Tuesday noon I lunched with Professor Waylan at a cajun/creole pub called Lil’ Crawdaddy Heaven. Lounging on top of the awning was a big plastic bug-eyed crayfish with wings, a halo, and a harmonica.
“It certainly has character,” conceded the professor. Hands in his pockets, he surveyed the inside to determine if the clientele had been displaced from Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“I’ve heard good things about it,” I said, in defense. I had sole responsibility because the rest of my group had backed out. After talking with students who lunched with Waylan last week, my “pals” said I should go anyway. Managing to pat me on the back and back away at the same time, they said, “Think recommendation.”
The servers wore antennae and red puffy crayfish tails that curled over their behinds. The professor stiffened. He was mustering energy to be a good sport, warring with his reflection in the window.
I stepped forward to see. I wanted to look into the possible future his life was, the crystal ball his head was. That’s why I was here. I was doing research for my life, thrashing the tall weeds of faculty offices, cornering the flushed inhabitants. That’s what these lunches were all about. And I liked to think that in a healthy way, I was kicking ass and taking names.
The sky had been darkly overcast, and it now began to rain. The drops made embarassing hollow chunking sounds on the plastic crayfish overhead.
The professor walked out to inspect the sky, to verify the rain. Resigned to his conclusions, he laid a hand on my shoulder, the way a father does when he realizes he’s stuck with the son he’s got, said, “What the hell,” and ducked back under the awning.
The pub was dark with low-class highlights: gold-ornamented mirrors, garage-sale stained-glass lamps hanging by their last threads. Fishing tackle was suspended in action poses on the walls: a smallmouth bass testing the strength and commitment of a pole, a gang of crayfish snapping through a net. The chalkboard specials boasted Blackened Gator Tail and Louisiana Live-Bait Surprise. The professor frowned.
The jukebox was playing, “It Ain’t Worker’s Comp. to be Loving You,” and I knew my judgments were on the line for this place, for the fifteen-minute wait, and for the low-temperature gumbo we were now stirring more pepper into.
The professor remarked that life in general was trial and error and that some of us met the challenge in stride, with healthy bodies and large vocabularies.
I nodded and fell headlong into silence.
He studied me for a full minute. Then he asked if law school was a trial for me, and if so, was it error yet?
I was exploring the texture of my soup. “I’m waiting for signs,” I said.
“Oh.” As he wiped his glasses with a napkin, he related the flow chart of his career: a summer in public interest, a summer at a small firm, a two-year judicial clerkship, six years at a big firm, six more at a corporation, and, since then, academia.
Between mouthfuls, I encouraged him by justifying my interest. Having a liberal-arts undergrad education, I had turned from the long doomed-from-the-start haul of grad school to law school. I’d heard there were things called “options” that you could only hunt with a J.D. license, but unfortunately I hadn’t seen any yet.
Detailing his risky switch from the corporation to academia, the professor pursued a sausage slice with his spoon.
I asked: how did you know what you really wanted? Did it hit all of a sudden, at night? Did you wake up with a fever? a vision? an erection? Was your bank account in negative flux?
He answered with the last-resort philosophy of the courts:
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
I ordered the gator tail; he, the jambalaya. He said he enjoyed the going-out-to-lunch custom because, as in teaching, he got to help students.
“One, it hones your professional social skills. Two, you get away from the structure. And three, I don’t have to lecture.”
“And let me tell you, when I went to law school, we would have never. . . .”
I sawed away at the gator tail and wondered how the poor stubby creature was managing the aquatic half of his life. Not too well, I suspected. Inspired, I asked the professor how he balanced his wife and family with all his career changes.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“Every cigarette takes five minutes off of your life,” I warned.
“Every hour,” he threatened, “takes sixty minutes off yours.”
As he lit up, I double-checked his left hand, and yes, a ring. It looked new. I’d observed that law professors get married and have kids later than the rest of the population. Something to consider?
“She’s not a career woman per se,” the professor began.
“Works with kids, various public-interest and social-work organizations. We just had our own little boy, actually. So she’s been able to move with me.”
“Lucky you,” I said. It sounded like he persisted in work, and she persisted in him. Go figure. I told him my fiancée was in med school in Vermont, and the difficulties of orchestrating our careers, family, etc., were daunting. She said statistics show one out of two female doctors divorce.
“It’ll work out,” he said, shoveling in a mess of jambalaya with his non-smoking hand, watching a waitress in black stretch pants wiggle by, swishing her crayfish tail.
You’ll know it when you see it. It’ll work out. Sure. Thanks a lot. I let the waitress take my plate. A new song came on, “Hitchhiking through the Desert of You,” and I grabbed her wrist and asked for the check.
Suddenly Professor Waylan was choking. The fork clanked to the plate. He stabbed his cigarette into the ashtray and lunged for ice water. “Jalapeño,” he rasped.
I figured I’d write off this lunch as a loss, retreat politely in that backwards manner crayfish do, when I was reminded of a phone conversation I’d had with my fiancée.
Last week, she had been helping out at the Salvation Army with a chili dinner, and they had asked her to remove the seeds from the chopped jalapeñoes. With both hands, she dug into the giant pot, and for fifteen hours afterwards, her hands stung, burned raw. I told her that’s what you get for trying to help. She laughed like she needed to, and I imagined her there, phone cradled in her neck, hands plunged in ice, having been reading in her medical textbook about what stubborn mules our hearts are.
And all of us, living proof.
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