The Other Professor

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.  Lucius Annaeus Seneca


The dinner with Professor Smith was something of a momentous occasion. My parents rarely dined out with acquaintances, having very few left with whom they might socialize, even if they were able or so inclined; I had only one friend left in town from the old days.  I had orchestrated the meeting as it seemed likely to entertain my parents, my mother in particular, without overly imposing on Professor Smith, who was a long- ago colleague of my mother.  I had my motivations as well, although I did not consider them predominant. Professor Smith had arrived first at the restaurant and was seated at a table in the middle of the room. As my parents and I made our way into the entry of the faux hacienda, I caught a glimpse of him looking straight ahead as if lost in thought more than on the lookout for our arrival.

I had not seen him for several years and before that only once briefly since I had been a student in his class in the late 1970s. I took a Humanities class with him, but his specialty was Shakespeare. He lectured, rather than leading a discussion, and was consummately prepared. He stood with notes on the lectern at the front of a classroom of thirty or so chairs. He had not embraced the bohemian ethic of the 70s campus.  He wore a suit and tie to class. He was a little overweight, which gave him the chubby-faced aspect of a large boy. I took careful notes, read the texts, over-studied for exams, wrote thoughtfully crafted essays, and (so he said years later) made an impression as an earnest and capable student. I had always remembered the day a student’s black retriever rose from the floor (at that time dogs, most of which must have worn bandanas, were not forbidden classrooms) and circumambulated the room. Professor Smith’s serious and youthful face slightly registered the disturbance, but he carried on with the lecture without suggesting that dog cease padding around the room.  I cannot remember any word exchanged between us before, during, or after class. He must have known that my mother was his colleague in the English Department, but that did not inspire conversation, which suited me, being shy and awkward at that time. All the long years later I had remembered him as erudite, stolid, and reserved (perhaps from his own brand of shyness). I had also conceived of him as a kind and caring person—it must have been from things my mother had said in passing about him. She had expressed such a view of him in some off- hand comments. The effect of the statements linger but the precise words have scattered like the details of a dream in which much was said and done but only the sense that something happened remains. Most importantly, she liked him and her good opinion became mine.

My mother was not only his colleague, but had established some kind of mentor relationship with his wife—or with the woman who became his wife. That woman had been a graduate student, specializing, I assume, in Victorian Studies to be under my mother’s professorial aegis. My mother had helped her to a great degree, and I was aware of many demonstrations of gratitude—notes and letters and a pointed statement to me when we met once about how kind and helpful my mother had been to her. That face to face expression of thanks took place at a party at the home of Professor Smith and his wife.  That was when I renewed my acquaintance with my erstwhile professor and spoke to him for the length of time proper to cocktail-party conversation with the host.

In the human dichotomy of the helpful and kind versus the not-to-be-bothered, I could not have thought about placing him anywhere but with the former half. In addition to my mother’s good opinion, I must have unwittingly attributed to him qualities of my mother, as his fellow English professor.  She throughout the years acted as if a professor’s duties included general academic and intellectual support of any needy student. Graduate students writing dissertations became household names as my mother spent years fostering versions of dissertation drafts in search of a compelling thesis. There were the students from years before who still called. There were students in whom she had taken a personal interest and had introduced to me or my brother: one became a good friend of mine and one eventually married my brother. Such a close connection to students was a legacy for her; she had had such a rapport with one of her professors to the point that we paid this teacher, Dr. Davis, a visit in her home twenty years after my mother graduated. Further, my mother had arranged for Dr. Davis to teach as an adjunct at the University, believing that she, a retired single woman, would enjoy the experience.

Leading to the dinner, I barged into Professor Smith’s life out of the blue via email. As an “independent scholar” I am cut off from intellectual peers. That term nicely connotes unemployed and also expresses a large degree of isolation. To establish some rapport with an English professor would be a small surrogate for the loss of my mother (who is alive but whom I have lost intellectually). I yearned to have peers (if I could call such an august personage as Professor Smith my peer) to take a look at my book on Emily Brontë and to convey to me some impression of it. Professor Smith was not a Victorian scholar, but he would certainly be able to read it with the understanding of a man of the English scholar’s cloth. Might he also take it under his wing and exhibit it to others in the department? I embarked on my multi-purpose email: introduce the topic of my little book and suggest meeting for dinner when I was in town, not only to possibly establish some rapport between us, but also to give my parents an all too rare outing with an old acquaintance.

I took the chair across form him, a vantage point for studying the contrasts of past and present.  His light brown hair was mostly grey.  He was thinner overall. The chubbiness was gone, but the notably small nose still hinted at a choir boy’s face and one that had not entirely succumbed to the insistence of sixty-five. The conversation fell to us necessarily more than to my parents. His manner was formal at times and I heard the lecturer still. Then, all reserve would vanish when he ventured an occasional smile that cast a hue of joviality and approachability. His tone was above all earnest and our conversation flowed with all the force of true interest. Whether naturally, or developed as a technique, he interjected my name from time to time while keeping the most sincere eye contact. I was concerned not to appear mercenary and did not mention my book, directing the conversation to topics that my mother and father would share and then to his work: a long-term and soon to be completed exhaustive work on Shakespeare.  We talked at length about his having judged an oral interpretation contest of a Shakespearean soliloquy. I felt the joy of conversing on topics of interest and not superficial politeness. As I had done oral interpretation contests in high school, I really did want to hear what the contestants were like and how he evaluated them. We ranged into more personal territory, to topics sad and shared. I felt a complicity in dealing with painful change — “the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I could only surmise that he must feel lonely. As a man without children, recently having lost a close brother, and with an ailing wife, who spent much of her time seeking treatment in another city, he perhaps found my invitation welcome and not an imposition. Then he brought up my writing and asked about the thesis of my book. No one had ever posed that question to me before and I relished considering the answer. He listened intently but was non-committal verbally, which was certainly preferable to specious exclamations of interest.  I did not need him to gush over the concept and he couldn’t know of the execution of it. I was quite satisfied with the rare opportunity to consider what I had written and to discuss it, however briefly, with an English professor. As the evening came to its close, warmth and good will settled around us. I thought getting together again when I visited my parents again, or at some future time, was not beyond reasonable speculation.

Continued good feelings about the evening and the success of the dinner accompanied me home the next day on the long and all too familiar plane ride. Throughout the week I expected, to the point of not even considering the alternative, that I would receive an email thanking me for dinner and reflecting that it had been an enjoyable evening.  Professor Smith was certainly proper if nothing else. A full week passed and though nothing was really hanging in the balance, I was puzzled about the absence of some polite following words, if not an expression of warmth and enthusiasm equal to my own.  Finally I wrote to say how much we enjoyed the dinner and to say how glad I was that we got together. Professor Smith wrote back to affirm that my mother was one of his favorite colleagues and he wished me luck on my writing.




The Books, a short story

The Books

And now, retracing his steps, he evaded all mischance,

and Eurydice, regained, approached the upper air,

when he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light,

his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice.

In that instant, all his effort was wasted.  ‘Orpheus,’ she cried,

‘what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you?

See, the cruel Fates recall me, Farewell, now: I am taken,

wrapped round by vast night, stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.



The departure lounge at the Tucson Airport had changed very little over the last thirty years that Gwen had arrived at and departed from it.  All departure gates plotted a u-shape at the end of one concourse, after the gift shop, the Mexican restaurant, and the shoe shine alcove.

“Is this seat taken?” Gwen asked eyeing a single seat between a dispirited, worried-looking woman, her feet guarded by three bags pretending to be carry on size, and the column marking the end of that row of plastic seats. A barely audible “no” was the answer.

“We will start boarding flight 742 shortly, beginning with first class,” declared a distant microphoned female voice.

Gwen pulled the boarding pass half-way from her sweater pocket to confirm that she was part of  “group two” of coach and still had  a few minutes to delve into the book that she had been hauling along in her carry-on bag. Although it was the size of a dictionary, she had selected it to bring on the airplane from among the many books that she had sorted through to keep for her mother, leave for the estate sale, or appropriate for herself.  She had spent much of the last three days triaging books as part of moving her parents into their downsized apartment after fifty years in the family home: the scene of the lives of an English professor, with the inability to discard any relic of the past, including books; her two children, who had not only been avid readers but gone through the university and left their course books; and a school principal, who had read and shelved away his fair share of books, particularly those on American history.

When Gwen had walked through the kitchen doorway on her mission, a thick nostalgia filled her senses like a miasma from a swamp.  From the kitchen to the hallway, she quickly glanced to her right at the living room, a space of lonely beach at lowest tide, a few items of detritus left clinging after the movers had receded.  Down the still hallway, memory lurked like the intruder that she used to fear might be waiting in the shadows when she came home at night alone years before. To her right was the study, where a worn and sad carpet bereft of furniture could not hide its discolorations. Entering it was attending a euthanized pet at its last moments, when the world is only memories and relics. With all the strangeness of a nightmare, the room held no expectation except of quiet and loss.  Gwen felt herself the raider of a sepulcher, and gave herself brief minutes, as if the heavy stone would roll back to cover the opening.  The raid also had to be carried out surgically, since many books would have to stay behind, not because there would not be space as much as bringing them was futile, a postponement until a later and certain purge.

Gwen surveyed, flipped through, and reached a decision on books in all possible currents of life: books used for teaching, for learning, for pleasure; books purchased because the author was an acquaintance, colleague in the department or the field; books of poetry, fiction, women’s studies, gay studies, history; literary criticism; books in French and even a few in Arabic, including a decorative Koran from Cairo. There were the beautiful Romantics; the Victorians–early, late, and middle–with their lyrical verses, sprawling novels, and essays in elegant long-sentences; the Edwardians, and a few that snuck in from 20th Century, particularly if they were written by women; anthologies and editions; books bound in hardcover with decorative cardboard cases for display and old paper backs with yellowed pages that smelled like the stacks of the library; books studied, perused, underlined, hardly used, or beloved. Art books that Gwen remembered seeing as a little child spread on the kitchen table late at night as the backbone of a developing Humanities lecture and she had wondered out loud:  “Why are the private parts so small?  Why does the statue have such large hands?  Why are the women so fat?” Clustered under the Victorians were books showing in color plates the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, dreamy-eyed figures with short upper lips and abundant wavy hair–images that were scarcely contained by the edges of the canvass.  And then there reigned on the shelf her mother’s household god, the pole star of her mother’s career, the great Walter Pater. Gwen had snatched a set of his works to remain enshrined in her mother’s new bedroom bookcase, albeit destined to remain unopened for the years ahead.

The books were helplessly waiting on the shelf, subject to her draconian decimation. She knew them well; not all were old friends but there was not a new spine in the lines. The most recent she noted was the biography of John Keats that she had given to her mother about three years before; she had become disconcerted then saddened that her mother had not finished it, had simply forgotten about it.

She took a volume of the poetry of John Keats from the shelf and had to decide if this older version was worth saving, given that she owned a newer one. She saw her brother’s marginalia from an English class.  In faint pencil, in a seeming attempt to not permanently deface the pages, he had noted the date of the Eve of St. Agnes; he had jotted next to the third part of Ode to a Nightingale, “The only way to be happy is to be unthinking.” She paused, despite her haste to escape, at this kindred statement connecting a moment in an English class from the 1970s to this moment, when she could proclaim such a thought as near gospel.  Well, she thought, the wrong kind of thinking, yes, must be avoided, any thoughts dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. He had been the English major not her; he had been the one to write a poem or clever story, a screenplay or a memoir before and in between the bouts of alcoholic madness.  Her eye fell on the book’s neighbor, the Poetry of Swinburne. Swinburne was known to her by name and she had, even without personal knowledge of him, conceived a measure of respect for him, as for a relative she had heard talk of but had never met.  She flipped through to evaluate and found that her mother’s pencil had visited many pages in uniform and tidy cursive writing.  Gwen indulged a few moments of perusing the pages and stopped at one notation.  In the margin her mother had written “These 3 lines” next to a few lines in the middle of a long poem: “There is no help for these things; none to mend / And none to mar; not all our songs, O friend, / Will make death clear or make life durable.”  Gwen memorized them. As a teenager, at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, she had begun memorizing poetry, thinking that if she was ever taken hostage it would be good to be able to recite poetry to herself.  She had never been taken hostage or even been trapped in an elevator or a car in a snowstorm, but it turned out such extraordinary circumstances were not a necessary prerequisite to needing poetry in her head. She put Swinburne in the pile to keep for herself.

Then from the shelf to the drawers, there were the fledging books:  eager manuscripts resting in slender boxes typed on onion skin paper, the product of meticulous editing and skilled striking of the keys of the Underwood typewriter marking the minutes into the deepest night when class preparation gave way to scholarship. How could they, of value to no one, be cast into oblivion?

“Any passengers who are platinum or gold or in the military, in uniform, please board at this time.”

This hefty tome of literary criticism that now filled her hands was not the only book she had selected to take for herself—many would be shipped or were set aside for her return trips that promised to be every other month. She had decided this book was worth taking on the airplane despite its size because she had read another work by the same  author, a sweeping survey of great literature that had brought to mind several authors scarcely known or forgotten whom she rediscovered with a passion.  She was hoping to find a reference to a writer who addressed her important questions or offered a kindred spirit. However, after a glance at the opening chapter, the table of contents and a few random pages, she found that this book was a prequel to the great work she had already read.  Of course she thought; the magnum opus is the product of   a lifetime of writing on the same subjects.  The grand finale would be nothing new as much as a compilation of various previous forays into scholarship, such as this hefty fellow. Now what to do with it? Glancing around she saw a trash can over her left shoulder, but the opening was a circle too small to accommodate the book. Putting it in the trash seemed inappropriate anyway, not to mention a gross infraction of recycling. After a moment’s reflection, she casually and surreptitiously let it slide down from her chair and rest on the ground between the chair and the column separating her row of seats from another.  She nearly looked up to see if she had been caught in the act. Then she realized that anyone would assume that she had dropped it unintentionally and might point that out to her.  After seconds, she was certain no one had noticed.

That left her with one book to read. She extracted a small paperback from her bag– her lesson book, her guide to living.  Just perusing certain lines refreshed her precepts: value the living moment because death can happen to anyone at any time; appreciate that adversity makes us who we are; know that things can always get worse and that there is scarcely a situation on which the dispassionate mind can gaze without some consolation if reason is brought to bear; there is no point in thinking pointlessly and reflecting on the past the past and anticipating the future, neither of which we can control, constitutes pointless thinking.  She reflected on the natural and common suffering of all humankind.

“We are now ready to board passengers in group one.”

Still time to find a few choice passages of Seneca and take in his direct, simple and profound observations. Like a book mark, resting between pages 50 and 51 of Essays and Letters of Seneca was another boarding pass from another trip to Tucson. She was not surprised that she had made sure to bring Seneca on that trip. December 6—the date of the trip made from Tucson with her parents.  Why could she not visualize their all three being at this very point, ready to board the airplane, probably through the same gate, at the same time?  Although that flight was a void, the three days preceding the departure was a montage of scenes as clear as those of a movie watched for the fourth time the night before. The scenes had all the horrible wrongness of a nightmare and they ran one into another in a frenzy. Relatives and acquaintances to contact, the  coroner to call, funeral arrangements, choosing a casket, packing her mother for the tip to Oklahoma, going out to dinner and trying for a few minutes to cheat pain. She wondered if any other event could rival funeral arrangements for the degree of logistical planning.  A wedding didn’t compare—for that, there were long stretches of time to prepare and no jumping up to busy one’s brain.  With death, activity was necessity– get things done, get worn out, and don’t stop to reflect or the surreal sadness will catch you.

She glanced up from Seneca and made a note to herself to remember how it felt to know something had happened but to have no clear memory of it at all as a window to understanding in some small degree what it must be like for her mother.  She had gone well beyond her impatience from the earlier days of her mother’s dementia in describing in surprised or frustrated tones to her some event that it would seem impossible to forget or some conversation that had just taken place.  She took it for granted now that most of what transpired would be forgotten. The culminating point of that trip was as vivid as the prequel: Dallas airport where they met up with her husband and fifteen-year old son.  What a relief she had felt to see them and to let her husband take over some responsibility and drive them all in the rented van to the rural wilds of Oklahoma for her brother’s funeral. Their rendezvous was easy and precise.  It would turn out that all of the events of the next two days would luckily be that way.  People would gather on time, from near and far, without the drama of a delay or impediment, under a vast western sky of grey, warming clouds and slivers of sun. Four months ago…not long, but long enough to dull the shock of sudden death and break down some of the old links—still recent enough to reflect on the sad beauties of a gathering of people so disposed to remember only the best and pour out a love for his sake that would have been denied him while he was living.

Time to board, but with her trusty Seneca placed on the top of the unzipped bag.

“The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign.  Please make sure that all of your carry-on baggage is securely stowed in the overhead compartment or the seat in front of you.”              After a pause, the young male flight attendant continued: “We have found a book in the departure lounge.  If anyone has lost The Literary Canon please ring your attendant call button.”

Gwen felt a sharp surprise and a sudden twinge of guilt as if she had been caught in a wrongdoing, such that she almost, without thinking, reached for the button prepared to pretend to she had lost the discarded item.

The voice resumed in a jocular tone after a space of silence, “Okay, if not, it will stay in Tucson.”

Reason quelled her feelings, and the book with many other things stayed in Tucson.