THE PRINCIPLE OF PERTURBATIONS
Hutchins Mayfield had stripped and faced the water, intending to enter before his father and stage the drowned-man act to greet him. But turning in the half-dark cubicle, he was stopped by sight of another man, naked also, close there beside him. He took two quick steps to leave, then knew -- a dressing mirror he'd failed to notice hung on the pine wall. He went back and looked, not having seen himself for a while -- not alone and startled, fresh for study. (In fact, except for negligent shaves, it had been two weeks -- his twenty-fifth birthday. He'd been in Richmond that night with Ann; his grandmother tracked him down by phone to wish him luck. He'd borne her rambling a little impatiently; so she closed by saying, "Have you checked your looks now you're over the hill? -- twenty-five is the downside in our family, Hutch, whatever doctors say. Twenty-five, we're grown." He'd checked in Ann's bureau mirror and confirmed it.) Now he studied his groin, full in the warm day, and thought how little it had caused but pleasure -- a grown man's first means of work hung on him, an aging toy. But he smiled and reached a hand toward the cool glass, stroked the dim image. It bobbed in gratitude -- pony, pet turtle -- and Hutch laughed once, then heard his father's voice at the pool.
"What things will this cure?" Rob Mayfield said.
"Sir?" -- the Negro attendant.
Now an exchange was promised in the earliest consoling sound of Hutch's life -- a white voice, a black voice twined and teasing. He stood to wait it out.
"Which one of all my many troubles will this spring cure?"
"They tell us not to make big claims no more. Used to say kidneys, liver, eczema, the worst kind of blues, warts, falling hair. Whatever they tell me, it cured my feet. I was born flat-footed."
Rob said "Bathing fixed them?"
"No, never. I drink it. But it sure God jacked these feet off the ground. Born glued to the floor; now my kids play under em -- run in and out, hide all in the shade. This your first time here?"
Rob said, "Yes. Thirty years ago I lived in Goshen, but I never got over the mountain somehow."
"Shame on you then," the Negro said. "Goshen ain't nothing but sand and cold river. Warm Springs would have helped you, just twenty minutes west."
"It seemed farther then. The road was bad."
"Beautiful now. Go on; step in -- never too late."
Rob laughed but said "Oh it is." Then he moved.
Hutch came to the door of the cubicle to look -- Rob Mayfield's back. His father stripped was something he really hadn't seen, not for years.
Fifty-one years old but still white and firm in waist and hams, Rob stooped to grip the rafts of the stairs and descended slowly into eight feet of clear water bubbling from the earth, precisely the heat of a well human body. Then he swam four strokes to the center of the pool; embraced the ridgepole and looked back, smiling, to his only child. "I should have found this thirty years ago. Might have changed some things."
Hutch also gripped the rails but paused at the top. "What things?"
Rob continued smiling and paddled his hair back, still barely gray, but said no more.
Hutch looked for the Negro. He was back out of sight with his radio; so Hutch could say, "You might not have had me." He grinned but was earnest.
"I didn't say that."
"I've been the main trouble for most of those years."
"Never said that either."
Hutch nodded -- it was true -- but he stood on, dry in the thick warm air of late afternoon, and looked at what seemed the only block in his path: this middle-sized man, drenched and curling. The main thing he'd loved, that might yet stop him.
Rob clapped his hands once. "Were you ever baptized?"
"Not in my recollection."
"Then descend," Rob said and raised his right arm. The smile never broke, but he said "Father. Son --"
Hutch slowly descended. They laughed together as Hutch's head sank. But he didn't rise. He went straight into the drowning tableau -- emptied his lungs so he fell to the smooth rocks that paved the spring and sprawled there, lit by green light that pierced the water.
It worked. Rob saw him as dead, that quickly -- dead limbs gently flapped by currents, the long hair snaky. Yet he didn't move; he called the Negro. "Sam, step here."
The man was named Franklin, but he came at a trot.
Rob pointed down.
Franklin nodded. "Dead again." He stared a long moment. "Looks real, don't it? He do that a lot, every time he come -- like to scared his young friend to death last week."
Hutch jerked to life and thrust toward the surface. He broke out, streaming; faced his father, and said "-- Holy Ghost."
Rob said "Welcome."
They swam, sank, floated for the hour they'd purchased. No other bather joined them, and Franklin stayed off in his own little room. Within three minutes of the drowning, they had calmed. The water's constant match of their own body-heat soon made it a companion -- gentle, promising of perfect fidelity: the craving of both men, in different ways. To Hutch it seemed a large faceless woman -- spread and open, inescapable -- into which he inserted his whole free body; four times in the hour he stiffened and fell. To Rob it finally seemed a place -- the original lake in which he had formed, which he'd left insanely but had now found again, and in which he'd dissolve. They scarcely spoke, only fragments of pleasure. They felt no need, for the first time ever in one another's presence. When the hour was up and Franklin came, they were deep in separate dreams of safety.
Franklin said "You shriveling yet?"
Rob looked to Hutch.
Hutch looked at his own right hand. "A little."
"Then time to get out. Hour's all you can stand." Franklin held white towels like gifts more tempting than the spring itself.
Hutch swam the strokes that put him by his father. That whole charged body was covered with beads of air like an armor. He reached out and wiped his hand down Rob's chest, clearing a space.
Rob took the wrist and, not releasing it, swam back an arm's length to focus the face. "I'll try not ever to forget this," he said. "You please try the same."
"I can promise," Hutch said.
"No, just try."
Hutch nodded and they swam together toward the stairs.
In the safe dreamy hour, Rob had found no way to tell his son what he'd had confirmed two days ago -- that Rob Mayfield, early as it was, would be dead by winter; that the body which had served him unfailingly till now had conceived and was feeding in a lobe of its right lung a life that would need nothing less than all. At the stairs he said "You first. You're slower." He wanted that instant of sight to decide.
Hutch gave it. He climbed out strongly but paused on the top step, not looking back; then he cupped his face in both large hands and shuddered hard -- only once but enough.
Rob saw that to tell him now before the end would be to stop the trip he'd planned, that he'd leaned his life on mysteriously. Or, if he should still leave in face of the news, to show him as the final demon of dreams-faithless after decades of smooth deceit. Rob took the rails also. Against the lovely pull of the spring -- its promise of care -- he hauled himself and his fresh partner up.
They ate a good supper at the Warm Springs Inn (mountain trout, new lettuce) and set out at eight in clear cool darkness to drive the pickup on to Hutch's near Edom -- some sixty miles north through mountains and valleys, and they both were tired. Rob had started up from North Carolina at noon to meet Hutch at five. Hutch had thumbed down from Edom; the bath was his idea. So Hutch drove now and -- through the first mountain, cross the Cowpasture River -- they said very little. Past the river Hutch realized his whole idea would force Goshen on them -- on his father at least, who had not been there in eight or nine years. They had already passed two signs naming Goshen, but it still lay a quarter-hour ahead, and Rob had not mentioned it since talking to Franklin. So Hutch said, "Tell me what you want me to do" (meaning, stop at the grave or drive on past).
Rob said, "Be a better man than me at least."
Hutch started to explain but accepted the delay. "Tell me how to go about it."
"I expect you know. You've lived a quarter-century; you've hurt nobody, not that I know of."
Hutch said "I killed my mother."
"You couldn't help that. I couldn't keep you from her. Rachel pulled you out of me by main force, Son; and she held on to you, but you had to come out. Rachel died of bad luck. Your luck was better -- and my luck, to have you."
"Thank you," Hutch said, "but still tell me how."
Rob turned to the dim profile beside him. "I was answering politely, just words to say. I couldn't tell a dog how to bury a bone, much less a grown man how to live. I don't even understand your plan."
Hutch glanced across. "The trip?"
"Well, no. I did a little wandering myself -- sooner than you, on a smaller map: a few whistle-stops in southwest Virginia. Europe was torn up all through my freedom. No I meant what comes once you've seen the world and are back here, ticking through the numerous years. You're counting on the ravens to feed you apparently; they often renege."
Hutch smiled at the road. "I can do two things that'll tide me over if the ravens fail -- teach children English and make women think they've been rushed to Heaven before their time." Since he was grown he had hardly mentioned love to his father.
Rob remembered that and waited. Then he said, "How many would you estimate you'd rushed?"
"Women, to Heaven -- how many have you sent?"
Hutch said "I was joking."r
Rob said, "I'm not. I'd like to know. It would help me to know what women mean to you. It's a danger that runs in your family, you've noticed -- the Mayfield side."
Hutch also waited. His window was open on the loud spring night; it spoke at their silence -- incessant jangle of small life signaling, no one creature mute in solitude, even the fox that crossed before them musky with lure. He thought that awhile; then said, "It would help me too. I doubt I know. I've liked two or three women more than anybody -- Alice Matthews, Polly. I may need Ann Gatlin -- she hopes I do; I hope I do."
"But you haven't asked Ann to marry you yet?"
Hutch said, "Worse -- I've asked her not to visit me in Europe. She'd started on plans to join me for Christmas."
"What made you do that?"
Hutch waited again, then tried the answer he'd offered Ann. "I think I need air."
"To do what in?"
"-- Need stillness around me."
Rob said, "Nine-tenths of the world's population works eight or ten hours a day more than you. You've rested, Son. Lie back and be grateful."
Hutch laughed. "You hit it. I'm so well-rested my mind is souring but grateful I'm not. I'm an aging boy, as you point out. I need to work and I think I'm going toward it."
"Ann Gatlin sounds like a nice job to me, a fine evening shift -- the one shift that pays."
Hutch said "She'd like that."
"What's wrong with that?"
"I didn't know you rated Ann very high."
Rob said, "Now I do. She wants you around. She means to last."
Hutch said "I think you're right."
"But you're holding her off?"
"For now. No choice."
Rob said "There you're wrong."
"I can't take her with me."
"Then ask her to wait. Hell, beg her." Rob looked away.
They let another patch of silence spread. By now the river was steady beside them in the unseen gorge. Its chilly clatter blanked all other sounds; and when the patch had lasted three minutes and Hutch had thought of nothing but fear -- fear of failing his kin, fear of finally knowing no work to do, fear of solitude -- he said, "You can see I have brought you to Goshen." The meanness was instant filth on his tongue.
But Rob answered calmly. "I noticed you had. I figured you would." He leaned forward, opened the glove compartment, drew out a flashlight, and shone it on Hutch. "So I came prepared. Stop by Rachel's grave."
Hutch nodded. "Two miles."
Rob said, "Time enough to tell you this story. May prove useful someday. It's named `Little Hubert.' Little Hubert used to like the girls in kindergarten. One day tile teacher sent his mother a note -- Hubert runs his hand up all the girls' dresses. Please tell him to quit -- so his mother said, `Son, do you know what girls have under their dresses?' Hubert said `No ma'm.' She said, `A pink mouth with a lot of sharp teeth. Remember that.' Hubert said, `Yes ma'm. Thank you for the tip.' And he acted on it -- never touched a girl, though he did a lot of dreaming and a lot of self-service. Twenty-five years of good behavior passed. Then a woman named Charlene chased him down -- flat wouldn't let Hubert say No, even Maybe -- and they got married. Went to Tampa on their honeymoon, palm trees and moonlight; danced till near-dawn when Charlene asked him if it wasn't time for bed. Hubert said `O.K.' and they went upstairs. It took her about an hour, but finally Charlene came out of the bathroom all sweet and ready in a peach satin gown. Hubert was long since under the covers in flannel pajamas, more than half-asleep. But she slid in beside him and commenced to stroke his arm till Hubert said, `I thought you were tired.' She said, `But Sugar, you haven't even touched me' and pulled his hand toward you-know-where. He jerked back fast and said `No you don't!' She said, `What do you mean? This is my first night!' Hubert said, `Go to it. But count me out. I know what you're hiding down there.' She said `Just what's normal, silly.' He said, `So right! -- the normal set of teeth. I'm not risking my good fingers on you.' And he was about to head back into sleep when she said, `Sugar, you're out of your mind -- my teeth are in my head. Look here.' She threw back the sheets and raised that gown. So Hubert sat up and bent over gradually and took a long look. Then he said, `No wonder! Good night, Charlene! Just look at the condition of those poor gums?'"
Hutch laughed; he'd never heard it.
Rob sat like a stuffed Baptist preacher through the laughter; but when Hutch subsided, he said, "Don't forget it, especially in Europe. The gums over there make ours look healthy." Then he switched the flashlight on, at his own face, and turned to his son -- a wide bright grin. "You know he was wrong, little Hubert -- don't you?"
Hutch smiled. "Yes sir --"
"Very sadly wrong."
Hutch said, "Yes sir, I have reason to know."
"You're not afraid, are you?"
"Not of that," Hutch said. Then he slowed to turn left.
In a Stepin Fetchit voice, Rob said, "You mean you scared of dead folks, cap'n?"
Hutch said "I may be."
"And you may be right."
They had stopped at a pair of shut iron gates. The headlights showed the nearest stones, which were also the oldest -- marble tree-trunks, lambs, the locally famous seated-boy-with-birddog (an only son, self-shot while hunting). Hutch doused the lights but made no move, though the plan had been his.
At last Rob opened the door in darkness and stepped to the ground. He stood a minute while his eyes adjusted; when Hutch didn't move, he took a long leak. Then he looked back once at the truck -- only outlines -- and went on to climb the easy gates. On the other side he lit his flashlight and walked a knowing path forward, fairly straight.
Hutch sat and watched him, held in place by feelings that had waylaid him unexpected -- reluctance to pay this farewell homage to his mother by night; a small seed of dread to visit at night a mother he'd never seen alive, whom his own life had canceled; and worse, to visit her this last time with Rob who had cared so little for her memory as not to have been here in nearly a decade. Rob's light had vanished. Well, let it. Let him bear full-force what he'd tried to deny -- the physical locus of his own worst damage: the strip of earth which held in solution all that remained of a lovely girl gone twenty-five years, kept from her son. The darkness continued, no further light. Then shame replaced the harsher knowledge, and Hutch was freed to go. He cranked the engine, switched on the headlights (which didn't reach Rob); and climbed out to find his father, wherever. He had been here often in recent years; so he had no trouble finding the way, though he entered black dark within fifty feet, and still there was no sign or sound but the river. His feet had struck the low rock-border of the Hutchins plot before he saw pale wavering light and heard what seemed an animal scrabbling. The one large tombstone blocked his way; Hutch stepped round it slowly.
The flashlight was propped at the base of the stone, rapidly failing. Rob was kneeling on the head of Rachel's grave, digging with his nails in the ground above her face. Or filling a hole the size of a softball with what seemed fresh dirt. Rob didn't look up or speak but finished the little job, replacing a lid of turf at the end. Then still not looking, he reached for the light and slammed it once on the stone -- pure black. Then the sounds of him rising, stepping toward Hutch; a hand that found Hutch's shoulder, no fumbling, and gripped it hard. His calm voice said, "You've chosen this, have you?"
Hutch said "Sir?"
"Home -- you think of this place as home?"
Hutch had not thought that. He'd spent no more than an hour here in short rare visits, no more than two or three weeks in the town. But now he said, "I may, yes sir. I think I may."
"Then once you decide -- if you ever decide, decide soon enough -- bury me here. Bury me wherever you think is your home."
Hutch said, "Yes sir. But by then I'll surely be senile myself; you'd do well to leave some written instructions for somebody younger than both of us."
Rob said "You'll do." His hand came down from shoulder to wrist; he gripped Hutch's wrist.
So Hutch raised the joined hands -- a sizable weight -- and searched over Rob's dark face with dry fingers. They found tears of course.
Though they'd been nearly midnight reaching Hutch's in Edom, they both woke easily at dawn -- a bright sky but cool still. Under compulsion Rob had slept in the bed; Hutch had slept on the ample davenport. Each knew the other was awake by silence (mouth-breathers both, they slept like seals -- steadily announcing their vulnerability); but for twenty minutes neither one spoke. Hutch was thinking of ways to get Rob out of the house for the morning; he needed calm for his final packing. It didn't occur to him, huddled on himself, that his father was colder and thinking too. Despite his age Hutch rested in the standard child's assumption that a parent's mind is a marble wall, uncut by a single urgent requirement or even impatience.
But in those minutes Rob firmly decided his answer to the question he'd faced all yesterday. He wouldn't tell Hutch. He would not ask himself to bear the boy's response, whatever -- the man's; he could seldom believe he had made at least half of what was now a man. Today he would help the man load his boxes of books and records, his desk, in the truck; then he'd leave as cheerfully as he could manage. The man would be in England in a week, for at least a year. Rob would be underground before that ended. Now for the first time, it seemed desirable -- sleep as blank as the heart of a potato or some unimaginable form of reward. Whatever his sins, none of which he'd forgot, Rob Mayfield didn't anticipate punishment. But he found he was hungry. Having always been a famished riser, he saw no reason to abandon the habit; so without sitting up he suddenly spoke. "Have you got your pencil handy?"
Hutch also stayed down and said "No sir."
"Then listen-carefully, remember perfectly, and execute at once --"
Hutch said "I'll try."
"-- A small glass of sweetmilk, three eggs scrambled in butter (keep them soft), country sausage, hot biscuits, fig preserves, and strong coffee."
Hutch said "Coming up" but made no move.
Rob recalled he'd neglected to say any prayer; so he said to himself what, a boy of twelve, he'd seen was the heart of Jesus' prayer (the only one that didn't seem a showoff, and even that could be trimmed to two words -- "Your will"). Then he sat up in the cold air and looked.
Hutch was still drawn tight beneath his quilt, head turned away.
For a moment Rob felt a strong desire to be served for once, to lie back and let this child start the day -- warm the space, cook the food, soothe the sick, earn the keep. He even fell back on his elbows and beamed the wish toward Hutch -- Stand up and take over. Do everything for me. You'll be amazed how little that will be, how soon I won't need anything at all. But he thought of the end the doctor had outlined three days ago -- "You'll begin to cough; no syrup will help. Then you'll have trouble breathing, worse and worse till your lungs fill steadily with fluid and drown you. No pain." He'd asked if the doctor was promising no pain. Humorless as Moses, the doctor said, "No. If it spreads into bone, then we'll have real pain" (Rob had let the we pass). That would no doubt come to more than a little service before the end. He would ask nobody but his mother to give it. Though he still hadn't told her, there was no chance of doubt that Eva Mayfield would say any word but Yes -- and mean it, have the full strength to mean it. So he stood to the cold bare floor in his underpants, walked to the front room, and lit the oil heater. Then he parted the curtains and looked to the woods. In a high black pine, a young owl sat on a limb near the trunk, beginning its rest. A gang of blue jays quarreled at it with no effect, then flew on their way. Then the only sound was the tin stove warming, cracks and booms.
From the quilt Hutch said a muffled "Blessings on your head."
Rob said, "I accept them and will use them in your name. Now haul your precious white ass to the ground and feed this hollow old man you invited."
Hutch said, "Back to sleep. I've packed all the food."
"Unpack me an egg."
"I'm leaving, remember?"
Rob said "Goodbye."
By nine Hutch had managed to get Rob out. He'd given him a choice of the local sights -- a self-conducted tour of the school or the New Market battlefield twelve miles north or Endless Caverns. Rob had said, "The caverns sound more like me. I'll be back at noon and we can load up -- if I don't get lost; I'll try to get lost." He'd laughed and gone. Hutch had sat and drunk a third cup of coffee, consuming the quiet as if it were a suddenly discovered vein of some scarce mineral his bones required. (That he'd been with his father only sixteen hours, six of them asleep, and still craved solitude shamed him a little; but it came as no news. He was coming to see that all his conscious life -- from four or five on -- he had moved to a law which required him to take equal time alone for every hour of company, however amusing.) Then unwashed he started the last packing in a small footlocker, the final choice of what would accompany him on the trip. The rooms were already lined with boxes of the dearly expendable things, for storage in Fontaine. It was part of his purpose to go as nearly clean as he could, stripped of all but the vital minimum of the thicket of props he'd set round himself. Clothes were simple (he owned very few and they meant nothing to him, though he kept them neat). He laid out two changes of winter and summer clothes, then turned to hard choices.
Music -- he would have no phonograph, but he chose two records he felt he might need when he got near anyone else's machine: Brahms's Alto Rhapsody by Marian Anderson, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Flagstad.
Books -- a Bible, which Rob had given him (it had been his Great-grandmother Kendal's); The Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos; Anna Karenina (World's Classics edition, four inches by six, miraculous compression); a tattered pamphlet of pornographic photographs he'd found in a garbage can at college (a beautiful, and beautifully joined, young couple); his notebook and the daily log he kept.
Pictures -- his mother and father, young together; his Grandmother Mayfield, Alice Matthews, Ann Gatlin, a postcard view of the marble head of a girl from Chios (Boston Museum).
Objects -- the five-inch marble torso of a boy he'd bought in New York for fifty dollars three summers ago (sold for Greek but more likely Roman, though gentled by elegance); a box of drawing pencils, pen points, erasers; a box of watercolors; a pad of drawing paper; a pinebark carving of a human body which had once been a man but was now finished smooth.
It took him two hours to make the choices, stow the rest, set the boxes on the porch; but when he had thrown the last food to the birds, the house was effectively free of him. The three years he'd lived here -- mostly happy -- had altered it only by a few extra nailholes, a few strands of hair in unswept corners (he'd paid a woman to clean it tomorrow). He walked to the center of the house -- the short hall -- and stood in the emptiness for maybe two minutes, regretting and fearing. Then he stripped off his work clothes, folded them into a box bound for storage, walked to the shower, and bathed very carefully. Only then did he see that the wide gold band -- tight on his left hand -- was the main thing he carried, except for his pleasant and pleasing body.
To fill the half-hour till Rob was back, Hutch drove the four green miles in to school. He had said his farewells two days ago -- and received the Headmaster's valedictory sermon -- but there might be some mail; and whatever the woes of teaching three years in a rural Episcopal Virginia boys' school, he was nudged already by a sudden posthumous love of the place; nostalgia for a time which had been (he hoped) the end of childhood, delayed but calm. He passed no visible human on the drive; and even as he swung through the campus gates and parked by The Office, he could see nobody, though he actively searched -- no colleague or town-boy, no yardman mowing. Monday's commencement had emptied the space as thoroughly as war; so he sat a moment, accepting the favor. Little as he'd moved in his life till now, he already knew the shock of returning to find loud strangers banging on the sets of his former life. Then he entered the dim cool hall of the Office. On his way to the pigeonholes, he passed the Master's open outer room and Fairfax Wilson there, fervently typing. She hadn't seen him -- good. He could go out the back and miss her completely, no need to hear-out today's diatribe. But his name was already gone from the slot. Competent to organize vast migrations of nations cross oceans or nuclear blitzkrieg, Fairfax had done her duty by the school (and by herself; she resented his leaving ) -- the quitter was effaced. She would have any mail that had come today. When he stopped in her door, ten feet from her, she didn't look up but pounded on. So he tried to turn her, concentrated in silence on her rapt profile -- lean sister to a class of moviestar (Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck) who had shaped her looks twenty years ago, then moved beyond her into fleshy surrender while Fairfax had kept her virgin strength: a little withered but still a banner, proud flag of choice and loyalty-to-choice.
Finally she cut her big dark eyes toward him, no more smiling than a stork. "I thought you were strolling on the Left Bank by now."
"No ma'm, England. And not for eight days -- I've got five days on the water first."
She hiked a black brow. "Water? I thought anybody rich as you would be flying first-class."
He'd explained it fully some months ago; but in the slack time, he was willing to rally with her awhile (if you let her discharge her excess life in keen exchange, you might be spared a monologue on the fools she dealt with, the dog's road she trod). "No ma'm, I told you I'd be eating rat cheese and soda crackers."
"They may not even have cheese and crackers -- they don't have heat -- and what's this ma'm? I just age a year at a time like you. My friends call me Fair." She smiled at last, broad smile that drew real beauty to her face.
As always Hutch was a little startled by the urgent beauty and by his own quick but reluctant sense that they'd missed a chance at one another. Twenty years between them seemed a flimsy screen. He'd have given her something she'd maybe never had; she'd at least have taught him how to burn on high for forty-five years and show no scorching. He said, "Miss Wilson, are you saying I'm a friend?"
She swiveled the chair to face him, then looked to the Headmaster's door. "He's not here today -- in Lynchburg buying a new ballplayer; some eight-foot child that can't write his name." She'd whispered that much but straight at his eyes, her own eyes burning. Then she raised her voice to its normal power -- a carrying richness -- and said, "Hutchins Mayfield, I consider you the finest young man now residing in the Old Dominion; and you know how stuck I am on Virginia."
Hutch smiled and nodded but said, "I'm leaving in an hour, sad to say. Will Virginia survive?"
She refused the fun. "You'd better go now. An hour wouldn't give me time to say how far above the run you are. There are plenty people here who think you're crazy as a duck-in-love to be throwing yourself on fate like this, but you know what I tell them? -- I tell them `Lucky fate!'"
As always half-convinced by her force, Hutch could only thank her.
"Don't thank me. Just send me a Christmas card from some famous spot -- nothing naked please -- and in your first book put a lunatic maiden-lady from Virginia who types to perfection and knows what's what."
Hutch laughed. "A promise."
He returned with his trifling mail to the car, looking down in hopes of seeing no one; so he'd reached for the door before he saw a man lying back on the hood. A boy -- Strawson Stuart, long for his age, Hutch's pupil for two years. He lived in town; his eyes were shut. Hutch said, "I heard you had died Monday night at Morse Mitchell's party, but I didn't know I'd get the body for disposal."
Straw sat up solemn. "Well, you have." He extended his arms cruciform and held the pose. Then he smiled, the second dazzler of the day. "No I've risen and come by to help you load. Saw the note to your father; he's still not back."
"He may never be. He went to Endless Caverns."
Straw said, "Then carry me to Warm Springs quick."
Hutch said, "I scared you so bad last time, I doubted you'd ever want to go again" (he had drowned for Straw; even more than Rob, it had shaken the boy who'd seemed unshakable).
Straw said "But I do."
Hutch studied him long enough to know a true answer. "So do I, very much. There's no chance at all. I've got to load the truck, see Father off, then drive on to Richmond by suppertime. You said you'd see me in England."
Though Straw had graduated and Hutch resigned, the place itself -- the campus in sunlight, its order -- had kept Hutch from thinking of the hours that followed their bath in the spring. Now the different place which Straw constituted, in power and need, demanded homage. The sight of the stripped boy asleep in his arms last Saturday dawn stood clear in Hutch's mind. He watched it gladly with no regret. "We'll drive down to Cornwall -- Tristan, Tintagel. You liked that in class."
Straw nodded -- "I liked it" -- still grave as an arbiter.
Or a god -- young god of Want and Use, no more kind or cruel than electric current. Hutch thought that also, then said "Let's pack."
The three-hour silence of the drive to Richmond -- across the Shenandoah and the last tine of mountains in afternoon light -- had come over Hutch like total sleep, an apparently endless depth of rest into which he could dig with easy hands, no dreams to meet. Welcome as food, though he hadn't thought of the past few days as trial or punishment. He accepted the rest, drove his old Chrysler gently but fast, and managed an almost perfect exercise of his kindest skill -- life in the present. The future vanished before him, no trace -- his father's life without him; the choices Ann would face, the bid she awaited; the thousand accidents of settling in a strange place; the cold fear that soon his promise to work would uncover only empty shafts in himself and in plain view of the friends and kin who held his promise, a tangible note. The past existed only as happiness, snatches of memory of childhood peace -- whole summer hours in the swing by his grandmother, hearing her life; carving bark with Grainger, drawing hills with Alice. No agonized mother; no father drunk and stripped on a bare floor, dribbling piss; no need to choose one person from the world and love only that. The present was all -- his serviceable self borne on through evening and country peaceful as a child asleep, its own reward, toward nothing at all.
Yet of course toward Ann. When he entered her door at half-past six, there were no lights on; and he couldn't hear her. He set down his small bag and stood to listen -- still nothing. Was she gone on an errand? Gone for good? How much would he care? He waited to know but no news came, no feeling at least. He only hoped for the quiet to continue, and without conscious stealth he managed to walk the length of the hall with no board creaking. Then he stopped just short of the open kitchen door; there were small sounds there -- scraping, small splashes. He leaned out to see.
Ann was at the sink, looking west through the window, scraping potatoes. The light that was left fell in around her and lit her at the boundaries -- the line of her head and hair, her shoulders. She seemed to burn, very hot at the core; sunlight was only the breeze that fanned her and heightened her flare.
Hutch felt that he should be responding to her action, her work for him -- this living Vermeer unconsciously staged for no one but him; a loving and lovely woman in daylight, worked by love as by coal or steam. And he did feel grateful; but much more strongly, he felt the pity of the line she made -- the deceptive stillness of a human body which seems enduring when of course it is swept by time like a wind. He thought again that what set him off from others his age -- here at least; would it be true in Europe? -- was the fact he'd always believed in death, his mother's main gift. He'd always known that individual people leave apparently forever; that the hope of knowing, really knowing, any single person must be exercised now. And the only means of knowledge was touch. Rob had taught him that. Right or wrong, it was one more conviction which set Hutch firmly off from ninety-five percent of the people he met. They saw their bodies as hoards of treasure to be guarded unsleepingly; Hutch saw his as a nearly bare room, doors ajar.
Ann turned and made a few signs in the air with one empty hand.
Hutch said "Meaning what?"
She smiled. "-- Meaning I thought you had gone deaf and dumb, standing there so long."
"You heard me?"
"Why didn't you look?"
She said, "I couldn't think of anything to say."
"That's a new problem, right?"
A born narrator, she laughed once. "Right. But it's also new being left four thousand miles behind, typing letters for a lawyer and peeling potatoes for just myself."
The depth of the room -- twelve feet -- was still between them; and in those few words, the sun had set, blue dusk had risen. Hutch felt a powerful need to leave; to say a plain "Sorry," then turn and go.
But Ann made another set of signs, both hands.
He recalled she'd learned sign language as a girl -- Girl Scouts or school. "Are you really spelling words?"
"Yes." She made the phrase again.
"Still lost," he said.
So she came on toward him, a finger to her lips. One step away she stopped and said, "The young lady said, 'Leave me something to remember.' You got anything you could spare to leave her?"
Hutch smiled. "Tell her yes."
She led on past him through the darkened hall.
He followed. She shared his trust in touch, the body's hunt for ease and honor.
In a speechless half-hour, they each found both -- the ease that follows successful grounding of a long day's chagrin, the mutual honor two satisfied bodies award one another for candor and nerve. Then Hutch fell asleep in the dark beside Ann, and her arm on his chest became in three minutes the dream of the tunnel. He'd endured the dream from early childhood, though not for some years. Not a story but a trial -- far underground he must dig for his life through a tunnel no bigger than his own clothed body, inching forward only with the strength of his nails which he knew to be bleeding, though he couldn't see.
When he'd spasmed and whimpered more than once, Ann shook him. She knew the dangers of stopping a dream, and she shook too gently.
So he dug on awhile.
Ann let him go but pressed her mouth forward till she brushed his ear; then whispered her menu, "New potatoes, Swiss steak, snap beans --"
Hutch was still.
Ann said "Banana pudding."
Hutch said, "Let me leave you this one green banana for future use." His hand found her fingers and set them on his crotch. It was simple to turn and meet her lips.
She said, "I accept it and will name it for you," though the sense she had in her warming palm was of sleeping birds, blind and bare but close in a nest and shielded by her.
The whole last hour of the long drive home, Rob pushed for speed to make it by dark. But even the light load of Hutch's belongings strained the old engine and defeated the plan. When he saw he couldn't be there much before eight, he concentrated on a second small chance -- that Grainger had come out as promised to check, feed Thal, and leave a few lights on (she still dreaded dark). So he made that his aim -- the lighted house; the nine-year-old Boston bulldog, fed and gassy. And it drew him on successfully, hardly thinking; only seeing those two modest hopes, both likely. He got to the mail box at ten to eight -- just the paper and a bill from the freezer-locker plant -- then geared down to climb the half-mile of drive, still rutted from winter. But at the bend, past the last stand of pines, the house was black as the sky behind it. Rob actually stopped in disbelief and tried to recall the last time Grainger failed him -- never before. Was he sick or was Eva? Was he in there dead (Grainger was sixty-two, with high blood-pressure)? It took main force to start up again and finish the trip.
The flashlight was also dead, from last night. Rob stepped to the ground in thick dark and hurled it far as he could; if it crashed, he never heard it. He felt his way slowly, feet low to the ground, through the yard to the steps. Then he climbed carefully. On the porch he waited in final hope someone was inside -- Grainger or a drunk or an angel of death. Not even the scrape of Thal's claws at the door. He called once "Grainger." Then "Thal." Then he whistled. Still as slate.
So he went to the door. The knob turned freely; warmer air rushed to meet him but nothing else. He could hear Thal though, her disastrous lopped-snout struggle to breathe now quickened by fright. He knew she was sitting in her gunshell box at the back of the hall, shuddering hard; but he didn't try the light. He stood on the sill and said, "Thal, please explain why it's dark like this."
Thal snorted and sneezed but held in place.
"Are you starving?" Rob was hoping she knew him by now (she wouldn't have barked at a stranger with an axe unless he struck Hutch).
But she stayed and her shivers had the rabies tag jingling at her neck like a midget dancer -- terrified or glad?
Rob took a step in and reached to his left for the light switch. Nothing. He flipped it three times, then felt his way to the low hall-table and found the lamp. Nothing. He said, "Miss Thalia, have you eaten the wires?"
She was suddenly still.
He found the table drawer where he kept his only matches safe from mice, then cupped his groin against bumps and groped with the free hand for the oil lamp waiting on his bedroom mantel. He hoped there was oil. His hand found the pistol -- his Grandfather Kendal's loaded revolver now fired just six times a year, on Christmas day, to prove it worked. It had never failed but had never been needed, not in Rob's recollection. Now he read it like a blind man, from the scored wood butt to the cooler barrel, tamping the open bore -- too small for a finger to probe, though he tried it calmly. Then he found the lamp and only then struck a match -- yes, half-full. He lit it. Quick white flame, the hot smell of coal oil, yellow light as loving as any one hand that had ever touched him. He faced the door. "Thal, we're safe now. Light."
"Light, old lady. Come here and see." He even slapped his thigh.
Nothing. Was she gone?
He took the lamp and, cradling the chimney, entered the hall again and took enough slow steps to let the glow reach her.
At its touch she snorted, stood up fully, and did the little horizontal welcome-home shimmy with her wide spayed rear.
Rob wanted her to meet him. "Step here," he said and whistled through his teeth.
Gradually she came, still a-dance but looking down, no longer afraid but not yet clear of the doze and dream of two days alone.
When she got up near him, he squatted and set down the lamp and scratched her throat -- vigorous digs. "Has Grainger been here?"
She loved it, threw her head back as if plunged into some serious bliss more welcome than rest, and peed a small puddle in token of thanks.
"I see you're not perishing for water at least." He stood and went to the screen to let her out. As he passed the table, he could now see enough to notice a white sheet of paper he'd missed, propped against the phone. Thal took her time debating the wisdom of going, then went; and Rob brought the lamp back to read the note.
Rob, I was out here at 5 o'clock. Fed Thal and left you and her some lights on. Miss Eva expecting you for dinner tomorrow at 12:30. Then I'll come out with you and unload Hutch's stuff. Hope he was well and you gave him a kick in the tail from
He needs it.
Rob lifted the receiver of the phone; it hummed. So he found the number and called the power company. A young woman answered, a girl's voice really. He told her he had got home to find his lights out.
"You checked your fuses?"
"No but it's failed on at least two circuits, and I don't want to play with a house old as this."
"How old?" she said.
"A hundred-ten years and dry as east Egypt." Then he laughed. "What the hell has that got to do with anything?"
She said, "Let it burn. And you take pictures -- make lovely Christmas cards."
Rob laughed again. "Have I got the power company?"
"No the firebug-ward at the State Hospital."
"Who are you?"
"When are visiting hours?"
"Every Sunday all day. I wear pink and wait." Then she laughed at last. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's been a hard evening and you sounded nice. No, power is off all out your way. Lightning hit a substation."
"Has there been a storm?"
"Lord, where have you been? Thought the world was over."
"-- In Virginia," he said. "Just now drove in. It doesn't even seem to have rained out here."
"You out near Essex?"
"No wonder," she said. "You all are deprived in general out there."
"Would you like to help?" In the pause that followed, Rob gave no thought to whether he'd angered her; he spent some seconds realizing that he was actually killing himself -- this racing tumor -- out of pure need for help: the help of close company, lacking ten years. He was building a little partner in his chest, which would stop when he did.
The girl said, "Shoot, I'm worse off than you. You know what a girl makes, starting down here on the weekend switchboard?"
She'd chosen not to freeze; Rob felt thankful but afraid he'd lost her now. Not that he thought any meeting was likely, only that her bright voice had propped him when he'd had no hope of a prop.
"You got you a lantern?"
"A kerosene lamp as old as the house; but it works, yes ma'm. Nice gentle light. Worst mistake ever made, bulb-light on human faces."
"You're older than you sound. You must date back." There was still the tug of interest in her voice, beyond politeness.
"Old enough to have sense," he said.
"Then tell me something true to see me through the night. I've got four calls blinking at me right now."
Rob didn't need to think but gave it to her truly the moment she asked. "You've helped one deprived soul out near Essex."
"No charge," she said. "I'm glad to have talked to a courteous voice."
"My name is Rob."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayfield. I was Tilda King. I knew you at school -- never took your class but watched you from a distance. You'll have light soon." She winked out quick as a fallen star.
By then Thal had drained and was back at the screen door, yipping for entry.
The lights stayed out while he ate a cold supper of cheese and white bread. He tried to read the paper; but kind as it was, the oil light strained his eyes before he got far. He read a last sentence on the lower front page -- "Mistaken for a turkey, Roscoe Bobbitt was shot in the face Tuesday evening at his home" -- then thought he might phone his mother to confirm he'd see her tomorrow. She didn't need a call; she knew he'd be there. For all the nearly seventy years of reasons life had offered her for doubting a future, she went on trusting that her plans would unfold -- and if not, she'd survive. Or Hutch -- he doubted he could bear to hear Hutch this soon again (when Hutch had said he'd phone from New York Sunday, Rob had said, "We've made a nice personal goodbye. Let's don't string it out down the seaboard on wires"); he was anyhow with Ann now, hardly waiting for his father. Or sleep -- could he sleep? He sat at the kitchen table and wondered -- testing his body for sufficient exhaustion; its agreement to acquiesce in a few hours, prone and not dreaming.
It did seem weary but it made him no promise. What else was there though? -- to go out with Thal and walk them both senseless in an evening still warm and close as a loft, to drive in to Fontaine and see his mother early or chance finding Grainger awake at his radio; or step ten feet to the pantry and take the pint of bourbon he kept there, sealed, as test and proof of his vow not to drink; then drink himself out. He weighed each of them; wanted no single one more than sleep, if that would come.
He wanted his son here with him to the end. He wanted his wife, dead twenty-five years. He wanted Min Tharrington, who'd wanted him for years; then had left him when he chose to rear his son here. He wanted not to die -- well-behaved so long, still young as men went in his dogged family, still lonely as he'd been from the day he was born (excepting odd stretches which, counted end to end, might make a few weeks from a life of -- what? -- two thousand-six hundred weeks). He bedded Thai down in her box, let her lick the last salt from his thumb; then fumbled toward his own room, stripped, slept at once -- no substantial dream, only moments of gratitude in which he tasted the grainy brown blankness of the rest and managed to think If where I'm headed is the least like this, I can gladly go.
Hours later -- 2:40 by the clock -- he was waked by Thal at the edge of his bed. She couldn't reach high enough to see him fully; but she hadn't jumped or barked, only propped on the side rail and watched till he turned. They were scalded in light. The naked bulb suspended over Rob was burning. He sat up. "You scared?"
She wasn't; she'd only been waked herself and had come to show him. Ears back, grinning with the excess joy which seized her several times a day and would long since have worn a human flat-down, she strained to kiss him.
He rolled near to let her, not touching with his hands but repeating her whole name -- "Thalia" (Hutch had named her as a puppy for the muse of comedy, in honor of the ease with which simple pleasures exalted her). When she'd had her fill, he said, "Hours till day. Please turn out the lights and go back to bed."
She considered it.
Then Rob hauled himself from the damp sheets and stepped to the hall. Grainger at least had kept his promise -- there was light from the kitchen, the front bedroom, the porch, the hall. It was not till he moved toward the porch and caught himself in a mirror that he. saw his dick wagging solid before him, half-gorged with the sham immunities of sleep. He stopped and turned full-face to the glass. He could hardly remember using it before (mirrors were quick resorts for shaving; this big one hung here because, when his mother was furnishing the house, she said, "Any man teaching schoolchildren needs to check at least his buttons as he runs out the door"). Despite the lights and the unshaded windows by the door, he took himself in hand and stroked till he crested hard again above his curly navel -- the bare head as eager as ever and sleek with the same purple blood, same hope. The belly and chest it pointed to were still lean and white, the nipples high and fiat. Thal had gone to her box, but he spoke to her now. "I'm grateful to you, Thai -- never say I'm not -- but keep this in mind when you outlast me: it was some kind of shame and disgrace to life that Rob Mayfield was left here with you. He refuses the blame."
She didn't look up.
He took the phone again, dialed the operator, and placed a call to Min Tharrington in Raleigh. They hadn't met since Christmas, hadn't spoken since he called to thank her for a birthday card in March; but late as it was, he had no question of his right to wake her. Four rings -- she was gone, never took more than two (she lived in three rooms). In an instant he felt what he hadn't felt till now -- I will not bear this.
But she answered, her voice drugged with something -- surely sleep.
"I woke you up."
"No you didn't."
"You're lying." He was already smiling -- some chance of reprieve, his old delight in her lifelong refusal to admit anybody had ever caught her sleeping when mostly after ten she would answer like a mummy or a child waked to pee.
"I was stretched out reading"; she paused as though gone. "Even if I wasn't you could say you were sorry."
"But I'm not," Rob said.
"That's nothing new."
By then she was clearing; he could hear little puffs as she propped up in bed. "There is something new," he said.
"Can I stand to hear it?"
"You'll have to judge that. Will you be there Sunday?"
"I'll be here, Rob, till they wheel me out."
"Sunday then about four o'clock?"
"Is that the new thing? -- you paying me a visit?"
He knew that it was. He didn't want to tell her anything, only see her, touch her if she'd let him after so long. "Yes," he said.
"Come at five. I might even fix us a meal."
"Too hot," Rob said.
"Might change by then."
There was nothing else to say -- not now, this late -- but the sweetness of having one familiar voice answer when he spoke (even sixty miles off) was almost sufficient to rescue this day, the day that had passed. "Will it be just you?" he said.
"What's that meant to mean?"
"On Sunday. Will there be anybody there with us?"
"Just the ferns." Min laughed. "You remember the ferns; they've multiplied. Glad something here has."
"Only checking," Rob said. "Now go back to sleep. See you Sunday at five."
"No, wait," she said quickly; then stopped a moment. "Let me say just this -- I'm here alone now, I will be Sunday and every day after. We chose that, remember?"
"I remember you chose it."
"Rob, it's too late to fight. You know what I mean."
"You sleep." She hung up then.
Even dropped that suddenly, he still felt reprieved. He stood with the dead receiver at his chest as if to broadcast a set of heartbeats to whoever might listen -- strong, a little fast. Then he said again "Sunday," louder than before.
Thal looked up, jingling. She took his rising inflection to be some sort of invitation; and game as ever, she jumped to the floor, shook once, sneezed, watched him -- more closely than anything else had watched him except his young wife and Min as a gift.
He said, "I'm sorry. False alarm -- for you anyhow, old lady. Back to bed."
She held her place and shook again, happy.
"You feel like a ride to Raleigh on Sunday"
She felt like anything but pain or fright.
"You'd wait in the car though -- you understand that? Couldn't have you, at your age, witnessing what I hope to witness. Might finish you off."
She was losing interest; she turned to gnaw a flea.
Rob smiled. "May very well finish me off, finish all involved." He doused all the lights and slept again easily.
That morning -- Friday -- Hutch breakfasted with Ann, drove her to work; then headed south on the turnpike for Petersburg, twenty-five miles in full hot sun. By quarter to ten he had found the building, a 1920s brick apartment-house with limestone Chinese lions at the entrance and dragon rainspouts. He'd never been here before but climbed to the third floor and found with no trouble the bell labeled Matthews. He heard its dim ring and the quick response -- sharp steps forward from several rooms back-and felt the delight of hope.
She had felt the same and opened smiling -- Alice Matthews, his mother's friend. She studied him a moment; then said, "Dear God, when have I seen you?"
He said, "Labor Day, almost nine months."
"You're grown," Alice said. With both long hands she stroked her own cheekbones, to show him the site of the change in himself. "What happened?"
Hutch laughed. "Is it that bad?"
She waited. "Oh no. It's fine; you're gorgeous. I was just surprised."
"You're always surprised."
"So I am," Alice said. "It keeps me young." She stood back finally to beckon him in. "You haven't seen this."
He hadn't. She had moved in January (her father having died at ninety-three and left her well-off, she'd quit her teaching after thirty years and improved her quarters). The first room was long and light with high arched ceilings, rough rabbit-gray walls on which squads of pictures hung; the old davenport and chairs were freshly covered in umber velvet and stood on a deep wine-colored rug. The lean new grandeur was startling after years of the crowded teacher's-rooms she'd camped in -- wardrobes and hotplates.
Alice said, "You hate it. You think it's wrong."
Hutch went to the sofa and sat by the table, which bore only one book -- Etchings of Rembrandt. Then he said "No it's right" and knew he was honest. She'd earned the space surely as if it had waited here, a visible goal through all the years but sealed till now.
She smiled. "It is. I hoped you'd see it. Everybody else of course thinks I'm flat crazy -- `You'll die if you quit; you've been teaching too long.' I'll say I have. In thirty-odd years of public-school art, I taught some sweet children -- a few of them beauties so stunning you longed to freeze them on the spot in their one perfect day -- but I never taught a single one that wanted what I knew, the little I knew, and thanked me for it."
Hutch said, "Not so. I've been thanking you steadily since I was fourteen."
Alice nodded. "You have. Yon shame me, fairly. But I never taught you."
"Just everything I know."
"What's that?" Alice said. She still hadn't sat but stood before him, straight and attentive as though this were more than a courtesy call -- some final chance to break through screens and see truth plain. The money and ease had not cooled her fervor.
"The thing I know now is, I'd like a cup of coffee."
She balked a moment, loath to stop in her search. Then she grinned. "It's ready. Sit still and I'll bring it."
He sat, to give her a pause for calm, and looked round the walls -- mostly familiar. At his left a few old reproductions -- Giorgione's cave "Nativity," Henner's "Fabiola," a big Gainsborough girl's head, the Kritios boy. On the broad wall opposite, landscape drawings and watercolors by Alice and her friends -- among them, his own laborious copy of a mountain and trees in the country near Goshen, done the day he'd met Alice eleven years ago. At his right something new -- eight portrait photographs, men and women, different ages, some smiling, some sober (he recognized only himself and his mother). He walked toward those. The older man and woman would be her parents; they showed bits of her. But the other three -- two men and a woman, all young, in their twenties. Kin or friends? He knew Alice had one long-lost brother, but neither of these boys was like her at all. The younger in fact was younger than he'd first thought, seventeen maybe. The girl was fine, her shoulder to the camera with the sideways glance so popular thirty years before and so likely to show any face at its best -- the line from forehead to chin that mimicked the line of a straight back and good high buttocks. He straightened her frame.
Alice entered with a tray. "Do they break your heart?"
"They still break mine. That's why they're in here." She set down the coffee and stood beside him. "I carried them round in a folder for years, thinking someday I'd have space to hang them. So when all this space opened wondrously, I framed them and hung them by my bed back there." She pointed behind her, then studied the pictures a moment. "Couldn't take it." She sat to pour coffee.
Hutch joined her. "Take what?"
She shook her head, looking down, as though she wouldn't speak. But when she gave him his cup, she said, "-- The fact that they're gone."
"Sure you are."
"I'll be back."
"No you won't, not for me. You left me when you were fifteen years old."
Hutch smiled. "I really don't see it that way."
And by then she was smiling. "Doesn't matter how you see it. I know how it is. We spent a good part of two summers together when you were a boy. Then you'd got all I had and were grown and went elsewhere."
"I thought I'd been taking from you right on; I know I have. But I had Rob to see to and my Grandmother Mayfield."
Alice shook her head again.
"Did you want me to stay?"
When she looked up her face was clear and young, taut with deprivation. "I wanted everyone of you to stay and you knew it. I asked you all daily, every day you knew me." She drank a long draft of very hot coffee.
Hutch could see two choices -- to stand at once and leave without speaking (what his father might do, half the men in his family) or to deal calm hands and play them out. The first was his preference, but he looked to the pictures again and was held. "Who are they?" he said, "-- the ones I don't know."
She waited awhile, then decided to tell him. "My mother and father, then Rachel Hutchins Mayfield, Hutchins Mayfield, Marion Thomas, York Henly, Callie Majors."
"How many are dead?"
"My parents and your mother. The rest are no more than three hours from here, in a well-tuned car -- which my car is."
"You know where they are?"
"Sure. They're all three chained-up to glum or dumb mates."
Hutch remembered her speaking of Marion Thomas the morning they'd met -- a boy she loved in high school and never told. So he said, "You told me who Marion was a long time ago. Which one is he?"
"On the lower left there."
Hutch saw it was the young one -- a foursquare face looking gravely out, clipped straight hair, a celluloid collar, Scotch-plaid tie. "If he never knew, how did you get the picture?"
"From the paper at home. He had won a trip to Washington for selling the Grit, and our paper ran his picture. I saw my chance. I wrote in and asked to buy the original, not thinking that it surely belonged to his mother and would be retrieved; and you know they sent it to me -- next day, free, not a word of comment. Just as if it was my due." She took another draft. "For once they were right."
Hutch said "York and Callie?"
"Callie's the girl who's not your mother; York is the boy who's neither you nor Marion."
"They were friends?" Hutch said.
Alice laughed. "Oh enough! -- too much about me. Yes sir, they were friends I worshiped and loved (two different things); but they're no longer active in my present, shall we say? Now tell me what matters. Tell me all your plans."
Hutch said, "I can't remember what I've written you."
Alice laughed again. "Precious little, dear bean. Your letters are as generous as a Christmas box from Hetty Green."
He nodded. "I'm sorry. I'll do better in England."
"That's a promise?"
"Yes ma'm." She had slipped off her shoes and cuffed in the chair; Hutch could see she meant to hear him out. They'd always had this right over one another -- permission to ask any question and be answered. Despite the twenty-six years between them, they'd never lied or bent or held back. He suddenly knew he'd tell her now -- anything; she must only ask.
She started. "So it's Oxford?"
He nodded. "Has to be. When we sold that timber of Mother's last fall, I thought I could take my part of the money and buy at least a year in Europe -- to roam round; then settle maybe, start my work finally."
"Whatever. I'm still scared to say. In any case the Draft Board said No to that. With a teacher's deferment they can't let me off -- there's a risk I might enjoy it -- but they said if I planned to do further study (a little guaranteed pain), they'd back me to the moon. So I sent a few letters and found to my surprise that any American smart enough to tie his shoes and willing to pay can get into Oxford or Cambridge in a minute. And in fact they're cheap, cost a lot less than here."
"So you'll study what?"
"As little as possible; I'm not sure yet. Their letters are sublimely uninformative -- little handwritten notes: Dear Mayfield, You'll be assigned rooms in college. No need to seek digs. I like the Mayfield; makes me feel I'm a soldier in the desert campaign with Rommel bearing down."
"Is it Magdalen College?"
"No they didn't want me for some secret reason, maybe not rich enough; they're famous snobs. Merton did and it's oldest; and Eliot was there, hiding out from the First War, so that's a good omen. Far as I can see, once you get past their looks, all the colleges-have the same good and bad points. The good is -- they leave you very much to yourself. The bad is -- they all have pleistocene plumbing, no heat, and hog food."
"Have you got your long johns?"
"Grandmother bought those the day I was accepted."
Alice nodded. "Fine. I bought you a chain."
Hutch smiled but plainly didn't understand.
"-- To chain yourself down."
"Will I need that? Why?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. Is your coffee too cold?"
"No, tell me what you meant."
"Just jealous," she said.
"No you aren't. I need to know."
She sat up, extended her feet to the floor, and faced him straight. She looked her age again, not tired but worn from unrewarded waiting. "This is not fair," she said. "I know we've been friends. I know you were glad as