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This is a story about a good man who loves two women. The professor loves his American wife, but when the mother of his new Japanese research assistant visits her son from Japan, the professor's world is turned upside down.
Professor Tobias David Dana thought he was content with his life. His teaching, his pretty, accomplished wife, his cottage garden, his prospects in general. Then the mother of his new graduate assistant visits her son from Japan. David's world turns upside down. Memories that he thought he had suppressed or forgotten flood back, and his contentment vanishes.
Kenji had anticipated this day for years. He walked on a sidewalk shaded by huge cottonwood trees. He hardly saw the students who passed, some strolling and chatting with their companions, others hurrying to classes or meetings or because it is in the nature of students to be late. He stopped and consulted the map he held. He frowned, lowered the map and looked around.
The campus was most appealing. Buildings were red brick with stone trim and ceramic tile roofs. The architecture had been called Ivy League West. A number of movies, supposedly set at New England colleges, were filmed on campus.
The cottonwoods dated from the time, decades ago, when this was the site of a state hospital. When the hospital was moved to a new facility south of town, the buildings were torn down, but most of the trees were left. Pacific University was the happy beneficiary. The ancient cottonwoods were complemented by the newer plantings of liquidambar and Japanese maple.
Borders were filled with grouped plantings of a great variety of flowers and flowering shrubs. A rose bed of three rows between two parallel walkways was in full bloom.
At the end of the rose garden, a clock tower rose to five stories. Kenji recognized the Big Ben chime sounding 9:45. He would be early for his appointment.
Kenji Obata was a nice-looking fellow. About 5’8”, twenty-two years old, he was lean and conservatively dressed in brown cotton slacks, a brown button-down shirt, brown and tan striped tie and khaki jacket. His hair was brown and wavy. It was neatly trimmed, but unruly as it fell over his forehead. He occasionally brushed it back, a futile gesture. His skin was light, smooth and unblemished. His eyes revealed more of his Caucasian than his Japanese parentage. He could have passed for Asian, Filipino, maybe Latino.
He spoke to an approaching student. The student stopped. Kenji showed him the map and asked for directions. The student pointed at a building ahead on the sidewalk. Kenji thanked him, bowed sharply, and went on his way toward the indicated building. The student watched him go. He smiled, then turned and continued down the walk.
David stood at the window of his second floor office, eating a sandwich. His office had a lived-in look. It had been described more than once as ordered chaos.
Packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the wall behind the oak desk. A door on the opposite wall opened to a large closet, crammed with the detritus of seventeen years of teaching. Four file cabinets beside the door held papers that were meticulously composed and collected and rarely consulted.
On each side of the hall door, pictures and paintings provided a glimpse of a life. An exquisite bamboo brush painting of calligraphy in a black lacquer frame hung next to the door. Beside it, there was a kakemono showing an autumn scene of four white chrysanthemums and a perky little bird in autumn-colored plumage. The scroll, with brocade fabric edges, was mounted on a flexible backing so that it could be rolled for storage. David had planned for years to buy a summer scroll, but he had never carried through.
A small oil painting in a black lacquered frame hung adjacent. The painting pictured a rainy village lane lined with shops. Two women in kimono carried oil-paper umbrellas. Two children holding black cloth umbrellas watched an approaching rickshaw. Images of all were reflected in puddles on the wet pavement. A water color of an old Japanese sailing boat in dreamy orange sunlight encased in a thin natural wood frame completed the hangings.
On the opposite side of the door, there was a print of an ink drawing that identified the British monarchs and illustrated the length of their reigns with Greek columns of appropriate height. Beside it was a photograph, slightly out of focus, of a small two story house of cream-colored stone and two small photos of a yard enclosed by an old picket fence with peeling white paint. Above all these hung a rectangular colored drawing of five foxes, nattily dressed as proper English gentlemen of a century or so ago, sitting at dinner at a long table, chatting and smiling.
David stared at the quadrangle below, shaded by rows of cottonwoods on all sides. The crowns of the closely-planted trees, just above his eye-level, merged in a long, continuous leafy canopy.
The lush flat lawn in the middle of the quadrangle was in full sun, now flooded with about three inches of water. David wondered, as he had wondered a thousand times, whether this low-labor technique for lawn watering was a water waster or a water saver. He had never raised the question in any forum on campus.
Professor David Tobias Dana was ruggedly handsome. About 5’10”, he was fit, hardly muscular. His regular bicycling, dumbbells and tai chi kept him trim and limber. He would never have admitted to being flattered that people appeared surprised to learn that he was forty-seven rather than ten years younger. But he was flattered and had come to expect the reaction. He wore slacks and tie shirt and was a bit tousled, a stereotypical professor.
It was a warm late August day. Brilliant sunshine, hot in the sun, pleasant in the deep shadow of the cottonwoods.
David looked below at two students who sat on a redwood bench on the quadrangle walkway. The bench was in a sunny opening in the otherwise solid line of trees. Books were stacked on the bench at each end. The girl wore shorts and a loose short-sleeved khaki shirt, unbuttoned at the top. Her legs were drawn up to her chest, her feet on the bench. She leaned forward as she talked with the boy. He also leaned forward, trying to see down the front of her shirt.
Three young boys, eight or ten years old, kneeled at the edge of the lawn, launching plastic toy boats in the shallow pond. David smiled, remembering his childhood boats.
He had built flat boats from cedar shingles that he had wrenched from an old garage roof. He constructed sailboats with a paper sail on a stick mast that was wedged into a hole punched into the middle of the shingle.
And he built paddle wheel boats. He carved a motor well at the thick end of the shingle, made a paddle wheel from two small rectangular notched pieces, then propelled the boat with a rubber band attached to two small nails driven into the shingle on each side of the notch.
He launched his homemade craft in roadside ditches filled with rainwater or in little ponds like the flooded lawn below. He smiled again at the memory. He wondered whether any of the boys sailing their plastic boats below in 1980 could make their own boats from shingle scraps.
Suddenly his reverie was shattered. The hall door burst open. A head of wild grey hair above a cherubic face appeared abruptly around the edge of the door.
David frowned. “Doug, don’t do that. I might be compromising my favorite student.”
Douglas Franklin, History Department chair, opened the door wide and stepped in. Douglas’s mane, solid prematurely gray at fifty-five years, matched his striped gray and navy jacket with elbow patches.
“Yeah, okay, sorry.” He stepped aside. “I have your new research assistant.” He moved aside. Kenji stepped around him.
“Kenji Obata, Professor Dana.”
“Kenji. Come in.” David stepped toward Kenji and extended his hand. Kenji took the hand, and they shook briefly.
“I trust you’ve been taken care of,” said David.
“I’m off!” Douglas said. David waved. Douglas backed out, in a hurry now, and closed the door.
“Yes, sir. Everything is fine. I am happy to be here,” said Kenji. Kenji looked around, almost furtively.
“First time away from Japan?” David pointed to one of the two chairs in front of his desk. Kenji stared at David. He blinked, then smiled and looked down. He pulled the chair back a bit and sat down.
David pulled the other chair in front of the desk back a bit and sat down. “Your family will miss you.”
Kenji smiled. “Yes, I think so. Mother was sad.”
“Any brothers? Sisters?”
“One brother. Well, he’s not really a brother. He is the son of my father’s mistress. I never met him.”
David pondered a moment. “Hmm. I’m curious. Why Pacific? With your record, you could have gone anywhere.”
Kenji straightened. “I was impressed with your studies of medieval Japan. And because Pacific University is on the west coast of the United States, close to home.” He smiled.
“Where did you learn your English? It’s quite good, idiomatic.”
“Mother loves English. She began teaching me quite early, when I was little. Also, I worked on an English-language newspaper in Tokyo where I attended college.”
“Fair enough,” said David. He stood and stepped around behind his desk. “Okay, let’s talk about what you’ll be doing.” He sat down in his desk chair, opened a drawer on the right side of the desk and pulled out a folder. He laid the folder on the desktop.
“For starters, I’m working on a paper for a conference . . . .”
David leaned against the blackboard and scanned the room. The theater-type classroom was stair-stepped from the front stage-like podium to the back. The place was packed. The fifty chairs were filled, and some students sat on aisle steps. The room buzzed with the usual opening day nervous chatter.
David stepped away from the blackboard and glared. The chatter decreased gradually as students became aware of David’s presence. And the glare. The chattering ended, leaving a stony silence.
David smiled. “Better. Welcome to the opening of your minds. This semester you will not study the history of the medieval age. There is no such thing.” Students frowned and looked at each other.
“Nor will you study the facts of history. There are precious few of those.” He paused. “You will study the medieval past . . . as created by Tobias David Dana.”
Students smiled, leaned back in their chairs and relaxed. Some exchanged curious glances with their neighbors. There was a low buzz of conversation.
“There is no history without historians.” The buzz ended. “Nothing happened unless some historian said it happened.” He paused and looked around at the class.
As if on cue, a frowning student leaned forward in his chair. “Sir. But, but - ” David held up a hand, palm outward, to cut him off.
“Later. There are a few rules. I will mention them only once. I tolerate some little subdued discussion with your neighbor.” Students looked at neighbors and smiled. “Because I assume you are commenting on the brilliance of the instructor’s presentation and because I may call on you to tell the class about your discussion.”
This was met with some scattered polite laughter. “Otherwise, listen, absorb, and take notes. You may find that even my feeble attempts at humor have a purpose. Well, usually.” He smiled.
By this time, students who had begun thinking that this class was going to be great fun now wondered whether instead it might be the history class from hell.
“If you forget or ignore these instructions, you will be punished in an appropriate medieval fashion. Those who persist in abusing the instructions will be shackled and sold as slaves to Taurus.” Taurus was the scariest, most secretive fraternity on campus. A few students squirmed and laughed nervously. Especially the girls.