At least the Professor called early and said nothing obscene.
When the phone rang, I was at the fireplace adding kindling. I couldnt place the mans voice for a moment, but then I did. It was Professor Kelner, a distinguished scholar in my field who had written the definitive book on the Cold River people. My former field, I should say, now that my Ph.D. dead-ended me into a job doing data entry. I knew Professor Kelner all too well, but we had talked by phone only once or twice.
He was in my city calling from the train station. I am frightened, he said flatly. Somehow I am here. I dont know what to do.
I remembered hearing his wife had died during the past year. When I expressed my sympathy, he was quiet.
I was the one who broke the silence. Why are you calling me? coming down hard on the last word. I knew he had a daughter in the city who worked at the Art Museum.
I remembered you came to the ceremony for my book that didnt win the prize.
It was true. I had seen him there and even supported his illusion that the book might win. I respected the Professors early work, but knowing the title of the new book, I felt pleasantly sure the judges would think its theme too narrow.
Kelner had given me a hard time when he chaired my dissertation committee. After two years that culminated in an ad hoc grilling by the committee, I went looking for another chairman.
Even without the session he arranged exposing all my weak areas, I was ready to switch. In the department, people were talking about his student who quit to take a job with the city after eight years of hanging on. If I took that long, I would be ancient.
But I also remembered the Professors book on the Cold River people. Even though Kelner was a despot in the halls of Breyer, care and humanity infused each page of history he wrote.
I am surprised to hear from you, Professor Kelner, I said formally. I could hear him suck in his breath at the other end of the line.
Oh, yes, he said. Thank you for telling me.
I was silent. Finally I said, Professor, are you still there?
Yes, I am here.
I will come for you and we will decide what to do.
I would be very grateful, he said with a dignity I recognized.
Are you in the waiting room or in the little café?
The café is closed. Ill be here in the waiting room, he said soberly. He sounded close to tears.
I put on my rain jacket and pulled out the waterproof scarf I keep in a pocket. Driving to the train station took twenty minutes, which I used to brood about my broken dreams instead of making a plan for the present.
I had no trouble finding the Professor, who was the only person sitting on the benches. He must have taken a while thinking who to call. Or maybe I wasnt the first person he had tried.
Here I am, I said, my daughterly tone galling me. Ill go to see when you can catch a train to take you back.
Take me back, he said. Where?
Home, I said.
Oh, he responded. I wish I could remember the address.
Before I walked over to the counter, I told him to stay where he was.
There was no train to Cascadia until the next morning.
You must be ready for something to eat, I said. We can figure out what to do at my apartment.
In the car, I asked the Professor about his daughter who worked at the Art Museum. He repeated my question vaguely. Clearly he didnt remember. I did, thats the kind of sticky mind I have, full of random mental post-it notes.
By the time we pulled up, I was determined.
This time the Professor was a gentleman as well as a scholar, holding the door open for me to go in first. I helped him off with his coat, then went into my little kitchen to make him a sandwich from what was left of a barbecued chicken. He was sitting by the fire when I came back with two cups of hot tea along with the sandwich.
He ate heartily and asked for a napkin. I brought him one and returned to sipping my tea. Professor Kelner, I said, I dont know whether you heard I worked a year for the Chippewa.
Thats fine, he said, and continued sipping.
I told him I was going to call Sally.
Sally, he said thoughtfully, looking into his teacup.
I dont remember, he said.
You dont? I could feel butterflies in my stomach the way I had when I was a child.
I went over to the drawer where I keep the phone book. Yes, S Kelner was listed, no address. I dialed the number, but reached his daughters answering machine. I didnt leave a message. Tonight was the problem.
The thought of the Professor, disoriented, prowling in my apartment after I went to bed, kept my stomach churning. Besides, to my dismay, his bald head and small mustache reminded me of my father. For a minute, I stopped calculating the balance of respect and resentment due him, seeing him only as elderly and almost related. But then I started to wonder if, while he sat by the fire in my living room, he was looking on me as a deserter from our holy task. And then, another shift. Even if he remembered humiliating me and wanted to make up for it, he could never return the months and years I wasted at his pleasure.
While I was stalling, trying to think of a way to get him to leave, I managed to ask if he would like more tea.
Yes, he said quietly.
Haida, he was saying, on my return. Then after the tribe, he named the artist who had done the print hanging on the wall that separated my living room from the kitchen.
Yes, I said. I had been an unwilling captive in the Professors late afternoon class about what the catalog still called Primitive Art, but a few months later, I had fallen in love with the red and black print on tan paper and bought it. The Professors droning lecture voice had not been his strong point, but now his tone was appreciative. Unexpectedly, I felt as if someone was troubling to knit my fragmented life together.
Where is the bathroom? he asked, standing up.
Through the arch and to the right, I said, waving my hand. A few seconds later, I heard his footsteps stop. I had to follow him to show him which door.
While I watched the flames, I was still feeling queasy. I could have been back at the cozy bar near the Rez with two friends from the tribe. The men had a great time that cold, rainy night but I took sick on the cheap white wine. Professor Kelner had probably done better over the years he did his research.
Ah, ha. There were Cold River people living in the city. All I had to do was find out who was here now, not on the Rez. I went over to the phone book and began looking for names as they came into my mind. After a half dozen false starts, I found Liza Blackwaters listing.
Ellen, she said, knowing my voice although we hadnt talked for a half dozen years.
Its about Professor Kelner, I said, feeling embarrassed. Liza had been a friend and I hadnt done my part to keep it up.
Is he all right? she asked, coming right to the point.
Yes and no, I said. Hes confused. He doesnt even remember he has a daughter here.
Poor man, she said in her throaty voice.
Liza, will you help? I asked. I dont have room and, well, he made my life hard.
Ill come for him, she said softly. I told her where I lived.
Within half an hour she was at my place. Burton. Ellen, she said, Its good to see you both.
Liza, its good to see you, said the Professor and I, nearly in chorus.
I offered Liza a cup of tea or a glass of wine, but although she thanked me, she said it was late.
When I brought the Professors coat, I saw Liza gazing at the print of two old Jewish scholars poring over a book.
Which one is your grandfather? she asked, her eyes on the wall.
They were my grandfathers cousins, I said, which wasnt far from the truth.
I had the feeling she was ready to scold me but wouldnt in front of Burton Kelner. Instead, she put her hand on his shoulder to steady him as they walked toward the door.