“Okay.” Jack contemplated peeling off, telling them he’d wait inside. He squirmed at the prospect of the introductions. But his mother fixed him with a sharp look that said not so fast, Jacko.
As it turned out, the greetings and handshakes were perfunctory, and the Shaws moved smoothly off the line. No faux pas. No disasters. His mother had talked about giving the presidential couple some of her strawberry preserves, but to Jack’s relief she had left them in the motel room.
Jack and his parents had gone from table to table, sampling the food. Somehow Jack seemed to separate himself as they did so in such a way that most of the time it was not apparent they were together. He had now rejoined them at the side of the house where a server materialized with glasses of white wine. The mildness of early evening enveloped them and the sun filtered through brown/red leaves lent the garden an almost sepia ambience. It was, Mrs. Shaw declared later, like in one of those magazines.
“Well, here’s to you, Jack,” his father said, lifting a glass of white wine. “You’ve made us mighty proud.”
A bit perplexed, after some hesitation, Mrs. Shaw lifted her glass as well.
“It’s what they call a toast, Ma,” Mr. Shaw said. “Right, Jack?”
Before he answered, someone behind them said, “It’s nice to know parents appreciate what their students have achieved. Yes, it is. Here’s to you, Jack.”
The speaker was a tall man, his gray hair brush cut, his beard neatly trimmed. His confident and rich voice immediately held their attention. The speaker was Professor Martin Benton, the person whose endorsement Jack desperately wanted on his graduate school applications. Tension rose from Jack like morning mist from one of the fields back home. What would Benton think? He had already seen them. When he heard the parents speak, how would he react?
“Professor Benton, these are my parents,” Jack said.
The academic smiled pleasantly and nodded, but he seemed to be studying the couple in a more than casual manner.
“Mother, Father, Professor Benton is my new advisor. He teaches political science.”
“We’re sure happy to meet one of Jack’s teachers,” Mrs. Shaw said. “He says you’re all real smart.”
“Well, I hope so, Mrs. Shaw. But these young people keep us on our toes. Jack is one of the brightest.”
Jack’s parents beamed. “That’s sure nice to hear, Professor,” Mrs. Shaw said.
“Sir, we were just about to leave,” Jack said. He placed his hand on his mother’s arm. “Thank you for saying hello. Perhaps we’ll see you at the Field House Dinner.”
“Don’t be in such a rush, Jack. I’d like to chat a bit more with your parents.” Handing Jack his glass, Professor Benton said, “Why don’t you go to the bar and get us a refill?”
It had come to pass–the very situation Jack had hoped to avoid: his parents in conversation with Professor Benton. Why had the professor scrutinized them so closely, almost as if he was trying to place them?
Returning with the glasses refreshed, Jack saw his father talking with his hands in the way he did when he was enthusiastic or excited. Jack experienced a spasm of nervousness. What could his father and Professor Benton have found to talk about? Perhaps the day’s game? Not likely.
“Thank you, Jack,” Professor Benton said, accepting his glass. “Jack, I’ve just made an interesting discovery. Do you know where I’m from, I mean, originally?”
“No. That’s where I obtained my doctorate. I grew up just outside Portersville. You know where Portersville is, don’t you?”
Jack took an almost audible breath. “Yes, sir. I do.” Portersville. It was only ten or twelve miles from his folks’ place. Benton? From Portersville? It seemed impossible.
“I think your folks and I might even know some of the same people. Unfortunately, I have to go off to another function right now. But I have invited your parents and you to my place for a late breakfast tomorrow morning. We have a good deal of ground to cover. I hope you can make it. Eleven.”
Jack looked nonplussed, searching for words, for a reason they could not attend, for a reason they would have to regret the invitation. But he could conjure up none.
“We’ll be there,” Mrs. Shaw said. “And I’ll bet you’d like some homemade preserves.”
“Most certainly,” Professor Benton said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve had any.”
If a day could be more glorious than Saturday had been, Sunday was that day. It eclipsed the day before, with unseasonal zephyr-like breezes and caressingly warm sunshine. At eleven o’clock Jack pulled to the curb in front of Professor Benton’s shingled, gray and white Cape Cod. Benton, a widower, lived alone. The Field House dinner and Glee Club concert the previous evening a blur, Jack remained baffled as to why the college’s top-ranked professor, a man of enormous intellect, would invite Jack’s parents to his home for a meal. That they hailed from the same part of the country, something Jack still had trouble grasping, hardly seemed a sufficient reason.
Jack had convinced his father to wear the gray pullover, and while his mother wore her familiar flowered dress, she had abandoned the straw hat. Small progress, he thought, as they made their way up the brick sidewalk and sounded the bell. The door opened promptly, and, clad in a well-worn cardigan sweater, Benton greeted them like longtime friends. He thanked Mrs. Shaw for the jar of preserves she handed him in a paper bag and ushered them into the living room.
“Perhaps a bit of Champagne,” Professor Benton suggested. He busied himself filling the glasses on a sideboard and then handed them each one. “Welcome to my home,” he said and lifted a glass.