July 23 came and went without a transport. Eran had been sure – absolutely sure – that he’d get to see the famous, unfulfillable ultimatum delivered at the behest of the scheming Berchtold. The moment would be like Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Schloßkirche door – epochal – and he had planned to transcribe it down to the second. Instead, he watched a fritzing rerun of Keeping Up Appearances on tpt.
That weekend Eran was playing host to Mildred, a new fall admit who would be joining the subfield as another of Stefan’s prospective advisees. Stefan had about blown his colon upon announcing Mildred’s acceptance of the admission offer. Mildred was a Stanford grad who had planned to follow her other major to a Silicon Valley startup until the bro-ish culture had driven her back into the arms of the humanities. She took coding contract jobs to pull in extra cash and had the new BMW 4-series to prove it. And she was also considerate.
“Thanks for letting me pay for lunch.” They were seated in the Tea House and she had just ordered an entree plus four boxes of takeout.
“Least I could do, after offering my couch.”
“Heh. Double thanks for that. I could have laid out the money on a hotel room, but I’m glad I could meet someone in the subfield before I started.”
“We may be the only ones in the subfield come fall.”
“Stefan’s that hard to get along with?”
“That hard to take seriously.” Then, disliking the role of insider: “Despite his scholarship. But he does know a lot. I’m glad I get to work with him.”
The dan dan noodles and ma po tofu arrived. Eran chewed smoky pork and listened to Mildred spill the dirt on the Google chief’s new lover. He imagined the entire fall class would be like her: 22, elite, recommended by the AHA’s executive director, pulling down prestigious fellowships they didn’t need, landing outside scholarships, publishing in their first year. While he, 32, indebted, pulled an extra teaching load and temp shifts just to eke out a mediocre dissertation that would land him a full-time, teaching-only position without tenure or retirement.
This time he had forgotten it was coming when it came.
Shady street, long shadows. Light the color of his cigarette’s tip. He leaned against a low wall outside the palace, hoping to interrupt a passerby. It was like Michael Jackson roaming his neighborhood hoping to make a friend on the street. But he had chosen his minute well or poorly, and he was alone.
The head into which Eran had fallen had its own memory on loop: a hand scrawling a signature across an order for mobilization. So much scrap paper, given the size of his country. But they were bound to Servia (Serbia, Eran translated – then stopped himself, confused: it wasn’t as if the man thought in English). The course was set.
The other father-in-law of Europe, scattering his daughters throughout the capitals – the king of an expanding principality, who had long kept an eye on his borders – the man who had dodged assassination by the people he was now helping – laid low by whatever fever gripped the continent this July. So many things seemed in danger.
Or were those Eran’s thoughts, interfering? The transports weren’t as helpful as he had hoped.
The man smoked and his occupant considered what it meant to be a survivor. A hundred years later, thanks to CBS, it meant “winner.” But maybe the word could be attached even to the dead. To be a survivor was to have a survival orientation, to scrape and starve, to understand that you might not get to live, and to act accordingly – to choose, even embrace, the best of miserable options.
As if, when reaching the precipice, you decided to jump off with the others rather than find yourself abandoned and alone.
“It was like a drunken frat populated entirely by nerds. I’m not sorry I’m gone.” Mildred pulled the last of the noodles from the bowl. “Do you want these?”
For the rest of his life, Eran would see that crepuscular cigarette as the point of no return. Once even the tiny mountain kingdom had to join the fray, it must have been too late for the world. He’d never be able to explain it to Mildred, Stefan, or the AHA – those award-winners and fellowship-havers. But they’d never be able to see what he saw.
July 26, 1914: Amid general European preparations for war, Montenegro orders mobilization.