Who’s Afraid of Prof. Arkoudas?

#Trust30 Prompt: “Always do what you are afraid to do,” Emerson said. What is ‘too scary’ to write about? Try doing it now.

I admit that I have been afraid to make my Professor Arkoudas character incarnate. He has always remained in my brain, though occasionally I have scratched out a sentence here or there to remember a fertile idea. So now I am going to write a little more of a dialogue to flesh out Arkoudas. My fear stems from giving life to a fictional character that is a meld of friends and mentors that I genuinely respect. I want them to live on in my stories so others can enjoy them as much as I do.

Arkoudas was giving me one of those looks that are part of the peculiar arsenal of curmudgeons. His eyes were mere slits that looked like the lowest row of a number of furrows in his brow. The hint of a smile mocked me. “What are you making now?” He asked.

“I don’t like plain tortilla chips without something to dip them in, ” I explained. I take this Always Save ranch dressing and mix in these spices from the rack.”

“What spices?” He accused. He obviously thought me incompetent in the kitchen.

“I ground up these dried red peppers with salt, sugar, and citric acid…”

“Citric acid? Are you kidding? Who uses that?”

Three questions in staccato should be prohibited by law. I should have said, “Yes, no, me,” but I am not quick enough. So I explained, “It is possible to have it on hand without being an apothecary.”

“But that’s the kind of ingredient you only see on product labels,” he protested.

“So what are you saying? Do you mean citric acid doesn’t really exist because it’s on ingredient labels?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Exactly? You say exactly? Why, that’s outrageous!” I really couldn’t believe an educated person would deny the existence of something that was so common.

“Not at all. Citric acid doesn’t exist because it is on ingredient labels, my friend. It is on ingredient labels because it is a real commodity and part of the recipe of the product in the jar.” He paused for effect. “Now I see your jaw has dropped nearly onto your chest. Such a habit is really not healthy–so hard on the jaw and the salivary glands all at the same time.”

I blinked in disbelief. He continued.

“You are so imprecise in the way you ask questions. I really wonder how you could have written a defensible dissertation with such ambiguity. But tempus fugit, and please bring those chips along with this very strange dip into the living room and let’s get down to business.” Then he picked up the bowl of tortilla chips and the citric acid dip and left the kitchen.

Before I had a chance to gather up my lower jaw and consider my next physical movement, he popped his head back into the doorway of the kitchen. “Oh say, I think we could use a pressful of coffee if you could make it. What kind of beans do you have today?”

“Starbucks Verona,” I sputtered out.

“Starbucks, eh? Well, I suppose that will have to do. Remember to pour in water that has not begun to boil and press it after two minutes.” The head popped out.

The head popped in. “Oh, and I suppose you know you would be courting disaster if you used a metal spoon to stir the press coffee? Wooden spoons are best.”

“Yes, I know that.” I said.

“Good man,” he said. This time the head, and his body, stayed in the living room. When I brought in the French press I found him ensconced in my favorite leather chair.

“One more thing,” he said without looking up from the document he was reading. “Where do you get this curious idea that inanimate things like citric acid exist?”

Now I understood what he was getting at. At times like this I reverted to something about my ethnicity. As far as I knew, Arkoudas never employed ethnic slurs. He did not think one nationality was superior to any other. In fact, though he loved his country he thought America as melting pot provided compelling evidence that all ethnic backgrounds displayed ridiculous behavior equally well.

“Oh, you know us Celtic people. We have a long tradition of ascribing existence to rocks, plants, and water…” I said, breaking the sentence off in such as way that I invited him to add to the list. He declined the invitation, but the strategy worked nevertheless.

“Ah, yes. I suppose I could have employed an understanding of general circumstances. That was a tendency of the Celts. But really, old fellow, trees are one thing, but your ancestors had no knowledge of the ingredients of chili powder.”

He was right. Citric acid was sometimes added to the blend of spices in chili powder. He knew I could have saved time by adding chili powder to the ranch dressing. So that was that, and we moved on to more important things.

15 Minutes to Live: The Necessary Story

#Trust30 Prompt: You just discovered you have fifteen minutes to live.

1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

2. Write the story that has to be written.


The wind blew cold on this dark December day. A golden-red streak in the west betrayed the setting sun in an otherwise granite sky. Heaven was a scrim that set the leafless elms afire with a burning-bush glow. Beneath the trees strode Professor Nicholas Arkoudas with a determination that rendered him oblivious to the atmospheric pyrotechnics. His icy hands were pressed deeply into the pockets of his black felt trench coat with its collar up, his head hunkered down so that his nose snapped over the top button. Though his steady gait made him appear to be more machine than flesh and blood, his wispy hair deserted the blue baseball cap, pulled tightly over his skull, to hover in such a way that he appeared to be some kind of walking plant life, like an ent in one of Professor Tolkien’s stories. On this afternoon his appearance mattered little as there were neither dogs nor children to frighten while he puffed his way along the sidewalk. All sane people were staying warm inside and preparing for the coming holidays. Arkoudas’s mind was firing rapidly as his body went through the motions. His was a beneficent insanity.

Dr. S. Lewis O’Brien sat at a drop-leaf table beneath a wagon-wheel chandelier in a darkly paneled kitchen with contrasting white cabinets. The white Formica counters were clear of everything except a sadly dented aluminum toaster. In fact, the kitchen was spotlessly clean except for the table, which groaned under what looked like mountains of undergraduate papers. O’Brien cradled his forehead in his smooth hands. In the heady idealism of August he had decided to take on grade inflation single-handedly by requiring more papers, less tests. In reality, he had only created more work for himself in December. In the end he would have to set a minute timer to limit the amount of attention he gave each essay. But the deforestation represented by these piles of shoddy student expositions was the least of O’Brien’s worries. At this moment his kitchen was less a retreat for marking, and more the room where he awaited his colleague Arkoudas. What was keeping him? “I suppose he had to walk,” said O’Brien aloud.

It had been about six hours since O’Brien called Arkoudas about finding the body of the department head in the senior seminar room. In the meantime, he had answered redundant questions from the police, cancelled class, and remained available for most of the afternoon. The police gave him permission to return home and he agreed to meet Arkoudas around 4 p.m. Now it was nearly five, and the waiting was increasing O’Brien’s anxiety. He featured himself progressively as the chief suspect. After all, he was the main antagonist in opposing the head’s plans to reduce the budget and eliminate two history chairs and all adjunct appointments. Publicly O’Brien had called Dr. Barnabas Thisleton a lackey of the administration, which, in O’Brien’s words, wanted to turn academics out into the cold for the sake of having a football program that never had a losing record. Actually, it was worse than that. He had also said that Thisleton was a murderer of the humanities, and that instruction and research were in peril unless such martinets were banished from academe.

It was overkill. The image that boiled in O’Brien’s brain was of a smacking a puppy with a brickbat. He shuddered at the words that had come from his mouth in the last faculty meeting. He regretted it all only moments after the meeting, but now he rued the day he was born after seeing Thisleton slumped over the conference table in a pool of blood. Arkoudas, who sat mute through the meeting as he had all the previous ones, was somehow his only hope, but he didn’t exactly know why.