Who Shall Be Uplifted
By Carolyn Geduld
“Wait, Professor! Can we talk a minute?”
It was Ben. Aaron rushed out as soon as the Ethics Committee meeting adjourned. He didn’t want Ben, the graduate student representative who often confronted his PC errors, to engage him in some sort of disagreeable conversation.
It was more important that he finish his quarterly faculty report, which was late, as usual. It always asked for the title of any book he was preparing for publication. There was a large space for this entry on the report form, in case anyone had a number of works to enter. It wouldn’t do to leave the space blank. For the past decade, he typed the same title into every report: “Similarities in Pronouns in Proto-Linguistic Meta-Families.”
Although he hadn’t written a word, it wasn’t a lie, exactly. As a linguistic historian who studied the origins of language, he knew “preparing for publication” could mean thinking about doing the necessary research and then banging out three hundred tiresome pages on his keyboard.
He only had ten years left until retirement. He wondered if he could get away with another forty faculty reports with the same title. He imagined being summoned to his chairperson’s office, no doubt occupied in the next years by one of the opportunists from the lower ranks. The younger man or woman would look up from the report, straight at him, not yet through the top half of bifocals worn by most of the faculty after middle age.
“I notice you’ve had the same entry for a number of years. Do you actually have a publisher?”
“I’m in conversation with a couple of presses. There’s a snag over advances. It should be straightened out before next semester.”
This was a slight exaggeration. A few years earlier, Aaron had queried two or three presses to see if they were interested in seeing a manuscript, when there was one to deliver. He never received a response.
“No news is good news,” he told himself.
He was promoted from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor when he lost his son and his fiancée fifteen years earlier in a house fire. It was not a merit promotion. He hadn’t published anything. It was, at bottom, a “pity” promotion, a way for the university to express compassion after the awful tragedy. More recently, he had lost his fiancée’s son, who died in a fall. Aaron didn’t think it would be seen as tragic enough to boost him to Full Professor, although he had been close to the young man. No, he would need to write a damned book.
How unfair it was! When was there time for anything but teaching the new undergraduate courses he was unjustly assigned every semester, the hours of class preparation and grading, advising students, and serving on numerous committees? Was he expected to give up eating and sleeping to write, for God’s sake?
These were his thoughts while attending the annual Linguistic Historians Conference. Fortunately, it was taking place an hour’s drive from the campus, since it was doubtful he was appreciated enough to be awarded a travel stipend to attend. He would drive home each of the three nights to sleep. His only expenses would be gas and meals, plus the hefty conference fee.
The conference occupied several rooms in a convention center. While waiting for the keynote address, delivered by that phony from Harvard, who would no doubt be denigrating the work of the great Jeff Greenberg and the Russian linguists, as was currently disgustingly fashionable in academic circles, Aaron wandered into the Dealer’s Room.
He perused the booths from various academic presses displaying their publications. Then he spied one hidden in a corner for a company called Academic Ghostwriters. He was shocked to see a familiar face manning the table. Larry Anderson, of all people, still youthful, with thick blond hair in contrast to Aaron’s near baldness.
Slinking away before Anderson spotted him, he recalled the day he was assigned to the Ethics Committee, much against his will. He was already overloaded with assignments. Such was the fate of faculty like him, called “deadwood” behind their backs for failure to publish. The very first case he heard concerned Anderson. He was found guilty of plagiarizing an article, denied tenure, and dismissed from the university. Back then, Aaron was amazed by the brazenness of Anderson, who put up a vigorous defense while never denying the transgression.
“Since when is being influenced conflated with stealing? Knowledge is built brick by brick, with each new insight built upon the preceding bricks.” Anderson’s fists were clenched. Aaron slouched in his chair, wondering if the accused was planning to strike committee members.
Maybe Anderson was still angry. Aaron had been one of those who destroyed his career. It would be best to avoid him.
After an exhausting day of listening to mostly derivative conference papers, Aaron thought it wouldn’t hurt to get a drink before driving home. He decided to find a bar a short walk from the conference center. He didn’t want to join the other academics, who might ask what he was researching, only to sneer at him for not having a credible response.
He found a comfortable establishment, dark, soothing, urbane. The bar was made of polished mahogany wood. Light classical music played softly in the background. He slid into a black leather booth and ordered. The other customers looked like business men and women, judging by their well-fitted suits and briefcases. He glanced around.
To his horror, he noticed Anderson at a nearby table, reading the menu. He considered leaving, but thought a quick exit might attract Anderson’s attention. It was safer to remain seated and keep his head down. Eventually, however, Anderson did spot him and recognized him. He smiled, eyebrows arched in a friendly way, and raised his glass to him. Then he called over the waiter and ordered an expensive scotch for Aaron. As his fear lessened, Aaron wondered why Anderson wasn’t driving a cab or digging ditches, as he supposed was the fate of most of those who lost tenure. Instead, the former faculty member was in an upscale bar, boldly attending an academic event.
A few minutes later, Anderson joined him in the booth. Aaron thought it best to bring up the ethics investigation, to see how things stood.
“Actually, Professor, the committee only found one of the sources I borrowed. In those days, I could be careless.”
This was a surprise. Anderson was proud that his plagiarism wasn’t fully detected.
“Didn’t losing tenure affect you?” He couldn’t stop staring at Anderson’s suit. It was probably custom-tailored. Not off the rack like Aaron’s and most of the conference attendees’.
“You may not realize it, but you did me a great favor by voting to kick me out. I’m making several times the income I might have made with a university career, and I am doing my favorite activity—researching and writing about linguistic history.” He picked up the table’s menu. “Allow me to thank you by ordering some appetizers.”
“Does your success have something to do with the booth you were manning, Academic Ghostwriters? Are you a ghostwriter?”
“Yes and no. I’m substituting for a friend at the booth. I’m a freelance ghostwriter. Those who work for Academic Ghostwriters may be knowledgeable enough to tackle student papers or parts of dissertations, but they aren’t capable of original book-length scholarship.” He was speaking as if they were old friends or amicable colleagues. “Call me Larry, Professor.”
“Do you mean you have written academic books for faculty?”
Anderson leaned forward and replied in a hushed tone. “You’d be surprised at how many of those reading papers at the conference I have helped along the way.”
Aaron thought Anderson had to be exaggerating. Such deception couldn’t be widespread. “What about the keynote speaker?”
Anderson put his finger to his lips.
“But he’s at Harvard!” Aaron sipped his second drink. Maybe it was his third. It might not be wise to drive for awhile.
“Are you staying at the conference center tonight?”
“No. I planned to go home, since it’s so close.”
Anderson twirled his drink, seeming to mull something over.
“Look. I hope I’m not being forward. I feel I owe you. I have two beds in my room. Why don’t you bunk with me for the night? That way we can keep talking. It helps me to hear the latest ideas in the field. I had planned to attend the sessions, but that’s out the window now that I’m in charge of the booth. You can give me the rundown on those you attended.”
“It’s win-win. You get a room; I get to pick your brain.”
They stayed in the bar for several hours, drinking, eating appetizers, talking about linguistics. Soon Aaron was telling Anderson everything—the tragic deaths of his son, the woman he loved, and her son. His promotion to Associate without having published. His desire to make Full Professor before retirement. The pile of obligations that left him with no time for research.
“That’s the main reason academics hire me. It’s not that they don’t have ideas. What they don’t have is time. If they weren’t so overloaded, they would be perfectly capable of producing solid manuscripts themselves.”
“I guess you have a point, but…”
“I’m basically a transcriber. That’s all. I take the theories of my customers, worked out over years, and put them in a form that benefits the field.” He motioned to the waiter to bring the check.
“I’m not sure that’s ethical.”
Anderson smiled. “How long were you on the Ethics Committee? It was so small-minded. Tasked with finding plagiarism. As if borrowing a sentence or two from a colleague is the moral equivalent of sexual misconduct or hate speech.”
“We handled those cases, too.”
The waiter arrived with the check. Anderson put his credit card on the little tray.
“The problem with plagiarism is the likelihood of being caught. After all, the victim will probably read the plagiarized material if it is published. Especially in a small field like linguistics history. The plagiarist could be sued as well as fired.”
“Isn’t it just as risky to hire someone like you? The booth for Academic Ghostwriters at the conference. It openly advertises. Academics on promotions and tenure committees will be alerted. They will be on the lookout for ghostwritten publications.”
“And if they are? How would they find out? You would supply the ideas to me. You would read each draft of the manuscript. Essentially, it would be your work that I simply type out.”
After the bill was paid, the two men stood, preparing to walk back to the hotel. Aaron staggered, not used to heavy drinking.
“Better let me hold your arm, Professor. You don’t want to lose your balance.” Anderson gripped him firmly. Aaron leaned into the ghostwriter, relying on his support.
“Are you expensive?” Somewhere, a clock chimed twice. Two a.m. Very late for Aaron.
“That depends on several factors. How much research is necessary. How quickly the manuscript is needed. It’s length. That sort of thing.”
That was the last thing Aaron remembered. He awoke in a bed in a hotel room, in his underwear. His clothing was neatly folded over a chair. The other bed was made, apparently not slept in. A handwritten note lay on it next to a business card.
Sorry—something came up, and I had to leave. The room is paid for. I took the liberty of treating you to breakfast downstairs. Just give them the room number. It was good to catch up. I’m leaving you my card in case you want to get in touch. Larry
The next day, Aaron attended the conference after having several cups of coffee and Aspirin for a headache. He ran into academics he knew in graduate school as well as from his own department.
“What are you working on these days?” This was a common question.
“I’m planning to give a paper myself at next year’s conference, now that my book is almost ready for publication.” He said this to everyone he encountered, without knowing why. Maybe it was true, or almost true.
Back in his office on campus after the conference, Aaron fingered the business card he had put in his jacket pocket, turning it over repeatedly as he turned Anderson’s words over in his mind. Was ghostwritten work unethical or simply another way of representing ideas? He knew the Ethics Committee would find it problematic, but would they consider all the factors? As Anderson said, lack of time was responsible for the need for a ghostwriter in the first place. And whose fault was that?
Furthermore, the old way of researching, writing, and publishing was twentieth-century. Everything was being digitized nowadays. Research resources that used to require travel to distant libraries were available online. Spellcheck and grammar apps were halfway to computer ghostwriting, and no one considered them unethical.
“Yes, but….it just doesn’t feel right.” He turned the card obsessively.
He went to the cafeteria for a quick bite. His open computer on the table was a well-known signal on campus that the luncher did not wish to be disturbed. Yet, someone approached him carrying a tray. It was Ben, asking to join him. Aaron politely acquiesced, swallowing a lump of turkey sandwich, at first thinking “just what I need.”
“I’m afraid I only have a few minutes. Is there something you wish to discuss?”
“No. Well, maybe.” The young man was tall and husky, but his shoulders hunched, as if burdened. He sat and kept stirring the bowl of soup on his tray without raising the spoon to his lips.
“I know the Committee only deals with academic cases, but….”
Aaron waited, biting into his sandwich. It was dry, lacking enough mayonnaise. He chewed slowly, fearing he might choke on the overcooked turkey. With a strange mixture of pleasure and distress, he imagined Ben clutching him in a Heimlich Maneuver.
“….but, what if you have an ethical problem that isn’t academic?”
With the image of being administered abdominal thrusts floating into his mind, Aaron listened to Ben with increasing interest.
“What do you mean?”
“I hope I am not out of line if I ask your opinion as one who has adjudicated ethical cases. It’s just that…I was wondering if you knew…where does one go to find guidance for ethical issues in personal relationships?”
Ben pushed his soup aside and stared straight at Aaron, his rounding shoulders pushing his head forward, leaning his muscular arms on the table. These would be the arms that could force the meat from Aaron’s throat, if he were to swallow the wrong way.
“To a priest or a rabbi, I suppose.” The mat of dark hairs on the young man’s arms distracted Aaron.
“Yes. Of course. The thing is…my wife. Her name is Becca. She had an affair with someone I believe you knew. His name was Mal. Does that ring a bell?”
Mal. The son of his late fiancée. About the age of Ben when he died in a fall.
“I did know Mal. He lived with me after his mother died. How did you know his connection to me?”
“Becca told me.”
Aaron nodded, waiting for Ben to continue.
“After Mal died, my wife and I got back together. Then we discovered she was pregnant, and we both knew that I wasn’t the father.”
Aaron pushed his sandwich aside, near to the tray of unfinished soup. He had not known about the pregnancy. He wondered if Mal had known.
“So we separated again. I filed for divorce. But the baby didn’t make it. It died during childbirth. The cord was wrapped around its neck.” Tears formed on Ben’s lower lashes.
“I know it’s insane. But somehow I think the baby’s death was my fault. I hoped it would die, you see. I was angry at Becca for not having an abortion, and I didn’t want to raise another man’s kid.”
Aaron noted to himself that he had raised another man’s kid—Mal. He had regarded him as his adopted son.
“I feel so guilty. I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I think about reconciling with Becca. Sometimes I just want to run away.”
Ben’s sadness and guilt awakened similar feelings in Aaron. Mal’s death had been a terrible blow. He put it out of his mind by concentrating on academics. Students and their personal problems had never interested him. Linguistics interested him. Teaching young people was the price he paid for a life of reading article abstracts, attending conferences, and worrying about promotions.
Looking at Ben’s arms aroused both desire and protectiveness. He placed a sympathetic hand on Ben’s wrist, wondering if his gesture meant he was gay or simply missing his adopted son. He did not want to be gay! Quickly, he removed his hand. Shifting his mind to the more acceptable fatherly feeling he once had for Mal, he spoke to Ben as a parent would.
“Go back to your wife, if she will have you. Probably, she feels guilty about the baby’s death, too. You can be there for each other, help each other heal. I don’t know if that’s the ethical thing to do, but it’s the human thing to do.”
Ben listened quietly, then nodded. He folded his arms against his chest, shielding his heart.
Later, as he walked across campus, Aaron fingered Anderson’s card again. He thought he might call the ghostwriter and find out what he charged for a full-length academic manuscript. Just to enquire. There were many things to consider. Developing ideas, for one. He imagined the two of them having pleasant conversations about linguistic theory. Scheduling weekly meetings. Seeing the manuscript take shape. Being promoted. Gaining the respect of his colleagues.
And beyond that, talking to Anderson about Ben, Mal, Becca’s baby, about who undressed him the night they shared a room, and about how the muscular arms of a sad young man had forced something extraordinary from the depths of Aaron’s throat.
Carolyn Geduld is a mental health professional in Bloomington, Indiana. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Her novel Take Me Out The Back is being published by Black Rose Publishers in 2020.