Read an Excerpt
Introduction George Weigel
Although my years at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School coincided with the cultural meltdown of the Age of Aquarius, I was happily spared the kind of English-class reading lists with which students (and parents) are now afflicted. It’s virtually impossible to escape any high school today without having been compelled to read Kurt Vonnegut’s vastly overrated Slaughterhouse-Five or Mitch Albom’s treacly Tuesdays with Morrie; worse, it’s entirely possible to spend four years in a Catholic high school without ever having heard of, much less read, the great twentieth-century authors whose fiction reflects the Catholic sacramental imagination: Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to name just the all-stars. There’s some serious cheating going on here.
Things were rather different in 1967, 1968, and 1969, when my English teacher was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as my classmates and I thought of him then, but a man whose memory I now revere. Why? Because he threw me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature and told me, in so many words, to start swimming.
Father Bechtel had occasional intellectual quirks. A summer program at the Johns Hopkins University English department got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which, as I recall, led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (who is odd enough in his own right). But even that crotchet of Father Bechtel’s was to my ultimate benefit, for the memory of it caused me to laugh out loud years later at Frederick Crews’s send-up of the Freudians in his masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex. In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist. He knew, as a matter of self-evident truth, that there was an Anglo-American literary canon. He believed that educated people should have read it, or should at least have read seriously in it. And he somehow planted in me the seed of the conviction that knowing and learning to appreciate the canon is part of becoming the trustee of a civilization. These days, kids may read two or three novels over the summer and another one or two during the school year. Under Father Bechtel’s tutelage (as I remember it now) or reign of terror (as I thought of it then), we read five or six novels during the summer and at least another half-dozen during the school year, not to mention plays, poetry, and short stories.
Please don’t get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud, though. He had us read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into Jane Austen, the Brontës, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. All of which leads to the thought, hardly original, that everyone really ought to do high school English twice: the second time, when we’re old enough to appreciate it.
Paul Horgan, whom almost no one remembers today, was one of the modern American writers to whom Father Bechtel introduced me. It was an introduction for which I’ve been grateful for the past forty years, for, in his day, Horgan was the embodiment of that seemingly now-extinct species, the “man of letters.” He won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in history for his epic study of four cultures in the American Southwest, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Twenty-one years later, in 1976, he won the Pulitzer again, this time for Lamy of Santa Fe, a magisterial biography of the émigré French prelate and pioneer who was Willa Cather’s model in Death Comes for the Archbishop. (In preparing his Lamy biography, Horgan was allowed unprecedented access to the Secret Archives of the Vatican, thanks to a personal intervention by Pope John XXIII; the tale is nicely told in Tracings, a 1993 collection of some of Horgan’s more memorable occasional pieces.) Horgan wrote sparkling, insightful essays and autobiographical reminiscences of events and people, including such literary giants as Somerset Maugham, T. S. Eliot, and Edmund Wilson; the devastatingly acerbic but nonetheless charming Washington hostess, Alice Roosevelt Longworth; and his friend Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer. All in all, he published fifteen novels, seven books of short stories, eighteen volumes of essays, a volume of clerihews, a book of watercolors and drawings, and the libretto for a folk opera.
Born in Buffalo in 1903, he moved with his Irish-German family in 1915 to New Mexico, where the climate was thought to be better for his father’s health. He was a cadet at the New Mexico Military Institute from 1919 to 1921, and then from 1922 to 1923. There, he met his lifelong friend, the prominent Southwestern artist Peter Hurd; and there he would work as librarian until joining the U.S. Army in World War II. The New Mexico years stuck with Paul Horgan in various senses of the term. Thus, insofar as Horgan figures in American literary studies today, it is as a “regional” writer: a literary craftsman who drew his materials from the Southwest and whose writing reflects a certain regional cast of mind. The first part of which is, at least in part, true enough, for many of Horgan’s short stories and several of his novels are set in west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and both his histories and his fiction reflect a fascination with the interaction of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American cultures in that unique, and uniquely beautiful, corner of the United States. Thus the first Horgan novel Father Bechtel had us read was set in Arizona at the end of the U.S. cavalry’s struggle to pacify the territory; A Distant Trumpet is a just and fair portrait of the virtues and vices of Apaches, cavalrymen, and settlers, and a moving study of the meaning of manliness and leadership (it’s been one of my standard confirmation/bar mitzvah gifts for years).
On the other hand, Paul Horgan’s literary sensibility and the distinctive cast of mind that shapes his work can’t be captured in regional terms alone. By his own testimony, he was a product of the culture to which his family of writers, artists, and musicians had first introduced him in the Northeast before their move to Albuquerque: as he once wrote, “I . . . derived most of my education informally from the cultural expressions best exemplified in the intellectual and artistic life of the East and of Europe, and I have been concerned with people without regard . . . to the ‘typical’ character imposed on either [the] eastern or western environment by other writers and observers.” The interaction of cultures that he experienced in his own life and that he explored in his histories and his novels gave Horgan an insight into the universality of certain human affairs, temptations, and virtues. And, of course, another word for “universal” is “catholic”—as in “Catholic.”
Paul Horgan did not wear his faith on his literary sleeve, so to speak. But it is impossible to read Things As They Are without quickly recognizing the Catholic sensibility that permeates the book. At the most obvious level, Richard (the protagonist whose experiences mirror the young Horgan’s) and his parents are manifestly Catholic in their belief and practice. Structurally, the book resembles Death Comes for the Archbishop, another “collection” of medieval-type vignettes that still holds together as a coherent novel (call those vignettes “miracle stories,” if you’ve a broad understanding of the miraculous). But the Catholicity of Horgan’s creation in this exquisitely crafted book is more than a matter of certain characteristics with which he invests his principal characters, or the literary structure of the work. It’s a matter of a sensibility, an angle of vision, a way of seeing things—of seeing “things as they are,” because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary. Seeing “things as they are” is, in other words, the way to detect the divine at work in the human and the mundane.
Horgan’s literary style is about as far away from Flannery O’Connor’s as can be imagined. Yet much of Horgan’s fiction, and especially Things As They Are, is an expression of O’Connor’s “habit of being”: that spiritual intuition that allows us to see life, not simply as one damn thing after another, but as a dramatic arena of temptation and fortitude, creation and redemption, sinfulness and grace—a cosmic drama being played out here and now, a drama in which God is producer, scriptwriter, director, and, ultimately, protagonist. Like O’Connor (and despite the fact that he grew up in a time of saccharine devotional piety), Paul Horgan knew that there is nothing less sentimental than Catholicism, because Catholicism is realism. And he knew the reason why Catholicism is realism: because it is through the Incarnation, a real event at a real time in a real place, that God’s unsentimental, cleansing, and all-powerful love is decisively revealed—the divine mercy that is, according to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the defining characteristic of God’s interaction with the world. Catholic realism doesn’t deny “things as they are.” Catholic realism doesn’t deny the temptations of what an older generation called “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Catholic realism confronts the world, the flesh, and the devil in the confidence that, as Christ has conquered, so, by the divine mercy and grace, may the people who are Christ’s Body in history.
Those confrontations, as experienced in the life of a sensitive and intelligent boy, set the narrative rhythm of Things As They Are. Childhood, Paul Horgan understands, is anything but carefree; “guilt,” as he puts it, is the “first knowledge,” as remembering is the beginning of the stirrings of conscience. Thus young Richard confronts the classic temptations—of power, of ego, of false pride, of self-delusion, of ambition, of sex, of an overwrought piety that seeks to force God’s hand—not in rollicking adventures like Tom Sawyer’s or Huck Finn’s, but in his utterly unremarkable and ordinary encounters with his parents and relatives, his friends, his pets, his parish and his priests, the tradesmen who come to his home and the families in his neighborhood. There is nothing sentimental or cloying here. There is, on the contrary, an acute, unsparing, yet sympathetic, spiritual excavation of the process of growing up—a process that, as Horgan demonstrates in the two novels that continue the Richard trilogy (Everything to Live For and The Thin Mountain Air), continues long after childhood.
In a letter to a friend, Flannery O’Connor once reflected on her own literary experience and that of the Catholic convert and novelist Carolyn Gordon Tate: “I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse. Mrs. Tate told me that after she became a Catholic, she felt she could use her eyes and accept what she saw for the first time, [that] she didn’t have to make a new universe for each book but could take the one she found.” I’ve no idea whether Paul Horgan knew Carolyn Gordon Tate, but the ten episodes in Things As They Are demonstrate a cradle-Catholic’s complete agreement with a convert-Catholic’s experience: there is no need to “invent a universe” in fiction, for an invented universe typically becomes an author’s sandbox or playpen. The real universe—what we see and hear and feel and taste and experience—is adventure enough. It was adventure enough for the God who created it, redeemed it, and continually sanctifies it; it should be adventure enough for us, because amid the seemingly quotidian there are cosmic contests underway.
Prior to his death in 1995 at age ninety-two (he had left the Southwest in 1959 to teach and write at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut), Paul Horgan was never known as a “Catholic writer,” in the sense that J. F. Powers (Morte D’Urban) was known as a “Catholic writer” or Chaim Potok (The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev) was thought of as a “Jewish writer.” Yet an argument can be made that Paul Horgan was the most accomplished “Catholic man of letters” in mid-twentieth-century America. Not because his fiction and his historical studies dealt over and over again with “Catholic” characters and situations (which they didn’t) but because his remarkably wide-ranging corpus of work is shaped, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, by an unmistakably Catholic sensibility: a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama. Paul Horgan was too gifted a writer to beat you over the head with that message. It was almost always there, though, as this gifted, learned, and deeply humane novelist, essayist, and historian kept reminding his readers that seeing things as they are is the index of human maturity—and thus of Christian maturity.
George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is the author of numerous books, including the international bestseller Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, and, most recently, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God and God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.
Things As They Are
Praise we the just—
Who are not come to judge, but bless Immortal things in their poor mortal dress.
Edith Sitwell, The Outcasts
Hugo said that to grow old was to possess all ages and the essence of each one, particularly that of childhood; that which the child represents to adults, something he himself does not understand or experience: newness, and the sense of existence in the process of both, the idea of a new world about to be born.
Jean Guitton, Journals, 1952–1955
Translated by Frances Forrest
During all this time there were two worlds of which one gradually became conscious: the inside world and the outside world.
Maurice Baring, The Puppet Show of Memory
Using the devices of autobiography in order to invite the reader’s belief, this book, though not a conventional novel, is a work of fiction. Of its ten chapters only one reflects in its central event a direct experience of my own life. The other nine are fabricated after observation, surmise, and memory of other lives, young and old. This means that—even if backgrounds and places suggest the real—more of this book belongs to the imagined life than to the strictly factual; and that these pages are not to be taken as fragments of an autobiography of my early self.
“Richard, Richard,” they said to me in my childhood, “when will you begin to see things as they are?”
But they forgot that children are artists who see and enact through simplicity what their elders have lost through experience. The loss of innocence is a lifelong process—the wages of original sin. Guilt is the first knowledge.
“Richard,” they said, “are you terribly sorry?”
Coming home from the country, I remembered everything, though I did not want to.
My grandfather was interested in a farm about fifty miles from home in upstate New York. He knew the farmer well and used to go out for a week or two in the hot summer weather to stay at the farmhouse. I heard long afterward that he owned a mortgage on the farm. In that particular summer—it must have been in 1908 or 1909—he took me along.
I did not particularly want to go, for my grandfather—my mother’s father—was sometimes formidable when his mood changed. I did not care for anything to be different from one time to another, and I could never be sure when he would be stern or remote, lost in some lofty inner criticism of life—his life in particular, with its circumstances of old age, loneliness since the death of my grandmother, and the loss of his many children to their many worlds. I was a very small boy in that summer—four or five years old—and young enough to be homesick, especially at night, when it was time for me to be put to bed.
They put me in a narrow wooden bed in a small room under the eaves, where the ceiling leaned over me at a sharp angle. The farmer’s wife, Mrs. Klopstock, was a kind woman, all the color of dough, hair and skin, and made as lumpishly. But she declared that she knew all about children through her own, who were now gone away, and she always gave me a few extra moments at night, when the only sounds in the humid dark outside came from crickets and night birds, and the only ones from inside came from the rumbling talk downstairs between my grandfather and Mr. Klopstock.
On the first night I was muted with longing for home and the touch of my mother, and when Mrs. Klopstock tried to have me speak, I could think of nothing to say but that I wanted to go home, which I could not bring myself to say.
On the second night I asked her, “Do you know how to hug?”
Her eyes grew larger with ready tears and she threw herself down to her wide knees by my bed and took me in her arms and hugged me till my ribs ached.
“There!” she said. “Was that a hug?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.”
“Now will you be able to sleep?”
“Good night, Richard.”
“Good night, Mrs. Klopstock.”
She went downstairs. Falling asleep I had a vision of the meadowy world in which I had spent the day and that would await me in the morning.
I was there a giant among grasses that rose to my waist. Long wide slopes lay up behind the white farmhouse and showed waves of white stars and snowflakes bent into shadow by the breezes—daisies, milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, poppies, with here and there goldenrod and wild cosmos in every color. When I slashed my way through this meadow with important strides, the soft stems of the wildflowers gave up a tickling fragrance, and the long grasses stung my bare legs with their wiry whips. I had to watch out for bees, and if I fell down, I had to look along the tiny forest aisles of the plants and grasses at my very eyes to see if a garter snake might be watching me there on the damp brown earth, which smelled like a cellar. Getting up, I went on to a real woods. It stood where the meadow became a low hill that dipped down to meet another hill making a wandering cleft where flowed a steep and narrow little creek.
They told me at the house not to go out of sight, but I did not know whether they could see me at the creek, and I did not think about it. It was the best place to play. I could walk up into the little copse, and though I wished hard for someone to be there to play along the creek with me, I still managed to have a splendid time. I took off my shoes and stockings and walked in the creek bed, knowing how the chill of the water and the sharp stones and the slipperiness would hurt and feel full of chance. The sunlight broke in little darts and coins and pools through the woods. The creek was swift, full of miniature rapids along the small stones yielded to it by the slopes. It took several turns, winding against the cheeks of the low hills, until it came free in the meadow, when it ran deep and open across the farm, and then under the road in front, and then out of sight in distant green country, which I never explored.
When they wanted me at the farmhouse they would ring a heavy dinner bell out on the back stoop, and I would dry off my feet and go to dinner, which they had at midday, or supper, which they had at five o’clock.
On some days my grandfather took me all through the barns and pens to see the cattle, the horses, the pigs, and the chickens. He touched them with his cane and when the cows turned slowly to look at him, he gave his wheezy, low laugh. The rank smells of the animals, as strong as ammonia, and their frank beings, with their wettings and their droppings, their dripping mouths, the heavy hang and sway of their sex or their udders, made me thoughtful and dimly self-aware. Sometimes my grandfather had me walk in the meadow with him, saying nothing much, but pleased to have someone for whom he was responsible. Now and then, “Be careful, my boy,” he would say, pointing to a great flat animal dropping that lay buzzing with jeweled flies in the grass, “don’t step in the cow pie.”
A meadow was for boys. He looked sad to me in the pathless grasses, among bees that set blossoms to nodding on their long stems. He wore a wide-brimmed panama hat, which according to word in my family cost him one hundred dollars, and a gray alpaca suit with cutaway frock, and shiny black leather boots with elastic inserts at the sides. They said I looked like him, but how could I, when I had no white beard and mustache, or tiny, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, or heavy pink cheeks, or such a wide front that extended far out and looked as hard as wood? At that age I valued him chiefly because he was familiar. He served in no way to relieve my lonesomeness in the country. I finally found relief otherwise, but in the end, when it was time for me to be taken home to Dorchester again, I tried to forget how my lonesomeness was lifted for a while and then restored worse than ever. But in spite of myself, I remembered.
We went home on the train. I was allowed to sit next to the window, which was open. The fields we ran through were like the ones we had just left, and I was glad to know what “the country” was, after hearing about it for so long. Engine smoke spangled with hot cinders flew in the train windows, and several times my grandfather had to use the corner of his handkerchief to take a cinder out of my eye, which he did with much suppressed wheezing and with joy at having something to do for someone other than to shout orders when he was furious in his own house, which at best was a lonely pleasure, and which left him with a dyspeptic upset. I was not certain of how to manage it, but I said to myself that I would never be an old man. I did not mean that I would not live a long life—I intended to live forever, but certainly not as an old man.
Glad as I was to leave the country, I wished, the nearer we came to Dorchester, that I was back with Mrs. Klopstock and the creek and the meadow, even in spite of what happened there. What if my mother and my father should see in my face the secret I must never tell?
I went silent in the train and my grandfather said, in his grand German accent (he was born in Bavaria), “Richard? You do not feel well?”
“Come. We must have smiles for Mother.”
“Will she be at the station?”
“No. We will go in a cab to your house. Then I will go to my house.”
A weight of love and guilt lay about my heart at the prospect of seeing my mother again.
Over an exciting triangular system of switches and tracks the train backed into the station at Dorchester so it would be headed right for its return trip. The station was built of brick long begrimed with engine smoke. It had high round vaults overhead in the waiting room, which gave me the feeling I had in church—lost and small in familiar surroundings.
We went rapidly through the station to the cab rank where my grandfather summoned a cab with an imperious lift of his gold-headed cane. The cab horse was a bony creature who seemed to be asleep. The driver had to cluck him up several times before he moved. My grandfather put me into the dark blue padded interior, which smelled of wet straw, and then stepped in himself, making the lightly sprung brougham tip under his weight. Pushing back against the cushions I tried to have the cab go more slowly; but now that he was stirring, the old horse went off at a bright trot, while we rocked and jogged gallantly along over cobblestones and streetcar tracks, and came at last to our street, where my mother would be waiting for me.
Under elms meeting overhead, it was a shady street. The houses were set back fairly deep. Our house had a wooden-railed porch with a round bay at one end, tracing the shape of a round alcove in our living room. A little shingled turret rose above this at the top of the house three stories up. It was all of wood, painted brown, with white trim work. With all my heart I wished we had lightning rods; I would pray at night that before lightning could strike us and burn us to the ground, as a house up the street had burned recently after midnight amidst shouts and gongs and falls of fire and spark, God would send us lightning rods. Watching the fire, and listening to it, and recalling the lightning, my heart beat until it hurt.
It did this now as we drew up at our house, yet I knew I must show nothing of the trouble that inhabited me as if my very body were designed to be its shape.
My grandfather stepped to our cement carriage block and then with comic ceremony turned and held the door for me. I hopped forth and immediately saw that loved and dreaded face in the window of the round sitting room upstairs, at the turret end of the house. My mother was holding the curtains aside, smiling and waving; and then the curtains fell together and I knew she was hurrying down to meet me.
On any other return I would have run to her as fast as my legs would carry me, like a very small boy in a story, but now I made a great affair of lingering to watch my grandfather pay the cab driver, who lifted his scuffed and dented top hat as he received his tip and then drove off above the humping old bones of his horse. There was nothing more to detain me. We went up to the porch. The front door opened and I was in my mother’s embrace.
“Oh, Richard, Richard, my darling, how good to have you home again. How we have missed you. Every day I unrolled your napkin and then rolled it up again and put it back in its ring. Let me look at you.”
It was the moment I sorrowed for.
Holding me away she looked dearly into my eyes and touched a cinder smudge on my cheek and then pulled me close again and said, “Did you miss us? The country agreed with you, darling, you look so sunburned and well fed and sweet.”
I buried my face in her breast and my heart went whirring on. How astounding that I could look just as usual, with nothing to notice in my appearance of what lay buried in my soul.
“Was he a good boy?” asked my mother of her father and he replied, “He was a very good boy, ate everything on his plate, said his prayers every night, so Mrs. Klopstock told me, and played alone all day, quite happily. If we did not hold long philosophical conversations the fault must be more with me than with him.”
“Oh, Papa,” she said, “you mustn’t tease him in front of me. Come. I will ask Anna to bring us some tea.”
She held her arm about my shoulder and took us to the round bay in the living room and disposed us for tea and cakes, which our lifelong friend and servant brought. When Anna came in, lumbering heavily with the tray, I thought perhaps I could run away with her to the kitchen and escape my trouble; but she gave me a little nod of mock elegance, set the tray down, and retreated with an air that indicated that she knew when to leave the family alone to themselves. The effect was a reproach to me, as though Anna, with her pale, deep-set eyes in her wide, gray face, could see through me and must hold herself above what she saw.
“Now tell me what you did in the country,” commanded my mother playfully, and I was face to face with my dreadful test. In my fear of revelation, I thought she must already know what I would never tell and was asking me to do so explicitly. But her smile was so lovely, her love so calm, that in another breath I knew she knew nothing, and my guilt turned to guile, and I made a cheeky face, quite as though I were acting the role of a small boy, which small boys deliberately do at times, in order to discover what they themselves are really like, and I said, “Why, Mother, you never saw such a wonderful place. We had a creek out in the meadow, and I played there all day long. I made some tiny boats with little sticks and leaves and things—you know how—and I had them do all kinds of things.”
“Did you swim?”
“Oh, no, it wasn’t deep enough for a boy to swim.”
“Oh? How deep was it?”—idle inquiry, dangerously close to my hidden subject.
“Oh, about so”—holding my hands apart to show. “But I went wading all the time.”
“I went too, you know,” announced my grandfather.
I stared at him. When?
“Yes,” he said, “one afternoon while you were having your nap, I took off my shoes and stockings and went wading.”
“Why, Papa!” exclaimed my mother.
What was it? There seemed a curious shame in the fact that my old grandfather should have bared his feet and rolled up his gray alpaca city trousers and gone wading like a child. A part of him was naked that otherwise was always clothed—this was shocking in one I knew so well.
“Yes,” he added, “it cooled me off.”
“Did you have anyone to play with?” asked my mother, brushing my hair lightly down across my brow with her exquisite hand, which was so clever at so many charming skills.
“No,” I said.
“Ah, but yes,” said my grandfather. “He had a cat.”
“A cat? Darling, did you have a cat?”
“A kitty,” I said, nodding brightly over a sense of doom.
“How sweet. What color?”
“Black and white.”
“How sweet. Did it have little white boots?”
“Yes.” I felt hollow with apprehension. How did my mother know so well that particular cat?
“Where did you find it?”
“It came to the farm one day. Mrs. Klopstock gave it some milk on the back stoop. She said I could have it if I would take care of it.”
“And did you?”
It was a frightful question to answer. I said, “I fed it.”
“Did it sleep on your bed?”
My mother, through half-closed eyes, and with her head a little on one side, studied how I looked with my hair brushed forward over my brow, and changed her mind. She brushed it back off my forehead and said, “I love to see your whole forehead. Like your Daddy’s. So wide. Those little shadows you can hardly see. So young.”
“It did sometimes,” I replied.
“Ach, Papa,” she cried, turning to her father, “do you remember the times we used to have at home with cats? Oh! how furious you used to be when”—speaking of her sisters and brothers—“we would smuggle a new kitten upstairs and keep it for days without letting anyone know. And then the time the Right Reverend Bishop came to dinner, and the cat got away and ran downstairs, and Fritz chased him, trying to catch him, and chased him right through the living room before dinner, and almost knocked the bishop over without even seeing him! Oh! What a licking he got for that! But Mama told us afterward the bishop laughed so hard she thought he was going to choke to death.—What was your kitty’s name?” she asked, turning to me again.
“I just called him Kitty.”
“What a perfect name for a cat. Tell me, what did you do with him when you left?”
My grandfather spared me an answer.
“The cat disappeared one day,” he said.
“Simply vanished. Richard went calling, ‘Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,’ and Mrs. Klopstock put out some chicken wings for it, and we looked everywhere, a cat just doesn’t disappear like that on a farm with only one house for a mile or two, but no, there was no answer, and we never saw it again. Richard was miserable.”
“Of course, darling,” said my mother. “It is awful to lose a pet.” She looked at me. “But no, my darling, it is over, and you must not cry for it anymore. Here. Have another little cake. Chocolate, that one, with the little silver pill on top.”
For there were tears in my eyes, and she thought she knew why. I took the cake and ate it with my jaws moving ruefully, while fear and guilt tasted of chocolate crumbs and crushed silver sugar, and I wished I were alone.
“Well,” said my grandfather, standing up, “I think I must be going along now.”
“Did you send your cab away?”
“Yes. I will take the streetcar.”
“But you will have far to walk to get it, and then when you get off.”
“Very well, I will have far to walk,” he said testily, rejecting her concern for his age, weight, and dignity. But she was no longer his child, she belonged to my father, who would soon be home from his office, and with a little lift of her head, she let my grandfather know that his days of tyranny over her were no more. It was my mother’s gift that she could show independence and love to the same person. My grandfather now gave a heavy sigh at the betrayals that any man knew if he lived long enough, and went heavily to the door, and took his way home.
“Oh, Richard, how glad Daddy will be to see you. We have missed you frantically. Come here.”
She hugged me and gave me a kiss. Something in my rigid body was so unfamiliar that she set me off to look at me and asked, “What a strange boy you are. Aren’t you glad to be home again?”
“Oh, yes, yes.”
“Do you feel all right?”
“Is something wrong?”
“Did anything happen in the country that upset you? Weren’t they kind to you, those Klopstocks, I never could see what Grosspa saw in them, they are so common, he is quite fond of them, they weren’t mean to you?”
With a little tremor of exasperation that threaded through her whole body, she suddenly grew formal with me.
“Well, perhaps after you’ve been home a little while you may find that you like it after all.”
I wanted to throw myself into her arms in a passion of longing to be forgiven for everything in the world, but this would have led to loving questions, and then to revelations. She took up the tea tray, instead of ringing for Anna, and went to the pantry. I went upstairs to the nursery, which was what they still called my room, and wondered what I could do until my father got home and what would happen about everything then.
Leafing through some of my favorite books, I read little, for my senses were all attuned to the latening of the day. The later the hour, the sooner would my father return. Daylight began to show gradual but ominous change out in the treetops above the street. Autumn was pressing against the trees. Twilight fell below them sooner than it did above. I was sorry that night was not already here, with all in darkness, and myself in bed, asleep, safe from the calm and loving gaze of my father.
His eyes were blue, like all of ours in the family, and they were as clear as water, and his open, wide brow showed the frontal bone of his skull without wrinkles to hide it. His forehead seemed like the abode of honor. How could I face it? His smile was complete, using all his features and even changing the sound of his voice when he spoke. He had several voices—one for my mother, which often made her catch her breath a trifle and expel it in a little gust of pleasure, as if to say, “What am I going to do—I love him so.” Another voice was for the world, a half-mocking but friendly sound. And one was for me, which sounded confidential, a little husky, as if to put secrets between us even in the presence of other people. He had a trick of grinding his jaws together gently and sticking out his chin when he talked to me or when he worked with me on some project, and now and then he adopted some of my early mispronunciations to give our exchanges a more intimate feeling—insteresting for interesting, vomick for vomit, sippise for surprise. When he uttered my variations, they seemed to mean far more than the originals. It was a private language and it bound us together. When he came home every night and I heard the welcome signal of the heavy front door closing after him, I always went flying down the stairs into his hug. We made a great commotion, which moved my mother to pretended crossness—“Oh, you two!” she would exclaim—but she usually joined our embrace, after which she took his hat and coat and put them neatly in the hall closet, and with him home again, I fell into the richest contentment, for all was in order, and my evening was the happiest time of the day, even if all too soon I had to go to bed and leave the components of my joy for another long night.
The sky was turning yellow as the sun declined, and on that evening I listened without joy for the front door to rumble shut after my father. Hearing it at last, I pretended that I had not. I stayed in my room, resembling a boy lost in a book. It was so that he found me when, with my mother right after him, he came into the nursery bearing a large package. Ordinarily my expert guess what a present might be, judging by its size, shape, and wrapping, would have combined with my greed to hurl me upon it.
But now I looked up, as if startled, and when he called out in his “my” voice, “Hello, Doc!” I merely replied, “Hello, Daddy.”
My mother gave him a glance as if to say, You see how he is acting, I told you. He shook his head slightly to put her off, set the package on the floor, and came to me and took me in his arms. He chinned my cheek once or twice with a rough rub and said, with happy excitement, “Guess what.”
“I’m glad to see you.”
I longed to say the same to him, and I tried, but could not. He set me down and indicating the package said, “See that?”
“It’s a sippise.”
Being funny, he looked around and said, “I don’t see anybody else here. Yes. It’s for you, Richard. Don’t you want to see what it is?”
My mother said in a cold, unfamiliar voice, “He may not touch it until he thanks his Daddy for thinking of him and bringing it to him.”
“Let Richard open it first,” said my father, “then he can thank me. That is, if he likes it. . . .” and he grinned with perfect confidence that I would be overcome with happiness at what he had brought.
I knelt down by the package and tore at the wrappings so wastefully that my mother exclaimed at the loss of so much good parcel paper. There on my floor I exposed a toy fire engine—the kind they used to call a steamer—with three horses in harness, and all its nickel brightly polished, and all its red paint glaring in splendor. A toy fireman made of cast iron sat on the box and drove the forever plunging horses, and another stood behind the boiler on the rear step of the steamer. Both wore firemen’s hats with white front plates bearing the legend “Engine Company Number 9” and both wore firemen’s water coats. I was appalled at the sacrifice I faced—for of course in my unworthiness I could not receive the present. I said nothing.
“How about it, Doc?” said my father, coming down to the floor next to me. “It’s your homecoming present. Do you like it?”
The love and the trust of my father and mother were all mixed up with the glorious toy they had brought to welcome me home, and I did not deserve them or their fire engine. I broke into a sob and hid my face in my arm.
“Why, Doc!” exclaimed my father. My mother had another response. She leaned down to feel my forehead to discover if I had a temperature.
“Come on, Doc, what’s the matter?”—and my father took me up and put his knuckle under my chin to raise my face and make me look at him.
I shook my head.
“I’ll call Doctor Grauer,” said my mother.
“No,” said my father. “He’s not sick. It’s something else.—Come on, Doc. Come on up here and tell me about it.”
He went to a chair and took me with him and hauled me onto his knees. His gentleness anguished me. I was eaten within by my first knowledge of evil and I longed to confess it. Like all men, I was the victim of original sin, whose forms in daily life are as many as there are beings. The fact that the evil I mourned was my own was the most dreadful part of my trouble.
“Poor old Doc. It’s all right. It’s all right.”
“Something happened in the country,” said my mother. “I told you.”
“Let him wait. It’s all right, Doc.”
Finding a thread of voice, I said, “It was the kitty.”
“Yes,” said my mother, “he had a kitten at the farm. Grosspa told me.”
“What about the kitty, Richard?” asked my father. “Is there something about the kitty you are worried about?”
“I hurt it,” I said.
“You did? How?”
“I put it in the creek.”
“You mean you drowned it?”
“The water went by some stones and there was a deep little place and I grabbed the kitty and threw him in the rough part of the water. He tried to get out.”
“What did you do then?”
“I grabbed him again.”
“Didn’t you feel it try to get away?”
“Did it scratch you?”
I pulled up my sleeve and showed the long scaly tracks of the claws.
“Oh, Richard,” murmured my mother, “it didn’t want to be hurt!”
“I know it. I know it. I hurt it.”
I could remember the hot thin supple body of the kitten under its wet fur, and the pitifully small tube of its neck, and the large clever space between its ears at the back, where all its thoughts seemed to come from, and the perfectly blank look on its wide-eyed face as it strove to escape me and the hurt I was possessed of, the hurt I must do the little animal who had been my cunning companion for days, and whom I loved. Even as I clutched it with strength I did not know I had in my fingers and forearms, I felt sorry for the kitten. My belly was knotted with excitement, sorrow, and zest. The fever of a game arose in me and as the kitten fought me I was determined to win my victory over it. I fell down beside the creek and threw myself half into it, holding the kitten in my arms with the embrace of dear love, and the smaller and feebler it began to feel in my grasp, the more I loved it, and sorrowed for it, and the more expertly I pressed its doom. The current rushed down to us from between the rocks, making a roar next to my ear, but even so I could hear the kitten’s tiny gasps mixed with water.
My father looked at me for a long quiet moment. His wide brow was lumpy with an inquiring frown, as though he were trying to look past me to the creek where I had become a criminal. Finally he said softly, “What else, Doc? What finally happened?”
“I don’t know. I let the kitty go and the water took him away to the deep part.”
“Did he climb out and run away?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
Without using the word, he was trying to discover if the kitten was dead.
“It didn’t come back to the farmhouse?”
“What did you do afterward?”
“I played in the meadow till my shirt was dry. Then they rang the dinner bell and I went back to the house.”
“How did you feel?”
I burst into tears again.
My mother felt the contagion of my remorse and also began to cry.
“To think that my boy Richard—” she said, but my father said her name once, strongly and mildly, and she halted her expression of adopted shame. He then shook me by the shoulders, and said, “Doc, what you did was horribly wrong. Do you know that?”
“And are you terribly sorry for doing it?”
“Then you must ask God to forgive you and help you to be kind all the rest of your life to poor little things whom you can hurt if you want to. Do you understand?”
“Now stop your blubbering and think of this. Perhaps the kitty got away. How many lives has a cat?”—this playfully said, to restore a livable world.
“Well, you had a young kitty, and he probably had eight to go. He’s probably hiding right now in the meadow, wondering if you are coming back to play with him.”
“Do you think so?”
“It could be.”
“But I’m not there.”
“But if you were, would you be good to the kitty?”
“Oh, yes, yes, I would.”
“I think you would. Oh, my little boy,” he said solemnly, talking past my ear, as though counting the sum of his own life, “I hope you can be good even when it is hard to be, the rest of your life.—Now do you feel better?” he asked, setting me off. He searched my eyes to see if there was anything more I must expel before I could be his son again, but finding nothing, he energetically went down to the floor and the fire engine, and hauled me down beside him, and cried, “But you have not seen what goes on in here!” indicating the shiny toy boiler of the steamer of Engine Company Number 9. I knelt down beside him and watched him create a marvel.
He took a little brown paper envelope, tore open its corner, and poured a half spoonful of some brown powder into the fire door of the steamer, and then struck a match and lighted the powder. At once, white and black smoke began to pour out of the chimney of the boiler. And then he drew the horses ahead on the rug, and as he did so, a toy gong hidden under the carriage rang out with every revolution of the high red rear wheels, and he called out in an assumed voice full of urgency and magic, “Look out, look out, here comes Engine Company Number 9, where’s the fire, where’s the fire!”
And in my imagination I rode the rear step of the steamer, and I became the master of fire, even fire that may once have frightened me, and we played intently until it was time for my supper. This, as a concession, I was allowed to have downstairs while my parents sat with me and watched my meal. The fire engine was on the floor beside me at the table.
“He must promise,” said my mother, “never to light the powder when he is alone.”
“Yes. Do you promise?” asked my father.
It was an evening of promises. The final ones were made to God in my night prayers. I promised not to sin again, and I meant it, but the burden of self-knowledge was upon me now, and as I fell asleep, I felt again the kitten’s tiny, striving will to live, and I knew yet another hidden thrill at the memory of the struggle by the creek, and since all I knew about anything was only what had happened to me in my life so far, I wondered and wondered over the sinner’s eternal question about his resolve to be good, which was—how could I be sure?