Serendipity
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

Part 1
2

I run into Wal-Mart late one afternoon to pick up a couple of things and some film that's been developed. The kid behind the photo counter would be great looking if he didn't look so unhappy. When I hand him my claim slip, he hops three steps to the file cabinet. That's when I see his right leg is missing just below the knee and rest of his jeans leg is tied in a knot. Now this is a kid I'd love to get to know, just so I could see him more often, though there's not a chance. I mean what kid of seventeen or eighteen, which is what he appears to be, is going to want to be around a guy almost old enough to be his father. He hands me my envelope of photos, then grabs his crutches to get to the register when I pay him. He's awkward on them.

I see from his nametag that his name is Ted. Since there's no one else at the counter, I'm hoping he'll chat a bit. "You look tired, Ted."

"I am. This is my first day back, since " he looks down, then back up at me. "It's tougher than I thought it would be." He glances at his watch. "Get my break in five minutes, be good to sit down."

"Would you care to join me for a cup of coffee, or something?"

He gives me a weak smile. "If we get it at the MacDonalds at the front of the store."

"No problem. Shall I wait for you there?"

"Okay. Donna should be along any minute, she fills in for me."

A couple of kids are just leaving when I get to MacDonalds, so I get a cup of coffee and grab their table. Not two minutes later Ted drags up to the table and drops in the chair with an exhausted sigh, leaning his crutches against the table.

"Feels good to sit down."

"I can imagine. What will you have?"

"I'll get it."

"No, I invited you. Sit still."

He smiles when I set his Coke before him, then takes a good swallow. "Thanks. I'm Ted, but I guess you know that."

"I'm Rick. Glad to meet you."

After he's shaken my hand, we begin to talk a bit. I find out he's a senior in high school and form a bad impression of his father when Ted tells me he's working because his father demands it of him. I mean what kind of father would send a kid who's just lost a leg back to a job without full recovery time.

Ted says he likes to read. Ah, ha! A point of common interest. I have a large personal library built up over the years. Mysteries are a passion of mine, and though I do some writing, I would never attempt a mystery. I'm not good at plotting. Then Ted mentions he likes science fiction, adventure stories, and some mysteries.

I'm sure he'll love Cussler's books as much as I, since he likes adventure. I'm about to ask him when he looks at his watch and pulls himself up on his crutches.

"Thanks for the Coke, Rick. Nice talking with you."

I watch him drag himself down the aisle and out of my sight before I get checked out. For sure Wal-Mart is going to see a lot more of me for a while.

While I'm driving home, I try to think of a way I can invite him to take a look at my books and see if he has any interest. I drift off into a pleasant daydream of having him sitting across from me by the fire on a long winter evening, with me enjoying looking at a slim, pleasant-faced, one-legged, young man.

I force myself to wait until Friday afternoon before I go back to Wal-Mart. This time there's a line of five or six people at the photo counter and there's a woman helping Ted. They keep him hopping literally as well as figuratively, and the kid looks exhausted by the time I reach the counter. The woman offers to help me, but I wave the person in back of me ahead, so I can get Ted. He smiles when I hand him a new roll of film and pay for it.

"Got a break coming up?" I ask as he hands me my change.

"In about fifteen minutes. Donna gets hers first."

"Same place?"

He nods as I move to make way for another customer.

I get coffee and a table where I can see him when he come this way. It's more like twenty minutes and I've stepped up to the counter to order another cup of coffee, when I see him, so I ask for a large Coke as well. I set in it front of him as he drops into the chair with a sigh.

"Hope you wanted a Coke."

His smile is beautiful. "Thanks. I'll be glad when my shift is over, my foot hurts and so do my shoulders."

"What time is that?"

"Six."

"Do you have any plans for tonight?"

"I'm glad I don't. I just want to get home and lay down and do some reading."

"Do you drive to work?"

He shakes his head. "That's what I hate most. I don't have a car and my dad makes me walk. He says it'll make my arms stronger for using my crutches."

"How far do you have to walk, for heaven's sake?"

"About a mile. I live on Crescent Lane."

I know the area. It's a decent middle-class development not terribly far from my house. "If I picked you up out front about six-fifteen, would you care to have dinner with me first? I could take you home after."

"Why would you want to do that?"

"You're a pleasant young man and I've enjoyed talking with you. I don't have a lot of friends and your company would be welcome. You might like to see my library sometime, as well. I think you might find something you would enjoy reading."

He gives me a rueful look. "I know what you mean about friends. I had some, but they didn't turn out to be so good after my leg . Except for my best buddy, they don't seem to want me around much anymore. Even my girl dropped me."

"I'm sorry. You're a good looking young man, so you'll find another soon, I'm certain."

"Doubt it. They all want to dance and things I can't do any more. Besides, when I get off work now, I'm too tired."

"That's understandable, but you'll get stronger fast, and after you get a leg you will be able to do most of the things you did before."

"I hope, but that's going to be a while. Dad said he wasn't going to get me a leg until after my stump," he winces using the word, "got it's final shape so I wouldn't need to have it changed." He glances at his watch. "Got to go back to work."

"Shall I meet you?"

"Thanks. It'll have to be some place where I can go in the jeans and shirt I have on."

"Golden Corral okay?" I ask. The one here has good food.

"Great. I'll be waiting outside."

When I stop in front of Wal-Mart, my heart comes close to breaking when I see Ted almost fall a couple of times making the few steps to my car. He sits down, swings his leg in and pulls his crutches in with a heavy sigh. "I'm sure glad you came for me, Rick. I wouldn't ever make it home on crutches tonight. I'm beat."

"Okay. We'll eat first then see if I can't help you relax."

"How?"

"Half an hour in a whirlpool tub should take care of some of that soreness. Do you have one at home?"

"No, but I always wanted to try one."

"Then you're welcome to mine." It's one of my few expensive indulgences, other than books and a small but excellent stereo system.

After we've eaten, I drive home and show Ted to the bath, familiarizing him with the controls on the Jacuzzi, then leave him. Some forty minutes he comes into the library where I am.

"Oh, man, that was great. I feel good all over."

"Just how I wanted you to feel. Have a seat. Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"That would be good, if it's not any trouble."

"None at all."

When I come back from the kitchen, Ted is stretched out on the sofa asleep. I haven't the heart to wake him, so I bring up my computer and begin a new chapter on my novel.

About ten he sits up with a contrite look. "Some company I've been. I'm sorry, but I was done in."

"Don't worry about it. I could see you were tired, that's why I didn't bother you."

He looks around. "Damn, I didn't even get to look at your books, but I got to go."

"You can see the books another time. It was wrong of me to ask you here after you've worked so hard all day. I'll take you home."

"I'm glad you did. That tub is super. Thanks for dinner, too. I'd of just grabbed a burger or something."

When I let him out at home, he thanks me again and asks if he can come by tomorrow since he has the day off. I'm ecstatic he wants to come back, and we arrange a time.

Saturday is beautiful, so I have my camera ready when I see him turn up the walk to my house. He's wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the leg of the jeans tied in a knot again, a very appealing sight. I walk out to meet him and ask if I can take his picture.

"You don't want a picture with me like this."

"On the contrary. You look very nice."

I place him so a large clump of dark green boxwood behind him offers enough contrast to make his knotted jeans leg prominent. My small camera is automatic, so I get several shots of him before he's aware. I'm using fast film, so while he's absorbed in looking at my books later, I sneak several more shots of him, always careful to choose an angle that shows his knotted jeans leg and outlined stump to best advantage.

I set my camera aside and walk over to the wall of books. "I think I remember your saying that you liked adventure."

His smile is quick. "I do."

"Then look at these." I drag my finger along the row of Cussler's books.

He reads the jacket blurb on a couple, then takes one and moves a few steps to a chair. He drops down and lays his crutches on the floor. I take the book from his hands and slip the dust cover off, placing it in the spot on the shelf where the book had been.

"Why'd you do that?"

"Something I always do. It preserves the cover. You see, if I ever wanted to sell a book, a perfect cover enhances the appeal and the price, especially of these." I open it to the fly-leaf and show him Cussler's signature.

"Oh, wow, an autographed copy. I thought maybe you were scared I might damage it or something."

"Not at all. If I didn't trust you, you wouldn't be here. I do it with the books I'm reading."

He smiles again. "Your books must mean a lot to you."

"They do. They're friends that are always around me."

"I never thought of a book that way. Thanks. For trusting me with them, I mean."

"You're welcome. Want a Coke?"

"Not right now." He settles back and begins to read. I'm holding a book I started, but I'm enjoying looking at him more than I'm reading, thankful that he's so absorbed in the book that he doesn't notice.

I fix a salad plate for lunch since it's warm out, but instead of chatting, Ted brings his book to the table and continues to read, as do I. It's late afternoon when he closes the book and looks at me.

"That was a great book. Now I want to read all of them. I don't suppose you'd let me borrow a couple?"

"Sorry, Ted, but I never lend books. I don't want to sound unkind, but a lot of these have gone out of print, and there's no way I could replace a signed edition if something happened."

His lovely face falls in disappointment. "Oh."

"But I'll tell you what. You may come back any time you want and read. I like having you around. If you come by after you get off work, you may use the Jacuzzi, too."

"That would be great."

By the end of the following week, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to have a permanent guest. Ted has spent every evening after work, first in the Jacuzzi, then curled up in the chair I've come to think of as his, reading and sometimes doing his homework for school. Though I ask, he always insists that he's already eaten dinner. I notice he always brings clean clothing with him to put on after his bath. He's so quiet, mannerly, and such a pleasure to have around that I'm beginning to wish he was the son I don't have.

I soon give him a place to keep his clean clothes so he doesn't have to use the backpack he's always had with him, and go so far as to wash the clothes he forgot to take home one evening. The night or two that he goes out with his friend instead of coming by seem unbearably long and dull, though I do get back to my writing, giving one of my characters a new personality and one leg.

Feeling that I must, I raise the question with Ted one evening. "I like having you here, Ted, but what do your parents think of your spending so much time away from home?"

He smiles. "They don't care. Dad's always busy or playing golf, and Mom's in a bunch of clubs, so she's out a lot. She said she was glad I wasn't always hanging around home."

"Good. I just didn't want you to get in any trouble about it."

"Not a chance. I wish my dad was more like you." He points to my computer. "When you going to let me read your book?"

"You want to?"

"I sure do."

"Very well, then. When I'm not writing, I'll bring it up for you and you may read it, but I'm only about half way with it."

"Thanks."

I get a few more pictures of Ted, but the one I really want, he won't agree to. It's a picture of him wearing shorts so I can see his stump, but he says it's ugly and he doesn't anyone to see it.

Some three weeks later I'm walking down the main street of our little city, just killing time while I'm waiting for my car to be serviced. Up ahead I see an elderly man stumping along on a wooden leg. Taking a closer look, I can see his right leg is gone almost at the same place as Ted's. I walk faster to catch up with him.

"Pardon me, sir, but may I ask where you got your peg-leg?"

"Why you want to know?" His tone is a bit brusque.

"I have a young friend who just lost his leg. He won't be getting a prosthesis any time soon, so I thought he might use a leg like yours."

His expression softens. "Poor kid. I wouldn't wish this thing on anyone, but if he's still growing it's a hell of a lot cheaper than an artificial leg. I got one, but this peg is a lot more comfortable." He gives me a name and address in a town some forty miles away.

I thank him and go back for my car. After Ted tells me that evening he has next Saturday off, I suggest we take a short trip. He's curious, but I don't tell him anything else.

Ted comes by early Saturday morning and we take off. I find the address which is a small woodworking firm. We go in and a man I surmise to be the owner is sitting at a bench putting the finishing touches on a nicely made peg-leg. I'm glad he has one for Ted to see. When I ask, he hands it to Ted who looks at it closely, then at me.

"This why we're here?"

I nod. "I wanted you to see a peg-leg. If you like it, I'll get you one to use until you get a leg."

He looks a little doubtful, so I tell him, "Hey, it was just an idea. I thought you might like it better than crutches, especially at work. The man I talked to has a leg, but he likes his peg better. He says it's comfortable to walk on."

"I got an old one in the back if you want to see what it feels like. Might be a little short, but you can give it a try." The owner of the shop offers.

"Please," I tell him.

The peg-leg he comes back with looks ready for the trash can, but he straps it to Ted's stump and shows him how to swing it out and around a little to walk on it.

Ted takes a few steps and grins. "Hey, it does work. Feels a little funny, but I can get around fine."

"With one the right length, you won't even think about it after a couple of days. I make 'em for people who have to stand all day at work, like farmers and factory workers. They tell me they don't get tired moving around on a peg like they do a leg. All you gotta watch out for is keeping good tips on it and the straps in good condition."

Ted sits down in a straight chair in the corner of the room, finding he has to shift to one side to accommodate the rigid peg.

"That's about the only draw-back to a peg," the man tells him. "The other is you gotta take it off to get in a car. The way cars is built now, there ain't enough leg room to accommodate a peg."

Ted pushes himself up and stumps across to me. "Does it look funny?"

I'm a bad one to ask that question, because I think he's beautiful on a peg-leg. "Not at all. I think you look quite handsome. A new one can be given a finish to make it look almost ornamental. Do you like it?"

"If it looks good like the one he's working on, I do."

The man smiles. "I can make you up one not so big and heavy as that one if you ain't going to be puttin' no strain on it."

"Just regular walking."

The man nods. "Got a nice piece of willow will make you a good one. I like to use willow 'cause it's strong but not so heavy."

"When can we get it?" I ask.

"'Bout next Wednesday. I just got to finish up the one I'm working on."

"Well, Ted?"

"Can you make it dark so it don't show too much?"

"Sure can." He hands Ted a color chart of finishes. Ted picks a cherry colour so dark it looks almost black.

The price is a bit more than I expected, but I pay the man and we leave, after Ted tells me he has Thursday off from work, so we can come for it after he's out of school.

I suppose Ted has used the intervening time to adjust to the idea of a peg-leg, for he's excited when we drive off. "I sure hope it looks good with that color I picked out."

"I'm sure it will. You made a good choice, because that's a color will blend with almost any dark coloured pants you wear."

"That's what I'm hoping for. That's why I wore these." He has on a pair of navy blue slacks, the leg pinned up neatly in back instead of knotted like he wears his jeans.

The owner of the shop is all smiles as he holds out Ted's new leg. "This is the prettiest one I ever made. What you think?"

Ted looks at it in astonishment. "I I never thought it would look so good. It's more like furniture than a peg-leg." He hefts it. "Feels a lot lighter than the one I tried."

I agree with Ted. It's a work of art rather than something utilitarian. When he starts to strap it on, the man stops him. "Don't try walking on it, it's going to be a little long. I'll measure your leg and then cut the peg to fit."

After a couple of changes, Ted says it's perfect. The man agrees after watching him walk around the shop a couple of times. The peg is so slender one hardly notices it, especially as Ted's stump below the knee is so short it extends only about an inch past the peg. I'm eager to get home so I can get a few shots of him on his peg before it gets messed up.

Back at my house, Ted's like a little kid at Christmas. As soon as he opens the car door, he's strapping the peg in place, then out walking on it. I run into the house just long enough to grab my camera. He stands against the boxwood again, proudly showing off his new peg-leg. I fire off a thirty-six exposure roll of film, catching him from every angle, saving the last shot for one of him sitting on the deck, holding the peg-leg in his hands and admiring it.

"Sure wish we didn't have to wait for the film to be developed. I want to see how I look."

"You can. Wait a second." I run back in the house to pick up my digital camera, mad at myself for not having thought of it before. The reason I forgot it is it's not all that new and the lens is slow. I remind myself to buy a new one. I get eight quick shots of him, which is all this camera will hold at highest resolution, and you'd better believe that's all I'm using when I take a shot of Ted.

As he follows me toward the house, I can see he's already developing something of a strut - a real turn-on. I pop the connecting cable in the camera and bring the computer up, glad I splurged on a twenty-one inch screen.

Ted's mouth drops open. So does mine. He's incredibly good-looking in the picture, the peg-leg blending in beautifully with his navy slacks.

"Oh, wow!" He finally exclaims. "I never looked that good in a picture before."

"I told you you are a good-looking guy. Believe me now?"

He grabs me in a hug, the first time he's ever touched me. When he backs off, his eyes are wet.

"I'm glad you got me the peg. It's hard to tell my leg's even gone. Thanks, Rick."

"You're most welcome. Now that you've had a chance to walk some on it, how does it feel?"

"Wonderful. I thought you were crazy when you took me to that place, and I really didn't want it. No way I'll give it up now. I'm one lucky guy."

We look at the other seven shots, but Ted goes back to the first one most. I know he has a computer, so I compress the photos, load them on a floppy, and hand it to him.

"There you are, buddy. You can look at them all you want when you're home."

I get another hug. This time it's Ted who goes to the kitchen for our coffee. "See, I can walk again and carry stuff. Not like with those damn crutches." He says happily.

He sits in his chair and drops the peg so he can sit curled up as he likes when he reads. A little later, I see that he's leaning forward swinging his below the knee nub back and forth.

"What's wrong?"

"Trying to cramp a little. Hurts."

I slip the hassock out a little and sit down, taking the nub in my hands and rubbing it. He looks at me. "If you can stand to look at it, I wish you'd push my pants leg up and rub it. That feels good."

The invitation I've been waiting for. I unpin the folded up cloth and roll the leg above his knee. He leans back and closes his eyes while I'm rubbing it and liking what I see.

"How can you look at it?" He asks.

"To quote part of a sign I once saw in a store: 'it's lovely to look at and delightful to hold.'"

"No way."

"But it is. It's still a little swollen, but it hasn't been that long yet. It will go down and smooth out, then it'll look really nice. Haven't you looked at it yet?"

He grimaces and shakes his head. "When I take a shower I close my eyes when I wash it so I don't have to see it."

"Then it's time you did." I slip a new disk in my camera and grab a shot of him, then pull it up. "See for yourself."

He gets up and hops over to my computer chair, then looks at the screen. "I don't think it looks as good as you say, but it looks a lot better than it did when they took the bandage off." He reaches for my hand and squeezes it. "Thanks for the rub, it feels a lot better."

"My pleasure. Anytime it hurts I'll be happy to rub it for you."

He hops back to his chair and picks up the book he's reading without rolling his pants leg back down. For sure I'm never going to finish the book I'm trying to read with a beautiful distraction like that around.

"What about us going out for dinner to celebrate your new peg-leg? And I don't mean Golden Corral. You're dressed nicely."

"Okaaay!"

After he straps his peg in place, I fold up the empty leg and pin it neatly in place. He struts proudly into the restaurant I've chosen and we pick a table against the wall where his peg won't be a hazard to those passing.

While we're enjoying our dinner, I hear Ted mumble softly, "Oh, shit."

"What?"

He starts to answer about time a nice looking guy I guess to be a high school jock stops by our table and looks down at Ted's peg. "Way cool, man," he says and walks on.

Ted's mouth is open in surprise.

"What?" I ask him.

"That's the biggest guy in school. I thought he hated me."

"I shouldn't think so, from the way he spoke."

"I ain't believing this."

"Then see if his attitude carries over until tomorrow at school."

When Ted has finished his homework with my help, he picks up his crutches, leaving the peg-leg by his chair. "Can I ask a favor?"

"Of course."

"Do you get up early?"

"Every morning. I leave for the college at seven. Why?"

"Could I leave my peg here and come by tomorrow on my way to school and put it on?"

"Don't you want to wear it home?"

"I really do, but I don't want my dad to see it. He'll start asking a lot of questions."

That's the one thing I hadn't thought of. "Fine. Let me give you a key. If I'm gone, you can come in and get it."

"Thanks. You're the coolest guy I know."

When I drop him off at home I ask, "Want me to pick you up after work tomorrow?"

He grins. "I can walk it, now. No problem. See you about six thirty."

I wouldn't have believed a guy with a peg-leg could bounce like an excited little kid, but that's what Ted's doing when he comes in the next evening. "You wouldn't believe it! Mike, the guy you saw last night when we were eating, sat next to me in class and with me in the cafeteria. He made all his friends look at my peg. Everybody thinks it makes me the coolest guy in school. Mike even wants to try it. And Donna at the store almost flipped out. She thinks it's beautiful. And guess what? Karen, who's the neatest chick in town, asked me for a date Friday night." He grabs me in another hug. "Man, none of this would of happened if you hadn't known where to get my peg."

I hug him back. "It's all worth it to see you so happy."

His smile stretches from ear to ear. "I saved the best 'til last. My supervisor at the store came by and watched me for while. He told me he liked the way I smile when I'm helping people and I was doing a great job. He put me in for a raise."

"Wonderful. I just hope you won't get so busy you forget me."

"You're the greatest, Rick. No way I'll forget you. Maybe I won't be around so much Friday and Saturday nights, but I'll see you lots. You've done so much for me, I wish I could do something for you."

"You mean it?"

"I sure do. Ask."

"If you come by Saturday, wear a pair of shorts if it's warm enough. I want a picture of you."

"I'll bring a pair, and put 'em on. You've seen my stump, so I don't care no more if it's you."

With both cameras, I get some forty shots of him wearing shorts and standing on his crutches, then on his peg-leg. After I take the pictures, he lets me rub his stump again. The swelling is gone and the scar is fading to a pleasant pink.

I don't see much of Ted now. He finally took his peg-leg home and told his parents he bought it with money he made from working, and his social life seems endless. I attend his graduation, giving him an inscribed copy of my book which has just been published with its dedication to him. I hope he reads it and sees himself in my one-legged character. I'm truly happy for him, but there's a void in my life all these pictures of a good-looking one-legged guy don't fill.

Part 2
1

After spending my two-week break from the college with a couple of old friends at the beach, I'm relaxed and ready to face the summer session. The first day of class, I enter the names of my pre-registered students in my office computer and take my lecture notes and a stack of hand-outs to my classroom. I return to my office for a cup of coffee from the small but illicit maker I keep going. The air conditioning is temperamental in summer, so I allow the kids to bring cold drinks to class. It's another of my violations of the rules, but they quickly learn that if they leave any trash around after class I'll cut the privilege off. Summer classes are small and relaxed, despite the accelerated course work. It's the only time I teach freshman English.

When I look over the dozen assembled students, I almost drop my coffee. There is Ted sitting by the window. He looks radiant, and whispers something to a beautiful girl sitting in the desk next to his. I make my usual announcements and begin to lecture, keeping a close watch on the time. On the first day, I dismiss class ten minutes ahead of time so I will have a chance to talk with students wanting to speak with me and to allow those who haven't yet purchased their text a chance to make it to the book store before it closes.

I notice Ted and the girl wait in their desks until the other students have gone, before they come to the podium.

"Ted! You never said a word about coming to school here. I couldn't believe it when I saw you. It's good to see you."

"Thanks, Rick." His hand flies up to cover his mouth. "Sorry. Guess I'd better call you Professor Andrews on campus."

I have to smile at him. "Unless you want to be called teacher's pet. But it's okay when there's no one else around."

He smiles at the young lady beside him. "I wanted you to meet Karen, so I talked her into taking your class with me."

"I can see Ted wasn't exaggerating when he told me how lovely you are."

She blushes modestly. "Thank you, sir."

"We gotta go, Rick. I've got to get to work, but it going to be great being in your class."

"I hope you think so when we really get down to work."

I watch them walk down the hall hand in hand and know this is going to be the most enjoyable summer class I've ever had, just from Ted's presence if nothing more. Then it finally registers on my tiny brain that Ted's walking perfectly on two legs. I'm happy that he's gotten a good prosthesis, of course, but I miss that beautiful cocky strut he had on his peg-leg.

As soon as I'm home, I bring up my computer and all the pictures I had taken of Ted, spending a most enjoyable two hours reminiscing. He's become a handsome young man worthy of Karen's beauty.

On Friday, I pass out a test covering the week's work as I always do for these accelerated courses. I notice Ted alone wastes nearly five minutes trying to psych himself into beginning work. Most of the grades are adequate at best; Karen makes a 94, but Ted's is a shocking 63, an F. I can't believe it, so I go back and check carefully. But, no, that's his score. I enter his grade on the sheet and dread facing him on Monday, knowing he'll be crushed.

I hand back their papers as they leave at the end of class. Karen gives a slight gasp of pleasure when she sees her grade, but on seeing his, Ted's face goes dark and he pulls Karen down the hall without speaking to me. I wish he knew how much it hurt me, too.

After lunch I run a few errands, then try to write some more on my novel in progress, but the words won't come. Instead, I keep seeing Ted's angry face on my computer screen, so I give up and begin to read a book I'm trying to finish.

A little after seven, I make a fresh pot of coffee, then begin to review my lecture notes for tomorrow. The bell rings and I go to the door to see Ted standing on the stoop.

"Ted! I'm glad you've come. Come in."

He walks down the hall to my library. I see he's using the peg, which he's polished until it looks like new.

"What brings you by?" I ask, when he's dropped the peg and curled up in his chair as he used to.

"What should I do, Rick?" His face is solemn.

"About what?"

"Your class. I don't want you to treat me no different from the others because we've been friends, but if I'm gonna flunk it, I'd rather drop it first, so it won't show on my record."

I walk over to him and put my hand on his shoulder. "I don't want you to drop, Ted. I know you can do the work. Besides, you haven't asked me for help yet."

"You'd do that? Help me, I mean."

"I'll try to help any student having trouble, especially you. You should know that."

His look is sheepish. "I should of known after all you did for me before. But I'm still working, and I can't see you at school."

It's good to see him, but not in distress. "I'm here every evening, so you can come by after work like you used to. I want you to bring your text so I can show you how to make proper notes in it. Now, what happened?"

"I figured you would ask general stuff, not make your questions true-false and multiple guess."

"On my future tests there will be an essay question, much as you were expecting, but the format stays the same. That's why you should mark your text in the areas I draw most of my lecture from. If you study that, you should do well. I know your first class in college is tough, the teaching methods different from what you had in high school."

"It's different, all right. You got any coffee?"

"Don't I always? I'll get it."

"No, let me. Gosh, I forgot how much this feels like home." He straps his peg back on and goes to the kitchen. When he returns, he grins and says, "See? I can carry things again, not like when I was using crutches."

I'd have never guessed he'd remember those words. They take me back to that night. "Oh, Ted, seeing you on that peg-leg sure brings back memories, but why didn't you wear your leg?"

"Just didn't seem right using it to come here. It don't belong somehow. I still use this a lot at home, just so I won't forget. I'm sorry I never wrote you or gave you a call about the book you gave me. I didn't stop reading until I finished it. I thought it was great you gave me an autographed copy, but then I saw the dedication" He pulls himself up and hops over to give me a hug. "Man, I never thought I'd ever see my name in a real book."

"Did you discover why I dedicated it to you?"

"Not at first. When the one-legged guy began to seem a lot like me, I thought I was crazy, but then I figured it out."

"He is you, Ted. You didn't know it, but watching you and talking to you gave me a lot of ideas for him."

"Way cool. I was feeling sorry for myself, just like he was in the beginning."

"I know. Now, think about what you've just said. If you apply the same logic and interpretation to the works we're reading in class, you'll sail through the next test. But if you want to come by in the evening, I'll help you."

"I should of known you would, Rick. Thanks."

I smile. "Have known, not of. We need to work on your grammar, my friend."

"Yeah. I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks, again, Rick."

"Want me to drive you home?"

He gives his old grin. "Naah. I can walk it now."

Ted shows up for help the next two nights in a row, always on his peg-leg. I show him how to spot the points I dwell on in my lectures. It's a simple enough system, read the assigned pages ahead of class, then tick off the passages I stress as I lecture. I'd love to spend more time on many of the works, but an accelerated five-week course of three-hour daily periods doesn't allow for in-depth coverage.

The next Friday Ted doesn't hesitate, but goes immediately to work on the test, hands it in ahead of time, and leaves with Karen, as I allow them to do. In that way I can grade the papers while the slower students are still working. I'm delighted to see he's earned a 96%. He's even surpassed Karen who made only 90. Her essay rambles while Ted's is concise and clear.

When I hand him his paper at the conclusion of Monday's class, his expression is one of a cat discovering spilled cream, but I notice Karen looks a bit peeved when she sees his grade. That evening she comes with him to my house. I talk with them about the material I had covered in class that day, and ask them several questions. It's instantly apparent that Ted has not only read the material, but analyzed it in the way I suggested the night he came to me about dropping the class. Karen, I can tell, is excellent at memorizing, but not at analysis.

Ted comes alone on Thursday night and seems a little uncomfortable when I ask him where Karen is. He mumbles some excuse, before we get down to work. The next day he finishes his test early again, and plays with his paper while she is working on her essay.

My day is made! Ted aced the test, even completing the optional essay, worth 5 extra points, that I put on my tests to help students who have trouble with the mass of reading required. I happily put a large 105% on his paper with my red pen. One more test grade like this and a good final exam will bring him the A he deserves.

Monday, Ted's clinched fist shoots into the air with a muffled, "Yeah!" when he sees his grade. I notice Karen refuses to let him see her paper. She had edged up one point to a 91%.

When I open the door to Ted that evening, he gives me an immediate hug without speaking, then heads down the hall to my library. He drops his peg-leg and curls up in his chair again, but looking into his face, I can see signs of worry.

"What's wrong, Ted?"

"Nothing about class, Rick. I can't believe I made the whole enchilada."

"And why not? I knew you could do it, if you got the right start. But something's bothering you."

"Yeah."

"Want to tell me?"

"That's why I came." He flexes his below the knee nub. "Would you rub it for me like you did?"

"Sure." I sit on the hassock and push his jeans leg up, then begin to massage his stump gently.

He lays his head back against the chair and closes his eyes for a few minutes, before straightening back and looking at me. "That feels so good. Can I get in your tub?"

"You know you can."

When he goes into my bath, I start a fresh batch of coffee brewing, wondering what's troubling Ted. I know his asking me to rub his stump and to use the Jacuzzi is nothing more than a delaying tactic.

I fix two cups of coffee when I hear the pump on the tub shut off. Ted comes back looking more at ease.

"Okay, now?"

"Lots better." He takes a sip of the coffee and looks at me. "Karen's pissed at me because I'm making better grades than she is."

I had suspected this from her expression after class. "Some people just can't stand not being the best at everything, Ted, I've seen it before. It seems to be an obsession. There isn't a lot that you can do about someone like that." From his expression I can tell what's he's planning, so I hastily add, "And don't try making stupid errors on your next test, young man, I'll not have it. You will make an A in my course, if I have to take your leg off to keep you in place while you do it."

He gives me the old Ted grin. "You'd do it, too."

"Damn right! Is there anything else?"

The grin vanishes, his face falls again. "Yeah, I guess. I was so happy when she asked me for a date and thought I looked sexy on my peg, I didn't think she cared about my leg, but then she cooled off and wanted me to wear my leg all the time, even if it was hurting me. Before I came over here, we were sort of messin' around and I asked her to rub my stump. When I took my leg off, she looked at my stump and run out of the house. What am I gonna do, Rick?"

I can see the poor kid is almost in tears, so I pat the cushion next to me on the sofa. He hops across and drops down beside me. I put my arm around his shoulders to comfort him. "Ted, I don't want to hurt you, but what I'm going to say may do just that. Please listen until I finish, before you say anything. Okay?"

He gives me a little nod.

"When you went back to school on your peg-leg you were the center of attention, even to people who surprised you, like the guy we saw that night in the restaurant."

"Yeah," he mutters.

"This is harsh, but there are people, both male and female, who like to associate with people in the lime-light. They are crudely, but accurately, called star-fuckers.

Once the attention begins to fade, they move on to someone else. A psychologist would say they are insecure and have feelings of inadequacy, so they compensate by attaching themselves to anyone in a prominent position. I'm sorry to think an attractive girl like Karen falls into that category, but that appears to be the case.

"I'm sorry you've been hurt, my friend, but you'll find someone who doesn't give a flip about your leg. When you find that someone, you'll have a basis for building a real relationship. Give what I've told you serious thought. I know it seems difficult right now, but I think you will find I'm right." I almost cross my fingers hoping I've read the situation right.

Ted's arm slips around my shoulders and he gives me a gentle hug. "That's why I come to you, Rick. You've always been straight with me before. Like you don't tell me what I wanna hear, but give me somthin' to think about, then let me make up my mind."

"Except for your peg-leg. I rather forced it on you, when you told me you didn't want it."

The old grin is back. "Yeah, but you were right about it. It sure made my life better, and I still like the way you look at me when I wear it."

"You'll always look great on it as far as I'm concerned. Thank you for wearing it when you come here. I appreciate it. Now, you need help with your English?"

"Thanks, but it's easy now. I won't let you down, Rick. Can I still come see you some evenings? Don't look like I'll be busy like I've been."

"You're always welcome here, Ted."

He hops back to his chair and curls up again to drink his coffee. We chat for a while about the other course he's taking along with mine, then he straps on his peg-leg and leaves after refusing my offer to drive him home.

In class the next morning, I see Karen take a seat as far across the room from Ted as possible. After the fifteen-minute mid-period break, I see her begin to 'cosy' up to the guy in the next desk. I quickly look at Ted, and see his bleak expression. I catch his eye and wink at him. He brightens up a bit.

Friday's test is rather longer than usual, really a prep run before the final exam next week. I'm disappointed when Ted gets only two of the five extra points available, but pleased that the drop is no more than that after a hard week for him. I can't help but smile when I put an 83% on Karen's paper. Her new male interest must be distracting her.

Realizing I'm a little behind covering the syllabus for the class, I pour it on the last week. Several students drop by my office for help and Ted comes by the house every night. I catch him early Thursday evening as he's leaving work and take him to dinner, just to get the kid to relax so he won't blow the exam. I answer a few of his questions, then tell him to forget it. He knows the material. At the house I give him a beer and show him a new book I know he'll like, but run him home early enough to get some rest.

The next morning, I'm pleased to see Ted sail through the first section of the exam in something like the record time, but he writes so long on both essays, I'm beginning to wonder if he's trying to write a book on both. Karen gives me a sour look as she hands in her paper and leaves, but Ted's still at it. I finally call time on him. He smiles at me when he hands me his exam, then rushes off to work. I put his exam on the bottom of the pile to grade at my leisure.

Karen just, and I do mean just, scrapes by with enough points for an A-. At last I get to Ted's. I grab a fresh cup of coffee and settle back to read. I've saved the best for last and what a joy! I would be happy to write such excellent essays even today. I don't give an inch on points, but he makes them all, and I add another two points and a personal note of congratulation for the fine writing and organizational skills I've just seen. With the extra points he's earned, he receives the only A+ in the class.

I'm not teaching another summer class, so after I turn in my grades to the office, I go home, and call Wal-Mart to tell Ted to dress after he gets off work, because we're going out to dinner together.

Imagine my delight when he comes to my door nicely dressed and on the peg-leg. "It's like old times, Ted."

"Yeah. We celebrating something?"

"The F you got in my class." I tease.

I wish I had a picture of his astonished look. "How come? I thought I knew that stuff cold."

I hand him his exam. "Just teasing, buddy."

"Oh, shit! I aced it!"

"And the course. I'm proud of you. How'd your other course go?"

"Made an A, but it was close. My old man's going into orbit when I tell him I got two." He gives me a hug, which I happily return.

Tuesday morning I get a call from the academic dean asking me to come by for a conference. I know the dean well, and often chat with him for pleasure, but I've never been asked to see him on a confidential matter before. All the way to his office I'm wondering what it can be.

His administrative assistant tells me to go right in and closes the door behind me. The dean is cordial, but solemn. "I hate to have to tell you this, Rick, but an official complaint has been lodged against you."

"For what!"

"Favoritism in grading."

I'm stunned. "You know well my reputation for tight grading. Who on earth is accusing me of such a thing?"

"Karen Whitaker. According to the records, she made an A- in your class. Her complaint goes even further. She's accused you of giving an A+ to a male student because you have a ." He blushes, " a homosexual interest in him."

I jump to my feet outraged. "That's a damned lie, and you know it!"

"Calm down, Rick. I know it's not true, but you have been seen in public with this young man. And I do have to investigate all official complaints."

"Do! And while you're doing that, I'm consulting my lawyer. That vindictive little bitch is not going to get away with this."

"Hold it! There's no need to fly off the handle and do anything rash. Sit down and explain what happened."

He has his secretary bring us cups of coffee, while I run to my office for my grade book. By the time I'm back in his office, I've calmed enough to talk rationally. I show him the grades of Karen and Ted, and Ted's exam, which I forgot to give back to him after our dinner.

He asks for a couple of days to obtain Karen's exams and Ted's for the chairman of the English department to evaluate, and sets another meeting for Friday morning.

That evening Ted is on my doorstep again with a worried look on his face. "What is it, Ted?" I ask after he's in his chair.

"You know why the dean wants my test papers from your class? I didn't cheat or anything."

"Nothing for you to be worried about, babe. Your grade stands. Someone in the class thinks I was unfair in my grading, so the chairman is going to look over all the tests I gave."

"You! Unfair! Bullshit! You worked our asses off and didn't give me a damn thing, except the help I asked for when I came by after work."

"Well, I have to be honest, I did give you a couple of extra points on the exam for organization, but you earned them."

"Thanks, but you'd of done the same for anybody else."

"Yes."

"Hey, man, I'll go see the dean. I ain't letting nobody dump on you just 'cause I got a good grade."

"Thanks, Ted. It's kind of you to offer, but I won't need your help unless this goes further than I think it will. I think the person who complained is going to be sufficiently embarrassed before this is over."

"I sure as hell hope so." His face wrinkles in thought for a moment, then his eyes grow wide. "It was that bitch Karen! I should of guessed after the way she dumped me. I'll get her for this."

I maintain a straight face. "I will not mention names, Ted, and I will not have you doing something stupid on the basis of a guess. Let it be. It will all work out."

From his red face, I know the kid's got a temper ready to burst. "It better!"

I pull him up and hug him, wishing more than ever he was my son. "Thanks for caring, Ted. You're a good friend."

"Not as much as you've been to me."

I send him to the Jacuzzi to cool off, while I drink my coffee to do the same.

He comes back into the library and refuses another cup of coffee, saying he has to go, but at the door he turns. "I wasn't kidding, Rick. Tell me if there's any way I can help."

"I will. And thanks, Ted."

Friday morning I arrive at the dean's office just as Karen flounces out and gives me a look of defiance. "Cocksucker," she snarls as she passes me. I've have to grab my hand to keep from slapping her. When I look at the dean's secretary, I can tell from her shocked look she heard.

The dean's smile is broad when he comes to the door. "Come in, Rick."

"I happened to see Ms Whitaker when she left. She looked upset."

The dean chuckles, and closes his office door. "She damn well should. Look at this." He hands me the chairman's report which states that I had been overly generous in Karen's grade, that he would have given her a B- or less.

My surprise must have shown when I passed the report back, for the dean adds, "Kilmer has recommended to the faculty committee that she not be admitted to another term here. We have enough real problems without frivolous complaints against faculty by students."

"I appreciate his trust and yours, Hank. I try extremely hard to be completely objective in my grading."

"It shows. I'm sorry you had to got through this, but it's not unheard of, either in this institution or others."

"I know. I just never thought it would happen to me."

He looks at me quizzically. "This is absolutely none of my business, Rick, but what about that young man you've seen with?"

"Ted Hanson. You requested his test papers and exam. The boy works after school and could not see me during my office hours. Since I was acquainted with him before he finished high school, I invited him to come by my home after work. I would do as much for any other student under those circumstances. On evenings he worked late and didn't have time to eat, I occasionally took him out for something. Why?"

"Whitaker gave me some strange story about your encouraging him to live as a cripple with a peg-leg. He certainly had two good legs when he brought me his tests."

This is the first thing I've found to laugh about in the whole situation. The dean looks at me as if I've suddenly lost my mind. When I stop laughing, I explain that Ted uses an artificial leg.

Hank looks surprised. "I'd never have guessed. But where did she come up with that cock and bull story about a peg-leg?"

"I met Ted just after he lost his leg. He was trying to work using crutches and it was wearing the kid out. I found out where he could get a peg-leg and took him to get one. Then I found he has a lively interest in books, so I let him come by the house and read. He helped me so much in developing a character in my last novel that I dedicated it to him. That's all there is to it, except we've become good friends despite the difference in our ages. I enjoy his company and he seems to enjoy mine. He and Ms Whitaker were dating for a while, then she dropped him for another young man. I tried to help him get over it."

The dean smiles again. "Friend, indeed! He's made a champion of you, I would say. He couldn't say enough good about you when he gave Andrea his papers."

"He's a fine young man. I wish I had more students like him."

 

Posted: 11/26/10