“Umbilicus” by Patricia Foster

Image by Addoley Dzegede / addoley.com

It’s 2013, and I’m visiting an elderly professor in an assisted living facility in the college town where I live. I haven’t seen him in almost five years and I’m surprised at how small, almost wasted, he appears. He’s lost about forty or fifty pounds and navigates with a walker on rollers that looks, to my unpracticed eye, like the metal frame of a shopping cart. He’s stooped, edging very slowly, very carefully towards the inner door, still wearing his signature driving cap, a battered black straw. Because his brown face is gaunt, his dark, protruding eyes seem more pronounced, his lips wide and curved upward in a way I’ve never noticed. He has a tear in the knee of his khaki pants like a ten year-old boy just home from sliding into third.

“He was one of my best teachers in graduate school,” I announce a little too loudly to the minder who had accompanied him to lunch at the mall. I doubt if he remembers me, just as I’ve begun to forget the names and stories of students I taught more than twenty years ago.

“I know who you are,” the professor says, glancing up, staring intently at me.

But I wonder. Does he remember my anger so many years ago, my voice as sharp as a hurled glass? Does he remember the two of us drinking coffee and reminiscing about the South, how shame and despair saturated our most potent memories? Does he remember the sack of oranges I brought to his home or the three perfect sand dollars I wrapped in ivory tissue as talismanic support before one of his readings? Does he remember the books he told me to read, the way he pointed to his shelf and said so low I could barely hear, “The Bookmaker’s Daughter.”

When the nurse buzzes us into the unit, I follow behind him like a faithful student, wondering why I feel such a connection.

In 1984, I heard about him before I met him. He was famous. He was eccentric. He was a genius, a Pulitzer prize-winning, MacArthur Foundation Fellow who, it was rumored, rented a room just for the pleasure of a private place to read, separate from his house. He took afternoon walks around town in his bedroom slippers. He always wore a driving cap, wool in winter, straw in spring, each pulled so low onto his forehead it shaded him from view. He grew up in Savannah, Georgia, a place so scarred by racism he once declared he’d never go back. He liked greasy food. He loved bourbon and sweet potato pie and movies very late at night. He’d graduated from Harvard Law School but had never practiced law . . . not even for one day. Sometimes he slept in his university office. Sometimes on the couch. Sometimes he didn’t sleep at all. Much of this was apocryphal, fantasies and gossip cooked up in the over-heated brains of writers in a city overflowing with writers surviving the long dark, snowy winters of Iowa City. Whether true or not, all this lore unnerved me, made me see him as a mysterious, unapproachable presence, someone I’d never know.

When I finally met him (or rather found myself in the same lecture room), I was surprised: he mumbled, a low, gray shading of sounds running together; he stood awkwardly at the edge of the room as if he might need to flee; he never smiled. When someone asked a question, he glanced up, his face still and tight, then quickly he let his gaze slide back to the desk. And yet when he spoke, we listened. Though his discomfort confused and perplexed me, I considered it merely another eccentricity of genius, a reprieve from ordinary expectations. It never occurred to me that he might be shy or self-conscious or insecure, a sadness hidden behind his reserve. Didn’t he have everything a writer could want?

In contrast, I’d arrived at this Iowa writing program almost totally unprepared, a neophyte storyteller, a literary peasant. My terror at the prospect of being here was eclipsed only by my belief in hard work and tenacity. This had always been my method: a reckless leap from a cliff and then long nights of sacrifice and solitude. Let everyone else play. Having finished an MFA in art four years earlier, I’d had only two years of writing classes at UCLA Extension while working temp jobs, surviving in a run-down, rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, writing stories on the weekends and during my lunch breaks at the movie studios that hired me. Now, for the first time, writing would be center stage.

My first year in the Iowa program, I met privately with the professor only once, sitting across from him at a local café while he commented on my story, his raspy mumble making me lean nervously forward. More than anything, I wanted him to see me as if his validation might embolden me, might allow me to see myself. And yet I sensed that I was both invisible and hyper-visible to him: I looked every inch a middle-class white girl with long blond curly hair, fair skin and blue eyes, practically a cliché of Southern womanhood, the very thing from which, in Georgia, he’d been taught to avert his gaze. On that fall day, drinking coffee with him, my blonde hair curling over my t-shirt, my eyes darting to his, I too felt trapped in self-consciousness, afraid I’d always be shy and ordinary.

“There’s something unsettling about the mother’s repressed fury in this story,” he said, his finger tapping a page. “I wonder if her anger is a way of gaining power or protecting herself.” He’d been gazing past my shoulder when, quite suddenly, his dark, probing eyes met mine. “Knowing that will make all the difference.”

I nodded, aware that in this autobiographical story I didn’t know the answer.

“And the father’s absence?” he continued. “Is it pride that keeps him away? Resentment?”

“I’m not sure,” I offered, as if it were a matter of interpretation.

He sat silent, waiting.

I sat silent too.

“Perhaps this is too big to be a story,” he said finally, finishing his coffee. “Maybe a novel.”

After our meeting, I lingered at the café, exhilarated and frightened that his questions were urging me to slip beneath the surface of my life to a danger I couldn’t yet comprehend. What secrets, what truths was I missing? He was, of course, suggesting that there was a hidden, often darker story beneath the plot, a paradoxical world I needed to explore, the deep structure of all stories, and yet back then I received his gloss as private, personal, meant only for me. Something will be revealed. After that meeting, each time I passed him in the hallway of 4th floor where the writing program was housed, I felt a psychic jolt as if what had been incomprehensible in me might be understood.

And yet, after that initial meeting, I didn’t talk to him until the following year. By then, I understood the competitive terms of the program: ambition was our voracious appetite, perfection our constant, greedy curse, publication our mantra. One of my friends said casually, “From the program’s perspective our literary status might as well be stamped on our foreheads like grades of beef: Prime Rib to Stew Meat.” And I laughed, our program a caste-ridden Orwellian world. The ones of us who were Ground Chuck were the worriers, the watchers, the determined workaholics, our inner lives a fray of nerves, but now I suspect that even those designated as Prime Ribthe ones publishing and receiving awardshad sleepless nights and paranoid fears.

I kept writing.

In early October, 1985, I wrote to the professor, asking to do an independent study in the spring to work on a novel. Such permissionstwo decades before emailrequired direct contact or a note, and one afternoon I slipped my carefully written request into his box.

I waited. By the end of November, I hadn’t heard from him. Too embarrassed to call or leave another note, I feared it was hopeless, but then one gray, sullen afternoon after Thanksgiving as I hurried through the English Department parking lot on my way to the library I saw the professor not far ahead, his overcoat collar turned up against the wind, his brown wool driving cap shielding his face. Earlier, it had snowed, a light drift blanketing the hoods of parked cars, a crisp whiteness edging the curbs. Feeling bold, I raced across the slick pavement, recklessly calling out his name.

He turned, gazing at me, a long, forensic look, his slightly protruding eyes staring at me, darkening perhaps as he tried to place me. Then his gaze became guarded, inaccessible. He didn’t speak.

“I left a note in your box,” I blurted, still breathless, afraid he’d escape before I could pursue my goal. A sudden wind blew snow across my boots. The sharp air reddened my cheeks and made me shiver. “You said a year ago that my story about a mother’s anger and a father’s absence should be a novel and I’ve been working on it. I’d like to work on it with you.” I gazed directly at him. The mother’s anger, I’d realized, formed a tragic, protective web, entangling the youngest daughter while the father’s absence exiled her to loneliness.

He looked longingly toward the entrance of the building, and even took a step in that direction, but then he paused as if indecisive, and without turning, said quietly, “I will do it, but I can only meet with you once.” He mumbled something about difficulty and problems, but his words, so low, so quiet, dissolved in the air.

Glossing over the “one meeting” requirement, I laughed with relief. “Oh, thank you!” I called out. Too excited to worry, I barely listened when he said, “Send me your work a few weeks before the end of the term. I’ll contact you about a meeting.”

That winter an arctic cold tightened its grip on our college town. My fingertips cracked, split open and bled and I wore fingerless gloves in order to type. The rest of my skin itched and flaked from the dry, forced air heat, so different from California, where I’d lived for the past five years. It was a brutal winter, one of the worst in Iowa. My car doors froze, my windshield wipers froze, my breath plumed. If I ventured onto I-80, I saw jackknifed trucks littering the roadsides like abandoned toys. Every morning I stared out into a dull, gray sky. Every morning I shivered into two sweaters, a down vest, a double pair of socks and jeans and sat at my desk in the upstairs room, working on my novel. The characters, difficult but oddly real, led me into such vulnerable places I often felt stranded, not sure how to progress. Did I have the craftsmanship to unravel the traumatic secrets of this mother and the complications behind the father’s desertion? Did I have the insight? With the novel, I’d pushed myself back into the quagmire of the South, into those small, isolated populations on the fringe of society, communities that tended to be judgmental and gossipy, places where I’d never fit.

There is nothing so sweet to the underdog as righteous triumph. For at least ten seconds I was half-dizzy with power, thrilled at having said ‘no’ to an authority figure, someone who mattered, whose fame and glory was applauded and revered. Ah, I’d cut the umbilicus, and it made me breathless.

By mid-April, I’d shaped fifty pages for the professor. I placed them in a manila envelope and put them in his department box. It was spring now, the trees softening, just beginning to bud, beds of tulips and jonquils, jaunty and alert in my neighbors’ yards. I could look out my study window on the second floor of my little house and watch the pink and white dogwood trees blooming. Puffy clouds scudded across a blue sky. Two weeks passed. The cherry tree on the corner slipped on its party dress, showing off dark pink clusters, a thicket of leaves. Another week passed. The blooms faded and fell, littering the ground like old Mardi Gras confetti. It was now the second week of May, nearing the end of the semester. I began to worry. Had the professor forgotten about the independent study? Was he too busy to see me? Did he hate the work and was simply avoiding me? I put another note in his box, a simple inquiry about possible times.

A day passed. Then another.

When the phone rang the next morning, I was startled. “Is this Ms. Foster?” I’d forgotten his voice: low, mumbling, hard to understand, and yet so somber, so serious it could have been directing me to a Sunday funeral or a doctor’s appointment. “I’ve read your work,” he continued. “And I can meet you at 2:00 on Thursday.”

“I think I can do that,” I said nervously, catching my breath. “Let me check my calendar. Just a minute, I need to—”

But the professor had already hung up.

I remember sitting at my desk, my face flushed with heat, my body trembling with an inarticulate rage because I’d needed a little time to compose myself before agreeing to the meeting; because I’d wanted his approval and feared he disliked the novel, the dead phone a blatant metaphor. And this too: rage because I’d had so little agency to demand anything from anybody, my life a tangled warp of suppressed feelings.

With a rashness that stuns me now, I called him back. I had no idea what I’d say. I knew only that if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be too frightened. As I listened to the phone’s ringing, adrenaline flooded my body, splashed feverishly through my brain. My skin felt hot and sweaty. When he answered, I said quickly, “I think you were rude to me on the phone just now. You hung up before I had time to agree. I don’t think we should meet.”

And then I hung up.

There is nothing so sweet to the underdog as righteous triumph. For at least ten seconds I was half-dizzy with power, thrilled at having said “no” to an authority figure, someone who mattered, whose fame and glory was applauded and revered. Ah, I’d cut the umbilicus, and it made me breathless. But I’d barely had time to revel in this triumph before he called me back.

“Ms. Foster,” he said formally in his quiet, guarded voice. “I think we should meet. I’ve read your work and I would like to keep our appointment.”

Both relieved and defeated, I said simply. “Okay.” But as I put down the phone, I wondered what I’d done. Is her anger a way of gaining power or protecting herself?

Now I was adrift, the cord so unceremoniously cut, a yellow fog filling my head. What would happen now? When I arrived at my 2:00 appointment, the professor’s office door was open, revealing the most ascetic office I’d ever seen: no paintings or prints on the putty-colored walls, no easy-care plants near the window, no warmth or vivid color from a rug or a chair or even a plaid wool scarf hanging from a hook. Five floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books cluttered the walls surrounding an old metal institutional desk. The one window opened not to the greenery of an oak tree or the blooms of a dogwood, but to a tiny smear of blue-gray sky.

I stepped into the room.

Our meeting lasted less than thirty minutes, the two of us as formal and prim as Victorian spinsters, our words careful and spare. He suggested several books I should read, but beyond that, I remember nothing except the heightened tension, the self-conscious glances, the professor staring at the door as if reassuring himself that he could escape, while I focused on my manuscript, its crisp pages in a neat stack on his desk.

After the meeting, I walked disconsolately back to my house, my sandals dusted with tree pollen, my mind numbed by disappointment as I shoved the novel in a drawer and didn’t look at it for six months.

I told no one about this incident until a year later when a friend and I were discussing whether we’d learned more about the craft of fiction or the vagaries of human nature“the craftiness of the crafters,” we jokedwhile in this writing program. I’d begun working on the novel again, compelled by the daughter, who, like me, seemed torn between rebellion and compliance, defiance and self-doubt. During a lull in our conversation, I confessed to my friend my difficult encounter with the professor, a man he knew much better than I.

“Jesus!” He jerked forward, frowning. “Didn’t you realize the strain he was under?”

“What are you talking about?”

“It nearly did him in.” As he referenced the personal and professional complications in the professor’s life that yearfamilial and legal problems I could never have imaginedI realized I hadn’t thought about the professor’s life at all. I’d assumed a life for him, assumed that his literary status provided immunity to the ordinary concerns of being a father, a teacher, a colleague, a neighbor, a man. As if awakened to paradox, I understood he’d been as invisible to me as I’d been to him, and it was such a startling recognition, I quickly left my friend’s house, too ashamed to stay.

That night, I lay awake for hours, brooding, shamed, my thoughts circling in a dizzying loop. How could I amend something that had happened a year ago? Did I dare bother the professor again, if only to apologize? And what would I say? Should I acknowledge what I knew about his difficulties or simply admit my own? Should I write a short note or a fully engaged letter? Would he forgive me? And would I be hurt if he didn’t reply? Thinking back on our independent study, I realized that the professor, so beset with worries, had tried to be generous at a time when I’d appeared needy and demanding, but this thought only exacerbated my guilt. You dummy! Perhaps it was this anguish that pulled me into a tortured dream in the early morning hours when I finally slept.

In my dream I wandered in a drab, dirty place, some dystrophic nightmare where I carried the corpse of my father wrapped in a pure white shroud, his body an odd, cumbersome bundle, heavy in my arms. I didn’t know why I was carrying my father, but I was terrified that somehow I’d been responsible for his death and I desperately wanted a place to hide him. Roaming through an abandoned apartment complex, the rooms separated (as if in an old war film) by limp, grey hanging blankets, I later found myself in a small cloister, blue with shadows, beside my father, who lay on a white floor, not dead, but dying, his breath labored, his eyes fluttering. I woke with tears wetting my face, my mind still caught in the dream’s shadows, the images too real to let go.

In my dream I hadn’t known what to do with my father. In waking life I didn’t know what to do with my father: my father who didn’t know me, who rarely talked to me, who revered and applauded only success. And then, as if a sorcerer was shifting the images inside my head, it was the professor’s face staring up at me from that white bundle, his gaze uneasy, imploring. What? I sat up, alarmed. Stop! But instantly I understood the dream’s symbolic documentary: it wasn’t the professor I’d wanted to see me but my father, a man with a flushed face and bristling energy who might actually die before he knew me. How neatly I’d superimposed one man onto the other. How deftly I’d bound myself to the professor in the hopes that his approval would supersede my father’s, as if the professor’s fame could undermine my father’s demands. And I saw this too: how important it had been for me to say no to a surrogate, a man distant from my father. Someone safer.

The next day, after many cups of tea, I wrote to the professor, apologizing for my behavior the year before:

“I thought of you as an authority figure, someone emblematic of the writing program, someone who might, well, legitimize me as a writer. But last night I realized it was my father’s recognition that has always haunted me, my father who doesn’t know me because he’s never heard my words except in flashes of anger.”

In the letter, I revealed the ways my father and I had pushed against each other in our thwarted relationship, and though I felt deeply ashamed of my behavior with the professor, the very act of confessing pulled me closer to him as if he’d been secretly guiding me towards this revelation.

After mailing the letter to the professor, I sat on my back steps at dusk, in the last blush of light, and remembered how my father had rushed into our house each evening, whistling, going immediately to the cabinet for a glass, then ice and whiskey, a quick sip, then another, his face relaxing as he loosened his tie, picked up the paper and went to the wing-backed chair, sipping again before he put the drink down. Despite his whistling, he’d be slightly irritable, tired, wanting no bother, longing only to relax. He might be called back to the hospital in thirty minutes, in two hours, at midnight. He was always on duty, in demand. He never stopped. In his small town medical world, he delivered babies, stitched up cuts, set broken bones, took out appendix and tonsils and pronounced people dead. Every day people had heart attacks and strokes, car accidents and boating disasters, were bitten by water moccasins or stung by bees or hornets or yellow jackets.

Every day people died, though in my family we didn’t talk about suffering or death or failure or even a rare case of “being in the dumps.” Better to stay in the bland cover of ordinary life. Better to make a joke about it, get over it, keep whistling. Stoicism. Humor. That was our creed. And yet secretly my father was a man defined by terror: he was terrified of dogs, even the gentlest, most lethargic lap dog, terrified of unknown places, of heights, of forests, of darkness, of robbers, of the ocean’s undertow, of shame, of inappropriateness, of poverty, of failure, of his children’s failure. Failure. That was the biggie. The only thing that mitigated his terror was work . . . work as a reprieve, a defiance, an avenger of the night. In this we were the same.

I sat there for a long time, smelling the wet earth, listening to the trees in the warm breeze, and thinking about my father and me. How alike we were, ruled by gusts of desire, flares of anger. Glancing at my feet, I noticed thin, green weeds growing through the cracks in the cement, tufts of scrawny grass. Absentmindedly, I bent over and began pulling them. As I yanked harder I heard my father’s scornful voice from years earlier, a voice that occasionally seared my mind. “Don’t bother to come home until you accomplish something!” he’d yelled one afternoon as I slammed past him, already in flight. He’d been furious at me for my lack of conformitythe wrong words, the wrong clothes, some broken ruleand he’d known where to wound. As did I. For a year I’d refused to speak to him even after he apologized, punishing us both, relenting only after my mother begged.

After I received a written response from the professorhe’d never intended to be an authority figure and didn’t align himself with the roleI decided to write to my father. I knew it was a gamble, a sly dart aimed straight at his heart. Of course, my father didn’t know me just as the professor didn’t know me. Early in my life I’d learned deflection and concealment, and then at the age of twenty-fourbroken by a difficult divorce, my hair falling out, my thoughts as sharp as open razorsI’d arrived home in defeat. And yet ironically, it had been in the wordless dead-quiet of my childhood room that a stronger heart had begun to beat.

Though my father had always been suspicious of my career choices, afraid that I was hurtling toward poverty and professional irrelevance, the two things he’d overcome by ambition, hard work and scholarships, when I sat down to write him, I listened to the beat of that stronger heart. I wrote what I’d never understood until now: how failure had both unmade and made me, taught me resilience as well as humility, woven tenacity through the fabric of desire, how writing had shown me a stubbornness, a curiosity that pleased and surprised me, how forgiveness was slowly elbowing its way into my life.

“While I’m talking, I’ll tell you that I’m glad I went sorta crazy after the divorce, glad for the very reason that breaking down is a way of trying to do battle with a culture that’s offended or restricted you. What restricted me was the absurd notion of what a woman should be: charming and beautiful and sexy, someone who walks through the world with ease. As if such a woman exists! And if she does, she’s not the only one to receive the fruits of the earth.”

The next day as I walked toward the post office, I stood alone for a moment in the sun, staring at the corn growing straight and tall in a neighbor’s yard, the birds rising in the sky, and then casually I dropped my letter in the mail chute.

Less than a week later while chatting with my mother on the phone, my father interrupted. “I got your letter,” he said without preamble, having picked up the extension. I could tell from the swing in his voice, the sudden softness, that he was pleased. “How are you doing?” He sounded shy, uncertain. It was a question he’d never asked me before.

After I mailed the second letter, he began calling me every week, asking how my work was going, wondering if I was enjoying my classes, making friends. At first, we talked haltingly, carefully, but as I sent more letters, we pushed past reticence to an ease that surprised us both. I told him about the obnoxious cold in Iowa, the wind like a hawk moving through the fields. I told him about the difficulty of writing a novel, how “at first you just feel pulled along, defenseless, with an uncanny sense of pleasure.” Near the end of that fall he sent me a note written on a prescription pad in his familiar, flowing black script: Come closer to home, the note said. Come home.

During that summer I also sent letters to the professor, first thanking him for his understanding and then telling him about my epistolary relationship with my father, how wariness and fear were old bruises beginning to fade. He wrote back his encouragement, insisting that self-discovery was a writer’s primary tool.

More than thirty years after those letters, I’m still haunted by the pull of these two men, so different and yet so similar. Though one was black and one was white, both were born into poverty in the American South and raised to believe they shouldn’t “get ahead of themselves.” Both thumbed their noses at that tired narrative, took a chance and entered college. Both gained courage from a fraternal aunt, a woman whose strong will and good sense instilled in each a belief that they could do the unimaginable: be worthy in the world. Both had tremendous energy and used their hard won positions not for financial gain but in service to a larger ideathe sacredness of community. Both liked boozeand I suspect used it to excess. Both had diabetes and despite their knowledge, had little patience with poor health, and thus, succumbed to disease and diminishment, becoming small and frail and in need, men reduced to minders and nurses, to wheelchairs and walkers. Their terror, I think now, was the terror of being thrust back into their histories, of becoming those small boys again, oldest sons alone in a ruthless world.

Once we’re inside the unit, I follow the professor to his room, which opens onto a hallway and a common room with thick upholstered chairs, sofas and low-lit lamps. I’d assumed the professor would have his own apartment, but he has only a bedroom and a bath, a white terry cloth robe hanging from a hook just inside the bathroom door. I sit on a hard chair beside a fold-up wheelchair while the professor lounges on the queen-size bed, the Sunday New York Times spread out on the covers, the “Book Review” section on top. At first, we talk about easy things, about his daughter coming to see him, about my visit to my 91 year-old mother in Alabama, about the awful winter in our town. “So much snow!” I say. I no longer remember what moves us into more personal territory. Perhaps I tell him details of my father’s death from pancreatic cancer, how he died peacefully at home two weeks after he went to his office, smiling as he sat in his chair and draped his stethoscope around his emaciated neck.

His words seemed so personal, so intimate that I felt again the pull, a tightening, the cord between us never about writing or authority but about survival and caretaking: pushing beyond the limits of the self into deep water.

To my surprise, the professor begins talking about his own father, a master electrician he’d loved dearly, a smart man—“learned everything on his own”—but a maverick who liked booze and was put on a chain gang in Georgia for not finishing jobs. “I loved him, I always loved him, but I was ashamed too.” He tells me about his mother, a contrary woman who believed that injustice and segregation were God’s prerogative rather than men’s, and then about his difficult marriage to a fearful woman whose care proved demanding.

“Did you love her?” I ask. Perhaps this seems impertinent, but I feel compelled, curious because I’m writing essays about marriage.

“I did.”

“Well, there you go.” I smile, though I know love is a trigger for insecurities as well as desire.

He nods, gazing at me.

As we sit in the stillness of late afternoon—he’s begun to look drowsy, his eyes fluttering and then closing, making him look older and more vulnerable—I understand how profoundly I’ve misjudged him. I notice again the rip in the knee of his pants, his dark brown skin peeking through. At first I thought of him as a man shielded from trouble by his fame and his intellect, and then later as a haunted man, shy and loyal and introspective, carrying the burden of his past, but now I know he’s much more than these things. He is—and always has been—someone who takes care, a custodian of creativity, an umbilicus.

He opens his eyes and stares at me, trying to stay awake. Then his lids droop and I know he’s settled in for a nap. I sit for a while, watching. It’s the same way I tended my father during his last week, his hands finally still, his breathing as soft and regular as a purring cat, his face relaxed.

When I’m sure the professor is asleep, I leave the unit.

That night I fret. Unable to settle down, I fear a night of insomnia. It’s been unusually cold the past week and I pull the covers closer around me, snuggling deeper, trying to get warm. I’m still thinking about the professor. Just before he drifted off to sleep, he opened his eyes. “I’ve been reflecting on my life,” he said, “and I think I haven’t done that badly coming from where I did.” I remember how this surprised me, this humble self-assessment, this quiet, simple statement. He grew up a poor black boy in Savannah, Georgia who struggled out into the wider world to become a man. His words seemed so personal, so intimate that I felt again the pull, a tightening, the cord between us never about writing or authority but about survival and caretaking: pushing beyond the limits of the self into deep water.

I close my eyes, relaxing finally to the warmth of the covers, breathing in the cool night air. I imagine the professor lying curled on his bed, his legs bent, his faded driving cap snug on his head, one arm tucked protectively under his pillow.

It wasn’t a blood tie, but a human tie.



Patricia Foster is the author of two books of nonfiction and the editor of three anthologies of nonfiction prose. Her book Just beneath My Skin (University of Georgia Press, 2004) is a collection of essays that explores autobiography as a means of creative self-examination. She has published both fiction and nonfiction in literary quarterlies, including Gettysburg Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Fourth Genre. She is a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa.