The Second Coming
By Walker Percy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1980 Walker Percy
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST SIGN that something had gone wrong manifested itself while he was playing golf.
Or rather it was the first time he admitted to himself that something might be wrong.
For some time he had been feeling depressed without knowing why. In fact, he didn't even realize he was depressed. Rather was it the world and life around him which seemed to grow more senseless and farcical with each passing day.
Then two odd incidents occurred on the golf course.
Once he fell down in a bunker. There was no discernible reason for his falling. One moment he was standing in the bunker with his sand-iron appraising the lie of his ball. The next he was lying flat on the ground. Lying there, cheek pressed against the earth, he noticed that things looked different from this unaccustomed position. A strange bird flew past. A cumulus cloud went towering thousands of feet into the air. Ordinarily he would not have given the cloud a second glance. But as he gazed at it from the bunker, it seemed to turn purple and gold at the bottom while the top went boiling up higher and higher like the cloud over Hiroshima. Another time, he sliced out-of-bounds, something he seldom did. As he searched for the ball deep in the woods, another odd thing happened to him. He heard something and the sound reminded him of an event that had happened a long time ago. It was the most important event in his life, yet he had managed until that moment to forget it.
Shortly afterwards, he became even more depressed. People seemed more farcical than ever. More than once he shook his head and, smiling ironically, said to himself: This is not for me.
Then it was that it occurred to him that he might shoot himself.
First, it was only a thought that popped into his head.
Next, it was an idea which he entertained ironically.
Finally, it was a course of action which he took seriously and decided to carry out.
The lives of other people seemed even more farcical than his own. It astonished him that as farcical as most people's lives were, they generally gave no sign of it. Why was it that it was he not they who had decided to shoot himself? How did they manage to deceive themselves and even appear to live normally, work as usual, play golf, tell jokes, argue politics? Was he crazy or was it rather the case that other people went to any length to disguise from themselves the fact that their lives were farcical? He couldn't decide.
What is one to make of such a person?
To begin with: though it was probably the case that he was ill and that it was his illness—depression—which made the world seem farcical, it is impossible to prove the case.
On the one hand, he was depressed.
On the other hand, the world is in fact farcical.
Or at least it is possible to make the case that for some time now life has seemed to become more senseless, even demented, with each passing year.
True, most people he knew seemed reasonably sane and happy. They played golf, kept busy, drank, talked, laughed, went to church, appeared to enjoy themselves, and in general were both successful and generous. Their talk made a sort of sense. They cracked jokes.
On the other hand, perhaps it is possible, especially in strange times such as these, for an entire people, or at least a majority, to deceive themselves into believing that things are going well when in fact they are not, when things are in fact farcical. Most Romans worked and played as usual while Rome fell about their ears.
But surely it is fair to say that when a man becomes depressed, falls down in a sand trap, and decides to shoot himself, something has gone wrong with the man, not the world.
If one person is depressed for every ninety-nine who are not or who say they are not, who is to say that the depressed person is right and the ninety-nine wrong, that they are deceiving themselves? Even if this were true, what good would it do to undeceive the ninety-nine who have diverted themselves with a busy round of work and play and so imagine themselves happy?
The argument is abstract and useless.
On the other hand, it is an undeniable fact that more people than ever are depressed nowadays. At last count, the symptom of depression outnumbered all other symptoms put together. What if the proportion of undepressed to depressed people changes from ninety-nine to one to fifty-fifty? Perhaps the argument will become less abstract.
At any rate and regardless of who was or who was not demented, something odd did happen to him on the golf course.
It happened in fact on the day after he had received the local Rotary's man- of-the-year award for service to the community.
He and his partner, Dr. Vance Battle, were one down and two to go in the foursome. Number seventeen was a par-five medium-long dogleg with a good view of Sourwood Mountain, curving past a pond and a low ridge of red maples which in the brilliant sunlight looked like a tongue of fire searing the cool green fairway. It was not a difficult hole. Par golf required only that you hit two fair woods to clear the point of the ridge for an easy straightaway pitch to the green. His drive was well hit and went high in a strong following wind. It carried a good three hundred yards. His partner gave him a wink. The other players looked at each other. Though the ridge and the pond lay between him and the green, he decided to go for the flag. The instant he hit the ball with a three-wood, he knew it was all right. It drew slightly, enough to give the distance and to grab and hold the sloping green. Without seeing the ball, he knew he had a putt for an eagle.
His partner, Dr. Vance Battle, who sat in the cart on the outside of the dogleg waiting for his third shot, was watching. Vance looked at the green, looked back at him, held his hands apart as if he were measuring a fish, cocked his head, winked again and, though it could not be heard, gave his cluck tchk.
He looked down at the glossy brown club head. We used to call this club a spoon, he thought, not a three-wood. What do you think? he once asked an ancient black caddy at Sea Island. That's a spoon shot, the caddy said with a certain emphasis and a rising cadence and handed him the club with the complex but clear sense of what a spoon could do.
Now you choose a numbered club from the back of an electric cart.
It was at that moment that he paused for several seconds, wood still held in both hands, fingers overlapped, and seemed to listen for something. He gazed up at the round one-eyed mountain, which seemed to gaze back with an ironical expression.
Certain "quasi-sensory" symptoms, as one doctor explained later, began to manifest themselves. There was a slight not unpleasant twisting sensation in his head. A pied weed at the edge of the rough gave off a faint but acrid smell which rose in his nostrils. The bright October sunlight went dark as an eclipse. The scene before his eyes seemed to change. It was not really a hallucination, he learned from another doctor, but an "association response" such as might be provoked by a lesion in the frontal lobe of the brain, the seat of memory.
The doctors did not agree on the nature of his illness or even if he had an illness.
Instead of the immaculate emerald fairway curving between the scarlet and gold hillsides of the Appalachians, he seemed to see something else. It was a scene from his youth, so insignificant a recollection that he had no reason to remember it then, let alone now thirty years later. Yet he seemed to see every detail as clearly as if the scene lay before him. Again the explanation of the neurologist was altogether reasonable. The brain registers and records every sensation, sight and sound and smell, it has ever received. If the neurones where such information is stored happen to be stimulated, jostled, pressed upon, any memory can be recaptured.
Nothing is really forgotten.
The smell of chalk dust on the first day of school, the feel of hot corduroy on your legs, the shape of the scab on the back of your hand, is still there if you have the means of getting at it.
Instead of the brilliant autumn-postcard Carolina mountains, he seemed to see a weedy stretch of railroad right-of-way, but no more than a wedge-shaped salient of weeds angling off between the railroad tracks and the back yards of Negro cabins. It was shaped like a bent triangle, the bend formed by the curve of tracks. Perhaps it was owned by the railroad or perhaps the utility company, because in one corner there was a small fenced and locked enclosure which contained an even smaller metal hut. Or perhaps it was owned by the city, because at the end of this narrow vista of weeds rose the town water tower. Or perhaps it belonged to no one, not even the Negroes, a parcel of leftover land which the surveyors had not noticed on their maps.
Only once in his life had he ever set foot on this nondescript sector of earth. It was shortly after he had seen Ethel Rosenblum. As he took the shortcut home after school, walking the railroad tracks which ran behind the football field, he saw Ethel Rosenblum practicing her cheerleading. She was in uniform, brief blue skirt flared to show gold panties. She was short, her hair was kinky, her face a bit pocked. But as if to make up for these defects, nature had endowed her with such beauty and grace of body, a dark salinity of skin, a sweet firm curve and compaction of limb as not easily to be believed. She was smart in algebra and history and English. They competed for four years. She won. She was valedictorian and he salutatorian. She could factor out equations after the whole class was stumped, stand at the blackboard, hip hiked out, one fist perched cheerleaderwise on her pelvis, the other small quick hand squinched on the chalk, and cancel out great a2-b2 complexes zip zip slash, coming out at the end: a/a= 1. 1 = 1! Unity!
No matter how ungainly the equation, ugly and unbalanced, clotted with complexes, radicals, fractions, zip zip under Ethel Rosenblum's quick sure hand and they factored out and canceled and came down to unity, symmetry, beauty.
Would not life itself prove so?
No, as it turned out.
They knew each other, had sat in the same class for four years. Not twenty words had passed between them.
Once in his life had he set foot on this unnamed unclaimed untenanted patch of weeds and that was when he saw Ethel Rosenblum and wanted her so bad he fell down. So keen was his sorrow at not having his arms around her, his fingers knotted in her kinked chalk-dusted hair, that he flung himself down in a litter of algebra books, ring binders, Literature and Life, down into the Johnson grass and goldenrod, onto the earth smelling of creosote and rabbit tobacco.
Ah, that was the smell of the pied weed on the golf course, the acrid smell of rabbit tobacco!
Ethel, why is the world so designed that our very smartness and closeness keep us apart? Is it an unspoken pact? Is it an accursed shyness? Ethel, let's me and you homestead this leftover land here and now, this non-place, this surveyor's interstice. Here's the place for us, the only place not Jew or Gentile, not black or white, not public or private.
Later a doctor raised the possibility of a small hemorrhage or arterial spasm near the brain's limbic system, seat of all desire, a location which would account for the sexual component of his disorder.
"What sexual component?" he asked. "Doc, that was Ethel Rosenblum and I was fifteen."
"Yeah, but you're talking about her now."
Now in the middle of this pretty Carolina fairway in the sweet high mountain air, as the sky darkened and the acrid smell of rabbit tobacco rose in his nostrils, he fell down again, but only for an instant. Or perhaps he only stumbled, for the next thing he knew, the electric cart hummed up behind him and there was Vance.
No, he did fall down, because he seemed to see and smell the multicolored granules of chemical fertilizer scattered in the bent Bermuda.
I wonder, he said to himself nose down in the bent Bermuda, what would my life have been like if I had had four years of Ethel Rosenblum instead of four years of a dream of Ethel Rosenblum—and the twenty words between us:
"How you doing, Ethel?"
"I'm doing fine, Will. How are you?"
"Fine. Did you have a good summer?"
"Fine. I didn't do a thing. Well—"
"Well, I'll see you, Ethel."
"Yeah, I'll see you, Will."
Ethel, give me your hand. I know a place.
On the other hand, how could his life have turned out better if things had fallen out otherwise between him and Ethel Rosenblum, for had he not succeeded in his life in every way one can imagine? The only sign of something wrong was that he was thinking about a girl (and a place) whom he had known in high school thirty years ago.
What if he and Ethel had followed their inclinations, assuming she was of like mind (and she might have been! On commencement day after she had given her valedictory and he his salutatory, he had taken her small hand in his and told her goodbye.
She had held his hand for a second and shaken her head and said in a fond sorrowful exasperation: "Oh, Will—!"), and fallen down together in the Johnson grass or wherever, whenever—what then? Would he have been better off? Would he have become more like the young people and not so young he saw in town who lay about at their ease, good-humored and content as cats but also somewhat slack-jawed and bemused, who looked as if they could be doing the same thing ten years from now and not discontented then either—would he have been better off? Who knows?
At least he probably would not be falling down on golf courses and recalling odd bits and pieces of the past.
Lately he remembered everything. His symptom, if it was a symptom, was the opposite of amnesia, a condition as far as I known unnamed by medical science.
Everything reminded him of something else.
A whiff of rabbit tobacco in North Carolina reminded him of Ethel Rosenblum and a patch of weeds in Mississippi.
An odd-shaped cloud in the blue Carolina sky reminded him of a missing tile in the Columbus Circle subway station, which marked the spot where he often stood to catch the Eighth Avenue Express to Macy's. The tile had been broken out except for a strip at the top, which left a grayish concrete area shaped like Utah.
Yes, he must have fallen down in the fairway, for now Vance had him by the arm in some kind of expert doctor's double grip which holds you erect without seeming to.
"That was quite a shot."
"Did you see the ball?"
"It's a gimme. I been meaning to talk to you."
"Not here. Come see me at my office."
"I think something is wrong with you."
"People don't fall down in the middle of the fairway."
"I was thinking of something."
"You thought of something and fell down."
"You been acting a little off your feed. You worried about anything?"
"Did those sleeping pills I gave you help?"
"Yes. No, I didn't take them."
"You haven't been with us for some time."
"Us. Your family, your friends."
"You don't say anything. And what you say is strange."
"You asked me if I remembered a movie actor named Ross Alexander. I said no. You let it go at that. Then you asked me if Groucho Marx was dead. Then you asked me if the tendency to suicide is inherited. Do you remember?"
"Yes. You didn't answer."
"I didn't know. Are you feeling depressed?"
"What were you thinking about a minute ago after you hit that three-wood?"
"I was thinking about a girl I once knew."
"Then I'll stop worrying about you."
"Let's putt out."
"No, wait." And again he went into one of his spells, a "petty-mall trance" his doctor friend called them. They were sitting in the cart. He sat perfectly still for perhaps five seconds, which was long enough for the doctor to smile uneasily, then frown and lean over the seat to touch him.
"What is it, Will?"
"I just realized a strange thing."
"There are no Jews up here."
"I've been living here for two years and have never seen a Jew. Arabs, but no Jews. When I used to come here in the summer years ago, there used to be Jews here. Isn't that strange?"
"I hadn't thought about it. Hm." Dr. Vance knitted his brow and pretended to think but his eyes never left the other's face. "Interesting! Maybe they've all gone to Washington, ha ha." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Second Coming by Walker Percy. Copyright © 1980 Walker Percy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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