The Valedictorian | By: Joseph R Quinn | | Category: Short Story - Introspective Bookmark and Share

The Valedictorian


By J. R. Quinn


“No damn pepper and not enough salt!” He grumbled as he slammed the small ribbed packet against the serving tray. He raised the lid of each plastic pot, peered down his nose suspiciously and sniffed. Searching, he stirred the thin red soup with care. Satisfied that it was only bad soup he focused on the main course under an orange cover with a hole in the center. He closed one eye and looked through the hole with the other then lifted the edge and scanned the contents. He sniffed again like a cautious predator. Finally, all his concerns satisfied he unveiled the thin slice of dry roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans.

“ I should send this garbage back.” He growled as he stabbed the beef from a distance safe from attack. He impaled the meat several times and once it was subdued devoured it whole. The meat eliminated he probed the mashed potatoes causing the gravy cratered atop to slither down the sides. He slid his fork beneath and turned the whole mess over and over.

“Artificial phony potatoes from a box. Otta send this garbage back.” He muttered as he methodically mashed each square inch with his fork. He gazed with pride at the brown goo flattened and raked like a sand trap. Something in the pattern disturbed him. Something was not right. He pressed the fork again this time perpendicular to the previous pattern. He bent over the mess intently as if engraving He could not allow any imprint to overlap. He studied the pattern. Satisfied , he shoveled it all into his mouth and swallowed it all in one gulp. The beans he dismissed as rubbery and shoved aside. For the first time he looked up and acknowledged my presence. He stirred the previously inspected soup and said.

“So you went back to college after all. Became a doctor.”

“Ya! Stuck It out to the bitter end that time.” I replied.

“Surgeon?” he inquired.

“No, ER doc.” I confessed.

“ Not a surgeon” He emphasized.

“No, not a surgeon.”

He sipped his soup with a slight sardonic twist to his mouth. He scanned me as he sucked his soup. His eyes were cold and angry. They seemed blind without recollection and focused solely on some personal reality. He nodded and mumbled as if responding to something only he could hear.

But then he began “You were pretty messed up that time you visited me at Harvard. Set You straight then. Didn’t I? Went back to college after that. Didn’t you?” he demanded.

“Yes, you were a big help then. I was pretty down and confused. I appreciated your support.” I returned.


The lights from the dorms spread shadows across the snow covered Harvard yard.

“Thoreau lived on the second floor of that hall and I believe Emerson roomed there too.”

Hitching along on his artificial right leg, John ‘Boogar-Man’ Gascon strode across the darkened outlines of 200 year old trees. Only the lights of the rooms and a few dim colonial style streetlights illuminated the brick paved paths. All was silent, black and cold. Thick ancient walls enclosed the yard and iron gates barred the arched entries to the Cambridge streets.

The Boogar-Man was upbeat even ebullient.

“Sure, it’s tough here. Everyone is smart even brilliant. My marks aren’t what I’d like but one professor said one of my papers was one of the best things he’d ever read.” He chattered on as he hopped about the Quad.

I was as depressed as he was enthusiastic. I had just dropped out of Columbia, the first student from my small parochial high school to go there. As a poor kid from a small town, I was overwhelmed, frightened and terribly homesick. I left without completing a semester. Everyone seemed rich, smart and better than I. The avalanche of insecurity crushed me and I quit.

I worked for the minimum in the hometown factory, read Walden on my lunch break to escape and waited for the draft. The Kennedy’s presided over Camelot but the papers mentioned Vietnam more and more. I hoped I was too nearsighted for the army. I knew I’d not survive the military any better than I survived Columbia.

But the “Boogar-Man” fared well. He belonged at Harvard. This had been his goal from grade school. In all his pre Harvard academic life he received nothing but A’s. He was the senior class president and , of course, the valedictorian.


“But Sister don’t I deserve partial credit for the work even if the answer is wrong?” the “Boogar-Man” pleaded. “ This test will drag my average down to a B, Sister. You don’t understand, Sister, a B. I need straight A’s to get into Harvard.”

His frustration erupted. He stalked the small nun around the lab trying to compose himself. She was stubborn, she would not budge. I sat and watched from the back of the otherwise empty room. I don’t remember why I was there. His ever present hearty smile banished. He grew desperate. His psyche heaved and dragged him like a man roped to the rampaging bull of high expectation.. This little insignificant nun barred his way. He pivoted towards her in fury. Her mouth dropped open and her pupils dilated when confronted by his rage.

“But, Sister, I’ll I’ll do extra credit. Anything to bring my mark up to an A.” He bargained.

The tiny nun stood her ground seeming to enjoy the power. Denied John Gascon bolted from the room as though plummeting to his doom.

Politics prevailed. John Gascon was the first student from Thomas Aquinas Academy to ever have a chance at Harvard. His father was a liquor distributor, wealthy by small town standards, a good contributor to church and school. John “Boogar Man” Gasgon graduated with straight A’’s and was received in the hallowed halls of Harvard University.



“After Harvard, what did you do?” I asked hoping to interrupt the compulsive dining ritual as much as to satisfy my curiosity.

He continued to poke and prod the plates and pots like a stray rooting the trash. But just as I concluded that he was either not listening or ignoring me, he replied.

“I taught English at an exclusive private academy in New Hampshire, Exeter Academy. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”

“Yes I’ve heard of it.” I offered. “Pre ivy league isn’t it?”

“Yes filled with the offspring of the rich and privileged with a few poor and minorities sprinkled in to satisfy the liberals ands upgrade the football team.” He growled. “ A place for the Kennedy’s or those that are left.”

“So you didn’t go on to grad school then?” I probed.

“Grad school!” He shouted as he bolted form the chair. The diner tray crashed to the floor. The dishes and covers scattered and rolled. One cover spiraled to inertia and clattered to a stop like a drum toll. The “Boogar Man” was up and pacing.

“Grad school! Why would I want to go to some slippery rock grad school. Hemingway didn’t go to grad school. J. D. Salinger! You have to live to write. “Live not study life.” He pivoted back and forth on the artificial leg gesticulating and clenching his fists.

A nurse cautiously eased open the door and squinted through the crack at me, still in my scrubs from the night before. She mouthed. “Is everything all right?” I nodded and smiled.

“I’ll send someone to clean up.” she whispered. I nodded again.

The Boogar man’s rage abated and he sank on the bed subdued. “I tried to write.” he said. “I lectured those rich barbarians and I wrote at night. Novels, short stories, anything I thought they’d publish.” He continued. “But nothing, nowhere it went nowhere. You have to be in the club to get published, one of the boys or you don’t get read.” His anger resurrected.

“How long were you there?” I interrupted hoping to avoid another outburst.

After a long pause, he replied . “Five years.” “I started to drink so to speak.” He offered.

“So to speak?” I inquired.

With a remnant of that asymmetric smile that was once a fixture on the face of the hale and hearty young man I knew in high school He said .“Not alcohol at least not straight.”

“Cough syrup, I got hooked on cough syrup. Nothing numbs like cough syrup. You forger how everyone is working to keep you out, hold you back from your destiny.”

He became preoccupied. Then he bent over and picked up each and every plate and utensil. One by one, he positioned them reverently on the serving tray in an order and pattern meaningful only to him. He bowed and bobbed with each placement while muttering in altar boy Latin.

Hearing Latin again stirred recollections. After I dropped out of college I returned home. Only my aging mother was left. My father died when I was nine. My sisters had all married except for one who had long before entered the convent. My brothers scattered about the country to find work. I found a clerical job in a local scale factory but frequently lived on unemployment. When I wasn’t working , I studied. I believed I could self-educate myself. I read and read concentrating on the Great Books of the Western World. I too dreamed of writing, a fantasy that kept me afloat.

I practiced my religion scrupulously, attended mass on weekdays and confessed regularly although I did nothing to justify confession. I was terribly isolated, No friends, no girlfriend, only my aging mother dozing off on the sofa. That was when the voices began. Oh not disembodied voices. I attributed them to actual people. I heard comments whenever I walked down the street. I conjured whole conversations concerning me from strangers I passed. But some small element of sanity struggled to save me from an abyss of paranoia and utter delusion. I returned to college, a state school this time. I persevered all the way through medical school mostly because I could conceive of no alternative. I thought I could overcome my insecurities by becoming a doctor. To a large extent It worked. The voices stopped. The demons departed. But perhaps they took possession of the “Boogar- Man”, my high school friend. With insanity, who knows.

“Boogar, did you ever marry?” I asked more to reestablish contact than from interest.

He stared at me seeming bewildered that someone was there. He smiled completely. It was that old strong confident grin from long ago.

“No one has called me that since high school.” He addressed me directly as though recognizing me for the first time. His expression briefly softened then his eyes hardened again.

“I almost married once. She taught at the prep school. She thought I had bedroom eyes. The eyes of Valentino, she would say.”

His eyes were deep set and dark. They drew your gaze like the close ups of the Sheik in silent movies. Heavy brows hung above them like furled curtains. Now they were eyes unaccustomed to sunlight peering from a cavern.

“What happened to her?” I continued hoping to hold him in reality.

“We broke up.” He replied. “Then I went to law school.”

“You’re a lawyer!”

“I graduated law school but failed the bar three times. So they say.” Anger and agitation edged his words.

“The last time I missed by one tenth of a point, one tenth, point one. They just intended to screw me over all the time. I know that my essay deserved at least one more point. I sued the bastards. Sued the law board. You can imagine how futile that was. Not to mention expensive. Here I am bankrupt on a psych ward. Depressed on the verge of suicide.” His anger abated like a dying blaze.

“Can’t you try again?”

“They only give you three chances.”

Another state? Couldn’t you get licensed in another state?”

He didn’t respond.

“Boogar, they have good medications now.” I continued. I wanted more than ever to resurrect that ebullient confident person I once knew. I had always dreamt simple dreams, attainable dreams, largely attained. I lived on a small farm in Vermont, had a good marriage and three healthy children. ER work was often arduous and stressful but occasionally you helped and never were you bored. Tall ships sails billowing in the wind had always transported the dreams of John Gascon at least until they crashed upon the reefs of reality.

“Pills! Drugs! Just mind altering substances.” He shouted. “Restore sanity! My ass! Restore conformity that’s all they do. They distort reality as only a few of us are given to see it. They crucified Christ, Assassinated Gandhi. Now they lock us up in psych wards and shoot us up with drugs.”

“But John,” I interrupted “there are good medications now. They’ll help you cope, give you the energy to pull out of this depression.

“Depression! Maybe depression is sanity. What’s so sane about feeling good all the time. Is there really so much to feel good about in this world.”

“No, it’s not about feeling good all the rime. It’s about feeling good enough to function then functioning well enough to feel good.”

“And drugs are supposed to do that? They only mske you think things are better. They make you forget how the system is out to screw you. Those in control, they know who’s a threat. They see to it that no one who’s a danger to them ever achieves any power. They kept me from becoming a lawyer, from achieving my destiny.” He grew more agitated.

“They know who among us would overturn their world. They killed Kennedy. They can’t risk letting me get my license. They can allow anyone like me to see the club from the inside.” He began to pace ranting while holding clenched fists to his temples.

“Couldn’t you get licensed in another state?” I repeated without effect. Encased in delusions like a hardened shell he would not hear. His twisted reality would, for a time, preserve the remnants of his being. Other voices whispered bizarre thoughts justifying his failures. Sometimes, either by fate or necessity, insanity is all that’s left.

“Would you like to come out to the house sometime, John?” I asked. “We live in the boons in an old farmhouse we’ve restored.”

“Oh yea, the back to the land thing and all that.” he replied as his demons for the moment retreated. Medication, he refused and reasoning with insanity is futile if not insanity itself. His family’s psychiatric commitment would soon expire. He would leave without treatment to return to his self destructive attempts at self treatment, alcohol, prescription cough syrup when he could get it. After all didn’t your mother give you cough syrup when you caught cold.

Our valedictorian, the most likely to succeed, was successfully mad. Our demons, irrational anxieties, unwarranted depression, are omnipresent. At times they erupt, threatening to control. At times they masquerade well as reality but something inherent allows most to penetrate their deception. But somehow by quirk of genetics or circumstance they had overwhelmed the “Boogar Man”. As a young doctor perhaps as a young American I believed something could always be done. But I left his hospital room uneasily sensing that John “Boogar Man” Gascon was doomed.

I next saw him weeks later as I drove through town. He was walking downhill along a sidewalk buried in fallen leaves from an ancient maple. He catapulted along on that artificial leg with either wind or his gait kicking up dust and dead leaves around him in his own private tempest. He gesticulated wildly occasionally shouting oblivious to everything else. I drove past in a Zen of helplessness. The trees were in full color then, such a glorious array. I thought how only in a New England autumn could dying in due time be this beautiful.

Sometime after that, he appeared in the emergency room. I grabbed a chart and burst into the room. Then I recognized him.

“John!” I uttered. “What can I do for you?”

The room was bare and utilitarian. The stretcher was jammed in the corner against one wall and a sink crouched against the other. The walls were light brown and blank. He sat on the plain white sheets looking small and shrunken. He wore a heavy ribbed charcoal sweater with worn leather patches on the elbows. I recognized the sweater from the long ago tour of Harvard Yard. His pants were worn corduroy with holes at the knees. He wrapped his huge hands around a crossed knee and jiggled restlessly his badly scuffed high topped brown leather shoe. He might have passed for an eccentric college professor but for vacant and unfocused eyes. They had the appearance of an oar less boat adrift and slipping away into fog.

“A cough” he said. “a bad cough” He faked a hack. “Can’t sleep because of it.” He hacked again. “I need some cough syrup. A hell of a cold, Hack, Hack, Hack.”

“Sore throat? I asked.

“Oh yes terrible, Hack, hack, Hack.”

“Ear pain/”

“Ears? Real plugged. But it’s the damned cough. Could you give me a prescription for some codeine cough syrup.? I could really use some sleep.” Only the last assertion rang true.

I performed a perfunctory exam. Nothing my medical school instructors would admire.

“Working in your brother’s law office, John?

“Yea! Working a big case.” Some big bucks in it.” he replied.

“Some things cannot be fixed.” I thought as I wrote out the prescription for cough medicine.

“That’s the one with codeine? Right Doc?” he asked as he grabbed the paper and bolted for the door.

“Yea, John, It’s the one with codeine.”

Any chance for refills, Doc? I catch cold real easy.” He said with his twisted grin.

I hesitated then capitulated and took the prescription. “There’s two refills; John.”

“Thanks Doc!” He said as he turned out the door.


Two burly policemen emerged from the dark and cold. The double automatic doors slashed open in sequence and closed sharply behind. They wore long heacy navy coats arrayed with the traditional brass buttons and emblems. They stood at the desk like columns bulked by weight lifting and bullet proof vests. Between these two giants half walking, half carried was a small thin figure wearing a familiar ratty ribbed sweater with one remaining leather patch on the left sleeve. One of the cops mouthed through the glass enclosure “A nut case, Doc.” Then said out loud “Don’t worry, John, these folks will help you. You’ll be all right here,”

Behind this entourage walked a short sticky man with a large bald head. He wore a rumpled gray suit and white shirt without a tie. Streak of blood stained the starched open collar. His lower lip was split and oozed drops of blood down across the whiteness of the shirt. The lip swelled and pathetically protruded.

“You just come down the hall and into this room, John, and these good people will help you.” the taller of the two officers repeated as soothingly as a rough pragmatic man could be.

They passed into a bare walled empty room at the end of the hallway. A heavy wire mesh covered the sole light recessed into the ceiling and the door had no inside knob.

They deposited him like dirty laundry in the far corner where he slumped then pulled his knees to his chest and dropped his head upon them.

“He tried to hang himself, Doc.” the tall officer said. “His father here stopped him before he could could hurt himself.”

“I looked at the elderly man in the wrinkled gray suit. His face was heavily featured with overhanging brows. A gray fringe of hair at the temples and along the sides of his prominent head stood out like an awning above his ears. I thought how he looked like the pictures I’d seen of Charles Darwin.

“He said he had to stop the voices, the voices from the transmitter planted in his head.” he blurted. “He said….” the old man broke off and begin sobbing. A nurse put her arm around him. “Come over to the stretcher Mr Gascon and we’ll take care of your lip.” She said as she led him away.

“A real head case, Doc. He had a rope tied to a pipe in the basement. He was getting ready to swing when the family found him then called us. The old man still pretty strong. He held him down until we got there. He keeps saying somebody’s put a radio in his head and he can’t turn it off.”

“Sounds like my teenagers, Doc.” the shorter cop offered with a grin beneath a small mustache and sharp eyes. “They play that damned thing so loud, I want to hang them or myself.” He laughed.

I entered that bare and pitiful room, leaving the door that could not be opened from the inside ajar. I gazed upon the shrinking being couched in the distant corner like a mouse trapped and out of options. I had nothing to say and didn’t know where to begin.

“ They’ve finally done it. Placed a transmitter deep in the center of my brain where it can’t be removed without killing me. They want to control my every thought. “ He spoke with his face between his knees and his hands over his head.

“We hace powerful new medications, John. We can eradicate the voices.” I responded almost out of breath like someone throwing a rope to a drowning man to far from shore to be saved.

“The voices! They can’t be turned off.” His words seemed to be coming from below the floor. “They’ve embedded themselves deep in the center of my brain.. They send thoughts to a transmitter there. I can’t shut it off.”

He went silent. Then began bowing, bobbing and weaving like a boxer while muttering altar boy Latin.

“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. In nomine Patre et File tu et Spirtus Sancti…” He continued.

His father opened the door. Tears were streaming down his face. “Johnny, Johnny, you must stop this. There are no voices, Johnny. You are only imagining the voices. The Doctor here will help you. Won’t you , Doctor?” He turned to me with his large hands held high. “ You can help him? You must help him, Doctor.” He pleaded as large tears meandered down the convolutions of his wrinkled face. The Boogar Man only muttered louder in Latin. “Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa!”

“Yes, we will help him, Mr. Gascon. “ I replied with forced assurance. “We’ll take an X- ray!” I said as a flash of inspiration came over me. “A transmitter will show up on an X-ray.”

“Why yes an X-ray! You’ll let them X-ray your head? Won’t you Johnny? That will show you once and for all that there’s no transmitter planted in your brain.” the old man echoed.

The Boogar-Man looked up for the first time. The suggestion intrigued him. “ Where do we go for an X-ray?”

“Just down the hall” I replied.

“Yes, Johnny! Just down the hall!” his father repeated. “Just down the hall and we’ll straighten everything out once and for all.”

I left the room to order the X-ray. The two cops were leaning on the counter joking with the nurses.” “Get the bugs out of his head yet, Doc? The shorter one piped up.

“I’m ordering a set of skull films to rule out a foreign body.” I told the secretary.

“A foreign body, Doctor?” she inquired.

Yes he thinks a transmitter been planted in the center of his brain and I’m trying to prove to him that it’s not true.”

She looked up at me with a quizzical expression then typed “r/o transmitter” in the space marked “ reason for radiograph.

“Do you think that will convince him, Doc?” the larger cop asked.

Can’t you just slam some drugs into his butt?’ The shorter one offered.

“We can medicate him for a time. We can commit him for a time as a danger to himself. But for how long? No one can make him take medication after he leaves.”

“Someone ought to show him how to really commit suicide, Doc.” the shorter cop interjected.

“It would save a lot of time and money if he’d just do it right.”

“Sounds like he was doing it right when his father showed up. “ I replied.

The nurse passed by with the ‘Boogar Man’ hunched over in a wheelchair. He sat bowed down with his arms wrapped around as if holding himself together by sheer force.

Several minutes later he returned from radiology sitting upright. The technician handed me the folder containing the films. He sat in the wheelchair below the view screen with an expression of Christmas like anticipation. I fixed the front view on the view box. Out of the dense black background appeared the white shadow. A skull hung suspended amidst the dark room. The ‘Boogar Man’ rose slowly from his seat like a resurrection and stared at the film. The image of his own skull glowed a bright white and stared back at him from its vacant eye sockets. The black tortuous lines of vascular channels traced across the cranium like rivers on a map. He peered intently down into the orbits as if expecting the image to speak. He turned about and gazed into the darkened space as though the image had left the screen and hovered above in the surrounding air. He circled deliberately examining a phantasm that only he could see.

“It’s a normal X-ray, John.” I said. “ There’s no transmitter on the film.” I reassured.

He seemed startled by my voice as if he thought he was alone. Then he focused again on the view screen.

“Yes, there’s no transmitter on this X-ray. But this is not my X-ray. They have substituted another X-ray for mine.” He emphasized.

There is no reasoning away insanity. He began to pace again, Bowing and praying in English and in Latin, pressured speech that deteriorated into agitated gibberish. A nurse approached and eased him back into the wheelchair. Despite his angry rant he did not resist. She wheeled him back to the quiet room. I watched him vanish from the hallway like a man who had slipped from my grasp and now plummeted to his demise.

I turned to his father sitting in a corner distraught and helpless. I placed my hand firmly on his shoulder. He looked up.

“Doctor, you should have known my Johnny when he was well. He was so smart, the valedictorian of his high school. The first one in the history of the school to go to Harvard University. He was going to be a leader, someone special. You should have known him then, Doctor.” With that he dropped his head and sobbed. I patted his shoulder and whispered to myself.

“I remember.”

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