In the Region of Ice
The author, though, still in her twenties, has already won a reputation as one of the most accomplished young writers in America. Her short stories hare appeared in many magazines, and hare been included in the past three O. Henry collections. A graduate of Syracuse University, Miss Oates teaches English at the University of Detroit. Her third book, UPON THE SWEEPING FLOOD, a collection of short stories, has just been published by Vanguard.
A Story by JOYCE CAROL OATES.
SISTER IRENE was a tall, deft woman in her early thirties. What one could see of her face made a striking impression — serious hard gray eyes, a long slender nose, a face waxen with thought. Seen at the right time, from the right angle, she was almost handsome; in her past teaching positions she had drawn a little upon the fact of her being young and brilliant and also a nun, but she was beginning to grow out of that.
This was a new university and an entirely new world. She had heard — of course it was true that the Jesuit administration of this school had hired her at the last moment to save money and to head off the appointment of a man of dubious religious commitment. She had prayed for the necessary energy to get her through this first semester. She had no trouble with teaching itself; once she stood before a classroom she felt herself capable of anything. It was the world immediately outside the classroom that confused and alarmed her, though she let none of this show — the cynicism of her colleagues, the indifference of many of the students, and above all, the looks she got that told her nothing much would be expected of her because she was a nun. This took energy, strength. At times she had the idea that she was on trial and that the excuses she made to herself about her discomfort were only the common excuses made by guilty people. But in front of a class she had no time to worry about herself or the conflicts in her mind. She became, once and for all, a figure existing only for the benefit of others, an instrument by which facts were communicated.
About two weeks after the semester began, Sister Irene noticed a new student in her class. He was slight and fair-haired, and his face was blank, but not blank by accident, blank on purpose, suppressed and restricted into a dumbness that looked hysterical. She was prepared for him before he raised his hand, and when she saw his arm jerk, as if he had at last lost control of it, she nodded to him without hesitation.
“Sister, how can this be reconciled with Shakespeare’s vision in Hamlet? How can these opposing views be in the same mind?”
Students glanced at him, mildly surprised. He did not belong in the class, and this was mysterious, but his manner was urgent and blind.
“There is no need to reconcile opposing views,” Sister Irene said, leaning forward against the podium. “In one play Shakespeare suggests one vision, in another play another; the plays are not simultaneous creations, and even if they were, we never demand a logical —”
“We must demand a logical consistency,” the young man said. “The idea of education itself is predicated upon consistency, order, sanity — ”
He had interrupted her, and she hardened her face against him — for his sake, not her own, since she did not really care. But he noticed nothing. “Please see me after class,” she said.
After class the young man hurried up to her.
“Sister Irene, I hope you didn’t mind my visiting today. I’d heard some things, interesting things,” he said. He stared at her, and something in her face allowed him to smile. “I —could we talk in your office? Do you have time?”
They walked down to her office. Sister Irene sat at her desk, and the young man sat facing her; for a moment they were self-conscious and silent.
“Well, I suppose you know—I’m a Jew,” he said.
Sister Irene stared at him. “Yes?” she said.
“What am I doing at a Catholic university, huh?” He grinned. “That’s what you want to know.”
She made a vague movement of her hand to show that she had no thoughts on this, nothing at all, but he seemed not to catch it. He was sitting on the edge of the straight-backed chair. She saw that he was young but did not really look young. There were harsh lines on cither side of his mouth, as if he had misused that youthful mouth somehow. His skin was almost as pale as hers, his eyes were dark and somehow not quite in focus. He looked at her and through her and around her, as his voice surrounded them both. His voice was a little shrill at times.
“Listen, I did the right thing today — visiting your class! God, what a lucky accident it was; some jerk mentioned you, said you were a good teacher— I thought, what a laugh! These people know about good teachers, here? But yes, listen, yes, I’m not kidding — you are good. I mean that.”
Sister Irene frowned. “I don’t quite understand what all this means.”
He smiled and waved aside her formality, as if he knew better. “Listen, I got my B.A. at Columbia, then I came back here to this crappy city. I mean, I did it on purpose, I wanted to come back. I wanted to. I have my reasons for doing things. I’m on a three-thousand-dollar fellowship,” he said, and waited for that to impress her. “You know, I could have gone almost anywhere with that fellowship, and I came back home here — my home’s in the city — and enrolled here. This was last year. This is my second year. I’m working on a thesis, I mean I was, my master’s thesis — but the hell with that. What I want to ask you is this: Can I enroll in your class, is it too late? We have to get special permission if we’re late.”
Sister Irene felt something nudging her, some uneasiness in him that was pleading with her not to be offended by his abrupt, familiar manner. He seemed to be promising another self, a better self, as if his fair, childish, almost cherubic face were doing tricks to distract her from what his words said.
“Are you in English studies?” she asked.
“I was in history. Listen,” he said, and his mouth did something odd, drawing itself down into a smile that made the lines about it deepen like knives, “listen, they kicked me out.”
He sat back, watching her. He crossed his legs. He took out a package of cigarettes and offered her one. Sister Irene shook her head, staring at his hands. They were small and stubby and might have belonged to a ten-year-old, and the nails were a strange near-violet color. It took him a while to extract a cigarette.
“Yeah, kicked me out. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t understand.”
“My master’s thesis was coming along beautifully, and then this bastard — I mean, exettse me, this professor, I won’t pollute your office with his name — he started making criticisms, he said some things were unacceptable, he —” The boy leaned forward and hunched his narrow shoulders in a parody of secrecy. “We had an argument. I told him some frank things, things only a broadminded person could hear about himself. That takes courage, right? He didn’t have it! He kicked me out of the master’s program, so now I’m coming into English. Literature is greater than history; European history is one big pile of garbage. Skyhigh. Filth and rotting corpses, right? Aristotle says that poetry is higher than history; he’s right; in your class today I suddenly realized that this is my field, Shakespeare, only Shakespeare is—”
Sister Irene guessed that he was going to say that only Shakespeare was equal to him, and she caught the moment of recognition and hesitation, the half-raised arm, the keen, frowning forehead, the narrowed eyes; then he thought better of it and did not end the sentence. “The students in your class are mainly negligible, I can tell you that. You’re new here, and I’ve been here a year—I would have finished my studies last year but my father got sick, he was hospitalized, I couldn’t take exams and it was a mess — but I’ll make it through English in one year or drop dead. I can do it, I can do anything. I’ll take six courses at once—” He broke off, breathless. Sister Irene tried to smile. “All right then, it’s settled? You’ll let me in? Have I missed anything so far?”
He had no idea of the rudeness of his question. Sister Irene, feeling suddenly exhausted, said, “I’ll give you a syllabus of the course.”
He got to his feet eagerly. He looked through the schedule, muttering to himself, making favorable noises. It struck Sister Irene that she was making a mistake to let him in. There were these moments when one had to make an intelligent decision. . . But she was sympathetic with him, yes. She was sympathetic with something about him.
She found out his name the next day: Allen Weinstein.
AFTER this, she came to her Shakespeare class with a sense of excitement. It became clear to her at once that Weinstein was the most intelligent student in the class. Until he had enrolled, she had not understood what was lacking, a mind that could appreciate her own. Within a week his jagged, protean mind had alienated the other students, and though he sat in the center of the class, he seemed totally alone, encased by a miniature world of his own. When he spoke of the “frenetic humanism of the High Renaissance,” Sister Irene dreaded the raised eyebrows and mocking smiles of the other students, who no longer bothered to look at Weinstein. She wanted to defend him, but she never did, because there was something rude and dismal about his knowledge; he used it like a weapon, talking passionately of Nietzsche and Goethe and Freud until Sister Irene would be forced to close discussion.
In meditation, alone, she often thought of him. When she tried to talk about him to a young nun, Sister Carlotta, everything sounded gross. “But no, he’s an excellent student,” she insisted. “I’m very grateful to have him in class. It’s just that . . . he thinks ideas are real.” Sister Carlotta, who loved literature also, had been forced to teach grade-school arithmetic for the last four years. That might have been why she said, a little sharply, “You don’t think ideas are real?”
Sister Irene acquiesced with a smile, but of course she did not think so: only reality is real.
When Weinstein did not show up for class on the day the first paper was due, Sister Irene’s heart sank, and the sensation was somehow a familiar one. She began her lecture and kept waiting for the door to open and for him to hurry noisily back to his seat, grinning an apology toward her — but nothing happened.
If she had been deceived by him, she made herself think angrily, it was as a teacher and not as a woman. He had promised her nothing.
Weinstein appeared the next day near the steps of the liberal arts building. She heard someone running behind her, a breathless exclamation: “Sister Irene!” She turned and saw him, panting and grinning in embarrassment. He wore a darkblue suit with a necktie, and he looked, despite his childish face, like a little old man; there was something oddly precarious and fragile about him. “Sister Irene, I owe you an apology, right?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled a sad, forlorn, yet irritatingly conspiratorial smile. “The first paper — not in on time, and I know what your rules are . . . You won’t accept late papers, I know — that’s good discipline, I’ll do that when I teach, too. But, unavoidably, I was unable to come to school yesterday. There are many — many — ” He gulped for breath, and Sister Irene had the startling sense of seeing the real Weinstein stare out at her, a terrified prisoner behind the confident voice. “There are many complications in family life. Perhaps you are unaware — I mean — ”
She did not like him, but she felt this sympathy, something tugging and nagging at her the way her parents had competed for her love, so many years ago. They had been whining, weak people, and out of their wet need for affection, the girl she had been (her name was Yvonne) had emerged stronger than either of them, contemptuous of tears because she had seen so many. But Weinstein was different; he was not simply weak, perhaps he was not weak at all, but his strength was confused and hysterical. She felt her customary rigidity as a teacher begin to falter. “You may turn your paper in today, if you have it,” she said, frowning.
Weinstein’s mouth jerked into an incredulous grin. “Wonderful! Marvelous!” he said. “You are very understanding, Sister Irene, I must say. I must say . . . I didn’t expect, really . . .” He was fumbling in a shabby old briefcase for the paper. Sister Irene waited. She was prepared for another of his excuses, certain that he did not have the paper, when he suddenly straightened up and handed her something. “Here! I took the liberty of writing thirty pages instead of just fifteen,” he said. He was obviously quite excited; his cheeks were mottled pink and white. “You may disagree violently with my interpretation — I expect you to, in fact I’m counting on it — but let me warn you, I have the exact proof, precise, specific proof, right here in the play itself!” He was thumping at a book, his voice growing louder and shriller. Sister Irene, startled, wanted to put her hand over his mouth and soothe him.
“Look,” he said breathlessly, “may I talk with you? I have a class now I hate, I loathe, I can’t bear to sit through! Can I talk with you instead?”
Because she was nervous, she stared at the title page of the paper: “Erotic Melodies in Romeo and Juliet” by Allen Weinstein, Jr.
“All right?” he said. “Can we walk around here? Is it all right? I’ve been anxious to talk with you about some things you said in class.”
She was reluctant, but he seemed not to notice. They walked slowly along the shaded campus paths. Weinstein did all the talking, of course, and Sister Irene recognized nothing in his cascade of words that she had mentioned in class. “The humanist must be committed to the totality of life,” he said passionately. “ This is the failing one finds everywhere in the academic world! I found it in New York and I found it here and I’m no ingénu, I don’t go around with my mouth hanging open — I’m experienced, look, I’ve been to Europe, I’ve lived in Rome! I went everywhere in Europe except Germany, I don’t talk about Germany . . . Sister Irene, think of the significant men in the last century, the men who’ve changed the world! Jews, right? Marx, Freud, Einstein! Not that I believe Marx, Marx is a madman . . . and Freud, no, my sympathies are with spiritual humanism. I believe that the Jewish race is the exclusive . . . the exclusive, what’s the word, die exclusive means by which humanism will be extended . . . Humanism begins by excluding the Jew, and now,” he said, with a high, surprised laugh, “the Jew will perfect it. After the Nazis, only the Jew is authorized to understand humanism, its limitations and its possibilities. So, I say that the humanist is committed to life in its totality and not just to his profession! The religious person is totally religious, he is his religion! What else? I recognize in you a humanist and a religious person — ”
But he did not seem to be talking to her, or even looking at her. “Here, read this,” he said. “I wrote it last night.” It was a long free-verse poem, typed on a typewriter whose ribbon was worn out. “There’s this trouble with my father, a wonderful man, a lovely man, but his health — his strength is fading, do you see? What must it be to him to see his son growing up? I mean, I’m a man now, he’s getting old, weak, his health is bad — it’s hell, right? I sympathize with him. I’d do anything for him, I’d cut open my veins, anything for a father — right? That’s why I wasn’t in school yesterday,” he said, and his voice dropped for the last sentence, as if he had been dragged back to earth by a fact.
Sister Irene tried to read the poem, then pretended to read it. A jumble of words dealing with “life” and “death” and “darkness” and “love.” “What do you think?” Weinstein said nervously, trying to read it over her shoulder and crowding against her.
“It’s very . . . passionate,” Sister Irene said.
This was the right comment; he took the poem back from her in silence, his face flushed with excitement. “Here, at this school, I have few people to talk with. I haven’t shown anyone else that poem.” He looked at her with his dark, intense eyes, and Sister Irene felt them focus upon her. She was terrified at what he was trying to do — he was trying to force her into a human relationship.
“Thank you for your paper,” she said, turning away.
WHEN he came the next day, ten minutes late, he was haughty and disdainful. He had nothing to say and sat with his arms folded. Sister Irene took back with her to the convent a feeling of betrayal and confusion. She had been hurt. It was absurd, and yet — She spent too much time thinking about him, as if he were somehow a kind of crystallization of her own loneliness; but she had no right to think so much of him. She did not want to think of him or of her loneliness. But Weinstein did so much more than think of his predicament, he embodied it, he acted it out, and that was perhaps why he fascinated her. It was as if he were doing a dance for her, a dance of shame and agony and delight, and so long as he did it, she was safe. She felt embarrassment for him, but also anxiety; she wanted to protect him. When the dean of the graduate school questioned her about Weinstein’s work, she insisted that he was an “excellent” student, though she knew the dean had not wanted to hear that.
She prayed for guidance, she spent hours on her devotions, she was closer to her vocation than she had been for some years. Life at the convent became tinged with unreality, a misty distortion that took its tone from the glowering skies of the city at night, identical smokestacks ranged against the clouds and giving to the sky the excrement of the populated and successful earth. This city was not her city, this world was not her world. She felt no pride in knowing this, it was a fact. The little convent was not like an island in the center of this noisy world, but rather a kind of hole or crevice the world did not bother with, something of no interest. The convent’s rhythm of life had nothing to do with the world’s rhythm, it did not violate or alarm it in any way. Sister Irene tried to draw together the fragments of her life and synthesize them somehow in her vocation as a nun: she was a nun, she was recognized as a nun and had given herself happily to that life, she had a name, a place, she had dedicated her superior intelligence to the Church, she worked without pay and without expecting gratitude, she had given up pride, she did not think of herself but only of her work and her vocation, she did not think of anything external to these, she saturated herself daily in the knowledge that she was involved in the mystery of Christianity. A daily terror attended this knowledge, however, for she sensed herself being drawn by that student, that Jewish boy, into a relationship she was not ready for. She wanted to cry out in fear that she was being forced into the role of a Christian, and what did that mean? What could her studies tell her? What could the other nuns tell her? She was alone, no one could help, he was making her into a Christian, and to her that was a mystery, a thing of terror, something others slipped on the way they slipped on their clothes, casually and thoughtlessly, but to her a magnificent and terrifying wonder.
For days she carried Weinstein’s paper, marked A, around with her; he did not come to class. One day she checked with the graduate office and was told that Weinstein had called in to say his father was ill and he would not be able to attend classes for a while. “He’s strange, I remember him,” the secretary said. “He missed all his exams last spring and made a lot of trouble. He was in and out of here every day.”
So there was no more of Weinstein for a while, and Sister Irene stopped expecting him to hurry into class. Then, one morning, she found a letter from him in her mailbox.
He had printed it in black ink, very carefully, as if he had not trusted handwriting. The return address was in bold letters that, like his voice, tried to grab onto her: Birchcrest Manor. Somewhere north of the city. “Dear Sister Irene,”the block letters said, “I am doing well here and have time for reading and relaxing. The Manor is delightful. My doctor here is an excellent, intelligent man who has time for me, unlike my former doctor. If you have time, you might drop in on my father, who worries about me too much, I think, and explain to him what my condition is. He doesn’t seem to understand. I feel about this new life the way that boy, what’s his name, in Measure for Measure, feels about the prospects of a different life; you remember what he says to his sister when she visits him in prison, how he is looking forward to an escape into another world. Perhaps you could explain this to my father and he would stop worrying.” The letter ended with the father’s name and address, in letters that were just a little too big. Sister Irene, walking slowly down the corridor as she read the letter, felt her eyes cloud over with tears. She was cold with fear, it was something she had never experienced before. She knew what Weinstein was trying to tell her, and the desperation of his attempt made it all the more pathetic; he did not deserve this, why did God allow him to suffer so?
She read through Claudio’s speech to his sister, in Measure for Measure:
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice,
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagines howling! ‘Tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
SISTER IRENE called the father’s number that day. “Allen Weinstein residence, who may I say is calling?” a woman said, bored. “May I speak to Mr. Weinstein? It’s urgent — about his son,” Sister Irene said. There was a pause at the other end. “You want to talk to his mother, maybe?” the woman said. “His mother? Yes, his mother, then. Please. It’s very important.”
She talked with this strange, unsuspected woman, a disembodied voice that suggested absolutely no face, and insisted upon going over that afternoon. The woman was nervous, but Sister Irene, who was a university professor after all, knew enough to hide her own nervousness. She kept waiting for the woman to say, “Yes, Allen has mentioned you . . .” but nothing happened.
She persuaded Sister Carlotta to ride over with her. This urgency of hers was something they were all amazed by. They hadn’t suspected that the set of her gray eyes could change to this blurred, distracted alarm, this sense of mission that seemed to have come to her from nowhere. Sister Irene drove across the city in the late afternoon traffic, with the high whining noises from residential streets where trees were being sawed down in pieces. She understood now the secret, sweet wildness that Christ must have felt, giving himself for man, dying for the billions of men who would never know of him and never understand the sacrifice. For the first time she approached the realization of that great act. In her troubled mind the city traffic was jumbled and yet oddly coherent, an image of the world that was always out of joint with what was happening in it, its inner history struggling with its external spectacle. I his sacrifice of Christ’s, so mysterious and legendary now, almost lost in time — it was that by which Christ transcended both God and man at one moment, more than man because of his fate to do what no other man could do, and more than God because no god could suffer as he did. She felt a flicker of something close to madness.
She drove nervously, uncertainly, afraid of missing the street and afraid of finding it too, tor while one part of her rushed forward to confront these people who had betrayed their son, another part of her would have liked nothing so much as to be waiting as usual for the summons to dinner, safe in her room . . . When she found the street and turned onto it, she was in a state of breathless excitement. Here, lawns were bright green and marred with only a few leaves, magically clean, and the houses were enormous and pompous, a mixture of styles: ranch houses, colonial houses, French country houses, white-bricked wonders with curving glass and clumps of birch trees somehow encircled by white concrete. Sister Irene stared as if she had blundered into another world. This was a kind of heaven, and she was too shabby for it.
The Weinstein’s house was the strangest one of all: it looked like a small Alpine lodge, with an inverted-V-shaped front entrance. Sister Irene drove up the black-topped driveway and let the car slow to a stop; she told Sister Carlotta she would not be long.
At the door she was met by Weinstein’s mother, a small nervous woman with hands like her son’s. “Come in, come in,” the woman said. She had once been beautiful, that was clear, but now in missing beauty she was not handsome or even attractive but looked ruined and perplexed, the misshapen swelling of her white-blond professionally set hair like a cap lifting up from her surprised face. “He’ll be right in. Allen?” she called, “our visitor is here.” They went into the living room. There was a grand piano at one end and an organ at the other. In between were scatterings of brilliant modern furniture, in conversational groups, and several puffed-up white rugs on the polished floor. Sister Irene could not stop shivering. “Professor, it’s so strange, but let me say when the phone rang I had a feeling — I had a feeling,” the woman said, with damp eyes. Sister Irene sat, and the woman hovered about her. “Should I call you Professor? We don’t — you know — we don’t understand the technicalities that go with — Allen, my son, wanted to go here to the Catholic school; I told my husband why not? Why fight? It’s the thing these days, they do anything they want for knowledge. And he had to come home, you know. He couldn’t take care of himself in New York, that was the beginning of the trouble — Should I call you Professor?”
“You can call me Sister Irene.”
“Sister Irene?” the woman said, touching her throat in awe, as if something intimate and unexpected had happened.
Then Weinstein’s father appeared, hurrying. He took long impatient strides. Sister Irene stared at him and in that instant doubted everything — he was in his fifties, a tall, sharply handsome man, heavy but not fat, holding his shoulders back with what looked like an effort, but holding them back just the same. He wore a dark suit, and his face was flushed, as if he had run a long distance.
“Now,” he said, coming to Sister Irene and with a precise wave of his hand motioning his wife off, “now let’s straighten this out. A lot of confusion over that kid, eh?” He pulled a chair over, scraping it across a rug and pulling one corner over, so that its brown underside was exposed. “I came home early just for this, Libby phoned me. Sister, you got a letter from him, right?”
The wife looked at Sister Irene over her husband’s shoulder as it trying somehow to coach her, knowing that this man was so loud and impatient that no one could remember anything in his presence.
“A letter — yes — today —”
“He says what in it? You got the letter, eh? Can I see it?”
She gave it to him and wanted to explain, but he silenced her with a flick of his hand. He read through the letter so quickly that Sister Irene thought perhaps he was trying to impress her with his skill at reading. “So?” he said, raising his eyes, smiling, “so what is this? He’s happy out there, he says. He doesn’t communicate with us anymore, but he writes to you and says he’s happy — what’s that? I mean, what the hell is that?”
“But he isn’t happy. He wants to come home,” Sister Irene said. It was so important that she make him understand that she could not trust her voice; goaded by this man, it might suddenly turn shrill, as his son’s did. “Someone must read their letters before they’re mailed, so he tried to tell me something by making an allusion to —”
— an allusion to a play, so that I would know. He might be thinking of suicide, he must be very unhappy —”
She ran out of breath. Weinstein’s mother had begun to cry, but the father was shaking his head jerkily back and forth. “Forgive me, Sister, but it’s a lot of crap, he needs the hospital, he needs help — right? It costs me fifty a day out there, and they’ve got the best place in the state, I figure it’s worth it. He needs help, that kid, what do I care if he’s unhappy? He’s unbalanced!” he said angrily. “You want us to get him out again? We argued with the judge for two hours to get him in, an acquaintance of mine. Look, he can’t control himself — he was smashing things here, he was hysterical, his room is like an animal was in it. You ever seen anybody hysterical? They need help, lady, and you do something about it fast! You do something! We made up our minds to do something and we did it! This letter — what the hell is this letter? He never talked like that to us!”
“But he means the opposite of what he says — ”
“Then he is crazy! I’m the first to admit it.” He was perspiring, and his face had darkened. “I’ve got no pride left, this late. He’s a little bastard, you want to know? He calls me names, he’s lilthy, got a filthy mouth — that’s being smart, huh? They give him a big scholarship for his filthy mouth? I went to college too, and I got out and knew something, and I for Christ’s sake did something with it; my wife is an intelligent woman, a learned woman, would you guess she does book reviews for the little newspaper out here? Intelligent isn’t crazy —crazy isn’t intelligent — maybe for you at the school he writes nice papers and gets an A, but out here, around the house, he can’t control himself, and we got him committed!”
“But — ”
“We’re fixing him up, don’t worry about it!” He turned to his wife. “Libby, get out of here, I mean it. I’m sorry, but get out of here, you’re making a fool of yourself, go stand in the kitchen or something, you and the goddamn maid can cry on each other’s shoulders. That one in the kitchen is nuts too, they’re all nuts. Sister,” he said, his voice lowering, “I thank you immensely for coming out here. This is wonderful, your interest in my son. And I see he admires you — that letter there. But what about that letter? If he did want to get out, which I don’t admit — he was willing to be committed, in the end he said OK himself—if he wanted out I wouldn’t do it. Why? So what if he wants to come back? The next day he wants something else, what then? He’s a sick kid, and I’m the first to admit it.”
Sister Irene fell that sickness spread to her. She stood. The room was so big that it seemed it must be a public place; there had been nothing personal or private about their conversation. Weinstein’s mother was standing by the fireplace, sobbing. The father jumped to his feet and wiped his forehead in a gesture that was meant to help Sister Irene on her way out. “God, what a day,” he said, his eyes snatching at hers for understanding, “you know — one of those days all day long? Sister, I thank you a lot. A professor interested in him — he’s a smart kid, eh? Yes, I thank you a lot. There should be more people in the world that care about others, like you. I mean that.”
On the way back to the convent, the man’s words returned to her, and she could not get control of them; she could not even feel anger. She had been pressed down, forced back, what could she do? Weinstein might have been watching her somehow from a barred window, and he surely would have understood. The strange idea she had had on the way over, something about understanding Christ, came back to her now and sickened her. But the sickness was small. It could be contained.
About a month after her visit to his father, Weinstein himself showed up. He was dressed in a suit as before, even the necktie was the same. He came right into her office as if he had been pushed and could not stop.
“Sister,” he said, and shook her hand. He must have seen fear in her because he smiled ironically. “Look, I’m released. I’m let out of the nut house. Can I sit down?”
He sat. Sister Irene was breathing quickly, as if in the presence of an enemy who does not know that he is an enemy.
“So, they finally let me out. I heard what you did. You talked with him, that was all I wanted. You’re the only one who gave a damn. Because you’re a humanist and a religious person, you respect . . . the individual. Listen,” he said, whispering, “it was hell out there! Hell! Birchcrest Manor! All fixed up with fancy chairs and Life magazines lying around — and what do they do to you? They locked me up, they gave me shock treatments! Shock treatments, how do you like that, it’s discredited by everybody now— they’re crazy out there themselves, sadists — they locked me up, they gave me hypodermic shots, they didn’t treat me like a human being! Do you know what that is,” Weinstein demanded savagely, “not to be treated like a human being? They made me an animal — for fifty dollars a day! Dirty filthy swine! Now I’m an outpatient because I stopped swearing at them. I found somebody’s bobby pin, and when I wanted to scream I pressed it under my fingernail, and it stopped me — the screaming went inside and not out — so they gave me good reports, those sick bastards, now I’m an outpatient and I can walk along the street and breathe in the same filthy exhaust from the buses like all you normal people! Christ,” he said, and threw himself back against the chair.
Sister Irene stared at him. She wanted to take his hand, to make some gesture that would close the aching distance between them. “Mr. Weinstein — ”
“Call me Allen!” he said sharply.
“I’m very sorry — I’m terribly sorry—”
“My own parents committed me, but of course they didn’t know what it was like. It was hell,” he said, thickly, “and there isn’t any hell except what other people do to you. The psychiatrist out there, the main shrink, he hates Jews, too, some of us were positive of that, and he’s got a bigger nose than I do, a real beak.” He made a noise of disgust. “A dirty bastard, a sick, dirty, pathetic bastard — all of them — Anyway, I’m getting out of here, and I came to ask you a favor.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m getting out. I’m leaving. I’m going up to Canada and lose myself, I’ll get a job, I’ll forget everything, I’ll kill myself maybe — what’s the difference? Look, can you lend me some money?” “Money?”
“Just a little! I have to get to the border, I’m going to take a bus.”
“But I don’t have any money—”
“No money?” He stared at her. “You mean — you don’t have any? Sure you have some!”
She stared at him as if he had asked her to do something obscene. Everything was splotched and uncertain before her eyes. “You must . . . you must go back,” she said, “you’re making a — ”
“I’ll pay it back. Look, I’ll pay it back, can you go to where you live or something and get it? I’m in a hurry. My friends are sons of bitches: one of them pretended he didn’t see me yesterday — I stood right in the middle of the sidewalk and yelled at him, I called him some appropriate names! So he didn’t see me, huh? You’re the only one who understands me, you understand me like a poet, you — ”
“I can’t help you, I’m sorry— I —”
He looked to one side of her and then flashed his gaze back, as if he could not control it. He seemed to be trying to clear his vision. “You have the soul of a poet,” he whispered, “you’re the only one. Everybody else is rotten! Can’t you lend me some money, ten dollars maybe? I have three thousand in the bank, and I can’t touch it! They take everything away from me, they make me into an animal . . . You know I’m not an animal, don’t you? Don’t you?”
“Of course,” Sister Irene whispered.
“You could get money. Help me. Give me your hand or something, touch me, help me — please —” He reached for her hand and she drew back. He stared at her and his face seemed about to crumble, like a child’s. “I want something from you, but I don’t know what— I want something!” he cried. “Something real! I want you to look at me like I was a human being, is that too much to ask? I have a brain, I’m alive, I’m suffering — what does that mean? Does that mean nothing? I want something real and not this phony Christian love garbage — it’s all in the books, it isn’t personal— I want something real — look—”
He tried to take her hand again, and this time she jerked away. She got to her feet. “Mr. Weinstein,” she said, “please—”
“You! You —nun,” he said scornfully, his mouth twisted into a mock grin. “You nun! There’s nothing under that ugly outfit, right? And you’re not particularly smart even though you think you are; my father has more brains in his foot than you — ”
He got to his feet and kicked the chair.
“You bitch!” he cried.
She shrank back against her desk as if she thought he might hit her, but he only ran out of the office.
Weinstein: the name was to become disembodied from the figure, as time went on. The semester passed, the autumn drizzle turned into snow, Sister Irene rode to school in the morning and left in the afternoon, four days a week, anonymous in her black winter cloak, quiet and stunned. University teaching was an anonymous task, each day dissociated from the rest, with no necessary sense of unity among the teachers: they came and went separately and might for a year just miss a colleague who left his office five minutes before they arrived, and it did not matter.
She heard of Weinstein’s death, his suicide by drowning, from the English department secretary, a handsome white-haired woman who kept a transistor radio on her desk. Sister Irene was not surprised; she had been thinking of him as dead for months. “They identified him by some special television way they have now,” the secretary said. “They’re shipping the body back. It was up in Quebec . . .”
Sister Irene could feel a part of herself drifting off, lured by the plains of white snow to the north, the quiet, the emptiness, the sweep of the Great Lakes up to the silence of Canada. But she called that part of herself back. She could only be one person in her lifetime. That was the ugly truth, she thought, that she could not really regret Weinstein’s suffering and death; she had only one fife and had already given it to someone else. He had come too late to her. Fifteen years ago, perhaps, but not now.
She was only one person, she thought, walking down the corridor in a dream. Was she safe in this single person, or was she trapped? She had only one identity. She could make only one choice. What she had done or hadn’t done was the result of that choice, and how was she guilty? If she could have felt guilt, she thought, she might at least have been able to feel something.