Two-Year in Hell
Richard Dean tells the story of an unusual choice made by a new Ph.D.
Raymond leaned back in his desk chair and let out a deep sigh. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn't find a job this go-round. He reached into the bottom left drawer of his darkly patinated, sturdy old wooden desk and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He poured two fingers of his familiar solace into an unwashed coffee mug, and surveyed his future.
It was already April. He could easily defend his dissertation and officially receive his Ph.D. this spring if he wanted to. But since it didn't look like he was getting any job as a real professor, it might be a better strategy to wait and graduate next fall or spring. Some schools might look askance at his job applications next year if he had unaccounted-for post-Ph.D. time on his vitae. And, lord knows, schools were all too eager to find any perceived imperfection. It helped them weed out some of the hundreds of applications they received from the hordes of jobless Ph.D.'s. So, he decided, he shouldn't officially get the degree yet, unless something developed quickly on the employment front.
But what would he do next year? He'd been a graduate student for seven years, and, barring some last minute need for an emergency replacement, his department wasn't going to give him another teaching assignment. He just might get part-time teaching work at one of the several universities in the area, but there were no guarantees. He might well end up working at a grocery store, or a bar, or, if things went really badly, at a convenience store or fast food place. He shuddered, thinking of the injustice of one of the bright young minds in his field selling beer and cigarettes to the scum of the earth, or asking some imbecile if he wanted fries with his order.
Raymond stared out the window of his office for a few minutes, morosely sipping his whiskey and imagining the very worst possible scenarios.
When he turned back to his computer, he was surprised to find a job listing glowing on the screen with what seemed to be an unusual luminosity. It was all the more peculiar since he was sure he'd turned off the computer before pouring his drink. Yet there it was.
Job Listing #666. University of Hell at Seventh Circle. Visiting Assistant Professor, two years (with possibility of converting to tenure-track position at culmination of two-year appointment). Beginning September 2009. Teaching load of forty-three courses per semester, with no more than thirty-nine preparations (i.e. instructor will teach more than one section of some courses). No official committee duties, but will be expected to contribute occasionally to departmental administrative work. Competitive salary, given local economy. Candidate must exhibit evidence of strong potential for both research and teaching, and significant flexibility in his/her expectations. For further information, repeat the name “Mizrakreth, Chair of Hiring Committee” three times.
Raymond stroked his chin thoughtfully. After a minute he began chanting “Mizrakreth...” After all, it couldn't hurt just to get a bit more information.
Patrick looked up at Raymond. “What do you mean, 'University of Hell?'”
“You know, Hell. They apparently have some colleges down there.”
Patrick took his feet off the chair that students used when they visited during office hours, then kicked the chair a few inches and nodded at it, as an invitation to sit. “So your question is whether I think you should apply for a job in Hell?”
“Yes, right,” Raymond said, seating himself.
“Hell, the site of eternal torment for the souls of the damned.”
“Given that particular description of the place, an obvious answer seems to suggest itself.”
“No, come on. Seriously.”
“Do you have some reason to think that I'm not being serious when I recommend that you not freely choose to enter Hell?” Patrick asked.
“I know, I know, I dismissed it too at first. But put aside your preconceptions for a minute.”
“They're pretty deeply ingrained.”
Raymond ignored the comment, and explained, “Sure, it's Hell. And that's a minus. But at least it's an academic job. I mean, yes, there's the damnation and torment aspect, but at least I won't have wasted the last seven years of my life. I'll be using my education, you know?”
Patrick scratched at a spot in the middle of his forehead, and slightly scrunched his face. “How can I express this? You seem not to be recognizing something ... this is ... it's, it's HELL! People don't want to go to Hell! Very significant numbers of people restructure their entire lives so as to avoid going to this very place that you're eagerly traipsing off to! Are you crazy?”
Raymond's neck and cheeks flushed slightly. “Sure, you can afford to be a snob, with your job already in the bag. We can't all get cushy, hot shot jobs like yours,” he said, rising from the chair. “Excuse me for not living up to your lofty standards.”
Patrick held his hands out, palms up, and said, “What are you talking about? I got a one-year job at Eastern South Dakota State College. I have to teach four courses a semester. It'll be hell!”
Raymond bit his lower lip.
Patrick cleared his throat, “Uh, not literally Hell, of course. Sorry.”
In the silence that followed, Raymond reseated himself. Staring at the floor, he said, “I guess four courses a term is a lot, compared to some places.”
“And, ah, what's the teaching load in Hell?” Patrick asked.
“It's pretty heavy.”
“More than four?”
“More than five? Ray, how many courses do you have to teach?”
“Thirty-something, forty-something, I forget.”
“Thirty or forty per YEAR?”
“What are you talking about? Raymond, there are some professors who go through an entire, long, fruitful, distinguished career and then retire barely having taught forty classes! It's not humanly possible to teach that many per semester!”
“But it's not that many preps. Mizrakreth said that sometimes you only have to prepare twenty or so courses, then for some of your courses you just teach the same material from the same notes.”
“And Mizrakreth is...?”
“Chair of the hiring committee. A mid-level sub-demon. He seemed pretty upfront about the whole thing. Admitted it was a heavy teaching load, but he pointed out some advantages, too.”
“Well, of course, it is a job in humanities, and you know they're not easy to come by. Besides that, the teaching could be a plus in a way. I'll teach a bunch of different courses, and that can only look good on my vitae. And it sounds like, in recent years, there's more of a trend for people to get good jobs after working a year or two as visiting professors, instead of right out of grad school.”
“So it's a temporary job?”
“Oh, sure. A two-year. I wouldn't want to live there forever. But you have to pay your dues nowadays. And I assume I could leave after just one year if I really don't like it.”
“Does the contract say that?”
“I haven't actually seen the official contract yet. There's a lot of red tape down there, apparently. Mizrakreth said it would probably be okay, we'd have to play it by ear.”
“I'd get it in writing,” Patrick advised. “They might be sticklers.”
Raymond nodded. “Anyway, from what Mizrakreth said, it's not as bad down there as the media makes people think. They've really been working on improving the place.”
“Wouldn't that defeat the whole 'eternal torment' business?”
“Look, a lot of places have worked on being more livable. Cleveland, Pittsburgh,” Raymond said. “Newark, I think.”
“None of which are located in the netherworld per se. Nor designed for the express purpose of providing unremitting agony for the residents. I hardly think Hell is that interested in urban planning, or sprucing things up.” Noticing Raymond's dour look, Patrick softened his tone. “At least don't sign anything until you've visited the campus.”
“That's kind of a problem, actually. They don't have the money to bring people in for on-campus interviews for temporary jobs. If it was a tenure-track job, that'd be a different story. The economy down there hasn't been so good lately.”
“So what's the pay, anyway?”
“Well, Mizrakreth wasn't sure. It's not really his decision. The administration'll decide, based on my experience, etcetera. But he assured me it'll be competitive.”
“Read the fine print, okay?”
A pudgy, youngish man with curly blond hair walked into the room and set his backpack on a desk by the door. “What's up?” he asked.
“Raymond's thinking of applying for a job in Hell,” Patrick answered.
The pudgy man paused, looking at their faces to see if they were joking. After a few seconds, he asked, “Tenure track?”
“Naw,” Raymond answered. “Two-year.”
“Those can be rough. You just get settled in, you have to move again.”
“It could be converted to tenure-track after two years, though, if everything works out.”
Patrick raised his hand and said, “Which of course would mean spending more time in Hell.”
“Still,” the pudgy man said, “Tenure-track is tenure-track.”
“Karen, we need to talk,” Raymond said.
He was sitting on her couch, holding the last slice of the pizza they'd ordered. She sat in her favorite chair, nearby. They had just finished watching a syndicated rerun of The Simpsons. Karen turned to look at him, and, as always, he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. It seemed like all illusions would wither under the force of her intelligent, gray eyes. He wondered, not for the first time, if he was crazy to leave her. Though he truly cared about her, he comforted himself with the thought that there'd be other women. What was important right now was not to hurt her any more than was unavoidable.
Setting down his pizza, he asked, “Remember that two-year job I told you I applied for, a week or so ago?”
“Sure. The Hell job.”
“Right.” He hesitated. “They offered it to me, and I think I'm going to take it.”
She nodded slowly.
Raymond continued, thoughtfully, “So, we've talked before about what we'd do if I got a job somewhere. I guess what we decided was that it depended partly on how far away it was and how workable a long-distance relationship would be.”
“And Hell is really far away,” Karen said. “I guess it is, anyway. Is it another dimension, or what?”
“Yeah, a different plane. So, I guess it seems to me that we shouldn't try to keep up a monogamous relationship. In the end, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me. But how do you feel about it?”
“You're right,” she said after thinking a moment. “And it's not like we haven't seen this coming. To be honest, I can't say I'd be that enthusiastic about visiting you down there. I think the best thing is probably to say we don't have any commitments.”
“None at all, you mean?” Raymond asked, then quickly added, “Right, you're right. No commitments. Although it's not as if I have plans to meet a lot of women in Hell or anything. How much dating could there be?” He absently picked up the slice of pizza and took a bite, then added, “I suppose that in Hell in general, there might be some orgies and things, but nothing appealing.”
“Didn't you say it was in the seventh circle of Hell?” Karen asked.
“Right. University of Hell at Seventh Circle.”
Karen slightly shook her head, and said, “Probably no orgies there. Lust, carnal sins, that stuff's supposedly on the earlier levels. Second or third circle, I think.”
“Really? It's all divided up like that?”
“Well, I don't know this. It's just vague memories of stuff I've read. The seventh circle is supposedly for violent criminals, murderers and the like.”
“Also, it's hot. Flaming cinders falling from the sky, river of boiling blood, burning deserts. Again, 'supposedly.' This is all just hearsay.”
Raymond had been chewing his bite of pizza for a long time. Now he swallowed.
Karen put her hand on his reassuringly. “Like I said, this is not reliable information. Maybe it's not like that at all.”
Raymond nodded stoically.
“Do you like succubus?” Karen asked.
“Succubus?” Raymond asked. He tilted his head, and said, “Well, sure, you know I like...”
“No, that's not what 'succubus' means,” Karen said. “They're some kind of female demon. Actually, maybe the plural is 'succubi.' They might be available.”
“I don't know about that,” Raymond said. “But I'm not even thinking about women down there. I'll be so busy teaching, I won't have any free time.”
“The regular women, I mean the damned ones, they'd probably have some complexion problems. You know, blisters, charring. From the heat. If they have bodies at all. Maybe they're not corporeal.”
Raymond sat silently for a while, then picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth.
Karen reached over and squeezed his free hand and said, “Sorry. Let's not talk about it any more.” She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm around his shoulders. “I hope things work out for you, Raymond. I really do.”
Raymond ran into the mouth of the cave to escape the swirling firestorm. Burning flakes of ash had completely ruined his sportcoat. He'd been shielding his pile of syllabuses by hunching over them as he ran, but now they spontaneously burst into flame from the ambient heat. He dropped the syllabuses and blew on his fingers, muttering “Damn!” He quickly looked around, not sure if he might incur some special penalty for saying that word here.
His students were already there waiting for him in the cave/classroom. It didn't look like a promising bunch. There were indeed a great many unpleasant blisters, and various other wounds and scars. Some students were chained to their iron seats, and Raymond could hear and smell their flesh sizzling. They produced small streams of either smoke or steam, which would no doubt distract the other students. Most everyone was moaning, which also did not contribute to the learning environment. There were three students whose eyes had been gouged out, leaving gaping, bloody sockets. Raymond couldn't see how this was related to the heat, and guessed they must be transfer students. To accommodate them, Raymond made a mental note to be sure to repeat all his main points in a clear voice, even if he wrote them on the board. In the corner was a humanoid-looking tree. Its bark smoldered, and it groaned.
Raymond walked to the front of the room. He tried to introduce himself, but was drowned out by ghastly wails from beyond the rough-hewn rock wall. He put his mouth near the wall and shouted, “Excuse me!” repeatedly, and then, “Hey, we're having a class here!” He accidentally brushed his lip against the wall, and jerked his head back in pain. A blister was already forming on his lip from the hot stone, and his shouting hadn't affected the racket next door. In the second row, a woman's hair caught fire.
“Tough crowd,” he said under his breath, and shook his head. Then, “Two years, two years.” He tried very hard to remember if converting the job to tenure track was his option, or the administration's.
Richard Dean wrote this story well before applying for his current job at the American University of Beirut, and also before applying for his previous job at Rutgers University. By no means is he comparing either place to Hell.
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