The band played out a cheer-like rendition of “May Auld Acquaintance Ne’er Be Forgot” as the graduates’ caps reached their apogee–a thumbnail-sized fake gold ’86 as badass big as a rap star’s ring bling (but that’s skipping ahead; in 1986 LL Cool J was still “Rocking the Bells”) attached to each flying tassel twined in Monmouth College’s twin school colors lion yellow and royal blue. Chromed highlights from the flotilla of parents’ and their students’ cars were visible from the ceremonial stage over the graduates’ now bending backs as they pecked like feeding chickens at the ground retrieving their square caps and laughing at each other, so happy to be sweating and finally free of school duties. And not just for the summer, but for a lifetime!
Gilman worked his way over to the science building with a few of the other Eng Lit majors, their robes cresting the concrete steps in vivid morning glory blues. They didn’t actually say to much, except for DiEllio, who held forth on his learning Croatian for an upcoming trip to the hidden land of the Croats. Everybody agreed it sounded really cool. Here they were, room 106, ready to pick up their official sheepskins, the authenticating certificate of baccalaureate matriculation. The school had recently begun handing out blank scrolls at the podium as each student’s name was called to avoid awkward mix-ups with the paperwork. Nobody wanted Ellie Mandelbrot (communications major) to go thoughtlessly tearing off for a post-graduate kegger with Elias Mandelstam’s BS in Higher Mathematics (minor in physics). At the desk was their old prof, Dr. Leveller, who looked to be twisting a watch fob on his affectatious waistcoat.
“Well, here you are,” noted the old professor blandly. He seemed happy enough to get a final look-see at his handiwork. “You’re all here, alphabetically.” He riffled the stack of degrees like playing cards dispensed from a pinochle shoe in Atlantic City, epicenter of tax revenue earmarked for education. “Casinos for Colleges!” was the winning slogan used when the law was passed to allow gambling in the state again. Nowadays you can lose your house in a bad night, but you can’t take the edge off with a puff.
Gilman was last in line, content to feel the comfort of friends and the air-conditioning for a while before he had to go back outside and find his ride in the hot crowd.
“Nothing for you,” Dr. Leveller pronounced with a twee smile. “Seems you’ve fallen off the edge of the world, Gilman.” He opened his hands to show that they were empty, his right index digit slightly discolored by tobacco; Dr Leveller had been twisting the dottle out of a tiny pipe and not winding a watch fob earlier. Gilman was inclined to laugh at not getting his diploma, but didn’t want to stand out among his schoolmates–all of whom had already left the room. He managed an uncomfortable smile.
“Look, Gilman,” Dr Leveller began. “Just go down to the registrar’s office when summer classes begin and they’ll straighten it all out. Your name was mis-spelled on your diploma, so they sent it back. Mrs. Watson remembers you distinctly.”
Gilman looked blankly down at the doctor.
“Mrs. Watson is the registrar. She remembers you.”
Gilman, not wanting to feel like a total doofus, nodded. “Kinda like in the Fairie Queen when the knight is all lost in that hairy swamp and gets a sign that he’ll stay lost for a good while longer.”
“Let’s hope this chapter comes to close more quickly,” Dr. Levller noted ironically, pushing his left mustache with a blunt fingertip, so light and blonde and small it would have be invisible were it not for Dr. Leveller’s habit of brushing it. “What will you be doing with your summer?” he asked idly, seeing that Gilman hadn’t moved from his spot and was still playing with the empty tube of his blank diploma, the gold ribbon keeping it neatly rolled in his nervous hands as he pushed his heavy glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, an epic poem.”
“Really?” Dr. Leveller’s eyes looked with a quiet estimation at Gilman, thin and wiry as a clothes-hanger under his flowing robe blue as a Tahitian waterfall.
“Oh, yeah,” Gilman continued, a bit over-excited thinking about it. “I’ve got it all figured out.”
“I see,” Dr. Leveller replied, relaxing once again, and letting the heavy lab table, bristling with spotless test tubes for the next experiment, take the weight of his haunch. “Well, you’d best be going.”
“Oh, OK. Right.” Gilman took a slippery step toward the door, his dress shoe sliding over the waxed floor like an ice-skater’s blade.
“Remember your Milton,” he heard as the automatic door closed behind him with the rubber hiss and dead click of sealing a vault. Gilman ran to the stairs and decided at the last second to slide down the bannister ass-first, his robes clumping between his legs. He had always loved Lycidas, especially the ending.