The Professor continued to put things in a strange, new place. He was immersed in his task, giving it the full concentration he gave all things which intrigued him, and although he couldn’t have known it then, his present curiosity launched him upon a career that would occupy him most of his life.
Earlier he had sat at the piano in the den, hammering out original compositions, chords that marched relentlessly throughout the big Tudor house. Every time he would come here to Grandmother’s house he would sit by the hour in the den, off the reception hall, at the upright, always wearing his brown-lensed sunglasses. The sunglasses were an essential part of his repertoire and the reason the family had dubbed him “The Professor”.
This day, when my 4-year-old brother finished playing the piano, he took off his sunglasses, set them above the keyboard and left the room.
We had come with our parents, as we often did on a weekend afternoon, to visit and have dinner with Grandmother and with Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Bob, who lived with her. Uncle Bob was Daddy’s brother, Grandmother was their mother. It was a hot Sunday. I sat on the living room floor, coloring, while the adults in their easy chairs around me laughed as they told stories about the old days. My seersucker pinafore stuck to my body and I felt itchy. I looked up at Mother and Grandmother and Aunt Marguerite and wondered how they always managed to look so cool and fresh and powdered, no matter how hot the day, in their flowered afternoon dresses. An occasional breeze flirted with the deep green maple leaves then eased through the open casement windows, lightly lifting the humidity that hemmed in the August afternoon.
We would have dinner in a couple of hours. “Good girls who eat all their food will get chocolate ice cream for dessert,” Grandmother promised.
Speaking of ice cream inspired them to recount the story of the time Uncle Bob had taken them all for a Sunday drive. He had pulled up at the curb opposite a drugstore and said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared across the street into the store. A few minutes later he came out, got into the car and drove off without saying a word. Later they found out he had gone in and eaten an ice cream while they all waited in the car.
The black Packard sat in the driveway, the sun glinting off the high polish. Uncle Bob said that when Granddaddy was alive he had a chauffeur who polished only the side of the car that faced the house.
“Where’s the Professor?” asked Uncle Bob.
“He went upstairs,” said Mother.
“He’s been gone a long time,” said Grandmother. “He’s awfully quiet…”
“Too quiet,” said everyone. “He must be into something.”
Just then he came downstairs and into the living room.
“There you are,” said Aunt Marguerite.
“I couldn’t put them back,” he said sheepishly.
“You couldn’t put what back?” asked Aunt Marguerite.
“Those fish are really slippery,” he said.
“I took them out of their bowl.”
“You took them out of their bowl?”
“Where are they now?”
“In the toilet…”
In the toilet?!” Aunt Marguerite leaped from her chair and headed across the long room to the reception hall. “How did they get in the toilet?”
“I can’t put them back. They’re too slippery. I just wanted to see if they could swim in there.”
Aunt Marguerite raced upstairs, rescued the goldfish from the toilet and placed them back in their bowl that sat on the deep, tiled windowsill in the bathroom. The fish had survived the experiment. The Professor was equally fortunate.
“It’s time for your nap,” said Mother, leading the Professor upstairs to the guest room.
“Let’s draw a mustache on him while he’s asleep,” said Uncle Bob.
Once a stray bat had flown into the Professor’s bedroom in the middle of the night. Daddy kept yelling at him to wake up, simultaneously turning on the bright ceiling light, frantically climbing over his bed and chasing around the room waving a bath towel, trying to capture the bat. The Professor slept through the entire scene. Daddy finally caught the bat and in the morning we told the Professor what happened and how we tried to awaken him to protect him from the blind bat’s flying into his head and maybe killing him.
Only one time did the Professor awaken in the middle of the night. Aroused by his frantic cries, Mother and Daddy rushed to his room.
“There’s a monkey at my window!” he wailed.
“No there isn’t,” said Daddy.
“There was,” he insisted, pointing, his outstretched arm and his body shaking.
“It wasn’t real,” said Daddy. “It was only a dream.”
“It was real,” the Professor persisted. “He was right there – looking at me.”
That night Mother warmed some buttermilk for him and he finally went off to sleep.
I finished the picture in my coloring book, so while the Professor napped and the others talked, I went outside and sat in the hammock awhile under the mountain ash tree by the driveway.
A robin hopped across the lawn, stopped, tilted its head, and hearing no prospective dinner there, moved on. Another chirped somewhere in the branches above me. Dappled sunlight played across the pale green and white striped hammock twill, making the green darker in spots and the white gray. I filled my red plastic teacup with bright orange berries from the tree.
“There, that will be enough for dinner,” I thought, and went inside.
The Professor wandered into the living room.
“You grew a mustache while you were taking your nap,” said Daddy.
“No I didn’t.” The Professor was no more certain of that than he was certain, when Daddy told him, that we had seen some purple cows while he slept during our recent Sunday afternoon drive in the country.
“Look in the mirror,” said Uncle Bob.
He was sitting on Uncle Bob’s lap in Uncle Bob’s big green chair.
Aunt Marguerite brought a hand mirror.
Look at his eyes,” laughed Aunt Marguerite. “They’re as big as saucers.”
The Professor lifted his small hand to the area above his upper lip.
“No. How’d you do that?” said the Professor.
“You grew a mustache while you were asleep,” said Uncle Bob.
“Uh-uh. I can’t. I’m a little boy,” he said.
Aunt Marguerite laughed again. “Your Uncle Bob took my eyebrow pencil and colored in a mustache while you sleeping, and you never even raised an eyelash.” She showed him the pencil.
“Let me draw one on you now.” The Professor took the pencil and aimed it at Uncle Bob’s upper lip.
Over the next few years the Professor graduated to experimenting with pocket watches and electricity. When Daddy came home from work one day the Professor presented him with his watch explaining that he had gotten it pretty much together but couldn’t get the last few parts back in. And the fire on the wood floor beneath the electrical outlet in the Professor’s bedroom our parents quickly doused upon a panicked call from the Professor after he had stuck a bobby pin into the outlet.
Then there was the winter day he told Mother he was sick and stayed home from school, only to spend the day tinkering in the attached garage. When Mother got home from work, she found him under the covers dressed in jeans, a cotton flannel shirt, socks and shoes.
He was still out in the garage when he heard her car pull into the driveway. He hadn’t had time to race inside through the door to the kitchen and change back to his pajamas before leaping into bed.
When my parents sold our house and the new family moved in, the blackened spot remained on the hardwood floor beneath the electrical outlet in the Professor’s bedroom.
“Your kitty told me you were reading under the covers with a flashlight last night when you were supposed to be asleep.”
“Sure she did.”
“No, Daddy,” said 8-year-old Stephy.
“What makes you think she didn’t?”
“‘Cause, kitties can’t talk.”
Stephy was the youngest of the Professor’s four children. The others were grown and starting families of their own.
Stephy pushed back her dinner plate and ran outside to play before the last rays of summer light faded from the evening sky.
The Professor turned to his wife. “It’s hard to believe Uncle Bob’s been gone twenty years already. I’m thinking of selling the auto repair shop. I’ve got to quit being a mechanic. Working in a cold garage all day is getting too hard on me. All my joints ache and the days are so long that, anymore, when I come home I’m too tired to play my keyboard.”
He paused, then added, “Did I ever tell you about the time I put Aunt Marguerite’s goldfish in the toilet?”
– The End –
–– By Samantha Mozart,
whose brother still swears a monkey was at his window.