“Mighty fancy,” Mrs. Shaw whispered to her husband. Jack heard her and winced inwardly.
“Please, sit down,” Professor Benton said. “Mrs. Purdy will let us know when we should go to the table.” He nodded toward a fiftyish woman busy in the dining room. “She cooks for me two or three times a week since I can’t seem to get around to feeding myself.” Mrs. Purdy acknowledged the guests with a smile.
Like tourists observing unfamiliar artifacts in a museum, the Shaws surveyed the room and its contents from one end to another. They also allowed their eyes to sweep into the adjacent dining room, where table settings glistened as they picked up the bannered sunlight cascading through the French doors.
Considering a pair of impressionist paintings without comprehension, “Real pretty,” was the best Mrs. Shaw could muster. She offered the same comment on some Chinese porcelain pieces on display in a corner cabinet.
“Thank you,” Professor Benton said. “It’s gratifying to have compliments on one’s things.”
What was going on? Jack squirmed, inwardly and even physically. It was like Albert Einstein meets Ma and Pa Kettle, he thought. He could only imagine what strange pronouncements might issue from the lips of one or the other of his parents. Whatever hopes he had for Benton’s backing seemed in grave peril. Those hopes, he feared, like lava meeting the ocean, would cool and then congeal.
“Mr. Shaw, did you ever go to that general store at Portersville Crossing?” Jack heard Professor Benton say.
Shaw looked puzzled. “Why sure, went over there regular for years on Saturday afternoons.”
“To pitch horseshoes?” Professor Benton said. “And when it turned cold to play cribbage?”
“That’s the truth? How’d you ever come to know that?”
“Often as not your partner was Clem Perkins.”
The Shaws exchanged surprised but confirmatory looks. Jack sat awestruck, buffeted by waves of puzzlement. Was Professor Benton toying with them in some way?
“Now how’d you know about Clem? He passed on a few years back.”
“I know. I went to the funeral.”
Professor Benton smiled at their incredulous faces and said, “I’d best clear away the mystery. Clem Perkins was my uncle, my mother’s brother.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Mr. Shaw said. “I knew there was a kid, but never heard much about him. As I recollect, Clem’s sister moved away when her husband passed on. Come to think of it, there was some Bentons over to Tillford.”
“I was the kid,” Professor Benton said. He looked at Jack. “I came from the same place you did, Jack.” And, lest Jack miss the point, he added, “And my folks were a lot like your folks.”
Jack smiled weakly. “Yes, sir.”
Already feeling rotten about the shabby way he had treated his parents, Jack now grasped the fact that it might be his behavior that could imperil his standing in Professor Benton’s eyes, not the behavior of his parents.
“And now let’s go into the dining room. I expect you folks are ready for a real breakfast. I hope you enjoy it.”
The table brimmed with food—apparently a country breakfast as their host thought it should be. Scrambled eggs, pancakes and syrup with plenty of real butter, fried ham, sausages, potatoes, biscuits and gravy, orange juice, apple juice, and, placed prominently in a silver dish, Mrs. Shaw’s strawberry preserves.
“Mrs. Purdy, it looks like you’ve done a great job,” Professor Benton said from his chair at one end of the table. “Now, let me pour all you folks some coffee. Good and strong. I hope it’s the way you like it.”
“I have to tell you one thing, Professor,” Mrs. Shaw said. “This sure isn’t one of those Continental breakfasts. No, sir.”
Jack perched on the edge of his chair, Sphinx-like, speaking only in response to a direct question or two. His mind raced. What might come of this Parents’ Weekend visit? Had his original concerns been unwarranted? And what of his newfound concern, that Professor Benton might somehow have been antagonized by Jack’s self-serving effort to make his parents disappear for most of the weekend?
As Jack became increasingly mired in the quicksand of worry, Benton and Jack’s parents talked happily on and on about this cousin or that cousin, about the time the bridge over the Little Fox River got washed out, about Mrs. Shaw’s blue ribbons at the county fair, and about Mr. Shaw’s horseshoe pitching victories over Uncle Clem. It seemed, Jack thought, they would never stop.
“What time does your parents’ bus leave?” Professor Benton said over a second cup of coffee.
“We’ve got almost two hours. Their bag is in the car,” Jack replied.
“That being the case, there’s something I’d like to show you, Mr. Shaw, behind the house,” Professor Benton said with a smile.
Would it never end, Jack thought? Now what?
The Shaws went off to use the bathroom, and then reassembled to be led by their host out onto a patio overlooking a large garden.
“What do you think?” With a sweep of the hand–beyond the boxwoods, the shrub roses, the multicolored chrysanthemums, the remnants of the summer’s vegetable patch–Professor Benton gestured toward, of all things, a horseshoe court.