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Patrick Parks Fiction

The Longer View

by Patrick Parks

Professor Radtke owned two pairs of metal-framed glasses: one for distance, one for reading. Because the frames were identical and because he was perpetually engrossed in his work, whether he was actually at it or merely thinking about it, he routinely forgot to change from his reading glasses to the ones meant for distance, which meant, unless he had a book in front of him or was making notes, his world was a blur. Such was the case on a particularly gray and damp day when he left his house for a walk, something he did every morning before settling in at his desk and had, on many other occasions, undertaken wearing what he called his “short spectacles.” This had not proven to be a problem on earlier excursions because he followed a set route and rarely looked up from his feet, having already begun to review the efforts of the previous day and to speculate where this day’s study might lead him. Professor Radtke had retired from the university more than a decade ago, but now that he was free of teaching and directing students, he felt he was doing some of his best research, his most thoughtful scrutiny of national literature, stretching back through time to its origins as folk tales and ballads, all in support of a new thesis that could change the very way the country viewed itself.

This is what was on the professor’s mind that morning—the rethinking of the country’s heritage—and might explain how he mistook a sign with the word DIVERSION and an arrow painted on it, a sign propped against a wall by workers the day before for placement today on a different street, as an instruction meant for him, a change in his normal routine for some unknown but apparently official reason, which he followed without question or, apparently, without recognition of having done so. The street he was now on, much narrower than the one he had been going along, did not take a straight path but angled this way and that, around one windowless building and then another, none of them marked as to their purpose but all built of the same yellow brick. By the time he extricated himself from his reverie and looked around, he realized he was quite lost in an inscrutable maze of indistinct structures, fuzzy-edged to his eyes and each indistinguishable from the rest.

Professor Radtke considered his predicament, aware now that his vision—and therefore his perception—was limited by a prescribed bending of light, the grinding of lenses to precise specifications, a sharpening of vision for things at close range, but here, now, he was faced with longer stretches and more remote objects, all of which were made vague by his impeded vision. Certain that he could, with patience and concentration, retrace his path back to the familiar cobblestones of his morning stroll, the scholar turned and headed in the direction he was certain was the correct one. At the first intersection, the crossing of five streets—not four, which would have been much easier—he veered to the left and immediately regretted it. He could see, however dimly, that this street was a cul de sac with a fountain or a statue (he was not sure which) at the dead end. He walked back to the intersection and took another street. Before he had gone far, he realized that this, too, was the wrong way. He would surely have remembered such a melancholy avenue with black ribbons hung on doors and dead bouquets piled in the gutter. So, once again, he retreated to the place where the streets converged and diverged and followed a third possible route.

This one seemed more promising. The stones were smoother under his feet and, from a window above, he heard the sounds of a family preparing for the day: parents urging, children complaining, the sharp bark of a dog whose tail had been stepped on, the breaking of a sugar bowl. He pressed on, squinting as he neared a corner, hoping for a landmark, a hunch. Turning left, he found himself in a square from which four streets entered or exited, depending upon one’s intentions. Professor Radtke stopped, took a handkerchief from his pocket and polished the lenses of his inadequate eyewear, believing that it was, perhaps, smudged fingerprints hindering his sight. Such was not the case, as he discovered after resettling his glasses; all remained a drab smear of dolorous hues, the sallow facades smoke-streaked and grimy.

The professor took a watch from an inner pocket of the tweed jacket he wore beneath his top coat and lifted it to his face so that he might better read the dial. Eight-twenty-nine. On a normal day at this time, he would be climbing the steps to his front door, his morning perambulation at its end and the business of the day just ahead. Inside the front door, he would remove his gloves and scarf and put them into the pocket of his coat which, along with his hat, he would hang on hooks above the bench where he would sit to remove his shoes, replacing them with carpet slippers. From there, he would make his way to the kitchen and put on a kettle for tea. While he waited for the water to boil, he might cut a slice of bread and toast it over the blue flame of a burner on the stove and then spread it with butter and jam. If not that, he might find the paper bag containing sweet buns he bought yesterday at the bakery. He would place the pastries or the toast, cup, saucer and kettle onto a silver-plated tray and carry it to his library where, at nine o’clock, more or less, he would drink tea and chew something sweet while he looked over his notes from the day before. And there would be birds just outside the window: warblers.

This was not, however, a normal day, and Professor Radtke became anxious thinking about the things he should be thinking about. Here he was, blocks away from his home, in a part of the city he did not recognize and no idea how to get from here to there. He once again surveyed the square, noting that it was not large enough for a marketplace and had no band shell. It was simply a cobblestone plaza, its surface undulating and uneven. Clearly whatever civic purpose this wide space was meant to provide, it no longer did. He angled across the square toward a gap between two buildings that seemed to be leaning toward each other. As he neared the passageway, he saw ahead a vehicle—white, perhaps a delivery van—parked with its engine running. Exhaust rose in the damp air and floated sluggishly toward the tattered clouds overhead. When he was still some distance away, the door of the house in front of which the vehicle was parked opened and three men emerged, two of them struggling with the third. They, the two holding the other, opened the double doors on the back of the truck, and Professor Radtke was startled by what seemed to be a muffled gunshot. The man in the middle slumped, his knees buckling. He was pulled into the rear of the vehicle, the doors were slammed shut, and the van sped away, turning at the first cross street.

What had just happened? The scholar swung his great head from side to side, looking to see if anyone else witnessed the event, but the street and the square behind him were empty and silent except for the dripping of water in a zinc downspout. He turned his bedimmed gaze in the direction of the incident and squinted. He was not sure what to do. Should he turn around and get as far away as he could get, despite not knowing where he was going, or should he investigate?

He moved slowly toward the place where the delivery van had been parked, toward the door from which the men had appeared. He shuffled as he made his way, a bit crab-wise, in case there was a need to move quickly the other way. He held his arms away from his body and bent his knees slightly, a posture he felt provided him with the best chance for flight.

He reached the spot where the vehicle had been parked and stopped. The door to the house, which was shut tightly, offered no clue and neither did the wet stones at his feet. There was no sign of blood. He sniffed the air, searching for a trace of gun smoke, though he reminded himself that he probably would not know what it smelled like, anyway, having never fired a weapon of any kind. Uncertain about the nature of the abduction—if it could be called that—yet confident that the players in the drama were no longer nearby, he resumed his normal way of walking and went to the corner where the truck had careened to the right and disappeared. Along this cramped byway were a series of wide wooden doors, the kind that were lifted to allow vehicles entry. There was no sidewalk, which implied pedestrianism was discouraged. So he retraced his steps to the square, arriving at the same time as a police car, a boxy black automobile with a round red light atop its roof, unlit but still a beacon of succor. Professor Radtke waved both arms above his head and hurried in the direction of the officers who now got out, each dressed in a dark blue uniform with red epaulets, each putting a badged cap on his head and tucking a nightstick into his belt. They stood flanking the car and waited until the harried scholar reached them.

“I’ve seen something,” he said, a bit breathlessly. “Down that street.” The two policemen looked in the direction he was pointing.

“What was it you saw?” the shorter of the two asked.

“Perhaps a murder. Certainly a kidnapping. Of that, I’m sure. Two men tussling with a third. There was a gunshot, I believe. I’m fairly sure of that.” The professor knew he sounded irrational, but the appearance of these men allowed him to lose his nerve, to become frightened because they would see to his safety. He went on rambling, miming with broad gestures and a kind of shambling dance what he had seen, until one of the officers, the shorter one, put a hand on his shoulder and calmed him. He told the professor that his name was Walleck Diederich and his partner’s name was Stoyan Kovic.

“What is your name?” Diederich said. “Do you have any identification?”

Some mornings, the professor would leave home without his hat or scarf or, as happened today, wearing the wrong eyeglasses, but he never left without proof of his identity. He carried more than was necessary, in part because the government was suspicious of everyone, but also because he feared he might someday suffer a stroke—it was how his father had died—and he wanted to make sure he would be taken care of in a manner appropriate to his station. He did not want to end up in the paupers’ hospital next to the river, nor did he want his body, should he not survive the apoplexy, to be interred in one of the purported mass graves hidden in the trees on the grounds of that grim institution.

While Diederich looked over his passport, his university credentials, his driving license, his pensioner’s card, Kovic walked across the square to the street where the alleged incident had occurred and disappeared from Professor Radtke’s sight.

“These all look quite official,” Diederich said, tucking the bundle into a leather pouch he wore on his belt.

“May I have my documents?”

“Of course. Let’s now join Kovic and see what he might have found.”

Professor Radtke followed Diederich as he strode across the square, falling behind with each step. By the time he reached the door of the building the three men had exited, the officers were waiting for him.

“No sign of anything,” Diederich said. “No evidence of a crime.”

Had he been asked, the scholar could have told them they would find nothing, that the place held no clues and could provide no proof as to anything at all having happened there. His own perfunctory and unskilled investigation revealed that much, at least, and he had hoped that agents of local law enforcement would employ more sophisticated methods of detection. But rather than alienate the police and risk their retribution—he had heard of many such cases in the city—he simply frowned and nodded his head.

“Please understand, professor, that we are not doubting you. This certainly requires further examination, and we will pursue it, I assure you. In the meantime, it’s necessary for us to take you to the station and record your experience so that a formal inquiry can commence.”

“Is that necessary? As you yourself have said, there’s nothing here, so I don’t understand—“

“It’s standard procedure,” Diederich said. He took the professor by the elbow and started back to the square and to the black car. Kovic followed close behind. “And it’s possible that if something did occur, as you’ve suggested, another responsible citizen with a different angle, someone just around a corner, may have already reported the incident, and your deposition will be used to corroborate theirs.”

“It’s also possible that I was mistaken.”

“We can’t really take that chance, can we?”

They reached the car, and Diederich opened a rear door. Professor Radtke climbed in and tried to get comfortable. Though he was not a tall man, his knees were bent at a severe angle and pressed against the back of the seat in front of him, and when Kovic started the engine, a blast of hot air from the dashboard vent hit him in the face, making it hard to breathe. He tipped sideways so that he was nearly lying across the seat, leaning on an elbow. Kovic abruptly shifted into gear and spun them around so that they were headed the way they had come. The professor braced himself but still was flung onto the floor—partially, at least, given the space between the front and back seats—and remained with his shoulders wedged and his face just above a rubber floor mat until they reached their destination, Central Station.

As the officers helped him out of the car, Professor Radtke looked up at the edifice looming above him, a massive block of black granite with a wide stairway leading to brass doors. People ascended and descended this stairway in a variety of gaits from the slow trudge of a guilty man to the tap dance of a man freed on bail. Before he could start up the steps, he found himself being taken by both elbows and guided between Diederich and Kovic, lifted almost. Thus steered, he was swept through marble-floored corridors and left, at last, on a pew-like bench next to a tall door. Diederich and Kovic departed without a word, their boot heels clicking. Professor Radtke removed his hat and smoothed his hair, loosened his scarf and tucked his gloves into his coat pocket. As police officers and office workers hurried past him in both directions, he tried to assume a posture reflecting calm and nonchalance, at one point throwing his arm across the back of the bench and crossing his legs. But this grew uncomfortable very quickly, so he set his hat on the seat next to him and reached inside his pocket, realizing as he did so that his identification papers were not there. They had not yet been returned to him. He withdrew his hand and clasped it with the other, his physical discomfort transforming into something more worrisome, something confusing. He took out his watch, held it close to his face and read the time: ten-thirty-two. That was not possible! Surely two hours had not passed since he realized he had lost his way! He tried to get the attention of any one of the many that passed so that he might ascertain the correct time, but no one seemed to notice him, not even when he waved the watch in their direction, the fob chain swinging wildly. Defeated, he slumped back and tucked the watch away. 

At last, someone approached him, an attenuated young woman with colorless hair. She said nothing but knocked on the tall door, waited for a reply, then opened it and nodded. Professor Radtke stood, nodded in return, and went through the doorway into a well-appointed office, a vast chamber with a high ceiling and velvet drapes hanging on either side of a large window which looked onto a pond where a single swan swam. In the center of the room was a beautiful desk constructed of fine and highly polished mahogany. At the desk, seated in a leather chair which creaked when he leaned forward, was the police superintendent, the highest-ranking member of the local constabulary. His navy-blue uniform was spotless and the brass buttons reflected light like tiny mirrors. He stood when the professor entered and, with a tight smile, indicated a second leather chair, this one placed in front of the desk. Professor Radtke sat, rested his hat on his lap and held the brim with both hands. The police superintendent took the scholar’s identification papers from a manila envelope and studied them.

“So, you are a professor.”

“I was. I’m retired from the university, but still quite active in the field of folkloristics.”

“I’m not familiar with this area of study. What do you do?”

“It’s quite diverse, actually, with researchers studying a variety of artifacts. I myself am a biblio-folklorist with an emphasis on our nation’s myths and legends. Currently, I’m comparing common tales from the six indigenous regions—“

“What is the purpose of this work?”

“The purpose, though that seems an inadequate word, is to create one story out of many and to identify our nation’s character, our identity.”

“That seems a rather difficult task.”

“It is, actually. It occupies all of my time from waking to sleep.”

“Even when you are out walking?”

“Most especially then. With no text in front of me to consider, my mind spins, and I compose complete chapters in here—” he tapped the side of his head. “—and then transcribe them when I return home.”

“You are able to do that?”

“Quite often, yes, to some degree. Not chapters in their entirety, of course, but notions of chapters.”

“Were you composing this morning? Was your mind spinning when you reached Arulas Square?”

“Arulas Square? Was that—“

“Yes, but were you aware of the world around you or were you creating notions in your head?”

“By that time, I was concerned with my whereabouts and thought only of getting to my own house.”

“That would mean you were not daydreaming and you believe you actually saw something occur just off the square, on Vesela Street?”

Professor Radtke was taken aback by the man’s dismissal of his morning routine as daydreaming, but he felt it better not to be argumentative.

“I don’t know the name of the street,” he said, “but, yes, I did observe what I believe was an abduction and perhaps a murder. Possibly.”

The police superintendent leaned farther forward on his elbows, and the professor could see that the man’s eyes were an icy blue.

“Why are you so uncertain? Did you see something suspicious or not?”

“I can’t be certain because I’m wearing the wrong glasses. I need the pair for distance, but these”—the professor removed them and waggled them the way he did when he was lecturing”—are my short spectacles, which are for reading. Even with them on, everything beyond the end of my outstretched arm is bleary. I feel as if I’m looking through water.” He put his glasses on again, and the police superintendent came into slightly sharper view.

“Despite your faulty vision, you believe you watched a crime?

“I would not stake my life on it, but, yes, I am convinced, quite convinced, that I saw an irregular event occurring. It left me rattled, to be honest, and fearful for my own life.”

“Why is that? Did the men see you?”

“I don’t think so, but again, with my eyesight, one of them might have glanced over his shoulder.”

The police superintendent once again began to study Professor Radtke’s papers.

“And why were you in Arulas Square?”

“I didn’t realize that’s where I was. It’s not my usual route. I took a wrong turn, apparently, and then several more. Apparently.”

“You know nothing of the anarchists?”


“Until recently, they gathered in Arulas Square and exchanged information. They had been under military observation for the past eight months until, as I said, recently when they suddenly stopped meeting in that location. It is believed that they were alerted to the surveillance and have moved to some other place in the city.”

“I had no knowledge of anarchists meeting anywhere. Or of there even being anarchists.”

“There are always anarchists, professor, you should know that.”

“I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to the world. My work—“

“Yes, well, because of this activity in Arulas Square and your being there without an apparent reason—“

“I told you, I was lost.”

“—you will need to talk with Major Nemeth, who is with military intelligence. Officers Diederich and Kovic will transport you to the Citadel. They are just outside the office.” He gestured toward the door and then tucked the professor’s papers back into the manila envelope from which they had been taken. Although he felt he could legitimately ask that his identification documents be returned to him, Professor Radtke put on his hat and pulled his scarf more tightly around his neck as he walked into the hallway and into the care of the policemen who had brought him here. When they reached the broad stairway that led to the street, a cold wind had kicked up, and there were faint swirls of snow skimming the ground.

The drive to the Citadel, unlike the trip from Arulas Square to the Central Office, was almost leisurely. Kovic drove slowly and was courteous to other drivers. Diederich turned in his seat and asked Professor Radtke what he thought of the building he had just left.

“It’s a stunning example of contemporary architecture” the officer said, without waiting for the scholar to reply. “It is Ohlbrecht’s work, of course. Not his finest, perhaps, but very good, nonetheless.”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Ohberg—“


“—Ohlbrecht, but the station is quite an imposing structure. It is a prime example of form and function, I would say.”

The Citadel overlooked the city from atop a sheer cliff that paralleled the river, a perfect defense position in those times when invading armies marched across the soft, swampy land that stretched from the opposite bank to low hills in the distance. Professor Radtke had never been here before, never taken the steep road that wound its way up the backside of the cliff to the rugged fortress. Virtually unchanged since its construction centuries ago, entry was gained to the Citadel through an arched gateway into a large courtyard above which thick battlements rose, old cannons still aimed across the river. The professor was able to catch but a brief glimpse of the place as he was escorted from the car through another archway and down a spiral stairway, its stone steps slippery from use. He was careful to hang onto a thick rope that acted as a banister and to keep his eyes on the back of Kovic as they descended.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Professor Radtke found himself, along with his escorts, in a kind of shaft, clearly underground but open to the cheerless sky above and the snow that was falling more steadily now. Kovic turned to him and pointed upward.

“Murder hole,” he said, then turned back and followed Diederich to another stairway, this one going up. The professor looked again at the clouds and imagined men in chain mail ringing the top of the opening, rocks held above their heads, ready to let them drop. He hurried after the police officers and climbed to a landing where a single, unpaned window looked out onto the courtyard where the black police car was parked. They entered a dim low-ceilinged passage that gradually grew wider and taller and finally became a well-lit barrel-vaulted hallway. The professor could make out, at the far end, two soldiers in deep green army dress uniforms on either side of a closed door.

“This is where Kovic and I leave you,” Diederich said. “Major Nemeth is in the office straight ahead. He’s expecting you. We will collect you after the interview, unless some other arrangements are required.”

Professor Radtke was going to ask what other arrangements might be required, but the two policemen were already disappearing into the murk of the passageway, leaving him to find out for himself. As he approached the doorway and the soldiers, the professor removed his gloves and tucked them into a coat pocket. He unknotted his scarf then removed his hat and carried it in his left hand by the brim. Without a word, the soldiers saluted. One of the men stepped forward, twisted the door handle and indicated to Professor Radtke that he was to enter, which he did and discovered that he was still in the arched corridor, another pair of soldiers and another closed door thirty meters or so farther along.

As one of the soldiers stepped forward and reached for the door handle, Professor Radtke stopped. The soldier stepped back and resumed his original posture. The scholar turned and looked at the door he had just gone through, wondering whether or not he would be prevented from leaving this place and finding a way to get back to his house. He was here voluntarily, of course, but there was an assumption of compliance, almost an insistence, that suggested he perhaps would be wise to acquiesce and be of whatever assistance he could, though he was unclear as to what that might be. With a resolute nod of his head, Professor Radtke marched on, the way was opened for him by the attentive soldier, and he saw there ahead yet another set of guards, another closed door. So he charged on, and this time entered not another stretch of hallway but, instead, a circular room—one of the fortress’ towers, no doubt—where a group of soldiers sat around a round table eating. The air in the room was thick with the smell of boiled sausages and onions, and Professor Radtke suddenly felt hungry. How long had it been since he had last eaten? Last night?

One of the men slid his chair back and came to where the scholar stood. As he grew near enough to be in focus, the professor saw that he was a junior officer of some sort with an imperious air about him. His chin was lifted in such a way that he looked down his nose.

“You are Professor Radtke,” he said, a statement rather than a question. “Please, this way.”  

Turning on his heel, the arrogant young man led the way, looking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure the professor was still behind him. They went through yet another hallway that, by Professor Radtke’s reckoning, ran at a ninety-degree angle to the one that had led him to the room where food was being served and was, in every way, an exact replica of that passage, down to a pair of guards at every door. At the end of this corridor was another circular room, another of the Citadel’s towers. In this place, instead of a dining table, there was a metal desk, painted a drab military green, surrounded by a half-circle of similarly hued filing cabinets. At the desk was a homuncular man with steel gray hair dressed in a uniform with large epaulets, his head and shoulders barely clearing the desk’s surface. He was writing rather rapidly and, it appeared—given his stature—rather uncomfortably, on what looked to be a map or a diagram of some sort, oblivious to the arrival of the junior officer and the professor. The young man tapped his heels, snapped a salute and said, in a voice much too loud for the room, “Major Nemeth, this is Professor Radtke. The man who was apprehended in Arulas Square.”

“No, no, no,” the scholar said. “I was not apprehended. I was there quite accidentally and happened to see something. That’s all. I did nothing wrong.”

Major Nemeth looked up. His face, the scholar thought, was that of a child.

“Lieutenant, please take Professor Radtke’s coat and hat. It’s quite warm in here.”

With some awkwardness, the junior officer wrestled the coat off the professor, collected scarf, gloves and hat and left through the door they had entered a minute earlier.

“Professor, please.” Major Nemeth was again scribbling, but he paused long enough to point with his pen at a chair across the desk from where he sat. As Professor Radtke lowered himself onto the seat, the chair scraped the stone floor. The sound seemed to surprise the officer. His head jerked up, and he capped his pen, then lay it on the desk. He smiled a quick smile and then pursed his lips. He nodded and frowned.

“You know why you are here?”

“I believe so, but there appears to be a misunderstanding. I was not apprehended nor arrested. I am a bystander, an innocent bystander.”

“So I understand. So I’ve been told.” From a familiar-looking manila envelope, the major produced a bundle of documents that the scholar recognized as his identification papers, and he again felt it appropriate but unwise to ask for their return. The contradictory emotions rankled him and he resolved to be conciliatory but not overly so.

“Can you describe your time with the university?”

“I did my research. I wrote extensively. I taught classes. That was what was expected of me.”

“Were you involved with any political groups?”


“Did you advise students to resist the government and to disobey laws?”


“Are you an anarchist?


“Why were you in Arulas Square?”

“I have explained why I was there already a number of times. I am wearing the wrong eyeglasses, which caused me to take a wrong turn and become lost. I ended up there quite by accident, and that’s where I saw a man murdered, or just kidnapped.”

“You were wearing a red scarf.”



“I don’t know. I have a number of scarves of different colors. I chose the red one at random.”

“The anarchists, as you know, can be identified by their red scarves or red kerchiefs worn in a pocket or around the neck. Sometimes a red flower.”

Professor Radtke’s irritation had reached a point where he felt an outburst was inevitable, but he recognized that losing his temper in this situation was ill-advised. He knew the tiny man could have him locked away or in front of a firing squad as easily as he, the professor, could dispose of an unpromising student. The fact that Major Nemeth’s youthful face reminded him of so many of those whose academic careers he had ended further unnerved him, and he wondered, however irrationally, if this man might be one of them. He took a deep breath before answering, hoping to clear his head.

“I’m afraid I did not know that,” he said. “Though I wish I had because then I would not have been wearing the red scarf and would not be taking up so much of your time. I apologize for any confusion this has caused and would now like to be taken home.”

Major Nemeth nodded.

“I can arrange that, of course,” he said. “Once the extenuating circumstances have been fully investigated and explained.”

“Extenuating circumstances?”

“Professor, you must realize that these are uncertain times. Our government is at risk, and every incident that threatens our nation has extenuating circumstances.”

“I don’t know what more I can do. I’ve answered all of your questions.”

“All of mine, yes, but I have been asked to send you along to the Ministry of Information. They, too, would like to speak with you.”

At that moment, the door opened, and the professor’s old companions, Diederich and Kovic came in.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” Major Nemeth said, uncapping his pen. “I hope the Ministry will find you to be as amenable.” He began scribbling again on his notepad.

“Professor Radtke, this way.” It was Diederich who spoke. Kovic simply turned and headed out the door. They navigated the Citadel by a different route but wound up in the courtyard where the black police car waited. Kovic was holding a back door open. As he ducked into the automobile, Professor Radtke felt the sharp sting of the winter wind and realized that his coat and hat and scarf had not been returned to him. He backed out of the car and asked Diederich if he could retrieve what had been left behind.

“Of course,” Diederich said. “But we have an appointment, so we must go now.” He took the professor’s arm, assisted him into the automobile and closed the door. Though the inside of the car was warm, the scholar was freezing. The absence of his coat and scarf and hat on a day like this, not to mention his gloves, left him exposed and bitter with cold. All the way to the Ministry, a trip as silent and portentous as a trip to the cemetery, he shivered and his teeth rattled, and he wondered if it was the cold or his destination that chilled him so completely—to the bone. This frigidity seemed to affect his mind as well as his body, and he was cast back in his memory to a day from his childhood, a day as wintry as this one, when his mother had sent him to the butcher’s shop to purchase a ham bone for soup, and he had dropped the coins she gave him into the snow. He fell to his knees and began to dig frantically. By the time he retrieved the money, his fingers were so numb that he could not close them around the coins, and they slipped again into the snow. This happened again and again until he finally woke and realized it had been a dream.

Professor Radtke raised his chin from his chest and saw that they were now on Dusha Boulevard, the widest thoroughfare in the city, its easternmost terminus the Presidential Palace. Along the broad street, on either side, were government buildings, home to the country’s extensive bureaucracy. Constructed less than 20 years earlier out of prefabricated concrete slabs and stacked like boxes atop and next to each, they offered no clue as to which agency was housed where. Only those familiar with the layout of the complex knew its secrets.

Kovic was apparently one of those with that knowledge. He steered them off the boulevard and into an alleyway. He took a series of turns and finally pulled around to the rear of a single-storied structure into what appeared to be a delivery dock. He and Diederich exited the vehicle and made sure that he, the professor, was aimed in the right direction and delivered to the place to which he was to be delivered, a trip that took them through subterranean storage rooms, a kitchen, a long utility closet, and ended, at last, in a room that had a single high window and a bench fastened to the far wall. The two officers left, and Professor Radtke took a seat on the bench. It was silent in the chamber, except for a faint, arrhythmic ticking. There was no light fixture that the scholar could see, and what sunlight found its way in through the high window was gray and weak. Snow fell at a greater rate now, it appeared. Fat flakes gusted past the glass, and the professor turned up the collar of his tweed jacket, crossed his arms over his chest and buried his hands in his armpits.

The sun continued its descent, and the room grew darker. A new luminescence suddenly appeared in the window, and Professor Radtke realized that a streetlight had just come on, its sharper light seeming to agitate the snow.  Suddenly, he was tired. Exhaustion wrapped itself around him like a shawl. He could barely remember the events of the morning that brought him here—the road sign, getting lost, the white van, the gunshot—and he wondered if any of it had really happened. Perhaps he found himself here in this dank room, alone, with a snowstorm outside for some other, forgotten reason. It was a great fear of his that he might lose his mind the way his wife’s father had and wander the streets asking people if they had seen his dog, a Pekingese, which had died years earlier under the wheels of a streetcar.

The door opened and a shaft of light cut across the floor, itself cut by the silhouette of a man.

“Professor Radtke?”

“Yes.” The professor stood, his knees cracking as he did so.

“My name is Ungur. Nicolae Ungur.” The speaker was a dumpy-looking man in a wrinkled suit and a crooked tie. His hair and moustache, both unkempt, were going gray, and his eyes were rheumy. To the scholar, he was the epitome of a career civil servant, a lackey with no ambition or future, a man always groveling, always apologizing. As if to prove the professor right, he bowed his head.

“I’m terribly sorry. You were left in the wrong place. Please come with me.”

Professor Radtke walked out of the room, squinting in the glare.

“We need to go this way,” Ungur said. “Please.” He swept the air with his arm and then charged off. Though his energy was spent, the professor took after him. When Ungur reached a crucial intersection, he turned and looked back, then swept his arm again in the direction he wanted Professor Radtke to turn. They moved along in this fashion until, at last, the scholar rounded a corner and saw Ungur standing next to a door with a frosted glass panel. Painted on the glass was the title, “Cultural Attaché.”

Professor Radtke had heard of the Cultural Attaché, a man, he was told, who was as well-read as anyone in the country, a man whose knowledge of opera and music was superseded only by his knowledge of literature, particularly poetry and, more particularly, the poetry of their country. The professor straightened a bit, his fatigue lessened at the thought of meeting a fellow intellectual.

“This way, please.” Ungur opened the door onto darkness. He swept his arm and then stood in the doorway, requiring the scholar to turn sideways and squeeze past. The man’s features, even up close, were soft and ill-defined, and Professor Radtke doubted if he would remember what the man looked like should they meet at some point in the future, and he was wearing the proper pair of glasses.

Ungur plunged into the darkness. A moment later, a gooseneck lamp came on, its illumination unable to reach the corners of the room, a room which struck the professor as the kind of place where custodians gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards. There was only a long, collapsible table in the center and a handful of folding chairs arranged haphazardly around it. Ungur pulled one of the chairs out and gestured. Professor Radtke sat and turned to the table, resting his elbows on the stained surface. He was perplexed. The sign on the door indicated a man of some prestige worked behind it, yet this hardly seemed the office of an attaché. It was not, in fact, even an office. What kind of government official, and one with such a lofty title, would allow himself to be treated in this fashion. It made no sense.

“I’m not clairvoyant, but I do know what you’re thinking.” Ungur closed the door and came to the table. “What a dump! Am I right? Of course, I am, and of course it is! Where else would you put a cultural attaché than in the basement of a spectacularly hideous blockhouse?” He shook his head and smiled.

“I imagine the attaché would be less amused than you,” Professor Radtke said. “From all I’ve heard, he’s perhaps the most astute man in the entire government and certainly worthy of better than this.”

Ungur’s smile vanished. He moved away from the table, out of the light thrown by the lamp, and began to walk around the room, keeping close to the wall. The professor swiveled his head to watch the man, but after a couple of laps, his neck stiffened and he gave up.

“It stands to reason,” Ungur said, “that someone with my reputation should be a more dignified individual. Handsome, perhaps, certainly taller and more regal in bearing. However, I am the son of two rather plain and unremarkable parents, a baker and his wife.”

“I apologize if I’ve offended,” Professor Radtke said, turning his head once again as the other man moved around the perimeter of the room. “My assumption had nothing to do with appearance. It never occurred to me that you would yourself come fetch me personally. I presumed there were assistants for that sort of errand.”

“A natural assumption, to be sure, though I suspect you did have a different image of what a cultural attaché would look like.”

“Oh no, I thought nothing—”

“It’s irrelevant, professor. Merely my weak ego.”

The scholar tried to calm himself. His insensitive remark, unintentional though it may have been, could not be retracted nor atoned for. If he had felt himself the quarry of his interlocutors before, now, with Ungur circling him like a bird of prey, he was even more aware of his perilous situation.  He concentrated on breathing and slowing the rapid tattoo of his heart. He needed to have a keen mind so as not to be tripped up or cornered by another imprudent comment.

“I heard you once many years ago,” Ungur said, bobbing his head as he paced. “I was trying to woo a young woman who was infatuated with you and was going to hear you speak, so I tagged along.”

“And were you successful with the young woman?”

“Sadly, no. She was, it turns out, already engaged to someone else.”

“At least you had an evening of mental stimulation,” Professor Radtke said with a slight smile: a bit of self-effacing humor, a trademark of his.

Ungur nodded and continued his wall-hugging walk, swinging one arm, the other crooked across his back.

“Yes, I did. You lectured on the myth of the six brothers.”

“Ah! The six brothers.” He was pleased that the Cultural Attache had attended the lecture most often requested by sponsors of educational events and the core of his research. He had delivered it perhaps a dozen times before he retired, each time to an enthusiastic audience.

“It is, of course, the story that shapes our nature.”

“Of course. I learned it as a child and then studied it as a university student.”

Radtke refrained from retelling the tale to someone who clearly knew it. Six brothers, one father, six mothers. Each one unlike the rest, each one vying for the attention of the father. Their constant warring scorched the land and decimated the population. To put an end to the devastation, the father divided his lands and gave each son a portion upon the condition that they live peacefully.

“It’s a story common to each part of the country,” the professor said.

“That’s true, but in each variation, the brother that represents a particular region is seen as the hero, a benevolent figure surrounded by his intractable siblings. In one version, the brother who was given the lowlands built dams and made the marshy ground tillable. In another, the brother who inhabits the mountains dug into the rock and discovered veins of copper. From the aspect of the others, the brother who reclaimed the lowlands flooded the lands of his brothers, and the one who mined copper fouled the water that flowed from the mountains. So, despite the best efforts of the father, there remained distrust among the brothers. Today, though it is rather benign, this mutual dislike remains. Most evidently at sporting events”

“But such division is detrimental to our nation. It makes us appear childish and untrustworthy, petty.”

“Yes, yes, I’m familiar with your thesis. It runs through everything I’ve read of yours today, and while I admire your tenacity, I find the notion to be, in a word, disruptive. A dangerous word in these times, professor, very dangerous.”

Someone rapped on the door. Ungur answered it. He stuck his head out into the hallway, spoke a few indistinguishable words, then reappeared and stood aside as a woman—the professor guessed her to be in her fifties, though he had no reason for ascribing that age to her—hurried in with an armload of envelopes and file folders, which she dropped on the table and then hurried out as quickly as she had come in. The scholar looked at the papers heaped in front of him and recognized the handwriting.

“These are mine! This is my work! How did you—?”

“Your wife let us in.”

“My wife is dead.”

“Your housekeeper.”

“I have no housekeeper.”

“A woman, then, unidentified but familiar with your apartment.”

“There is no such woman.”

“Does it really matter? Your papers are here now, and I have read quite a lot of it today waiting for your arrival, and I must say I’m reminded of the work done by Hasclav thirty years ago. Do you know Hasclav?”

“Of course, I do. I read his early work when I was a university student and Provincial Tales was on the reading list for the seminar I taught. But I am introducing new ideas into the study of national mythology, building on Hasclav’s studies and weaving them together into a single narrative.”

“But we are a country divided into six distinct regions, each with its own literature and foods and music. Why do you want to make them one? Why do you want to take away their singularity?”

“That is not my intention. What I’m hoping—”

“May I borrow your glasses?” Ungur said, reaching out his hand. “Like you, my eyes are not what they used to be.”

Professor Radtke handed over his spectacles. Ungur put them on and took a folder from the desk. He held it unopened in his hand, waving it at the professor.

“What you hope to accomplish denies our differences, our inherent qualities, the very essence of what makes each part of our nation unique.”

Ungur tossed the folder onto the table and retreated into the shadows. Professor Radtke could hear him moving along the walls, but he could see nothing, no sign of the man.

“Some of my superiors are concerned with your studies. They worry that, if published, your notions might instigate some action, particularly among students who are easily provoked. Their idealism, as you no doubt remember from your days at the university, is heartfelt but naïve. They will, of course, grow out of it, just as you and I did, but now it is problematic.”

Professor Radtke rubbed his eyes. The strain of not being able to see clearly was giving him a headache. He listened to the sound of his interrogator’s—his tormentor’s!—shoes scuff along the floor. He had no idea what he was supposed to say or do, but he was certain it would entail his acquiescing and prostrating himself (only figuratively, he hoped) should he ever get home again.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand your point,” he said.

There was a noise from the shadows.

“My point, quite simply, is that you are promoting ideas that threaten the security of our country. Your notions of our all being one people with great power runs counter to the philosophy of our government, which thrives paradoxically on polarity and loyalty. Your ideas run counter to the reality of today’s political world.

“And what am I to do about it?”

“Nothing! What do you imagine you might do to discourage unrest? You’re a retired professor, Radtke. You’re not skilled in the art of diffusion, nor do you have the tools to create diversion. Those are the domain of the ruling party, as they should be.”

“Then why am I here?”

“You know the answer to that, my dear man. You alerted the police to a crime and were asked to be deposed in the matter.”

The scholar closed his eyes and shook his head slowly.

“I am utterly confused,” he said. “I am confused, and I am tired, and I am hungry. I’ve not had a drop of water, a bite of food nor a comfortable place to sit in the past”—he looked at his watch and calculated—“22 hours.” The realization that he had been held for such a long time brought him nearly to tears. He took a handkerchief from a trouser pocket and dabbed at his wet, tired eyes. “Please tell me what you want.”

Ungur appeared from the shadows and leaned on the table. He was still wearing the professor’s glasses.

“It’s quite simple. Those who know better than I are requesting that you abandon your project. They would like you to leave your research and writing in our hands and pursue some other line of academic inquiry.” Ungur stood up and his head disappeared. “If you choose not to honor the request, you may find yourself labeled an enemy of the state. You would not want that.”

Professor Radtke’s glasses dropped onto the table. He picked them up and put them on.

“And the crime I witnessed?”

“It was nothing. A man’s wife called his friends to pick him up and get him to work on time. He was quite hung over and wanted to stay in bed. That’s what you saw.” Ungur opened the door to the hallway, and the room was suddenly illuminated. The professor squinted and shaded his eyes.

“It was nothing,” Ungur said, “and yet, it led to something, did it not? Much of life appears to occur in this way, I think. All coincidental, all happenstance. But, if we take the longer view, we can see it is not as random as we might imagine. Everything is connected in one way or another. If you give it some thought, I believe you will agree.” He left, closed the door, and the room grew dim again. The professor slumped more deeply and wiped his eyes once more.

In the past, Professor Radtke knew, colleagues of his at the university—political scientists or sociologists, historians, behaviorists—had endured government scrutiny. In those cases, they had published a provocative article or had delivered a lecture that riled up the audience. Some of them disappeared. Others returned to campus gray-faced and listless. For that reason, he had remained neutral, a serious scholar who could be trusted to have no opinion whatsoever about the world as it existed. But now! What irony! He imagined those who had suffered would take no small delight in his predicament. They would see it as the reward for cowardice. “You can only duck your head so low,” they would tell him. “Eventually, you will be noticed.”

The door opened, bright light cut in, and the woman who had appeared with the folders entered with a tray, which she set on the desk in front of the professor. Breakfast. A hard-boiled egg, thick slices of rye bread, and a mug of coffee. As the scholar dug in, the woman collected the folders she had brought in and hurried from the room. So ravenous was he that Professor Radtke gave but the briefest thought to his work as it was taken from him. He wanted another egg, more coffee, jam for the bread. He was pressing crumbs with his index finger and licking them off when there was a knock on the door and his two attendants, Diederich and Kovic, came in. Kovic was carrying the professor’s coat and hat and scarf, which he helped the weary man put on. Without a word, the threesome walked through the basement and out into the day. Like yesterday, the sky was heavy and gray, but it was warmer, and the snow that had fallen was melting, requiring them to hop puddles on their way to the car.

Once settled in the rear seat, Professor Radtke leaned against the door and stretched his legs as best he could. He closed his eyes and felt his body relax. He was still hungry, though, and as he fell asleep to the sizzle of tires on wet pavement, the sound conjured up bacon and potatoes frying in an iron skillet. When Diederich shook him awake, he was dreaming of Sunday dinners he had enjoyed as a boy: a table laden with roasted venison and vegetables, loaves of bread, a crock of butter, a crystal dish heaped with pickles; on the sideboard bottles of mineral water and wine, pies, cakes, pastries, and, in the background, a symphony on the radio.

“We’re here,” Diederich said. He opened the door and stepped aside.

Professor Radtke got out of the car, expecting to be on his own street, in front of his own house, at the foot of the stairway to his front door. Instead, he found himself in Arulas Square. He grabbed at Diederich’s sleeve.

“Why are we here? Why was I not taken home?

“This is where we found you, so this is where we must leave you.”

“I don’t understand. Haven’t I been through enough?

“What can I say? I follow orders.”

The scholar looked around. The square was as empty as it had been the morning before.

“Here,” Diederich said. He held out an eyeglasses case. The professor took it from him and opened it. Inside were the spectacles he used for distance.

“They were in with your papers,” the policeman said. “We have no use for them.”

Before Professor Radtke could say anything else, Diederich got back into the patrol car, and Kovic drove them away. After the car had gone, leaving a wisp of oily smoke, the professor carefully exchanged one pair of glasses for the other and looked around at the plaza with its crooked cobblestones and shuttered windows. He could see it all clearly now, but that would not help him find his way. He was still quite lost.


Patrick Parks is author of a novel, Tucumcari, and has had fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews appear or forthcoming in a number of places, most recently, TYPO, Change Seven, Ocotillo Review, Bridge Eight, and Full Stop, He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and lives with his wife near Chicago. More at: patrick-parks.com

The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.



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