Because he believed in leading a disciplined life, Amos Townsend tried to go to bed at the same time every night, eleven o'clock, or close to it. Some nights he fell asleep right away, and even as his grip on consciousness slipped he felt a flood of gratitude for the loss. Most nights he lay awake an hour or more, enduring the contours of his pillow and the fact of his bones pressing into the mattress. Sleeplessness bred in him the most desperate irritation; he realized he hated flannel sheets (although he loved them earlier in the day, or at least the thought of them), and that the length of his legs made him furious (length and knobbiness inherited from his father), legs that consistently tangled in the ridiculous flannel sheets and kept him from sleeping. What disturbed him most was simply the hour of midnight, and the dark bedroom, and the waves of fatigue and pity that stole over and seemed to steal something from him. Amos believed that both discipline and grace were muscles he had to keep exercised, oxygenated, in order that they might be called upon in an emergency, and nights for him were often an emergency, and sometimes he muttered low and exasperated, "Dear Lord, please just let me fall asleep already," and then waited for grace to descend on him with a shadowy nod.
A single thing gnawed at him at night, an idea he had no name for, although if anyone asked him he could have written a book, as they say, on the subject. Perhaps he was even called to write it, but he was vexed by the how and the why. Amos knew as well as anyone what went into writing a book, having written a master's thesis, and he considered the process to be akin to having one's nerves stripped with a curry comb. A ghastly experience, not to be endured. He imagined the tower of reference books clotting his study, and the notecards he would use to try to keep his thoughts straight, and the inevitable architectural work that would need to be employed, and the hours spent in the overstuffed chair facing Plum Street, lost in thought and picking at the threads in the upholstery; and most of all, the way writing a book makes a person feel that he'd rather be anywhere than inside his own skin. He'd rather be on Plum Street, that's for sure, kicking along in the tangle of fall leaves or stopping to pet one of the litter of mountain cur pups born next door (beautiful little dogs that would be feral in the blink of an eyehe knew he should pet them quickly, before he lost his chance). But if he were on Plum Street his mind would be drawn to his own study window, and he would think with longing of the work he could be doing and how work is the only thing that saves the soul, the only thing that makes a man a man, as he remembered Emerson saying, or something like it. Writing a book brings a single, irreducible truth right out to the edges of a person: there is no place to be, there is no place in this world, it is impossible to be happy.
And why? Why another book in the morass of Self-Improvement and the self-published, all those elegant novels remaindered and shelves of poetry unread? Why Amos Townsend's ideas, when there are such game and handsome exegetes for the world's mysteries as Richard Feynman and Brian Greene and that bald man with the big glasses who can connect everything in the world into a single theory? Psychics and expatriates and musicologists and postmodernists, not to mention Harold Bloom, or Updike with his fifty novels (good ones, too), all typing away while the world sleeps, or is sleepless: no. A book by Amos would be unnecessary.
At 11:47, thinking of Updike, Amos smacked his own thigh in frustration and performed the fourth-quarter of what he thought of as his Human Drillbit routine, in which he turned from his right side to his stomach, and from his stomach to his left side, and from his left side to his back, and from his back to his right side, on and on, drilling himself closer, he hoped, to sleep. Amos liked to consider himself a man with a cynic's smile, more apt to turn it against himself than against the world, and did so, on his back once again, staring at the shadows on the ceiling. He smiled at himself and his own suffering. His suffering. Every evening of his growing-up years he sat at the dining room table with his parents and his younger brother, Samuel, in front of the cold fireplace, and watched his father say a simple prayer and then look at his family with his habitual expression: a closed-mouth grin, the barely discernible lift of his eyebrows that said, Well, here we are again. And his mother had her own version of it, didn't she? patting her napkin in her lap or straightening her skirt, the way she pursed her lips and let her gaze fall to the floor.
A life within limits, that's what his father had taught him to live. The elder Townsend might as well have taken young Amos by the hand and walked him to the seashoreexcept they lived in southwestern Ohioand pointed to the shoreline and said, "Do you see? It's insurmountable." Best to smile, and offer your neighbor an extended hand, and be thankful for your roast beef and linen napkins. Amos remembered how, in the end, his father spent almost every day with his face in his hands, sobbing dryly. No one could unearth the reasons for his sorrow, and Amos didn't try. ("Isn't it enough," Amos finally whispered to his mother, after watching her claw at his father's pajama top for the hundredth time and beg him, beg him to tell her why he wept so, "isn't it enough that he's crying?" His mother had looked at him like he was a stranger, and surely he had felt like one.)
Somewhere in those years at home with his parents, living the odd life of a preacher's child (in which he was part of his father's pastorate and part of his father, too, which granted him privilege in the congregation), Amos learned to smile patiently at everyone in townthe members of Lost Creek Church of the Brethren, kind, pious, hardworking people who were committed to community lifebut also at the conservatives of the town, and the gun-owners, the cruel, florid men who attended the town's other churches devoutly, men who, even holding open the door for a neighbor at the diner or speaking to Pastor Townsend on the street, were inches away from something guttural, some crassness or abomination. "All God's creatures," his father used to say, walking home in the bright Sunday afternoons of Amos's memory. Pastor Townsend loved, it seemed to Amos now, the worst aspects of human nature, because the display of such validated in him his long-held and hopeless belief in something Calvinistic. (Although the elder Townsend would never have admitted such a thingheavens, no. The Church of the Brethrenthe faith of Amos's father and of his father before himbroke away from the Calvinists during the Protestant Reformation, but Amos couldn't shake it, this feeling that a trace of the old world, of the Old Man, remained.) Doom or damnation or pre-destination, all revealed providentially through our unkindnesses and injustices and unchecked appetitesthis is what Amos learned to look for from his good father.
I cannot write a book and I will not write a book, Amos thought, drumming his fingers against the mattress, but if I were to write it, where would I begin? He would begin not back there in rural Ohio in his father's church, although that would have been an interesting place to start, but in his very own heart, in his second year in seminary, when he first read Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith. It was a small book (compared to the rest of Tillich) and the argument being made seemed deceptively simple: we all have an object which represents our Ultimate Concern. For some the object may be celebrity or personal power or money, or even something like romantic love and family. Institutions, including Christianity, have historically elevated the moral good to the status of the Ultimate. But there is really only one ultimate, unconditional concern, and that is for the Unconditional itself, what Tillich called our "passion for the infinite." We grasp the notion of the infinite immediately and personally, and yet it is seldom the object to which we dedicate our lives, and this is where Amos began to feel nervous. We elevate the finite, which has as its only power that of flux and decay, and when our ultimate concern fails to achieve ultimacy, we live lives that are hopelessly broken, and we know it.
On the day they were to begin discussing the book, Amos walked into the classroom feeling both thrilled and sick, because how was he, how were any of them, to go on, now that they realized who they were and how they had been living? He watched his fellow seminarians enter the classroom one by one, until all nine were there, fine people, all of them, but none seemed to realize what they held in their hand, the localized nuclear event. They chattered, they rearranged their bookbags, they set out portable tape-recorders. One man systematically offered everyone a stick of gum. When the professor walked in, a middle-aged and serious man Amos trusted without hesitation, and put his book down on the desk and said, "So. Are we ready to discuss Tillich?" Amos felt his stomach lurch sideways and then turn over. It was the same feeling he had watching newsreels of bodies being bulldozed into an open grave: the approach of the bottom line, life irreducible.
They began to discuss the book, and Amos could see that his professor took it as seriously as Amos himself did, the revolutionary idea that even Beauty and Justice are only concerns of the highest order, and do not achieve Ultimacy. God alone. Sola Deus. And who manages that, in this hardscrabble and knocked-together life? Well, almost no one, Amos realized, sitting there in class. His father hadn't, his mother hadn't, no one from his congregationthose carpenters and farmers and quilters, sincere, gentle peoplehad managed it. His professor had not, although he clearly wished it possible. And it was then and there that the idea began to form in Amos that there is a universal element in the human condition, something alchemical, and it's nearly visible, it radiates off people in waves, and you can see it everywhere, all the time.
His thinking was interrupted by Mike, a man in his forties who always wore short-sleeved dress shirts washed thin. "Listen, I worked in middle-management at IBM for sixteen years, and I can tell you, business people don't know they're broken. They don't care about ultimacy or the lack of it in their lives."
And then Anita, who had grown up in a series of foster homes, said, "It seems to me that the farther away a person moves from thinking about what does or doesn't achieve ultimacy, the happier he is. The happiest people I know in the world are the cruelest. They rest in it, somehow." And on around the table it went, one student after another disagreeing with Tillich's proposition.
The professor asked, "What about when the middle-managers at IBM look in the mirror first thing in the morning, or last thing at night? What do they see there?"
"They see profit and loss," Mike answered, "and I don't mean metaphorically. They see the company they work for."
Amos said nothing; his tongue seemed to have failed him. But he thought one thing over and over, the way he used to think a single thought in church on Sunday until he nearly choked on it: You are all wrong. You are all completely wrong about this. We live lives that are hopelessly broken, and we know it.
At 12:22 Amos decided his imaginary book needed anecdote: everyone loves a story. But more than that, he would be remiss if, in making a claim about the nature of humanity both broad and oblique, he failed to include humanity itself. So he would begin with Steve and Lydia, because that was where he first truly understood the idea, the nameless idea that rendered him sleepless.
Could it have been ten years ago, or closer to twelve? Amos was not yet thirty, and just out of seminary, when he was called by his district to a small congregation in a town called Mechanicsville. Mechanicsville was little more than two streets crossing, surrounded by farmland; the only business was a general store that offered dusty loaves of bread and canned vegetables. Most of the people who lived there worked in Dayton, fifteen miles east, all the family farms having long since been sold to corporate agribusinesses. The first time Amos drove through town his heart felt leaden, and he could hear his father offering his perennial advice: Unhappy? Can't get started? Lower your standards.
He sank into the little white cottage behind the church, put his books on plywood bookcases, bought a tea kettle, took up his post. But Amos was frightened every Sunday as he stood before his congregation (eighteen people if the sun was shining), and felt he had no authority, God-given or otherwise, nothing like what his father had provided on his darkest day. Who was Amos to comfort the sick or the bereaved; who was he to give advice or explicate the Scriptures?
And who were these people, anyway? All through the late fall and early winter, in order to pick up his mail at the local post office, Amos had to walk past the home of a man named Skeeter, and there was very often a large dead deer hanging from its back feet (or worse, on a hook through the gut) by a series of winches and pulleys on a tree inches from the sidewalk. Amos's hometown had the only opera house in the whole of Ohio; there were no dead animals in the trees of his youth.
The deer were hung to bleed, Amos knew, and he was able to take that in stride, but he began to be bothered by the sight rather deeply. He began to see the deer in his sleep (and certainly when he couldn't sleep), and not so much the carnage as the details: a whorl of lightened fur just above the thick muscle of a hind leg, or the delicate curve of a nostril. They had beautiful eyelashes and their lips looked like velvet, and the way they hung made them appear to still be running, or reaching with their front legs for the safety of the ground. And he couldn't walk on the other side of the street because on that side was a family whose name he was never able to learn; they had a standing army of delinquent teenagers and a vicious pit bull on a chain that could reach the sidewalk and then some, a dog that was frantic to kill a grown person.