"Pomp and Circumstance"


Mel’s graduation gown billowed up in the face of another faculty member, one he didn’t recognize, disguised as they were today in their gold and scarlet renaissance gear.

He tried to flatten the gown against his butt, but in doing, he so dropped the front flap of his robe and heard the clunk of bottle on shin.

First casualty of the day.

“Sorry,” he said, not really meaning it, climbing over Thompson or Tompkins—the new lady professor in his department. New hires were barely worth his time with all their “working from home” and skittering off for coffee instead of doing the actual hard work of academia: chairing lugubrious committee meetings or reading egotistically-long tenure packets. And don’t even get him started on the newbies’ research. What with everyone linked to Wikipedia these days, Mel wasn’t sure they could be bothered with actual research anymore.

He straddled the next two sets of knees, climbing over with some effort, wondering why they’d placed the folding chairs so damned close together. Seating space—as with everything at Kent—had gotten more miserly over the years. His university administrators blamed it on a shrinking endowment but Mel had seen that new indoor pool. That thing surely cost more than a COLA increase. But it was probably what the college needed, to bribe the next coddled generation to Kent.

Finally reaching his seat, halfway down the row, Mel collapsed. More clunking.

Wheeler, in the row ahead, turned round. “Pockets the Academic Clown! You came prepared, I hope?”

“How else would we get through it?” Mel drew out the first bottle.

“What’s on tap?” Wheeler didn’t waste time, which was something Mel appreciated about him. That and how he understood the horrifying slip of standards at Kent; he and Wheeler went way back. Through induction ceremonies, convocations, commencements—from back in the day those things still meant something.

“I’ve got Barbancourt, Casamigos, and a vintage Glenlivet,” said Mel.

“Only three?”

Mel shrugged, bearing the criticism the best he could. He’d used to stock four options but as the pockets went, so did choice. It was all he could do to offer three. In a moment of panic last night, he’d taken out his robe from the back of the guest room closet only to notice that the third pocket was flapping. That’s just how the fourth had looked before he’d lost. Back then, he’d asked Marge for help sewing it back on, explaining the problem he’d have with complaints about a diminished supply.

But she’d said she couldn’t care less about that pocket; that the whole business of drinking at graduation offended her; that she took such rituals seriously and that he—as a professor, of all people! —should have some respect for the crowning glory of academic achievement.

Last night, in protest (and guilt), he’d dragged out her old sewing box, finding the only needle still threaded—a garish yellow he couldn’t imagine Marge ever wearing—and tacked on the wavering pocket himself. As he forced needle through fabric, like a time-punch clock, he’d thought back on that. And on his own graduation, how enamored of it all he’d been. The pomp and circumstance. Its promise of a privileged life.

Broken promise, as it turned out.

“Hey Mel, you got La Frog?” Harrison, from Classics, tapped him from behind. Mel shook his head. He’d stopped serving Laphroaig a few years ago, after that rookie prof in Econ egged him on with it one year and they’d both poured home from graduation in the back of a cop car. Marge had given him hell. Threatened to leave him. She’d made him promise never to drink that much again. Of course, that year, there’d been other reasons, too.

“I can give you Glenlivet.” Mel passed the bottle to Harrison.

“Good man.”

A low, panicked voice erupted from the aisle. “Mel! Mel Hermann!”

Mel looked down the row and saw President Hinchey, looking as he always did on graduation: a bit rumpled, but earnest.

“Morning, sir,” said Mel. “Imbibing today?”

“Mel, I need your help.”

“I’ve got three choices—”

“Not that kind of help!” Hinchey twitched. “Could you step out so we might we have a word?”

One look at Mel’s seat-mates convinced him that he wasn’t the only one who found that a bad idea. “I’m afraid I’m a little hemmed in, Sir.” He noticed Hinchey’s graduation tic had returned; a finger swab under his eye every six seconds; Mel had timed it one year. “You sure you don’t need a tipple?” He remembered his own heatstroke year—must be twelve years back. Back when they were still a family of three. Before Marge stopped coming. Before he drank too much, and everything else. “It’ll be a long day, sir...”