“Don’t lose any of the tests.”
“If you do…”
“…I will kill you. And I will do it. I am from Colombia!”
I have worked for Professor E for two years now. On a typical day he may threaten to kill me, suggest that I’m crazy, recommend tequila as a sort of mythical cure-all, or, my personal favorite, accuse me or someone else of “smoking grass.”
According to Professor E, smoking grass explains everything. It is the cause of unfavorable political decisions, disorganization, being short, and doing poorly on the homework. That’s what I do. For four hours a week I sit under a bowed bookshelf in Professor E’s crammed and foul-smelling office and make a record of students doing poorly on the homework.
“What if when you are walking home you get hit by a bus? And all your papers, they fly out into the street and get lost forever?”
“So you’re saying you don’t care about me at all?”
“I just got hit by a bus and you’re worried about the tests flying out of my backpack?”
Last year Professor E developed a sleeping disorder. Suddenly the door to his office was shut and locked, the lights off, more often than it was open. He warned me that he was going to take naps, but I was never sure exactly when. I stood in the hallway with my ear pressed against the door, agonizing over the decision to knock or not to knock. I paced back and forth. I asked the other professors if they had seen him.
One day I procured the master key from the department office. They keep the master key on a literal chain that is eight, maybe ten inches long. The links are silver and heavy. I felt like a medieval jailor carrying the thing. When I opened the door something on the floor moved. Something big. Professor E had curled up on the floor of his office and covered himself with blanket the color of dark green pine needles. He lifted his hand against the light like he hadn’t seen it in days. I apologized as quickly and profusely as possible, grabbed my papers, and shut the door behind me, locking the prisoner back in his cell.
I found out later it was during his divorce.
“Don’t ever get married, Ms. Wilke.”
“Really, I am not joking. Love is the worst. It will tear you apart. Nothing else can hurt you like love can. But that is why there is tequila.”
There are always birds in the office. They hide in the lopsided stacks of papers and on what little space is left on the shelves that fill the back wall. Wooden birds with springs for necks bob up and down out of a thimble beside the computer. Another spring-loaded woodpecker slides down a metal pole, pecking at it with its plastic beak. A calendar with pictures of tropical birds hangs on the wall, and a clock in the upper left corner of the room plays different bird calls when it strikes the hour. Now whenever I hear a Chickadee I automatically assume it’s three o’ clock.
“Ah, look at this. What are you doing?”
“Take a break. Mira.”
It’s a picture of a bright green jewel with wings, a page in a book of birds native to South America.
“Yes. Birds are beautiful creatures.” He sits back in his chair and there is reverence in his face, bright eyes and an unconscious, close-lipped smile. “Beautiful.”
Birds aren’t like us. They can’t tear a person apart from the inside. The worst you can get is a peck or a scratch, or an unexpected and undesirable white stain on the back of your shirt or the top of your hat—if you were lucky enough to be wearing a hat. They flit through the sunlight and sing sweetly to us in the morning, then sing us to sleep at night. I guess it’s still okay to love birds.
“You look through this,” he says, handing me the book. “Then get back to work, crazy lady.”