It was during a two hour drive between Louisiana and Mississippi that she met him. And her life was never the same again.
The day looked perfect for a new journey and a new beginning. With the sun smiling bright and a mild breeze kissing the UCLA (University College California, Los Angeles), Vinatha happily put the final box containing her belongings into the trunk of her white Chevy. She looked gorgeous and full of life in a white Tank-top, faded deep blue jeans and green FILA sneakers. The sun rays bounced merrily off her perfect, glowing skin and the diamond pierced under her lower lip glittered under the April sky.
Before Vinatha got into her car, she hugged her friends Anu, Vini, Andy and Catherine. She felt sad wishing goodbye to the campus and friends that had become such an integral part of her life for over an year. But good decisions were made always the hard way. There would be pain, but that is what sustains life…good decisions…
As she started the car, a second thought did cross her mind:
“Am I doing the right thing?” her inner self kept tormenting her with this question. But she decided to move on.
Vinatha pushed the accelerator and through the window of her car she waved adieu to her friends and UCLA campus. Her friends watched Vinatha move away from them leaving a nostalgic trial of smoke and dust. The dead maple leaves suddenly came to life and danced in the air as Vinatha’s car moved over them only to fall dead once again as she passed. Vinatha brushed aside some of her long hair that had fallen across her beautiful forehead and breathed the beauty of the campus one last time. Some students noticed her and those who were acquainted with her waved in her direction. She waved back at them in return. An army of 50 maple trees lined either side of the campus gate, bending and swinging their branches as if giving her a guard of honour… the sad thing was that it was for a melting farewell than a hearty arrival.
“Will come back here some day…and walk through this campus once again…” Vinatha made a mental note.
In less than 20 minutes the UCLA Road merged with the “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway- I 10E” and Vinatha flared the gas full throttle. The Chevy surged ahead like a horse running a race and Vinatha increased the volume of the car stereo. The Metallica raised havoc inside the car with it’s ‘Seek and Destroy’ number and Vinatha grooved to it’s deadly beats by doing ‘bumpy dancing’ in the drivers seat. Vast stretch of barren land…flat, brown and thorny kissed the cloudless sky on either side of the highway.
She was just few miles into the Transcontinental and the traffic suddenly came to a stand still. Cars rallied behind each other and started moving like a long caterpillar. Vinatha sneaked out of her car’s window and found that there was some kind of renovation work going on in the highway. She kept drumming the steering wheel anxiously to the tune of the blaring stereo till she crossed the work site. The area under renovation was buzzing with bull dozers, men clad in blue overall wearing yellow caps and glows . And as Vinatha shifted the gears to pace up, she noticed that someone was standing by the road side asking for a lift. No one was giving him as much as a glance and the guy looked really desperate. A red Pontiac GTO stood behind him in the gravel and the car, she reckoned, was broken.
As Vinatha drove closer to the guy, he looked in her eyes seeking help. He was dressed in a white shirt, black tweed coat and stripped tie. His clean shaven plump face and neatly combed hair somehow made him look like a college professor. Vinatha applied the breaks a few feet away from the man and he rushed to her car with his brown leather bag. She lowered the window and the fragrance of his Brute Cologne came flowing into the car.
“Owweeee…the Ponti jus broke down dear…can you gimme a lift ?” the man requested in a deep voice…drenched heavily in New Orleans dialect.
Vinatha looked at him carefully chewing the bubble gum in her mouth as if she was churning zeroing her options. The man looked well educated, was dressed meticulously and looked very very professional. Vinatha assumed him to be in his early thirties.
“To where?” she asked looking in his eyes that seemed somewhat relaxed now.
“Biloxi… just an hour from here…”
“Ok jump in…” she waved the man in.
Delighted, the man got in and closed the door. As Vinatha started the car and shifted the gears, she glanced one last time at the old Ponitac through her rear view mirror. She pulled out her Ray Ban from under the dash board and wore it to escape the blinding sun as her Chevy picked up speed.
They travelled for almost a mile in silence and Vinatha kept changing the radio stations. The man looked irritated hearing the songs being played and she automatically reduced the volume. Vinatha observed the guy closely through the side of her goggles. Like his car, everything he wore looked perfect and polished but then she noticed that he was not wearing the seatbelt.
“Why don’t you pull on the belts sir?”
“Errr… I’m not used to it…and well you are riding pretty cool yeah…”
Vinatha nodded her head showing her disagreement, but she did not compel him further.
“Strange guy…” she thought.
They rode in silence for another few minutes that fretted off seeming like hours and it irritated Vinatha for some reason. Then, in an attempt to strike a conversation with the man she spoke out:
“You car looked pretty good…vintage yeah?” she broke the silence
“Yeah Pontiac GTO 1963…” he replied with pride brimming in his voice.
“Which bank do you work for?” Vinatha asked him
“Nope.. I’m not a banker…” the man replied
“I…I’m a Professor…” the man replied as if he was shy.
“Wawooo…where do you teach..??”
“In Dominican College…”
“Heyyy that’s just great!!! I just enrolled in your college… Department of English…for the creative writing course… What is it that you teach..?”
“Englush…bingaa…” the man replied with a big smile.
It came as a surprise to Vinatha that she was giving lift to a Professor on her very first ride to her new college. She went speechless… and searched for words but she could hardly find any. Finally she spoke:
“I… I just feel so happy to meet you sir…so will you be teaching me?” Vinatha offered her right hand keeping an eye on the road. And the man took her hand in his own warm, soft and sweaty palm and shook it. His grip was firm yet soft.
“Yeah I do take a session for the new students…” the man replied looking at her. His eyes glittered with intelligence and Vinatha was captivated by his perfect image. She had never met a man so well mannered. So well dressed and well spoken…No not in her 1 year of existence in the USA.
“Ohh by the by I’m Vinatha Menon…from India…” She offered her hand again…she did not know why..
Vinatha now enjoyed listening to his strange funny diction and New Orleans slang.
The man looked a little amused and shook her hand again and replied:
“John.. Professor John Kennedy…”
“Ohhh…so you related to JFK somehow…Professor?”
To this he started laughing heartily…
“No way…a lot of people ask me that … but No…we are not related in anyway…”
“So you happen to know Proff. Margaret Longwood? And did you happen to see my application” Vinatha asked him.
“Oweee…yeah I know her…I remember seeing your application…yeah..You are the only Indian enrolled this year…”
Vinatha was so delighted. And she increased the speed of the car.
“So why did you drop out of UCLA medical school… you can temme if ya don’t mind?” the professor started speaking freely now since Vinatha had successfully broken the ice between them.
But that question came as an unexpected jolt to Vinatha. She was not expecting this question from him. But she remained calm and replied:
“Well you know…I come from a place called Kerala in India…. there the people are all mad about becoming engineers and doctors yeah…Hence I was shipped to USA by my parents so that I will make it big with medicine…but I have little or even no interest in that…professor…”
“Ok… then wot happened..?” the Professor asked with mounting curiosity.
“…well as expected…I got extremely poor grades by the year end…” Vinatha replied with a sarcastic smile
“Ohhh… that ain’t alla bad..” the Professor cheered her up.
“Yeah… I got no regrets professor. This country has taught me one big thing… and that is DO WHAT YOU LOVE and you will be rewarded. Even though I went bad with the subjects out there, I did some fantastic stuff with the college Newspaper. The Dean suggested I take up a course in Journalism or creative writing in Dominican College and sent an excellent covering letter…Err..you would have read that sir..??”
“Covering letter…No…but I was amused as to why a medical student would drop out to enrol for a course in fiction writing…well you are a lot similar to me…I used to work for my school news paper…” the Professor looked at the road narrowing his prominent, long eyebrows.
By now they had crossed Tucson and was heading for their destination…
“So why do you wanna write…and whot ya kna ’bout literature…” the Professor asked her looking in Vinatha’s eyes. He seemed damn serious for the first time and somehow his expression scared her.
“I do not have much knowledge…but I can write some creative stuff that’s all professor…” she shrugged
“Are you good at anything then…?” the professor asked her.
Vinatha scratched her head in confusion searching for an answer.
“No professor… I need to find out what I’m good at..even I’m searching for that answer. Well how did you land up teaching… professor?”
The question seemed to irritate him.
“I was born to do this. Phewwww…. those were the real day my girl… I used to take a heavy workload …completed my MA English course in one year. In fact it was passion and it paid off. I came out with honours from Columbia University and was forced to join the army…but I loved writing…so I resigned. Life was a struggle and our family was relatively poor….but those were the days…”
“So you have published any stuff…” Vinatha asked wryly.
“I tried a lot…but it took me almost quarter of a century to complete and bring out my work… God was cruel but thanks to my Momma…she toiled hard to bring it out….A book is nothing but blood and life… buried deep down in it’s pages..”
Vinatha felt the man was getting emotional and doubted if he was crying. But he clenched his eyes with his fingers and brushed off whatever sadness was locked out there in there.
“Do you need a tissue… sir…?” Vinatha asked him concerned.
“No dear…no… Since you have finally chosen this path… I would urge you write as much as you can and take your words to the world…”
“Who gives a shit about the words Professor?:” Vinatha blurted out and immediately regretted saying so.
“This is an excuse for the old timers sweetheart…we who keep writing in remote corners of the world and for a better part of our life nobody gives a crap…but alas…now we have the technology and people like you can take literature to the next level. Remember…more people have died at the hands of WORDS than by the end of SWORDS… Vinta…”
“Sir it is not Vinta…its Vi-Na-Tha…” she laughed heartily as she spoke.
“Will get it right on the go…the point I wanna hammer down is that I tried a lot but there were no takers for good work…by the time recognitions came it was all too late…” the professor smiled at her.
“Do you write a lot Professor…And what kinda stuff do you write….?” Vinatha hated philosophy and the the nutty Professor was saying things that pretty much sounded out dated. The guy was speaking as if he was a 100 year old southerner or mid western farmer rather than a young & dashing 30 year old college professor.
“No dear I do not write much… I wrote just one novel…and a stupid one though. It was rejected by every publisher in this country…” and he started laughing as if it was the biggest joke of the century.
“Professor…your life sounds interesting…feels like I’m gonna end up knowing more about you…You are young and you have a long way to go…” Vinatha spoke to him looking gleefully in his intelligent eyes.
“Owweee… I was the youngest Professor back then when I joined. My life is a rather grim one. Perhaps very soon I can describe it to you in great detail dear…but yeah…lot of stuff you can find about me over the internet…but I’m not that technology savvy you know…”
“Do give me the details Sir…so that I can have a look at your writings and your life…” Vinatha made a sharp right turn towards the Mississippi highway that headed towards the Dominican College.
“Yeah… will Whatsapp the link to you…OK… Gimme your mobile number?”
“It is 773-338-7786…Cheers professor…”
The professor showed thumbs up and seemed to make a mental note of her mobile number even though he did not physically jot it down.
Suddenly as if nothing was there to be said between them, silence ensued in the Chevy. The afternoon traffic was scanty and Vinatha kept checking the sign boards as she drove. She wondered why the professor was not helping her find the way. But she did not complain. And as the entered outskirts of Biloxi county, things rapidly went bad.
As she drove past a green signboard with “Greenwood Cemetery” written over it in white, the Professor started shaking in his seat and his hands started shivering violently.
Vinatha did not notice that initially but the young professor started shaking violently in his seat.
“Professor…is there anything wrong…?” her voice shuddered with tension when she noticed there was something wrong with the professor.
The Professor looked at her with blood shot eyes and face swamped in sweat. His hair was completely messed up showing bald patches. He seemed a different man altogether. Then he shouted at her:
“Stop the car…” Vinatha was trying to concentrate on her driving when the sudden rise in the decibel of his voice shocked her. She stared at him in total disbelief.
“What professor…Don’t you want me to take you to the College?” she asked looking in his face.
“Stop the fucking car… I gotta get out…RIGHT HERE…Your one hour session is over…Remember you live or die by the words you fucking idiot…Literature is life not a boogie part time job….do you get MEEEE ” the man shouted at the top of his voice.
This time he his mouth was completely exposed and Vinatha shrieked and applied break. The professor’s teeth, tongue and everything inside his mouth was black…pitch,filthy,deadly black. The car skidded out of the road and screeched to a stop just inches away from an Oak tree. Vinatha’s head hit the steering wheel and she became dazed for a moment.
In a flash of a second the Professor unbuckled his seatbelt, opened the door and jumped out of the car. As Vinatha lifted her head to see if the man was OK, he was nowhere to be seen. Vinatha looked around but in vain. Then as she glanced over rear view mirror, she caught a glimpse of the professor in his black tweed dashing through the front gate of the Greenwood Cemetery holding his brown bag.
Some passers-by slowed their cars to check if Vinatha was fine. She smiled at them saying:
“Thanks for your concern…I’m perfectly awright…”
Once she pulled herself back, she swiftly got out of the car and ran towards the entrance of the Cemetery. But all she could find there was an infinite extension of green lawns, thousands of silent tombs and trees that guarded the dead. There was no sign of the handsome professor.
Stunned and confused, she walked towards her car, she touched her forehead and Vinatha was really annoyed to find a small bump over her forehead.
“Damn it…” she cursed at the embarrassing thought of facing the Dean of Dominican College for the first time with a crazy bump over her frons.
Vinatha got into her car, closed both the doors and drove towards the college. Crazy thoughts ran through her mind in that twenty minutes drive between the Greenwood Cemetery and the beautiful campus of Dominican College. She parked the car under the shade of trees in front of the administration block and walked in to meet the Dean. But unfortunately the Dean was out somewhere and the office clerk instructed her to meet Proff. Margaret Longwood, who headed the English department.
But all along Vinatha kept playing the conversation she had with the Professor in her mind. Back and forth…back and forth. There was something that did not fit…but she did not know exactly what it was.
As she stepped into the 200 feet stone walkway, lined with palm trees on either side it hit her. Staring at the the 18th century, white colonial 4 storey building that housed the English department, the words of the professor struck her like a boomerang.
“Holy shit!!!!” she shouted and ran towards the English department.
She had to tell someone what had happened… and as she raced through the walkway, her feet thumping over the stone tiles….the words of the professor echoed in her mind…
“I tried a lot…but it took me almost quarter of a century to complete and bring out my work… God was cruel but thanks to my Momma…she toiled hard to bring it out….A book is nothing but blood and life… buried deep down in it’s pages…”
” How the fuck can a 30 year old man work for quarter of a century on a book….damn it…why the hell did I not think of it before…..” Vinatha hissed as she ran.
She reached the entrance of the building, and stood there supporting her hands over her waist, unable to move any further and completely exhausted. She went dumbfounded and covered her mouth with her palms when she saw that the English Department it self was named after the professor.
Right in front of her stood a plinth that divided the entrance of the department in exact halves. There was a huge bronze statue of a man in tweed coat and stripped tie. As Vinatha gapped at the statue and what was written underneath it, her Motto G vibrated inside her jeans pocket. With a shaking hand she took the phone and swiped the screen to life. There was one unread message in her Whatsapp messenger.
She swiped down the notification that said:
“One unread message from 773-000-0000”
She opened that message that had a simple link that said “click here”. She clicked the link with her right thumb and it led her to a wiki page. Vinatha then read the story of the man who travelled with her for an hour giving her a session on life and literature. Then she looked at the statue in front of her and remembered the face of the professor. They were one and the same.
Respect oozed out of her eyes in the form of tears for the man who paid the price of words with his own life. Vinatha knelled down before the plinth with closed eyes and palms… and silently promised the Professor to take her words to the world….at any cost.
To know what Vinatha saw, just
–> CLICK HERE<–