The day that Ken Deed had to choose his future did not start out unusual. As he drove to work his usual way, the same homeless man—the one who oddly resembled Jon Voigt—was dancing on the median, holding his crudely written but antagonistic sign: “Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.” Whenever Ken saw the man, and he had seen this particular man almost every day for the past ten years, he liked to believe that the song that got the man going was Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
Elsewhere, a large group of commuters moved along the crosswalks while others waited at the bus stop, their faces revealing sleepiness and anxiousness. He recognized one tall man who always stood with his face hidden inside a paperback novel, his right hand always in his pocket. Next to him stood a shorter woman who was easily recognizable because she always wore a French beret and held a large red umbrella no matter the forecast. Despite never accidentally seeing these people in a restaurant or a grocery store, he could recognize some of their demeanors by their shared morning routine. Of course, there were other ways he could get to work, but he had not taken those routes. When the light changed, the buses made their usual right hand turns, and even more people walked, ran, and plodded toward the bus stop. A few people on bicycles also zoomed by.
Ken, right on schedule, pushed forward to where he worked: a tall building downtown that housed a small technical college, coffee shop, and some unknown government agency, where no matter how many times you ran into the men and women dressed in black suits on the shared elevator, they always wore sunglasses and never spoke. This was his morning commute; this was his routine; this is what he had done every day, even days he didn’t have to go in, for the last 3,650 days. As his father had said to him so many years before, “Man was not meant to be idle.”
It was hard to say what Ken Deed was meant for. An orphan from Korea, he had suffered the typical vicissitudes life throws at children who get adopted half way around the world. He’d been born too early or too late, to the wrong set of parents, to poor parents, to people who weren’t married, to people who refused to acknowledge and take responsibility for his existence. And after that, he’d been swooped up by some Korean Catholics and given a name, a nice sounding monosyllabic one: Kyu. At the age of four, he’d been cleaned up, pumped full of vitamins and nutrients, given some meat, and marketed for some family in the west. Years later when he looked at his orphanage photo, he imagined his parents had said, “This baby has got a lot of moles!”
A nice American Catholic family had swooped in and claimed him, given him a
name, and framed him within their niche of Americana. They had his
tapeworms taken care of, they had his rotting baby teeth yanked out, and,
in an effort to thwart potential logophile bullies and trenchant
wordsmiths, his parent’s legally changed Kyu’s name to Ken. Monosyllabic
became… well, monosyllabic, though strongly Western sounding. Kyu’s
surname, “Lee” became “Deed.” And this is how Kyu Lee, orphan, became Ken
Deed, American. And because his adoptive family had been so loving, so
structured, so congruent, he’d never desired to go searching for what was
seemingly always behind him. He was grateful he’d been adopted. As his
father had always said, “The past is the past. What else is there to say?”
Ken, wearing a light gray sweater given to him as a gift, parked his compact car and unfastened his seatbelt. He looked for a moment in his rearview mirror and at the parking permit dangling from it. He would have to get a new one today. He was thankful he had remembered his checkbook but most thankful that he had the stability of this job, which allowed him to connect with so many people. Despite a few clouds and a hint of a graying afternoon, the D.C. weather was mild for the first of March. Today will be a good day, he thought as he got out of his car and headed inside.
Ken had just sat down at the computer to check his e-mail when he was addressed from behind rather abruptly. If he hadn’t already had two cups of coffee and been on his third, if he were instead in one of his infamous stupors where he was so intensely lost in his thoughts, he would have thought God himself were thundering behind him in request, though what he should want with Ken, beyond reclaiming a few moles, was lost on him.
“Did you read the paper today?” asked Professor Marks, gnawing on a pencil.
Ken stared at the computer trying to recall what he was doing there.
“N-No,” he said, typing his password incorrectly, cursing the required routine password changes every three months for security reasons as if anyone could use his password for anything of value. He imagined hundreds of student e-mails asking questions more than likely answered on the syllabus. But he knew in reality that out of the eighty or so he had this semester, he’d be lucky if ten of them cared enough to contact him. Despite this, he thought he was lucky to be able to connect in some meaningful way with some of his students.
“Well.” Professor Marks was wearing jeans and a white dress shirt that had seen better days. “It appears former students are attempting to sue the school for fraud.”
“Fraud,” echoed Ken, turning slightly to look at Professor Marks, who, while engaging Ken, called out to another colleague walking past.
“Fraud,” repeated Professor Marks. “As in my degree is worthless. As in you guys are scammers. As in, I want my money back plus some for all of the undue emotional distress you’ve caused me for having gone to school to better myself.”
“Why would anyone sue us?”
“Anyone? I guess you really didn’t hear the news. The entire graduating class is suing.”
“The entire class?” Ken echoed, a little louder than he thought.
“Well, two aren’t suing.”
“Two aren’t suing?”
“One died; his loans were forgiven. The other one, she got a job, something in
“Has anyone successfully sued a school before?” asked Ken. “I mean, why would a whole class sue?”
“You’re right,” said Professor Marks, and he unfolded his arms. “We’re here to edify, to inculcate, to teach if you want to learn. We don’t—no schools for that matter—promise any student anything. Maybe they saw one of those commercials where the litigator has an office in a mall. Maybe he gave them a discount and a coupon for an Orange Julius.”
“How will this affect our school?”
Professor Marks smiled, sat down at the computer next to Ken, put his hands behind his head, and, as if he were about to deliver some fatherly advice said, “I wouldn’t worry too much yet.” Then, he leaned forward. “How long have you been here now?”
“Ten years,” Ken replied.
“Ten years,” he repeated. “Well, I’ve been here twenty and I have never heard of a student suing, let alone successfully suing, their alma mater. But on a happier note, how was your weekend?”
“Fine,” Ken responded, but he was worried now. Why, he thought, would anyone sue a school when they had already graduated? And would it lead to more lawsuits?
“Ken,” Professor Marks said. “We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. But, I’m not too worried. If I worried about this kind of thing, I wouldn’t have made it twenty years in this profession. I would have quit a long time ago and opened a gas station or a portable food cart.” He leaned back in his chair. “Those are pretty popular these days. Can you see it? Fresh lobster rolls.”
Professor Marks got up and engaged another colleague about the lawsuit while making copies for his afternoon class. Ken, correct password finally entered, checked his work e-mail. He apologized to God in his head for having cursed earlier in his head. Other professors came in and out of the main faculty room and students could be heard in the hallway, running for the elevators and insulting one another.
“Hey, Ken,” a voice bellowed behind him. “How’s it going?”
“Hey, Dr. Cacambo. So far, so good.”
Beyond the typical student e-mails—the ones poorly written and clearly unedited—were messages for teaching pedagogy and new textbooks. There was even one to “Like” his school’s Learning Center. However, the one that drew his attention was the one from Dean Judy Judee. It was short, succinct, more a designated time: “Noon meeting. Please be on time.”
To his memory, she had never e-mailed him such a request. All the e-mails from her had been sent to all the faculty members. When they’d met, it was as a group, never individually. But, he thought, they were seeking nominations for faculty member of the year. Perhaps she wanted to ask him his thoughts. To the last e-mail, Ken wrote: “Dear Janice, I’m sorry to hear about your loss, again. Please hand in the paper when you see me next. Best,”
After the morning class, which ended with his students questioning Ken’s own grades in school and wondering about his personal life, he waited anxiously by the elevators and wondered what Dean Judee could want with him. He had managed to get a new parking permit before class, though he had almost forgotten. However, in his haste, he did not replace the old one yet. He assumed it would be okay. They wouldn’t tow me today, he thought; they usually give people a day or two to replace the permit. What was that called, he thought. He almost cursed again in his head, but refrained. He imagined one of the Sisters he’d had in elementary school lurking nearby with her yardstick, ready to knock the devil out of him. What was it called? Oh, yes, that’s right: a grace period. Towing companies must also know about this, he pondered as he continued waiting.
“Mr. D!” a student shouted, elongating the “ee” sound at the end of the letter “D,” not so much as to elicit a response from Ken but more because this was this student’s way of saying “Hello.”
Ken waved his hand, and pushed the lit elevator button again.
He was trying desperately to get upstairs because the Dean wanted to meet with him at noon. He waited patiently, but when the elevator doors finally opened, all he saw was a full elevator with all those well-dressed men and women with sunglasses. This was not their floor.
“Excuse me,” he said, not so much to get on but because it had slipped out. It had slipped out because he was curious as to exactly what these people did in this building where he had taught for just over a decade. It tired him out just thinking about all those steps, all 400 of them that he would now have to climb. Still the men and women in black wouldn’t cooperate with a nod or words. And he knew waiting for the next elevator would take too long.
“Well,” he said, then, “Enjoy your after—”
But the elevator doors closed before he could say “afternoon.” Resigned, he left, opened the door to the stairs, and ascended. On the fifth floor, having already climbed 200 steps, Ken Deed, for whatever reason, remembered when he was a child and had wandered into the woods, alone. His parents, especially his mother, had feared the worse.
Ken Deed was seven or eight, but at an age where walking off by oneself was not scary or exhilarating, but just something that boys that age tended to do. If Magellan or Columbus had feared the unknown, if they had been reticent as children, it’s hard to say how the world would look. Yet, hadn’t his teachers also suggested how Magellan and Columbus were accidental explorers, how they had both sought out one place and found another, how to celebrate them today was to acknowledge incompetence.
The Deeds were in Western Maryland and somehow little Ken Deed was walking down a narrow trail oblivious to the danger of the woods. As he walked, he could still hear his brothers, but nothing coherent. Ken continued walking, even as the trail narrowed and seemingly disappeared. When it ended, he continued along the path of least resistance, thinking of the book his mother had recently read to him: Where the Sidewalk Ends. He couldn’t stop thinking about the cover of the book, how the boy and girl, the dog even, had held onto the precipice and peered below. What had they seen, he wondered.
Ken, a little out of breath, reached the tenth floor. In the climb upwards, he had met two of his students from last semester who, while barreling down the stairs and apparently happy that math or biology class was over almost knocked Ken and dragged him down all those steps. They had shouted his name, too, as they rushed past him. Wasn’t that how he was also found, he thought: at night, asleep, up against a tree, startled awake by a frantic but thankful mother who had repeatedly shouted “Ken Deed, Ken Deed, Ken Deed!” while embracing him. The park ranger, who stood nearby, looked at him and said, “You’re lucky we found you out here.”
The Dean’s office was in the corner of the tenth floor. To access it, one had to pass by the department chairs’ offices, which were large enough for a desk and two or three large bookshelves, some with books, others with tokens representing family life: children, sports, vacations. The various knick-knacks that were strewn about each office gave the department chairs a particular style; it was clear that these people knew what they liked and how they wanted to be seen. It reminded Ken of how his bedroom, which could be defined as minimalist, had differed from his brothers, who themselves were biologically connected. Each of their rooms had had a clear theme: sports or music. Now, his older brother worked for some big microchip company in Idaho, while his second older brother sold real estate in upstate New York.
The Dean looked like a little child behind her rather large desk, her torso and small head barely above the writing surface. Her eyes were pointed down, fully absorbed by what she was reading. Ken knocked on the metallic doorframe and cringed at the reverberation it caused; this drew the Dean’s head upward.
“Ken,” she said, looking up and to her left, possibly to a wall clock or absently trying to recall if she had a meeting with Ken, who was now in front of her. “How are you?” She closed the book. “Come in, come in, sit.”
Ken came in and sat down, the chair a perfect fit given where his feet and arms naturally rested. He thought about his lunch downstairs, how he always ate at this time, and wondered how long this meeting would take.
“Dean Judee, how are you,” he asked, and extended his hand.
“I’m fine, Ken,” she said, shaking his hand with both of her own, as if this were the first time they had met or engaged. When was that, he thought.
“I won’t beat around the bush because you deserve better. We all deserve better. But this is not easy,” she said, sitting back down.
Ken sat quietly.
“You’ve no doubt heard the news, yes?” the Dean asked.
News, thought Ken. He recalled how his father had said, “No news is good news” when he had applied to ten colleges his senior year and spent those agonizing months waiting for a decision. Then he thought about what Professor Marks had said today. But before Ken could answer, Dean Judee spoke.
“Well, I won’t lie to you; it’s not good, for any of us. And that’s why this is so…”
Ken thought about the last time someone had said those exact words to him. It was during his senior year that his girlfriend had said those words before breaking up with him to join the Peace Corps.
“…hard to say to you.”
Ken Deed looked at the Dean, who, at the moment, looked at him, then out her large window pane of the massive office-like building that encased an accredited college. The Dean’s glasses were on her forehead. Ken guessed she only required them when she read and not when in deep thought, because it was clear that she was in contemplation.
“We have to let you go,” Dean Judee said, barely turning her head to see Ken.
The Dean’s words hung in the air. There was harshness, a kind of finality to her words. Ken thought it was because all of the words were monosyllabic; all of the words were short, brief—undeniably unambiguous: “We have to let you go.” There was nothing sing-songy about what she had said or how she had said it. “We HAVE / to LET / you GO.” He thought of iambic trimeter, then trochaic trimeter: “WE have / TO let / YOU go.” Which would sound softer, better, less final? He quickly settled on iambic trimeter when the Dean spoke once more.
“Ken, are you okay? Would you like to say anything? I have Human Resources on hold.”
“Human resources?” Ken barely got out. And yet, now, there was something so comical about those words, as if humans—workers specifically—were some kind of commodity that, like minerals or precious metals, could become extinct, or like corn, could exist in an overabundance. He thought of the job, the title, and what human resources actually did. They hired people—yes. And, now, it would seem they would lay people off.
Ken, hands folded in his lap, lifted his head. He looked at Dean Judee, thought about how small she really looked when she was standing and how her face revealed what appeared to be genuine sadness. He shook his head sideways. What was there to say, thought Ken. Everything had been said; everything had been aired and everything had been done in six syllables: “We have to let you go.”
Ken Deed exited the office and walked slowly towards the elevators. Students sat in the hallways, waiting for class to begin, while others were talking and listening to music. It was what he had seen for the last decade, what he had looked forward to every day: the possibility to inspire, to lead, to engage. Soon, he thought, it would be gone. The semester was almost over and when it did end, he would be without a schedule, a classroom, a purpose.
Ken sat at his desk, which seemed even smaller than usual. After ten years he didn’t even have an actual office, a place he could feel he earned, a place where students could come and feel comfortable in speaking with him about their concerns, dreams, fears. They’d had to make due in those hallways, outside in between a cigarette, the elevator—even the stairwell in passing.
No, he thought; I have a cubicle inside a larger room where most of the adjunct teachers are. He’d always been promised an office and had never complained, always believing it would happen because someone said it would or an e-mail had promised it some time in the foreseeable future. Besides, he had thought, I only need a desk, someplace to put my things and eat my lunch. From the office space, he could see where he parked. To comfort himself some, he walked over to see his compact car, the one he’d had since college, the car that had lasted longer than his tenure at this school. But it wasn’t there. And, to his dismay, he saw a tow truck leaving with someone else’s car. There would be no grace today. He put his hand in his pocket and could feel the new monthly parking permit. He wanted to curse and did so quietly in his head. He imagined the Sister with her yardstick again and smiled. Go ahead, he thought, do it. Do your worse.
Ken sat back at his desk and opened his lunch tote. But he had no urge to eat; his stomach did not churn despite not having the usual sustenance at the usual time. For the past 3,649 days, his life had been the same. Why on the 3,650th day would it decide to change, he thought. He put the parking permit on his desk and looked at it.
“Ken, shouldn’t you put the permit in your car?” asked Dr. Cacambo, who had sat across from Ken for the last few semesters. “You know how they like to tow here during the first week of the new month. Don’t you drive a silver—”
Ken stared ahead and imagined the cars from this morning, from all the mornings he had taken his morning commute. He imagined the homeless man who resembled Jon Voigt. He was probably still dancing to Queen.
“They got me last month,” said Dr. Cacambo.
“As long as I can get it back, it’ll be fine.”
“Ken?” he said. “Is everything okay?”
“I’ve been let go,” he whispered. He said it again, though still almost inaudibly as if he were to say it too loud it would become petrified in the air, solidified to be something tangible in his hands and thus unavoidable for at least a few more days. But, really, it was already heavy with the words uttered only a few moments ago. The past is the past, he heard his father say.
“I’m sorry Ken,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Unsure of how to respond, he said. “It’s okay; it’s no one’s fault.”
“Aren’t many words for situations like these,” Dr. Cacambo said, then, “Actually, it sucks. It really sucks.”
A few more teachers strolled in, bad mouthing their students before the office door even shut. “And can you believe what that one student was wearing?!”
“Ken, if you weren’t doing this job, what would you do? Or, what would you want to do?” Dr. Cacambo asked.
“I guess I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “Deeply, I mean,” he added. “I’ve never thought about it very deeply. I’ve just always done what my parents asked me to do.” He remembered that time he had slept in the woods alone, had traversed the paths, marked and unmarked. He wondered what had happened to that child.
“What do you do in your spare time?”
“I take walks.”
“We all do that, Ken,” he said. “I mean, what do you look forward to when you’re not here?”
Ken thought about it for a moment and was unsure what he did to bring him
happiness. While others disliked or hated the commute, he looked forward
to it, to seeing Jon Voigt, the man reading his book, the woman with her
beret and red umbrella, and the other regular commuters amble to their
destinations. He enjoyed cracking the window during the spring semester.
And when he really thought about it, he really did love his job; it was not
just that he had become accustomed to it.
Ken did not necessarily fear change. It was something else, he thought. Life had for so long been predictable. He recalled his younger self and what he saw was always the same. His parents said something and he nodded his head in compliance, never questioning or considering an alternative. Then it was his brothers, his teachers, his bosses, society. Ever since graduation, he had not known any other kind of work or path. Ten years, he thought. I haven’t deviated for ten years. Now, he had so many things to consider, choices to make. Now, he was, in a sense, completely free.
“I’m not really sure,” Ken finally said. “I’ve never really had much down time.”
“Well,” Dr. Cacambo said. “You’ll have the time now. Think about it carefully.”
He looked at Dr. Cacambo, then slightly toward the office window. He thought of that time when he was in the woods and got lost. There was something magical in that kind of unknown, something wonderful about that age where he had just walked without a destination, without any weight of worry. He pictured the book’s cover again, the boy and the girl and the dog as they inched their way on the precipice. Sure, he thought. They all had a look of fear on them, but they had dared to look over the edge.