We didn’t know his real name; we alway referred to him as “Professor Tolkien”. He’d walk by us, wearing his tweed jacket and smoking his pipe, turning right past where we played basketball to get to the ‘nice neighborhood’, as we called it.
None of us lived in the ‘nice neighborhood’. But the professor did.
Actually, we didn’t know what he did for a living. But, he looked like Tolkien, from the pictures we’d seen of the famous fantasy author / professor; and like all good nicknames, someone said it once, and everyone immediately knew that was the one we’d use from then on.
Some of my friends dated or had dated girls from that neighborhood, but none of them knew anything about him either, other than that he walked home every weekday, and passed by the public basketball courts between 6:25 and 6:30. And, since we played basketball year round, we saw him hundreds of times a year all during my 9th, 10th, and 11th grade years.
During the summer between 11th and 12th grades, one of my buddies, Martin, was out playing ball with us on a Friday night. Martin worked odd hours and days at the theater, so, he hadn’t played ball with us for years. When Professor Tolkien appeared up the street treading his familiar path back home, one of the other guys said, “There’s Professor Tolkien, right on time.” Martin glanced down the street at the approaching man and said “That’s Nina’s dad.”
“She’s that English girl I was telling you about. She visits every summer.”
“Why does her dad live here?”
“How do you know her?”
“She comes to the movies 6 or 7 days a week, she sees everything. She saw one movie last year twelve times.”
“Is she cute?”
“Yeah, she is. I’m supposed to have a date with her tomorrow.”
At that age, any guy who gets a first date with any girl is immediately congratulated by all other guys. We don’t have to know the girl – or, for that matter, the guy. It’s guys’ way of supporting romance, I guess. So we (who, by the way, were waiting for our turn at the court, having just lost a close game) were all slapping him on the back and giving him high fives.
“Are they rich?” one of the other guys asked.
“Not… really,” Martin said, slowly. “I get the feeling he sends just about every dollar he makes back to England. He doesn’t even own a car.”
“What does he do for a living?” I asked. I mean, we’d gotten the English thing right…
“He is an accountant, I believe, and works for the Cash family.”
“The ones who own all the bars?”
“I thought they were like… Mafia or something.”
“The Cashes? Couldn’t say. Anyway, if I’m going to have more than one date with her, I’d kind of like her dad to not hate me, so, I doubt I’ll ask him that question.”
“So you really like her…”
“She’ll be gone, beginning of September, so… I can only like her for so long.”
Turns out he was wrong. Nina stayed and attended our high school for what was my senior year. I heard somewhere that her mom wasn’t doing well, healthwise, so staying with her dad was better for all concerned. She and Martin continued dating, and he loved her; and from everything I ever saw, she loved him.
We still played basketball every night, although it was a long time before Martin was out there again for work reasons. Professor Tolkien walked by every weeknight, just as punctual as ever. (I had figured his name was probably “Gordonson”, since hers was, but I had no absolute confirmation, so the nickname stuck.) Then, however, about three weeks from graduation, one of the guys noticed that the Professor hadn’t come by at his usual time. (It had been raining, but that had never stopped either him or us.)
The next day at school, I asked Martin if everything was okay with Nina’s dad. “Yeah,” he said. “Why?”
“He didn’t walk by the court last night.”
“Oh, he came by. In a car. One he bought for Nina.”
I imagined some sort of silver BMW of the kind that’s standard issue to kids who lived in the nice neighborhood. “Must be nice.”
“Dude, he’s gone without a car for five years. He’s sent almost every dollar he makes back to support her. She cried when he showed her the car, even though it’s nothing fancy. She absolutely insisted, though, for as long as she still lives here, that he let her drop him off and pick him up from work when the weather’s bad.”
“I thought people who lived there pretty much did whatever they wanted.”
“Well, there you go, thinking again, working without tools.”
The wedding of Martin John Romario and Nina Edsell Gordonson was held five years later.
They are still married to this day.
At the reception, she did the traditional father/daughter dance. Her mom, who was in a wheelchair and looked very feeble indeed, looked on, smiling.
During the reception, at some point, her dad rose to speak, and I realized, even though I’d seen the man five times a week for almost a decade, I’d never heard his voice. What he said stuck with me though:
“I am, um, very gratified that all of you could be be here for this happy occasion. I work mostly with numbers, so, um, speeches aren’t really my cup of tea, or, um as you say around here, my glass of tea. So I’ll make this short with a toast:
In everything you do, be kind-
Remember: equals you must be –
Then you will have the wherewithal
To keep love’s shine
For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.