I was driving, some years ago, to Michigan. Both of my parents were in the car. Or perhaps it was a truck, or a van. I say this because we were riding tall on the road. I was in some twisted phase of moving, from Michigan to Ohio. The exact circumstances are now shady, apart from the fact that I was already feeling nostalgic, and that, due to the demands of the body, there was no avoiding the truck stop a few miles ahead.
And then a car passed us. The driver wore an old cowboy hat, and since we were riding tall, I could see she also had on cowboy boots. I knew who this was. It was Professor K.
In undergrad, Professor K had introduced me to Dickinson and to Ginsberg, to Mr. Eliot and the ragged pair of claws he should have been. I read Lolita for the first time with her. There Professor K was, passing by us in her glory and her cowboy boots. Because of my nostalgia, she also stood for the many professors I met at that time in my life and—yes, I will say it, as nothing short of it happened—the worlds they opened to me. I was a wide-eyed kid from the farm, and how beautiful and important it all was to me then and was while I drove and still is now. The learning was like music and, though I should have, I hardly knew what it meant outside of itself.
Undergrad was the last time in life when I didn’t teach college students in one way or another. At that time, I didn’t know all of the tricks I’ve since been taught and of which I’m now hyper-aware: the card up the sleeve, the thermos under the hat, the wooden nickel tucked into the boot. These professors did not seem to need tricks. They were intelligent and clever and passionate and that combination will trump a trick any day.
I digress. I romanticize.
But it was a wond’rous thing to walk into campus with a cup of coffee while the sun was just rising, first to the library to wake the brain, and then to class at eight, which would have been, if I remember correctly, looking at all of the world’s best art thrown up onto a wall in a room that was always kept twenty degrees too warm.
I’m sure that by now someone has gone ahead and fixed the thermostat.
As Professor K passed us, I remembered the interview she had done with the undergrad newspaper. I knew the details then, but now they are all too fuzzy to dare repeat. Suffice to say, she did not have her doctorate handed to her, and the process of obtaining it included, at some point or another, children, a station wagon, and a tent.
While she worked, the music was NPR, classical, but when she traveled, she always traveled with Willie.
So Professor K and Willie Nelson passed by us. Normally, I would not have said a thing. I would have savored the strange encounter and the flood of memories. My life was transitioning from one phase to the next, and the sighting seemed a sign that good things would come.
But it was a long drive, the conversation was running low, and so I told my traveling companions everything I remembered about her. I probably even told them that she was listening to Willie Nelson.
Then I saw her blinker up ahead, by the exit to the truck stop. The same stop we’d planned to make.
“Oh no,” I said.
Out of excitement, my mother was repositioning herself in her seat.
My father, having a mind similar to my own (indeed, perhaps the source of my own), said, “Keep going. Keep going to the next exit.”
But my fate was decided. I, too, put on my blinker. I tapped the brakes. A beautiful thing, a whole past, was about to have the dirty-fingered mark of the present all over it.
Had I known what was going to happen, Professor K, I would have mentioned the horror of having anyone approach you at a truck stop, particularly this truck stop and, furthermore, the bathroom at this truck stop. A stranger, at that, who seems to have a bushelful of details about your life and education and taste in music. Professor K, I apologize. But you handled it with your natural, cowboy grace.
And now, I ask you to explain the nature of this meeting to me. It has perplexed me for some years.
While I pumped gas, Professor K left the truck stop bathroom and came right toward me. Professor K made remarks about my upcoming move. She asked how I was. She wished me well. Professor K was pleasant. Still, I felt a chance meeting would have been better under different circumstances.
What was the source of my discomfort?
a) Simple—Professor K did not actually remember me, and could not disguise this.
b) Simple—an undoubtedly strange conversation had just taken place in a truck stop bathroom, far out of my hearing. Neither of us knew how to react.
c) We were not used to chatting at the gas pump about this and that. We used to talk about books and all of the fish and desperation and forests and buzzing flies that were found in them.
d) An egg, C.S. Lewis says, must hatch, or risk going rotten. Nature says so, too. Perhaps felt I had been caught mid-process. (The egg being an undergrad, in this case, and the hatched chick being an academic.) (Or, rather, the egg being anyone with a set of ideas, the hatched chick—the chicken, if you will—being the one who makes use of those ideas, and the rotten egg being the rotten egg that even the children tease.)
e) All of the above.
And how should one have reacted to the situation?
a) Call an analyst.
b) Visit the Archaic Torso of Apollo—“You must change your life.”
c) Call Willie Nelson. With him, buy a station wagon and a tent. Look at all the best art in the world daily. Never fix a thermostat.
d) Both a and b.
Is there still hope?
b) I am a rotten egg.