His father would say, “You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn’t even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you. Keeping a promise or breaking it, telling the truth or lying—these things matter to those around you. So there is good you can do and can always do again. You do not have to believe you are good in order to act well in any specific case. You never lose that option.”
He said this from the pulpit, but he was saying it to Jack, who, to distract him from the parsing of some recent mischief, had almost confided to his father that he had certain doubts about his soul. This near-confession was probably meant to stir his father to the kind of gentle exasperation that meant he’d be brooding about Jack for a week and preaching to him on Sunday—it was another boyish prank, really, even though what he had told his father was true enough. The whole congregation would have understood when his father said that good manners were an excellent beginning, a kind of discipline that could lead to actual virtue, given time. Jack could be terribly polite. Everyone in that sanctuary who was old enough to be capable of the slightest cynicism would be thinking, Butter would not melt in that boy’s mouth! He was great at setting teeth on edge. They also understood that a minister had to find hope where he could, like anybody else. Jack would sometimes stand beside his father, grinning, shaking hands as the flock filed out, much more than charming, and his father’s irritation and embarrassment would register as a tremor in the arm he put around him.
From all his father’s careful instruction this sermon on good manners was the one teaching that Jack had taken away. Then a young Black lady in a lavender coat dropped an armful of papers on the pavement in a rainstorm and he crossed the street to help her gather them up. Dozens of vocabulary tests. “Use each of these words in a sentence: stamen, stealthy, stencil.” The wind sent a few of them scudding off, and he handed her his umbrella and ran a few steps to catch them. There was laughter involved. She said, “Thank you, Reverend,” out of respect for the dark suit he was honest enough to sell once it had dried out, so that he could stop deceiving people in that particular way. He had bought it used for his mother’s funeral, but he knew he would not make it home, and, besides, he scrupled. His reluctance to toy with what were sometimes people’s better impulses had brought that word to mind. There was little enough to be gained from the suit, in any case. There was an unseemliness in asking a fellow for a dime or a smoke while wearing a suit like that one. Being unshaved was no help. Once or twice he heard out a tirade on the corruptions of the clergy by someone who had taken his actual, ordinary life for his secret life—had thought him a preacher on the bad side of town, abject with drink and general dissolution. That suit made a hypocrite of him.
Still, when the lady to whom he had been so courteous said, “Thank you, Reverend,” it was as if she thought she knew him, as if her opinion of him were favorable beyond the fact of his having lent her an umbrella—which he would have to have back, since the gentle candor of her expression made him certain he had to be rid of that suit, which was depreciating by the minute. So he took the umbrella from her hand and walked her to her door, enjoying the gallantry of the gesture, nicely balanced between apparent and real. He had got his umbrella back without quite taking it from her. And when they reached her door she had asked him in. “The rain might be letting up a little,” she said, “if you have time for a cup of tea. . . .” This was definitely bold of her, since he was a white man, though her mistaking him for a minister might seem to make this matter less. He thought one of his sisters—Glory, maybe—would invite a stranger in off the street on the recommendation of a clerical look and a minor kindness, never thinking to ask whether he had, for example, been released from prison lately. In a couple of dozen months he had acquired habits he knew he might never outlive. Even then, taking a chair at a small table by a window, surrounded by the modest good order and general teacherliness of her apartment, he kept searching his memory for a word that rhymed with “scruple.” “Quadruple.” He was calming himself, which meant that he was nervous. Jesus was there among the pictures on the upright piano, the only one in color. “Quintuple” doesn’t rhyme. How can that be? Sweet Jesus, don’t let me say anything strange. So he said, “What brings you to St. Louis?”
“I teach at Sumner.”
She brought tea in an old-fashioned china pot with a chip in its spout. She gave him a cup and saucer that somehow commemorated Memphis. Sunday things, because he was a minister. He couldn’t see what her cup commemorated, but it was small and ornate like his. Like the cups that lined a narrow shelf in the kitchen at home, at once pointedly and futilely out of his reach. Those little handles break off so easily, and they can’t really be glued on again. His sisters had tried and tried. Hope, the musical sister, had hands like hers, slender and somehow lively. He said, “Do you play?”
“Not really. Not very well. Do you?”
“ ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’ ” She laughed. Actually, the only part of prison he missed, besides a predictable lunch, was playing piano for chapel services, which were sometimes funerals. He had worked up barrelhouse versions of some very solemn hymns.
She said, “The piano belongs to the woman I share this place with. Her mother left it to her. She doesn’t really play much, either.”
He said, for some reason, “I often regret . . .” and thought it best not to continue.
She nodded. “My parents had a terrible time getting me to practice. I told them I wanted to be a poet!”
Interesting. “Did you ever stop wanting to be a poet?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t stopped yet. I suppose someday I will. I don’t have much to show for it. My grandmother met Paul Dunbar once. I guess that gave me the idea. I have a book he signed for her. It was her treasure. Now it’s my treasure.”
He said, “That’s very nice,” and he thought, Don’t show it to me. Don’t put it down anywhere near me. That old fellow dozing on a bench with his umbrella hooked over the back of it, and his cane, too, must have been waked up when the rain began and hobbled off somewhere, cursing himself for his own trusting nature. Then came that difficult algebra: Did the exasperation Jack had caused that man cancel out the kindness he had done under the inspiration of a handsome umbrella? A kindness done to this particular lady because he was ready to enjoy the courtesy that was so newly and fortuitously possible for him? She did have a sweet face, a warm laugh. And he hoped he’d have helped her gather up her papers in any case. But the umbrella made a performance of it. As he hurried back to her she lifted it a little to include him under it. Then he held it over her and walked her to her door. She called him Reverend and offered him tea, and he stepped over a threshold into a world where there would, of course, be a hymnal open on the piano, the odds and ends of a grandmother’s china, no doubt a hundred trifling things not at all worth stealing that he could slip into his pocket, given the chance. She said, “I’ll show you that book.” He almost said, “Please don’t.” But in a moment there it was, open on her two hands to the page with the signature. Then she put it down on the table by the sofa and came back to her chair. “I’m always afraid I’ll spill something on it.”
He said, “It pays to be careful.” Then he said, “I’ve been reading some poetry lately.” This was actually true. He went to the library most days. There was usually no one in the poetry section, so he could sit there till the place closed trying to imagine what to do with himself now that the world lay all before him, so to speak. A kindly old librarian noticed him, always with a book open in front of him, of course. She brought him cookies on a napkin with a fraying embroidered flower on it and said, “You’ll be sure to wipe your fingers,” which he did, and he put the napkin on the front desk as he left. Then one time she set a copy of “Paterson” on the table in front of him, smiled to recommend it, and vanished, a little arthritically, into the stacks. He seemed to bring out the angelic in old ladies. And it was a very great book! It made it seem a profound thing to sit on a bench watching the river, the ships, the gulls, which was another way he had of killing time. He loved that book, and out of respect for that lady did not steal it, only put it behind shelved books where no one else would find it. He said, “Have you read ‘Paterson’? W. C. Williams?” An actual question, since he wanted her to have read it. “No. I’ve heard of it. My tastes are pretty traditional.”
“You have to read it. You’ll see what I mean.” He said, “When I’m down by the river—that bridge seems like some huge ancient thing that has just leaped out of the earth, all mass and clay and fossils, on its way somewhere—everything seems like a metaphor, you don’t need to know for what. After you read that book.”
She was laughing at him, her eyes shining. “I’ll get me a copy tomorrow, promise. And you have to read W. H. Auden.”
“He’s on my list!” It was a kind of pact! They laughed, and then they were quiet, and then he said, “I should be going, now that the rain has eased up.” It hadn’t. “There’s never time enough, in my line of work. Thanks for the tea and the shelter, Miss—”
She offered her hand and he took it.
“And I am John Ames Boughton,” a version of himself that only felt like a lie, called up by the tea and the china, and a certain exuberance at the fact that the afternoon had gone well enough. He thought of forgetting the umbrella as a pretext for stopping by again, but she handed it to him. He would have to think of another ruse before he got rid of that suit.
He knew better. He would not be leaving books on her step with notes in them, brief but very clever, that would make her think of him for a minute or two every now and then. On the one hand, if he did it would give him a pleasant thing to be thinking about, working out the little messages in his mind—for weeks, perhaps—and finding the right books to steal. On the other hand, people do that sort of thing when they imagine something might come of it. She couldn’t be seen walking down the street with him without damage to her reputation, a risk a teacher can’t take. The same would not be true for him, since he hardly had a reputation, properly so called. His old compulsion to do damage as chance offered had seen to that. If anything remained to him that might be called a good name, walking down a street with her would put an end to it. He felt the warm chill of impulse, actually frightened himself a little with the thought that he could do harm so easily, so innocently, really, except in the fact that he knew how grave and final the harm would be to her. A shudder of guilt passed through him, stirring other guilt, of course. There he was on a park bench in the morning sun, among the squawk and gabble and the church bells, to his inner eye naked as Adam to his own scrutiny. Stay away from her, fool. That’s simple enough.
Title ‘Handy Chart.’ The chart lists activities and their risk equivalents.
Cartoon by Roz Chast
So the next day he went to the store, or whatever it was, where he had bought the dark suit, a room with harsh window light and festoons of flypaper and tables heaped with discards, and traded it, with his hat and umbrella, for another hat and a double-breasted brown tweed suit with the impersonal smell of cigarette smoke already infused in it and a small stain on the left lapel. He changed in a back room and emerged more or less himself. It was a relief to put all his pretensions down on the counter. The trade was not to his advantage, except in the sense that he had hoped to find something cheap and a little raffish. Fair warning, he thought. And he was somehow relieved that he was no longer wearing a black suit with brown shoes. The man at the counter said, “I always have things that would fit you here. The widows bring them in.” Very funny.
He would not let his mood be dampened. He bought a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes at a dark little shop crowded with pipe racks and souvenir humidors and ashtrays and cans of tobacco and cigars that smelled something like tar and licorice. Somewhere in it all was a radio blaring a baseball game. The little man at the cash register watched him intently, as if theft were a card trick and he was going to catch him at it this time. The effect of the suit, he thought, since he was pretty sure he’d never been in that particular shop before. He startled the fellow with a dollar bill, slipped the change in his pocket, and went out to the street. The baseball game was close, it was the eighth inning, so he leaned against the wall in the sun to listen and folded the paper to the crossword puzzle. He pushed his hat back on his head, hung a smoke from his lip, and worked the puzzle, thinking that if anyone noticed him he would seem to be playing the horses. Clothes do make the man.
He glanced up because he was thinking—six letters, the second one “d”—and there was Della. Flinch. That look in her eyes—surprise, realization, maybe rebuke. She was with another young woman. It seemed to him she paused for some part of a second, long enough that the other woman glanced at him, a little mystified at the almost nothing that had passed between them. And then they went on, arm in arm, heads together, laughing. Not at him or about him, dear Jesus.
This was misery enough to justify a drink. A binge, in fact. But for some reason he just spent most of the night lying on his bed, feeling an elemental loneliness pour into his bones, that coldness that inheres in things, left to themselves. When the heart rests from its labors, for example, that excruciating push of blood. What had happened was just what he had intended, but he had not thought it would catch him off guard like that, all in one instant, without a word to say for himself, though what that word might have been he couldn’t imagine. He had done her no harm at all. One lie that was more her fault than his. No, it wasn’t. She had repaid his kindness with kindness. As she would not have done if she had known who he was. What he was. When defects of character are your character, you become a what. He had noticed this. No one ever says a liar is who you are, or who you are is a thief. He was a what, absolutely. He puts on one suit of clothes, a fraud is what he is. He puts on another suit of clothes—a bum, a grifter. A draft dodger was what he was. Even that was a lie. His name was a lie, no matter who had dampened his brow with it. Also his manners and the words he used and the immutable habits of his mind. Sweet Jesus, there was no bottom to it, nothing he could say about himself, finally. He was acquainted with despair. The thought made him laugh. He had to admit that he found it interesting, which was a mercy, and which made it something less than despair, bad as it was.
Much of the time this was his favorite poem. The second line seemed to him like very truth. It was on the basis of the slight and subtle encouragements offered by despair that he had discovered a new aspiration, harmlessness, which accorded well enough with his habits if not with his disposition. Keeping his distance was a favor, a courtesy, to all those strangers who might, probably would, emerge somehow poorer for proximity to him. This was his demon, an eye for the most trifling vulnerabilities. He had been doing fairly well until he saw that umbrella. Not true. He had bought that suit to wear to his mother’s funeral. His brother Teddy had found the boarding house where he had been staying and left an envelope of money and a note. This had put Jack to the bother of finding another boarding house. Teddy seemed to have contented himself that the man at the counter was not entirely dishonest and left money with him from time to time, enough so that the man could appropriate half of it and Jack would still have something to get by on. Cash meant that Teddy had been there, had once more travelled whatever distance, in whatever weather, at intervals that were long but regular enough that Jack could have been there, sitting on the steps when that brown sedan pulled up. The embraces, the tears. Jack had thought about it, which did not mean he had considered it. In any case, there was the possibility, the likelihood, that Teddy, ever the gentleman, was making himself easy to avoid. And he persisted, leaving money on the chance that Jack was alive and got some of it, accepting the assurances the desk clerk offered him.
For two years, the clerk might not have known where Jack was or that he was alive, but he saved up half the money that Teddy left, which was notably honorable. When Jack appeared again, the clerk handed him a note from his father that said, “Your dear mother is failing. She yearns to see you,” and so on, and the note from his brother that said, “I can come for you. Or you can buy a bus ticket. At least try to come home in time for the funeral, which we expect will be soon.” So, the dark suit. Half an intention, fought to a draw by a dozen considerations, the chief one being that he no doubt still had something of prison about him, sullen acquiescence and the rest. They might expect him to see his mother in her coffin, maybe with his father looking on, which would confront him with the meaning of his life, which had no meaning at all but was terrible in its consequences. He had learned to seem hardened against rebuke, which would be unacceptable in the circumstances.
Terrible thoughts would get him out of bed, out into the weather, where the trees and the people were all, everything, indifferent to his sins and omissions. Why wash, why shave. He went to his bench by the bridge and dozed dreamlessly in the sun. Someone passed behind him and sat down at the other end of the bench. It was Della. He knew it before he had even opened his eyes, and he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw her, sitting there quietly, reading a book. Worse and worse. She glanced at his face, saw whatever she saw, and went back to her book.
He said, “I want to apologize.”
And she said, “No need.” It had to appear that they weren’t there together, so she turned a little away from him. “I was rude.”
A white couple passed arm in arm, talking together in those voices people use when they seem to want to be overheard. The woman—“I’ll tell you what I think!” The man—“I think I already know!” Laughter.
Then Jack said, softly, “No. Not at all.”
The bells struck up that great music of clash and clangor, and, when they were done, she said, “I have to go.” She put her book down on the bench, put a pen in her handbag, and walked away. He waited a minute or two, then leaned across the bench to pick it up. It was hardly in his hand when a colored boy in a ball cap grabbed it away. “You were just going to steal that lady’s book,” he said, and ran after her to give it to her. He saw Della thank the boy, saw him wave off whatever she was offering him from her purse, saw her walk away without a backward glance.
He had to think this through. She had known where to look for him because he had mentioned that bridge. She had brought a book for him. He thought he could let himself believe this. So that he could knock on her door and say, “I believe this is yours, Miss Miles?” Or there was a note in it, or something circled or underlined. He wished he had seen just the title of the book. It was slender, mossy green, worn-looking. It might have been poetry, something someone had read again and again. She had come looking for him on a Sunday morning, which meant she knew now he wasn’t the churchgoing type. It meant also that she might not be on time even for the last service at her own church. She had come a long way just to let him know that things were all right somehow, whatever “things” were, whatever “all right” could be. Since they could hardly manage a few words together. She would know he felt grief—that was what it was—at her disillusionment, since nothing less than grief would have made her come so far. To comfort him. That was what it amounted to. If there had been a note in the book that said, “You are a despicable fraud,” or words to that effect, even that would mean he had not ceased to exist for her when the idea she’d had of him perished. This was simply remarkable. Then she found him dozing on a bench like any bum, rumpled and dishevelled, and she had looked at his face so calmly, which in the circumstances meant kindly, and offered her apology and left her book. It was incredible that she would feel the need to apologize, but thank God she did, because what other pretext would have brought her there. Was it a pretext? Sweet Jesus, how he loved the thought.
What should happen next? Next. This was the language of consequence, lovely to him in this particular moment, because it meant there was an actual thread of connection between them. Knowing her in the particular way he did, he would also know how to answer her. What should he do next? This would take time, and thought, so he believed, but an answer began pressing itself on him immediately, because he had imagined something like it any number of times. He would ask her out to dinner. He had a dishwashing, floor-sweeping kind of familiarity with certain establishments, where mainly Black people but a fair scattering of white people came for the fried chicken or the pork chops, or maybe for the piano player. Any of them might seem rambunctious to a Methodist lady. But she wouldn’t mind! He knew that about her!
When he had once again collected Teddy’s money and put himself in order, and the weather permitted, he went to a street near Della’s house and loitered there, waiting for her to come home from school. When he saw her, he crossed the street and fell into step beside her. She only glanced at him, but she was smiling. He said, “Miss Miles, I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
She laughed. “Well, there’s a thought.”
“Seriously. I know a place. There’s always a mixed crowd. You might not go there for the food, particularly. But it could be, you know, a nice evening.”
She shook her head.
He said, “I understand.”
“You probably don’t.”
“I meant to say all right. No hard feelings.”
She stopped and looked at him. “I’d meet you there. You shouldn’t come here again. You’ll have me on the train to Memphis, if my family gets word.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I thought we should meet there. So I made a sort of map.” He took the folded paper out of his pocket. ‘‘You see, on this side, all the streets, clearly marked. And on the other side”—he turned it over—“the place itself. From across the street.” She laughed. “There are a few inaccuracies. I was mostly working from memory.”
“I take it you added the angels.”
“Angels, trumpets, harps. They are universal symbols of exceptional happiness. So I tossed them in. You can keep that if you like. Even if you don’t accept.”
She shook her head again. “How can I say no?”
“A weeknight? Not so noisy as the weekend.”
“All right. Thursday.”
“Seven. It’s a school night.”
“Fine. Till then.”
“Yes. Go away now. If I’m not there, there’s some reason why I can’t be.”
“Understood.” He tipped his hat and walked on. It all went as he had hoped, knowing that his hopes, in the circumstances, had to allow for a certain reluctance, some caution. He thought, very briefly, about the risk to her they were always aware of, and then he put the thought aside. No doubt he would fall down a manhole or get hit by a streetcar before Thursday, before this unimaginable evening, fate intervening for her sake.
But there he was, Thursday evening, loitering a few doors away from the restaurant, watching the street. And then there she was, and wearing quite a pretty hat, considering that she was a Methodist and a schoolteacher, and very uneasy about drawing attention to herself.
He said, “Miss Miles,” and she stopped and smiled and he opened the door for her. The waiter, a Black man, knew him, raised his eyebrows, but showed them to a table with a mock formality that was pleasant enough.
“Out on the town tonight, I guess. With a lovely lady, too. You better take good care of this nice lady.” Jack tried to remember if this man had ever seen him sober. He hadn’t given this aspect of things enough thought. The waiter laughed. “Don’t mind me. I’m just here to say I hope you like pork chops, because tonight that’s what we’ve got.”
“Pork chops would be excellent.”
They had the place almost to themselves. They could talk in the ordinary way of conversation, at least till later, when the piano started up and the crowd came. He had spent days in the library thinking about what he would say to her, drawing the map and the heavenly host on the flyleaf of a big travel book that had not been checked out for years, since before the war, and then only twice. The page pulled loose from its binding very cleanly. Whenever his father had found one of his drawings, he’d say, “He’s the clever one. He’s going to surprise us all one day.” He heard his mother say once, “I guess you’re never going to give up on him.” His father seemed to consider, and then he said, “I’m just not sure there would be any point in it.” But the angels went well—they were fat and buoyant, cumulous. Della had to like them, he thought. And she did. Cleverness has a special piquancy when it blooms out of the fraying sleeve of failure. That was his experience, the magic trick he could usually play when he had to.
And here she was. He said, “New tie,” when he realized he was smoothing it.
She smiled and said, “New hat.”
He was in love with her. That did it. That hat brought out glints of rose in the warm dark of her skin. Women know that kind of thing. She, Della, wanted him, Jack, to see that particular loveliness in her. These thoughts interfered considerably with the efforts at conversation he should have been making.
She said, “That bridge you talk about really is handsome. Those huge stones. The walls of Troy must have looked like that.”
A monster breaks through a wall to talk to someone instead of just replying to his email.
“I got your e-mail, but thought I’d just come over to talk.”
Cartoon by Lucas Adams
“Yes. Herod’s temple.” Then he said, “Have you ever been to Bellefontaine?”
“The white cemetery? Why, no. I haven’t had much occasion.”
Of course. What a stupid question. He said, “I only ask because there is a tree there, a really huge old tree. I’ve probably walked by it a hundred times without noticing anything about it. But one time I happened to look back, and I saw blossoms all over it. Seriously. Big sort of golden-colored blossoms, each one upright, like it was floating on something. And I thought that was an amazing thing. The leaves hide them. But, from a certain distance, there they are. I thought that was interesting.” He didn’t think it was even slightly interesting now, listening to himself tell her about it, although at the time it had seemed startlingly wonderful, one of those self-erasing, soul-freeing moments when you might actually say, “I get the joke!” He had felt the lack of someone to describe it to. This quiet, smiling woman had had that place in his thoughts for weeks. And now he was reminded that the places he went and the things he saw, few as they were, were nothing he had in common with her. That musty, unvisited corner of the library, where he practically lived, was a place he had imagined telling her about. And now he realized that it would be unkind to mention it—the refuge of his poverty and his idleness and whatever else it was about him that brought him to skulk among forgotten books, hoping that old lady had remembered him when she was packing her lunch. Dear Jesus, what a life! And this lovely woman, whose hat was no doubt actually new, wouldn’t have the privilege of reading through all that pathos and pomposity and finding a line here and there worth reading to someone—she having been that someone in his thoughts for what seemed like forever.
She was looking at him calmly, kindly. She said, “It’s probably a tulip tree. That’s really what they’re called. They’re native to North America.” She laughed. “When I was a girl, one of my brothers gave me a book about trees. I knew everything about all of them for a while. Then he gave me a book about dogs.”
“I have a brother. Actually, I have three brothers. But Teddy—he’s a little younger than I am. We were close, I suppose. He’s a doctor now.”
“How often do you see him?”
“Never.” Flinch. “Very seldom. It seems like never.” If he wasn’t careful, he might tell her the truth sometime.
She read his face, and then she said, “I’ve always heard that Bellefontaine is beautiful.”
“If you like that sort of thing.” The waiter put plates down in front of them. Pork chops, a mound of potatoes cratered with the back of a spoon and filled with that oddly speciesless gravy. There are probably ten laws in Leviticus that forbid that gravy. He said, “There are some pretty amazing monuments in there, and whole little neighborhoods of Greek temples, probably accurate in every detail, I suppose. About the size of woodsheds. There is one that has a statue of the woman it belongs to lying there under a canopy. All marble, very elegant. The inscription on it says, ‘She died for beauty.’ ”
“Really! How did she manage that?”
“Arsenic. A gardener told me. She took little dabs of it to make her skin very white, and once she took too much.” Sweet Jesus, what a story.
Della said, “The poor dear!” There wasn’t just laughter in her eyes, he could see that. Affection, possibly.
Then he heard a voice he knew too well. There were some fellows, not always the same ones, who made a joke of shaking him down, collecting something he owed, they said, never quite enough to pay it off. He probably did owe something to somebody and was, in any case, usually too drunk to object. He glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, two of them. Della looked at them.
He said, “Excuse me a moment, please,” and left through the kitchen, glad he knew the place. It wasn’t only the embarrassment, being taunted as a drunk and a deadbeat in front of Della, having to put his money on the table and then turn his pockets out. And having to do it sober. He would give in immediately, or he would attempt some sort of self-defense, which could only end badly, since there were two of them. In either case, the ruckus wouldn’t end until they let it, and by then the cops might have come. There would be talk, and Della might be named. Sneaky and spineless as it would have been under any other circumstances, as often as he had done it under all kinds of circumstances, he was pretty sure this time he was doing the right thing.
It was a terrible thing. She would never forgive him. He had spared her having much better reasons for hating him than he had given her. What a life.
He loitered in that doorway, watching to see them leave, or her leave. Ah, Jesus, it was taking her such a long time to give up on him. But finally he saw her, followed her to her door, and left feeling less desolate than he had expected. He had been running their conversation through his mind. Not so bad, not so bad.
It was a mild night. He loosened his tie and folded his jacket over his arm. He took a shortcut down a side street, which he would never have done at night if he had been paying attention. And he heard that voice again, behind him. They were laughing. “Why, it’s the professor! I been wanting a word with you, son. If you could just stop there a minute. The boss tells me you owe him. He wants his money. I guess you better empty those pockets.”
Jack said, “What boss? Who’s—?”
And the other man hit him in the belly, a blow that startled him because it was so deft and mean. He almost said, “Wait, this isn’t the game!,” but the man hit him again. He had to put his hand against a wall to keep from falling. He was carrying Teddy’s money, all of it he hadn’t spent on the tie and a shave. He took it out of his pocket and put it in the hand of the first man.
“This all?” the man said. “It better be.” Jack actually checked, found a few coins, and gave them to him.
The man laughed. “O.K., I guess we’re square for now.”
Then the other man hit him again, in the face this time. He must have been wearing a ring. Jack felt a cut on his cheekbone, a gouge. He couldn’t put his hand to it. Get blood on your hands and the next thing you know it’s on everything. They were walking away, the one saying to the other, “I can’t stand that guy. Something about him.”
“I know what you mean,” the other one said, and threw the change on the ground and shared out the bills.
His jacket was probably all right. He laid it down on a cellar door and put his hat beside it. In the dark he couldn’t tell what was ruined already. He untucked his shirt to blot his face with his shirttail, then lay down beside his jacket and hat and waited till his breath was back and he had stopped bleeding. And the thought that came to him first, looking up at the narrow sky, was: Now I can’t go home, ever. He thought, I can’t see Della again, I can’t go to the library, I’ll have to close my lapels over my shirt the way bums do, and that was all terrible. But the way his father would sorrow over this unconcealable wound was the thought he could not bear. ♦
Published in the print edition of the July 20, 2020, issue.
Marilynne Robinson has written five novels, including “Gilead,” the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and “Jack,” which will be published in September.
(Copied from the New Yorker)
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