There is indeed an institute of higher education which served as a partial model for Locksmith University, as some readers may be able to guess. Nevertheless, there is precious little light and less truth about the university in this story. I must confess I have callously played with details of life in its engineering school for my own narrative purposes. And, of course, the real university's professors of divinity are all models of wise decorum and restraint. Most heinously, I have even altered the football schedule. The game against the arrogant bastards never takes place before Halloween. While universities do exist and, to be sure, they are all well-stocked with rules and committees, this story is otherwise pure fantasy, written chiefly for my own pleasure. I hope some of you may share that pleasure.
I do know the rules. In fact, I helped write them.
It started, I suppose, at dinner at the Dean's house. Now, you need to know that the Dr. Richard Evans, Dean of Engineering of Locksmith University, is not just my boss; he's the best friend I have in the world and his wife, Maggie, is a sweetheart. She was the also the dearest, closest friend of my sweet wife Robin and sat with me, holding my hand, while poor Robin was dying of ovarian cancer.
Maggie is a big woman, blonde, busty and hearty. She's a second Mom to all the junior professors and grad students, particularly the female ones, and has a heart the size of New England. They all consult her about their love lives and everything else you can imagine.
I suppose that's why Maggie started nagging me about trying dating again, a year or so after Robin died. She's simply fallen into the habit of giving advice to the lovelorn and she thinks I qualify. Women past fifty often experience a sudden activation of the matchmaking gene, I think, and they just can't leave a single man alone, even as lousy a prospect as me.
"Will," she kept on saying, "You're the kind of man who needs a woman and, believe me, somewhere out there, a woman needs you."
That's probably true but I had that woman for more than twenty five years and now she's gone. I'm not the dating type and there's no way I could ever replace my heart's desire after she was taken away from me. About six months ago Maggie seemed to give up on her project to get me dating again. I guess I'm her one failure.
But back to dinner at the Dean's: Richard and Maggie had invited my graduate research assistant, Jenny Chen, and me to drop by for a late meal after we were done at the lab. Nothing fancy, just pizza, Caesar salad and beer, nothing we hadn't done dozens of time before. It was going to be a completely relaxed evening, I thought, with nothing more demanding on the conversational plate than the Bruins' chances in the playoffs this year. Did they have the scoring to make a run at the Cup? Who should start in goal? That would be as deep as it would get, I thought. Wrong.
Richard loves hockey - he was all conference defenseman at Nassau University in his day - and though it was not a game day, he was, in fact, wearing his old black and orange letterman's sweater.
I gave him the gears as usual, "Great colors! Reminds me of Halloween! Tell me: is it true that 'Trick or Treat' is the Nassau Tabbycats' school cheer?" I asked.
I had played lacrosse for Locksmith, or more accurately sat on the bench for Locksmith, and it's the sworn duty of every Locksmith Blue to run down Nassau. There's nothing better than a cold beer and an old joke between warm friends, but, for once, he didn't give it back to me.
He frowned, looked at me over his half moon reading glasses, and said, "Will, I need you to sit as my substitute and representative on the University Sexual Harassment Policy Review committee."
I groaned aloud. "Rich, why me? You know I'm out of here for Palo Alto for good next January and these committees take years to report."
"Not this one. The President is completely pissed off by those media reports of harassment of female students at Locksmith and he wants a review of the rules fast ... to show sensitivity to women's concerns and to demonstrate decisive leadership." He lowered his voice to a mock media baritone and made quotation marks in the air on "decisive leadership." Rich isn't a fan of the president.
"I know you're gone next year but people respect you and you know very well that I can't serve on this thing."
Rich looked disgusted, "Because of Maggie, of course. People still remember how we got together."
It was well before my time but I did know the story. Rich had been a brand new Assistant Professor while Maggie was a graduate student in Engineering. They met when he was appointed by the then Dean to serve on her supervisory committee as a replacement for an older professor who had suffered a heart attack. Even though he was not the Director of her dissertation and had never even taught her during her course work, this would be a definite No-No these days.
But Maggie had set her sights on him and the simple truth is that she is a force of nature. He had about as much chance as a beefsteak dropped in the middle a pack of wolves, not that anyone would ever hear him complain. He was then and remains now one happy piece of beefsteak. They were married a year later. It had always been one of your textbook happy marriages but nowadays the way they got together would be considered inappropriate behaviour and even sexual harassment ... inequality of power or something like that.
Maggie stirred in her chair. "Will, I know there is sexual harassment of female students and staff here. Who do you think hears about it first?"
That was definitely a rhetorical question as far as the Engineering school goes. The girls, young women, I mean, all head for Maggie. Everyone knows that she has the ear of the Dean ... and every other body part as well. The end result is that though engineering is one of the increasingly scarce areas left in higher education where females are still a minority, nowadays there isn't much trouble of that sort here at Locksmith. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of Maggie.
"But in the end, you have to make room for love also. Sometimes young women fall in love with kind, intelligent, strong men in their field, for all the right reasons."
Maggie looked over at Richard and you could read a lifetime's worth of mutual love and respect in her eyes. I knew exactly what she meant and I could tell that Jenny agreed. She was nodding her head also.
"So we are hoping for a voice of reason on the committee, someone who will actually remember human beings are involved," said Richard
"You!" chimed in Maggie.
I didn't stand a chance. Saying "No" to the Dean is one thing but there's no way in the world I can deny Maggie anything.
"Let me think about it overnight," I temporized.
They nodded, contented. They knew they had me.
Rich and Maggie aren't friends, when you come right down to it; they're family. Put it this way: my daughter Amy has a full house of aunts to choose from, three on my side and two on her mother's, and any one of them would have been thrilled to be replacement Mother on Amy's wedding day, last spring. But Amy insisted on being dressed at Maggie's house and having the pre-wedding photos in their garden.
A widower father can do many things for his daughter and Lord knows I have always tried my best, but he surely isn't needed when she is preparing for her wedding ceremony. That's a female thing ... exclusively. It ought to be a mother and daughter thing, but that possibility had been laid to rest three years before. When a man loses the wife he loves, it isn't just the sex or even the companionship that is buried with her; it is all those possibilities that are lost, all the memories to be created and then savored together over the years. Gone, all gone, like my sweet Robin.
I couldn't be more grateful to Maggie for taking over on the day. I had been planning to drive Amy and the bridesmaids over to her house to dress but she wouldn't have it.
"Remember Rich on our Katie's wedding day? Total basket case! He might as well have been blind the way he teared up at the least little thing. He almost drove into a lamppost on Gagetown Rd. Men! Just can't control their emotions!"
But she squeezed Rich's hand and gazed fondly into his eyes even as she spoke. I thought about my own probability of weeping factor, or PWF as we engineers like to put it, and realized she was almost certainly right. It would do nobody any good if I drove into a lamppost on my Amy's wedding day.
"I'll take care of all that," she said.
So Maggie sent Jenny over to collect Amy when it was time. They did trust me to carry my daughter's suitcases to the car and also the precious gown, still wrapped in blue paper to keep it from yellowing with age, the gown her mother had worn almost thirty years ago. Sure enough, my eyes filled for the first of many times that day, as I laid the gown gently across the back seat of the Dean's old Lincoln. Jenny squeezed my upper arm and my little girl kissed me good bye.
I waved them on their way and, temporarily blinded, just as predicted, stumbled back into the house to carry out my own preparations. Though I did manage to miss the lamppost.
More than two hours later, Jenny arrived back at my house to pick me up when it was time for the photos. She adjusted my tie, patted my arm, smiled and said, "You're almost as good looking as your daughter." That was an exaggeration of course – nobody could match Amy on that day - but people are so kind!
.... There is more of this story ...