The exploration of a stranger’s land

The city of Ann Arbor was the strangest place Demetri had ever been.

Its streets were always littered with pedestrians, every time he came down here. It always struck him as strange, seeing so many people visiting shops, eating outside, or simply just walking. The suburbs had no such abundance of foot traffic, even on the warmest summer days.

People simply didn’t walk around there.

And people here seemed to have no desire to avoid being splattered on the grille of his car, Demetri thought bitterly, slamming the breaks to let a group of children race across the busy main street.

He cruised slowly down the main drag, catching a stoplight every one hundred feet or so. Traffic was painfully slow, made worse by shoppers with no regard for the vehicles as they stepped hastily off the curbs, dodging slowing cars without even looking up. Demetri frowned, irritated, as he struggled just to go a few feet.

But it was hard not to be fascinated with the many people surrounding him. Set just south of most of the major suburbs, Ann Arbor was a bastion of culture and counter-culture. It attracted most of the state’s various weird people. Mohawks and heavily dyed hair were common, as were tattoos that dappled skin with graffiti-like images and piercings that prickled faces.

Ann Arbor drew the artists, the hipsters; those of alternative lifestyle.

It also drew young professionals in swarms, gravitating to the university and local tech companies and other office drone occupations. And it drew the pompous, self-important and mostly moneyed student populations from across the state, as U-M was The Best School in the State. They were the same jackasses who packed the football stadium every fall Saturday, along with the innumerable idiots who lived in Michigan and had no tie whatever to the school, but latched onto the football program because it often won.

Rounding out the demographics were the flocking suburbanites who arrived for the shopping and the “atmosphere,” and who consistently treated everyone around them as if they were made of lower-grade material and therefore not worth any sort of effort in courtesy.

It was an insane, difficult-to-fathom cross-section of humanity.

He guided the car through downtown and toward the sprawling campus that had become part of the city the way a vine curls and snags its way around a tree. It was early in the day, and even clear of the shops and restaurants, there was a nauseating number of people just milling around. Demetri got the distinct impression of being trapped in a giant horizontal ant farm.

It took him a while driving, between the pedestrians and his own poor navigation, but Demetri finally came upon his destination: Angell Hall, seat of the university’s English department. Another twenty minutes passed before he located a visitor parking lot with an empty slip. His face red with frustration, Demetri disembarked from the car, walking at a fast clip in the direction of the building, now some blocks away.

Nothing about this place seemed remotely related to his father. It was a foreign land and Demetri was an alien among them, and they all seemed to know it. As he passed students bustling on their way to classes in every direction, he felt no connection to any of them.

He felt nothing of Mark Karminov here.

Still, Demetri had to know. The red backpack, discovered among his father’s things and filled with secret documents about his Mark’s past clung tightly to his shoulders, but with each step, the pack felt heavier. The weight of years was held there, and of deceit. His feet carried him forward with an indescribable need, but each step that drew him closers made Demetri aware of a welling fear: undefined, amorphous – mutating.

He stuck to the sidewalks, stepping quickly out of the path of the horde, slaloming around people in the milieu. After a few minutes walking, he reached State Street. Angell Hall reared before him, the brick structure perfectly at home set among the reddening trees.

When the traffic cleared, Demetri crossed the street quickly and headed into the building. His reconnaissance on the Internet during the weekend had told him where he’d need to be: fourth floor, where the faculty offices resided.

Professor Louis Feldman would be in his office, available to speak with students, for the next hour and a half. Demetri figured he’d be able to get a few minutes with the man sometime during that period.

Excitement flooded Demetri. He took the stairs two at a time, bounding past the stream of people descending the stairs to depart for their next destinations. His heart picked up with the exertion, but there was something else with the anticipation. An anxiety was growing in his stomach, and Demetri was keenly aware of it.

He was on his way to unlock secrets – for better or worse.

Feldman’s office was set among a bank of closed wooden doors with thin, frosted windows in them. Demetri found it easy enough. Drawing a deep breath to prepare himself, he rapped the wood hard three times and stepped back.

A moment passed before the door opened slowly. A small old man in wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and light blue tie looked out at him from behind thick glasses. Demetri was taller than the man by a head. His wide round eyes were made more stunning by the amplification the lenses gave them. The old man almost looked like a cartoon character – Demetri was reminded of Elmer Fudd.

“Yes?” he asked, eyes piercing Demetri.

“Professor Feldman?” Demetri replied, involuntarily letting his lack of confidence play in his voice.

“Obviously,” the little man returned briskly. “What can I help you with, young man?”

“Ah, my name is Demetri Karminov and I’d like to talk to you about a former student, if you have a few minutes.”

Feldman’s brow scrunched over his eyes, narrowing his round face.

“About what, exactly?”

“My father – he was a student here,” Demetri explained. “In 1979, I think. I was wondering if you might remember him.”

Feldman waved a hand to dismiss him.

“I’ve had a lot of students. It’s possible your father was among them. I certainly wouldn’t remember him. It’s a matter of volume. My brain’s just not that big.”

He moved to close the door and head back into the office. Demetri stepped toward him, his mouth moving quickly.

“Please, Professor – my dad, he – he died. Whatever you might be able to tell me, even just about your class – it’d be really helpful.”

To Demetri’s surprise, Feldman sighed audibly.

“All right,” he muttered, but the annoyance was clear in his voice. “I’m with a student right now. You’ll have to wait.”

He pulled the door shut hard in Demetri’s face. It echoed through the innocuous white hallway, ringing in Demetri’s ears. He stared at the blank wood for a few long moments. He had no idea what to think.

After a second, he meandered over to a small set of uncomfortable chairs set against the wall on the other side of the hallway. They were upholstered in some kind of itchy plastic and he quickly became uncomfortable. Demetri struggled to take his eyes off Feldman’s closed door. He felt the fear again.

There was no sign of life coming from the heavy door, so at length Demetri swung the backpack into his lap and unzipped it. As carefully as he could manage, he removed the blue notebook, the one in which he’d discovered Feldman’s name. The one that had belonged to his father.

Demetri had found the notebook a few days earlier, but beyond reading the inside cover and discovering that it contained Dad’s work for a class he’d taken with Feldman, he hadn’t read it. The cover mentioned THR 225 – a class designation that Demetri hadn’t been able to find in the University of Michigan’s online course catalog. Of course, the designators had probably all changed in the last twenty five years. It had been incredibly lucky that he’d discovered Feldman was still a teacher in the university’s English department.

He let his finger drag over the pages, making the yellow papers flutter slightly. It was a tome of secrets, filled with the penmanship of Mark Karminov. Demetri had no idea what he might find inside. It could be nothing but class notes; it could be a window into more dimensions of his father he hadn’t known existed.

But something kept those pages from spreading before him. It was that fear, which rocked inside him like liquid, flowing up along his insides and then abating, making it difficult to make a solid decision.

Already Demetri was thirsty to know more about his father. He was blowing off his own college classes just to be in Ann Arbor today. Speaking with Feldman about Mark could potentially teach him a great deal about the man that Demetri had never known.

But despite himself, Demetri still couldn’t quite convince himself that he wanted to know. The notebooks and pictures and documents he’d found already indicted his father as a liar – he’d lied to his children for years about his college career. Demetri had never known his father to do that, for any reason.

For years, Dad had talked about his struggle and the value of schooling, because he said he’d never experienced it. What else would Demetri find out about Mark Karminov, three years after his death, that would remake the man Demetri had known all his life – but now was coming to realize, he may never have known at all?

The door bucked open and a young blonde woman hoisted a bag with one hand while digging tiny earbuds into her ears with the other. Her eyes never fluttered to Demetri as she turned and walked off toward the staircase down the hall.

Feldman appeared at the threshold a second later.

“Karminov, right?” he asked. “Come on, I’ve only got a few minutes before my next appointment.”

He disappeared back through the door. Demetri slipped the notebook into his bag and then followed, tentatively, stepping through the door into the tiny office beyond.

It could have been a supply closet, the room was so small. It housed a desk that was awash with papers and books; standing on them were a few plastic semblances of order, little racks meant to organize and trays that held their own distinct stacks of pages. A tornado would have left a tidier space.

In front of the desk was an orange leather chair on wheels, into which Feldman quickly dropped. He leaned back, propping his short legs up on a stack of textbooks that stood beside a disaster imitating a bookcase. Across from Feldman’s chair was another, non-reclining, non-rolling orange chair. It was the only other piece of furniture in the room, which was maybe six feet across and twelve feet deep.

Demetri took the chair, lowering himself down with slow, careful movements. He was afraid moving too fast could send the mess scattering in a tempest.

“All right then, Mr. Karminov,” Feldman said, catching his eyes but otherwise not moving. “You believe your father was my student. What year, what class, what name?”

Demetri leaned up, pulling the notebook from the bag after a bit of a nervous struggle.

“His name was Mark Karminov, and I think he was in your class, ah, THR 225. In 1979, I think, but I’m not really sure.”

“Not sure?” Feldman returned, running lightly scratching fingers over the crown of his bald head. “Why wouldn’t you be sure?”

Demetri frowned, a little hesitant. He hadn’t intended to be the one answering questions.

“He actually never told me he attended college,” he replied, the words coming slowly. He leaned forward and pushed the notebook toward Feldman. “I found this in a box. I guess I just wanted to know more about him.”

Feldman was quiet for a moment. After a second of Demetri straining, he kicked his feet off the stack of books and leaned out to take the notebook. He flipped open the cover and read the words there.

“Interesting,” was all the old man said as he leafed through the pages.

“It was your class, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” Feldman returned, not raising his eyes from the notebook. “Theater 225. Playwriting. I haven’t taught that class in about twenty years.”

A grin spread over Demetri’s face involuntarily. The word – the clue – played through his mind over and over again.

Playwriting.

“Sorry to say I don’t remember your dad, though,” continued Feldman, closing the notebook.

Then his eyes rose, drilling into Demetri. “How is it you didn’t know your father was a student here?”

He didn’t answer right away, considering what he should tell the old man. Demetri realized what he was feeling: embarrassment. Embarrassment at the fact he was about to tell a stranger how little he knew about his own father.

But as Feldman looked at him, studying his face, Demetri couldn’t find a lie that sounded plausible enough to be acceptable. He didn’t think he could just decline to answer, either, since he still had questions.

“He told me he never went to school,” Demetri admitted, his voice coming out small and slow.

Feldman studied Demetri’s face, and he felt the intensity of his scrutiny that reminded him of the way his father used to look at him. Mark could always see when Demetri was holding something back – Feldman’s stare was the same.

“Actually, it seems like he lied to me, because he was a student in your class. But he died before I found out about it.”

Feldman scratched his bald spot again, frowning.

“Do you know why he would do that?” Asked the professor. His eyes burned into Demetri’s, who looked away. Up to now, he’d been avoiding asking himself that very question. The young man looked away and offered no response.

The professor shifted in the chair, leaning forward and placing his feet on the ground.

“That’s a tough one, huh,” he said, his voice low, conspiratorial. “What do sons ever really know of their fathers.”

Demetri said nothing. His face burned, but he wasn’t sure if the reaction was borne of embarrassment, or if it was a manifestation of anger boiling just below the surface.

Anger at his father.

“I can tell you a little about the class,” Feldman continued. The tone his voice sounded like he was searching for something he could give Demetri, something that might make up for what he’d just inadvertently taken from the young man.

“I’d appreciate it,” replied Demetri.

“Theater 225 was my first playwriting class. I had my students read several plays, but we spent the majority of our time talking about structure, and toward the end I had the students write a three-act piece of their own.

“You read the notes in the notebook you showed me, I presume?”

Demetri shook his head.

“Your father’s notes for the class are in that notebook,” Feldman told him as he leaned toward Demetri, who was also leaning in, fascinated. “His notes about his play are in there as well, and I think I saw a few rough scenes in there as well.”

The notebook seemed to grow heavier, more substantial, in Demetri’s hands. Suddenly its worth was clear to him, and his grip tightened on it involuntarily.

“I know you said you didn’t remember my dad,” Demetri started, “but I have a photo of him from when he was younger. Would you mind taking a look at it?”

Feldman reached his hand out to accept the photo, and Demetri pulled the one of his father standing beside his Corvette, “Cecilia,” and gave it to the older man. Feldman studied it for a few long moments, and Demetri could tell he was exhausting his memory. He couldn’t help but smile – the man genuinely seemed like he wanted to help.

At length, he handed the photo back.

“I’m sorry,” Feldman said sadly. “To be truthful, William Shakespeare could have been in that class and I doubt I’d remember it. I’ve got no distinct memories of it at all.”

Demetri nodded. He tucked the items back in the backpack carefully.

“Demetri,” the old man began, his voice carefully measured. “I believe the investigation you’re undertaking could end up being somewhat profound. This is new territory you’re entering, and it’s a part of himself your father never shared with you.”

Feldman stood and walked over to the bookshelf. As he did so, he stopped beside Demetri and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t know if you’ve considered this: There might be a reason you never knew this part of him,” Feldman said.

He lifted the hand and turned back to the shelf. Demetri was quiet for a moment, lost in thought.

“Look, Demetri,” Dad said, indicating where his thumb was touching the safety button on the side of the .357. “The thing’s got a kick, so be careful. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”

Mark had taken Demetri to a firing range a few miles from their house when he was about twelve.

“I want you to learn everything there is to know about this gun,” Dad told Demetri that morning at breakfast. He’d strode up to the table while the boy was shoveling eggs in his mouth. Demetri’s eyes went wide as Mark unsnapped the latches on the plastic case and flipped the lid, spinning it to present its contents.

His older sister Karina’s face, half-stuffed with Fruit Loops, had screwed up into a scowl.

“I wouldn’t trust Deemo with a gun, Daddy,” she stated. “He still hits me with sticks whenever we’re outside. He acts like a five-year-old.”

“It’s time he grows up,” Mark laughed. He turned his attention back to Demetri, and the boy felt that scrutiny – the look that told him his father was trusting him with something important, and he better not screw it up. Disappointing Dad was one of Demetri’s deepest fears. He sat up straighter without realizing it.

“I’m taking you because I need to know I can trust you to live here with this in the house, Deemo,” Dad told him. “This is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever seen in your life – but it’s most dangerous in the hands of an ignorant person. I need you to understand: this is a tool, and mishandled, it can and will kill you or someone you care about.”

Demetri swallowed hard and nodded vigorously.

“Wrap your fingers around it tightly here, and your other hand goes around your fist to steady your aim,” Mark explained, standing behind Demetri as they looked down the range, his face close to the boy’s ear, his hands guiding Demetri’s carefully. “Don’t touch the trigger. You don’t need to worry about it yet. First, learn how to use it. The trigger is the least important part of firing a gun.”

Stepping back, Dad kicked Demetri’s ankle lightly.

“Spread your feet and plant them firm. Square up your shoulders. You want to lean into a little. When it kicks, you can’t drop it. You want your body to absorb the force. You have to think about every single thing your body does when you handle a gun – it’s that dangerous.

“You have to pay more attention to this than you ever have to anything in your life.”

Demetri nodded, making the necessary adjustments. He followed his father’s instructions, looking down the sight carefully, picking the tiniest mark on the target at the far end of the range.

“Pulling the trigger is going to make the whole gun move if you’re not careful,” Mark told him. “Try to squeeze with both your finger and your thumb at the same time so the force is equal.

“Okay, Deemo – finger on the trigger,” said Dad. His voice had become quiet – anticipatory. There was excitement in it. “Deep breath. Hold it.” There were only two people in the world. Demetri was alone with his father, they were a secret society of two, and Dad was passing what could have been the most important knowledge in the world to Demetri.

He held his breath.

“And. Fire.”

Demetri looked up at Feldman, exhaling in a long, tentative release.

“My dad never did anything by accident,” he told the professor as the other man was peering into the shelf, searching for something. “If he didn’t tell me – if he lied to me about it – he had a really good reason.

“But I still need to know.”

Feldman nodded, not turning around.

“Our fathers are men of great mystery,” he replied, finally pulling a few books down. “I don’t think we ever really know them, even if we’d like to. We only ever know what kind of men they make of us.”

He pulled four books free of the shelf and handed them to Demetri. The Michiganensian, the first read. Class of 1981. The other three books were similar: Michiganensians all, from different years: 1980, 1979, 1978.

“I think I’d make the same choice,” Feldman said, grinning at Demetri. As the young man inspected the books – yearbooks, he realized after a second – the professor laid a business card on top of the stack.

“I’ve written my home number on the back,” explained Feldman. “I realize with an undertaking of this sort, you may need…tactical support. Feel free to give me a call or send me an e-mail.”

He offered Demetri a hand.

“Now, if you’d be so kind as to get the hell out of here, I’ve got things to do other than help young people make personal journeys of growth and discovery.” The old man smiled warmly.

Demetri got to his feet, packing the books into his pack quickly. He snapped up Feldman’s hand and shook it vigorously.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “You have no idea how helpful this has been.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Karminov. Keep in touch and let me know if I can help you in any way.”

He turned back to his desk as Demetri backed out the door, unable to control his grin.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Feldman called after him as Demetri reached the hallway. “Theater 215 – when I taught it, it was a course for theater majors.”

#

He made a quick trip back to his car and collected the laptop Karina had given him. With the computer bag swung over his shoulder and the pack tight and heavy on his back, Demetri walked back downtown. The storefronts belched people through open doors and signs blistered from their facades, declaring the presence of food and clothing and books and amenities.

He located a coffee shop and bee-lined for it, jogging absently through the street and ignoring the blaring horn as a car screeched hard just in front of him. He hit the glass door of the shop a second later and stepped out of the harsh fall sunlight.

The storefront windows cast the mellowing sun into the café, but inside was much dimmer and his eyes strained a little at the adjustment. He found a table and headed over, dropping into a seat as if gravity was suddenly crushing him. The backpack slipped from his shoulders and found purchase on the tile floor beneath him.

He couldn’t move fast enough. Demetri caught his face reflecting in the glossy wood of the little table as he pulled the yearbooks from the backpack, and the notebooks, and the photographs. The eyes reflecting back at him from the polished tan grain were alight with a fiery purpose as he laid out all of the objects before him carefully.

When it was all laid before him, Demetri paused. The small arrangement of information covered the table, and a tidal wave realization crashed over him as he perceived that the dark portion of his father was growing. Professor Feldman had helped cast more light into the shadows, but that had just helped to show that the expanse was cavernous.

What Demetri couldn’t understand was why his father had chosen to keep these things from him. He ran his fingers over the notebook, across the photographs, and felt a thick, heavy pain in his chest.

Whatever pact of knowledge father and son had had, this huge portion of Mark Karminov hadn’t been a part of it. Mark hadn’t wanted Demetri to know about this. He’d lied to protect it. He’d wanted to keep his son out of here.

Demetri’s fingers tightened unbidden into fists. It took him a few deep breaths to force them to relax. He struggled not to feel somehow betrayed. He told himself there might be a good reason.

But whatever that reason had been, it died with his father, Demetri thought. And he wouldn’t let this, too, disappear beneath the ground, the way his father had disappeared.

His thumb pressed a plastic button and the computer leapt into glowing life after a few seconds. It warmed up and he connected it to the coffee shop’s Internet absently with one hand while spreading the photos so he could look at all of them with the other.

Next he let the notebook fall open before him. Before he started reading, he typed quickly the address to his e-mail account.

A new message stood bold among the various other correspondence. Demetri clicked it open, letting his other hand glide over the notebook paper that was growing rough and hard with age.

This is a tool, Demetri heard his father’s voice say. And mishandled, it can and will kill someone you care about.

The e-mail was short – only two lines. Demetri recognized the name in the header: Abigail Tinsley, one of his professors.

“You missed the unit test today,” the message read. “Contact me with a VERY good excuse and we’ll talk about making it up.”

He stared at the text. Then Demetri guided the cursor to the top of the screen and let it fall on the little gray button marked “Delete.”

He found himself grinning at the incredible satisfaction the tiny plastic click of the mouse gave him.

There was a test waiting for him back at school in Lansing. There was an education waiting there. It had been important to Dad that Demetri do well there.

But as he sat in the coffee shop in Ann Arbor, hours away from that world, Demetri realized that whether he did well there only mattered to him because of Mark Karminov.

There were other things to learn.

He leaned back in the chair and began reading the notes his father had written down that had been meant to help Mark become a playwrite.

One thought on “The exploration of a stranger’s land

  • January 14, 2010 at 9:06 pm
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    Comment: For me the deletion of the e-mail from his own professor didn’t carry with it the same emotional weight as the rest of the story. Other than that, my biggest complaint would be the characterization of Ann Arbor, which I don’t find culturally divergent, or even much different from East Lansing. It’s a college town with mostly upper-middle-class white people and a cross-section of quote-unquote “Asians.” It’s artsy, sure, in a kind of stuffy sort of way, but I didn’t buy that it was as alien to Demitri as the opening made it out to be (though I suppose this could be a comment on Demitri himself).

    Cheers: The middle 90% might be my favorite of your Millennium Men work thus far. It was natural, but compelling, simple yet detailed. I’m starting to see the evolution of your story, some of your characters (as opposed to say, a series of vignettes), but most importantly of your writing as a whole. Nice work, kid.

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