Professor Elder and the never-ending lecture

From His Notes: “The Henrytown Sanitarium for the Elderly and Infirm imagines itself an amalgamation of prestigious and beauteous Virginia colleges, combining the landscape of UVA, the brick and mortar of VPI, and the pillars of William & Mary, borrowed from torn-down plantation houses that had once speckled this Virginia landscape. The pillars, although beautiful, have not quite been assimilated enough into the architecture for one to forget the symbolic representations of a past built on the slave trade, cotton, and a tenuous economic past. It isn’t as if the Confederate flag is flying from a pole in front of the building, but history is present nevertheless.”

Professor Elder begins his lecture, simply enough, but, after his prefatory comments, changes his mind in mid-sentence and enters into a humorous story about how he cobbled together a published annotated bibliography from his rather lengthy dissertation manuscript on Southwestern Virginia History (particularly of a town named Salt), which had, in the end, amounted to no less than 1275 pages—“Two dissertations for the price of one,” he slings the joke to all within earshot and realizes such subtleties are better spent on appreciative graduate students. No one laughs, including his TA, Ms. Lenore Hayn, who doesn’t have much of sense of humor. Professor Elder harrumphs.

“The Henrytown Sanitarium is an allegorical construction for both waiting in the lobby and at death’s door,” the Professor lectures. “One thing is for certain: Henrytown Sanitarium,” Professor Elder notes, “is not the place to expect acknowledgement.” He looks unabashedly at Ms. Hayn who meets Professor Elder’s stern look and returns an implacable stare, which leaves Professor Elder sheepish and feeling naked and always prompts him to lecture more quickly.

Hayn, after all, is a no-nonsense gal, who has clawed her way up the graduate school flag pole one inch at a time, taking care to note each scratch and ding and scar. She is not to be taken lightly.

From His Notes: “For those of you who did not receive my email and have not brought to class the pages I sent, Ms. Hayn, my GA, will pass out copies. We have 25 of them, so please don’t take one if you have no need for it. While we wait for their distribution, and once in your possession, you might turn to ‘The Beginning’ and gaze into the picture of the Sanitarium circa 1883, trying, I might suggest, to imagine yourself at such a time in such a place as this.” [Broad sweep of hand.]

Professor Elder pauses for effect. Looking around, he finds his way back into Ms. Hayn’s eyes and says half-heartedly as if in refutation of the obvious, “The Sanitarium suffers decidedly from a lack of clocks—those measurements of decay.”

“No tic or click here, Professor Elder, and your timing is off,” she smiles. 

“That is the point, Ms. Hayn!”

He is not aware that his voice has shifted to a higher register until Ms. Hayn suggests he, “Tone it down.” She adds, “Conversations are all the rage, Professor Elder! You might give one a try sometime.”

Professor Elder wonders what it is that he has been doing all of these years if not “giving it a try.” Why, trying is exactly what he has all of his life been trying to do, and, at this moment, before the thought abandons him, he points a finger at Ms. Hayn, and, in front of all, announces that “having a conversation is right now what I am in the midst of trying to do!” Then, he hurumphs again.

 “Inside the Sanitarium,” he continues his lecture, “is a very square set up: four floors, very square rooms for the patients (cubbyholes located off the main hall), cut off at night by wooden doors, mostly unadorned, but with a few attempts, obviously by family members or loved ones, to cozy up the place.”

Professor Elder suddenly finds himself standing sheepishly in front of Harriet Baxter, the History Department’s pug-faced secretary, who is holding a boatload of forms in her thick- padded palms.

“Sign here and here and here and here, Professor Elder and do you want Ms. Hayn to go with?” Harriet Baxter says. 

“That, Ms. Baxter, is a question up with which I will not put.”

By virtue of impatient foot tapping, she tries to hurry his signature, whose swirls and whoops he still handles with precision and pride. “By God,” he says, “I have reached an age where I shouldn’t be compelled to hasten, Ms. Baxter!”

His hand finds an even, precise and extra-slow scrawl. “Slow and easy does it. That’s the right-proper ticket, Ms. Baxter.”

“Haste makes waste . . .” she cackles.

“I don’t understand you, Harriet, in the sense that your tone is too well understood and unappreciated. I will speak to the department chair, again, about the continuance of your position. Prepare a grievance as you will, because as the Bard said long ago, I am aggrieved.”

Harriet takes hold of Professor Elder’s hand in her own firm grip and helps him sign the rest of the forms. Her vise-like grip lets go only when she is finished with him.

Then, as if she is an apparition, Ms. Hayn bodily takes hold of his person and leads him down a long hallway, past doors where faculty give sudden inexplicable jolts as he passes, standing or sitting up most suddenly. Each looks at Professor Elder as if he has called them out for doodling instead of preparing their lectures.

“Outside the Sanitarium: a square courtyard with benches and squirrels.” He continues. “Inside: sing-alongs, bead work and crochet classes.”

Ms. Hayn guides him into the Cafeteria/Rec. Hall, a cavernous space filled with wobbly folding chairs of the kind for overflow in lecture halls. Soon after, numerous wheelchairs and walkers and canes follow shuffling feet.

From His Notes: “Write this down: I am using many quotations, not because I am lazy but because ladies and gentleman I am the opposite. I like CSPAN better than CNN. That’s my joke for the day if you get it but of course you don’t watch CSPAN! I continue then: ‘In his initial report about the Sanitarium, Dr. Dunham writes about the necessities that will help patients in their rehabilitation: recuperative sleep, never ending lectures from university professors and humor.’ See how I did that?”

Ms. Hayn leads Professor Elder up the Cafeteria/Rec. Hall’s uneven steps to a make-shift podium and leaves him there to appraise the room from above. A few of the more eager patients are already seated amongst the chairs in poses of sleep and misalignment, picking at their meals, which has been ground-up and looks wholly disagreeable but infinitely digestible. Many of the chairs are unaligned and empty.

Along with his signature, Professor Elder has always been meticulous about his lecture notes, and he seems momentarily confused that he doesn’t have any. This is decidedly a very bad day. His hand still hurts from Ms. Baxter’s tenuous grip and his lecture notes suddenly are missing.

He summons the very red-headed and red-faced young man, who stands holding up the entrance. Professor Elder gazes at the very red-headed and red-faced young man and thinks he might well benefit from advanced study on the under-utilization of quality reference guides and recommends to all of them [with sweeping hand]—“You all should proceed immediately after this lecture— and as quickly as possible— to the campus bookstore and splurge on one!”

“Red-headed young man,” he verily shouts from the podium, “please fetch another copy of my lecture notes. They can be found in a blue folder on the desk in my office. Cable Hall 157.” He adds with a sly smile, “I don’t know where my mind is these days. Please find them post-haste as in ‘with immediacy’ as in ‘he will go post haste to Professor’s Elder’s office in search of his missing lecture notes!’ Please put pep in your step,” and he adds “bring me some tea to sooth my parch.”  

Professor Elder clears his throat and greets the nearly empty room. “Hello. Test 1. Test 2. Test, Test,” he says. “Ha!” He inquires with those down-front why so few are in attendance, and after no reply says, “We will all just have to muddle through history with the missing.”  

No notes but the tea arrives. Too hot and some kind of weird blend with fruit and peppermint. He sips, feels his lips tingle, swallows, clears his throat again, and begins by memory no less. Nurses and orderlies can’t help but pause and take seats amongst those who slouch in various states of decay.

Professor Elder lectures about the perils of the Civil War in Salt. How important it was for the Union Army to disrupt the Confederacy’s supply lines, and, by eventually doing so, break its spirit through its stomach. “War,” he nearly shouts, “is not won by bullets or bravery nor even pamphlets!” Professor Elder has planned these theatrical outbursts and through pantomime pretends to distribute pamphlets, which, to those in attendance looks as if he is releasing from his fists a very sudden silence.

In the midst of the silence, comes a sing-a-long. “Oh Susanna, oh don’t you pray for me, cause I come from Virginee with a shotgun on me knee!”

 Attendees sit still, barely moving. “No singing in my classroom,” he roars. “We’ll do this like Socrates and exercise the muscle that is the mind. And no pneumonic devices.”

Professor Elder sweeps out his arm gesturing to the empty chairs and describes hilltop battles and sudden surging defeats, long ago burned cities and ancient indigenous civilizations.

From His Memory: “Salt’s Rebellion: The Union troops marched over the salt flats on route to its salt marshes, wet and reedy, and as folklore tells us kept walking across the water, buoyed by the salt, which suddenly opened up and swallowed them. And, the troops disappeared, and were left to boil later in salt kettles and to find solace amongst the clouds, which hung thick and heavy over the town.”   

Professor Elder drifts into the realization that although his students and colleagues and the administration, God forbid, have never been there for him, he has been there for his students and colleagues and the God-awful administration. Were he to take a straw poll, his students would undoubtedly have remarked that Professor Elder “had never let them down.” His colleagues would have remarked that his “lectures, although never-ending, provided unsettling reminders of things to which they should attend.” The God-awful administrators would with feint and with damning praise boldly state, “without his guidance those things to which we should have attended would have passed by without attention.” Sadly, however, and in reality, these “things” passed by anyway and then withered and dried up and died like a leaf-folded urn.

After Professor Elder completes the salt-kettle tale, he again finds himself adrift—or rather, too aware of himself in themiddle of it all. Without a clock positioned on the back wall to guide him, he lets silence become for each attendee and most importantly for himself, a reality.

Where the hell was the very red-faced young man? And he needs more tea! And, where is Lenore Hayn? Can anyone be counted on anymore for anything? Professor Elder looks out for his notes hoping they are projected against the back wall. But alas, No. . .

Professor Elder, here, near the end of it all, lets the worlds of possibility become for each attendee and most importantly for himself, a possibility.

Oralities’ denouement: “Go forth and trace the letters and assign them to history for that is where you will surely find them!”

The end comes quick and piercing—not exactly on point but near enough—then, the real denouement: the assignments, the reminders.

From His Memory: “The end, ladies and gentleman. Now let me take roll and forgive me if I mispronounce your names: Abington, Allison, Boyd, Davidson, Farmington, Fenner, Franklin, Henry, Jeffers, Jensen, Kent, Kensey, Lamont, Marlay, Mason, Nix, Nicer, Prose, Prudd, Remington, Simmons, Singleton, Smith, Trent, Trexall, and Wegman.”

 He looks at his watch and dismisses them—lets them go and most of them are all too happy to oblige. He believes it has been a good lecture. A successful lecture. He would have liked to ask about its potency but that would have been amateurish indeed. . . but, yes, there is the very red-faced and red-headed young man—waiting with the notes in hand. The red-faced young man is also perhaps waiting to ask questions—Professor Elder imagines, about the subtler points of his lecture.

This is, and he sweeps his arm out, what he loves so much, for better or worse, about this institution. He has built his career studying place: he has been exacting about it–slowed his mind down to a crawl, trying not to accomplish everything at once.

In these last few years, he realizes that he has been there for his students, even if he could not really be present for them. He supposes were he to take a straw poll, they would have said that Old Professor Elder had let them down. Each day provides unsettling reminders of those things to which he should have been attending that have passed on without his being in attendance. 

Together he and the red-headed young man find their way back to his office, talking about his lecture along the way—their shoes walking well-worn paths.

The very red-headed man asks if he needs anything more. Perhaps a bathroom break? All of the books he needs to find his way through the rest of the day? He tells the professor to push the button if he needs anything.

“Cause and effect, Dad” he says.

No sooner after the very red-headed young man has left him to his papers, Professor Elder recounts student’s names from memory to prove to himself he can.

“Abington, Allison, Boyd, Davidson, Farmington, Fenner, Franklin, Henry, Jeffers, Jensen, Kent, Kensey, Lamont, Marlay, Mason, Nix, Nicer, Prose, Prudd, Remington, Simmons, Singleton, Smith, Trent, Trexall, and Wegman.”

He realizes the red-headed young man has unwittingly helped him find his way back to the beginning, which he might conjure up as easily as the world over these many years he has helped to construct.

From his Notes: “The Henrytown Sanitarium for the Feeble and Infirmimagines itself an amalgamation of prestigious and beauteous Virginia colleges, combining the landscape of UVA, the brick and mortar of VPI, and the pillars of William & Mary, borrowed, some say, from torn-down plantation houses that once speckled the Southwestern Virginia landscape. . . . On the other hand, The Sanitarium is an allegorical construction for both waiting in the lobby and standing at death’s door.”

J. BRADLEY MINNICK is a writer, public radio host and producer, and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He has written, edited, and produced the one-minute spot “Facts About Fiction,” and Arts & Letters Radio, a show celebrating modern humanities with a concentration on Arkansas cultural and intellectual work and can be found at He has published numerous journal articles and fiction in Toad Suck Review, Burningword, Literally Stories, Inklette Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Forthcoming work will be featured in The GroundUP, Southwest Review and Potato Soup Journal’s ‘Best of 2022’ anthology.