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Everybody Plays the Fool

“So,” Christopher Leach said, as they walked down the winding staircase of the Humanities Building, twining like ivy from the second floor classrooms to street level, on their way to the parking lot. “What did you think of my story?”

Castleman had been dreading the question, hoping Chris would not ask it. Fortunately, Shelley MacArthur, who customarily waited for Castleman after class to accompany him to the parking lot, responded first. Shelley seemed to think of herself as Castleman’s sidekick, the deputy sheriff to his Marshall Dillon, if not an equal partner in the Creative Writing classroom, instructing the students, at least a person with valuable insights to share with the less talented members of the class.

“I didn’t get a sense of where the plot’s going.” Shelley said, looking at Castleman for approval. “It’s very descriptive writing, though; I really liked the way you showed the men in their bright red outfits, the gold chains and diamond pinky rings and tattoos.”

What distressed Castleman was that although Christopher had a penchant for science fiction and wrote fantasy quests taking place in distant galaxies and was very big on Nostradamus and his doomsday predictions, he was probably the most intelligent and articulate student in class, barring Shelley. So it was painful to him to have to express an opinion that was less than encouraging.

“The characters are a little...stereotypical, don’t you think?” he said after a moment, almost apologetic. Chris’s characters were always pretty thin; in the science fiction tales they were named ‘Nero’ and ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Menelaus,’ names from Greek and Roman antiquity but without reference to their sources. Or they were called “Gree” and “Ooombah,” and other made-up meaningless tags straight out of comic books. They were forever shooting laser guns and slaying monsters.

But Chris had been formulating a response to Shelley, and as they walked out of the Humanities Building in single file, Chris in front, he spoke over his shoulder. “What’s going to happen is that Rogers is going to get his revenge on Baad-Ass and Jonesy for getting his brother hooked on drugs and thrown in prison.”

“The guy who drives up to the crack house in the Mustang?” Shelley asked.

“Rogers? Yeah.”

“Kind of like John Wayne,” Castleman commented, unable to disguise the sarcasm. “The vigilante taking justice into his own hands.” Chris looked at Castleman, stung by a sneaking suspicion he was being ridiculed.

“What do you mean by stereotypes?”

“Isn’t that how African-American men are often portrayed? As violent gang members?”

“That’s not how I see African-American men,” Chris protested. He was offended that Castleman would suggest such a thing, hurt at being taken for such a crass racist.

“I’m not saying that’s how you see them,” Castleman said, “but that’s one of the main stereotypes from television and the movies. I mean --” Castleman could see the stony looks of silence on Tanya Butler’s and Quitman Short’s faces, the two black students in his class, as Chris not only read the story aloud, describing the garish pimp clothing the men wore but even attempting a ghetto accent as he read the dialogue between the gang members. “Yo, dog, you ain’t messin’ wit’ me, is you?” “And what if I is, what’s yo’ sorry ass gone do bout it?”

“Well, I mean it’ll be interesting to see how the plot develops,” Castleman concluded evasively, reaching his car. “But try to make the black characters a little less one-dimensional, you know? A little more complex. You working on anything, Shelley?” Changing the subject was always a good tactic.

“Besides the story I read in class, you mean?”

Usually a good tactic. “Well, yeah – not that you haven’t got enough to concentrate on already, of course.”

“I thought I’d have the driver see the woman who witnesses the accident just as he’s fleeing the scene,” Shelley said. “Make eye contact with her.”

“Good idea.”

Chris hung back like an animal that’s been punished by its owner, and Castleman felt a twinge of guilt, as if he were dodging the issue in a cowardly fashion. But what could he add? What more could he say that he hadn’t already said?

“See you next week!” Castleman shut the car door, sealing himself into a false cocoon of privacy.


“My jaw dropped,” Castleman said to his wife, Jodie, half an hour later. “It was pretty embarrassing, especially his ghetto street-jive accent. I thought maybe Quitman would say something. He looked distressed.”

“This guy Chris is one of your better students, isn’t he?”

“Except he does have this loony obsession with Nostradamus. But yeah, that’s the thing. I hate to discourage him or alienate him.”

“If you tell him tactfully, maybe he won’t take it the wrong way.”

“He seemed to think I was calling him a bigot when I said something about it after class.”

“Sounds like he is.”

“Not necessarily. I don’t know. I didn’t mean to tar him with the brush of political correctness, though. I’m not trying to change him ethically, just aesthetically.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“I thought maybe if I brought it up in a general sort of way next class, using Chris’s story as the example but only to make a point about character development, maybe that would be the right approach.”

“Nostradamus,” Jodie said. “I saw something about him in one of the grocery store tabloids the other day.”


“He predicted three Antichrists,” Chris said. It seemed to Castleman that the white-capped pimples on Chris’s forehead shone more brightly with his earnestness. Rudolph-the-rednose-reindeer. “Napoleon was the first. Of course, Nostradamus wrote in anagrams and puzzles, but experts all agree that when he wrote ‘Pay, Nay, Loron will be more fire than blood,’ he was writing about Napoleon – who was born two centuries after Nostradamus died.”

Castleman smiled at the harmless superstition. He wondered who the “experts” were to whom Chris was referring. The Wizard of Oz? Santa Claus? “When did Nostradamus live?”

“Born 1503, died 1566 – exactly as he’d predicted. But the weird thing is when the city fathers of Saint Remy moved his grave and peeked inside the coffin, they found a medallion on the skeleton’s chest with the numerals 1700 on it – the exact year the coffin was opened, 134 years after Nostradamus’ death!” The pimples on Chris’s forehead glowed; one or two may even have oozed pus.

“So, who were the second and third Antichrists?”

“Hitler was the second. ‘Beasts wild with hunger will cross the rivers,’” Chris recited from memory, “‘the greater part of the battlefield will be against Hister.’ It’s another one of his anagrams – Hister-Hitler,” he explained.

“And the third?”

“The third Antichrist is identified by the anagram, Mabus. Nobody knows who this is; the experts all disagree. But Nostradamus predicted Mabus would appear at the same time that Halley’s Comet appears. So either Mabus appeared in 1986 and we don’t know it or he’ll come in 2061 or some subsequent reappearance of Halley’s Comet. But he may be among us now and we don’t even know it. Maybe it’s Osama bin Laden. Mabus-Osama. Sounds close. Nostradamus did accurately predict the Russian Revolution and the JFK assassination, and even Saddam Hussein and AIDS, after all.”


All week long Castleman agonized over the lesson he would try to teach the creative writing class. It was as if guests of his had been insulted in his own living room, by his own son, and he needed a way to ameliorate the offense without directly indicting Chris. He wanted to spare Chris, who seemed like a harmless nerd who’d just wandered accidentally into territory he should have stayed out of; it would be cruel to make him feel like a pariah. The kid couldn’t really write, at least not yet, but he had an active imagination and basically a good heart. Castleman thought of ways to illustrate his point that would make the pill easier to swallow and would not rub anybody the wrong way, Chris or Quitman or Tanya – or Shelley or anybody else for that matter. He daydreamed about it, the classroom confrontation -- not that “confrontation” was how he thought of it, but in his fancy this would be a defining moment, one that, while being purely a discussion of the craft of writing, would tap into fundamental moral truths as well.

“To create really compelling characters you have to make them as original and unique as human beings,” he heard himself saying. “Make us want to know them. Make us curious about who they are, what makes them tick. Don’t pass moral judgments on your characters. Even some writers whose skills and talents are acknowledged have been guilty at times. It’s the charge that’s leveled at Alice Walker, for instance, that her male characters are one-dimensional. Her black male characters are always depicted as violent, brutish rapists; even the guy in ‘Everyday Use,’ the African nationalist, is little more than a parody, an ineffectual puppet in the struggle among the female characters.

“What made me think of this was Chris’s story from last week. It’s a suspenseful, plot-driven story, but the characters are kind of predictable, and it’s hard to feel much for them one way or the other. They’re stereotypes. Maybe you could surprise us by changing the plot somehow, Chris…”


The night before class, Castleman dreamed he had died and later he wondered about the dream and about Nostradamus and the meaning of dreams. He remembered the Biblical story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows, predicting the future. In his own dream, he’d eaten an anthrax pill guaranteed to kill him in twenty minutes, and then twenty minutes had passed and in the dream he knew he’d died and he spent the rest of the dream -- A moment? An hour? The rest of the night? -- trying somehow to will himself back to life.


“Last week just before class ended,” Castleman began after the class had settled in their seats, “Chris read the beginning of a story he’s working on, and I wanted to use it as an object lesson for a discussion of character development. I just wish Chris were here to defend his story. I feel like I’m talking behind his back.” The first blow to Castleman’s grand plan had been Chris’s absence from class. It was only the second class he’d missed all semester, and Castleman had hoped to engage him in dialogue; the whole fantasy had been built around a Socratic exchange with Christopher Leach. Did Chris’s absence have something to do with the contretemps in the parking lot last week? (Was “contretemps” an exaggeration?) Ah, another reason to regret! “But those characters were pretty much black male stereotypes, violent thugs involved in the drug trade. The clichés you read about in the tabloids.”

“Does it matter if characters are black or white?” Tanya said. “When I write, I don’t think of my characters as being any particular color. In my story about the girl getting her first period? I didn’t think of her being black or white. I don’t know what color she was or any of her friends. They were just children.”

“I don’t know why in my story about the traffic accident I wrote that the woman who witnessed it was black,” Shelley said. “I mean, I didn’t write that any of the other characters were white or black. I guess I could just see her in my mind and I described her that way.”

“If you don’t know what your characters look like, I’d say you’re already in serious trouble,” Castleman said. But then nobody said anything; something was wrong. The scene was not playing itself out the way Castleman had imagined it. Instead of the animated discussion he’d been fantasizing about all week, Castleman only received blank stares. In fact, it was as if most of the students had completely forgotten the class from the week before, as if it had never happened, and all the subsequent agonizing he’d done during the past week had been for naught.

Of course, it seemed so obvious to him, now that he’d let a whole week pass; he should have addressed the issue when it came up, not put it off for a week; of course they’d forgotten – why wouldn’t they? He should have kept his mouth shut. Nostradamus might have predicted this result, he thought wryly. Castleman himself ought to have realized it would be this way. Hell, any fool would have known.

Later, after class, going out to the parking lot, Castleman noticed the cluster of students climbing into the maroon Saturn beside his own car. As in a dream, he knew they were members of his own class, but he could not distinguish one from the other, could not tell if they were male or female, black or white.

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