The Chicago Tribune Price's scenes are rich with detail and glow evocatively in the memory; his language is that of a poet who has found his theme and exalts in unfolding it for you.
The Source of Lightby Reynolds Price
Though a novel independent from The Surface of Earth, The Source of Light continues the saga of the Mayfield family, here focusing on Hutchins Mayfield, whose desire for self-knowledge removes him from his secure/i>/i>
Here is the second volume of A Great Circle, the highly acclaimed Mayfield family trilogy, from one of America's literary treasures.
Though a novel independent from The Surface of Earth, The Source of Light continues the saga of the Mayfield family, here focusing on Hutchins Mayfield, whose desire for self-knowledge removes him from his secure existence as a prep school teacher and takes him on a journey to Oxford and Italy to study and write. Hutchins comes back home for a family crisis but ultimately returns to England, where he achieves a maturity that enables him to cope with commitments, abandonments, and the creation of an honest personal agenda.
In The Source of Light, Reynolds Price combines gravity and buoyancy, a mythic sense of the past with the mysteries of place, to forge an encompassing portrait of the strange and various world one travels through in the quest for self-fulfillment.
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THE PRINCIPLE OF PERTURBATIONS
Hutchins Mayfield had stripped and faced the water, intending to enter before his father and stage the drowned-man act to greet him. But turning in the half-dark cubicle, he was stopped by sight of another man, naked also, close there beside him. He took two quick steps to leave, then knew -- a dressing mirror he'd failed to notice hung on the pine wall. He went back and looked, not having seen himself for a while -- not alone and startled, fresh for study. (In fact, except for negligent shaves, it had been two weeks -- his twenty-fifth birthday. He'd been in Richmond that night with Ann; his grandmother tracked him down by phone to wish him luck. He'd borne her rambling a little impatiently; so she closed by saying, "Have you checked your looks now you're over the hill? -- twenty-five is the downside in our family, Hutch, whatever doctors say. Twenty-five, we're grown." He'd checked in Ann's bureau mirror and confirmed it.) Now he studied his groin, full in the warm day, and thought how little it had caused but pleasure -- a grown man's first means of work hung on him, an aging toy. But he smiled and reached a hand toward the cool glass, stroked the dim image. It bobbed in gratitude -- pony, pet turtle -- and Hutch laughed once, then heard his father's voice at the pool.
"What things will this cure?" Rob Mayfield said.
"Sir?" -- the Negro attendant.
Now an exchange was promised in the earliest consoling sound of Hutch's life -- a white voice, a black voice twined and teasing. He stood to wait it out.
"Which one of all my many troubles will this spring cure?"
"They tell us not to make big claims no more. Used to say kidneys, liver, eczema, the worst kind of blues, warts, falling hair. Whatever they tell me, it cured my feet. I was born flat-footed."
Rob said "Bathing fixed them?"
"No, never. I drink it. But it sure God jacked these feet off the ground. Born glued to the floor; now my kids play under em -- run in and out, hide all in the shade. This your first time here?"
Rob said, "Yes. Thirty years ago I lived in Goshen, but I never got over the mountain somehow."
"Shame on you then," the Negro said. "Goshen ain't nothing but sand and cold river. Warm Springs would have helped you, just twenty minutes west."
"It seemed farther then. The road was bad."
"Beautiful now. Go on; step in -- never too late."
Rob laughed but said "Oh it is." Then he moved.
Hutch came to the door of the cubicle to look -- Rob Mayfield's back. His father stripped was something he really hadn't seen, not for years.
Fifty-one years old but still white and firm in waist and hams, Rob stooped to grip the rafts of the stairs and descended slowly into eight feet of clear water bubbling from the earth, precisely the heat of a well human body. Then he swam four strokes to the center of the pool; embraced the ridgepole and looked back, smiling, to his only child. "I should have found this thirty years ago. Might have changed some things."
Hutch also gripped the rails but paused at the top. "What things?"
Rob continued smiling and paddled his hair back, still barely gray, but said no more.
Hutch looked for the Negro. He was back out of sight with his radio; so Hutch could say, "You might not have had me." He grinned but was earnest.
"I didn't say that."
"I've been the main trouble for most of those years."
"Never said that either."
Hutch nodded -- it was true -- but he stood on, dry in the thick warm air of late afternoon, and looked at what seemed the only block in his path: this middle-sized man, drenched and curling. The main thing he'd loved, that might yet stop him.
Rob clapped his hands once. "Were you ever baptized?"
"Not in my recollection."
"Then descend," Rob said and raised his right arm. The smile never broke, but he said "Father. Son --"
Hutch slowly descended. They laughed together as Hutch's head sank. But he didn't rise. He went straight into the drowning tableau -- emptied his lungs so he fell to the smooth rocks that paved the spring and sprawled there, lit by green light that pierced the water.
It worked. Rob saw him as dead, that quickly -- dead limbs gently flapped by currents, the long hair snaky. Yet he didn't move; he called the Negro. "Sam, step here."
The man was named Franklin, but he came at a trot.
Rob pointed down.
Franklin nodded. "Dead again." He stared a long moment. "Looks real, don't it? He do that a lot, every time he come -- like to scared his young friend to death last week."
Hutch jerked to life and thrust toward the surface. He broke out, streaming; faced his father, and said "-- Holy Ghost."
Rob said "Welcome."
They swam, sank, floated for the hour they'd purchased. No other bather joined them, and Franklin stayed off in his own little room. Within three minutes of the drowning, they had calmed. The water's constant match of their own body-heat soon made it a companion -- gentle, promising of perfect fidelity: the craving of both men, in different ways. To Hutch it seemed a large faceless woman -- spread and open, inescapable -- into which he inserted his whole free body; four times in the hour he stiffened and fell. To Rob it finally seemed a place -- the original lake in which he had formed, which he'd left insanely but had now found again, and in which he'd dissolve. They scarcely spoke, only fragments of pleasure. They felt no need, for the first time ever in one another's presence. When the hour was up and Franklin came, they were deep in separate dreams of safety.
Franklin said "You shriveling yet?"
Rob looked to Hutch.
Hutch looked at his own right hand. "A little."
"Then time to get out. Hour's all you can stand." Franklin held white towels like gifts more tempting than the spring itself.
Hutch swam the strokes that put him by his father. That whole charged body was covered with beads of air like an armor. He reached out and wiped his hand down Rob's chest, clearing a space.
Rob took the wrist and, not releasing it, swam back an arm's length to focus the face. "I'll try not ever to forget this," he said. "You please try the same."
"I can promise," Hutch said.
"No, just try."
Hutch nodded and they swam together toward the stairs.
In the safe dreamy hour, Rob had found no way to tell his son what he'd had confirmed two days ago -- that Rob Mayfield, early as it was, would be dead by winter; that the body which had served him unfailingly till now had conceived and was feeding in a lobe of its right lung a life that would need nothing less than all. At the stairs he said "You first. You're slower." He wanted that instant of sight to decide.
Hutch gave it. He climbed out strongly but paused on the top step, not looking back; then he cupped his face in both large hands and shuddered hard -- only once but enough.
Rob saw that to tell him now before the end would be to stop the trip he'd planned, that he'd leaned his life on mysteriously. Or, if he should still leave in face of the news, to show him as the final demon of dreams-faithless after decades of smooth deceit. Rob took the rails also. Against the lovely pull of the spring -- its promise of care -- he hauled himself and his fresh partner up.
They ate a good supper at the Warm Springs Inn (mountain trout, new lettuce) and set out at eight in clear cool darkness to drive the pickup on to Hutch's near Edom -- some sixty miles north through mountains and valleys, and they both were tired. Rob had started up from North Carolina at noon to meet Hutch at five. Hutch had thumbed down from Edom; the bath was his idea. So Hutch drove now and -- through the first mountain, cross the Cowpasture River -- they said very little. Past the river Hutch realized his whole idea would force Goshen on them -- on his father at least, who had not been there in eight or nine years. They had already passed two signs naming Goshen, but it still lay a quarter-hour ahead, and Rob had not mentioned it since talking to Franklin. So Hutch said, "Tell me what you want me to do" (meaning, stop at the grave or drive on past).
Rob said, "Be a better man than me at least."
Hutch started to explain but accepted the delay. "Tell me how to go about it."
"I expect you know. You've lived a quarter-century; you've hurt nobody, not that I know of."
Hutch said "I killed my mother."
"You couldn't help that. I couldn't keep you from her. Rachel pulled you out of me by main force, Son; and she held on to you, but you had to come out. Rachel died of bad luck. Your luck was better -- and my luck, to have you."
"Thank you," Hutch said, "but still tell me how."
Rob turned to the dim profile beside him. "I was answering politely, just words to say. I couldn't tell a dog how to bury a bone, much less a grown man how to live. I don't even understand your plan."
Hutch glanced across. "The trip?"
"Well, no. I did a little wandering myself -- sooner than you, on a smaller map: a few whistle-stops in southwest Virginia. Europe was torn up all through my freedom. No I meant what comes once you've seen the world and are back here, ticking through the numerous years. You're counting on the ravens to feed you apparently; they often renege."
Hutch smiled at the road. "I can do two things that'll tide me over if the ravens fail -- teach children English and make women think they've been rushed to Heaven before their time." Since he was grown he had hardly mentioned love to his father.
Rob remembered that and waited. Then he said, "How many would you estimate you'd rushed?"
"Women, to Heaven -- how many have you sent?"
Hutch said "I was joking."r
Rob said, "I'm not. I'd like to know. It would help me to know what women mean to you. It's a danger that runs in your family, you've noticed -- the Mayfield side."
Hutch also waited. His window was open on the loud spring night; it spoke at their silence -- incessant jangle of small life signaling, no one creature mute in solitude, even the fox that crossed before them musky with lure. He thought that awhile; then said, "It would help me too. I doubt I know. I've liked two or three women more than anybody -- Alice Matthews, Polly. I may need Ann Gatlin -- she hopes I do; I hope I do."
"But you haven't asked Ann to marry you yet?"
Hutch said, "Worse -- I've asked her not to visit me in Europe. She'd started on plans to join me for Christmas."
"What made you do that?"
Hutch waited again, then tried the answer he'd offered Ann. "I think I need air."
"To do what in?"
"-- Need stillness around me."
Rob said, "Nine-tenths of the world's population works eight or ten hours a day more than you. You've rested, Son. Lie back and be grateful."
Hutch laughed. "You hit it. I'm so well-rested my mind is souring but grateful I'm not. I'm an aging boy, as you point out. I need to work and I think I'm going toward it."
"Ann Gatlin sounds like a nice job to me, a fine evening shift -- the one shift that pays."
Hutch said "She'd like that."
"What's wrong with that?"
"I didn't know you rated Ann very high."
Rob said, "Now I do. She wants you around. She means to last."
Hutch said "I think you're right."
"But you're holding her off?"
"For now. No choice."
Rob said "There you're wrong."
"I can't take her with me."
"Then ask her to wait. Hell, beg her." Rob looked away.
They let another patch of silence spread. By now the river was steady beside them in the unseen gorge. Its chilly clatter blanked all other sounds; and when the patch had lasted three minutes and Hutch had thought of nothing but fear -- fear of failing his kin, fear of finally knowing no work to do, fear of solitude -- he said, "You can see I have brought you to Goshen." The meanness was instant filth on his tongue.
But Rob answered calmly. "I noticed you had. I figured you would." He leaned forward, opened the glove compartment, drew out a flashlight, and shone it on Hutch. "So I came prepared. Stop by Rachel's grave."
Hutch nodded. "Two miles."
Rob said, "Time enough to tell you this story. May prove useful someday. It's named 'Little Hubert.' Little Hubert used to like the girls in kindergarten. One day tile teacher sent his mother a note -- Hubert runs his hand up all the girls' dresses. Please tell him to quit -- so his mother said, 'Son, do you know what girls have under their dresses?' Hubert said 'No ma'm.' She said, 'A pink mouth with a lot of sharp teeth. Remember that.' Hubert said, 'Yes ma'm. Thank you for the tip.' And he acted on it -- never touched a girl, though he did a lot of dreaming and a lot of self-service. Twenty-five years of good behavior passed. Then a woman named Charlene chased him down -- flat wouldn't let Hubert say No, even Maybe -- and they got married. Went to Tampa on their honeymoon, palm trees and moonlight; danced till near-dawn when Charlene asked him if it wasn't time for bed. Hubert said 'O.K.' and they went upstairs. It took her about an hour, but finally Charlene came out of the bathroom all sweet and ready in a peach satin gown. Hubert was long since under the covers in flannel pajamas, more than half-asleep. But she slid in beside him and commenced to stroke his arm till Hubert said, 'I thought you were tired.' She said, 'But Sugar, you haven't even touched me' and pulled his hand toward you-know-where. He jerked back fast and said 'No you don't!' She said, 'What do you mean? This is my first night!' Hubert said, 'Go to it. But count me out. I know what you're hiding down there.' She said 'Just what's normal, silly.' He said, 'So right! -- the normal set of teeth. I'm not risking my good fingers on you.' And he was about to head back into sleep when she said, 'Sugar, you're out of your mind -- my teeth are in my head. Look here.' She threw back the sheets and raised that gown. So Hubert sat up and bent over gradually and took a long look. Then he said, 'No wonder! Good night, Charlene! Just look at the condition of those poor gums?'"
Hutch laughed; he'd never heard it.
Rob sat like a stuffed Baptist preacher through the laughter; but when Hutch subsided, he said, "Don't forget it, especially in Europe. The gums over there make ours look healthy." Then he switched the flashlight on, at his own face, and turned to his son -- a wide bright grin. "You know he was wrong, little Hubert -- don't you?"
Hutch smiled. "Yes sir --"
"Very sadly wrong."
Hutch said, "Yes sir, I have reason to know."
"You're not afraid, are you?"
"Not of that," Hutch said. Then he slowed to turn left.
In a Stepin Fetchit voice, Rob said, "You mean you scared of dead folks, cap'n?"
Hutch said "I may be."
"And you may be right."
They had stopped at a pair of shut iron gates. The headlights showed the nearest stones, which were also the oldest -- marble tree-trunks, lambs, the locally famous seated-boy-with-birddog (an only son, self-shot while hunting). Hutch doused the lights but made no move, though the plan had been his.
At last Rob opened the door in darkness and stepped to the ground. He stood a minute while his eyes adjusted; when Hutch didn't move, he took a long leak. Then he looked back once at the truck -- only outlines -- and went on to climb the easy gates. On the other side he lit his flashlight and walked a knowing path forward, fairly straight.
Hutch sat and watched him, held in place by feelings that had waylaid him unexpected -- reluctance to pay this farewell homage to his mother by night; a small seed of dread to visit at night a mother he'd never seen alive, whom his own life had canceled; and worse, to visit her this last time with Rob who had cared so little for her memory as not to have been here in nearly a decade. Rob's light had vanished. Well, let it. Let him bear full-force what he'd tried to deny -- the physical locus of his own worst damage: the strip of earth which held in solution all that remained of a lovely girl gone twenty-five years, kept from her son. The darkness continued, no further light. Then shame replaced the harsher knowledge, and Hutch was freed to go. He cranked the engine, switched on the headlights (which didn't reach Rob); and climbed out to find his father, wherever. He had been here often in recent years; so he had no trouble finding the way, though he entered black dark within fifty feet, and still there was no sign or sound but the river. His feet had struck the low rock-border of the Hutchins plot before he saw pale wavering light and heard what seemed an animal scrabbling. The one large tombstone blocked his way; Hutch stepped round it slowly.
The flashlight was propped at the base of the stone, rapidly failing. Rob was kneeling on the head of Rachel's grave, digging with his nails in the ground above her face. Or filling a hole the size of a softball with what seemed fresh dirt. Rob didn't look up or speak but finished the little job, replacing a lid of turf at the end. Then still not looking, he reached for the light and slammed it once on the stone -- pure black. Then the sounds of him rising, stepping toward Hutch; a hand that found Hutch's shoulder, no fumbling, and gripped it hard. His calm voice said, "You've chosen this, have you?"
Hutch said "Sir?"
"Home -- you think of this place as home?"
Hutch had not thought that. He'd spent no more than an hour here in short rare visits, no more than two or three weeks in the town. But now he said, "I may, yes sir. I think I may."
"Then once you decide -- if you ever decide, decide soon enough -- bury me here. Bury me wherever you think is your home."
Hutch said, "Yes sir. But by then I'll surely be senile myself; you'd do well to leave some written instructions for somebody younger than both of us."
Rob said "You'll do." His hand came down from shoulder to wrist; he gripped Hutch's wrist.
So Hutch raised the joined hands -- a sizable weight -- and searched over Rob's dark face with dry fingers. They found tears of course.
Though they'd been nearly midnight reaching Hutch's in Edom, they both woke easily at dawn -- a bright sky but cool still. Under compulsion Rob had slept in the bed; Hutch had slept on the ample davenport. Each knew the other was awake by silence (mouth-breathers both, they slept like seals -- steadily announcing their vulnerability); but for twenty minutes neither one spoke. Hutch was thinking of ways to get Rob out of the house for the morning; he needed calm for his final packing. It didn't occur to him, huddled on himself, that his father was colder and thinking too. Despite his age Hutch rested in the standard child's assumption that a parent's mind is a marble wall, uncut by a single urgent requirement or even impatience.
But in those minutes Rob firmly decided his answer to the question he'd faced all yesterday. He wouldn't tell Hutch. He would not ask himself to bear the boy's response, whatever -- the man's; he could seldom believe he had made at least half of what was now a man. Today he would help the man load his boxes of books and records, his desk, in the truck; then he'd leave as cheerfully as he could manage. The man would be in England in a week, for at least a year. Rob would be underground before that ended. Now for the first time, it seemed desirable -- sleep as blank as the heart of a potato or some unimaginable form of reward. Whatever his sins, none of which he'd forgot, Rob Mayfield didn't anticipate punishment. But he found he was hungry. Having always been a famished riser, he saw no reason to abandon the habit; so without sitting up he suddenly spoke. "Have you got your pencil handy?"
Hutch also stayed down and said "No sir."
"Then listen-carefully, remember perfectly, and execute at once --"
Hutch said "I'll try."
"-- A small glass of sweetmilk, three eggs scrambled in butter (keep them soft), country sausage, hot biscuits, fig preserves, and strong coffee."
Hutch said "Coming up" but made no move.
Rob recalled he'd neglected to say any prayer; so he said to himself what, a boy of twelve, he'd seen was the heart of Jesus' prayer (the only one that didn't seem a showoff, and even that could be trimmed to two words -- "Your will"). Then he sat up in the cold air and looked.
Hutch was still drawn tight beneath his quilt, head turned away.
For a moment Rob felt a strong desire to be served for once, to lie back and let this child start the day -- warm the space, cook the food, soothe the sick, earn the keep. He even fell back on his elbows and beamed the wish toward Hutch -- Stand up and take over. Do everything for me. You'll be amazed how little that will be, how soon I won't need anything at all. But he thought of the end the doctor had outlined three days ago -- "You'll begin to cough; no syrup will help. Then you'll have trouble breathing, worse and worse till your lungs fill steadily with fluid and drown you. No pain." He'd asked if the doctor was promising no pain. Humorless as Moses, the doctor said, "No. If it spreads into bone, then we'll have real pain" (Rob had let the we pass). That would no doubt come to more than a little service before the end. He would ask nobody but his mother to give it. Though he still hadn't told her, there was no chance of doubt that Eva Mayfield would say any word but Yes -- and mean it, have the full strength to mean it. So he stood to the cold bare floor in his underpants, walked to the front room, and lit the oil heater. Then he parted the curtains and looked to the woods. In a high black pine, a young owl sat on a limb near the trunk, beginning its rest. A gang of blue jays quarreled at it with no effect, then flew on their way. Then the only sound was the tin stove warming, cracks and booms.
From the quilt Hutch said a muffled "Blessings on your head."
Rob said, "I accept them and will use them in your name. Now haul your precious white ass to the ground and feed this hollow old man you invited."
Hutch said, "Back to sleep. I've packed all the food."
"Unpack me an egg."
"I'm leaving, remember?"
Rob said "Goodbye."
By nine Hutch had managed to get Rob out. He'd given him a choice of the local sights -- a self-conducted tour of the school or the New Market battlefield twelve miles north or Endless Caverns. Rob had said, "The caverns sound more like me. I'll be back at noon and we can load up -- if I don't get lost; I'll try to get lost." He'd laughed and gone. Hutch had sat and drunk a third cup of coffee, consuming the quiet as if it were a suddenly discovered vein of some scarce mineral his bones required. (That he'd been with his father only sixteen hours, six of them asleep, and still craved solitude shamed him a little; but it came as no news. He was coming to see that all his conscious life -- from four or five on -- he had moved to a law which required him to take equal time alone for every hour of company, however amusing.) Then unwashed he started the last packing in a small footlocker, the final choice of what would accompany him on the trip. The rooms were already lined with boxes of the dearly expendable things, for storage in Fontaine. It was part of his purpose to go as nearly clean as he could, stripped of all but the vital minimum of the thicket of props he'd set round himself. Clothes were simple (he owned very few and they meant nothing to him, though he kept them neat). He laid out two changes of winter and summer clothes, then turned to hard choices.
Music -- he would have no phonograph, but he chose two records he felt he might need when he got near anyone else's machine: Brahms's Alto Rhapsody by Marian Anderson, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Flagstad.
Books -- a Bible, which Rob had given him (it had been his Great-grandmother Kendal's); The Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos; Anna Karenina (World's Classics edition, four inches by six, miraculous compression); a tattered pamphlet of pornographic photographs he'd found in a garbage can at college (a beautiful, and beautifully joined, young couple); his notebook and the daily log he kept.
Pictures -- his mother and father, young together; his Grandmother Mayfield, Alice Matthews, Ann Gatlin, a postcard view of the marble head of a girl from Chios (Boston Museum).
Objects -- the five-inch marble torso of a boy he'd bought in New York for fifty dollars three summers ago (sold for Greek but more likely Roman, though gentled by elegance); a box of drawing pencils, pen points, erasers; a box of watercolors; a pad of drawing paper; a pinebark carving of a human body which had once been a man but was now finished smooth.
It took him two hours to make the choices, stow the rest, set the boxes on the porch; but when he had thrown the last food to the birds, the house was effectively free of him. The three years he'd lived here -- mostly happy -- had altered it only by a few extra nailholes, a few strands of hair in unswept corners (he'd paid a woman to clean it tomorrow). He walked to the center of the house -- the short hall -- and stood in the emptiness for maybe two minutes, regretting and fearing. Then he stripped off his work clothes, folded them into a box bound for storage, walked to the shower, and bathed very carefully. Only then did he see that the wide gold band -- tight on his left hand -- was the main thing he carried, except for his pleasant and pleasing body.
To fill the half-hour till Rob was back, Hutch drove the four green miles in to school. He had said his farewells two days ago -- and received the Headmaster's valedictory sermon -- but there might be some mail; and whatever the woes of teaching three years in a rural Episcopal Virginia boys' school, he was nudged already by a sudden posthumous love of the place; nostalgia for a time which had been (he hoped) the end of childhood, delayed but calm. He passed no visible human on the drive; and even as he swung through the campus gates and parked by The Office, he could see nobody, though he actively searched -- no colleague or town-boy, no yardman mowing. Monday's commencement had emptied the space as thoroughly as war; so he sat a moment, accepting the favor. Little as he'd moved in his life till now, he already knew the shock of returning to find loud strangers banging on the sets of his former life. Then he entered the dim cool hall of the Office. On his way to the pigeonholes, he passed the Master's open outer room and Fairfax Wilson there, fervently typing. She hadn't seen him -- good. He could go out the back and miss her completely, no need to hear-out today's diatribe. But his name was already gone from the slot. Competent to organize vast migrations of nations cross oceans or nuclear blitzkrieg, Fairfax had done her duty by the school (and by herself; she resented his leaving ) -- the quitter was effaced. She would have any mail that had come today. When he stopped in her door, ten feet from her, she didn't look up but pounded on. So he tried to turn her, concentrated in silence on her rapt profile -- lean sister to a class of moviestar (Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck) who had shaped her looks twenty years ago, then moved beyond her into fleshy surrender while Fairfax had kept her virgin strength: a little withered but still a banner, proud flag of choice and loyalty-to-choice.
Finally she cut her big dark eyes toward him, no more smiling than a stork. "I thought you were strolling on the Left Bank by now."
"No ma'm, England. And not for eight days -- I've got five days on the water first."
She hiked a black brow. "Water? I thought anybody rich as you would be flying first-class."
He'd explained it fully some months ago; but in the slack time, he was willing to rally with her awhile (if you let her discharge her excess life in keen exchange, you might be spared a monologue on the fools she dealt with, the dog's road she trod). "No ma'm, I told you I'd be eating rat cheese and soda crackers."
"They may not even have cheese and crackers -- they don't have heat -- and what's this ma'm? I just age a year at a time like you. My friends call me Fair." She smiled at last, broad smile that drew real beauty to her face.
As always Hutch was a little startled by the urgent beauty and by his own quick but reluctant sense that they'd missed a chance at one another. Twenty years between them seemed a flimsy screen. He'd have given her something she'd maybe never had; she'd at least have taught him how to burn on high for forty-five years and show no scorching. He said, "Miss Wilson, are you saying I'm a friend?"
She swiveled the chair to face him, then looked to the Headmaster's door. "He's not here today -- in Lynchburg buying a new ballplayer; some eight-foot child that can't write his name." She'd whispered that much but straight at his eyes, her own eyes burning. Then she raised her voice to its normal power -- a carrying richness -- and said, "Hutchins Mayfield, I consider you the finest young man now residing in the Old Dominion; and you know how stuck I am on Virginia."
Hutch smiled and nodded but said, "I'm leaving in an hour, sad to say. Will Virginia survive?"
She refused the fun. "You'd better go now. An hour wouldn't give me time to say how far above the run you are. There are plenty people here who think you're crazy as a duck-in-love to be throwing yourself on fate like this, but you know what I tell them? -- I tell them 'Lucky fate!'"
As always half-convinced by her force, Hutch could only thank her.
"Don't thank me. Just send me a Christmas card from some famous spot -- nothing naked please -- and in your first book put a lunatic maiden-lady from Virginia who types to perfection and knows what's what."
Hutch laughed. "A promise."
He returned with his trifling mail to the car, looking down in hopes of seeing no one; so he'd reached for the door before he saw a man lying back on the hood. A boy -- Strawson Stuart, long for his age, Hutch's pupil for two years. He lived in town; his eyes were shut. Hutch said, "I heard you had died Monday night at Morse Mitchell's party, but I didn't know I'd get the body for disposal."
Straw sat up solemn. "Well, you have." He extended his arms cruciform and held the pose. Then he smiled, the second dazzler of the day. "No I've risen and come by to help you load. Saw the note to your father; he's still not back."
"He may never be. He went to Endless Caverns."
Straw said, "Then carry me to Warm Springs quick."
Hutch said, "I scared you so bad last time, I doubted you'd ever want to go again" (he had drowned for Straw; even more than Rob, it had shaken the boy who'd seemed unshakable).
Straw said "But I do."
Hutch studied him long enough to know a true answer. "So do I, very much. There's no chance at all. I've got to load the truck, see Father off, then drive on to Richmond by suppertime. You said you'd see me in England."
Though Straw had graduated and Hutch resigned, the place itself -- the campus in sunlight, its order -- had kept Hutch from thinking of the hours that followed their bath in the spring. Now the different place which Straw constituted, in power and need, demanded homage. The sight of the stripped boy asleep in his arms last Saturday dawn stood clear in Hutch's mind. He watched it gladly with no regret. "We'll drive down to Cornwall -- Tristan, Tintagel. You liked that in class."
Straw nodded -- "I liked it" -- still grave as an arbiter.
Or a god -- young god of Want and Use, no more kind or cruel than electric current. Hutch thought that also, then said "Let's pack."
The three-hour silence of the drive to Richmond -- across the Shenandoah and the last tine of mountains in afternoon light -- had come over Hutch like total sleep, an apparently endless depth of rest into which he could dig with easy hands, no dreams to meet. Welcome as food, though he hadn't thought of the past few days as trial or punishment. He accepted the rest, drove his old Chrysler gently but fast, and managed an almost perfect exercise of his kindest skill -- life in the present. The future vanished before him, no trace -- his father's life without him; the choices Ann would face, the bid she awaited; the thousand accidents of settling in a strange place; the cold fear that soon his promise to work would uncover only empty shafts in himself and in plain view of the friends and kin who held his promise, a tangible note. The past existed only as happiness, snatches of memory of childhood peace -- whole summer hours in the swing by his grandmother, hearing her life; carving bark with Grainger, drawing hills with Alice. No agonized mother; no father drunk and stripped on a bare floor, dribbling piss; no need to choose one person from the world and love only that. The present was all -- his serviceable self borne on through evening and country peaceful as a child asleep, its own reward, toward nothing at all.
Yet of course toward Ann. When he entered her door at half-past six, there were no lights on; and he couldn't hear her. He set down his small bag and stood to listen -- still nothing. Was she gone on an errand? Gone for good? How much would he care? He waited to know but no news came, no feeling at least. He only hoped for the quiet to continue, and without conscious stealth he managed to walk the length of the hall with no board creaking. Then he stopped just short of the open kitchen door; there were small sounds there -- scraping, small splashes. He leaned out to see.
Ann was at the sink, looking west through the window, scraping potatoes. The light that was left fell in around her and lit her at the boundaries -- the line of her head and hair, her shoulders. She seemed to burn, very hot at the core; sunlight was only the breeze that fanned her and heightened her flare.
Hutch felt that he should be responding to her action, her work for him -- this living Vermeer unconsciously staged for no one but him; a loving and lovely woman in daylight, worked by love as by coal or steam. And he did feel grateful; but much more strongly, he felt the pity of the line she made -- the deceptive stillness of a human body which seems enduring when of course it is swept by time like a wind. He thought again that what set him off from others his age -- here at least; would it be true in Europe? -- was the fact he'd always believed in death, his mother's main gift. He'd always known that individual people leave apparently forever; that the hope of knowing, really knowing, any single person must be exercised now. And the only means of knowledge was touch. Rob had taught him that. Right or wrong, it was one more conviction which set Hutch firmly off from ninety-five percent of the people he met. They saw their bodies as hoards of treasure to be guarded unsleepingly; Hutch saw his as a nearly bare room, doors ajar.
Ann turned and made a few signs in the air with one empty hand.
Hutch said "Meaning what?"
She smiled. "-- Meaning I thought you had gone deaf and dumb, standing there so long."
"You heard me?"
"Why didn't you look?"
She said, "I couldn't think of anything to say."
"That's a new problem, right?"
A born narrator, she laughed once. "Right. But it's also new being left four thousand miles behind, typing letters for a lawyer and peeling potatoes for just myself."
The depth of the room -- twelve feet -- was still between them; and in those few words, the sun had set, blue dusk had risen. Hutch felt a powerful need to leave; to say a plain "Sorry," then turn and go.
But Ann made another set of signs, both hands.
He recalled she'd learned sign language as a girl -- Girl Scouts or school. "Are you really spelling words?"
"Yes." She made the phrase again.
"Still lost," he said.
So she came on toward him, a finger to her lips. One step away she stopped and said, "The young lady said, 'Leave me something to remember.' You got anything you could spare to leave her?"
Hutch smiled. "Tell her yes."
She led on past him through the darkened hall.
He followed. She shared his trust in touch, the body's hunt for ease and honor.
In a speechless half-hour, they each found both -- the ease that follows successful grounding of a long day's chagrin, the mutual honor two satisfied bodies award one another for candor and nerve. Then Hutch fell asleep in the dark beside Ann, and her arm on his chest became in three minutes the dream of the tunnel. He'd endured the dream from early childhood, though not for some years. Not a story but a trial -- far underground he must dig for his life through a tunnel no bigger than his own clothed body, inching forward only with the strength of his nails which he knew to be bleeding, though he couldn't see.
When he'd spasmed and whimpered more than once, Ann shook him. She knew the dangers of stopping a dream, and she shook too gently.
So he dug on awhile.
Ann let him go but pressed her mouth forward till she brushed his ear; then whispered her menu, "New potatoes, Swiss steak, snap beans --"
Hutch was still.
Ann said "Banana pudding."
Hutch said, "Let me leave you this one green banana for future use." His hand found her fingers and set them on his crotch. It was simple to turn and meet her lips.
She said, "I accept it and will name it for you," though the sense she had in her warming palm was of sleeping birds, blind and bare but close in a nest and shielded by her.
The whole last hour of the long drive home, Rob pushed for speed to make it by dark. But even the light load of Hutch's belongings strained the old engine and defeated the plan. When he saw he couldn't be there much before eight, he concentrated on a second small chance -- that Grainger had come out as promised to check, feed Thal, and leave a few lights on (she still dreaded dark). So he made that his aim -- the lighted house; the nine-year-old Boston bulldog, fed and gassy. And it drew him on successfully, hardly thinking; only seeing those two modest hopes, both likely. He got to the mail box at ten to eight -- just the paper and a bill from the freezer-locker plant -- then geared down to climb the half-mile of drive, still rutted from winter. But at the bend, past the last stand of pines, the house was black as the sky behind it. Rob actually stopped in disbelief and tried to recall the last time Grainger failed him -- never before. Was he sick or was Eva? Was he in there dead (Grainger was sixty-two, with high blood-pressure)? It took main force to start up again and finish the trip.
The flashlight was also dead, from last night. Rob stepped to the ground in thick dark and hurled it far as he could; if it crashed, he never heard it. He felt his way slowly, feet low to the ground, through the yard to the steps. Then he climbed carefully. On the porch he waited in final hope someone was inside -- Grainger or a drunk or an angel of death. Not even the scrape of Thal's claws at the door. He called once "Grainger." Then "Thal." Then he whistled. Still as slate.
So he went to the door. The knob turned freely; warmer air rushed to meet him but nothing else. He could hear Thal though, her disastrous lopped-snout struggle to breathe now quickened by fright. He knew she was sitting in her gunshell box at the back of the hall, shuddering hard; but he didn't try the light. He stood on the sill and said, "Thal, please explain why it's dark like this."
Thal snorted and sneezed but held in place.
"Are you starving?" Rob was hoping she knew him by now (she wouldn't have barked at a stranger with an axe unless he struck Hutch).
But she stayed and her shivers had the rabies tag jingling at her neck like a midget dancer -- terrified or glad?
Rob took a step in and reached to his left for the light switch. Nothing. He flipped it three times, then felt his way to the low hall-table and found the lamp. Nothing. He said, "Miss Thalia, have you eaten the wires?"
She was suddenly still.
He found the table drawer where he kept his only matches safe from mice, then cupped his groin against bumps and groped with the free hand for the oil lamp waiting on his bedroom mantel. He hoped there was oil. His hand found the pistol -- his Grandfather Kendal's loaded revolver now fired just six times a year, on Christmas day, to prove it worked. It had never failed but had never been needed, not in Rob's recollection. Now he read it like a blind man, from the scored wood butt to the cooler barrel, tamping the open bore -- too small for a finger to probe, though he tried it calmly. Then he found the lamp and only then struck a match -- yes, half-full. He lit it. Quick white flame, the hot smell of coal oil, yellow light as loving as any one hand that had ever touched him. He faced the door. "Thal, we're safe now. Light."
"Light, old lady. Come here and see." He even slapped his thigh.
Nothing. Was she gone?
He took the lamp and, cradling the chimney, entered the hall again and took enough slow steps to let the glow reach her.
At its touch she snorted, stood up fully, and did the little horizontal welcome-home shimmy with her wide spayed rear.
Rob wanted her to meet him. "Step here," he said and whistled through his teeth.
Gradually she came, still a-dance but looking down, no longer afraid but not yet clear of the doze and dream of two days alone.
When she got up near him, he squatted and set down the lamp and scratched her throat -- vigorous digs. "Has Grainger been here?"
She loved it, threw her head back as if plunged into some serious bliss more welcome than rest, and peed a small puddle in token of thanks.
"I see you're not perishing for water at least." He stood and went to the screen to let her out. As he passed the table, he could now see enough to notice a white sheet of paper he'd missed, propped against the phone. Thal took her time debating the wisdom of going, then went; and Rob brought the lamp back to read the note.
Rob, I was out here at 5 o'clock. Fed Thal and left you and her some lights on. Miss Eva expecting you for dinner tomorrow at 12:30. Then I'll come out with you and unload Hutch's stuff. Hope he was well and you gave him a kick in the tail from
He needs it.
Rob lifted the receiver of the phone; it hummed. So he found the number and called the power company. A young woman answered, a girl's voice really. He told her he had got home to find his lights out.
"You checked your fuses?"
"No but it's failed on at least two circuits, and I don't want to play with a house old as this."
"How old?" she said.
"A hundred-ten years and dry as east Egypt." Then he laughed. "What the hell has that got to do with anything?"
She said, "Let it burn. And you take pictures -- make lovely Christmas cards."
Rob laughed again. "Have I got the power company?"
"No the firebug-ward at the State Hospital."
"Who are you?"
"When are visiting hours?"
"Every Sunday all day. I wear pink and wait." Then she laughed at last. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's been a hard evening and you sounded nice. No, power is off all out your way. Lightning hit a substation."
"Has there been a storm?"
"Lord, where have you been? Thought the world was over."
"-- In Virginia," he said. "Just now drove in. It doesn't even seem to have rained out here."
"You out near Essex?"
"No wonder," she said. "You all are deprived in general out there."
"Would you like to help?" In the pause that followed, Rob gave no thought to whether he'd angered her; he spent some seconds realizing that he was actually killing himself -- this racing tumor -- out of pure need for help: the help of close company, lacking ten years. He was building a little partner in his chest, which would stop when he did.
The girl said, "Shoot, I'm worse off than you. You know what a girl makes, starting down here on the weekend switchboard?"
She'd chosen not to freeze; Rob felt thankful but afraid he'd lost her now. Not that he thought any meeting was likely, only that her bright voice had propped him when he'd had no hope of a prop.
"You got you a lantern?"
"A kerosene lamp as old as the house; but it works, yes ma'm. Nice gentle light. Worst mistake ever made, bulb-light on human faces."
"You're older than you sound. You must date back." There was still the tug of interest in her voice, beyond politeness.
"Old enough to have sense," he said.
"Then tell me something true to see me through the night. I've got four calls blinking at me right now."
Rob didn't need to think but gave it to her truly the moment she asked. "You've helped one deprived soul out near Essex."
"No charge," she said. "I'm glad to have talked to a courteous voice."
"My name is Rob."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayfield. I was Tilda King. I knew you at school -- never took your class but watched you from a distance. You'll have light soon." She winked out quick as a fallen star.
By then Thal had drained and was back at the screen door, yipping for entry.
The lights stayed out while he ate a cold supper of cheese and white bread. He tried to read the paper; but kind as it was, the oil light strained his eyes before he got far. He read a last sentence on the lower front page -- "Mistaken for a turkey, Roscoe Bobbitt was shot in the face Tuesday evening at his home" -- then thought he might phone his mother to confirm he'd see her tomorrow. She didn't need a call; she knew he'd be there. For all the nearly seventy years of reasons life had offered her for doubting a future, she went on trusting that her plans would unfold -- and if not, she'd survive. Or Hutch -- he doubted he could bear to hear Hutch this soon again (when Hutch had said he'd phone from New York Sunday, Rob had said, "We've made a nice personal goodbye. Let's don't string it out down the seaboard on wires"); he was anyhow with Ann now, hardly waiting for his father. Or sleep -- could he sleep? He sat at the kitchen table and wondered -- testing his body for sufficient exhaustion; its agreement to acquiesce in a few hours, prone and not dreaming.
It did seem weary but it made him no promise. What else was there though? -- to go out with Thal and walk them both senseless in an evening still warm and close as a loft, to drive in to Fontaine and see his mother early or chance finding Grainger awake at his radio; or step ten feet to the pantry and take the pint of bourbon he kept there, sealed, as test and proof of his vow not to drink; then drink himself out. He weighed each of them; wanted no single one more than sleep, if that would come.
He wanted his son here with him to the end. He wanted his wife, dead twenty-five years. He wanted Min Tharrington, who'd wanted him for years; then had left him when he chose to rear his son here. He wanted not to die -- well-behaved so long, still young as men went in his dogged family, still lonely as he'd been from the day he was born (excepting odd stretches which, counted end to end, might make a few weeks from a life of -- what? -- two thousand-six hundred weeks). He bedded Thai down in her box, let her lick the last salt from his thumb; then fumbled toward his own room, stripped, slept at once -- no substantial dream, only moments of gratitude in which he tasted the grainy brown blankness of the rest and managed to think If where I'm headed is the least like this, I can gladly go.
Hours later -- 2:40 by the clock -- he was waked by Thal at the edge of his bed. She couldn't reach high enough to see him fully; but she hadn't jumped or barked, only propped on the side rail and watched till he turned. They were scalded in light. The naked bulb suspended over Rob was burning. He sat up. "You scared?"
She wasn't; she'd only been waked herself and had come to show him. Ears back, grinning with the excess joy which seized her several times a day and would long since have worn a human flat-down, she strained to kiss him.
He rolled near to let her, not touching with his hands but repeating her whole name -- "Thalia" (Hutch had named her as a puppy for the muse of comedy, in honor of the ease with which simple pleasures exalted her). When she'd had her fill, he said, "Hours till day. Please turn out the lights and go back to bed."
She considered it.
Then Rob hauled himself from the damp sheets and stepped to the hall. Grainger at least had kept his promise -- there was light from the kitchen, the front bedroom, the porch, the hall. It was not till he moved toward the porch and caught himself in a mirror that he. saw his dick wagging solid before him, half-gorged with the sham immunities of sleep. He stopped and turned full-face to the glass. He could hardly remember using it before (mirrors were quick resorts for shaving; this big one hung here because, when his mother was furnishing the house, she said, "Any man teaching schoolchildren needs to check at least his buttons as he runs out the door"). Despite the lights and the unshaded windows by the door, he took himself in hand and stroked till he crested hard again above his curly navel -- the bare head as eager as ever and sleek with the same purple blood, same hope. The belly and chest it pointed to were still lean and white, the nipples high and fiat. Thal had gone to her box, but he spoke to her now. "I'm grateful to you, Thai -- never say I'm not -- but keep this in mind when you outlast me: it was some kind of shame and disgrace to life that Rob Mayfield was left here with you. He refuses the blame."
She didn't look up.
He took the phone again, dialed the operator, and placed a call to Min Tharrington in Raleigh. They hadn't met since Christmas, hadn't spoken since he called to thank her for a birthday card in March; but late as it was, he had no question of his right to wake her. Four rings -- she was gone, never took more than two (she lived in three rooms). In an instant he felt what he hadn't felt till now -- I will not bear this.
But she answered, her voice drugged with something -- surely sleep.
"I woke you up."
"No you didn't."
"You're lying." He was already smiling -- some chance of reprieve, his old delight in her lifelong refusal to admit anybody had ever caught her sleeping when mostly after ten she would answer like a mummy or a child waked to pee.
"I was stretched out reading"; she paused as though gone. "Even if I wasn't you could say you were sorry."
"But I'm not," Rob said.
"That's nothing new."
By then she was clearing; he could hear little puffs as she propped up in bed. "There is something new," he said.
"Can I stand to hear it?"
"You'll have to judge that. Will you be there Sunday?"
"I'll be here, Rob, till they wheel me out."
"Sunday then about four o'clock?"
"Is that the new thing? -- you paying me a visit?"
He knew that it was. He didn't want to tell her anything, only see her, touch her if she'd let him after so long. "Yes," he said.
"Come at five. I might even fix us a meal."
"Too hot," Rob said.
"Might change by then."
There was nothing else to say -- not now, this late -- but the sweetness of having one familiar voice answer when he spoke (even sixty miles off) was almost sufficient to rescue this day, the day that had passed. "Will it be just you?" he said.
"What's that meant to mean?"
"On Sunday. Will there be anybody there with us?"
"Just the ferns." Min laughed. "You remember the ferns; they've multiplied. Glad something here has."
"Only checking," Rob said. "Now go back to sleep. See you Sunday at five."
"No, wait," she said quickly; then stopped a moment. "Let me say just this -- I'm here alone now, I will be Sunday and every day after. We chose that, remember?"
"I remember you chose it."
"Rob, it's too late to fight. You know what I mean."
"You sleep." She hung up then.
Even dropped that suddenly, he still felt reprieved. He stood with the dead receiver at his chest as if to broadcast a set of heartbeats to whoever might listen -- strong, a little fast. Then he said again "Sunday," louder than before.
Thal looked up, jingling. She took his rising inflection to be some sort of invitation; and game as ever, she jumped to the floor, shook once, sneezed, watched him -- more closely than anything else had watched him except his young wife and Min as a gift.
He said, "I'm sorry. False alarm -- for you anyhow, old lady. Back to bed."
She held her place and shook again, happy.
"You feel like a ride to Raleigh on Sunday"
She felt like anything but pain or fright.
"You'd wait in the car though -- you understand that? Couldn't have you, at your age, witnessing what I hope to witness. Might finish you off."
She was losing interest; she turned to gnaw a flea.
Rob smiled. "May very well finish me off, finish all involved." He doused all the lights and slept again easily.
That morning -- Friday -- Hutch breakfasted with Ann, drove her to work; then headed south on the turnpike for Petersburg, twenty-five miles in full hot sun. By quarter to ten he had found the building, a 1920s brick apartment-house with limestone Chinese lions at the entrance and dragon rainspouts. He'd never been here before but climbed to the third floor and found with no trouble the bell labeled Matthews. He heard its dim ring and the quick response -- sharp steps forward from several rooms back-and felt the delight of hope.
She had felt the same and opened smiling -- Alice Matthews, his mother's friend. She studied him a moment; then said, "Dear God, when have I seen you?"
He said, "Labor Day, almost nine months."
"You're grown," Alice said. With both long hands she stroked her own cheekbones, to show him the site of the change in himself. "What happened?"
Hutch laughed. "Is it that bad?"
She waited. "Oh no. It's fine; you're gorgeous. I was just surprised."
"You're always surprised."
"So I am," Alice said. "It keeps me young." She stood back finally to beckon him in. "You haven't seen this."
He hadn't. She had moved in January (her father having died at ninety-three and left her well-off, she'd quit her teaching after thirty years and improved her quarters). The first room was long and light with high arched ceilings, rough rabbit-gray walls on which squads of pictures hung; the old davenport and chairs were freshly covered in umber velvet and stood on a deep wine-colored rug. The lean new grandeur was startling after years of the crowded teacher's-rooms she'd camped in -- wardrobes and hotplates.
Alice said, "You hate it. You think it's wrong."
Hutch went to the sofa and sat by the table, which bore only one book -- Etchings of Rembrandt. Then he said "No it's right" and knew he was honest. She'd earned the space surely as if it had waited here, a visible goal through all the years but sealed till now.
She smiled. "It is. I hoped you'd see it. Everybody else of course thinks I'm flat crazy -- 'You'll die if you quit; you've been teaching too long.' I'll say I have. In thirty-odd years of public-school art, I taught some sweet children -- a few of them beauties so stunning you longed to freeze them on the spot in their one perfect day -- but I never taught a single one that wanted what I knew, the little I knew, and thanked me for it."
Hutch said, "Not so. I've been thanking you steadily since I was fourteen."
Alice nodded. "You have. Yon shame me, fairly. But I never taught you."
"Just everything I know."
"What's that?" Alice said. She still hadn't sat but stood before him, straight and attentive as though this were more than a courtesy call -- some final chance to break through screens and see truth plain. The money and ease had not cooled her fervor.
"The thing I know now is, I'd like a cup of coffee."
She balked a moment, loath to stop in her search. Then she grinned. "It's ready. Sit still and I'll bring it."
He sat, to give her a pause for calm, and looked round the walls -- mostly familiar. At his left a few old reproductions -- Giorgione's cave "Nativity," Henner's "Fabiola," a big Gainsborough girl's head, the Kritios boy. On the broad wall opposite, landscape drawings and watercolors by Alice and her friends -- among them, his own laborious copy of a mountain and trees in the country near Goshen, done the day he'd met Alice eleven years ago. At his right something new -- eight portrait photographs, men and women, different ages, some smiling, some sober (he recognized only himself and his mother). He walked toward those. The older man and woman would be her parents; they showed bits of her. But the other three -- two men and a woman, all young, in their twenties. Kin or friends? He knew Alice had one long-lost brother, but neither of these boys was like her at all. The younger in fact was younger than he'd first thought, seventeen maybe. The girl was fine, her shoulder to the camera with the sideways glance so popular thirty years before and so likely to show any face at its best -- the line from forehead to chin that mimicked the line of a straight back and good high buttocks. He straightened her frame.
Alice entered with a tray. "Do they break your heart?"
"They still break mine. That's why they're in here." She set down the coffee and stood beside him. "I carried them round in a folder for years, thinking someday I'd have space to hang them. So when all this space opened wondrously, I framed them and hung them by my bed back there." She pointed behind her, then studied the pictures a moment. "Couldn't take it." She sat to pour coffee.
Hutch joined her. "Take what?"
She shook her head, looking down, as though she wouldn't speak. But when she gave him his cup, she said, "-- The fact that they're gone."
"Sure you are."
"I'll be back."
"No you won't, not for me. You left me when you were fifteen years old."
Hutch smiled. "I really don't see it that way."
And by then she was smiling. "Doesn't matter how you see it. I know how it is. We spent a good part of two summers together when you were a boy. Then you'd got all I had and were grown and went elsewhere."
"I thought I'd been taking from you right on; I know I have. But I had Rob to see to and my Grandmother Mayfield."
Alice shook her head again.
"Did you want me to stay?"
When she looked up her face was clear and young, taut with deprivation. "I wanted everyone of you to stay and you knew it. I asked you all daily, every day you knew me." She drank a long draft of very hot coffee.
Hutch could see two choices -- to stand at once and leave without speaking (what his father might do, half the men in his family) or to deal calm hands and play them out. The first was his preference, but he looked to the pictures again and was held. "Who are they?" he said, "-- the ones I don't know."
She waited awhile, then decided to tell him. "My mother and father, then Rachel Hutchins Mayfield, Hutchins Mayfield, Marion Thomas, York Henly, Callie Majors."
"How many are dead?"
"My parents and your mother. The rest are no more than three hours from here, in a well-tuned car -- which my car is."
"You know where they are?"
"Sure. They're all three chained-up to glum or dumb mates."
Hutch remembered her speaking of Marion Thomas the morning they'd met -- a boy she loved in high school and never told. So he said, "You told me who Marion was a long time ago. Which one is he?"
"On the lower left there."
Hutch saw it was the young one -- a foursquare face looking gravely out, clipped straight hair, a celluloid collar, Scotch-plaid tie. "If he never knew, how did you get the picture?"
"From the paper at home. He had won a trip to Washington for selling the Grit, and our paper ran his picture. I saw my chance. I wrote in and asked to buy the original, not thinking that it surely belonged to his mother and would be retrieved; and you know they sent it to me -- next day, free, not a word of comment. Just as if it was my due." She took another draft. "For once they were right."
Hutch said "York and Callie?"
"Callie's the girl who's not your mother; York is the boy who's neither you nor Marion."
"They were friends?" Hutch said.
Alice laughed. "Oh enough! -- too much about me. Yes sir, they were friends I worshiped and loved (two different things); but they're no longer active in my present, shall we say? Now tell me what matters. Tell me all your plans."
Hutch said, "I can't remember what I've written you."
Alice laughed again. "Precious little, dear bean. Your letters are as generous as a Christmas box from Hetty Green."
He nodded. "I'm sorry. I'll do better in England."
"That's a promise?"
"Yes ma'm." She had slipped off her shoes and cuffed in the chair; Hutch could see she meant to hear him out. They'd always had this right over one another -- permission to ask any question and be answered. Despite the twenty-six years between them, they'd never lied or bent or held back. He suddenly knew he'd tell her now -- anything; she must only ask.
She started. "So it's Oxford?"
He nodded. "Has to be. When we sold that timber of Mother's last fall, I thought I could take my part of the money and buy at least a year in Europe -- to roam round; then settle maybe, start my work finally."
"Whatever. I'm still scared to say. In any case the Draft Board said No to that. With a teacher's deferment they can't let me off -- there's a risk I might enjoy it -- but they said if I planned to do further study (a little guaranteed pain), they'd back me to the moon. So I sent a few letters and found to my surprise that any American smart enough to tie his shoes and willing to pay can get into Oxford or Cambridge in a minute. And in fact they're cheap, cost a lot less than here."
"So you'll study what?"
"As little as possible; I'm not sure yet. Their letters are sublimely uninformative -- little handwritten notes: Dear Mayfield, You'll be assigned rooms in college. No need to seek digs. I like the Mayfield; makes me feel I'm a soldier in the desert campaign with Rommel bearing down."
"Is it Magdalen College?"
"No they didn't want me for some secret reason, maybe not rich enough; they're famous snobs. Merton did and it's oldest; and Eliot was there, hiding out from the First War, so that's a good omen. Far as I can see, once you get past their looks, all the colleges-have the same good and bad points. The good is -- they leave you very much to yourself. The bad is -- they all have pleistocene plumbing, no heat, and hog food."
"Have you got your long johns?"
"Grandmother bought those the day I was accepted."
Alice nodded. "Fine. I bought you a chain."
Hutch smiled but plainly didn't understand.
"-- To chain yourself down."
"Will I need that? Why?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. Is your coffee too cold?"
"No, tell me what you meant."
"Just jealous," she said.
"No you aren't. I need to know."
She sat up, extended her feet to the floor, and faced him straight. She looked her age again, not tired but worn from unrewarded waiting. "This is not fair," she said. "I know we've been friends. I know you were glad as a child to find someone who'd read a book or two and could halfway draw and was lonely as you. You've gone past that and I really don't mind-I'm a small-town spinster with appropriate resources; never once thought I was Rosa Bonheur or wanted to be. So you were not mine, and I made very few claims on you through the years. But here now lately, with your mother's face near me, I see I was wrong. Or wrong not to state what I knew all along -- you're mine as much as Rob's, more than anyone else's. I'll tell you how. I loved your mother before you were born. When she came to Lynchburg to Father's sanitarium, nineteen years old and out of her mind -- wild as a panther, thinking she had a growing child in her womb and had never touched a man -- I loved her on sight. I was one year older and had already winnowed through a big hill of evidence that I'd live life out alone as a waterhole in deepest Death Valley. Poor Marion there was my main indication -- barely knowing I existed, he showed me I was cursed to choose every time, from any room I entered, the person who possessed two distinguishing traits: some odd startling beauty which many would miss and the utter inability to love Alice Matthews. I sound self-pitying. I'm not. I'm honest. And I know I'm a fool, a fool the size of the Gobi Desert -- I've tried to change; they've tried to bleach Negroes -- but here was your mother, grand as a spring storm, and she loved me back. For more than a month in the spring of 1925, when she was nearly well, she loved only me. Or clung to me; I called it love -- still do, since the ways she found to cling to me (whole nights) were the final ways we ever love." Alice stopped and waited a moment, still facing him. "You still want to know?"
"I'm not upsetting you? You don't think I'm crazy?"
She said, "I'm not lying anyway. Count on that."
"I do," Hutch said. "I have for years."
She nodded. "Fine. You're what we made." She stopped again, then thought she had finished and stood to take the cups.
He touched her arm, bare and cool. "I don't understand."
So she sat on the edge of the chair, looking down, and said, "I didn't know how odd it would sound -- worse, crazy: a cracked old maid inventing life backward."
"It's the only kind of life there is."
Alice laughed. "O Diogenes, praise to thy wisdom!" Then she looked, saw him shamed in his innocence, was sorry, and laid out the rest of what mattered. "What's hard to say but true is this -- I loved your mother before you were born. For some weeks I gave her the care and attention she'd craved and lacked. I was too young to ask her to stay with me, too young to know we would never find better -- or half as good. Rob stepped in and asked. In the silence round her, she answered Yes. But through the four years they had together, she still turned to me for all he couldn't give -- steady care, I mean (I could watch her, not blinking, for days on end and never be tired); we never touched again except to greet and part, with Rob looking on. Then you were born, which ended her. Half-ended me too. I saw you when I came to her funeral of course; but after that, not till we met again in Goshen. You were what? -- fourteen. Within six hours I knew you were mine -- the thing that was left of your mother and me, mine at least as much as Rob Mayfield's, made out of me sure as mountains are made out of hot blind rock." She waited, then held out her hands as if for shackles. "Lead me to the madhouse." She laughed again.
Hutch closed her wrists in his own dry fingers, then kissed her forehead.
"Don't fail us," she said.
"What would failing be?"
"Not honoring us, the courage we had -- your mother and I as girls, dumb gifts -- to take what food the world provided and make life from it."
"I won't," Hutch said, knowing he meant it and grateful for the order but warned by the heat of her solitude, the speed and spin of her self-intoxication. He'd come here the way he came as a boy, to tell one sane unshockable soul his clattering secrets of need and fear and fevered hope. She'd asked him nothing more serious than where he'd sleep for the next twelve months. Well, he'd answered that -- on a no doubt narrow cot in south-central England. He could head toward that now, clean, unencumbered, also callow and cruel.
Rob's mother said "Summer" as she opened for him; as usual she was right. Here two-thirds through spring was a broad summer day; and though the yard oaks were already full-leaved and shaded the porch, enough of the dry light reached down to show her unchanged in her ease -- Eva Mayfield, born Kendal in this same house sixty-eight years ago, gone from here only the twelve months it took her to marry, bear Rob, and learn that her own life required this place and service to her father long as he lived (with young Rob a watcher at the rim of the work). In all that mattered -- the line, eyes, smile -- she was still the gift he had first known and needed. Only the brown hair was pure white; the skin slightly thinner, more porous to sun.
"Yes beautiful," he said.
She waved him in and reached up to kiss him in the notch of his jaw. "You're twenty minutes late. Sylvie may want to kill you."
Rob said, "About time -- no I'm sorry. Had to stop by the superintendent's office." (He'd stopped by to say that, barring intervention of a personal nature by the right hand of God, they should not count on Rob Mayfield teaching school again -- September or ever.)
"You're done at least." She had already turned and stepped toward the dining room.
He could not help a laugh.
Eva didn't stop but said, "All your paper-work in? Every grade on every dummy?"
"Then you're all set to help me now."
She meant the list of chores she always gathered through the winter to lay straight on him the day school closed (she feared few things; Rob-at-leisure was one). Yet what he thought as he followed her back was not how high the ironies were stacking but that so far she hadn't mentioned Hutch, the satisfactory object of her gaze for twenty years. And he thought of explanations -- she was jealous that Rob had had last sight of Hutch as he wandered off, or Hutch had phoned her last night or today and fed her curiosity; or now Hutch was gone, she was forcing herself to relearn the strokes of a solitary swim in cold water otherwise empty of life. It didn't matter which, maybe some of each. Let her ask for Hutch then if she wanted news. Behind the short tale of Warm Springs, Goshen, the Caverns, the packing, stood Rob's own news -- the first real freshness he'd brought her in years, since he claimed he'd finished drinking. It was only a question -- would she see him through? He wanted to know today, no later (Monday Hutch would be past recall). He wanted to stop in his tracks in the hall and say, "Mother, help me. I strongly suspect I can finally show you a need even you won't wave off, smiling." But he went on, begged pardon of Sylvie in the kitchen, then sat to let them gorge him again.
And afterward, cooling on the porch by Eva, he'd still found no way to start and tell it. Never having mentioned the early signs or his visits to the doctor, whatever he said now must be total news -- nothing gentler than "Watch me. One more man is leaving," though it hadn't escaped him that the shock might also be a kind of gift, another stripping-off from her life that had sought simplicity avidly as ships' hulls or wings. Leaving only Hutch -- and he nearly launched, wherever he landed. So against his vow, he started with Hutch. "Don't forget to tell Grainger to come before dark. Got to unload the truck before another rain, and I don't feel up to doing it alone."
Eva nodded. "He promised he'd be back by three. I can't fathom why he's starting rabbits again" (he'd gone thirty miles in her ear to buy a pair of rabbits).
Rob said "Hutch has left him."
She studied his face, the first time today, but could see no wish to harm in his eyes. Then she looked to the street, now softening in glare. "Hutch left every one of us three years ago. Grainger knew it good as me."
Rob smiled. "Many thanks for keeping it from me. I guess I thought he was mine till now, till yesterday anyhow at 2:15."
Still facing out she said, "He has been. I'm sorry. You were what he hung onto, harder than he knew. He set down the rest of us gentle as birds; he's holding you still."
Rob saw it was the only defeat she'd conceded in a life of wins, only one he'd witnessed. He knew what it cost her; and though he doubted her accuracy (he'd ceased understanding Hutch a long way back), he also saw his chance and took it. "Now he'll have to let go, even me."
"He won't. You made him."
"I did. I remember -- upstairs in this house. But Mother, his wishes in this don't count."
Eva searched him again and found nothing new. "He'll be back; you watch."
"You watch." He half-smiled.
"Then you had a falling-out?"
"No." Rob was stopped by a bubble of laughter. "You could say that."
"You say it. You're the cryptic down today."
"Yes ma'm. I'm the one; I'm the fall-out, Mother."
"Have you taken a drink?"
"Would to God I had. I'm dying instead."
"All are, darling."
"Look, please ma'm."
She looked. There was something new, just now -- a fullness that pressed on his face from within, excess power. She thought it was early sorrow for Hutch; it left him anyway younger than she'd seen him since Rachel's death, an odd rebirth in the impeded light. So she smiled. "Look fine."
"Thank you," Rob said, "but it's not the case."
Eva said, "Let's end the little mystery-hour. What's happened please?"
"I'm pretty bad off." With flat palms he struck both knees twice silently and breathed out hard. With the breath went a sizable quantity of pleasure, to be giving her at last the bedrock demand. His face dulled and shrank.
She saw it and believed him. "What can I do to help?" -- the simplest offer she'd ever made.
He couldn't say it straight but said it to the nearest tree, the maple that still showed rusty nailheads by which his Aunt Rena had measured his growth every birthday for twenty years. "I'm very much afraid that by fall I'll have to ask you to tend to me."
Eva nodded. "I can start today. Say the word."
"The word is my lungs. I've got extensive tumors, nothing left but to wait."
"Dr. Simkin says so?"
"-- And the best men at Duke; he sent them the X rays. It's in my spit."
"Do they want to operate?"
"No ma'm, it's scattered -- little shadows all over." He scrubbed his upper chest and then looked toward her.
"Get Grainger to move you in here today."
"Thank you, not yet -- six to nine months, they say. Let me do a few things."
"You didn't tell Hutch?"
"I wanted to but No."
"That was right," Eva said. "Tell him when it's time."
Rob could smile again. "When will that be, Mother?"
"I'll tell you," she said.
The fan belt had broken in Delaware, so they got to New York on Saturday evening too late to use their tickets to Bus Stop (twelve dollars wasted); but their rooms at the Taft were ready, side by side. Neither of them had much experience driving north of Washington, and they both were flat and glazed by heat and the hours of rudeness that stretched like yellow unbreathable fog north from the Susquehanna. They washed and agreed on separate naps; then supper, a walk, a late movie' maybe.
Hutch had slept an hour when he woke in the close dark -- a noise at his door. Someone repeatedly turned the locked doorknob and rattled the frame. He was naked but sat up and called out "Ann?"
No answer; then the door was still.
Could he have dreamt it? He found a wet towel in the blackness, draped it round him, walked to the door, and said again "Ann?" Nothing. So he opened it. Nothing. He leaned out. No one in sight on the long dim hall. A dream then or possibly the house detective (from previous trips he remembered them checking on trusting out-of-towners who left rooms open to the whole five boroughs). He shut it quietly and, awake by now, could see red light straining through the thin curtains. He went to the window and looked down the twelve floors to Seventh Avenue, surprisingly empty. Its emptiness always surprised and pleased him -- pockets of vacancy every few yards through the crammed blistered city. The first time he'd come here alone, four years ago, he'd walked everywhere and especially late at night with a growing exultation as he saw what was new and vital for a child reared in family webs -- that you truly could live among human people but not live with them; that endless swarms of unthinkable variety would pour from the ground and grant you license to study them forever, provided you never addressed or touched them. He wanted to dress and go straight down and walk till morning, but he went to the phone and asked for Ann's room. In a moment through the wall, he could hear the bell. Again and again.
The operator came on -- a chromium voice -- and said "No reply."
He said, "Please try again, 1232; must have got the wrong room," though he knew they hadn't -- in the bathroom maybe.
After nine more rings the operator said, "Your party's out, sir."
He said "No she's not"; but he hung up, chilled. Who was leaving who? Not lighting the room, he found his traveling clothes and dressed quickly, stepped to Ann's door, knocked, and called her name. No reply. Again. He tried the knob -- locked.
Far down the hall a man in his undershirt looked out and went on looking.
Hutch returned to his room, sat on his bed, turned on the reading lamp -- his mouth foul with bafflement about to be fear -- and said to himself as plainly as at school, "Something has started which you can't stop, and you are the cause." Then he took hold and tried to consider chances. She had waked up, tried to rouse him at the door, then gone down for coffee. She had left for home (why? -- he'd refused to let her wear his ring and register for one room as man and wife). She was still in the room, angry or dead. Having laid those out -- pieces on his board -- he gained the genuine competence of dread. He knocked once more and said "Ann, I'm worried." Then he phoned the operator and gambled on candor -- he was worried; could she help?
"Certainly," she said, her voice still hard. "Hang up and I'll call you back in five minutes."
He propped himself on the wooden headboard, shut his eyes, and tried not to think. But in twenty seconds he'd gone again through the list of chances, deepening the dangers. So he tried to seize control by asking, "Suppose each has happened -- then so what?" If she'd gone downstairs a page would find her. If she'd gone outside she'd be back soon. Independent as she was, she didn't court trouble; not from strangers at least. If she had died (strokes ran in her family but not this young), then the trip was off for another month maybe; an elegant stickhouse of plans would tumble. "Jesus," he thought. He meant his own blank monstrosity -- his amazement at that -- but it made him see that he'd asked no help from anything stronger than a telephone voice. He said his father's prayer and opened a drawer on a Gideon Bible. Then he shut his eyes again, opened the book at random, blindly ran a finger down the page, and stopped -- "Therefore night shall be unto you, that ye shall not have a vision; and it shall be dark unto you, that ye shall not divine." Her safety, her life close up by his seemed suddenly the urgent need of the world. For another two minutes, still stretched on the bed, he felt nothing else.
The telephone rang. "Sir, I get no response to a page in the lobby or the coffee shop. Any news up there?" With the last her voice was assuming life.
A long wait passed in which it seemed she had no other hope or had disconnected. Then she said, "I could put you through to Mr. Amsler, the night assistant-manager --"
Hutch said "All right" but as the ring started, he thought how helpless and absurd he'd sound. After two more rings he'd hang up and wait.
"Leonard Amsler speaking."
Hutch paused an instant with the sense that a broad wheel, oiled and poised, was waiting only for the sound of his voice to turn and plunge on a course it had already chosen and yearned toward. He said, "Mr. Amsler, this is Hutchins Mayfield, room 1230. I may have a problem. Miss Ann Gatlin and I checked in here at eight this evening -- she's in 1232. We were tired and agreed to nap for an hour, then meet for supper. I've had my nap but I can't contact her. Her phone doesn't answer. I've knocked on her door. We've paged downstairs."
"Then she must have gone out."
"Not without me, no."
Another long wait, then Amsler's voice descended in pitch and volume and slowed -- the professional clerk's preparation for trespass. "You seem to be worried. Any reason to think she'd behave untypically?"
Reasons flew up like bats; but Hutch said, "She'd been a little blue, yes."
He'd thrown the right switch, yielded crucial ground. Amsler jerked into gear, a galvanized frog. "I'll come right up and check her room. You're in 1230?"
"Yes, I'll wait for you here."
By then Hutch was more than half-sure they'd find her dead -- natural causes, murder, suicide. Once listed, the means of death didn't concern him, only the need to settle the fact and free in his locked throat the years of feeling -- tenderness, thanks -- he'd stored for this girl. He combed his hair, repaired his quick dressing, stepped into the hall. He didn't knock again but waited at his own door and, working his mind, tried to separate strands of the odor that filled all hotel corridors -- talcum, cold cigars, drying rubber goods, wallpaper glue.
The elevator opened; two men stepped out -- one in business clothes, the other a bellhop with a brass hoop of keys. When they reached Hutch, Amsler extended a hand -- "Len Amsler, Mr. Maitland" -- and the bellhop grinned.
"This is standard," Hutch thought. "They do this hourly." So he didn't delay them to hear his right name.
Amsler said, "Let's see what we have in the room. Mike, open the door."
Mike found his passkey, advanced on the lock with a hunched squinting stealth, and labored to turn it. "Sometimes these things take awhile to work" -- Irish as cold rain.
Hutch stepped toward the door. "I'd better look first."
Amsler said in his solemn telephone voice, "Mr. Maitland, you may be glad to have witnesses."
Hutch barely allowed himself to understand. What he suddenly felt was the laughter of trust; he trusted in some easy answer to this. And he actually smiled as he nodded to Amsler.
Mike opened the door on hot solid dark.
Amsler leaned in far enough to switch on a light. The room took a left turn; the bed was hidden. All they could see was Ann's open suitcase, her scuffed-off shoes. Amsler stepped back and said to Hutch, "We'll be right behind you."
Hutch tried once more to forestall discovery. He called "Ann Gatlin."
Amsler laid a firm hand against his back.
She was there on the bed, stretched on her stomach in a blue quilted robe, no other cover -- feet and calves bare. Her face was averted, hands palm-down at the sides of her head as if in surrender to whatever she'd met or was meeting now.
Hutch stood at the edge, in the hope of seeing breath.
Amsler stood beside him.
Mike, at the end of the bed, reached out and held her foot a moment. "She's warm, O.K."
Too late, Amsler waved to restrain him.
But Ann extended the touched foot farther, paddled it twice.
Hutch bent and took her shoulder; rocked it gently, calling her back.
She said, "I'm sorry. I thought I locked my door." Then she craned her neck and looked round, wincing in the raw yellow light. Her face was latticed with the damask of the covers, the muscles slack in the chaos of sleep. She was still too dazed to be puzzled by strangers.
Hutch said "Are you all right?"
She nodded and smiled, then noticed Mike and Amsler.
Hutch said, "We've been trying to rouse you half an hour. Thought maybe you were dead."
She nodded again. "I was." Then she smiled again. "Needed to be."
Hutch saw the men out, explaining she'd never done this before. He was dazed himself, by anger and thanks.
They ate downstairs -- club sandwiches and French fries -- then walked out into the warm damp night and laughed their way through a tour of Times Square. Once the scare had receded, Hutch was tired again; but Ann was ready to look till dawn (they'd agreed a movie was a waste of time). So he trudged on with her through open-fronted jazz bars, Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Museum, pinball arcades, bookshops, junk shops. Finally she insisted on paying three dollars to have Hutch photographed alone at a baize table playing out a hand of poker, chips stacked before him. In the finished print, ten minutes later, he was shown at play with three solid partners, all wearing his face at appropriate angles -- accomplished with mirrors and surprisingly good. They laughed and he ordered a second print to mail to Rob, but he knew something crucial had been stumbled on, and he knew Ann knew. He also knew he could ask her now to head back in. The sight of his four faces bluffing each other had drawn a firm line to the tawdry hour. Ann was suddenly quiet. Hutch was gray with exhaustion and the picture's news -- an unlosable game -- but also ringing in every cell like summer woods with the need to lay his skin on hers, to risk a partner.
Ann welcomed him in, but in her own room -- her one condition, that they be in her bed. And once he agreed and came back to join her, they didn't speak again for more than an hour. As they worked through the dark time, Hutch realized the splendor -- that they'd built this much in seven years together: the mutual right and total competence to please one another through measurable and surely memorable spaces as empty of words as the pith of a tree. And better than please -- the mitigation they could press from one another by the simple motions which practice had taught them, practice in the deepest courtesy of all.
When they'd each come to that at separate speeds, Hutch kissed her eyes, lay flat beside her, and slept at once.
As Ann heard his breathing shift to the helpless rate of surrender -- his daily change into what she dreamed all their days might be -- she rolled to her left side, huddled against him, burrowed her head in the curve of his arm, and laid her right hand fiat on his belly.
In the dream Hutch was having -- he'd dreamt in a moment -- he was still free to move his hand to cover hers.
She accepted that awhile, then questioned her right. If someone you've spent seven years of your life steadily learning like a hard foreign language -- learning to use, serve, honor, protect and three-fourths succeeding -- if that someone can one day decide to walk fiat away and give no reason, having asked for you every day of those years or at least never told you to haul-ass home, and you can't stop him -- don't know another way, have all but forgot everything you knew before him -- what right do you have to lie in a hot room high in the black air of New York City, the biggest collection of quitters and tearers ever gathered on one slim spit of land since land began, and bear the dead weight of your own private quitter's five resting fingers? To hell with right -- why be fool enough? She drew her hand out, spread it at her lips, and quietly puffed cool air across it. It seemed the first service she'd done herself in weeks, maybe months. Slowly not to wake him, she turned back apart till her body touched him nowhere. She would surely not sleep; she could lie alone though. In another two minutes he felt as far as Burma.
Hutch had waked when she claimed her hand. He'd understood at once and honored the withdrawal. He didn't move or speak. He had hoped to go -- and maybe return -- without ever trapping the act in words. He'd thought they could both resume, or forget, much easier without the nets of apology, blame, analysis, and hope that he (and all his kin) spun naturally as spider silk. But the evening's skirmish with possible disaster or comic abandonment had shown him he owed her as full an explanation as he knew and could give. He lay there till he knew it. Then he listened for her sounds. Silent as wax -- she was surely awake. He said, "May I talk for just two minutes?"
Ann paused long enough to give him doubts. "You can talk till noon, Demosthenes; but I don't guarantee Miss Gatlin will hear more than fifteen words."
"After that last nap I thought you wouldn't need sleep for weeks."
"Yes, well -- stop a moment in your rush toward progress and think how hard Miss Gatlin has lived in recent weeks. She should go under-ground and curl-up till Groundhog Day at least."
"Two minutes -- I promise."
She slid still farther away, then propped her head on the pillow but looked only up at the vanished ceiling. "Sure. Deal," she said, though she sounded gentle.
Hutch turned to face her, keeping the distance she'd set between them. He said it to the edge of her profile, where it caught the last of the light pumped toward them from the street. "I'm not leaving now because of any wish to lose you. I'm as grateful to you as to anyone alive, except maybe my father, and you understand that. But I'm twenty-five years old -- the way I figure it, more than a third of a normal lifespan -- and the trouble for us comes out of that. I've known you for only a part of that time, seven mostly good years. There were long years before you, and several more people; and what you and I've made cannot cancel that. I never meant us to; I never felt cursed or really burdened by, you know, all the layers of Mayfields and Kendals and Hutchins piled on me. What I have felt is full, crowded even. I'm the place where a good deal of time comes to bear, and several lives -- the only place on earth. You remember in the war they were always telling us not to waste a crumb or an atom of steel. I took them seriously then and still do. My people abandoned so much on my doorstep -- or had it snatched from them and set down here. There's no one but me left to use it at all, consume it, convert it, redeem back all my people pawned away -- their generous starved hearts." He paused, not feeling he'd lied or bragged but sure that his words built the statue of a fool, sure as Tar built the Baby. So he thought he'd finished.
Ann seemed to agree. She lay quiet a good while, though still propped and breathing attentively. Then she said, "You've got one whole minute left."
Hutch laughed. "I yield it."
"Then the question-and-answer period can start?"
"Yes ma'm -- one minute."
"Thank you, sir. I may need two of my own." She faced toward him slightly but kept her limbs clear. "This plan of redemption -- just how will that run?"
He laughed again as he felt himself slam down, wing-shot. "Slow as Christmas, I'll bet, with backfire and smoke. No, you know what I mean -- the work I'm planning." He saw her nod.
"You're stopping your own life to sit in a cold room with only yourself and chew on the little you know or have dreamt about a dozen dead people who mostly never saw you, surely never wished you harm -- that's as much as I know."
"And it makes us even -- it's as much as I know."
"Then I beat you," she said. "I know something else."
She faced him finally. "You're crazy."
Hutch laughed. "May very well be. It would be quite appropriate, another family custom."
"I was serious," she said.
"It's crazy to want to be a grown man at work? Ann, grown cattle work."
"Making milk" -- she nodded -- "for calves they've made. Bulls just eat and screw and have temper tantrums."
"In Spain they work."
"To get killed."
"Or free." He could see that her right hand lay extended on the crest of her thigh. It had offered -- he well knew -- to hold no one but him. He knew that the natural thing on earth would be to reach toward it, accept, take her with him. And the wish to touch her flooded him now, this soon again -- but touch not hold. He'd surrendered the right; only Ann could renew it.
Ann lay very still, transmitting nothing but the single dim line -- shoulder, arm, legs (her head was all dark, her feet in the linen).
It seemed again a sensible goal, near and possible but endless in promise. Hutch quivered with want but kept his place and studied what was visible, all it might mean. It was clearly the best chance offered anyone in his family for years to have what, with all his marginal hopes, he had never doubted was the central aim -- a well-paired life. But the aim for whom? Well, the animal world and, within it, that part of the human race that was not somehow lame or scared. Or designated by whatever hand of God, Fate, The Past to stand on the edge alone and stare inward steadily. Was he designated? For ten years at least he'd suspected so; and for all his native buoyancy, his huge but sporadic needs for the time and touch of others, he had more than half hoped so. In his own childhood he'd often felt like the low but well-built cooking fire round which, at distances carefully gauged, the members of his own blood-family wheeled -- for the sight and warmth, with occasional startling forays toward him (where he lay alone also). But when his own manhood flared up in him, it consumed his fuel and, though his family had never understood it, changed him to a member in their own ring of prowlers, impelled by hunger. He'd made his own forays, seized his own food -- none of which had lasted long, most of which had left him burned. Ann had been the exception. For almost a third of his life -- patient, funny, and as nearly inexhaustible as anyone he'd known or heard of ever -- she'd volunteered to want him and to want more of him than any other asker. Surely her knowledge was as usual right; he was crazy to go, to risk her absence whenever he returned. And risk it for what? -- for clear space and time in which to prove he was either a born outrider capable of calling in useful reports or a driven scout on solitary missions of value to groups huddled nearer the fire or a wheyfaced fool fed on flakes of his own dry skin and nails: an ordinary Mayfield, the latest of hundreds.
Ann sat up and fished for her half of the sheet, pulled it to cover her, then lay back and settled into what was her usual posture for sleep -- flat on her back, face rightward; hands laddered on her belly, which was calm now.
In a minute she'd be gone. Hutch slipped from his left hand the ring that had started as his great-grandmother's. He'd had it stretched when he reached his full growth; so he knew it would swallow any finger of Ann's, strong as she was. He closed it in his palm; then laid that fist on Ann's right hand, opened it slowly, and left the ring. It was warm as the air; he doubted she could feel it.
And she didn't move or speak for a while. Then she slid her left hand down to cover her right. "What does this change?" she said.
Hutch knew he didn't know. He had mainly acted to forestall her sleep -- feeling that tomorrow would be a new thing, that one night's sleep might build the last courses of a final wall between them. So he said "Nothing really."
"Then it's just a gold string."
"-- The string to keep me on till you know your plans."
"I think you know the ring means more to me than that."
"I know it's some heirloom."
They'd talked enough; he wouldn't tell her now. "It has a little history attached to it, yes. But for now what it means is, come to Rome at Christmas." They'd discussed a Christmas meeting when he first planned to leave; last month he'd told her No.
Ann stayed in place, quiet. Then slowly she found the proper finger on his hand and replaced the ring.
Hutch said "What does this change?"
"Nothing really," she said. "It means I am still on a string, my own string. I plan to stay on it till Thanksgiving Day, which gives us six months. If the transatlantic postal system pulls the string hard and steady between now and then, I'll come to Rome at Christmas and hope for you there."
Hutch laughed once. "I fold."
They kissed, cool as cousins.
Sunday morning Sylvie showed up an hour late -- eight o'clock. She opened the back screen on Eva, fully dressed, drinking coffee at the table. But before she could comment on the oddness of that, she had to ask the question that had bothered her all night. She stood on the threshold with good sun behind her and said, "Miss Eva, how old am I?"
"The same age as me nearly, twelve days younger."
Sylvie stepped on in and set down the bag of ginger snaps she would eat through the day. Then she turned her back, took off her sun hat (a man's, wide-brimmed), and slipped on the red knitted skullcap that covered her gray hair entirely. Then she ran the cold faucet to clear the pipes -- she hated pipe water -- and said, "That don't help me one bit."
"You know my age. You fixed my last cake."
"I fixed every cake you had but one -- or watched Mama fix it. I've still forgot."
"I'm three score and ten minus two; so are you. Why is that so important?"
Sylvie didn't answer. Now the water was pure, she filled the percolator and plugged it in.
Eva said, "I've had all the coffee I need."
"That instant mess -- eat your stomach right out. You ain't the only one; Mr. Grainger got to eat. He ain't eat, is he?"
"Not that I know of. Haven't seen him since he left here for Rob's yesterday."
"The car is back. He'll come pulling soon." She sliced thick bacon and laid it in a cold pan, careful as a nurse. Then she turned to cracking eggs.
Eva said "You didn't answer."
"Must be I didn't want to. I may be making plans."
"To leave here. I ain't sticking round here for this integration, plan to save my skin for a lovely funeral."
"You know something I don't? You heard of any trouble?"
"Ain't saying what I heard. Don't need ears though to know mean white folks making they plans."
"Name two white people that were ever mean to you."
"If I gave you the list, I'd ruin this bacon -- you want some bacon, don't you?"
"And where would you go that didn't have trash of all shades, with their meanness?"
"New York," Sylvie said.
"Great Jonah! New York is the sink of the earth; they use colored people for sausage meat."
"May do," Sylvie said, "but they settled this integration long ago."
"Yes. You know what it means in New York City? It means that, for money, they'll let you sit your poor tired tail by a rich white woman on the bus for six blocks till she gets off at her air-conditioned house, leaving you to ride to Harlem and sleep with rats running cross your body big as dogs in the heat."
Sylvie turned her bacon. "Sound safer than it going to be down here when cutting start." She knew she was teasing, and fairly near the quick, but it suited her this morning; Miss Eva understood.
Eva didn't answer though.
And when Sylvie turned she saw what she hadn't seen for twenty-six years, since Eva's father died.
Eva faced the door, the warm sun, her eyes cupping water. It spilled down her cheeks, and she said "Be good to me."
"What's wrong with you?" But Sylvie stood her ground -- never go to Eva till Eva called you.
She didn't call. She dried her face and waited and then said, "I've got another dying to manage. I doubt I can do it."
"I don't," Sylvie said. She laid the perfect bacon on a brown bag to drain. When she poured in the eggs, she would ask for the name. But she heard Grainger's door open back in the yard, so she quickly said "Who sick?"
"Rob. Cancer. By Christmas."
Sylvie couldn't turn again. She said "Oh Jesus" for herself, for Rob. Then she said "Grainger know?"
"I doubt it. Rob lust told me yesterday -- after lunch; you'd left." Sylvie stirred seven eggs into flecked bacon grease and said "We'll do it." When Grainger stepped in and Eva stood to set his place, Sylvie said, "Radio saying peace coming soon."
Eva said, "Good morning, Grainger. Peace coming where, Sylvie?"
"All over. Any day."
Grainger said "Who said?"
"Some preacher," Sylvie said. "Big smart man, raking in money by the peck. Count on him to be telling it straight."
From the moment Min met him at the door, Rob had worked at reclaiming her -- his sense of her; whatever within her had held him six or seven years and had sent her to him since her own girlhood. Was it in her at all, a radiance, or simply a route his own desolation found and took? And the same for himself -- what had he shown her that made him a goal? Why had she found the means, after years of waiting, to wait no longer? Had they been plain fools? Or had they been right, till time canceled whatever signals they'd flown at one another? Were the signals gone forever? He felt no urgency to answer the questions; only to uncover from the debris of years enough of the girl he had sometimes wanted, then to want her again and ask for the chance -- just once, tonight, first time in ten years.
And though she'd disguised her former body in a uniform fifteen pounds of flesh, she did throw occasional messages of promise that time had not passed but had drifted like snow round one standing obstacle -- the first Min he'd known. In the dim alcove she used for a kitchen, Rob had stood three steps back and watched her assemble their supper -- chicken salad, lettuce, crackers, canned snaps barely warmed on her doll-house stove. When she'd got it on the tray, she'd turned and said, "You can take this in please and lay it out prettier than it deserves. I thought a cold feast was called for to damp such raging hearts." Then she'd laughed for the first time, eyes flaring wide -- her perfect feature, now mostly hooded. And when she'd offered him the second slice of icebox lime pie and he'd accepted, she'd returned with an equal second for herself -- "You're only middle-aged once; never waste an instant's chance at help. Food's the surest consolation, in a plentiful land." Yet after they'd finished and had sat back to rest, what Rob still hunted was some trace Min might want him after so long a gap for more than talk -- a slow Sunday killed.
She talked about work though. In recent years she'd lived as an independent genealogical researcher, mostly at the State Library and Archives in the interests of mainly northern women in their sixties and seventies who were either demonstrating to husbands and children that the family's roots plunged south for water or were rushing to plait some net against age -- made of dates, blank names, wills conveying mules and bedticks. She sat at the far end of her ruined sofa and said, "I've been working for a New Jersey lady with a Carolina past or so she hoped; it's turned out poorly so far, Baptist preachers stretching back toward Palestine. But anyway she's put endless money behind me, so I drove up last week around Mount Airy to look for graves. I was lost in short order and stopped for directions on the far edge of town at a low white four-room house with forsythia piled to the eaves. As I got to the porch, a tan dog ran right at me from the bushes, silent as cotton. I stopped of course to let him decide on mangling or welcome. But he never had time; he was still smelling ankles when an odd voice said, 'You come to get him?' -- not quite a cleft palate but something badly wrong in the roof of her mouth. A squat woman not much older than me, in a wash dress and sweater, was at the screen, smiling. I thought she meant the dog; and since he still was silent, I wondered whether everything on the place had voice trouble. But I said, 'Oh no I've come for directions. I'm afraid I'm lost.' The woman stamped her foot, drummed hard on the tight screen; and the dog flew off -- he'd dug a deep hole beneath a crepe myrtle, so he hid in that and watched me. Then she unhooked the screen and opened it to me and said, 'No ma'm. You're at the place.' A wonderful smell -- gingerbread, I still think -- was pouring out round her, which was why I went in. I was half-scared of her -- her eyes were such a light gray they seemed all but white, and her hair was fine as fur -- but the fact she was clean and the comforting smell made me go in. When I'd got in the living room and rearranged my eyes -- unpainted pine walls, hard chairs, not a picture -- I said, 'I'm looking for the homeplace of Stilby Warren or his family graves.' She went on smiling and pointed to the rocker and said, 'I'll find him for you. Just rest.' She'd seen I was tired; and peculiar as it all was, I actually rested -- ten minutes maybe. Not a sound from her. I don't think I slept, but I did shut my eyes. I know that for sure because, when I opened them, they'd adjusted even further to the cool dark air; and I saw that the far wall was papered, top to floor, with magazine pictures of children, trimmed neatly and glued without wrinkles. Every size and color -- the children, I mean (black as grapes, pink, yellow) -- though none were just babies, none too young to walk. Then she reappeared, quick and quiet as the dog. She had put on white anklet socks but was otherwise the same. 'He was almost packed,' she said. 'I just helped him some.' I noticed she was carrying a little tan suitcase, a child's case really with brass stud-nails and a curious lock." Min stopped and looked up; had she carried Rob with her this far?
He said, "You were scared at that point."
She waited to consider. "Funny thing is, no. She was too kind-looking, and I was still hoping her gingerbread was ready and would be my reward."
"Being there, having found her somehow. I'd already figured I was her only company since the war at least."
"What made you think that?" Rob said.
"The bareness, I guess -- the age of the pictures: every child but one was dressed in '30s clothes." Min moved to stand.
Rob saw his chance failing. "No, finish," he said.
So she sat back, laughed, and said, "I saw I had to stop her. I told her, 'I'm sorry but you misunderstood. The man I'm hunting died ninety years ago.' I stood but she stepped toward me and opened the valise. Laid in it was a doll -- a brown-headed boy -- dressed neatly in a handmade blue chambray shirt and black felt overalls with big pearl buttons. He was packed in tight with wads of what looked like baby underclothes and socks, a child's yellow toothbrush."
Rob said "You ran."
"No I didn't."
"-- Crazy as her. I'd have been halfway back to Raleigh by then."
Min nodded. "You would have."
He saw he'd offended. Good -- he had the power still. Bad -- she'd close against him. She'd started this, laughing, but she'd struck something more as she dug through the story in his presence and for him. He must take the small gift or be ready to leave. He said, "Any signs of a man on the place?"
She said "I wasn't looking." But she thought it through. "No I don't think there were. Signs of nobody really but I told you that."
"Were you dreaming?"
Min laughed. "Oh no I touched the boy. She raised up his hand."
"Was the lady a dummy?"
"A moron, you mean?"
"They keep dolls sometimes when they've got nothing else. I've seen morons sixty years old with dolls."
Min smiled. "Well, this one was just my age. No she looked all right. She was giving it to me."
"I didn't ask."
"Can I see him?" Rob said.
"If you want to drive to Mount Airy, sure. You don't think I took it?"
"Might have been the right thing -- polite anyhow: don't refuse a kind giver."
She said, "I didn't. I held the open ease and asked his name. She said she hadn't named him, so I named him then and asked her to go on keeping him for me till I had a real place of my own to take him. She had to think a minute but finally agreed. The last thing she said was, 'He'll wait happy here.' I said I didn't doubt it and then I left. The dog made another mute run at my heels, but I got out intact. She was standing at the door still waving, last I looked."
Rob said "What's the name?"
"-- The name you gave him."
She smiled. "That's the secret. I have to save something."
He made a little ring with his thumb and middle finger to signal O.K., then he saw her through the ring and brought it to his eye as if it were a lens. She was looking down, yawning; and though her smile survived, Rob saw for the first time how much worse her luck was than his. In a good many things, they were fairly even -- the central people they'd loved had vanished; their daily work had mostly been jobs, little handfuls of money their only reward. But Rob saw himself as continuing. Despite Hutch's leaving now in grinning indifference, he was leaving alive with whole tracts of Rob's face copied in his. For all the big differences which Rob hardly fathomed, he knew he'd made one thing that had its own chances -- and made it on a girl he'd finally loved. Min was stopped; she ended here, in her own four walls, her thickened body. Kind as she'd been at her best -- and even now -- nothing would survive her but a mixed crate of knickknacks, the muffled gratitudes of a few aging schoolchildren and her old-lady clients. He was partly responsible, he'd always known -- unable as a boy to bear her worship, unable after Rachel's death to pardon himself long enough to marry Min, then bound to Hutch so closely as to ease and gradually cancel the separate will of a ravenous body which had sent him to her. By then -- thankful, pitiful, hoping to bless -- he wanted her again. So he made the long reach, through air that seemed numb, to take her right hand.
Her hand was palm-down on the cushion beside her. She turned it to accept him, wove her fingers with his. But she didn't face him. Being tired and calm, she laid her head back and shut her eyes.
"Name it Rob," he said. "-- A dressed-up baby still waiting in a box."
"For what? I'm the waiter."
"You quit," Rob said. "You told me you were tired."
"I was, when I told you. You never checked again."
"Hutch needed me," he said.
"He's gone now surely." She said it so gently as to leave it half a question.
Rob conceded her rightness. "He thinks so, yes."
"How long will he stay?"
"That won't concern me." It was literally true and he'd said it quickly to end this tack. In the few little meetings they'd had since parting eleven years ago, he and Min had silently agreed to ration all reference to Hutch severely. Though Hutch stood between them thoroughly as a mountain, they'd chosen to ignore him -- in respect, fear; and maybe on the chance he'd someday vanish, leaving them free again for one another. To ease the warning Rob raised their joined hands and turned them in the light. But they didn't bear looking at, not this late. The lamp was at his shoulder; he switched it off. Then he sat back and waited for his eyes to open to whatever flow seeped up from the street through Min's gauze curtains. Considerable -- in a while she was back there beside him. Were they some kind of tragedy, linked like this but with no time before them? He couldn't feel that. Was it some unforgivable waste, to be punished, that they'd lost ten years they might have spent together? Here just now, he couldn't think that, though he carefully tried. He could only want to reach her entirely again, down all their length (he had asked the doctor if he was dangerous to others -- none at all, at last). He began, as always at their best, with her face -- exploring it lightly.
When he reached her dry mouth, her lips moved silently once to greet him. Then she said, "Do you think we are starting anything?"
"No ma'm -- confirming."
Min nodded. "That's better."
"So it's fine by you?"
She waited. "Not fine exactly but friendly."
Rob laughed and, though they continued then more closely by the moment, Min never felt his few glad tears -- never mentioned them at least.
When he'd thanked her and told her goodbye (but no more), Rob went down to the street at half-past eleven and found both Grainger and Thalia dozing in the ear at the curb. The air was still dose, and the windows were down. Thal heard him first and sat up grinning, but he had to speak to Grainger. He leaned in and said in a disguised voice, "Would you be kind enough to tell me the way to the local White Citizens' Council Office?"
Grainger's head stayed back, his eyes stayed dosed; but he said, "Step in. I'll drive you to the door. I work for them."
"Mailing colored babies back to Africa, fast as they cry. Driving white gentlemen round for little visits to old ladyfriends."
Rob opened the door, slid in, reached to Thal.
Grainger sat up and reached for the starter.
"You tired?" Rob said. "I'll be glad to drive."
Grainger cranked the engine. "No me and Thal are fine. I been to two shows, she snored and pooted for six good hours." Before he drove off he glanced to Rob. "You rejuvenated?"
Rob smiled ahead. "Very nicely, thank you." Then he knew he was thoroughly drained of strength, though he felt no pain or desperation. "But I may need a few minutes' sleep myself."
"Sleep on," Grainger said. "This old man's awake."
He slept to within ten miles of home, another peaceful hour (was the tumor consuming his dreams as well? -- when he woke he couldn't think when he'd dreamt last). He looked to Grainger, calm as a post. Thal was buried on the floor in the back, hardly breathing. For a mile he was happy -- having left an old friend in perfect understanding; being driven safely toward his own good place by a Negro who was not just his half first cousin but the one wholly trustworthy human he'd known, and for thirty years. Then like an inspiration, he felt in his upper right chest not a pain but a sudden sense of white, a knobbed patch of whiteness blank as his nap and the size of a monkey's hand. He lay back and waited; the hand stayed in place, extended, still, nerveless. He could not know it would never close again or stay still long -- it was now a declared component of his time -- but he felt stunned enough to say, "You made your summer plans?" (Grainger spent a month or six weeks, most summers lately, at the house he owned in Bracey, Virginia).
Grainger nodded. "Yesterday."
"About the first of July?"
Grainger.waited a space. "Staying here this summer."
Rob recalled Eva saying he'd gone to buy rabbits two days ago. "I'll watch your rabbits for you."
"Scared Sylvie might kill em."
"She might," Rob said. "I'll watch her too, been watching her forever."
Grainger nodded. "I'm staying."
That came as another assurance, whyever, that the weeks ahead were a crossable distance. Rob said "You got some project?"
"What is it?"
Grainger faced him finally. "You going to make me tell you?"
Rob laughed once. "Not if it's against your religion."
Grainger said, "I'm moving out to stay with you, long as you stay there."
Rob said "Not long." Then he waited and looked. "You know what I mean?"
Grainger seemed to nod.
"Mother told you?"
"This morning -- me and Sylvie, at breakfast."
"What did Sylvie say?"
Grainger said, "She heard it before I came in. By the time I got there, she won't saying nothing."
"What did you say?"
"You're the one love to talk."
Rob laughed (Grainger with him). "You can rest your ears by New Year though."
Grainger said "I can wait." Then he said, "How long you be keeping your strength?"
"To move around?"
"Doctor didn't say. I'm counting on another four or five months at most."
"Let's take us a trip."
Rob said "How far?"
"Our old places, not far -- just round Virginia."
"Hutch took me by Goshen."
"I didn't mean there -- maybe Bracey, Richmond. Haven't seen Miss Polly in a good while; have you?"
Rob thought and said "Two years, maybe three."
"She still alive, ain't she?"
"Was at Christmas; I heard from her then."
"Me too," Grainger said. "Sent me that dollar bill she sends every year. Me and her live long enough, I'll be a rich man."
Rob said, "She'll live. She may never die. She likes it too much."
Grainger said "Good." Then he said "You disagree?"
Rob didn't know at once. He looked to his right. By their glare he could see they were coming to the turn-off for Stallings Mill Pond, the site of numerous early drunks and of his first serious quarrel with Min when she'd been strong enough to walk off rather than beg him for care (he'd asked her to beg). She'd thought he was taunting; he'd thought he was taunting -- but if thirty-four years had shown one thing, they'd shown he was earnest. All he'd ever wanted was care not control, not strength but safety. Little stretches of that had come in his youth from his Aunt Rena, Sylvie, his father, Polly, Grainger. Only Hutch, in the four close years they'd had, built real walls for him. Tomorrow by noon Hutch would have sailed, the gate of the first wall floated away. Rob looked back to see if the pond showed at all in the thin moonlight. No the woods were too dense. So he said "Not really."
Grainger said "Beg your pardon?"
Rob laughed, "I'm not really head over heels in love with the world, if that's what you mean. I never really was. I loved a few people. I wish Hutch was here."
"He'll be back in time."
"We'll call him back in time."
Rob said, "Oh no. He's left it to us."
Hutch dreamt. In his own room alone at four (that stretch, not quite an hour long, when New York is silent enough for thought), he saw himself enter a sizable building the walls of which were solid glass. He felt it was England, but the indoors was warm; and the man who came down a hall to meet him was certainly Rob, by look and voice. He said a short welcome, though he gave no sign of recognition or special relation. Then he led Hutch forward on inspection of numerous rooms and yards -- all empty as robbed graves, flooded with light; no picture on the walls, no place to sit. More and more, as the man named off the rooms, Hutch wondered if he'd somehow changed past knowing; and he hoped for a mirror but no mirror came. Finally as they rounded back to the entrance, Hutch thought he would call the man Father when he left. But he wasn't leaving. The man put his hand out, smiled very broadly, and said, "I'd worried that you wouldn't show up. More than one said you wouldn't. But you kept your word. You're here and I'm thankful. It's safe in your hands." When he'd pressed Hutch's right hand warmly and firmly, he walked out the door into light even brighter than the prismatic rooms. Hutch stayed in place and watched him out of sight.
Then on the street below, garbage men sounded Monday -- his departure.
He woke and lay still, cool and afraid, for half an hour till natural light first stroked at the curtains. Then he stood, stepped into his underpants, opened the curtains on grimy glass, went back to his bed, and knelt beside it. Facing the window and the straining dawn, he asked for strength to do what he should -- this day and later -- and he named every person he remembered loving and commended them to care. He mentioned no regrets and asked no pardon. It took him ten minutes. Then he stood again, washed his face and teeth, dressed lightly, and went next door to join Ann. By then there were six hours left till he sailed.
May 28, 1995
I think you said the Queen Mary. If it's the Elizabeth I hope they'll somehow read my addled brain and get this to you on your sailing day -- to say "Fare well," also that I'm sorry I talked so much yesterday and listened so little. It's been one of the permanent intentions of my life not to finish as the kind of bore I knew so many of when young -- old crocodiles utterly trapped in their leather, satisfied as fed babies, pouring out the sweet songs of Self Self Self or the Dreadful World (I've never liked myself but have treasured the world).
No, two things were working. One I see so few people that, when one turns up, I forget I'm susceptible, imbibe too fast, am drunk with company in under ten minutes and raving like a parrot on Spanish rum; Two in sight of your eyes, which are your mother's eyes, I suddenly felt I should tell you the last things you didn't know -- how I wanted your mother, how nearly you are mine. Hence my curious outburst, not quite uncontrolled as I hope you know.
I listened to you at the right time to listen -- that summer you were fourteen and we stayed in Goshen. That was when you knew all you needed to know, with no contradictions -- who had loved you, who you thanked, who you missed and needed, what you meant to make in the long time you had. The first day you and I were ever together, standing up to walk back from drawing the mountain, I asked you how you felt about the morning (meaning what we had done, our separate pictures); and you said, "Well, objects seem to have a lot of patience." I recall I laughed. You took no offense and even joined in. Now I see that was what you needed to know and are acting on now.
Go to it, dear bean; look all you can, and the best luck ever. May I add only one small qualification, which you already know? -- people are objects surely as hills but they last a bit less and are thus less patient. Be as true to them as you've been to the ground and to various trees -- and gentler, Hutch.
Send any reports you care to show. I'll respond or not, as you tell me to. Whatever -- I'm here, patient as bread.
May 28, 1955
You were sweet to call me up and tell me goodbye. It would have also been good to see your face one more time at least, but I know you were busy as a demon at Judgment. Men in your family have been telling me goodbye for over fifty years so by now I ought to be grateful for the distance -- don't you think? We had our good visit at Easter anyway. I went back to the cemetery two weeks later and know you'll be as surprised as I was to know that your azalea was blooming right on at your grandfather's headstone -- and your great-grandfather's -- in spite of a hard late frost and much wind. They were always warmers though in very different ways as your own father is and I trust you will be.
England is a place I can't picture well. I hope you will have a roof for your head since I read they haven't rebuilt from the war and I hope you like hot tea better than me. If you don't and if they sell any coffee, I am sending five dollars. Buy some on me and when it keeps you up in the late cold night, wing a thought my way. I will no doubt be right here sewing some lace tent for a rich stout lady with a daughter altar-bound but I'll feel the compliment and bless your name. My blessings work.
Blessings on you, son,
6:10 AM MAY 30 1955
AWAKE ALL NIGHT HUNTING RIGHT FIFTY WORDS TO SAY WHAT I THINK. ALL I FIND IS FOURTEEN. SPEND EVERYTHING YOU TAKE. BRING HOME NEW LUGGAGE. YOU WILL ONLY REGRET YOUR ECONOMIES.
LOVE AS LONG AS I LIVE
June 1, 1955
Three days on the water now, and none of it has been quite what I expected -- which is good, I guess. Especially since nothing has been bad but the heat, and that only lasted through one long night. The day we left New York was hot -- nearly ninety by noon -- and this old boat was hot as a locked-up Buick in Texas by the time we backed out and breasted the sea. Since nothing English is air-conditioned, we carried the heat -- a pocket of Hell -- for eighteen hours. My cabin did at least. Cabin is a serious exaggeration -- this one makes Abe Lincoln's look like Pennsylvania Station -- and mine it's not; I share it with two men. One is a German Jew who seems to have lived in Buffalo for ten years and learned no English (won't answer me anyhow); he's going back to Frankfurt where he'll be understood. The other -- Lew Davis -- is a fellow my age who grew up in Wales but has been in Canada traveling with a circus in recent years. He'll be visiting his family "to see if I can stick it for more than two weeks without falling down dead from laughter or tears" and has asked me to join him. I may once I've got my bearings and a car. I think he's a gypsy, but he swears he's not.
He and I walked the deck that first night in search of air (the German stewed downstairs in flannel pajamas). Then by dawn things cooled off, and ever since I've given my famous imitation of the Great Tree Sloth -- long bouts of hard sleep and overtime dreaming, interrupted briefly by mammoth British meals. I met a London surgeon in the bar last night and eventually told him I'd been mostly unconscious for seventy-two hours; was anything wrong? He said, "Nothing worse than carbohydrate shock." I laughed but he said, "A very real condition, prevalent on sudden contact with British food. Many prisoners of war, brought home to pure starch, were felled like poplars. Lost two myself." So time may be short; remember me in prayers. In another half-hour I'll be summoned by a gong to eat mushroom tarts, well-done roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, white bread, boiled pudding, and a toasted cheese savory to finish. Finish! is the word.
Otherwise the threats consist of fellow passengers. I boarded in hope of high-toned couples in evening dress with sunset breeze in their hair as they sauntered the polished timbers, faintly smiling at the herds in steerage. So far all I've seen is twenty-odd Congressional secretaries, traveling together at budget rate and famished as yuccas. They're alt thirty-eight, all single at present. They've run through assorted legislators, pages, colonels -- or been run through like sieves -- and see no objection to trying on a Fledgling Southern Writer (I slipped and told them the first night out; they all read Thomas Wolfe in junior high school and pray I'm his ghost). But I cling to the memory of Little Hubert's wisdom and guard my digits, something T. Wolfe neglected.
Next morning. Read over, that seems too dumb to mail. But I'll mail it to show you how hard I've been huffing and puffing to cheer myself up in this odd high leap I find myself taking. What we didn't discuss last week were the things I am scared of. The main thing is me -- that once I've paid for and found this famous stillness around me, filled my fountain pen, and faced the window, then there'll be no work: not a thing I know that'll prove big enough to hold any human eye but mine and no words to say even small things in. With all my need to get space and air, get away from friends and home, I neglected to see how thoroughly all of you screened me from the chance that stares at me now on the east Atlantic in a tacky old hotel that happens to float -- I may be a fraud. Last night Lew Davis said "Say me a poem." We were up at the bow -- dear sky, many stars. I said him Hopkins' "Starlight Night," a favorite of mine; pretty hard, no doubt. He nodded and said "Good work," maybe thinking the poem was a sample of me. I held back from giving him a speech on Hopkins and said nothing at all. Then he said,
Assuming those stars are holes
Punched through a high tent
Onto some brand of light
That heals most pain,
Assuming I could swim my arms
Three times and pass through a hole
Into nothing but light --
I'd stand on here.
ardI asked him who wrote it. He laughed -- "Nobody. I said it. Now it's gone" (wrong -- I learned it as he went). I'm not standing Lew Davis up by Father Hopkins, but see what I mean? Lew had a thing to say, a little odd but plain. I had this funny performance to give, of another man's dare. And I never told him better, though I will today.
So scared, yes. But hoping.
We're due in Southampton tomorrow afternoon about four o'clock. Assuming I'm not detained as a hoax by H. M. Immigration, I'll take the train to Oxford and be there by bedtime -- if I find a bed. I'll look the place over, store my trunk in college, take delivery of my car, and hit the road to wander for the month of June; then back to Merton and down to work.
I'll mail this on landing and write again soon as I've breathed English air. Write me c/o Merton; they'll know my stopping points and will forward news, I trust. The fact that I'm gone doesn't mean I'm gone. Soon please.
June 3, 1955
We passed Land's End -- my landfall on England, on anything but home -- at sunrise this morning. I was up to see it in surprising clear light with only a handful of old British stalwarts on deck beside me. They drank up the sight with ravenous reserve. It scared me a little, the low brown rocks seeing me as plainly as I saw them and stating their case -- Why the hell are you here? I'll postpone my answer a year at least. You'd have had one ready, right? -- He's running. Not at all sure you'd have been wrong either.
The coastline has gentled at least since then, the celebrated green hills and occasional chalk. We'll be called to our last vast meal shortly now, then wait off the Isle of Wight for a good tide to lift us in. Once landed and rested I'll write in detail (with two roommates rest has been pretty scarce -- not sleep but rest; with two strangers near I don't dream much, and dreams equal rest for me).
I did want to say I dreamt of you once -- in a deck chair, chilly, two afternoons back. I went to a party and you were there, happily talking to a ring of other people. I walked straight up and gave a little bow. You fiat didn't know me. I thought you were kidding. I told the strange man on your right your name; you looked at me blank as a square of tile and said, "I'm sorry but I know I've never seen you." I said, "You've hardly seen anybody else for some years now." The stranger took your elbow and said to me "Prove it." So I told you a joke -- "A young nun died and arrived at Heaven's gate. St. Peter stopped her there, examined her record, and saw she'd had little time to do good. But he liked her looks, so he set her a test -- if she passed she was in. He'd ask her three questions; she must get all three. 'Name the first man.' -- 'Adam.' -- 'The first woman?' -- 'Eve' -- 'All right, now tell me Eve's first words to Adam.' The little nun broke out in beads of ice. She racked her memory and found not a trace; so she bowed her head and said, 'Oh that's a hard one.' Three hundred gongs sounded, the gates swung open, young angels ran to greet her." The strange man dropped you; your other friends vanished. I burst out laughing and you knew me at once. We were both still laughing when the deck steward came round and offered me tea. If I'd had any place to be alone (better than a two-foot-square saltwater shower), I'd have taken the dream on forward -- conscious -- and studied again my best memory of you: ten days ago, Richmond, late afternoon light, you astride and posting solemn as a saint toward the last gates of grace, me half-dead with thanks to be the road you traveled and to have my own reward poured through me in my own good time. With any luck at all, I'll have a place tonight -- a room and lust me -- and if I have six kilowatts of strength left, I'll study you.
More after that then. And till then remember the best you've seen; keep it clear till Christmas. And write.
An hour later. If you hate anything in this, please tell me. I count on you to keep me told when I change for the worse -- though the way I've felt in recent weeks, I suspect any change will be for the better. Even jackasses get a little dignity with age.
June 5, 1955
My dear Hutch,
I had meant to get a letter off to meet you on your landing, but the old summer slow-down crept up on me, and the days have gone by. I can't even think of three things I have done since leaving you, and neither one of them is worth writing down and shipping cross the second-biggest ocean on the planet Earth. I remember lots of naps and that we have been blessed so far by the weather -- not a day above 75, evening showers, and cool nights for catching up on my thinking time. Everybody else is fine and await first news that the Family Hope is safe on his pins and dry and not treading water off the Greenland coast. If you are, keep treading and send word soon. I'll be there somehow or Grainger will at least.
I didn't mean to sound sarcastic just then by mentioning Hope. I was being honest. I was never really much of a hope to anyone but Rena (who hoped I was God) and your mother (the same), so I've felt no jealousy and know what it means. It means three people now alive -- Eva, Grainger, me, and maybe some dead -- would be grateful if anyone looked back on us (not down) and saw that we'd made anything like a diagram in these fifty years, anything more than harum-scarum tracks in the dirt as a handful of scared souls scuttled for cover. My dictionary tells me a diagram is "a writing in lines." I can't recall seeing an ugly diagram; so that's the hope, Son -- that we make some figure. If we do you'd be the one to know (though it may take awhile to know you know).
Why should I think that? No doubt you're the smartest since my father at least or have read the most books. But the real reason's this -- somehow you're the one named Kendal-Hutchins-Mayfield that escaped having whatever worm gnawed us. I have spent some time lately guessing what its name was or what it was after as it ate through us all; and I think what it wanted was happiness -- from other humans, here and now. Of course it never got it. Oh minutes here and there. I have had in my life a total of maybe forty-five minutes when I rose up to clear air and felt satisfied; the rest was various stages of want. You escaped that, didn't you? Something spared you that. Even as a young child (three or four), you were safe to yourself. I can't recall you crying for anyone or anything but pain, real physical pain. Maybe you hid more from me than I knew; but until that bad last time I was drunk at Polly's and you left me, I sometimes wondered if your nerves were normal or if you were slightly numb. You had good reason. The thing, passed on to you through me and Rachel, may have just been exhausted or somehow fed. Or all of us may have earned a kind of peace in you, earned it [or you. I hope so. Please enjoy it. And if all that is crazy, if you've been in torment of your own from the start and were keeping it from me, better not tell me now. I doubt I could handle the news this late!
At least have fun if not happiness. I wish one person had told me that when I was your age or a few years younger (but remember that your father didn't use bottled fun very admirably). And once you get your car, don't let any Limey corrupt your good habits. You drive to the right whatever they say. Damned fools -- no wonder they lost the world.
Let me hear.
June 4, 1955
Dear Mr. Mayfield,
You said to let you know when I had plans and now I do. My brother and I will be getting to London on July forth. I should take a week or ten days to be with him. Then he will go to Paris, and I could come to you wherever you say for maybe a week till I join up with him again and head east. He wants to see Germany which -- since he is more like Hitler than anybody else I know -- is fitting. I'll go to hold him down.
Anything though will be an improvement on Edom, Virginia in June. I have been drunk in a few bat caves. I have done some painting on the house for my father. I have come pretty close to screwing a doctor's wife who shall be nameless -- and may report total success when I see you. I have read every book in the house and county. But now I've had it and am hitching down to Wilmington in your trash state to visit Morse Mitchell and snake hunt with him. He has already made more than two hundred dollars catching cottonmouth moccasins to sell for the venom. I'll help him out till time to fly.
Write to me soon at my home address. I may be dead or a triple amputee by then and need someone to open the letter for me. Wouldn't want to miss your news or seeing you in your new better life.
Till I do,
June 6, 1955
Your letter got to me in time. It was waiting on my narrow chaste cot in my cabin in the -- yes -- Queen Mary, and thank you for it. But you didn't need to worry after our visit. You never need to worry, not about anything I may ever feel when I'm with you or later. After all you've given me (and you gave the main pattern), it would take much more than an hour's high spirits -- it would take bleeding real wounds to reach the deep veins of thanks that run in me and have run since we met.
-- And surely long before, as you've now helped me see. You'll under. stand, I trust, that I was so full of my trip when I saw you as to be a poor listener or a slow responder. I stored what you said though and thought through it often in the slow days at sea. Nothing in it surprised me is the first thing to say. I'd known, from Rob and old things you told me, that you'd helped Mother in her really bad time; and since the only kind of help I ever want comes through actual touch, I guess I should have known how you reached her then. And in light of my instant attraction to you, I should also have known the chief way I was yours -- not just through shared needs. I want to think about that a good deal more (what, if anything, it means for me to have you as a parent); and I may be asking you some questions later. For now though just thanks and some recent news.
The voyage wasn't much but food and sleep and dodging old doctors from Cleveland or Nyack and their monologous wives. If the Mary's any omen, the Empire is finished, though may take awhile to die. Still the crew (who were callused and grinningly roguish) gave a fair exhibition in sunset glow of the broad backs that bore the Union Jack round the world.
The first impression of England was of course rain. Owing to some delay in the tide --!-- we docked two hours late; and by the time I cleared immigration, it was dark as Egypt. Rain began about an hour from Oxford; so I reached that alarmingly famous station (the size of your apartment-used by Ruskin, Newman, Arnold, Wilde, Dodgson, Hopkins, Verlaine, Housman, Eliot, Graham Greene, Auden, Spender, et al.) in an earnest downpour and was drenched when the taxi abandoned me at Merton in a seersucker suit at 9:15 with trunk and grip. I stumbled through the low black wooden gate and was in a short arcade with a clutch of young men, all furiously talking, none noticing me. An open door on my left so I entered; in a glassed-off space in a dark suit and tie, a plump bald man about fifty was eating what seemed to be salad in thick white dressing on a broad white plate. The sight of raw greens, after five days of Mary's stewed sprouts and cabbage, gave me courage to knock. He was Victor the porter; and though he sized me up as stringently as if I were volunteering atom bombs at bargain rates, he said "Yes you're expected." Then he took a ring of keys straight from Les Miserables, a huge umbrella from Robinson Crusoe; and led me out, saying "Simpson will bring your bags along, sir." We walked thirty yards through a big quad, an arch, another arcade, and were in a small quad -- through a door, up a flight of worn wood stairs, to a room maybe twenty by fifteen feet: a big bay window facing the dark, stuffed sofa and chairs, a desk, long table, an oak bookcase. Off that was a cubicle twelve by seven -- a swaybacked bed, a wardrobe, a brand-new basin with running hot water. The surprise was, it's mine. I'd understood they'd put me up for a few days in a guestroom, then expect me to leave till the students clear out in two or three weeks. But Victor departed and Simpson arrived, my grip in hand, with the news that "The chap who had these rooms came down with dreadful jaundice a few days ago and was sent to High Wycombe" (his home, I hope). Simpson -- a wiry man who seems fifty, may be thirty, and bears not one whole atom of fat -- proves to be my "scout." He will wake me for breakfast, make my bed, clean up, and wash my teacups. He had saved me some supper in a tin warming-lid and made my bed with college linen while I ate the regulation two pounds of starch. Anyhow it was nice not to lay my tired head on hepatitic sheets, and lay it I did. In spite of a short round of bibulous song from somewhere below, I was out of my soaked clothes and dead by ten. With my last conscious breath, I thought, "Rise! Dress! Your first night in Oxford! -- you should be prowling lonesome through the dark haunts of Sidney, Raleigh, Donne, the Scholar Gypsy! Thomas Wolfe would be up embracing the rain, licking the holy scurf from the stones." Then I slept nine hours till lack Simpson came in at 7:30, threw back my curtains, and said "Morning, sir."
It was, actually -- a square of deep turquoise sky at the window. When I stood and looked out, I knew (from my reading) where I'd spent my first night -- in Mob, the oldest quad in Oxford, built 1306, a small near-square of two-story buildings in ruinous stone, with a mat of healthy grass the size of your new rug and the Chapel tower rising just to the north. That seemed more than even I bargained for -- celebrated by a great throat-lump that's recurred more than once in the past two days as I've wandered the surprisingly busy town, the central meadows by the Thames where silence is deep as a well and the town as distant-seeming as home (the windows in my sitting room look south over the same meadows toward the river, hidden in trees).
But lest I melt too soon in careless ecstasy, I'll list a few drawbacks noted already. The nearest toilet is downstairs, outdoors, fifty feet away leaned up against the Chapel; and toilet-paper holders, containing tiny sheets of what is apparently waxed paper, were just installed a week ago after nearly seven hundred years ( a note today in the student complaint book takes account of them and adds, "Let it not be forgot that the French Revolution was precipitated by a slight alleviation in the plight of the Third Estate...."). The baths -- tubs only, circa 1880 (very tall, very deep, and so far very scummy with the last man's leavings) -- are outside, fifty feet in the other direction, in a peaked dark hovel. Proximity to locals in confined spaces does not yet suggest that bathing ranks high on the young gentlemen's priorities -- we're having warm days, mid-7os now. They are all still in green tweeds and oatmeal trousers that would adequately clothe a polar expedition; the effect is quite memorable (horses in a closet? brown bears in a car? -- not fetid but, well, piquant). I went to the corner chemist's today and asked for deodorant. The clerk produced one small spray bottle of Odor-O-No, wreathed in spring flowers. I said, "Don't you have any roll-on for men?" She said, "But it's not for men, now is it?" Apparently not.
It's not the effluvium though that's kept me from meeting any students. And it's not the fabled English chilliness -- no one has been unkind, no trace of the plentiful harshness of the American northeast, just the sense till now that I'm invisible. I've been here the best part of three days now and have been addressed only when I was the man seated nearest some bowl of food that was needed -- by members of the Middle Class, that is; lower orders have been warm and helpful from the start. I don't much mind. In fact I welcome the chance to watch from a distance just now-learn the rules from the shoulder of the road before driving (I only hope they are watching me too; if so, they're perfect spies).
Speaking of driving -- at the end of this week, I'm to pick up my new black Volkswagen, straight off the boat from Germany. I had some qualms about commerce-with-the-enemy, but the ears are so plainly superior to similarly priced English efforts (as were their torture and death machines too -- well, Americans worship competence, right?). Then I'll strike out to see as much as I can hold -- maybe Scotland, Wales, Cornwall -- before coming back in a month or six weeks to sit. Or to turn on myself -- in this room, at this desk -- and hunt for tangible evidence that I'm here as more than an aging drifter, a light-weight skater on ponds and backwaters, safely alone. I'll forward any evidence I manage to find.
Till then, just some postcards from the heaths and hedges. Please write me a letter at least this long and with no single word of apology in it. Unless you stop me, I would like to think of you as the willing receptor of as near to a journal as I can bear to keep. I've always avoided the rapt mirror-gazing that diaries invite; but if I talk on to you through this, then there'll be some sort of archive at least -- a drawer full of time that I could ask to search when these present sights, clear as water, have clouded or sunk.
The best love from,
June 7, 1955
Well I told you what ! looked for here, to be bored shit blind in under a week. I has been four days and I can't see daylight, just a uniform brown haze on everything. My mother has fed me every half-hour sharp and all her old girlfriends have come round to see me like the lad with the two-pronged cock in the fair. I'll have to check that in point of fact. Maybe mine has split up to search for ways out of this box it's in. Otherwise I haven't really seen it since Canada. Youngest girl anywhere near is well over fifty. That may not be any obstacle soon.
Hope you are doing better, not so good however that you cancel your plan to rescue me. I told my muvver an American poet would be paying me to give him a tour round Cornwall. She said "You wouldn't know Cornwall from Spain and if he's a poet you'll be wanting to paint a scarey face on your arse." So I have done that with iodine and am ready when you are. For the trip I mean. I checked and found I can use my Canadian license to help you along with the driving. Let me know when. You could come here and spend a night just to see how the working class live, then we could start. I have always meant to see the Scilly Isles. How does that sound to you? If I don't hear in another few days I shall strike off alone. Hoping then,
Your cabin mate,
June 9, 1955
Sorry you've had such a bleak homecoming. I won't say that my homeleaving has threatened me with high blood-pressure yet. But I have had several nice moments in the past week, all alone and looking though. Your countrymen -- upper middle-class division -- still haven't thrown any welcoming parties, and in any case I'm planning to wander a little before work begins. So sure let's merge our forces for that. If it's O.K. with you, I'll leave here three days from now -- Sunday morning -- take my time driving down through Burford and Gloucester, and spend the night somewhere near Tintern Abbey (maybe fiat on the ground in the ruins themselves). Expect a possibly rheumatic old groaner then sometime Monday, by noon I should guess. I'd like to see as much of your native spot as you can bear to show, and I feel some need to assure your mother of the relative safety of unproved poets, so you decide when we push off for Cornwall. I mainly want to see the King Arthur country round TintageI and Fowey; otherwise I'm game for the Scillies or whatever, provided they're cheap and not cold or hostile.
You may not have time to answer by mail. If not you can either send a telegram or phone and leave me a message at the Lodge. If I haven't heard No by Sunday morning, I'll strike out after the dazzling breakfast I'm sure to get and see you Monday noon.
P.S. I'm to pick up my car after lunch, today, a German bargain with American drive. The above assumes that it works and that I do (under local conditions, I mean of course).
JUNE 10 1955 11.30AM
WILL WAIT BESIDE TURNING FOR OXWICH CASTLE NOONMONDAY. HURRY.
June 11, 1955
This is my first day off since I got your letter. I had to stay late last night typing stuff since, on Monday morning, Mr. Tidd goes to court to defend Lily Quarles, the fifty-five-year-old lilac-haired lady I told you about who stabbed her husband in fourteen places above the waist, bathed the body, put fourteen separate bandaids on the holes, got him into clean pajamas, then phoned Mr. Tidd at 1 a.m., and said she had something curious to show him. Now he thinks he can save her. I plan to stay in all weekend and pray!
In fact I've just spent the morning washing hair -- mine. It was still feeling filthy from old New York, so I scrubbed myself half-bald and am drying my new clean pate in the sun out back. The gent next door has been out to check his birdbath three times in an hour -- and no bird for miles-which I hope means I look a lot better than I did. The third time I caught him looking and he smiled. I nodded, serious as the Widow Quarles; but to tell the truth, was glad for confirmation that I'm visible again and no bandersnatch. Think he'll ask me to lunch? He cooks a lot.
Later. Took a little nap there apparently. Now awake and finding myself intact, I read your letter again. Here goes. No I don't hate anything you say. Or anything you're doing, that I know of at least. If I put up any kind of fight before you left -- and I see I did -- it was not from hate, God knows. Puzzlement, I honestly think. Twelve years of public school and four of college did their damndest to find some ambition in me and warm it to life. Forget it -- none there. I'm a woman as old-style as anything painted on the walls of caves. I don't much doubt I could do quite well at a number of jobs outside in the world if I set my sights and tucked my chin (I'm well-stocked with chin). I hope that won't be necessary ever. And the reason is this -- the brand of applause you can get from the world means as much to me as a plate of well-warmed vanilla ice cream. Not that the world has hung around clapping at the sight of me, but I've had little bursts here and there for chores done. Forget it, again. What I want is to work inside at home, making life easy (or easier) for two-to-four people in whom I'm involved and who want me to be.
So there. I never thought it right through before and surely never said it all out loud, though you heard pieces of it more times than you liked. I don't know why -- why would anybody want any sort of homelife after what my parents displayed as a sample? -- but from age eleven it was my idea. At first I slouched around, trying to hang it on boys in books or in the movies -- I've had more to do in my mind with Toby Tyler and Johnny Sheffield than with anybody since. Then the Oreat Spring Hormone Freshet swept through me; and soon I was choosing a boy a week, sometimes several a day -- real boys in school. Not that they ever knew it, not that one ever touched me much below the neck. But though you never asked me, you surely know since, along with that ancestral wedding-band, you wear at least one more ring -- my pink maidenhood.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad you have it, even if I never see you again. I picked you for it, I hope you know. The day you were called on in freshman English to come up and read your first theme to us as a model of virtue, and you stood to read five hundred words about a grown woman asking for you in a dark hotel room and you saying Yes -- I picked you then. I also thought you were dying, which helped. You were so pale and lean. We could get it over fast; then you would be gone. I would be your relic through several generations, telling tales of you.
I got over that, the sudden-death part. By the time we'd gone to two or three movies and talked till midnight behind the dorm, I knew you were roughly as sick as the Matterhorn in morning light. You were going to make it. So I settled in to last long as you did, beside you. You didn't seem to mind. And once we had managed to make real love, that got your attention! You said your best mental picture of me was recent -- me on you last month -- and you told me to study my best one of you. Since I don't have an album mind like yours (I recall words better), I had to hunt awhile. But I have it finally and can tell you what it is. After our first time you stayed gone a week. I thought I'd failed you some terrible way. Then you called up and asked me to Myrtle Beach. I accepted before I realized the string of lies I'd have to spin to get permission, but I spun like a jenny, and off we went in lack Hagen's car. The rest you know, up to my favorite part. You slept through that so you can't have known. It was just before sunrise. I had waked up somehow, thinking you had spoken. But you were breathing slowly and were turned away. I moved in against your back, not touching. Then I touched your shoulder and just said "What?" You waited awhile and I didn't move. You had to be asleep, but you said "Wait here" -- as clear as urgent. I wondered "For what?" but decided not to ask. Then when light started working through the rusty blinds -- Mrs. Benson's Guest House -- you rolled to face me and slept in my sight for three hours more. Except for short snoozes I lay there and looked. You looked very fine. I chose to wait.
That's the best part I've got, of us at least. And if you really want us to meet at Christmas -- Rome or wherever -- I'll save my pennies while studying that. Not full-time, don't worry, but enough to keep it true. Meanwhile I'll struggle in the cause of mercy for Lily Quarles (justice would chain her to oars in a hulk of[ the coast of Guatemala) and of keeping my own chin up and pointing east, though prepared to tack if that signal comes. One way or another I hope to have more and longer life than the nu.n in your nautical dream about me. I was glad to be featured in a dream, understand. I lust want to have more fun than most nuns -- while working like them for the Love of Another.
It's getting pure hot and my neighbor's approaching with what looks like an axe and a glass of lemonade. I could write a tot of questions about your first days -- where, when, what, who? I'll trust you instead to tell me all I need or can use to my profit and personal uplift. Speaking of which, my bosoms are lonesome. Remember them too.
June 11, 1955
The best thing waiting for me on that boat was your kind letter. I've kicked myself every day since then that I didn't set eyes on you before leaving. You probably guessed I came through Richmond to pick up Ann; but I felt so tired from loading my life's goods one more time in Rob's old truck that I went straight to sleep, then had to get on my way to New York. I'm saving the five-dollar bill you sent, to remember your goodness and to keep me from ever forgetting again a thing you told me when I was fifteen and visiting you. You asked me to walk downtown with you to a nine o'clock show, That Hamilton Woman. I had been out all afternoon drawing the State Capitol in August sun and said I believed I needed to sleep. You said, "Not me. I plan to make up for all lost sleep the first two days after I'm stone-dead." I've still never seen That Hamilton Woman, though I do hope to see both Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier soon in the flesh. They're doing three Shakespeare plays at Stratford, forty miles north of here; and once the tourists thin in September, I'll try to get tickets (if it means missing sleep). Till then I mean to hide out on the edges of Wales and Cornwall and in my six-hundred-year-old rooms here.
I'll write you in more detail about those and a good deal else at the end of the month when I'm back from the first trip and settled in here. Meanwhile let me close by telling you one thing and asking another.
I hadn't realized there were still so many American servicemen in England; but Oxford alone has several big bases within twenty miles, all manned with tall chunky fellows from Ohio (and one base graced with atomic bombs poised to fly just a short leg east to Berlin or farther on). Anyhow last night I was feeling mildly homesick, nothing terminal, so walked the three blocks from this Altar of Learning to the place where I'd seen flocks of airmen heading last weekend -- White's Bar, High Street (just so you understand, I had two beers; you needn't tell Rob). I was wearing my best Young American disguise -- cotton coat, khaki trousers, white socks, brown loafers -- but I guess my hair was three inches too long or I wasn't wearing anything powder-blue: that seems the big color in P.X. men's wear. In an hour nobody volunteered a word my way, though I overheard a lot and was near the center of more than one fight. I was ready to leave, feeling much less homesick, when a woman came over and took the chair beside me -- young herself, maybe twenty-one. She was ready to talk, over fairly swift glasses of warm pink gin (no ice in the building -- in the town, I gather). Well, to boil down what took her another hour -- she was Marleen Pickett, born in London and raised there except for the years of the Blitz which she spent with an uncle in the country near here. That was when she acquired her love of Oxford -- "Lovely chaps, like bats in their gowns; I'm the only girl I've met who likes bats" -- and when she had grown up and chosen her career, she decided to spend her weekends in Oxford. Keeps a little apartment in Beaumont Street -- "All books. I dream of the day I'll read; have the time, I mean. I barely sit down." No doubt but I'd seen well before she spoke that she spent many waking hours prone (or is it supine?). In short she's a fine individual example of American aid. She brings peace and welcome to lost young Yanks; and they pay her rent, her little food bill ("I eat once a day, a big tea at six"), her mother's expenses, and the storage on her dog (he stays in London, spared the sight of her work). Business didn't seem good last evening, so I asked if she liked my compatriots -- or the local sample. She gave me a slow examining look; then said, 'I can tell you want the truth. When they're sober, yes -- which is rare as bright days. When they're not, it's 'Look at these snaps of my girl -- or Mum or wife'; and then they dig in. No insult, mind you; but your chaps got better food than ours for ten years there -- milk, cheese, fat oranges. It all went to one place -- they're giants, believe me -- and I have to bear it, night after night. What I've always really fancied is students -- thin, white, built normal (but their dreadful socks!)." I told her I wore fresh socks every day before I realized that I was a student again or would soon be. She didn't even smile. She said, "These airmen are stuffed with money. I know most students scrape by on grants so I make adjustments. Rhodes or Fulbright -- which are you on?" I admired her homework but told her I'd tried for a Rhodes and washed-out twice as not really promising sufficient public service. Before she could ask for my private-service record, I also told her I was something of an heir (concealing that my horde of capital amounts to ten thousand dollars worth of pines crushed to paper). She gave that a whole minute's thought, drained her glass, then stood -- "Oh well in that case, go buy a duchess. The/r need is far more desperate than mine, these days at least." She walked a chalk line to a tall loud boy from Camden, New Jersey; and they'd made a deal before I could laugh. So I didn't that night -- laugh, I mean -- and I've wondered today: would you say that incident disqualifies me as a warmer in your view? Think and let me know please. I'm only half-joking.
And if you're not busy, try to get Rob to pay you a visit soon. I don't mean to say I think my leaving has him drooping on the vine; but I do think he'd got a little stymied lately, no one to do for and Grandmother still strong as Boulder Dam. Please think of some way to say you need to see him; otherwise he'll sit there all summer swatting flies. Haven't seen an insect of any description here yet or a snake -- there are no poisonous snakes, only one viper almost never encountered that causes mild swelling. Other problems will no doubt rise to attention. But I'm here for that.
P.S. In fact I mean to spend your money tonight. There's a half-good imitation French place round the corner called Café de Paris -- low stocky English waiters in black bow ties (and fingernails to match) mispronouncing French dishes. I'll have steak and eggs to brace me for the road.
The boy came back from inside the garage, leaned into Grainger's window, and spoke across him to Rob. "Says if you mean the old James Shorter place, he thinks niggers took it three or four years ago. It was empty till then. You could drive on up there. Wouldn't nobody mind."
Rob nodded. "Thank you."
Grainger spoke to the windshield but firmly. "Care to join us, brother?"
"What?" The boy stepped back -- fifteen, sixteen, black-haired, dark-eyed.
Grainger looked and smiled. "No, sorry, my mistake. Up close I thought I could smell nigger blood. Sorry, captain. Many thanks." He moved Rob's truck slowly into the road.
Rob waited half a mile; then said, "It doesn't much matter to me -- might even be a blessing, nice bullet through the eye -- but I didn't know you meant to die right yet."
Grainger shook his head. "Don't."
"Then let me drive. You've lost your mind."
"Why? -- kidding that child?"
Rob nodded. "-- In Virginia. They don't have the sweet sense of humor about Negroes you're used to at home."
Grainger laughed. "Maine's my home. You're the one from Virginia."
Rob looked to his right -- a long low hill bare of all but grass, with the sweet swell and tuck of a young girl's side; a mule staring toward him as if its whole mission through years of cold nights had been to wait here for this moment as proof that one living thing was loyal and still; a clear stream talking its slow way east, no house, no person. He said, "You lived here longer than I did."
Grainger said, "Don't mean a pig's ass-hole to me. I left this place. You were born here though; born is what counts."
"Counts how?" Rob said.
Grainger pointed. "Look yonder." They'd turned the last curve; and up the hill before them was the Shorter place, its charred remains. "Niggers got it and gone." Grainger took the narrow drive, now two deep ditches.
Through the hard jolts Rob sat and wondered if he felt -- no question they'd found the first destination on their little last tour. The place James Shorter had brought Hattie Mayfield, his young second wife; the place Hatt's brother Forrest brought his own new wife (Eva Kendal, sixteen and happy in the first days); the place where Eva conceived and made Rob, in growing desperation, and brought him forth -- herself nearly killed. They'd found the site at least. Once up the drive and stopped, Grainger's guess was confirmed; whoever had lived here last burned the house. Or hunters, boys, lightning. Gone -- just the chimney, front and back steps, tin sheets from the roof. Rob wondered if it mattered. He turned to Grainger. "When was Hutch here last?"
"Ten years ago maybe. He come with us to Miss Hatt's funeral; when was that?"
Rob nodded. "Ten years." Then he faced the pile again, surprisingly large for an eight-room two-story house plain as anything drawn by a child with a ruler. "Shall we get out?" he said.
Grainger said, "This is your trip, Rob. You say."
Rob opened his door.
Rob had eaten the big cold supper Polly gave him and helped her stack dishes before he had a real chance to study her. But once she'd refused his help at the sink, he sat at the dear pine table and watched her -- her back straight as ever, her left profile in the white bulb-light. He knew she was only a year short of seventy. She'd thrown in her young lot with Rob's dying grandfather and moved with him here -- this house in Richmond -- the year Rob was born. Still she seemed much younger. Or if you dimmed your eyes enough to soften the two strong cords in her throat, she seemed no age -- foolish to calculate. The fine auburn hair was maybe half-white, the eyes slightly veiled when she looked down as now; but her long hands were white and unspotted, quick as ever as they scrubbed at plates and knives they'd scrubbed in that same spot more than fifty years. He thought, "All the women who've mattered to me refuse to age." He meant Eva, Polly, Min, his dead Aunt Rena, Rachel dead in her fresh youth; he himself felt worn as any felled column in his father's old photographs of Rome, still hanging. Dissolved -- who'd have thought there were scraps enough left to draw cancer on him? Was it why, after all, all women had mattered (barring eight or ten mean-mouthed bitches)? More than any other man he'd known or heard of, he'd valued women; really loved them for themselves -- creatures separate from his own wants and needs -- and craved their nearness. Other men wanted them for humping, cooking, children; Rob had wanted them simply as the crown of creation, the last best work. That Eve had made the first mistake gave him no cause for grudge, nor that his mother had been unable to love only him when he most wanted that. He steadily forgave them as they'd forgiven him -- though any harm he'd done was harm they requested. If his own fifty-one years had ever broken through the lovely sad crust of this present world onto glimpses of permanence, constant reward, they had always come in the company of women (mostly bare but not always). Or was that soft whining from a dying brain? Had there been a single glimpse? If so, why was he now commanded to pass through pain and suffocation to reach full sight?
Polly looked back, shuddered, then burst out laughing. "Old fool! -- me, I mean. You scared me, sitting there. So quiet I forgot you were anywhere near. I was thinking great thoughts."
Rob smiled. "What about?"
She paused to consider, then actually blushed. "Not about sewing. I'm caught up on work and no more promised; may never make another cent that way, wouldn't mind."
Rob saw she was dodging and wanted to stop her. He smiled again. "Tell me one great thought. I could use inspiration."
By then she'd finished work. She untied her apron, stroked her hair twice with the flats of her hands. "You want to sit on here? Aren't you too warm?"
She came to the table, held the back of her chair. "Inspiration was what I was thinking about."
"Reach any conclusion?"
Polly's face tightened quickly. She took the salt cellar and packed the grains down. "No I didn't. If I had I'd keep it inside. I'm no missionary."
"Didn't mean to say you were." He sat forward then; she was three feet away, still watching the salt. To win back her eyes seemed the urgent job. "I'm lying," he said.
"You have brought a lot of help, to me and many others."
She shook her head. "To two -- your father, his father."
Rob said "And me."
Polly said, "Not so. You never needed me."
"Sure I did, when Rachel died."
"I cooked you a few meals, kept Hutch awhile. Any kind colored woman could have done that much. You needed somebody all right but not me."
He accepted that. "I may now though."
"You're lonesome for Hutch."
Rob nodded. "Part of it."
ard"What's the rest?"
He laughed. He couldn't tell her now. "Tell me."
"I know," Polly said. "It was my great thought just now." She laughed and touched him, one finger briefly on the back of his hand. "A surprising lot of people, not all of them dark, are born to be servants."
Rob said, "Good night! -- the children of Ham."
She paused. "I don't know them. I meant you and me."
"Please tell me."
"All we ever wanted was to work day and night for somebody we loved -- time off for naps."
"Naps with them," Rob said.
Polly smiled but said "You speak for you."
He waited a little to let that pass; then said, "Why are you sitting here out of work?"
"Everybody died or left."
"We could find other jobs."
"Too old," she said. "People looking for help want young agile smilers."
Rob said, "My turn to say 'You speak for you' -- I don't feel old."
Polly took that with sudden surprising force, shaking her grand head in fierce affirmation. "Whole days, even now, I don't feel ten minutes older than the gift who stepped through this door fifty-two years ago with your grandfather -- my duds in a bundle the size of a lapdog and happy as one, a strong spotted feist. I'd been requested. I knew Rob Mayfield was old and sick -- nothing to it; I could cure him."
"You almost did."
"You were not even born. No I eased him some -- let him talk, fed him well, bumped against him enough to let him know I stood here and planned to last him out."
Rob said, "What did he talk about?"
"Plans. What was coming. See, he believed too that I'd get him right again. Since he left your grandmother many years before, he'd had no permanent woman near him but his own old mother; and she had just died. I know there had been some temporary, people -- he had been big on roaming -- and I know he'd been hunting just what I seemed to offer: steady service, no running, lot of jokes and smiles. He'd believed in women the way most people believe in money; so when Margaret Jane Drewry packed her grip in Washington and followed him here -- I was seventeen years old, pretty as a green leaf and far longer-lasting -- he thought his prayer was answered at last. He would drag round all day by the stove -- coughing, losing blood -- then at night get his strength back and lie there and tell me the future by the hour, our future. Different plans every night but with two steady parts -- he was moving; I was with him. He had never been west of Louisville, Kentucky; so mostly we would be pushing on past there toward San Francisco. That was always his aim, however we journeyed; and since he died a good year before the quake, the aim was never spoiled. He had all the details in black and white. If he woke up strong, he'd be down at the station searching every timetable from here to California, all the rules, exact fares. Then he'd come back and, that night, lay it out for me -- lower berths from here to Denver, a week of rest there (the Brown Palace Hotel; is there really such a place?), then on through mountains and deserts to the ocean. Hills by water -- they were big in his plans. I'd say, 'There are hills by the James River, Rob, that cost less to see.' He wouldn't even hear me, lust take my hand and go on reading his lists. Made more lists than anybody alive; for him to make a list was good as doing something. Funny thing was, they were realistic -- the money part at least. His mother had left him a little nest-egg that would see us there, and back if necessary. But he generally planned on us staying gone for good -- never said what he'd do about the house here." She paused and looked up, half-surprised to find it round her.
Rob said, "Maybe he meant to contact his children and give it to them."
Polly smiled but shook her head. "They were never mentioned, no more than God's name, even after your father tracked him down that last Christmas and offered to tend him."
"I thought he asked you to notify Father once he died."
"No never. He died in his sleep; and all he ever said after your father's visit was, 'Forrest will be needing help long after me.'"
"He knew he was dying?"
Polly nodded. "One night that February I was doing my last little chore -- I used to rub his chest with camphorated balm and pin flannel round him before he went to sleep -- when he took my wrists and held them tight a minute. Then he said, 'Lay your hands please flat on my nipples and ask God to save me.' As I mentioned, he hadn't ever spoken of God. I said, 'It may be a little late for Him. If God is any kind of churchgoing Christian, we're both in bad trouble.' I think he grinned -- the lamp was down low -- but he stayed quiet awhile and I rubbed on. Then he said, 'Please do it anyhow on your own.' So I pressed my palms down hard on his chest -- there was no more fat than this table's got -- and looked him in the eyes (what I could see of them) and said, 'If any power wants to help you and will use me to do it, let that happen now. Or if me being by you is a harmful sin, let me be sent somewhere I can hurt nobody.' I hadn't really known I felt that way till I'd said it out loud; and once I had, I hoped Rob would say he wanted me by him -- whatever the harm, whoever it offended. I waited but somehow he slipped off without me seeing. To sleep, I mean. In a week he had slipped off for good, dead beside me in that same bed, still bound in my flannel -- all the help that did him." She'd said her say for now.
And Rob let the quiet spread round them while he thought of what he could offer or beg from her now. He took the salt cellar she'd smoothed and the pepper; and with them and the two clean unused knives, he made a little foursided house -- no roof. Then not looking up he said "You still know how?"
Polly laughed. "To do what?"
"Little healing jobs."
She tried to wait till he looked up; he didn't. "No meanness," she said, "-- too late for that."
Rob nodded. "No meanness." Then he met her eyes and attempted to smile.
She saw what till now he'd hid so well, what she'd seen in two men's faces before (his grandfather, father) -- the worst sight of all: surrender to death. Rob was ready to die. His eyes were glad. She pressed back slightly in her chair. "What is it?"
"What terms are you on with the powers you mentioned?"
"Better now than before."
Rob said, "Then why do they want us all so early?"
He shook his head. "The Mayfield men -- not one of us got his threescore-and-ten."
Polly said "You're young" and regretted it at once. He was old as the others. Or as oddly nimble on the lip of extinction.
Rob said, "I have done almost all I can think to do." He hadn't planned to say it, hadn't known he knew it; the plain fact stopped him.
Polly thought he was speaking of desperation. She said, "I know you've got your mother and Grainger, but I'll help any way you ask me to."
He could only think to thank her.
But far in the night as he slept upstairs in his dead father's room, Rob lived through this -- pleasure and news. He was traveling in his car, alone and strong. A hot June day but dry as fall, longest day of the year. He had started at dawn; by one he was hungry and stopped at a low white house by the road to buy a meal. There was no sign saying Cafe or Food, but he thought he was right; he'd be welcome here (and for very little money). The wood door was shut, but he opened and entered -- a normal front-room: sofa, chairs, pictures, one small table spread with a white cloth and on it a bowl of broad red poppies. He tried to remember when he'd seen poppies last and wondered if it really was safe to be shut indoors with a living odor as strong as theirs. While he was thinking a woman walked in -- or moved in so quietly he heard no sound till she said "Can I help you?" But he was not startled. He turned and looked. At once he knew that -- in every particular of face, color, size -- she was what his own whole body had wanted since becoming a man. She seemed a woman made from the line of vacant space that hugged his own profile, head to foot; a creature made to be set up against him, to stay there forever in place, not abrading, and who'd waited here till he found and claimed her. Yet she also seemed a feasible woman, as credible as perfect. So he answered her question by moving straight to her and taking her hand. She accepted that, though she didn't meet his eyes. He led her from the room down a short dim hall till an open door showed him one room with a bed -- another entirely possible room: throw-rugs, a dresser, an aging mirror. When they stopped in the center of the room, he turned and carefully but quickly began to undress her. She still didn't face him, but she let him work with no resistance; and when he had her entirely bare in unflawed beauty, she set her own small hands on his wrists and drew him to the bed, neatly opening the covers. Rob opened her. Once bare himself against her -- she did fill all his adjacent emptiness -- he found that he wanted to open and eat her. He left her face and arms and slowly made way down the length of her body, honoring the skin itself with the only tribute he could offer -- silent kisses on her firm pooled breasts, the trough between, her flat belly plush with fine blond hair that took the light from a single window, the patient powerful bone of her left hip. He kneaded that with his stubbled chin, her legs moved apart, he thought he could hear her say "Rob. Now." He wondered how she could know his name, but he wouldn't speak to ask. He obeyed both her voice and his own delight in a hunger on the verge of perfect food. He rose to his knees and slid to the small space she'd offered in her fork. His hands went under her knees, her legs lifted, he bent to the gift. In long laps he spread the tiers of leaves that covered his goal, led by the clean salt stench of her blood and her welcoming oils. Then he devoured her. Or thought he devoured. He licked down easily through layers of happiness, each of which seemed a further dream in the longer dream and each one better (he knew he was dreaming). Yet his eyes were shut, and strong in the midst of all was this knowledge -- She dries and shrinks below me as I eat; all the others have. He consumed her youth unavoidably, speeded her death. She never said "Stop" and he never relented till at last she gripped at his hair like reins, endured the short byproduct of his meal, and could speak again -- "Good." Still blind he laid his head where he'd worked, knowing he must open his eyes in a moment and see his chief fear -- one more woman ruined, who had offered help. She gripped again, rocked him, and he looked up. The same girl faced him, damp but changed only by the smile she gave. She had not smiled till then. He had only made her happy. He would never have to leave.
At the end of the dream -- still asleep -- Rob began to speak to the girl but also aloud in the room, the door open in hope of a breeze. Muffled sounds but audible.
Polly heard them and woke. At first she thought he was in some distress, and she sat up to go. But while she felt in the dark for her robe, she noticed the sounds were peaceful -- little greetings. By the time she was up and had tied the belt, Rob was quiet again. Her eyes however had opened to the seepage of light from the one burning bulb downstairs; the news of his illness gathered weight in her head as she stood there alone. In a minute it seemed intolerable. She'd borne the consecutive years of assaults -- her own mother's death, death of the two men who'd valued her, long isolation -- with the calm and resilience that had been natural to her as thick hair, a free tongue. No longer. That Rob Mayfield should be asked to strangle in broad mid-life, his beauty still on him, was the thing she'd refuse. She'd earned a choice. So she sat again on the edge of her bed and said one sentence to a God she knew of but seldom consulted -- "Not him, not now" (the codicil to which was implied not spoken: If there's crying need for a sacrifice, I volunteer). She sat on awhile to catch any answer. There was no rejection; no acceptance either but rejection was what she'd listened for. A decision on the codicil was of no interest to her. She was still here alive, for now at least. And while she lasted she would try to tell Rob. In the warm dark she fully believed herself. So she walked barefoot on clean boards to his door. The light didn't reach there. She waited to hear any sign of his waking.
Easy sighs, deep sleep.
She extended her hands and made her way toward him, landing at the foot of the bed -- an island. She pulled herself round, felt carefully, and established that he lay on the far side from her. Gently she sat on the vacant edge. His breath didn't alter.
She reached out again -- it seemed as fat as England -- and found his chest, bare, cooler than she'd planned. Her palm was narrow but the fingers were long. She found she was able to cover one breast with the heel of her hand, the other with her fingers.
He'd grown entirely silent.
She said, "You are going to be all right."
He covered her hand. "Thank you," he said. "I won't doubt that."
Polly sat in place another whole minute, glad to be by him and glad of the thick dark -- that Rob couldn't see her. Then the spell weakened slightly; she wondered if he thought she'd broken with age. She moved to leave.
But Rob held her firmly by the hand. "Stay on. It'll be day soon."
It would. Polly stayed -- at first upright, Rob's hand strong on hers. Then when he turned away and gave signs of sleep, she carefully lay outside the covers. Her left hand rested in the small of his back, sheet and spread between them; and her eyes stayed shut, but she didn't sleep again. She knew the length of every moment till dawn when she rose.
The first light woke Grainger. When he'd left Rob at Polly's the previous evening, he'd driven a mile to a house he remembered on a Negro street where an old lady rented occasional rooms. A young woman answered. He asked for Mrs. Adams.
rdShe said, "Mrs. Adams been dead ten years, night Roosevelt died." He'd turned to go but she said, "If you needing somewhere to stay, I could find room, I guess."
Grainger waited; then said, "A whole room? -- private? For just one night."
She nodded. "With a hook on the door. Course, children might wake you up before day."
He'd paid her two dollars, and she'd led him to a small swept room at the back. The only other thing she required was his name, which she wrote in his presence with plain difficulty. Then she'd given him hers -- Lela -- and left him alone. He'd locked the truck carefully, walked till he found a clean place to eat fish; then gone to the Booker T. and watched East of Eden, remarking how much the young boy favored Rob -- Rob thirty-one years ago when Grainger first saw him. He'd walked slowly back, not looking for friends but thinking he might encounter one or two from the years he lived in Richmond. Not a single face in hundreds, so he got back to Lela's at a little past nine. On her porch there were two men and two other women to whom she introduced him -- "Sit down and drink beer; I'll send for you one." He excused himself on grounds of fatigue, wondering as he left who she'd send for beer (the children she mentioned had still not appeared).
In the room he latched the door, took off his new shoes, lay down with his head at the end of the cot to catch the center light, read two chapters in Robinson Crusoe -- "I am Very Ill and Frighted" and "I Take a Survey of the Island" -- then was tired and stood to undress for sleep. He heard something crying, put his ear to the door -- a child, almost surely, and close to his room. He waited for the sound of Lela to ease it; but no sound came and when he was stripped to his underwear and the crying went on, he switched off the light and cracked the door open. The crying wasn't frantic, just a steady thread of pleading; no other children spoke to help it or join it. Grainger took two steps out into the dark hall -- no sounds from the porch. He was here with the child or whatever was here; they'd left him the guard. He went back, put his trousers on, and -- in the dark -- went toward the noise. The next room was open; it came from there. He stood in the door, waited for a pause, and said "Who is this howling?"
The pause drew out; then the child said "Tossy."
"You by yourself?"
"Where your brothers and sisters?"
No answer to that.
"Where your mama?"
Grainger said, "You got you a light in here?"
"In the air, in the middle. Too high for me."
He felt his way forward and found the hanging bulb. "Here it comes," he said. "Shut your eyes a minute."
The child had obeyed. She lay in a big iron bed -- a girl maybe five in white underpants, on top of patched sheets, both eyes shut but calm.
Grainger walked over to her. "Let em come open slow now and see who's with you."
She obeyed again, screening her raw eyes till they opened; then she studied him gravely.
"I'm the man paid your mama to sleep next door." He pointed to his room.
Tossy nodded twice, took her left thumb, and sucked it.
Grainger said, "I'll be nearby. You sleep."
She shook her head No.
He smiled. "You cry, you'll keep me wake. I'll want my money back."
The thumb popped out. "Lie down here, else I'll dream again and holler."
"You dream a lot?"
Tossy said "When they leave me."
Grainger said "They coming back."
She thought that through. "If they don't, you staying?"
The answer surprised him. Yes rose in his head like a cork on a pond. All the things that had left him (and most things had but his health and strength) seemed small by this -- he'd never had a child. Even in the days before Gracie left, when she'd welcomed him in most nights of the week, she had begged for no child. He'd respected her, thinking there was time ahead. Now there was nothing his body had made or nothing more responsive than the shrubs he'd planted, the roofs he'd mended, the three white men (Forrest, Rob, Hutch) he'd stayed near and watched. He kept the Yes silent though. He said, "Let's turn this hot light off. I'll wait here with you."
She'd never smiled. She slid to her right to give him space and took her thumb again.
Grainger reached for the light, then took the three steps, and lay straight beside her.
Tossy lay where she'd landed, not moving to touch him. When he'd serried she said "You kin to me?"
"Hope so." She was out in an instant.
Grainger followed her easily, exploring as he sank unbroken spreads of rolling field ankle-deep in grass -- his unchallenged new home, empty as summer air. In an hour of sleep, he still found nothing. Then he woke and felt a quiet path to his own room through the silent house. Lela had left him a pitcher of water by a clean washbowl and a clean slop-jar.
When the first light woke him, he could hear other people -- three voices, he thought: man, woman, child. It was quarter to six; Rob expected him by nine ("Don't let me down please; Polly may have talked me out"). He rose, washed himself; dressed in clean underwear, the same shirt and trousers. He hoped he could leave unseen, find some breakfast, and maybe drive past Gracie's old cousin's house, give her his thanks. She had sent him a sympathy card when Gracie died nearly two years ago, the first word he had. He'd forgot her street but could poke round and find it; it was not far from here. When he opened his door, the voices were louder and came from a room at the back of the house.
He had taken three steps to go when Tossy ran forward and said "Breakfast ready." She was in a blue dress.
He said, "Got to run. Somebody waiting for me."
"You'll die," she said.
He laughed. "Who'll kill me?"
"Not eating no breakfast."
Lela called from the kitchen, "Getting cold, Mr. Walters."
He followed the child to the good-smelling kitchen.
Lela stood at the stove. At a big center table, a young man was eating fried bread and bacon -- maybe seventeen, eighteen. He looked up, unsmiling. Lela turned and grinned, fresh as if she'd slept ten hours underground. "How many eggs you want?"
"Thank you, none, Miss Lela. My man's looking for me."
She reached for a pot. "Drink some coffee anyway. Tossy say she kept you wake."
"I enjoyed it," Grainger said.
ar"She been begging to go in your room all morning."
Tossy sat by the young man but still watched Grainger.
He told her, "You could have. I'm too old to sleep."
Tossy pointed to a chair. "That's yours. I wiped it."
So he sat two feet from the young man's left; and before he'd drawn his chair up, Lela set down a plate of neat eggs and bacon. "Mr. Walters, this boy say he known you forever." She touched the boy's left ear with the towel she carried.
The boy looked down.
Grainger studied him a moment -- never seen him surely. But there was a band of deep ease across his eyes and nose, a memory of someone.
"Name Eric," Lela said.
Grainger offered his hand across the full table.
Tossy leaned out and took it.
The boy looked up and said, "Your wife was my cousin. My name's Eric Fishel." His bright eyes were Gracie's.
"You live here?" Grainger said.
"No sir, Mama sent me. Somebody come by the house last night, told Mama you were here. She down in the back, so she told me to step here this morning on my way to work."
Lela said, "You were sleep. I made him eat and wait."
It seemed to Grainger he'd been slowly led here to stand this trial, that this strange house had worked all night behind a screen of welcome to charge him at daybreak with unanswerable wrong. Again he thought of standing, trying to leave. He looked over dishes and salt to Tossy.
She said, "I don't have no more dreams."
So he saw no way but to sit on and meet whatever was waiting. He chewed and swallowed a mouthful of eggs. Then he said straight to Eric, "Where was Gracie when she died?"
"Who was with her?"
"Eric Fishel." With their ease his eyes also had Gracie's speed; they were cold now with offense. "I was all she knew, all she wanted to see."
"What killed her?"
Eric ate again, carefully swabbing his plate.
Lela said "Dollar-wine." She'd never sat down but stood by Tossy, drinking coffee from a glass.
Eric said, "Wanted to -- died wanting to die."
Lela said, "Her mind been eat up for years."
Tossy said, "I don't like no kind of wine."
Eric said, "She was crazy but she knew my face. She cooked my supper every night and watched me eat it. Any money she had, she give me half. Thought Mama meant to hurt her."
Grainger said, "I hadn't seen her since early in the war."
"She knew you too. Talked about you anyhow."
"Don't guess it was very sweet music," Grainger said.
Eric shook his head. "She was giving you things, all the time walking round giving you things. She wouldn't sit down except to sleep. She would touch little things that were Mama's or mine and make up a wild tale of where she got them. Then she'd tell me, 'Eric, you see this gets back to Grainger Walters, Fontaine, N.C., care of Rob Mayfield.'"
Grainger smiled. "You never reached me."
But Eric insisted. "Wasn't nothing to send -- old clothes, empty bottles. She did keep one old suitcase locked. When she passed, Mama told me to bust it open -- two hundred paperbags all folded like fans and one little box. Mama said that was yours. She saved it till you came." He reached to the floor and brought up a narrow box, three inches deep and shut with rubber bands.
Tossy said "Can I have it?"
Lela thumped her on the head.
Eric set it by Grainger's right hand on the table.
Grainger said "What is it?"
"Swear to God I don't know. Didn't want to know. Mama kept it. I'd forgot it. Then she heard you were here."
Tossy said "Whose is it?"
Grainger still hadn't touched it. He told her gently. "Belonged to my wife."
He drove up the dirt street from Lela's four blocks to the main paved road. He turned left there toward Miss Polly's and Rob but, in two more blocks, remembered it was early -- twenty minutes to seven. There was no traffic yet -- some old men walking. He pulled to the curb by a dry-cleaning plant and listened to the news. Then when he'd heard that the weather promised well, he took up the box from the warm seat beside him and slid off the bands; they were oozing with age. The first sight was cotton, a strip of batting old as the bands. He lifted that. Lying on its back, gazing up and all but smiling, was a five-inch-long Negro doll -- a girl dressed in what seemed to be a handmade nightgown, drawstring at the neck. He raised the hem and touched the stiff leg, still cooler than the morning round them. If she'd had this when he knew her, she'd kept it hid. Well, he'd seen it now. He covered it carefully, wished he could go back and leave it with Tossy; but he cranked the car again, and went on for Rob -- a last rescue.
By nine that evening Ann Gatlin had finished an hour's nap and a solitary supper and was reading Moravia, The Fancy Dress Party. She was waiting for a visit from Linde Tripp, the new girl at her office who was hunting a room. Ann had offered to share, which she hadn't done in all the years Hutch was near. She'd read for forty-five minutes on her porch in dry slant light when the telephone rang -- Linde, postponing? But when she stood to answer, she surprised herself by thinking, "I haven't thought of Hutch Mayfield in two hours."
Polly Drewry said, "Ann, I'm ashamed to call you this late in the evening; but I've worried all day, and I have to speak."
Ann assured her she was welcome to phone anytime.
Polly thanked her, promised she would not abuse the privilege; then said, "I don't know an easy way to tell it -- Rob Mayfield was just here visiting me. He's sick to death."
Ann at first felt relief. Hutch was safe anyway. Mr. Mayfield had never really liked her from the start. When she'd heard what was wrong and the expectations, she said, "You just found out today?"
"Last night. Grainger drove Rob up here to see me; they left this morning. I've worried ever since. He'd have called you, I know; but you were at work. He had to get home."
"When did Hutch find out?"
"That's the thing," Polly said. "Rob still hasn't told him and says he never will. He's sworn me and everybody else to keep quiet."
"Why on earth?"
Ann said "I'm not sure."
"Hutch would come straight back."
Ann said "He might."
"No might about it. He'd be on the first plane."
"Hutch has changed, Miss Drewry."
Polly paused for that. "You've seen him more than me, in recent years at least. You may've seen something I've failed to see. I've known him since the day he was born though, Ann; and the main thing I seem to have noticed in life is that people change about as much as children change rocks by hopping across them. When Hutch Mayfield hears Rob is going, he'll be back with him. If I'm wrong I'm crazy and have lived in vain."
Ann thought She has and she's bats too at last. But she said, "Mr. Mayfield doesn't want that, it seems."
"Of course he does." Then silence extended, humming like a kite-string.
So Ann spoke to end it, having seen her own chance. "Can I be any help?"
"None at all. No none."
"Then Miss Drewry, let me ask you politely why you're calling."
Polly paused again, then loosened. "I'm asking if you think I should do anything?"
"Such as what, please ma'm?"
"Such as take it on myself to write Hutch now. Or ask you to do it."
"And bring him back?"
"I've said that, yes."
The chance was a sudden door opened in what had been a seamless wall. Ann sat in the ladderback chair; the hall was dark now. "What reason could he give?"
"The reason of being all Rob's ever had."
Ann said, "Hutch couldn't say that. He may know it's true, but it's half of what he's left."
"Is the other half you?"
Ann laughed once. "Oh I'm fifteen percent, maybe twenty-one or two."
Then Polly could laugh. "That runs in the family. They've been fairly fast off the mark through the years, when it came to bolting for their own nerves' sake -- all but Rob; Rob would stay."
Ann said, "Does Mr. Mayfield's mother know?"
"We never speak of her; Rob spares me that."
Ann said, "If she does, she may have written Hutch."
"Never," Polly said.
"Why? She wants Hutch too."
Polly said, "Ann, Eva Mayfield is a stranger to me; but I've known at close quarters three men she changed. I lived with Rob's father, as you may well have heard, from the year she left him till the year he died -- all but forty years. I've known Rob himself since he turned twenty-one and tracked down his father; known him good and bad, thick and thin -- and frankly a long strip of it was thin: drinking and women and other useless misery. Hutch I held in my arms the day he was born and his mother died; and he's come to me for what Eva couldn't give, though she's loved him like a limpet. What I've guessed from those men is, she'll want this to herself; want the whole of Rob's death, not even Hutch to share it. When Rob left here at ten this morning, I knew I'd never see him above ground again."
The fervor of that had left Ann calmer. It had shown her, in a way Hutch himself had never managed, why he'd left and must stay -- till he'd cleared his legs at least from the webs spun at him by housefuls of faces, her own among them. Fairness was no more natural to her than to anyone with needs; but she said, "Miss Drewry, you say Mr. Mayfield left -- going where?"
"Back home, Grainger driving."
"Then since you've asked me, let's let him just go. Let his mother have it all; she hasn't had much."
Polly said quietly, "She's had a fine life. From where I sit -- and I've mostly stood -- I haven't heard her do any one thing she hated."
Ann said, "Oh she has -- her marriage, her mother's suicide, her father's death. She's suffered a lot. Or so Hutch says."
"Don't believe it," Polly said. "Watch her closer than you have, if she'll let you dose. Learn happiness from her. She could give good lessons."
Ann said "I like you better."
Polly laughed. "Several have! I'm outliving them." But she also said thanks.
Late in the night Ann was waked by a dream that came as a single sentence not a story. So clear that, as she lay in the dark, she thought she must have spoken it aloud -- Done now. She first thought it meant Mr. Mayfield's fate, that she'd helped him in his wish to leave Hutch free. But she rose and walked with no light to the toilet; as the cold seat ringed her warm butt and thighs, she saw she'd meant Hutch. She had cut Hutch loose as she hadn't before, even thrust him away when a chance had been offered to hold him again. Hard regret and fear of solitude seized her then and shook her. She bent to her own bare knees and embraced them, crying quite silently.
June 15, 1955
Polly Drewry called me late last night to say she'd talked to you and said more than I asked her to. I thought about calling you but, in view of the hour and my new inclination to cast myself on the Mercy of Fate, I decided to hold off till morning and a letter.
Polly says she pledged you to keep her trust -- of course I'd pledged her. I don't mind you knowing; there's nothing unusually precious to me in having this new twist all to myself. But I have two reasons for the choice I made. First, I want Hutch to have this distance for now. It's the main thing he's lacked; and he'll be better for it, maybe better for you. He's suffered, as I did till well past his age, from thinking our people were more than normally hard on each other -- hard in what they expect or who they ignore (we aren't, I'm sure; just run of the draw, though scarey as hell). Second, this next strip of my own road is of uncertain length. I really don't think I want or could stand him back here watching. He couldn't not watch and there's already days when I'm not up to giving my old imitations of joy and peace.
If you've already told him, don't dive off a wall. If you haven't, please think of my reasons and don't. He's had more of my life than anyone else. We can spare him this.
I've always liked you. I hope you'll be a Mayfield (a mingled boon!). You seem to have the grit.
June 15, 1955
It's a cool evening here, and the radio promises cool through the weekend. So I'll take the omen and sit down and start a letter to you. It may be long and I won't mail it soon, maybe not for some months. Or it may just wait here for you in your room. I'll go on sending little separate dispatches to keep you up on the little events; this will be about a bigger one, big for me anyhow. When and if you ever read it, you will already know its first piece of news -- I will be out of sight -- so I'll give the few details I have on that, then pass to what I've been thinking of lately and want you to have.
Grainger and I got back last night from a two-day circle up to Bracey and Richmond. I hadn't seen Polly since New Year's, as you know; and I had an unaccustomed curiosity to see what was left of Hatt's house in Bracey, my birthplace after all. Polly was fine, absolutely herself (which means that, with Rena, she's been one of the two most selfless people I've happened to know). Bracey was worse -- or the inexplicably still-unmarked Historic Site of Rob Mayfield's birth is a pile of ashes, a small pile at that. Burned down after Negroes took it four years ago. I don't say they did it, but my point is it happened and in gorgeous Virginia. Wouldn't you have thought that a state which puts up a two-ton silver sign to mark every dead spot left in the weeds where General Lee peed would have taken protective measures round the cradle of Robinson Mayfield, the Last Rose of Bracey? Well, they somehow didn't. God-Above hasn't either -- or if what's underway is protective, then He's got me buffaloed again.
See, two days before I came up to get your stuff from Edom, I got the results of two weeks of tests. In April when I really believed you were going, I figured it was time to change my insurance -- revalue my life at a little higher rate and leave you enough to bury me at least with the usual modest ten-thousand-dollar rites. In a man my age, the company insisted on a physical check; so I went to Sam Simkin, and everything slid along fine till I stepped behind the fluoroscope -- he seemed to see a shadow the size of a quarter on one of my lungs.
To simplify the next two weeks of the tale, he made valiant efforts to prove it was anything but what it is -- had me spitting from caverns I never knew were down there. We couldn't get a sign of trouble that way, just the normal jillion flora and fauna. So three days before I came up to you, he made a last try -- highly diverting little episode in which a tube the size of a European sausage with lights and mirrors was slowly inserted down my throat to my lungs for the luxury tour. What was seen was a sizable lesion, as they call it in their euphemistic code, and little lesionettes (or Iesionnaires) all up in the bronchials and on into darkness. Sarcoma, which is cancer. They could operate, haul the whole lung out; but Sam says at best that would give me two years. So I've chosen to preserve my beauty intact, my uncut hide. It has maybe six months of its seamless pride left, eight if I'm unlucky.
I'm here at my home. Grainger, Mother, and Sylvie are taking good care. There is no sufficient cause -- I searched -- to call you back from a trip you need. We said a good farewell. There've been very few points, now I think about it, in all our time together when a sudden final parting would have left either one of us with much unsaid. In recent years at least we've done pretty well at acting our feelings. I feel that I've watched a whole show, start to finish. I wouldn't want to claim it was Buster Keaton, but it surely had speed and curves and hills, and it rolled to a good warm destination.
If there's memory after death (I suspect there is, though the local Christians doubt I remember Jesus' last name or his winter-hat size), I'll hope to remember the view I had of you in the mirror of my truck as I left you in Edom. You watched me out of sight -- highest marks in my book. Almost no human friend will stand to watch you go or turn back one last time when they leave you. They are too expectant, too ready for change. I liked you not waving, just standing still -- but standing. Of course I'd like to see you. I'd like to see you every other day left in history, but that would be for me. There's nothing here now for you that you can't learn from reading this letter, and it may be long. I'll try to work on it a little every few days -- another family author, a tad late as ever. My Life and What It Showed Me or What I Think I Saw.
Looking for a way to start this that will keep it going. I know you don't need an autobiography of me, long or short. I know I don't plan to preserve my Great Thoughts on Time and Space for babes yet unborn who'll have the punk luck not to hear me in person. I suspect an account of my circumscribed movements would be barbituate. I could write out all the jokes I remember, but I don't remember many (why would somebody loving to laugh as much as me live a life and not make up one joke or remember three?). I could finally entrust my famous recipes -- hoecake and popcorn. But I read last week in a good biography of Count Tolstoy that he said any fool could write a novel if he'd put down all one person did and thought in one whole day. He ought to know.
My present days are mostly pretty calm however. I'm still sleeping out here alone with Thal. Grainger wants to move out. Mother wants me to move in. I plan to stay put as long as I can. Far as symptoms go, that could nearly be forever -- I cough a few times a day, a dry feather down beneath my breast bone; and my joints are stiffer than usual in the morning (but as the old lady said, "It's good to have something stiff around the house"). So I live my usual summer days -- up early for a walk, a big hot breakfast, a piddling morning with the paper and books, then a drive into town for the mail, lunch with Mother, a long afternoon-nap in my old room there, then back out here for the evening and night. Mother thinks I'm taking too much time alone, but I seem to like it. There were years when I wanted somebody nearby every minute of the day -- Mother, Min, Rachel, you -- but now this solitude seems like a wonderful food I've ignored at serious peril. It well might have saved me if I'd found it in time, even short strips of it. Till now I can't remember ten happy minutes alone, but I'm working to have one whole happy day with nobody but Thal before I quit. I'll let you know.
That kept me thinking a good deal of last night. I was trying to remember happy time alone -- before now, I mean. All I could come up with was the hours spent jacking off. Nobody ever told me it was dangerous or wrong, so I took to that with serious application at about age four. I know that because I recall going over behind a big laundry basket that Rena had painted green and giving myself that neat reward. Then Rena decided she didn't like the color -- goose-turd -- and gave the basket to old Mag. Mag died well before I started school, which is how I date my first lonely pleasures. I was wrong yesterday -- I've had some very nice lonely minutes but all before the age of twelve. After that, however alone I was, I was always working to the close accompaniment of one or another of the many mental pictures from my gallery of hopes, little packs of girls like baseball cards. Or Con DeBerry when I was fourteen (he and I stayed steamed up about each other through that whole summer, all fumbling hands in hot barns and sheds). Nice minutes, as I said, but pretty sad memories -- love thrown to the wind.
To cheer myself up for discovering that, I lay on awake and tried to select much longer good stretches. I decided to hunt for the three best days of my fifty-one years. Ever tried that, with your twenty-five? You're a trained hand at memory, and you probably have the best at your fingertips; but I've never kept any diaries or records, so I just lay still in the dark and asked for my three best days to come back as visions. Nothing came at first. To help myself I divided the available years by three; I've lived exactly three times seventeen years. So I dwelt on age one to seventeen and then this came --
The August I was six -- 1910 -- my Aunt Rena said at the table one morning, "You'll be starting school soon, and that ends freedom for good and ali. I'm going to take us to Raleigh for a last fling." I of course hollered. Mother was sitting there but spoke not a word. Grandfather said, "No such of a thing -- never see either of you alive again." But three mornings later Rena spoke up again, "Rob and I are leaving on the first train tomorrow. We'll be spending two nights at the Yarborough Hotel. I've never been anywhere and neither has he; we've earned the right." Grandfather said, "Then SyIvie's going with you." Sylvie stood there with pancakes, nodding agreement. Rena said, "Thank you, no. Rob and I have worked for this. You mustn't keep it from us." I was speechless with joy and flat with amazement, never having heard anybody go against him. He finished his breakfast in silence thick as custard; and I never heard another word of discussion, though there may have been some.
Next morning at seven he walked us to the station, holding Rena's grip (I carried my own, that midget doctor's-satchel you used to play with). The only thing he told us was "Don't speak to anybody younger than fifty; and if you get lost, find a Methodist Church and ask for the preacher." From there on I barely remember the first day -- so near a dream that I've lost ali of it but the fact that our room had two big beds with white summer counterpanes and one tall wardrobe that we took turns hiding in to scare each other (Rena was still a child herself, not quite twenty-one). The second day is what I remember entirely.
We both woke up a little while before light and could hear each other breathing normally. There was some good distance between our beds. I turned to try to see her, but she was still dark and still hadn't moved, so finally I said "You ready for company?" She thought about that and, for her own reasons, eventually said, "Let's keep our own places, so dry and cool." Then she said "Say your prayers." I did that in a hurry. Rena took a little longer, having more time behind her; and we had a long breakfast in the bright dining-room -- beefsteak and gravy, corn muffins and butter in hard ribbed curls. I asked for coffee. The old Negro waiter shook his head -- "Stunt your growth." Rena said, "That's the idea. Bring him black coffee." I drank three cups, was pied as Ben Turpin the rest of the morning, and happier for it -- my fatal first hint that ease came in liquid state, readily procured. Then we walked downtown. I remember dim hours in the old museum -- mastodon leg-bones the size of Negro houses, some Indian teeth from Roanoke Island, a live snapping-turtle that had taken two joints of a little boy's finger in Perquimans County, and a male diamondback rattler thick as my leg that had been on a fast ever since they caught it five months before. That morning in our presence they tried again -- set a month-old squirrel in beside his bronze eye. I wanted to leave; Rena said "Pay attention." In under thirty seconds he drew back and struck, and we stayed to watch him swallow all but the tail. I remember eating two banana sandwiches (where did we get them?) in the shadow of the statue to Confederate women (whose idea was that? anyhow Rena liked it). I remember she took me to Briggs Hardware and said, "Buy anything that costs a dollar." I bought a full-sized ball peen hammer; still have it -- you can hang pictures with it when it comes your way.
Then in late afternoon when even I was tired of the blistering day, Rena found a church standing open -- First Baptist, unfortunately. She said "Let's rest." We were near the hotel. I said, "You've paid for those two cool beds." Even then I could see there was something she'd expected and not found yet. I thought it was hiding somewhere in the town. She pulled me behind her, and we went in and sat way over on the side in half-dark. The Kendals, as you know, were not big churchgoers, though Rena read St. Paul more than was healthy. Still I knew when to sit quiet and draw in my horns. Right off, she shut her eyes. I figured she was praying, so I watched her and tried to guess what she wanted. Pretty soon I decided she wanted this to last -- us alone off together. I still loved Mother so much there was small room left for Rena even, so I couldn't share the wish, but I did keep watching till I thought she was beautiful. You well know she wasn't, not to see at least -- plain as any rake handle. But I saw otherwise that one afternoon. I thought she was something like Pharaoh's daughter in Tales From the Bible. And maybe I was right. Children are dead-right about so many things they later get wrong or mislay completely; maybe looks is one. I tried to imagine getting back to the hotel and finding a wire saying Mother was dead. It ruined me of course, and my eyes watered some. But I do recall thinking, "There will be Rena left, who is pretty too." I went on thinking that from then on out and leaning on it -- didn't every one of us? -- till you found her that morning, cold by the steps. At least she missed this. By then she'd finished praying or stopped. She faced me. I said, "Do you really hear Him talk back?" She shook her head, solemn -- "Not always, no."
By the time we had had our naps and supper, it was well on to dark. She asked if I wanted another short walk. I was tired to the bone but couldn't say that. I said I would rather she read to me. So after we talked to a gentleman well past fifty in the lobby, we went up and lay in our clothes on the beds; and she read a chapter of My Poor Dick -- I swear to God, a novel she'd brought; all we had but the Bible. It was set in England, and it put me under -- a hero named Dick that everybody loved.
But before I had gone completely, Rena said, "Let me rub those tired legs with cold witch-hazel." It had happened before, more than once for chiggers and growing pains. I knew the procedure. I stripped to my underbritches, lay on my belly, and she rubbed me nicely. What was new was she finally said "Slip down ), our drawers." I did and she said, "Now lie on your back." I knew we were wading into deeper water but liked the prospect. I don't think I'd ever felt naked before, not for anyone but mirrors. I remember hoping my thing wouldn't stand; it had already started playing me tricks. Well, she kept to my legs as she had before-not much above the knee -- and I kept my eyes shut. I was thinking any minute I would be afraid or have to answer questions I didn't understand. But witch-hazel is one of life's cheaper blessings, and its clean odor just steadily soothed any worry that rose. They were all that rose and finally they stopped; and then -- somewhere on the near side of sleep -- I found myself praying what I'd guessed was Rends prayer, that this not end. She and I here for good.
As she'd foretold earlier, I heard no answer. But by then I was deeper down into sleep. She woke me with a thump on the navel, laughing. I looked. She was corking the bottle and standing. She said, "Now I've seen one. Thought I might never. Not much to live for!" I didn't understand the words themselves. But gone as I was, I knew we'd come through some narrow alley back into free space; and I knew she'd led me. So before I slept again -- eight or ten seconds -- I tasted, pure tasted, the thought I will not be happier than this. I may have thought safer, the same thing really.
Let that be recalled then, by you if no one else, as one of your father's best stretches of time. Notice too -- in that tale, like all the rest, he is not the hero and didn't try to be. He waits for a woman to lead him to daylight. You may think he's wrong and will pay ever after but sometimes they can. So can rocks though maybe, ponds in the shade or one standing pine. My wisdom, you've noticed, tends to vanish when fingered.
I'll keep to stories then, as I vowed at the start. Next time I'm horizontal and calm as last night, I'll try to discover the next good day-seventeen to thirty-four. You were born in there. Cross your fingers and hope.
Where are you this minute? -- five hours on past me, at the very least. You were always ahead. Anyhow, whatever I said right above, I trust your fingers are better employed than crossed and waiting. That was my poor line.
As promised Lew had met Hutch at Oxwich Castle. They'd spent twenty minutes in its modest ruins -- Lew inventing sagas of Roman attack, Hutch looking down to fields and parallel hedges and a clutch of white houses all stroked with damp sun, "in country sleep." Less than two years before, Dylan Thomas had died in a New York Novernber too far from here, his native place. Hutch had thought they'd go on to Lew's for lunch, meet his mother at least, and maybe spend a night. But Lew had called out from a turret "Flee! Flee? and, when he'd run down, had actually meant it -- they must push on at once; he'd had home for now. So they spent three days in the west of Wales -- Milford ttaven, St. David's, Cardigan, Aberystwyth; then down through the Brecon Beacons and the coal towns to Bristol, Bath, Wells, Glastonbury. They stayed in Glastonbury through a fine afternoon, exploring the probably spurious but powerful traces of Joseph of Arimathea's English visit -- the haven of the Grail, the thorn that had grown from his planted staff; the site of the grave of Arthur himself, entombed in a hollow oak, Guinevere at his feet (whose gold hair had powdered at a greedy monk's touch when the bones were discovered). They'd been flushed from the grounds at sunset by a guard, and treated themselves to a long dinner at the Copper Beech; then decided, on wine, to drive through the night into Cornwall -- Tintagel.
And till then they had traveled easily together. Lew's appetite was mainly for the road, onward motion; but he'd seemed quite ready to hear Hutch lay out the various stories of Arthur and his woes. He'd even read aloud as Hutch drove, the entire text of Bddiér's Romance of Tristan and Iseult; it took him two days with his interpolation of oddly convincing passages of photographic eros, mostly centered on Iseult's resourcefulness in bed or bower. So when they arrived in early morning mist at Trevena, the dismal village behind Tintagel Head, Hutch pulled up beside the Round Table Cafe and said, "Shall we have a little cold grease and mead before we take the next castle?"
Lew consulted a furry mouth with his tongue, then turned and smiled. "Tell you what -- I'm beat and my arse thinks it's dead. Let's find a nice widow with a bed for rent. I'll doss down while you eat. Take all day to look; come wake me when you're done."
Hutch said, "I can drive to Castle Dore now. I'll wait till you're up to see Tintagel."
Lew nodded. "Drive anywhere. Enjoy the day, nice Cornish day" -- it was still dim and dense. "Then if you want to take me to see anything, find a whacking color-picture with Marilyn Monroe. Or any kind of show starring anybody naked."
Hutch laughed and agreed.
Lew opened his door and stepped to the street. An old man was passing with a slow camel gait. "Beg your pardon," Lew said. "Do you know a nice widow with a lovely daughter rents rooms by the day?"
The man said "Please?" and stopped with difficulty, still rolling his knees.
"Two gents need rest. Know a cheap dry place?"
The man pointed through the Lancelot News Agency as if it were air. "Next road. Mrs. Mason. Little card in her window. Daughter's fat but blind."
Mrs. Mason was fat -- two hundred pounds of red-haired cheer, exactly the color of her asthmatic spaniel. The daughter Jill was half a head taller, pleasant-looking brunette with excellent eyes. They were washing breakfast dishes when Hutch and Lew knocked; and yes they had one room, ten shillings. It faced a yard of hens, all mired in black mud; but the wide oak bed seemed dry and clean. Lew insisted on paying and changed his mind far enough to eat the big breakfast the women offered. Then he did turn in and Hutch set off.
The wet gray walls of Arthur's Tintagel struck Hutch as the first perfect site he'd seen. He knew that the visible ruins of the castle were some six centuries younger than any historical Arthur. Still its unroofed walls coiled tense as a snake on the high sea-crag, precisely as advertised by poets, sufficiently grand to have witnessed all the legends bestowed -- the deceitful conception of Arthur and his birth by Uther on Ygrain through the arts of Merlin. But though Hutch had been the morning's first visitor and had the whole thing to himself half an hour with mist and gulls and cold salt gusts, he had not responded to more than the sights. Why? -- Arthur had been his childhood favorite, with Pocahontas find Alexander. He poked round an hour taking photographs, staring out to sea and back at the Saxon church set alone on the next cliff, as open to gales. By then he'd decided -- the place, with all its grandeur, was a set; the show was long over. He was wrong of course, knowing nothing of the two millennia of men who'd held this rock before any Arthur (if Arthur ever was) and their sturdy successors. What still bound him in like skin on his eyes was the distance from home, the newness of his break. Even grass here was unlike any grass he'd known; in its rank health it caught at his ankles, soaked and slowed him.
But two hours later, twenty-five miles south, he began to feel freed -- or opening slowly. He'd driven the width of the county and come to his next planned stop. A little above Fowey on the spine of its peninsula at a country junction with no human being or animal in sight, he came on two things. A seven-foot stone plinth of obvious age stood in weeds and flowers. Hutch' pulled to the shoulder of the narrow road, stepped across, and waited for the sun to take cover. Then he traced with his finger the muchdisputed Latin. To him it seemed clearly to say what he'd hoped -- DRUSTANUS HIC IACIT CUNOMORI FILIUS. "Here lies Drustan son of Cunomoms." Drustan was the Celtic spelling of Tristan. Cunomorus was another of King Mark's names. In all the stories Tristan was Mark's nephew. Did the inscription signify "son of his loins" or "adopted son"? Had the poets made a hard tale softer? -- incest, real or legal, smoothed to household adultery?
Hutch walked through tall dry grass and more flowers (he seldom noticed flowers) toward a huge earthwork maybe ten feet high and easy to climb. At the top he was standing on the mound of Castle Dore -- the undoubted hill-fort and palace of Mark, local king of the fields here surveyed, dated early sixth century by recent excavation. He could still see no one and nothing man-made but the green ridge he stood on. Within its small ring the most famous love of the modern world, since Antony and Cleopatra at least, had blossomed and spread -- there was real chance of that. The sun cleared again. Hutch squatted to the ground and probed its softness.
He remembered -- not Iseult from his Boy's King Arthur, slender, lowbelted -- but Kirsten Flagstad four years before, her last Isolde at the Metropolitan. He'd watched her from the side of the Family Circle, a fiftyfour-year-old Norwegian matron whose two hundred pounds were not concealed by the white neglig6e of Act Two (the night) till she rose to the first great crest and poured --
Have you not known...
The mighty Queen
Of boldest hearts,
Mistress of Earth's ways?
Life and Death
Are under Her.
Them she weaves of joy and pain.
He'd taken the question personally then and later in his single room at the Taft. Had he known Her at all? And was the claim true? What came with birth and trebled at puberty, he'd known right along. He'd always suspected himself of enjoying his body more than anyone else he'd known. Alone or with others it had simply never failed him, and he'd used it daily at least for twelve years. But had he ever known a constant need only one could fill? -- from all reports, that seemed to be love. He believed he hadn't. He thought that such a need must be taught, almost surely by a mother. His mother had died the day of his birth. He'd been set the example by Rob, Polly, Grainger, Eva, Alice, now Ann. At various times one or more of those had aimed at his eyes an offer of love, a plea for love, that had now proved blinding. Dazzling at least. He'd run from that -- and first stopped here. This hour seemed the first still hour he'd had in months, maybe years. And it came at Castle Dore, surely one of the earth's main ganglia of love and its famished cry.
What he felt though was ease, a simple light pleasure to be loose in a warm day, splotched by sun, hunched down in sweet grass and digging idly. Home, he thought; then knew that home had never meant ease. His nail scraped a rock. He gouged it up and rubbed it clean -- a palmsized parallelogram of gray shale with streaks of sea-green and, on its long edge, jagged stains brown as old blood. With the sun hid again, the rock had its own sheen, lunar but steady. He was not a skilled judge, but it didn't seem shaped by human work. Still it might have been walked on by Iseult or Mark. There were no signs forbidding the theft of a rock; he'd take this one then.
He stood and was instantly hit by the rise. His sight swam; he laughed once aloud and half-spun. Then he waited to calm. His natural compass told him he was facing southwest; that one sense never failed him. A true line grounded here, extended four thousand-four hundred miles, would touch -- what? Rob anyhow -- Ann, Eva, all the others nested there. Looking homeward then, angel or not. Milton's angel had stood on the hill in Penzance harbor forty miles from here, staring out toward Spain in protection and defiance. Hutch said the lines, richer in loss than any other --
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Well, he'd work that out -- who was who, where was homeward. That was why he was here. Rob had asked for a diagram. If one was there he'd find it -- from here, sufficient distance. Sufficient time -- this year, maybe more, stretched before him clear as Roman road. He'd bought himself time.
Then why, at that, did a shudder seize him and cold tears start? They held him another whole minute there high on the green midden raised over Europe's great love and foul deceit.
That evening they'd bought a can of corned beef, tomatoes, cheese, a Hovis loaf, cider, and plums and driven five miles to lie in a pasture by a small stone bridge that crossed a river barely wider than a creek. They'd asked -- nearest cinema with anything bearable was an hour away; so they'd eat here, find a pub, and turn in fairly early. Hutch was tired from his day, Lew still groggy from his nap; and they mostly ate in silence, watching six cows slowly graze toward the river. The smallest would stop every minute or so and throw a long soulful look their way. Finally she moved out boldly from the others and sauntered forward, stopping only at the water, her feet in muck. Hutch and Lew were sprawled ten feet apart. She turned her muzzle distinctly to Hutch and gave a slow bellow.
Lew said, "Are you wearing your bull scent again?"
Hutch said, "I haven't bathed if that's what you mean."
"Oh lovely. That's one thing wrong with your country -- people wash too much. You can barely tell they're people when you rub up against them. I like a good whiff when I'm in the mood."
Hutch nodded and smiled. "Me too, to a point."
Lew still faced the heifer; she was drinking now. "Can't recall ever having anything so pongy I couldn't lick it clean enough." He'd spoken as earnestly as if it were a finding of some importance, and he seemed to weigh it. Then he turned to Hutch, grinning. "I had this mate in the army -- from Oxford; you should look him up: little low-built chap with deep-set black eyes. He was just eighteen and pure as new cream; but soon as I saw him, I said, 'Stand clear. That one's wound tight as wire. Whoever cuts his string had better be seated and gripping iron rails!' He was straight from square-bashing. Anyhow first weekend I took him into Salisbury -- me and two others -- and this old girl that I'd known some time gave us each ten minutes in a shed. Him first, as the baby -- name was Gary; still is, I daresay and hope. He said it went nicely and so did the girl, though she prided herself on professional ethics -- didn't blab on her trade, but she thanked me for Gary. Well, ethics -- poor dear, she'd slipped that week. There were Irish Guards in town; I blame them -- worst dogs of all. On schedule my knob popped a nice red blister. I went in for tests and a pint of penicillin. So did one of the others. And I warned young Gary, but he said he was clear -- shy as foxes, he was; always washed in a corner with his arse to us. Still in three more days, he woke with this sore at the side of his mouth; he had full lips, another good sign. I asked him who'd chewed on his lip in the night. He flushed red as Christmas and said 'Nobody.' But next day the thing had spread and looked hot. I said he should have it seen to at once before his looks were marred for good. That night I found him, stood over in the dark, rubbing salve on his sore. It really hadn't crossed my mind what he had. I said, 'Got you back on the road to fame, have they?' (we always told him he was made for pictures). He turned to the light and was redder than ever, struggling with whether to knock me flat. I said 'No harm,' meaning I was his mate. He said, 'Bloody right. I'll be fit in a month. Then I'll taste it again -- sweet as sherbet, it was.' He'd managed it upright in that stinking shed. Well, peace to his wounds! -- a hero of love, through filth and flame."
During that the heifer had returned to her grazing. The sky was suddenly three shades dimmer; it was nearly nine. The mist that had burned off by noon was returning, lying in the middle distance beyond them and extending gradual arms their way, two feet from the ground. The light had gone violet and gave a low hum as far as Hutch could hear. He rolled to his belly facing Lew and pointed to the half-dark bridge. "Guess what happened here."
"Your eighth-great-grandmother passed a kidney stone at age ninety-nine."
"No the Mayfields were from Sussex."
Lew said, "I'm sure you'd know, Master Hutch." But he still watched the bridge. "George Washington crossed it as a lad of ten on his way west to steal Paradise from the Limeys."
Hutch laughed. "George Washington never touched England."
Hutch said, "It's called Slaughter Bridge. King Arthur's bastard son Modred met him here, hand to hand, and stabbed him in the head. They took him upstream -- there's a rock marks the spot -- and he died there at sundown."
Lew said "Lucky sod," still watching the bridge. Then he suddenly turned and faced Hutch fully, his small fine-boned skull clear in the dusk.
"Might have known," he said harshly.
"-- You'd pull this on me." He was plainly not joking.
Hutch swallowed his mouthful of bread.'I'm lost."
"You're not. That's just it. You're hauling me round these spots dead as Egypt. I hate all this." He thumbed toward the bridge. "I told you this morning I'd had it with this."
"You said you were sleepy."
Lew laughed, which drained a little of his steam. "So sleepy I'd like to go dead right here, be nailed in a box, and not resurrected till the box reaches New York -- Miami at least. Never Canada again."
"You've not seen it, right?"
"Right," Hutch said.
"Don't waste dollars then. It's good for a laugh in the first few weeks -- grown men standing round, heads bowed in prayer that they'll turn into Yanks; but all drinking tea and debating if they'll get a nice visit this year from the Queen and her docked-cock husband. After that it's Hell."
"Go to New York then."
"You proposing marriage? That would be my one hope with your bloody immigration."
Hutch said "Sure."
They both laughed and lay back in place on the thick grass. Light was all but gone. The cows had melted off. The mist was nearly on them. Lew said, "Ever had piles or rheumatism?"
"You do now."
"Lying out here. Any fool who lies on British soil at night gets piles and rheumatism, dead or crippled in a week."
"How did ancient Britons fuck?"
"In trees. On stones. That's the well-kept secret of Stonehenge, mate -- no temple at all, just a great knocking-shop, lovely stones big as beds. All from Wales, by the way."
Hutch laughed. "I know."
They waited another minute. Lew said, "Anything you don't know, Nostradamus?"
Hutch laughed but saw Lew had struck something hard. He did know the future, had always known it -- what others would do. What stopped him was the past -- what had been done and why, where it pressed on him. He said, "I don't know what's happened to me -- in my life, I mean."
"Lucky sod," Lew said; "I do" and stood to go.
They walked, in faith, through total dark past the slaughter of Arthur -- a bridge as fitting for a Mother Goose jingle:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives....
They were halfway back to their lodging, driving slow in earnest fog, when Hutch said, "You claimed you knew what had happened -- to me or you?"
Lew took a little time, then spoke to the road. "Oh both. You've had it very easy, all you wanted -- iced lollies in the sun and more on the way. I was one of six children to a drunk stonemason in a four-room cottage on the Gower Peninsula of poor old Wales. Postcard views of Heaven. To me it meant a shit-hole out in the yard with sick chickens staring in the cold and mud while I sat breathing poison from my family's bowels with my blue knees knocking. I had the misfortune to be my mum's pet and to have a schoolmaster who thought I was special -- maybe had a brain cell or two to bear me away: Richard Burton at the Vic; Emlyn Williams, you know. What I had was a smile that would melt Pembroke bluestone. That and words; I could talk. Or sing -- the Welsh chant: Pardon-would-you-kindly-suck-my-knob?" He intoned it, high and sweet.
Hutch said "A lovely sound."
Lew said, "Try to spend it. Try to start your life with two strong arms, a straight white smile, and fulltime opera streaming out of your teeth -- how far would you get?"
"Covent Garden, the Met."
"Very likely. They got me two marvelous years in Her Majesty's forces, all the birds I could shag; then six months in rural Ontario with my dad's sister, sweeping warehouse floors and minding her kids; then two whole seasons with that sorry show."
"One elephant, a lion, four bears, three seals -- they loved the smile; they had to."
"What was wrong with that? Every boy wants a circus."
"Nothing actually but the owner's wife. See, he was a Jew and died near the end of my first season -- worn to the quick; he'd come from Poland after the war. His wife was French-Canadian, a good bit younger. She kept the show going and summoned me on -- to her lonely arse. You ever try touring the wilds of Saskatchewan and Manitoba with a one-ring show, you'd find yourself climbing on the baboons if they paused long enough. I liked it at first -- she was strong and funny (the seals were hers) -- and she ran everything so smoothly I thought I was set for a while. Thought I was seated by a nice warm grate with my feet on the hob. I was really lost on the autumn sea near the rim of a bloody great storm wheeling at me. Every storm is hollow at the core, you know -- Yvonne Taborski was sucking me in as fast as I'd come. Which is why I'm here. I ran, I mean."
"-- And landed with a Yank fleeing opposite ways on a historic tour of unhistoric sites."
"Suits me, for now. Sorry I spouted back there. I hate cows."
"We'll just rest tomorrow. You set the pace."
Lew thought and shook his head. "I was whacked this morning, but I can't bear rest -- reminds me of Wales."
Hutch grinned. "You decide."
Lew still faced the glass; they'd reached Trevena. It seemed to exist in midair, frail, founded on vapor. He nodded. "All right."
For Hutch, by the low green light from the dash, Lew's profile seemed strong as an Attic head -- the Kritios boy on Alice's wall: a still survivor of time, acid fate, marauding hungers, triumphant though scarred and gravely generous, ready to share its patient secret if properly asked, its diamond endurance -- simple as coal. He was only half-wrong.
Mrs. Mason was taking saffron cake from the oven when they knocked at ten. Jill was out with her young man -- "wall-eyed but honest" -- so she urged them to sit in the kitchen with her for Ovaltine and slices of the warm splendid cake. They were full and tired but agreed and sat. In a moment she joined them and, with no question asked, commenced a monologue on her husband Les's recent long-drawn death. "They told me his kidneys were solid as puddings when they tried to cut. I'd known his heart was solid for years -- six months after I married him too -- but I didn't have the stomach to ask what they found there -- they cut him, fork to tit, a two-foot seam. I know; I washed it."
Lew stood at that, begged exhaustion, and left.
Hutch stayed for the tale of funeral and bills and another slice of cake. When he managed to extract himself half an hour later, he said, "I'm praying for very deep sleep."
Mrs. Mason said, "You've got the bed for that, all right. It was our old bed -- mine and Les's; he could sleep. Slept through most of my life at least."
Hutch said, "Sleep has never been my problem either."
"Well, I hope Mr. Davis hasn't taken your half."
"I'll move him if he has."
Mrs. Mason thought a moment; she was rinsing their cups. Then she looked back and grinned. "I had two chaps here early last spring -- from Cambridge, doing very much the same as you: nosing round old stones, asking me what I'd heard as a child of King Arthur. I told them nobody I knew had ever known him; he came with the cars, you know -- trippers, once the good old war shut down. Can't disappoint trippers. Seemed to ruin their day -- my chaps, I mean. I reckon they thought I had private news they could take back with them and win big prizes. Never mind; they recovered." She pointed to the wall that hid Lew from them. "I heard em playing leapfrog for three nights straight!"
Hutch laughed and left.
Lew had turned out the light and sounded asleep. Hutch quietly washed at the bowl in the corner. Some moonlight had reached through the one high window; it seemed the source of cold in the room. As he stripped to his shorts, Hutch shook and gripped his shoulders. Then he felt his way to the empty side of Les's bed -- the usual English millstone of covers, welcome now. Still he dreaded the first touch of clammy sheets. In just a half-hour Lew had warmed them though. Hutch lay back, grateful, and condensed his body to its most economical bulk for the night. They had not shared a bed till now; good luck. He said a short prayer, then saw Castle Dore again -- the shape of a great crab extending claws from a green carapace, to capture what? Safety surely. Safety from what? Other men. It had failed. Within the shell itself lay Tristan, a hollow heart.
His knee itched. He carefully reached down to rub it. Something cold struck his calf. He waited, then probed on down to find it. His blind fingers finally were forced to admit they'd found a knife, a dull table-knife. He drew it out quietly and held it to the moon. In its homely bluntness it managed a gleam.
Lew whispered. " 'She lay down and Tristan put his naked sword between them. To their good fortune they'd kept on their clothes. So they slept divided in the heart of the wood and were found there, pure by the wretched Mark.' "
Hutch laughed -- "A-plus. A fine demonstration of the famous Celtic memory" -- and set the knife on the floor by his head.
Neither of them slept at ease all night.
But three mornings later they sailed from Penzance in an old island steamer, past St. Michael's Mount (the angel's home) and west thirty-five miles on high seas four hours to the low granite Scillies. Lew spent the time sick in the chilly "lounge," a dim cabin ten feet square with wood benches; Hutch stayed on deck, incapable apparently of that one malaise. They docked on St. Mary's, wandered an hour in gray Hugh Town while Lew's head settled, then caught the mail-launch two miles north to Tresco. It literally beached them in a red shingle cove where an old man waited to take the mail. By then Lew was fit to resume his duties as quartermaster. Mrs. Mason had told them of a cousin of hers, married to a fisherman somewhere on the island, who would take them in; they only knew his name. "Can you tell us where to find Albert Gibbons please?"
The man's face was split -- half innocent-islander, half lifelong-seaman. His eyes never met them but consulted the beach or the low hill behind. "You've got a long journey to find Bert Gibbons."
Lew smiled. "I heard Tresco was two miles long."
The man nodded. "Some less -- one and three-quarter on a good bright day" (it was suddenly that, all clouds blown clear). Then he shifted the one bag and stepped toward the hill. "Bert ain't on Tresco nor in the world. Drowned maybe two months back; you won't find him."
"But he's got a wife, right?"
The man's back was to them, cresting the rise. From there he turned and looked out to the launch, barely audible, leaving. He gave it a wave. "And two bad children. Walk straight through the Garden, lean right to Lizard Point, ask the first face you see for Kay Gibbons' cottage. If she opens the door, you'll be the first that's seen her."
The first face was monstrous. When they'd skirted the weird Abbey Garden -- thick with palms and cactus -- and followed a rolling path northeast five hundred yards, a boy stood up from a rock on their right. His body seemed eight or nine years old; his face was huge and his eyes blared wildly, but he made no noise. They stopped in their tracks. Then Lew laughed. "How much will you take for that?"
The boy came forward, still holding to his face a big round glass framed stoutly with metal -- eight inches broad, some curious nautical magnifier. He held it out to them. "You can have it," he said. "Just found it by the bay."
Lew took it, held it to his own dark face, and turned to Hutch -- a fish-eyed smile and hoggish grunts.
But Hutch was watching the pale thin boy, surprised by his readiness to give up so soon a genuine find any child would have prized. Five minutes before as they'd come through the garden, he'd thought the word Eden. He thought it again.
So did Lew, in his way. He gave back the glass. "You'll need this," he said. "It would just scare me mate."
The boy took it slowly, suspecting some part of his life had been abused. He thumbed the brass binding, then looked to Hutch. "You frightened?" he said.
Hutch smiled. "Not of you."
"You keep it," he said. "My mother wouldn't like it."
Hutch accepted it with thanks. "I'll remember you behind it."
The boy nodded -- "Please" -- and gathered to run.
Lew said, "Could you show us where Bert Gibbons lived?"
He nodded. "Why?"
"Mrs. Gibbons' cousin in Trevena said they might put us up."
The boy said "All right" and walked on ahead.
By then their bags were heavy in the sun. The boy was moving at a healthy clip, never looking back. Hutch wondered, "Does he think this is all less than perfect?" To Hutch, with his own life, it seemed perfect so far -- sun, a lush garden, no cars, no town, rocks and sea as a permanent guard.
But Lew said "Oy!" to the child and stopped. "I'm an old man. Have mercy."
The boy looked back, said "Sorry," and waited.
Hutch said, "My name is Hutchins. What's yours?" -- a very American question, he knew. The British he'd met till now lived happily in ignorance of names; Lew had never said Hutch to his face.
The boy said "Archie."
Lew said, "You want to make a shilling? -- take this." He set down his bag.
Hutch said, "He's not big enough for that, Lew."
Archie nodded. "I'm not."
Lew said, "At your age I was lifting stones for my dad, twice the weight all day."
Hutch said " -- And hated it."
Lew said "Life, me boy."
Hutch said "I'll take it." It was heavier than his, Lew's total possessions.
Lew said, "I've been breathing in hope of that." Then he smiled. "Save your strength."
Archie said, "We could all help. We're nearly there."
So Hutch and Lew shared the handle of the heavy bag; Archie took Hutch's. At the top of the next low rise, Archie pointed. Fifty yards ahead at the end of the path in a copse of low trees (some of which were palms) stood a two-story stone cottage, fenced close on all sides.
At the gate Archie said, "I'll tell her you've come."
Hutch said "She's not expecting us."
But the child ran forward, set the bag by the door, and entered shouting. "Mam, there's two big chaps here've come to sleep."
Hutch said "Archie Gibbons."
Lew said "I knew that."
"Fellow Celt. Celts are magic." He narrowed his eyes at Hutch and bared his teeth as though transmitting power.
"Good. You may have to cast a spell on one crazy widow."
A young woman suddenly stood in the door, twelve feet beyond them. She was medium-sized with strong arms and legs and maybe fifteen extra pounds on her hips; but her face was blond and open as the door, though she hadn't smiled.
Lew said "Mrs. Gibbons?"
She nodded -- "Kay" -- and pointed behind her. "He says Mary Mason sent you here to me."
Hutch said "She did."
"I really don't know her."
"She said she was kin."
"She is, I believe. I just never saw her."
Lew laughed. "Your eyes have missed a treat. She's four feet tall, weighs fourteen stone, red hair from a bottle, and cooks like a saint."
The woman smiled; her face took it well, fresh gentle light. The boy was deafly hers. "Does that mean she's good? Don't know as I'd care to eat a real saint's cooking; don't they grudge their bodies?"
Lew said "More than me, true."
A small silence then. Lew looked back to Hutch; but before either spoke, Archie reappeared with bread and butter. "Your room will be across from mine," he said.
His mother said, "And you'll have to pipe-down at last."
He grinned and piped three piercing notes, a fine fake whistle.
Kay -- she invited them to call her that -- had given them a scraped-together lunch of eggs, cheese, and creamy milk. She'd spread it in the small sitting-room on the front, which she said would be theirs to read in or warm. Despite the bright sky a low fire had burned in the grate against damp. Once they'd sat they were left entirely alone, though sounds of Archie and maybe two women came in snatches from the kitchen -- little questions and cautions. The few things Hutch or Lew said were whispered.
Lew said, "She's done pretty well, I'd say, considering we're the first men she's seen for months." He also said, "Where's the famous bad daughter the old fool mentioned?"
Hutch said, "I think I may just stay here, have my trunk sent from Oxford. I suspect this is Heaven."
Lew said, "It is. I'm the Archangel Maud." Then he said, "Cool your wick. Give it twenty-four hours. I suspect it's England." Then he went to their upstairs bedroom for his nap.
Hutch followed him long enough to unpack Bédier's Tristan again.
While he was stripping -- he took naps seriously -- Lew said, "I've read that to you. Branch out. Your face is long as a wet week already. Read something funny now" (he had Three Men in a Boat in his bag).
Hutch said, "I think this is funny as they come."
"Suit yourself," Lew said and stepped to the one round window-naked, cupping his balls. He pointed. "Go lie in that boat in the sun with your book. By three you'll be brown as a bus conductor from east Barbados -- I quite like them -- and I'll come join you. We can bathe before tea."
"So are hearts but I've warmed a few."
Hutch stepped up behind him and leaned to see out -- a white sand cove like the perfect letter C, no human in sight, the silvered ribs of a fifteen-foot fishing boat abandoned down near the water. "See you there," he said. "I may sleep too."
Lew didn't look back but he nodded. "You need it. Been racing your brain."
"Not at all."
Lew turned (they were two feet apart) and searched Hutch's face. At last he covered it with his broad left hand. "We wizards keep a great part of our knowledge hidden. You mortals couldn't bear it."
Hutch stepped back from hiding, grinned, and left. He stopped in the kitchen where Kay was scrubbing the rough stone floor -- no sign of Archie and still no daughter. She offered tea; he declined and asked if there was any reason why he shouldn't lie in that beached wreck and read.
She didn't look up. "It won't float if that's what you mean," she said.
"I meant is it private property? Will anyone object?"
"Oh no," she said. "This is Tresco, Mr. Mayfield. People are really quite generous here; nothing else to be. You've heard what they say -- nothing else to do in the Scillies, so people take in each other's laundry."
"Hutchins," he said. "I answer to Hutch."
She faced him, still kneeling. "As in rabbit?"
"You've come home then. We're the rabbit center of the universe. They take everything. Nothing seems to help." She seemed to be ready for a lecture on rabbits, no trace of a smile.
So Hutch turned to go in the momentary pause. At the door he said "Could I bring anything?"
"You haven't seen the shops? She did smile then, reached up to the table and hoisted herself, held her head with both hands to stop the whirl. "There's a very great deal you could bring but not from here."
Lying in the dry boat, Hutch read again the chapter in Tristan called "The Wood of Morois" -- Tristan and Iseult (fleeing when Mark surrenders Iseult to the lust of a band of mendicant lepers) wander three-quarters of a year in the savage wood, accompanied only by Tristan's man Gorvenal, eating fresh game and missing only "the taste of salt"; for "They loved each other and they did not know that they suffered." It was the part Lew had quoted, with the knife in Tintagel; and like any part of a truthful whole, it seemed to Hutch a sufficient picture of the world in itself -- wild hunger generating its own food, rich and nutritious and finally lethal. Then in the sun which had still not clouded, he took off his shirt, lay flat in the hull, spread his arms, and slept.
In his dream he, Ann, and Lew were together on this island in the Garden. They seemed the only people, and they didn't seem in flight from any other place. At least they had managed a calm unquestioned division of labor to fill the days -- summer days but they worked against the coming of cold. Hutch wandered the paths and fields and beaches, gathering stones to build a hut. Lew chased down rabbits, choked them with his bare hands, skinned and cured them over smoky fires. Ann softened the dried skins and sewed them neatly, like states on a map, into one growing cover -- a broad deep quilt of tan and blue fur under which, with winter, they would sleep together. Till then they slept on pallets of palm leaves, separate but near. Hutch wondered if the others longed for winter like him; but they never spoke of it since patience was the element in which they moved, not time or hope. They were trying silently to teach him patience; he was trying to learn, though his body (strengthening daily with the work) steadily requested other bodies and was steadily balked.
The bow of the boat was long since stove-in, a hole the size of a pony-cart. Toward the end of the dream, Archie Gibbons approached, thrust his head and shoulders in, and stared at Hutch. He could see Hutch was chilly in the rising breeze but fast asleep. He could see in the fork of his legs that his thing was standing hard. He stayed still and silent, wondering if there were any chance in the world this man might stay here and never go. He'd wanted that since morning on the path when the man accepted his gift of the glass. He crawled forward, never shaking the boat, till he knelt compactly between the man's legs; then he touched them, laid both hands on the large knees.
Just before he woke, Hutch thought," -- The first hands to touch me since when?" The answer was "In three weeks, since Ann on the pier"; but he didn't think that. He opened his eyes on the same blue sky; then slowly looked down at Archie, who was solemn as an acolyte. Hutch said "Good morning."
Archie shook his head No.
Archie nodded. "Will you give me what I ask?"
"Is it something I can give?"
"Yes." "You're sure?"
"It's easy." Archie still hadn't smiled, an earnest transaction.
Hutch said "Better tell me first."
Archie shook his head. "Answer Yes or No -- that simple."
Hutch said "I might lie."
Archie waited, then put his hands between his own knees. "You made an awful mistake," he said.
Hutch said "Let me hear."
"I asked you to stay."
"In this boat? -- it's chilly." The breeze had stiffened.
Archie said "On the island."
Hutch waited. "I'm sorry. Do I get another chance?"
Archie shook his head.
Hutch said again 'I'm sorry," then sat up, put on his shirt, slipped sternward, and lay back down. He said, "Could we talk a little while anyhow?"
"Well, your age -- say you're ten?" (Though he'd never had a brother, Hutch knew you must always overestimate age.)
"I didn't tell you, no. I'm eight-and-a-half, nine in January."
"That's also General Lee's"
"Who's he?" Archie said.
"The best American soldier -- very handsome, lost all his wars, born on Archie Gibbons' birthday."
"You're American, are you?"
"Till today," Hutch said.
"I've seen Treseo."
Archie shook his head again. "Missed your go at staying here." But he pulled his body through the hole and propped up at right angles to Hutch -- below his feet, no longer in contact.
Hutch lay still awhile, then asked what he'd always asked his students for their first short essay. "What's the absolutely first thing you remember in your life?" The students often took several days to decide.
Archie knew at once. "Being in my mother's belly."
"Was it nice?"
"What part was best?"
Archie said, "I liked the way the light looked in there."
"How was that?"
That slowed him and he faced Hutch frankly for the first time since Hutch refused. Then he said, "Do you know what torches are in America?"
"Sticks of wood on fire."
"No, electric with batteries."
"And you press it to your fingers at night, see blood and bones?"
"That was it. Sun shined through my mother and me all day. I could see all her bones."
"And your own?"
"Don't remember. I was looking at her."
"At night?" Hutch said. "It was dark; you were sleeping."
"No I slept afternoons. Nights I touched my dad."
"How was that?"
"In bed. We would lie on our sides. He would press up to Mam. I would feel through her skin; I could feel him all night, till he turned away."
Hutch said, "My mother died the day I was born.
Archie took the connection. "You miss her?"
"Not really. I never had memories as good as yours. I used to dream about her but now I've stopped."
Archie pressed the sole of his shoe to Hutch's ankle.
Hutch said "Miss your father?"
"Most days. Today."
"It'll slowly get better."
"No it won't," Archie said.
They paused on that. Hutch thought it was time for Lew to appear and change the air. He covered his eyes with an arm as a screen.
But Archie said, "There's one I never have missed."
"Drowned with Dad."
"Same time?" Hutch said.
"Together." Archie waited; then reached behind and above, seized the boat's rim, hauled himself up, and faced the water. Through the long silence he rapidly aged, revealing the face he would earn years from now -- a steady witness of what the world gives, declining to smile. Then he pointed precisely and held the point till Hutch rose to see -- blank beach, presumably marked for Archie. "I watched it from there."
Hutch said, "The man just told us about your father."
"He's daft," Archie said. "He hates my mother."
"Why?" (meaning why hate?).
Archie said, "Don't know. She stood in the boat, slapped her ear, and fell over. Dad jumped right behind her. They may have come up, but I never saw them. Clear day too' like this."
"Was she older than you?"
She was six, really small but always loud. Never made a sound though the time she fell. Dad neither."
"What was her name?"
"I told you."
Hutch said, "Want to ask me your question again?"
Archie said "Forget that."
When Lew hadn't showed in another silent minute, Hutch checked his watch for the first time since morning -- twenty past five. Above them dark gray poured in from the darker west. The Gibbons cottage was still as plain as a model under glass but unreachable from here before the path itself would flood with impassable gray, the air go solid. Hutch said, "Could we walk past the church going home?"
Archie stood, looked down, and nodded. "All right but it's not your home."
The church was nineteenth-century, low and ordinary except for a plaque to the First-War Fallen in the island contingent --
Lovely and pleasant in their lives,
And in their death they were not divided.
Archie watched Hutch read it. "Know where that comes from?"
"From the vicar?" Hutch said.
"The Bible. Guess where."
"Book of Acts? -- the disciples?"
"Nothing lovely in Acts," Archie said. "Guess again."
"Nothing lovely in the Bible,"
Archie shook his head firmly. "Just this. David's sorry for Saul and Jonathan."
Hutch remembered and agreed. "'The gazelle of Israel is slain on the heights.'" He took Archie's shoulder from behind, tense and bony. "How'd you know?"
"Dad read it every morning at table, one chapter. I hated to hear it."
With no warning creak the logy organ attempted two bars of César Franck. Hutch was game to sit and absorb a basting.
Archie said, "I'm not staying here through music."
Hutch said, "Can I just say one short prayer?"
"I'll wait in the yard."
Hutch stood at the choir steps and asked that his father die soon, no pain. The force of the wish surprised and shocked him. He had no notion of its source or purpose, but he didn't retract it or ask for pardon. When he got to the yard, the boy had vanished -- partial punishment in cold wind that rushed his mouth, coarse as dog hair. He strode as if hunted, for the cottage and fire.
In the last broad field, well ahead in high grass, three figures stood in a knot, maybe joined. Despite the clouds and wind, it was daylight -- would be light three hours -- but partly because they were hid to the thighs by a hump of ground, Hutch assumed they were strangers. They stood near tile path; there was no way to skirt them, short of striking through low ground that seemed half-marsh. So he told himself it was England not Ireland-Tresco, the navel of the British florist-trade -- and went on toward them. He was ten yards away, the rise still between them, when the tallest turned.
It was Lew with Archie and an older boy. They were all in dark heavy sweaters like a team. Lew said "Did he answer?"
"The Lord. Young Archie says you've been on your knees at prayer."
Hutch stopped where he was, six steps away. "I was. No, no answer."
Lew said, "Never mind. Francis here has provided." He took a side step and showed the strange boy.
Fourteen, tall, with cheeks that threatened hemorrhage, Francis cradled something live in the crook of his arm. It jerked once, then fixed on Hutch and watched him closely.
He went to join them.
The boy held what seemed an albino weasel, ivory-haired with pink eyes hard as enamel and hot. Round its thin strong neck was a noose of common twine; the boy held the coiled remainder, many yards. At his feet by the path lay four dead rabbits, all good-sized and still iridescent -- dove-gray, streaks of violet, all the browns, white. No sign of a gun.
Hutch said "What happened?"
Archie said, "This is Oliver, Francis's ferret. He runs through the burrows, Francis stands at the other end, rabbits run out, Francis bashes em down."
Lew said, "I told him you'd buy these here for our dinner -- lovely stew. I've left my money in the room."
Hutch squatted and probed the hind paw of the biggest -- the pads still warm, the claws ice-cold. He worked the leg in its complex socket, fluid as oil. No blood anywhere. Then he stood and said to the boy "You're Francis?"
Archie said "Four bob."
Hutch said "I asked Francis."
Francis said, "Take em all. They're nothing to us."
"You and Oliver?"
Francis said, "He only likes baby chickens. Still a baby himself." He stroked the fine head, fierce and pointed as a bomb.
Hutch said "May I touch him?"
Archie said "He bites."
But Francis said "Yes."
So Hutch took the last two steps, reached out, and stroked the head.
It accepted the touch as a species of food, the skull rising strongly in counterstrokes, the dry nose guessing voraciously at new prey barely seen by the weak eyes. The rough tongue licked Hutch till satisfied.
Francis said "He likes you."
Lew said "They all do.
Hutch bent and took two rabbits by the ears. He said to Archie, "Can Francis eat with us?"
Archie said "No."
Francis nodded agreement.
Lew said "Sorry, mate" and roughed Francis's hair, then tried to touch the ferret.
Oliver drew back and showed his long foreteeth.
Lew saved his hand and for once was silent, but he took up the other pair of rabbits and looked to Hutch.
Hutch said "We're long overdue" and walked on. "Thank you, Francis. Till tomorrow."
Francis watched him go.
Lew fell in behind, Archie well behind Lew.
Through the four hundred steps, wind steadily stronger, Hutch longed to see his father -- not the Rob he had left three weeks ago but the grand lost boy who had lain beside him in infancy, seeking in a child (not yet a year old) full answer to questions the size of rock quarries -- Can I stand up from here, work one more day? Will you only smile? Will you never leave? Hutch wanted to answer Yes to the last and, in that wish, saw nothing beyond him -- the big wild garden raked by wind, the deadly sea; the cottage, safe as an iron spike rusting in stone.
When they'd finished supper Lew and Archie went into the front room and played card games, each inventing his rules.
Hutch stayed to help Kay wash up, though she protested. As she worked he watched her. After whatever day she'd had, she seemed fully rested and self-possessed as a healthy tree. He might have thought of Ann; there were likenesses. But his mind stayed here, imagining for once the person at hand. How had she weathered the recent loss (one-half of her family) and kept this strength? Or was it some skin over desperation, stretched to tear at one wrong word? Or -- given the various stories of the day -- was there one final story, truer than all? Had anyone died and, if so,
how and why? He started carefully. "Will you be staying here?"
Kay said "I hardly know."
"Any family here?"
"Not really -- Bert's father; he met you."
"With the post?"
She nodded but had still not faced him, working intently as if against morning (it was just after nine).
"Can you live here?"
"Can we eat, you mean?"
Again he felt caught in idle curiosity and willful benevolence, peculiarly American. "I mean I don't see much heavy industry on Tresco."
Kay smiled. "Not much. There was talk of an anchovy plant but they vanished."
"No really, used to catch them by the tubful. We'd have them for tea, mashed in good sweet butter. And crabs -- Bert would kill them with a needle through the eye, couldn't bear to boil them live."
Hutch felt she'd drawn a line, a clean stopping-place; so he said no more and dried two bowls.
Then Kay pushed on. "Who told you about it? Did the Masons know?"
"If they did they didn't say -- no, the man this morning and Archie on the beach."
"He's the one who knows."
So Hutch said, "It seemed mysterious to me."
"The way they went, in Archie's story at least."
She nodded. "It does. No one else saw it though, lust their bodies when they came in." Then she'd finished and walked to the door with her pail. She went to the back wall -- hens prancing round her -- and slowly poured the water on a thick row of tall flowers, redder in the last light than they'd been all day. Then she came on back, dark falling as she walked.
Hutch had sat at the table.
She shut the door silently, threw the black bolt, and said, "What's not mysterious is one small thing -- that we've got to find some way to live like this."
"You and Archie?"
"Who'd join us?" She was maybe twenty-eight, facing fifty more years -- clearly made to last.
Hutch said, "Any man in his right mind, I guess."
Kay said, "Well, thanks. No there's no one. This is Tresco."
In the front room Lew and Archie cheated and laughed like any human brothers.
When the others turned in at half-past ten, Hutch took Archie's torch and walked back out to the beach and the boat. The wind had blown through, and the sky was clear. As a boy he'd wanted to be an astronomer and searched all the books he could find on the subject, making lists of the private terms of a science which he'd thought more poetic than the poems he'd been offered in school (John McCrae, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell) -- Sidereal Day, Universal Attraction, The Principle of Perturbations, The Equation of Time, The Weight of Light. Still he remembered whole strings of the terms, when his failures at math had long since ended his hopes of understanding and he'd even forgot the names of stars and their seasonal places. He found the Great Bear though and held on her while he thought "Filamentous Nebula, Zodiacal Light, Stars of Different Magnitudes, The Rotation of Venus ('which remains unknown')." They slid him into sleep, and there he invented or maybe uncovered a fact from Tristan. At the end, after decades of adhesion and tearing, when Mark stands in blessing over Tristan and Iseult -- joined, dead as soused herring -- the tragic glow falls not on Mark (who fought after all for his grim share) or on Brangien (who served the successful potion) or even on the internationally-famed spent couple but on Gorvenal, Tristan's empty-handed handyman, unworn as a baby after all his long witness. Hutch watched through Gorvenal's eyes awhile and felt the same sense of abandonment that had blown in on him this afternoon. A single figure -- young enough and able -- who'd thought he was ready for a life of his own, left suddenly with nothing to show but memory. The fact that Memory was mother to the Muses hadn't sunk deep enough in his mind for dreaming. Or had sunk and been refused as harmful or untrue. He saw himself stand by the glamorous dead till all others left, bearing Iseult above them. Then he took up Tristan, surprisingly light, and walked toward the sea.
He woke, cold and damp, recalling what he'd seen and pressed hard by it. The sky was clearer and closer than before; but its lucid figures gave no relief, barely held his eyes. He sat up stiffly, climbed on his knees through Archie's hole, and went toward the cottage -- impelled by the dream, still stronger than any wind he'd felt. The torch struck three grown rabbits as it swung; each froze for his passing, then quickly forgot him and leapt into darkness.
The ground floor was silent, and no light was on, so Hutch kept the torch and climbed the steps quickly as old boards allowed (only the downstairs was wired for power). When he opened the bedroom door, a smell of kerosene stopped him on the sill. A lamp by the bed burned low and hot. Lew was on the near side, back turned, surely asleep. The window was shut. Hutch went there first and opened it wide. The lamp fumes streamed out, crossed by clean salt breeze. There still was no moon, but he guessed there was starshine enough to undress by. He went to the flame and blew it out with one breath.
Lew said, "I was hoping you'd leave it be."
"I wanted to see you."
Hutch laughed in a whisper, pulled off the sweater, and began his shirt buttons. "Why?" By then his eyes had opened to the shine again.
Lew rolled to his back and looked straight up, an ancient recumbent. "I really feel bad."
Lew said "Please."
Hutch sat on the chair to untie his shoes. "Then what?"
"This trap, whole bloody sad trap." Lew covered his face with the crook of his arm.
Hutch thought he understood. "You're out of it though. You're Canadian -- just a tourist here." He stood, dropped his trousers, and folded them.
Lew said "-- In your life."
Hutch drew back the cover and entered his half, stretched fiat on his back. In a minute he said, "Want to talk about that?"
Lew said Why bother?" Then after a while he said, "You've been very nice, very Yank about it all. But notice you brought me to the end of the earth. We won't be slogging round Oxford together."
"You'd be welcome any time."
"As a tripper," Lew said, "-- hot winkles and chips."
"The Scillies were your idea. I'd never heard of them."
Lew said "Fair enough." Then he said "Know why?"
Hutch knew now he did. Their outward flights could cross only here, in unwatched solitude. He wanted them to and, in the next minute, that chance of intersection became all he'd wanted -- or at least a seam worth gambling on to close the tear through which he felt his whole life wasting. He rolled to his left side, facing Lew, and laid his hand on the cool lean belly.
Lew lay still awhile, then turned toward Hutch till the hand rode his hip. "You sure?" he said.
"Since New York, when I saw you."
"You're a great one for eyes."
Hutch said "They're my job."
"How new will it be?"
Hutch said "Fairly new."
Lew laughed. "Fairly, eh? There's only one me."
Hutch said "Lucky sod."
"No, me," Hutch said.
So Lew reached out in one accurate line and took him where he was thoroughly ready.
For more than an hour, they met one another in all the ways two bodies can meet -- released from time at the west edge of Europe, suspended sweating over Kay and Archie, generous and gentle, happy and used.
June 21, 1955
You and I have talked plainly in the past, so you won't be surprised if I wade right in without waltzing around. I know Rob had supper with you three weeks ago. I know he enjoyed it; but I asked him last night, and he says he hasn't spoken to you since then. So I have good reason to think you don't know his principal news. No one does till now but me, Sylvie, and Grainger. That has been his wish. I am going to fail him one last time though and tell you now, for reasons I'll explain.
Min, he can't be expected to live many months -- lung cancer, widespread. Dr. Simkin did not advise surgery, and Rob has refused any radiation. He's known for a month and kept it to himself till Hutch was gone. Then he told us here, after which it has not been mentioned till last night.
Meanwhile he has had a normal summer, staying out there reading and working his garden, making a visit to Bracey and Richmond, dropping in on me every day or two.
Last evening we had a light supper here -- he turned up unexpected; Sylvie had left. At first he seemed unchanged from three days before, and he told me about your funny trip to Mount Airy -- you ought to have taken that doll; it would have lightened the poor soul's burden -- but when we were finished and he tried to stand, he half-fell back. His legs are failing. He sat there, pale, so I sat too and raised a few questions. He didn't want to answer. I had to remind him that a drawn-out death wasn't his sole affair unless he planned to drive west and vanish and be shipped home from some tourist court in Utah, prepaid and ready. I've assisted at two long deaths -- Father and Kennerly -- and I know. The dead are as selfish as babies.
He told me then that oddly he has no breathing problems but that his legs are steadily weaker, which is the normal course. One thing he has always been is a splendid walker; you know that. I told him again he should move in here. Grainger has offered to move out there. He's kindly told us both to leave him alone.
I've known him too long to disobey. What he wants to have is these little visits and the part at the end when he strangles beside me. I'll take it. What I've wondered all morning though -- and why I'm writing -- is, short of calling Hutch (which he'd kill me if I did, I honestly believe), can I give him anything in the way of ease?
You come to mind there. I know he meant a good deal to you once, and I think you did to him. If it hadn't been for Hutch, I think he'd have asked you to stay close by; and I've always regretted he didn't see a way to give Hutch his due and still have a man's life. Well, he didn't. He has never known but one thing at a time; that's the Mayfield in him (not that any Kendals known to me were flibbertygibbets).
So what I'm coming to is, you could ease him. Min, I don't know what has passed between you lately. I don't know much about your own life in Raleigh; but something has told me that if you could turn up and say you'd come for a visit, it would do more for him than all but Hutch could. You know I'm not asking out of any wish to shirk my own clear duties -- as I've said, the day will come for those -- or out of a wish to burden or hurt you (I know you'd be hurt worse by stumbling on the truth when he's gone past seeing). I simply say what I believe to be true. Rob would welcome you now as never before. If you can bear that, and have any time, come and do what you can.
No one knows I've written this. No one ever will -- from me. If you choose not to answer for any earthly reason, you'll never hear a sign of reproach from me. I think I can gauge what I've asked, a solid question. Life offers very few, I seem to have noticed (despite what all the easy groaners contend).
Ever yours affectionately,
Eva Kendal Mayfield
Hutch, you'll notice I haven't touched this for four days. We had a short set of perfect weather, clear as outer space, steady 80° with perpetual breezes. The birds nearly died of singing, and the leaves are posing for that one great long-awaited Southern landscape painter you used to want to be. Did you ever figure why he's never existed? Has it been too hot to work outside? too humid for the paint to dry? too many bugs landing? Why did you switch to poems? Write me one that explains; I'll probably see it. I say that with something like semi-confidence after this weather. I didn't do much but sit on the steps and feel it and take a few walks back into the woods and try to clear the Kendal graves before the new growth overwhelmed my powers -- the legs are still unreliable -- but it did give me something I hadn't had for a good many years. That is, a certainty that I matter and don't matter at the same time. I seem to have needed that and hope nothing takes it from me now. I think I can do two things at once -- say what I mean about how I feel and tell you the next best day of my life, seventeen to thirty-four. Since it also involved sex, I wonder if I ought to say in advance that your father has not been hipped on the subject. But that would be a lie. The truth is, I doubt I have lived through a single hour since, say, age eleven without either wanting to use my body for that brand of comfort or regretting I'd done so or playing back some favorite mental home-movie. Same goes for everybody I ever knew with normal good sense, some women excepted. So here is the day. Sorry but you're not in it.
I left home in March 1925, twenty-one years old -- on my birthday, in fact, to hurt Mother's feelings or see if I could. Niles Fitzhugh and I rattled round a week or so in my old Chevy, taking in a few views. You know I have never been much on sightseeing if the sights involve dead folks, which Virginia mostly does. What I mainly remember is Traveller's skeleton at Washington and Lee. Every square inch of bone had some damned piss-ant student's name on it; they signed him for luck. There was General Lee laid out in white marble like Jesus in heaven, battle-flags in a ring and ali his dead children (Jesus was what they intended anyhow; I thought he looked more like a dry-goods jobber dead of gastric ulcers and carved in tallow); and down in the basement were the beautiful bones of the noble dumb horse used for self-advertisement by rich adolescents. You know I think the Civil War is the sorriest occasion in history to remember, and I thought those bones put the tin lid on it. So when we left there, I was ready for something live as I could find.
We asked an old Negro to aim us at some girls. He said "White or colored?" We said "Either one." He said, "Tell me they got some in Buena Vista at the Roller's Retreat, but I ain't touched that stuff for twenty years." f asked him why and he said, "My ears. My ears break out every time I get it and itch for a month, so I give it up. My ears doing fine." We drove right on to Buena Vista. The vista then was better than now, though still no peril to sanity. It was Friday evening and the streets were strung with identical rat-faced mountaineers -- all each other's half-brothers at least and ready to kill anybody not kin -- but we found our own slow way to the Retreat. It was right up near the Ladies' Seminary, young girls patroling in long white dresses and gloves under oak trees. Niles begged to stop there. I told him we'd be lynched. He said "So be it," but I dragged him on.
Roller's Retreat -- still wonder what it means -- was a decent old house with a Room and Board sign. You could get a big meal for twenty-five cents, mostly biscuits and gravy with white-girl waiters. When she saw you'd finished, the girl would say, "You're welcome to use our upstairs to rest." And up you went -- if you were me. Nothing fancy upstairs, just a wide front-room with sofas and tables and a world of magazines. The first time we went, we were there alone; so we sat down and read. ! had finished two issues of The Literary Digest before anybody else showed a face.
Then a woman stepped in, maybe sixty years old and clearly sister to the men on the street. She looked so rough that Niles stood up and said we'd been told we could rest up here. She waited what seemed like a week in December, then said "No you can't." Niles started begging pardon but I stayed still; I was that intent. I said, "Can we spend any more money then?" She said "On what?" -- "What you selling?" I said. Plain as any salesman for lightning rods, she said, "Safe liquor, clean pussy. Say which." I said "Both, for me." Niles sat down and nodded. You had to drink first, by yourself in the parlor; girls not allowed to drink or watch you drink. In fact you were not allowed to watch the girls. When we'd had two big snorts, the woman came in again and said "Now follow me." We went down a long hall. She opened one door on dark thick as walnut and waved Niles in; he looked back at me like the Children's Crusade in the hands of pirates but he went ahead. Then she led me right to the end and stopped. She searched me again with her eyes like picks and said, "I'm throwing you a real challenge, son." Thank God I didn't have Niles there to see me. She opened the door. There was dim lamplight and I stepped to my fate. It was not my first time. I started on a cousin of SyIvie' s named Flora when I was seventeen and, after that, found several girls in the county. There was one made me take her in her pa's tobacco barn, and the barn was fired. I mean they were killing tobacco in there, late August to boot. I thought I was dying but saw it through, proved at least my heart was good for the race; and so it's been -- never missed a beat. I'd never thought of screwing as a challenge though, more like sliding off the slipperiest log on earth into warm clear water that bore me up. At first it seemed the room was empty. Even with the lamp I couldn't see a soul. So I stood very still while my eyes adjusted, thinking every second some six-foot female ape from the hills would fall in on me from the ceiling, all arms. Finally I saw there was this little tuck in the room, a little alcove; I took a step toward it. There by a window was a tail woman in a long blue bathrobe with her back to me. I cleared my throat; she never moved. I said "Good evening." She held still awhile, then half-turned around. She was holding a thick book, open in her hands. There was just a trace of daylight, not enough for me to read. I said, "You must be some kind of cat." She said, "No I'm a very big reader. Let me finish this please. Make yourself at home." I took that to mean Get naked so I did; and she stood there in all but deep night and read four pages of her book, then shut it.
By then I was bare as a willow wand, standing on a throw rug, shivering slightly -- mountain air. When she turned I said "Was it good?" She nodded -- "Always is. I've read it a lot." I said "What was it?" She said, "'The Gift of the Magi' -- O. Henry." I told her I'd read it, and she set me a test -- "Then what's it about?" I said as best I recalled it was about how most gifts people give are unusable but should be given still. She said "That's it" and took her first step, toward the lamp by the bed. I saw for the first time how old she was -- maybe forty-five, not ruined or repulsive but thoroughly seasoned. A big head of brown hair and powerful eyes.
Then she took off her robe and laid it on the chair. A strong country body as old as her face but very dignified; she didn't touch herself. She held out her hand for me to stay put. Then she studied me slowly, not smiling or frowning. She said to my eyes, "You starting here?" I had to say "Ma'm?" She said, "You starting your love life tonight?" In those days I looked about seventeen. A truthful answer would have been "No ma'm. I've had four girls twelve times, maybe eleven" (I'd tried to keep count). But I grinned and said "Starting." She said, "In that case can I Just take over?" I said, "Fine by me. ! like everything I ever came across except liver with onions and any kind of pain." She still didn't smile but she said, "Nothing I did ever caused pain." I said "Congratulations." She said "Many thanks."
I don't know that you'll want a detailed account of the rest of the night -- might muddy your memories of dear old Dad -- but I want to write it for my own sake now. If it doesn't serve you, there's fire in the world; just burn it up.
She didn't say another word till six a.m., and to this day I don't know her name. She stepped over to me, took me by the elbow, and laid me on the bed. It was clean and turned-down. She stretched out beside me, both flat of our backs. In a minute I tried to roll left toward her. She stopped me with her hand. So we lay still the best part of maybe five minutes. I think ! took a nap. Anyhow I was brought to by her rising slowly and parting my legs. She took it from there as she'd asked to do, and I lay and watched. I don't mean to say I only watched. There were two of me present-the one that could see and barely believe, the one that was served in ways he'd only half-dreamed existed.
I said she was dignified; she stayed so right through. She worked at me slowly with hands, mouth, and eyes -- she never shut her eyes; most women work blind or did in my day. I'd been used to leading and to leading fast. But she gave me pleasure that was so deep and steady I had time to find what the cause of it was. She was worshiping me. I'd never asked for that from anyone alive (though Rena volunteered it in a different way and I mostly refused). The one that was watching could lie there propped on two goose pillows and see a grown woman honor my one body as if it was all and would always suffice, using nothing but clean-smelling spit as her ointment. I'd tried to worship Mother for twenty-one years; now I saw this was better if it only would last.
It lasted till morning as I already said. The strong part ended in maybe an hour when she straddled me finally and took me in and, slow as before, rode us both to a rest like sleep after good work. I slept at least, not thinking of Niles or home or safety or of how much time two dollars had bought. At dawn she was there beside me, looking calm; so I guess she had stayed. She said, "Son, you're started. Better get you some eggs." That woke me.
I washed and found Niles downstairs, eating eggs. He'd slept on the sofa in the magazine room. I was started all right. I just never finished. That was the challenge. What she hadn't told or shown me was a way to finish, to feed once for all the taste she'd planted -- or found; it was there.
Why does that last in my mind then as happy? Because of the worship surely. Looking back I can see I was lovable, and right from the first-a genial baby (once I'd lasted through whooping cough), a thoughtful boy. By the time I washed up at Roller's Retreat, I was something rare as an albino stag with purple rack -- a tall healthy man with handsome face, clean wavy hair, strong arms and hands, and a straight round dick with a Iow brown mole near the end of the shank. I didn't know that or didn't believe it. Nobody but mirrors had told me so, nobody I trusted. I was fool enough not to trust Rena and Min. But I trusted that woman in Buena Vista. I knew she had ample range to compare (college boys came to her, not just mountaineers); but mainly I leaned on the way she had stood there and studied that story to the end once more, then asked me the meaning.
Could I use her gift? Well, could and did. In a month I'd met your mother and believed her. In nine I'd married her and set you in motion. You didn't arrive of course for nearly five years, but you were the main result of the night I've set down above -- that your father was licensed to live a whole life, having earned the right.
Have I had it? Let me know.
June 24, 1955
I've stood it as long as I want to. June, ! mean. Long years out of school, I still think June is when you crawl home, get your clothes clean, sleep late, and stock up on bedrock boredom to see you through the thrilling future. And business conspires -- I need to come search through some courthouse records for a swarthy woman from Lansing, Michigan who's praying she's white.
Will you be at all visible, say the midst of next week? I wouldn't be averse to driving up Wednesday morning, doing my work, and seeing you afterward with suitable chaperone -- is Grainger there? If not don't call him on my account. The damage is done.
But if you get this tomorrow, please phone sometime this weekend and say. I'll do the work anyway, but it would seem wasteful at our age not to glimpse each other. Especially since glimpses have been our specialty since before man invented the wheel or steam.
June 25, 1955
Your letter came an hour ago. If I sit down right now, you'll have an answer on Monday -- and an original manuscript by Robinson Mayfield, one of the few -- and I won't have had to resort to the phone, which I hate worse by the day. At least in letters you could tell people the truth or what you thought was true without the imminent possibility of them bursting into sobs or apoplexy in your hearing. The phone breeds lies.
So here -- it's no lie when I say I feel two ways about a meeting next week. Since Hutch left and you gave me that good supper, I've been by myself so much that I'm suspected by Mother and Grainger of taking the veil. They may be right. If so it's because I'm surprised to like it after years of thinking it was man's great curse -- loneliness, I mean, or being alone. On the other hand the long days of quiet have given me space to remember a lot (I've been writing down past things that Hutch may need); and what I remember is company, the good and bad. Mostly the good.
You were obviously good. I haven't forgotten our mistake in Richmond. To have cheated on Rachel that once with you is still the main regret in a life which has several real ones. She never guessed at. all though, and who did it harm but you and me and the feelings of whatever supernatural traffic happened to fly through the close air of that room that afternoon? The supernaturals are in business to forgive, right?, so they're doing fine. We let it do us in from then on. Or was it just me who loved the load?
Sure, come up Wednesday. I'll wait for you here in the late afternoon with whatever Baptist deacons I can muster as vice patrol.
Your oldest friend above ground (is that correct?),
June 25, 1955
Your cards from Wales and Cornwall arrived. You sound a little mildewed. Is the weather that depressing or is it your single state? I haven't gone far but solitary travel in a wet land of strangers seems to me a hard way to win Wisdom and Virtue.
There're no easy ways, I at once recall. For instance I have my first roommate since leaving school, and let me record that the cave of companionship is still as risky as the red sands of hermitage. At least when the two sport the same brand of plumbing or need the same plumbing. I've hardly had one chance to pee at home since Linda Tripp moved in. Have I mentioned her? She was hired at the office two weeks ago and needed a room. She's from up in the mountains -- Agricola, Virginia -- and at first I thought she was our age or younger. Turns out she is twenty-nine at least, had withered on the vine at a lawyer's office in Lynchburg, and only broke loose to follow her first boyfriend to Richmond -- a tall thin lineman for the power company. She met him in Lynchburg; one stroke of the wand and she was set free. Withered in fact is not the word. She is perfectly preserved in rural childhood or was till last week. The peeing is caused by the lineman, it seems -- a clear case of honeymoon bladder or is it Virgin's Complaint (Recent-Virgin's Complaint)? But whenever she's visible she's company at least. Much as I've tried to enjoy heroic oneness, I find that I after all prefer to bump fannies with some other creature in the kitchen or hail if nowhere else. And the creature has to be human, no dogs or hamsters -- even when her tales of backseat passion recall my own lamented past (I lament that it's past, I mean, or suspended).
Are you happy as you are, or can you say yet? I'm not but you know that. What neither one of us knows, I guess, is how much you're involved in what I feel and how much of it is just me -- the barometric pressure, my bloodsugar level, my whole normal (normally gloomy) past.
In brief then -- do I sound enough like a legal secretary? -- that's another attempt to say how, much as I want to, I'm not holding you responsible for anything. Whether you chose me or not, I chose you and could learn to withdraw whenever I'm given the back.out flag.
Later -- Linda interrupted me there with the lineman. I'd seen him through the window but never met him; he'd told her he thought he'd better look me over. So I sat them down with potato chips and we talked. Well, Linda and I talked. He (his name is Bailey) didn't say three words for the first half-hour but ate every last chip and studied me close enough to see if I was also consumable once the snacks were gone. He has black eyes and I'll have to say I liked it. I was giggling like a girl at her first slumber-party when he finally broke in and, apropos of nothing I could understand, told me the one big story of his life. He was electrocuted last winter, the bad sleet-storm in February. Had to go out with one other man at four in the morning to patch wires broken by ice and trees. The other man was new and stayed on the ground to manage the searchlight. The man dozed off or couldn't aim the light. Bailey by then was icy himself and reached out dark, brushed a bare hot wire, and took (he swears) two thousand pure volts. He fell thirty feet to the ground; the wire lashed him. The other man took his time with rescue. At that point he suddenly pulled up his shirt -- in the story, I mean (at that point in the story) -- and proved it all. He's as brown and lean as a broad leather belt; but from neck to navel, and points south apparently, he has a white burn-scar straight as a die. Said it fried to the bone. ! admired it sufficiently. He said it had taught him ali he needed to know. I said, "Not to trust anybody on the ground?" He said, "No ma'm -- that from now on I'm free." I asked how was that. He said, "I've died, paid for ail my sins, and am now in Heaven." I said, "For an angel, you sure love potato chips"; but he still hasn't smiled. If he's dead though what does that make Linda? What does that make me? And why do I only meet men in love with freedom? I may investigate.
Still later -- I've just read the first part of this. Don't it sound noble? Do you think I'll be played by Joan Crawford or loan Fontaine in the movie of your life? What I'd really prefer is Martha Raye, though her mouth's too small. Let me know your choice in a long letter soon.
P.S. I forgot to give you the outcome on Mrs. Quarles, the lady who stabbed her husband fourteen times and bandaged each hole. We got her off, I want you to know. She's walking the streets of Richmond right now, free as you or Bailey. Be sure to contact us in event of your arrest -- no crime too awful. Phone collect to Ann Gatlin. She's the mastermind, disguised as secretary.
July 6, 1955
I've already fallen behind, haven't I? Your second letter got here yesterday in the wake of the Fourth (I stayed in at my window all day and watched nearly nonstop parades of Negro Elks and Saints -- if they were mad about Virginia White Folks' reaction to the civil-rights challenge, they gave no sign beyond smiles and strong teeth; but oh if they do, there'lI be cut throats and burnings). Since it contained the first of those questions you threatened to ask, and I seem to have volunteered for, I feel I must gird up posthaste and answer.
One warning before I do, though I'm sure you know it already -- I am not an ideal advisor on matters of the heart, not on the heart-in-the-world at least. What I know (and I do know some things) is spectator's knowledge, acquired from years of fairly steady watching in which I have tried to keep my eyes clean. I may well have failed. I may have seen things the players didn't notice or at least didn't feel or that weren't even there. I may well just be the Dixie Miss Dickinson -- but wouldn't you rather ask your questions of Emily than of, say, Hawthorne or Emerson with their wives and babes? Apparently you would.
And in any case I wasn't quite accurate above. I have, as you know, played a few games myself; and if the innings were short or unfinished or finished by the other players drifting away, they certainly went fiat-out while they lasted, giving me much cud for lonely rumination (Lord, the scenes my metaphors summon! -- a cow at bat: even Disney would quail).
So now to reply. The answer is Yes. Immediate love -- "at first sight," I assume you mean -- is not only possible, it's the only kind I've known; only kind likely to last as love (slower kinds warm gently, cool back gently into friendship or fairly oblivious matehood). The Bible, all the good poetry -- and most of the bad -- says nothing but that. What it doesn't often say is the next thing to know and as urgent as the first -- find out why the first sight stormed your gates. I don't mean that real love is not mysterious; it is but at the edges not the center. False love -- infatuation, the immediate need to rub and be rubbed -- is what always comes as high and inscrutable with a clamor of wings. The genuine event however will clarify if you just watch it long enough. And when it does the mystery will mostly turn out to be a name. You've loved the person who either is there for present grasping or the person they promise to be, the one you've perpetually needed. When I was sixteen I loved Marion Thomas because I've always taken beauty pretty seriously and wanted to serve it. Later I loved your mother because, being a healthy woman, I saw I wanted a daughter; and she was ready to be that awhile. Nothing wrong with either case from my side -- not that I can make out and, believe me, I've tried. Problem came when Marion and Rachel decided they didn't want to be what they were (not that Marion ever knew).
But aren't you too old to be asking that? Isn't that something most people get settled in the sixth or seventh grade? I seem to remember discussing it with Rachel once; then I took the other side and was wrong. Never mind -- I'm right now and there's your answer, however insane. Do you want to say why you tested me with it? -- Iiterary curiosity or present concern? Anybody as interested in tales of King Arthur as you seem to be will need clear views on all such questions, no doubt. Glad to help.
Did you cut your trip short? In your first you said you'd tour for six weeks. I was stretched out waiting for a soft rain of postcards from Land's End to Orkney, and here you're back in Oxford. You've sat still before, Hutch. Don't stop and think too soon. Both your parents were lightning leapers-to-conclusions (not merely in love); maybe you should be slower. Let a lot happen first. Don't take quick answers, even mine -- least of all!
-- Which doesn't mean I won't be eager to see the first installments of your Tristan poem. Like you I've always suspected the servants had the true news on all that unpleasantness; why weren't they interviewed? If I had good sense, I'd write Brangien's version while you write Gorvenal's. Since I don't I'll await revelation from you.
Lord knows, there's very little here to report. As I said, colored people are keeping present silence in the teeth of Virginia's jackass display of "massive resistance" to school integration. Have you ever wondered -- as I do hourly -- at what precise moment the state that mainly invented America (on paper anyway) was struck deaf, dumb, blind, and halt as an old dog sprawled in the manger and gnawing at itself? You picked a good time to seek flesh air. I for one hope you find it. Breathe slow deep breaths and keep me posted.
Barely breathing (it's hot) but still your loving,
July 12, 1955
Dear Mr. Mayfield,
I didn't hear from you before I left home, and there was nothing at American Express when I went there yesterday except a wire from the doctor's wife I told you about. I figure she'll live but she seems to doubt it. Anyhow I'm in London, sleeping at a Polish hotel in Bayswater -- cabbage for breakfast -- and checking out a few famous ruins with my brother. I thought England won the war, but they don't seem to know it. Can't somebody get them to clean up the place and turn the sun on? Is money all they need? Don't they still own most of Africa and Asia?
I told you my brother is going to Paris, a week from today. I can't get up any enthusiasm for France, not after our trek through Madame Bovary. So I'm still wondering if you want to join forces for a while. You mentioned Cornwall. Sounds good to me. Only limits on me are ten dollars a day, and I'm finding it hard to spend more than $7.50 plus tax. By the time I see you, I could be rich and we could fly to Pompeii. I always wanted to see that whorehouse they dug up with the peculiar murals.
Say the word c/o American Express, and I'll meet you anywhere.
P.S. Speaking of Africa, which I was in the first paragraph, you might not want to wait till you see me to hear that WaverIy Conover from home (you remember, the organ salesman with the withered hand) is starting a fund to export black volunteers back to the Dark Continent. When I left he claimed to have eight hundred dollars and is planning to go nationwide with his plea if Life magazine will contribute advertising with mail-in coupons. Do you think we should warn the English on this or let them be surprised by big boatloads? It might wake them up. German rockets didn't seem to.
July 14, 1955
Relieved to know you're safely back from the Cornish excursion. My reading assures me Britain has an unnaturally Iow crime-rate (more murders in Houston in a month than in Britain all year, Ireland included); so I don't worry much about your meeting with human violence, but there're always the famous Acts of God, and I continue to suspect that motor vehicles are not really understood outside the American three-mile limit and are therefore even more perilous than here. You can probably use the rest time anyhow. If eleven years of teaching taught me anything, it's that teaching is roughly as exhausting as coal mining or perfect attendance at all Southern Baptist conventions of the past thirty years. Second worst is being a pupil -- you've got this pause between the two; sleep a lot.
I'm still worrying, you see. I was hoping, and I suspect you were, that once you vanished I'd get some peace -- not yet. I still think the world is dangerous and has a special tendency to try my loved ones. I've even had evidence, you might say. It's one of the two things that kept me from being the model father I intended. The other was your mother's vanishing when she did. I'd planned to be one parent not two. When and if you have a son or children, I hope you will have the strength -- and mercy -- to consign them to the world once they can walk and defend themselves against human threats (by which I mean an unarmed human of similar size; anything worse is probably Fate). Don t teach fear as I did to you. No use in it. They won't escape.
But I started this to answer the question about your Welsh friend. I'd like to help him but see no way. As I understand immigration law, I would have to provide guaranteed employment and boat-fare home if he's dissatisfied. You remember the Pole Mrs. Picot took right after the war. He came here elegant as Lord Halifax, had the place looking like Versailles in a month; then took up with that trash Pulliam girl, gave her fat blond twins when the Pulliams hadn't made a blond since Cain set them rolling and vanished north by night, leaving three empty mouths Mrs. Picot still feeds. Vanished seems to be my big word this evening, doesn't it? Still as I said, I'd help if I could; but from what you tell me of his past experience and needs, he doesn't seem custom-built for these parts. I doubt he'd be happy, and I know for certain that it's past my power to help him. In any case I gave up -- long years back -- the attempt to help people by changing their direction. I only caused wrecks except with you, and you always knew where you were headed and only needed to have your windshield buffed occasionally. Proud to have had my chamois rag handy.
One local thing has changed, and I want to tell you before anybody else. Min Tharrington drove up here to search some courthouse records two weeks ago, ate supper, and has been with me ever since. She can do her genealogies here as well as anywhere with quick trips to Raleigh, and I asked her to stay. The reason is I wanted to and so did she. We figured we were big enough to act on that basis. She has no kin to be startled by the fact, and I hope I don't. You'll have guessed Mother likes it, though she has invented a tale or two as the visit lengthens to explain to friends. My favorite is the one that says Rob has hired Min to track down the Mayfield family for Hutch. Come to think of it, that may be an idea. Shall I set her on the trail? God knows where it ends -- in an English jail maybe, some ditch-born baby -- but you might like to know, long hence if not now.
Further things you might like to know at once -- I'm aware you and I have not discussed Min for ten years at least and that, when we did, you were strongly opposed. I understood why and honored your reasons the best I could while you were nearby. Now you've gone your way, I will go back to mine -- or forward to mine. You were my way for years as I trust you recall. So view this rightly wherever it leads. It may not last long. What I want is not your blessing but your patience. You're old enough for patience. I'll keep you informed on ali you need to know.
What else? Weather's hot but dry as Sahara. Grainger drives out every day and helps Min cook (she is no great chef). Your grandmother, as I implied, is fine. I have to visit her though; she won't come here. I asked her why yesterday. She just smiled and said, "I don't want to be there when Sheriff Wilkes pulls up and hauls you two off in chains for fornication." She's studied the statutes and may well be worried. I'm not. I went to school with Delbert Wilkes and have cause, ten times over and he knows it, to slap a citizen's arrest on him and make it stick.
Keep me in your prayers then but hire no lawyers.
The same loving,
July 16, 1955
My silence is mainly owing to work. I got back here three weeks ago and sat right down to start a poem suggested by the trip. West Britain is ali King Arthur country; and though most of the sites are spurious, they look and feel right -- if they weren't the scenes, they could have been. One of them anyhow stands at least an even chance of being a witness to real events -- the fort of King Mark in the country near Fowey may well be the spot where Tristan and Iseult took the great plunge. So I'm working on them, a maybe long poem. Every morning I wake at seven o'clock, eat a big breakfast in the college Hall (served by friendly dwarfs -- grown men who have served teen-agers ail their lives, with faces like the archers at Agincourt), then come to my desk and write till noon. Then I walk round town for a couple of hours -- the book and junk shops are amazing; today I only just prevented myself from buying a mothy tigerskin complete with snarling teeth and a wastebasket made from an elephant's foot. Then I buy cheese and bread, eat lunch in my rooms, take a nap, read, take a walk in Christ Church Meadow which is right outside my window. In the evening I eat curry at one of the many Indian restaurants (one was closed last week for serving cat) and, if it's fair, drive awhile. You can be in the country in fifteen minutes, any direction you head from here. I mostly go to the north or northwest -- almost no one in sight, nobody to mind if you stop by the road and step through a field toward what they call rivers (peaceful creeks) or the few stones left of an abbey or an Iron Age family camp. The light lasts welt past nine o'clock. I moon some, then drive on back here to sleep. Sometimes I say whole phrases out loud just to hear a voice, to see if mine works. I've had few chances to talk to anybody.
It seems to suit me so far at least -- being on my own like this, a trusted stranger -- so I'll follow where it leads. Our first night in New York, I tried to answer your questions honestly. I think I need this now. I may not always. You ask it again and the answer hasn't changed. I don't say it harshly, and my hope to see you at Christmas in Rome is strong as ever. You didn't mention that. Do you still plan to come? If so let's set a date -- December 24th. I'll be free till at least January 10th. How much time can you get? Let me know right away, and I'll get us a room. Or do you want two rooms? Since your passport will plainly say Gatlin, we may need two. Do Italians care? I'll ask round and see. I've got the ring. Would you wear it there?
Otherwise -- glad to hear you've got Linda and Bailey nearby. He especially sounds like "good value for money," as they say here; so keep him in potato chips. All the evidence on his love life seems to suggest he could use the carbohydrates. When I read about your evening with them, I wished I'd been there. The English have taken me at my word, pretty literally in Oxford at least, and left me alone. I could use a little evening company, but for now I'll hold out and try to wean myself -- the trouble being that I want company but only when I want it. I still feel 'overstocked on being wanted. Part of my plan here is emptying the warehouse, using up the surplus. What's left, if anything, at the end of the clearance is scarey to consider -- will anyone want such an empty warehouse? But I've always liked a little scare in my days; stops me sleeping too much, and you know I nap a lot.
Speaking of sleep, in a letter last month you mentioned our first trip to Myrtle Beach -- me saying "Wait here" when I seemed asleep and you still waiting. I was asleep and don't recall speaking (aloud at least), but I don't doubt your word. So I wrote this for you by way of thanks. Please keep it if it suits.
No sleeping man is safe. Each volunteers
With baby-calm for any watcher's need.
Most any household implement at hand
Will send him deeper down than he'll have sunk.
Bread-knife, ice-pick, your useless cheap corkscrew
Briefly applied to temple, throat, thigh, groin
Will call his bluff successfully as bombs.
He trusts you won't -- trusts kindliness, indifference;
Knows sleeping murder' s mainly kept for kings,
Geriatric guests of the Macbeths.
A realer threat bears mentioning however.
The proffered victim may well victimize,
Although unconsciously -- spare the dreamer,
Spare the dreamer's dream. This boy for instance --
Age nineteen, no eyesore -- sprawls on hotel
Sheets in ocean dawn. Words wake you
(You are curled against his back). You hope
For more, then think you hear "Wait here." You do.
He says the two words clearly, meaning both.
You know he sleeps but take the words one way --
Your way. The other one to know was his.
If you had worked beneath the chilled tan rind,
Ascended knob by knob the fragile spine,
Lain silent in the white dough of his brain,
You would have seen -- an orphan, six years old,
Threads underbrush till, standing by a creek,
He sights a girl, tall on the far green bank,
A little older, lovely, turning, leaving.
He knows her in one look and calls "Wait here" --
The girl who bled to death in bearing him.
He wakes and finds you there, prepared to stay,
And joins you long as he can stand your eyes.
Forgive him then for his own distant wait
On his green bank, inevitable hunt --
The chance you take, obeying half a dream.
It's now nine-ten. The college gates are locked, and I'm pretty well the only human under forty defended by these twelve-foot walls. There is one low wall, facing the meadow. I'll climb over that, walk a dark quarter-mile toward police headquarters, grab a rickety post wrapped with earnest barbed wire, swing myself out and over a deep stagnant ditch, and be free in the nocturnal world of adults. Sounds glamorous, right? Well, no -- just Oxford in the Long Vacation. I'll drink a pint of cider called Merrydown in a pub called The Eagle and Child, then reverse my escape route and sleep a long night in my own straw bed (my mattress is actually stuffed with straw; how's that for Olde Worlde?).
So your own life there with Linda and Bailey -- the Living Dead -- and the liberated murderess is thrilling next to mine.
But I've had thrills aplenty for twenty-five years. Now I need to sit and watch them, years and thrills.
Love again from,
When he'd swung himself free of the last barbed wire round Christ Church Meadow, he walked up a thoroughly deserted St. Aldate's past Tom Tower, Pembroke, and the small huddled church where Lawrence of Arabia had taught Sunday school. He stopped in the light by the main post office and carefully checked the letter to Ann, address and postage. Then he made a quick sign of the cross on its face as he always did on important mail; then dropped it in the slot and wished he could fish it back, read it once more to dull harsh edges, blur promises. No chance of course short of dynamite. So he walked up the low hill and crossed Caffax, also curiously empty for Saturday night -- were the airmen on maneuvers or sent home at last? Even at the doors of the public dance-hall (opposite The Crown, Shakespeare's customary stop on the London-Stratford route), there were only three would-be Teddy Boys, none over fifteen, and one frizzed girl. On through the Cornmarket, past Beaumont Street where the whores kept flats, past the dark Ashmolean with its Michelangelos hung in back hallways, through half of St. Giles to the Eagle and Child. By the time he saw its sign, Hutch was low as a toad, tasting the thin diet he'd struggled for -- abandonment. This place would ignore you; needn't bother to ask. He stopped in place and thought of hunting down the whore he'd met in White's Bar in June. She was almost surely in her room not a hundred yards from here (she'd mentioned her address and said she stayed in watching telly till ten on weekend nights). Though the evening was mild, his body seemed hung in a cold vacuum-shaft which no human hand would ever invade. He walked back far as the next street light and opened his wallet -- six pounds, enough; she'd said she "made adjustments." But he'd lost her name. Charleen? Doreen? He couldn't ask the landlord for a black-haired girl he'd met a month ago. Why not? Any landlord would know her trade. Still he set it as a test. He'd walk toward the pub till he got the name; if it didn't come a pint of hard cider might find it.
But twenty minutes later in the dim warm pub, the presence of a halfdozen talking strangers had eased the search; Hutch sat calmly in a corner, merely listening. The loudest were a pair of men at the bar -- one a parody of the old RAF ace (purple cheeks, fierce mustache, emblematic blazer); the other almost certainly American, though he'd got English clothes and an all-but-perfect accent (his joints were the give-away, the oiled loose-limbs of a people used to space and reared with Negroes). The ace was challenging the camouflaged Yank to explain how racial integration would not in fact bring America down as it clearly had Rome, Gaul, the whole of Asia (the ace had served in Burma and Malaya). The answer involved rich cultural infusions from the Bantu, Kikuyu, Nubian, etc. -- jazz, tap dancing, jokes, sexual sanity -- and as it proceeded, unearthed a complete set of Ohio vowels in the helpless mouth.
Hutch had heard the conversation before from better antagonists. With the last of his cider, the name came finally -- Marleen, Marleen Pickens -- so he shut his eyes awhile to find her face and body: would she really help at all or would it amount to expensive chatter with a quick hot clot flung out at the end? First he saw Lew Davis in the pasture on Tresco, the ferret refusing to take Lew's touch; then Ann in the dark Taft below his own fingers; then Marleen Pickens. He'd only seen her dressed, but she came bare easily and stood clear before him. Like almost every English war-child, she seemed to have two separate bodies. The healthy body she would have got, with sufficient fruit and milk in the years of the Blitz, enveloped her actual body like an aura. The actual body was still a little starved, the skin a little taut. Between her nice high breasts with coral nipples, an ugly sternum pressed forward like a face. Above the good calves her knees had knobbed, and webs of purple strung along her thighs and flanks. But a banked unquestionable strength burned in her; she'd warmed herself. She'd help at least.
Hutch had stiffened through that. He smiled to himself. When he'd shrunk enough to stand, he'd go to Marleen. He opened his eyes to quicken the cooling and saw two people at the moment they entered -- a girl maybe six or seven, a man maybe twenty. Hutch thought at once that children were not allowed in pubs and awaited an expulsion, but no one behind the bar seemed to mind. And with no discussion the two parted neatly-the man approached the bar; the child approached Hutch, not meeting his eyes, and sat a table away on his right. At once she began to draw small circles on the green linoleum of the table-top, her profile as bent on perfection as Apollo's. She wore a red pullover, nubby at the elbows, with a cross-eyed owl stamped on the front. Hutch said, "Can your owl see to fly with crossed eyes?"
She continued her circles, not looking up. "He never leaves me."
"I never let him."
"Too young?" Hutch said.
She laid her head on the table, facing him, but didn't answer. She shut her eyes briefly, then looked again straight at him, still silent. At the bar the man was paying for his drinks.
Hutch said "Is he your father?"
She nodded once.
"He's got you out late. Are you an owl?"
By then the man was walking carefully toward them with a pint of dark beer and an orange squash. Standing short of the child, he said, "Hop to. We've got hours yet." Then he put the drinks down and sat on her left between her and Hutch, all on the same long window-bench. For three or four minutes, they drank in deep silence; the child was plainly thirsty. Then the man pushed the glasses back and started drawing circles as the child had done. She watched awhile; then joined him, gestures larger than his -- circles intersecting delicately, hands never touching.
A game they'd invented? A local child's game? A first means of speech for creatures struck dumb? (they had still not spoken since the man sat) -- Hutch listed the questions but kept his own silence, content now to wait. The child had seemed to say the man was her father; could he be? If so she'd been born when he was fourteen, fifteen. Maybe her brother? -- he shared the pure line of her features: small, flawless, yet promising somehow to ripen and exceed. Her hair though was light brown, his nearly black. Her skin was ruddy with blood, his pale. Their hands had slowed now, the circles tightened. At last she touched him and both laughed loudly.
"You won? the man said.
She nodded. "Caught you." They returned to their drinks.
Hutch felt them beside him like heaped red coals -- a core of energy, harmful but attractive. The man had never looked his way, though their shoulders were only a yard apart. Slowed by a sense that they guarded a secret he'd easily scatter if he did more than watch, he still said, "Could I ask the name of your game?"
The man looked round, slid a little toward the child, then smiled. "Circle-catch. We just made it up." His teeth were the best Hutch had seen since landing -- two rows of straight white, rare here as two steady hours of sun.
"She's lovely," Hutch said.
"She's tired but she can't sleep yet awhile."
Hutch said "You traveling?"
He thought that over, then turned to the child. "We traveling, Nan?"
She nodded, not smiling.
So the man looked back to Hutch and grinned. "Reckon so." "She your baby sister?" "I'm her dad."
Hutch said, "You must have been a child-groom then."
"I was," he said quickly; then grinned again. "A child, all right. I was never a groom. I look much older than I am, even now."
Hutch said, "You must be twelve years old."
"Twenty-two," he said. "Been rough just lately."
He thought again. "How does prison sound?"
Hutch said "Unexpected."
The man laughed. "Me too! The last thing I wanted." He took a long swallow of beer, facing forward and pulling at the sleeves of his jacket -- short and worn. His hands were enormous, well-shaped but yellow with callus in the palms.
Hutch thought, "I should leave. He's finished. I'll press him too hard." He raised his own glass and drained the last inch.
But the man said, "It really wasn't all that bad. Played a lot of football."
So Hutch felt permitted. "Where were you?"
"Then I guess it wasn't murder?"
Nan had listened that far -- her head on the table again, eyes open. Now the man, not looking, reached gently to her hair and gathered her in. She came like a sack of down-feathers to his lap, glanced back once at Hutch, then shut her eyes and buried her face. The man stroked her twice; then said, "Not quite -- just assault with a dangerous weapon, a bottle. Put the bugger in infirmary for nineteen days, best rest he ever had."
"A friend of yours?"
"-- Her mother's," he said. He stroked Nan again; she was sound asleep.
Hutch extended his own hand. "I'm Hutchins Mayfield."
The man blushed hard and held back a moment. Then he gave his hand. "James," he said quietly.
In the touch, Hutch remembered Grainger's hand -- that smooth and dense, warm worn stone, impermeable. When they parted he said, "Could I ask your work?"
James said, "Mason's helper. Just started that."
"Guess Oxford could offer you plenty of work."
He nodded. "It does. All the colleges are rotten -- bloody Headington stone. They're all great sugar cubes melting in rain."
"So you'll stay here awhile?"
James drank the last of his beer, wiped the deep blue cleft of his chin with one finger. "Never been anywhere else but Lewes and Reading."
"No, for Nan. Her mother lives there. Or did till last week."
"Where's she now?"
"Search me -- well, don't. She's not here, is she?"
"You want her to be?"
James quickly said "No," then paused a good while. "You want to hear it out? -- it's a sordid lot. I'm hoping to sell it to News of the World." He looked up smiling; and as Hutch nodded Yes, James slid out from Nan, stood and took the glasses. "What's your drink?"
"Cider -- Merrydown -- but let me buy."
James was already moving. "Sit and guard young Nan."
Hutch did. He slipped along the smooth bench till his thighs touched her head. She was now on her back with both hands loosely clenched on her chest. He covered them both with his own right palm. She was cooler than he but warmed in his grip; so he watched her steadily through the wait, calmer than he'd been since when? -- Tresco maybe, in the beached boat with Archie or bound to Lew.
James said "You're not Canadian, right?" He stood two steps away with new drinks.
Hutch kept his hand on Nan. "Right -- American."
James stayed in place.
"Americans not allowed to drink two pints?" Hutch extended a trembling hand, the comic drunk.
James stepped forward then and set down the mugs. "Most of them shouldn't -- the ones I've seen -- but you seem safe enough.
"Hutch moved to slide back.
But James came round to Nan's feet. "Stay there if you like being there."
"Her hands were cold. I was warming her."
"She's all right," James said. "She's been worse than cold." Then he sat.
So they drank long swallows, Nan between them -- now huddled on her side, a short hyphen.
When James had found no way to recommence, Hutch finally said "She seems healthy now."
James ringed her ankle -- thin white cotton socks -- and studied her. "She looks it, right. So do I; I just saw my own healthy face." He pointed to the distant etched bar-mirror. "We've sort of had it though."
"That's the sordid part?"
James faced him, grave and searching. "You do want it, don't you?"
Hutch nodded again. "The story at least."
"You aiming to sell it?"
"You look like you might be some sort of correspondent."
Hutch laughed. "I'm a poet -- apprentice-grade. You can't sell poems, not for money at least."
James waited, then smiled. "I'll give you my address at the end-remind me -- and if you make a shilling on any of it, you send her sixpence." He was still holding Nan.
Hutch said "A deal" and touched her forehead with one finger, cool from the cider glass. She was warmer now. They both had warmed her.
James said, "It's not much but it's what we were handed. I said we were traveling -- to here, I meant. Oxford's my home all my life till prison. I was born in Jericho a quarter-mile from here, and we'll be living there now with my mother. She's serving some whacking great party of dons at New College tonight, so we're waiting for her -- won't give me a key till I prove I'm cured of my evil ways!"
"She locks Nan out?"
"She doesn't know Nan's here yet," James said. "I just now took her this afternoon."
James nodded. "Her mother's sister's. See, I work with this bloke named Rod. He dances all night. Well, Friday morning -- yesterday -- he lurched up to me at my first tea and said he'd seen my bird last night. I said, 'My bird is the English robin, sign of spring.' He laughed -- 'Your Helen. She was down at Carfax dancing last night. I asked was she planning to glimpse your face, and she said she reckoned she'd spare her nerves and was heading to Yorkshire today at dawn.' He also knew about Nan and asked. She said Nan wasn't with her, no, and shut up. So I thought all Friday -- buggered up three nice cuts of stone -- then thought all night. Then this morning I worked my full half-day, rode my bike home and washed, caught the next train to Reading, went straight to her sister's house, and took Nan."
"The sister didn't stop you?"
"They're scared of me. Anyhow she has asthma and runs from a fight."
parHutch leaned slightly forward -- no bags with them: only the clothes on their backs, their circle game. "No question she's yours?"
"Nan?" -- James still held her but studied her a moment. "No question at all. I know the night I made her." He looked to Hutch and flushed bright again, not smiling now. "See, Helen was dead-keen on me in French letters. She swept up for this mens' hairdresser in Walton Street and every Friday whipped off a few French letters. We'd be on the tow path after the films -- some bleeding Anna Neagle tripe; she wolfed that down -- and when we'd got steaming, she'd fish out her rubber goods and hand them over in the dark like they were too mean to mention. For months I obeyed and rolled them on, but this one night it was cold as Cape Wrath; and all I could think of was touching her bare, striking real blood-heat. So into the water went three stinking rubbers and me into Helen -- just me, first time. She never felt the change, not for weeks. I did -- made me like her better; and when she came up, wailing Baby! baby!, I said 'Cool your chips. I'll marry you.' I thought she said Yes and I made plans; but she went down to Reading to see her scummy sister (her mum was dead; she stayed up here with her dad, an old drunk) and after a fortnight sent me a letter, saying, 'Dear Mr. Nichols' -- I swear to God!-'I have thought a lot and got advice here, and I don't think I want you to be dad to any gift of mine!' (she knew it was a girl; she felt that much). I couldn't understand. She'd bloody sure wanted my cock long enough; started to send it to her in a box with a note saying, 'Feel free to use anytime you need, and show to your girl when she's twelve years old -- a warning from Dad.' After that it didn't really bother me much; if she'd ever had a child, I hadn't seen it. I hadn't seen her for nearly three years and was going my way very nicely, thank you, packing cases of Cooper's orange marmalade when blimey if she didn't turn back up here with Nan already walking."
"Begging money?" Hutch said.
"Helen? -- not her. I'll grant her she never begged a tanner from me. Proud as Lady Docker and just about as kind. I mean, her idea of facing me after two years away -- and my daughter half-grown -- was to prance up behind me at Carfax one Saturday, cover my eyes, and whisper 'Hullo, James, from a happy mum!' I was hot from dancing, but I went really cold. Couldn't think of anything to say but 'A girl?' and she said 'Named Nan.' Well, you could have floored me with a spoon of cold porridge -- Nan's my mother's name. I couldn't speak again. I only thought of bashing her mouth -- she seemed alone -- but I just stood there like the vicar at a fête. Then she said, 'You can see her at Dad's anytime.' She'd come back to stay with her dad, who was sick. I said 'I may do' and walked away -- Christ, walked all night all through Port Meadow. But two days later I washed and went round. I liked her straight off -- young Nan, I mean -- and she came to me, no gates between us. She could talk very well, and she looked a bit like me. The talking was stranger than the looking though. You step through a door; there's a fast little animal, standing thigh-high with your hair and eyes; and once Helen says 'Nan, come speak to James,' she comes up and holds your knee and says 'What's your name?' -- looking up like she hadn't heard Helen. Helen left it to me, so I said it was James. I'm still not clear she knows I'm her father; someone may have told her but never me."
Hutch said, "She knows. She told me first thing."
He nodded. "She calls me James anyway." And by then he seemed exhausted. He asked Hutch the time (the pub clock as always being some minutes fast). It was nearly ten-thirty, closing-time at eleven. He pulled at one stretched cuff of Nan's sweater.
Hutch said, "Will your mother be home by eleven?"
"But if not?"
"We'll sit on the step or take a little walk."
Hutch said, "She's surely dead-out now."
James nodded. "She is. She's used to being waked."
"You could come back with me, but we'd have to climb a wall."
"You a don?"
"A student. Or will be in October if I last that long. I'm living in merton."
James said, "I been there. We're due to work Merton sometime this autumn, lot of patchwork to do. I'll wait till then. Thanks all the same." He drank long swallows and gave no signs of continuing his story. At last though he looked up, entirely earnest. "I'm sorry really. You never asked for that."
"I did," Hutch said.
"Before you knew half."
"I liked it," Hutch said.
James thought through that, then looked up smiling. "Didn't mind it myself, kept thinking I would."
The publican said "Last call please, gentlemen." The RAFer and the transformed Yank were still at the bar, quieter now. Hutch, James, and Nan were the only other patrons. Hutch said, "My go to buy the last round." The winey cider had him high and eased.
James said, "I better not -- got to face my mother yet, with an extra mouth to boot."
"She knows Nan surely?"
"A little. But she's sort of had it with kids -- bad luck with all hers."
"How many more are there?"
James looked to the clock again. "You want the rest of me, there's just time for that."
Hutch said "Good enough."
"They stayed on here. Helen's dad got well enough to work again, so she and Nan lived there and kept up for him the best Helen could; she's an awful mess. She had no objections to me seeing Nan, and I'd come in and see her maybe twice a week, take her out for a walk or to do something new -- even took her to St. Giles's Fair, her first fair. Helen came along that day. We were friendly by then, though nothing too close -- I was seeing any other girl I fancied; I hadn't touched Helen, didn't need to try; and while Nan and I went to ride the ponies, Helen went to the gypsy and had her palm read. Game back with her face all down round her tits, saying she would be the cause of blood in others. I laughed. Two years before the same ruddy witch had told me and her we'd be happily married in a semidetached house in under six months with a fridge and hot water! But it ruined the fair for her. She left me and Nan to go her way, and that was the day we fell in love -- hours together, spending shillings like water. I took her back at dark. There was Helen still moaning while she made her dad's tea, so it came in my head to say 'I'll keep Nan tonight' and Helen said Yes. Nan slept in my bed, right up against me. She sleeps very, still, no moving at all and dry as my hand. I kept the room dark; but whenever I woke I'd find her face and stroke it awhile, pretending I was blind. I liked it; I'd slept alone since my brother left eight years before and never with a girl. I got a taste for it. Nan did as well. Helen didn't seem to mind, so from then on for six months she stayed every Sunday night with me."
The publican approached them. "Any last orders please?"
They both said No and James looked again to the present Nan between them. He didn't touch her -- her shoe touched his thigh -- but he watched her calmly as he might have watched a place, an inhuman field in evening light.
Hutch brushed her hair once with the back of his hand but watched her father. He didn't think then of pictures that lay behind this here-Rob and himself twenty years ago, trailing through two states Rob's desperation and his own plain contentment to be with a father who could make old rocks in the road die laughing. But he felt strong pulses of a similar peace, flickering signals which affirmed again that there were real fires outside himself -- welcoming, benevolent, worth anyone's tending. Father and child. The longer he watched, the younger James seemed -- unguarded, hunted. Even the fixed eyes, older than the skin, were blind to threat. Hutch strained to find one useful word of warning.
But James said, "I still had my Saturday nights. I was seeing a gift from Stanton Harcourt; and this one Saturday I had her at Carfax, dancing again -- clean country girl. There was not a big crowd, just a miserable four-piece band from Witney and a few of your countrymen, sucking down vodka by the quart -- very generous. There was this black one I'd talked to before -- Alfonso-something from Michigan, quite friendly, big high arse and a lot of teeth missing. Always after me to get him 'some white meat free,' not whores. Said he'd never spent a penny for pussy till then and didn't plan to start just because he was homesick. I laughed him off but thought it was awful, wouldn't ever tell him my own girl's name. This night he'd managed to hook one at least -- great palefaced redhead from the pressed-steel works who seemed not to talk -- so he was celebrating. I had my own cause to join him too. My girl had just whispered she'd changed her mind; till then it had been set against me working below her ears! It was bloody cold -- February -- and since what seemed to lie ahead of me was a late trip to Stanton Harcourt on my motorbike and a chance at a frosty shag in the graveyard, I thought I'd better drink as much as he'd give -- Alfonso Masters. He gave unstinting like I said, and I was pissed when the next bomb landed. There was Helen with a slimy little Welsh tich I also knew, dancing close in a corner. I didn't think I'd care. But since she hated to see me drunk, I went to Alfonso for one more taste; and he gave me the dregs of his bottle, quite a lot. So when I looked round and found my girl gone -- she had active kidneys -- I sloped up to Helen and her singing midget. Tried to be pleasant enough; and he was willing -- gave him the last swallow -- but Helen wouldn't hear it, froze over completely and didn't say a word beyond 'Never mind coming for my daughter tomorrow.' That cut really deep, a lot deeper than I'd planned to be cut by her again. First I just walked away four or five steps; then I knew I wouldn't take it. I turned and went back and said all I'd kept up to say for three years. That's the sordid part I warned about; I'll spare you that -- guess away, if you like! But it went fast at least. I shoved Helen once; her friend hit me good on the chin (quite strong for such a little newt); I bashed him down with Alfonso's bottle -- two times; then it broke and I stopped, not to maul him. Well, of course the first blow had laid his scalp open clean as an orange and earned him weeks of rest like I said." James stopped, touched his glass, decided not to drink. Then he faced Hutch at last. "That enough, you think?" His grin, sudden and white as a flare, surprised them both.
Hutch smiled. "Much obliged." A sweep-up boy was working their way, pausing every few steps to wipe his nose. Hutch lifted the last of his cider toward James. "To a calmer future, you and Nan."
James nodded, took her wrist, and shook it firmly. "But I've liked it, see. I really haven't minded."
Nan was looking straight up, awake as quickly as her father had promised. She looked back to Hutch and studied him a moment, then gave two clear imitations of an owl's lone cry. "Who-ah-oo, who-ah-oo.
"Hutch laughed. "Where'd you ever hear an owl, Nan?"
"I didn't," she said.
James stood and lifted her. "Maybe I'll see you this autumn in Merton. Keep your eyes skinned -- upward. I'll be on the scaffold."
"Being hanged?" Hutch said.
James laughed. "Just replacing dead stones this time."
There was no landlord to face after all. The name on a dignified callingcard was pinned up inside the open door, Miss Marleen Pickett with directions in a pale script to First floor back. Hutch climbed the long stairs, plunged back through a dark hall, and found only one door with noise behind it -- Lehar, the Vilja song, a wiry soprano -- so he knocked.
A good wait. The Lehar continued; then its volume throttled down, and a woman's voice said "Yes?" through the wood.
"Miss Pickett please."
He was still not sure it was she, but the cider allowed him to say "Clean Socks."
Another wait; the song died midair. The voice said, "I don't think I heard the name."
"Hutchins Mayfield," he said, "-- rich American boy, built normalize."
A laugh. "What's he want?"
"Oh a chance to be better acquainted," he said.
He might have been Orestes with the hungry axe, but she opened then -- on a small bed-sitter filled with books as she'd promised and her small self wrapped in a green housecoat, her hair newly washed and lightened like steam from a brief spring snow in the waving gleam of three green candles and a mute television: Anneliese Rothenberger in a grainy bow, troops of violins behind her.
An hour later they'd worked to the closest acquaintance they'd have, though for Hutch it didn't seem negligible. He'd sat while she made them a cup of Horlick's on her new hot-plate (the books by his chair were all war histories -- Churchill, Eisenhower, a history of the Greater London Fire Service). They'd watched the still-silent television and drunk the foamy milk, mostly silent themselves -- little guesses at the plot of the comedy before them, fat schoolboys apparently drowning an old headmaster in a barrel. When it ended in a muddy cricket match, she'd leaned to switch it off and said, "Now I may have to push off to work --"
Hutch had said, "You're a little late tonight."
"I'm a great opera fan," she'd said. "Never miss it. Anyway it's early by American docks."
Hutch had said "Not really" and stood to meet her on the small ragmat she said she'd made.
So they stayed upright in the midst of the candles, their palms pressed together like children in a slow game of push-and-shove. Hutch knew he was still high, knew she was clear, but trusted her to let him choose their speed. She consented and finally he rested on her shoulder, close enough to smell her cleanliness -- honest soap, no scent. Then he said "Work here?"
She seemed to nod.
He undressed her carefully as a tired baby who might yet yell.
But she bore all his gentleness -- his words of encouragement and praise, the serious unhitching and folding of clothes till she stood mothernaked and hugged herself once in a short chill of thanks. Then he paused, rocking slightly; and she said "Right" and returned the favor.
When he stood bare also, he took a step back and stroked her once from neck to belly, then drew her hand down the same stretch on him. He said, "We're the same age. We look like kin." They did, in dim light -- matched in health and frank fineness of workmanship.
But she said, "Mind your manners. I was brought up clean."
Hutch said "You smell it" and knelt before her to graze his fill. A tenor bell in the heart of town began on midnight.
She counted its last three strokes aloud. Then in the same pitch and rhythm and distance, she said "Thanking you" and raised him by his hair.
He searched her eyes, smiling. "Shall we read a good book now and go to sleep?"
She laughed two notes, still mocking the bell; raised a palm to hold him in place, then doused two candles with her fingers. "Yes," she said. "Read me Poor Old London in Flames Again. I'm a cold-natured child." She went to the bed and lay fiat and neat.
He said, "Once upon a time there was a city child named Marleen Pickett."
"Don't say the name please."
"I don't really feel like her just now."
A little wait. "You training for police inspector, are you?"
Hutch laughed. "In a way."
"Take a night off then."
So he did -- or a long unmeasured space in which they worked with the perfect skill their bodies had promised toward perfect reward, for Hutch at least in the few conscious minutes till she drew a quilt over them and let him sink asleep stretched against her right side. Even sleeping he felt no further need or question, though he dreamed this story. He was in his own bed in his room in Rob's house. He had waked after calm sleep and lay in warm fall light, straining the stillness for some sound of Rob in the kitchen, on the porch. But the stillness was pure and ran through his mind with no residue to stop his own rest and start the day. He sat up naked -- he was full grown, his present age -- and looked out the window that ran to the floor beside his bed. The yard, clear down to the road, was empty of all but Thalia loping stiffly toward the woods like a black footstool that had managed escape. From what? he wondered and stood and called Rob. Still nothing so, naked, he roamed the porch and kitchen, slowly fearful. No Rob -- the cookstove cold, table clean. But the truck stood safe in the back by the well. He stopped short of Rob's bedroom door and said "Father." He could hear the hum of something alive but nothing spoke. He went on toward it, feeling only dread. The room was lighter than his own had been. On the bureau Rob's gold watch burned like a lamp. In Rob's broad bed covered only by a sheet lay James and Nan. Nan was facing the door, awake and watchful. When she saw Hutch she smiled. He knew he had not seen her smile till then. His worry dissolved. James slept beyond them; the sound was from him, strong steady breaths.
Marleen laid a hand on his hip and pressed. When he woke she said, "You good for the night?"
"-- For sleep if you are."
"I just meant that. I'm tired as you but the rent's due Monday."
"What would my share be?"
She thought awhile, kneading his hip like a nurse. "How would three guineas sound?"
"About right," he said.
She turned toward him then, drew small, to his side, touching at every possible point. "Good night, Old Socks."
He thought "Good night" but was not sure he said it before sleep reclaimed him.
Hutch and Strawson had a big tea at a cheerful shop near the theatre (a diabetic at the nearest table had insulin trouble, and the manageress uncomplainingly poured sugar-water down him till his pallor cleared). Then they wandered through surprisingly empty streets past the local swans, Shakespeare's timbered birthplace, the garden of his last home, his tomb in the parish church with its bust which Straw said resembled an inflatable Edgar Allan Poe, ten pounds over-filled. Near that a small flowerseller was open. Hutch stopped -- "Inspiration.
"Straw said "Oh God."
"Secular inspiration -- Miss Leigh." They went in and found only stalky field flowers, something like carnations, but bought an armload and had them sent backstage at once to Vivien Leigh.
Act One, Scene Five. In the brown wake of Olivier's first meeting with the hags, she strode onstage, the sudden boiled essence of what had till then hung misty and subtle -- essence of the blind need of power, the will to seize it, both pure in a small red-haired gorgeous woman in a seagreen dress with barbarous jewels and a phallic belt slung from her crotch. Once she'd invoked in fevered chant the nursing of demons at her round high breasts, she moved straight forward through the midst of the play like a thin asp, far more potent than its length. She forced Macbeth to Duncan's murder, not by volume or stare but by lust -- flicking kisses at his neck and ears, quick stings on a soldier deprived many days of bed and wife. The demons clung to her as she took the daggers from him, smeared the drugged grooms with Duncan's gore; then reappeared in a new incandescence, ready at last to yield her body, hot with triumph and salty with blood. Then the strength left her slowly. In the banquet scene she entered as the smiling hostess whose composure barely conceals a knowledge that her husband is steadily passing her in power and secrecy; then as he panicked at Banquo's ghost, she rose with the natural loyalty of a dog, dismissed the guests, and worked to calm him with wifely tenderness. But increasingly certain that he'd now exceeded her in crime and hunger -- having used her body as his vaulting horse and cracked her spine -- she left, abandoned by all her strengths, desolate and baffled. Thereafter she was only the grizzle-haired child of the sleepwalking scene -- singing her dreamy confessions of blood, her last concerns for the peace of a man who'd found her useful to a point awhile back.
Her pale secretary met them downstairs, led them through dim halls to a door, said "Please wait here," and vanished inside. They stood, not speaking, still held by the end -- corrosive black glare that streamed from Macbeth in his fight to live -- and a little cowed by what now seemed a pointless request: to stare close-up at a beauty who must be drained and shaken. Five yards beyond them another door opened. Olivier stepped out, bare-chested, with a towel -- beard and wig off but his eyes still painted. He saw them and smiled and stepped back in.
Straw said "He's smaller than me" -- he was.
Hutch laughed and was on the verge of leaving when the nearer door opened on a woman in a tan robe with brown hair pressed down tight round her skull.
She said, "Poor boys. You're frozen. I'm sorry." Then she waved them in. Only inside by better light did they know for certain she was who they'd come for -- the famous smile, the green eyes tilted, the voice now raised to its normal cool pitch. She went to a dressing table where their ragged flowers looked fresher in a clear vase beside a framed picture of Olivier, younger, as Romeo. "Mr. Mayfield, Mr. Stuart -- thank you very much." She made a deep curtsy. "Which is which?" she said.
Hutch looked to Straw.
"I'm the Stuart," Straw said.
"Are you royal?" she said and took a step toward him, her large hand rising.
"Yes ma'm," Straw said, not moving from place. But he took the hand neatly and bent to kiss it, natural as a bird at a still bowl of water.
She accepted, still smiling, then turned to Hutch. "What a lovely name -- Mayfield. And you're Southern, your note said. I'm more than an honorary Southerner myself." For a moment her voice took on the plaintive sweetness of Scarlett and Blanche. "The South was kind to me."
Straw said "Then come back."
Her eyes searched him quickly; she laughed. "You don't think I flourished in Scotland tonight?"
"No ma'm," Straw said; then blushed. "You were fine. The other Scots didn't seem ready for you though."
She was serious. "Too true." Then the smile again -- "Shall we thank God for that?"
Hutch said "Yes alas."
She said, "Carolina -- I've seen it from trains: dark green, all pines. Will you go back there?"
Hutch said "I hope I can."
"Together?" she said.
Hutch wondered how she meant it -- Lady Macbeth, now a calm matchmaker?
But Straw said, "I'm a Virginian -- no ma'm."
They could all laugh at that. Her face scrubbed clean, the lines of mid-age spreading from her eyes, she had never seemed more beautiful to Hutch -- more desperately offered from her frail foothold on the near side of poise. He thought, quick and wild, "I could lead her out of here. She wants to go" (her spells of madness were public knowledge -- howlings, clawings). "I could give what she lacks."
But she settled on Straw again. "How long will you stay?"
Straw looked to Hutch.
"You must come for Twelfth Night. We do that next. I could save you my seats. I make a nice boy. And Titus Andronicus -- I lose both hands, my tongue, and my maidenhood but I persevere."
Straw said, "I imagine you do. Thank you, ma'm."
"Kind sir," she said. "'My Rosenkavalier!'" and dipped to the floor in controlled obeisance, not laughing now.
Two hours later they'd scaled Merton wall, picked their way over turning iron-spikes, and walked through the black chilly garden to Hutch's. The sitting room was dank, so Hutch burned both coils of the heater -- if this was July, woe betide for winter -- and hurried to warm milk for cocoa.
When Straw saw the drift, he said, "I've got a fifth of Scotch. It'd do you more good, ward off T.B."
Hutch laughed. "You kissed her. You're the one in danger."
"She's the world's most noted consumptive."
"I heard she was crazy."
"That too, in spurts." They hadn't talked of her on the drive back to Oxford; Straw had slept the whole way.
"I liked her a lot, offstage more than on."
Hutch said "She liked you."
"Those older women do. I'm the spirit of youth."
Hutch said, "-- For ten minutes at the rate you're going."
Straw went to his small bag and fished out the bottle, came back to the sofa, bent over the white cup, and poured a big drink.
Hutch said, "Not for me. Not yet at least."
Straw looked up, solemn as a child on a stele. He thought for a long moment. "So be it," he said, "-- plenty others in line." Then he smiled, still standing; drained the cup, and lay back full-length on the sofa.
"This is England. Drink slower."
"You're safe here, aren't you? -- no menopausal doctor's wives tracking you down."
"Maybe so, maybe not." He'd shut his eyes again.
Hutch didn't want him to sleep just yet. He himself was awake and gladder than he'd planned -- to have Straw here, transplanted intact out of range of home. "You promised to bring me up to date," he said.
"Tomorrow if I live."
"Night's the time to talk trash."
Straw looked out again and studied Hutch. "You're a little low, aren't you?"
"No." His milk was bubbling; he leaned to mix the cocoa.
"-- On trash. You look pretty low on trash."
"This is a hermit's cell, six hundred years old."
Straw raised up and scanned the long dark room. "Shit," he said. "Bet you young hermits were groveling on each other's butts before the plaster was dry on the walls."
Hutch laughed. "Could be."
Straw was still looking round. "I'm certain," he said. "Had to warm up somehow."
Hutch had sat back to drink. "It's July," he said.
"No you're not. Tell the news; that'll toast your toes.
"Straw said "Pour me a shot.
"Hutch poured two ounces.
"That's a shot."
"Then make it a torpedo."
Hutch doubled the portion and handed it over.
Straw set it on his breastbone, cradled in his hands. "I lie here before you as a father," he said.
"Of what exactly?"
Again Straw drained the cup in one swallow -- no flinch or shudder, though he scrubbed at his mouth. "-- Of a pink goldfish about two inches long. I named it for you."
Hutch said, "Many thanks. Do I get him now or later?"
"I said it; pay attention. No it's swimming down sewer mains fast as it can toward the Gulf of Mexico. You'd never catch it now."
Hutch said, "You may need to speak plain English. I'm not too good at these dark allegories."
Straw said, "I'm trying to spare you pain."
"Nobody else does. Don't bother; I'm grown."
Straw looked out a moment with utter clarity, the eyes of an instrument collecting evidence for some vast indictment. Then he shut them and set the cup on the floor at Hutch's foot. "I've been fucking Estelle Llewellyn since March, eight times exactly -- she's counting not me."
"You wrote me in June that it hadn't happened yet."
"I was lying, to spare you again. You want to hear this or you want to give demerits?"
Against his better judgment Hutch said "Tell on."
"By the time I wrote you, she was already pregnant. She didn't know, didn't tell me anyway -- it's not my favorite idea of fun, to poke up a growing baby's ass. But I did, two or three more times; I wouldn't go so far as to say I felt the difference. Then she called me up one evening at home and said I had to meet her at school, nine o'clock -- all our meetings had been at school from the start. I wasn't in the mood and told her so as plain as I could with my mother standing four feet away. I'll give her this much -- Mrs. Llewellyn, I mean. She never cried a drop or raised her voice. She just said, 'I don't want to lay a hand on you. I want you to know one piece of news.' I knew from that minute, but I went on and met her. She never tried to touch me. I wouldn't have minded; it was her idea that she was too old and was cradle-robbing, having dealings with me. I liked how she did most everything she did. We sat in her car, and she told it straight out -- she knew it was mine; she was six weeks gone. She'd been down to Staunton to have the test done, false name and all. I knew we were acting in a fairly old movie, but I knew she was hurting under all the big dignity. I said, 'Any doubt that the father's me?' She said there was not; she'd claimed right along she and Dr. Llewellyn had lived like cousins for more than a year, his choice not hers. So I said, 'If you'll have it I'll raise it right.' I meant every word. I could have got a job, found a woman to keep it -- my mother would have cut backfiips at the chance. Then she told her real news. It was already done. She'd gone to her husband that same afternoon and told him the problem, leaving out my name. He'd solved it right there in his office, twenty minutes. She had cooked their supper and was driving the car. I sat still, glad it was dark at least. I wanted to say some wonderful sentence to end her scene, some noble memory for her to suck on for years. I even ran through all the poems I'd learned. But nothing seemed right. After maybe two minutes I opened the door and stepped out to breathe and here I am." Still blind, he reached down accurately and took the empty cup; licked slowly round the rim.
"You never said a word?"
Straw looked out again, less certainly now. "No I saved it for you. I thought you'd like it."
Hutch felt a yellow surge of nausea in his throat. What he'd honored in this boy for nearly two years was the clear sight of life, a flood of cheerful animal life that had pressed Straw's body and face from within into one more mask of the thing HutCh hunted and worshiped in the world -- the same strong grace that still moved the pictures of Rob through his memory. Now supine on ragged cushions in a room that had seen worse surely in six hundred years, Straw seemed nonetheless filthy past cleaning. Hutch licked down deep at the dregs of his cocoa, then bent and poured whiskey in the half-clean cup, then drank a long swallow.
Straw said "I was wrong."
"You plain didn't like it."
"What makes you think that?"
Straw propped his head on one hand. "I've done some bad stuff in my time, I agree; but I never to my knowledge made anybody mix good Scotch and cold cocoa."
"It was all right."
"The drink." Hutch drank the rest, walked to his bedroom, pissed in the sink, and ran a little hot water.
As he came slowly back, Straw said, "Anybody that'll piss where he washes his mouth shouldn't blame other people for what they do."
"The john's too far."
"So was love in Virginia."
Hutch sat again. "I was there till June."
Straw watched him steadily. "You were scared."
"Not of you."
"Of what then?"
"You're lying. Don't spare me." Straw sat up finally, gave himself and Hutch drinks, then leaned back upright.
Hutch found no immediate reason to spread out his relics here where they well might be disvalued or abused. "Strawson, I was leaving. What we did was goodbye. There was no future for it."
"Did you want there to be?"
Hutch laughed. "Your lie detector is overheated, son."
Straw shook his head. "I'm a father, remember?"
"Half the world can be that, any man with a minimum of one working ball."
Straw said "Why not you?"
"Give me time."
"We have. World's waiting for your heir; you're aging fast."
Hutch nodded. "That's why I've washed up here. That's the scarey thing."
"-- In a hermit museum? With your woman in Richmond, four thousand miles off? You mailing her bottles of your warm white seed?"
"Not yet anyhow. I mailed her a poem."
Straw said, "I know that eased her pain."
Hutch said, "I've retired from the pain-easing business."
"Never knew you had such a long list of patients."
Hutch grinned and drank a little. One or two gates opened. "I don't claim to be Father Damien of the Lepers; but I have been the target, since the day I was born, of a high wall of hope. I have more than normal sympathy for instance with poor Baby Jesus and the pre-teen Mozart."
"Nice crowd to run with."
"I'm not claiming kin, just making a point. I was loved as a child; it can be a hard blight."
"You were needed," Straw said. "That's a whole nother story."
"Then tell me the story of love, O mage!"
Straw said, "I just did. It made you piss."
"You and Estelle Llewellyn? -- quick bangs in a car?"
Straw nodded. "-- Broom closets, wrestling mats in the gym, anywhere I could get her."
"The saints of love are howling," Hutch said. "That was pure goatneed, no offense meant to goats."
"Us goats are the saints."
"Please expand," Hutch said.
"I did. For a poet you're pretty damned deaf; never heard of a great deaf poet before."
"First one," Hutch said. "You'll need to speak plain."
Straw said, "How's this? I'm nineteen years old or will be soon. I need to go to college like a mule needs tits. I wanted that baby. Didn't know it at the time. At the time I was getting my wand stroked in company; but from here -- lying here in a hermitage, having seen the Oliviers act out a marriage at least as enviable as my own parents', and watching you -- I can see I was hoping to really make something, the thing that matters."
Hutch laughed well before he saw Straw's tears. "We've had a little too much of this," he said, extending the cup.
"Not enough," Straw said. His eyes indicated there might never be enough, not in all the years.
Soon after that Hutch had brought out a pillow and covers for Strawson to sleep on the sofa. It was past two o'clock; he was worn flat down. Straw had only said he'd sit awhile longer; so Hutch had quickly slept in his own bed, the door between them open. Sometime later he'd waked to hear Straw's feet on the stairs, going down -- the john -- and he thought he should call him back, give him the flashlight (the chapel johns were blacker than night); but he stayed still for once -- let him learn his way-and was out again before Straw reached ground. A sleep so thick and untroubled that he thought in a fragment of dream, I am being rewarded. For what? For what? No answer seemed needed and he knew nothing else till a little past four, false dawn at the window.
Straw was standing naked by the sink in the window-end of the bedroom. His head was buried in Hutch's towel; he was mopping at his hair and face, silent and slow.
Hutch tested the chance that the sight was a dream; under the covers he dawed at his own bare thigh and felt the nails. So he whispered, not to startle Straw, "You braved the vile baths?"
Straw looked up but not at Hutch -- outward at the first glow.
"You all right?"
"Frozen." The window was open.
"Should have waited till morning. No real hot water till breakfasttime."
"Been swimming," Straw said and went on with his drying.
Hutch said "Good God" and -- still half-asleep -- imagined the drunk boy climbing out by the low south wall, walking through the otherwise empty meadow to the river, stripping, plunging in over dozing swans, stroking in the cold water, walking back bare with his wadded clothes. All the guesses were right; he knew Straw well. "I've got some flannel pajamas," he said, "in the bottom drawer there beside your feet."
Straw dropped the towel, leaned to fish out the flannels, stood to put on the jacket.
Hutch had slept again by the time he was half-dressed.
So Straw left the pants on the floor, walked forward, and found his own way to the warm narrow trough in Hutch's ruined mattress.
Hutch woke enough to give him a little extra space -- the trough they were in had untenable slopes -- but he said nothing else. He lay facing Straw and, never quite waking, accepted for what seemed hours the gestures of pure blind service -- mouth and hands, anointment and soothing; no word of request, no feeding gaze. The pleasure was strong as any Hutch had known, maybe stronger because of the silence and dark. He climbed through its spaces in a blindness of his own but safe, well-led. No eyes to thank, no debt to pay. Even Lew had begged rescue. He thought of Marleen's kind competence a moment, but gratitude quickly returned him here. He was happy here, one actual room. So, mind and body, he stayed for the rest. At the end he considered asking one thing -- "Have you made something now?" -- but the boy slid straight from his work into sleep. Hutch stayed there facing him till light showed his face, sealed again and young in sobriety. Then he crawled out quietly, went to the sofa, and napped in the shallows till the first morning chime. When Simpson came to wake him, he sat up, pointed to the bedroom; and said, "I've got a guest asleep."
Simpson said "No lady?"
July 24, 1955
Your letter came four days ago while I had company here -- Strawson Stuart, my student. You remember he helped us load the truck my last day in Virginia. He's touring with his brother but stopped off alone for three days. We got to see Macbeth in Stratford on Avon with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, a really big sight. I still can get chilled, remembering him -- so calm at the start and so winning in appearance that you found you'd climbed in the palm of the hand before you noticed that the hand was iron and was closing fast round you with no sound louder than the crunch of your bones. Her voice is better for movies than stage -- a microphone catches all grades of her best strengths (poisonous sweetness and serious guile) which are lost in the theatre -- but nobody's ever looked or moved any better or half so well. We sent her some flowers and went backstage to see her at the end. On top of the beauty, which is literally incredible (despite her few wrinkles -- she's forty-one -- I found it hard to talk in her presence; too busy reminding myself she was there), she's warm and funny. Or was for five minutes; you've probably read of her mental problems.
Otherwise I'm trying to settle in finally and do three good months of reading and writing before term begins and I'm a schoolboy again. So you can be assured I'm safe as any man in western Europe -- western civilization. I live in a stone building heavier and older than the combined structures, private and commercial, of the town of Fontaine. My driving will consist of short slow prowls through gentle countryside; and in any case English roads are so narrow and winding, you can seldom exceed forty miles per hour for more than ten seconds (when you can it's a sure sign you're on a Roman road, some arrow-straight stretch laid two thousand years ago and thinly varnished with asphalt now). I'm even learning to pick my way through the breastworks and minefields of English food -- mainly by resorting to the Covered Market here where I buy fresh carrots, tomatoes, oranges, dried figs, cheese and maintain the health of my gums if not my soul.
It's the soul that's in danger -- if anything, Rob. The Mayfield Soul. Or is it a Kendal or Hutchins Soul? Ali of which is to say that the dangers I smell don't originate in sin. I know I'm a Christian, though I don't go to church ( I mean I believe that the Gospel of Mark is a thoroughly trustworthy news-account of actual occurrences some years back but relevant still); yet I honestly doubt I've ever committed a sin of any weight. So far as I understand the Ten Commandments, I've never broken one. I've slept round a little, a relative little, but never by force and never with anybody pledged elsewhere (St. Paul might denounce me, but that was his line; ever notice how little Jesus says about sex? -- at least it didn't give him the fits it gave Paul). I've coveted in snatches but never stole the thing, the object or person. If I have a prevailing Deadly Sin, it's obviously Pride; but anyone who knows me as well as you knows my pride is external, a transparent glaze. Inside I'm doubting -- a Mayfield as I said. Or is it just a human? Since we never really talked about the doubts, maybe I should lay them out briefly here. Don't bother to brace yourself -- no surprises, just the fairly standard sinking spells of a twenty-year-old in my social class (only I'm twenty-five). Can I do anything worth doing for, say, the next forty-five years? If so, is there any way to do it alone?
Well, the lay-out was briefer than even I expected; but those two sentences cover the matter, I'm all but sure. I'm not very sure the second question is as common as I claimed above, not as early in life as this anyhow ( I see nearly ali my contemporaries walking off in matched pairs and issuing small warm replicas; it's one of the sights I came here to rest from). The first question though is bound to be widespread -- proof: the number of men my age who are drunks and I understand why. But again no fear-it's one of the last routes I mean to take. I suspect I might be chemically prone to quick dependence.
So -- I know I can teach. I could come back now and have three or four decent jobs by fall, teaching prep or high school. If I stay here long enough to get a degree -- two years' minimum -- I'd have a good chance at two or three college jobs: freshman composition and English Lit. from Adam and Eve to Anthony Eden. If I start to publish books at a heartwarming rate -- anything: poems, stories, a history of feed-and-seed catalogs, so long as they're bound in stiff cloth-boards and come from a press that the author doesn't own -- I could transpire to some good private university and stay there till dead or too congealed to talk. The teaching is -- is it?useful in the world. For me it would be the means to eat while I did what I want and need to do. That, I think, would be writing. And what use is that to anyone but me, the four or five people who take everything I do on faith, and God in the skies? Should that be enough? Should I shut up groaning and make my items, even if they finally turn out to be cottageindustry white-elephants like scale-model copies of the Smithsonian Institute in toothpicks and glue, admired by the builder's mother and minister?
What if the answer to all those is No? I doubt I could jump out the window just yet; I like too many things. I doubt I could be a bad teacher for long -- too many opportunities for permanent harm. I doubt I could be a good husband-and-father with no income and time on my hands. Cable instructions, as they say in beleaguered frontier forts. But don't give it too much midnight oil. I'm a self-winding watch, it begins to appear, though I may lose hours. It also begins to come to my notice (something children never see) how very few people ever lie down and quit; how most break the finish-tape some way or other, even creeping or crawling.
Present business, then. I understand your feelings on the question of Lew Davis's immigration. I'd just thought some ready solution might come to mind there at home to start him on his way. He seems to have gone a way at least; I haven't heard from him since we parted in Dorchester a month ago at the home of Thomas Hardy -- he was hitching back to Wales or so he said. He has a lot of life which I hope he gets to use.
Understand too your feeling that I might have qualms about Min turning up in your life. I do and don't. Eleven years ago I objected to her strongly on the grounds that I'd missed you so much myself in the years you lived in Raleigh. I wanted you with me, sharing you with no one. Looking back from here, I don't feel shame. Not having a mother and raised by old women, I genuinely craved you -- dogs crave grass. I've thanked you more than once for coming to me then, and thank you still. What I guess I haven't done is find a good way to make up to you the sacrifice I caused -- leaving you with an adolescent boy through years when you must have been famished as me, for a different food. A big part of what I hope to do here and always is pay that debt in coin you can spend; a further doubt is, what coin would prove good and useful to you. Maybe that would simply be to do what you ask -- raise prematurely patriarchal arms and shed warm blessing over you and your choice. But even I balk at some brands of pretension. I used to bless you when I was a boy -- in my prayer every night, the years you were gone, and a lot of times silently when you were nearby -- but then, like a lot of children, I felt safer than you and responsible for you. The child can be "father to the man" in more senses than Wordsworth meant, and you asked me to be. Or so I thought. It may be one reason I'm a little tired now. I've played more parts -- lived them as duties -- than a good many men or women age sixty. Thus a short rest now.
So sure, from my rest stop here by the Thames, the strongest blessing I have to send -- on you and anyone you want it to land on.
I feel pounds lighter, having passed that miracle; so I'll stop now and take a long walk. It's a fine cool day. Three miles southeast lies apparently the country church where John Milton married his first disastrous wife, Mary Powell. I'll try to get there and back before dark, then work all evening. Let me hear some news on Grandmother, Grainger, and the whole home squad. They are keeping their counsel, but I think of them often-never meant to forget.
Love then from
Midnight. Safe back from the trek to Forest Hill (found the church empty, no Miltonic chords to shake the peace). I reread this, then reread your letter and noticed finally that you asked for patience not benediction. And here I've poured out grams of tortured ethereal ink in the effort to bless! I don't have the heart to copy it over. Also I feel like owning up. Don't hesitate to laugh.
August 1, 1955
Hutch, your benediction came this morning and reminded mo. of several things. The one I can still act on is this letter I laid aside six weeks ago. Min arrived after the last installment; and while we haven't been on any wild scramble, the kind of evening conducive to lengthy retrospect has been a little scarce. Thank God, I guess. The presence of company has also made my hunt for the third good day of my life seem less urgent and a little ridiculous. I mean to finish though. Since you'll be the only one to see it, I'm as ready to have you laugh at me as I was to grin at your letter this morning.
I've had the day pretty much to myself -- Min had to go to Raleigh after breakfast for some work -- so I sat down to find that last day for you, age thirty-five till now. I was fairly certain it would center on you; you're right in thinking you've been the hub of this wheel at least for twenty-five years. I even got out my shoebox of pictures. In an hour I'd worked through a lot more memory than I knew I had of you and me -- except for my own fears and failures, good memory. I won't say the hour was peaceful though. I seem not to mind the first half of my past -- Mother, Father, my jackass behavior for so many years. It's pictures, on paper and in my mind, of Rachel and you that seize me. Not painfully exactly but deeper even now than I like to be seized, in my final quick. Proves there's quick meat in there still -- a strip about the size of a laborer's hand to the right of my heart, alive as a year-old bird dog at first frost. Here's the day it pointed, out of all our days.
It must have been in early June 1944-you took a lot of pictures but neglected to date them. Our famous eventful Virginia trip when we burnt up so much war-rationed gas chasing each other down from seashore to mountains. I'd just been relieved of my job in Raleigh and was facing one more of the blank walls I faced fairly often back then. You must have been fourteen, already enough of a man to throw additional high walls across my path (though not at all blank and generally gated). But you still had the fascination with Jamestown, Pocahontas, and Captain John Smith which Grainger had given you before you could read with ali the tales he had manufactured round two normal people.
By the time we got there, you must have been one of the world's experts on the actual story. On the drive from Virginia Beach, you'd briefed me pretty thoroughly -- thoroughly enough for me to know how patiently you listened to the flood of romance that met us in Jamestown, the decrepit couple selling souvenirs who gave us the Vghite-Virgin-Christian-Lady word on Pocahontas, so dear to native Virginia hearts. I left it to you; and your only resistance was to tell the old man that No, we wouldn't need his guidance round the site. He felt the rebuff -- can you still see his face?but stood his ground there beside his junk feathers and tomahawks and let us go.
Am I right in seeing us there alone from that point on? I believe I am, few people sharing our luck in having an uncle on the local Ration Board. Perfect weather so we wandered on the green slope there above the James, on the actual dirt that had borne all the story and still held the bones of starved and killed colonists, the Indians they killed. I gather they've done some reconstruction since and built a museum for Pocahontas' earrings; but then I remember nothing but the hill itself, a lot of old trees, the ruins of a brick church standing near the site of Pocahontas' marriage, and separate statues of John Smith and her. I liked the one of her in a buckskin dress that fell to her knees, stepping forward with her palms out and looking slight!y up. We sat at her feet to eat our lunch. I remember the lunch as something you fixed, but can that be right? We'd stayed in a hotel the night before; where would you have got celery and pimento cheese? Well, however, we ate and picked up our mess; and I told you I had to lie back a minute now and rest my eyes. So you wandered off again. I leaned back under Pocahontas' moccasins and snoozed.
How long was I out? -- fifteen, twenty minutes? Long enough at least to have a few dreams of the punishing variety I specialized in. Then a low thumping on the ground woke me up. The sun had moved down and was bright in my eyes. What I saw twenty yards downhill toward the river was a naked child turning cartwheels slower than a normal child could manage. It came to me peacefully that you had just told me two hours before how Pocahontas used to come here as a child, naked as a jay, and turn cartwheels with the white cabinboys round the first English fort. (I just looked it up in your room before I wrote this to confirm I was sane -- William Strachey writing in 1612: "Pocahontas, a well-featured but wanton young girl, Powhatan's daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve years, would get the boys with her forth into the marketplace and make them wheel, falling on their hands, turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so -- herself naked as she was -- all the fort over.") I hoped at first I was still asleep and dreaming, not drunk -- you recall I was also in drinking trouble then. It went on another ten seconds or so till I knew I was conscious; then the hope was that I wasn't being entrusted with some revelation from the Womb of Time. I thought something might be calling me on, requiring me to give when I felt about as bankrupt as I'd ever been -- of answers to give to God at least or the magic ground.
The child had turned out of sight by then. I shut my eyes and took the sun and put my hands down to feel the grass beside me -- the grass had been shivering -- and I felt your shirt, a blue summer shirt warm with your sweat. So I looked again and even in the glare I could see you walking up the rise toward me, barechested in your tan shorts, not really a child. But a real revelation that would need acts of care for the rest of my life and maybe beyond. I'd have run if I hadn't known you could outrun me. I pretended I was out still and you walked up. You watched me awhile (I strained you through my lashes), then slid your shirt from my fingers and put it on. You said, "This statue is making me mad. She never wore any dress half as long as that, and her titties should show." That set me free to laugh. I looked up and said what I wanted to say, "Let's make a run for it." You didn't say "To where?" but laughed back and nodded.
I didn't realize we were happy then. I still thought the world was a custom-built millstone with ROB MAYFIELD sewed neat in its neck like a college boy's sweater. You'll recall also that I acted on my misunderstanding posthaste -- the drunk I pulled at Polly's in Richmond, ruining the trip. Well, we got through that and what came after, eleven years. Some of it's been all right, and 85% of the worthwhile enjoyment was owing to you. But it could have been better, which is why I can now see our Jamestown day as the last high point -- the last big tree they let me climb. What I saw from there was right. We should somehow have run. Don't ask me to where? There must have been one place left back then where we could have hid out and had a plain life and learned to ignore all the want-lists posted from cradle to grave to train every human into baying at the stars (which do not bay back) till finally we could face each other and say, "I don't want anything alive or dead but you."
Maybe that makes our Jamestown day the worst day of all. Maybe my mind is affected already, though they don't mention that on my schedule of symptoms. I don't think so. We were happy and knew it. Shame on us for the rest.
Copyright © 1980, 1981 by Reynolds Price
Meet the Author
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
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