The Higher Learning

By on Oct 4, 2020 in Fiction

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1950s living room, chemistry book and car

The road north from the University town passed among fields and pastures. Along the way were one or two gas stations and a cluster of modest homes built for returning World War II veterans. I especially remember the cows that roamed the pastures, often close to the road. But more important to me, the road was plied by motorists willing to give a hitch-hiking college boy a lift. I was easily identified as a student by my books. I carried a loose-leaf binder with my needed books hooked to it. In those days, textbooks were modest in design and easily carried.

On this one particular evening, after working late in the Quantitative Analysis laboratory, I was hiking along the dark road, toward my unhappy home. This was my predicament in those days, though the glow of lights on the horizon was a metaphoric reminder of the future and its possibilities. As I walked on, occasionally glancing over my shoulder, I noticed headlights approaching and raised my thumb. The car, a Kaiser Manhattan, pulled over just ahead, and behind the wheel sat a pretty girl, a classmate of mine. Her name was Mary Dennison, and she was a mathematics major. That she stopped at all was symbolic of those innocent days of the 1950s.

She drove with a skill I admired, driving being an art I hadn’t yet mastered. She wore white socks, thick and turned down. I recall the socks moving along the floorboard as her feet moved from pedal to pedal. During the twelve-mile ride to the outskirts of the next town, we spoke at intervals, at first the usual student talk about courses and professors. But after a particularly long silence, she asked an arresting question.

“What are you going to do with your life?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “Maybe graduate school next.”

“You’re undecided?”

“Right now I am.”

She didn’t like my being undecided. But I had to worry over military service, my student deferment, and whether to make money, or continue on as an out-at-the-elbows student. And I was, at the time, tired of being tired. I mentioned this last to Mary.

“Me, too,” she replied. “Do you ever study with anybody?”

“No—why do you ask?”

“Just wondering.”

Then came another silent interval. Did she want me to study with her? I realized that, in my too-large car coat, my worn and soiled buckskin shoes, and with my needing a haircut, I wasn’t the most attractive sight. Surely, Mary had noticed the evidence of poverty. And I never thought of myself as an interesting companion.

“Where’s the best place to drop you off?” she asked finally.

“The next corner will be fine.”

We had reached a main intersection with traffic moving in five directions. My house was a brief walk away. It was small and square and sitting on a side street near more cow-trodden pastures. I was about to climb out of the car, when she touched my shoulder—right on my tweedy car coat.

“Maybe we could study together sometime,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, after gazing into her dark eyes. “And thanks for the ride.”

“You’re entirely welcome.”

I left the car, perhaps too quickly. I was off toward home as the Kaiser, a dull green in the streetlights, moved slowly away from the curb. It was cold on that little side street where I lived, but I was preoccupied with Mary Dennison, math major and very smart, whose grades could match my own. By the time I arrived home, my parents were, once again, arguing over money—it was an endless debate. I often waited until they tired of yelling, before I went to my room and opened my books. That was one reason I was willing to accept Mary’s offer, as long as we studied at her house. But of course, it wasn’t the only reason.

(continued on page 2)

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Born in Philadelphia, Robert Watts Lamon now lives in Durham, North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including Straylight, Foliate Oak, Toasted Cheese, Deep South, Main Street Rag, Liberty Island, Xavier Review, and The MacGuffin, along with previous appearances in Wild Violet. He’s also contributed essays and book reviews to Liberty.