Chapter 1–Treasure in Exile

Sweat…spicy beans…Pine-Sol…cupcakes…popcorn.

The scents of the Rosa Parks Community Center roll over me in one complex wave as soon as I step into the lobby. I’m sure my dog Ethel could pick out even more subtle distinctions, but my human nose does a pretty good job of telling me what’s going on at the Center this Friday afternoon. Four lanky middle school boys are horsing around near the stairs to the gym, indicating that my husband’s basketball practice must have already ended. That means he’ll be on the way home to start preparing for our dinner guests.

Mr. Vargas patiently pushes his mop across the dingy linoleum in his never-ending quest to maintain a modicum of order. A tribe of laughing little kids skids across the wet floor, leaving a crazy quilt of brown sneaker prints in their wake. Mr. Vargas reaches the wall and turns to go back over the swath he just washed. His pace never changes.

A muscular man strides toward the kitchen with a fifty-pound bag of rice on his shoulder, no doubt sent to the storeroom by the women preparing the weekly neighborhood dinner in the kitchen. In an hour, the fellowship hall will be jammed with parents, grandparents, and kids all seated at the long, plastic tablecloth-covered tables waiting for the chicken and rice and beans and greens to be passed.

Right inside the door, two elderly ladies sit behind a table laden with cakes, cookies and pies. A crooked, hand-lettered sign unnecessarily proclaims Bake Sale.

“Hi, Audrey. You wanna buy a nice pie for your man?” A sweet old gal whose name escapes me tilts a sweet potato pie for my inspection. “We’re raising money to fix the plumbing.”

“How about a coffee cake?” Her companion slides forward a huge confection dripping with frosting, cinnamon, and nuts. “The hot water heater is about to blow, and if we don’t get it fixed, the health department says they’ll shut us down.”

I hesitate over the coffee cake. Sean and I have pledged to reduce our sugar consumption, so he’ll clobber me for bringing a landmine like this into our home. But it sure looks good.

Five dollars for the pie. Four for that fabulous cake. They’ll never raise enough money for a plumber with pricing that low.

“I could let you have it for three-fifty,” the baker cajoles, fixing her mournful dark eyes on me.

“Oh, it’s not the money.” I reach for my wallet and hand her a twenty. “I’ll take that bag of Snickerdoodles, and you keep the change.”

Delighted with their transaction, the ladies release me and pounce on their next target. A tall, silver-haired man in a blue blazer and red tie has entered behind me. His jacket brushes against the bake sale table and picks up a dusting of powdered sugar. He frowns at the bake sale ladies and brushes it off. One lady opens her mouth to make a sales pitch, but is intimidated into silence by the man’s haughty glare.

“I’m looking for my wife, Loretta Bostwick.”

I know that name. Loretta Bostwick is a rich lady who just joined the Board of Directors here.

“She’s with Reverend Levi,” the sweet-potato pie lady tells him.

He purses his lips. “And where might that be?”

Man, this guy’s a pill. Reverend Levi Jefferson is the Chairman of the Board, but maybe Loretta’s husband doesn’t know that. “I’ll show you,” I offer, taking him off the ladies’ hands. “Levi Jefferson’s office is upstairs, first door on the left.”

Mr. Bostwick gives me a curt nod and heads upstairs without glancing left or right. He takes no interest in the mural of Rosa Parks smiling down over the lobby, nor of a large framed photo of the founder of the Center, Levi Jefferson Senior. Levi Senior was a lion of the civil rights movement, marching in Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma alongside Martin Luther King and John Lewis. He knew Rosa Parks personally, and when he founded the Rosa Parks Center, he named it for his friend. He died when I was a kid, and I still remember the massive traffic jam in Palmyrton caused by his funeral at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal church.

His son, Levi Jr., is the pastor of that church, but by all accounts, he’s not as fiery a preacher as his father. I’ve often met him here at the Parks Center, a distinguished, cordial man in his late fifties, but he’s not a big personality. My father knows Levi better than I do, and he says the man prefers teaching to preaching. But I guess his famous father pressured him into the family business.

I stopped by the Parks Center on my way home from work because my stepmother texted that she might need a ride to our house. When I asked why, she didn’t reply, so here I am. First, I head downstairs to look for my father, but the room where he runs the chess club is straightened up and empty. Perhaps he’s already with Natalie, helping her put away her knitting supplies. My dad and Natalie have been married only one year longer than Sean and I, but they already seem like they’ve been together a lifetime. They’re both so low-key, but they tend to each other with unwavering concern.

I turn the corner and see Natalie in her classroom, her elegant silver hair pinned into a loose chignon. She’s putting skeins of yarn into plastic bins when I enter. My father is nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask after our brief embrace.

She glances over her shoulder as if she expects him to spring from the closet. “I’m glad I have this moment alone with you, Audrey. I need talk to you.”

An arrow of anxiety stabs me. Natalie is sixty-two and Dad is sixty-four. This is the decade of suspicious shadows on the mammogram and moles turned murderous. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

She shakes her head and directs me into a plastic classroom chair. Dropping into the chair beside me, she grips my hand. “Our trip to the American Mathematical Society meeting didn’t go well.”

“Really? When I saw Dad on Tuesday he didn’t mention—”

In an uncharacteristic show of impatience, Natalie cuts me off. It’s as if she possesses a river of information that must flow out of her before my father shows up. “Your father has decided to permanently retire from Rutgers. He’s giving up his professorship.”

Giving up his tenure? This is huge! After his stroke, Dad took a nine-month leave of absence, then returned to teaching part-time. “Before the trip, he was all excited about returning full-time. What happened?”

“He attended a lot of sessions on number theory at the Society meeting. Afterwards….” Natalie bites her lip. “I’ve never seen him so dejected, so full of despair.”

“Wait—you’re saying he didn’t understand what was going on? Number theory is his field.”

Natalie’s clear blue eyes get a little watery. “He wasn’t totally in the dark. But number theory is a young man’s game. The field is moving in new directions. Roger feels that after his stroke and more than a year out of the academic mainstream, he simply can’t catch up. If he can’t be on the leading edge….”

This is blowing me away. Math has been the center of my father’s life as long as I’ve been alive. Even right after his stroke when his speech was so impaired, I always felt his mathematical mind was still ticking. How can Roger Nealon not be a full professor of mathematics? What will he be instead? “This is a hasty decision,” I protest. “How can he take such a serious step after one bad meeting? He should talk to his colleagues.”

Natalie strokes my hand. “He did, yesterday. And this morning his mind was made up. Your father is a proud man. He wants to leave while his work is still valued. He wants to walk out with his head held high. His greatest fear is to be pushed aside by the younger generation. To be tolerated, not respected.”

I swallow hard. “He asked you to tell me?”

“Not directly. But I know he dreads telling you because he thinks you’ll argue with him. That’s why I wanted to talk to you before dinner. So when he does tell you, just accept it.”

I nod. “But what will he do with himself? Chess is his only hobby.”

Natalie brightens. “He already has a plan. In fact, he’s starting to put it into effect right now.” She stands up and peeks out the door into the hallway then turns back to me. “He wants to start a group for young people here to encourage a love for higher level mathematics…wants them to experience the creativity of math instead of the drudgery of doing the endless math worksheets they get in school. He’s very excited–he’ll tell you all about it at dinner. All he needs is approval from the Parks Center board of directors.”

This cheers me up. Running the chess club here has been a great activity for my father. In fact, it’s how he met Natalie. But teaching third graders which way they can move a rook is not enough to keep his mind challenged. I’m glad he’s conceived a bigger project that will help both him and the kids. Maybe his retirement will work out for the best after all.

“So, do you actually need a ride to our house?” I ask Natalie.

“No, I’ll wait for your father to finish his meeting with the board, and we’ll come over together.” She hugs me. “I hope you don’t mind I brought you here under false pretenses.”

I hold her for a moment longer than usual, inhaling the delicate scent of roses that clings to her. When I release her and turn to leave, I hesitate. “The Board will give him permission to do this, won’t they?”

She arches her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Of course. Who could possibly object?”

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