“Oh, Jack, you look so handsome all duded up,” his mother said as she gave him a big hug. Estelle Shaw was a thickset woman with a florid face, crinkly-eyed, and jowly. Her close-cropped gray hair had never been subject to a permanent wave and, for that matter, rarely encountered a comb or brush. Jack recognized her flowered dress as the one she regularly had worn to church for far more than a month of Sundays. Ditto for the straw hat with its faux daisies. She looked as if she was fresh off the farm–which she was.
“Just chinos and a blazer, Ma,” Jack said. “All the guys wear them.” He almost called her Mother, but he calculated she’d think that was too highfalutin.
He extracted himself from her embrace and immediately felt the iron grip of his father’s gnarled and calloused hand on his own hand. His father was a short, stocky man in his early sixties, a little bent but still strong after years of hard, physical work. Jack’s bantam weight old man was tough.
“How ya doin,’ Jacko? How’s The Scholar?” Homer Shaw said to his son, pumping his arm. “Ya look like a real sport.”
“I’m doing fine, Pop. Just fine.”
Jack had come late and solo into his parents’ lives. They doted on him, but he worried about crossing certain discretionary lines, especially ones that impinged on their pride.
“Can’t wait to see that game tomorrow,” Mr. Shaw said. “Says right in the paper it should be a humdinger.”
He lifted out a folded paper wedged into the jacket pocket of his double breasted blue suit, a suit with too short trousers that rode up to reveal white ankles, white socks, and, Jack cringed, brown shoes. Jack also cringed because he knew the seat of those trousers shone as if it had been polished along with the back home kitchen linoleum.
“It’s supposed to be a good game,” Jack said.
“Never saw a real college game,” his father said. “Kinda wish you were playing, though. Like you did in high school.”
“I know some of the players, Pop. I’ll point them out to you.”
He’d forgotten his father’s haircut, shaved close to the skin all around except for the crown where he tried to comb over some scraggly clumps of still black hair. It was his mother’s handiwork, of course, and she was no barber. Jack thought of it as his father’s farmer haircut. Below that red, naked-looking head, his father’s neck, bearing the wine red impress of sun and wind, protruded from the tired collar of his only dress shirt.
“This is surely a pretty town,” Jack’s mother said. Looking up and down the street and then in the direction of the campus it ran into, she added, “Everything scrubbed and all them fancy windows with the white frames.”
“It’s a typical college town, Ma.”
“I think it looks nice. I expect you’ll take us for a walk around. Seems lots of folks are doing just that.”
“Sure. Tomorrow. Look, I borrowed a friend’s Buick. It’s parked right around the corner. Maybe we better get going.”
“You’re right,” Mr. Shaw said. “We’ve been riding on that bus the better part of two days. I expect your ma is a little tuckered out. Is that big hotel over there the one where we’ll put up? I saw the picture in one of the magazines you sent us.”
“No. They were all booked up early on. But there’s a nice motel right on the edge of town. You’ll probably feel more comfortable there, anyway.” He hoped he didn’t sound patronizing—but feared he did.
His mother gave him a look tinged with more than a little disappointment. “But, your pa was pretty sure we’d be staying in the big hotel was in the magazine.”
“Where you are staying is a lot less expensive.” Jack thought for a moment. “And it’s close to everything.”
His mother pursed her lips and looked unconvinced.
Jack had tried to discourage the visit. He had convinced himself he was acting in their best interests. His rationale: his parents would feel out of place among the sophisticated, high-necked, and well-to-do parents who showed up each year. However, he had danced around the more fundamental worry that gripped him–that his parents, by their presence, might embarrass him, expose his origins, and rub away the patina of respectability he’d worked so diligently to create. Jack loved his parents and knew he owed them a lot, but he still felt uneasy about the possibility he might have to introduce them to people who would connect them to him in an unflattering way.
He especially worried about the possibility of such an encounter with his academic advisor, Professor Martin Benton, an erudite and accomplished scholar. President of the faculty senate and renowned author, the forty-five-year-old professor’s lectures were among the most popular on campus. And Jack, more impressed by such things than he wished to admit, had especially noted that Benton had a reputation for being a sharp dresser; the word was that he had his suits made in London.
Seeking to fend off feelings of guilt, Jack told himself he would simply have to manage things as best he could. But deceit did not come easily. In that regard, he was surely his parents’ child. Whatever his concerns, Jack had been unable to dissuade his folks from making the trip. His enthusiasm for college life had roused in them a sustained curiosity to see with their own eyes all that seemed so wonderful in Jack’s telling. Moreover, pride spurred a desire at least once to visit their son, whom his father now referred to as The Scholar, at the place of his achievement. A twinkling eye and joking smile accompanied Mr. Shaw’s references to The Scholar, but those humorous references came infused with admiration.