Our Festschrift Day excitement began at 6:00 am.
The team hit the ground running. We racewalked to the all-night copy center, to food services, to the research library to scout out a quote that the keynote speaker needed, to the florist, to the ice machine, to the offices of the top brass to round up their written good wishes on a giant greeting card tied up with ribbon, to the trophy/award store to pick up the crystal pyramid with name engraving, to the rest rooms to monitor tidiness and stock up on extra paper supplies. We lined up chairs along the carpet pattern in the auditorium, draped and bannered the dais, tested the panelist microphones, cued up the tape deck with blank cassettes labeled and ready, proofed the names and titles in the invitation list, stacked the programs by the door, set the tables with red cloth, unwrapped the flowers and set them up in vases, set out glasses, filled the pitchers with water and fresh ice, and stood back to admire it all. Show time!
Now our guest of honor was on the way. The scholars had lured him out for this dark and stormy night to preside over an evening of lectures. They didn’t let him know that the lectures were all about him. This Festschrift was a surprise, a whole intellectual bouquet of tributes dedicated to his lifetime accomplishments in academics, research, comparative political systems, and publishing. Tomorrow I’d take the list of panel talks, and enter all the titles in the Invited Presentation section of everybody’s curriculum vitae. Then I’d transcribe the tapes of lectures and extemporaneous comments and questions and answers. Then we’d put that in a manuscript and publish the proceedings in a bound journal for sale in our bookstore and gifts for the experts who attended.
But for now, Catering showed up to take over for the evening. So I headed down the hall for the two-block walk to the back of the building, then down three floors to my office. I got out of the good shoes and stockings and long red dress suit, into sensible clothes for the walk home: army surplus trousers, hood sweatshirt, ski hat, supersized khaki knapsack crammed with books from the research library sale, long green rain tarp over all, and the ruination shoes — sneakers with soles peeling off. (Wearing them saved the shoe leather from my better footwear, though they made a comical flippery noise at every step.) With a sigh of relief I stepped out the back utility door and into the wind and rain along the parking lot. Driveway. Dumpsters. Fleeing rat. Loading dock, grated and locked up.
Facilities was supposed to open that grate at 6:30 pm! At 7:00, Specialty Bakers was due with pastries and a tall tiered cake. If that grate was locked, the courier might drive the cake back and try to call Catering, who were all out of their offices and standing at their posts in the hall. Would he just leave that cake out on the ramp wall? That would be a poor outcome, as any listen to “MacArthur Park” can tell us. Now what? Email and cell phones were years away in the future. This was a job for a personal messenger.
We staff weren’t issued keys to the utility exit. So I ran across the lot for one block to the end of the street, two blocks right, one block right again to the main entrance. I charged past the elevators (both full, both too slow anyway), up two floors, through a bevy of guests, to the Catering team. Soon they beelined for the back door to open the grate.
To catch my breath I backed into the auditorium alcove with its two loveseats and large mirror. I mopped off my sweating forehead and polished the steam off my eyeglasses. Putting on the glasses I noticed a petite solitary figure on one loveseat, looking lovely in a dress and jacket of turquoise brocade, highlighting her blue eyes and silver hair.
It was Mrs. Professor.
That’s what she called herself, loyal to an earlier American custom of taking the rank and name of her spouse — our Festschrift guest of honor himself, who even now was running off to the dais. Usually she’d be with him, attracting a circle of their peers. She was always in her element at social gatherings. Why wasn’t she in the auditorium now?
A moment’s reflection turned up a possible reason. Not long before this, Mr. Professor went home for lunch and found Mrs. Professor packing for their summer trip with the children to Mackinac Island. Problem was, there was no trip in the works. This wasn’t summer, and they’d given up that Mackinac house years before, and those kids were middle-aged now with teenagers of their own. Ever since, Mrs. Professor grew distracted and upset in bustle and crowds, and was uneasy alone without Professor at her side.
So after the Mackinac incident, Professor came to the break room to ask the staff for a little favor. He asked us to find him immediately, every time his wife called the office. He also asked us to assure his callers and visitors that Professor would be back soon, at those times when he slipped away to check on his wife at home. Naturally, we were ready to help this kind courtly pair who survived the Depression and his wartime service overseas and some major illnesses together in mutual devotion. It was only right to pitch in a bit for their convenience and comfort.
Now I sidled up quietly to Mrs. Professor, giving her a smile.
She gave me a bright glance and a deep nod, but peered at my face with growing bewilderment. I slid back my rain hood, untied the sweatshirt drawstring, and pulled off the ski cap to give her a better look at me. She’d seen me around the center for years. I was forever trundling in with bookcarts of Professor’s library requests, or with sandwich trays for his seminars, or with a spray bottle and chamois cloth to polish his glass-topped book display table. One time she was amused to see me crawl out from under Professor’s desk after troubleshooting his phone line. She’d praised my Catholic schoolgirl cursive, recording Professor’s messages on little carbon-copy pink slips. And on her calls to the center she even complimented my phone manners.
Those phone manners came in handy now as I started talking to her. At the sound of my voice, she looked relieved and attentive. When I stopped talking her attention unraveled, distracted by the company milling around and their animated chitchat. So I stepped in front, to shield her view from the fuss in the main hall. Then she flinched at the shadow from the rain tarp, so I crouched down at her level. Then I started talking again, floundering around for whatever pleasantries her social set might use. I exclaimed over her lovely outfit and accessories, talked about the weather, pointed out the decorations for this evening’s event.
She nodded agreeably, and extended her hand.
After our handshake I opened my fingers and stood up to sit beside her on the other loveseat. As I drew away, she looked with some anxiety toward the door as if wishing to make her exit. So I knelt down, offering my hand again. She clasped it firmly, smiling again as I went on impersonating more society talk, drawn from editing Professor’s curriculum vitae and tribute biographies and press clips, and from his social anecdotes overheard at the office. I reminisced hearsay details about her adventures living overseas, her elegant supper menus, her heirloom fruit home preserves, her petit point needlework, her dried aromatic flower wreaths and sachets, her pets, her son and daughter, and Professor’s accomplishments listed in the evening’s program.
In the hall the panelists’ voices festschrifted on and on, with smatters of applause.
Shifting my pack with its load of books, of which one hardbound corner was pressing into my spine, I glanced around to watch for Mr. Professor — and spotted our reflection in the mirror. There we were, in view of the guests. One graceful lady in silver and blue with an apprehensive smile. One wet figure latched on to her hand, towering over in an indecent proposal pose, with Clem Kadiddlehopper shoes and a getup like the rear half of a Morris Dance horse costume. Tears of chagrin sprang to my eyes; so much for my fuss to make it a nice evening, and to be a considerate hostess to a solitary guest. What a spectacle! If this were an advert idea, United Colors of Benneton would turn it down as too edgy.
Mrs. Professor leaned forward. She patted my hand between both of hers.
She gave me a nod and a smile of encouragement, patting away.
I wiped my eyes with the ski cap, shrugged, and burst out laughing. So did she.
And it could have been the tiredness, or the tears; but somehow things just started blending together. Panelists and guests, caterers to and fro; flowers and pastries and bunting and dumpsters and the one fleeing rat — Whatever! We were all just creatures, running around, trying to team up and make something nice out of a dark evening and talk about meaningful things and have cake. It was just another medieval stained glass window with divine figures trailing glory center stage and then off in the corner some little gargoyle looking on, gnawing on a mangelwurzel.
This lovely lady and I were still holding hands and laughing when Professor came rushing up dressed to go, holding a coat and scarf and crystal pyramid token of esteem. “My dear!” he hailed his wife, offering a startled but kind glance to me and his elbow to her, draping her in her coat. “My dear, shall we?”
She stood and tied his scarf around his neck with tenderness and precision. She fastened his top button, smoothing his lapel. Then she turned to me, fastening my sweatshirt hood drawstring with a little pat. They turned to go. She took his arm. That was the last I ever saw of them; Professor retired with honors and a warm sendoff, and the two moved off to be with family in quieter climes.
I helped myself to a cream cheese marble brownie for the road, with some supersize dinner napkins. Crossing the bridge in the wind and rain I loped along, admiring the city lights, munching my goody. It was a blessing to be out in the fresh air for a bracing hour’s walk. It was a bigger blessing to get back to my warm room, set down that load of books, and get some rest.
The dinner napkins were just right for packing the ruination shoes and propping open the soles. Set beside the radiator as I crashed headlong into bed and slept, they were dry by morning.
Fact Check: The house was not on Mackinac. It was in another quaint and scenic getaway. But as disguise devices go, Mackinac had a nice sound. I heard of it in Girl of the Limberlost and a picturesque pastel movie with Christopher Reeve.