Everything You Left Behind
by Carol Slider
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He didn’t want to talk to Laurel Tiernan. If he hadn’t despised hyperbole so much, he might have said she was the last person in the world he wanted to see.
But there she was, sitting at his favorite corner table of the café where he had breakfasted almost every morning for the past 35 years. And before he could back out the doorway, she waved and called,
“Professor Jacobs! Good morning!”
Hmph. Good morning, is it? Maybe for her.
And what was she doing here at seven-thirty, anyway? He had always been at the university before seven to prepare class notes and do last-minute grading.
Jacobs walked unwillingly toward Laurel's table, ignoring the other regulars who called out greetings. Wasn’t it enough that she’d taken his job? Did she have to invade his morning sanctuary, too?
Oh, he couldn’t blame her personally. Blame it on the administration, who’d been eager to replace a high-salaried, fully tenured professor with a new graduate who’d work for half as much. They couldn’t force him to retire—but they could hint, suggest, advise.
“You’re sixty-five,” the department chair had said patronizingly, as if Jacobs didn’t remember his own age. “There must be things you’d like to do, places you’d like to visit. You’ve earned it.”
So he’d tendered his resignation and endured the obligatory, embarrassing retirement party. Goodbye, Professor Emeritus Jacobs. Hello, Laurel Tiernan with her two-year-old doctorate.
No, he didn’t blame her. But he didn’t have to be nice to her.
She smiled as he approached, showing off gleaming white teeth. At least, he thought grudgingly, she wasn’t one of those sour feminist types; really, she was an attractive young woman. The campus males probably gravitated to her classes just because of her red hair, green eyes, and well-proportioned figure. He would have.
“Do you have time to join me?” she asked, and he opened his mouth to refuse. But too late—Marge was already on her way with a pot of coffee and a caramel pecan roll.
He pulled out the old wooden chair opposite Laurel’s and sat down. They sipped coffee in silence for a minute or two. Then Laurel said,
“I wonder...could I ask you something?”
You mean my office... Jacobs looked down at the table.
“The east wall seems...a little...damp...”
Jacobs laughed once—a short sharp bark of a laugh.
“Damp, all right. Pipes run behind it. Better not put your books there...they’ll grow fur.”
“Thanks. And...” She hesitated. “The vent above my desk...I’ve called maintenance...but it still blows cold air...”
“Forget calling maintenance. Useless. Just close the vent and wear a sweater.”
“Okay,” said Laurel ruefully. “And that desk chair...it creaks, and the padding’s so worn, I can almost feel the springs...”
“Oh, the chair.” Jacobs’ lip curled. “Took me 20 years to get a new one. It’s about 15 years old now. With any luck, they'll give you another one before you get tenure. Maybe.”
“I won't expect one any time soon, then.”
They sat in silence again, and Jacobs watched her enigmatic face. Hard to tell how she felt. Concerned? Worried? Resigned? And did he actually feel sorry for her?
Just a little.
Laurel checked her watch. “I’ve got to get to campus. Thanks so much for chatting.”
Jacobs nodded, and watched her go.
Hmph, he thought. Drafty, moldy old office...she can have it, and welcome to it...
There was a certain satisfaction in knowing he could sit here as long as he liked, and go home to a cozy armchair by a warm fire...
Outside the café, Laurel paused. She stood just beyond the frame of the big picture window and peered around it until she could see Professor Jacobs at the table in the corner. Was she imagining it, or did he look a little more relaxed than he had when he’d walked in? And was that a hint of a smile just creasing the corners of his mouth?
Anyway, she’d consider phase one a success. The next time they met—quite by accident, of course—she planned to remind Professor Jacobs about perpetually tardy students who slept in the back row and turned in plagiarized papers.
It would take a lot of effort, no doubt about that...but one day, perhaps, they just might be friends.
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