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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Jack

A Novel

Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

He was walking along almost beside her, two steps behind. She did not look back. She said, “I’m not talking to you.”

“I completely understand.”

“If you did completely understand, you wouldn’t be following me.”

He said, “When a fellow takes a girl out to dinner, he has to see her home.”

“No, he doesn’t have to. Not if she tells him to go away and leave her alone.”

“I can’t help the way I was brought up,” he said. But he crossed the street and walked along beside her, across the street. When they were a block from where she lived, he came across the street again. He said, “I do want to apologize.”

“I don’t want to hear it. And don’t bother trying to explain.”

“Thank you. I mean I’d rather not try to explain. If that’s all right.”

“Nothing is all right. All right has no place in this conversation.” Still, her voice was soft.

“I understand, of course. But I can’t quite resign myself.”

She said, “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life.”

He said, “Well, you haven’t known me very long.”

She stopped. “Now it’s a joke. It’s funny.”

He said, “There’s a problem I have. The wrong things make me laugh. I think I spoke to you about that.”

“And where did you come from, anyway? I was just walking along, and there you were behind me.”

“Yes. I’m sorry if I frightened you.”

“No, you didn’t. I knew it was you. No thief could be that sneaky. You must have been hiding behind a tree. Something ridiculous.”

“Well,” he said, “in any case, I have seen you safely to your door.” He took out his wallet and extracted a five-dollar bill.

“Now, what is this! Giving me money here on my doorstep? What are people supposed to think about that? You want to ruin my life!”

He put the money and the wallet back. “Very thoughtless of me. I just wanted you to know I wasn’t ducking out on the check. I know that’s what you must think. You see, I did have the money. That was my point.”

She shook her head. “Me scraping around in the bottom of my handbag trying to put together enough quarters and dimes to pay for those pork chops we didn’t eat. I left owing the man twenty cents.”

“Well, I’ll get the money to you. Discreetly. In a book or something. I have those books of yours.” He said, “I thought it was a very nice evening, till the last part. One bad hour out of three. One small personal loan, promptly repaid. Maybe tomorrow.”

She said, “I think you expect me to keep putting up with you!”

“Not really. People don’t, generally. I won’t blame you. I know how it is.” He said, “Your voice is soft even when you’re angry. That’s unusual.”

“I guess I wasn’t brought up to quarrel in the street.”

“I actually meant another kind of soft.” He said, “I have a few minutes. If you want to talk this over in private.”

“Did you just invite yourself in? Well, there’s nothing to talk over. You go home, or wherever it is you go. I’m done with this, whatever it is. You’re just trouble.”

He nodded. “I’ve never denied it. Seldom denied it, anyway.”

“I’ll grant you that.”

They stood there a full minute.

He said, “I’ve been looking forward to this evening. I don’t quite want it to end.”

“Mad as I am at you.”

He nodded. “That’s why I can’t quite walk away. I won’t see you again. But you’re here now—”

She said, “I just would not have believed you would embarrass me like that. I still can’t believe it.”

“Really, it seemed like the best thing, at the time.”

“I thought you were a gentleman. More or less, anyway.”

“Very often I am. In most circumstances. Dyed-in-the-wool, much of the time.”

“Well, here’s my door. You can leave now.”

“That’s true. I will. I’m just finding it a little difficult. Give me a couple of minutes. When you go inside, I’ll probably leave.”

“If some white people come along, you’ll be gone soon enough.”

He took a step back. “What? Do you think that’s what happened?”

“I saw them, Jack. Those men. I’m not blind. And I’m not stupid.”

He said, “I don’t know why you are even talking to me.”

“That’s what I’d like to know, myself.”

“They were just trying to collect some debts. They can be pretty rough about it. I can’t risk, you know, an altercation. The last one almost got me thirty days. So that would have embarrassed you, maybe more.”

“You are something!”

“Maybe,” he said, “but I’m not— I’m so glad you told me. I could have left you here thinking— I wouldn’t want you to—”

“The truth isn’t so much better, you know. Really—”

“Yes, it is. Sure it is.”

“So now I’m supposed to forgive you because what you did isn’t the absolutely worst thing you could have done.”

“Well, the case could be made, couldn’t it? I mean, I feel much better now that we’ve cleared that up. If I’d walked away ten minutes ago, think how different it would have been. And then I really never would have seen you again.”

“Who said you will now?”

He nodded. “I can’t help thinking the odds are better.”

“Maybe, if I decide to believe you. Maybe not.”

“You really ought to believe me,” he said. “What harm would it do? You can still hang up on me if I call. Return my letters. Nothing would be different. Except you wouldn’t have to have such unpleasant thoughts about how you’ve spent a few hours over a couple of weeks. That splendid evening we meant to have. You could forgive me that much.”

“Forgive myself,” she said. “For being so foolish.”

“You could think of it that way, too.”

She turned and looked at him. “Don’t laugh at this, any of this, ever,” she said. “I think you want to. And if you’re trying to be ingratiating, it isn’t working.”

“It doesn’t work. How well I know. It is some spontaneous, chemical thing that happens. Contact between Jack Boughton and—air. Like phosphorus, you know. No actual flame, of course. Foxfire, more like that. A rosy heat of embarrassment around any ordinary thing. No way to hide it. I suppose entropy should have a nimbus—”

“Stop talking,” she said.

“It’s nerves.”

“I know it is.”

“Pay no attention.”

“You’re breaking my heart.”

He laughed. “I’m just talking to keep you here listening. I certainly don’t mean to break your heart.”

“No, you’re telling me the truth now. It’s a pity. I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man.”

“It has its uses, even for me. I am assumed to know how many bubbles there are in a bar of soap. I’ve had the honor of helping to make civic dignitaries of some very unlikely chaps. I’ve—”

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t, don’t. I have to talk about the Declaration of Independence on Monday. There is nothing funny about that.”

“True. Not a thing.” He said, “I really am going to say something true, Miss Della. So listen. This doesn’t happen every day.” Then he said, “It’s ridiculous that a preacher’s daughter, a high-school teacher, a young woman with excellent prospects in life, would be hanging around with a confirmed, inveterate bum. So I won’t bother you anymore. You won’t be seeing me again.” He took a step away.

She looked at him. “You’re telling me goodbye! Why do you get to do that? I told you goodbye and you’ve kept me here listening to your nonsense so long I’d almost forgotten I said it.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I see your point. But I was trying to do what a gentleman would do. If a gentleman could actually be in my situation here. I could cost you everything, and there’s no good I could ever do you. Well, that’s obvious. I’m saying goodbye so you’ll know I understand how things are. I’m actually making you a promise, and I’ll stick to it. You’ll be impressed.”

She said, “Those books you borrowed.”

“They’ll be on your porch step tomorrow. Or soon after. With that money I owe you.”

“I don’t want them back. No, maybe I do. I suppose you wrote in them.”

“Pencil only. I’ll erase it.”

“No, don’t do that. I’ll do it.”

“Yes, I can see that there might be satisfactions involved.”

“Well,” she said, “I told you goodbye. You told me goodbye. Now walk away.”

“And you go inside.”

“As soon as you’re gone.”

They laughed.

After a minute, he said, “You just watch. I can do this.” And he lifted his hat to her and strolled off with his hands in his pockets. If he did look back, it was after she had closed the door behind her.

* * *

A week later, when she came home from school, she found her Hamlet lying on the porch step. There were two dollars in it, and there was something written in pencil on the inside cover.

Had I a blessing, even one,

Its grace would light on you alone.

Had I a single living prayer

It would attend you, mild as air.

Had my heart an unbroken string

ring sing sting cling thing

Oh, I am ill at these numbers!

IOU a dollar. And a book.

Long Farewell!

* * *

Embarrassing. Absolutely the last person in the world. Unbelievable. After almost a year. He snuffed out his cigarette against the headstone. A little carefully, it was only half gone. And what was the point. The smell of smoke must have been what made her stop and look around, look up at him. If he tried to slip back out of sight, that would only frighten her more, so there was nothing left to do but speak to her. Della. There she was, standing in the road on the verge of the lamplight, looking up at him. He could see in her stillness the kind of hesitation that meant she was held there by uncertainty, about whether she did know him or was only seeing a resemblance, and, in any case, whether to walk away, suppressing the impulse to run away if whoever he was, even he himself, seemed threatening or strange. Well, let’s be honest, he was strange, loitering in a cemetery in the dark of night, no doubt about it. But she might be pausing there actually hoping she did know him, ready for anything at all like reassurance, so he lifted his hat and said, “Good evening. Miss Miles, if I’m not mistaken.” She put her hand to her face as if to compose herself.

“Yes,” she said. “Good evening.” There were tears in her voice.

So he said, “Jack Boughton.”

She laughed, tears in her laughter. “Of course. I mean, I thought I recognized you. It’s so dark I couldn’t be sure. Looking into the dark makes it darker. Harder to see anything. I didn’t realize they locked the gates. I just didn’t think of it.”

“Yes. It depends where you’re standing, how dark it is. It’s relative. My eyes are adjusted to it. So I guess that makes light relative, doesn’t it.” Embarrassing. He meant to sound intelligent, since he hadn’t shaved that morning and his tie was rolled up in his pocket.

She nodded, and looked down the road ahead of her, still deciding.

How had he recognized her? He had spent actual months noticing women who were in any way like her, until he thought he had lost the memory of her in all that seeming resemblance. A coat like hers, a hat like hers. Sometimes the sound of a voice made him think he might see her if he turned. A bad idea. Her laughing meant she must be with someone. She might not want to show that she knew him. He would walk on, a little slower than the crowd, with the thought that as she passed she would speak to him if she wanted to, ignore him if she wanted to. Once or twice he stopped to look in a store window to let her reflection go by, and there were only the usual strangers, that endless stream of them. Cautious as he was, sometimes women took his notice as a familiarity they did not welcome. A useful reminder. A look like that would smart, he thought, coming from her. Still, all this waiting, if that’s what it was, helped him stay sober and usually reminded him to shave. It might really be her, sometime, and if he tipped his hat, shaven and sober, she would be more likely to smile.

But there she was, in the cemetery, of all places, and at night, and ready to be a little glad to see him. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve noticed that. About darkness.” Join me in it, even things up. I am the Prince of Darkness. He couldn’t say that. It was a joke he made to himself. He would walk down to where she was, in the lamplight. No. Any policeman who came by might take it into his head to say the word “solicitation,” since he was disreputable and she was black. Since they were together at night in the cemetery. Better to keep his distance. And he knew he always looked better from a distance, even a little gentlemanly. He had his jacket on. His tie was in his pocket. He said, “You really shouldn’t be here,” a ridiculous thing to say, since there she was. Then, as if by way of explanation, “There are some pretty strange people here at night.” When there he was among the tombstones himself, taking a little comfort from the fact that she could not see him well, to notice the difference between whatever she thought of him in her moment of apparent relief and how he actually was. Not what he actually was, his first thought. Spending a night in a cemetery, weather permitting, was no crime, nothing that should be taken to define him. It was illegal, but there was no harm in it. Generally speaking. Sometimes he rented his room at the boardinghouse to another fellow for a few days if money was tight.

He said, “I’ll look after you, if you’d like. Keep an eye on you, I mean. Until they open the gates.” He would watch out for her, of course, whatever she said. It would seem like lurking if he didn’t ask. Then she would leave, and he would follow, and she would probably know he was following her and try to run away from him, or hide in the tombstones, or stop and plead with him, maybe offer him her purse. Humiliating in every case. Catastrophic if a cop happened along.

“It was so stupid of me not to realize they would lock those gates. So stupid.” She sat down on a bench in the lamplight with her back to him, which struck him as possibly trusting. “I’d be grateful for the company, Mr. Boughton,” she said softly.

That was pleasant enough. “Happy to oblige.” He came a few steps down the hill, keeping his distance from her, putting himself in her sight if she turned just a little, and sat down on the mound of a grave. “I’m not here normally,” he said. “At this hour.”

“I just came here to see it. People kept telling me how beautiful it is.”

“It is pretty fine, I guess. As cemeteries go.”

He would try to talk with her. What was there to say? She had been holding flowers in her hand. They were beside her on the bench. “Who are the flowers for?”

“Oh, they’re for Mrs. Clark. All wilted now.”

“Half the people in here are Mrs. Clark. Or Mr. Clark. Most of the people in this town. William Clark, father of nations.”

“I know. That would be my excuse for wandering around if anybody asked. I’d be trying to find the right Mrs. Clark. I’d say my mother used to work for her. She was such a kind lady. We still miss her.”

“Clever. Except that the Clarks are pretty well huddled together. You find one, you’ve found them all. I could show you where. For future reference.” Complete nonsense.

“No need. It was just something I made up.” She shook her head. “I’m going to embarrass my family. My father always said it’s a baited trap. Don’t go near it. And here I am.”

“A baited trap.”

She shrugged. “Anywhere you’re not supposed to be.”

He shouldn’t have asked. She was talking to herself more than to him, and he knew it. Murmuring, almost. The crickets were louder. She reminded him of every one of his sisters in that prim coat that made her back look so narrow, her shoulders so small and square. He thought he had seen his sister hang her head that way, one of them. All of them. No, he was elsewhere at the time. But he could imagine them, standing close, saying nothing. No need to speak. No mention of his name.

“Well,” he said, “I guess you should be glad that I’m the one you came across here. A respectable man would have every problem I have, trying to be protective. More problems, because he wouldn’t know the place so well as I do. You’d probably be more at ease with someone like that. But I can slip you out of here, no one the wiser. It’s just a matter of waiting till morning. A respectable man wouldn’t be here at this time of night, I realize that. I’m speaking hypothetically, more or less. I just mean that I see your problem, and I’m happy to be of assistance. Very happy.” That was nerves.

He thought he might have made her uneasy, since the realization was beginning to settle in that she really was there, not so unlike the thought he had had of her, and she might have heard a trace of familiarity in his voice, which would be worrisome to her in the circumstances.

She said, “I am grateful for your company, Mr. Boughton. Truly.” Then silence, except for the wind in the leaves.

So he said, “I’ll be the problem you have if you have one. If you stick to your story, you’ll be all right. The guard isn’t a bad fellow. You just don’t want to be found in here with, you know, a man. I mean, that’s how it would look. No offense.”

“No, of course not.”

“I’ll go up the hill a ways. I can watch out for you from up there. All the regulars in here have probably passed out by now, or might as well have. But just in case.”

“No,” she said, “I’d rather you sat beside me here on this bench. You can’t be comfortable where you are. The grass is damp.” She may have wanted him to be where she could see him, to keep an eye on him.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Well, of course it does.”

“For a few minutes, then. I don’t know the time. Sometimes a guard comes through here about midnight.”

“It has to be past midnight.”

“I’d say about ten thirty, if I had to guess.”

“Oh! I’ve been walking around in here for hours. It seems like half my life. I went to one gate, then to another one, then all along the fence.” He did not say time is relative. The few classes he had actually gone to had been interesting enough, but he had to remember how few they were.

She said, “This place is so big, you wonder who all they’re expecting.”

He laughed. “Everybody, sooner or later. About three hundred acres, they say.”

“Nobody I know is coming here. They couldn’t carry me in here if they wanted to, either. I’d climb out of the box.”

It seemed she had forgotten about asking him to sit beside her, and he was relieved.

She said, “Isn’t it sinful, anyway, putting up these big monuments to yourself? These rich old men, with their dying breath, saying, ‘An obelisk will do. Something simple. The Washington Monument, but a little smaller.’”

“No doubt.”

“Obelisks standing around by the dozen, groves of them. It’s ridiculous.”

“I can only agree.” He thought he might have seen that word in print somewhere.

“When you think what could have been done with that money. Oh, just listen to me! I’m so tired I’m quarreling with dead people.”

“It is a shame, though. You’re absolutely right.” Then he said, “My grave is in Iowa. You’d approve. It’s about the width of a cot. It will have a little stone pillow with my name on it. Iowans aren’t much for ostentation.” And he said, “Maybe a grave isn’t really yours until you’re in it. You can never be sure where you’ll end up. But I plan to make sure. I carry the address in my pocket. It’s the least I can do, really. They’re expecting me.” He should have kept that cigarette.

She glanced toward him. Then she stood up. She gathered her flowers into a hasty sort of bouquet, wilted as they were. “I thank you for your kindness, Mr. Boughton. I feel better, now that I’ve rested a little.”

So this is how it ends, he thought. Five minutes into a conversation he’d never hoped for. After years of days that were suffered and forgotten, no more memorable than any particular stone in his shoe, here, in a cemetery, in the middle of the night, he was caught off guard by an actual turn of events, something that mattered, a meeting that would empty his best thoughts of their pleasure. Those dreams of his had been the pleasant substance of long stretches of time, privileged because they were incommunicable and of no possible interest to anyone, certainly never to be exposed to the chill air of consequence. But she, Della, was gathering herself up in that purposeful way proud women have when they are removing themselves from whatever has brought on that absolute no of theirs. Forever after, the thought of her would be painful, because it had been pleasant. Strange how that is.

Just at the farthest edge of the circle of light she paused, looking at the darkness beyond it. So he said, “You would be safer if you’d let me watch out for you.”

She said, “I wish you would get up off that grave and let me see you, then. It’s strange talking to someone you can’t see.”

All right. He took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. “I’ll be a minute,” he said. “I’m putting on my tie.”

She laughed and looked around at him. “You really are, aren’t you.”

“Indeed I am!” He was happy suddenly, because she had laughed. Feelings ought to be part of a tissue, a fabric. An emotion shouldn’t be an isolated thing that hits you like a sucker punch. There should be other satisfactions in life, to maintain perspective, proportion. Things to look forward to, for example, so one casual encounter in a cemetery wouldn’t feel like the Day of Judgment. He had let himself have too few emotions, so there wasn’t much for him to work with. But here he was, abruptly happy enough that he would have trouble concealing it. He came down the slope sidelong because the grass was damp and slippery, but almost as if there were a joke in the way he did it. I’m imitating youth, he thought. No, this feels like youth, an infusion of something like agility. Embarrassing. He had to be wary. If he made a fool of himself, he’d be drinking again.

“This is quite a surprise,” he said, standing in the road, in the light. “For both of us, no doubt.”

She said nothing, studying his face forthrightly, as she would certainly never have studied anyone in circumstances her manners had prepared her for. He let her look, not even lowering his eyes. He was waiting to see what she would make of him, as they say. And then he would be what she made of him. He might sit down beside her, after all, cross his legs and fold his arms and be affable. At worst he’d go find that half cigarette he had dropped in the grass, which was damp, not wet. Once she was out of sight. He was pretty sure there were still three matches in the book in his pocket. And she would walk away, if she decided to. Her choice. The darkness of her eyes made her gaze seem calm, unreadable, possibly kind. He knew what she saw, the scar under his eye, which was still dark, the shadow of beard, his hair grazing his collar. And then his age, that relaxation of the flesh, like the fatigue that had caused his jacket sleeves to take the shape of his elbows and his pockets to sag a little. Age and bad habits. While she read what his face would tell her about who he really was, she would be remembering that other time, when for an hour or two she had thought better of him.

She said, “Why don’t we sit down?”

And he said, “Why not?” And as he sat down he plucked at the knees of his trousers, as if they had a crease, and laughed, and said, “My father always did that.”

“Mine, too.”

“I guess it’s polite, somehow.”

“It means you’re on your best behavior.”

“Which in fact I am.”

“I know.”

“Which can fall a little short sometimes.”

“I know that well enough.”

He said, “I really would like to apologize.”

“Please don’t.”

“I’ve been assured that it’s good for the soul.”

“No doubt. But your soul is your business, Mr. Boughton. I’d be happy to talk about something else.”

So she was still angry. Maybe angrier than she had been at the time. That might be a good sign. At least it meant that she’d been thinking about him.

He said, “I’m sorry I brought it up. You’re right. Why should I trouble you with my regrets?”

She took a deep breath. “I’m not going to get into this with you, Mr. Boughton.”

Why did he persist? She was reconsidering, taking her purse and her bouquet into her lap. Could that be what he wanted her to do? It wouldn’t be self-defeat, precisely, because at best there would be only these few hours, tense and probationary, and then whatever he might want to rescue from them afterward for the purposes of memory. That other time, when the old offense was fresh, she had seemed to regret it for his sake as much as her own. He had seen kindness weary before. It could still surprise him a little.

He nodded and stood up. “You’d rather I left you alone. I’ll do that. I’ll be in shouting distance. In case you need me.”

“No,” she said. “If we could just talk a little.”

“Like two polite strangers who happen to be spending a night in a cemetery.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Okay.” So he sat down again. “Well,” he said, “what brings you here this evening, Miss Miles?”

“Pure foolishness. That’s all it was.” And she shook her head.

Then she said nothing, and he said nothing, and the crickets chanted, or were they tree toads. It had seemed to him sometimes that, however deep it was, the darkness in a leafy place took on a cast, a tincture, of green. The air smelled green, of course, so the shading he thought he saw in the darkness might have been suggested by that wistfulness the breeze brought with it, earth so briefly not earth. All the people are grass. QED. Flowers of the field. The pool of lamplight kept the dark at a distance. Shunned and sullen, he thought. Injured. He did not look at her, because then she would look at him. He had noticed that men in his line of worklessness, which did involve recourse to drink, were marked, sooner or later, by a crease across the forehead, but he did not touch his brow. It was nerves that made it feel that way, tense. If they sat there side by side till dawn, that would be reasonably pleasant.

She said, “I owe you an apology. I haven’t been polite.”

“True enough,” he said. “So.”

“So?”

“So, pay up.”

She laughed. “Please accept my apology.”

“Consider it done. Now,” he said, “you accept mine.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really want to do that.”

“Fair’s fair, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t, not all the time. Besides, I promised myself I wouldn’t.”

“You promised yourself? That practically doesn’t count. I break promises to myself all the time, and we’re still on speaking terms, myself and I. When there’s nobody around to hear us, anyway.”

“Do you think I’m going to tell anyone else what you did? I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking with you, now that I think about it.”

“Well,” he said, “so you thought you’d see me again, and you wanted to make sure you didn’t give in to your better nature and let me make amends. You had to steel yourself against the possibility. Now here you are, glad to see me, whether you like it or not. We’ll be here for hours. I’ll be charming—”

“You’re really not very charming. You should know that by now. You might as well stop trying.”

He drew a breath. “All I’m trying to do is to keep some kind of conversation going. That’s what you said you wanted. I acknowledge my limitations. No need to be harsh.”

She shook her head. “Oh, I’m sorry. I am. Forget I said that. It’s just that I’ve been so mad at you for such a long time.”

He said what he thought. “I’m honored.”

She looked at him, and he let her. The dark quiet of her face still soothed him, like a touch. She said, “I don’t remember that scar.”

He nodded. “It wasn’t there.” And then he said, “Thank you.”

She looked away. “Let’s not talk for a while. We can just be quiet.”

“As you wish.”

They were quiet, and then she whispered, “Did you hear that? Did you hear voices? Is somebody coming?”

“I didn’t hear anything. But we could walk up the hill, out of the light, just to be safe.”

“I guess we ought to do that. We could see farther up the road from there.”

They were whispering. High-heeled shoes, of course. The ground was soft and uneven. They were trying to hurry. He thought of taking her arm, then decided he would not. They walked up beyond the farthest effect of the light and stood there, and watched a man in work clothes and a cap stroll past, singing to himself. Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette. “Maybe I could talk to him,” she said, and he heard her shift a little, the beginning of an intention. When the man was gone, she said, “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know. Why not?”

“Just about anybody in the world could give you a hundred good reasons why not.”

“You want a better answer. All right. It’s my birthday.”

“I suppose I could believe that. It wouldn’t explain anything.”

“Not exactly my birthday. One I choose to commemorate, when I remember it. I have to be in the right frame of mind. Sober, for one thing.”

“I guess that’s sad, if it’s true.”

“Yes. Actually, I want to feel the sadness of it. I don’t, always. So I come here. And then sometimes I just come here. For the quiet.”

She nodded. Pensive, he thought. Even a little downcast. Turning his strange sadness over in her mind. So he said, “I had every intention of paying you back,” and regretted it.

She looked at him. “Are you really trying to talk to me about money? Do you think I’ve given one thought to that money?”

“I just wanted to say that I know you could interpret what happened as a kind of theft, if you didn’t know I meant to get it back to you. So I wanted to say that. I’ve wanted to for a long time. And this is my chance. I don’t expect another one.”

“Ah, Jack!” she said. Jack.

A minute passed. She said, “Laugh if you want to. I’m working on a poem. That’s why I came here.”

He didn’t laugh, but he did want to.

She said, “I know what you’re thinking.”

“Farthest thing from my mind.”

“What is?”

“That there is no real shortage of poems inspired by graveyards. Of course,” he said, “human mortality—that’s another matter. Hardly touched on.”

“It’s another kind of poem. A prose poem, really. Not about death, either.”

“I hope I’ll have a look at it, when it’s finished.”

She shook her head. “There’s not a chance in this world.”

“I know. I was being polite.”

“I don’t know why I told you about it. I knew you’d laugh.”

“I didn’t.” She glanced at him. “All right. I came close. It’s a problem I have, even in moments of great solemnity. Which are rare, fortunately.”

She said, “Maybe. Maybe they are.”

“It comes upon us like an armed man. My father always said that when one of his flock fell off a barn roof or down a well or something. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Some poor codger hauled onto the cosmic stage, no chance to rehearse his lines. It’s good I never considered the clerical life. Not for a minute, actually. Too much on my mind as it is.” She was quiet, and then she glanced at him, as if she were considering asking him one of those questions that are moved by compassion, questions women ask. So he said, “A poet. I don’t mean to sound surprised. It’s just never a thing you expect. Of anybody. Not even an English teacher.”

“No, not a poet. Someone who tries a line or two now and then.”

He nodded. “I’ve tried my hand from time to time.”

“Yes, I liked the little poem you wrote in my sister’s Hamlet. Those lines.”

“Hmm. That was your sister’s book, was it. Well, she’ll probably like it, too. It has had a fair success with women. Two and a half couplets! I’d finish it if I could, but it doesn’t really seem to be necessary.” That would keep compassion from threatening for a while. Still, her quiet had become silence, a thing he had to regret. And he had a lively fear of regret. So he said, “Praise means a lot more, coming from someone with your education.”

Silence.

“That was a ridiculous thing to say, I mean, it sounded ridiculous. But there’s some truth in it. Obviously.”

Silence.

So he said, “I suppose you thought I wrote it for you.”

“Why should that matter. I never gave it a thought.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. I did, though. Write it for you. Then I thought it might have seemed—forward. In retrospect. Since you don’t know me. And don’t intend to.”

“I liked it,” she said. “My sister will, too. Let’s leave it there.”

“Thank you.”

She laughed. “You do get yourself in trouble.”

“Easy as breathing. Now you talk. There are too many hazards in it for me.”

“All right. Let me see.”

“Nothing profound.”

“Don’t worry.”

“I’m a simple man who was brought up by a complicated man. So I have mannerisms and so on. Vocabulary. People can be misled.”

“I’m not.”

He laughed. “Not even a little? That’s discouraging.”

“You think too much about yourself. Putting on that necktie! No wonder you’re all nerves.”

“You are very frank, Miss Miles.”

“I’m in a graveyard on a dark night passing the time with someone I’ll never see again. Whose opinion doesn’t mean a thing to me. If I can’t be frank now, when in the world can I be? I can’t even see your face.”

“Yes, the moon must have gone down. The half moon. It’s nice. If you like it, I guess. And I’m glad I’m here in the moonless dark to offer you my arm on this very uneven ground. You need not think of it as the arm of any particular gentleman. Kindly intent, disembodied. Civility in the abstract.” He was surprised to feel her hand in the crook of his elbow.

She said, “Thank you.” After a while, she said, “Have you ever noticed that if you strike a match in a dark room, it seems to spread quite a lot of light. But if you strike one in a room that is already light, it seems to make no difference?”

“Uh-oh. A sermon illustration.”

She took away her hand.

He said, “Just joking. No, I haven’t noticed. I’ll make it a point to notice in the future. I’m sure you’re right.”

Silence.

He said, “Come to think of it, a moral could be drawn. More rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repents and so on. Than for the righteous, poor souls. My father’s favorite topic. So it was probably inevitable that I would take it wrong. You know how it is. You’re a preacher’s kid.”

She said, “I was asking a different kind of question. I just think it’s interesting. If you add light to light, there should be more of it. As much more as if you add light to darkness. But I don’t think there is.”

“A conundrum.”

They walked on through the deep grass, shoulder to shoulder in the dark, breathing together. Humans, making their slight, bland sounds, breaths and whispery footsteps, while creatures all around them rasped and twittered as if their lives depended on it. He said, “Are you cold?”

“Not very.”

“We’re not just wandering. I know where we are. I want to show you something.”

“Show me? I can hardly see a thing.”

“Do you have any matches? No, you wouldn’t. Foolish of me to ask. Well, I have a couple.”

They walked a little farther, and then he said, “Come here,” and took her elbow to help her down a slope. “Come a little closer. Now look at this.” He struck a match, and a chalk-white face appeared in its light, then dimmed and vanished.

“Who is it?”

“No idea.” He struck another match, and again the face bloomed out of the darkness, shadows cast up by the flame so the curves of its cheeks darkened the hollows of its eyes. Usually he would touch its plump stone shoulder, long enough to think that the warmth that passed from his hand might equal the cold that passed into it. But Della was there. His little rituals would seem strange to her. It wasn’t comfort that he took from them.

She said, “A cherub.”

“That’s the idea, I suppose. The place is full of them. I like this one best. Do you mind walking back again? To the place where you found me? I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I left a blanket roll there. In case I ended up spending the night. Which does happen. You could wrap up in it. You might find it a little—objectionable. Damp. It’s always damp. You know how that is. Or you don’t. Fair warning. Or I could use it, and you could borrow my jacket, which is probably better. But not as warm. Or we could just keep walking.”

She said, “Let’s keep walking.”

“Yes. You’re miserable.”

“My own fault.”

“Mine, too. I wanted to show her to you, to see what you’d think. So I took you all that way just to have a look at her.”

“I wish I knew what to think. I’ve seen prettier babies.”

He nodded. “That’s all right. She looks a little better by daylight. But the rain hasn’t been kind to her. She’s pretty well lost an ear. She’s been here a long time. Just short of eighty years, according to the inscription. There isn’t a single word for that look of hers, is there. ‘Terrified’ isn’t quite right.”

“Maybe. ‘Startled’ might be better.”

“There was moss on her lip a few weeks ago. It enhanced her metaphorical value, but it looked—uncomfortable. I used a toothbrush I brought here with me to clean her up a little.” That gentle hand, lifted away, then resting on his arm again, another considered act. “You might want to add the moss back in, for effect.”

“You should be the one writing a poem.”

He shook his head. “Not much rhymes with terror. ‘The Infant and the Armed Man.’ What do you think?”

“I think ‘terror’ is the wrong word. You said it was yourself.”

“Yes. Strange. Error is just an equivocation. But you add that t and you have another thing entirely.” She was quiet, so he said, “Sorry, too much time on my hands. I think about things, very trivial things. To pass the time.”

She nodded. “I do that, too. When I can’t sleep.”

“Another insomniac!”

“Not really. I think I would be one if I could walk out at night, under the moon, everything so quiet. I sit out on the porch step sometimes, in the dark.”

“Well, I could wander by your house one night and find you there and squire you through the city.” He said, “‘Nocturnal.’ I like that word. It sounds like the change there is when the streets are empty and the houses are dark, which is a much deeper thing than just, you know, the absence of light. I could show you. You hear your own footsteps, as if they mattered. I promise I’d have you at your door again when the first bird sings. Owls wouldn’t count.”

She nodded. “We’ll never do that.”

He said, “Sad, isn’t it?”

They walked on for a while. Then she said, “‘The bird of dawning singeth all night long.’ Why is that so pretty?”

“So blessed is the time.” He said, “Maybe. I know that bird. I don’t consider it a friend. It’s saying, Back to purgatory, Boughton.”

She stopped where she was, quiet for a minute. Then she said, softly, “It’s going to wake me up tomorrow. I have to get to school so early, I might as well just stay awake the rest of the night, anyway. Oh, what am I talking about? I’ll barely have time to go home! I won’t be able to pick up the tests I graded. I’ll be walking home at dawn with my hair all in a mess. My shoes ruined. It’s probably going to rain.”

“They don’t open the gates at dawn. Maybe half past seven. When the gardeners come.”

“Walking along the street early in the morning, in the wrong part of town, all in a mess. What’s anybody going to think.”

“I’ll see you home or wherever. Discreetly. From across the street.”

“Oh, good. You’re going to protect me.”

“I’m tougher than I look.”

“No doubt. Pretty much anybody is.”

He laughed.

She said, “I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re trying to be kind. I’m glad I’m not here by myself, I really am.”

“Thanks.”

“That was mean, what I said.”

“It was a little bit funny, though.”

“I got myself into this. I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

“That’s true enough.”

But she stood there, her hands in her coat pockets and her head lowered. So he said, “We should talk about something. To pass the time.”

“I thought when I got this job I’d never ask for another thing. Sumner High School.”

“It’s a handsome building. I’ve walked past it a few times.”

“I used to have pictures of it that I cut out of magazines. I dreamed about teaching here. When I got that letter, I thought I knew how my whole life would go. And I’ve just thrown it away.”

“Maybe not.”

“If they decide to make this into something compromising, I’m finished.”

“Well,” he said, “we’ve got tonight to get through, in any case. You could slip your shoes off. Keep them a little drier. They’re not doing you any good, anyway, there’s not much to them. A few straps.” She looked at him, so he said, “If that was a rude suggestion, I’m sorry. This is quite a novel situation, even for me.” And he laughed.

“No, it might be best. Better than walking home barefoot tomorrow.”

“That was my thought. There are paths through the graves. The acorns haven’t fallen yet. The hickory nuts.”

She put her hand on a headstone and pulled off her shoes. “Well, there. I guess this will be all right. It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous.”

I promise I won’t think less of you. That is what he almost said. But he caught himself.

He laughed. “Sorry. Anyway, I can barely see you at all. You could, you know, take off—”

“Don’t, please.”

“Take off your hat. And borrow mine. That’s all I was going to say! Since yours wouldn’t keep off the rain.”

Silence. All right, then.

Finally she said, “Did you ever wonder why no one except Hamlet seems sorry that the old King Hamlet is dead? He’s hardly cold in his grave.”

“I’m afraid I can’t claim to know the play well, Miss Miles. My father cut it up with scissors and taped the pieces into a loose-leaf scrapbook, so we could act it out. So they could. What was left of it didn’t make much sense. It wouldn’t have, anyway. Our Ophelia, my sister Glory, was six or seven. She’d give all her flowers to the ghost— She was always wandering in on the wrong scenes, even after she should have been dead. Sharing out the popcorn. My father wouldn’t say a word to her about it. He said it was an improvement. She sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in her mad scene because the actual song didn’t survive the scissors. So my sense of it all is likely to be misinformed. I was interested to read the thing whole. That’s why I borrowed your book.”

Then he said, “I believe this is the kind of conversation you were hoping for? Scenes of domestic life?”

She said, “It’s strange no one thinks Hamlet should be king. It seems as though there were stories behind the play we only get glimpses of. But nothing is done to hide them, either, I mean the gaps they leave.”

“Yes, now that you mention it. One time our Ophelia got into the tub with all her clothes on, to rehearse her death scene. My brother Teddy caught her at it, and they talked about the dangers of playing at drowning in a bathtub. He said she didn’t have to rehearse, because no one sees it happen. Otherwise somebody would have told Ophelia to get out of the water, probably her brother. She said, They did see! Somebody just stood there and watched me drown! Mermaid-like to muddy death, you know—she had a point, it would have taken a while. She came down the stairs trailing bathwater, shouting, Who let me drown! They decided it had to have been Gertrude, since she knew all about it. And nothing made sense, anyway, so no harm done.”

She said, “My father never had much time to spend at home. He’s sort of a leader in the community, I guess. He gets called away constantly. He spends lots of time with lots of people, trying to sort things out for them. It comes with serving a big church in a city. Especially a colored church, I think. He always made us show him our homework and our report cards, but he says he has a thousand children to look after, and that’s true. We understood that. And then there are always people in the house, uncles and cousins and strangers of one kind and another. It’s not such a peaceful life.”

“One time my father was late to a funeral because Teddy and I had a game that went into extra innings. The widow dressed him down a little, I guess. He told her and anyone who ever reminded him of it that it was an exceptional game. We almost won.”

She stopped, her head lowered. “Oh.”

“Let me guess. Your father’s favorite daughter is wandering the night with a disreputable white man. Barefoot. In a cemetery. If she’s caught at it, the scandal will echo down the ages, into the farthest reaches of Tennessee, all its strange particulars scrutinized. Forever. And he was once so proud of you.”

“It’s not a joke.”

“I wasn’t joking.”

“I’d like to sit down.”

“We’ll find a bench.”

“No, here. Just for a minute.” And she sank down on the grass. “Let me think.”

“There’s not much to think about, except how much worse your clothes are going to look if you keep sitting there in the damp like that. I’m trying to spare you added regret. We lost souls have to wander till the cock crows, nothing to be done. Maybe keep ourselves a little presentable if we can.” He held out his hand to her and she took it and he helped her up. He didn’t hold her hand a second longer than he should have.

She said, “You shouldn’t call yourself that. ‘Disreputable.’”

“I’m looking at the situation the way your father would. Loitering at night in a cemetery. Just that one fact would finish me off. Then there’s all the rest. Actual years of it, I’m afraid. Hardly a day goes by.”

“Well, what would your father say if he saw you here in the middle of the night, arm in arm with a colored gal?”

“He’d say, Thank God he’s not alone. He’d thank Jesus with his eyes closed. He’s not a man of the world, my father, and he might start fretting about particulars. But that would be his first thought. And we aren’t arm in arm. Not that that would make any difference.”

“It wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” She put her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Oh!”

“What?”

“I forgot my shoes! I left them back there, wherever we were! I’ll probably never find them. Everything just gets worse and worse.”

“Well, maybe, but I have them right here, your shoes. I picked them up.”

She shook her head. “I’m walking along barefoot in the dark and you’re carrying my shoes. And I don’t even know you. This is the strangest situation I’ve ever been in in my life. You better give them to me.”

He did, and then he said, “I’m going to take my shoes off, too. That might make things less awkward, I believe.”

“Why would it?”

“We can just try it out. We’ll see. I could be right. There.” He slipped off his shoes, pocketed his socks. His feet, where they showed beyond his trouser cuffs, had a dim lunar pallor even in all that dark. They looked very naked, not quite his and startlingly his. Sometimes he thought of the naked man who lived in his clothes, that bare, forked animal. He had dreamed a thousand times that he was somewhere public, wearing less than decency allowed. That was the feeling. Utter vulnerability. Then again, the cold of the grass was sharp and pleasing, like river water.

She said, “You were right. This is better.” And laughed, which pleased him. And then they walked for a while, she holding his arm, her head at his shoulder, quiet. They were feeling that same odd cold together, and hearing the same night sounds, stranger to her than to him, he thought. He was introducing her to them, really. It was one thing to hear them from a porch or through a window screen, another to step into darkness itself where they were native and undistracted, making the dark spacious by the here and there of their rasping and chirruping. There was a soft clash of leaves when the wind stirred. Maybe another time when he was benighted he had imagined her walking beside him, more felt than seen, pensive as she was. By turning toward her he might dispel the illusion that she was there in the way of the dream, a soul, perhaps his own soul, in the now untroubled trust of her noiseless steps. The air smelled freshly come from somewhere new, if there was such a place.

She said, “Maybe everything else is strange.”

Well, this happened to be a thing his soul had said to him any number of times, wordlessly, it was true, but with a similar inflection, like an echo, like the shadow of a sound. She, the actual Della, might not have spoken at all, since the thought was so familiar to him. So he did look at her, her head lowered pensively, and he asked her what she had said. “Your voice is very soft.”

“Oh, nothing.”

That meant she chose not to say it again, whatever it was. “Nothing” was a finger to the lips, a confidence she had thought better of. A confidence. Then she realized she should not be so much at ease with him. She decided to be reticent about the kinds of thoughts she didn’t usually allow herself, after almost speaking them. If she had said those words, it meant she liked the night well enough, and he felt a tentative kind of pride in the thought. The night and the place were his own, more or less, and she was his guest in them, now that she had begun to seem a little more at ease.

She said, “It just seems to me sometimes as though—if we were the only ones left after the world ended, and we made the rules—they might work just as well—”

He laughed. “There’s a thought. Jack Boughton makes the rules! Too bad there wouldn’t be a few other people around to, you know, feel their force. Not that I carry grudges. Still. The first rule would be that everyone had to mind me. And the second would be that they could not hide their chagrin.”

Silence.

She meant to be taken seriously. He’d known that, and still, he’d made his joke. So he said, “An interesting idea, certainly.” They were strangers killing time. Remember that. Somehow he had been imagining something else, an almost wordless peace between them, a night like a ghostly presence witnessing this most improbable meeting, quiet and more quiet until she was gone and he had days to himself to remember her and nothing to regret. But she was serious, no doubt to keep their circumstance from taking on another character than detachment, from sliding into distrust or old anger. Might as well make the most of it.

She said, “I didn’t mean you and me. I meant any two strangers.”

“So long as one of them wasn’t Rasputin. I’m sorry. You mean strangers in the abstract. I’m sure they exist somewhere, for purposes of argument. None in my immediate acquaintance. Strangers in the abstract always turn out to be fairly drearily particular on acquaintance. Under the slightest scrutiny, really. A glance will destroy the illusion. In my experience.”

She shook her head, and said nothing. And why would she bother, when he kept on talking, and seemed to want to make a joke out of everything, and make the same sort of display of himself he made even when he was alone, toying with words, a sort of fidgeting of the brain. When her very hand on his arm meant that he could know a few of her thoughts if he were calm and a little tactful. “Sorry.”

“No. That’s all right. I understand what you mean about people. But they see more and know more and think about more than they would ever have any practical use for. I see that all the time. Even in children. They have their ideas about what is true or fair. About what matters. In the abstract.”

“Agreed. Yes. But could we have a slightly larger population left after Doomsday? If there could be two, there could be two dozen, I suppose. I know I’m being literal-minded. But I try to imagine these two castaways absorbing the terrible fact, and then one of them saying to the other one, in this void, in this empty world—You know what we need around here? Some rules! When they had completely outlived any need for them? The one good thing about it all. Emily Post, Deuteronomy, the entire regime gone. It’s not as if they’d want to murder, being just the two of them. They wouldn’t need to steal, since there’d be no one around to own anything. They could forget about adultery.”

“I think they’d talk about how things should have been. While there was still a chance. That’s what I mean.”

He nodded. “Interesting. But—sorry to be so literal—shouldn’t we know how the world ended? That would be on their minds, I think.”

“All right. It was struck by a meteor.”

“Not our fault, then.”

“No and yes. Like the Flood.”

“Hmm. I see. So it’s still that kind of universe.”

“Yes. Probably. But we couldn’t be sure. The meteor might have been just a meteor.”

“If you say so. My father would say that a sparrow isn’t just a sparrow. Because its fall means something, cosmically speaking. I’m not sure what. He is certain of it, though.”

“My father would say that, too.”

“So, consider the sparrows your meteor brought down, the lilies it pulverized. How could it be just a meteor?”

“If the people thought they knew how to understand it. I mean, if they believed that it meant something, they’d assume there were rules, and they’d probably think they were the rules they were already used to. Only they’d be a whole lot more serious about keeping to them. Some of them. For a while. Which wouldn’t be interesting.”

“And if they decided it didn’t mean anything—”

“That’s hard for me to imagine. I can’t really think about that. But if they didn’t know one way or the other, they’d be like we are. I mean like people are. That’s more interesting.”

“Maybe. But meaninglessness also has its pleasures. As an idea.”

She shook her head. “I’ve tried to imagine it and I just can’t. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.”

He said, “That’s kind of you. To leave a little space for nihilism. Most people don’t.”

“I know.”

“At least my father didn’t.”

“Mine either.”

“How could we know whether the nihilists were right? A voice from nowhere that had never spoken before and would never speak again—‘It was just a meteor! Calm down! Interpretation is not appropriate!’ That would keep the conversation going for the next two thousand years.”

She said, “Meaninglessness would come as a terrible blow to most people. It would be full of significance for them. So it wouldn’t be meaningless. That’s where I always end up. Once you ask if there is meaning, the only answer is yes. You can’t get away from it.”

They walked along through the ranks and clusters of the dead. Forever hoisting their stony sails, waiting for that final wind to rise. Here lies Wanda Schmidt, her breathless, perpetual “Remember me!” spelled out as Beloved Mother. He actually felt he knew some of them, in their posthumous and monumental persons, that is, and he could not stroll past them without the little courtesy of a nod. Yes, I am here this evening with a lady on my arm. Quite a surprise, I agree.

He said, “Let me guess. Long arguments over Sunday dinner.”

“Endless. We’d go around the table. We were supposed to be able to think and express our thoughts, my father said. Girls, too.”

“I suppose predestination came up?”

“Not much. We’re Methodists.”

“I forgot. Yes. We also had those dinners. Was the Almighty free to limit what He could know. If He wasn’t free to, He wasn’t omnipotent. If He did limit what He could know, He wasn’t omniscient. Unless He could know what He didn’t know. In which case—and so on.”

“Why would He want to limit what He could know?”

“Well, my father suffered considerably over the doctrine of foreknowledge. He was uneasy with the thought that there might be dark certainty in the universe somewhere, sentence passed, doom sealed, and a soul at his very dinner table lost irretrievably before it had even stopped outgrowing its shoes, so to speak. If the Lord chose not to know, then—that eased the Reverend’s mind. Though it would in no way alter the facts of the case. Once, I pointed this out to him, and he just looked at me, tears in his eyes. Everyone else left the table. No more arguments for weeks after that.”

“Were you that bad? I mean, that he was afraid for your soul?”

“Pretty bad. Let’s talk about something else.”

Quiet.

So he said, “Pious people do worry about me. This makes conversation difficult. I can only assure you, as we two strangers wander through this solemn night, that I have not quite fulfilled my early promise. In case you’re worried about that.”

“No,” she said. “No.”

Then, even while he thought better of it, he asked her, “Why not?”

“There are just some people you trust.”

“You could think of me as a thief if you wanted to.”

“So I must not want to.”

“Would it be better to be alone, or to be alone with a thief? I think that’s an interesting question.”

“I think you’re trying to worry me. Anyway, it would depend on the thief.”

“Right. And you and I have things in common. Fine families and so on.” He said, “If there’d been only one thief at the crucifixion, whichever one it was, good or bad, it would have made a big difference, don’t you think? In the story? As it is, we have the complex nature of criminality to consider. In the crucial moment. That’s also very interesting.”

“Well,” she said, “maybe you flatter yourself. If you really were a criminal, I think you’d have cost me more than three dollars. And some irritation. And my copy of Oak and Ivy, which you’d better bring back, by the way. It’s a hard book to find. My father gave it to me. His mother gave it to him. It was signed.”

“What can I say? More to regret. I meant to bring it back with Hamlet. But one page has a sort of coffee stain on it. Not coffee, actually. It will be on your doorstep immediately. Such as it is.”

“Did you write in it?”

“Hardly at all.”

“How can you do that? How can you just write in somebody else’s book?”

“In pencil.”

“You know what I mean.”

“My father said that I never quite learned to distinguish mine and thine. He had the Latin for it.”

She laughed. “I love your father. You never talk about your mother.”

“Yes. I don’t.” She was quiet. So he said, “My father thought my deficiencies might be physiological. He hoped they were. He laid them to my difficult birth.”

“Predestination.”

“Strictly speaking, no.”

“Well, I won’t follow you into the swamps of Presbyterianism.”

“It’s all pretty straightforward. Salvation by grace alone. It just begins earlier for us than for other people. In the deep womb of time, in fact. By His secret will and purpose.”

“Then why was your father so worried? If it was true, what could he have done about it, anyway?”

“He saw signs of reprobation in me, hard as he tried not to. Reasonably enough. I kept him pretty well supplied with them. Of course, I knew about, you know, those signs. From his sermons. We all did. I may have been listening more carefully than the others. Or listening differently. He who has ears to hear, and so on. It wasn’t so much the situation that he hoped to change. He just wanted a less drastic understanding of it. So he comforted himself with my difficult birth, which could not have disfigured my eternal soul, that most elusive thing. However it might have depraved the rest of me.” Naked came I from my mother’s womb.

“Well,” she said, “this is all very interesting. But don’t quote Scripture ironically. It makes me very uneasy when you do that.”

“I am the Prince of Darkness.”

“No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”

“You saw them?”

“No, I just knew they were there.”

After a minute, he said, “I’ll try not to be ironic if you take back what you just said. I am not talkative.”

“All right.”

“These are special circumstances.”

“Yes, they are.”

“I hardly say a word for weeks on end. Months.”

“I couldn’t know that.”

“That’s because you make me nervous. I talk when I’m nervous. Sometimes.”

“You say you’re a thief, you say you’re disreputable, you say you’re the Prince of Darkness, and you object to the word ‘talkative.’”

He said, “It’s a matter of personal dignity.” She laughed.

“It is.”

“I understand. I know what you mean. I would feel the same way, I suppose.”

“Well, you hardly talk at all. You leave it to me. Then you draw conclusions.”

Quiet.

So he said, “That sounded harsher than I meant it to. That was the wrong word. I didn’t mean to be harsh at all. I just meant to say I appreciate it when you talk.”

After a minute, she said, “You know what I think? I think Polonius misreads that letter, the vile phrase. I think Hamlet wrote ‘beatified.’ Not ‘beautified.’ But there’s no way to know.”

“True. Yes. High-minded conversation. Nothing more about socks or shirt buttons. Fraying of the cuffs. Holes in the pockets. Those three dollars.”

Silence.

“Besides,” he said, “Hamlet didn’t write the letter. I mean, there was no letter. There’s only what Polonius says it says.”

“Shakespeare could have wanted the audience to know Polonius gets it wrong. He gets things wrong all the time. But I said there’s no way to know.”

“Yes. That isn’t quite the same.” That sounded cross.

Silence.

He had let himself feel concealed by the darkness, as if only a rough sketch of him, so to speak, the general outline of a presentable man, would be walking along beside her. But she knew what he was and nothing was concealed, and there was the night to get through, an ordeal now. She took her hand from his arm.

She said, “Have you ever thought of using a word like ‘listening,’ or ‘murmuring,’ in that couplet? Instead of a one-syllable word?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have.”

Silence. Then she said, “I offended you. I’m sorry.”

These sensitivities of his. He might have said goodbye and walked away if they had not been together in a cemetery in the middle of the night. He was at least too much a gentleman to leave her there, or even to suggest that he might leave her there, or to remind her that she was indebted to his good nature in keeping her company, though the thought did occur to him. Easy enough to disappear among the headstones. The looming obelisks. That thought occurred, too. He had a way of anticipating memories he particularly did not want to have. That memory would be as unbearable as things ever are when there is nothing else to do but live with them. So he said, “I’m not offended. I don’t want to be. I’ll get over it in a minute.” Then he said, “I’m going to ruin this.”

That made her pause. “How, exactly?”

“The way I ruin things. It’s a little different every time. I actually surprise myself. Except that it’s inevitable. That’s always the same, I suppose. One thing I can count on.”

“I suppose I’m the one who ruined it, if it’s ruined. I’m really sorry. It’s been nice, considering everything. Walking barefoot in the dark. I wouldn’t expect to enjoy that.”

“All right,” he said. “I’m all right. For a minute there I was plunged back into the land of the living. Terrible experience! Did you say ‘enjoy’?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, that helps.”

“And we are not in the land of the living. We’re ghosts among the ghosts. They’d be jealous. The two of us out here in the sweet air, just talking for the pleasure of it.” She took his arm.

“Yes, two spirits. Invisible. Nothing else to say about us. I mean, in terms of our measuring up to expectations. Until the Last Judgment, anyway. The outward man perisheth and so on. Then again, if the outward man needs a haircut, that’s a problem that can be solved, in theory. The inward man—renewed day by day—the same blasted nuisance every time. Sometimes I wish I were just a suit of clothes and a decent shave. Uninhabited, so to speak.”

Quiet.

He said, “That must have sounded strange.”

“Not really. My father had a word or two to say about the immortal soul. Poor, vulnerable thing that it is.”

After a while, she said, “Remember, I mentioned that there seemed to be stories behind Hamlet? That weren’t told and weren’t hidden? A letter behind the one Polonius reads would go along with that idea, wouldn’t it?”

“I guess so. And why would Horatio have been around for months without letting Hamlet know he was there?”

“Yes. And Henry the Eighth said he’d broken biblical law when he married his brother’s widow. The audience would know that. Claudius does exactly the same, worse, and only Hamlet is bothered by it. Isn’t that odd?”

He laughed. “I can’t keep up. I hung around college for a while and let my brother take my classes for me. If the subject of English kings came up, he never mentioned it. You should be talking to Teddy.”

Her cheek brushed his shoulder. “You’ll do.”

Quiet. That would be embarrassment. Well, uneasiness at forgetting for a moment just who was walking beside her. Next she would mention Timbuktu. The dark side of the moon.

She said, “I believe we have souls. I think that’s true.”

He could deal with that. “Interesting,” he said. “Yes, I suppose I agree. A pretty thought, in any case. Basically. Depending.” Reprobation. Then he thought, You be my soul. But at least he didn’t say it. “Are there things you don’t believe, Miss Miles? I mean, that your father said you ought to believe? Are you at peace with the tenets of Methodism?”

“I like my church. I don’t really like tenets, I suppose.”

“The communion of saints? The forgiveness of sins?”

“Well, I do like those. I’m not so sure what they mean, though.” She was quiet, and then she said, “I wonder sometimes if there would be such a thing as sin if God didn’t exist.”

“I’m certain of it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I suppose sinning is doing harm. Agreed? And everything is vulnerable to harm, one way or another. Everybody is vulnerable. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. All that breakage, without so much as an intention behind it half the time. All that tantalizing fragility.” He laughed. “Maybe it wouldn’t be called sin. And I suppose there wouldn’t be such a thing as forgiveness. Which would be a relief, frankly.” Then he said, “In my opinion,” wishing he hadn’t laughed, and really wishing he hadn’t mentioned tantalizing fragility. When did he first notice that in himself, that little fascination with damage and its consequences? He might alarm her. He might even mean to alarm her. Doing damage to this fragile night because it was such an isolated thing, an accident, with a look of meaning about it and no meaning at all. She held his arm and he guided her steps, skirting the places where the shadows of the burr oaks would have been and their acorns would have fallen for so many years. Any spirit looking on might have thought they had come there from days or years of dear friendship, passing through the graveyard on their way to the kind of futures people have ordinarily, heartbreak or marriage or something, when in fact they were not only strangers but estranged, she talking with him only to make the time pass, the long few hours.

Finally she said, “Sometimes I do wonder. If we were the only ones left after the world ended, and we made the rules, they really might work just as well. For us, at least.”

“Us. So you think we could agree? We could come up with a new set of commandments, between the two of us? We’ll still remember the Sabbath, I suppose.”

She shrugged. “It would be pretty hard to forget it.”

“I’ve tried,” he said. “I’ve made the experiment.”

“No luck?”

“I’ve forgotten one or two. They’re hard to forget—no liquor, no cigarettes. All those bells. I’ve tried to plan ahead, to get through the day, but it’s not really in my nature. If I’ve got ’em, I smoke ’em. Et cetera. Anyway, that’s remembering. You just start a little early.”

She said, “No, we’d have to keep the Sabbath. My father couldn’t survive without it.”

“Hmm. I thought the world had ended.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I have to object, Miss Miles. If we’re going to keep honoring our fathers and our mothers, you know there won’t be any new rules. So we have to let the world really come to an end. Hypothetically. If this is going to be interesting.”

“I guess I don’t want to imagine the world with them gone. It seems like tempting fate.”

“All right. Tempting fate. So even fate can be lured away from its intentions.”

It was true enough, though. The old gent gone, and the pious worry that fretted the edge of every thought he had almost gone as well. You will hurt yourself, why do you make things hard for yourself? You must take care of yourself, say your prayers, Jack. His prayers! What would they be? If I die before I wake. If I wake before I die. Much less likely. But he thought he might go home one last time. Last but one. Pull himself together and get on a bus.

She said, “Hypothetically, then. Let’s say the world has ended, and we don’t have to be loyal to the way things were before. What would we do that was different?”

He laughed. “Not a thing! We’d do just what we’re doing now. If I could get you to go along with me.”

“When morning comes, I mean.”

“Oh. So there’d still be morning?”

“Yes, there would. The evening and the morning. We ended the world. Not the solar system.”

“All right, I guess. But I’m beginning to wonder if ending the world was worth the trouble.”

“How can you know? You won’t try it out. You keep raising objections.”

She said, “You have to relax a little bit. We won’t do any harm just talking about it.”

“Is your father out of the picture?”

“Hypothetically.”

“Mine, too, I suppose.”

“Well yes, he is.”

“Then what?”

“You first.”

“Why me?”

“Because I think maybe you’ve already thought about things this way. More than I have, at least. I don’t think I wondered about it much until tonight. You know, wondered about it in so many words.”

“I’ll give it a try, I guess. What kind of rules are we talking about? Thou shalt not steal or The years of a man’s life are threescore years and ten?”

“I guess you’re right, stealing would be more like gleaning. But the years of a man’s life—most people haven’t lived that long, ever, so far as I know. That’s just the best you can hope for. Generally. So it can’t actually be a rule. My father had a great-aunt who lived to a hundred and one.”

“My great-grandmother died at ninety-two. My father used to say, ‘We who are young will never see so much nor live so long.’ She came over in steerage and blamed us all for it for the rest of her life. We didn’t justify the bother.”

“How old is your father?”

“Sixty-five on the fourth of January. Threescore years and five. There is that exceptional-strength clause. He could make it to fourscore without casting any shadow on Moses. I’m sure he’s aware of that.”

“Is he exceptionally strong?”

“No. Not at all. But he is exceptionally determined.” He said, “He’s waiting for me.”

Quiet. He could see her just well enough to know she had lowered her head, thinking about what he had said, what she might say, considering it all gently, since they were deep into night by then. He said, “I know. I should go home.” Then he laughed. “I’m afraid that might put an end to him.”

“Really? You really think that?”

“He lives on hope,” he said. “He does. He’s always been that way. So I show up, confirm his worst fears, tip my hat, and leave again. I couldn’t stay there. He might not want me to, anyway. Then what would he have to hope for?”

“You have brothers and sisters. They come home, don’t they?”

“Yes, well, we hope for things unseen. Me, in this case.”

“You said you’d stop talking that way.”

“Sorry. It’s true, though. I will go home. COD. I have that address in my pocket. But I have to time it right. I have to outlast him. That may be my primary object in life!” He laughed. “He’s not going to make it easy for me, I know that.” He thought he must have sounded strange, but she didn’t take her hand away. She was considering.

She said, “It’s interesting to think about that. Things unseen. The reality is always different.”

“Worse.”

“Different. Unlike. Not necessarily worse or better.”

He said, “I’m at my best unseen. The Prince of Darkness. The Prince of Absence, for that matter. You won’t answer this, but just to clarify the point—the way you thought of me for the last few months—if you did think of me, but assuming you did. I know that isn’t something I ought to assume. Never mind.”

“Did I remember you as—what?”

“Oh, more presentable, I suppose.”

“I never gave it a thought.”

“Of course you didn’t. And I’d have expected you to be a little taller.”

“I’m barefoot, remember.”

“True. But you actually weren’t sure who I was, back there, when you first saw me.”

“Oh, I knew who you were.”

“But you thought about running.”

“It crossed my mind.”

“I see.”

They were quiet. Then she said, “Maybe I’m remembering you now, since I can’t really see you.”

“All right, I suppose. Which me are you remembering? Do I have that scar?”

“The scar is there. I’m sorry about it. Other than that, it’s just your—atmosphere.”

“Cheap aftershave. Not that I’ve shaved. It spilled down my sleeve. Weeks ago. And cigarette smoke. And so on. A little atmosphere has to be expected, I guess. Sorry.”

“You know I didn’t mean that.”

“Then what? My spirit?”

“You said we’re like spirits.”

“I should have said ghosts. Ectoplasm.”

“They’re spirits.”

“Mine isn’t.”

“Mine is.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

“Does it matter?”

“You seem to think so.”

“True enough.” He said, “You’re very sure of yourself. At ease in your skin. While I—”

She stopped. “You actually said that.”

“What? Well, yes, I suppose I did. I’m—not really sorry. That would probably give the wrong impression. It’s a thing people say, isn’t it? Or they say the opposite. Depending on cases. I’ve offended you. I’m terribly sorry. It’s true, though, isn’t it?”

“No. Much of the time it isn’t true. When I find myself trapped in a white cemetery, it definitely isn’t true.”

He said, “You may not believe this, but I have had something of the same experience. A number of times.”

She laughed. “I’m sorry, but I actually do believe you.”

“Yes. Here’s an example. I got a draft notice. I was so surprised they’d found me that I thought it must be an omen. Time to pull myself together, learn discipline and so on. So I sobered up, made a kind of habit of breakfast, that sort of thing. It was all I thought about for a week at least. I showed up at the post office, five minutes early. When my turn came, the fellow just glanced up from his notebook and said something I thought was—unnecessarily dismissive.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Next.’ He made a gesture with his pencil, also dismissive. I decided I should consider the whole episode an omen, a sign, you know, that my past would be my future. Though he might just have known me from somewhere.”

“Well, that’s very sad.”

“Yes. Humiliating. I don’t know why I told you about it. In general I lie. I tell people I lied my way out of the army, and they always believe me. A bad heart, I say. Flat feet. Religious objections.” Then he said, “But I wanted you to know I was capable of honorable intentions. That’s why I told you.”

“I knew that already.”

“You did?” He laughed. “What a waste! I should have saved it for a better time.”

She said, “There won’t be a better time.”

Quiet. Or was it silence. Usually he knew.

There was a bench, and they sat down. She pulled her legs up beside her, so she could partly cover them with the skirts of her coat. This meant that her shoulder was against his. If he put his arm on the back of the bench behind her, both of them would be more comfortable. He thought of suggesting it. They weren’t friends. They were acquaintances, which was a different thing in their case than in others. She had thought of running when she saw him. If they were friends, he could say they would both be warmer if he put his arm, so to speak, around her. He could make a little joke about it, call her girlfriend, and she would say, Don’t you wish, that sort of thing, and settle against him. He didn’t move, and his arm and shoulder and then his neck became stiff with the effort of not moving, maybe with the thought of not moving. After a while, he felt her head tip toward his shoulder. She startled awake. “Still dark,” she said. “Still night.” A little while again and he felt her cheek on his shoulder, her hair against his cheek. His shoulder ached. He had a thought of a kind he had often: If he lived a more orderly life, he could at least keep track of his debts, keep them at bay a little. He was a bad risk, which meant that his creditors wasted no time in applying extreme measures. He was usually putting a little aside to stave off the more terrible threats, when people were thoughtful enough to give him even a dire warning, which meant there was usually some pocket money to be shaken loose by whoever decided Jack owed him something, or owed it to a friend of his. He suspected sometimes this might all be a joke everyone else was in on. It was hard to imagine any kind of future, living where he did, as he did. If he just gave up drinking entirely, that would save him some money and any amount of trouble and embarrassment. He would stay out of bars altogether. Then he would get a job of some kind. Then he would happen by Della’s, and she would be sitting on the stoop all alone, listening to the wind and watching the fireflies, and he would think he had that book in his pocket, Oak and Ivy, and then his reverend father would be standing there with the book in his hands, brand-new, with ribbons in it like a Bible, saying, “The love of a good woman! Yes!” Jack’s cheek had fallen against her hair, well, really, her hat, but when he woke, he did not move. He thought she might be awake, but she didn’t move either. Well, he thought, this is pleasant enough. Why should he trouble himself with thoughts of reformation when mere chance could bring him to this moment, without effort or forethought on his part, without the miseries of anticipation. Yes, that blasted little hat. It was made of something stiff, scratchy, and it seemed to have beads on it. It had tipped away from her hair on one side. It would have been the simplest thing in the world just to slip it off, but she might be awake, and he was only more nervous about seeming familiar when she had been so trusting. Not intentionally, of course, but in fact, which is what matters. Aside from that, it hadn’t begun to rain and no one had come by to bother them. He thought they must have been sitting there an hour at least. He was in the habit of noticing good hours, otherwise swept up in days about which there was not really much good to be said. A quarter hour, if it came to that.

She said, very softly, “You know, you shouldn’t talk to me the way you do.” And a shock of discomfort passed through him, part shame, part alarm, part irritation, part a kind of panicky bewilderment and reappraisal. The memories he had been storing up for future use, maybe refining a little, were all turning to regret and embarrassment even before he knew what unpardonable thing about them would be hectoring him on his deathbed, in all probability. His lips were suddenly very dry, so he said only, “Sorry.”

“We’re just out walking together. You’re not obliged to tell me every worst thing you ever did.”

He laughed with relief. “I haven’t! Word of honor! But it is very kind of you to think so, Miss Miles.”

She said, “When the world ended, nothing would matter but what you wanted to matter.” She was talking into the darkness. “No more dragging around all the things you regret. Just regretting them would snuff them out.” She made a gesture with her hand, like a bubble bursting. “That’s one new rule.”

“You don’t seem like someone who would have much to regret. I mean, I have sisters like you. I told you. Four of them. They teach and play piano and remember everybody’s birthday and send thank-you notes. When I was a kid, I thought it was an amazing thing to watch. One after another, passing from childishness to impeccability. A long time ago, of course, but people like that don’t change. I suppose my sisters think they have regrets. That they know the meaning of the word.”

“Well, I do know the meaning of the word.”

“I’m not asking for a confession or anything.”

“Good.” She sat up, and stood up. “I hear that man singing.” They were both stiff and cold from their hour of rest, pleasantly miserable, walking up the hill to the deeper darkness, laughing a little, quietly, at their awkwardness. She was leaning on his arm. Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate that you hate to make him wait. She said, “I guess he doesn’t know another song.”

“I suspect he sings like that to give us disreputable types a chance to avoid him.”

“Very thoughtful.”

“People can be like that. I’ve noticed, from time to time.”

They waited together, very still and quiet, till the man passed by. As is our custom, Jack thought. How quickly things can become understood sometimes. “Did you happen upon the lake in your wanderings? You must have. It’s pretty hard to miss. They call it a pond.”

“I saw it.”

“It’s really best on a night like this, when you can’t see it. You just hear it breathing, and you feel the breaths on your skin. On a still night, of course. Which this one is, at the moment.”

“Yes, I saw those little chapels, I suppose they’re tombs, but with stained-glass windows and everything, overlooking the lake, as if there would be anyone there to see it.”

“Besides me.”

“And me. I sat there on the step of one for a while, admiring the willows. Very poetic.” She laughed. “That was when I still expected I’d find my way out of here sometime.”

Jack said, “That is absolutely my favorite tomb. The one that looks like a gingerbread house? I have passed many a not unpleasant hour on that step.”

“A gingerbread house—it looks like a witch is going to open the door and invite you in.”

“True. No luck yet.”

She shook her head. “Jack Boughton, how you talk.”

“I mean there might be a plate of cookies involved. I believe that’s how the story goes, isn’t it? You’d take one or two, and then you’d just walk away: Tragedy averted.”

“I don’t think so. Dealing with a witch wouldn’t be that simple.”

“You speak from experience, I suppose?”

“I believe I do.”

“Maybe I know that witch.”

“You don’t. You have your own witches.”

“No doubt. I didn’t mean to encroach.”

“That’s all right.”

“We could walk over there, anyway.”

“We’ve been walking that way for a while. We must almost be there by now.”

“Well, that’s true. I was thinking about the lake, and the willows, and the delectable tomb. Thinking you might want to rest awhile. I guess I wasn’t quite aware of where I was taking you. Not everyone likes to spend midnight on the very porch of extinction, so to speak. The threshold of Judgment, if you prefer. No one with an interest in symbolism, at least. I should have asked.” He laughed, and she was quiet. He wished he could take back every word he had said. “Did you notice? Its gargoyles are cherubs. The water pours out of the jars they’re holding. A nice touch, I think. Gargoyles can be pretty grotesque.” Still quiet.

Then she said, “I’ve been to so many funerals, so many burials. My father always said, ‘That pale horse is carrying a child home to his Father’s house.’ Quoting somebody. Tombs don’t really bother me.”

“Me either, in all seriousness. I was attempting a kind of joke.” This wasn’t really true. It was true that he was interested in the way they bothered him.

That man again, singing. “I—wish I didn’t love you so. My love for you should have faded long ago.” They were very quiet. “I—wish I didn’t need your kiss.”

Jack said, “He says it like he means it,” and then regretted speaking at all because she seemed intent on the song and then on the silence that followed it.

Finally she said, “You can’t sing that song without sounding like you mean it. You can’t even say the words.”

“It’s a good song.”

“It’s a terrible song. I hate that word ‘wish.’ It sounds like somebody’s dying breath! Like it’s taking the wind right out of you.”

“Yes. But it’s still a pretty good song.”

Then she said, “I did a foolish thing. I tried to use it in class. Expressive language that you’d hear right on the radio. Perfectly ordinary language. I thought it might help them like poetry better if I used that kind of example.”

“I guess it didn’t work.”

“Well, they got embarrassed. Some of them started whispering and laughing behind their hands. Notes passed. At their age, I don’t know how I could have expected anything else.”

“They suspected you of romantic longings, I suppose?”

“I tried to talk my way out of it, whatever it was they suspected. Are the words of the song spoken words, or are they just thoughts in someone’s mind? How do you feel when you wish for something? I was going to talk about that word ‘so.’ Most of the time you would say ‘so much,’ ‘so well.’ Something that finishes the thought. But just saying ‘so’ like that. It could mean a hundred things. All at the same time.”

“Tenderly. Hopelessly.”

“I was going to ask them whether they would be sorry or glad to have feelings like that. I don’t know what I thought I was doing.”

“Deeply. Utterly. Irrationally. Passionately. Futilely.”

“Tenderly.”

So after a minute, he asked her, “What would you say? Sorry or glad?”

She was quiet. Then she said, “I don’t know. Those things can be hard to tell apart sometimes.”

“Where tenderness is involved, definitely.”

“Definitely.”

He brought her up a hill. “Our lovely little tomb,” he said. “And a fine view of the lake.” He actually carried a handkerchief, as his father had told them all to do. Excellent advice. He used it to wipe down the steps, and then he shook it out and folded it. Too damp to put in a pocket. No place else to put it. “Please,” he said, “make yourself comfortable.”

She sat down on one side of the top step. “Now you sit down, too. There’s room. I can move over a little more.”

“I actually forgot—I thought we’d have more spacious accommodations, I really did. This is the first time I’ve brought a guest.” “Masher” is the word his father would have used. A man who contrives to make himself familiar. A masher would be thinking, “Clever of me.”

She said, “That’s fine. But you can’t keep standing there. We could go find a bench if you want to.”

He said, “We’re a little bit out of the rain here, if it rains.” She moved over some more, pulling her coat around her. He sat down on the second step, rested his folded arms on his knees, and looked at where the lake was. They were quiet.

Then she said, “It’s best when we talk. For passing the time.”

“Yes. I was about to mention that.”

They were quiet. The lake was darker than the darkness, visible because it was absolutely invisible. Like the sky on a night that was moonless and clear, a strong, present black. On one such night he had thrown a rock at a streetlamp, just to see the sky he knew was up there. He hadn’t even been especially drunk. He had been asserting a fundamental human privilege, as he explained to the cop. The cop had said, “Drunk and disorderly,” predictably enough. Was that a year ago? Five years ago? It all ran together.

He said, “The word ‘lake’ is related to the word ‘lack.’ An absence. No kidding, I looked it up. Long hours in the public library, out of the weather. The intellect can share its wealth without diminution. Somebody said that, if I remember correctly. So I always feel a little at ease in a library. I can take the best they have and no one is the worse for it. I mean, you know, things to think about. Not actual books. Well, I do get attached to certain things, books, but I bring them back sooner or later.” Then he said, “I owe you one Paul Dunbar. With interest by now, I suppose.”

She said, “Finish that couplet and leave the book on the porch and we’ll be even.”

“Spoken like a teacher.”

After a minute, she said, “I’ll probably be doing that for the rest of my life, no matter what happens. Talking like that. You start thinking in a certain way, thinking you have something to say to people. That they ought to listen to.”

“Like a preacher.”

“Worse. A preacher still has an air about him, even if his last church chased him out and barred the door behind him. He can still cite texts. People never quite ignore that.”

“Things might turn out all right. You might be talking to adolescents about couplets for decades to come. An excellent life. I mean that. Really.”

“Well, it is. Especially since I seem to be looking back on it.”

“Well,” he said, “you listen to this, now. Diligent effort has gone into this—what do you call it?—recitation. It sounds better if you shout it, but, you know, neither the time nor the place. I have to remember how it begins. Yes. ‘Before their eyes in sudden view appear / The secrets of the hoary deep; a dark / Illimitable ocean, without bound, / Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height, / And time, and place, are lost; where eldest Night / And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold / Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise / Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.’ John Milton. The greatest Presbyterian poet, my father said.”

“He wasn’t Presbyterian.”

“True, but he wasn’t anything else, either. My father found everything he wrote highly persuasive, which meant he must be Presbyterian, whether he knew it or not. He’d say he was joking, but if anybody pressed the issue, he’d get a little cranky.” Then he said, “My point was, though, that I memorized that to impress an English teacher with whom I was briefly in love. I was fourteen at the time. I never did recite it. It has never been my nature to do what I ought to, for my own sake, even. She’d probably have thought better of me. But I remember it sometimes, and it pleases me that it’s still in my brain. Along with not much else. So you never know what effect you might have had.”

“And I never will know. I might never be in that room again. Never even have a chance to say goodbye to them. I’m beginning to realize I liked them better than I thought I did.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“My last memory will be them laughing at me over that song.”

“Things might turn out all right. I suppose there’s something about sitting here in the dark that makes it seem unlikely. But you never know.” He laughed. “And I’ll never know. The end of this strange tale, I mean. How things work out. It will worry me. So. I will worry so.”

They were quiet.

She said, “I’ll set a book in the window.”

“Which window?”

“The one by the front door.”

“All right. Will it mean good news or bad news?”

“Good news.”

“All right. Don’t forget.”

“I promise.”

He said, “What if it’s a while before you know for sure? What if they deliberate or something? It could take weeks. No book in the window—”

“I’ll put a plant in the window. A sprig of ivy. So you’ll know I still don’t know.”

“Without the book.”

“With the book, if things seem to be going well enough.”

“Otherwise, just the sprig.”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “That woman—is it Lorraine?—she might see the book there and think that’s a strange place for it to be and put it away, or walk off with it.”

“I’ll be careful to use one she’s already read.”

“All right. I suppose that could work.”

“I’ll make sure it works.”

“That will be kind of you.”

“It’s kind of you to worry.”

“So.”

“Yes,” she said. They were quiet. Then she said, “‘So’ is a word they would use after the world ended. Or maybe they wouldn’t need it anymore. Because they’d know what it means. Everything would just be what you think it would be.”

“It’s so dark,” he said. “The night is so long. We’d step across a threshold of some kind. Utter darkness and endless time. That would be the way of things. No more ‘so.’”

“Sometimes I feel like we’ve just been living on hints. Seeing the world through a keyhole. That’s how it would seem to us when we looked back.”

He nodded. “That’s how it seems to me now.”

She had leaned down, cupping her poor toes in her hands, cheek on her knee, facing him in the dark. There was an odd loveliness about it. Why did he think she seemed content? He believed her eyes were closed. Had my heart an unbroken string, your touch would set it trembling. He had almost penciled that into her book, then thought better of it. It wasn’t a very good line. Trembling doesn’t really have three syllables. And touch. What might she find suggested in that word. I will ruin this, he thought. I almost did, writing in those words, before I even imagined it would happen. I never would have imagined. If he touched her face now, ever so lightly, things would be different afterward. That’s how the world is, touch anything, change everything. Caution is needed. Which meant that question was already in his mind—what would be left if the fragile were tested, pushed nearer the edge of the shelf, if that tension were sprung and the fragile thing, the essence of it, lost. This strange night lost, fallen into shivers and shards of embarrassment and distrust and regret. It crossed his mind that if he touched her dark cheek in the dark night, an elegant curve, bodiless as geometry, objectively speaking, if he followed the curve of it with just the tip of a finger, there would be a delicacy in the experiment she would understand if he could explain it to her. Pure touch, almost undistracted. He said, “Talk about something.” Too abrupt. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about something.”

She lifted her head. “I guess I was asleep. I was dreaming.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was a pretty ordinary dream. I couldn’t find something I needed, I didn’t even know what it was. I was all worked up about it. Now I’m here in the dark, sitting on the steps of a tomb beside a strange man I can’t quite see. That’s more like a dream.”

“Hmm. It sounds like a very bad dream.”

“Yes, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s the feeling you have that makes a dream bad. I just realized that.”

He nodded. “Interesting.” Then he said, “You know, I actually sort of enjoy my life. I know I shouldn’t. It could stand a lot of improvement. But maybe it’s the feeling you have that makes a life bad. Or makes it all right enough most of the time.” He said, “I aspire to utter harmlessness. It’s a contest I have with myself. I have no real aptitude for harmlessness, which makes it interesting.” He said, “Spiders and flies are completely safe around me. Mice. Vermin generally. I’ve learned there is a kind of pleasure in considering all the things and people I’ve never harmed. Never even made them notice me there, appraising their vulnerabilities. Which, I’ll admit, is something I do.” Then he said, “Sometimes.” What a stupid thing to have said to her. “Let’s change the subject.”

“Yes. All right. This step is really hard.”

“Cold.”

“Damp.”

“I’m sorry I woke you up. There’s nothing like sleep for passing the time.”

She said, “You should come to my place for Thanksgiving.”

He laughed. “What have I done to deserve that?”

“Thanksgiving isn’t something a person has to deserve. That’s the whole point of it. Anyway, you’ve been about as harmless as you could possibly be. I appreciate that. It’s not a thing I take for granted.” Resting her head on her knees, looking at where he was, smiling. He knew that from her voice.

He said, “You could introduce me to your dad. ‘The Prince of Darkness, Papa. I found him in a cemetery. He says he’s harmless. The bruised reed he will not break, probably. Though he might be the one who bruised it.’”

“Don’t joke like that. Anyway, I’m not going home this year. I mean, you should come to my place. You know, where you leave any books you decide to return?”

“I know it well.”

“Just knock on the door this time. Stop being so sneaky.”

He said, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Can the leopard change his spots? Besides, I always lose track of Thanksgiving. It moves around. It’s not for people with disorderly lives.”

She shrugged. “You might make an effort, just this once.”

“I can’t promise anything.”

She said, “Oh, I know that.”


Copyright © 2020 by Marilynne Robinson