A Story by JOYCE CAROL OATES
MUCH change here? No, not much. He had been worried about that but really there was little sign of change. Things were older, houses looked meeker, stores were crowded absurdly together along this familiar block. He felt a little perplexed, coming back here, as if he had been presented a gift he could not understand.
At one time this neighborhood had been his entire world, bounded on the north by the tire factory and its great, dangerous parking lots, and on the east by Grand Boulevard, and on the west by Lincoln Park; the southern end of the neighborhood just dwindled off into a twilight of street after street of ordinary shabby houses. Much of the neighborhood was now occupied by Negro families, but still things looked the same. He stood on the sidewalk where the bus had left him, staring with a foolish fondness at the old grocery store. Its interior looked murky as always, but detailed and promising, and “Salada Tea” on the window had the same trim white letters as always, the word “Salada” arranged in a semicircle above the word “Tea.”
He seemed at first to see no people at all, only the street and the buildings. But gradually, as if awakening, he noticed crowds of schoolchildren and women with babies and men in baggy trousers, old men who were a sign of big cities: they wandered along the sidewalks to Lincoln Park, where they played cards all day long, arguing with one another in languages — Polish? Hungarian? — no one else could understand. The schoolchildren were in a hurry and noisy. They reminded him of his classmates years ago, who had always seemed to know where they were going, who had the noise and bustle of adults. He glanced at the young women with their babies, wondering if they were the girls of his childhood now grown-up and married and, like him, committed to another life; he was a little shy before their smiles. Smiles were frequent in his life not because anyone recognized him but because he was a priest. Wearing the collar and the black suit did it, it was a complete transformation, and it pleased him because he was able to learn tenderness from the smiles of such people, and that was good. His name was Andrew Rollins, but he was called Father Rollins, and sometimes just “Father,” which was a magical name. His life was a clutter of events that had somehow marked him for success in the competitive life he had chosen. This neighborhood looked untouched by complications. Time must have rushed through it, generations after generations, and yet the buildings still faced one another in that resigned, hunched way, and the thirteenyear-old girls with long swinging hair who passed giggling by him seemed the same girls he had known twenty years before.
The address he wanted was not far from the corner. After ringing the doorbell a few times, he knocked. The curtain at the door window was moved suspiciously aside, and a woman of about forty squinted out at him. Then she opened the door quickly. “Yes, hello?” she said. She stood flat-footed in bedroom slippers, a messy, hopeful woman. “What did you want, Father?”
“Does Frank Taylor live here? I have this address . . .”
“Frank Taylor, oh, him — they moved away — I mean she moved away, his wife . . .” The woman stared at Andrew with a look of alarm and pity. She was very confused. “I’m terrible sorry to tell you this, Father, if you’re a friend of his or a relative or something, but Frank is dead. I mean, he died, he had a accident, he’s dead . . .”
“Yes, dead. He died,” she said, shaking her head.
Andrew stepped back. “But when did it happen? I hadn’t heard about it . . .”
“Oh, a few months ago, I don’t know, it was real terrible — the two of them like that— I’m a friend of her mother’s, I mean Frank’s wife, her mother. I’m a friend of her mother’s, and I moved right in here when Toni — that’s the wife, you know her — when she didn’t want to stay here—• I moved in, it was real convenient for me —”
“I’m awful sorry, Father, were you a friend of his?”
“Yes, but we were out of touch . . .”
“He was a real nice boy, I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to say,” she said, looking up at him as if he had to think of something, had to make things right. As a priest he was always being tossed things, even in the midst of his own private grief; burdened with clumsiness and pain lie had to make right through magic words.
“I’m sorry to have troubled you,” he said shakily.
“If you want Toni’s address it’s right down the street here . . .”
He had never met Frank’s wife, and her name offended him. “Toni” was a name that made death seem cheap.
“I don’t want to bother her.”
“Oh, it’s no bother, she’d like to talk to you. I know she’d like to talk to you. Father. It would be good for her,” the woman said with a sharp downward twist of her lips, which Andrew interpreted as: the girl has stopped going to church. Or the girl is getting into trouble. “Her mother don’t live up here now, and she’d be real glad if you went. I know that.”
“How did Frank die?”
The question was too blunt, and he regretted asking it. The woman, confused, muttered something about a car accident, two cars. She flinched away from that topic and latched onto the female topic, the wife, who was just down the street. And so he finally agreed to see the wife.
OUT on the sidewalk he was in the midst of a sudden gang of children. They rushed around him, on either side, and ran past and did not touch him. Their hard stamping feet and their cries mixed with the clamor in his head.
Frank had died?
Frank was his own age and had been his closest friend for many years, at a time in Andrew’s life when he had needed a friend and had not understood what his life was to be. They had been friends as children and as young teen-agers, and in a way they were closer than brothers; Andrew was sure that he had loved Frank more than he would have loved any brother of his own.
Disturbed, he walked down the street. His legs felt weak. The neighborhood did not seem so familiar and friendly now. It was a great shock to him that Frank was dead. The fact that he would not see Frank but only hear of him from other people, from strangers, was a puzzling fact. He felt a surge of anger, as if he had been cheated.
He arrived at the old mustard-yellow apartment building and stood out front for a while, thinking, a tall, lean priest with a look of being lost. This apartment building was a familiar landmark; he remembered its ugly bulk from childhood. He did not want to see this wife of Frank’s, this widow — he had never met her, knew nothing about her — but he had to go in, for he never let himself off easily. He climbed up the three flights of stairs, sensing how fatally he was being drawn back to this neighborhood, back to the smells and noises and faces he had left behind.
The door was opened quickly upon his knock, and a woman stared out at him, not speaking. He said, “I was a friend of Frank’s. Your husband?”
Despite the gentleness of his voice the woman looked frightened. A blast of music behind her must have confused her thoughts. She said finally, “You heard what happened?”
“I was just told that he had died. Just now.”
“You want to come in?”
She was thin and banally pretty; her voice had no depth to it but sounded like another voice from the radio. She stood aside awkwardly and he entered, prepared for the cramped living room and its bargain-basement furniture, the quilt fixed primly over the back of the sofa, the remnant rugs in doorways to protect the ugly brown rug beneath. Familiar, familiar. Andrew felt absurdly sorry for both himself and this woman.
“So you were Frank’s friend? You’re Andrew?” she said nervously. “He talked about you a lot, he liked you.” She paused and shot a shy, inquisitive look at him. “What kind of priest are you? — I can’t remember.”
“A Jesuit. I teach in Chicago.”
“Yeah, what do you teach?”
She sucked her lower lip and considered this. She was a daughter of this neighborhood, from her painted nails to her plucked eyebrows and the long smooth naked expanse of her legs beneath a house dress, but this hesitation belonged to a new generation; she read the newspapers, she had opinions. “Yeah, do you like that?”
Her eyebrows rose in an expression of agreement. She was a rather tall woman. Andrew himself felt ungainly and coarse and suddenly dirty. His hands felt dirty; perhaps he had touched the railing outside. “Would you like to sit down or something?” she said. She was probably as tall as Frank had been. Her hair was a bright chestnut color, pulled up on the crown of her head so that she looked even taller than she was. She looked as if she had half-prepared to go somewhere, doing her face and her hair and then losing interest, slipping into a shapeless dress, slipping into worn-out shoes. She said shyly, “I’m sorry it’s so messy in here . . .”
With a gesture of his hand he dispelled the clutter. He smiled and sat, and the girl wavered above him. She said, “Would you like some coffee or something? Or maybe some beer? What time is it?”
“About five thirty.”
“Well — would you like anything?”
“Thank you, no. I won’t be staying long.”
She hadn’t the shrewdness to disguise her relief at these words. She sat facing him on a footstool, the sort of odd piece of furniture Andrew remembered as a hassock — how strange that such things had disappeared forever from his life! In the living room of his parents’ tiny home and in the homes of his friends’ parents there had been big squat shiny hassocks, usually red, often ripped, and they were a symbol of something but he had no idea what. He wanted to laugh. This hassock was a gay orange-brown.
He did not laugh, but a pain shot up into his head. He said apologetically, “I wouldn’t mind a glass of water.”
She jumped up, eager to serve him. He was accustomed to this mechanical jumping-up and running-out from women. Service like that was a way of not quite seeing him, as a priest, not listening to him or dealing with him; he supposed that he understood. The sight of a clerical collar had often disheartened him, himself. The girl went to the kitchen, and in his range of vision, selected an especially clean glass from the cupboard and let the water run to get cold and filled the glass and returned to him, like a handmaiden. She had a very light, lithe step, probably exaggerated.
“I sometimes get headaches when I travel. I carry a few aspirin,” he said, explaining as he took out a small folded tissue and opened it and finished off three aspirins. The girl watched seriously. “Thank you,” he said, returning the glass.
She set the glass absentmindedly on a coffee table between them. Andrew wanted to protest that it would stain the table, thinking of the expensive furniture at his seminary. He did not want to look at the table to see if there were other stains on it, and he did not want to look at the girl’s rather distraught face. The jazzy music rose from the other room, and he thought wildly that he had to get out of this place.
The girl jumped up. “I better turn that off, that’s just junk,” she said, explaining, and she snapped off the radio. He could see the radio above the sink — red plastic. It occupied a position of importance in the kitchen. The girl returned to him again, and his eyesight weakened, the repetition of her going out, coming back unnerving him. He was not accustomed to women in such informal situations. There was something naturally jerky and alarming about women, particularly this kind of woman; his college students were rather different. This woman leaned over him and said, “You’re sure your headache’s all right? You feel all right?”
“Yes, thank you. Your name is Toni, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s kind of a silly name, I don’t know where I got it from,” she said, pleased and embarrassed.
Now it was too quiet between them, with the radio off. He said gently, “Your husband and I were very good friends at one time. I hope you don’t mind talking about him.”
“I don’t know. I guess not,” she said. “I talked about it an awful lot with my family and people and things like that; I mean, we talked about it, but that didn’t do any good. What good does it do?” This was a long speech for her, but she spoke slowly and languidly, as if she were in a trance. Her face was rather pretty. Then she did a strange thing: she yawned. It was a small surprising yawn which she tried to hide with her hand.
“How long were you married?” Andrew said.
“Oh, three years.”
“I’m afraid that Frank and I lost touch in the last five or six years. I don’t know why. I was always sorry about it.”
“Oh, he showed me your letters, lie saved them and was real proud of them,” she said. “I’ve still got them. I used to read them, they were . . . interesting . . . He didn’t know what to write back to you, but he liked your letters. Oh, I remember one letter,” she said sadly, as if the letters of her husband’s friend were the real sorrow in her life, “I remember you talking about Italy, describing some place . . .”
“Florence? The Vatican?”
“The Vatican, yes,” she said, repeating the word exactly as he had given it, blinking, “that was very interesting, it was like we were there ourselves. But didn’t everybody there speak Italian?”
“Some speak English.”
“They do, why?”
Andrew smiled a quick, annoyed smile. “Languages are important to Europeans; they study many languages.”
She nodded, but her expression showed that he had not answered her question. “Well, it was a vivid letter. It was vivid. It was nice to read a letter like that, from a priest and everything.
I told Frank he should write you back, but he was afraid you’d laugh at his spelling or something. He thought a lot of you,”
“Do you go over to the cathedral, or where?”
This was a priestly shaft, and he used it deliberately, innocently. The girl said, a little nervously, “Sometimes I go to the cathedral, yes. But you know it isn’t safe there anymore — a woman was attacked at the six-thirty Mass last week, on her way to it. What do you think of that?”
“I’m sorry to hear about it.”
“ The priest himself says we should be careful. Someone else, a Negro, was stabbed not around church but a few blocks away. It’s terrible to be alone down here.”
She had an ordinary doll-like face, and most of her lipstick had worn off. But this pronouncement was almost tragic; Andrew frowned and wondered when he would begin to pity her. He said softly, “Are you all alone here now?”
“Well, yeah, my family went back to West Virginia. They got fed up here.”
“Oh, you’re from West Virginia?”
“Sort of. I was born there. But I’m really from right here; I mean, I’m not a hillbilly.”
“Where did you meet Frank?”
“I don’t know, at a dance. A blind date or something.”
“Was he in the Navy then?”
“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head emphatically to set him right. “No, he was out of that for a long time. He was twenty-nine when he got married, that’s pretty old for a man.”
He felt that she had somehow accused him of being old and unmarried; he was Frank’s exact age. But the girl was looking blankly down at her ballerina-type shoes, flat black shoes with pointed toes and worn-down heels. How like the girls of his childhood! The same wistful plucked look, the same thin, sloping shoulders which were carried without grace and yet without any clumsiness, the way a bird hops from one branch to another.
“I’d be real pleased if you stayed for supper. It’s stew that I got on the stove; there’s enough for you,” she said suddenly.
“I really should be leaving.”
“Are you visiting your parents here?”
“No, my parents are dead.” He paused. “They did live here, though, a few blocks away. But I should be leaving anyway ...”
“But I wanted to ask you something . . .”
“Please ask me anything. It’s just that I don’t want to bother you, and you probably have something to do . . .”
“You’re not bothering me,” she said in a faintly accusing voice, as if he had said something preposterous. She moved the toe of one foot in a little circle on the rug. “It’s sort of funny that you and Frank were friends; I mean, you’re sort of different.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, he quit school and everything, he didn’t like books . . .”
“He shouldn’t have quit school.”
“That’s what his mother said. She told me that,” the girl said quickly. Between them the image of Frank seemed to rise, a muscular, dark, blunt-jawed man of about five feet eight, sometimes suspicious, sometimes quick to smile . . . “She always said she tried to talk him out of it, but I don’t believe that. Was that the truth?”
“I think his parents wanted him to quit. They wanted him to work.”
“Ah. Sure,” the girl said, nodding.
“He didn’t like reading, but he liked math. He was good at math.”
She stared at him. Her face was so young and thin that he was distressed, seeing that look upon it. “You think he could have done better than he did? I mean, you think he was smart enough?”
“Yes. I do.”
He wondered how old she was. He had been wrong in dismissing her as an ordinary girl; she was solemn, dazed, pathetic, and only the cheapness of her plucked eyebrows and dress was ordinary. Her sorrow was not ordinary.
“I should have given you notice before coming here,” Andrew said. “I don’t want to make you unhappy.”
“Oh, no! Please, no. it’s just wonderful that you came,” she said, staring at him. A minute passed in silence. He was afraid that she would cry and that her tears, unlike those of other women who cried in his presence, would be inexhaustible. “You sure you don’t want to stay to supper? I got this stew all ready; I start it on Monday and have it every other day . .
“But I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“No, please stay. It’s no inconvenience.”
So he agreed and had to wince as she jumped up again, set for the kitchen. She said breathlessly, “I have to make biscuits, I have to set the oven.”
SHE talked to him from the tiny kitchen as if anxious to let him know what she was up to, anxious lest he might sneak out. He glanced around the living room. The coffee table had a formica top and of course could not be stained; there was no question of damaging it. The same was true of the other furniture, which was made of synthetic materials — an easy chair, the sofa on which he sat, the hassock, a table, a few lamps — all of it anonymous and sad. There was no hint of any man having lived here, and he realized suddenly that Frank had never lived here. He felt a vague curiosity about the rest of the apartment.
“Why did you move here?” he said.
She came back into the living room, at his service. “After the accident I didn’t want to stay in the other place. It cost too much. And anyway you know our boy was killed too —”
“No, what? What boy?”
“Our boy. Our boy was killed with him, in the car. They were both killed together,” she said in a flat, embarrassed voice. “His name was Robert, Robin. Sometimes we called him Robin. On the birth certificate it was Robert, of course. He was two. They were both killed in the crash; I thought you knew that.”
“I didn’t know you had a son.”
“Oh, yes, a son, that was Robert,” she said vaguely, as if listening for something behind her, “and so . . . so I didn’t want to stay there, so I moved over here where a girl friend of mine is . . . We both work downtown.”
“Oh, do you work?” he said. He was trembling. For her sake he wanted to get this conversation going in another direction. What sorrow this girl had had to bear! He felt like a coward, he felt shame for himself, his achievement and his security and his adulthood — it was shameful that he sit here so divorced from her, unable to take any of her suffering onto himself. The girl smiled slowly. “Yes, I like to work. It’s in Millicent’s, a women’s store. I always liked to work . . .”
“I’m glad you like to work . . .”
“Let me get something; I almost forgot,” she muttered, and turned. He sat there with a foolish strained look, waiting for her to return. When she did return carrying two glasses and a bottle of wine, he felt immense relief.
“I bought this yesterday, isn’t that lucky? Do you like this kind of wine?”
She showed him the label and it, too, was familiar. Now he never drank anything so cheap. But he smiled with a sincere delight and said, “That’s wonderful, thank you,” and she poured them both some wine with a self-conscious, elegant movement. They drank. The girl stared down at her long, angular foot and moved uncomfortably. “It’s just a regular stew, nothing special,” she said.
“It smells good.”
She looked at him quickly and critically. It was a meaningless look. The girl seemed to be listening to another conversation, or perhaps to sounds or utterances that were beneath hearing, and her talk with him was a surface affair that sometimes distracted her. She said in her rather sleepy, sad voice, “I like this apartment because it has a side porch. Just a little porch, and I can stand out there and let my hair dry or anything. It’s funny that Frank never saw it, because now it’s a place I go all the time and stand there and, you know, think about things . . . Of to the side there’s a bird’s nest on the railing, with some eggs in it. I didn’t want to scare the mother bird away but for two days she’s been gone; I felt sort of bad about that . . .”
“That’s nice, I mean about the porch.”
“It is nice,” she said, nodding. Her eyes were large. There were slight hollows about them, and he wondered again how old she was — twenty-six? — because there was something tired and ageless and familiar about her, even the slope of her shoulders. He could see the faint vaccination scar on her upper arm and how familiar, also, that seemed to him . . . He drank the wine and thought of people of his childhood, packed in so closely in houses that were divided and subdivided into apartments, packed in at school, packed in at church, and he, a child of ten or eleven, distracting himself from the solemn business of the Holy Mass by staring at the uncovered upper arm of a girl, in warm weather, at the faint white vaccination scars that were like symbols of a secret he could not understand and did not want to understand; something frightening and treacherous.
The girl was speaking. She sounded sleepy, as if the wine had rushed to her head. “It’s funny how the birds do that, I mean, they fly south and then they fly back north, and they never make a mistake. Did you ever think about that?”
“And they can’t help it? And they make nests, like the one outside, and they can’t help any of it?”
“It is strange, yes.”
“I wouldn’t want to be like that,” she said seriously.
“But it’s the same thing that makes them live.”
He didn’t want to get tangled in any foolish conversation, but it was impossible to back out. So he said, as if speaking to an especially slow student, “I mean that the principle that makes them migrate also makes them live — it’s the same principle, the life force itself. It’s all the same instinct.”
She stared at him. and he seemed to hear, replayed, his own words in her brain.
“What I wanted least of all was to upset you,” he said. With the bottle of wine safely between them he felt more at ease; perhaps he could handle a more personal and yet more impersonal attack. “But it was a great shock to hear of Frank’s death, and a woman down the street —”
“Oh, Thelma,” the girl said flatly, as if she didn’t think much of Thelma.
“She said I should talk to you. I had no idea about the other — about the child.”
“Yes,” the girl said, finishing her glass of wine, “that was sad. That was very sad. I don’t know what to say about it.”
“Do you have any pictures of them?”
“No, I don’t,” she said arrogantly. “His mother wanted them all so she could cry over them, so I said take them, go ahead and take them, and she did. She wanted back some goddamn old dish she gave us for a wedding present. It was tarnished anyway. I gave that back and good riddance and I don’t see any of them, I mean his family.”
“That’s too bad,” Andrew said, alarmed.
“Oh, the hell with them.”
“But it’s too bad —”
“It was a big goddamn dish made of silver or something, with a vine in it. A design. You were supposed to put meat on it or fish, I don’t know, whoever in hell uses stuff like that? I think she won it at a bingo game. I don’t think she bought it with money. Or else she got it with yellow stamps. Every time she came over to see us she’d ask me about the dish, and I had to show it to her and she always said, Why don’t you polish it? For Christ’s sake, why didn’t I sit around night after night while he went out bowling or whatever he did and polish that goddamn bowl! Why didn’t I!” She rose unsteadily She said, “I’ll be right back.”
ANDREW had the idea that she was going to get the dish to show him, but she went instead into another room. He was glad to be alone. He poured himself more wine, making a face. It was an intolerable situation, but here he was; in an hour or two he would be free. He could bear it. And she needed someone to talk to, obviously; it was a shame for a woman like that to be alone; she was a fairly attractive woman. He heard water running in another room. It was an intimate sound, and the feeling of the apartment, now that it was twilight, was intimate and pleasant. It was strange to think that Frank knew nothing about it. Time had passed over Frank, who was as old as Andrew and yet dead, mysteriously dead. Did Frank dominate their thoughts in spite of being dead, or had they hardly thought of him at all? When the girl returned, Andrew saw that she looked prettier. Embarrassed, awkward, she stood in the doorway on thin stork’s legs and said, “Nobody wants to hear me talk about him anymore, I don’t blame them. It’s a bore. That’s why I was glad when you came, but I don’t want you to feel bad or anything . . .”
She sat again and dawdled over her glass of wine. Andrew was hungry; he wondered about supper. If they ate, it would be something to do with their mouths that did not involve words. He finished his glass of wine and felt a stab of hunger.
The girl said sleepily, “You and Frank had some hobbies together, didn’t you? You collected some stuff?”
“Stamps. Just cheap stamps, and seashells.”
“Oh, seashells?” she said, pleased. “Where did you get them?”
He talked. His memory blossomed as the sound of the sea blossoms magically in a shell, and he recalled for her the gritty November days and the dark afternoons after school and the hopeless Saturday mornings, when for him even to go outside was a risk — no use explaining that to his parents — and he and Frank would spend hours with their collections and their spiritless rehearsals of what revenge they would get upon the older boys who bothered them. It was an amazing fact that they had been struck and tripped and chased for years, and now he, Father Rollins, sat and discussed it all objectively, fairly, and his colleague in such shame was dead, and it was all over, the terrible arena of their boyhood through which they had passed and which, itself, had not changed. Did its horrors exist for other boys, still? The exhaust and smoke of the great city were heavier than ever, heavy like the clouds that drifted languidly across the sky from the great lakes, clouds that looked as if they must reek with filth. Very strange.
“I was very fortunate to survive this neighborhood,” he said solemnly.
“Tell me more about it, you and him. In high school,” she said. She leaned toward him greedily, her large eyes fixed and commanding. And so he talked. He talked about things he had not thought of for years, things he had nearly forgotten. Then he said, breaking off, “You know, it’s strange that Frank was never here, in this apartment.’
“Yes, I think about that too.”
“Do you have any plans for the future?”
She gazed at him blankly. He could not decide whether she was stupid, or only dazed from her grief. What if Frank were watching them through the window, listening? What if Frank somehow wanted to return but could not, just as he, Andrew, sometimes wanted to wake from nightmares but could not, although he understood he was sleeping and needed only to wake himself in order to be free . . . ?
“No, no plans,” she said.
THEY ate in the kitchen. He liked eating here; it was artless and direct. At the residence hall, of course, he ate in a large dining room with the other Jesuits, and the only artlessness was in seeming not to avoid certain boring people; they could not always be avoided. In the past he had always eaten in kitchens. He was not one of those Jesuits who came from good families; he had never disguised his background.
“It’s funny,” said the girl, “but I’d swear that Frank’s mother wrote to you. She said she was going to.”
“No. I wish she had.”
“I’m pretty sure she said so.” It was not clear to Andrew whether he, or the mother-in-law, was being accused. But the girl went on, “That old bitch always wanted to make trouble. She thought we had to get married, but that wasn’t true. She went around telling everybody that.”
“She must be a very unhappy woman.”
“Yes, unhappy, she’s a miserable bitch. That’s true,” the girl said, agreeably. She ate thoughtfully, but Andrew ate quickly. He hadn’t remembered to have lunch. Distrustful of his appetite, of most physical demands, he often forgot to eat and then the power of hunger was terrible in him, a kind of revenge for his having ignored it. It was very strange. He felt both heavy and light-headed, from the shock of Frank’s death, from the wine; heavy from the meal and the relentless conversation and light-headed from the occasional bursts of absurdity in their talk — the girl’s offhand reference to Frank’s mother — and the twro sensations, heavy and light, passed back and forth dizzily in his mind. The stew was good. It was thick with potatoes and carrots and the meat was scant, but of course meat was expensive, and where did this girl get money? She worked at a poor-paying job. It was evil of him to take food from her, mouthful after mouthful, and yet his hunger was prodigious.
“It’s awful when somebody dies,” she said, laying down her fork, “it’s like it was torn out of you — you know — like a bandage ripped off with the skin in it — something like that —”
For an instant he imagined Frank in the doorway, watching them.
“I’m very sorry that you’re alone,” he said.
“Well, I got some friends.”
“You wouldn’t want to join your family?”
“Back there? Hell, no. No, I don’t have to go with them now.”
“It’s a comfort to be with somebody at certain times . . .”
“I like it here, on my own. Except for how things are, I mean how dangerous it’s getting . . . I was coming back from work once, and a man followed me from the bus, a white man, he walked right after me, he had a funny look ... it was like he was asleep and walking in his sleep . . . Oh, that was awful, that was awful,” she said, and sucked in her breath and covered her eyes with her hands. Andrew stared at her. Then, after a moment, she lowered her hands again and sat dryeyed, though faintly astonished.
It was a peculiar moment.
They went back into the living room, and she poured more wine, and he thought of how he must leave soon and how he would be leaving her alone, and how empty this apartment would seem. He spoke to comfort her and was not sure of where his words would lead: “Every one of us goes through periods of unhappiness, sometimes of depression, and the only way we get through is by holding onto some words. In order to be Catholic you must understand that: hang onto the words even when you don’t believe, and then the belief will return to you. It will return.”
“Was Frank a good Catholic when you knew him?” she said curiously.
“When I knew him.”
“He made me turn Catholic, you know. Then he sort of forgot about it.”
“He was a good Catholic then, back then,” Andrew said emphatically. “We both got scholarships to the Jesuit high school across town. It was a wonderful opportunity for boys like us, and I went from the high school right into the seminary. It was terrible that Frank had to quit . . .”
“He might have got fed up with it, too. That’s how I felt.”
“But it was different with us. Our school. It was an excellent school. Frank should have continued . . .”
“You really think he was smart?”
She let her head rest against the back of the easy chair. She looked listlessly at him. “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how smart he was.”
“Why do you say that?” Andrew said, startled.
She made a noncommittal gesture, turning her hand idly one way in a half-circle, then turning it back. Yes, an eloquent gesture. Andrew stared at her hand and saw in it an old gesture of Frank’s that had always annoyed him.
“He was smart in some ways. Some certain ways,” she said. “But in other ways, I don’t know.” She yawned, and opened her eyes wide in a look of ingenuous sorrow. “You know, he couldn t get ahead at work, and he used to yell at the kid . . . He used to go out every night, and I went with him; I knew enough to tag along because there were some women who wouldn’t mind him, I knew that, but he never figured out why I came with him. He thought it was because I loved him so much.”
“But what do you mean?” Andrew said, his face suddenly warm.
“I don’t know,” she said groggily. She reached around and found some cigarettes on the floor by her chair. “I used to tell myself when I was a kid that people aren’t much good to each other. They’re really better apart, not together, like my mother and father were always lighting, and out of them being together all us kids were born . . . what’s the point of it?”
“Haven’t you ever experienced any happiness in your life?”
“What?” she said. He felt a strange panic. His knees were weak. The girl watched him levelly and said, “You said that when you’re unhappy or something you keep yourself going by some words. Why do you do that?”
“We have to keep ourselves going.”
“But you’re a priest, you believe all sorts of things. You don’t have to worry about things, or work.”
He laughed. “I teach school. It took me five years to get my Ph.D.”
“Yes, I mean, but . . . but it isn’t the same because you can’t fail and can’t fall out, the way Frank did; you know he fell out of things and could never get ahead, he was sort of a bum . . .” Seeing Andrew’s look of alarm, she said quickly, “Oh, he was a nice guy, I know that, but he couldn’t catch onto things the way you do, a man like you, you know how to talk and be polite, but he didn’t. And a priest has things he doesn’t have to think about, that he believes.”
“Priests certainly think about their religion. Of all people priests experience doubt.”
“But does it mean anything?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Because you’re a priest,” she said sleepily, “and it’s all set, you . . . you have that black suit you wear, and I’d like something like that, something I could hide in and wouldn’t have to worry; it’s like a big black bird; nuns always reminded me of birds. Penguins.”
Andrew laughed in surprise. “You don’t have the right idea. It isn’t unbelievers who doubt, but believers. It’s believers who doubt.”
“I never doubt anything. I know how things are,” the girl said simply. “But when I was Catholic I worried about things, yes, that’s right, about sins and things. I doubted things, and then I stopped believing and didn’t have any doubt left, I was free; now I know how things are and don’t think about it, but it’s about the same. I mean, I feel about the same. Whether you’re Catholic or not doesn’t make much difference.”
He felt that his body had become quite warm and heavy. He was perspiring, nervous before the girl’s relentless impersonal sorrow, which was brittle and glib as the sorrow of medieval madonnas on museum canvases. Strange girl! The dazed look of her face, the way her skin seemed stretched tight across her girlish skull, made him feel uneasy.
“Loneliness is dangerous. It’s bad for you to be alone, to be lonely, because if alonencss does not lead to God, it leads to the devil. It leads to the self. Thinking too much.” He spoke hypnotically. The girl exhaled a cloud of smoke. “The aim of the religious life is not to be conscious of oneself as an individual but to experience the universe, to feel its fragments unifying in us . . . That experience is God.”
She frowned in thought. She balanced one foot atop the other, and the shoe of the higher foot would have fallen off, but she caught it on her toe. Her toenails were painted pink like her fingernails.
“Sometimes, when I’m very lucky, I can achieve this feeling,” he said. His voice was rising with something like passion. “I wish I could explain it to you, I wish I had time . . .”
“You have time. You can stay all you want, nobody’s coming over tonight.”
“. . . at these times I feel that by merely looking at a person I can reconstruct his past life, or her past life, I feel that I enter into his life as a lover, someone who loves . . . and sometimes I feel that just by glancing at a photograph, in a magazine perhaps, a photograph of mountains or a foreign country ... I somehow enter into the mystical life of that world, into its reality; I can imagine a gigantic world beyond it, its history, an entire civilization running up to that photograph which is presented to my view . . .”
She put out the cigarette and folded her arms across her stomach, staring at him. “Did you always want to be a priest?” she said.
Something seemed to have gone out of her voice. He said, “No, I didn’t. I found my vocation through the guidance of a priest at my school. There was nothing simple about it. And Frank, too, Frank might have considered —”
“Oh, the hell with Frank,” she said.
He stared at her, and his heart began to pound.
“Why do you say that?”
“Look, you don’t know him. Maybe you knew him once, but it wasn’t the same guy I knew. Look, the reason he cracked up the car, the reason it happened was he was drunk. He was always drunk. He was a loser, and he had to take the kid out for a ride, and that’s that. The hell with him.”
“But why did that happen? Why did he choose that kind of life?”
“Why, why what? Who chooses what?”
“Certainly people make choices —
“Look, where are you staying tonight?”
“At a residence in town here.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m on my way to Cleveland. I wanted to see Frank.”
“After so many years?”
“I’ve wanted to see him often, but my time isn’t my own.”
“You sure his mother didn’t write to you?”
“Yes, of course,” he said impatiently, “of course.”
She got to her feet and stretched. She was wearing a yellow dress. “I guess I have to go to bed. I have to work tomorrow,” she said.
He got to his feet at once, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have stayed so long . . .”
“You want me to show you my porch? Here, it’s over here.”
She led him to the other room, and he followed obediently. She opened a door and stepped out on a small porch; it was just as she said. Across the way was another old apartment building, its many windows lit in the darkness, and down on the ground were uncertain shapes half in shadow and half in light. Andrew saw something move down there. “What’s that?”
He smelled something faintly lemony about her, probably her hair. He was not thinking about her at all. It was a deliberate avoidance of thought, which he had learned as a young seminarian, and it had never failed him. She went over to one side of the little porch and felt for something and laughed.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Nothing.” She led him back to the living room, and now the way seemed clearer. Once back it was obviously time for him to leave; there would be no awkwardness about it. The girl smiled up at him, pleased. He said a few final things, she said a few things, there is no telling what people about to part can discover to talk of! — once they are safely released from each other. She went with him to the door. Almost out, good. A few more words. He said, “I’d be very happy if you wanted to write to me, I mean, if you ever had any doubts . . .”
“But I don’t have any doubts,” she pointed out. She smiled, and he smiled with her. She was like a clever student who courts her teacher by insights and coquettish bursts of intellect. He stepped out into the dim corridor, she leaned in the doorway, slender and somehow pleased with something, and as he turned to leave she said, “Oh, Father, wait — here’s a little present for you. It’s just nothing. It’s for you.”
And she deposited in his palm a tiny blue egg, a robin’s egg.
“But what is it?” he said, amazed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, smiling shyly and cleverly at once, and moving back, “just something I thought of. I’m kind of crazy sometimes. I just thought of it for no reason.”
He descended the stairs rapidly, his heart pounding. It was terrible not to know why his heart was pounding! Downstairs in the foyer he opened his hand again, dreading what he must see, and there the egg lay — a tiny, perfect egg, a lovely blue, a miracle achieved by some forlorn, enslaved robin. “What the hell is this?” he muttered. He closed his hand suddenly upon the egg and smashed it, and when he opened his hand again there was just a mess there, any kind of mess and not necessarily the mess of an egg. He took out his wad of tissue and cleaned it off and rolled all the tissue into a ball, and being neat, did not drop it in the foyer or out on the cluttered street, but put it back neatly into his own pocket.