So here I am, he thought. And here she was, Della, the woman he had recruited into his daydreams to make up for a paucity of meaning and event he sometimes found oppressive. No harm done. She was safe in his daydreams. Cherished, really. He had returned often enough to that one regrettable night, or that one almost regrettable hour in an otherwise wonderful night, to have put things right in his imagination, though not, of course, in his memory. A lingering farewell. Good night rather than goodbye. That was something.
Her sleeve stirred against him. The plum-colored cloth of her coat. He had once asked himself which colors yield to darkness first, and which of them float in it for a while. Twilight has nothing black about it, so black would be absorbed much more gradually than plum. She was clothed in twilight. That is the kind of thought I’ll have when this is over and she is gone. Those ridiculous poems I never write down. In fact, she will be a respectable woman with a job and a street address, reading her newspaper over breakfast in the morning light. I’ll walk by, and she won’t see me. Or she might be on a train to Memphis, rehearsing the words she will say to her mother, her father, accepting disgrace because it would be easier, would require fewer words, after all the excuses and apologies she’d have made already. Never mentioning me, wishing she never had seen me, putting this night out of mind altogether.
Chilly as he was, his shirt dampened. He could not protect her at all. This sham, squiring her through the tombstones, when the fact was that, if she had just spoken to the guard while she still looked respectable and her flowers had not wilted completely, if she had told the man her wistful little lie, he would have opened a gate for her, after the usual sermon about personal responsibility and the like, of course, which was hard to begrudge him, since it was simply an added small compensation for walking around all night. Jack had been too surprised at seeing her there to think this through, and then he had been so pleased to fall into the role of gentleman, which in fact overtook him as often as he had a clean shirt on but was vastly more inescapable with this particular lady on his arm, and in the darkness that so kindly hid the marks of an ungentlemanly life. He actually could have rescued her by telling her to sit on that bench and wait for the guard, standing well back to keep an eye on her, for what that was worth. Then she’d have had the walk home in the dark, which would be bad but probably not as bad as the same walk home by daylight. He had his excuses. Surprise itself accounted for most of it. But excuses only meant that he had done harm he did not intend, which was another proof that he did harm inevitably, intentions be damned.
He said, “I actually believe in predestination. I’m serious.”
“Well, of course you don’t. Destiny has made you a Methodist.”
“So you were just talking to yourself?”
“An old habit.”
“You said you were harmless, even though you have no gift for it. Does that mean you’re fated to be something you’re not? That doesn’t make much sense.”
“I said I act harmless. Insofar as in me lies. That doesn’t mean I succeed in being harmless. I don’t usually guess right about what harmlessness would require in a particular situation. And so on. It doesn’t even mean that I won’t give up on the whole business sometime. Won’t just relax and let myself be the rotter I am.”
She was quiet.
He said, “Now I’ve scared you. You see what I mean. That’s the last thing in the world I meant to do.”
“You don’t scare me, especially. You’re just like everybody else. You seem to think other people aren’t doing the same thing you are, more or less. I don’t go around revealing my innermost thoughts, I can tell you that. The minute I did, you’d be scared of me.”
He laughed. “Don’t laugh!”
He said, “I apologize. That was terribly insensitive.” They laughed.
She said, “I actually am full of rage. Wrath. I think I feel a little like God must feel the second before He just gives up and rains brimstone. I’ve heard people blame Him for that! I don’t blame Him. I can imagine the satisfaction. I have to wonder when that last exasperation will come and I burst into flames. Nothing in particular, everything in general, plus one more thing, maybe one very tiny thing. Whoosh.”
“Do I sound like I’m joking?”
“Not a bit. You’ve actually scared me.”
“Don’t worry too much. All my life I’ve been a perfect Christian lady. It’s nothing I can help, I guess. Something to be grateful for, really. It makes my mother happy. I plan to keep on with it.”
They were quiet for a while, and then she said, “Sometimes I shut myself in my room and throw myself down on my bed and I just let it run through me. All that wrath. In every bone in my body. Then it seems to sort of wear itself out and I can go for a walk or something. But it never goes away.” And then she said, “You’re very quiet.”
“Yes. I’m just thinking of the major exasperations I’ve added to the list. I’ll spend the next month adding up the minor ones. The ones that seem minor to me. I’m no judge, of course.”Insects going about their lives, very intent. All that purpose. Always on their way somewhere. You had to admire.
She said, “I don’t think of it as a list. It’s more like a mass, a weight. You know, when a cloud gets very heavy, and it begins to have its own life. It begins stirring inside itself, growling, making lightning. Maybe it was only one raindrop that changed it from a plain old gray cloud no one would ever notice. Just a handful of droplets would make the difference. Somebody’s breath rising up, somebody saying something mean, telling some vicious tale.” Her voice was very soft.
He said, “From now on I’m going to be so careful.”
“Bring me my book.”
“Oh, lady! I will do it as soon as humanly possible!”
She laughed. “I don’t really believe that. It doesn’t much matter. You’ve probably made a mess of it, anyway.” She turned her face away from him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have told you all that. I can’t talk about being mad without—being mad. But I’m all right now.”
“Well, I guess we have one thing in common.”
“What? What do we have in common?”
He was quiet. He had meant something so anodyne he was a little relieved at not having to go on. We are not as we appear. The Christian lady and the harmless man. The Prince of Darkness and the vial of divine wrath. There was some truth in it.
A night can seem endless, he thought. Insects going about their lives, very intent. Why all the chirping? His father saw him once with a mayonnaise jar with some grass in it and a caterpillar, holes punched in the lid in the approved style. He actually did plan to put water in, too, to watch for bubbles, since he had been wondering if caterpillars actually breathed. But he hadn’t made the experiment yet. His father stood there with his hands in his pockets, looking off at the trees. “The creatures do want their lives,” he remarked. “The ugliest little one of them. People don’t notice it sometimes, but it’s true.” Yes, it is. Such lives. All that purpose. Always on their way somewhere. You had to admire.
Maybe a chirp meant “I exist!” and then “I exist!,” as if it could matter. But it must, since they all do it.
There wasn’t much wrong with her book. It shouldn’t have spent so much time in his pocket. They call it foxing, when a book gets that worn look. He’d almost thought of selling it once. Really he was just making conversation with the clerk in a bookstore, one day when he felt like talking to someone. He hadn’t really meant to sell it, and the clerk hadn’t come up with a decent price, which was fortunate, considering. For a while he thought he might wander past her doorstep sometime, so he had kept it with him. But after he got that cut, that scar, he knew he never would. Here she was, and he didn’t have a word to say to her.
Finally she said, “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about bugs.”
“The gangster? The bunny?”
“Insects. Did you ever watch a spider swim? They’re surprisingly good at it. I mean, I was surprised.”
She shook her head. “I guess I never noticed.” He thought, A spider isn’t an insect. He didn’t actually say that it was one, but that’s how it must have sounded. She said, “You’re the first person I ever spoke to about that. That rage. You’re the only one. You’ll probably be the last one, too.”
What is it people say? “Would you like to talk about it? You might feel better—”
“No, I wouldn’t. And I don’t. I’m sorry. It’s nothing to do with you. I suppose it’s just the night and the tombstones.” She stood up, and she began walking down the hill toward the lake. He watched her go until he could discern her, just. A gentle disturbance in the darkness, a warmer darkness where she was. That plum coat. She might be walking away from him, weary of him.
He thought he might as well follow. What could it matter? At the first hint that he was not welcome, he would step away. Actually, it would be the second hint, if her walking away was the first. A little injury to his pride, no matter. But she must have heard his footsteps in the grass, because she paused till he was beside her, and she put her hand in the crook of his arm. They came to the edge of the water, shockingly cold and stony, and stood there together for a while, anyway, and then she said, “You have to be a little bit kind to yourself.”
“Because I said so. Because you’re skin and bone. Because you’re keeping a birthday in a graveyard.”
“That was a joke.”
“No, it wasn’t. If I think of you sometime, I don’t want to think of you here.”
He said, “I won’t be here. I have that address in my pocket. Instructions, and some telephone numbers. Mention of a modest reward. They’ll see to it. My family. They’re very reliable.” She was silent, so he reconsidered what she had said. “Oh, I see. You mean I should reform my life. This has been suggested to me on other occasions. Just this morning, in fact. I asked a fellow for a light. Such a small thing to ask, but it didn’t go very well. He kept the whole match to himself. That kind of day, I thought. A day of atonement. But you want me to change my life so that, if you do happen to think of me sometime—”
“I want you to be alive. That’s all. Nothing complicated.”
He laughed. “Not for you, maybe.” Then he said, “My father was right. He told me once, The creatures want their lives. Every one of them. When this creature has an empty belly, he finds something to put in it. So, no need to worry.” If you walk along the docks, you can almost always find a place where the dishwasher didn’t show up.“I want you to be alive. That’s all. Nothing complicated.”
She just shook her head.
So he said, “You caught me a little off guard there. At first I thought that was a remarkable thing to say. I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone say that, so explicitly. Then I realized that I feel the same about you. I mean, that I’m glad you’re alive. And hope you stay that way, and so on. I suppose the sentiment is fairly commonplace. Most people feel that way about most people, I believe. Which is a good thing. There can be disappointments, of course. I hadn’t thought about it in so many words, but I see your point. Thank you, in fact.” Nerves.
But he felt he should say, “You really don’t know what you’re asking.” Changing his life meant changing himself. Could it be some misbegotten loyalty that made him so intractably Jack Boughton, when so many better options must be available?
She said, “I’m asking it, anyway.”
“Then I’ll try.”
She shook her head. “Not good enough.”
“Well, you have to understand certain things. Let’s see.”
“That may be the problem.”
She shook her head.
“All right,” he said. “I have not actually chosen this life. The path of least resistance is not a choice, in the usual sense of the word. I know it appears to be one. But when the resistance you encounter on every other path seems, you know, indomitable, then there you are. I’m sure I have been too easily discouraged. Still, I know whereof I speak, more or less.”
She said, “That won’t do. The path of least resistance put that scar on your face.”
“It’s done worse, believe me. But there is the path of less resistance. No improvement. That one cracked a rib.”
“Don’t tell me. It’s none of my business. I don’t want to hear about it.”
“I was kidding.”
“You weren’t kidding. At least be honest about that.” She stepped away from him, turned away from him. “Oh.”
Two ribs. Not that it mattered. Finally he said, “You happen to have spent a few hours with a bum, Miss Miles. I’m sure this is an unusual experience for you. For most people, really. Anyone in my family, certainly.” She was standing there with her back to him. It had to be morning sooner or later, and then it would be over, anyway. “This sort of life has its costs, I agree. But I’m basically harmless. Most of us are. If we’re incorrigible, that might just be a sign of—contentment.” He might have said “—resignation.” They aren’t unrelated. He was telling her to stop talking to him as if she had a claim on him, from taking that proprietary tone, of the fortunate to the less fortunate, the reputable to the disreputable. No, he wasn’t really talking to her. The Methodists ran very good soup kitchens, and she’d have been in one of them, smiling and ladling, from the minute she was old enough to know the word “charity.” He wasn’t quite a regular, and this was St. Louis, but the thought that she might have seen him there sometime, in the bald light, bowl in hand, shocked him. He had given himself another of those unbearable memories, a stark vision of something that had not happened but was so very possible that he had to retrieve his handkerchief and wipe his brow. A memory like that is half an impulse. He would make himself avoid everything Methodist—AME, Wesleyan, and United. There were things he sometimes imagined in his foolish moments he might say to anyone who seemed to take offense at him. To that man who shook out the flame on his match rather than giving Jack the use of it. Or to a brother or sister, if one of them ever found him. But to hear the words aloud, and spoken to her, was startling. He said, “Yes, I should try to do better.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
Well, neither did he. It was probably best just to be quiet and wait until the conversation changed, as conversations will when no one is saying anything. Given a little time they change like weather, clouds passing, a breeze coming up. No way to predict, but something else is usually something better. He wished he had a cigarette. It was that shame he could never talk himself out of. Candor was no help at all. He walked along the verge of the water, just a few steps away from her, but far enough to make a point of some kind. After a few minutes she came and stood beside him, in the dark and the quiet, the water at their feet making its soft, idle sounds, sifting pebbles. She was in every way still. No words, just stillness, like a presence in a dream.
Finally he said, “You don’t mean to judge me.”
She said, “I don’t.”
“You probably ought to.”
“Why should I?”
“Well, if things go wrong for you—the slide into haplessness can be quick. You can find yourself looking at the world from the wrong side before you know what’s happened. I think people look at me and they see that. They call me preacher and so on. Professor. It usually means they want to give me a little trouble. I bother them, because they don’t think I’m the sort who ends up like this. I know there might be more to it. Of course there is. I’m just saying it can happen. It’s nothing you should be anywhere near. Take my word for it.”
Stillness. A presence in a dream always seems to mean something. It has threat or guilt or grief like an atmosphere around it. Her stillness felt strangely like assurance. It felt very like loyalty, if he was not mistaken. It was as if she had said, We ended the world, don’t you remember? Now it’s just the two of us.
He was reminded of something. “Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure.” Not that. That was not part of the assignment. The teacher had sent him home with a note. He put it in one of the Edinburgh books, those old theology books no one ever looked at, out of respect for their authority, for what his father called their finespun argumentation.
What she actually said was “You are living like someone who has died already.”
Well, there was a good deal of truth in that. He had wondered from time to time whether he’d actually scared himself to death, or half to death, anyway. Harmlessness. A banner with a strange device. He said, “I’m almost never here, Miss Miles. I don’t normally pass my nights in the cemetery, believe me. You might have gotten that impression because you happen to have come across me here. That’s completely understandable. I mean, that you would not quite realize what a remarkable coincidence we’re dealing with. That our lives should intersect—I would have almost as good grounds for supposing that you spent your nights here, if you think about it—not really, of course. I didn’t mean that about our lives. But, logically speaking, you see what I mean.” Listen to that fool go on.
She said, “The cemetery is part of it, I suppose. Maybe.”
“So you’re saying what? I’m a ghost of myself? The mere shadow of a man—and then the moon went down.”
“No. That’s pretty disheartening. I have to object.”
She said, very softly, “I don’t think it’s disheartening. I think it’s kind of—beautiful.”
“Did you say ‘beautiful’?”
She nodded. “Beautiful. In a way.”
He laughed. “Well, that’s a surprise.”
She said, “Something happened that made you decide you’d had all the life you could stand. So you ended it there. Except you have to stay alive, for your father.” Her voice came very close to that annoying lilt of realization you hear when people go spiraling off into some supposed insight. They become inaccessible to common sense, to distraction, even. She said, “You don’t feel like part of the world anymore. Maybe you’re more like most people than you think.”
“I can’t quite persuade myself that I’m like most people. And I certainly can’t persuade anyone else that I am. If you find any of this beautiful, it’s all right with me. Which is not to say you should. I must have misled you somehow. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you that I lie. I lied as a lisping child. So whatever you think I’ve told you probably isn’t true. If it’s actually what I said.”
She nodded. “That’s interesting.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s a damned nuisance, most of the time.” Quiet.
She said, “I think most people feel a difference between their real lives and the lives they have in the world. But they ignore their souls, or hide them, so they can keep things together, keep an ordinary life together. You don’t do that. In your own way, you’re kind of—pure.”
He sighed. “No no no no no. Your poetical impulses have overwhelmed your good sense. Miss Miles, I can’t let that happen. Within five minutes I’ll have come up with a way to disillusion you, and we’ll both be unhappy.”
She nodded. “That’s how you defend yourself. That’s how you keep yourself at a distance. Anyway, we’re both unhappy as it is, so I’m not putting particular confidence in my illusions. If that’s what they are.” She said, “I’m just trying to tell you that there are reasons why you should, you know, keep body and soul together.” “To beautify, no, beatify, this tedious world. I can’t tell you what multitudes are unmoved.”
“Well, there’s Jesus,” she said, which startled him.
He said, “A gentleman I am at considerable pains to avoid.” He thought, Sweet Jesus, don’t let her try to convert me.
“I’m sorry. I know how that sounded. I really just meant that there is—anyone, any human being, and then that person’s actual life, everything they didn’t mean or couldn’t say or wished for or grieved over. That’s reality. So someone who would know the world that way, some spirit, seems kind of inevitable. I think. Why should so much reality, most of it, count for nothing? That’s how it seems to me.”
“That spirit would not always be impressed, depending on cases.”
She shook her head. “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh.”
Who could object? But she was very serious. How to put an end to this without offending her in a way he would have to regret? “Not harsh at all,” he said. Something worse, something he lacked a word for.
Quiet. The black of the sky was dimming with light, so the black shapes of trees and the black of the water were beginning to stand out against it, beneath it. Morning birds had begun to stir. The figure beside him seemed veiled now, neither quite hidden nor quite visible. He could not bring himself to look at her directly, and she did not look at him, both of them as still as if the kindly dark were not receding from them. What would be the one sufficient thing to say, before the flood of light swept over them, now that their world was ending? Amen, he thought. He was undisgraced and she was unoffended, a devout hope more or less fulfilled.
They walked back up the hill to the tomb. Their shoes were there by the door in a neat domestic row, her handbag propped against them. The two of them sat down together, he to pull on his miserable socks, she to smooth hair that would not be smoothed, to reset hairpins and resettle her hat. She found a lipstick in her bag. Their attempts at repairing their dishevelments were embarrassed. We have waked up together, he thought. Like Adam and Eve. Daylight will make everything worse. He knew the stubble of beard made him look haggard, worse with his hat on, even though when he took it off his hair looked thin. He stood up, his back to her, as if that solved anything. He heard her walk past him and saw her go down to the deepest grass and bend to wet her hands in the dew. She washed her face with it and looked up at him, laughing, her face shining. She said, “I saw that in a book. They were getting ready to enter Purgatory.”
He said, “Then I guess I’d better do it, too. I know for a fact that Purgatory has standards.”
He went down to where she was, but then, standing there, scarred and stubbled, he felt that flinch of nerves, a tightening of the neck and shoulder, that made him tilt his head back and to the side, just a little, but enough to make him look supercilious, his sisters said, or as if he was about to take a punch, his brothers said. Daylight was Purgatory. It was terrible, being a thing to be looked at. He had always thought so, even before he had his history written all over him. She looked very young, with the sun sparkling in that furze of hair that had escaped all her smoothing and pinning. No one could say a word against her, think a harsh thought, surely, considering the mildness of her eyes, her gentle face. What could he ever have had to do with her? The question offended even him a little. What would her father think, or anyone who cared about her? He had to get her out of here, back to the right kind of life, in which he would of course have no place at all. So they should be quiet. “No more laughing,” he said. “Someone will hear.”
She said, “Yes, that was stupid of me,” and nodded.
Not stupid, actually very pleasing. Her laughter meant, Look at me, Jack! Look at my face all splashed with light!
But he said, “We have a problem we have to deal with now. We really can’t be seen together. We have to leave separately, when they open the gates. You first. If you need me, I’ll be close enough to hear you call,” and he walked away, more abruptly than he meant to. He didn’t even look back. He put himself behind a big monument he had forgotten to show her, a stone pelican on it, weather-pitted, but with a beautifully, painfully arched neck, and he waited, looking out from its wings once or twice to see where she was. Still at the tomb. She’d taken something from her bag, a little notebook and a pencil. He thought he should walk back there to tell her he was sorry if he had seemed rude just then, leaving her like that, which would have been very foolish. He did want to say some sort of goodbye. That would have been unwise and might have seemed familiar. His palms dampened at the thought of how close he had come to risking it.
Then the guard came along on a lower path, not close enough to have to see her, shouting, “Morning, folks! Time to start the day! Better git while the gittin’s good! Don’t wanna hafta get the cops in here!” She stayed where she was. Men seemed to come out of nowhere, resurrected from their sleep, shambling, rumpled, rubbing their eyes. He thought, This must look very strange to her, though, on reflection, the remarkable thing was that it didn’t look strange to him. She was waiting for them to pass. Then she put her notebook away and adjusted her hat again and brushed at her coat, nerving herself. She glanced around, gave no sign that she had seen him, tottered down the grassy slope in her high-heeled shoes, and took her place on the path of feckless humankind. When she was at a good distance, he followed along behind her.
She would walk out first, alone, and when she had had time enough to be gone, then he would leave. That was the plan. He loitered among the graves as convincingly as he could, as if he had dropped something and was looking for it, and then he heard her voice and the guard’s voice. He had to see what was happening. Whatever it was, it was going on too long. He stepped into the road, and he saw. The naked man that lived inside his clothes began covering himself with sweat, sticking his shirt to his back. It wasn’t only shame. Yes, it was. She held her head to the side, looking at the ground, waiting for the guard to stop talking to her, nodding now and then. Oh, sweet Jesus, the guard actually put his hand on her. He took hold of her arm. He shook it a little so that she would look up at him, look at that face under the billed cap, all intent with his little claim to public authority, and she would listen to him and say whatever he wanted her to say, “Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir, I won’t ever again.” It was too soon, but Jack decided to saunter, he, that naked man, down to the gate and put himself a little behind the guard so that he would look away from her, so that she could walk away. He tried to whistle and failed, but he put his hands in his pockets and strolled pretty convincingly down to where they were, giving no sign that he knew her, of course.
And the guard did turn to him. “Don’t you get smart with me!”
People said this to Jack fairly often, absolute strangers he had no thought of getting smart with. So it wasn’t really a bad beginning. He said, “Good morning,” a slight catch in his voice. He believed he was smiling. Leave, Della!
“You! I am sick of the sight of you, buster! I should have called the cops on you a hundred times before now! This time I’m going to do it! Don’t think I don’t know what’s been going on here. Sleeping off a drunk is one thing, but bringing along a colored gal—we’ve got dead people in here!” He fixed Jack with a stare, decency much offended. Jesus, don’t let me laugh. She was still lingering, watching. He felt like telling her, “Not literally a hundred times,” since that would have made a very bad impression. Probably no more than a dozen times. What a foolish thing to worry about. Why was she standing there watching? He put himself through this humiliation so that she could walk away, and she was seeing him look at his shoes and sweat and plead, more or less, for another chance, sir. If she stayed any longer, he would have to punch the guard to give her an opening to get away, which would mean prison for him, and maybe for her, too, if there were any witnesses. He couldn’t look up from his shoes to be sure. Dear Jesus, don’t let me punch the guard. Then she left.
Three steps and gone. He felt a little surge of what was probably joy, nicely timed, because he was able to agree feelingly with every remonstrance—that’s what the old gent called them—that the guard rehearsed for him. Yes, certainly, he would consider his life. He really would. He knew it was a shameful thing to burden society, to contribute nothing. He felt this intensely. And yes, he was still young enough to turn it all around. At some point he had doffed his hat.
Joy is an earnest emotion, and visible. The guard must have seen a light in his eyes, realization, yes, there could be a good and respectable life ahead of him. In fact, it was relief that she was gone and he had not been driven to violence, which never went well for him. The bruised reed he did not break. Not for lack of trying. Don’t talk like that. The guard allowed that he had, at one time, pretty well given up on himself, remarkable as this might seem now. Bad friends! They’re the worst thing that can happen to a fellow! Jack almost put in a word for bad enemies, then thought better of it. The guard checked Jack’s face for any sign he might be less than serious. Then he said, “I’ve given you fair warning, bud. Now move along. I don’t want to see you around here again, understand?” He was already distracted. There was another bum shambling down the road in need of castigation. Jack thought, My lucky day. He’d had to leave his bedroll and could not possibly go back for it, testy as the guard had been, but that might just make him change his life.
Excerpted from Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.