Pennsylvania University, 1974
The lecture hall was packed with freshman history students readying themselves for the first day of class. The fifteen or so ceiling fans were churning a slight breeze; enough to gently toss a few papers around the hall. High above and between each fan, hung dust covered, dim light fixtures, half of which were burnt out. If not for the five, large pane glass window, there would be little to no light at all. The smells of the old, teak-paneled walls and vintage student desks, filled the nostrils of everyone in the room. In a nutshell; the room was old, dark and dank.
There is quiet chatter among the crowd of anxious students. The professor emerged from a small office that adjoins the lecture hall then takes to the stage. He placed his notes neatly on the lectern, then walked in front of it leaving his notes behind and began his class. “OK, everyone, settle down and take a seat. My name is Professor Harrison Woodrow Lofthouse. Since this is day one, and you are already starting to miss mommy, daddy and your little, fat-ass cat, Fluffy, we’ll keep it short while I still have your undivided attention.”
His opening remarks caused a few laughs from the students. He paused, then turns toward his eager pupils and asked, “So, what year did the civil war begin?”
A voice in the background shouted, “1861!”
“And what year did it end?”
The same cry enthusiastically replied, “1865, professor.”
“Very good.” Then he asks, “How many died during the civil war?” There was a deafening silence in the room. “You in the back?” Silence. “I’ll tell you how many.” The professor returned to the side of the lectern and pounded it hard with his fist strewing his notes all over the floor, then exclaims, “Nearly seven hundred thousand men, some women, and children as well!” Then calmly and quietly said, “That’s how many.”
A young freshman in the front row asked, “Why did the war start, professor?”
The professor paced the floor back and forth for a few seconds, then stopped in his tracks. He turned to the audience of students and said in a frustrated tone, “I have no fucking earthly idea.”
The comment brought a reluctant snicker from a few in the hall.
“History is mixed on how the war began. Some argue that there were many differences between the north and south about the idea of slavery, as well as trade, tariffs, and states’ rights. Adding to the complication was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. His election led many southern states to consider seceding from the union to protect what they thought was their God-given right to own humans.”
A hand was raised in the back of the room. “So, who won?
The professor lowered his head and solemnly said, “Officially the north, but as you recall, nearly seven-hundred thousand died in the war. Now I ask you, who won?”
There is another silence in the lecture auditorium, and the professor said to the students, “Ladies and gentlemen, I said today was going to be short, so in keeping up with my honesty and integrity, time is up. Its snack time or whatever it is you do between now and your next class. Next assignment, come prepared to discuss the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You are dismissed.” That was my last class at P.U.
It has been nearly three years since my last teaching class at PU. My wife had been fighting cancer for years and lost that battle a few months before I quit my teaching job. The sadness of her death kept me away from my work for a few weeks. I decided an attempt a return and went at it for a month or so but gave up. Both of us worked at the University and is where we first met nearly thirty years ago. The two of us were recent college grads; both of us had a master’s degree in our chosen field of study, and climbed the ranks, then got our Ph.D.’s and eventually became tenured professors. She was the department head of the school of business, and I was a history teacher and lecturer. The memories were still so fresh in my mind, and I had to get away from that place. After taking some more time off from work, I resigned my position, moved away and applied for and got another teaching job at the local junior college in Vermont with the same curriculum; freshman history.
It is a fall morning, crisp and cool, and the once green leaves are beginning to show the coming of the season; red, orange and brown. The narrow streets are starting to fill with the dead offspring of the once full blossoming trees of summer.
I had been in town for nearly two months, and today was no different than the others, and it always started the same. Time for my usual 6:45 am jog before my first class at nine.
I’m not sure why I jog, I hated jogging and have been doing it for years. My wife loved to jog, and eventually, I gave in and became her jogging partner; I didn’t like it then either. So I suppose in the back of my mind it reminds me of her— and still do it— begrudgingly. For whatever reason, on this day, my wife was deep on my mind. I got dressed in my running outfit complete with my I ‘Heart’ (Love) NY t-shirt, put on my running shoes and took off. The door slammed behind me with a loud bang, and I began my slow, steady pace of my run. Early on into my jaunt and only a few hundred feet into it and for whatever reason, but on this particular day, I felt a sudden burst of sadness and anger all at once. What began as a slow, stridden junket, had turned into a full-on sprint for the next quarter of a mile. I was running like a crazed lunatic! It was though I was running away from, or toward someone or something. Sweat was pouring from my body and beads of it were streaming down my face, and I’m certain, mixed with a few tears.
I reached my usual resting point; a huge oak tree. Along with the others, it too was losing its leaves, but this tree seemed stronger and steadier than the rest. It was as if it were making every effort to hold on to each and every leaf, like a parent clinging to their offspring. I leaned up against the old oak tree and stared up at the rustling branches all the way to the tree’s mighty peak. The breeze continued its carnage of the deceased foliage, and more sad thoughts of my wife wandered through my mind. I reran the tape in my head of all the suffering she endured during those last few months. My leaning became weakened, and I slid down the side of the tree. The hard, sharpened bark scratched me all the way down until I slumped to the ground. I placed my head in my hands and silently wept.
My sad moment and quiet solitude was quickly interrupted. I felt a soft touch on my shoulder and looked up. The sun blinded me for a moment, and I shielded my eyes by doing a makeshift sun visor with my hand; using the other, wiped away a couple of tears. And there she stood in silhouette because of the blinding sunlight; just a dark and shaded figure. My eyes were adjusted, and I could tell that she was quite young, probably mid-twenties. Natural blond and stunning green eyes and she was cute, more appropriately, she was gorgeous.
She removed her hand from my shoulder and asked with an unmistakable Southern drawl, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Just ran a little too hard and fast.”
“Yeah, I know, I saw you.” Then she laughed and said, “You looked like you were running away from a jealous husband!”
“My doctor told me that I needed to get more assertive with my cardio workout.”
Laughing again she says, “Well your doctor must be in cahoots with the funeral parlor!” That one even made me chuckle a bit. “I made you laugh!”
“Yes, you did indeed.”
And with a concerned and tender tone, she says, “You said you were fine, you don’t look fine. Let me help you up.” She reached for my hand and got me to my feet.
Not letting go of my hand, she aggressively shakes it like a corrupt politician. “We have not been formally introduced.”
She stands up straight and proudly says, “My name is Becky, all the way from Louisiana.” She lets go of my hand and does a bit of a ballerina twirl, and says playfully, “I was born in Lafayette but raised in “N’awlins.” I quickly interpreted it as New Orleans.
“You have a cute accent.”
“It comes out most when I meet someone new, I really can talk normal, so you know.”
She is still twirling about and continues. “Anyway, back to my story. My given name is Rebecca, but everyone calls me Becky. My folks call me Bec for short. I guess they’re too lazy to add the ‘key’ to the last part of Bec.”
Again, I chuckled.
She continues with, “I don’t know how you go from a sophisticated name like Rebecca all the way down to Bec. I guess it sort of rhymes with speck; just a dot, but I love them just the same; lazy or not.”
She stopped with the twirling and with a hint of a concerned tone, she said, “But you can call me Bec if you like and I promise I won’t think you’re lazy.”
“OK, then, Bec it is.”
“So, what is your name, kind sir?”
Interrupting me, Becky says, “I know who you are. Aren’t you that new professor from Pennsylvania? Professor Lighthouse?”
“It’s Lofthouse. My full name is Harrison Woodrow Lofthouse.”
Somewhat aghast, Becky says, “That’s a mouthful of names. Very proper sounding if I do say so myself.
There is a history behind it. My mother was a Democrat and my father, a Republican. Coming up with my name was about the only thing they ever agreed on; Harrison a Republican and Woodrow a Democrat.” WORK ON THIS, NEEDS TO BE IN BETTER ORDER
“How’d they decide which name came first?”
“Never really thought about it. I suppose they flipped a coin.”
Again, she grabs my hand shaking it in much the same manner as before. “Nice to meet you. A professor? How impressive.” Giggling a bit, she moves in toward me then asks, “And what is it that you profess?”
She released my hand and said, “I teach history at the junior college.”
“Well, I do declare! Now isn’t this just the smallest world? I’m a student there. Why haven’t I seen you before?”
“I’m only there Tuesday and Thursday mornings for a couple of classes.”
She slapped both of her hands to her thighs and said, “Well then, that mystery has been solved. I’m there Monday and Wednesday. I’m only taking six hours at a time.”
“What are you studying?”
“Pre-med or pre-law, it just depends on what day it is,” she said with a big grin. “Hell, every other student in my class says they’re either pre-med or pre-law. None of us has a damn clue what we’re gonna be, but it sounds better than ‘I’m a poli-sci major.’ Just the sound of it hurts my brain. Heck-fire, I’m the only one in my family that ever went to college. My mama just ‘shined’ when she told folks that she has a daughter in pre-med.”
A few years back after I got my GED, she threw a big party at the house! You’d have thought I just won a Nobel Prize or crowned Hog Queen at the State Fair! She was so proud.”
Then in sort of a whisper, leaned into me and says, “She don’t ever mention pre-law to her friends or the kinfolk. She despises lawyers.” She sat up and continued. “I hope you’re not a lawyer, even if you are, she’d still like you. I know that a lot of history types run off to law school.”
“After I graduated from college, I thought about it, but no, I’m not a lawyer.”
“That’s a load off my mind.”
What brings you all the way up from ‘N’awlins’?”
“Well it all started…,” then she paused and placed both hands on her hips, “Are you mocking me?”
“Not really— perhaps a little. Please continue.”
“Anyways, my daddy, when he was still alive got transferred with the railroad.” Becky with her hands still on her hip looked at me and said, “That’s when we moved from,” and in a prissy tone, and with added emphasis said, “New Oorleeens.”
Becky points toward a nearby park bench and asks me to sit with her, and we walk over, and I’m the first to take a seat. She plops down beside me; uncomfortably close, then I began to make some idle chat and asked where she lived. (“Where do you live?”)
“At my mama’s house.”
“Is your mother retired or does she still work.”
Quite subtly she replied, “She has a job raisin’ up daisies.”
“What kind of job is that? Is she a gardener?”
“Don’t you get it?” And with the palms of her hands flattened and pointing up, she makes an up and down motion with them as if raising and lowering something.
“I still don’t understand.”
“To be so smart, you sure are dumb. She’s D-E-D, dead!”
“I’m sorry to hear that. How long has it been?”
“Nearly four years to the day to be exact. You already know Daddy’s dead.”
“Again, I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK. I think about them from time to time, especially Mama. We were very close.”
I noticed her eyes begin to water up and asked, “You Ok?”
She wiped them and quickly changed the subject without an answer.
“I see a naked ring on that finger. I would have thought a nice, good-looking professor like you would be married.”
“I used to be.”
“No, she died a couple of years ago.”
“Now, I’m sorry. How long were you married?”
“Nearly thirty years.”
“That’s a long time.”
I lowered my head and quietly said, “Not long enough.”
She taps me on the leg and gets up from the park bench. “Isn’t this interesting. We just met and already have something in common.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a widower, and I’m an orphan! Well, sorta kinda something in common. It don’t seem natural that a wife goes before the husband. It should be the other way around, then all the kids in the right peckin’order; oldest too youngest. Thank God I’m an only child, removes the pressure.”
The Bec asked, “Wanna go and get a cup of coffee or some sweet tea?”
“I have class in an hour, but I’ll take a rain-check.”
“Then it’s a date. When?”
I think to myself, date? “I don’t know, I suppose anytime.”
“Well, now is anytime.”
“I wish I could, but today is not that day; I’m surprising my students with a pop quiz.”
Bec put on a pouty expression on her face and said, “I hate those things. They always scare me.”
In a bit of a laugh, I said, “All in a day’s work.”
Then she laughed a little and said, “You’re just mean!”
“Bec, I really do need to get going. Maybe we’ll run into each other at school.”
“Fat chance, unless I change my schedule.”
She reaches in her “fanny pack” and gets out a pen and scrap of paper and writes down something and handed it to me; it was her phone number.
“I’ll let you get to your class so you can torture your students with that silly test. I’m gonna finish my run and go home and study.” She gets up from the bench and takes off. Along the way, she turned waves and said to call her using her thumb and pinkie finger to mimic a phone call. I sat for a few more moments thinking of her and also of my wife. For whatever reason, I felt better than before we met, then thought to myself, “sweet girl.” I got up from the bench, made an “about face” and headed home.
“You remind me of my daughter minus the accent.”
End line of the book,
“I know your father very well; I hope to know you equally as well.” They never left each other’s side from that moment on.
They are alone and asked, “Why haven’t you ever tried to hit on me?”
He shrugged his shoulders, and replied, “Not sure. Why?”
Bec made an advance at him and said, “Then I will.”
She put her arms around him and kissed him, then he gently pushed her away.
Frustrated, she asked, “Why won’t you let me in? Is it because of her?”
“I don’t know… maybe.”
“Well she’s dead, and I’m not!”