Reprinted from the Chicago Quarterly Review, winter 2007. It’s a modified excerpt from The Ugly.
Muzhduk walked to the centre of the Quad. Everything was stately, romanesque, the buildings buttressed, cloistered, but varied: three hundred years of red brick architecture around one long rectangle of green grass criss-crossed with narrow, straight asphalt paths, spotted with American Elms someone had sat and calculated the optimal location of each tree, though many were now suffering the yellow wilt of Dutch Elm fungus — and the whole Yard felt carefully spaced and defined, even the sky above marked and divided by branches.
He walked north, past dormitories, libraries, halls, and chapels, past a statue of a man sitting in a large chair (the statue said, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638”), past an old wooden water-pump shaped like the hunched Russian babushkas he’d seen in Anadyr, Yakutsk, and Omyaykon.
One of those babushkas had saved his life in Omyaykon. When he was twelve, he’d gone there to help his uncle steal a baby to pay a life-debt after his uncle killed a man from a different family in an argument over reindeer. His uncle had seen a pretty blonde whom he decided to steal instead, and the pretty blonde turned out to be a KGB colonel travelling with a full company of Internal Ministry soldiers. Soldiers were rare in Omyaykon, but they’d come to stop a small war caused by the chief of Tomtor stealing Oymyakon’s “Pole of Cold,” a monument that marked it as the coldest town in the world. His uncle had forced him to hide in the babushka’s bunker-like tobacco stand, forced him to promise he’d stay hidden, then fought the soldiers outside a Chinese restaurant. His uncle died in that fight while Muzhduk kept his dishonourable promise.
Sweating in the Boston heat, Muzhduk pumped and drank some water. A passing student in a pinstripe shirt told him, with a perfectly modulated enunciation, that the water was not for drinking.
“I’ll be admitted soon,” Muzhduk told the student.
“Congratulations,” the student said over his shoulder without pausing.
Muzhduk stared after him, unsure whether it was sarcastic. Then he pumped the pump again, took a final mouthful, shook his beard out, and left the Quad by another iron gate on the north end.
He continued past a boxy wall which he decided must be the Science Centre, because it had a five-foot magnifying glass sticking out of it at eye-level, to a huge grey slab of a building, a granite version of the arctic ice-islands that could crush anything that floated. Four-stories tall, rectangular and long as a football field, it had been blocked from his view by buildings that were smaller but closer. He walked up to the towering granite, looked at it for a full minute, then knocked on the hard wall.
“I insist,” he said and grinned.
He could make out faint shadows in the wall, etched veins of darker gray. Ivy had grown here once. It had been ripped down; someone had scrubbed the walls diligently, but centuries of sunlight had bleached the rock and so the ivy trace remained, like the silhouettes left on the walls of Nagasaki. Muzhduk traced the pattern with his fingers, losing perspective of the wall’s height and breadth until he came to a single mushroom growing where granite turned to granolith. The ivy had been strong in this spot and had left behind a bit of ground for the mushroom to hang on to. The mushroom had taken on the colour and spotting of the wall to make itself almost invisible. The wall had no cracks, unlike every modern building he’d ever seen in Siberia; no light, sound or smell came through. It had no individual stones, just the spidery shadow of long-gone flora. This was Langdell Law Library, and it was too big to see all at once, from this close. Its bigness was better seen from further away.
Satisfied, Muzhduk rounded the corner to the Law School proper: more hectic, more organised and serious than Harvard Yard. A thousand people holding books under their arms crossed everywhere, their feet touching the ground in the same cadence. There were no greeting or yells of “hello.”
Campus maps told him that the Registrar’s office was in the basement of the Grizzwald building (a good omen, his coat was a grizzly), over a path that curved into the ground. Landscapers were improving it, adding extra frills and ripples to the granite that bordered the path as it sunk towards the black steel door of the Registrar’s office. A gentle-looking old lady and her man partner sat at a collapsible metal table in front of the door. Somebody’s grandma and grandpa.
Muzhduk said, “Hello.”
“I’m a new student. I want to register.”
“Please wait a moment,” said grandpa as he shuffled papers into a neat stack, licked his wide, flat thumb, and used it to move a bead on an abacus. Then he pointed at a small stool on which Muzhduk could sit. Grandpa’s hands were enormous, out of proportion with his old crumpled body, and his fingers never ceased moving. Grandma was the same. Their eyes stayed nearly motionless, sitting heavy in their sockets with a wet gravity of too many decades.
Muzhduk wondered how long they had been here, doing their duty. He sat, but the old couple made him nervous. After ten minutes he stood again, and asked, “Can I go in?”
“Then, how can I see the Registrar?”
“You can wait please.”
He sat back down and waited. A half-hour passed.
Lazy grey turtle heads.
But Muzhduk was in a good mood. “You said to wait a moment, right?”
“Well, yes, we did.”
“A moment has passed. I successfully waited it out.”
“It is a figure of expression,” sloughed the old man. The old woman looked at him and his spine curved further, as though only his little belly held up his chest. “Very well,” the man said, resigned, then smacked his slow dry mouth several times without making a sound. “It cannot be denied that a moment has indeed passed. What can we do for you?”
“I’m looking for–”
“What is your name?”
They looked at the list on their table.
“Wait,” Muzhduk interrupted. “I was just testing. It’s from a book I read about America. By Franz—.
“When we have time to read,” the old woman said, taking time for each word but still faster than the old man, “we use it to read the lists. As many times as we have read the lists, they can never be read often enough. We recommend that you do the same.”
He’d talked to bureaucrats before, there were stacks of them all over Siberia’s small towns, but these two were different. They had an almost philosophical quality that had reminded him of the books he’d read by Kafka. Maybe Harvard gave them special training.
“My name is Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth.”
“Is that under U?” She looked up at him. Her eyes seemed unfo-cused. “As in Unattractive?”
“Yes. But ends in an ‘i’.”
They looked at their list, carefully, and whispered back and forth. They nodded and shook their heads. Finally, the old woman said, “You’re not here.”
The old man moved the abacus bead back.
Muzhduk patted his significant belly. He hadn’t eaten, and it made a hollow sound. “Yes, I am.”
They didn’t respond in any way.
“I have my letter.” Muzhduk pulled it out of his goat sack, to show. “I had a perfect score.”
“We don’t examine outside documents.”
“It’s from you. From the admissions committee. The Registrar.”
“Outside the list.”
“Then how do you know whether I’m supposed to be here or not?”
She looked up at him like he was stupid. “We look at the list.”
“But the list is wrong. See I’ve been accepted.” Muzhduk waved his paper.
The man pointed to his abacus. “Please return when you’re on the list.”
Muzhduk sat back on the stool.
Lazy grey turtle heads.
He stood up again. Battle and words and logic games. “What’s this list for?”
“It’s the long Longlist,” answered the old woman, and reached into her purse. She took out a tomato pop-a-can soup and the old man pulled out two spoons from somewhere and they weren’t interested in Muzhduk anymore.
When they finished their soup, the old lady sucked on her spoon. “The long Longlist,” she repeated, her voice mumbling on the spoon. “And if you’re not on this list, then you can’t see the Registrar. We are, after all, only the first list, the long Longlist.” She pulled the spoon out and held it two inches in front of her mouth, then sighed as if gathering strength. Then she inhaled around the spoon. “Inside the building there are other tables, with other lists, each shorter than the one before it. But of course we do not know this for sure, at least not in our official capacity, because we may not enter. We are not on even the medium Longlist, let alone any of the Shortlists, if that is, in fact, what the final lists are named. We cannot know for certain. Though, of course, we do meet unofficially with the inner list proctors, but the further in you go, the more advanced and less accessible the proctors are. By the time you get to the third table, for instance, the proctors are in such advanced stages that even we cannot make head nor tail of what they say. That is why we do not even know the names of their lists. It is not clear whether we know, whether we ever knew, and even if we did, whether we forgot or actually remember. No one knows this, for that matter.” She paused, out of breath, and gestured weakly to the stool.
The old doorkeepers weren’t regular petty bureaucrats, but they also didn’t have any black Tartar beards. Tartarus, the infernal abyss below Hell where Zeus hurled the rebel Titans. Related to the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, from whence the original Uglies had come, before the Great March East. Ugli the First had defeated the Tartar hordes, and before him, eight generations of Valibuk the Oak-Fellers had, at the very least, felled some oaks, and Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth was not about to prove himself less stubborn: even if these two were the Hinges of Hell themselves.
They cleaned their spoons with wet disposable serviettes from a box labelled “Wipies.” When they put everything away, Muzhduk said: “Look, I don’t want to stay on this stool like a little moon staring at manure while the world passes me by. I’ve read about this sort of thing.”
He stomped the ground and tilted past their caring remonstrations, through the door, under a sloping ceiling, into an echoing hallway that was really just a narrow corridor of metal doors arranged jamb to jamb on either side. He saw no one. At the end of the hallway, another door. This one had an iron doorknob shaped like a bearded dwarf’s head; each strand of the beard was a tiny snake.
Muzhduk turned the head and pushed. The lightweight door banged into an inner wall.
He looked up at an instantly smiling man behind a large desk, in a sparse office. The man wore a short-sleeved dress shirt, and the flab of his arms made a slight, moist sound as he lifted them from his metal desk to shake Muzhduk’s hand. They left two sweat stains on the desk, shaped like massive turkey drumsticks.
“Good morning, young sir,” the man said, his droopy eyes settling on the testicles dangling from Muzhduk’s goatskin backpack. His own skin was covered in what looked to be white flakes of snow, though snow was impossible in the stale heat of the room. “What could we do for you?”
“I’d like an Admission Package, please.”
“Excellent! Please send us a letter requesting an Application for Admission Package, care of the Registrar’s Office, with your return address. Follow the instructions on the Application and send the Application to us. If you are admitted?”
“I did all that. I was admitted. But no Package.”
“Quite unlikely.” Three chins jiggled. “What is your name?”
“Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth.”
“Oh. Yes, the perfect LSAT score. You were guaranteed admission, but failed to send in a transcript. Too late, you lost your spot. Quite a shame, really. So few perfect scores, these days. Two this year. Everywhere, imperfections abound. Like giant rabbits. Quite a shame. Next year, please try again. Have a nice day.”
“My undergraduate school was studying rocks. At Mount Verkhoyansk Penal Colony University.”
“Yes, boulders. Geology. And metallurgy. My test was on how hard you needed to throw a rock of a given size to make it go through a given thickness of metal. It depends on density.”
“Very interesting. But we need paperwork.”
“’Why?’ Well, I can’t just take your word for it, now can I?”
Muzhduk turned around, marched out of the room, through the doorway and corridor and listkeepers, to the landscaping crew. He picked up a hunk of granite and pushed past the renewed explanations of the old woman that he couldn’t enter if he wasn’t on the list, that he really should sit on the stool, for we are all infinite beings for whom eternity is not too long to wait, and if not for that lofty reason then for his own comfort and safety.
“Good morning again, young sir,” the Registrar said, smiling again when Muzhduk returned. “What can we do for you now?”
“We can give me a test. Your table is made of aluminium alloy.”
The Registrar nodded encouragingly.
“The first question is what happens to an aluminium alloy table when smashed with–”
“Now wait just a minute!” the Registrar interrupted, half rising from his seat. His eyes were now open wide. “As you were told, your admission is guaranteed by your LSAT score. We do not need to know how well you did in your undergraduate studies. We simply need your grades for the file. We can’t admit you with an incomplete file. So long as a proper undergraduate institution sends a copy of your grades, you are automatically admitted without regard to your level of knowledge in any field whatsoever. We quite prefer students who have not been corrupted by unnecessary knowledge. Our ideal student, in fact, is one who knows nothing, has had no experience of any sort, but has a fully developed Logic Games faculty. So proving what you know about rocks and metals isn’t going to help you.”
But Muzhduk didn’t have a proper undergraduate institution. He was a man from the mountains looking for admittance to the Law. He stood in front of the Registrar, slightly to the side, and held the granite on one shoulder. As he weighed different approaches to his problem, the rock grew heavier and he considered putting it down on the floor. But it might scratch the tiled floor, and if he wasn’t going to smash the table, then he didn’t want to scratch the floor either. “Well,” he finally said, “logic always comes to the same answer, regardless of who uses it. So students with perfect logic but zero experience are fungible.”
“Fungible?” the Registrar repeated the word like it was perfume, a juicy plum, then shook his chins sadly. “But then why do I enjoy meeting all the new students so much? Though I don’t meet so many these days. They are too busy, or perhaps I am the one who is too busy. Or perhaps none of us are really all that busy, and it’s all just a matter of logistics.” The Registrar’s voice softened as he turned introspective. He loved people, their attributes, he loved to see how they measured up. Seventeen years ago he had quit his job as Director of Test Design for the Department of City-Wide Administrative Services in New York, and he had done so not because of the prestige of being the Harvard Registrar, nor for the salary, and certainly not because he wanted to move to Boston. He’d changed jobs because the candidates here came closer to perfection than those taking the civil service exams he’d once designed. Here he occasionally met a perfect score, perfectly distilled logic embodied within a human being. And here, standing in front of him, was one of those students. In his seventeen years as Registrar, not once had he looked back with regret at leaving DCAS, not until this year. This year there were two students with perfect scores, and by an act of horrid fate, both would be denied. It just wasn’t fair.
“You know,” he continued, “there was one other admitted student who did not properly fulfill all formalities, though the person did progress far enough to have an Admission Package issued. Also with a perfect score. You cannot imagine how frustrating all this is to me.”
“Because he’s not coming?”
“We don’t know. Probably not.”
“So there’s an extra spot.”
“Perhaps, but that’s irrelevant. Different names, different files.”
“Change his name.”
His eyes opened wide, almost in awe. “We cannot very well go and do something like that.”
“That’s right. I’ve heard that Harvard is not permitted.”
“Of course we are. When it comes to names, we can do anything. But the file is the file.” The Registrar opened a filing cabinet and pulled out two manila envelopes. On the first page of each, in Second Coming font, was written: “LSAT 180.” He pointed to the two files with both outstretched doughy hands and said, “See.”
“All I see is a solution.” Though everyone could read and write in Muzhduk’s village, they avoided written records because human memory is faulty. As the Registrar watched, Muzhduk rested the granite awkwardly on a bent knee under his armpit, picked up the papers within each file and placed them into the wrong folder. “You guarantee admission to a perfect score, which means that if the score is perfect, the relevance of experience is zero. And identity is only the sum of our experience. So two students with perfect scores are interchangeable.”
The Registrar was unsure. There were safeguards to prevent exactly this sort of vulnerability. The work was divided, parcelled and subdivided, and the Registrar’s job was to watch the movement of files from one door to the next. Only occasionally did he intervene to prevent an admissions proctor from accumulating too large a stack of files, which would elicit jealousy and grumbles from all the other proctors. When this happened, his job was to lengthen the short stacks, shorten the long stacks, and smooth the ruffled feathers of any proctor who thought a file belonged to him only to have it pulled away. The Registrar never opened these files, because they caused exhaustion and loss of faith among Registrars.
But perfect scores were rare. Like desserts. Often there were none.
If the score was imperfect, the Committee worked hard to avoid the sorts of applicants who sought only material wealth. And they didn’t really want the type who believed in a meaningful life but thought it could be found in social prestige, deals and money. The Committee looked for those applicants who believed in meaning, felt it to be important, true and absolutely necessary, but who could be convinced that there was no hurry. These last ones started off defiant, noisy, and the noise could be channelled by the Professors into music, and that music into an orchestra of law students who pulled everyone in the room with them. And these formerly defiant ones tended to make large capital donations at their fifty-year reunions, at the end, as a way of rankling that lost element. They were imperfect, their scores were not 180, and the Professors loved them. But they could cast an imprudent Registrar into a despair that made him less capable in his position.
The entire admissions mechanism was created to protect the Registrar from these sorts of students. The more admissible, short of a perfect score, the more dangerous. He was a decent person. And to ensure that incentives were aligned with results, their files never reached the Registrar, he had no discretion over their applications. Only the perfect scores made their way to him, and these were guaranteed admission. The organisation was foolproof.
Applicants studied the system, companies taught courses on how to crack it, writers wrote books with online supplements, but the Registrar was familiar with all of them. One authority suggested that the only weakness in the system, if it was a weakness, was for the applicant to surprise the Registrar, to push his way in during lunch or at some other vulnerable moment and make a personal connection, but even that could never work. Once an applicant sends in his application, he can no longer come unannounced, at best he can come at the wrong time; but then he is told to come at the right time, and when he does, he is asked to wait. And if he has not sent in an application — a course of action suggested by less conventional authorities — he is given one and asked to apply, which he inevitably does. Every year there is an applicant or two who ruins his chances by finding a new way to interfere with the Registrar’s sphere of competence. Such an applicant ruins his chances even if the Registrar feels sympathetic to his cause, maybe because the applicant exhibits exactly the type of pushiness that the Registrar feels would make him a nearly ideal candidate. And so there truly are no gaps in the system, the file is the file and the only opportunities, really, for the Registrar to do his job are those where an applicant’s file is not his own, and such a situation is possible only in those rarest of cases where the LSAT score is perfect and the proctors are bypassed, since no safety concerns about the Registrar’s continued health are necessary.
This morning he’d climbed out of bed with a scratchy cough, and even his deep knee bends, chain breakers and arm circles didn’t dispel his depression at the prospect of losing two perfect scores — and now he found himself with a decision. In seventeen years on the job, this was his first such opportunity. Truly, he thought, life is not a jigsaw puzzle.
“It would be such a waste,” the Registrar said, staring at the two open files. “And so rare.”
“Fungible. A student with a perfect score is fungible.”
“Very well,” the Registrar sighed. “We shall change her name to Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth. Well and since you are Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth already, here is your Admission’s Package. I imagine she’ll wonder when the State of Tennessee sends her the change-of-name confirmation.” Then the Registrar looked up at Muzhduk and added, “But we absolutely cannot change her gender.”
Muzhduk nodded, took the Package with his free hand and left the door open on his way out.