Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4599 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

The Neophyte

Clyde Fixmer

The last flight of stairs was the hardest. I reached the top floor exactly at 9:00 a.m., well out of breath, and knocked on a frosted glass door marked Academic Advisor. I took out a handkerchief and wiped what seemed to be graphite from my hands, thinking, Was that what had caused my fall in the eighth stairwell?

I entered and saw a man in a black blazer and rep-striped tie, talking on the phone. He motioned me in with a sweeping left arm, pointing a thumb to a seat across from him. “Back to you later, Evelyn—the new student just arrived. Bye.” The phone entered its cradle like a nail into soft wood. Immediately his left hand shot out, catching mine in an unfamiliar wrist-handshake. “You must be Tyrone, H.P.,” he boomed, pumping my arm. He pronounced my name like an item on a cargo manifest. I nodded. “Parrillus, A.A. Call me Alex.”

“Call me Harold, sir,” I rejoined.

“Harald, Harald,” he pronounced, heavily accenting the first syllable. “I like it. Calls to mind that famous Viking, Harald the Fairhair. Only yours is dark.” The pride in his voice left as he surveyed my head. “Minor detail. Now to business,” he said. “May I say that we here at New School are genuinely glad to find a person of your calibre and qualifications wanting to keep in step with the times, as it were. And,” he said, chuckling, “I see you got here with barely a scratch!” He smiled, the teeth in his perfect bite interlocking with a snap.

“Well, I did rip my trousers a bit.” I rose to show him the tear on my left pantleg where nails had snagged me. “And I skinned my elbow when a step gave way...”

“Yes, yes,” he hissed approvingly, “that one gets the best of them! But no matter. I note you had the presence of mind to crawl the last ten feet to my office, though just hunching over would’ve been sufficient.” He answered my raised eyebrows by pointing to his mirrored sunglasses. “Latest high-tech ultra-violet gizmos—I can see luminous residue on the knees of your trousers. Congratulations—you avoided the sleep-darts! Otherwise, you’d be out in the alley now, recovering from a severe trankover.

“Surely you’re joking about the darts, sir,” I laughed. I was about to admit I’d tripped over my feet after the tiring thirteen-flight climb, when he interrupted.

“Your dossier looks good. Fine scores all around: really great D.Q., very excellent S.A.! My boy, you could conceivably graduate with honors! And,” he added, “You’re most definitely in line for a full scholarship.” He removed the sunglasses.

There was a warmth in his smile and a glimmer in his eyes I hadn’t seen since the home movies of my mother after giving birth. “Uh, pardon me, sir, you seem to know a lot about me, and I...”

“My dear fellow, the New School’s motto is, Be Prepared!

“Yessir,” I acknowledged, “but I only just yesterday decided to come for an interview, and you have a dossier....” Parrillus was flipping through a fat folder with my name stenciled on the cover.

“We’re very thorough, Harald. In addition to those application forms you filled out, we have recommendations from your former instructors—and we’ve got your genealogy all the way back to your thirty-sixth generation.” The tone of his voice grew prouder. “You think you applied for an interview—right? Well, we have a slightly different viewpoint. To us, you’ve come because we wanted an interview with you.” I hesitated, opened my mouth. Then closed it.

“It’s all in the perspective, Harald,” he said. “But you’ll understand better, once you’ve started your classes. Speaking of those, I’ve taken the liberty of planning your schedule for the fall term.” He handed me a pre-printed form—again, with my name stenciled across the top.

“But sir, I don’t know—I mean, I haven’t decided exactly....” I glanced at the form and explained that I had an interview later that afternoon at the state university.

“My boy, my boy,” he drawled. “I understand—believe me, I do. Careers are important and must be considered carefully. It’s your whole life. I’m here to help with your difficult decision. But, speaking from years of experience, I’d say you are not simply a commonplace college man—no, not that kind of material at all!” He paused and stared me in the eye. “Tech School—that’s your thing. Take it from me, you’d absolutely detest that gaggle of professional idealists at State U.” He smirked, looking like a professor who’d just made up a diabolical exam.

“But sir,” I answered, “This schedule of classes—I’m not sure I understand it—could you help me out a bit?” Before he could interrupt, I added, “And I notice that my dossier, as you call it, is labeled Top Secret. Just what kind of a place am I...”

“In due time,” he interrupted. “First, your dossier. No, you may not read it. Second, yes, I’ll be happy to help you with your curriculum adumbratus.” He pronounced those words as ancient Romans did, stretching out the long u’s with a heavy accent. “What say I read from our course catalog, and you ask whatever questions you like—fair enough?”

I nodded. It seemed I had little choice. “I’d like to know what this means,” I said, pointing to my fall schedule. “I don’t recognize any of these courses.”

“’Course not!” He laughed loudly at his pun. “They’re all in code—can’t let The Opposition get anything on us, can we?” He looked around his office furtively, then pushed two buttons on his desk. Immediately, a heavy metal curtain hummed into place across the windows. Then other small motors whined to life whose purposes I couldn’t detect.

Noting my surprise, Parrillus whispered, “Anti-eavesdropping sweeps—foolproof little buggers.” I could see he was a chronic punster, like my dad. I tried to look less amazed than I was and made an effort to close my mouth. “Fire away!” he grinned.

I ran my eyes down the course schedule. “Well,” I began, “what’s this course—LifeWork 101? I see it’s my 8-11 a.m. class, five days a week.”

“One Oh One,” drawled Parrillus, thumbing away. “Modern Atrocities. An introduction to our work at New School!”

“I see,” I replied, not truly seeing anything. I stared at him blankly.

“In it, you’ll learn some fascinating methods. It’s taught by a former star pupil of mine, now retired from active lifework, named Attillus—a great guy, believe me!”

“What kinds of methods?” I probed gingerly.

“Here, I’ll read the catalogue entry: The student learns the following: ‘Do-it-Yourself Time Bombs’; ‘Slow and Fast Poisons’; ‘Techniques of Industrial Pollution’; ‘Elementary Espionage’; ‘Cattle-Prod Proficiency’; ‘Dark Alley Attack Made Easy’; ‘Collective Crowd Sadism’; and,” he added, “the final exam in ‘Modern Atrocities’ is to plan and participate in your first one!”

“All that in just one semester?” I said dryly, my jaw dropping again. I couldn’t believe he was serious.

“Oh, it’s a very accelerated course! However, your dossier indicates you’ll have no trouble with it—no trouble at all!”

“Uh, that brings me to another question, sir—my dossier: just how did you make it up? I only learned of your school last week, and it seems...”

“Not so fast, Harald. You’ll learn that technique in LifeWork 502. However, it’s all on the up-and-up, strictly legal. Your grandparents approved of your enrollment—they even paid for it, indirectly, ha-ha! We know everything about you.” Once more his eyes lit up. Suddenly I felt as if I were in the presence of a totally dark genius-of-the-devious.

“But that’s what bothers me most, sir: I don’t know a thing about you, or this school. When I started off this morning, I thought I was applying to a regular college—figured I’d visit a few schools and see what they had to offer. Now, I get to your office and find my train has been re-routed, as it were, to another dimension. To tell you the truth, sir, I hardly recognize this world anymore.”

“Perhaps,” replied Parrillus, “you never have seen the world as it truly is.” He sat back and folded his arms, looking like a slimmed-down Buddha in a school tie.

Holy Cow, I thought, is this what college is like—what life is like—one riddle after another? Is this what I’m in for?

Mr. Parrillus leaned forward and reached for a pipe. Packing it, he said, “Let me be frank with you, Harald. You came here expecting to find a Traditional Public School—correct?” I nodded. “Instead, you find yourself taken aback by our recruitment methods and course offerings, et cetera.” I nodded again. “Now, let’s suppose you do go to State U. this afternoon, and that you enroll. What do you expect to learn there? Answer, the same sort of baloney you learned all through Public School—right?” He paused as if to assess my reaction and puffed on the pipe. Wisps of smoke curled upward. I couldn’t recall his having lit it. “Now just stop and think,” he went on, “what earthly good will more of that same Public School drivel do for you?”

“Well,” I started to reply, but he interrupted.

“Remember when I said it was all in the perspective, Harald?” I acknowledged recalling the statement. “Well, then, think of this: what exactly does a hero do?”

“He does heroic things,” I answered smugly.

“And who provides the opportunities for heroes to be heroic?”

I stopped to ponder that. “Who does what? Provides the opportunities? You’re not making sense, sir. Everyone knows there are lots of things for heroes to do—and endless opportunities.” I was becoming irritated at his supercilious tone, his flippant rejoinders, his proselytizing manner.

“Oh, really?” he said, continuing the dialectic. “And do heroes act for the public and private good?”

“I’ve certainly been taught so,” I replied.

“Then, in being heroic, one simply discovers wrongs to right—right? That is, a hero looks for ways to serve others, thereby achieving heroism—nicht war?”

“Yes, I assume that.”

“Tell me then, Harald, and try to answer rationally this time: just who is it that provides heroes with such opportunities?”

“Why, they’re all around us,” I answered. “They’re just there!” I was beginning to tire of his sophomoric palaver.

“Now, Harald, calm down! Is it not necessary for someone—or some things—to be evil in order for a hero to exercise his power of goodness over them?”

“Well, obviously,” I answered, exasperated.

“Then who is it that provides society with these evil people and designs these evil situations? Evil doesn’t grow on trees: it has to be developed—and nurtured!

“But evils just are!” I insisted, though I was beginning to question my own education. Had I been making assumptions that needed further examination?

As if sensing my doubt, Parrillus moved in for the clincher. “No, evils aren’t just there, my boy. They are invented because they are necessary, in order that heroes may perform heroic deeds. Now do you see?”

“Are you telling me,” I said, “that the New School is a kind of counterpart of State U.—that it’s a sort of testing ground for heroes?”

“Among other things, Harald. Now you’re starting to catch on, as I knew you would—from reading your dossier.”

The weakness in my knees was growing, and I was glad to be sitting down. I was ready to scream—wanted to—but couldn’t.

“Dear, dear Harald, just who do you think we are? Fiends? Devils? No, lad, we’re only the counterpart of truth, the dark essence of light. We are the other side of the ‘coin of life’, as it were, the midnight for the morning. The Germans have a phrase: Helles und Dunkles. Now do you see?”

“Intellectually, yes: emotionally, no. God, Mr. Parrillus, this is a lot to swallow in one morning—you’ll have to admit.” I tried pulling myself together. “Tell me one thing,” I asked. “Why does the ‘Other Half’, as you call it, let you keep operating? And who pays all your expenses?”

“You don’t see the obvious, do you, my boy? Well, it works this way: THEY can no more exist without US than WE without THEM. Sort of like Siamese twins who share the same heart. And as to who pays for it—why, the same authority that pays for State U.”

“You mean to tell me you’re Government funded?”

“Exactly,” said Parrillus.

At that, I almost fainted. The idea that my government was paying for this place was eye-opening, at the least. Oh, I knew kooks and crooks abounded at every level of politics—had to be, if all the craziness I read in the newspapers was true. But this! When my dizzy spell passed, I came straight to the point. “You’ve got a lot of nerve feeding me this cock-and-bull story. What proof do you have?” I started to say, None At All, when Parrillus shoved an envelope across the desk. In it was a $16,455,000.00 government check made out to The New School of Human Technology. I know I turned white.

“That’s our latest Federal Aid-to-Education grant. We get one every month,” he said, grinning from wall to wall.

All my eighteen years wavered in front of me, the way things look when heat disturbs the air above summer sidewalks. I couldn’t think clearly. I felt caught up in some ridiculous modern drama that neither I—nor any playgoer—could make sense of. And yet, there was that check! I thought for a few moments of my friends on the other side, the ones going to State U. What would they think? What would they do in my place?

I was having a real problem believing the world was the way Parrillus claimed: could evil really be necessary? I thought of all the pain and suffering that was the sad lot of men in this life—and then of the even more inexplicable acts of charity and heroism going on around me. Some of these were hard to imagine motives for. Well, perhaps Parrillus was right. I had to know more, so I decided to proceed with my interview of him.

“Sir, I know you can’t let me see my dossier, but could you just answer a few questions? For example, what did you mean when you said I had excellent D.Q. and S.A. test scores?”

Parrillus sat back, arms folded, and replied, “D.Q. is Deviant Quotient. You went right off the scale on that one. And S.A. is Sado-Aptitude. You’re in the top percentile—nationwide—also impressive.”

“I see,” I mumbled, beginning to shake a little more. “But sir, I’m not sure I am qualified, even with such test scores, to take on LifeWork 101. After all, I grew up on the Other Side.”

“Well, you could enroll in summer school, to catch up. There’s a perfectly marvelous introductory course—which I personally don’t feel you need—History of Atrocities. Let me read the course description. ‘Includes a thorough study of all the great cultures: The Fall of Ancient Babylon; The Destruction of Carthage; Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem; The Visigoths and the Sacking of Rome; The Dark Ages; Two Hundred Years of The Crusades; The Spanish Inquisition; The Salem Witch Trials; Hitler’s Bergen-Belsen,’ et cetera. How does that strike you, Harald?” He finished by waving the catalogue through the air like a rapier.

“Uh, it sounds fascinating, sir, but I still feel I’m not well enough grounded in the, ah, realities of things to enroll. I mean, I had a very sheltered childhood.”

“But that’s the exact background we want in our students, Harald. Your tests prove you possess every inborn characteristic to make you a superb candidate—and you haven’t been corrupted by your environment—well, not too much. Plus, your genealogy indicates you have a simply unbeatable combination of genetic material—from both sides of your family.”

“Gee whiz, Mr. Parrillus,” I interrupted, “I’ve always been taught that environment is everything. And now you’re telling me that genes play a big part in the development of one’s character. I don’t know...”

“Ah, forget what you learned on the Other Side. Those patsies are living in dreamland—all that tabula rasa junk. Believe me, kiddo, genes are the real scheme of things. If you enroll, we’ll provide the right environment to bring out the best in you, in that great set of chromosomes you were gifted with.” He leered at me.

I began to sweat. The room was closing in. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the door appeared very far away. I felt trapped, like some panicky rabbit with a coyote flashing long fangs at it.

Sensing my feelings, Parrillus said, “It won’t do you any good to deny your calling, Harald.” He smiled a kindly face at me. “To put it plainly,” he assured, “you’re a natural.” He hunted through my dossier and in a moment waved a rather longish genealogy chart my way. “Ah, here it is, the proof—the incontrovertible proof, Harald! Do you know,” he whispered, leaning toward me, a slight string of spittle escaping from his mouth, “what kind of ancestors you’ve had?”

“Not really,” I said. “My mother once told me a great-uncle was hanged as a horse thief, ha-ha!”

“To be sure, to be sure—he was a crafty guy. But the really important ones were never caught.” He looked up as if expecting me to say “Go on”, which I did. “This great-great grandfather of yours, one Ferdinand Edward Vander Sloot, for example. He owned a music publishing company in Harrisburg in the 1880’s. How does that strike you?”

“Uh, I don’t quite see,” I mumbled, hoping he’d elaborate.

Harald, Harald, you should be quicker than that!” He paused, cueing me to interrupt. When I didn’t, he said, “It’s simple as pie, my good fellow: Propaganda.”


“Certainly. Just think of it: printing and disseminating hundreds of thousands of copies of sheet music, and that sheet music finding its way into almost every home in America, and then hundreds of thousands of mothers singing his songs to their little children, and those children wandering all over school playgrounds singing those songs—until damned near every ear in the nation is bombarded with his clever, deceptive messages. Oh, that one was a veritable Mastermind of our Movement. And he wasn’t the first—or the last—in your family!”

“But sir, my mother told me the only song he published that made it big was ‘Pony Boy’. I don’t see how that...”

“Think hard, Harald: What exactly is a pony?”

“It’s a small horse, sir.”

“And what is horse, my boy?”

“Well, it’s an animal...a beast of’s a...a slang term for heroin?” I offered.

“Excellent, excellent! By God, man, I think I can put you down for 6 credits in cryptology and 3 more in symbol-decoding! Why, you’ve just finished half a term—and you didn’t think you were qualified for this school!”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, not wanting to seem over-eager.

“Don’t mention it, Harald. In fact, I might even be able to let you take advance-standing exams in ‘Methods of Neighborhood Subversion’ and ‘Strategies of White Collar Crime’—though you should definitely audit the latter: it’s an absolutely dynamite course, including ‘How To Earn Pocket Money Selling Babies to Roving Bands of Gypsies’, ‘How To Construct Plastic-Explosive Party Favors’, plus ‘How To Direct Child Porn’. You’ll love our hit training film, Taboo Tots—I wrote the script myself!”

“I don’t know, Mr. Parrillus, those sound a bit too advanced.” I held up the catalogue. “Maybe I should start a bit more slowly—say, with ‘Essentials of Street Riots’ or ‘Basic Jail-Breaking’. What do you think?” I gave it my best sarcasm.

“Ah, that’s fodder for rank beginners—for the donkeys. You’re a born barnburner. Besides, you can take those by correspondence—if you really feel you need them.”

“Well, I suppose so, but...”

A ringing phone interrupted us. Parrillus yanked it off the cradle and tossed me a brochure. “Excuse me, Harald. Just amuse yourself with that while you’re waiting.”

I had barely scanned the first semester’s offerings when a deafening siren went off. Six hooded figures in camouflage fatigues smashed down the office door and pointed Uzis at us. Before I could drop my jaw, Parrillus jerked me across the desk. A clear partition slammed down behind us, crushing the chair I was formerly sitting in. Then came a tremendous blast and ball of fire. When the smoke cleared, I could see the men spread all over the other side, their arms and legs akimbo. They looked quite dead.

“Nice try, Braunmüller!” barked Parrillus, in a heavy Germanic accent. He hung up grinning, noticed my shock, and said, “Nothing to worry about, son—just our weekly fire-drill. A school like this has got to keep on its toes.”

“B-but we could’ve been killed!” I stammered.

“Nonsense,” he assured me. “Do you think I was promoted to Academic Advisor for shoving old ladies in front of buses?”

He paused for that image to sink in. I had to admit that my opinion of New School had changed considerably in the past few minutes. I came out from behind the desk, straightened my clothes, and picked up the brochure. Parrillus dialed a number and began chatting amiably with someone, clearly pleased with recent events. I glanced over my shoulder: several men in decontamination clothing and gas masks were dragging the bodies away and clearing the rubble.

I felt remarkably calm, considering the morning’s events. It was as if I had lived through hundreds of similar incidents in my brief eighteen years, and I began to think that Parrillus might be right about my background. The strong sensation of déjà vu persisted as I eagerly read descriptions in my course catalogue.

For no apparent reason, I thought of Bridey Murphy, that woman back in the ’50’s who claimed to have awakened one morning with a new identity—complete with memories of a previous life and the ability to speak a language she’d never studied. Could I, I mused, be a similar product of genetics? Was I as purposefully oriented toward the New School’s philosophy as Parrillus kept insisting? Could I, indeed, be fit for such life-work training as the New School was offering me? Could I have been predestined?

I went back to the catalogue, reading it greedily, almost in a trance, with a sense of purpose I’d never felt. That which before had startled me now seemed rather tame. I read such course descriptions as “Essentials of Human Degradation,” “Beginning Immorality,” and “Truck Farm Defoliation” with an air of contempt. I was drawn to the more exotic offerings, like “Necrophilia Made Simple,” and was absolutely fascinated by “Political Party Identification from Fecal Matter.” I could hardly wait to enroll in that one! I felt as though I had not truly existed until coming here.

My heart was beating so loudly I barely heard my advisor’s voice, which was now rising in volume to a crescendo: “Dammit to Hell Evelyn, I told you to cancel that order for six gross of bullwhips—and for those giant pizza ovens, too. What does Herrmann think this is, a kindergarten? I’ve told him a dozen times he’s got to divest himself of that shopworn Nazi mentality. Doesn’t he know we’ve gone way beyond that? Sheez, these bums who insist on living in the past are a bore—B.O.R.E!” He hung up the phone once more as if driving a nail. “Why does the school board send me incompetent klutzes for assistants?” He stared blankly off, then looked back at me from wherever he had been, and said, “Well, Harald, have you reached a decision?”

Before I could answer, he put his arm around me in a fatherly manner. “Let’s show you a little sample of our academy, kiddo. We’ll drop in unannounced on some classes so you can see for yourself what kind of ship we run here!” We entered his private elevator and descended rapidly to a sub-basement level where, he assured me, I’d get to observe a graduate seminar or two.

As we ambled leisurely down the stone hallways of the main classroom building, we talked more about the philosophy of New School. Along the seemingly endless corridor, Parrillus pointed out photos of former graduates—familiar faces all—their names underneath: T_d K_nn_dy., D__k N_x_n., J_f__r_y D., and a couple named B_n_y and Cl_d_. I could almost feel the ghosts of former students, their presences still strong. On the opposite wall hung the world-wide greats: L_n_n, H_t__r, St_l_n, P_l P_t, Hus—-n. “I had no idea of the scope, sir,” I whistled.

“You might be up there someday, Harald. You have it in you to be one of the greats,” said my mentor. “In our small way, we help train those who will make life more meaningful, more beautiful, for all.”

It was beginning to make sense: I pondered again the concept of Helles und Dunkles—it seemed more and more right. I let the idea sink deeply in.

“Everybody knows instinctively,” Parrillus went on, “that goodness is no fun unless there is badness to complement it. But those bozos on the Other Side act as if they should be the only game in town! Can you imagine how bland this world would be with only goodness in it? I swear, it is all we can do to keep our tempers in check with that simplistic mindlessness going on around us!”

I eagerly awaited his next bit of wisdom, and he obliged. “Do you know that the favorite pastime of those loonies is thinking up things to be virtuous about? I call that ‘silliness’ straw-manning. Sometimes, all our efforts must be directed toward the development of corresponding vices—just to maintain the equilibrium! It’s an un-ending battle, m’boy. The New School never sleeps!”

I had one last question for Parrillus. “If there’s both good and evil, then there’s a Heaven and a Hell—right?” He smiled at me vacantly. “So, what happens to me—I mean ultimately? When I die, where will I—and you—end up?”

“Good point, Harald—but bad logic! You’re comparing apples and oranges—a common analogum falsus. That old malarky about heaven and hell is pure fiction. In this world, it’s ‘pick-your-own-myth’. I like to think it’ll be the way my Viking ancestors believed: first comes Fimbulwinter—ice and snow for millennia—and after that Ragnarok—the Twilight of the Gods: the absolute end of all. Then, a new Epoch begins, with new worlds, a new cast of characters—everything changed except the need for both good and evil.

“So you see, we ourselves will pass on, but the necessity for our work—the New School’s work—why, that’s eternal.” He closed his eyes, as if it had comforted him to think of such a bleak future.

“I can handle that,” I said bravely, a few tears falling, hardly believing my conversion had been so easy, and utterly dumbfounded at a world I could not—until now—have remotely imagined I had been living in...

It was with a sense of pride that I spent the whole afternoon chatting with my advisor, observing the skills of the students in “Techniques of Bullying and Browbeating 404” (with real live models), and listening to a fascinating lecture: “The Holistic Basis of Reverse Ethics.”

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury