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Brad Evanston craned his neck forward to peer over the hood of his black Packard as he drove the back road leading to campus. He was still chafing from his wife’s taunt that morning, “you’ve become an absent-minded professor,” over his misplaced umbrella and scuffle around the house for his briefcase. Maybe he did lose things, like his wallet last week, but her taunting was unfair and mean. He had skittered out of the house early so that he could arrive in plenty of time to prepare notes for his 8 a.m. music composition class – and escape her relentless harping.
The drive from home to campus usually took sixteen minutes. The remote stretch of road between his house and the campus gave Professor Evanston the time he needed to mentally plan his lecture, so he was assured that no car was approaching. It was 6:30 a.m. and an autumn chill hung in the air as leaves from the deep woods swirled through the air landing on his windshield. The last vestige of an autumn’s full moon stared down at Professor Evanston as the morning sun backed the full-plated orb into submission. Up ahead a tall dark-suited hulk lumbered along the road in the direction of the college.
“What, the hell?” Professor Evanston muttered aloud studying the figure ahead. He slowed his car, with a trace of worry about timeliness and classroom preparation lurking at the back of his mind.
As if on cue, the figure turned around to glance at the approaching car before continuing on, one foot planted tentatively in front of the other.
Evanston glimpsed into his rearview mirror and noted that there were no cars behind him. He saw only his own tire tracks stretching backward in distance and time and marring the frost-covered two-lane road. He slowed his car down to a crawl and guided his car toward the center of the road, giving the man wide berth.
The professor’s car was a length behind when suddenly the man stumbled in the uneven dirt and collapsed to one knee. Evanston stopped his car along side the pedestrian and set his hand brake, leaving the engine running. Exhaust from the tail pipe swirled and gathered, wafting toward the deep woods on either side of the road and creating a heavy white curtain behind the black sedan. His parking lights, glowing red through the exhaust would warn oncoming cars that he has stopped.
Glancing at his Bulova he noted the time as he pulled on the handle and threw his girth into opening the car door – 6:30 a.m. Drawing himself into a standing position, with foot planted firmly on the pavement he realized that the man, dressed in a black business suit, was doing the same. That is, the man was drawing himself into a standing position – from his stumble just moment before.
“Say! ‘Up kind of early for a stroll on this frosty morning aren’t you, buddy? I almost didn’t see you,” he hollered out, after leaning across to turn the crank on the passenger side window.
That was, of course, a lie – that he had almost not seen him.
The man looked sidelong at the professor as he struggled out of his genuflect. Evanston realized at that moment that he had encountered an older man, broad-shouldered and of generous bulk, though dressed in a nicely pressed black suit. Fascinated, he realized how similar the elderly gentleman’s attired was to his own.
Quickening his pace, he hurried to the old gentleman’s side and helped him into a standing position.
“Thanks, young fella,” were the first words spoken. And, finally the two men stood eye-to-eye staring into the other’s face.
Professor Evanston repeated his query, “Out for a stroll? Where’s your overcoat, my man?” He added ‘my man’ thinking it might sound jolly, less impatient. He felt that a certain decorum was necessary of one holding the status of professor.
His elderly encounter brushed himself off and peered curiously at Evanston, as though looking through a microscope at a caterpillar – or such. “Work. I’m going to work,” he replied.
Evanston guffawed. The elderly gent obviously hadn’t worked in years. Surely he was in his eighties. “Work, you say? I’m sure that’s not quite correct.”
“Home. I’m heading home,” the gentleman changed his mind.
“Ah, I see,” he responded noting the man’s thick black hair, streaked with threads of silver.
In pantomime the gentleman looked at Evanston’s hair and touched his own, possibly comparing it to the professor’s thick black mop, streaked with threads of silver.
“Well, it’s too chilly a morning to be out for a stroll without an overcoat. Let’s see if we can’t deposit you at your doorstep. Okay with you?”
The old man allowed himself to be led to the Packard where he settled himself in the professor’s passenger side front seat. Looking around the automobile’s interior he stated flatly, “Hmm . . . I used to have a car just like this. Back when I still drove.”
Evanston nodded an acknowledgement and hurried back to the driver’s side looking forward to the warmth of the car’s interior. He glanced at his watch, and tapped the crystal face. Hadn’t he wound it this morning? It had stopped at 6:30 a.m.
“Well, let’s see. Which house is yours?” Evanston asked, releasing the hand brake and glancing into the rear view mirror before his car began its slow roll forward. Still, no cars were approaching, and no cars appeared in the oncoming lane.
“It’s along this road,” His elderly companion motioned forward, waving his hand dismissively.
The car moved on, its high beams a beacon as time crept forward, away from the past. The seconds soon turned into long minutes as the professor’s thoughts returned to his students, and the academic progress of each. Not the curious sort, he was not wont toward idle chatter and the two men fell silent. He figured the old man would speak up to tell him which of the widely spaced homes were his.
“Just up a ways, you say?” he asked.
“No, back a ways.”
“We’re going in the wrong direction? Did I pass it?”
The elderly man pursed his lips and seemed to be thinking – as though trying to remember. Evanston pursed his lips and waited.
“I’m pretty sure it is in the other direction,” the man admitted.
His aggravation growing, Evanston blurted, “I don’t have much time, sir. Let’s take a look at your wallet, shall we? Your address will be in your wallet, won’t it?”
The old man fumbled for the worn leather folded into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and handed it over as the professor once again pulled the car to the side of the road. Evanston again glanced at his watch, winding it this time. “Damn!” he thought, realizing he had lost track of time completely. He students could be gathered in the music hall at that moment, waiting for him.
Accepting the wallet Evanston nodded at the man, whose languid eyes peered at him balefully from behind thick spectacles. Evanston identified with the old man’s failing eyesight, ruing that he also wore what his student’s jokingly referred to as “coke bottle” lenses.
He flipped the sojourner’s wallet open. The social security card was tattered and faded behind the yellowed sheath that contained it. Evanston held the wallet closer to the dome light of the car, not quite making out the name – or so he thought, shaking his head as if to clear it.
He flipped to the next item in the man’s wallet and felt the heat grow under his starched collar as, at the same moment, a wave of nausea hit him. His eyesight sharpened and his heart quickened as he stared at an old faculty card; much less worn than the social security card. In fact, it was clearly legible. The words lined up in bullet format neatly under the collegiate seal,
Professor Bradley K. Evanston
Bradley K. Evanston turned to face his future as an absent-minded professor — personified; at the same instant he heard the crisp tick of his watch take up its time-keep once more.
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Emily Hill’s ghost stories and novels are available at the following websites:
Ghosts of White Raven Estate.