For thirty-odd years, this white narrow room at the top of a granite building in the midst of Duke University had been one place where Hutchins Mayfield never felt less than alive and useful by the day and the hour. For that long stretch he'd met his seminar students here, and this year's group was gathered for its first meeting of the week. There were fourteen of them, eight men and six women, aged nineteen to twenty-two; and by a pleasant accident, each had a winning face, though two of the men were still in the grip of post-adolescent narcolepsy frequent short fade-outs.
This noon they all sat, with Hutch at the head, round a long oak table by a wall of windows that opened on dogwoods in early spring riot; and though today was the class's last hour for dealing with Milton's early poems before moving on to Marvell and Herbert, even more students were dazed by the rising heat and the fragrance borne through every window.
In the hope of rousing them for a last twenty minutes, Hutch raised his voice slightly and asked who knew the Latin root of the word sincere.
A dozen dead sets of eyes shied from him.
He gave his routine fixed class grin, which meant I can wait you out till Doom.
Then the most skittish student of all raised her pale hand and fixed her eyes on Hutch immense and perfectly focused eyes, bluer than glacial lakes. When Hutch had urged her, months ago, to talk more in class, she'd told him that every time she spoke she was racked by dreams the following night. And still, volunteering, she was ready to bolt at the first sign of pressure from Hutch or the class.
Hutch flinched in the grip of her eyes but called her name. "Karen?"
She said "Without wax, from the Latin sine cere."
"Right and what does that mean?"
She hadn't quite mustered the breath and daring for a full explanation; but with one long breath, she managed to say "When a careless Roman sculptor botched his marble, he'd fill the blunder with smooth white wax. A sincere statue was one without wax." Once that was out, Karen blushed a dangerous color of red; and her right hand came up to cover her mouth.
Hutch recalled that Karen was the only member of the class who'd studied Latin, three years in high schoolman all but vanished yet nearvital skill. He thanked her, then said "The thoroughly dumb but central question that's troubled critics of Milton's 'Lycidas' was stated most famously by pompous Dr. Samuel Johnson late in the eighteenth century. He of course objected mightily, if pointlessly, to the shepherd trappings of a pastoral poem -- what would he say about cowboy films today? He even claimed and I think I can very nearly quote him that 'He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honor.' I think he's as wrong as a critic can be, which is saying a lot; and I think I can prove it."
Hutch paused to see if their faces could bear what he had in mind; and since the hour was nearly over, most of their eyes had opened wider and were at least faking consciousness again. So he said "I'd like to read the whole poem aloud again, not because I love my own voice but because any poem is as dead on the page as the notes of a song unless you hear its music performed by a reasonably practiced competent musician. It'll take ten minutes; please wake up and listen." He grinned again.
The narcolepts shook themselves like drowned Labradors. They were oddly both redheads.
One woman with record-long bangs clamped her eyes shut.
Hutch said "Remember now the most skillful technician in English poetry who lived after Milton was Tennyson, two centuries later. Tennyson was no pushover when it came to praising other poets very few poets are but he claimed more than once that 'Lycidas' is the highest touchstone of poetic appreciation in the English language: a touchstone being a device for gauging the gold content of metal. Presumably Tennyson meant that any other English poem, rubbed against 'Lycidas,' will show its gold or base alloy."
Though Hutch had long since memorized the poem, all 193 lines, he looked to his book and started with Milton's prefatory note.
"In this monody the author bewails a learned friend unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish seas, 1637."
Then he braced himself for the steeplechase run-through that had never failed to move him deeply.
"Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year."
From there on, along the crowded unpredictable way to its visionary end with Lycidas rescued and welcomed in Heaven by a glee club of saints and Christ himself, giving nectar shampoos Hutch stressed what always felt to him like the heart of the poem, its authentic cry. It sounded most clearly in the lines where Milton either feigned or surely poured out genuine grief for the loss of his college friend, Edward King, drowned in a shipwreck at age twenty-five, converted in the poem to an ancient shepherd named Lycidas and longed for in this piercing extravagant cry with its keening vowels.
"Thee shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows, and the hazel copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
Or frost to flowers, that their gay wardrobe wear,
When first the white thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd's ear."
Ten minutes later at the poem's hushed end "Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new" Hutch was even more shaken than he'd meant to be. Strangely he hadn't quite foreseen a public collusion between Milton's subject and his own ongoing family tragedy. But at least he hadn't wept; so he sat for five seconds, looking out the window past the creamy white and cruciform blossoms toward the huge water oaks with their new leaves.
Then he faced the class again and repeated from memory the central lines "Thee shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves...."When he thought they'd sunk as deep as they could into these young television-devastated brains, he said "Estimate the wax content of those few lines."
Even Karen looked fiummoxed again and turned aside.
Hutch tried another way." The sincerity quotient. Does Milton truly miss the sight of young Edward King, King's actual presence before the poet's eyes; if not, what's he doing in so many carefully laid-down words?" When they all stayed blank as whitewashed walls, Hutch laughed. "Anybody, for ten extra points. Take a flying risk for once in your life." (Through the years, except for the glorious and troubling late 1960s, most of his students had proved far more conservative than corporate lawyers.)
Finally Kim said "He's showing off' the class beauty queen, lacquered and painted and grade-obsessed.
Whitney said "Milton's almost thirty years old, right? Then I figure he's stretching he's using King's death as a chinning bar to test his own strengths. Can I write this thing? he seems to be saying, right through to the end." Since Whit was one of the midday nappers, his contributions were always surprising in their sane precision.
Still fire-truck red, Karen finally said "I think Milton's discovering, as the ink leaves his pen, how terribly his friend drowned and vanished-they never even found the friend's corpse apparently. I think it sounds like Milton truly longs for him back."
Hutch said "Does it sound like longing, or does he really long?"
Karen winced and withdrew.
Whitney said "What's the difference? Nobody can gauge that, now anyway."
Hutch said "Why not?"
"It's too far behind us, nearly four hundred years. The words have all changed; we can't hear their meaning." Whit lowered his near-white lashes like scrims down over green eyes.
Alisoun said "Then let's all go home." She was six foot one, and any threat to unfold her long bones to their full height was always welcome.
Hutch asked her to explain.
"If four hundred years in the life of a language as widespread as English add up to nothing but failed communication, then I don't see any point in encouraging the human race to live another year. Let's lust quit and vacate." She was genuinely at the point of anger.
The other women looked officially startled; their mothering genes had felt the assault.
Erik turned his face, that was always stern, a notch or two sterner and set it on Alisoun. "Get serious. I anyhow understand every syllable-not one of them's moved an inch in three centuries and I'm no genius of a reader, as you well know. Milton is literally desolate here, right here on this page, all this time later. The fact that he's also phenomenal at words and rhyme and music doesn't disqualify him for sincere grief. If that's been the problem about the poem since old Dr. Johnson, then it looks like critics are short on reasons to fan their gums.
"Hutch said "Touché. They mostly are."
But to general surprise, Karen recovered gall enough to say "I have to disagree. Milton's mainly bragging, the way Kim said. The poem's primarily about himself 'Watch my lovely dust. Recommend me to God. Buy all my books.'"
Hutch smiled but raised a monitory finger. "Milton didn't publish a book of poems for eight whole years after 'Lycidas.'"
So tremulous Karen took another long breath, faced Hutch unblinking and thrust toward the subject that no other student had found imaginable. "Mr. Mayfield, have you written poems about your son?"
Startling as it was to have the question come from Karen, Hutch realized he'd waited months for someone to ask it. Now the demon's out and smashing round the room. In Karen's halting, plainly sympathetic voice, the question sounded answerable at least. Her boldness surely had to mean that the news of his son was widespread now and accepted as mentionable. Yet when Hutch looked round to all the faces -- some class was breaking up early outside; the hall was a din through the shut glass door -- all but Karen were blank as slate again. So Hutch offered the minimum he thought they could use. "My grown son is sick with AIDS in New York. Till today no known AIDS patient has won. And no, Karen, I haven't written a word, on that subject anyhow. I doubt I ever can."
Karen had the grace not to push on and make a connection with Milton, though she thought Anybody in genuine grief couldn't sit and write an intricate poem, not one we'd keep on reading for centuries.
But Hutch could read the drift in her eyes. "Don't for an instant make the tempting mistake of thinking that I share Milton's powers -- nobody else in European poetry, not since Homer anyhow, can make that claim."
Kim said "Not Virgil, Dante or Shakespeare?"
Hutch shook his head No and suddenly felt a surge of pleasure -- a strange boiling from deep in his chest of pleased excitement to plant his feet down and crown John Milton supreme in all the great questions of life. He said "Milton knows more than anyone else, in the western hemisphere in any case, in verse anyhow; and he's nine-tenths right on almost every question. Shakespeare is all a zillion bright guesses, bright or pitch-dark -- not one single answer. Dante knows just one big urgent thing."
Whitney said "Which is?"
Hutch said "'No rest but in your will' -- the your means God of course."
Kim scowled, the regulation atheist.
And Karen's eyes plainly showed that she felt Hutch had shortchanged the subject she raised -- his son's present illness.
So he faced her directly and tried to give more. "Even Milton will have found that not every loss, however picturesque, and not every joy, however rhythmic, will submit itself as poetry fodder -- as food for new poems."
Karen accepted that but wanted still more. "Can you think of a sadness or a genuine pleasure that wouldn't submit when you yourself tried to write it out?"
Hutch knew at once. "In fact, I can -- oh many times over. But one in particular strikes me today. I'll be dealing with it again -- in my life, not my work -- in another few hours. Soon as I leave you today, I'll be driving up to my family's homeplace in the rolling country north of here, up near Virginia, for what should be a mildly pleasant occasion. We'll be celebrating the 101st birthday of a cousin of mine, named Grainger Walters. I've known the event was coming for a long time and have tried more than once to write a poem that would say what that man's meant to me since the day I was born -- a kind of older brother when my mother died, a surrogate father when my father died young, even a species of bighearted alien from some kind of Paradise, guarding and guiding me fairly successfully for six long decades. But a poem won't come, or hasn't come yet."
Whitney said "Do you understand why?"
"Not fully, no I don't. But I'm fairly sure the problem's buried somewhere in the fact that I'm all white -- pure Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genes, to the best of my knowledge -- and Grainger Walters is part black, the grandson of one of my Aryan great-grandfathers on up in Virginia, in Reconstruction days."
Whitney suddenly strummed an imaginary banjo and sang to the tune of "Way Down Upon the Swanee River,
pard"Hankey-pankey on the old plantation,
Far, far away."
Alisoun said "It's already been written."
Hutch was puzzled.
"By Mary Chestnut in her famous diary; by Faulkner, in every paragraph -- by Robert Penn Warren too, a whole slew more. won't that be the main reason you're stymied? The job's been done."
Since Hutch was a poet, not a novelist, the fact had never quite dawned that harshly. He instantly suspected She's at least a third right. But he said "Wouldn't the fact that every one of you is white, that a black student at this university -- or any other -- very seldom takes courses in literature, mean that you're wrong? Far from being done to death, the subject of race in America -- race in its deepest historical and moment-by-moment contemporary ramifications -- has barely reached the level of audibility in our literature, much less the level of sane portrayal. A world of explaining remains to be done."
Alisoun's answer was long-since ready. "I've noticed how scarce blacks are in this department, yes; but the reason for that has got to be, they know you'll tell them nothing but lies -- our solemn white poems and stories about human one-ness, all our feeble alibis for common greed and meanness and worse: torture, murder. Every black student here, and I know quite a few -- I've made it my little white-girl project for the past three years -- has got those lies bred into their bones. They don't need to read Old Master's effusions. What have we got to tell them, we Western white folks, in poems and plays?"
Her immaculate pale green cotton sweater and short string of pearls had misinformed Hutch; he was shocked by her force. I'll think about that on the road today. For the present he could only say what he trusted. With all the self-trust of a lifelong teacher, his mind chose to seize the wheel of the talk and turn it his way. "What conceivable subject -- any subject comprehensible to humans at least, of whatever color -- hasn't been done to death? The fact that Milton wrote 'Lycidas' has hardly prevented the writing of later great poems about dead youth."
Alisoun said "Name two."
Hutch said "Take three, off the top of my head -- Tennyson's 'In Memoriam,' Arnold's 'Thyrsis,' Robert Lowell's 'Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.'"
Erik said "But isn't the theme of early death a whole lot more universal and available than the historical accident of Anglo and Afro-American miscegenation for three hundred years in a highly particular steamy place called the old Confederacy?"
Hutch waited, then had to say "Thanks for the question; I need to think it over. I will admit I don't think William Faulkner is a genius compared to, say, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Faulkner knew a small hot patch of ground he invented; it lacked huge chunks of the actual world -- real women, for example: just half the human race unaccounted for. And responsible fathers, which many men are. Mothers who can love and not smother their young. Faulkner was the best student of wild and tame animals I've yet found in fiction; but as for his using up any large subject you'd meet in the real world, except maybe whiskey -- you recall Hemingway always called him 'Old Bourbon Mellifluous,' a well-aimed spear from one who'd consumed his own share of gin -- well, all Faulkner exhausted was runaway English; country show-off prose.
"And no other writer, since Faulkner drank himself out of sane action by the age of fifty, has really dived deep into that huge maelstrom called miscegenation on Southern ground -- the feeding of white on black, black on white -- though the problem has gone much further toward both solution and utter insolubility than Marse Will Faulkner ever dreamed possible."
Hutch looked up to Alisoun, who'd waited him out, and smiled broadly at her. "I'll prophesy for you what I'm likely to feel, if I think your question through for years -- I very much doubt that any reality that's widely experienced by human beings is ever worn out, not so long as the right he or she takes it up in flaming-new language."
More than half the class now realized that the teacher had left himself open for a body blow. Are you the right man, and where're your deathless flaming-new words? But every watch showed the hour was ending.
So Hutch said "I promise you more of an answer; but for now, one final word from the foreman here -- words as freshly minted and potently thrusting as the words of 'Lycidas' all but never come out of a human mind for any reason less than enormous feeling, a nearly stifling pressure to speak. My money anyhow is on John Milton's being mightily moved by his young friend's drowning -- by the chance that such a random disaster could fall on himself -- and by the near-sure existence of a just afterlife. But believe what you will, if the poem will support you. I'll see you on Wednesday. Read Andrew Marvell."
Only Kim slid her chair back to rise.
Late as it was, the others seemed held in place, unsatisfied.
Hutch actually asked himself Are they facing their own eventual deaths?
And they held still another long moment -- even Kim balked, unsatisfied but gripped.
To free them, Hutch said the only thing that came. It was anyhow truthful. "This poem -- 'Lycidas' -- means more to me than all but a few of the humans I've known, more than most anything I've ever owned or tried to keep. Except of course for my lost son -- he's lost to me; how I can't bear to tell you. If the world hadn't turned up creatures like Milton -- or Keats or Handel -- every century or so, I doubt I could live through the thought of my young son dying in pain, too far from me, refusing any help and even his mother's." He knew it sounded a little mad, maybe more than a little.
But none of their eyes betrayed fear or laughter; and even when they'd filed silently past him toward their crowded unthinkable lives -- Whit's hand touched his shoulder as he went -- the rising in Hutch's chest boiled on. What in God's name has got me happy?
The rising continued as Hutch stopped by his office to check the mail. He'd no sooner sat, though, before someone knocked -- a tall man behind the opaque glass. A little annoyed, Hutch called "Come in." The darkhaired, dark-bearded man was familiar on sight anyhow -- Hutch had noticed him on the stairs and in the hallways for maybe two years. He was almost certainly a graduate student; but he held in place on the threshold, not speaking.
Hutch stood. "I'm Hutchins Mayfield. May I help you?"
Entirely serious, the man said "I very much doubt you can."
Then check out immediately. But all Hutch said was "We may never know if you don't fill me in." He motioned to the single red-leather chair that stood by his desk, for student callers.
Then the man launched a sudden spectacular smile, stepped in, shut the door and took the red chair. When Hutch was seated, the man held out a hand. "I'm Hart Salter, sir, a doctoral candidate. I've watched you for years."
"I've noticed you around, yes, but didn't see you watching me. You're bound to be bored."
Again Hart took it seriously. "Not bored exactly. Not fascinated either. I guess I've always tried to guess how poems get into your head from space."
Hutch had taught one genuine lunatic student a few years back. Is this a fresh psycho? He thought he'd try first to lighten the tone. With both hands far above his head, he indicated the shape of a drainpipe running from thin air through the top of his skull. "There's a long invisible pipeline, see, from the spring of the muses directly into my cerebral cortex."
Hart said "I've got no doubt about that."
"Good. I only wish it were true."
Hart said "You fooled me. I've read all your poems; you're a real self-starter."
"Warm thanks, Mr. Salter. I'm a cold engine now, a minor dud." Then dreading what was almost surely the answer, Hutch asked the question that seemed required. "You write poems yourself?." The thought of a manuscript thrust at him here felt as real as a knife.
"Not a line of poetry, not since high school. No, I guess you're wondering why I'm here."
"I had begun to wonder. I'm due out of here in the next ten minutes --"
Hart sprang up at once. "I don't want to hold you."
"No, sit by all means and tell me your errand."
So Hart folded his endless legs again and sat. "I'm in deep water, sir. It's in my marriage. I figured a poet might help me swim out."
For the past three decades, student strangers had occasionally dropped in with personal problems for the resident poet. One excruciating twenty minutes had followed when a young man with hideous face burns had walked in to show Hutch the poems he'd written about his fate -- a gasoline bomb that had left him a monster. But has any lovelorn certified adult ever asked for love-help? Almost surely not. Hutch said "My record on love is dismal, Mr. Salter. I'm alone as a dead tree."
"Call me Hart, please -- Hart." He smiled his winning smile again. "This is idiotic of me, I know; but since I've committed this ludicrous folly, let me ask one question."
Hutch held up a finger and laughed. "One question then, entirely free of charge."
"How do you ever convince a woman that you actually love her?"
Hutch had noticed Hart's wedding band. "You're presently married?"
"Yes sir, for three years, fully sworn at the altar with God and man watching --"
"God and humankind, Hart. Maybe you need a crash course in -- what? -- 'gender-sensitive language'?"
"Sir, if I get any more sensitive, my blood will ooze out of these fingernails." Hart showed ten long thick fingernails, well tended. "The problem is, my wife can't believe me. I'm loyal as any Seeing Eye dog, I do well over half the chores (she works full-time in the Botany greenhouse), my body has never once cheated on her, I say the word love to her on the quarter-hour whenever we're together, but she says she literally cannot believe me. This morning she said she felt as abandoned as the world's last swallow."
Hutch smiled. "Assuming she meant the last bird, I like her image."
"Oh she can crucify you, by the minute, with images."
Hutch said "Try writing her short letters maybe, that she can keep and reread at will. Try your first adult poem."
"I guessed you'd say that."
"What else could I say? -- you called on a poet."
Hart flushed as fiercely as Karen, last hour. But he leaned back, thrust a broad hand into his jeans and brought out a single folded index card. "I wrote the poem, just now in the local men's room. May I read it to you? -- I think it's a haiku."
"By all means then -- no epic recitations though."
Hart opened the card, spread it on his right knee but never looked down as he said
"In all this thicket of straight white trees,
A single burning bush, concealing you."
Hutch said "Well, it may be a little too bold to be a haiku; but it's striking all right. Will she mind the touch of eros?"
"No, that's one thing that's never been a problem."
Hutch said "Oh bountifully lucky pair!" Then he pointed to his phone. "Call your wife right now; read the poem to her, more than once. I'd be glad to hear it from any mate of mine." He was suddenly eager for Hart to succeed, so eager he threw off his usual caution about recognizing real poetry, however modest. "I've got to leave, Hart. I'm overdue for my own family business. But use my phone for as long as you like; lust shut the door as you leave -- it locks itself."
Hart half rose. "I couldn't."
"You can. You already have, with your poem. Now read it to -- who? You never said her name."
"Stacy. Stacy Burnham -- she's kept her old name."
Hutch was on his feet now. "If you think it's appropriate, you can say I believe you."
Hart said "I may need to deep-six that." But then he could smile. He rose too, shook Hutch's hand again, then sat and carefully placed the phone call.
Only when he'd heard Hart's voice say "Stacy?" did Hutch shut the door behind him and go.
Two hours later, for whatever reason, Hutch was still nearly happy. The feeling that had sprung up at noon, in class, had only strengthened with the start of his trip. And against strong odds, it had lasted till now when he was in sight of his destination. At first he'd thought the change was caused by the day itself -- an early April afternoon, new leaves overhead, the deeps of the woods splodged with redbud and dogwood, the air desert-clear. The landscape twenty miles northeast of Durham had begun a slow change through another forty miles into what was still the land of Hutch's childhood, the only nature he'd loved on Earth, though he'd stood in various stages of awe in the presence of sights from the Jericho wilderness north to Lapland, west to Beijing and south to Rio.
In calm defiance of rusting billboards, trailer parks and all other man-made waste and ruin, the country Hutch drove through briskly was caught in its nearly invisible rolling -- a broad-backed brown and green undulation beneath dense evergreens and a wide pitched sky as royal-blue as the eyes of a watchful year-old boy or the banner at a high chivalric tilt in dark-age France. To Hutch it seemed, as it always had since his own father told him, the actual skin of a slumberous creature the size of a quarter of east Carolina and southside Virginia -- a creature that might yet prove benign if it ever roused and faced the living.
And as always, again Hutch pushed on silently across the broad hide, hoping at least to pass unseen in his odd elation. Or was his pleasure a simple prediction of the evening ahead, a birthday supper for his ancient cousin? Hutch slowed a little for the final curve, glanced to the rear-view mirror above him and grinned at his face.
After all these years it still surprised him to see how, this far along in life, he'd come to look like Rob his father who'd died a younger man than Hutch was today. Not that Rob was an unlikable model -- the same braced brow and jaw, the brown unflinching eyes, the still dark hair with its broad swag of white. So Hutch actually spoke to himself, "You're bearing up better than you ought to be." It was true but the words hardly touched his pleasure as he entered the drive and stopped past the main house, by the vast oak -- his father's old homeplace, which Hutch had rented to friends years ago.
He sat still a moment and tested again this strange new feeling. Despite the bitter sadness and loss he knew was bound toward him -- him and his family -- Hutch felt like a lucky man on a hill. And he guessed it was not some temporary boost, ignited by the weather or a quick jet of natural endorphins in his blood. He'd had long stretches of joy all his life and he trusted pleasure. It had lasted for two hours alone on the road, and it somehow promised to last a good while. For an instant, it even crossed his mind that his sexual force might come back again. Except for occasional bouts with his own hand, sexual will had all but left him months ago when he learned for sure that his son was desperately ill at a distance. Yet he knew all feeling, all longing for love, must hide now -- for weeks or months -- till he buried his only child, his son who was dying in upper Manhattan, refusing phone calls or visits from home.
Hutch reached for his cousin's birthday gift and climbed out into pure good-smelling sun. He shut his eyes and let the light warm his face and neck. Then he looked around him. No other car or truck, no other human in sight or hearing -- Strawson and Emily must be in town. But Hutch had known this house and its setting all his life. He'd spent the best part of his boyhood here; it knew him well enough to let him arrive with no boisterous welcome. Only the fat old Labrador bitch on the porch turned to check; and once she knew him, she spared herself barking. Hutch called to her "Maud, it's the Friendly Slasher -- go back to sleep."
Maud ignored the news and resumed her watch on the empty road.
So Hutch walked on toward the squat white guest-house beyond the stable. The clapboard was freshly painted, the roof was sporting new bright green shingles, and every window was shut and shaded against the light. Once Hutch was there though, the door stood open. Even the rusty screen was propped wide.
A single day-moth made a lunge to enter, then fell back as if a broad hand had struck it.
Hutch paused at the foot of the three rock steps and spoke at a low pitch. "Anybody breathing?" A keen-eared child, or a bat, might have heard him. He was testing his cousin's ears and brain.
The voice that answered was lean and light, a note or two higher than in the old days but firm and unbroken with no growl or husk. "One mean old soul in here; that's it -- enter at your own risk."
Hutch said "I'm hunting a birthday boy named Grainger Walters. You seen him today?"
The voice stayed put but spoke even stronger. "He's not your boy but I've seen him every time I looked in the mirror for one-damn-hundred- and-one years today."
"You're not in there with some young girl?"
"Haven't seen a girl in thirty, forty years. You coming in or not? -- I can't stand up." But there were sounds of a creaking chair, a tall body unfolding itself and then steps toward the door. A man was slowly there in the doorway behind the screen -- long powerful hands, skin the color of the starched khaki pants and shirt, brown eyes that had turned almost a pale sky-blue.
At first that seemed to Hutch the one sign of unusual age -- the eyes and the skin that lightened with every year as if time were canceling the first fact about this palpable body: its mingled blood. Hutch hadn't seen the old man in nearly four months. If there'd been a real change, it was maybe the eyebrows. The last of the snow-white eyebrows were gone, and the head was as hairless as any bronze bust. Then Hutch realized that the skull itself seemed larger and grander, grown to accommodate the huge filmy eyes. Otherwise the old man stood straight as ever since Hutch had known him -- a little shrunk in the chest and thighs but bolt upright and balanced steadily. "Happy birthday, Cousin Grainger -- and a hundred more."
Grainger Walters had given up smiling long since, except at unpredictable moments for unannounced reasons; but he showed the remains of his strong teeth now, and he tipped his bare head. "Fall down here in the dirt on your knees, and pray I die after supper tonight."
Hutch said "Whoa here."
"Whoa nothing -- I'm tired. Haven't slept since Christmas."
"Why?" Hutch had asked without thinking.
"If you don't know my reason, fool -- if you been sleeping good yourself -- then leave that package here on my stoop and head on out." Grainger turned and vanished back to his chair.
At first Hutch edged his way to the door and laid the gift where he'd been told to leave it. A powerful urge to run shot through him. If anyone living knew Hutch Mayfield from sole to crown, it was this old soul who'd say what he meant if he felt the need or the merest whim. Hutch waited the urge out; then climbed the steps and entered, shutting the screen door behind him. It took a whole minute before his eyes had opened to the indoor darkness, and while he waited he said "You'll ruin your eyes in this dark."
Grainger said "Trying to. What do I need to see?"
"You might like to see how well I'm doing. I've trimmed off eight pounds since last Christmas; everybody thinks I'm ten years younger."
"Not me" Grainger said. "You're sixty-three years old and look it -- sit down."
Hutch said "My birthday's not for six weeks. Don't rush me please." But he sat in the rocker across from the automatic chair he'd bought as a gift the previous spring when Grainger turned a hundred. You pressed a button; it gradually rose and stood you up with no exertion. When Hutch's eyes could finally see, he looked around the space for changes.
Nothing obvious, just the same strict order Grainger had laid down all his life, wherever he lived. This main room had its two good chairs and a long pine table against the wall with dozens of pictures framed above it -- various kin whom he and Hutch shared, caught in photographs ranging from the 1850s to now.
The center of the cluster was a single oval tinted picture of Grainger's wife Gracie, long gone and dead. The other face that caught at Hutch was his own child Wade at about age ten, in a fork of the oak tree not fifty yards from this dim room. Beside it was a tall dark picture of Rob, his own dead father and Grainger's great friend. No one had ever looked finer than Rob, not the way he was here, in summer whites for high-school commencement more than seventy years past -- a smiler as charged with electric attraction as the magnetic poles. All the others were distant kin and friends, a few stiff generals from the First World War (and oddly the Kaiser with his comical mustache) plus three or four modern Democratic politicians and Jacqueline Kennedy, a stalled gazelle of inestimable worth.
Otherwise there was only a big oil stove, a television and the neat narrow bed. It all looked as new and nearly unused as when Hutch had paid for Grainger and two boys to build the place thirty some years back. The kitchen and bathroom doors were shut.
When Hutch didn't speak but went on looking, Grainger said "You planning to sell me out? It's worth every penny you paid me to build it -- two thousand, three hundred, twenty-two dollars and eighty-six cents. I got the receipts." He actually pressed his chair button to rise.
"Sit still please -- sit as long as you want. Every piece of this is yours and has always been."
"Emily don't think so."
It riled Hutch instantly. "Emily's dead wrong."
Grainger pointed through the wall toward the main house. "She's all the time saying how much it cost them to keep me warm."
It was then Hutch realized the oil stove was burning, though the front door was open. He put his palm out toward the heat. "You know this blast furnace here is roaring?"
Grainger said "I do."
"Shall I shut the door?"
"Shall not. Mind your business." But he may have smiled again. "I'm drying my clothes."
Hutch looked -- had Grainger started fouling his pants? Then he noticed another khaki dress shirt, neatly hung on a wire hanger from the window ledge near the stove, and a pair of white socks. "You put out a wash? I pay Emily money to wash your clothes."
Grainger said "She don't get them dry enough -- make my bones ache."
"I warned her about that here last Christmas."
"Remind her again; her memory's failing."
Hutch said "She's a whole lot younger than me."
"You failing too." Grainger suddenly focused on Hutch's face and gave it a thorough search. He'd watched it make every change it had made, through six decades.
"Me failing?" Hutch grinned. "I'm in fairly good shape; taught school today." He flexed both arms in their blue sleeves.
Grainger shook his head firmly No. "You're worse than you ever been in your life; you'll be worse soon."
At first Hutch thought it was old-man meanness or hard-edged teasing. But then he wondered what Grainger knew. Hutch had never mentioned his grown son's illness; Emily and Straw knew little about it, if anything; surely Ann hadn't blabbed. Hutch said "You know something l don't know?"
Grainger froze up slowly through the next long minute. He sat in place perfectly still; then again his eyes found Hutch's face as if they'd dug up the bones of a hand with scraps of skin. His old eyes were brimming.
So Hutch said "Wade? You heard from Wade?"
Grainger nodded but offered no more.
"Just now. First thing this morning, still dark outdoors." Grainger pointed to the telephone screwed to the wall by the head of his bed.
"Wade called you today?"
"Wade calls me every birthday I've had since he could talk."
"He told you he's sick?"
Grainger said "I could hear it."
"You ask how he was?"
"He told me himself."
Hutch suddenly felt cut loose from a chain and flinging through space. "He tell you it's this terrible AIDS?"
"This plague that's speeding all over the world, that kills you by wiping out your whole immune system so you're helpless to every germ and virus --"
Grainger said "I watch the TV. I'm not on the moon yet."
Hutch could grin briefly. "But Wade told you himself, today?"
"You don't know how your one child's doing?"
That hurt more than Hutch's own deep self-blame. He said "Wade hasn't talked to me in three months."
"Try calling him up. They invented the phone when I was a boy."
Hutch said "He won't answer me, hangs up soon as he hears my voice."
Again Grainger waited to estimate if Hutch could take the fresh news. He finally said "Then you don't know he's blind."
"Oh my Jesus --" For an instant Hutch felt he'd pitch flat forward on the bare oak floor.
Grainger just nodded.
Then another man's voice called from well out of sight somewhere in the yard. "Mr. Walters, you seen that out-of-work poet we used to know?"
Hutch knew it had to be Straw, Strawson Stuart -- the friend to whom he'd rented the place for nearly thirty years. Nobody but Strawson called Grainger Mr. Walters.
Grainger looked to Hutch and waved his hand slightly at the door. "Go show him it's you. Tell him I ain't dead."
Hutch was still too dazed to obey. So he and Grainger waited, silent, as footsteps came toward them.
Though Hutch had seen Straw on campus at Duke for a basketball game a month ago, there was always a welcome jolt in running across him in person and seeing how little his excellent face and body had changed in the forty years since he was Hutch's student in prep school in Virginia -- Hutch's first real job and his first strong taste of what seemed love at its full hot tilt. And here, for all of Grainger's news about Wade, Hutch stood up smiling to shake Straw's hand -- an enormous hand that always engulfed you a second longer than you intended and, above it, the nearly black eyes that would have looked natural in the face of a hurtling Mongol rider.
They were set, a little slant, in a head as strong and encouraging to see as any antique head of a grown man -- the Dying Gaul or Augustus Caesar in the prime of power, a face you'd follow through narrow straits. Hutch had lasted well enough too, but he always had to remind himself that Straw was only seven years younger -- fifty-six years old and tanned by bourbon like a well-cured hide yet untouched at the core by the years he'd breasted.
Straw let go of Hutch's hand and turned to Grainger. "How long's he been here?"
Grainger said "Time don't mean nothing to me. You ask him." He hooked an enormous thumb toward Hutch.
Hutch went to his chair; but since there was no seat for Straw but the floor or Grainger's bed, he stood and faced Straw. "I've still got some of my faculties intact -- I can estimate I got here twenty minutes ago. You charging parking time in the drive?" Hutch was only half joking; something was wrong here. Was Straw on the verge of one of his drunks (they'd grown increasingly rare in recent years but could still throw him badly for weeks at a time), or had Grainger let Straw know about Wade?
Straw said "Oh no, I'm just guarding Mr. Walters. He promised he'd rest all afternoon so we wouldn't wear him out tonight."
Hutch looked to Grainger and could see no sign of impatience or fatigue. But he also reminded himself he could see no adequate sign that this live body had lasted one year more than a century.
Grainger lifted a hand for quiet. "Old Mrs. Joe Kennedy -- Miss Rose Fitzgerald, you know, the President's mother? She lust turned a hundred and three, going strong up yonder on the Cape Cod beach. Nobody tells her when to sleep or wake."
Straw was suddenly as peaceful as the boy he'd been when Hutch first knew him, before the first drunk. He said to Grainger "Well, Hutchins and I aren't President yet and you're no rose. Emily's up at the house now cooking the party. It's the size of a circus and headed your way. So Hutch and I plan to find beds and lie down to rest up for it. Let's stretch you out for a little nap too." Straw went to the old man and took his elbow to help him rise.
Grainger shook Straw off and pressed his stand button.
Hutch went to the other side to help Straw guide the frail bones to bed.
But once the chair had stood him upright, Grainger held in place to loosen his collar -- the pearly button; he never wore a tie. Then on his own he moved to the bed with no sign of age but a kind of dream slowness like fleeing in a nightmare with no hope of rescue.
First Grainger sat on the edge of the bed, then laid his head back and drew up his legs. Only then did he ask for help. "Strawson, take my shoes off."
Straw untied the clean black brogans and slipped them off. Beneath them the feet were in high thick cotton socks, spotlessly white.
Grainger said "Hutchins, help smooth out my pants."
Hutch arranged the khaki pants along and around the legs they covered -- smoothing wrinkles, straightening creases.
The old man's eyes were shut by then, the eyeballs big as pullet eggs through the thin tan lids. He hooked his thumbs in the waist of his pants. "Now both of you cover my feet. I'm cold."
Straw looked to Hutch; both silently grinned and together unfolded the green summer blanket and laid it over the legs, to the knees.
They were shutting the door when Grainger said "Too mean to die."
As Hutch glanced back, he met the opalescent eyes, open on him again.
Grainger told Hutch "I'm talking about nothing but me. Nobody you know."
Hutch said "I've known you every day of my life." It was literally true and he had clear memories from as early as two and three years old of this same soul here.
But the old eyes shut again. "That's what you think. Live on in the dark." Grainger gave a rough grumble and waved the boys off -- two tall men in late midlife, whose ages combined exceeded his by a mere eighteen years. Before they'd both got down his front steps, he was gone in sleep, entirely serene.
Outside Hutch turned toward the main house. A nap might not be a bad idea, or an hour alone in deep country quiet.
Straw, though, had turned left toward the pine woods. From a hundred yards' distance, the trees were so dense they looked more like a bulwark than trees, some old fortification abandoned but guarding still its forgotten cause. When Hutch didn't follow, Straw looked back. "We need a short walk."
Hutch fell in five yards behind him. They didn't make a sound between them till they were deep enough in the pines for all other signs of human life to be screened out so thickly that civilization seemed denied. Hutch thought he and Straw might have been air-dropped on an island owned by nothing but evergreens, a brown bird or two and the dark gray owl they startled awake (it flew ahead like a spirit guide in an Indian tale).
He and Straw were in sight of a small clearing with a single whitebarked sycamore before Hutch knew he was being led down the same dry path they'd taken thirty-seven years ago after they'd buried Rob, Hutch's father, and Straw had flunked out of Washington and Lee in his first semester and moved here with Grainger while Hutch went back to England to finish his graduate study. Hutch even spoke out now. "You picking this same old trail on purpose?"
Straw never turned. "What trail?"
"The one we took in '56 when I flew back from Rome for Rob's funeral."
Straw said "Sure, since you noticed, I did. Walk on a short way."
The leafy ground began a slow decline toward the valley, and step by step Hutch could barely believe the near-silent show of early spring fullness. There were spry red cardinals every few yards. At his feet there were frequent blooms of a shape and color he'd never seen, and overhead there were glimpses of a sky so blue it seemed to be working to match the pleasure he'd felt today on the road. But what kept slamming against Hutch's eyes was not this masterful calm unfolding -- a natural life indifferent to him and all his kind, proceeding along its immortal rails -- but the new raw idea of his son's face, blind with all its other punishments, if Grainger was right. And what Hutch asked himself every step was What am I doing on a sightseeing hike five hundred miles from my only child, who needs me whether he'll say so or not?
After the better part of a mile, Straw pushed on faster ahead, then stopped with his back toward Hutch and waited stock-still.
Hutch came on and stopped in reach of Straw. Only then did he realize they'd come to a place he'd never seen, not in the childhood years he'd roamed these woods alone or with Rob or Grainger. Fifty yards downhill from where he and Straw stood, a wide creek ran in banks so even and clean that the whole scene looked manmade and tended.
The bed of the creek was deep and apparently clear of rocks; but hundreds of rocks in every shade of brown and white paved the banks and made a thick border, far as Hutch could see, to left and right. In broad clumps, scattered among the boulders, were flowers a foot high -- a bright egg-yellow. Late wild jonquils maybe?
The scene was admirable but a little funny. It had the look of an accidental stretch of city park, spliced in here and lost. Hutch looked to Straw to check for signals. Was he meant to laugh at the incongruities or praise whoever had curbed raw nature into this tame stretch?
Straw's eyes brimmed tears, though none had yet fallen.
Hutch said "It's handsome. Who do we thank?"
"Grainger gets down here to tend all this?"
Straw hadn't faced Hutch, but he knuckled at his eyes and sat on the dry ground. "Grainger spent most of his spare time, twenty-odd years ago, making this place right. He'd sometimes be down here in the neardark, hauling rocks till I'd come down and make him quit."
"What was he planning?"
Straw said "He never told me and I never asked. You know me -- I leave people to their own designs."
"But somebody's keeping it up, I can see -- not Emily surely?"
Straw said "Emily doesn't know it's here. Hell, Em doesn't know we live in the country, not for all the looking around she's done. Never walks an inch beyond the garden. No, I keep this place up, after every big storm -- pull on my hipboots and gouge it out again. I put in a hundred new bulbs last winter; every one of them lived. I take pictures of it for Grainger to see -- he hasn't been down here for, oh, eighteen years."
Hutch had also sat and by now the sight looked more appropriate. The water even sounded pure and free-flowing from some intentionally guarded source way uphill from here. "Why do you think he did it, back here where nobody much would see?"
Straw finally faced Hutch; his eyes had a trace of their old ferocity -- eyes you might see as your last sight before violent death. But his voice was low and steady on. "Mr. Walters told me, fiat-out plain, the day he finished. He'd asked me, weeks before, to leave him be -- just let him work down here alone. But finally late one fall afternoon, he quietly found me when Em was in town. He led me to this spot, sat me down and said 'It's all I can leave you, Strawson.' I begged his pardon; I didn't understand. So he tried again. He laughed a long time -- he'd almost quit laughing, even back then -- and he said 'Your inheritance. My deathbed gift. Keep it clean in my memory.' I thanked him and then said 'You killing yourself some evening soon?'
"He picked that over in his mind and laughed again. 'It hasn't come to me that direcfiy, no. Very few black people kill themselves -- you noticed that? -- not with razors or guns, not fast anyhow. No, I'm just thinking I'm past eighty years old. The Bible doesn't promise but three score and ten; and very few of my family, black or pink, lived nearly that long.' So I told him I was sure we'd celebrate his hundredth together. He said he partly hoped I was right. Then he never mentioned the place again -- never came back down here, not to my knowledge; never asks me one word about it, even when I show him the pictures I take."
Hutch owned all the land they'd crossed to get here; he owned this valley. Years back he'd tried to give it to Straw when Straw's daughter was born, an only child. But Straw had said he didn't want to "lay up treasure"; instead, let him keep on supervising the Negro tenant who worked the tobacco and running the place on straight half-shares (Straw had money from his own dead mother). So Hutch thanked Straw for tending Grainger's peculiar improvement.
And Straw agreed as solemnly as if they'd concluded a treaty exchanging some isthmus or bridge.
Hutch couldn't help smiling. "Hell, we may have the core of a gold mine on our hands -- buy the rest of the county, clear-cut all the trees, build a cinderblock music hall for tacky stars from Las Vegas and Nashville, run a paved road back here, build parking lots, lure in busioads of senior citizens; and I'll sell tickets when I retire. That'll be any day."
For a moment, as he generally did, Straw took the idea seriously. Then his mouth seemed to fill with bile; he turned aside to spit. When he spoke to Hutch's eyes, it came straight as a tracer. "I can see what you've turned into, friend. You can thank your Jesus that Wade is blind; he won't have to watch."
Hutch actually thought Nothing anyone's said till now in my life was harder than that. In another ten seconds it still felt true. Hutch still hadn't smelt any liquor on Straw; he couldn't recall an offensive word he'd said to Straw in two decades (it had been twenty years since he'd criticized Emily for her Puritan-mother primness and jealousy). Had some postponed toll for years of self-loathing come down on Straw and poisoned him bad enough to flush hate from him -- not only hate but unearned nonsense, however well phrased? What does he see I've turned into?
Hutch thought through that before he registered Straw's main news. Straw knows about Wade. So Grainger's told him. Hutch had known since Christmas that Wade still phoned Grainger every few weeks, but he'd had no inkling that Grainger knew about the plague and its symptoms. And he'd never asked Grainger to keep anything he knew about Wade from Straw and Emily. Hutch himself, though, had kept it from Straw and everyone else except his own ex-wife -- Wade's mother Ann. Ann had been on her own for more than a year since leaving Hutch when she passed sixty-one.
Straw said "You don't deserve that from me." He knocked a fist on Hutch's shin.
Hutch waited, thanked him but then said "What have I turned into?"
Straw looked him over thoroughly again, shook his head in honest bafflement and said "Can we talk about Wade instead? We might help him."
"What don't you know?"
Straw said "How long have you known Wade's sick?"
"Since late last summer, eight or nine months."
"Did Wade tell you outright or call his mother first?"
Hutch thought Might have known Straw would go for the quick. He almost laughed. "Wade came for a visit two winters ago. I hadn't quite guessed what Ann had in mind, and I doubt Wade knew before he arrived, but Ann had her own plans cooking by then. She was already hunting modest quarters to start her 'lunge at self-reliance' -- honest to God, she was calling it that. So sometime during that three-day visit, she brought young Wade in on her thrilling secret, and he helped her find the place she's rented out toward Hillsborough on Pleasant Green Road.
"Sometime on that same visit, Wade told her his trouble -- by then he'd only had minor infections -- and asked if he could count on coming home when he got bad. According to Ann, Wade asked if she could stand to move back in with me long enough to see him through to his own end, if the end-time came and he needed help? You know how Wade had shied off visits this far south in recent years, how he'd barely see us when we went to New York and then nowhere but in public restaurants or dark theaters -- he and his super-Afro friend."
Straw said "Wyatt Bondurant?"
"None other, the scourge of pink Caucasians. Anyhow, back to my sad story -- Ann's squatty little self-reliant house can barely hold her and her big designs on self-improvement, much less a man at least as sick as anybody left on Earth. But Ann told Wade she'd give all she had; she couldn't speak for me -- he must ask me himself. For whatever reasons, though, Wade left without asking me; and Ann didn't mention one word of his trouble till after she'd been on her own for long months.
"Then she called me one evening and asked to come by on the pretext of bringing me some jackass gadget she'd bought for my kitchen. In fifteen minutes she backed up that great truckload of sadness and poured it on me. Till then I'd got fairly used to the idea that Wade's friend Wyatt had turned him against us. But hearing that my son couldn't trust me with the news of his death -- and hearing it from Ann in the midst of this skit she's waltzing through -- well, it put an even harder freeze on our dealings, Wade's and mine." If Hutch had more to tell, it failed him.
Straw said "So Wade is at the point of death in New York City, alone as any street-comer psycho, because you and Ann are peeved with each other?"
"That's likely to be a small piece of it, yes. It may be part of why he won't take my phone calls."
"Forget the damned phone, Hutch. Walk to New York, if that's what it takes."
"I've thought this through a billion times -- Wade's still a grown man, Straw. I don't have the right."
Straw said "Pardon me but I fail to comprehend how any quibble about your rights can be strong enough to keep a man, kind as you've been in your best days, from a son in a pit as low as this?"
Hutch was too full to speak.
Straw said "Set me straight on a few things here -- Wade is not a junkie, right?"
"Don't cheapen this."
"Don't worry; I'm not. I'm exercising my rights as I see fit. You may have forgot but I remember, clear as this minute, standing by Wade when he was an infant at the christening font and swearing to be his faithful godfather."
Hutch shut his eyes and agreed. He could see it plain as Straw.
"Last time I looked, Wade wasn't a needle-drug addict. He's sure-God not hemophiliac."
Hutch said "No, Wade would barely take aspirin till this came on him."
Straw's voice was like a voice that has reached the last conclusion available to humans, that exhausted and mild -- "What other brands of adult catch this plague?" When Hutch stood silent, Straw stated his finding. "So Wade is queer." It was far from a question.
Hutch faced him; their eyes were no more than three feet apart.
Straw could watch you for hours on end and not blink once; he was steady-eyed here.
Hutch said "That's an admirably educated guess."
"It's the truth, mean as barbed wire; it's been the truth since before Wade finished grade school surely."
Hutch said "I doubt it was early as that; recall he loved more than one fine girl." He paused, then mutely agreed to Straw's finding. All right, we've both known it always. But he and Straw had never so much as broached it between them, not till today.
"Is there some kind of freeze-dried Baptist hypocrite hid down in your soul and holding you back from Wade Mayfield at the edge of his grave?"
Hutch said "Not to my knowledge, no. I was never a Baptist, as you'd remember if you honored our past. If any one of your friends has loved pleasure, it's surely been me -- taking and giving." Hutch paused and met Straw's unbroken stare. "I'd have thought you remembered. God knows, I seldom forgot our times."
Straw watched Hutch again for a long quiet minute. Except for handshakes, no parts of their bodies had touched in nearly four decades. And for Straw that had never seemed a real deprivation, despite their pleasure. Now though, this close to Hutch's body, Straw saw again how well made his friend was, how nearly his face had refused to age and how his eyes had only strengthened in both directions -- Hutch drank in the world and sent it back out; something in his eyes always said Come. There's a better place here, an actual dream.
Straw asked himself now why he'd stopped answering. He broke his gaze and looked down to Grainger's all-but-maniacal water park below them. Then a memory he'd lost came back. "You remember Wade nearly drowned, right there." Straw pointed to the central pool of the cleaned stretch.
Hutch said "Lord, no." They'd kept it from him. "When was it? Who saved him?"
Straw thought Grainger's name and recalled the event. But all that past suddenly seemed meaningless against the pressing weight of now. He faced Hutch and said the unavoidable thing. "Let me drive you to New York tonight. We can bring Wade back. He'll listen to me." Straw suddenly drew back and flung a small white flint, an arrowhead he'd found underfoot. It missed every tree between them and the valley and thunked down in the midst of the creek.
Shocked as he was, Hutch at least turned the idea over. Wade tonight? Would he so much as answer the door, much less join them? At first Hutch could only think to ask "Where would he stay? I'm teaching straight through till the end of the month."
"There's Duke Hospital, for an obvious start. There's his mother in her house, ready to serve. Emily wouldn't object to Wade being here; I'll take him on gladly."
Hutch said "He won't move."
Straw waited through half a long minute. Then he said "Christ, do you love your son or not?"
"Friend, I honest to God don't know," but by then Hutch's own eyes had watered, and the sound of the words was criminal nonsense. The total weight of the postponed fact that Wade Mayfield was dying blind five hundred miles north, the only thing Hutch had expected to last of all he'd had a part in making except a few poems, the only human he'd loved with no real reservation since his own father died -- that whole weight caved in on him here. All over his body under the clothes, his actual skin begged to be held and touched. Hutch had waited too long, much more than a year, since any welcome hand had touched him. Now though, he couldn't ask or reach out for touch. So he stood, looked down to the creek a last time, then turned and headed back toward his car -- the main house, the car, the road, wherever.
Straw called out "Answer yourself soon, boy. You've got to know" -- know whether Hutch truly loved Wade or not. It didn't feel like a cruel question to Straw.
Hutch failed to answer though, failed to look back. And soon he was almost out of sight before Straw fell in behind him and followed. Straw made no effort to overtake Hutch; and when they were out of the woods into daylight, Straw paused at Grainger's to check on his nap while Hutch walked straight to the main house, the upstairs room that was always his on overnight visits.
An hour later Straw had already gone on to Grainger's with most of the meal, so Hutch and Emily came down the high back steps with only a tray of the last hot dishes and a box with the gifts. In the short walk Emily said, out of the blue, "Hutch, we're heartbroken for all your family."
If she'd flung off her darkish old-maid clothes and thrown herself on him, Hutch could hardly have felt a stranger surprise. In thirty years Emily had said very little to him that an unbiased witness might have called warm or generous. And it took Hutch a few yards of silent walking before he could say "Em, it's awful. Thank you."
"Whatever we can do, whatever on Earth --"
Have she and Straw huddled on some plan to bring Wade here and see him through to whatever end? Have they told it to Wade and has he agreed? It was hardly the worst thing that might happen next, but the thought of shouldering what was his duty onto others here -- even onto Strawson who truly was Wade's godfather and had loved him -- was painful for Hutch and scraped on his sense of failing to tend the single person alive who had full claim on his care. He shocked himself by saying "Strawson just mentioned us going to see Wade -- him and me, soon."
Emily's small white face burned a kind of fervor that Hutch hadn't seen since the early days when she'd tear into him and fight for her share of Straw's time and notice. "Strawson very much wants to go with you, I know."
"Since when, Emily?"
She paused to answer carefully. "I think it was two nights ago, maybe three -- Strawson came back up to the house from Grainger's and said the old fellow had made him call Wade."
"Straw talked to Wade a few days ago?"
"I thought Strawson told you --"
They were in earshot of Grainger's door; it was open again. Hutch quietly said "Straw's barely told me he's alive, not for some years." He thought it would please her.
But again she surprised him. "You're the only person, alive or dead, that I've never heard Strawson low-rate or laugh at or slash to ribbons."
"He's known a lot of people."
"In the Biblical sense." Still Em's face was showing a life it had seldom showed, a fined-down purpose that could drill through rock. "I well know people have lined Strawson's road; but I've told you the truth, Hutch, the bare-knuckle truth. I thought you were in the business of truth -- teaching school, writing poems."
By then they'd arrived at Grainger's front steps, and Emily had climbed the first one before Hutch touched her elbow to stop her. When she turned, he said "I needed reminding." His eyes were not cutting.
And she understood that. She also knew it was as near to thanks as she'd get from Hutch Mayfield. She shut her eyes, ducked her chin, then raised her voice and called "Mr. Grainger, we're all here with you."
Hutch wondered since when she'd called Grainger Mister.
Inside Grainger said "Stop where you are."
Straw's voice laughed. "Easy, Mr. Walters. We know them both. They're bringing provisions. Just let them unload."
Inside, when the screen door shut behind them, Hut