Friday, October 26, 2018

Layers, like Onions

        Professor Murphy was proselytizing the ethical and political significance of the movie Shrek to a lecture hall packed with students. Today's lesson focused on examining Shrek's individualist anarchism as an implicit response to the totalitarianism and bigotry of Lord Farquaad's kingdom. The course, Social and Political Thought of Shrek, was one of the most popular in the philosophy program at Swarthmore College, owing not only to the ironic appreciation of the movies by the students but to the charismatic and engaging deliverance of its content by the lecturer.
        Edwin Murphy was the youngest full professor in the entirety of Swarthmore's faculty, attaining tenure at only 31, an impressive accomplishment resulting primarily from the popularity of his creative and unique lectures, which he posted on YouTube, each receiving up to hundreds of thousands of views. He was an occasional guest on pundit shows like Real Time with Bill Maher and he had written two books and published numerous papers on the subjects of social, political, and moral philosophy, with a focus on modern cultural and technological trends. His paper, "Memes and Morals: Political Implications of a Post-ironic Society," received an honorable mention for the 2017 Kavka/UCI Prize, an award given by the American Philosophical Association for outstanding achievement in political theory.
        The lecture concluded and the students began to file out, chatting amongst themselves about the subject matter discussed over the previous two hours. Professor Murphy was always confident that his lectures were not only engaging and informative, but also enjoyable, as evidenced by the positive reactions of his pupils, some of whom called out their thanks as they departed the lecture hall. So when he noticed one student taking longer than the others to pack up, occasionally glancing up at him as he unplugged his laptop from the projector, he correctly recognized it as a deliberate attempt at pursuing a moment of his time.
        She was wearing a grey turtleneck sweater, an olive and beige tartan skirt, and a dark blue beret, attire appropriate for the brisk autumn climate and a typical cliché uniform for a philosophy major at the small, liberal arts college. Under her left arm she held a Mac laptop in a purple hardshell case tucked close against her breast, and as she approached the professor's dais she used her free hand to push a pair of round, tortoise shell glasses up the bridge of her nose. The professor noted that she acted with an air of confidence and maturity unusual for an undergraduate student approaching a distinguished professor and he attributed this to her attractiveness and, he surmised, her intelligence, as he too possessed both of these qualities and utilized these gifts to his advantage.
        "Excuse me, Professor Murphy," she began, as these encounters usually did. She had a few questions about the lecture and he was happy to answer them. As they spoke, he was surprised by the breadth of her understanding of some of the more complex philosophical concerns brought up during the class, as well as her ability to reference the theories of other philosophers and apply them to his lesson. He was surprised that he had never noticed her in his class before, as someone of her exceptional intellect (and looks) surely would have caught his attention on a previous occasion. But while he ruminated on her mystery the conversation began to shift, and before he knew it they were discussing their shared appreciation for mid-century modern art, and then they discussed a recent exhibit on Constructivism at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, and then all of the sudden she was asking him to dinner, and he was accepting her proposal and making plans to pick her up in the staff parking lot after his next lecture was finished.
        Later that evening, as they dined at a nearby gastropub (he had the blackened tuna, she had the house salad with balsamic vinaigrette) the professor continued to find himself surprised by how natural and engrossing their conversation was. He wasn't used to this level of discussion with a student, let alone the subject of a potential romantic encounter (for this is what he found himself considering more and more frequently as the night went on) and he realized that there was very little keeping him from viewing Danielle (her name) to be his equal, as she clearly possessed the same gifted intelligence and communicatory ability as him.
        After paying the check he realized that he had reached the point in the evening where he would have to decide whether or not to invite her back to his house, and he weighed the ethical and professional implications if he were to do so. A philosopher through-and-through, he examined the possibility from a classical utilitarian perspective and determined that there were no negative ethical transgressions from doing so since neither party would be adversely affected or harmed by it, and he felt that, other than potential social backlash in the event their tryst became public, there were no actual professional ramifications that could occur so long as he did not participate in any of Danielle's evaluations, and he felt confident that his tenure would ultimately protect him should any issues inadvertently arise. But before he could ask her if she wanted to come back to his for a nightcap, she asked him, and he said yes.
        They had already drank an entire bottle of pinot noir so he suggested they walk, his cottage house only a 10-minute walk away, about halfway between the restaurant and the campus. They left the car in the parking lot and set off into the labyrinth of winding, dimly lit roads that made up the suburban Pennsylvania township. A few minutes into their evening stroll, Professor Murphy took in a breath of the cool, night air, and cast a satisfied look around the quiet neighborhood. Behind them, a little ways back, he spotted a car idling in the road, facing towards them with the headlights off. They didn't pass the car so he realized it must have been driving behind them. As they rounded a corner, he heard the sound of tires crunching on gravel and looked back again to see the car slowly drifting in their direction.
        The car's presence unnerved him, but he knew that he was just being paranoid, his moral apprehensions about the coming encounter between him and his pupil manifesting in coincidence. Nevertheless as they trudged on, he would occasionally check back to see if the car was still there, and there it was, trailing them at a distance but mirroring each turn they took deeper into the maze of knotted streets. After the third or fourth turn, he decided it was worth mentioning, although he still felt convinced there was a perfectly logical explanation, perhaps a lost out-of-towner with a dead phone battery.
        "That car is following us," he said.
        "What?" She followed the direction of his gaze. "Why would a car be following us?"
        "I don't know."
        "So if there's no reason to follow us, I guess we aren't being followed." She smiled and wrapped her arm around his, clutching it close to her chest in the same way she had with her laptop, and he realized that she truly valued the relationship that was beginning to form.
        He forgot about the car.

        Professor Murphy stoked the fire while Danielle poured them each another glass of muscat. They sat together on the couch, watching the fire while discussing their favorite poets (his, Baudelaire--hers, Coleridge) and listening to an Antônio Carlos Jobim album on vinyl. Later, when the night seemed poised to culminate, the professor stood up and moved to the window to draw the curtains shut. He stopped suddenly and stared out into the dark abyss.
        "There's somebody there," he said.
        "What?" she replied from the couch.
        "There's somebody standing outside my house. He's looking at me."
        She got up from the crouch and crossed the room. "I don't see anybody."
        "There. Right there. Next to the tree." He pointed towards the shadowy spectre of a willow oak across the street.
        "It's so dark. How can you tell?"
        "Trust me, I can tell. There's somebody there."
        "So what?" She placed a hand on Professor Murphy's shoulder and drew the curtain across with the other. "It doesn't matter."
        "It does matter!" he exclaimed, yanking the curtain back open, searching for the figure, but seeing nothing. "Where did he go?"
        "Where did who go?"
        "The person who was just standing there! He was just there a second ago!"
        "Are you all right, Edwin?"
        He turned to face her and they met each other's eyes. They stared at each other, and she glanced down at his mouth, and he looked at hers, and they leaned into each other, and their lips met, and he wrapped his arms around her and brought her in close to him, and he heard the quiet whirring of a servomotor, like a camera adjusting focus.
        Professor Murphy leaned back suddenly, his hands on each of her shoulders.
        "Is something wrong?" she asked.
        He stared at her.
        "What's wrong with your eye?"
        "Huh?"
        "Your eye. What the hell is wrong with your eye?"
        He pointed his finger at Danielle's right eye, the iris of which was spinning rapidly.
        "What the fuck is going on?!" he cried, backing away from Danielle.
        "Nothing!" She stepped closer to him, her iris spinning faster and the mechanical whirring getting louder.
        The professor, panicking, backed into the corner of the room, yelling at her in confusion, and her pleas for calm were drowned out by the sound coming from her eye, and sparks began to shoot out from her eye, and smoke began to seep out from under her eyelid, and all of the sudden with a loud pop and a puff of smoke and sparks the eye exploded and the lens of her glasses shattered, projecting shards of glass towards the professor, who held up his arms to protect himself, and Danielle collapsed to her knees and fell forward onto Professor Murphy's feet, and he lifted his foot to shake her off of him, and she fell onto her back and stared up at the ceiling, her mouth opening and closing rhythmically but not making a sound, faint wisps of smoke emanating from her eye socket, where a red, yellow, and blue wire, the ends frayed and burnt, poked out from a circuit board located just behind the front part of her skull. The synthetic, plastic-looking skin on most of the right side of her face was black and melted.
        Professor Murphy stood in shock, mouth open, for a good minute or so before snapping out of it. He didn't know what else to do, so he ran for his cell phone, charging on the kitchen counter, and dialed 9-1-1.
        "9-1-1, where is your emergency?"
        "134 Rutgers Avenue."
        "What's the nature of the emergency?"
        "I-- I don't know. There's a young woman who... I thought she was a woman. I don't know what she is. I think she's..."
        "Sir?"
        "I'm sorry. I've made a mistake." He hung up and tossed the phone down on the kitchen table.
        Through the kitchen's entryway he could see Danielle's legs poking out on the far side of the couch. Questions swirled in the professor's head. He was finding it difficult to comprehend the events that had just transpired, let alone formulate any possible actions that he could take next. Moving cautiously, he re-entered the living room and sat in an armchair across the room from where Danielle's body lay. Her mouth was still moving up and down but had slowed now to the point where each movement took several seconds to complete.
        A car door slammed outside. Professor Murphy jumped up and rushed to the window, carefully peeling back the curtain and scanning the darkness frantically for the source of the sound. He heard footsteps and his heart raced, and as the footsteps grew closer his heart raced faster and he gripped the curtain more tightly until the point where it almost tore from the rod, when one of the seven officers of the Swarthmore Borough Police Department stepped into the area illuminated by the porch light and knocked on the door.
        Professor Murphy grabbed a throw blanket off the arm of the sofa and hurriedly threw it over the body. The officer knocked again, louder this time. He took a few deep breaths to try to calm himself down before opening the door.
        "Good evening, sir. We had a call from this address."
        "Y--yes," stammered the professor, "I called, but everything is fine now. I made a mistake. I'm sorry to waste your time."
        He started to shut the door but the officer put his hand up to stop it.
        "Sir, is there anybody else here with you?"
        "No, just me. It's just me. There's nobody else here. I'm on my own." He smiled, his eyes looking anywhere except at the police officer.
        "Do you mind if I have a quick look around?"
        "Well, actually--"
        The officer stepped forward, pushing past the professor and turning into the living room.
        "Excuse me, I didn't say--"
        The officer stopped and stared at where the body lay.
        "Please, I can explain, I'm being watched by somebody, they followed us home," the professor began as the officer yanked back the blanket, revealing a hyperrealistic full-size, Japanese sex doll dressed in a grey turtleneck sweater, an olive and beige tartan skirt, a dark blue beret, and broken tortoise shell glasses, with one of its eyes missing.
        The officer and the professor stared at the doll in silence.
        "I don't understand..."
        The officer turned to face him.
        "Sir, have you been drinking tonight?"
        "I... Well, yes, I--"
        "Are you aware that misuse of the 9-1-1 system is a first degree misdemeanor in the state of Pennsylvania?"
        "No, sir."
        The officer narrowed his eyes.
        "You're a professor at the college, aren't you?"
        "Yes, sir," he admitted, reluctantly.
        The officer shook his head. "I don't want to have to come back out here again."
        The professor swallowed nervously and nodded. The officer cast one final look around the living room before making his way towards the door. As he reached for the knob, he stopped and looked back at the professor with a look of apprehension, opened his mouth slightly as if preparing to speak, but seemed to change his mind and walked out the front door, leaving the professor alone with the disfigured fuck doll.
        He stared at the door considering the events that just occurred when he heard another knock at the door. Fearing that the officer had returned to further reprimand him, he opened the door slowly, but it wasn't the officer he found standing on his front porch. It was Shrek.
        It wasn't a person dressed as Shrek or a person in a Shrek costume. It wasn't a CGI movie character somehow transposed into reality. It was Shrek, a real, live, green, seven foot tall, 250 pound ogre, wearing a white long-sleeve tunic and a brown vest, olive and beige tartan pants, and dark brown boots.
        "Good evening, professor," said Shrek.
        It was too much for Professor Murphy. He fell to his knees before Shrek, sobbing hysterically and swaying from side to side, pulling at his hair and pounding his fists against his head.
        Shrek stepped across the threshold and placed a meaty, green hand on the professor's shoulder. "What's the matter, professor?"
        Professor Murphy looked up at the mythical monster towering over him, blinked, and then resumed his temper tantrum.
        "Professor, please," implored Shrek, "I need your help."
        The professor coughed and gasped for oxygen. "My help?" The professor grabbed the bottom of Shrek's tunic. "You need my help?!" he screamed.
        "I need to borrow $60," said Shrek.
        The professor stared at Shrek. "This can't be real. This has to be a dream. I must be dreaming. In any second I'll wake up and I'll be in my bed. This is impossible. This is beyond possibility. You're not real. You're a fictional character from a children's movie. Either this isn't real, or I've lost my mind and I'm suffering from paranoid delusions. Yes, that has to be it. I must have experienced some sort of schizophrenic episode. That explains the girl, and being followed, and you. I've lost my mind. I've gone insane."
        Shrek grabbed Professor Murphy by the arms and lifted him up. "Are you done now? I need you to give me $60 so I can get back to my swamp."
        "Your swamp?"
        "Yes, my swamp. I need $60. I have to get three trains to get to Pawling."
        "Pawling?"
        "Yes, Pawling," said Shrek, growing impatient. "It's where my swamp is. Pawling. It's in the Hudson Valley. New York. You know where New York is?"
        "Yes," said the professor, "of course I know where New York is."
        "So you know how long it's going to take me to get back to my swamp, and it's already almost midnight. Now give me $60."
        Professor Murphy slowly dug out his wallet and produced three $20 bills. Shrek snatched them out of his hand and made his way towards the door.
        "Wait!" called out the professor. "I don't understand. Why are you here? Have you been watching me? Do you have anything to do with her?" He pointed at the body.
        Shrek looked into the living room and then back at Professor Murphy.
        "Did you know," said Shrek, "that they originally cast Chris Farley to play me but he died of a cocaine overdose before the movie was finished? He had recorded almost all of the dialogue and they had to start all over with Mike Myers."
        "Listen," said the professor, "let's say that this is real. You're the real Shrek. Let's say that everything that happened to me tonight actually happened to me. I-- I would no longer have any kind of perception of reality. How could I continue to live my life when everything I know, the laws of the universe, the rules that govern what is real and what isn't, I now know to be false? If Shrek is real, then is God real? Am I real? I don't know how I can go back to my normal life without having any solid ground to formulate a worldview on. I would doubt everything I saw, everything I sensed, everything I thought I knew. How can I go on?"
Shrek smiled. "One day at a time, little donkey." And with that, he walked out the door.

        The next day, Professor Murphy got up and collected his car from the parking lot of the restaurant he had eaten at the night before. He put Danielle in the back seat, drove to the woods behind the college, and dumped the body in Crum Creek. He got breakfast from Dunkin' Donuts and ate it in his office. He looked through the student rolls but there wasn't a single student at the school with the name Danielle. He went to his classes and lectures.
        The first time he returned to teach the class on Shrek was difficult and he stumbled through the lecture, but each time after that became progressively easier, and eventually he was back to his old self again. Occasionally he thought about what had happened but for the most part he was able to live his life the way it had been before. He pretended it was a nightmare and so that is what it became. He wrote more papers, and more books, and eventually he moved to New York City to take the post of Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, and he married a bassoonist in the New York Philharmonic. He had two children. He lived to be 79 years old. And then he died.