Jim Courter: The Map of Florence
There are people who know everything, but that's all they know. --Niccolo Machiavelli
Miles Singer enters the classroom for the faculty meeting a few minutes before the announced start time. He looks around to see that the department chair hasn’t arrived yet, and that no other people of color are present.
He is hesitant to sit. Half a dozen conversations are in progress around the room among his new colleagues, and Miles is concerned that if he joins one group those in it might think he is intruding or trying too hard to ingratiate himself; but neither does he want to appear aloof or diffident by sitting off by himself.
Looking around, Miles notices on the wall at the back a framed painting of a city in red, yellow and ocher tones with sun-baked hills in the background. He guesses it to be a copy of a cityscape map from Renaissance times, rendered from an elevated perspective, featuring buildings with spires and red tile roofs on both sides of a river. Miles moves toward the map, skirting around and behind people at desks, happy to have found a pretext to avoid sitting. Up close, he recognizes the city as Florence, where he spent his junior year of college in a study abroad program and, having greatly enjoyed his time there, to which he has returned twice.
Miles examines the map, keeping his ears attuned to the room. When someone enters he looks to see if the chair has arrived but instead sees Forsberg, the department’s specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature. Miles remembers him and his pointed questions when Miles came in the spring for an interview. Miles will be teaching the classics and wonders if Forsberg might feel that he is encroaching on his territory.
A moment later, from his right, Miles hears, “You should go some time.”
Miles turns at the waist to find Forsberg standing beside him, wearing the kind of indulgent smile that adults use on children, or the benevolent advantaged on the less fortunate.
“Actually, I . . .” Miles says, but gets no further.
“Imagine walking in the footsteps of Dante, Lorenzo, Botticelli, Pico and Ficino,” Forsberg says, as if giving Miles a tutorial. Then with that indulgent smile again, “Not to mention Michaelangelo and Leonardo.”
Forsberg looks to Miles like a sybarite and a candidate for gout, with his distended belly and puffy, florid face, a face that Miles would swear is asking to be punched. Miles turns back to the map. He can feel Forsberg watching him.
The department chair arrives with his secretary. Miles waits for Forsberg to sit then finds a place on the other side of the room from him.
This is the first faculty meeting of the new school year. The agenda consists mostly of early semester business: a report on the size of the freshman class and the number of English majors; discussion of whether the decline in both of those numbers is a cause for concern or merely a cyclical phenomenon; the introduction of new colleagues. (When his turn comes, Miles stands, slightly bowed at the waist, and raises a hand in greeting, hoping he has struck the right note.)
When the meeting ends, Miles waits until Forsberg has left the room. He emerges into the hall to find two of his new female colleagues in conversation. He must pass them on the way to his office. As he does, one of them stops talking and puts a hand on his arm. She introduces herself as Olive, the other, who nods but doesn’t speak, as Barbara.
“We saw you talking with Forsberg in front of that map of Florence,” Olive says. “He donated it to the department after attending a conference there. We were there this summer ourselves.” She gestures toward Barbara, who nods again. “I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You simply must go some time.”
“Actually . . .” Miles says, but as with Forsberg he gets no further.
“I suppose Forsberg told you the same thing,” Olive says. “I probably shouldn’t prejudice you, but be on your guard against anything he tells you. He’ll want you to think that his is the definitive experience of Florence. When you’re ready to plan a trip, let us know. I have some travel literature to loan you.”
Another faculty member and some students approach. “We’ll talk,” Olive assures Miles, touching his forearm. She gathers up Barbara, and they are off.
Over ensuing days and weeks Miles meets his classes and acclimates to life in the department. He learns that he is not the only person of color after all: There is Professor Mandeep Patel, a shade darker than Miles, who brushes past him in the halls and, in their one brief exchange, addresses Miles as if he were a hired servant; and a black female in her own world of racial and gender grievance, with no use for anyone not similarly aggrieved. Olive is ever solicitous, ever eager to warn him against Forsberg, whom she calls a self-absorbed pedant and a condescending prig. He learns that she is not alone in holding that view. He encounters colleagues who consider their recondite critical theorizing to be the pinnacle of human endeavor, themselves the precursors of evolution’s Omega Point. Having spent the last several years embedded in university English departments, he finds none of this surprising and much of it amusing.
But he isn’t prepared for Forsberg, Olive’s warnings notwithstanding. By the end of the first few weeks of school, Miles can hardly credit his experience of him. Forsberg’s office is down the hall from the one Miles occupies, so he passes Miles’s open door often and stops to indulge in discourse on a wide range of topics. He seems certain that Miles will want to hear of his expertise as a gourmet cook, his role as organist at Wesley United Methodist, his involvement in numerous civic and service clubs, his extraordinarily gifted wife and daughters. No subject so trivial as to prevent Forsberg from exploring it from either a Platonic or an Aristotelian perspective, while looking coolly down at Miles as if from some vertiginous intellectual perch. And all this leavened with a contrived self-effacement, conferred, it seems, as assurance that even he is merely human. Again he urges Miles to visit Florence, but manages to leave Miles with the impression that without his (Forsberg’s) deep and interdisciplinary knowledge of the place, he’d be going as a mere tourist instead of a humanist scholar. Miles takes it all in with the wide eyes of one being educated, while remaining coyly (and ironically) noncommittal about going to Florence.
In the second week of classes, Olive comes to his office with the promised travel books on Florence. Brimming with earnest solicitude for Miles’s intellectual and cultural advancement, she has tabbed them with the things he simply must do and the sites he simply must see when he goes. She mentions the Uffizi, the Domo, Ponte Vecchio, something about Rick Steves that Miles doesn’t catch. As with Forsberg, Miles listens with bemused, ironic indulgence.
“Of course you’ll want to take in some of the rest of Italy,” Olive says, “but make Florence your home base.” She waggles her finger at the stack of books on the desk. “I hope you find these helpful. Keep them as long as you like. And do let me know if you have any questions.”
By now, Miles thinks he sees in Olive a type he has become familiar with—the one eager to demonstrate a commitment to diversity.
On a Monday morning about a month into the semester, Miles stops at McDonald’s for a carryout breakfast on his way to school. In his office, before finishing it, Forsberg appears in his open doorway. He looks down his nose, purses his protuberant lips and says, “My, that smells good!”
Miles sips coffee and doesn’t respond.
Forsberg looks at the McDonald’s bag and the uneaten portion of sausage and egg biscuit on the desk and says, “McDonalds is well represented in Florence, so perhaps you’ll find it more to your liking than you think.”
Miles puts down his coffee, looks at Forsberg and, unsmiling, says, “How do you know what I think?”
For the first time in Miles’s dealings with him, Forsberg appears flustered and defensive. He raises his nose and licks his lips. Before he can fashion a reply, they hear loud, profane banter from the hall. Miles looks past Forsberg to see its source—three or four African American male students. In other circumstances Miles might enjoin the brothers to clean up their language and pull up their pants, but he won’t do it in Forsberg’s presence. Forsberg glances in their direction then fixes Miles with a knowing, supercilious look, as if Miles, for being black, is somehow implicated in what they have just heard.
Forsberg turns and leaves. As Miles watches him waddle off it occurs to him that in primary, middle and secondary school he had been the fat kid, and wonders if over the years he acquired arrogance and condescension and pedantry as ways of compensating.
For the rest of that week Forsberg doesn’t appear in Miles’s open doorway.
The next faculty meeting is devoted in part to reports from committee chairs. About fifteen minutes into the meeting, Forsberg, who chairs the travel committee, rises to tell of the freezing of travel funds by the Provost in light of severe cuts to the university’s budget by the state. “I can’t help but feel,” he says, “that both the state and the Provost are being niggardly.” At that last word he gives Miles a quick, penetrating glance.
Miles hears a gasp, probably from Olive, who is seated directly in front of him. But it sounds affected, as if she feels obliged to express shock on his behalf.
Forsberg has more to say—something about the need for everyone with a stake to let the Provost know what a serious a blow to scholarship he has struck.
Miles stands and goes to the back of the room. He takes the map of Florence from the wall and, carrying it on the sides by the frame, moves along the perimeter to the front. Forsberg, still speaking, index finger pointed skyward in declamatory fashion, watches Miles out of the corner of one eye until Miles has circled around behind him. Miles raises the map and smashes it over Forsberg’s head, painted side up.
Miles crosses the room to the door. His hand on the knob, he looks back to see Forsberg with his head sticking up through the picture frame, looking mortified, astonished and, at least to Miles, quite comical. Miles’s colleagues regard him with disbelief, through which he thinks he sees a kind of awed gratitude, as if he has slain the dragon.
“. . . niggardly.”
Miles hears a faint gasp from in front of him, perhaps from Olive. She turns in her desk and gives him a pat on the leg and a look that simultaneously conveys commiseration and says “I told you so.”
Forsberg is still talking, index finger pointed skyward in declamatory fashion, but Miles’s mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t hear. DSS
Jim Courter of Macomb, IL is a retired writing instructor at Western Illinois University. His stories have appeared in many literary magazines, and his essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. His novel, 'Rhymes with Fool' is forthcoming from Peasantry Press.
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