INTO THE CANYON: A Chapter Book for Grown Ups - Chapter 6

INTO THE CANYON: A Chapter Book for Grown Ups

'What lies beneath may be more treacherous than the surface chooses to disclose...'

from student notes, archaeological dig, California coastline circa 1921. 

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Cliff's list of requirements to earn a scholarship was succinct, and somewhat surprising.  High school gpa of only 3.5, an essay not longer than three pages, and a statement to substantiate financial need.

"One scholarship will go to each of the Colleges: Fine Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Science and Mathematics," Cliff announced.

Hah.  Good luck getting anyone to agree on who would get the one scholarship in social sciences.  The two sides of the room were already glaring at one another.  Good thing the decisions this first year were made only by Warren and Cliff.

Cliff took his seat next to Kate, lightly brushing her shoulder with his fingertips as he sat down.  She shivered.  Warren anounced the speaker for the afternoon, a member of the Board.  There was a shifting of chairs, a few faculty whispered excuses, and left.

The pitch for an alliance between the corporate world and the academic in "these uncertain financial times for public institutions" was not a new one.  The faculty had been subjected to a number of presentations from wealthy business owners who were looking for some academic credibility and students who would work for very little to earn credit and work experience as interns.  Some did have a genuine interest in promoting career opportunities for graduates, and some did genuinely want to support the university, but some also were looking for name recognition in the community as a way to promote their own economic growth.  Most of the time, in Kate's experience, when really big business got involved it was solely for corporate gain.

But what about Cliff?  What did he stand to gain -- making such a huge donation?  It had to be at least a million or more.  What were his motives?  She pushed her chair back a little and looked at his profile while he was focused on the speaker.  He looked genuine enough.  Still, there was a tenseness about his jaw.  He was sweating a little, even in the chill of the room.  He turned and looked at her, breaking into a sudden smile and whispering, "It's almost over.  Then we can get the hell out of here."

Char gave the two of them a warning "shush!" and a glare.  Kate knew she was jealous.  Charlotte wasn't used to anyone but Charlotte getting the kind of attention Cliff was giving Kate.  Screw her.  She didn't care what any of them thought.

Kate was now chilled to the bone, both by the speaker and the air conditioning.  She yawned, and pulled her sweater tighter around her.

The corporate giant was closing with a promise to support the University in the "shared goal of maintaining a standard of academic excellence that will promote lucrative career opportunites for graduates."  Hah -- translate "excellent opportunities for students who are smart enough to major in science, math, or computer technology."  Kate could see faculty at the edges of the room squirming in their seats and whispering to each other.  They knew what this meant.  Those "smart" students would be put on a fast track to a degree with a waiver for most required fine arts or social science general education courses.  Only the athletic department used to get away with that for varsity team members.

Applause followed the speaker and then the room started buzzing. Science and math faculty descended on the corporate giant, and the fine arts and social sciences faculty left to fume elsewhere.  Cliff took Kate's elbow, saying to Warren and Char, "I'm spiriting Professor Walding out of here.  I've got a project going and I need some expert advice.  Thanks for the invitation and the opportunity to announce the new scholarships.  We'll be in touch."

Kate felt like he was pushing her out the door, but she didn't resist.  She was more than ready to leave.  Cliff held her door as she slid into the front seat of his convertible.

"I thought that guy would never finish!  God, what a bore.  You were impressive, though.  Why didn't you tell me you'd become a big-time benefactor?"

"You seemed pretty intense and focused on other issues the last few times we were together.  I don't feel comfortable blowing my own horn, anyway.  Let's drive out to the beach.  I need to get that fake air out of my lungs.  You don't have classes this afternoon, do you?"

"No.  And I'd love to get away from this place."

 

The canyon road that cut across the mountains was deserted.  Cliff seemed to know it very well, driving with only one hand, laying his other arm across the back of Kate's seat.  The air was full of sage and eucalyptus.  Kate couldn't decide if it was Cliff's cologne or the real thing.  It didn't matter.

The sun would have been too warm if she hadn't been so chlled, but it felt good to sit back and feel the heat warming her through as Cliff guided the car up the long, winding road.  By the time they reached the top she was almost asleep.

Halfway down the mountain, Kate saw the turn-off for the Adobe House.  George's beat-up station wagon was in the parking area as well as an old VW bug that belonged to one of the female graduate students who came to the house for his seminar.  Suddenly Kate was wide awake.  There wasn't anyone in sight, which probably meant they had hiked down the trail to the house.

"What's up?" Cliff asked.  She'd sat bolt upright when she spotted the cars.

"Who knows -- that was George's car parked in the parking area for the Adobe House.  And he's not there alone, apparently."

"Want to go and check up on him?  I could turn around."

"Let's just go on to the beach.  I'd like a drink right about now, and I'd like to stop thinking about everlasting George and what he's up to as well."

They pulled into the parking lot of an old restaurant that had a good bar and a spectacular view of the ocean from big, high-backed booths by the window.  There were only three cars in the parking lot.

"Is it open?" asked Kate.

"It opens at noon.  I've been coming out here since I was old enough to drive.  Looks like we've arrived between the lunch and dinner crowds.  Good.  I like having a place to myself."

"I'm here too, you know!"

"Believe me, I know," he said as he opened her door.  When she got out, he picked up her sweater from the seat and pulled it around her shoulders.

A huge snake, sunning itself in a corner of the lot, slithered into the brush.