Guest post by Peter Atkinson
My friend, Kristen Liffrig, once said to me, “My education seems to have given me cocktail conversation, but not much else.” Her words humorously struck upon a common experience: the apparent irrelevance of our education to our lives. Why then are we still studying today if we do not know our purpose? Father Luigi Giussani once wrote that if we were to run around hurriedly without knowing where we were going, we would rightly be considered mad. It seems that our current education leaves us mad—both at our incurred debt and in our spirit.
For this reason, among others, we started the creative journal Contraries at Ave Maria University: to discover the purpose of our education and to start a conversation about our culture, life, and faith. In proposing to ourselves and our peers the work of creative art, we are attempting to formulate a vision of life, “bringing form to, and out of, the tumult of our experience,” as one of my professors said. Our experience, of which our education is a part, needs to make sense. Contraries is one pathway by which we are attempting to meet this need by fashioning and sharing our undergraduate experience in creative form.
Below, please find one of our pieces, recently published in Contraries. Also, please visit ContrariesMag.com to read more.
First published in Contraries, at Ave Maria University.
As expected, the sun rose punctually over the respectable roofs of Olympus City. In Bowen’s Eatery, the two girls who constituted the entire staff just as punctually entered and tied tidy white aprons over their bright print dresses. Selma went to the kitchen and began to make coffee, while Jean wiped the counter and pulled back the curtains. Looking outside, Jean noticed that the gas station across the road had changed the display in the small window where they flaunted their merchandise. Now those who walked by were tempted by jelly beans and Photoplay instead of peppermints and Modern Screen.
Selma called to her friend from the kitchen.
“Jeannie, where’s the rag we used for the dishes yesterday?”
“Under the sink. It was too dirty to be used again. Better get a new one.”
“All right.” There was a brief silence as she disappeared again and Jean dusted the soda fountain. The handle on the front door turned, but the door was locked. Whoever who was trying to enter knocked three times, rather sharply. Selma abruptly came out of the kitchen and the two girls looked at each other with surprise.
“Gee, an early bird. And I was hoping we could have a few minutes to just have a cup of coffee before the usual stampede. Don’t bother—I’ll get it.”
Selma strode to the door, unlocked it, and opened it with a flourish. A tall man in a dark coat and hat accepted her apologies and sat down at the counter, ordering coffee before the girls could properly prepare the shop or themselves for the arrival of a stranger, and one so particularly worthy of notice. As she went back to the kitchen, Selma silently arched her eyebrows at Jean.
“Must be someone’s lucky day,” she whispered.
Jean smiled and turned back to the customer. With a great effort, she composedly served him, and decided to give the shining counters another good scrub, so as to give herself a definite occupation. She had no sooner begun this than Selma came back in, adjusting her hat with as much girlish charm as she could rustle up at a moment’s notice.
“Oh, Jean, I’ll just run out and get some gum before we get really busy.” She glanced at the stranger with apparent absence of mind, and left through the kitchen door, only to return with a last question.
“Jean, will you take the money down to the bank when I get back or shall I do it now?”
“Oh, I can do it later.” Why couldn’t Selma shut up and leave?
The kitchen door hadn’t even finished swinging when they both heard the back door slam. There was a moment’s silence, and then Jean looked up through her eyelashes at the man—he was looking at her too, one hand on his coffee cup. She smiled nervously. Quite suddenly, he got up and walked over to where she stood wiping the counter next to the cash register.
“Alone at last. What luck,” he said. And then she observed the way his slender fingers looked, clasped around the handle of a revolver. Looking up in amazement, she encountered an engaging smile and ironic eyes. With his other hand, he indicated the cash register.
“Come on, honey, hand it over—don’t scream. You don’t want the cops coming here, do you?” He smiled and reached for the open drawer of the register. “Thanks. Take a guess — how much is in there, do you think? Fifty dollars? Forty?”
With smooth assurance, he picked up the little pile of crumpled green bills and flipped through them with one hand. “Not a heck of a lot. Still, it’s something. Probably more than you make a week.” He glanced up at her. “Never been held up before, have you?” They looked at each other for a moment in silence. “Well, have you?” he asked again. She shook her head and answered quietly.
“No. No, we’ve never been… It’s a small place, you know, not an awful lot of people come through here.” The clock ticked with lazy insistence as a fly buzzed over the sticky doughnuts which reposed majestically on a dusty plate further down the counter. A car door slammed outside and the early sunshine danced with bright abandon over the chipped counter and on the curtains faded by years of neglect. All at once she leaned forward.
“What are you going to do with it?”
Again a smile answered her. “Blow it on something I don’t need. What else?”
To her horror, yet not to her surprise, she smiled back at him. Just then Selma walked past the side window on her way to the back door, complacently humming to herself as she casually adjusted her hair. Both of them saw her. He was the first to move. Shoving both gun and money into his pocket, he backed towards the front door, and paused with his hand on the handle. “Good-bye, lady. Here, have a song on me. If I wasn’t in such a hurry, we’d dance it together.” He tossed a coin onto the counter, touched his hat, grinned, and was gone.
The door from the kitchen swung open and Selma came into view, frowning furiously as she attempted to open a pack of gum. “Hey Jeannie, you know what that fresh kid at the drugstore said to me? He– ” She suddenly looked up. “Jean, what’s wrong? Jean!” She rushed over to the cash register and pulled out the empty drawer as far as it could go. “Dear Lord, what happened? Jean— ”
“We’ve been held up, Selma. At least, I guess I was. I don’t know where he went. I don’t know.”
Selma acted with all the agitation and hysteria appropriate to such a situation. Supporting herself with an elbow on the counter, she pressed her hand to her heart, screamed, exclaimed, rushed out to the corner to see if she could catch a glimpse of the thief, rushed back in, clasped Jean, inquired if she was all right, and finally, remembering the proper procedure in a case of this sort, flew to the telephone and spent a delighted few minutes calling the police and Mr. Bowen. These duties having been enthusiastically fulfilled, she hurried towards her friend.
“You poor, poor thing! Did he threaten you? What did he say? What did you do? Oh Jeannie, you poor thing! The police are coming, and everybody. Oh my Gosh, I can’t believe this happened, and me not here! How scared you must have been! If it had been me, I’d — Why Jean, what in the world are you doing?”
Jean turned from the jukebox, into which she was slipping a coin. “He didn’t take everything, you know. He left me a nickel. Said to play a song with it. So I am.”
And as the agitated citizens and constabulary of Olympus City fell over each other in their eagerness to enter the scene of the crime, they were greeted by the loud, brassy notes and acidly triumphant tones of a popular song, whose waves filled the place with sentiments and atmosphere which, as they all agreed afterwards, had absolutely nothing to do with what had happened. It was, as a matter of fact, embarrassing for all concerned. There was a certain decorum which should have been preserved, and this fool of a girl had broken it by a hysterical gesture. As a matter of fact, she became thoroughly ashamed of it herself, once her friends had spoken to her about it.