Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!
Coffee spilled across the table. Napkins were tossed over, as the pot in the kitchen crackled.
Quickly, the cup was cleaned and filled with more. Fortunately, it was still bitter, and he needed more.
“Langston!” the voice repeated, “What are you doing?”
“Honey, I’ll be right there,” Langston said from the dining room table, as he tried cleaning up the mess.
Amiri rolled his eyes and helped. They made it to the Peruvian restaurant in Highland Park, just in time, and after ordering fish and plantains, Amiri asked if Langston was feeling alright.
“Why?” Langston replied and drank some water.
“It’s a simple question,” Amiri said.
“I was uploading another video to YouTube. That’s all.”
“That shouldn’t take that long. Are you sure you weren’t doing something else?”
“We had another faculty meeting. I was the one in charge of notes.”
Amiri sighed, but Langston promised him it would be different this time.
“We’ve been going through a lot of changes, and I need to make sure everything is going smoothly,” he explained.
“I understand, but that’s not your primary job. I’m worried they’ll try and drown you in unnecessary work…”
“It’s not unnecessary. I need to do this. Unless I show the department and people in our field that I can do more, then I won’t have to worry about getting tenure.”
“Fine. I just think you’re better served focusing on your brand then taking orders from them.”
“I can do both. Also, I took your advice and did a short one about social movements. It’s an introduction to literature about people who join groups and social justice organizations. That in fact, most are highly intelligent and integrated into society and aren’t whackos as the media likes to portray.”
“Hmm. Did you send this to me to look over or did I miss it?”
“No…I did it today and decided to just do a few edits…”
“Oh. Okay. That’s cool,” Amiri said, as the waiter arrived, and set down their plates. Amiri began cutting into the tilapia with his knife and fork, “Just make sure it’s not in jargon that ordinary people can’t understand.”
Langston said they could watch it when they get home, and added that next time, he’d make sure Amiri would get to access the video before it would go public. Amiri nodded, and they ate, amidst the other professors and professionals masquerading as normal people on a Friday night.
After the restaurant, Langston and Amiri had dessert at a Pakistani sweet shop in Edison and strolled around the block. Arm in arm, and with Amiri’s head resting on his shoulder, Langston did feel calmer, and happier. However, what happened at the meeting would swell, along with deadlines for journal articles and upcoming schedule for the fall semester, causing him to check his phone every few minutes.
At their home, Langston and Amiri went straight to their bedroom. They kissed and remembered each other’s favorite spots. Langston did his best to keep pace, as Amiri began to go faster and faster, and held him close. Langston ignored the glow from his phone in the corner of the room, and gripped Amiri as tightly as possible.
. . .
The latest video garnered close to 200,000 views and over 1,000 likes. Langston knew it wasn’t comparable to what others received, especially those who had been able to sustain a large audience for years, but he was encouraged by the numbers. Langston decided to create his “brand” since the last university budget cuts, when funding was depleted and the dean warned that even fewer students with full scholarships had to be admitted. Amiri helped set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, as well as a YouTube channel, and even a blog where he could publish short essays about issues that he was an expert on. In the beginning, only colleagues and friends shared his posts and online work. However, Langston persisted, and Amiri told him often that if he wanted to create real change and connect with what’s going on in the world, that he needed to go beyond academia. Langston researched online the biggest influences on social media, and even contacted a few, such as one trans woman of color living in Newark. She explained, through email, that her secret to becoming popular, was based on staying honest with herself and never being discouraged since there would always be commentators who would be negative and harsh. Every time I post something that I think is serious or do a video on a subject, she wrote, I think of someone like me when I was younger, in some small town somewhere, who is scared of what they’re feeling and is constantly being harassed, all that they need in the moment is to feel less alone.
Langston was in his office, typing another post on his blog that would add context to his latest video. He read the material on the upcoming election as well, and ideas on what to share next sprung in his head, ranging from discussing the false idea of American Exceptionalism to maybe comparing the current field of candidates and their racism to the dog whistle politics of Reagan and others, to counter the current narrative that somehow, the U.S. was immune to division and authoritarianism until recently. He jotted down a few titles that could grab peoples’ attention, and as he was done, an email from the department chair appeared in his inbox. The subject header read: Sad News. Langston took a deep breath before clicking.
With a deep hole in my heart, it is my duty to inform all of you that Frederick Ortega has decided to move on from his time here and to find better opportunities in his home state of California.
Soon, other professors replied, wishing Ortega the best of luck and expressing their shock and disappointment. Suddenly, another email arrived, this one from Ortega himself and only addressed to Langston.
Sorry for not telling you sooner, but I didn’t want to ruin your weekend. As you probably have guessed, I didn’t get tenure and I had no other choice. I think this is for the best actually, because I can’t take the culture of academia anymore. It’s too insular. You can’t foster any real change. Again, I apologize for doing this and not telling you face-to-face but maybe down the line we can meet up and grab a drink. Until then, I’ll be in touch.
Langston went to the lounge for more water, but on his way back, stopped in front of what used to be Subhash’s office. He peeked in the small window on the door, at the empty walls and empty desk. The last time they spoke was when Subhash was packing up to leave, and Langston was trying to figure out why. Subhash repeated that it was difficult to explain but that he knew he had to do more to recover.
Planning to stay at the office for just another hour, Langston called the Political Science Association journal.
“Hi Bill? This is Langston. Yep. I was wondering if you’ll be publishing the article this year…”
The man on the other side apologized.
“I was meaning to reach out to you,” he told Langston.
Langston pressed the phone to his ear.
“Did something happen? Did I miss a correction?”
“No. You’ve been following our instructions perfectly. However, our committee is divided on including your piece in the upcoming issue.”
“I thought you said everyone was excited when they first read it…”
“I definitely was. I still am. But some of us have more…clout…than others.”
“Let me contact them myself. I can persuade them.”
“I’m not sure about sharing their numbers with you. And the main person you have to somehow convince is difficult to get in touch with.”
“Who is he? Is it Professor Dyer?”
“His name is Professor Burgess.”
Langston was stunned. “He’s still around…?”
“He was the co-founder of the journal and is a legacy appointee on the board. He’ll probably leave only when he passes on.”
“Do you know what his problem was with what I wrote?”
“Honestly, he doesn’t communicate directly to us. He has a few assistants who message us. I understand the pressure of getting something into the journal. I really do. But I don’t think you can even talk to him.”
“I need more articles on my resume. I need them soon or I’m screwed.”
“I’m sorry…I don’t know what to say…”
Langston cut short the conversation, and allowed his heart to settle. Once the sweat on his palms dried, he Googled Burgess’s resume, background, and anything else he could find, including phone number to his office. As his eyelids began to lower, he bought more coffee and continued, following links until he’d uncover another clue and realize seconds later, it meant nothing.
. . .
Coffee cup rings were scattered all over the table and desks. In the dining room. The den. Especially at his desk at work.
Between updating syllabi for the upcoming semester, emailing and arranging for more faculty meetings, and making lists of probable assistant professors who could fill in the gap for their department, Langston persisted to search online for any insight as to who Professor Burgess was. He had always heard of the name, since Burgess was considered a “founding father” of modern political science and even parts of sociology. Yet, he never bothered to dig any deeper, until then. He even asked those in the department who knew anything at all, and in turn, received random anecdotes and observations.
“Burgess? He’s around 34? No wait, he’s 62. He has to be. No. 98. Yea. And he’s tall, like a tree.”
“He’s about 5’3”. He always wears this coat, like the kind you’d see at golf associations. And he doesn’t talk loud at all. Like I barely could hear him when I went to this conference a year ago. Almost like he whispers everything like a ghost.”
“I was invited once to this event he and Professor Dyer were hosting. It was at this hotel in D.C. Come to think of it, I never actually met Burgess. But from what’ve heard, he can’t stay in the sun too long, so he’s usually in his home.”
“If you Google all the major groups and associations in Political Science, he’s affiliated with every single one. I don’t know how he finds the time. Personally, I read one book by him, cause it was required when I was in undergrad, and he kept talking about this whole ‘deficit of citizenship’ that happened post-1964. It was strange.”
Langston decided if he had any chance of meeting Burgess, it would be at the annual PSA conference, where all the major political scientists meet at one location. This year, it was only an hour away in Philadelphia, and Langston bought his tickets for the event. He then glanced at his phone and saw there were a dozen messages, all from Amiri. Langston’s eyes grew wide at the time, and rushed home.
“I’m sorry, I got caught up preparing assignments,” he said immediately after stepping through the front door, but Amiri was at the dining room table, eating. Langston repeated his apology while Amiri cut into a slice of cake. “We can still catch a movie,” Langston added.
“It’s okay,” Amiri said, “I have to wake up early tomorrow.”
“Do you want to watch something on Netflix?” Langston offered.
“Pick something and I’ll be there,” Amiri said, and took his plate to the sink.
Langston connected their tablet with their TV and chose The Get Down for them to watch.
He made sure to wrap his arms around Amiri while on the couch. He also would kiss him on the neck whenever the next episode took time to load. Amiri stared at the screen instead, and at one point, asked Langston if he posted anything new on his blog or channel.
“Not yet, I haven’t found something unique to say,” Langston explained.
Amiri, without looking at him, responded, “Don’t forget to update. Or otherwise, people will think you left them behind.”
Langston said he would do something soon, and slid his arm down Amiri’s back, as the colors on screen illuminated the walls.
. . .
A week before the semester would start, Amiri chose to visit family in Chicago. Langston dropped Amiri off at the Newark airport and told him when he’d get back, they’d go to his favorite restaurant.
“On the same day?” Amiri asked, eyebrow raised.
“Why not? You’ll be here mid-afternoon, and you can grab a quick nap,” Langston told him.
Amiri grinned, and boarded the plane, while Langston waited for it take off.
The first thing Langston did when home alone, he sketched outlines for future blog posts. He was in the middle of figuring out what to say for his upcoming video when he began receiving emails from work again. One colleague also called, although Langston ignored and let it go straight to voicemail. Langston put on another pot of coffee before sitting down and reading through his inbox.
. . .
Eyes red. His skin raw. He groaned as he lifted his head off the dining room table. After more coffee and washing up, he checked the date, and quickly packed his laptop and some clothes. He got onto the turnpike and drove.
Philadelphia was only an hour away, and he already booked the hotel near the convention center where the conference would take place. He changed into a dress shirt and black pants in his room and went to join everyone else in the main banquet hall, surrounded by portraits of old men with brown hair and blue eyes, as if clones. Some were painted blonde. Many of the political scientists in attendance also looked like those decorating the walls. Langston mingled with members of the Asian American, Latino American, and Black American political science associations, as they huddled in the corners of the room, also in their best shirts and shoes. Since it was day one, most of the events were short and Langston went to his room when everyone started to leave. On the second day, he listened to a few presentations by people he knew, but later in the afternoon, just as the crowd grew, he asked others about Burgess. Much of what they said was the same as before. Many told him that Burgess was probably not even in Philadelphia.
“That’s bullshit,” said Ortega, who Langston bumped into at the bar, “He’s definitely here. This is probably his favorite place on the planet.”
“Why are you here? I thought you were leaving academia for good…” Langston said.
Ortega chuckled. “I don’t know,” he said, “I paid for the reservations earlier and I guess I didn’t want to waste any money.”
“Is everything okay?” Langston asked.
Ortega gazed at the crowd while they leaned against the bar. He told Langston that Burgess was in the top floor of the hotel.
Langston wanted to know more but took the next elevator all the way to the tenth floor. He knocked on doors, with no one answering, until a gangly man stepped into the hallway, having to bend under the ceiling like a giraffe.
“Hi. Can I help you?” he asked in a slow drawl.
Langston’s mouth hung open. He said he was looking for someone named Burgess.
The man, who was also dressed in a suit, explained his brother’s name was Burgess. “But he’s not a professor,” the man said, “He’s a police officer in Pennsylvania.”
“Oh,” Langston said, feeling deflated, “That’s fine. Thank you for your time.”
The man asked Langston what the other Burgess looked like and Langston did his best. After listening with his large hands under his chin, the man said that he saw someone who fit that description also on the floor.
Langston asked where and the man told him to come back in the morning since that’s when the other Burgess takes his daily walk.
“Daily walk?” Langston reacted, “Wait, does he live here…?”
But the man didn’t respond and shut the door. Langston returned to his own room and ordered more coffee and searched for more details online. On the third day, he did as told and went back to the tenth floor. Waiting by the stairs, he kept his eyes trained on every door. For an hour, nothing happened. Then, he heard a slow creak like someone walking, and turned to his left. There was a tiny man who opened his door, and who went to the elevator. He wore a bowler hat and had long pants like a magician, and he was at the same height as the doorknob. Langston instantly ran down stairs to the lobby and watched from across the elevators as the doors opened and the man stepped out.
Langston followed the man all afternoon, from the conference room to the other small venues where last minute additions to the schedule had been added. Sometimes, the amount of people made it difficult for Langston to keep track, although he’d try and guess where the man’s next movements too.
The man eventually went into the bathroom and Langston stood outside. After a while when no one was coming out, Langston also went in. He pretended to pee and washed his hands. He did this for several minutes until no one was coming out of the stalls. No one was at the urinals either.
Langston rushed through the crowd, even standing on the furniture for a better view. He retraced his steps, through the conference room and the other ones where people were still talking. At the lobby, he faced the entrance from behind a pillar.
A person tapped him on the shoulder.
“Are you looking for me?” the voice said, “I’m not a fan of sunny days, just so you know.”
It was the tiny man, staring up at Langston. Sweat trickled down Langston’s back.
“What do you want?” the man said, “I don’t have all day.”
“Is your name Burgess?” Langston said, trying not to stammer.
“That’s my cousin’s name,” the man said, “He’s in St. Louis. Why? Do you know him?”
“He’s not a professor, is he?”
“Nope. A judge. Again, why do you want to know?”
Langston apologized and left the man alone. That night, he tried to sleep but every time he closed his eyes, men on horses and carrying ropes filled his mind. He woke up early and worked on upcoming projects.
. . .
On the final day, he checked out of the hotel before joining the conference. He dragged his suitcase along to each event. He tried to crack jokes with colleagues and handed out business cards to people he felt would be useful in the future.
“Phone call for you,” a waiter at the hotel restaurant informed Langston after he sat down at one of the tables.
Langston asked who it was from but the waiter said he had to attend to others. The phone was in the hallway.
“Hello? Who am I speaking to?”
“Why are you so invested in this article?”
“Is this Professor Burgess?”
“He thinks you’re not using your talents by focusing on issues beyond your understanding.”
“What do you mean? My article is about race and identity, which is what I always cared about.”
“Yes, but you’re writing about Filipinos.”
“Filipino-Americans,” Langston corrected, “And I don’t see the problem.”
“Unfortunately, he cannot approve.”
“Wait, that’s not – – -”
“He says to enjoy the rest of the conference.”
The line was dead. Langston grabbed his suitcase and charged to the lobby, and asked the front desk if they had anyone by the name of Burgess in their hotel. The woman at the computer checked, and said they had two dozen names with the last name Burgess. Langston gave her the first name, and the number still remained.
“Are they all on the top floor…?” he asked.
“Yes…” she answered, watching his face, “Sir, are you alright?”
Langston mumbled and plodded away.
. . .
All the doors were left slightly hanging open, including the one where the tall man was in.
The room was dark. The curtains drawn. Langston edged down the hallway, peeking into each one.
The room at the end was the suite. It too was cloaked in shadows. The windows covered in blinds. Langston hesitated on entering, but voices started to echo. He was frozen.
“They’re all the same.”
“That’s why they can never succeed. They’re stuck in the past.”
“He will be like all the rest of them.”
“None of them will be as great as you, sir.”
“He won’t last.”
Langston went to the garage, and took his car. He got on the turnpike and tried to escape before rush hour. As he crossed the bridge, the traffic stalled.
“Fuck,” he muttered, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He called Amiri.
“Are you still at the airport?”
“No,” Amiri said, “I took a taxi.”
“I’m almost there. Just take a nap and we’ll head out once I come around.”
“Where are you?”
“Uh. Heading out of Philly…”
“Did the conference just end?”
“Yea. Did you eat anything?”
“Lunch before the flight. I’m not hungry.”
“I’ll grab something on the way, just in case.”
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. I’m sorry.”
“It’s whatever. Don’t rush.”
There was a pause.
“Are you still there?” Langston asked.
“Yea, I’m here.”
“I was wondering if I should make a video about American Exceptionalism.”
“Oh. Did you make it already?”
“No. I’m just asking you if that’s alright. I can share some ideas now. I’m on Bluetooth.”
“Sure,” Amiri asked, “What’s your first idea?”
“My first one is about the false idea of American Exceptionalism,” he said as the cars in front crept along, “