“You have to come.” A group of math students came to my office inviting me to their party. Mr. Sam would not come unless I come too. Why he did not call me himself?
I was surprised as he had not opened his mouth during the last three months though we had crossed paths quite a few times. My words had frozen on my lips looking at his cold blue eyes, though his lips did smile. This sudden indirect invitation seemed so unlike him.
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I remembered my first meeting with him two years ago.
“Come on in.” His voice croaked like a frog but without any brusqueness. I had walked into the office to greet Mr. Sam Griffith, the new professor of mathematics who had come from Huntsville, Alabama - my own hometown.
Smell of new books permeated the air. Seated with a hunchback, he got up – uncertainly. When I shook hands with him I felt I shook the thick branch of a tree. He only nodded when I introduced myself as Mr. Harris, assistant professor of chemistry. He tried to bring semblance to his cluttered desk and in the process toppled a pile of neatly arranged books.
“Things are in a mess.” He looked straight at me pulling the lapel of his coat to hide ink seeping from a golden pen from the pocket of his crispy white shirt. Though he shifted his slim body every few seconds, he seemed genuinely pleased to meet me.
“Take a seat,” he came around to pull a chair for me.
When I took a seat he just stared at me with his closely set eyes, arching bushy eye brows. Then he smiled, moving his hand on his oblong head. His oblong head had small patches of bald evenly scattered but hair was dyed jet black; the dye had seeped beyond his hair, giving an appearance of him having two hairlines. Coarse wrinkles on his face contrasted with the jet black hair.
His preoccupation with showing every hair black and peculiar hairstyle earned him the nickname – ‘Fantastic Sam.’
I had gathered later that he had a tough life – his mother died when he was a school kid. Having been raised by his father but living mostly in school dorms, he craved intimacy but got little if any. He did have many acquaintances but he could not sustain a lasting friendship with anyone. On his home front he had all daughters – three of them, the eldest being fourteen. His wife sometimes looked older than he, making it even more difficult to estimate his age.
Over the years I saw him, he seemed to be strolling the corridors of the university, apparently without reason, hands clasped behind, drooping his shoulders and chin -oblivious of people greeting him. Later on, most people learnt to ignore him. Other
times, he shut himself in his office for hours, not allowing anyone to see him. Even the students developed mixed feelings toward him.
Sporadically, I saw him surrounded by students, bursting with laughter at his jokes. While sometimes he was immaculately dressed in three piece suit, he also
appeared in jeans and T shirt. Once he proudly told me he bought his jeans in a ‘Gap’ store.
He did develop a reputation as an intelligent academician, and the best teacher.
For a long time, I longed to be his friend but he thwarted my efforts by his unpredictable reactions to what I said and did. Though he was never rude to me, he seemed to be keeping a constant distance between us, determined not to be a close friend.
But destiny had some other plans for us.
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“What kind of party is it?” I asked the students who had invaded my office.
“We made a mistake of arranging a surprise swimming party, not knowing Mr. Sam didn’t know swimming. But he says you don’t either. He thinks you could be a good company while we’re busy taking a plunge.”
I accepted their invitation, still wondering about Mr. Sam. I had no idea he knew no swimming and how did he know I didn’t either?.
The summer heat smoldered to ninety degrees in Boston and I didn’t blame students for arranging a swimming party at the Wyndham hotel.
Students had organized the party to honor Mr. Sam as the best mathematics teacher of the year. I didn’t want to insult Mr. Sam by refusing. Further, my wife had been looking forward to strengthening her friendship with Mrs. Sam and my eldest son David and Mr. Sam’s second daughter Sheila were buddies in the same class.
On the fateful day, he arrived with all his three daughters and wife, carrying baskets of fruits, chicken, and a load of drinks. Wearing a yellow, thick T-shirt and jeans, he seemed to be in a great mood. I arranged a poolside barbecue with him. This time his handshake was warm and firm, without coldness in his blue eyes. He told jokes from Huntsville, Alabama, where we had spent our childhood. Our wives seemed to have a good time too. Girls in wet bikinis soon surrounded Mr. Sam to hear his dry humor.
“It’s so bad we don’t swim,” he came to me later, arching one bushy eyebrow.
“I developed a phobia against it,” I said. “when I almost died in childhood in a boating accident,” I said, “My father saved me. My son David has a phobia too but Keith is an expert swimmer.”
Becoming solemn, he abruptly left me without telling his side of the story.
David and Keith were the only male children playing with Mr. Sam’s daughters as few students had families. The Olympic size pool was impressive with a depth of eighteen feet in the center.
Looking at Sam, I reflected what a great friend he could be if he continued to be this human.
Suddenly, Sam threw down his plate, shot like an arrow and jumped in the middle of the pool. Some girls shrieked while the rest were frozen like statues. Mr. Sam was expertly swimming to the deepest part of the pool. He submerged himself and I screamed in terror when he returned to the surface, pulling out David, coughing and clutching at Mr. Sam’s neck. In no time Mr. Sam laid David on the beach chair to the kudos of all.
Eyes filled with tears, I moved forward with my wife to hug him. But Mr. Sam ran away and drove away alone - in drenched clothes. His wife and three daughters started crying. I didn’t know what to say. Though my mind was full of gratitude, I was also angry and confused. Why did he lie about his inability to swim?
I gave a ride to Sam’s family in silence. Mrs. Sam said it would be better if I don’t see him right then.
I did not see him for awhile as he took leave of absence for a week. The whispers of his lying about not being able to swim became more prominent among the students than any praise for his saving a drowning boy.
My efforts to express gratitude were met by answers from his wife like ‘he is in the bathroom,’ ‘he is asleep,’ or ‘he is not at home.’ When I heard he had started working again I went to see him but he said he was busy right then. Gradually, my efforts to see him became sparse. I heard from his students that he always looked morose and brooding; jokes came no more. Few times he changed his direction on seeing me. I left him alone too though curiosity about his lying was killing me.
Then one evening I was astonished to hear from his wife asking me to come to see him urgently. I wasted no time. Through the rain showers I saw only one light on in his house. His wife ushered me in a dark room – apparently Sam’s study.
“Switch the light on,” sounded his croaking command. Fumbling on the wall I pressed a switch. A table lamp lighted to show Mr. Sam sitting bare-chested on a futon.
“Look at this,” he said, turning his back toward me and I cringed in revulsion. He was pointing to a web of ugly scars that looked like thick pretzels stuck to his entire back. From the scars I looked at his face; there were tears in his eyes.
“My dad hosted a big celebration for my eighth birthday. The year before, my mother had died. He made extraordinary efforts to make up for her absence. The whole
house was decorated with balloons and colored lights. He invited many kids, his friends and even a magician. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Adults were enjoying barbecue on the deck.
“Magician was great but I didn’t like one of his tricks. He made some of my toys disappear and reappear again, making me worry in between. So when he was busy doing
other tricks I collected my gifts and went in the basement to hide them. I was horrified when I opened the closet door. There I found my dad naked, sleeping on a naked woman – the maid who was hired for the occasion.
“I ran upstairs while daddy, pulling on his clothes, came running after me.
I realized the way he climbed, that he was also drunk. I ran on the deck where he followed me shouting ‘please, Sam.’ But I was hardly listening. My mother’s memory was fresh in my mind. I started blurting his secret in front of all his friends. To silence me quickly, he slapped me hard and pushed me. Falling on the burning stove, my shirt went
on fire. His friends pulled me away but I had already suffered the damage. I got third degree burns to my back, spent a few months in the hospital undergoing skin grafts.
Ultimately, surgeries became so painful that daddy brought me home saying we would wait for further treatment.
“But I refused further treatment. I wanted to keep those scars. I started moving with bare back in front of him to make him feel guilty. He could bear no more. He decided to send me away to a boarding school. That’s how I managed to spend all my
life away from him. He kept himself distanced from all women. As a form of penance I suppose. He died as a very lonely man.
“I developed a tendency to form keloids in the scars. My scars grow like tumors. Doctors removed them many times but they grow even faster. They look so ugly, don’t they?”
“I am sorry but they do.”
“No girl wanted to marry me,” dropping his chin and shoulders, he continued. “Too late I realized my wife married me, not out of love but out of pity. She felt more maternal at the time. She is older than me by seven years. One year after marriage she told me not to make love to her with my back bare. And even then she squeezed her eyes shut during the ritual she had to undergo. So I had to keep my shirt on. When last daughter was born, I realized she wasn’t mine. She knows I know but pretends not to know, to keep our marriage.
“I didn’t want to show my ugly back to anyone. Don’t want to look like an alligator in the water. It’s too odd to swim with your T shirt on. Right? So I lie that I don’t know swimming. But I was the only one to notice my naughty daughter pushing David in the pool. He was drowning. I had to save him. But what a humiliation I am suffering for what I did.”
I sat next to him.
“I am a very tired man.” He tried to purge his pain through the longest sigh I had ever witnessed.
“You will always be a hero to me Sam.” I said trying to ease his suffering. “You saved my son’s life.”
But he started sobbing, keeping his head on my shoulder while I moved my hand on his back, trying to unruffle the hills and valleys there.