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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 11:44 pm

A Hanukkah Story

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Andy leaned diffidently against my office door. “You got a student room to rent?” “Yeah,” I said. “Aren’t you living somewhere now?” “I don’t like my landlord.” “You might not like me.” “I’ll chance it.”

So Andy moved in, a couple duffel bags and books. He was getting his master’s in biology at our university. A week later he said,” “Mind if I move my alligator in?” “Alligator? Where is he now?” “Still at my old place.” “Didn’t your landlord object?” “He never knew, he didn’t go in my room.”

So Elvis joined us. We fed him hamster fetuses — Andy got them in packets from a biology freezer; we always nuked one first so Elvis wouldn’t have a cold lump in his belly. Andy’d drop the morsel on Elvis’s nose, and it would disappear in a blink. More exciting were the times Andy would call out, “Feeding frenzy!” as he came in the door with a package like Chinese takeout; it held 40 goldfish from The Fishman on Peoria Road. We’d pour them in, and what a thrashing and snapping and roiling of waters — till only three were left. These swam around the aquarium nonchalantly, keeping Elvis company, I guess, and then one day those three would be gone.

I liked to sit before the aquarium and stare into Elvis’s inscrutable yellow eye. Sometimes he would let out a low, penetrating moan. “That’s his mating call,” said Andy.

Andy’s passion was fungi. He was doing his thesis on a fungus that lived symbiotically in the roots of a small prairie orchid. We went hunting morels a few times, got scratched up, but didn’t find any. We did eat a lot of puffballs — these grew big as soccer balls, white and creamy, on one of his professor’s lawns. We raised mushrooms: Andy had an agreement with Cafe Brio that they’d take all he could supply. So he put six huge straw dollies, impregnated with spores, in the bathtub, draped the area with black plastic, and piped in continual moisture. We fixed up a jungle shower for ourselves in the basement. Three of the dollies molded, the other three produced, but not enough to sell. We did eat a lot of shiitake mushrooms.

While I was away in Vermont, Andy stayed every summer, tending his experiments at school. I returned one year to admire colorful mushrooms growing in a small aquarium, poking out on little tree trunks, again suitably moisturized. After a few days I asked, “Are those legal?” “Mmmm,” said Andy. “You’re not selling,” I stated. “No, they’re just for me and my friends.” After a few more days I said, “Whatever they are, you’d better get rid of them. It’d look bad in the paper, ‘Little Old White-Haired Lady Busted.’” Andy agreed. “What would happen if I ate one?” I asked. ”Just don’t plan to do anything for the next 24 hours,” Andy said.

Mostly we worked quietly in our separate spheres. I’d watch “Saturday Night Live” with him, up in his room. He told me things about graduate student antics no professor should hear. I told him things about academic antics no student should hear. We both told each other things about ourselves and families neither should have heard.

When Elvis got about a yard long I worried he was so strong he could push the top off his aquarium and I’d hate to meet him in the dark in the hall. Andy agreed, but could find no takers. He suggested making an alligator skin belt; I think he was joking. I suggested we drive to Louisiana and dump him in a bayou, we could do it in a weekend. But Elvis would die, he was the wrong sort. Andy finally found a willing reptile farm in Missouri. We heard later that Elvis laid an egg. We changed her name to Elvira.

Andy dragged his feet getting his master’s, but finally left for the University of Minnesota, where he dragged his feet getting his Ph.D. They put him onto corn smuts, a fungus considered a delicacy in Mexico, and which I knew well from my years in cornfields. He went to South and Central America, collecting corn smuts, as well as Iowa, etc. Farmers were usually friendly. When people would ask about him, I’d say Andy was out smutting. He’s now a post-doc at Columbia, living with his excellent fiancee and working on yeast.

But what makes this a Hanukkah story? Andy’s first year I found him frantically rummaging through drawers and duffels. ”What are you looking for?” “The menorah my mom gave me.” “I didn’t know you were a practicing Jew. Bar mitzvah and everything?” “Yeah. I promised I’d keep Hanukkah.” More rummaging, and then I appeared at his door with a long sweet potato. ”Might this do?” Andy drilled holes in the potato with his Swiss Army knife, and for the eight days we lit candles on the sweet potato, while he recited the appropriate words. The next year he didn’t bother trying to locate the menorah, we went straight to the sweet potato. The same for the third year. “And at the end of Hanukkah it’s compostable,” Andy observed, “or we can eat it.”
Now Andy’s getting married. He wants me to speak at his wedding. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. And I’ve thought of the perfect present, one he and Ann won’t have to take back or can possibly regift. I’ve called an artist friend, and she’s making me a ceramic sweet potato menorah.

Jacqueline Jackson is a retired English professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield where she taught writing, literature and creativity. For 20 years she had a weekly WUIS radio show about writing (Reading and Writing and Radio). Thousands of area kids tuned in and had their work read over the air. She has published 13 books and four booklet collections of her poems that appear weekly in Illinois Times.

A group of writers, most of whom have been published in Illinois Times, meets at her house every week. Jackson adds, “The Hanukkah story gives a hint of the kind of household I have — alligators and mushrooms . . . .”

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