The door to his office opened, and Professor Fox saw a young man, about twenty-one, enter behind his secretary. Erik Gorin was a little above middle height, slender, and wearing not very good clothes. He had dark, living eyes and straight black hair.
"Mr. Gorin," said the secretary.
Fox rose to shake hands, and then asked ths young man to sit down. His own voice sounded cold to him, and he wished it could be more affable. He returned to his chair and tried to remember who had recommended Gorin.
"Dr. Hollingworth?" Fox asked suddenly. "How is he?"
"Very well, sir," said Gorin. He spoke in a slow steady voice, and he sat up straight as though prepared for any onslaught. But he had to clear his throat before answering, and Fox felt sorry for him though he was sure that the quick eyes would have been amazed at any expression of sympathy. He saw the bright watchful face and the eager intelligence it held. "My God," he thought, "he's scared, he's probably hungry, and he still wants to set the world on fire."
"We're very glad to have you here, Mr. Gorin," he said gently. "This year we've taken on only one new assistant. You've come with excellent recommendations and you'll have every opportunity to live up to them. As you know, you'll be teaching freshman physics lab while you take your own courses towards your doctorate. You'll probably find the first year rather confusing and hard work between the two schedules, but things will straighten out for you after a while. Is there any field of physics in which you are especially interested so far?"
"No," said Erik after the slightest hesitation. "I really don't know enough about any o: them yet. All I had as an undergraduate were the usual courses in mechanics, light, thermodynamics and electricity."
Fox nodded. He knew that Gorin must have been tortured for a moment by the conflict between the fear that ha might make a poor impression and the desire to tell the truth.
"You'll have plenty of time to make up your mind," he said, "and there are any number of researches going on to help your choice. Unfortunately, most of the staff is away and work won't start for another two weeks. Professor Beans is tha man to whom you'll be responsible for your undergraduate teaching. He gives the freshman physics lecture. Professor Cameron will be your adviser in your
graduate work. In the meantime, leave your address with Miss Prescott, the secretary. Each year just before the semester starts, Mrs. Fox and I hold an open house for all the members of the staff so that the new men can meet everyone else. Naturally, we're expecting you, but Mrs. Fox will prefer to send you an invitation anyhow."
This just about made up the usual speech and Fox knew that his tone had warmed as he went along. Was there anything he had left out; he wondered. The invitation, the names of Beans and Cameron, the general air of encouragement - he had remembered them all. Oh yes, one more touch...
"And did you have a pleasant summer, Mr. Gorin?"
"A pleasant summer?" Erik was silent for the time of two long breaths. His dark gaze never moved from Fox's face. "No, sir," he said explosively. "I damn well did not have a pleasant summer!"
"What did you say?" Fox asked out of surprise.
"I said that the summer was pretty awful," said Erik once more. "May I smoke?"
Fox pushed an ash-tray along the desk.
"Thanks. All I can say is I'm glad it's over," Erik went on. He had come with no intentions of saying this or anything personal. But there was something so damned gentle and sincere about Fox, he thought, that you couldn't help but tell him everything about the past two months; and the words came tumbling out, faster and faster to ease the pressure in his throat.
"You see, I was absolutely broke when Hollingworth - Professor Hollingworth - told me at commencement that I had got the appointment here. I won't even tell you what that meant to me - to study physics at Columbia. He was very decent and asked me to spend the summer with him and his family at a place they have in Wisconsin. But I couldn't see myself sponging on him for all that time, so I settled for two weeks. It was wonderful there."
"I am sure it was," Fox said. His amazement was still growing. Wisconsin is a beautiful state."
"Oh, it is. But at the end of two weeks, I left them saying I was coming East to visit a cousin. I don't have any cousin, but I got on the train because the whole Hollingworth family came down to the station to see me off, and I knew they'd feel bad if they thought I had no place to go. On the train I bought a ticket for the next town, a place called Catlett. I got out there and took a lift on the highway from a fellow who was driving his car to Cleveland to sell it there. He liked the car, because you see he had saved so long to buy it. He was sad all the way and told me over and over how he had fixed this part and repaired that one. But here he was - out of a job and all of his savings, gone and finally the car was going too. Somehow it scared me. At Cleveland, I got another lift out of town and once, when we stopped for gas in a place called High Hope, I got into conversation with the owner of the station. He offered me a job for a place to eat and sleep. I was supposed to help him in repairs and service and I could keep whatever money I got for
fixing automobile radios. In three weeks, I fixed one radio, but I quit because one day I went into town and a fellow stopped me. He was almost crazy because he said I had taken his job. He used to make thirty a week and 1 was doing the work for practically nothing. He was married and had a family, so I moved on. I don't know whether he ever got the job back, but I know I didn't want it any more. You see, I knew all the time that I had this appointment here, waiting for me."
Erik put out the cigarette as if he had just become aware of the extent of his rambling. He cleared his throat and stood up, hoping to be dismissed painlessly.
"No, sit down," said Fox. "Sit down and tell me what happened."
Erik sat down again. Here I am, he thought, talking to Earle Fox, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize. We're all alone in the room and he's listening to me go on like an idiot about my summer. To me. He thought of all the people Fox had shaken hands with - the President of the United States, the King of Denmark, every living creature whose name was famous.
"Go on," said Fox. "What happened?"
''Nothing much. You see, now that I'm safe, it's almost as though nothing had happened. In Schenectady I had a job washing dishes for a while, and when I got to New York, I came up here at once but you were still away on your vacation. For two weeks until yesterday I worked in a bath house at an open air pool on the East Side. I used to laugh all the time because it was so funny."
"No matter what was happening, no matter what kind of crazy job I had, I used to say to myself, I'm really a physicist." He checked himself. "I can call myself a physicist, can't I? Or is that - presumptuous?"
"No," said Fox after a moment. His voice was gentle. "You're a physicist."
"The point is this," Erik said. He was standing and his eyes seemed very dark. "I want you to know what this chance means to me, and when you say that I'll be given every opportunity, I don't need every opportunity. All I ask is just one, that's all, just one."
"Yes," said Fox. "Yes, I see."
(From "Live with Lightning" by Mitchell Wilson)