After they arrived on campus, there was the matter of the signs to deal with. A spate of signs had bloomed overnight, to direct graduation traffic. One featured a giant red arrow and the word PARKING in big, bold letters. Father drove past this sign.
“You missed a sign back there,” said Mother.
“There wasn’t any sign.”
“It said PARKING.”
“There’s a parking lot up here, I’m sure of it.”
“Well, but the sign said PARKING back there.”
“Just never mind.”
I sighed and watched trees pass by the window. They drove on.
“Where’s that goddamn parking lot?”
Nobody said anything. They drove around in circles for a while. I made a game out of predicting which way Father would turn. He gave himself an extra point when Father switched lanes away and then back again. Eventually they returned to the same sign.
“Finally, a sign!”
Mother moved her lips soundlessly and looked out the window. They followed a series of signs to park a few minutes away from the gymnasium where the ceremony would take place. His parents fussed over I for a few moments, then left him to get ready while they searched for good seats.
He was relieved to see his parents go. On a regular day, I would have said something. But he had decided not to be a bother today. To be quiet. I wanted them to enjoy the graduation. And he was looking forward to it himself. He had worked long and hard for this day. The last few months had been stressful. So many things to do at once.
Every year he got the feeling that his professors converged in some secret committee, where they conspired to coordinate the due dates of essays and final exams so that everything for his five classes ended up being scheduled within a span of three frantic days, during which he was unable to sleep. Now, a few weeks after that ordeal, when all the work was done and all the forms had been filled out, long since, now that he had received his grades and confirmation that he would graduate, he still felt tired, listless, strange. The last few weeks in particular felt like they had taken place inside some sort of limbo, like waiting in a doctor’s office. Waiting and able to think about nothing except waiting, or what might be wrong.
Even now, it was all about waiting. He waited in one line to get his graduation gown and in another line to get his cap. The gown turned out to be the wrong size and he had to go back to the end of that line and wait again to get another one. After getting dressed and ready, he had to wait in line to get his picture taken.
His parents had ordered what seemed to him like an unreasonable number of pictures. The photographer, who was an elderly man of at least seventy, manhandled him, pushing his legs and head around into strange positions, so that he was facing right but looking left, craned so far his neck began to hurt.
The old man seemed satisfied. He made some adjustments to the settings on the camera. “The time has come to tell you a joke.”
I waited for the joke.
“What’s the difference between an orange?”
His eyes felt strained at their corners.
“Tough crowd.” The flash took him by surprise, but he managed to keep from blinking.
After having his picture taken he browsed the degree frames. They were surprisingly expensive and he decided just to get a photo frame later from some bargain bin somewhere. A voice came on over the loudspeaker and commanded everyone to get in line alphabetically by last name. There were letters posted to the room’s large pillars, and the graduating students began falling into rough lines.
I took a position near the front of the B line. He recognized a few people, but none of his friends, who had already scattered across the country to begin their careers. He recognized a number of people he had never met: men that he remembered because of strange hairstyles, women he remembered because of their beauty, and other men he remembered because they were memorable in some ineffable manner that he wished upon himself.
Some music swelled up from the next room. The A line began to move and he made sure his mortarboard was on straight before following near the head of the B line.
I entered the auditorium to peals of applause, the floor shaking between this noise and the trampling of hundreds of graduating students. He looked around for his parents but couldn’t pick them out in the endless crowd. The auditorium was tremendous, larger than he had expected. Its great space filled with the sharp thunder of clapping hands.
This was what he had been waiting for, this recognition from his parents and countless strangers that he had been working, had accomplished something. He smiled and would have waved if he could find his parents. He decided to look for them during the ceremony so that he could wave to them on the way out.
On his seat was a small book that he realized was the program for the event. It was over a hundred pages long, filled with photos of faculty he didn’t know, and a congratulatory letter from the president of the university alongside a photo where she sported the biggest smile he had ever seen. She had perfect teeth. There were also photographs and biographies of the people who would speak and present degrees at the ceremony, and advertisements for sponsoring businesses. A long list of graduating students, organized alphabetically by degree, took up the last half of the book.
A series of speeches had to be endured before the degrees were handed out, most of which repeated the sentiments of the previous speech. I noticed that a number of his classmates were absent, not just the ones who had already left town.
He knew that a lot of people didn’t bother to attend the ceremony, but he was happy to, he had worked hard for his degree and felt he deserved the pomp and ceremony. At first he planned to attend only to satisfy his parents, but had found himself looking forward to the event and the comfort he expected from its ritualistic predictability.
But his spirits, buoyed by the thunderous applause and affirmed by the repetitive speeches, were dampened by the subsequent granting of an honourary doctorate.
Here I had worked for four long years to complete a Bachelor’s degree, a Bachelor of Arts with Honours, and at what was ostensibly a celebration of this achievement, the university had elected to make the event’s centrepiece the giving of a free doctorate to some guy I had never heard of. The man’s biography claimed that he was a candy manufacturer, a former dropout of the university’s business school. He had soared to candy manufacturing stardom on the strength of marshmallow fast food — tiny hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries no bigger than one’s thumb.
I remembered the candy from long-ago trips to the corner store. It tasted nothing like hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, or marshmallows.
“As a child,” Dr. Marshmallow said, “all that mattered was candy. Not eating candy — selling it. Every Halloween the treats were stockpiled, stored away until February. February was a lean candy month. All of the children had depleted their Halloween hoards, and Christmas was fading from memory. Easter seemed so far away. Sold Halloween candy at the schoolyard every lunch hour — bought a bicycle in no time! With one of those baskets in the front. Then, door-to-door candy deliveries…”
Dr. Marshmallow droned on. I looked at his watch, but it was gone. He tried to think of where he had seen it last. On his wrist? On the dresser?
“University was all about selling candy too. Used to sell chocolate sauce and whipped cream at all the sorority and fraternity parties. You could sell that stuff for ten times the store price at the top of the stairwell in a frat house. That’s how my start-up got funded…”
Could he have left it in the car? Why would he take it off in the car? He remembered the sleeves of his dress shirt seeming unusually tight in the morning, remembered thinking his wrists had gotten bigger or the shirt had shrunk. Did he take the watch off then, to accommodate his too-small sleeves? But if that was the case, why didn’t he have a clear memory of taking off the watch?
“Over the years, my company has been embroiled in its fair share of controversy, but managed to always bounce back, to learn from mistakes. Now, it’s true, we did sell large quantities of peanut butter toffee to Osama bin Laden. Figured what the hell, it might put him in a better mood! The libtard media had a field day with that one. But who gives a crap, really…”
The watch was a present from his last girlfriend, Sarah. They had dated for almost a year. It was an awkward courtship; she was shy, at least to begin with, and I was never sure how to approach women. I was never quite sure what they expected. Sarah had given him the watch for his birthday about a month before they broke up.
“When you make your way in the world, let passion guide you. If you aren’t passionate about something, you might as well hang up your hat now, go home, go to bed, and stay there — or maybe just hang yourself. There will always be somebody with passion working toward the same goal as you, and without that kind of drive you are doomed to continuous, circuitous, unceasing failure.”
The watch was a nice watch, his only watch. Sarah would be upset if they ran into each other and he wasn’t wearing the watch. Of course, he didn’t really know that, he just assumed. She might not even notice, might not remember the watch at all. Even I had trouble picturing it, and I looked at the watch a few times every day.
“That’s what they told me to talk about. Making millions and living a good life. That was fine for me. But you don’t have the same hope. The world is over. It was over before you began. The oceans are dying. The air can’t be cleaned. The glaciers, the ice caps, they will melt and then wash us away. Robots smaller than atoms are being used to build new bombs. The economy that rose with me will crash on top of you.”
The watch preyed upon his thoughts, cutting the face of each one.