Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Old Gunslinger

Eye to eye, his halitosis encircled me
like the hot steam from an irritated dragon.

When I first entered graduate school, I was assigned an assistantship with one of the most respected professors at the University of South Carolina. With enough publications to his credit to fill a bookshelf, he had earned the reputation of one of the leading authorities in his field. Through decades of toil, he had built his own publishing house from his blood and sweat: the caffeine highs of long editing sessions. He was driven by the pride of achievement; he savored the challenge of late nights becoming early mornings. When we meet, he sat at the absolute pinnacle of the profession and I was far off, miles below, climbing the foothills at the base of the mountain.

My newly appointed academic mentor was also an extremely tough man to work for. For a fresh-faced graduate student, it was like teaching a toddler to swim by throwing him into a vat of boiling oil. Because I misunderstood the starting date of my job, I arrived a day late and our first conversation ended in him screaming, over the phone, “get the hell out of my life!” Frequently reduced to tears, librarians were so terrified of him, they let me take books without a card; I just had to mention his name. The new student that filled my position after I started teaching quit after one day. Even his sneeze was intimidating; it rang out through the office hallways like a man being stabbed to death in cold blood.

More than earning my degree, my proudest moment in those early years of graduate school was the day I took money off that old bear in a wager.

The life of a research assistant is menial and tedious. That particular day, he had tasked me with searching the works of a dozen authors for books dedicated to a certain publisher. I discovered one book with a combination of the publisher’s name and his secretary’s. When we reviewed my handwritten notes, he snapped to attention at the strange entry I had found. Eye to eye, his halitosis encircled me like the hot steam from an irritated dragon. “I don’t believe you,” he cracked. As if sharing some sort of primal instinct, each of us immediately dropped our hands down and to our sides, the way gunfighters reach for their pistols. Up we came simultaneously with our wallets. And the bet was on.

Unfortunately for me, graduate assistants are some of the poorest, employed people on the planet; all I had was $5. His wallet was stuffed with a knot of bills so large it could barely close. Had it been a few years later, when I actually had a poker bankroll, I would have fleeced the old man for every penny he had.

Even in defeat, there was a twinkle of pride in his eye. He had turned a feckless neophyte into a hardened perfectionist like himself. The memory has been more valuable to me than a thousand dollar session of cards.