The platter is old, yellow, chipped by the teeth of time.
It slides across the table in my direction. Steam rises from the platter. The steam comes from boiled beef, boiled carrots, boiled potatoes, and green cabbage boiled to pale oblivion.
I fork food from the platter onto my plate. When I cut the beef, it splinters under my knife blade. I take a bite, I chew. The beef tastes like cardboard steeped in bouillon. I nod across the table at Professor B. It is warm at this table. Outside, the fierce Wisconsin wind blows the snow sideways in a sharp slant. The windows rattle.
Across the table, Professor B is eating European-style. He holds the knife in his right hand, the fork in his left. He stabs a boiled potato, then uses the knife to maneuver a carrot and a slice of boiled beef onto the back of the fork. With the fork loaded, he feeds himself. When he chews, he shows me a set of yellow teeth.
It is Sunday night on a cold winter evening thirty years ago in the sixties and Professor B is dressed for teaching. The suit coat, a drab brownish gray, has been worn thin from countless trips to the cleaners. The white shirt is yellow; the tips of the collar are frayed. Professor B’s striped necktie sports a gravy spot that looks permanent. As he eats, his bald head winks in the light.
I am tired. Tomorrow is Monday and I have three classes to prepare. I need to eat and run, but Professor B is my superior in the department. He holds the rank of Full Professor; I am a lowly Assistant Professor. He was instrumental in hiring me, bringing me to Beloit College, a frozen ice palace in Southern Wisconsin, to teach reading and writing and literature. He is the General who hires and fires. I can exit only when dismissed.
I finish my boiled beef and swallow the last chunk of boiled carrot. Professor B clears the table; he refuses my offer of help. Dessert on that cold Sunday is raspberry jello with whipped cream. I say yes to coffee. Then Professor B holds out the wine bottle. The wine is Grenache Rose, sweet as a sugar cube. Its pink marshmallow aftertaste squats on my tongue. There’s only one pour left in the bottle. I shake my head, lifting my eyebrows to send a subtle academic message about the pile of work that waits for me when I leave here.
With a yellow smile, Professor B tops off his glass. His hand jerks during the pour, and the lip of the bottle strikes the rim of the wine glass. I hear a tiny cracking sound, thick glass popping against thin. When he drinks from the glass, I expect to see blood on his lip. He sets the glass down, grins at me. No blood.
I sip my coffee, spoon my red jello. Professor B drinks down his coffee, then grips the wine glass. His red jello goes uneaten, untouched. He has brought me here tonight to tell me a story.
“I hope you have time for a little medical tale,” he says. “You do? Excellent. It happened this way. I was at table, a cozy dinner party at the home of John Dowell and Ursula his lovely frau, who, by the way, sets quite a fancy table for her special guests. John, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the Mathematics Chair. The other guests were Christopher and William. Christopher is the proverbial chum from an old man’s ill-spent youth, who somehow became a world-famous classicist at the University of Chicago. We were both trained by the same Jesuit Brothers. William is, of course, the History Chair. So there I was at table, and I felt the urge to relieve myself. I excused myself, left the table, and went straight to the bathroom. The bathroom in John’s house is upstairs. Climbing those steep stairs, I remember feeling a new sort of urgency. As if I might just not make it in time. And then, when I did finally reach my destination, and tried to, well, eliminate, but nothing happened. Not a drop was forthcoming. No amount of coaxing helped, and so I descended to the dining room, where the table was informed. I was feeling somewhat embarrassed, doing my best not to fan the flames, as it were, and John telephoned for the ambulance because the snow was dreadful that night and the ambulance whisked me to the emergency room at Beloit Memorial where a catheter was inserted and I surely did expect to be sent home but then they asked me to sign some papers before they wheeled me into the operating theatre where they removed my little prostate gland. I am talking quite fast, aren’t I? Well, the gland itself was cancerous, you see. And that, my dear colleague, is that. So, there you have it. And enough said. Is there more wine? I think I would like another glass. Does my junior colleague wield a corkscrew as well as he wields a stick of chalk?” * * * * *
So I opened the second bottle of Grenache Rose with Professor B’s corkscrew and his smile hovered between us while we drank a farewell glass together. After that, he sent me home because he remembered I had three classes on Monday because he was a Renaissance scholar trained by Jesuits and his mind was a steel trap for detail.
Professor B was sixty when he told me his prostate cancer story. We taught in the same department in the same building. He had a big office. I had a small office. When we passed in the hall, we said hello. When I inquired after his health, he quoted Shakespeare at me: “Out, out, damned spot!”
I knew nothing of prostate cancer. I knew nothing about the male prostate, where it was located, how it functioned as a body part. As a young scholar with a Ph.D., I knew that “prostate” was sometimes mispronounced as “prostRate,” as if it had two “R’s” instead of only one.
The C-word made me afraid. What if prostate cancer was contagious? What if I got too close? Would I then catch what Professor B had?
Prostate cancer changed his life. He left the department, the school, his beloved students, the little house on campus where he had told me his tale. He left without saying goodbye. One day he was with us; the next day he was gone and we were recruiting to fill his slot. His story to me across the dinner table was a confession. He was a man; he wanted to look brave. He contained his disease inside the framework of a story.
He was a fussy man who wanted no fuss made about his disease. Prostate cancer made him feel shame. His shame drove him away from the little midwestern school that was his life. Like a sick animal, Professor B dragged himself off to die.
When they told me I had prostate cancer, I felt fear. To quell the fear, I wrote about it. Writing about my fear brought back that night with Professor B. Boiled beef, boiled carrots, raspberry jello, Grenache Rose wine, and prostate cancer, the disease that changes your life.
Writing about my fear, I discovered the reason for Professor B’s story. He was a man. I was a man. He had prostate cancer. I might catch it later on. By telling me his tale, he made me a Brother of the Prostate. The story was his way of warning me. Back then, I was too young to figure it out.
I am older now.
And I thank him for his warning.