Back to Charles Rammelkamp's Artist PageTo the Artist's Page                       Back to the Unlikely Stories home pageTo our home page
Everybody Plays the FoolTo Charles Rammelkamp's previous piece     Freewheelin' Roger CastlemanTo Charles Rammelkamp's next piece

Judgement Day

“Maybe you didn't ask to be born, child, but every time you take a breath you asking to go on living,” the Jehovah's Witness said to Roger Castleman. She stood on the front porch, Castleman holding the door open, politely barring her entrance with his arm. Was she speaking rhetorically, he wondered, or was she actually addressing him. Castleman certainly wasn't a child any more. He wondered vaguely if anybody in the history of humanity had ever actually said they hadn't asked to be born.

“That's true,” he nodded. He did not want to argue, though he did not want to encourage her, either. Maybe if he gave her some money and took her magazines she would leave. It usually worked that way, though some proselytizers just wanted to talk. Castleman felt drawn back to the living room by the magnet of his ungraded tests and papers. Grades were due by noon tomorrow.

“None of this never would have happened,” the lady said, swinging her arm out in an all-inclusive gesture, “if we’d just done what God wants us to be doing.” Castleman assumed she meant the September 11 terrorist attacks but didn’t want to get into specifics. He just nodded again, smiling like an idiot.

“God has a plan for us,” she went on, “and come Judgment Day when we got to answer for our actions, we gonna come up short. Then you tell God you didn’t ask to be born and see what he say. Like the Bible says –”

“Hey, I’m with you on all this,” Castleman said, seeing his silence merely turned on the spigot of her voice. “Listen, can I buy a copy of your magazine? I’ve got to go pick my kids up from school,” he lied, “but I’d like to read one.”

“These here are free, but if y’all want to make a donation…”

Castleman tossed the magazines onto the coffee table and plucked Debbie Bartell’s final exam from the 102 course pile. THE NEW FACE OF TERRORISM the magazine’s headline declared in large type over a vaguely Middle Eastern looking man carrying an automatic rifle, and underneath the image the caption: What God Expects of Us.

Castleman idly remembered his colleague who’d found his windshield smashed in in the faculty parking lot one spring evening; he’d always suspected a student he’d had problems with and had ultimately failed. Campus and city police never found out who did it. The new face of terrorism. Castleman opened Debbie’s blue book. Her penmanship was perfect, if nothing else, he reflected, looking at the clear bold looping writing going evenly across the page, easy to read. Debbie had once complained that she could not read his comments on her papers. “You’d never get away with that in Catholic school,” she said.

The first essay question read, “E.M. Forester distinguishes between a ‘story’ and a ‘plot.’ Using the two versions we read this semester of ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog’ by Anton Chekov and Joyce Carol Oates, analyze this distinction. How do the different narrative voices contribute to this? (25 points)” Debbie’s answer was succinct: “Checkov tells a story, and Oates tells a plot,” she’d written in her legible, easy-to-read looping script. That was it.

Castleman’s pen wavered around the margin. “How so?” “What do you mean?” and “Please elaborate,” all came to mind as did “You don’t ‘tell’ a plot.” and “Be sure to check spelling.” Finally, unable to write more than “10” next to the answer, indicating the 40% he decided her answer merited, he set the paper aside and picked up Rita Smith’s instead.

“Oates fractures Chekov’s traditionally male chronological plot structure of ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog,’ shifting the parts of the fragmented story around like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle and thereby highlighting the innocent ‘Anna’s’ confusion (Oates’s female protagonist remains unnamed, another indication of her identity crisis; she is called Anna Sergeyevna in Chekov’s story.); the plot mirrors her psychological state,” Rita began her three-page answer. He picked up Debbie’s paper again and changed the 10 to 12; he felt generous; 48% was still failing, but perhaps she would make it up on some of the others – the ID questions, for instance, like the lightning round in a television quiz show. How demoralizing and just plain ridiculous it was to have to grade these papers, to be “fair” and “judicious.” To take them seriously.

Castleman found himself wondering if his own life had a plot, a nexus of connected events beyond the trajectory of a semester. Perhaps there were recurring themes -- guilt, responsibility, and mistake after mistake after mistake, but was there a story, in the sense of a drama, an unfolding action? He doubted it. It seemed like a never-ending sort of sameness that sometimes felt like deja vu -- like Sisyphus rolling his rock, Castleman was just grading endless exams, no resolution to any problem, really. The Myth of Progress eluded him.

“Discuss Aristotle’s concept of ‘recognition’ (anagnorisis) with respect to Oedipus Rex and A Doll’s House. When does the moment occur and what does it represent in each play? How are they different from each other? (25 points)

“Edipuss finds out he killed his father and had sexual intercourse with his mother,” Debbie wrote. “Nora realizes her husband treats her like a slave and she’s not going to take it any more. Edipuss loves his mother but hates himself, Nora loves herself but hates her husband, and it’s hard to tell what she thinks of her children.”

Debbie was a disagreeable girl, the disrespectful sort of student who sits in the back of the class whispering behind her hand to the person sitting next to her, rolling her eyes and shooting disdainful glances his way. She blamed her ignorance on Castleman. She wasn’t a bad student; he was a bad teacher.

Castleman tossed the exams aside and looked at the pamphlets on obeying God’s commandments in order to keep Him from punishing us. He thought of a small boy with an ant farm blocking certain paths to force the ants in a different direction. But Castleman couldn’t muster the apocalyptic fervor the magazines seemed to demand and he lost interest. His impending dental appointment filled him with more dread than the prospect of Judgment Day. He cringed, thinking about it. The implicit threats the hygienist made to yank his teeth out in order to save them, the tsk-tsk noises the dentist made about his gums, the laser surgery they all recommended. They muttered the word “gingivitis,” portentously shook their heads at possible cavities and flapping gums and warned him over and over again about the importance of flossing his teeth (“But I do! I do floss!” he insisted “Every night, or at least most nights! I swear I do!”). Castleman sought escape in the novel he was reading, Russo’s Straight Man, just a short break from the exams, he promised, and then he’d go back to grading.


There was no final exam in the creative writing class, but the students did have to turn in a portfolio of their work on final exam day. That morning, the day before all final grades were due, Castleman received a call from Kelly Hale, a student who was transferring to some school in Oregon in the spring. She had missed about six classes, but Castleman had already decided she was getting a C, even though she hadn’t done all of the work; the credits would transfer. Kelly called to say she hadn’t realized that her creative writing portfolio was due that day and could she bring it in later. This of course would mean an extra pointless trip for Castleman, a delay in turning in grades, and he had his heart set on washing his hands of them that very evening. He almost said, “Look, Kelly, let’s just say fuck it, and I’ll just give you a C, okay?” But he thought it might make him vulnerable so he said she could e-mail her portfolio or just leave it in his mailbox and then went ahead and gave her a C, not entirely sure she’d ever deliver a portfolio at all.

In class that evening, Castleman collected the portfolios from the students, wished them a fun semester break and went to his office to skim through the portfolios before finalizing grades and turning in his grade sheet. He turned off the overhead lights, closed the classroom door and headed down the hallway to his office, and who did he find sitting like a sentinel outside his office but Rowena Chalmers, the Jamaican girl he’d been prepared to pass even though she didn’t deserve it. Yes, he’d decided to give Rowena a C if she only went through the motions of doing a half-assed presentation of her work the previous week (three weeks after she’d signed up to give it), but she hadn’t shown up, and here she was now. Castleman was still prepared to pass her, if she only turned in a halfway decent portfolio – but what did she have to say in the hallway? She didn’t even bother to make an excuse for last week, just plunged in with her latest.

“Mister Castleman, because I didn’t have my student ID with me, they wouldn’t let me use the computers to type up my poems and stories. All I have is my rough drafts. I was wondering if I could wait until next week to get these to you?”

As far as Castleman could tell, Rowena had written only two poems all semester and missed about eight classes (that is, eight weeks, since there was only one class per week), and while he felt for her being a non-native unaccustomed to life in America – well, even he had his limits. But even now, he thought he could bend a little, give Rowena the benefit of the doubt, so he said, “Well, just give me the rough drafts, Rowena, that’ll be fine.” Anything to justify a passing grade.

Rowena rummaged through her purse looking for them, but of course there were no “rough drafts.” She produced the one typewritten poem she’d shown him four weeks before and also a handwritten poem from the first week of class, that he’d marked up; it was crumpled like a Kleenex at the bottom of her bag.

“No, I’d be too ashamed to show you these as they are now” – like a magician fabricating manuscripts that didn’t exist – “so could I mail them to you?”

“Sure.” Castleman refused to jump to the bait. He was sure she was just waiting for him to slam-dunk her with the rules about deadlines, so she could continue being a victim, but he hated being the “cop.” He spelled out his address for her, and she dutifully wrote it all down. Of course, he’d be surprised if he ever actually saw anything from her.

“Have a Merry Christmas!” he wished her cheerfully – giving her her cue for her exit – and she looked resentfully at him, knowing his game. Castleman wound up giving Rowena a D – which amounted to giving her an F, as far as receiving credit went, but he had to hand it to her, she was a real con artist. The only person Castleman actually failed was Debbie Bartell in his 102 class. Debbie had made a pathetic stab at a third essay question and had completely ignored the identification section.

Analyze the following poem, "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" by John Keats. Is this a Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet? Describe the logic of the poem and its rhyme scheme. What is the "problem" and how is it "resolved?" How do the logic and rhyme scheme contribute to this problem-resolution logic? (25 points)

Debbie had written: “John Keets whines about being afraid of dying, but you know what? There’s nothing he can do about it so he might as well stop being such a crybaby.”

Castleman went to his office and skimmed through the portfolios. Shading in the “D” on the grade grid next to Rowena’s name, he finished up and put all the grade sheets into the inter-office envelope to hand to the office clerk in the Administration building. He still had forty-five minutes before the office closed. He stood up and stretched, gathered his belongings and was just about to walk out the door when his phone rang.

“Hello, Perfesser Castleman?”

”Debbie, hi.” His heart sank.

“Hi, I was just wondering if you’d turned in grades yet. I just realized I forgot to do those identifications and was wondering if I could come in and do them. I promise I haven’t looked any of them up. I’m right here on campus right now. I’m calling from the student union.”

“I was just on my way over to Records and Registration.”

“Did I pass?”

“Debbie – I can’t tell you this –”

“You flunked me, didn’t you?”

“Debbie, I’m not supposed to say –” He felt like such a coward, not coming out and telling her, hiding behind the so-called “regulations,” but it felt like a good strategy for getting her off the line.

“I’ll lose my scholarship if I fail this class, Perfesser Castleman.”

“”Listen, Debbie, don’t worry about the scholarship.” Of course, he knew there wasn’t any scholarship, just as Rowena hadn’t had any poems.

“Does that mean I passed?”

“Debbie – have a merry Christmas,” Castleman said, hanging up the phone just as she was saying, “But Perfesser –”

Before the phone could ring again, Castleman was out the door, going across the campus to the Administration building. He waited his turn in line behind six others who were likewise turning in their grades. He handed his envelope to the records clerk, and then he was free! For a moment, as he walked through the darkness to the parking lot, he felt as though a huge burden had been lifted; he was free! Maybe this was the Roger Castleman story after all, the connect-the-dots plot of his life adding up to a moment of release. He could taste the freedom. What would he do tomorrow, without any obligations holding him down? And then he remembered the dental appointment, and his feeling of freedom vanished. (“We really recommend this laser surgery, Mister Castleman. It only hurts a little bit and it may be your last chance to save your teeth.”)

When he reached the parking lot, Castleman found the left front tire of his GEO Prizm flat on the ground, like silly putty pressed against the asphalt, the car leaning on its side like a wounded animal. God damn it! he sighed, kneeling to examine the slashed tire. Did he ask to be born?

To the top of this pageTo the top of this page