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Circumstances - 19. Burn 'Em

He was visiting friends who still taught at the university where they’d all been grad students forty years earlier. The two of them had finished their degrees and had tumbled into jobs, though not in their expected field or department. He’d skipped out of his degree, almost at the very end, for all sorts of then-reasonable considerations: The department wasn’t close to having the reputation it had long maintained. He already had a Bachelor’s and Master’s from the school, so a third degree would be hard to explain. His advisor – one who in the best intentions had been urged on him – had complicated his dissertation into something he had neither the experience nor the interest in writing. And he really didn’t need a Ph.D. – it was just at the time where more appropriate MFAs were replacing them as the accepted terminal degrees in his field, and he could easily pick one of those up. As it happened, he’d retired from that career after thirty years without ever getting one and was on his way to retiring from his second, comfortably part-time career, when he figured – just for yuks – he might finish that suspended Ph.D.

It had taken some finagling. Forty-year-old degree work is pretty well thirty-five years dead, but he had a professional reputation – several – and more importantly, a little money that could be put to better use than his present investments. And both his old department and the school’s fundraisers figured they could snag a bit of that.

He’d been offered an honorary degree. He’d been offered several of those, from a handful of schools, each also eyeing his investments and the reflection his first career would have on their reputations. But he wanted to finish a degree on his own. It was a dumb goal – he couldn’t even begin to think in the limited way he had forty years earlier. He wasn’t that less-skilled twenty-eight-year-old. But it had been fun to revisit his old notes when they surfaced in a box in the attic of his parents’ house. He, his sister, and their two brothers were settling their folks into a more supportive situation.

“Toss ‘em?” his younger brother had asked, holding the box of notes and folders. They’d already tossed that brother’s high school love letters.

“Burn ‘em! Burn ‘em! Burn ‘em!” was what his younger brother had actually shouted, when the letters turned up. “And fast!” though burning was no longer an ecological option. Instead, his brother had stopped what he was doing, grabbed the packet, and personally drove the letters to a shredding place, then stood and watched while every trace of his multiple high school misadventures was made unreadable.

“I can stay married,” he’d happily reported, coming back to their parents’ soon-to-be former house.

But the dissertation notes still held his interest. He remembered how hard he’d tried to stay with his original idea, and twisting, bargaining, and compromising with himself trying to fit that plan around his advisor’s. When he finally realized he could never make it work, he put away his notes, gave away his books, took a long-delayed typing course he thought might be a useful tool in the future, winged his way through his comps and orals – doing expectedly miserably and disappointing the committee he’d been increasingly disappointed in. Then he surprised them all when they offered him a chance to retake the exams at his convenience, writing what he felt were more appropriate questions.

“We know you’re a bright boy,” they said. “We want you to show it.”

He was far from being a boy, though he’d smiled boyishly when he said he was simply leaving the program.

“We know you’re disappointed...” they began. But they didn’t get a lot of things.

Still, on the basis of his finished coursework – which he’d done in two of the allotted three years because it had been so easy – plus his failed exams – which no one could find any trace of – and his dissertation notes – which he was able to copy and send to his new academic committee electronically – and, always, that dangling money, he was able to negotiate doing another year of active coursework on campus, retaking the exams he’d blown off, and writing what everyone felt was that more appropriate dissertation than the one he’d walked away from. He’d also teach a little, melding his experience with some of their still surprisingly old school thoughts, though none of the former faculty still taught, let alone existed. They’d taken their souls of clay back to the ground that begat them, and he was now probably twenty years older than any of them had been at the time.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” his friends had asked before he even turned up in town.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’ll be a nice break.”

“What’s Chuck think?” they asked.

“He’s not happy about my being away. But I’ve promised to fly home for a couple of long weekends every month, and our kids and grandkids are all nearby and will come around. And Chuck can easily take care of our dogs."

His husband still happily worked, like these friends, and they all couldn’t honestly figure out how he’d managed to retire at fifty, no matter how often he explained that he’d been in a young person’s profession and had needed to get out before he embarrassed himself. He certainly didn’t want to remind them how much money he’d stashed. That would be rude.

So he’d slowly driven across two-thirds of the country, packing mainly his small electronics and new winter clothes, and revisiting some of his favorite spots and scattered friends. In a way, that had been enough, and he wandered into his old university town almost satisfied.

He hadn’t been there for over twenty-five years. He couldn’t remember when or specifically why but knew he’d brought some of his old friends there together for dinner. They either were from or had stayed in the area, even if they no longer saw each other. He’d also visited a handful of his old teachers – and old had been the operative word – though he didn’t feel now as old as they must have been. He’d simply had a more active life and had lived so much of it on his feet. It reminded him of a story one of his undergrad friends had recently told when she’d gotten another group of their friends together.

“There we were, the six of us, with our walkers, and canes, and oxygen tanks, discussing all our medications and operations and doctors and laughing about it as if we were still eighteen.”

He’d tried gently to break it to her that not everyone their age was that immobile. But she’d dismissed him as the lucky exception, and he’d known for years not to argue. He’d once thought he was very much in love with her.

But he’d done all his driving easily, as other friends his age skied, hiked, biked, and had even, fairly recently, climbed Mt. Everest.

“That’s just stupid,” another of his friends had said. “It’s showing off. Couldn’t they have simply gone on safari?”

“With cameras?” he’d joked.

“Even with guns. They probably couldn’t hit anything.”

When he pulled into town, and then into Fran and Pat’s guest parking space, he realized how much the area had changed. They’d sold their big historic house – built over a hundred years earlier in the once wealthy part of town during a brief oil millionaires’ surge – which they didn’t need anymore without kids, and moved into a nearby condo built in the old, sprawling, elegant city hall. The old high school – first reduced to a junior high, then an elementary school, and then district offices – was now also condos, as was the former police station, original fire department, and a turn-of-the-twentieth-century downtown hotel that had sat mostly empty for fifty years. During that time, only its ground floor had been used – for stores, restaurants, and offices.

“Everything’s changed,” his friends had said. “You won’t believe the campus.”

He’d seen pictures and maps of that, but the photos were distorted by the fact they often featured the three original, picturesque-and-now-restored main buildings on the old central campus. All the new construction seemed impressive and modern but in no way inviting. It didn’t call out, “Yes! Send your sheltered off-spring! They’ll be safe.”

He could sometimes figure out where the new buildings were by plotting their proximity to the old campus center and could even figure out what they must have replaced. But just looking at their photos, he could only guess, “Science? Math? Business? Arts? Is that the new gym?” They all looked alike.

“It seems the school came into money,” he commented, as he and his friends ate dinner in a restaurant that hadn’t been there years earlier but also wasn’t far from their old grad school bar.

“Yeah,” Pat admitted. “You’d be surprised how many people our age and younger made a lot of money and are now kicking it back.”

“Won’t their kids mind?”

“Their kids are making their own fortunes. We were such idealists.”

Well... But, again, he knew it was rude to disagree.

So the campus was new and shiny, and after dinner, when they walked the half-mile from downtown – these friends were also still agile – he was constantly surprised. He tried not to keep saying, or even thinking, “That used to be there, and that used to be there, and that used to be there...” The architects had kept the same general plan, and he was sure some of the old trees, like the nearby town cemetery, were still intact, but a modern city had been super-imposed. Plus, these kids weren’t those kids: these were urban, sophisticated, connected little adults. They still got too drunk and had spontaneous sex in the cemetery or empty classrooms, but they didn’t need to. They had slicker apartments, and presentable motels, and access to far more interesting pleasures. He felt like he was in Washington, or San Francisco, or Atlanta.

“You gonna like this?” Fran asked.

He grinned. “Yeah. I really think I am. Though I wonder how much I can bring to teaching.”

His friends laughed. “Don’t be misled – the kids still offer the same excuses we did – that hasn’t changed. And you have all your industry stories – war stories. They’ll love ‘em.”

Maybe. He hadn’t thought that through and, just then, was too distracted by looking around the new campus. If this had all been there forty years ago, he might be boring old Dr. what’s-his-name and have his own feet of clay. No wonder his friends had stayed – as long as they could keep up.

After the tour, in the waning half-light, they’d walked back to the condo, and he was offered a drink. But he could tell they really didn’t want him to stay. They weren’t incapacitated but had their own schedules and life, and – more surprisingly – went to bed early. They all used to be midnight partiers. He turned down the drink for the same reason that, weeks earlier, he’d turned down the even temporary use of their guest room.

“You’re welcome to stay here all year,” Pat had suggested. “It’ll liven the place up.”

Hearing that, he wondered if Fran had been kicking Pat or encouraging the offer. But he’d once stayed with them for a couple of weeks after a fire had smoke damaged his grad school apartment. And even though he’d kicked in rent, and bought food, and played nightly cards with their usually gathered gang, he could tell he was in the way. In a way, he’d been surprised their marriage had lasted, because it certainly was under stress in those two weeks.

So he said good night and then, stupidly, had trouble finding his car. It wasn’t age, or maybe it was. More than that, it seemed he’d parked hours before, and had talked, and eaten, and drank, and walked, and seen so many things. Then he simply forgot. He knew what the car was near and knew where he was, relative to that . But when he got to where the car should have been, it wasn’t.

He didn’t even think that it might have been stolen or towed. It was an ordinary if indestructible car, nondescript, and several years old. It had also been locked, unlike in earlier years when he often left his keys in the ignition.

So he walked around town, smiling at all the changes and seeing virtually nothing familiar. And when he spotted his car, reassured, and realizing why he’d missed it in the first place, he simply tapped on its fender, maybe for luck, and continued back to campus.

This was going to be his new home. He’d need to find an apartment in walking distance, or even stay at the university hotel, as he was that night. It was central to everything, and one room was all he really needed: a bed, WiFi, and not even the expanded college library. His presence was required, and that was about it.

The dissertation writing would be easy – the tests and orals a snap. It would all be great fun, and he could even bring together the handful of old friends he’d kept in touch with electronically – first by phone, then by whatever was invented next. So why did he check out of the hotel, walk back downtown, get into his car, and start driving home? It wasn’t even that he’d done all this already. There were simply more interesting projects.

2019 by Richard Eisbrouch
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I do so resonate with this story:  I left my doctoral program in the last year of it and. while wondering if I might do it again after retirement, decided there are other projects that involved others, not just myself. 

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