Dean Rounder pushed herself upright from the mat on her office floor. She had just turned sixty; she couldn’t continue sleeping on a bedroll four nights a week. She texted her husband Jack good morning, signing her love with an M for Melissa. She went home so rarely during the week she often didn’t think of her first name. She missed Jack and their Hyde Park penthouse. He was on faculty at the University of Chicago, not the public University of Illinois at Chicago as she was. He still made it home every night.
She raised herself to the desk, straightened her skirt and stepped into her heels.
Sunlight pushed through the thick film of grime on her office windows. It was early but the workers had started drilling on the exterior of the building again. University Hall was a historic landmark building, an exemplar of 1960s Brutalist architecture. But these days mice and owls built nests in the whispering cracks and groaning fissures of the building. The exterior was pocked with macadam patches for the rodent problem and almost daily drills and blasters made way for external scaffolding. It was an old joke that University Hall looked like a prison, but now that it was surrounded by all the metal, it looked like a cage.
The family of owls was settling into their nest on the exterior of her office wall. She liked their presence, even if she didn’t hear them very often once it became day. She took her toiletries bag from the desk drawer and headed for the public bathroom. On the way out she said hello to her Visiting Administrative Assistant, Maddy, a smart, trim young woman who wore a bob haircut and vintage dresses. Maddy was a year out of undergrad and the VAA position was part of her indentured academic servitude. She lived in one of three cubicles allocated for VAAs in the elevator foyer. Maddy hoped to be a professor one day.
“NAPH in the building,” Maddy mouthed. The Nation’s Administration Police Hub, or NAPH, was often in government buildings these days, but it was still something to be aware of. Then Maddy said out loud, “I’ll leave the notices of nonreappointment on your desk.” There was a big stack to sign this morning before meetings.
The bathroom was flooded again so Dean Rounder was glad for her stacked heels. She hung her blazer on a wall hook and washed her face and armpits. She wore a sleeveless shell to accommodate the morning toilet. No staff or faculty on campus felt shame about the public restroom anymore.
As she walked back into the hallway she heard the elevator shriek. It had been years since she trusted the elevators but the LASAAN Office, serving the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences & Art & Architecture & Nursing, was on the third floor so she could easily take the stairs. She wanted to walk outside and get some air but when she stepped into the stairwell she heard voices down below her and caught sight of the black caps. NAPH. Best to avoid them. There was a new story yesterday about a horrifying case of NAPH arrest and abuse in Cleveland that sounded like something from the Pinochet regime, but the Nation’s Administration shut down the reports with claims like #NotNice and #falsehood. “They’ve stopped differentiating between falsehoods and lies,” she said to Jack, and then caught herself and looked around. She talked to her husband often during the week when she didn’t see him.
In her office she found a tall, neat stack of notices of nonreappointment on her desk. She could have had the letters signed with her digital signature, but if Dean Rounder was going to fire—call it what it was—a slew of recent PhDs who had given their postdoctoral academic lives to the University, the least she could give them was a real signature. The overwhelming number of classes they taught limited their time for research until it languished. “Not that it matters these days,” she said to Jack. Visiting Assistant positions never led to tenure-track or even contract positions anymore. So she felt it a kindness to sign them by hand.
But before she got started she needed to make sure there were no fires to put out elsewhere. She checked her phone. No text. Well, it was only six in the morning; maybe Jack was sleeping in for once. The first email in her queue was from a Visiting Assistant Professor whose notice of nonreappointment she’d sign this morning. I have a situation I thought best to bring to your attention, since I didn’t find anything pertinent in the Protocol Archive. A student’s father was deported (he was undocumented), and the student is having a hard time coming to class and getting her papers in on time. She’s watching her younger siblings while the mom took another job. She is a Latina student who went to Chicago Public Schools. I want to give her extensions on the papers and forgive her absences. Acceptable?
Dean Rounder winced to see the references to deportation and the father’s undocumented status. It was best to keep trigger words out of emails. You never knew when they would be subject to email searches. (Was this why NAPH was in the building today? But she’d worried on other occasions it was something she’d done. Surely today was not her day.) She wanted to respond of course, give the student an extension, get her to counseling and legal, whatever she needs. But Maddy had already replied on her behalf in the way Dean Rounder had shown her—one word, no capitalization or punctuation:
If there was a surprise search of University email they could say it was an actual falsehood, that Maddy had read the Dean’s email too quickly and answered a question that wasn’t there. She’d have to find a way to show Maddy her appreciation. She scanned her other messages. No fires. Before she’d sign the notices, she’d make her morning tea.
When she went through the main office, she saw two NAPH agents in the hallway. One of them caught her eye through the glass partition. Surely an accident. She couldn’t worry about it. She had the notices to sign and then who knows how many meetings until late that evening.
The kitchen in the Dean’s Office of the School of LASAAN was an internal room, with no walls meeting the building’s exterior. She closed the door to muffle the drilling, and when she turned she saw a mouse scurry along the kickboard and behind the fridge. She used to be afraid of mice and the mice in UH used to be afraid of people. Not anymore. She also used to refer to the school’s new name as L-A-and-S-and-A-and-A-and-N, rather than LASAAN, as a small act of resistance. But after too many sideways glances from higher-ups she had learned to use only the acronym—as well as file a rodent report with Local Health only if someone was bitten. Local Health was a national statistics gathering mechanism but the Nation’s Administration had chosen to keep “National” out of the title, given that anything National was perceived as one step removed from Socialist. Such semantic sleights-of-hand were maddening but they were the least egregious of deceptions the Nation’s Administration had pulled. Their insufferable magic tricks blinded everyone to what was really happening, whatever that was; Dean Rounder imagined the worst.
Another mouse lumbered out from behind the refrigerator and directly across the floor, as if it had a right to be there. But didn’t it? Mice and owls and spiders and ants needed a safe place to live too. “It would be much worse,” she whispered to Jack, “to be one of the workers outside the building.” The noise and the rodents inside were bad, but producing those noises and vibrations from the outside in the dry frigid air would do awful things to a body. And you couldn’t even warm yourself with a cup of tea.
She used to look askance at the directions on her turmeric tea box: Bring fresh water to a boil and pour over a bag of Three Roots. Steep 8-10 minutes while breathing deeply and pondering positive thoughts. But commercial appeals to the practice of mindfulness were the only way to lower stress levels now that yoga centers and Buddhist temples had become as heavily regulated as abortion clinics. Deep breathing instructions printed in ochre on cardboard tea boxes would have to do. Dean Rounder needed to keep her job, in spite of the stress and exhaustion. She was one of the administrators who fought hardest to keep the school open. The impetus was not political or social but financial. They needed her salary from the University to supplement the loans and grants to which their son had agreed in order to finance Princeton. If Miles was willing to enter into indentured corporate servitude to help subsidize his degree, the least she could do was pay the relative pittance that the aid application said she should. That pittance was most of her salary. She still couldn’t believe that Fannie Mae and the other loan companies had pulled off their indentured servitude deal with corporations and private universities, which agreed to underwrite tuition in exchange for students’ full-time work, unpaid save minimal room and board. At the end of four years Miles’ full tuition would be more than double what she and Jack had saved for retirement, and they had been scrupulous about saving from the beginning. Miles called the indentured servitude a career starter, a term he had heard from the Nation’s Administration loan officer who had led a college rally at his high school. Unlike the public universities, Princeton and other privates like University of Chicago were going stronger than ever. Jack was a year younger than she was and he made a far better salary; five more years and she would retire and be done.
She returned to her office to face the notices of nonreappointment. Last term she had signed ten times as many notices as five years before, when it became clear that contractual nonrewal was to become de rigueur for the vast majority of newly minted doctorates. In the early years of the budget crisis, many departments stopped getting tenure lines renewed or opened. But now, it was University-wide policy: if a faculty member retired, a new visiting line was opened and the salary offered was dropped by half, if not two-thirds. It was inhumane and yes, she participated. Dean Rounder took another deep breath, another sip of tea. She heard the thick flap of owl wings—they were probably kept awake by the drilling. They needed to keep it together, the animals, the people, the building, the School, the University. She pressed the home button on her phone and still, no Jack. But no reason to worry yet. She pulled the stack of notices before her and began to sign.
One, two, three. It wasn’t too bad at first. She had learned not to look at the names of the nonrenewed. But at the fourth notice Dean Rounder noticed there was no period at the end of the letter.
Dear Dr. _______________:
In accordance with Article XI, Section B.3, of the Non-Tenure System faculty 2015 collective bargaining agreement between the University and the now-defunct United Faculty Local 2521, IFT-AFT, AAUP, this message is notice that you will not be reappointed as Visiting Assistant Professor for Academic Year 2022-2023
Associate Dean, LASAAN
How had she missed the punctuation mark? They’d copied the notices of nonreappointment from the previous year’s files. They had dropped all niceties from the notice due to legal concerns years ago—no best of luck, no appreciation of service; there were too many worries about being sued, and when public universities were sued they were soon shuttered. Maybe the period had been dropped then.
Another possibility: the University Administration had been so careful to maintain the union’s presence and verbiage in the notices, a small act of resistance after the executive order that declared unions hostile to capitalism and thus stripped of any legal power. It was at the Supreme Court now, but given the three Justices appointed by the Nation’s Administration chances were nil that unions would be reinstated. Dean Rounder grew heavy at the thought and forced it from her mind to keep moving. She’d been on the steering committee for these letters, written after the unions had been outlawed. So maybe that was when the terminal period was dropped, and with bigger issues at hand no one had caught it.
But maybe the notices never had terminal punctuation.
A termination letter with no terminal punctuation? As the Nation’s Special Tweeters would say: #notfunny. #notatall.
“Maddy?” When the VAA came into the office, Dean Rounder showed her. “This is unacceptable.”
“I doubt any of them will notice,” Maddy said. “None of us use periods on the end of anything anymore.”
“But I do,” the Dean said. “Can you reprint them?”
“We’re close to quota on letterhead for the month. Hashtag, bigtrouble.” She was justifiably worried—she needed a clean record to even be considered for a doctoral program. “Something in LASAAN,” she said to Dean Rounder her first day as VAA when she had asked what Maddy might want to study.
“What field? Or School, at least? Liberal Arts and Sciences? Arts? Architecture? Nursing? Any clue? Or does it just not matter anymore?” She winced to think about that sarcastic response, one of the first things she’d said to Maddy. It wasn’t her fault that she had no idea what to call the field she wanted to study. That was how departments had been liquidated. In 2019 the Schools were reorganized into larger Colleges. All of the foreign language programs disappeared except Slavic. Upon further conversation, it seemed that Maddy was probably most interested in something like anthropology.
She sat down to begin signing again and as Maddy left her office, Dean Rounder glanced into the hallway. NAPH was still there. She reminded herself that it had been months since anyone in the building had been arrested. “And I am doing my job. Complicit in this system,” she said to Jack, then glanced out the door at the men in black. Then she looked at her phone. Jack still hadn’t texted.
The men in black entered the office. One of the men said something to Maddy. “Take a seat?” Maddy said, glancing at the Dean.
They laughed and sat down in the padded office chairs, spread their legs wide, and looked into her office. “We’ll wait till you’re finished signing the notices,” one of them said. “We have all day.”
Jack still hadn’t texted and that was when Dean Rounder remembered. People’s phones were cut off before they were disappeared.
She looked at Maddy, who suddenly appeared even younger than usual.
Dean Rounder needed to keep signing the notices. She needed to think.
When she finished signing she flexed her fingers. She didn’t know if they had any choice in the matter. “Maddy?” Her voice shook and she couldn’t control it. “The notices are ready.”
An agent stepped into her office. “A word?”
“Stand up, please.” The other agent had already lifted Maddy from her seat by her elbows. She was so pale she was gray.
She would not fight. She’d stay close to her assistant. As they filed out of the office, the eyes of the other VAAs followed them. “You’ll send off the notices, right?” one of the agents said. “We don’t mean to be interrupting university operations.” The VAAs said nothing.
History, Dean Rounder kept thinking. We are on the right side of history here. She’d never really thought about how quiet it might have been when Anne Frank and her family were arrested by the Germans. Would a fuss have changed the outcome? She felt a gun in its holster press against her. Would it do anything if she were to scream? Demand to know what was happening and where they were going?
“Upstairs, ma’am,” the agent said. He should be calling her Dean, or Professor, or Doctor Rounder, and she quelled the urge to correct him by pressing her lips together.
Maddy was crying. The NAPH agent was holding her hands behind her back. “Stop it already,” he said.
“She’s done nothing wrong,” Dean Rounder said. “Don’t hurt her.” As the other NAPH agent pressed back against her, she wondered what she had just said, what it actually meant. Because even if Maddy had done something wrong, he still shouldn’t physically hurt her, right? What were the implications of what she saying?
The agent pressed a pressure point in Dean Rounder’s elbow and her arm went numb. She dropped her phone.
“Oopsies,” the agent said. “Guess you’ll have to come back for that later.”
They climbed more stairs and then they stopped on a landing that led to one of the floors that might have been Classics and Mediterranean Studies until a few years ago. The floors were still covered with the flecked-black and mottled-orange checkered linoleum that had been put in sometime around when she had been hired at the University. The first time she’d visited this concrete building to give her job talk over twenty-five years ago she was hoping to Christ she would be offered the position since her husband had just been offered the job at Chicago. When they’d both gotten tenure-track jobs in the same city they said over and over again, how lucky are we?
The offices were in far worse shape than those on the third floor. The smell was rank, part animal, part human. A whack, the howl of something beast. Profound breathing, she said to herself as the agent began to question her. Or was that deep breathing? What were those instructions on her box of tea?
“So that student with the undocumented father,” the NAPH agent said.
“Where is Maddy?” she said. No one answered. But then she realized she might have given her VAA away. “I barely scanned that email. I don’t remember what it said.”
“It said extension. Like this?” He held up an electrical cord. “Did you think it was a service order for an extension cord?” He handed the cord to someone behind her. The office was narrow and dark and her back was facing the door, so she couldn’t see. Someone tied her hands and taped the plug end of the cord to her palm. “This only hurts a little. Think harder about that email so it doesn’t get worse,” the agent said. Her arm was seized by a tingling, violent cramp. And then she heard a cry through the wall.
“She was doing her job. Nothing was decided.” Was she telling them something she shouldn’t? She wasn’t even sure what she was saying.
“Your son just started at Princeton, didn’t he?” Another shock up her arm, and this time her whole body seized. “Congratulations.” She heard more crying through the wall as the floor crumbled. Things slid out of place. The building really was about to fall apart. “Your husband is enjoying his stay across town,” one of the agents laughed.
She wanted to worry about her husband and son but everything was coming apart around her. The floor tilted strangely. Now she was facing the ceiling. University Hall was collapsing. Was that a wall, a window, a doorway? Everything pressed until she broke at the seams.
She was bound and blindfolded, hoisted over a shoulder, hustled fast down a hall. It had been years since she’d been in the elevators, but she recognized their distinctive ding. So clearly University Hall was still standing. It hadn’t collapsed and she was still living. That’s what she told herself as she kept breathing. She heard the elevator’s clinical beep as they passed from floor to floor.
She was loaded into the back of a vehicle. She heard the engine start then was jolted to one side. Pain. Sticky wetness. How long had it been since she was arrested? What had she told them? Where were they now?
Someone sat her up and pulled off the blindfold. It was dark outside. They were in something like an ambulance, with one square window out the back. She could see L tracks, streetlights.
“You need to stay in line now. Cut out the funny stuff. Let us know right away when you hear about illegals,” the voice next to her said. She was leaning on the body whence the voice emanated. Whence, she thought. Such a great word for those awkward prepositional phrases, “from which” and “from where.” Maybe it was archaic, but why didn’t anyone use the word whence anymore? And why was she leaning on a torturer? She couldn’t think clearly yet or ask these kinds of questions. This body beside her was the closest thing to comfort she had known in what felt like days.
“Where’s Jack? Is Miles okay?” She thought of her son in front of the TV at home, his still swirl of dark curls as he watched ninja turtles. She saw the tweed of the couch, the quiet morning light.
“We’re dropping you off at the back door of a hospital. Once we’ve driven away someone will come for you.” She was guided out of the vehicle. Someone called her ma’am and then was gone.
Barely any time passed before the door opened to an explosion of fluorescent lights. Someone said “STAT!” It sounded like a TV show. They untied her hands. She was laid on a gurney and reminded to breathe.
The light was soft and white and she thought of the sheet over her face in her office. She tried to think logically. She had to gather her thoughts and keep it together.
“Melissa?” Someone said her name. It was a question.
“Yes, that’s me.” Melissa Rounder, Associate Dean of the School of LASAAN.
“Stay with us, sweetie.”
What a comforting word. A mantra. LASAAN, LASAAN, LASAAN.
“It’s awful that we comply with NAPH on this,” the voice that had said “STAT!” said. How many times had Dean Rounder said something just like this, whenever she had to sign the dozens of notices of nonreappointment each term, a task that fifteen years ago would have seemed immoral, unthinkable? By “this,” did the ER worker mean torture? Is that what the voice meant?
“But what’s the alternative?” Another voice, close to her ear, close enough that the voice must be attached to the person steadying Dean Rounder’s head. She had said things like this about the University, too. What was the alternative? They were all—University administrators, ER doctors and nurses—doing they best they could, the lesser of evils, given the trying circumstances.
Dean Rounder settled into thought. How comforting to reason, to think.
Given the dire circumstances, that student should have been prepared for her father to be deported. “He was after all undocumented,” she said to Jack, wherever he was. She couldn’t think about Jack right now. She was in too much pain. So she settled back into thinking about the complicity of the student with the undocumented father. What other result could there have been? Everyone had done something wrong along the way. Undocumented people, visiting faculty, or just #sad or #bad or #terrible. It was some choice they made, protocol they hadn’t followed, or a line they didn’t toe.
Dean Rounder must have done something wrong, evidently, for here she was in the hospital. That was the proof. She must have done something for it to come to this
Jennifer Solheim is a freelance writer and editor and an independent scholar of French and Francophone Studies (PhD, University of Michigan). She is a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review and an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her scholarly work, The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture, is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press, and her translation of French writer and feminist activist Yolaine Simha’s I Saw You on the Street is forthcoming with Éditions Alfabarre (Paris). She is working on a novel about an indie rock band in family therapy, drawing from her experience playing in bands in the 90s and early 2000s. More about her work at www.jennifersolheim.com.