T.F. Torrey's Things Worth Reading



Chapter 2

from Winter Kills by T.F. Torrey

In his apartment in downtown St. Louis, Victor Storm woke with a start, gulping breath, heart pounding. He drew his hands up in front of his face, expecting to look at the rifle he was holding, but as his eyes adjusted he saw they were empty.

The studio apartment materialized from the darkness around him. A rectangle of soft, gray light entered the room from around the blinds closed across his front window. His eyes searched the darkness, finding reassurance in the familiar forms of the lamp on the nightstand next to his queen bed, the wide, low bookshelf between his bed and the living area, the arch to the kitchen, the kitchen counter. His ears picked up the distant rumble of a diesel engine idling somewhere in the parking lot outside, and this, too, was familiar and reassuring.

For a while he sat on the edge of the bed. Though it was still before dawn, he didn’t want to go back to sleep.

In time, he walked to the window, twisted the blinds open, and stared out at the darkness. His apartment was too low to the ground and too far away, but he could imagine he could see the flat black Mississippi River rolling through the darkness. He could almost see the Arch, rising and falling like hope, like life.

In the eastern distance, he could see the first touch of blue beginning to lighten the far horizon.

* * *

As soon as Victor Storm walked into the philosophy class at St. Louis Community College, he thought he had made a mistake.

A number of things had led him here. He’d never been to college before. He’d joined the Army right out of high school. After twenty years, he was thirty-eight and retired. Wow. A year later, his wife left him, and a year after that he turned forty. In the year and a half since then he’d been trying to sort out the big issues of life, the universe, and everything. He’d looked in a lot of bars, but he hadn’t found any answers, or insight, or anything but drunks and thugs.

Then, skimming through his junk mail one day, he’d come across a flyer for the St. Louis Community College. His eyes fell on the description of a philosophy class: “An introduction to philosophical inquiry through a study of such perennial problems as the nature of truth and the possibility of knowledge, the various conceptions of the mind-body relation; the nature and basis of morality; the problem of free will and an analysis of the main arguments for the nature and existence of God.” Wow.

Reading this, the wheels in his head had begun to turn. He’d become more introspective in recent years. His early retirement, and recent divorce, had left him with a lot of free time, and a lot of uncertainty. Now that he could do what he wanted, he had no idea what might be the right thing to do. He had found himself up against the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do with my life? And, turning the questions over in his head, he had found himself not just without answers, but without an idea of how to figure out the answers. He’d been absolutely and totally lost. Seeing the flyer for the community college class, he’d felt the tiniest flicker of hope in his heart. Maybe, just maybe, a philosophy class would help him to sort things out. He had decided to give it a shot. Even if it didn’t give him the answers, it could possibly introduce him to a framework of thinking about things to let him work out the answers for himself.

He had hoped that by taking an evening class that he would perhaps have the company of some other people his own age, and that maybe he would find some other people with similar issues, similar problems, solutions he hadn’t been able to think of on his own. Looking around the class now, Victor began to doubt the whole enterprise.

He saw he was by far the oldest one there. At ten minutes early, he had been the first one to arrive, and he’d been able to watch his “classmates” arrive. By ones and twos they straggled in, took seats, and began talking about non-issues as if they were important. All of them were kids, none of them older than early twenties.

When the “instructor” came in and took a seat at the desk up front, Victor’s dismay was complete. This guy was barely older than most of the students. What could he possibly know? The drunks down at Penguin’s Tavern probably knew more than this guy; they’d certainly seen more of life. If Victor had been seated near the door, he might have left, but he was in the far back corner of the room, so he merely sat there and thought about it.

The instructor glanced at the clock, then cleared his throat to get the attention of the class. “Okay, everyone. This is Introduction to Philosophy, so if you were looking for something else, this would be an excellent time to leave.”

A general chuckle rose up from the class. No one left, though Victor thought very seriously about it.

“My name is Colton Fischer,” the instructor continued, “and as you have probably figured out, I’m the instructor for this class. This will be a survey of philosophy, in which we talk about things like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic.”

“What about truth?” someone in the middle of the room suggested.

Colton Fischer smiled. “That’s a good question.”

Again a little laugh rose up from the room.

“Yes,” Colton Fischer continued, “truth, knowledge, free will, existence, beauty–we’ll get to all of that in time. First, though, I’m supposed to start with something a little less heady: a roll call.”

This introduction actually made Victor feel a little better. Truth, free will, ethics–even if nobody here had any real insight on the answers of the world, maybe he could learn something just by hearing the questions.

While Colton Fischer–Victor refused to think of him as “Mr.” Fischer–called names off his roster, Victor watched the students, trying to remember names and generally occupying himself by observing the students. The skill of observation was highly prized in the Special Forces, and Victor was good at it.

Colton Fischer finished his roll call, then stood up and leaned on his desk. His face showed the expression of a man formulating a thought. “How many people are taking this class because it’s required for a degree?” he asked.

Half or more of the hands went up.

“And people taking it because they have a real interest in philosophy?”

A few of the remaining hands went up. Victor saw Colton Fischer sneak a glance at him each time, though Victor didn’t raise a hand for either answer.

“I think that’s a good mix,” Colton Fischer continued. “I’ve found that people taking the class because they have to feel free to argue whatever points they like, while people taking the class because they want to really try to apply the concepts we talk about, and provide a kind of structure to the debate.” He walked over to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk. “Now, before we begin, I’d like to make a list of the kinds of questions and concepts that people think of when they think about philosophy.” He looked back over his shoulder at the class, hand poised to write on the board. “Anybody? Philosophical question or concept?”

“Uhm,” said a guy in the other back corner of the room, “boxers or briefs?”

Everyone but Victor laughed. Colton Fischer wrote it on the board.

“Abortion?”

Colton wrote it on the board.

“Racism.”

On the board.

The death penalty, war, the legal system–all on the board.

After the board was sufficiently scratched with questions and terms, Colton began to address the points, commenting on how different philosophical concepts addressed the various issues, and how their studies during the course of the semester would give them a framework for thinking about these things.

During Colton’s lecture, he posed questions to the group, solicited answers, then posed more questions about those answers. Some of the students were more willing than others to speak up, but all of them eventually became involved in the discussion. All that is, except for Victor Storm.

Finally the time for the class was up. As everyone rose to leave, Victor caught the instructor sneaking a glance at him. The look on his face said he was wondering what Victor was doing here.

At the beginning of the class, Victor had wondered that himself. Now he thought he knew: in spite of the inexperience of the other students and even the instructor, he thought he just might learn something.