I could tell right away he was an old salt, a real sailor on the seas of life kind of man. He sat behind an enormous mahogany desk, face wrinkled in amusement, one leg stretched out, a cob pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth. Tendrils of smoke twisted around him. The aroma of tobacco and Old Spice and well-weathered books filled the study. He peered at me, mulling over my question. His eyes were blue, sharp, and almost panther-like in their intensity. I squirmed in my chair.
“A poem?” he said, finally. “You want me to write you a poem?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, sir,” I mumbled. My hands began to shake, so I shoved them in my pockets.
The old man smiled warmly, and I relaxed a bit. Coming to the dean of the economics department was a crazy idea. What was I thinking? Why would he write a poem for me?
“And why would I write a poem for you?” the dean asked, echoing my thoughts. He set down his pipe and leaned forward, steepling his hands in front of him. For a moment it seemed the old salt vanished, replaced by a wizened friar, complete with frock and prayer beads, who seemed to be waiting for my confession.
Before I could reply, there came a knock on the door. A secretary entered and set a tray onto the dean’s desk. Cucumber sandwiches and tea. The china was mismatched. The pot was oriental. Blue and red dragons twisted around the porcelain. The cup and saucer were souvenirs from London. The dean was reputed to be an Anglophile as well as an amateur poet. He thanked the secretary and she left without a word.
I plucked up my courage and gave it to him straight as he sipped his tea.
“I’m going to propose to my girlfriend. Tomorrow morning. I want it to be special. I thought maybe a poem . . .”
The dean smiled again. “You’re aware of my rates, son?” he asked. Suddenly, my impression of him shifted. Now he looked like a snake oil salesman, worn out from knocking on too many doors, or a retired commodities broker who’d spent an eternity dickering on the stock market.
My jaw dropped open. He was going to charge me? For a love poem? He was supposed to be the last of the romantics! At least, that’s what the other professors had claimed.
The dean laughed.
“Close your trap before the flies get in,” he said. “I’m joking.”
He plucked a piece of paper from his desk drawer, snatched up a pen, and began to write. I blew out a sigh of relief. After a few moments, he passed me the paper.
My one leaf in the forest, my one hand in the crowd,
My one spark in the fire of life–
A woman I’d be proud to call my wife.
Hmmm, I thought. I couldn’t tell if was good or not. I supposed it was the best I was going to get on a moment’s notice, and it was certainly better than I could do. I was, after all, a computer science major.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll tape it to her fridge so she’ll find it in the morning. Or maybe I’ll put it in her medicine cabinet.”
The dean chuckled. “Son, let me give you some advice. Memorize it, get on one knee, and recite it to her. You’ll be glad you did, and so will she.”
And that was exactly how I proposed. All I got for an answer, though, was a resounding laugh.
My girlfriend, after all, was a creative writing major.