The New York Times
The Truth of the Matterby Robb Forman Dew
From a National Book Award winner comes a masterful novel set in the 1940s about a woman finding a new life for herself and her grown children after her husband's death. See more details below
From a National Book Award winner comes a masterful novel set in the 1940s about a woman finding a new life for herself and her grown children after her husband's death.
The New York Times
- Little, Brown and Company
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The Truth of the Matter
By Robb Forman Dew
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Robb Forman Dew
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAGNES SCOFIELD NEVER FORGOT, not over the course of her whole life, exactly how it felt to take flight. She remembered fleeing through a dark, entangled forest, emerging into a bright meadow, and lifting right off the ground straight up into the air. The memory was so clear to her that whenever it crossed her mind, she felt again that little clutch of initial euphoria and then the unexpected struggle of staying aloft. It had been nothing at all like the sensation she had expected. It was a more muscular, less buoyant experience than people imagined. With each rise and fall through the surprisingly dense atmosphere, there was the heavy drag of gravity.
In the third grade, when she was still Agnes Claytor, she had tried to explain this to her friend Edith, but Edith had only nodded; she was concentrating on the spill of jacks across the floor and how best to pick them up in groups of three. The only other person to whom she had confided her secret knowledge of flight was her husband, Warren Scofield, one summer evening when they were sitting out on the porch after supper. The children, including little Trudy Butler from next door, roamed the grounds of Scofields in the twilight, and although their voices could be heard, their words couldn't be discerned.
Small gray birds flitted and chittered in the rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and spreading yews that intermingled in a thick swath along the porch foundation, where they had been sparsely planted almost fifty years earlier but rarely pruned since then. The three large crows who inhabited the grounds of the Scofield houses and whose territory ranged over much of the acreage of Washburn, Ohio, circled the tall stand of Norway spruce, emitting bitter cries. Once again their hopes were dashed; once again the day had yielded nothing more than bleak disappointment.
Agnes sat quietly, watching them, and thinking that few people realized how grand they were, although she couldn't remember ever seeing a cheerful crow. Perhaps that explained their reputation: neither fierce, like hawks, nor robin-jolly, they failed to elicit human admiration and were loathed as nothing more than a nuisance. But they engaged Agnes's attention as she recognized the relief each bird experienced when finally it alighted at the very top of one of the spruces and settled there with a showy fluttering of wings, much shifting about, and loud crow mutterings as each balanced on its perch.
She told Warren that she remembered just how that felt, to attain certain footing on a branch, or, even more satisfying, she said, was the ease of a long, low glide into the meadow, where balance wasn't essential. She explained how it felt to rise and fall and catch a current of lifting air that allowed you to coast. "People don't imagine it at all the way it really is. It's more like riding a bicycle than, say, floating. Floating in water, I mean." Of course, she told him all this with a wry twist in her voice, tacitly acknowledging that such a thing never could have happened.
"You don't think you really did fly?" Warren said. "Even though you remember it so well after all this time? I think it was real. I think it was probably exactly like you remember it," he said pensively. "You can't know that it didn't happen. It's just other people who make you think it didn't."
"Oh, well ... But, Warren ... I haven't ever even told anyone but Edith -"
"No. What I mean is that if you were the only person in the world, then it would be true that you had once been able to fly."
"How do you mean? Like the tree falling in the forest? Whether it makes a sound if no one hears it?" Agnes asked. "But, anyway, if I was the only person in the world! I doubt if I'd even think about it much. If there was no one to compare myself to ..."
"Well, that's right. That's what I'm saying. Say someone asked you flat out? If you had to swear to tell the truth-nothing but the truth-about whether or not you had ever been able to fly? You see what I mean?" Warren said. "What you know is that you flew. That's your actual experience. You only doubt it because no one else you know would believe it had happened. They'd put it down to a dream. Or an imagined memory. Don't you think so?" He wasn't really asking a question, he was trying to illustrate his point.
"I remember when I was about ten years old, I guess," he went on. "The first time I ever went with my father and Uncle Leo to see the new Corliss engine they'd just installed down at Scofields and Company. Even Uncle George was there. It was the first time we'd been allowed to visit the works. Robert and Lily came along, too. I'd heard my father and my uncles talk about that new engine. There was nothing else like it back then. Not in Ohio. Not anywhere west of the Mississippi. In fact, we manufactured the one at National Cash Register in Dayton," he said.
"But I hadn't ever seen one." He was no longer musing but briskly recounting the incident. "It was amazing to me. It was more astounding than I even had imagined. And the noise it made! All that power and the gleaming new metal. I realized all at once that I wasn't touching the floor. I was moving from one place to another, but I was floating. Well, no. I was taking steps, but not touching.... I was walking on air. Not very far, but I really did walk on air," he said, seeming to be surprised, himself, that it was so.
"You've heard people say they were 'literally walking on air'?" he asked her. "And everyone assumes they mean they were figuratively walking on air? That probably is what they mean most of the time. But there's got to be some reason that saying exists! People say, 'Oh, I was up in the air!' or 'I was over the moon,' or they even say, 'I was simply flying!'" Warren said.
"All those people who say that!" And he paused for a moment, considering it. "You know what? I think they forget that they know the feeling they're describing. Who can tell me that I didn't walk on air? Well, of course, I never said anything about it until just now. I don't know what Robert might have said, but I know Lily would've been annoyed. She wouldn't have believed me for a minute. Especially since she wasn't much interested in seeing that engine. But Uncle Leo was so pleased to show us. She wouldn't have wanted to disappoint her father."
Agnes knew immediately how Lily would have felt. She wouldn't have been annoyed because Warren had claimed to have walked on air; she would have felt left out. Since she had been the only girl of that threesome, she had told Agnes, she had always been on the verge of being ignored or left behind. "It turned me into a wily little tyrant," she had said to Agnes. "If I took charge-directed everything, made all the plans-they could hardly leave me out!"
Lily Scofield Butler was Warren's first cousin twice over: their mothers were sisters who had married the two older Scofield brothers. Lily and Warren had grown up next door to each other, and Robert Butler, who had completed their childhood threesome, had lived at the parsonage, just next to the Scofields compound on the Church Street side. Those three children had been born on exactly the same day: September fifteenth, 1888, and twenty-five years later, in 1913, Lily Scofield and Robert Butler were married. On this first warm evening of 1928, when everyone in Washburn had flung open their windows-when housewives had been able at last to hang their laundry outside in the fresh air instead of stringing it in rows among the pipes of their musty basements-all of the members of the Scofield family were in residence at Scofields, in Washburn, Ohio.
The three houses of the Scofields compound, just north of Monument Square, had been built in the 1880s for Leo, John, and George Scofield, and until the years following World War I, those three houses and their various outbuildings had marked the northern boundary of the town's residential section. Over the years, all three houses had remained occupied by one or another permutation of the Scofield family, changing hands within the family now and then, depending upon the inevitable deaths and births as the family carried on.
By 1928, however, Agnes and Warren Scofield sat out on the porch of the house where Warren had grown up; Lily and Robert Butler were just next door, reading the evening paper in the back study of Leo Scofield's house, and Leo Scofield himself and his brother George sat upstairs keeping company with Leo's wife, Audra, who was ill. None of them gave the fact much thought, but in the distance, each one of them could hear the youngest generation of Scofield children's voices mingling in a lowkeyed, after-supper game of some sort.
"What do you think now, though?" Agnes asked Warren. "Do you still believe it? That you really left the ground? That you did walk on air?" Agnes watched the light withdrawing incrementally and bobbed her foot to make the porch swing sway a little. "Do you remember the sensation? How it felt exactly?"
"Of course I do! I know I made my way across that room absolutely ... untethered. It was as if I could move one way or another by pure intention. Who else can decide that but me? I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. More than remember it, really. I mean, I don't remember it just as something that once happened. It's the sensation of it I recall." Agnes nodded, because she, too, remembered the surprise of making a labored ascent into the air and then achieving the remarkable delight of sailing over the ground.
"I wasn't trying to walk on air," Warren said. "It was something I hadn't ever thought about. There's no question in my mind that it happened. I mean, after all, we all only know ourselves! When you come right down to it, we've really just agreed to believe certain things communally. Religion, for instance. Or good and bad. Who's good or bad. We've all agreed on the story. I suppose there's no other way we could live in a society."
He was quiet for a moment, considering what he had said, which he often did in conversations with her, whereas he rarely sounded less than certain with anyone else. "We've all agreed to live in a sort of ... oh ... a sort of cocoon that's shaped of other people's idea of us. Don't you think so? But maybe before we're really aware of other people ... Before we have any idea that they're entirely separate from ourselves-when we're literally selfish. Well, maybe that's a time in our lives when we can do all sorts of things, since we don't know the rules. And since we haven't started yet to worry about other people's opinions of us. Think of what we might do before we become self-conscious."
Agnes couldn't make out Warren's features anymore as the light faded; she could only see his bright hair and the general shape of him as he sat tilted back in the rocker with his long legs stretched out before him. She was curious. "You think there ever is a time when we're not aware of other people? When we aren't bumping up against what they're like to find out just what we're like ourselves?"
Warren turned toward her, and the light from the kitchen illuminated his almost sheepish smile. "I think that maybe for a little while we're unaware.... Ah, well. No. I guess I don't believe that, exactly. I guess it wouldn't be possible. But I do think that we all have a private nature - not like any other person's. I don't mean just that we're all separate personalities. I mean the thing about us that I suppose some people think of as our soul. The essence of ourselves. Our whole lives are really just an effort to fulfill a sort of quest of that essential self. Don't you think the good things-any bit of apparent altruism, I mean-don't you think that's always suspect? I think everything we do is self-centered. Not on purpose. I just think it's a condition we can't escape," he said, but the note of persuasion had gone out of his voice.
"But it does take a lot of strategy," he said, but without his earlier urgency. "I mean to live to the very end of your life without killing yourself? Just to avoid the fear of dying. It's so tempting when you know you could outfox your own death. You could keep it from sneaking up on you. You could win, you see. Don't you think so?"
"Uhmm. Well, though. That doesn't strike me as much of a victory," Agnes said. She thought that Warren intended to be ironic, that he was teasing, but it made her uncomfortable. "Killing yourself. Why, no. I don't think that's ever a natural human instinct. Or a natural animal instinct. Though I remember Mama saying they had a cat who just decided to die after her father died. I don't suppose that's the same thing, though. It was passive. He wouldn't eat. Wouldn't even drink water. But how else could a cat kill himself? I wonder if it's possible." She paused for a moment to retrace her thoughts; Agnes often seemed to stray from the subject, but it was a logical progression, and by now Warren knew how she had gotten from one thought to another. He didn't interrupt her.
"Killing yourself would be something you'd be bound to think about, I guess," she said, "if you were in terrible pain, or ... oh ... knew that you were going to die in some horrible way. But otherwise ... why in the world would that be an alternative? What makes you say a thing like that?"
Warren was quiet for a little while, and then he turned more solemn. "Oh, I don't know, Agnes. I think it's sort of like what you said about flying. About it not being as easy as just soaring through the air. Living is a lot more tiring than people realize when they begin it."
"Oh," she said, eager to drop the subject, "I don't really think anyone has any expectations at the beginning," Agnes said. "And besides! Tiring compared to what?"
During the following few days, however, Agnes did remember feelings of grief and some variation of defeated resignation or exhaustion that had made her indifferent to her life for hours-even days-at a time. She never forgot her solitary flight; nor did that conversation with Warren ever slip her mind.
For as far back as she could remember, Agnes had managed to slide out from under the turbulence of thoughts that descended upon her as soon as she settled in bed for the night and tried to go to sleep. As a child, she had learned to construct bits of circumstances-not necessarily related to one another-and pile them one upon another until they became a narrative that encompassed her entirely, so that she was led from consciousness directly into a sort of waking dream and then, eventually, into sleep. When she was very young she had delivered herself to the vivid landscape of fairy tales: deep, dark woods, sudden, brilliant pools of water, ominous stone castles, or thatched-roof cottages, every object saturated with its own color to a degree not possible in the real world.
In her early teens, she distracted herself from the accumulated anxiety of the day by concentrating on all the aspects of the ongoing political complexities of her school life. Or she recounted time spent with her friends, in which she was free of worry about the sad domestic life of her household. Her unhappy parents and the fragile peace-like the delicate net of a spider web-that just barely held her family together.
As Agnes got older still, she took her mind off real life by imagining the man she would marry-never anyone she had met thus far-and the exhilaration of being desired by him. Once, she awoke horrified to remember that she had been walking across the field from the Damerons' house on the way home and had spotted Will Dameron's head over the crest of the creek embankment. He had heard her coming and climbed up the bank to meet her, seemingly unaware that he was stark naked. He was telling her something or other, and she stood listening casually as if he were fully dressed. She woke up dreading the moment when he would realize he didn't have on a stitch of clothes.
But after she met Warren Scofield, when he had come out to the house on Coshocton Road to talk over some business with her father, Agnes had begun to anticipate sliding beneath her blankets for the night and imagining all sorts of moments when Warren would reveal to her that there was no one as lovely to him as she was. That he liked her looks despite her unruly hair, her sallow complexion, her short, full figure that made her look coarse, her mother often said. Even though Agnes's waist was small, she had the obvious figure of someone of bad breeding, Catherine Claytor remarked now and then, in despair over everything in her own life but taking aim that moment at her daughter's looks.
But in Agnes's imagination none of that mattered to Warren Scofield. He didn't notice her flaws, and, in fact, he implied that she was beautiful, and that he was deeply in love with her. The tale became far more seductive than any sleep, and she often had dreams from which she awoke mortified, unable for a moment to believe they were confined to her unconscious self. It took several long, anxious minutes before she could convince herself that she was alone in her own room without witnesses to the lazy, sensual pleasure of her dream of Warren. She also found herself peculiarly embarrassed at having dreamed various sexual experiences she wasn't at all sure could actually happen.
Excerpted from The Truth of the Matter by Robb Forman Dew Copyright © 2005 by Robb Forman Dew. Excerpted by permission.
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