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From the Trade Paperback edition.
“One of the handful of American novelists…who can be said to have a ‘vision of life.’ ” —New York Times Book Review
All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles. His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime–none of these things mattered any more, except as bad memories. He had found a high romance in driving fast and far, over most of Long Island, and he soon attained intimacy with the mechanical parts of any car he could get his hands on. For whole days at a time, meticulously taking a car apart or putting it together in the dust of his parents’ driveway, Evan would be lost to the world.
And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun. Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity? Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?
Well, of course it was; and the aching, crying need for will and purpose in your life–anybody’s life–was something Charles Shepard knew about from long and helpless experience. He was a retired army officer, a man with poetic habits of thought that he’d always tried to suppress, and it often seemed that his own capacity for zeal had vanished with the Armistice of 1918.
As an impassioned young second lieutenant of infantry, newly married to the prettiest girl at the officers’ club dance and reasonably sure she would pray for him, he had arrived in France three days after the war ended–and his disappointment was so intense that more than a few officers had to tell him, impatiently, not to be silly about it.
“I’m not,” he would insist, “I’m not.” But he always knew there’d be no escaping the truth; he had even begun to suspect that a queasy sense of abortion might haunt the rest of his life.
“Apart from knowing I’ll love you forever,” he wrote to his wife from Le Havre, “I seem to have lost confidence in just about everything else. I’ve come to believe that only a very, very few matters in the world can ever be trusted to make sense.”
Back in the States again and surrounded by whooping, hollering men who could scarcely wait to be out of the army, Charles came to an abrupt and unpopular decision. For reasons never entirely clear to himself, he signed up to stay in.
One way he could always tell the reasons weren’t clear was that he had to keep going over and over them in his mind for years, as if they were answers in a dim little three-part catechism: the army could almost be seen as a vocation; it provided the security that a married man and a father would always need; and there might, eventually, be another war.
He served as a first lieutenant long enough to make him worry about being the oldest first lieutenant anyone knew, and almost all of his duties in those years, greatly against his wishes, lay in the heavy tedium of office work.
Fort Devens, Fort Dix, Fort Benning, Fort Meade–every army post made brave attempts to be different from the others, but they were all the same. They were as plain as hell, and they were built on the assumption of obedience. Even in the closely guarded privacy of Married Officers’ Housing, and even at night, you could never forget where you were, or why, and neither could your wife. If everything in both your lives was expected to conform to the boundaries of a peacetime military preserve, and if your wife was as bright and spirited a girl as Grace Shepard, you could never honestly say you were surprised–frightened, certainly, but not surprised–when her nerves gave way and fell apart.
From the time of her first hospitalization Charles knew he had better make what plans he could for getting out of the army soon–and by then there was another trouble that suggested he’d be out of it soon enough anyway: his eyesight had gone rapidly bad and was getting worse. Ironically, though, it was during that same year that the army gave him something interesting to do. On being promoted to captain at last, he was placed in command of a rifle company.
And oh, he liked those two hundred men–even the misfits; even the soreheads. After a very few weeks he was proud of them, and proud of seeming to have earned their respect. He savored those moments of every day that encouraged him to believe he was looking after them, taking care of them, and to believe they knew it; and he was never tired of hearing them say “the captain,” or “the company commander.”
When he took them out on long marches, under full field equipment, he liked the rhythm and the sweat and the disciplined pain of it, even though he might not always be sure he could make the distance. And there were other times, squinting and peering into their opened, empty Springfield rifles, while the men themselves stood unnaturally straight and perfectly still in formation, with perfectly expressionless faces, when he would find himself wishing he could lead this company into some fanciful war of his own imagining. Nearly all of them would distinguish themselves in the field because nearly every action there would be above and beyond the call of duty; then when the war was over their dead would come back to life again, just in time for the drinking and the laughter and the pretty girls.
If Grace had made a full recovery he might have tried to fake his way through any number of eye tests, just to stay with the company as long as possible, but there was no such luck. She had a second breakdown, and this time he knew he couldn’t hesitate any longer. Even before she was out of the hospital he had made arrangements to resign his commission.
For several days, as they sorted out and packed their belongings, Charles toyed with the idea of moving to some place that neither of them had ever seen–California, say, or Canada–where they might both be rejuvenated in the bravery of starting a new life. But then, earlier Shepards had always been Long Island people, accustomed to grassy plains and potato farms and a wind smelling faintly of salt water, and so the more sensible thing was to go home. On the strength of his small but adequate retirement pension he bought a small but adequate brown frame house on the north shore, at the edge of the village of Cold Spring Harbor.
Before very long he was known around the village as a dignified, courteous man who always did his family’s grocery shopping, and took care of their laundry, because his wife was said to be an invalid. There were hesitant, groundless rumors that he’d been a hero in the war, or that he’d served with some other kind of brilliance; people might have been surprised to learn that he’d retired as a captain because his appearance and bearing were more in the style of a colonel: you could picture him taking salutes from a battalion or a whole regiment of men and sternly watching them pass in review. That impression might take on a faintly comic aspect sometimes, when you saw him wrestle and grapple on the street with grocery bags, or with laundry bags, his gray hair blown awry and his thick glasses beginning to slip down his nose; but nobody, even in the tavern, ever made jokes about him.
“I’m back, dear,” he called to Grace one afternoon, easing a great burden of groceries onto the kitchen table, and he continued talking to her in the same raised voice as he went about the business of putting things away where they belonged. “I think Evan’s been out there working on that engine for about ten hours straight,” he called. “I don’t know where he gets the energy. Or the diligence.”
When he’d finished with the groceries he broke out some ice and fixed two drinks of bourbon and water, one with a double shot of whiskey. He carried them into the living room and out onto a heavily shaded sun porch, where Grace reclined on a chaise longue, and he carefully put the one with the double bourbon into her waiting, reaching hand.
“Isn’t it remarkable how a boy can change? Just in a few months’ time?” he asked her as he sat with his own drink on a straight chair, close beside her. The day had been tiring but he could rest for half an hour now, until it was time to get dinner started.
At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the officers’ club dance. Charles had learned to wait for those moments with a lover’s patience, and to cherish them when they came, but they’d grown increasingly rare. Most of the time–this afternoon, for example–he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself.
A kindly, aging army doctor at Fort Meade, in discussing her condition, had once made use of the word “neurasthenia”–and Charles, after looking it up in the dictionary, had decided it was something he could live with. But later, in New York, a much younger civilian doctor had dismissed that term as being too old-fashioned and imprecise to have any value in modern medicine. Then, like an overconfident salesman, this younger man had begun to press for what he called “a course of psychotherapy.”
“Well, if we’re going to argue about words, Doctor,” Charles said, barely keeping his temper, “I’ll have to tell you that I have no confidence in any word beginning with ‘psych.’ I don’t think you people know what you’re doing in that funny, shifty field, and I don’t think you ever will.”
And he’d never been sorry he’d said that, or that he’d gotten up and walked out of the office a minute later, even though it gave the doctor permission to sit there looking as piqued and vain, as dirty-minded and victorious as a portrait photograph of Sigmund Freud himself. Some things you did were worth regretting; others not.
Not very long ago, during the worst of his son’s difficulties, Charles had found himself unable to prevent the insidious current of psychiatric jargon from beginning to flow again, here in his own house, as various people urged him to “get professional help” for Evan, or to “look into professional counseling” for him; and the funny part now was that he could remember being halfway tempted to go along with that kind of talk, if only because all other talk at the time had been so much more unsettling–talk of police probation and of juvenile court, even talk of reform school. Those were days when it often seemed there would always be a stranger’s angry voice on the phone, complaining about Evan, or a couple of cops at the door.
Well, it certainly was remarkable how a boy could change. And maybe things like this really did get better of their own accord, if you gave them time; maybe all you could ever do, beyond suffering, was wait and see what might be going to happen next.
From this sun porch, by leaning a little forward in his chair and looking out through an unshaded section of one window, even a man with weak vision could see the outlines of Evan Shepard concluding his day’s work in the driveway–putting tools away, tiredly straightening his spine, wiping his hands on a clean rag.
“And you know what else is really surprising, dear?” Charles said. “About Evan?” He looks so much better. In the face, I mean. I don’t think we could ever have expected it, but he’s turning into a very–an extremely good-looking young man.”
“Oh, I know,” Grace Shepard said, using her voice for the first time all day, and smiling for the first time too. “Oh, yes, I know. He certainly is.”
And they could both sense that they weren’t the only observers to have noticed that.
From the Trade Paperback edition.