As He Walked Back From Mears, He Decided He Would Eat Out

This is the story of Nathaniel, a professor at Grinnell College. He is 5’10, and just started working at the college. His students like him because he wears colorful shirts and has a pleasant voice. He teaches English literature, and loves to read. Nathaniel’s story invites us to think about living and thriving in Grinnell and some of the challenges that arise in our physical and social environment. Nathaniel is based on a real professor and his real experiences.

Welcome to the City of Grinnell!

The first thing Nathaniel saw as he drove into Grinnell was a painted wooden sign on the side of Route 6. It was cheerful and colorful; the red in the lettering matched the large red anthurium flowers that covered his shirt. He was excited to be in Grinnell, in a new place, at a new job.

When he uncovered Helen’s affair he found a new school to teach at, left the city, and filed for divorce. He rented a car at the airport. The drive had been long and flat, but the sky was beautiful: blue and empty, except for a handful of fluffy white clouds that looked as if they had been painted on. He enjoyed the change.

After passing the welcome sign, he drove to the apartment that he had found online. It was on Main Street. The landlord, a middle-aged man in a grey Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt, met Nathaniel with a broad smile. Nathaniel smiled back. The landlord let him into the apartment.

“If you need anything in the next couple days,” he said, “Let me know.” Nathaniel thanked him. He had shipped down all of his furniture, including his favorite russet red leather armchair and was planning to spend the next day unpacking and arranging the apartment. The apartment was entirely bare with plain white walls, but had natural light from the south-facing window. Nathaniel appreciated the brick fireplace in the living room. Given some time he was sure that he could make the apartment a great place to live. Besides, if he stayed at Grinnell for enough time he would probably want to move into a house. And he could picture himself sticking around.

“In conclusion, the medusa serves as a symbolic representation of the castrating power of the female, while simultaneously enabling the male to break away from his all-enveloping mother,” Nathaniel said. The four students in his seminar filed out of the room. Nathaniel gathered his papers and picked up his 32 ounce Kum & Go mug. He took a swig of coffee. It was cold. He grimaced. It was 4:05 and the winter sun was already setting. As he walked downstairs to his office he tried to decide what to eat for dinner. He had eaten pasta the night before.

“Welcome to Grinnell. It’s great to have you here,” said Andrew as he shook Nathaniel’s hand. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a grey wool suit. Nathaniel thought that his thin glasses framed his face well.

“Thank you,” said Nathaniel, “It’s great to be here. I’m excited to finally meet some of my students.” He was going to be teaching Literary Analysis and a seminar on Irish literature. He had been told that the students at Grinnell were hard-working and bright, which would be a nice change from the students that he had worked with in Colorado.

Andrew was the chair of the English department. He had been teaching at Grinnell for almost 10 years, and had just written a book on “Benito Cereno.” Nathaniel was looking forward to reading it. He had also published a book the year before and he wanted to compare the two.

“The English department wants to take you out to dinner tonight, so that you can get to know all of us. It’s a big department,” said Andrew.

“That sounds fun,” said Nathaniel.

The first month of classes was everything that Nathaniel had ever dreamed of. On Monday one of his Literary Analysis students complimented his green shirt. All of his students had completed the short reading that he had assigned them, even though he had assigned it over summer vacation. He had put a potted pine tree in the window of his apartment and some potted flowers in the window of his office. He got along well with other faculty, and he was pleasantly surprised to discover that Andrew’s book was in fact better than his. It was succinct and eloquent literary pragmatism and was groundbreaking in its field.

The second month was harder. Every day as he walked the block from his apartment to his office on campus he was reminded of how small Grinnell was. His relationships with most of the other faculty had reached a roadblock because they were obsessed with departmental drama and jostling. The English department had splintered down the middle because of the decision to hire a controversial new professor. All of their bickering started to remind him of Helen and how she used to goad him about the smallest things.

In the third month he adopted a dog from the animal shelter to keep him company. The dog, whom he named Alex, was a slight golden retriever who was almost always barking, but got along well with other dogs. Constantly filled with a hyper, yet infectious, energy, his tail never stopped wagging. Alex was the best dog at playing fetch; he could find the ball wherever it went, and always dropped it back at Nathaniel’s feet without argument. Nathaniel started going on long walks with Alex, trying to get as far away from his apartment and the tiny campus as possible.

As he walked back to his apartment from Mears Cottage, Nathaniel decided that he would eat out. He had been cooking and eating at home with Alex every day for the past week. Maybe he would go out for sushi. Sushi sounded delicious; he loved Chu maki, especially with eel. Moving on autopilot through his kitchen, he clipped Alex’s woven leash to the dog’s collar and went down the steep wooden stairs of his apartment building. Alex led the way through downtown Grinnell, past stores that were closing for the night. Wells Fargo Bank had a giant Christmas tree in the lobby decorated with white lights and a silver star on top. As he followed his golden lab across the street in front of Pagliai’s, Nathaniel was suddenly struck by a terrible realization: There is no sushi in Grinnell.

Grinnell was a hard place to get a grasp of. Sometimes it was the best place in the world, and he remembered the excitement that he felt when he first arrived. Sometimes he couldn’t stand it and felt like he was suffocating in the smallness of the community. Some days he loved teaching students and was thrilled to keep his office door open so that they could wander in and talk. Other days he wished that he could cancel his office hours, shut the door, and lock himself in. Walking with Alex to the edge of the town at night and looking out over the never-ending cornfields allowed him to escape the gossiping for a few minutes, but the next morning he was always back in the middle of it.

On the other hand, the Iowa sky was beautiful. It never failed to take his breath away.

Nathaniel unclipped Alex’s leash and the dog promptly started barking and running around the apartment. Nathaniel slumped into his armchair. There was much to love about Grinnell, but there was no sushi—and he needed sushi. He needed a reminder that there was a world outside of Grinnell.