academic, blood sacrifices, college, coup de grace, curriculum vitae, disciple in the shadows, groupie, hobo, Homeless, innocence, Internet, Letters, molest, negative progress of humanity, Professor, psycho, rhetorical, sanctuary, secret smile, shadowed, stalking, stray old men, subtext, trust fund, tweed, Wisdom, woman child
(Continued from Alise)
The restaurant she picked was nice. It was classy without being showy. There were tables and booths. Tom insisted on a booth where he could sit facing the door. Tables made him feel exposed. He didn’t explain. He felt she sensed it.
The waiter brought their menus and took their soft drink orders. Tom opened his menu. She didn’t.
“Aren’t you going to get anything?”
“I already know what I want. I’ve been here before.”
“Oh yeah. Right. Don’t you think it’s about time we introduced ourselves? My name is Thomas. I’ll answer to Tom.”
She extended her hand and Tom took it. It was smooth and delicate with long fingers: natural and unadorned nails.
“’Ah-lees-a.’ Beautiful name.”
“Thank you. I picked it myself.”
“Neat trick. How did you manage that?”
“I liked it better than the one I was given, so I changed it.”
“Cool. What was the name you were given?”
She gave a secret smile. “Not telling.”
“Do you have a last name,” he asked.
“That’s a silly question.”
“You asked it first.”
Tom was the first time in a long time becoming genuinely charmed and tickled. He laughed.
“Well,” she said, “what’s your last name?”
“Benning. What’s yours?”
Again the smile of mystery, “Not telling.”
He laughed again this time at the joke she pulled on him. “Damn,” he thought. “She set me up for that.” He felt his eyes were smiling and looked into her eyes and grinned.
Alise covered her mouth and giggled. She started to blush and suddenly took great interest at something in her lap.
He was amazed. He thought, “Giggling and blushing? Oh my. Is such innocence still possible in today’s world?” He sat smiling and silent full of sudden warmth and affection for this strange woman/child. He waited for her to recover and look back up.
The waiter returned and took their orders. Hamburger steak and fixin’s for Tom. Alise ordered a salad—of course.
“So tell me, Alise. Why are you doing this? Is it a common practice to pick up stray old men in the park? How do you know that I’m not going to try to molest you or something? Didn’t your parents ever teach you to never speak to strangers, especially if they are homeless?”
“I’m not afraid of you, Sir.”
“My name is ‘Thomas,’ not ‘Sir.’ My father was ‘Sir’ and for a while I was also ‘Sir,’ and even ‘Doctor Benning,’ but that was a long time ago. Now I am simply ‘Thomas,’ or ‘Tom,’ but never ‘Sir.’ O.K.?”
“O.K. Now please answer the question. Why are you doing this? Why did you pick me up and bring me to this fine eating establishment?”
“Do you always talk that way? ‘fine eating establishment?’”
“I go either way, depending on my mood. Answer the question young woman.”
“Because I like you.”
“What? You don’t know me. How can you ‘like’ me?”
“I know you, Thomas Alexander Benning III, Ph.D. I know your biography and curriculum vitae. I know where you have been and what you have been up to. I have a lot of questions about ‘why,’ but I suppose you have some of those same questions yourself. And after gaining all that knowledge about who you are and where you have been and watching you closely for the past three months, I have decided that I like you very much and that it was time I got to meet you.”
“Wow, Honey! What a mouthful! Let me see if I got this straight. After extensive research and stalking me for three months, you are now moving in for the . . . what? Coup de Grace? I think I’m the one who needs protecting here.
“That whole thing about asking me my last name and you already knew it . . . That was just a setup so you could refuse to tell me your last name. Very manipulative, Alise—if that is your real name.
“You’re ‘not afraid of’ me? I guess not. It seems that I’m the one who needs to be afraid of you!
“What, are you some kind of psycho professor groupie? Have I become your obsession? I think it’s time for me to go.”
He started to stand. She took hold of his sleeve. He pulled it back.
“Please don’t go. Please stay and let me explain. It’s not what you may think. I promise. Give me five minutes.”
“The clock is ticking. Make it good.”
Their food came but was ignored. When the waiter left, Alise began to speak.
“It’s true that I learned everything I could about you. I admired your work so much. I went to college here in town and took classes where your theories and papers and books were required reading material. Your theories on the negative progress of humanity and culture and your thoughts on how most of the ills of the world might be relieved or even eliminated were profound.”
“ARE profound . . ..”
“YES! ARE profound. I became a disciple in the shadows and then you disappeared. I started asking around and looking for you on the Internet, but all I got was gossip and hear-say. There are some pretty awful things said about you out there.”
“Not all of it is untrue. I did some pretty awful things once upon a time.”
“But Professor . . .”
“NO!” He said loudly and heads turned in their direction. He forced the blood which rushed to his head to subside and took a long slow breath. “No,” softer now. “Not ‘Professor.’ That is a title I no longer have and do not deserve even as an Honorarium. Don’t call me that again!”
“I’m sorry, Thomas. I just had to suspect that all the subtext of goodness and love that was there in all the academic sounding texts and jargon had to mean that there was something there much deeper and worthwhile than the ogre that you were painted as being by the world.”
“Think you’re pretty perceptive and intuitive, eh?”
“It seems to come naturally.
“No one knew where you were now and no one much seemed to care, except me. I began to give up. Then one day, at the college library, I looked up from one of your books to see you sitting your sack on a table and heading into the stacks. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the picture of you in tweed and smoking a pipe on the dust jacket, and back to the hobo scanning books of sociology. It was you. No doubt.”
“I still have and smoke the pipe.”
“You got a couple of books and sat down and pulled out your pads and pens and began to read and take notes. I didn’t get a bit more reading done myself. I was too busy peeking at you from across the top of my book.
“Hey, Alise, let’s eat while you finish this grand tale. My steak is getting cold and your rabbit food is getting hot”
She took a bite of salad, chewed and swallowed. “It was then I started following you.
“Following me . . .,” he breathed.
“I shadowed you . . .”
“I liked ‘following.’ Less sinister,” he shook his head. “Sorry, go ahead. You were ‘shadowing’ me . . .”
“I followed you to the soup kitchens, to the parks, and found where you like to get away and hide at night when you’re too tired to write.
“I graduated two years ago, Thomas. But I have enough money in a trust fund to make me very comfortable for the rest of my life. In luxury even, if I chose, but I don’t choose. I like to live very simply. The only thing I felt I was missing in my life was a human connection to a man who inspired me. You’re it, Mr. Benning. Like it or not, I want to sit by your side and listen to you tell me of what can be if we but dream and work toward it.
“Now, let me ask you a question. Do you like the way you’re living?”
“You’re being rhetorical, of course. Don’t try to fool the Old Professor.”
“Only a little. Are you happy? Wouldn’t you prefer a different way of life? Wouldn’t you grab at a chance to crawl back out this human hole you’ve fallen into?”
“You’re being totally rhetorical, young lady, and I’m not crazy about talking about the ‘hole I’ve fallen into’ with a complete and potentially insane stranger. But you’ve got my attention. Cut to the chase quickly please.”
“I can help you. I can give you food, shelter, and money to reestablish yourself. I can give you a sanctuary in which to study and write. I can give you companionship and friendship. All I ask in return is to be allowed to be your friend and for you to give me instruction.”
“In life. In wisdom. In Letters. Anything you want to tell me, I will be your apt and eager pupil.”
She winced. “No kidding.”
“You know you have me at a complete disadvantage. Not only are you dangling a hell of a prize in front of me for minimal exertion, but you also know everything about me and I know nothing about you—not even your given and last name.
“Where and how would we start this marvelous adventure?”
She sat erect “Here and now. No time like the present. What do you say I set you up in a motel nearby and we have daily meetings to get to know one another better and start moving your life back in the direction you want it to go?”
“I have absolutely nothing to lose, and I suspect you know that. If I go to a motel and you DO turn out to be some psycho who dismembers me and uses my blood for sacrifices or whatever, at LEAST I go out with a bang and put all this rotten shit I’m living in behind me.”
“That’s not exactly the positive outlook I was hoping you’d bring into this situation.”
“Hey, Alise darling, sometimes you just have to take what you can get.”
She smiled so sweetly and without guile that Tom melted into his seat. “And so the lessons begin. Eat up. Let’s go!” She dug into her salad.