained to Dean Ruiz, it still hasn’t happened. That’s not what went on at all. I think my version of events makes far more sense than anything I’ve heard reported. Unfortunate, yes, but certainly not cause for any lasting concern.”

There was silence in the office. Two of the men in the room hadn’t seen the incident that was causing so much trouble and the third one denied it ever happened. It was a hard day to be administration.

“Could you excuse us for a moment?” the president asked Dean Ruiz. Ruiz got out of his chair and into the hallway at a sprint. The president turned to Dean Miles slowly once the door had been closed.

“Dean Miles,” he said. “Alan. I’m afraid that your resignation is going to be required. What you have managed to do, in just one day on the job, is to alienate every single faculty member in the division you were hired to lead.”

President Brighton pulled a sheet of paper out of a breast pocket in his suit jacket. He looked it over carefully and then handed it to Dean Miles. The dean read it, then laid it on his desk.

“A petition is not binding,” he said.

“But everyone in your department signed it.”

“I don’t care if Moses signed it. I’m not resigning. I can’t resign. I quit my previous job, sold my house, moved halfway across the country, signed a month to month lease, and engaged a real estate agent. If they think I’m resigning over one bad day, they’re insane.”

“We can compensate you for the moving expenses…Give you a glowing reference…”

“But, I don’t want to go. Besides, the semester just started, no one is hiring. No one would be hiring until next year. No way. I’ll fight this. Just you wait until the media get a hold of this story. The whole science faculty believes they saw a man turn into a thousand roaches. That’ll make the national news.”

Dean Miles laughed softly. He had the president right where he wanted him in this negotiation and was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“There’s more,” the president said. “There are four young ladies in my office right now – students on this campus, all of them in good standing academically, I might add. They are writing out complaints about what they saw today, complaints about you specifically.”

“More mass hysteria,” Dean Miles said. “I did not turn into a bunch of roaches.”

“No, they’re not complaining about that. Instead, they say they saw you, completely nude, standing at your window for several seconds. They were quite upset by that. They’re filing sexual harassment complaints. I’ll remind you that all that is needed for their complaints to move forward and for you to be found guilty of sexual harassment is that you…uh…let’s see… ‘contributed to an environment that any reasonable person might find oppressive.’ I think you’ll agree that having a dean entrusted with the care of the students stand in his office window without a stitch of clothes on is oppressive.”

“It depends on the dean,” Dean Miles said, but this was more to fill the time rather than an attempt at being sly. He was hungry. It felt like it had been days since he last ate. It was distracting.

“Well, be that as it may, your choices are simple. I can have your letter of resignation by three this afternoon or I will see that the complaints of harassment go forward and what the media will hear is how you, by your own admission, streaked across campus in the nude and stood in your office window showing your…pride to all who cared to see. I’ll make special mention of the fact that you sat for this interview in your regalia. And that when you crossed your legs, as you have done several times during this interview, I was given full view of…well, more than I wanted. Start packing.”

Alan Miles had no response for the president. He was almost woozy with hunger, but he knew he had been thwarted. He typed out a brief letter of resignation while the president sat in the office waiting; he signed it and handed it over.

“This isn’t the last you see of me,” he said. The president chose to misunderstand.

“I certainly hope not. I’m sure you’ll be successful in all your future endeavors.” He turned to leave the office, but turned back again.

“Oh, and do be careful to turn in your office keys and your semester parking pass as you leave.”

That afternoon, Dean Miles packed the few items he had had time to set up in his office and did all the little administrative things necessary to sever the ties between himself and the college. This included calls to payroll, to benefits, and to the computer techs who had turned on his email accounts just the day before. He hesitated before carrying his box out to the car. He’d have to go past Martha’s office. She’d taunt him, he felt sure. Or try to step on him. It couldn’t be avoided.

He stepped out into the hallway, girding himself mentally for the confrontation he was sure would come. He saw down the hallway that her office door was closed, and he hoped she had left for the day. As he neared, it opened. She stood in her doorway sneering at him.

“I told you you were through,” she said.

“This isn’t the last you’ll see of me,” he answered. A bigger man might have just let her words slide off him.

“Oh yeah,” she said. Then she pulled a can of insecticide from off a shelf near the door and waggled it at him. “I’m ready.”

Dean Miles was about to respond with something smart, but the box slipped from his hands and crushed several of the roaches that had been his feet. The rest of him dissolved into the insects under his cap and gown and scurried away from the light and away from Martha with her can, and into corners and crevices throughout the building. Martha sprayed liberally and did him some damage, but she couldn’t get all of him. Not even half. What was left of him, and it was a lot, had found things to eat and comfortable places to hide for the night all over campus.

“They’ll never get rid of me now,” he told himself.

*****

Bio: Steven Torres is the author of The Concrete Maze and other mystery type novels. He lives in Connecticut with wife and child.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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3 Responses to Fiction: The Dean by Steven Torres

  1. Patti Abbott on May 1, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Very very clever story and all too reminiscent of the academics I work with.

  2. Paul Brazill on May 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    A scary world and one of the best opening lines that I’ve seen for a bit. Top tale.

  3. Jack on May 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I think my mouth was open the whole time I read this several months ago. I’d never seen anything like it. Thanks for sending it to us, Steven.