I sat forward in my chair, readying my defense. "I wasn't responsible for the bootleg gin. And as for Professor Schneider's rats, I'm positive I locked his laboratory after the six-o'clock feeding. Someone must have stolen the key from the officeor from one of the janitors. It really wouldn't be all that difficult to"
McLaughlin raised a hand to silence me. He opened his jacket and hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets, a signature pose I'd seen caricatured once in an underground student newspaper. The caricaturist had done an admirable job capturing the face I saw now scrutinizing me, the fair Irish skin and wisp of white hair, the distinguished features beginning to turn brittle with the years, like paper; but he hadn't done justice to McLaughlin's eyes, blue as a newborn's and just as inquisitive. They studied me behind rimless spectacles for a good half minute, rarely blinking as they decided my fate. At last McLaughlin spoke.
"It occurs to me that perhaps the department is wasting your talents having you care for Professor Schneider's rats."
Here it came. A note of desperation crept into my voice.
"Please, Professor, if you'll only let me explain"
"That won't be necessary, Finch."
"But I need this job," I pleaded. "If you let me go, I'll have to leave HarvardI'm barely holding on as it is. I'm not like Halliday; my father isn't a senator."
McLaughlin's ears pricked up. "And what does he do?"
I frowned in confusion. "Who?"
No doubt my hesitation was as telling as my reply: "He's a greengrocer in the North End."
"Ah! I suspected a barber."
"What gave you that idea?"
McLaughlin took a seat behind his desk, explained, "You came to us as a transfer student from the medical college ..." Opening a file folder before him, he consulted my transcript, continuing, "Given your excellent grades there, I can only assume you chose to leave for personal reasons that medicine was never your dream in the first place. Nothing unusual in this, of course. You aren't the first student who allowed the prevailing winds of parental opinion to steer him toward an unsuitable profession. As a parent myself, I can understand the temptation to live vicariously through one's children. I asked myself what merchant or tradesman would hold medicine in symbolic esteem and recalled that in many Italian immigrant communities medical advice and folk remedies are often dispensed by the neighborhood barber." Closing my file, McLaughlin concluded, "In other words, Finch, I made an educated guessan incorrect one, as it turns out."
As incorrect guesses went, his wasn't far off the mark. My father had studied medicine for a year at the University of Bologna before emigrating to America, and he still kept an anatomy text close at hand in the fruit stall for the occasional sidewalk consultation. Yet impressive as McLaughlin's performance was, it still contained a few leaps in logic I couldn't follow.
"But how did you know I'm Italian?"
Now it was McLaughlin's turn to look confused.
"I should think that was obvious. You have Mediterranean features."
A surprised laugh escaped me, but when McLaughlin gave me a questioning look, I only shook my head to indicate that it would take too long to explain. I asked my one remaining question: "Why didn't you assume that my father was a doctor?"
McLaughlin handled this with kid gloves. "In my experience, Finch, physicians' sons don't need to work so many jobs to afford their tuition."
Despite the sympathetic look he showed me, I felt myself redden. "He's actually quite successful," I found myself saying in my father's defense. "I was selling him a bit short calling him a greengrocer. He's really more of an importer."
Copyright Joseph Gangemi 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Viking Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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