After her retirement, Livia’s husband encouraged her to find an occupation outside of the home. Her eyes and mind were still sharp. She knew her husband had grown tired of her endless bustling, her mysterious trips up and down the stairs. So she went out and found a position as a proctor at the local testing center. She enjoyed the work. She met many young people who were undergoing trials to better their lives. They were hopeful and they were silent, save for the scritching of pencils. On occasion, she or another of the proctors–all retired ladies like herself–would catch someone cheating. The offender would feel a polite tap on the shoulder, and he would know, instantly, that he had failed, that there was order to the world, and that he had been reined back into it.
On this day, Livia was assigned to oversee the chocolate maker’s written exam. It was the longest test the center offered, six hours. Admission had to be paid in advance. There were six sections: four multiple choice, one experimental, and one essay, with a short break for lunch. At the stroke of 7:30, Livia began to check testees in. She confiscated their identification cards and phones, poked around in their bags with a plastic baton, then waved a metal-detecting wand over the surface of their clothing. The testees were meek, neatly groomed, and, despite the range of skin tones, uniformly clammy and pale. As she checked them in they thanked her. A few sat in chairs lining the walls, breathing deeply through their noses. Knees jiggled. The test would begin at 8:00. By 7:50, the testees were nearly all present. One name remained on the list. Livia watched the door. At 7:55, someone came through it.
He was a large, portly man with a bottlebrush mustache, dressed in the uniform of a decorated naval officer. He wore white gloves and a hat and carried a satchel. Livia was about to ask him whether he was lost when he said his name, and produced identification from a cleverly hidden pocket in his worsted trousers. It matched the name on the list, though his papers noted, where her sheet did not, that the man was an Admiral. Livia regarded him with some bewilderment, but went about her procedures, as they were due to begin.
The admiral’s medals set off the wand’s alarm. She should have asked him to remove them, but considered that this might seem unpatriotic. She gingerly probed his satchel with her baton and heard it clink against something metallic. Peering into the bag’s depths, she saw the source of the noise was an antiquated brass sextant. The admiral was stone-faced. Again, she considered asking him to leave the instrument at her desk, but his unchanging countenance reassured her. The hat, however, was simply not allowed.
“Sir, might you remove your hat while the test is underway?”
He looked at her with the eyes of a man who has seen war.
“If it is absolutely necessary.”
“I am afraid that it is.”
“Very well,” he replied, sighing with the great weight of duty. He perched the hat atop a stack of her papers and took his seat.
The test began. The students worked diligently to fill the bubbles they deemed appropriate. Livia watched one young man methodically draw frowny faces within each bubble and then cover them over with a flurry of graphite. She generally took little interest in the content of the tests, but she briefly wondered what sort of things a chocolate maker really ought to know. She believed it had to be a simple process. But then again, she usually bought generic. Her grandchildren were not given to know the difference.
Her attentions returned to the figure at the back of the room, imposing behind his brass buttons and gold braid. His face was tired but distinguished. She imagined him at the helm of a battleship, perhaps giving the order to fire, or under fire himself from a fleet of submarines, painted reflective black as to be invisible through the periscope and the radar alike.
She did not understand why such a personage would desire to undertake this or any test. Hadn’t his service been test enough? The profusion of medals and color bars indicated its breadth. But, then, acclaim was not the only thing in life. He may have been the victim of misfortune. A coup, a scandal, acrimonious divorce.
Her heart ached for the man, who must be nearing retirement age himself, having to start his life afresh. Yet there could be nothing further removed from sea battles and drowning men than the world of small batch chocolate. She watched him chew the tip of his pencil absently, perhaps imagining himself in a crisp white apron, nostrils gay with the scent of roasted cacao.
He seemed to be having difficulty with the second multiple choice section. He chewed with greater intensity and furrowed his brow. Livia herself had not had much struggle, apart from her husband’s brief deportation. She had worked the same job for thirty-six years, had two children, owned her home and was in good health, all things considered.
She was lucky, although, she now admitted to herself, more than a little ungrateful. Her husband was predictable as soap. The most that could be said of her children was that they were contributing members of society. She wondered if the admiral had children. Saw the two of them, weeks from now, chatting in a cafe, comparing notes. Perhaps his were equally uninspiring, or worse. He may have had a son, a junior who displayed culinary talent. Perhaps Junior was the one meant to sit for this exam, but he had likely been detained by drugs or women or the thugs of a cacao cartel, thus forcing his long-suffering father to fill his seat.
She moved closer to the admiral, so close that she could have reached out and placed her hands on his epauletted shoulders. He had moved on to the third multiple-choice section, and now seemed to have no trouble at all. He barely looked at the booklet before bubbling his answers. Indeed, he was moving quickly enough to arouse suspicion. He flipped the page and then, two minutes later, flipped it again.
Livia, normally hawkish and without mercy for those who considered themselves above the law, could not decide whether to let fall her divine hammer. Her mind raced, searching for evidence of foul play. Could there be some code in the arrangement of his medals? Did the sextant play a part? Perhaps the other students in the class, meek to his authority, were conspiring to help his scheme in some small way. She scanned the room but detected no accomplices.
She became more and more agitated as the man continued to breeze through his test. He was even–did her ears deceive her?–whistling softly, tapping his foot in rhythm. She regarded him again and thought that the uniform did not fit him as well as it should have. There was a gap between the suit coat and the back of his neck and his trousers seemed an inch too short at the hem. Was it possible he had borrowed or even stolen it? Was this man two types of impostor? Her face flushed. To wear the uniform under false pretense was nothing short of treason!
As an immigrant Livia was perceptive of her adopted country’s greatness, and defended it fiercely at dinner parties with liberal friends. Yet here was this man carrying out the pettiest of crimes under the banner of patriotic duty. Yes, she was sure of it now. It could not stand. Livia shifted her feet and exhaled sharply through her nose, giving him the chance to notice he was being watched and correct himself. The whistling did not cease. In fact, it grew louder. She listened for a moment, trying to distinguish the tune, and then understood: he was whistling the theme from a show about sailors.
She would not be deceived and insulted. She had had enough. The hand descended. The braid was cool and scratchy beneath her palm. He turned to her rather slowly.
“I must ask you to remove yourself from the testing center.”
“Is there a problem?”
“We will speak outside. Please bring your things with you.”
The other students looked up with fear in their eyes. Livia signaled to another proctor who was waiting outside and the woman came in to take her place. Livia and the admiral proceeded out through the glass door, leaving his booklet and test sheet behind on the comically small desk.
When they were safely out of earshot, she turned to face him. His cheeks were red but he looked otherwise unconcerned, as though she was simply an underling here to report some minor information. She trembled as she spoke.
“I am afraid you are disqualified from continuing with the test.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. May I ask what evidence you have to disqualify me?”
“I believe that you know.”
He continued to feign ignorance, which only stoked her anger. Her small frame stiffened.
“Come,” she said. “I will show you.”
She took him by the elbow and turned him to face the flag which hung over the bulletin board like a shroud.
“I pledge allegiance,” she prompted.
He regarded her with a puzzled expression.
She repeated the words more forcefully.
“I pledge allegiance.”
The admiral said and did nothing. Perhaps he did not even breathe. Livia crossed her arms and waited. After a minute, or perhaps ten, she repeated the phrase, and he joined her.
Later, even on her deathbed, Livia would try to remember what sort of error she made, whether it was the omission of a word or simply a mangled pronunciation, whether she held her left hand behind her back while the right cupped her heart. She only knew that she was wrong, and he knew she was wrong, and he knew that the wrongness meant she had no authority. She would remember how he stopped mid-sentence to stare at her with his warrior’s eyes. The whole room seemed to be rushing in on her. Papers whirled. Somewhere a clock was ticking. A croak came from her own throat but did not form words. The admiral stared. It was a gaze she was familiar with. The native’s attempt to see and trace the threads that linked her, tied her, tangled her elsewhere, faraway.
Livia trembled. The admiral extended his arm and she startled, but he was only reaching across her to his hat, which still sat atop her desk. He placed the hat on his head, saluted, and turned to re-enter the room. She did not stop him. He slotted himself back into the small desk, where he took up his pencil and calmly finished the test. Then without fanfare he departed her life.