A New Lifeby Bernard Malamud
"In A New Life, Bernard Malamud - generally thought of as a distinctly New York writer - took on the American myth of the West as a place of personal reinvention." When Sy Levin, a high school teacher beset by alcohol and bad decisions, leaves the city for the Pacific Northwest to start over, it's no surprise that he conjures a vision of the extraordinary new life… See more details below
"In A New Life, Bernard Malamud - generally thought of as a distinctly New York writer - took on the American myth of the West as a place of personal reinvention." When Sy Levin, a high school teacher beset by alcohol and bad decisions, leaves the city for the Pacific Northwest to start over, it's no surprise that he conjures a vision of the extraordinary new life awaiting him there: "He imagined the pioneers in covered wagons entering the valley for the first time...Although he had lived little in nature Levin had always loved it, and the sense of having done the right thing in leaving New York was renewed in him. " Soon after his arrival at Cascadia College, however, Levin realizes he has been taken in by a mirage. The failures pile up anew, and Levin finds himself back where he started and little the wiser for it.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
A New Life
S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950. Bearded, fatigued, lonely, Levin set down a valise and suitcase and looked around in a strange land for welcome. The small station arealike dozens he had seen en routeafter a moment's activity, was as good as deserted, and Levin after searching around here and there, in disappointment was considering calling a taxi, when a man and woman in sports clothes appeared at the station. They stared at Levinthe man almost in alarm, the woman more mildlyand he gazed at them. As he grasped his bags and moved towards them they hurried to him. The man, in his forties, tall, energetic, with a rich head of red hair, strode forward with his hand outstretched.
"Sorry I'm late. My name's Dr. Gilley."
"S. Levin," Levin said, removing his black fedora, his teeth visible through his beard. "From the East."
"Good," beamed Gilley, his voice hearty. He indicated the tall, flat-chested woman in a white linen dress. "My wife."
"I'm pleased" Levin said.
"I'm Pauline Gilley." She was like a lily on a long stalk.
"Let me help you with your bags," Gilley said.
"No, thanks, I"
"No trouble at all."
He had grabbed both bags and now carried them around to his car, parked in front of the station, his wife and Levin hurrying after him. Unlocking the trunk, where two golf bags lay, one containing a brand new set of clubs, he deposited Levin's things.
Levin had opened the rear door but Pauline said there was room for all in front. He shyly got in and she sat between them.
"We were delayed at the golf course," she explained.
"Do you play?" Gilley asked Levin.
They drove a while in silence.
"I hope to learn some day," Levin said with a broken laugh.
"Good," said Gilley.
Levin relaxed and enjoyed the ride. They were driving along an almost deserted highway, in a broad farm-filled valley between distant mountain ranges laden with forests, the vast sky piled high with towering masses of golden clouds. The trees softly clustered on the river side of the road were for the most part deciduous; those crawling over the green hills to the south and west were spear-tipped fir.
My God, the West, Levin thought. He imagined the pioneers in covered wagons entering this valley for the first time, and found it a moving thought. Although he had lived little in nature Levin had always loved it, and the sense of having donethe right thing in leaving New York was renewed in him. He shuddered at his good fortune.
"The mountains to the left are the Cascades," Pauline Gilley was saying. "On the right is the Coastal Range. They're relatively young mountains, whatever that means. The Pacific lies on the other side of them, about fifty miles."
"The Pacific Ocean?"
The Gilleys laughed. "We could drive over to the coast some time before Registration Week," Dr. Gilley said.
He went on amiably, "Seymour shortens to Syisn't that right?"
"My first name's Gerald and you already know Pauline's. People aren't too formal out this way. One of the things you'll notice about the West is its democracy."
"And we're curious about everybody," Pauline said. "One can't help be in a small town. Have you any pictures of your family in your wallet? Or perhaps a sweetheart?" She laughed a little.
Levin blushed. "No pictures, no sweetheart."
He said after a minute, "No wallet."
They laughed, Pauline merrily, Gilley chuckling.
"Oh, look there!" She pointed toward the eastern mountains.
In the distance, a huge snow-capped peak rising above the rosy clouds reflecting the setting sun, floated over the darkish blue mountain range.
"Extraordinary," muttered Levin.
"Mt. Chief Joseph," Pauline said. "I knew you'd like it."
His heart was still racing from the sight when Pauline said, "We're almost in town. Would you like us to drive through the campus?"
"Tomorrow," Gilley said. He pointed under the setting sun."That's Easchester we're coming to. The college is over there to the southwest. That tall building just over those trees is Chem Engineering. That one is the new Ag building. You can't see Humanities Hall, where we hang out, but it's in that direction there. We live about half a mile from the campus, about that way. You'll be living close in if you like Mrs. Beaty's house, about three blocks from the office, very convenient."
Levin murmured his thanks.
They were driving through downtown, and were, before he could get much of an impression, out of it and into a residential section of lovely tree-lined streets and attractive wooden houses. The many old trees and multitudes of green leaves excited Levin pleasantly. In a few minutes they had arrived in front of a two-story frame house, painted an agreeable brown, with a slender white birch on the lawn, its lacy branches moving in the summer breeze. What surprised Levin was the curb-strip planted thick with flowers the whole length of the house, asters, marigolds, chrysanthemums, he guessed; in his valise was a copy of Western Birds, Trees and Flowers, a fat volume recently purchased.
"This is our house," said Pauline, "although Gerald would prefer a ranch type."
"Someday we'll build," said Gerald. "She'd have a lot less housework," he said to Levin.
Though Levin liked the house, birch tree, and flowers, to enter a house after so long a time traveling slightly depressed him; he hid this as he followed Gilley along the flagstone path and through the door.
Pauline said she would whip up something for supper, nothing elaborate, as soon as the sitter had finished feeding the children in the kitchen.
"Care for a drink after your long journey?" Gilley asked Levin, winking.
Levin thanked him, no.
"Not even a short one?" he measured an inch with long thumb and forefinger.
"No, I really-"
"All right. Mind if I do?"
"How about beer?" Pauline asked. "Or if not that I can open an orange drink, or give you a glass of water?"
"Beer is fine," Levin said.
"I'd be just as happy to bring you water."
"I'll take the beer."
"There's a blue towel for you in the bathroom if you wish to wash."
She returned to the kitchen and Gilley drew the shade at the side window before he mixed martinis. Through the open blinds of the front window Levin admired a small purple-leaved tree in front of the house diagonally to the left across the wide street.
"Plum tree," Gilley said. "Pink flowers every spring."
"Beautiful." Levin, out of the corner of his eye, watched the man watching him.
When Pauline returned with the beer her husband raised his martini glass. "To a successful career for Sy."
"Cheers," said Pauline.
"Thank you." Levin's hand trembled as he held the glass aloft.
They drank, Levin drinking to himself before he knew he was doing it.
"Do you mind eating early?" Pauline asked. "It makes a longer evening. We've had to do that since the children."
"Please, as you desire."
He was sitting on the couch enjoying the beer and the room. It was a long room, tastefully furnished and curtained. On the wall hung a black and white print of a hunter shooting at a bird, and a Vermeer reproduction of a young woman. The shelved right wall was filled with books. On the kitchen side, the room was apparently for dining, and an old-fashioned round table stood there with three place settings and four chairs.
"TV?" Gilley asked. "The set's in my den."
"Later, Gerald," Pauline said. "I'm sure Mr. Levin has seen television."
"I didn't say he hadn't, but there won't be much time later. He's got to get settled."
"Don't have any worries on my account," Levin said.
"I'll drive you over to Mrs. Beaty's right after supper," Gilley said, pouring another martini. "She's got a good-sized room with a private entrance by way of the back yard. And there are kitchen privileges if you want them, Sy, damn convenient for eight o'clocks, which I can tell you you will have. She's a widownice woman, former grade-school teacher married to a carpenter; he died almost two years ago, I'd saycame from South Dakota, my native state. Funny thing, I spent my first week in this town, just eighteen years ago, in the same room she's offering you."
"You don't say," said Levin.
"I'll be glad to have a look at it."
"If you don't like it you can come back here tonight," Pauline suggested.
Gilley seemed to be considering that but Levin hastily said, "That's so kind but I won't trouble you any more. The hotel is fine. You wrote me they have one here, as I remember?"
"Fine," said Levin.
"Good. Let me freshen your beer."
"This is fine."
Pauline finished her drink and went into the kitchen.
"You're our twenty-first man, most we've ever had full-time in the department," Gilley said to Levin. "Professor Fairchild will meet you tomorrow afternoon at two. He's a fine gentleman and awfully considerate head of department, I'm sure you'll like him, Sy. He kept us going at full complement for years under tough budgetary conditions. Probably you've heard of his grammar text, The Elements of Grammar? Godknows how many editions it's been through. The department's been growing again following the drop we took after the peak load of veterans, though we've still got plenty of them around. We put on three men last year and we plan another two or three, next. College registration is around forty-two hundred now, but we figure we'll double that before ten years."
He smiled happily at Levin and Levin smiled at him. Nice chap, very friendly. He put you at your ease.
"We've been hearing from people from every state in the Union. For next year I already have a pile of applications half a foot high."
"I'm grateful for"
"You won't miss New York? This is a small town, Sy, ninety-seven hundred, and there isn't much doing unless you get outdoors or are interested in football and such. Season tickets for athletic events are modestly priced for faculty."
"No, I won't miss it," Levin said with a sigh.
"Pauline's been talking for years about visiting New York City."
"I wouldn't want to stay too long. I don't take to cities well, I get jumpy after a while."
"I know what you mean."
"You seem pretty glad to leave?"
"I lived there all my life."
"I should say. Eight million people, that's seven more than we have in the whole state of Cascadia."
"Imagine," muttered Levin.
"We're growing, though, about three thousand a year."
Pauline set glasses on the table, then came out of the kitchen, carrying a casserole.
"Tuna fish and mashed potatoes," she said apologetically. "I hope you like it."
"Perfect," Levin said. He was abruptly very hungry. They sat down at the round table, for which he felt a surprising immediate affection. Pauline had forgotten the salad bowl andwent in to get it. When she returned she served the casserole, standing. A child called from the kitchen. Distracted, she missed Levin's plate and dropped a hot gob of tuna fish and potato into his lap.
He rose with a cry.
"I'm so dreadfully sorry." She hastily wiped at his pants with a cloth but Levin grabbed it from her and did it himself. The operation left a large wet stain.
"I'd better change," he said, shaken. "My other suit is in my bag."
"I'll get it," Gilley said, his face flushed. "It's still in the trunk."
"Everything will get stone cold," Pauline said. "Gerald, why don't you lend Mr. Levin a pair of your slacks? That'll be quicker."
"I'd rather get my own," Levin said.
"Let him do what he wants," Gilley told his wife.
"There's no need for him to be uncomfortable till we get his suitcase in. Your gray slacks will go nicely with his jacket. They're hanging in your closet."
"Please" Levin was perspiring.
"Maybe she's right," Gilley said. "It'd be quicker."
"I'll change in a minute once I have my suitcase."
"Gerald's pants will be less trouble."
"They won't fit. He's taller than I am."
"Roll up the cuffs. By the time you're ready to leave I'll have your trousers spot-cleaned and ironed. It was my fault and I'd feel much better if you both please let me work it out my own way."
Gilley shrugged and Levin gave up. He changed into Gerald's slacks in the bathroom.
While he was there Pauline tapped on the door.
"I forgot about your shorts, they must be damp. I have a clean pair of Gerald's here."
He groaned to himself, then said quietly, "I don't want them."
"Are you sure?"
Before leaving the bathroom Levin soaped his hands and face, dried them vigorously and combed his damp whiskers. When he came out he felt momentarily foolish in Gilley's baggy pants but the food, kept hot, was delicious, and he ate heartily.
My first night in the Northwest, Levin mused, sitting in an armchair after dinner. Who could guess I would ever in my life come so far out? He began to think about the past and had to press himself not to.
Gilley looks restless, he thought. I'd better give him back his pants and find some place to sleep.
"Stay a while," Pauline murmured. She was arranging red roses in a Chinese vase on the table.
"Yep," Gilley said. He was scanning the Sunday paper, one long leg resting on a hassock.
I could be wrong, Levin thought.
Pauline shut a window and rubbed her goose-fleshed arms. "Gerald, would you build a fire?"
"It feels like fall," she said to Levin.
Gilley, grunting, got up. He stuffed several balls of newspaper under the grate of the fireplace, crisscrossed kindling, and topped the pile with two wood chunks with thick mossy bark.
"Burns most of the evening that way," he said to Levin. "The heat of each oak piece keeps the other going. That's the secret of it."
He lit the paper and the blaze roared. The operation was interesting to Levin, even moving. He had rarely in his life stood at a fireplace, never before seen a fire made in one. If the room Gilley had mentioned had a fireplace he thought he would take it.
A door by the couch opened and two children who had come downstairs with the sitter entered the room. They hadbeen bathed and pajamaed, and when the boy saw the fire he ran to it. He was a red-head with a pale face. The little girl, blondish like the mother, had sores on her arms and legs. Though she barely toddled she carried a kitten.
"This is Mr. Levin, Zenamae," Pauline said to the sitter. "He's the new English professor. Zenamae Sonderson, Mr. Levin."
Levin blushed. "Hardly a professor" Pauline paid the girl and she left.
The boy, turning from the fire, took a good look at Levin and began to cry.
"Bet it's the beard," Gilley said.
Levin picked up a magazine and pretended to read. The child stopped crying. Pauline led him by the hand to the new instructor.
"Mr. Levin, this is Erik Gilley. Erik, Mr. Levin is a nice man all the way from New York City."
He was grateful to her.
The boy said something that sounded like "Tory?"
"No," said Levin in surprise, "I'm a liberal."
Pauline laughed. "He wants you to tell him a story."
Gilley grinned. "Gave yourself away that time, Sy."
Levin, smiling in embarrassment, offered to tell the boy a story.
"Me," said the little girl, letting the kitten go and coming closer.
"She's our baby, Mary," said Pauline. "Does she look like me, Mr. Levin?"
"Something like," he said. "I'm no judge."
She smiled and kissed the child.
"Better not bother with stories just right now," Gilley said. "We'll be leaving in five more minutes."
"You promised." Erik had climbed up on Levin's knees.
"What kind of story do you want?"
Levin tried to think what he knew that was funny. Pauline,with Mary on her lap, sat on the hassock, attentive. Gilley had drifted into his den and had the TV on.
Levin, scratching a hot right ear, began: "There was once a fox with a long white beard"
Erik chuckled. In a minute he was laughingto Levin's amazementin shrieking peals. Levin snickered at his easy success, and as he did, felt something hot on his thigh. He rose in haste, holding the still wildly laughing child at arm's length as a jet of water shot out of the little penis that had slipped through his pajama fly.
Gilley came into the room. "Stop it, Erik!"
Pauline set Mary down, grabbed Erik and ran with him, his fountain streaming in a high graceful arc, into the bathroom.
Levin stood there in Gilley's pants, wet down his thigh, neither of them looking at the other. He felt desperate. I've got to get out before they hate me.
Pauline returned with wet mop and sponge.
"I guess you'd better change." She didn't look at him.
He nodded, depressed.
"I'll get your bag out of the car," Gilley said.
"There's no need to," said Pauline. "His trousers are dry. You can change in the bathroom again, Mr. Levin. Just drop Gerald's slacks down the laundry chute. I'm awfully sorry."
"Nothing serious." Levin went to the bathroom and began to wash up.
Pauline tapped on the door. "I have a pair of Gerald's French-back shorts for you. Yours are probably damp. They ought to fit if you use the third button."
"I don't want them," he said.
"You'll be more comfortable."
She burst into tears. Levin opened the door and reached out his hand. He took from Pauline a pair of her husband's striped shorts.
When he left the bathroom, once more wearing his ownpants, in a good mood and ready to go, the room was in order, high and dry, both kids upstairs in bed.
Pauline had pinned a rose on her white dress and was crocheting on the couch. Gilley was tying dry flies.
"Won't you have another cup of coffee, Mr. Levin?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Gilley, I'd better be off now."
"Please stay a little longer."
Levin glanced nervously at Gilley.
"Stay a while, Sy."
"If you say," he muttered. They were being polite out of embarrassment, he thought, and it annoyed him because he was worried about getting settled for the night.
But he stayed.
Erik wandered down the stairs and asked his father to go back up with him.
"All right," Gilley said to Levin. "And after that we'd better scoot over to Mrs. Beaty. Shell be wanting to get to bed."
"Agreed," said Levin.
Erik went to him and raised his arms.
"He wants to be picked up," Pauline said.
Levin, after hesitating, picked up the child.
Erik tugged at his beard. "Funny man."
"That's enough of that," said Pauline.
Gilley took Erik from Levin and carried him upstairs.
"There's no telling what next," she said.
"I had no objection."
She was silent. He inspected the book shelves and drew out a book.
She crocheted a while, then asked what he was looking at.
"The American, Henry James."
"Oh?" She got up, searched on the bottom book shelf, and came up with a reprint from an academic journal, which she handed Levin. Gilley's name was on the cover of a short article on Howells.
"He wrote it in graduate school," she said. "He was a teachingassistant and I was one of his students. Gerald was the only person of his year to have an article in PMLA, during his graduate career. I hoped he'd go on with scholarly papers but he says they're a bore."
"Is that so?"
She smiled almost sadly. "He's done a few textbook reviews here and there, but not much else. Gerald is an active type, too much so to write with patience. And there's no doubt he's lost some of his interest in literature. Nature here can be such an esthetic satisfaction that one slights others."
Levin instinctively shrugged.
"Life is so varied and what happens so often unexpected," Pauline said with a glance at him. "There's so much to doto be done. I find myself" She inspected the strip of lace she had crocheted, then went on, "If Gerald were among more people who were doing literary research and writing, I think he would too. Of course Dr. Fabrikant, in the department, is a scholar, but they don't take to each other for too many reasons to go into, and Gerald feels anyway that at Cascadia Collegethe kind of place this isthe emphasis should be on teaching. He's quite a popular lecturer."
"What kind of place-?"
"He does many things and gets a lot of pleasure out of his life. He fishesthis is the country for it if you're interested; he's a wonderful dry fly fisherman, and I've seen other fishermen stop what they were doing to watch him. He also hunts pheasants and ducks and loves to watch athletic events. I never thought I would myself, but you'd be surprised how exciting these games can get. We generally have very good football and basketball teams, though not as high-powered as those in California. And Gerald is also an excellent photographer. He's very talented at candid shots and has won all sorts of prizes in almost every category. Last year one of his pictures won a first prize at the State Fair. Let me show it to you."
She slid open a door at the bottom of a bookcase and got out a thick picture album which she brought to the sofa.
I'm in for it now, Levin thought.
Pauline turned to an enlarged photograph of an old farmhouse that looked like an upended shoe box. "'Pioneer Farmhouse,'" she read. "He's done a series of these all over the state. We go camping in summertimeI hate it but it's good for the kidsand he likes to hunt out these places and snap them. Gerald is in love with Americana. This is the sixth prize he's won with this particular subject."
She turned to the middle of the album. "Here he is with his sister when he was a boy in knickers in Abilene, South Dakota. Notice how alert he looks. Here's his father, a retired merchant. I take to the mother. They were here to see the children this summer."
She flipped back several pages, pausing at a portrait of a dignified-looking man with pince-nez and a grayish beard. "Papa," she said. "A wonderful manvery affectionate and maturely generous. He was a physician and literally lived the Hippocratic oath. Once when he was sick he got out of bed to attend a patient. The patient lived but poor Papa died. He was only fifty. It killed my mother."
"Ah" said Levin.
"I lived afterwards with Papa's brother, in San Francisco. They're a wonderful family." She wiped one eye with a slender finger. He looked secretly but saw no dew.
On the next page, age twenty, she stood, in unearned innocence, on a hilly city street, shoulders touching a young man's with an expressionless face. She looked unhappy and wore a mousey fur coat and felt hat with an off-the-face brim.
"After your father died?" Levin asked.
"A year and a half. This was a boy I was engaged to for six months, before I married Gerald. He had won a Guggenheim and was off to Europe to study medieval history but I knew he was tired of me and I wouldn't see him again. I never did."
"He looks a little stupid to me."
"He was a nice boy. I guess I hadn't much to offer at that time. I'm one of those people who developed slowly."
She put the album aside, removed one shoe, then the other, and raising her legs drew them close to her body. She had pinned a rose to her poor chest. Why not two, he thought, one for each flat side? Was this why the medievalist had gone to Europe, to escape the American prairie? It did bother a bit, the observer conscious that nature had cheated where it hurt most. Yet she was attractive, he thought, with shapely legs if big feet, the long boats on the floor the indisputable evidence. And her face, compared to the girl's in the picture, was a mature improvement over age twenty. Studying her, though pretending not to, Levin thought her, despite her longness and lacks, an interesting-looking woman. She had large dark eyes in a small face, much helped by a frame of thickish straight blonde hair that touched her shoulders. The lips were well-formed, her nose, as if sniffing expectancy, touched on long and in flight. She was wearing pendant earrings; he realized she had put them on and changed her shoes, since coming home. Levin guessed she was for sure a good ten years younger than her husband. He had thought that when she told him she had been Gilley's student, but now the sense of her youth surprised him.
I was tired, he thought.
"And now that you know about me," she said, reaching for a cigarette, "what about you?"
Levin felt himself react against her questionhad made no bargains. He was, besides, on edge to be settled and alone.
But her smile was innocent enough. "What I would like to know," she said, "is why have you come so far? Was it some special reason, or just that the job happened to be here?"
Resisting much there was to say, he replied truthfully. "When the offer came I was ready to go." Levin rubbed his hands with a handkerchief. "What's there to say that hasn't been said? One always hopes that a new place will inspire changein one's life."
"Have you been to many places?"
"The opposite is true."
He cracked his knuckles as she fiddled with her rose.
He went on although advising himself not to. "My life, if I may say, has been without much purpose to speak of. Some blame the times for that, I blame myself. The times are bad but I've decided I'll have no other."
He laughed immoderately and stopped abruptly. After a minute's silence he went on, "In the past I cheated myself and killed my choices." Levin mopped his brow. "Now that I canahmove again I hope to make better use ofthings.
"That sums me up." He got up and began to walk back and forth in the room.
"What better use?" she ultimately asked. Her voice seemed diminished.
"I've reclaimed an old ideal or two," Levin said awkwardly. "They give a man his value if he stands for them." He stopped pacing. "If you'll excuse me, that's about all I care to say on the subject. Too many abstract words make me self-conscious."
Pauline seemed to be listening to something going on in another part of the house. She asked, "How long have you been teaching?"
"Two yearsin a high school," he confessed. "I was twenty-six when I realized I wanted to teach, a late insight. One day I thought, What you do for others you can do for yourself. Then I thought, I can do it teaching."
She yawned behind her fingers.
He was irritated by her long empty shoes on the floor.
"You remind me of somebody," she said.
Levin yawned too. "Excuse methe long train ride. I didn't sleep so well."
"Gerald will be right down."
He nodded listlessly.
"I hope you won't be disappointed in us, Mr. Levin. In the College and the town. Easchester can be lonely for single peopleI don't mean the college students, their world isn'treal. Someone from a big city might be disappointed here. You have no idea how sheltered we are, landlocked, and bland."
"Not me, I've had too much"
She put out her cigarette. "I had a terrible time my first few years here. We miss a lot through nobody's fault in particular. It's the communal sin of omission. People here are satisfied. I blame it on nature, prosperity, and some sort of laziness, mine too, but for God's sake please don't quote me. Otherwise it's a lovely town, good will abounds, and there are many advantages for family living." She smoothed her skirt. "But for someone without a wife and children, maybe you ought to try San Francisco or Seattle."
"I've had my fill of cities," Levin replied. "For a change I want the open sky on my head."
"And the gentle rain?"
"It rains here?"
"It does. It almost drove me mad at first but I've learned to live with it. The trick is no longer to love the sun. Didn't Gerald write you about the rain?"
"About our community?"
"About the College?"
"A few words."
"He ought to have. It rains, for instance, most of the fall and winter and much of spring. It's a spongy sky you'll be wearing on your head."
"You can't have everything."
"To be fair I must also tell you the sun may shine for days on end in winter if a freeze sets in. At the same time it's not like Eastern cold, and Gerald wears a trench coat all year round. Many Cascadians want rain and warmth rather than sunlight and cold. But our summers, except rarely, are practically flawless. Even Californians come here then. There are people here, originally from the Plains states or the Midwest,who swear Easchester is paradise. Gerald is one of them. Wherever he goes he wants to come home."
A mild heaviness had settled on Levin's spirit. He felt he had talked too much about himself and was worried what she might repeat to her husband. Who could guess what a stranger would make out of his unguarded remarks about his past; he might already have endangered his career.
"I really must go."
Gilley came downstairs, yawning, his red head lighting the apple-green wall, one side of his face creased.
"Fell asleep in Erik's room."
"What did he want?"
"Companyhe was a little scared."
"Of the dark?"
"Ghosts," Gilley said.
"Ghosts? That's new," she said.
"I guess we ought to go," Levin suggested.
"Sure thing," said Gilley. "I'll get my keys."
"Oh, my heavens, I didn't notice how late it's gotten," said Pauline. "Won't Mrs. Beaty be sleeping now, Gerald?"
Gilley held up his wrist. "By George, you're right, it's past ten. We'll have to make it tomorrow instead, Sy. My fault, I'm sorry."
"I'll go to a hotel," Levin said. "I had planned to anyway."
"Why waste five dollars?" Pauline asked. "We have a spare room, and in the morning Gerald can run you over to Mrs. Beaty's."
"I wouldn't want to bother you."
"You're no bother, Mr. Levin. It'll just take a minute to put a blanket on the bed." She ran up the stairs in stocking feet.
"Please" Levin called after her.
"Give up, Sy," advised Gilley. "A woman's will. Drink?" he asked.
"It'll relax you."
"Good. Professor Fairchild'll love you. He doesn't touch liquor himself. His wife is first vice-president of the Anti-Liquor League. Mrs. Feeney's president, that's the recently retired dean's wife. Mind if I do?"
Gilley poured some Scotch into a glass and went into the kitchen for water. "Sy," he said warmly when he returned, "I bet you'll like the department and I'm sure we'll like you. We're a pretty nice bunch of friendly people engaged in the common endeavor. You'll find the comp staff particularly is niceno false pretenses or such. Comp, as I wrote you, will be your program, plus one remedial grammar course which Avis Fliss will give you the dope on when she gets back next month. I will say this, that if you stay on here comp is what you'll be teaching till you get your doctoratethat's your union card if you want to stay in college teaching. After that you'll be given a lit class or two."
"I had hoped to teach literature," Levin sighed.
"I personally prefer teaching comp to lit. More satisfaction, I've found. You can just see these kids improving their writing from one term to the next, and even from one paper to the next. It isn't easy to notice much of a development of literary taste in a year."
"I suppose not"
"We feel we make progress in composition. Morale is high, everybody works togethera nice bunch. You should see how we function getting finals out of the way and grades in. No problem children, if you know what I mean."
"The one or two we have around are in lit. I was very glad to be appointed director of comp some years ago and focus my attention on it. It's been an invigorating experience." He paused, seemed about to say more, then took a drink. "You'll like us all."
"I'm sure," said Levin.
"Bad," Pauline said, coming down the stairs.
"Who's that?" asked her husband.
"Why didn't you tell Mr. Levin about the rain? I'll bet he came without a raincoat."
"No, I have one," said Levin, "and an umbrella."
"We have no more rain than you have in New York State," Gilley said, "only it's distributed more evenly. Anyway, it keeps Cascadia green."
"It's green enough," Pauline said. She put her arm around Gilley. He looked at her with affection.
Nice people, Levin thought, a real home. I shouldn't regret having to spend the night here.
"We'll get your bags, Sy." Gilley, putting down his glass, noticed the picture album on the table. "What's this out for?"
"I wanted Mr. Levin to see your prize-winning picture at the State Fair."
"Oh, that," Gilley said. He seemed momentarily lost in thought, then cheered up. "Got it with my Leica on a moderately bright day. I used Plus X on f11 at one one-hundredth of a second. Care to see my cameras sometime, Sy? Pauline bought me a Polaroid for my birthday."
"I don't know anything about them."
"Photography's not hard to learn. It's a satisfying and useful hobby. Come on, let's get the bags."
Levin went outside with him and almost cried out. In the amazing night air he smelled the forest. Imagine getting this for nothing. He drew in a deep wavering breath as he gazed at the stars splashed over the immense dark sky.
"There's your Big Dipper," Gilley was saying, "and that's the North Star. That way is Seattle, British Columbia, Alaska, and then the North Pole."
"North," said Levin, with a throb in his throat. "What profound mystery. You go north till there are no men. Imagine the silence, the cold, the insult to the human heart."
"You're a bit of a poet, Sy. The other way is San Francisco, and if you're interested, L.A."
Gilley unlocked the car trunk and got out the suitcases and golf bags. "We'll take one of each." He shut the trunk, paused a minute, then said to Levin, "Just this small matter, Sy. Do you always wear that beard?"
Levin looked at him in embarrassment. "I have for the past year. It'sergiven me a different view of myself." He laughed a little.
"Then it's not permanent?"
"I can't say just yet. It depends on how things work out"
"I'll tell you why I mentioned it. I respect beards but some of your students may think you're an oddball. It doesn't take much to set them against a teacher."
"Some of my best professors wore beards," said Levin. "Americans have often worn them."
"Yes, but not so much since the safety razor. This is a sort of beardless town. No one on the faculty wears one that I know of. The administration is clean shaven. It's usually the students who will grow them. A lot of sophomores encourage whiskers for their spring carnival and they're a raggy, tacky-looking lot."
"I have a picture of Abraham Lincoln I could hang up."
"Well, suit yourself. I just thought I ought to mention it to you. The president's wife was saying only the other day every time she lays eyes on a beard the thought of a radical pops up in her head."
The new instructor carried in his valise and Pauline's clubs; Gilley, the suitcase and his new clubs.
Imagine me carrying golf clubs, Levin thought. Already he had done things he had never before done in his life.
In his room he removed Gilley's striped shorts and in the upstairs bathroom searched for the laundry chute to disposeof them. He located it in the hall at the top of the stairs but the door was nailed fast, probably to keep the kids from falling in. In robe and slippers he went downstairs to the other bathroom and got rid of them there.
Levin brushed his teeth, took a quick bath, soaping himself thickly, and combed his beard to a fine point. On the stairs, through the slightly open bedroom door he caught a glimpse of the Gilleys, man and wife, embracing in their nightshirts.
Standing a moment later, at the curtained window of his room, Levin gazed at the moonlit mountains in the west, more frighteningly higher than he had remembered. In the back yard a birch tree leaned to the left, its symmetry spoiled by its bias. Levin was at first too excited to sleep, but even as he contemplated the possibilities of the future he fell into slumber. He heard Erik calling "papa" and tried to rouse himself, but then he heard a woman's steps coming up the stairs. He dreamed he had caught an enormous salmon by the tail and was hanging on for dear life but the furious fish, threshing the bleeding water, broke free: "Levin, go home." He woke in a sweat.
"I can't," he whispered to himself. "I can't fail again."
On the point of sleep he had the odd feeling he was being covered with a second blanket. Or maybe that was what she was doing to the children across the hall.
"God save us all," he muttered through his beard.
Copyright © 1961 by Bernard Malamud, renewed 1989 by Ann D. Malamud Introduction copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Lethem
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >