Smart Alec Tags

Two Smart Alec Tags

by Martha


The first time I saw Blair Sandburg--a skinny sixteen-year-old, pushy, fatally personable, and frankly far too smart for his own damned good -- he was trying to argue his way into a 700-level class on the ethics and methodology of ethnographic research. That was an argument I won (as I recall, I managed to divert him into Slyomovics' political anthropology), but he's won all the rest of them through the years, and as things turned out, maybe I should have let him start his career in anthropology pondering ethics and methodology after all.

He might have been the brightest kid to come through this department in a generation, but no one will ever really know. His dissertation committee -- me included -- approved a research topic that bordered on the ludicrous even when he was basing his research on hundreds of subjects. These days his informants number exactly one. The grants are beginning to dry up, the administration is less and less charmed by that famous Sandburg smile and wants to see quite a bit more progress on the dissertation before renewing his fellowship next semester, and if Blair doesn't have a bad case of puppy love for his informant, I'll eat my hat.

Hard to admit that you've failed a student like Blair. Eli kept trying even after the Borneo debacle, but I honestly couldn't see much of a point. Let him try to prove an untenable thesis. In so many ways he's younger now than he was at sixteen, and besides, he's having the time of his life playing cops and robbers with his informant. (*Would* that ethics class at sixteen have made any difference at all?)

Blair can't stand to look at me. He turns his head from my twisted fingers and staring eyes and takes a few steps away, but he defends me, even now.

I'm sorry, Blair.

I hope he won't judge me too harshly when he knows the truth.

The Kaluli people of the Great Papuan Plateau believe that a murdered man returns as a solitary parrot with blood red plumage. I can feel myself drifting upwards and I imagine red feathers covering my breast. I see Blair's pet informant lay his hand on Blair's back for an instant, and Blair turns to look up at him with eyes muddied from his unshed tears. I want to tell him to look after Blair, but when I open my mouth to speak, a parrot screams instead.

The forest is near and I have wings, so I fly away.


He'd asked Jim not to come to the funeral, so Jim had let him go alone.

For all of Sandburg's insistence that it was somehow Jim's -- well -- duty or something to share his every public and private grief, when it came to Sandburg's own sorrows, the man was locked up tighter than Fort Knox.

Jim had even tried pushing a little that evening. "I guess you're going to miss Professor Buckner around the department," he blurted out over dinner.

Sandburg's head jerked up and he just looked at him for a moment, dry-eyed, distracted and somehow remote in his grief. "It's gonna be a nightmare finding someone else to sit on my dissertation committee ," he finally said in a flat voice. "Hey, I forgot to mention. Allstate's adjustor finally got out to look at the Corvair, and it's totaled, man. You think you'd have a few hours Saturday morning to drive me around car shopping?"

"Sure. Great. No problem."

"Great?" Sandburg said incredulously. "In what universe is used car shopping ever 'great'?" Then he went back to pretending to eat his dinner, and very late that night as well as the next one, Jim lay awake and listened to him quietly crying in bed.


Saturday morning Jim was out early enough to pick up bagels and cream cheese and lox as well as a newspaper for the want ads. Coffee was brewing and the bagels were ready to go in the toaster when Sandburg finally came stumbling out. He blinked and scrubbed both hands over his face. His eyes were red again this morning. "What's the occasion?" he asked in a sleep-rough voice.

"Car shopping," Jim declared, pouring a cup of coffee and holding it out to him. "Thought you'd want to get an early start. Want a bagel? I've got garlic and poppy seed."

"Oh." Sandburg didn't take the coffee cup. "That's great, but Molly and a bunch of her friends are driving up to Seattle to see PJ Harvey. Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water ... Anyway, it sounded like fun."

"Oh." Jim set the coffee cup down. "So you're --"

"Yeah. They're gonna swing by and pick me up in about an hour. I gotta get showered and everything before then" He reached for the coffee. "Sorry I forgot."

Jim made himself shrug. "No problem. Who wants to spend Saturday car shopping anyway?"

"Well, yeah, exactly." He disappeared into the bathroom and Jim heard the shower start to run. He stood for a moment longer at the kitchen island, then put the cover back over the lox spread. He was wrapping up the bagels to store them in the freezer when Sandburg suddenly reappeared wrapped in a towel and dripping water all over the kitchen floor.

"Uh, nature boy, do you mind?" Sandburg just waved a silencing hand at him as he picked up the telephone. He hadn't been in the shower more than a minute, not even long enough for his hair to get completely wet.

"Molly? Hey, it's Blair. Listen, I'm sorry to do this to you, but something's come up and I'm going to have to bag on the road trip... I know, but Leigh can have my ticket. Nah, she doesn't need to pay me back. Yeah. " Blair turned around to look at Jim, half-wet hair dripping in his face. He didn't smile, but his eyes were soft with affection. "Yeah, you could say it was something pretty important. "

Doubt thou, the Starres are fire,
Doubt, that the Sunne doth move:
Doubt Truth to be a Lier,
But never Doubt, I love.
(Hamlet Act 2 scene 2)


Spring 2004