Fourteen Seconds for a Chicken
TUESDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-EIGHTH. I don’t have any classes today, which is a good thing since I would probably only be embarrassing myself. This cup of cold cafeteria coffee is the one thing that’s keeping me awake at this point.
I’d left my window open all night, and I’d spent most of my sleepless morning continuing to search inside my apartment and outside in the alley. But there was still no sign of Claude anywhere. Oddly, those pigeons on the telephone wires were also absent all morning.
I haven’t seen or heard from Templeton so far today, which is aggravating to no end. But it’s also somewhat reassuring at the same time.
I’m thinking I should call it a day, I should go home and try to get some sleep, but I decide to bite the bullet and have that pre-arranged talk with Professor Nickwelter I’d reneged on yesterday.
I find Nickwelter in his office, reading a magazine and eating a sandwich from the university cafeteria. I knock on the doorframe, and he invites me inside. He sets the magazine facedown on the desk. On the back, there’s an advertisement for contact lenses, and there’s a picture of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I can only assume this is due to the golden eagle’s extra eyelid, or what is scientifically known as a nictitating membrane. This transparent eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eye from wind shear, or when staring at the sun. Not quite the same as a contact lens, but I’m certain the advertising wiz must have thought it was genius.
“Hello Isabelle,” he says calmly. “Thank you for coming to see me.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come by yesterday Professor. I wasn’t feeling well, so I went home early.”
“Hmm? Oh yes. Some of us were wondering where it was you’d disappeared to. I hope it wasn’t bad spaghetti again.”
“Pardon?” I’m unsure why it is, but my mind has already begun to forget about the birthday dinner that took place weeks ago, and the transparent excuses used to escape from it.
Nickwelter sits back a little, almost in defense. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry.” He’s still knows when not to push my buttons. Even if some of my buttons are new ones he’s now unfamiliar with.
“This isn’t a bad time, is it?” I ask, for no other reason than the fact that he might want to finish his article.
“Of course not. Have a seat.”
I close the door behind me. Nickwelter’s office chairs are much nicer than mine, with plush cushions and armrests. Perhaps it’s because he likes having guests more than I do. This room is full of history, most of it ancient. It’s the very same office in which Nelson Hatch, the founder of Hawthorne University, used to work out of. There’s a painted portrait of the man hanging on the wall to my right. I imagine this is the way Professor Nickwelter would have looked if he had never smoked a day in his life. A little smoother. A little cleaner. A little more polished around the ornithological edges.
Nelson Hatch was a brilliant man. I admit that I don’t know as much about him as others around here do, Professor Nickwelter being our resident specialist on the subject. I know he was born somewhere in New York, and that he died somewhere here in Massachusetts. From the stories I’ve heard and read, he was not only incredibly intelligent, but he was also a gentle and caring man. He had devoted his whole life to the study of ornithology, and the only thing he seemed to care about more was the education of his students. He was also known to be a bit of an eccentric, and the thing about him that most people still talk about are his famous sayings. He had many phrases that he’d created himself, seemingly for his own amusement, and it was not uncommon to hear his words spoken throughout the halls of the university. Even still to this day, you can hear students quoting him in passing. Such as:
“Looks like the flamingo has gotten the better of you.” Meaning: you’re blushing. The Flamingo’s striking red, pink and coral feathers, as well as its bright yellow legs, are colored by the carotenoids in their food. If deprived of the required canthaxanthin, the flamingo’s feathers will fade to white.
“That’s like fourteen seconds for a chicken.” Meaning: that’s impossible; due to the longest recorded flight for a chicken being thirteen seconds.
And my personal favorite:
“If pigs really could fly, would everyone finally be satisfied?” Meaning: this was more of a question, a musing on the popular saying ‘when pigs fly;’ which seems to only be uttered when somebody was already prepared to be disappointed by something.
If Nelson Hatch had been telling this story, it would certainly contain far more riddled bird analogies.
There are a few paintings of birds lining the walls also, one of them, a Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), being an original piece by John James Audubon himself. When Audubon would paint birds, he would first carefully shoot them with a fine bullet in order to prevent the birds from being unnecessarily torn apart. He would then use wires to prop them up, back into life-like positions. Finally, he would return the birds to their natural habitat where he would use them as the subjects for his work.
I remember being in awe of this picture since my very first day at Hawthorne. It was the first time I’d ever met Professor Nickwelter, and it was one of the last times I thought somebody knew more about ornithology than I did.
The merganser and I are both eyeing the sad-looking, half-eaten sandwich on Professor Nickwelter’s desk. I don’t think I’ve consumed anything but coffee today. An organic Harari blend this morning (a complex, medium-bodied roast with notes of fruity flavor), followed by four or five cups of not-so-fresh Hawthorne cafeteria mud.
Professor Nickwelter removes his reading glasses, places them in his jacket pocket, and then slowly folds his hands in front of him on the desk. He seems unsure of where he wants to start, which is sort of relieving.
I try my best to get this meeting over with. “What did you want to see me about Professor?”
“I’ve made a decision Isabelle.” When he’s nervous, he always seems to speak as though he’s reading from a textbook. “I’m not entirely sure what your reaction will be, however I sincerely hope that this is something that will work for the both of us.”
I get the sinking feeling that this probably has less to do with our respective positions at Hawthorne University, and far more to do with the position we found ourselves in two weeks ago in the back of his car.
His eyes lock on to mine. “I’ve done it. I’ve decided to leave Beth. I want to be with you, and you alone. I realize that now.”
I instantly turn away from him, trying to avoid eye contact. Those eyes of his used to be able to convince me to do just about anything. I look to the hooded merganser for some kind of sign. Something that will get me through this conversation without me losing my highly caffeinated temper. The bird seems to shrug its wings, letting me know I’m on my own here.
“Bella?” he continues. “Did you hear me? I said I realize now that I want to be with you. I told Beth the very same thing last night.”
“How on earth could you do that? Don’t you remember what you told me last time?” He shrugs his shoulders in response, just like the merganser. “You told me to forget about everything that’s ever gone on between the two of us, didn’t you?”
“Did I say that? That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Of course it sounds like you Professor. These back-and-forth decisions and up-and-down lies you tell everyone was all you ever were when we were together.”
“You can’t tell me that what we had meant nothing to you. You told me that I was the only good thing in your life.”
Maybe at the time. I want to tell him I’ve evolved since then. I’ve changed. I’ve met Templeton Rate. But I don’t say anything.
Nickwelter’s eyes tear up. He rubs them with his hands, as though he’s got dust in his eyes, but I can tell this isn’t dust; this is a product of actual emotion. And he’s never been very good at expressing actual human emotion.
I figure I need to say something before this man falls apart in front of me. Before he embarrasses that painting of Nelson Hatch. “I’m not comfortable talking about this right now Professor. And especially not here.”
“Isabelle,” he begins, still rubbing his eyes. “There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t discuss this now.”
I want to say the words immediately, but it takes a good ten seconds before my brain can force my mouth open. “Claude is gone Professor.”
I don’t know what response I’d hoped to receive from him, but he chooses to remain motionless; his face still buried within his hands.
“Did you hear what I said Professor? Claude is gone! I came home yesterday and he’d simply vanished. I don’t want to think he leapt out the window to his death, but there’s no other possible explanation.”
Nickwelter adjusts himself, yet his movement is almost imperceptible. He’s not sure what he wants to say next; he knows how much that bird means to me. When he finally speaks though, his words are not what I expect. “Why do you always do that? You might think I haven’t noticed, but I have. Why can’t you just say my name Isabelle?”
I want to say it’s because I don’t know it anymore, but I realize how stupid that would sound.
What better way to forget a memory then to start with a name?
I quickly come to the conclusion that not only had Nickwelter seen me in the hall with Templeton yesterday, but that he had most likely seen me with him on other occasions as well. It’s also very probable that this is the only reason that he’s made the decision he has: Nickwelter has never seen me with another man before. Not once have I presented myself as being unavailable for him. I’ve never seemed unattainable.
I’ve never changed since the day we met.
But just like with the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), it’s the female that will choose her mate. It is not the male that gets to choose to be with Isabelle Donhelle in this scenario. Not Professor Nickwelter. Not Templeton. I tell myself that this is entirely my decision alone.
If Templeton hadn’t followed me into The Strangest Feeling that night.
Nickwelter doesn’t wait for a response from me though; he’s still just hanging onto his own last words. “You think I haven’t noticed. But I’ve noticed.”
“Listen to me Professor. All this time, I’d always thought it was supposed to be you that needed to change. I thought that if you’d only left your wife, I could be happy with what we had. If only you’d actually taken me out somewhere in public, I could start to feel like I was special. But I’ve realized now after all this time that it was me that needed to change. It was up to me to evolve. Your leaving Beth won’t make any difference at all.”
“But I’ve already left her. I slept in my car again last night! What are you saying Bella? That I’ve made a mistake?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“No, it’s not. I love you.”
“No!” I can’t help but rise from my seat. The chair falls over behind me, and I raise my finger to him, cutting him off. “You do not get to say those words to me! Not now. Not after this long. Not after this much history has already been thrown behind us Professor!” Not after Templeton Rate beat you to it and said the very same words to me just last night.
“Please keep your voice down Isabelle. Someone’s likely to hear you.”
I lift the chair with both hands and stand it back up. Taking a quick peak out the window into the hall, I also hope no one’s passed by to hear me raise my voice.
“Isabelle…I’m sorry for your bird, but do you really think that I deserve to be treated this way?”
If Professor Nickwelter had been telling this story, it would be really, really sad.
“I think you do Professor. I really do. And you know what else? I know what it is that’s gotten you to act this way. I know that you’re not comfortable with the fact that I’m involved with someone else now.”
“Involved. Yes, I heard all about your antics in the library a couple of weeks ago. Tell me, what do you really know about this Templeton Rate fellow?”
“I know enough to make me happy.”
“More than that though. Where did he come from?”
“Schenectady. New York.”
“Does he have a job?”
“He’s a doorman.”
“Yes. He works at a hotel somewhere in this city.”
“Well, that certainly sounds believable. But is he really any more your type than I am?”
I give him a moment, to let him think I’m actually considering what my answer will be. To let him assume I care more right now than I actually do. “People change Professor,” I say, folding my arms in front of me. “And none of this is really any of your business anymore.”
Nickwelter ponders our conversation a bit longer. It’s almost as though he’s adding up all of the questions he could ask me right now, and calculating all of the possible answers I could give him in return, figuring out the best course of action. He’s smart like that. And he’s proud too, he always has been. He’s not one to admit defeat so quickly. “Do you remember what happened when someone had found out that you and I were involved with one another Isabelle?”
Of course I do. I remember the whole chain of embarrassing events. One of Professor Nickwelter’s students had found out about our clandestine relationship, and anonymously reported it to Anton Frye, the Dean of Hawthorne University. Nickwelter was given a temporary leave of absence while the school’s board sorted out the details of exactly what the repercussions should be. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that I was far and away the top student in the program at the time. This didn’t seem to reflect well on Professor Nickwelter’s grading system, since he was the head of the department at the time, but it also didn’t reflect well upon the rest of the school and its faculty.
Even though our relationship had continued, Beth Nickwelter had forgiven her husband’s adultery, he was admitted back into the university, albeit in a less-prestigious role, and I had graduated at the top of my class.
Now it’s me who holds the coveted position as head of the ornithology department. I know exactly where Professor Nickwelter is trying to go with this, but I still need to hear it. “What are you saying, Professor?”
“I’m saying that was the worst year of my life Isabelle.” He takes a good hard look at the walls around him. “That was the year I didn’t have all of this. This school means everything to me. And it means everything to you too. I would hate to think that you might make a mistake and lose it all like I did.”
From his office window, I catch a streaking glimpse of what appears to be an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) sprinting across the lawn. But that can’t be right; oystercatchers aren’t territorial to this area at this time of the year. It quickly disappears into some bushes, and I wonder if I just saw what I thought I saw. Its large bright red bill is unmistakable, but I can only assume that it was something else. Although the way my emotions are going right now, it could have just been a dog off its leash for all I know.
Professor Nickwelter motions to the portrait on the wall to my right. “Don’t you know how embarrassed this picture of Nelson Hatch makes me feel? I can feel him watching me everyday. And I know he would be disappointed by the things I’ve done to his school. I would give anything for the opportunity to have my proper place in Hawthorne back. Anything.”
Running across the lawn now is Jerry Humphries, and I know he must be chasing after the bird that plunged into the shrubbery. It definitely wasn’t a dog, but there should also be no reason for Humphries to be holding any American oystercatchers in the bird sanctuary.
“Are you listening to what I’m saying Isabelle?” Nickwelter continues, seemingly unaware that I was focused on something other than him. “Don’t you realize the price you might pay for getting involved with Templeton Rate?”
I open the door to leave. “You and I are finished here Professor. You need to go back to your wife. You’re not going to survive many more cold nights sleeping in the back of your car and living on cafeteria food.” I take a step out into the hall, but I turn back to him before leaving for good. “And I really hope you weren’t threatening me Professor. You can’t afford to fall any further than you already have.” Defiantly, I slam his office door behind me. I can hear the hooded merganser rattling against the wall. I also hear what can only be Nickwelter’s fist slamming onto his desk, and then pushing his lamp onto the floor. The ceramic base smashes. The bulb breaks. And I keep walking away.
I can’t help but wonder what it is that Nickwelter will tell his wife, should he return home tonight. I wonder what I’ll be able to say to him the next time we talk, and how long I’ll be able to avoid that future encounter.