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By Sheila Heti
PicadorCopyright © 2005 Sheila Heti
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There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop literary taste. I read what I found and it was for fun. You read mostly for idle pleasure. I did not read for fun, nor was I cultivating my mind. I cannot imagine cultivating anything as a young boy. It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries. No, the whole country lacked books then. Comparatively few were published here, and they were borrowed with difficulty. There is no possible way I could have read good books. It was for pleasure that I read them, when I finally did. Today you read books. Yes, today I read books but there were no books when I was a boy, and I do not read books the way that other men read books. My taste, then, was juvenile. But you were like all the other boys. Sometimes you went to the library, but there was no library until much later. When I went to the library I would read the books that amused me. I had no taste when I was young. I had no books. It is not my fault if I read the lighter books, and that when I found them I read them with a juvenile fever. But you would read with no fever at all. You read on cool spring days, once there were books in Mr. Shaw's library. I read the books of the kindhearted Mr. Shaw because I was bright, and because he let me. This allowed me no social pleasure. He would return from a fashionable watering place and share with me his "loafing time" while I was trying to read. His particular doctrine did me no favors. He did little to nourish my mind. I was given the lightest literature while the other boys drowned in a great sea of social amusement. So long as I could endure the task, I passed long hours on cool spring days idly reading in the library of Mr. Shaw to the unhappy exclusion of whatever perfectly youthful enjoyment the other boys sought. The day came when I made an attempt to quit Mr. Shaw's company, but he said he would prefer it if I did not. I dropped my hand from the windowsill and returned to my desk. Although I can read, I do not read as well as I would like to. Those hours influenced my literary tastes.
Some men love wild animals. I am not one of those men. Animals have no place in my life, and I am not the type to say he prefers animals to people. That is not the sort of logic I agree with at all. I do not agree with the logic of animal-loving men. Nor are you the sort of man who would get along well with animal-loving women. There is something stunted about those kinds of women. I am not a stunted man, though I am a difficult man. You have no difficulty with other people, and you cannot rightly say that your first and second loves were books. There was a woman I loved more than books, but now she is gone. I was not a favorite of girls, and I am still not favored among women. You loved first a drunk, second a woman who was deformed in the face. I have only ever loved hopeless women, which is surely what has kept me from the highest circles. It's all that would have been necessary to find myself in the warm glow of the dinner table at the Prescotts'. To have only had a woman you could show off would have put you in the proper place. I tried not to love the women I loved. Now I only want to be quite simple and childlike with some dear woman, with no code of morals, yet I fear it's too late. Few people feel a real and deep passion more than once in a life. Perhaps you will never again love in the same true way, or find a human being who is such perfect rest to you.
It will take me a while to get there. You will get there soon enough. Getting somewhere always involves more effort than the effort of getting there is worth. Of course, there is nothing to be done about it. No one is eagerly awaiting you now. Your arrival is not anticipated with any great longing. Other men must hurry. If I am late it will mean nothing to anyone. You cannot be going anywhere with the thought that you are not wanted there. But it is the only way I can. There are friends of yours who eagerly await you now, and you will of course be late. I'm sorry I'm late. So sorry I'm late. You know how difficult it is to travel. You know how long these winding roads take. So sorry I'm late. Has everything already started? Is there nothing more left to this evening? I started out, and I was certain the supper hadn't begun. If only I had left the house on time. If I had just begun my journey when I first put on my coat and not stopped to write out the letter that was in my mind before I forgot it. I threw out the letter anyway. Had I left the house one minute earlier I would have caught the streetcar as it was moving away, or if the pie had been ready sooner, or if I had not made a pie at all, when you told me not to. The neighbors arranged for a party last night, so I had to sleep with the rubber earplugs in and woke up with a headache. I know you don't care. They never mind when I am late. There should be no rush in getting there. No, don't rush to get anywhere. Everyone will know it if you have rushed, and if they know you have rushed they will not think highly of you once you arrive. But I am not a late man. I hate to be late. I was not brought up in that easy way. I am not the sort of man who can afford to arrive any later than perfectly on time. Perhaps being late is better than on time, for a man whose arrival is not eagerly anticipated. My manner would become, perhaps, a little freer and easier from continual practice. You must take yourself for better or worse, however it is. Please forgive me. You know how the streets are. Haven't you heard what happened on the street? Before you leave, you cannot know the state of the streets. Enough about the streets. They are not thinking about you now Forget about them and forget about the streets. Sorry I'm late. So sorry I'm late. But these days everyone is always late. I'm sorry if I didn't arrive on time. I left with lots of time to spare, but you know the streets. It is so hard to go earnestly into the streets.
It would be better had I stayed at home. If you had stayed home, how much better you would have felt. This is not a night to be out in the streets. Not for an old man. I am not quite so old. You had a mother but your mother is dead. When mother died, she just made up her mind and did it. She said she had nothing to live for, then reached out her hand to touch me. She missed. I was standing too far. I moved close to pull the blanket over her head, and went to call the doctor into the room. What was I to do? I stayed by him as he told me all his plans, the usual rites to be taken care of. He left to write out the certificate while I turned to look at the blanket, adjusted it with one hand and played with the lacy edge, then dropped it and left, shutting the door behind me. It is that the street is so dark, which makes the walking so terrible. There are many gloomy nights and always more, and you are not at home for enough of them. But I am home almost every night. The invitations you receive come rarely, and the ones that come you disdain. No, it would be terrible at home. Not as lively as at the Prescotts'. They are a lovely couple. They are the only couple you love. You love them and yet you wish to be at home on a night when you have nothing in particular to do. Besides, the streets aren't so dark, and at the Prescotts' they will warm your pie. Go now. You have only fifteen blocks and already you are stalling. But it is not the darkness of the night that bothers me. It's that I hate the rain. The transition will be easy once you perceive it for yourself. But it's not there and I fear it won't come. Go home if you want. You said you would bring the pie. It is not the night for writing letters. Forget the letters. You rarely write letters and the ones you send are often lost. Your life is in one sense more and more retired. You write one or two household friends whenever they happen to be out of Boston. It is not a correspondence that is being preserved. I saw parts of it from ten or twelve years ago, when I was visiting outside of Boston, and I am sure my correspondence is being preserved. Your correspondence is not preserved by your friends and it is not preserved by the critics. In the preceding two months you have written only three persons. The two or three friends who live outside of Boston hardly know what to make of your letters. They say you shouldn't write them at all. Writing by the light injures your eye. Chopping wood brings relief, but this is not always understood. You should not speak so cruelly of the Prescotts. They are your closest friends and your only friends.
So sorry, Mrs. Abb_ng_on. I'm so sorry for not replying to your kind letter earlier. In any case, my days have been filled with nuisances. So sorry, Mrs. Abb_ng_on, for not replying to your letter at once. My days are filled with chores. You know they are like the days of everyone we know. You know everyone's days are filled with the worst sorts of interruptions. We laugh about the interruptions, but please forgive me. Are you well, Mrs. Abb_ng_on? I hope you are enjoying the fur coat you had fitted. I hope your husband sees how you are enjoying the fur. It has been very cold as winter approaches, and no doubt the fur will come in handy. Tonight I was at the Prescotts'. Tonight the Prescotts invited me for dinner and I went there with a pie. You know the Prescotts — they are my very best friends. It has been so long since I received such a nice letter, and though I did not reply at once, I have been thinking of you constantly. I thought of you often. I often thought of writing, but you know the interruptions of life. Mrs. Abb_ng_on, I hope you don't hate me now that it has taken me so many months to reply to your kindest of letters. It is very cold in the streets, and it is impossible to go anywhere in Boston without wasting half your day in getting there. People are cold and cruel and nobody comes with the streetcar when you need it. The stores are lined with advertisements and you cannot look anywhere without being sold something. There are fewer and fewer days with sun, and many people are currently out of work. Perhaps you received my last two letters? If your husband's factory has closed, I'm terribly sorry. Perhaps my last few letters were lost. I assume my correspondence was lost in the mail, but please don't hold it against me. This happens to me on a regular basis. You are one of the dearest women I know, Mrs. Abb_ng_on. It was terrible walking through the streets on a cold night like tonight. I was on my way to have supper with the Prescotts. Perhaps you remember Mrs. Prescott? She wore the red feather at the literary lunch. I'm sure you remember her. Please forgive the delay in my reply. There is a charming shady walk by the house where I live. When you visit Boston next perhaps you will come and see me, and we will take this walk. I often walk before dinner, and I love companionship at that time of the night. It is at that time of the night when I am most in need of friends. The drives are less agreeable but the walks still have their charms. Everything around here is familiar and dear to me and reminds me of all the days of my childhood. Perhaps you will visit me, when next you come to Boston. Please come to Boston, Mrs. Abb_ng_on. I hope to see you in Boston, but I suggest you wait until winter has passed.
He lived with his mother and father and I lived all alone. Even when he was living only with his mother I was living all alone. There is nothing to envy about a grown man living with his mother and father, but then his family has always been close. And the homes — even his opulent apartments were unlike the simple apartments of his friends. Everyone would have liked to live in them. Often you slept there, so you are closer than most, though you found out that others did too. You pretended not to want to be a part, but they could tell you wanted to be a part; everyone did anyway, you found that out, if you didn't know it already. And they like your company, so it's not an intrusion. They like me as an outsider and friend, and I have always been at a familiar distance. Even with the grandmother. But you cannot envy the grandmother, who cannot remember a thing, though the ease she knew must have existed as some sort of comfort in her senility. There couldn't have been the same anxiety in senility that one would normally expect from an old woman. Still, you had good homes too, if not in the same way. Your father would sooner lose all his money than occupy a summer house, though it was always the wish of the family. You can't be the son of someone else's family. You would go home and there were secrets you didn't know about. The fights they had, you didn't know about those, the mother shouting that she hopes she gets cancer. If you knew their fights better maybe you wouldn't envy their homes. Or maybe you would envy more. Why shouldn't the worst be equally appealing? You were welcomed in, but in the discomforting way of close families — at the end of the night they were never sad enough to see you go. They would wave you out cheerfully and close the door. There's no use feeling lonely about that loving sort of family, when they wanted to share it with you, some. You can't look to your childhood now and think you should have spent more time with his mother and father and the rest of them. Even if you had, you would not have become a better man or written any books of history. If your family now seems to you not what you thought it was as a child, still your childhood sits well with you, even if there was a greater fragility to it than you realized. But their intimacy is a kind of comfort I wouldn't have wanted, no. How could I have lived like that in a tight family with open arms to the outside world? Now I am alone and otherwise it wouldn't have been so easy. The house had nothing pretentious about it, though the furniture was rare. The walls were rich. Sometimes large parties were given, and seasonal dinners with many friends and games. Nights of dinners to which I was sometimes invited. Not so often; they had many friends. Everyone was privileged to enjoy them, felt the privilege of being there. The first house they occupied was on Tremont Street and the next on Summer Street. Both have now been pulled down to make room for the heavy bricks and granite blocks demanded by commerce. He used to talk about his childhood in their first home in Boston, a mansion, really, moving from New York as a two-year-old and the empty stairwells and the ghostly corners. Home was always a word of peculiar import to him, and any interference with his old habits and associations in relation to it became most unwelcome after his mother and father died. What's left is a more modern house with children and a wife. The simplicity of their lives is not to be mistaken, though rich and substantial. There's no desperation to recapture something of the past, and no trace of loneliness can be seen on his face at their suppers. Even at the house after we all came back from the cemetery, everyone wanted to be seen as a closer friend of the family, and help in a more significant way, looking still to the family in the kindest, most innocent of ways for some slightly exasperated remark about the other guests. How no one else deserved to be there as much. But that idea could not be sustained, not with a family in mourning. You were and still are privileged to enjoy it, and it is all attractive, quiet, gentle, and warmhearted. You are an intimate friend. You are known as an intimate friend by the entire widely branched family, and you could not be more a part of something that was as sought after as the home and household of the Prescotts, even after the death of his father and mother, though not as much after that. So you bring the pie.
There is no reason for the rain to prevent you or the cold to prevent you. You have no excuses when you look to the weather, or to the quality of the night, or to the streetcar, though it is very slow. No one has been rude to you in the streets, so even that is not a reason to stay in tonight. Prescott has your admiration, and you have his as well. As a handsome boy he once executed a perfect tumble down a flight of stairs before a hallway filled with boys, and bounded up proudly on the bottom landing and smiled right at you. But I was absent on a journey from the beginning of December to March and did not see him once. During the whole of his trying period I did not see him, and when I returned, I entered his room uneasily, expecting him to curse me outright. But he was perfectly natural and very gay, and it was my manner and voice that were ashamed and fearful and morose. Soon we began talking in the old, common way. You talked as though in your absence there had been no absence, and he did not correct you. Perhaps he was grateful. He was perhaps more grateful than I, and it made the day easier. I was perhaps more grateful than he was for this artificial lightness, though perhaps he was really, and I was made more uneasy by it, though of course also comforted.
Excerpted from Ticknor by Sheila Heti. Copyright © 2005 Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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