The good professor eyes his neighbor’s dessert. He’d been quiet up to then, waiting for his order. He and his young wife are delighted when their cold tomato soup arrives. Then he points to his neighbor’s plum and apple crumple and expresses interest. He can’t help but notice his neighbor’s pert little tits, too.

As they eat, he begins to make a few new points, continuing on a topic he began as he pulled into the restaurant’s VIP parking. His neighbors couldn’t help overhearing his desperation. He is a bearded little man in a blue blazer. He and Sandra have come dressed for dinner, unlike his neighbors who, from his point of view, are dressed inappropriately. She has on a gold Rolex, but the cuff of her hand-embroidered blouse keeps it partially hidden. She also wears the sulk of a woman who’s seen it all, or at least has it all. His beard is worn as a statement. Just what that statement is I do not know, but it sure as hell isn’t just hair.

They eat quietly, but the gentleman is in a fury. No, he is not happy with his classes. You’d think he would be, but he is not. To start, the university is not what it once was. They are now scraping the bottom of the barrel. “We are not at all able to get the best.” Why even bother? He’d just as well not teach. What a waste of time. He’s been working on something big lately, so he can finally walk away. What he needs, he says in a near hiss, is some fuck-you money and a lot of it. His wife sighs.

He’s been planning to set up something like TED Talks to sell seminars and workshops in luxurious settings: New Zealand, Tahiti, maybe Dubai. Aspen is old hat, too middle class, too middlebrow. New York isn’t what it once was either, he sniffs. There’s money in them thar hills, yessirreebob. He is getting worked up.

He speaks in his pronounced Long Island accent to his pretty wife who has   money herself but finds talking about it rather off-putting. In his youth, she knew, he had worked hard and schemed to get tenure. Finally, he has it and he is not satisfied. Now that he is full-professor, he wants something more. He is bored. He feels poor. After all, his salary is under two-hundred thousand a year and will never go up that much. They are living in the desert in the mountains east of Los Angeles. He has students headed for Wall Street who will earn at 22 what it has

taken him more than twenty years to achieve. By the time they reach his age, they’ll be multimillionaires.

He’s taken the university for everything it is worth. He has had every grant, even mortgage assistance. But he is no longer a young man. Teaching is not what it used to be, so isn’t it natural to talk about getting out? “I’d just as well not teach.” His wife has heard this over and over lately and it is beginning to annoy her. “The students lack a sense of purpose. They’re lost. They have no business being in grad school.”

No doubt this is true. Everyone says the same thing. “They say they love Jane Austin. Well, who cares? That’s not good enough. I’m sick of these hobbyists thinking they’re graduate school material.” PhDs are not for fans, not for romantics, not for rich kids looking for something to do with their worthless lives. He is ranting now, but keeps on eating. He is shouting, but it remains a whisper. Actually, he has control. It is all for effect. He is having fun. She’d heard it all before.

But on top of all that, the students are conservative! This he says with disgust. He takes some soup. She begins to wonder if they’ll make love tonight. He tends to get horny when angry, but not if he gets too drunk. The waitress returns with his steak. It is a fine, game reserve-certified, organic, $50 steak. Its plate has been warmed. She carries it with her hand wrapped and sets it down like a matador. Olé. He takes a good look and licks his chops. Yes, this is surely one of the rewards for hard work. I deserve every bite, too, he thinks to himself. But if he were able to get out of his shitty university and make some real money, he would be able to order the wild boar and oyster pie for two. They’d splurge. She loves beluga with a good bottle of champagne. He’d like to spoon it all over her belly.

What they like in addition to fine dining is radical company. He is especially drawn to someone with a communist pedigree, like his old pal Antonio Calabria, the communist structuralist from Milan, one of Eric Hobsbawm’s prized students at Cambridge. Now you’re talking! Antonio Gramsci and a two-inch ribeye served medium rare with a very good Italian Barbera. He’d send it all back if not to his liking. They both prefer their cocktail glasses nicely chilled. His Bloody Mary, by the way, is just right; no wonder it cost $13. Tonight’s wine will set him back close to a hundred. Shit.

All this on his pathetic salary. 20th century Marxism gives him an appetite for fine wines and succulent dishes. They keep a second home in the Catskills. Her parents, an old Hudson Valley Dutch family, never had a lot of money but hung on to the family’s original homestead, now worth a small fortune. It’s a hardship for them to keep two properties, but they wouldn’t want their friends to think they were staying at road side motels or, God forbid, some dilapidated family resort.

Yes, he only makes $159,000 and resents it. They’d had a chance to buy Apple back in the 90’s, but let it slip. Secretly, he’d prefer a better wine, and maybe she would, too, but he knows she’ll be annoyed if he complains. He eyed one on the menu that cost nearly three hundred dollars! She pretends to like a modest lifestyle. When he bought his Mercedes, she was embarrassed to see it parked in front of the house. She says she is much happier now that they each drive a Toyota Prius. She parks hers everywhere and tells everyone she feels proud to sacrifice personal comfort for cleaner air. And although they are childless, she displays a Baby On Board bumper sticker to help with parking, especially when she goes into town. He bought his handicapped parking sticker from his deceased colleague’s widow.

He’s a frustrated man. Our professor wants to keep out the conservatives, he tells his wife. She lifts an eyebrow and sighs. What a nuisance conservatives are. How are their table manners, he wonders? Now, with Trump in the White House…just the thought of that man eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on the lovely White House furniture donated by the Duponts is reason enough to impeach the bastard! Josh hisses this with far greater intensity than he’d intended. It makes Sandra giggle. Yes, she thinks, we will make love tonight. I hope he gives my ass a good smack. She’ll have to remember to get one of those MAGA hats to wear in bed. That will get him aroused.

Being a conservative today is something like being a Viennese Jew in 1936. If they could get rid of them all, they surely would. The refinement and delicacy of the enlightened classes is no match for the crudeness of those with an expressed love of money. Chinese students continue to pour in and all they want to study is finance. At least PLU (“People Like Us”) know not to talk about it all the time and so explicitly. “Graduate admissions gets these kids,” Josh continues, “with a fondness for Trollope or, for God’s sake, Evelyn Waugh, but no interest whatsoever in the mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts. They haven’t even read the Communist Manifesto!” With that, he glanced at the menu and wondered what else he might order. “Dessert?”

And they dare to come to California. “I don’t like being a party to…” His voice trails off. He doesn’t wish to be part of the charade. There is no career in the humanities. History? Literature? No jobs, not now and not for the foreseeable future. It’s over. “My heart’s not in it.” Certainly not with the mediocrities they’re getting. Admissions are way down. Not even half the number of applicants of a few years ago. And none of them has a chance.

What he wants is to sell lectures, a freelance MOOC, he explains. Completely unaffiliated with the university. “They’d steal my royalties.” Offer it out of Aspen or Malibu, maybe, but look for 10,000 students worldwide. Sell merchandise, smart T-shirts, books, get the Chinese trade, the Arab bourgeoisie (some of that UAE money), combine the program with luxury travel arrangements… “We could make enough to retire to Italy. “I always wanted to live in Venice.” “There you go!” They’d only need a few million. “You seem so perky,” she observes. “Me? No, I’m just trying to perk you up.” “Don’t you ever get tired?”

And on it goes. He looks over as his neighbors are getting up.  He puts in two orders for the plum and apple crumble. Another bottle of wine is delivered to their table. The evening is young.


Josh hadn’t married her for her money, but he had made note of it. Sandra’s dad had inherited a rather grand property, thus freeing him from the burden of mortgage payments throughout his rather long life. Now his widow, Pia, Sandra’s mother, lives there alone, or has done so for a number of years, that is, until quite recently, in fact, when she invited in a lodger whose presence has become quite concerning, as the saying goes.

“He has to go.” This was said by Josh more than once lately. “You’ll see.” He doesn’t often say things like this, but in Silver’s case, one was dealing with damaged goods intent on doing further damage to himself and others. He is a menace.

Sandra’s mother couldn’t see this. Pia was a lifetime do-gooder. She had become well-known in university circles as the “nice” wife of her husband, the rather conceited but charming history professor known around town for his sarcasm and killer martinis. No one found him nice. But Pia didn’t appreciate being written off so easily and desperately wanted to do something besides shop in town at the gourmet grocers. She was determined to change her epithet.

She’d met Silver some time ago at a food-kitchen in downtown L.A. After her husband’s death, she devoted herself to volunteer work, especially for the homeless. The professional staff warned volunteers not to give out their names or addresses, but Pia was convinced she knew better. She was guilt-ridden. It didn’t help that Silver was part Indian, a Native American, that is, of a desert tribe, the Mohave, currently flush from the burgeoning casino business. Somehow Silver missed out on the profit-sharing that had made that community rich; he’d scornfully dismissed it as profiteering, but quietly seethed with resentment. The significance of this was lost on nearly everyone, including her family, but being a Native American had given Silver a kind of status in her eyes; Silver was a New World aristocrat as far as she was concerned and, therefore, someone for whom she felt a special affinity. Of course, if he had been a poet or an artist, the academic community would have embraced him. As it was, they saw him as a bum.

Silver had in fact once been a killer and had served time in the state penitentiary at San Quentin. Even this impressed Pia, so intent was she to know someone authentic. She was desperate to befriend a man who’d actually done something other than teach. She’d let him convince her that murder was a sort of accomplishment. On top of that, he bragged to her about having had to rough up other inmates while to prison. In other words, he was a survivor. She once said to Josh, her son-in-law, “If you think you could get through a thing like that, why don’t you try?” Suffering and survival carried a lot of weight in Pia’s eyes. “I’m telling you,” Josh shouted, “she thinks this guy walks on water.”

This effort to make others feel small spelled the end to their friendship. Josh and she had grown close, but now he felt less welcome at her house. Even her daughter Sandra had begun to grow wary. Pia said rather matter-of-factly, “If you feel uncomfortable, why don’t you stop coming?” Sandra found this very wounding. The whole thing had coarsened and threatened to wreck their relationship. Silver knew how to squeeze Pia’s bleeding heart. He played her like a piano.

Everyone, especially Pia’s old friends, found Silver highly manipulative. But as a Holocaust survivor, Pia identified with his fortitude. After years of marriage to a European intellectual, she was ready for a man of action; at least that was how Josh looked at it. Her husband had been Josh’s professor. This was how he’d met his future wife Sandra. This was also how he had come to know and like Pia.

After her husband passed, Pia felt more and more alone. She’d always felt alienated from all the Southern California success she saw around her and was relieved to finally find someone like Silver who had had a miserable life. She decided she had a lot in common with her new friend, a man many came to fear but also held in contempt. She believed he deserved a medal, not scorn.

Silver posed no threat to Josh personally, but he came to feel that he couldn’t allow the guy to cause further havoc. He’d moved at first into the family’s garage one summer, into rooms built back in the heyday of fine automobiles and live-in chauffeurs. The family had once kept a grand Packard sedan and even installed an underground gas tank with its very own pump. At first, Silver seemed to fit right in. She had hopes that he would flourish. Instead, he went insane.

Pia didn’t know how to handle an alcoholic who drank beer by the case and could down an entire bottle of vodka in a single afternoon. He would rant and rave and dance around the property, throwing stones at her upstairs bedroom window at three in the morning. She’d come down to calm him and then he’d bend her arm behind her back and force her down into the cellar to where the family kept the vintage wine so he could steal a few bottles. This went on for ages. Police were called; Pia would be hysterical, but the thing would eventually blow over. When he sobered up, Silver always apologized.

Pia was old school. She never complained. She was far too proud to ask for help; besides, she believed in loyalty and couldn’t bring herself to press charges. She refused to take responsibility for Silver’s demise. And then there was always hope. Pia believed in redemption above all else.

Undoubtedly, there were quieter times. Bad news spread. Josh heard about these goings-on from friends and on occasion through Sandra, but things were getting out of hand. One night, Silver broke Pia’s arm and locked her in the basement. He pissed on her and dragged her down the drive by her hair. There was even a rumor he had made her take out her dentures and suck his cock. He fancied himself some sort of shaman and she believed he spoke ancient truths. No matter what he did, he had her convinced he deserved a second chance. He had her under his spell. He loved him. Sandra didn’t and neither did her husband. This time Silver upset her a lot, but even though she was able to get a restraining order, it was not easy to kick him off the property. Not without Pia’s consent. Of course, there was nothing anybody else could do. Josh heard the stories and seethed.

Killing was not Josh’s thing, don’t get me wrong. Not by a long shot. He knew nothing of such matters, but having grown up on Gunsmoke and the like, he had a strong sense of justice, understood revenge, and recognized the benefit of murder as a solution to nagging problems. He couldn’t help thinking something had to be done.

Pia had been spending money on him. An expensive tool kit and a used Chevy van. She got him paint supplies to help start a business. She even hired him to redo the inside of the house. She gave him $10,000 to get his act together. It was all gone in a week. He treated all his friends under the freeway pass to champagne. They drank themselves silly. Some stole the van, someone else took the tools. Or had he sold them? Who knows? In any case, it was all gone within days. Then he came crawling back drunk as a skunk and set the garage on fire. The whole place had to be knocked down and, in the meantime, Pia moved him into the main house.

Now he was king. Josh figured he wouldn’t be going back to the garage any time soon, and he was right. If he played it right, he might even get the house when Pia passed away. Who knew? She was growing more and more estranged from family and friends.

Silver wore a size 14 shoe and was over six foot four. He was all man and that impressed her. Josh pricked up his ears when Sandra brought him up to date. She’d heard from her mother that Silver had a perforated liver and had been warned not to drink or he would die. Pia had taken him over to Cedars-Sinai and he’d been seen by a specialist. One more drink and that’d be it. Bad news for Silver. Pia, of course, didn’t see it this way; she couldn’t have been happier because now she could play nurse.

She had locks installed on the basement and grew ever-vigilant. Pia believed she had everything under control, but her son-in-law began to make his plans. He’d stopped one night at the local liquor store over by UCLA to buy cigarettes and noticed a sign offering home delivery. He made inquiries and learned that he could have a case of vodka delivered to the house and, if he did it right, she’d never find out. Silver’d get the booze and, knowing him, hide the bottles before she got home from delivering Meals on Wheels to bedridden millionaires in Bel Air. Josh ordered the vodka, the cheapest brand, and they threw in a bag of ice. He even paid a bit extra for orange juice, figuring Silver he might like a screwdriver.

And then everything turned around. Silver’d gone too far one night and then ran off rather than have to face her. He had brought another woman into the house and there had been violence. They’d spent time watching movies in the library, no doubt fucking on the floor, and then he’d knocked her around and who knows what all ensued. They’d wrecked the place. This time Pia was mad. First, she called her daughter, then the police. Silver ran off to the park, his old stomping ground; whether he took along a bottle of vodka is impossible to say. He got himself cut that night in a fight. The police found his body the next morning under a palm tree.

He’d bled out. He died there where he lay.

The coroner kept his body for a while and then lost it. There was no funeral. Everyone forgave his antics, especially Pia. Everyone said he was a good guy, even Sandra. Many felt sorry. The thing of it is, Pia liked to feel needed. Her first lover had been in the Dutch resistance, but had turned out to be an informer. Their “cell” had been hiding Jews throughout the city, functioning as couriers and providing shelter. She spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. It was a defining experience for her, one that made the post-war years pale in comparison.

After the war, America beckoned. She arrived filled with hope for a new life in a new land. Instead, once married, Pia suffered a life among academic phonies who were always just getting back from expensive trips to Europe. They read mysteries and compared notes on the newest restaurants in Santa Monica and Venice. Silver, although no freedom fighter, reminded her—I eventually realized—of headier times, when men were men and loyalty meant something. Things got out of hand, but she wasn’t about to send anyone to jail. She was tough enough and, besides, she wasn’t about to rat on a guy she saw as a victim. Her daughter was torn, but her husband wasn’t. He wanted Silver gone.

You gotta admit, Silver taught everybody something valuable. Sometimes death is the solution. That may be why people love mysteries. They identify with the killers, not the detectives.


They sit at the desert inn, Sandra and Josh, at a window which affords a magnificent view onto Monument Valley, awaiting their luncheon orders. She sips desert mint tea sweetened by hummingbird saliva as he laps pomegranate wine, a divine concoction of pine sap sweetened by cactus rind and desert rosehips with a drizzle of wild honey, harvested not from the hive but from the beaks of mountain owl, or so the restaurant’s dazzling website declares.

They gasp as the fresh concoctions reach their lips. Now they trade glasses and each lets out a cry. They closed their eyes and considered the depth of this experience. They were dining on ingredients enjoyed by the Native Americans. They were Hopi for the day. He wanted to wear beads on his genitals and fantasized enacting ancient sexual rituals, beginning with dragging his wife by the hair through the hot sand. He wondered to himself if she’d go for a bright red dagger tattooed just north of her vagina. He’d read that there were Hopi artists in the area prepared to do just about anything for a fee, including performing human branding.

This is what we work for, he said out loud. This is what has been made possible by your dear mother’s generosity. Soon their entrees were brought to them as if they were royalty, on hand-woven platters of hardened straw, made by local artisans using techniques perfected thousands of years ago. They were even unwashed, stained with the juice of berries and the blood of squirrels. The hostess boasted that no details had been overlooked. A lack of water in the desert makes washing nearly impossible. They were invited to partake of the riches. “Enjoy.”

They dug in. What a feast of genuine Hopi cuisine.

As they ate, she couldn’t help but notice the arrival of some local children on bicycle who parked in front of the nearby 7/11, a convenience store located just across from our restaurant at the Antelope Inn. They were not Caucasian, but she supposed Native, possible residents of the nearby reservation. Their skin was brown and their hair, shiny black. She guessed they were twelve or so, maybe thirteen. She wasn’t sure. They departed the store, eating hotdogs and swilling orange soda. Sandra notices they are both overweight. Back in Claremont, they’d have been referred to the school’s nutritionist. The other kids might even have shunned them unless they’d attended the recent workshop on body positivity. The children’s pockets were probably filled with candy; she hoped it was organic.

One of the kids held a bag of BBQ chips and shared them with his little friend. Both had beautiful black hair. Sandra couldn’t read the package from that distance but figured it to be something flavored with dangerous chemicals. They ate them on the sidewalk. She could see them, but they couldn’t see her.

They had caught her eye just as their Navajo tamales arrived and were set before them. Sandra and Josh shared a basket of roasted blue tortillas accompanied by green cactus relish. He had ordered the quail and she said she wanted to try the Antelope Valley red squirrel, which she had been assured tastes like rabbit. Back at Wesleyan, she’d toyed with the idea of going vegan, but like lesbianism, it never really appealed. She’d had to defend herself on both accounts as her feminist girlfriend’s tastes had been just the opposite.

Her dish was garnished with grasshopper and some sort of steamed pine cones Teddy Roosevelt was said to have favored. Josh’s came with fried cicada larvae cooked in local peanut oil. They ordered a local wine, but insisted on one not made from European vines. This wine was taken from an assortment of native plants, including the fruits of desert cacti and local wild blueberries.

Sandra eyed the boy across the way who was now eating what she thought to be a Hostess cupcake. He gave his little friend a bite. She got some whipped cream on her nose. They laughed in the sun. It was hot.

They continued to enjoy their meal and finished up with an assortment of local cheeses made from mountain goats.

When they stepped outside, the kids on bikes had already ridden away. It was nearly dark. The sand at dusk as far as the eye can see shimmered in red or orange. Josh went to get the Jag. She felt that they had found a place where they both belonged.