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“Mr. Riekner?” He turns slowly and stares straight through me to the wall adjacent. It’s strange hearing his name bounce around in this empty space, it’s odd to think this thing, naked and fetal, has a name at all. It’s nearly incomprehensible that this shell of a man was once the finest man I had ever met. “Mr. Riekner, It’s me, Jesse. Uhm, but you called me by my full name, Jessica. Pleased to see you again.”
I stick out my hand for him to shake and give him my best gentlemanly smile. He doesn’t take it, just stares at it blankly, which makes me even more nervous, my heart beat even faster, my palms sweat more profusely. I take my hat off and clutch the brim of it while he studies the length of me fiercely. He wants to know who this person is, in his space, telling lies. By God, he doesn’t even remember me! This is not the man I once knew. But what did I expect? Did I even stop long enough in my excitement to expect anything? Well, anything I expected couldn’t compare to what I am seeing now anyway.
I swallow the lump in my throat and twirl the short section of ponytail in the back of my head, it’s one of the last pieces of evidence that I’m still a woman and I find that strangely comforting. Mouth gaping, heart racing, ground seeming to be moving under my feet I can’t help but hope for an escape. I can’t help but feel like a fool. I can’t help but feel a little hopeless. I was vain… and I thought I could communicate with this man, I thought I could reach him on a level no one else could. I thought I could make him understand because I thought I was better equipped then the men that came before me.
And that’s when things started to get desperate. I don’t know if the feeling of want that was swirling in my gut was from the fact that I wanted for the old Mr. Riekner to come back or because I didn’t want to be proven wrong when I had acted so smugly.
“Mr. Riekner, Professor Riekner, It’s Jesse… I was one of your students at the community college on the hill. I was your favorite student, even! Y-you taught us philosophy and you were really, very good at it.”
He finally meets my eyes. His gaze is doused in recognition momentarily. They say, they tell me to be careful. They say that madness can spread like a disease. And I feel mad now, I feel hysteric trying to get this human being, who once would have put his life on the line just to open my eyes to the world, to respond in any way like he used to. Maybe arch one of his bushy eyebrows like he would or make his face line with distinguished wrinkles as it stretched out in a smile. But then, if I was mad, wouldn’t I understand? Wouldn’t I comprehend this man even the smallest bit if I was catching “The Madness”? But what I see is a mystery before me, his eyes a glazed over enigma.
“Don’t look into those eyes, Jessica.” Mama warned. “They’re beady and full of satan. Full of things you cannot imagine. You’ll catch the madness if you don’t mind yourself.”
And so I had been warned. Many times I had announced my visit to the Riekner home. The old creaky house out in the middle of nowhere was sitting, waiting for me, and I was going to let that be known. I asked with a smirk if anyone would care– would dare– to accompany me and when they looked at me with horror in their wide eyes, I’d chuckle. No matter what I was doing that whole week before I planned on visiting, I carried an air of confidence. They were practically worshipping me, I was walking on the heels of power and they were in awe of it all. Their small town life had never provided this much excitement. I was whispered about down at pubs, at the grocery store, everywhere I went the buzz of anticipation followed.
“That’s the girl who’s going down to see the Riekner fellow. Brave soul.”
But I feel anything but brave now, trying to conceal my fear and do what I came here to do, which is conquer. But what is there to conquer? The mind of a madman? How can I conquer that which I cannot understand? I wipe my sweating forehead, raise my head to heaven, and silently curse myself for being so idiotic. Anything would be better than being here, trying to decipher the mind of a madman. Of a wise man. Any of that would be better than being a madman.
While alone with this terrifying yet harmless man, who was once so youthful and vibrant, now aged staggeringly, a noise oozes from his gut that exudes terror, helplessness, and agony all blended into one. I can only imagine what chilling realization or confusion he has just experienced. It makes me want to care for him, it makes me not know how to care for him, which makes me helpless, which makes me angry.
They say people can receive messages from God, they say God is good. But whatever messages are being sent to Riekner they are neither good nor holy. So, the devil then? That’s what they say. Is this an evil man? Is he plagued with such evil thoughts that he locks himself inside this house to protect the public from his wrath? Or is he just a man who got out of bed wrong, who looked in the mirror wrong… and snapped?
“Mr. Riekner, I brought you something.” I bring the tupperware bowl full of hot chili out of my leather messenger bag.
“Even a madman’s gotta eat, a madman’s gotta eat…” My mother kept saying over and over while she stirred and simmered and spiced. Every time she said it she did so with a little laugh, as if she wanted to disregard the whole thing. As if she needed to give God a good reason to make food for the devil.
He snatches it from my grip and eats it straight from the tupperware with his bare hands. Acts so primitive for a man once so widely respected. For a man who used to take things like dignity and proper grooming seriously. He was so eloquent and humorous when he when he spoke in front of a classroom full of people. In front of the class is where he thrived. His eyes and mouth would crinkle with joy as he bellowed out his lesson plans or personal opinions as if every word he said was of his own discovery.. As is the artfulness of his teachings were just as important as the teachings themselves, which in a away, they were. What good is information if the people you’re giving it to are too bored to bother with it?
But this wild beast in front of me, I did not recognize. Just as I had been in awe of Professor Riekner before, I was in awe of him now. But instead of worshipping him for his vast knowledge, I was bemused by how far he had fallen down the evolutionary scale. I looked into the face of this strange man. Just to make sure it was truly the Professor Riekner I had known and not just some beastly man who had wandered into Riekner’s home and who looked like Riekner. But alas, it was him, and I ached for the latter.
“Well, I, uh, gotta go Professor Riekner, I’ll see you later.” But as I stumble my way out of his house, that has nothing but books stacked up everywhere and polished wooden furniture, I know that i will never be back again. The old Professor Riekner, the one with the laughter in his eyes, the one who I had known and loved dearly, who we all had known and loved dearly, was dead now. Or at least dormant somewhere, a gleam in the blank stare of the madman. Lost in a crevice of his raging brain, a prisoner of the Armageddon. And I prayed. I prayed that the real Professor Riekner would return to us all and restore our faith in the world. I prayed that the suffering of his world would end and that he would go outside, take a deep breath of fresh air and awaken again as himself, smiling as he once did. I prayed that he prayed the same thing. Because it would be God’s greatest tragedy if Professor Riekner never smiled again.
At some point during all this praying as I tripped down the gravel driveway, I just wished that it was all a dream. That i would wake up, eat some of Ma’s banana pancakes, and go off to Mr. Riekner’s class with no recollection of the madman. And then… I just wanted to go home and forget this mess.
I used to watch the townspeople and look down on them for their simple lives and simple thoughts. But now I envy them, beg them never to change! I thought I knew it all before this visit, the invincible ego of the young, but I didn’t even know enough to stay away. They said, though. They knew. I didn’t, and for that I am a fool. They say a lot of things but now it’s my turn to put in a say. And I say, never meet a madman.
Back in town as the townspeople all stared at me expectantly while I stood in my doorway, I thought about telling them lies. I thought about telling them all about the secrets I had uncovered, all the mystery and the wisdom! I thought about the looks that would be on their faces, the awe and admiration. But the thought of lying to these people, of pretending like I was any better than any of them, it beat out those thoughts. I was tired of fighting and acting like I had control. So when they asked their questions. When they said, “What was it like?” I gave them my most desperate and pleading look. As if to say, “Don’t be a fool. Don’t meet a madman.”