Disclaimers: Nothing's mine but the words; everything else belongs to Pet Fly. No infringement is intended, and I'm not makin' a dime. (Who needs money when you've got love?) (Well, okay, but I'm still not making any money!)
Summary: A new assistant professor at Rainier is intrigued by the mysterious life and career of Professor Blair Sandburg.
Warnings: Sort of a death story, in that both of our guys are actually dead when it opens, but since they both lived to ripe old ages and lived full and happy lives, I feel that I can recommend this even to the squeamish.
Notes: Thanks to Paulette for beta-ing — you rock, lady! This is just a short piece which occurred to me after comtemplating some of the implications of my story Nature's Surprises...plus I recently got to check out the office of the professor I'm replacing. This would presumably be the very last story in the Nature Series, but there's plenty of stuff that happens between Surprises and this. And don't say I never keep my promises. NY rules still apply — joo give me the feedback, I give joo the stories. Capisci? ;)
"You'll be taking Professor Sandburg's old office," said the department secretary as she opened the door. Sonia Cortez blinked hard as she stepped into the office and the lights flashed on. She stared at the massively cluttered space — the artifacts, tapestries and books, the piles and piles of papers. "They'll have it cleared out for you, I'm sure," said the secretary, her motherly face beaming reassurance at the new, young assistant professor. "They just haven't had a chance to do anything about it yet. Professor Sandburg only died three weeks ago," she added, lowering her voice respectfully.
"I'm not sure I remember..." said Sonia, picking up a wooden carving of a jaguar that sat on the desk and examining it carefully.
"Oh, he was on the committee that hired you," the secretary said. "Sort of a small man, lots of gray hair, very sprightly — the nicest blue eyes." She sighed. "He was so nice — not like some of them around here," she added, snorting. "Always 'Good morning, Susan' and 'please' and 'thank you' and little presents on Secretaries' Day or when he traveled. A real sweetheart to work for, he was."
"He wasn't tenured, though, was he?" asked Sonia, drifting across the office to gaze at a tapestry.
"No, he never went up for it. Maybe because he never did publish much." Susan frowned. "I have the idea that, well, that people around here thought he never quite lived up to expectations. Like he had been promising but petered out. He seemed to just putter about, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Taught, lectured occasionally, did some sort of consulting. I think he even did some diplomatic work," she said, shrugging, "though he never talked much about that. But they kept him around for his teaching," she said suddenly, laughing, "and that's unusual. No one at a university really cares about teaching. But, after all," said Susan, with a note of pride, "Professor Sandburg trained Shelley and Abrams and de Guzman — you should have been at his funeral, dear, it was an anthropological who's who. Shelley's nearly fifty now and he was crying like a baby."
"Did he have a stroke or something?"
"No," said Susan sadly, leaning against the doorframe, "it was just one of those things. He was hardly ever sick himself, he was completely feisty, but then his partner died and, well, all the sparkle seemed to go right out of him all of a sudden. You know how old people can be, dear — sometimes they just seem to decide that they don't want to live any more."
Susan sighed, then smiled brightly. "He pulled hard to get you hired, though, Dr. Cortez. I'm sure you'll like it here."
"I'm sure I will too," Sonia said, smiling back. "Listen, Susan, I can go through this stuff — "
"Oh, dear, you don't have to — " interrupted Susan.
"No, but I want to. I'm interested. Plus I'm an expert." She smiled firmly. "You wouldn't want to throw away something priceless because no one recognized what is was. This, for example," she said, gesturing at the jaguar, "belongs in a museum."
"Really?" asked Susan, moving closer for a look.
"Oh yes. It's at least four hundred years old and the craftsmanship...well, it's incredible." She smiled. "Whatever else he had, Professor Sandburg certainly had an eye for art."
"Well, suit yourself, dear," sighed Susan. "I'm sure the chair will be pleased not to have to worry about it. Do you want me to show you the cafeteria?"
"Uh, sure," Sonia replied. She followed Susan out, casting a last lingering look behind her.
The next morning Sonia drove back over to Rainier. She had asked Susan for the key to her new office before she left, on the excuse that she "wanted to begin making herself at home." Today, she was determined to explore the office thoroughly.
She hung up her coat and sat down at the desk, surveying the space in front of her. Then she sighed and pulled the center desk drawer open.
Sonia shook her head at the accumulation of fifty years' odds and ends. Scattered among ubiquitous plastic forks and office supplies and ancient pink memos documenting phone calls long ago received and answered were a couple of random snapshots. She pulled out one and laughed. Four men fishing, but she knew right away which one the taker of the photograph had been interested in — the tall, broad man in the baseball cap and sunglasses, standing over at the left, glowering into the lens. She wondered if this were Professor Sandburg's partner, and put the photograph down.
Yes, she thought, pulling out another photograph of the same man, standing more stiffly, dressed in more formal clothes, accepting some kind of award. She smiled and groped around at the back of the desk and the third photograph that her hand found stunned her, not least because it was what they used to call a Polaroid, itself now an antique.
Professor Sandburg, she thought, for it had to be he — and in her mind she overlay the face in the picture with the older, lined face of the man she had met briefly a few months before... yes, the eyes, she thought, the eyes were the same, and suddenly she saw those eyes twinkling out of the kindly face of the gray-haired man who had taken her hand and congratulated her warmly on her job talk.
But the man in the picture was fifty years younger and had been taken by surprise at his desk — at this desk, she realized quickly — by someone who had caused his face to light up in sudden delight. She studied the youthful, eager face — god, he had been beautiful, she thought — and felt a sudden sharp regret that she hadn't known him, that he was gone.
She swiveled around in her chair, turning away from the photographs, and let her eyes glaze over across the rows and rows of black binders in the bookcase behind her. Dissertations, she surmised, and thought about what Susan had said yesterday, that Professor Sandburg had supervised the training of Shelley and Abrams and de Guzman...and Roberts and O'Connell, she found herself adding mentally, and hadn't she seen the name Blair Sandburg on the acknowledgments page of Linda Hill's latest? Putterer maybe, she thought, but he must have had something. She bent forward in her chair, reaching out to pull one of the binders off the shelf, wondering with not a little friendly malice what the dissertations of these notable anthropologists had looked like...
But the name on the manuscript was not Shelley or Abrams or de Guzman but Sandburg. "The Sentinel," she read, "A Study of — " and then her eyes dropped to the bottom of the title page where it read:
byBlair Sandburg.Volume I, 1998.
She reached up for another binder and her eyes immediately fell on "Volume II, 2001" and then she was on her feet and tearing the books off the shelves — 2003, 2006, 2008, 2011 — and then she was hugging Volume XVII, 2047 to her chest and her eyes were wild. Puttering! Seventeen completed, printer-ready manuscripts, she thought, looking at the haphazard piles she had made in front of her on the desk, hiding in plain sight! Why? she yelled in her mind, and then she pulled out Volume I from where it had been buried at the bottom of the pile, fished her glasses from her purse, and began reading.
Five hours later she stopped, pulled her glasses off and tossed them atop the pile of binders. She desperately needed a cup of coffee, and reached into her handbag for her debit card. Clutching it in her hand, she strode down the hallway, out the door and across Rainier's manicured lawns toward the cafeteria, her thoughts revolving around the man whose office she occupied. Who had been a great teacher, mentor, lecturer, consultant — maybe even a diplomat — and who had been definitely, unquestionably, certifiably crazy.
When Sonia returned to the office, the coffee mug warming her hands, she was surprised to find someone already in there. The man was tall, his blue air force uniform was pressed, his hair was in a neat crewcut, but there was no mistaking the tired look in his green eyes or the haggard expression on his face. "Dr. Sandburg?" he asked hopefully, turning to her.
"Me? No," said Sonia. "I'm Dr. Cortez. Dr. Sandburg is...well, he's not here. Can I help you?"
"Oh," said the young man, rubbing his temples. His disappointment was palpable. "I'm Commander Daniel Casey, Second Air Force Division, stationed here in Cascade, and, well..." He stopped, sighed. "I've been having these headaches," he said, "and the nurse at Cascade General told me that sometimes she sends patients with my symptoms over to see a Dr. Sandburg at the University, and so I thought — "
He stopped suddenly, face contorting with agony, and the coffee fell from Sonia's hand as she reached out to help the young commander, and she suddenly found herself whispering "dial it down dial it down" and thinking that maybe Blair Sandburg hadn't been crazy after all.