All year his efforts to avoid “work talk” led me through thought games—”Celebrity Death Watch,” where each of us tried to come up with a celebrity the other would think must be dead and wasn’t (think Ernest Borgnine) and “Grade Report” where one person named a metaphor (Pro Wrestling) and the other tried to compose a grade report exploiting it (“Early in the term, Jerry was bouncing off the ropes and into action, but lately he’s been hanging on the ropes as if he was waiting for an atomic drop”).
“Purgatory Mates” represented a variation on a theme, my colleague’s effort to get in some non-work-talk-work-talk.
“Suppose you were stuck in purgatory for a very, very, very long time…almost eternity,” he began, “whom would you be there with?”
I picked a genial new teacher who was not only smart, funny, and interesting but also very easy to look at.
My friend and colleague shook his head, “No, you don’t get it. It’s purgatory. You can’t pick someone you like. Anyone could spend a few thousand years with her.”
So I named another colleague, a reliable and conscientious mid-career teacher always able to hold up his end of a conversation about movies, books, art—the sort of person you wouldn’t mind going on a cross-country car trip with…if you absolutely had to go on a cross-country car trip.
“No,” he answered, “I mean someone good for you.”
I named a third colleague, a wise old hand who knew seemingly everything, was always helpful when you had a question…and sometimes answered for thirty minutes.
“Closer, but she’s not challenging enough. It has to be someone you’re not at all sure you like.”
To help me out, he described his choice, Ms Debold.
I’ve changed her name because she may yet be my purgatory mate…but, as this conversation was many years ago, perhaps she is waiting for me…
He started to explain when Ms. Debold herself appeared, marching through the cafeteria, arms swinging, eyes burning toward my friend. She raised a boney finger and chirped furiously, “I had a class, and YOU DIDN’T!” Then she passed through the other door, leaving students and teachers in stony silence.
My friend had come to lunch from the copy machine where his job had delayed Ms. Debold long enough to be late to class.
She had a notorious temper and was blisteringly direct. Yet my friend had nothing bad to say about her. Her mother survived the Holocaust. Her father died. Her husband hadn’t wanted her to go back to college after they married. But she went back and ended up with a doctorate and a different husband. I once overheard her daughter speaking rudely to her, and I’d heard her son-in-law was in jail for stealing cars. She was raising a grandchild.
I’d always thought of Ms Debold’s as the big hammer at the carnival—her presence sent my Adam’s apple toward the bell. For my friend, she was a purgatory mate.
So I tried another choice, a teacher who was solicitous and caring in my presence but my friend said badmouthed me the rest of the time, questioning my sincerity, my competence, my continued employment. I tried to be solicitous when I was with this teacher, but secretly I was growing more and more resentful, contemplating ways to respond with the same sort of double-dealing.
But he was a well-respected and conscientious teacher. Maybe purgatory would give me enough time to look for truth in his doubts about me. Maybe I’d understand what made him undermine people around him. It might take almost eternity, but making real peace might be all we needed to get sprung from that great waiting room in the sky. Or wherever it is.
Without telling anyone, I still play “Purgatory Mates” every once in a while. I play when I need to discover—given near eternity—what I might learn from people who rub me the wrong way.
Purgatory has to be good for you somehow.