It was the final night of the Eagleburger retreat, held at a cluster of chalets owned by an alum’s shell corporation. The mountains were too close to see. Snow hissed into the jacuzzi. The Dean, the Department Head and the Adjunct stewed in the frothing glow. The Adjunct wore boxers. He had forgotten to pack swim trunks.
The Eagleburger Society, an influential and secretive body within the Board of Regents, required each academic department to nominate one student per year. Nominees received a travel voucher to the retreat, where they were invited to present their most intriguing ideas, predictions and theories. While the English Department invariably, even enthusiastically, attended, they were historically ignored by Eagleburger heavies, who sought synergy, seamless product placement, disruptive models, early access to advances.
But this year the Eagleburgers were oddly attentive. The Adjunct, the Department Head and their nominee had been wined and dined, soaked and swaddled. Another dubious benefit: the lingering presence of the Dean deep into après hour, awkwardly accounting for earlier indifference.
“Due to student protest, negative press attention and a corresponding drop in donations, we recently divested from some less-than-progressive but fantastically profitable industries,” said the Dean. “In many ways it’s an exciting time. Like so many other fields and industries we’re being reimagined every day. Whole new horizons and vulnerabilities.”
The Adjunct needed another job. The predictably threadbare existence of a freelance Fellow and intermittent McCafé Writer-in-Residence: applying for application fee-waivers, trading porno passwords for prescription drugs, burning bridges for warmth. He spent the summer scrubbing pots at a lobster shack and slinging self-published chapbooks to respectable citizens as they strolled from the park’s amphitheater to the bistro’s wine patio.
“We’re exploring strategic partnerships,” said the Dean. “Tech overlords, government agencies, various industrial complexes, needy philanthropists. We’re weighing farming initiatives–opiates, hydroponics–a low-res MBA, clones, drones.”
Increasingly the Adjunct felt like an extra in the movie of his life. The role of protagonist had been ceded to his students: lock jawed legacies, tattooed scions, earbudded athletes, third-year sophomores in pajamas texting under the table. Make-a-Wish kids that never died.
Back at home dinner was store-brand seltzer, hummus on a hot dog roll.
“We’ve sold mining rights, drilling rights, naming rights, our email list. We’ve established an online for-profit arm, free-market dogma with a Biblical bent. There’s a rendition site under the planetarium, a missile silo under the squash courts.”
“Didn’t the bin Ladens go here?” asked the Adjunct.
“Just the secular ones,” said the Dean.
The Adjunct was of the opinion that his company drank too slowly. The Department Head was steady (Ivy diplomas, famous fellowships, perfunctory novels, early emeritus): A successful person who happened to be a writer. His goblet was shallow, largely ceremonial. The Dean spent a lot of time chewing the Clementine wedge floating in his Hefeweizen. But the Adjunct was a borderline freegan, so it pained him to see anything short of a full assault on their suite’s reliably refreshed mini-bar.
“We get a cut of coach’s hair gel sales,” said the Dean. “We launder booster dollars for a fee. We’ve sexualized our mascot and instigated multiple rivalries.”
“What about the civil trial?” asked the Adjunct.
Criminal charges had been dismissed.
“We’re cooperating with the authorities where appropriate.”
“What about the confidence vote?” asked the Department Head.
“We’re confident it will be overturned.”
“The internal leaks?” asked the Adjunct.
“New policy has all custodians signing non-disclosure agreements.”
“New tactics on retention?”
A few of the Department Head’s favorite gamines had recently transferred. His beard, flecked with snow, made his face appear especially forlorn, like an overgrown tennis court.
“We’ve lengthened the driveway so desirables feel more at home,” said the Dean. “The zoo is interactive. The foosball is life-size, the croquet court glow-in-the-dark.”
The Adjunct’s rental tuxedo was in a pile by the door. He didn’t like to think about its previous tenants. His was the only jacket with visible sweat rings under the arms.
“My daughter’s roommate is a nightmare,” said the Department Head. She was a freshman at a lavish competitor. “Sleep eating, vocal fry, DJ equipment everywhere.”
“Our assignment algorithm is proprietary,” said the Dean. “Everyone gets a former child star or a friendly, hygienic doormat.”
Over the course of the weekend it was revealed that the Eagleburgers had discovered a potentially profitable kernel within the English Department nominee’s dystopian novella. The hero of “The Suction” was a bohemian coder who accidentally reconfigured a privacy program, granting him endless blackmail opportunities.
The Adjunct remembered discussing an early draft of “The Suction” in workshop. “The first person to release their search history will get famous as fuck,” he’d said. “But it won’t be me.”
High among the Adjunct’s embarrassing searches was Rye Lilly, the author of “The Suction,” and the usual spiral of related results: profiles, political contributions, real estate records, class notes, club memberships, wedding announcements, obits.
“There are comfort dogs on call,” continued the Dean. “We cut the ribbon on the IMAX theater and broke ground on the vapor lounge.”
Rye possessed, among other persuasive qualities, a pied-à-terre at the Pierre.
“But lately we’ve been wondering,” said the Dean. “How to monetize our wait list?”
The Adjunct puked off the balcony. Mountains emerged in the dawn like rogue waves. Checkout was noon. They had to take a chopper to the jetport. Rye returned to the suite well after breakfast, dilated, rambling jargon, gripping a liter of bourbon by the neck. Still, he wielded the power to swell hearts and zipper the howling void. The Adjunct stretched in the warmth of his student’s shadow and the room tilted with a contagious sense of possibility: a rope bridge stretched across a ravine, a danger disguised as a hit of hope.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Maine. Visit him there, or at mikeymcgrath.com