Professor Simpson Becomes a Mountain Bum

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


All of my life there has been tension between what I want to do and what I ought to do.

Submitted: April 04, 2018

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Submitted: April 04, 2018

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Professor Simpson Becomes a Mountain Bum

Molly's father was a biochemist, and for as long as she could remember it was simply assumed that she too would follow this path, e.g., Tenured Professor Molly Mathews or Dr. Molly Mathews the physician. And there must have been a genetic component to it, for while she passionately hated most things her father had forced her into, e.g., tennis, dance lessons and track and field, she actually liked the subjects of chemistry and biochemistry. And she was good in them. She also liked playing the violin. Her father's only other success.

She attended Colorado University at Boulder. The required Lit and History classes were easy A's. As were most of the electives in the first two years. She had lived in France and had spoke French until the ninth grade. So she cheated and took French as her required language. Another easy A and one that freed up time for her other subjects.

She found freshman physics to basically be memorizing formulas and practicing with them. Maybe practicing some extra problems found on the internet. So it was no problem.

The challenges in the first year were the chemistry and math courses. Chemistry wasn't that hard, mostly a repeat of what she had studied in her honors high school chem class. But it was taught in a huge lecture hall filled with perhaps a thousand would be pre-meds, so the grading curve was tough. You needed an A and you simply could not make a mistake on an exam. Her father had correctly warned me that it would be very easy to slip into B+ territory in this huge class full of motivated students.

The freshman calculus courses were not that tough, but here she ran into a problem many encounter in even the best state universities, the incompetent and slightly disturbed professor. Her Calculus I professor had just been hired and was teaching his first semester. Each day he devoted about one third of the class to gassing on about how poorly Molly's class was performing and how things had been so much better at the Air Force Academy. His alma mater. His tests were a nightmare, covering things that were not covered in class and that were not in the book. Difficult things he expected the class to figure out in the one hour panic of an exam.

As a first semester freshman, Molly didn't understand the drop process. If she had, she would have been gone from the calculus class immediately after the first nutty exam. And after the first exam was returned, the students needed the professor's permission to drop, and with this guy they were trapped. And the day after the absolutely drop date passed, the date at which no class could not be dropped for any reason, the Air Force guy informed the class that no “A's” would be given to this poorly performing class. And perhaps no B's.

The engineers didn't really care, they could suffer a B in first semester calculus and still get a decent job. Even a C wouldn't kill them. But to the science majors and pre-meds this was a disaster. They weren't looking for jobs after graduation, and for the most part, there weren't any for them. They were looking towards admission to very competitive graduate programs where a B in physics or calculus could deny them entry.

The class spoke to their guidance counselors about this development and Molly spoke to her father, who also spoke to the guidance counselors and to some of the other university staff. The existing grades were all over the map, with no curve possible. In the end the students were all given an academic pass for the course and told that a note would be placed in our files explaining the situation. As far as anyone has been able to tell, no note was ever placed in the file. The Air Force guy was not re-hired for the next semester. Molly re-took the course and got an A from a nice, well adjusted professor who looked like one of the guys on the Luden's Cough Drop box.

Organic Chemistry occupied her second year, of which she remembered very little. Just a mad rush to master the necessary knowledge and skills. Knowledge wasn't enough, you needed skill. Skill to rapidly determine if two complex molecules were isomers or not. Or to complete the probable course of the mechanism of a reaction. And the grading curve became much tougher.

And then came the first biochemistry courses and labs. And here you would be second rank if you had not had a genuine interest in cell biology all along, and studied well beyond the bounds of your cell biology classes.

It was at this point that she began independent study work with Professor Simpson. He specialized prokaryote reproduction and disrupting the prokaryotic polymerase. The hope being that this would lead to new antibiotics. As she worked on her project she became much closer to Professor Simpson and hoped to continue her work with him into her graduate program.

In Molly's fourth year, in early November, Professor Simpson entered the lab about 7:30 AM and found Molly already at work in her cube. The five foot by four foot recessed space, with a small desk area, a book shelf and a computer, that was referred to as a graduate office. She had a lab area as well. A lab bench with the standard sink and gas tap and glassed in shelves for her bottles and utensils. Her five pipettes, tongs, bags of test tubes, etc.

“You look worn out”, said Professor Simpson. “Is something bothering you?”

“No”, she answered. “I was feeling fried last night when I finished up. So I drank some whiskey. It kind of washes the sawdust out of your head. But I don't think I sleep well with alcohol.”

“No, it's not just this morning. You've been looking burned out a lot lately. I mean your work is fine, but sometimes you look so tired.”

“Yeah, sometimes I just feel fried. Like I used to feel after a really tough exam.”

“Describe fried.”

“Like something is all used up in my head and there's nothing else to give. Just a sort of numbness. I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't have worked through the summer.”

Professor Simpson kind of chuckled. “I know that feeling. Know it well. It kind of comes with the territory. You just get used to it I guess.”

Leaving the lab at about 6:00 PM Molly decided to take the night off. She hadn't taken a night off in months. But she couldn't stay in Boulder and hit the restaurants and bars as the last bus up the mountain to Nederland left at 6:30. And she didn't want to hit the town anyway. She was too tired.

She crossed Broadway and waited for the commuter bus at the stop across from the lab. It was dark and the lights in the bus stop highlighted the griminess. Cigarette butts lay in every corner and the plexiglass windows were scratched up from repeated graffiti removal. An empty pint bottle of cheap vodka sat near one of the canopy supports.

The bus came and she road it to the main Boulder bus terminal. The regional terminal where the buses departed for the nearby small towns. She lined up with the others waiting for the driver to arrive and stuff the bicycles into the compartments underneath the bus and then unlock the door.

The bus ride took half an hour to get to Nederland and was quite boring in the dark. Nothing to see but oncoming headlights. She spoke with Emily, the budding young alcoholic who helped run the math library on campus. Emily produced a pint bottle Kentucky Deluxe from her purse, the cheap whiskey much favored in Nederland. She took a long pull and offered the plastic bottle to Molly, more out of politeness than anything else. But Molly accepted it and took a long drink.

“Oh man, I needed that”, said Molly.

“Trouble?”

“Nah, just really burned out. I'm going to take the night off. I haven't had a night off in months.”

“Do you want to go to the Wheel?” Asked Emily.

“No, I'm too tired for that. I think I'll just get some KD and go home.”

The Wheel was a brightly lit, noisy, linoleum covered bar much frequented by the local hell raisers, who, for some reason, shunned to cozier drinking establishments lining the main street of Nederland. And Emily's escapades at the Wheel were the stuff of legend. Half the bar patrons in Nederland hated her, and the other half seemed to have on again and off again affairs with her. Both male and female. Molly felt she lacked to energy and fortitude for a night on the town with Emily.

The bus finally arrived and Molly walked to the liquor store next to the Park and Ride and purchased a 750 milliliter bottle of Kentucky Deluxe. Sandra was working the counter, a lovely young woman of about twenty-five with short dread locks. About six inches long. A very unusual look. She was wearing flip flops and dirt was coming up through her toes to the tops of her feet. This was somehow sexy, and Molly guessed the Sandra and her boyfriend were still living in the woods. Which they did every warm season to save on rent.

“You still camping out?” Asked Molly.

“Yeah, until next week. We move into a house in Ferncliff then. It's getting really cold at night.”

“Ferncliff? You still going to work here?”

“Yeah. The rent's so low there that we figure it's worth the commute. We'll just come in for the day. Mike is working at the pizza parlor and we can match up our schedules.”

Molly walked back to the Park and Ride and climbed into her car. Across the lot was the crazy woman's Astro van. It had broken down in the lot early last year and, after several months of it sitting there, Molly's neighbor, who also drove an Astro Van, had offered to buy it for parts. This had set the crazy woman off into tizzy where she repeatedly shouted that the Astro Van was her car and nobody was taking it. After many months, the bus company had it towed away. The crazy woman then raised so much hell that the bus company brought it back. And there it sat.

There was the usual brief flash of fear that the car wouldn't start as she turned the key. But it always started. She backed out and headed down the road to Rollinsville, about five miles away. She entered the property and parked. Her cabin was down slope about 200 yards along a dirt path. A nice walk when the moon was out, but creepy as hell in the dark. And it was dark tonight. She scanned her flashlight along the woods to the left and the meadow to the right looking for flashing eyes. Mostly she feared moose, they were often in the yard and could be mean. Bears were peaceful and just ran away, and she almost felt a kinship with them.

Entering the cabin, she built a fire in the wood stove and cranked the electric range to heat up a slice of ham and some instant mashed potatoes. She poured a glass of KD. No ice or water. She wanted to sip something strong.

The cabin was small, barely room for a twin bed, and a desk, and she sat at her desk and ate. She then opened the door to the wood stove so that it would burn more slowly and throw some dancing light into the room. The stove threw out enough heat that she could open her front window. And this allowed her to listen to the coal trains as the ran up and down the mountain, and pulled off onto the Rollinsville siding to let each other pass. She loved this far away train sound from the valley below. She swiveled her desk chair, put her feet on a stool near the stove and took a sip of KD. She looked into the fire and began to meditate.

Could she stay on with Professor Simpson? And if not, could she get into a decent program somewhere else? She fancied she could. There were a few bobbles in her record. The calculus fiasco and a couple of mediocre lab grades. She generally hated labs. But all in all, her record was good. As were her recommendations.

But she realized she lacked passion. She had passion to succeed in her undergrad studies, and this carried her through the days and nights of numbing work. Rising at 6:00 AM and collapsing after midnight, with a walk in the afternoon because her brain had simply ceased to function. But she couldn't really see life after graduation. She didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

And she didn't really have a project in mind for her graduate program, and she knew it was time to develop one. She could talk a good line, and this had carried her so far, but she knew people who chomped at the bit to begin their research, and dreamed of exactly where it would go, and she knew this wasn't her. Or wasn't her at the moment. And perhaps this was why she was so often tired these days. Where before the work had been a glorious battle for a shining goal, it was now just work. Work that sucked up every minute of every hour of the day.

She drank by the fire until just after 11:00 PM and then turned in. Work started at 6:00 AM.

It was getting near Christmas and Molly had no finals in her fourth year, which felt very odd. No soul crushing wild eyed scramble to get ready for the exams. No phobias of catching a cold that would reduce your performance. Just a couple of papers that had to be completed. Papers that she had been working on all semester. She had time to knock off at 5:00 and lounge around the lab with Professor Simpson and another grad student. Carol Mankiller, a woman with an unusual name who was already becoming a star in the field. It was near Christmas and the three were drinking wine in the lab.

“I wish there was such a thing as a real IQ test”, said Molly. “I used to think I was smart, but now I wonder if I just have a high tolerance for drudgery.”

“How so”, asked Professor Simpson.

“Am I smart or do I just work really hard? Work really hard while the really smart people are out having a good time.”

“I've found that a lot of what people call smart is just that, hard work”, Said Carol. “And you did very well on your GRE exams, that's a measure of something.”

“It's a measure of how much knowledge has been pumped into you and how good you are at taking tests.”

“Even the math and reasoning part?” Asked Carol.

“Yeah, absolutely”, replied Molly. “I flunked the first few practice exams I took, but then I kept taking them until I started thinking like the test. That's the best I can explain it. It measured how well I could get ready for the GRE.”

“Well”, said Professor Simpson, “It sounds like you're coming to the first stage of enlightenment. The realization that it's all a bunch of hogwash and you've been a fool.”

“What's the next stage?” Asked Molly.

“The realization that you still are a fool”, replied Professor Simpson.

“I'll buy that”, said Molly.

Over Christmas, her father was thrilled that Molly was on a downhill path to her graduate program. There would be no more one hour panic exams to decide her fate. A situation where a moment of confusion could trash her future. Just a few papers and a presentation on her independent study project, which her father was sure she could handle.

The two went to Vail for a seven day ski holiday. Molly needed to get away. She had planned to spend the break prepping for her final semester, reading the texts and such, but just couldn't face it. The conditions were perfect on the mountain and Molly was close to being first chair every day. She was a good skier, having skied almost every weekend of the season for years. And cruising the back bowels of Vail an idea came to her. Something that excited her.

Her last semester was a coast which gave her time to think about her idea and research it. What would it take to become a ski patrol at Vail? There was time to take the Outdoor Emergency Care course and the EMT training, which were offered at CU. And the local library offered the CPR course on a quarterly basis. She submitted the on-line application and was granted an interview in March. She passed the ski exam at that time. In April she received a call that she could start when the resort opened on November 15th, provided she completed her certification courses.

But there was he sixty-four dollar question. Would taking a year off brand her as a slacker. Someone who was not serious about their career. A dangerous person to be passed over in favor of more dedicated candidates?

Professor Simpson really asked for it when he stuck his head in Molly's closet and asked if there was anything she wished to discuss. He was, of course, speaking of the project, but Molly took him up as if it were a general offer.

“Yeah, there is. Would it wreck my career if I took a year off after graduation and worked as a ski patrol at Vail?”

“What?”

“My applications are out and I've been accepted here and at UCLA. But would I blow it if I took a year off?”

“To be a ski patrol?”

“Yeah.”

“This is serious, why don't you come to my office in about ten minutes.” Professor Simpson could have discussed the matter perfectly well where he stood, but he needed to buy time to compose himself. This had completely waylaid him.

“Take a seat Molly”, said Professor Simpson indicating the seat across from his desk.

“So, am I being an idiot?”

Professor Simpson was quiet for a moment, with a thoughtful look on his face. A sort of wistful look.

“No”, he finally said. “I've always been attracted to old funky houses in ski towns. And I used to think this was really odd. Couldn't figure out why. And my ex-wife really hated it. I'd drive around old Breckenridge or Steam Boat and slow down and say, 'Hey, look at that old place. Isn't it cool?' And my ex would give me a nasty look and say, 'It's a dump'”.

“Funky old houses”, She repeated. It didn't make a lot of sense.

“I finally figured out that the old houses, and the right kind of winter light, brought back what I called The Dream. I've always been an over achiever, working myself to death, and that was especially true when I was a kid. What kept me going in those days was a vow that after the spring semester I would take a year off and go to one of the a ski towns. Maybe Steamboat. And my friends and I would rent an old, cheap house – like the kind my ex thought were dumps. And I'd get a job as a bartender. And then I'd just ski everyday. And we'd live in that old house with a lot fun friends and have a great time. And we'd do that for a whole year.”

“You never did it?”

“No, as an undergrad, the restrictions of my grants and scholarships stopped me. And after I graduated, grad school was all I cared about. Then the first job. And when I got that, I stayed on to prove myself. You just didn't take a year's leave of absence to go ski.

I eventually took the job here at the University. My friend told me that my career would suffer by being out in the “boonies”. But hell, I was fifty-two years old by then, so so what? Something was calling me back to the mountains.”

“Sounds like you still want to go ski”, I said. “And so do I. But will it hurt me?”

Professor Simpson was quiet for a long time. He shook his jaw back and forth, as he often did while thinking. He looked up at the tile ceiling.

He finally spoke. “This is going to sound really wimpy, but taking the year off could both help you and hurt you. There are some people, and you know a few, who really would see this as a frivolous break from your real work and would judge you for it. But I don't think you'd be happy working for those types anyway. At least not in the long run. And then there is a smaller group, one that would look at your excellent qualifications, and then view your break as an expression of your humanity. And I think this is where you want to be. With that bunch. So, in my opinion, you can see your break as a filter that separates the miserable assholes from the people you really want to join.”

“Yeah, I see your point. I think I'll go do it.”

“Well, I might see you up there”, Professor Simpson replied.

Molly's father eventually agreed the year off might be a good thing, or at least that it wasn't a complete disaster. He actually went so far as placing several calls to professor Simpson.

In early November Molly moved into the Vail Employee Housing and did her new employee orientation. She shared a bedroom with two other women her age. There were actually six women living in the two bedroom apartment. All the other women worked on the mountain as lifties or Yellow Jackets. Molly didn't mind the crowding as she was rarely home.

That winter Molly never questioned her decision. She never regretted it. She tried out for the local ski team and didn't qualify. But she learned what it took to qualify and this seemed to be within reach. And she had a whole winter to work on it. To work on it everyday. And in late April, shortly after the resort closed, and after she got her lay off notice, she horrified her father by announcing that she would stay for another year. That is, if she made the ski team. Otherwise she would be home at Christmas.

She got a summer job as a hotel desk clerk and was able to remain in Employee Housing. She got a whole new crop of roommates. You didn't pick your roommates in Employee Housing, you just came home and found them in your bedroom unpacking their stuff.

She was back on the mountain that November. She again tried out for the team, and this time she made it. Only the “D” team, a position that got her no real sponsors, but hell, she had a job on and mountain and a sympathetic boss, so so what? A lot of days she went to practice in her red ski patrol outfit.

Stopping by HR one morning she saw a bedroom for rent in Redcliff, a small town about ten miles South of Vail. A situation that sounded much better than the crowded employee housing. There was an address, but no phone number. An address with an invitation to stop by and check out the living situation. To see if it was to your liking.

Molly drove over Battle Mountain to Redcliff that afternoon. Depending on how you define a street, there are only four or five streets in Redcliff. So the house was easy to find. It was on the main street and was large and shabby. It looked like it had once been a store or a saloon. Several battered four wheel drives were parked out front and Molly could see a good deal of ski and snowboard equipment leaning against the wall under the front porch roof. She knocked and was greeted by a guy about her own age, wearing snow pants and an first layer shirt.

“Hey! You here about the room?”

“Yeah”, said Molly. “Is this a good time?”

“The owner went to Vail, but he'll be back in a while. Why don't you come in and I'll show you the place. Oh, by the way, I'm Steve.”

“Molly.”

Molly entered and was greeted by the smell of cooking spaghetti, beer and marijuana. Six people about her age were sitting around the large living room and she was introduced. They all worked at the resort in some capacity. The living room wasn't what you would call filthy, but it definitely had a lived in look.

Climbing the steps, the guy explained, “There are five bedrooms. Two girls, two guys and the owner. He's an old guy, retired. But he's OK. He just bought the place a few months ago.”

He pushed open a crude wooden door, planks nailed together like a gate, and painted white, to show Molly a white painted room with plank walls, a single window and an obviously old wooden floor. The window had a nice view of the town. The room looked like something out of the wild west, and it probably was.

“There is only one plug, and you'll need half of it for the space heater. There's no heat in the room. You can only run the heater and a lamp in the winter. Anything more blows the breaker. The girl that had it last ran a cord in from the hall here for her computer.”

“Sounds like most of the places I lived in Boulder back in college.'

“And there's a twin bed in the basement in case you don't have one”, said the guy. “There's two bedrooms up here and we share the bathroom. Here, let me show you.”

Like the living room, the bathroom wasn't exactly filthy, but it was obvious that multiple people were using it. Busy people who didn't waste a lot of time on housework.

“I like it. But I'm living in employee housing now, so anything looks good.”

The guy laughed, “I was there for a year. I know what you mean. If you're interested, you want to wait for the owner? We're about to eat and you can join us.”

So they returned to the living room and everyone had a plate of spaghetti. Molly had to admit they were a jolly bunch. There were three residents present, including Steve, and four visiting neighbors. It seemed that the whole neighborhood was populated with kids having fun being mountain bums. Most were hard core snowboarders. The types who spent full days on a half pipe every chance they got. They were interested in Molly's position on the Vail team and two were in competition themselves. A car was then heard coming up the driveway.

“There's the owner”, said Steve.

Molly could hear someone stamping snow off their boots on the porch, and then in stepped Professor Simpson.

“Oh my God!” Said Molly. “You're the owner?”

“I most certainly am”, Professor Simpson replied.

“Oh my God, you finally got your cheap little house in a ski town!”

“Actually, it wasn't that cheap”, said Professor Simpson. “Nothing is cheap around here. I didn't know that when I was a kid.”

“What are you doing now days?” Asked Molly.

“I already told you what I would be doing. That January we talked in my office. I ski a lot and hang out at the bars. And I have a big shabby house full of friends that I have a good time with. And you showed up just in time for my sixty-fifth birthday party. Is there any spaghetti left?”

 

 


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