Fiction

The Killing of an Ardent Apprentice

By Sana Mojdeh

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A Muffin Man is a mute, a filler, a nodder.

A Muffin Man is an irrelevant, in most cases unfocused subject in the background of the frame who nods once in a while. Nodders nod against each other, mindful of a nonexistent conversation. But often, their engaged commitment makes them believe they are the

leads. The Muffin Man’s presence in the frame is insignificant yet essential for the scene as it makes the scene realistic. Under no circumstances does it convey meaning for the narrative or add truth to the totality of the plot or even the scene.

Muffin men are to be forgotten.

Emily dropped me off at the airport at exactly noon, knowing well that she would miss the bi-weekly meeting with her thesis supervisor. I slipped the envelope across the blazing dashboard, “This is the least I owe you and the other two grads… I forgot their names.” It isn’t much, but what is left of the second mortgage I cashed out three years ago.

We said goodbye in her Subaru ’93, and she drove on before I entered the terminal. She didn’t cry, didn’t linger in the hug. I admire her lack of melodrama. I wish I had met her sooner.

Now I’m surrounded by a trio of aliens in front of me, a woman to my right, and a man to the left.

The aliens stare at me. I can only see the top halves of their heads. I imagine behind the three seats in front, one bizarre body is attached to the three heads. Huge black eyes cover their wooly faces. The bottom halves are masked behind the headrests. The aliens resemble those in cult horror flicks of the ’80s with cheap makeup.

I shut my eyes. Something on my seat has been bothering me since the plane’s delay was announced, like a seatbelt buckle or a strap, or crumpled lining on the seat. I reach under my buttocks… nothing.

I open my eyes in hope of seeing the runway this time, but I can barely see a slice of it behind the unattached jet bridge. If I lean against the woman seated on my right once more, I bet she will snap. She hasn’t complained or even muttered, and to be fair, she did offer her seat when I arrived. During my years of assistant professorship at the university, I would prefer window seats flying to conferences. Now, I don’t care where I sit. What bugs me is that I don’t recall when this disinterest surfaced.

For the past half hour, my shoulder harassed hers. I stretch my neck again to glimpse out of the window. I just want to see the runway. I feel seeing it would give me a sense of accomplishment—that, despite this status quo, the tires are gradually, perhaps imperceptibly, crawling along the scorched asphalt towards the runway. Then the plane will taxi and take me off this land for one last time.

Tilted down, her head is as still as the cabin we are all bound in. On her lap rests a napkin. She is writing or doodling or maybe drawing hash marks counting my awkward impositions. You have bugged me thirty-three times! I imagine her confronting me. What the hell is wrong with you?

I will continue until I can see the runway, as long as her plain face shows no discomfort.

Why is no truck coming to tow the jet bridge away?

A crunching noise comes from the aisle seat on my left. Baby-faced Eric in his fifties opens another packet of wasabi green peas to renew the loop: peas crunched with ferocity (I almost hear his jaw begging for mercy), fingers wiped with the wet towel the flight attendant brought earlier, then he browses film thumbnails on the touchscreen display in front. Earlier, he introduced himself to me with the cheerfulness of Tom Sawyer.

Unlike the woman’s neutral mien, his face is animated. Like her, he wears a pair of bifocals—something concomitant with their age, I suppose. Both engage in what they are doing with constancy.

The three aliens in front have lost their comic effect. Their now serious, all but menacing stare meshes with the sudden cold current of air circulating through the cabin. The AC is now on full blast to ease the August heat.

I look to my right. What I see outside—a dancing heat-shimmer on the wing out of the window—contradicts the cold curling up my palms and toes. A strange composition; I don’t know which one is real.

“Do you know a good film?” Eric turns to me with a German or an Austrian accent. I shake my head. He kind of leans against me to ask the woman. She too shakes her head without turning.

I doubt his question will be the end of our interaction before we land in Zürich—if we ever do. This delay feels longer than half hour, certainly longer than anything I have ever experienced; even longer than that six-hour wait for my connection in Madrid eight years ago. I was younger and tireless. I would stand up from the terminal seat to stretch my legs, walking between the gates; or I would go back to the shops for a beer. I had options right there, so it didn’t even cross my mind to visit the city. Now, I can do none of that… is this wait troubling because I can’t stand up? Because I can’t see the runaway?

I resist thinking about the thing under my butt because when I don’t resist, it lurks, or I imagine so.

“Summer vacation?” Eric asks in a forceful tone.

I want him to leave me alone. The truth will make him uneasy enough. I open my eyes facing him so he can take a good look. He sounds clueless.

“Yes, I’m the guy.” It takes a minute or two for some people. I wait. He too waits, baffled.

“Strasbourg?” I give him time. “The Court of Human Rights? The three-year battle?”

He has no idea who I am. Perhaps it’s the bushy beard I shaved last month. My neck hurts. I give up. “I’m heading to this clinic in Forch for an assisted suicide.”

“Forch?” he replies at once. “Outside Zürich?”

I nod. He seems more amazed by the fact I know the village than with the other keywords I just uttered. Other than Emily and outside the context of the court, Eric is the second person with whom I personally share my intention.

* * *

I used to stick to my bed for hours, sloth-like. One morning I felt hundreds of pencils poking me. I read an article on my tablet about this European clinic which provides suicide assistance not only to terminally ill people but also in cases of severe chronic depression. Electricity rushed through my loins, awaking dull muscles.

As far as the university was concerned, I’d been out of the country on a sabbatical, researching. I spent most days miserable in my bed, logically and systematically searching for a reason not to end my life. The ecstasy on reading the article pushed me out of bed under the shower, then behind my desk to email the clinic. Washing the mold off the coffee pot was too much, so I strolled out to the local café.

Days later I received the reply that unless an applicant can provide records of unsuccessful in-house treatment, the clinic would reject the application. I obviously couldn’t provide such supporting documents. I’d never been an inpatient.

I had tried a number of psychiatrists in the past. They were unanimously unable to recognize the severity of my case, much less refer me to a mental institution. I knew had I told them I wanted to kill myself they could have put me in a ward. I didn’t tell them.

“Honestly, you look fine to me,” one of them said after I spent an hour reasoning with them on the high concepts of life and death. “Take a long vacation and let’s meet afterwards,” another one suggested.

I understand why they wouldn’t take me seriously: instead of typical sessions of cognitive therapy or psychoanalysis, I would turn the table to one-on-one philosophical debates, rationalizing the absurdity of life with such tenacity on my side. Being an academic, naturally I would approach the conversations methodically which, in turn, would push them to see me as a bored egomaniac—a persona from which I was far removed.

I merely wished one of them would prove me wrong by rejecting my logic. Anyway, they treated my case at face value. I believe this is why I thought no one else could see through me either, although I had never shared my thoughts with colleagues or friends outside the university, not even my brother. All they could see was a masquerade of a bourgeois assistant prof.

* * *

“Schön! Forch is beautiful. Small but beautiful,” Eric says, wiping his fingers first to browse the film thumbnails on the display for the tenth time!

His naïve but transparent reaction, unlike anything I have experienced with the psychiatrists and the clinic, breeds a sense of acknowledgement which I’m tempted to examine further: “I don’t work in the clinic. I’m not a clinician,” I say, “I’m going there to end my life.”

“You don’t look like someone who works there anyway.” He holds up the packet in my face. “Green peas?”

Once I pass, he leans further against me with a stretched arm, “Evia, green peas?” I take advantage of this domino effect to lean on her again… I can’t see the runway.

She shakes her head, still occupied with her napkin project. I assume they exchanged names before I got to my seat. Eric must’ve started it all. I wouldn’t be surprised had he—in a matter of minutes—shared with Evia his most vivid memories; like how he once pranked his second-grade teacher, Miss Mitchell of Scottish descent.

“I discovered these here in your city,” Eric points to the packets of wasabi green peas he stashed in the seat pocket, “Lecker… Tasty! Can’t get enough.”

One of the aliens’ head slithers along the headrest and stops. Creepy. I want to turn back to see who else or what else is behind me, but I don’t.

Before I realize, I tell Eric, “And I’m not terminally ill.”

Chomping on peas, he can’t hear my quiet confession. It reminds me of one April afternoon—prior to my discovery of the clinic—when I finally decided to ask my brother to meet me. I wanted to open up about the void inside. Although we had never been brotherly close even in our teenage years—as she-is-my-first close; brothers tell each other these kind of stuff. I thought it was time to confide in someone. I couldn’t think of anybody else.

I didn’t mind his suggestion to meet at the greyhound racetrack he often visits on Saturdays. He could have suggested the pub close by, the Faculty Cafeteria, or even by the dumpster right in the middle of that filthy alley behind my apartment, and I still would have said fine.

We grabbed a couple of Budweisers at the edge of the balcony, overlooking the muzzled greyhounds behind the closed gates. My brother told me he’d been saving to take his family to the Caribbean for Christmas. I stopped listening when he reached “and for next Christmas, I’m thinking…”

As the gates opened, a buzz resonated behind us like a tsunami hurling me beneath the tide. Turning back, I heard whistling and cheering and shouting. I envied the audience for whom the universe was reduced to that very racetrack. I kept silent and observed my brother watching the race closely. Following the greyhounds with his eyes, he gawked under his puckered forehead for seconds, then squinted for the rest of the race. I assumed he lost his bet.

During the break, he kept on about the management role he had been promoted to in the consulting firm. He spoke of an opportunity to fuck their new client (figuratively or literally I don’t know). Then he asked how I’d been lately—a rhetorical question, as he was then clueless about my situation. Just before I shared the burden on my shoulders, I wondered what good such an abrupt revelation might bring us. How could I reveal the absurdity I breathe every day amid his fever for beer and betting? My words would’ve vanished in his hectic world much like my voice would’ve died in the hubbub as the greyhounds raced for another round.

I said goodbye and walked up the balcony stairs, pushing against the masses.

* * *

Eric touches a thumbnail on the display to read a film’s synopsis. Another page pops up. Then he returns to the main page; then, another synopsis, another loop. Greasy green peas slip out of his mouth. Maybe one or two slipped under my butt too, and that’s what has been annoying me.

I search the seat cushion, imagining objects and trying to keep my quirky movements to a minimum. My right arm should only touch Evia when I try to see the runway—otherwise it’s a waste! I can’t see how many hash marks I have now made on her napkin. This stupid position hurts my elbow, looking as if I’m giving myself a rectal exam. I rest my palms between my thighs anyway. The cold in the cabin is getting intolerable.

“Are you in the film industry?” I ask him. My question doesn’t come out as sarcastic as I wanted it to be.

“No,” Eric says. “I’m a therapist with the Polizei Zürich.”

How I wish I could grab the packet out of his hand and throw it away, maybe at the aliens… My god! How many more packets has he got? I’m desperate to break Eric’s loop. I want him to stop touching the display.

“Are you in the movie business?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“You got a moving city. I think six days didn’t do the justice here.”

“You flew in six days ago?” I ask.

“Same airline; although the flight was a bit—”

“So you already know all the films available on this flight, right?”

“It was a week ago,” he wipes his fingers. “Maybe they added new ones.”

Moving city… I’m unsure whether he meant the city is exciting or whether something got lost in translation; maybe he wanted to complain that everything in this jam-packed city ceaselessly moves…

Another announcement apologizes for the delay. With each announcement, Eric’s display freezes. When it is over, the film menu jumps back to the front page.

“Do you know this thriller with this man trying to escape the building?” Eric asks, but he doesn’t wait for my answer, as though he has learned by now that I would probably shake my head. He bends over me again, “Evia, you know that one? It’s a—what do you call it?” he looks at me, waiting for my contribution, “New release,” he figures out himself.

The jet bridge is still blocking my view.

Evia doesn’t know the film. She spreads her blanket across her lap before returning to her project. Now I can see the napkin—the sketch of a face. I can’t see the details.

“What about the other one? They filmed the fight scene here in your city,” Eric tells me. “Somewhere in Old Town inside that famous bakery.”

I let him know I never heard of that place.

* * *

I bet Eric would dig my thriller—the nerve-wracking game I got myself and Emily into with the clinic.

Two weeks after my rejection, I emailed them with the subject line Appealing a decision. They declined: “This is not a decision made in a court of law.” I sent thirteen more emails before they agreed to listen to me.

The night before the first call lasted long, humid, and quiet. It was two hours past midnight when I hallucinated a circle of suited-up decision makers at the far end, around a giant table. They put the spotlight on me for hours. My hands cuffed behind me, I saw the grim faces of the committee. I imagined them questioning every decision I had ever made.

Later, behind my desk, I drew a mind map, trying to include every possible subject over which our conversation might pass—every plausible scenario. Then, for each branch of the map, I devised a series of questions the committee would most likely ask. I dozed off once or twice, but the result were perfect.

By the time I had answered all three hundred questions in my sixty-five scenarios, I could hear the elevator now running up and down behind my apartment wall. Another day had started for my neighbours. A wide plain of vanilla light crept up over the desk, onto my laptop, then onto the wall. I turned back and, through the window, saw a scene to which I’d become a stranger long since. Ever since I had joined the university ten years ago (and even during my graduate study before then), I never had to wake up early in the morning. The classes I took as a student, the classes I taught, all were incidentally scheduled for afternoons or early evenings. As for the rest, I could research any time, day or night.

Two hours later, I had a mug of fresh coffee in my hand, waiting for the call in the bedroom I’d cleaned up, an eerie feeling swirling in my chest—sleepless and hyped simultaneously. I don’t know why I had vacuumed the room or dumped the filthy pile of clothes in the hamper. Perhaps because I imagined one of them would request a video tour of the apartment… Sorry, we cannot help you die, your place looks like shit!

The call ended before it even got started. An intern with a flat voice needed some basic info to create a dossier. Then he said the clinic would contact me in a week to set up an interview. I hung up and blacked out on my bed.

The interview was then scheduled for two months later. I read the five-page document attached to the email. The bureaucratic nonsense enraged me into punching the bedroom wall. The pain burned up in my bones like bubbles in boiling water as I walked to the nearby ER downtown.

On my way, I did nothing but curse the clinic… two months? Why should THEY decide when I die?

Walking back with a cast on my hand, however, I embraced the fact that I could use this time to map out a convincing strategy to further prepare for the interview. I also stopped by the hardware store and bought a few wire-nuts to cover the exposed wires I’d found in the bedroom wall. The guy working in the store asked whether I had a color preference for the wire-nuts!

Having planned my strategy two weeks into the practice period, I asked three top second-year graduate students I knew to meet me at the café. They had no reason not to. In jest, they knew me as a sane one among the professors. Our encounters had always been rational and honest, if not amusing. Besides, I had awarded them generous grades in Sociology of Mental Health. In fact, I passed everyone in that class with an A. That was the time I was thrown into apathy, slowly, steadily.

They seemed surprised to see me back in the country in the middle of my sabbatical, especially Emily, the sharpest one. She suspected I was up to something.

I told them I’d been flirting with the idea of a consulting startup for which I must conduct a team simulation first. This funded simulation would take several sessions and consist of three judges (the committee) set against an applicant of euthanasia played by myself. The committee should work coherently through sessions to question the motives of the applicant, then analyze the result during recess days in order to throw back a stronger case. They would have to hit the applicant left and right with tough questions. They must push the applicant to the edge. In the end, either the applicant would emerge completely vindicated, or the judges would reject the application.

Emily’s topaz eyes remained calm and curious. The other two grads held each other’s stare just like some of my undergraduate students as I announce a pop quiz in class.

As long as they keep the matter secret from the department, I promised them top grades in Sociology of Ethics II which they ought to take the following spring. I told them it is bad faith for professors to practice private business. Of course, there wouldn’t be a next spring should the odds be in my favor in the interview with the clinic.

“I don’t wish to pry into your schedule,” I said politely, “but you could really benefit from this.”

I saw doubt in their dull faces, but not in Emily’s. I asked them to lean closer (as if we were in some sort of spy drama). “I will give you each two percent in shares.”

In the heat of the moment, lie after lie spewed out of my mouth mindlessly. One after another, they energized me. I was born that afternoon in the middle of the café. When the grads gave the green light, we got carrot cake slices and carried on, babbling on about god knows what for another half hour—subjects I’d never imagined showing an interest in or even deliberately listening to in hundred years… about the tasteless music usually played at the faculty cafeteria (which I haven’t had noticed). I kept up with my sincere bullshitting just for the sake of the conversation. How liberating!

We rehearsed every other day for six weeks, taking the matter seriously. They would step into the café, eyes lit up, dressed up like some interns working their butts off for a big-shot partner at a multinational law firm. All three would come prepared after surfing the web all night long—Euthanasia laws in Europe or How to become a lawyer for dummies, I’d think. They slipped away from the grad school duties. I kept my mouth shut. Who I was to blame? It wasn’t my fault that they found my project enticing. If anything, I brought them adventure.

The sessions became freak shows with our heated arguments and Socratic dialogues. One time, in the course of my defense, I got unprecedently irrational under pressure. “You don’t know how to run a clinic!” I blasted at the committee. “Go fuck yourselves!” The whole café turned to us. I expected an instant rejection by the committee; instead, Emily replied, “You do realize you don’t need us to kill you, right? You can do it yourself.”

That was one critical yet simple comment about which I hadn’t thought. What if the committee asked me that? We all high-fived in sheer joy, having found a loophole, like a sports team on the verge of glorious victory. The barista refused our order of four caramel macchiato.

The practice became exhausting when we transferred to having them in my apartment. I was ready. Apparently, too much excitement can throw you in the ER bed. The grads waited outside the room while I had the interview, together with the IV. Emily brought in some mango juice and tiptoed out.

* * *

I hadn’t kill myself yet because I don’t want to die alone. I could’ve done it on any Saturday at the racetrack. The presence of others is not enough. I want them to look at me when paralysis twists up in my bones. I want them to look at me the way my brother used to look at the greyhounds racing.

Evia has slowed her pace. She is adding details to the face. I don’t know how she manages to keep her hand steady in this cold.

The thing under me is now crawling. Maybe it is not on the seat but under my skin.

One of the aliens in front stretches her arms. I wonder why all three girls have identical topsy-turvy ponytails and why they wear their sunglasses on the back of their heads. The sunglasses sit looking ridiculous on their ponytail ties. The ponytails become the hairy trunk noses of hairy faces… I want to tap one of the girls on the shoulder to tell her she and her friends resemble a trio of aliens from a retro horror flick, at least, from where I sit… but that’s absurd.

Something is wrong with Eric. He has paused browsing the thumbnails with his greasy finger resting on the display. The munching too has stopped. His mind rambles elsewhere. I can see his loop is broken, but the suspension irks me.

“Best banana muffin ever!” he says without turning. “How come you don’t know that bakery?”

I tell him I don’t even know the intersection. Only when I utter it, I realize it sounds moronic for some reason.

“I was waiting for my muffin when the crew came inside,” he says with a grit. “They filmed the fight with four cameras. Huge cameras.” His hands spread out all the way to my mouth, Eric tries to carefully show how massive the cameras were. His eager gesture pushes me to the right, giving me another chance to lean against silent Evia…

That fucking jet bridge!

“Took them three hours to set up everything. I watched. My wife was pissed at the hotel waiting for me.” He describes how the lighting crew mounted up and tested the LEDs and reflectors and dimmers and diffusers in such details that I can’t imagine even the actual lighting supervisor could explain it all so thoroughly.

“They gave me a part on the spot,” he chuckles. “I had to buy a bag of muffins and leave.”

“The Muffin Man!” I mutter.

“I asked them about the dialogue with the barista,” Eric says. “They said we can mouth something, anything. Really doesn’t matter what.”

Facing me, he forgets about the thumbnails on the display.

“It was a stressful situation. I was just talking to the barista before they arrived, but—”

The captain apologizes. We won’t be going anywhere soon. The passengers’ humming fades shortly. My hands stay warm under my buttocks. I’m losing sensation in them.

“But when there are eyes on you under so much light, it’s different,” Eric says, somewhat troubled with the memory. “I screwed up. They got twenty takes just because I couldn’t mouth. I kept picturing them watching me. I would see myself and freeze like a mannequin.”

I know the feeling—the gaze.

“The director herself handed me a muffin. She tried to calm me down,” he chuckles again. “A blockbuster’s director was talking to me. They don’t do that. They don’t talk to a nobody on the set. I almost fainted during the next take.”

* * *

I fainted too, after the interview. Good thing I was already in the ER bed! I hardly recognized the voices of the committee—they were exactly as I had imagined for so long. They rejected my case on the basis of lacking evidence for the need of euthanasia.

When I regained consciousness in the morning, the grads were gone. None of them replied to my messages until I learned the department now gathered I had lied about my sabbatical.

After a week of silence, Emily reached out to me, distressed with her academic status. The department had cornered all three grads and got them to tattle on me. They got furious that I had lied about the Sabbatical. I didn’t have the mind and time to waste on the hearing. On the phone and without a fuss, I accepted the one-year suspension. Emily and the other two got no-pay suspensions for a semester.

I sensed a reason for Emily’s return: she was hooked on the project. Her eyes begged for more excitement. I told her the truth. For about a week, Emily would stay in my apartment until late googling international lawyers to fight back the clinic.

“What about Amnesty International?” She joked one night sunken in the couch, holding an extra-large Pepperoni pizza slice. “It’s your right to kill yourself after all.”

“You see the guy in the phone booth in the background?” I paused the film we were watching. “You know what they call him in the film industry?”

The guy in the phone booth in the background.”

“The Muffin Man.”

“Because he is chubby?”

“Because he is irrelevant.”

“Why muffin then?” Emily faced me. “Can you even pay a top-notch lawyer?”

“I will apply for a second mortgage.”

For the next three years, I fought for my death. She fought for me like Joan of Arc fighting for Henry VI. I couldn’t do it without her. With the time Emily put into the project, she could have probably earned two PhDs and three postdocs. We would go jogging in the mornings we had to meet the lawyers she’d found herself.

I still don’t know how she gathered the money to fly with the lawyers and me to Strasbourg four times. I recognized her one late night in downtown, waving down a Bentley… that’s all I saw. I dashed to the nearest bar and drank myself to death. I dozed off for two days in my bedroom. Emily had left thirty-two messages on my phone.

When I opened the door, I saw two Emilys. Each slapped me once. Then they dragged me downstairs right into their Subarus. I sat too hungover to realize the direction she was driving and barfed out of the window every other time she turned right. I swear she turned right at least fifty times!

A careless weekend in a quiet mansion too quiet and white to be real. For most of the time, we found ourselves drawn onto the marble terrace overshadowed by oceanside red cedars. I couldn’t take my eyes off the cliffs. Pure oxygen tranquilized us on beanbags. She said she had been babysitting for the owner and he had let her stay. Apart from that exchange, we didn’t speak a word.

The lawyers took my case to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court and they pushed it to European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to mediate between Canada and Switzerland. For about a year, the representatives of the clinic would go ballistic amidst the camera flashes in front of the court. They thought the whole case was absurd to begin with. I guess they only cooled down when they realized the power of the publicity of the case for the clinic. The sides eventually shook off the rage they carried for each other.

We both won.

The morning the court’s judgment was read, the verdict concluded the best years of my life.

* * *

Evia is done sketching the face. She hands me the napkin.

“Isn’t my wife a great sketcher?” Eric says in awe. “She recently got a one-year contract with the Polizei as a forensic artist.”

This ugly-ass face is mine? I wonder.

All the displays freeze for the announcement. Eric stands up. “I will get blankets.”

Finally, I have enough room to properly search for whatever the hell it is under my buttocks.

Evia slides down the window shade. When Eric returns, I will listen to him talking about the faith of the Muffin Man. I tap one of the aliens on the shoulder.

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Categories: Fiction

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