“Ah, she has arrived!” he declared, pushing through the door. He was the most professorial professor I had seen, in his tweed sport coat with suede, elbow patches. He introduced himself and I did the same and I think there must have been some small talk about how I liked the place, but I don’t recall. I was a couple of days into my new job as a secretary at the university where I was also a grad student. My life was a mess. A divorce from an unfaithful husband. Two young children – one just a baby. Hadn’t worked in over a decade. Hard time finding a job. Moved into a smaller house. You’ve heard similar stories many times – some with details much worse than mine. But I was sitting behind a desk. In an office. With a paycheck and health insurance pending. Life could be worse.
I settled into my job, and I don’t remember if the professor told me he what he taught or if I heard from someone else. But soon I knew that he was a professor of literature, generally, and a poet, specifically. “He’s the Poet Laureate of the University,” I was told by more than one person. And soon I learned why. If there was a special event on campus, he would be there, reading a poem he composed for the occasion. I would find copies of other poems he’d written for submissions to literary magazines or for poetry readings, forgotten on a table by the copy machine. I’d read them and then leave them there for when he remembered.
Paper was his tool of the trade, his inventory, his treasure, his nemesis. For you see, I haven’t told you about his office. And what an office it was! A number of days, perhaps weeks, passed before I got a look inside. He didn’t leave his door open like the other professors did when they were in the suite. He would come in, disappear around the corner, down the hallway, a jingle of keys, and then he would go inside. The door would close. If I was away from my desk upon his arrival, I wouldn’t even know he was in the suite. At first, I turned away students looking for him, thinking he wasn’t there, only to hear his door squeak open later as he departed. They would leave papers for him in his suite mailbox, stuffed with papers. “Will he get my paper?” wide-eyes would ask.
“Oh, he checks the top layer regularly,” I assured them.
But the inside of his office – I must tell you about that! The first time I was invited in was to help him with a computer problem he had attempted to fix, himself, with a string of expletives. He was a man of words, you understand, some quite …. colorful, and truly startling as they slashed through the office hum. He appeared at my desk, calmly, and softly asked for my help, and I followed him back to The Door. It was open. At first I couldn’t discern much, for the light was dim. The blinds were closed and most of the fluorescent tubes were burned out. I wondered why he didn’t open the blinds or have the lights replaced, but then my eyes adjusted and I saw why. Paper! Paper everywhere! Piles of it! Mounds of it! Architectural sculptures of it! And books! (Of course, there would be books – he was a professor of literature.) The walls were ringed with bookcases – stuffed with books! But there were more books! Books spilling out of the shelves! Books mingling, perhaps coupling, with the piles of papers to make more papers – baby papers. A great circle of life right before my eyes. Papers blocked a path to the window blinds. Papers filled every place a ladder could be sat in an effort to replace the lights overhead. He sat down - on a pile of papers - in his chair and pointed to the cursed computer screen and its frustration. I stopped trying to fathom the depth, height, and breadth of all the paper and directed my attention to the screen. I remember that the problem was beyond my expertise or perhaps my mind was just too muddled from the overwhelming sight I had just beheld. “I’ll call the computer help desk,” I declared and then turned to look for the phone. And I looked for the phone. And I looked some more. “Where is the phone?” I ventured.
“Oh, it’s on the desk,” he answered, as he continued to punch keys on the keyboard hoping for a random resolution.
Then I spotted the cord, sneaking underneath a pile of – you guessed it – papers. At least I hoped it was a cord and not a mouse tail. But the problem was that I couldn’t get to the phone or even around the desk because of a pile of – you’re catching on – papers. I scurried to my desk and placed the call for help from my own phone.
Now, you may wonder how he managed to get to his phone. The answer is quite obvious – he didn’t. Students would call me asking to leave a message for him because his voice mail was full. “I tried emailing him, too,” I would hear, “but it bounced back. His box was full.”
Well, of course it would be, I thought without saying as I wrote down the message. I’d take it and tack it to a little, cork board outside of his door and later I would see that it was gone.
He took care of his students, you must understand, despite of his elusiveness. They all, and I do mean everyone I ever heard speak of him, adored him. They would sign up for a class just because he taught it. He made poets out of engineers and bibliophiles of illiterates. And he taught classes for hungry minds trapped in incarcerated bodies at a nearby prison.
I never had the opportunity to take one of his classes – to know him as his students did. But I did get to know him. He would stop by my desk, sometimes to plug in his cell phone, because he couldn’t get to a plug in his office because of a pile of – well, no point in belaboring the point. He would sit in a chair by my desk, and we would chat. He asked about my children – a mother’s favorite topic, he knew. I sat surrounded by their photos, a constant grief for all I was missing while I was at work, swallowed down and breathed out. And I would tell him of their latest accomplishments, funny moments, and hopeful plans. He listened with interest not feigned. And I learned about his family – his wife, his daughters. And his past – military school, Notre Dame, grad school in Virginia, coming-of-age in the 1960’s, crew-cut to long-hippie-hair, charter faculty of our university, life on Galveston Island.
And then, one day, he told me of some heart troubles. He would be off for a small procedure. When he returned, he told me the problem was under control for the moment. And then he told me he would be retiring after another year. I couldn’t help but wonder about all the papers and all the books and would I be enlisted to wield a shovel on his last day. But the Great Clean-Out began that day. He worked hard and I know it was hard, because knowing that his heart was troubling him, I began to notice his color wasn’t what it should be. He looked tired and thin. But he worked on. As the days to retirement sped closer, he would work on the weekends. I’d come in on Monday mornings and find the recycling bins bulging from his efforts. He donated books to the campus library. We had a give-away in the suite of all the rest. He would invite me in his office and say, “Look!” And I would exclaim with genuine surprise and delight as the carpet appeared, paths cleared to the desk and window, shelves emptied, and his chair became just a chair. I placed a work order about the burned-out tubes. A man arrived from Maintenance, carried a ladder into the office, and fluorescent light shown down in all its harsh glory.
The spring semester drew to a close. He didn’t teach that summer, but continued work in his office, clearing out until nothing remained except the furniture. Then he told me, “I’m on the payroll until the end of August, but I’m going to be off now.” The time had come for the big procedure. The one put off for little while by the small procedure. He told me what the doctor would be doing, and I heard trepidation in his voice. “They do this all the time now,” he reported. His doctor was an expert in this city of world-class healthcare.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I declared. “And I’ll be praying for you.”
“Thank you,” he answered. “Now with you, I have prayers from the Baptists covered. I already have Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Buddhists, and Atheists lined up to pray for me.”
We laughed and I hugged him and he left. And I prayed. And on the appointed day, I looked at the calendar and prayed some more. Word arrived that everything went well. His doctor was pleased with his recovery. He was discharged. I heard he was at home, not allowed to drive for a while.
And then one day he walked through the door. I was at my desk - a nicer desk than the one I was behind on the day I first met him. But he was wearing his tweed sport coat. He had come to campus for the retirement reception for another professor. He looked good. So good that I realized how bad he had looked – the gray in his skin was gone, replaced by the pink flush of vitality; the gauntness filled in with plumpness of a relaxed life. The stress of the heart trouble was as gone as all the papers and the books.
We held a retirement reception for him a short while later. Colleagues and students spoke of his life, his talent and inevitably, his office. His messy office. And I sat there and listened to the stories and smiled.
The mess in the professor’s office is cleared away; walls painted fresh; carpets scrubbed clean; windows squeegeed bright. A young professor resides within, with less paper, fewer books, no mess. The retired professor has moved on to make glorious messes elsewhere as he writes poetry, spouts poetry, teaches poetry, and lives poetry. And lives a messy life. For life is either tragically messy or wondrously messy. Those who tell you life isn’t messy either haven’t lived enough, for want of years or for want of open eyes. But the professor knows about mess. And so do I. And I remain at my desk with my wondrously and tragically messy life.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton