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The Cheese Was Pretty Good

"Wow, Professor Hickhocky, what you were just saying about transmedial aristocracy was brilliant. Really, revolutionary. I can't wait to hear the end of your talk, whenever it's clear to come out. I'm just so thrilled to be hiding under the same desk as you. And, if I may, I also see that we have the same brand of hardhat on. You know, when I was buying my hardhat for this conference I almost got that exact one that you have there, the orange one with silver stripes on the sides, but in the end I opted for the yellow one. In any case, it's a real honor to be huddled here with you."

Sheetrock, hard and powder white, fell on a nearby desk, and Warner Hodges, political science student, fell silent. That was the end of his encomium of Professor Hickhocky, the man who had shaped his views on the world, the man who was by far his greatest idol. Warner ducked his yellow-hatted head deep between his shoulders. He squeaked and grunted through the storm, mostly from excitement (and just a little bit from fear), and poked his head out every few seconds to check on his shelter mate. The professor's head, orange with silver stripes, was also tucked into his body, palms glued to the back of his neck. As soon as the sky stopped falling Warner turned back to his idol.

"When I was a senior in high school I wrote a paper based on your theory of transmogrified monarchy," he beamed. "It won a prize, and I got to go to D.C. and have a meeting of the minds with some of the greatest minds of political theory. So, anyway, thanks for the inspiration!"

They waited another minute, just to be sure it was safe, and then Warner Hodges, Professor Hickhocky, and the thirty other conference participants crawled out from under their hiding spots and straightened their legs. Professor Hickhocky shuffled once again to the podium and turned back to his thoughts on transmedial aristocracy. His hardhat, orange with silver stripes, stayed on his head the whole time.

Crumbling systems, a conference on political collapse was housed in a crumbling building in Detroit. The organizers, Max Fein and Milton Hardy, had squeezed departments here and there for cash, and had paid big bucks to invite big professors to speak. They had trekked to Detroit, and spent a week there trying find the most dangerous, most dilapidated, most disintegrating space. Like a couple in search of the perfect wedding venue, they frowned and sighed and bickered about lighting. Then, one morning, in an abandoned warehouse, they fell in love. Deliciously dusty windows, rotted floorboards, plumes of asbestos. Sheetrock fell like flakes of Parmesan, and electrical wires sizzled in blues and purples. A cat-sized rat poked its head out of a hole in the floor and gnawed at some wood. Vibrant, all of it, sublime. Crumbling systems would be here. It had to be here.

Next came the announcement. Max and Milton worked for hours and hours in the warehouse, lapping at slices of pizza and wiping pizza grease on their pants and sometimes on the brick walls. They didn't leave or call home or sleep until it was done. "That sentence isn't direct enough!" Milton would yell. "I think we need to rework this part!" Max would shake his head and shed some asbestos. When it was finished they did a victory dance around a bonfire they had lit from empty pizza boxes, and the cat-rat danced with them. They huddled all together, and Milton read from the page, moving eyes from vowel to teeth marks to frayed edge.

"Now comes a new kind of conference, one that pushes the boundaries of scholarship. Crumbling systems, a conference on political collapse is dedicated to the politics of decay, death, failure. It will take place in a crumbling warehouse in Detroit, where at this very moment the ceiling is falling on us, the organizers, Max Fein and Milton Hardy. Plenary speakers will include Professors Hickhocky, Mitzughi, Barnofsky, and more. The conference will place participants in direct danger! We will immerse ourselves in collapse as we contemplate collapse! The conference will conclude with a reception of hazardous food and drink — well-shaken bottles of champagne and week-old beef Carpaccio!"

They had added an asterisk at the end: "Hardhats are required, and must be worn throughout the duration of the conference. Visit for hardhat options."

The day before the conference, Milton and Max set up the warehouse, positioning desks to sit at and duck under, stocking up on emergency lighting and first aid kits, plumping up the cat-rat and tempting his cat-rat friends with cubes of Swiss cheese scattered in warehouse corners. At 2 p.m. a rotted beam fell from the ceiling and landed on Milton, who had brazenly decided to go hard-hat-less. The beam was so soft it sounded almost like a pillow hitting Milton's head, the gentle whoosh of rest and dreams to come. And rest and dreams surely did come for Milton: the beam put him into a coma, and he would spend the rest of the month at a local hospital.

"It is with great sadness," Max wrote to the conference participants, "that I must report that Milton Hardy, having been struck by a rotted beam in our beloved warehouse, is in a coma. He will not attend the conference. BUT let his coma be a testament to our project! Let no man doubt the dangers of our crumbling meeting of the minds!"

The conference attendees poured in the next day at 9 a.m. — eager-eyed students, some plump, some frail; wary professors armed with bowties and the sturdiest of hardhats; political researchers on their phones, tweeting, grunting. Professor Hickhocky shuffled into the warehouse, found his welcome folder, and wove his way between tables, chairs, sneezing students. He settled into a seat on the edge of some sharp shadow.

Professor Mizughi, chinstrap hugging stubble-free chin, found Max in the alleyway outside, next to a chunk of brick with the word TOILET written in chalk, and arrows pointing left, right, up, and down.

"You're Max, right?" he asked.

Max fumbled words and zipper. "Oh yes, Professor Mizughi, what a pleasure. Truly, an honor to have you here. If you just give me a minute I'll be right with you."

But Professor Mizughi couldn't wait.

"I must tell you that I will no longer be speaking on modalities of Balkan upheaval," he said.

Max flared his nostrils.

"Instead," Professor Mizughi declared, "I will be speaking about the politicization of cucumber gardens."

"Cucumber gardens?" asked Max.

"Yes," Professor Mizughi responded, flicking each syllable with a pointed index finger, "Cu-cum-ber gar-dens!"

He turned on one heel and marched back into the warehouse. Max sprinted after him and clawed at some programs at the entrance, scribbling CUCUMBER GARDENS in red in as many programs as he could get his hands on.

Warner Hodges arrived in a taxi, along with two other students of political science. They handed a stack of bills to the driver and hopped to attention, one by one, in front of the warehouse. One took pictures of the location and posted them on Instagram, another fiddled with his hardhat. Warner stood in front of the building like a pilgrim at the holiest of sites, tears in his eyes. He had waited months for this moment, had prepared himself with emergency gear and a professorial tweed suit to house his curvy nineteen-year-old body. He had read all there was to read on political collapse in the States, in Russia, in South America, and had memorized entire essays by Professors Hickhocky, Mizughi, and Barnofsky.

"In considering the broad resonances of Albania's teetering between Fascism, Communism, and Socialism," Warner whispered a line from Mizughi's essay "Albanian mobilization: Three key points" through his pilgrim lips, "we must never forget its geographical location, nor its topography, nor its role as an industrial object." After the words industrial object Warner made a faint sign of a cross over his tweed body and curvy, hard-hatted head.

After pinning his nametag to his jacket, Warner strolled from danger to danger in the warehouse. His eyes twinkled at the exposed electrical wire by the podium, the slabs of sheetrock shifting like tectonic plates above, the cheese treats steaming in dark corners. Once he had made his rounds he sat down and opened his folder and pretended to read the program. He even managed to sit still for a while, to calm his shaking heel. But then Professor Barnofsky arrived, blessed be Barnofsky, along with his wife, and Warner gasped and giggled and brought a pilgrim hand to his open mouth. His heel shook and shook. The wood under him creaked.

Years ago Lydia and Saul Barnofsky were both professors at Stanford, but after a vicious and very public battle over their careers, Lydia gave up her job and followed her husband to Harvard. She still came to conferences, though, silent by her husband's side. She had knitted a bright yellow poncho, just a shade more mustard than her hardhat, for Crumbling systems. She tugged at an uneven border as she watched Max stumble toward the podium.

"It is my greatest pleasure," Max breathed into the microphone, "to invite you all here for the first day of Crumbling systems, a conference on political collapse. We have a thrilling lineup of speakers today and tomorrow, as you can see. Before we begin I would like to make two announcements. First, an update on my colleague, Milton Hardy: As you all know, Milton was struck yesterday by a falling beam. In fact you can all see it for yourselves, over there, at the far end of the warehouse."

Max pointed to the beam, soft and unassuming in the corner. The audience whispered, gasped, grinned.

"Milton is unfortunately still in a coma. Doctors report that there is swelling in his brain, and it will take some time before they will understand the full extent of the damage. This leads me to my second announcement: Please keep your hardhats on at all times. Things fall regularly from the ceiling."

He paused to see if something would fall from the ceiling on cue, but when nothing happened he moved on.

"And especially in times of political collapse we must protect our brains!"

Milton had wanted so badly to bark well, to punch his consonants like a Hitler or Mussolini, but nerves got the best of him and made mush of his words. The hardhat only made things worse, dulling any urgency or solemnity his speech might have had otherwise. Nobody clapped, or cheered, or quivered.

"So it is my great pleasure," he continued, "to introduce the first speaker of the day. Saul Barnofsky is a professor at Harvard University, and has published extensively on American economic decline. More recently he has worked on the housing crisis in Detroit. We could think of no better way to begin our Detroit-based Crumbling systems, a conference on political collapse. Please join me in welcoming Professor Barnofsky."

Clapping hands shook dust from the windows, the sheet rock, the rotting wood above and below.

Saul Barnofsky smiled on his way to the podium.

"I would like to thank the organizers of this very unique conference," he said, half into the microphone, half somewhere else. "This is a truly unique take on the theme of political collapse, and I have certainly never given a talk in a hardhat!"

Everyone laughed or at least smiled — everyone except Lydia, who tugged at her poncho.

Professor Barnofsky read his paper. Words dodged the microphone and slipped into the shadows. A few wiggled into his hardhat. "Detroit has been…and since the crisis…many surveys reflected…"

The audience fidgeted, daydreamed.

"Hey look at that window over there," one student whispered to another, "that looks pretty unstable." And a professor to another professor, "Put your foot on this spot on the floor. Feel how it's kind of soft? This happened in my house a few years back, and it was only a matter of time before it buckled. Wanna try it out?"

But nothing fell, nothing shifted, nothing zapped or burned or attacked. What a disappointment — the perfect venue, the crumbling warehouse of Max and Milton's dreams, seemed uncollapsable.

Professor Barnofsky trudged to the end of his paper and, while some clapped, he returned to his seat. Then, in a moment of silence, while Max was moving to introduce the next speaker, Saul Barnofsky accidentally saved the day. It was with soggy cracks and crunches that the floor gave out beneath his chair and only beneath his chair. It took Lydia a few seconds to realize that her husband and her husband's chair had been swallowed up by the earth. She poked her head over the dark hole as others shrieked and clapped and tapped their feet in search of other soft spots in the wood. Max ran over with a flashlight and shone it into the cavity. Light grazed the upturned face of Saul Barnofsky, all smiles. His chair had landed upright, ten feet down, and, somehow, he had stayed seated in it.

"Not to worry, all, I'm absolutely fine!" he hollered toward the flashlight. "Professor Barnofsky, I'm so sorry!" yelled Max. Distressed eyebrows, delighted mouth.

"Don't try to move. We don't know what the conditions are like down there. I'll call an ambulance and they'll pull you out to safety."

"Not a problem," grinned Professor Barnofsky, "I'll just attend the conference from below! Could someone toss me my notepad and pen?"

Lydia, still silent, picked up Saul's yellow legal pad and ballpoint pen and dropped one then the other down the hole. She removed a flashlight from her keychain and tossed it down as well.

Max charged back toward the podium.

"Here we have a perfect example," he beamed into the microphone, "of how to deal with collapse. You land solidly on new ground, take out your notepad and pen, and adapt to your surroundings!" Students snorted. A Barnofsky laugh rumbled through the ribs of the warehouse.

A panel of students presented next, chattering teeth and fogged glasses: first a paper on Cambodia and Machiavelli's The Prince, then one on Venezuela and Marx, and finally on Ethiopia and Plato. A political researcher yawned through Machiavelli quotes and then got up to go for a walk around the warehouse. Everyone followed the sound of her stilettos.

"No way is she going to be able to walk around in those things," her colleagues whispered, "this floor is clearly ready to swallow up just about anything. I can't think of a more impractical choice in footwear."

But she clicked and clocked from wall to wall, and her heels pressed semi-circles into the wood but didn't puncture it. In a corner she came across a stray cat chasing a cat-rat, and she squatted with her phone to take a picture. The flash startled both cat and cat-rat, and in their shock they both lunged at her, cat at her left leg and cat-rat at her right. One scratched, the other gnawed, and she screamed and ran back toward her seat, dodging the cavern of Professor Barnofsky and the Barnofsky goblin down below. Max handed her some Band-Aids and Neosporin, and the conference went on.

It was during Professor Hickhocky's talk that the sheetrock started falling from the sky, and it kept falling in episodes throughout the rest of the day, a chalky refrain between verses on Palestinian rocks, Russian nukes, North Korean submarines. The first tectonic crash happened during Professor Hickhocky's transmedial aristocracy talk. He gathered the sheets of his paper from the podium and hurtled himself under a desk, next to Warner Hodges and his yellow hardhat. Professor Barnofsky did his best to shield himself in his hole, head curled into his chest and flashlight off. The first sheetrock episode left one student with a broken wrist, a professor with a bloody nose, and cat-rat with a severed head. When it was over everyone cheered — everyone except Professor Hickhocky, who gathered the shuffled mess of his talk and hoisted himself back up to the podium. By the third sheet-rock shower the conference participants were taking cover calmly, routinely, and even the Barnofsky goblin in his Barnofsky hole seemed unfazed.

In the evening, once almost everyone had gone home, an emergency response team arrived and hoisted Barnofsky, chair and all, out of his cave. He was still smiling. Lydia and her poncho were waiting outside in the alleyway.

The next day began with Professor Mizughi's talk, no longer on modalities of Balkan upheaval, but, instead, on the politicization of cucumber gardens.

"Gardens!" he began with his lightning-rod index finger.

"Gardens. Places of production, growth, work. Places of reproduction, overgrowth, overwork. Whether we're discussing the Garden of Eden or my very own backyard, gardens are charged spaces."

He coughed twice, took a sip of water.

"And cucumbers are some of the most resilient, the most aggressive, the most critical plants in existence. I will not call them vegetables, because, as many of you well know, they are, in fact, FRUITS!"

He spat FRUITS at the audience and flayed his eyes wide.

"Cucumbers — those vibrant, hydrant fruits — serve many purposes. But when is it that cucumber gardens — and the cucumbers themselves — become tainted? Manipulated? Abused? Politicized?"

Warner Hodges, deeply disappointed that Professor Mizughi had launched into a cucumber meditation instead of one of his classic topics, was hunched over, charring the corner of his program in one of the sparking wires on the floor. It wasn't long before the whole page had caught fire. Warner flung the flaming program at the podium, and while Max was running to grab the fire extinguisher the podium erupted in flames, along with Professor Mizughi's cucumber paper. Max arrived, sprayed and sprayed at the podium (and, accidentally, at Professor Mizughi's face), and, after a couple of minutes, managed to put out the fire. Professor Mizughi, deprived of his paper, nodded once, shook off some flame-retardant foam, adjusted his chinstrap, and sat down in the audience.

The rest of the day was uneventful. More sheetrock showers at predictable intervals, another little fire during a student's presentation, a minor incident with some broken glass on someone's seat.

In the evening, at the end of the conference, two caterers in welding helmets brought bottles of well-shaken champagne and a few plates of week-old beef Carpaccio, as promised. The cork from a champagne bottle hit the Barnofksy ogre in the eye, but he was a good sport about it. Professor Mizughi was the only one to get sick from the beef Carpaccio, and, in that moment, declared that he would dedicate himself fully to the study and consumption of cucumbers and cucumbers only. Professor Hickhocky accidentally ate a nugget of cat-rat-treat-cheese, thinking it was part of the reception, but he actually quite enjoyed it.

Students and professors and political researchers drifted out of the warehouse in clumps. Hardhats were stacked in the alley next to the TOILET sign. Warner Hodges started saying a little prayer as he walked away but then stopped himself because he really just didn't feel up to it.