Sample text for The human stain / Philip Roth.


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Counter 1
Everyone Knows
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk-who,
before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at
nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving
for sixteen more as the dean of faculty-confided to me that, at the
age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-
old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she
also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that
looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of
the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn
across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American
flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center
of this mountainside town.
Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office
floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing
time, to get his mail-a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond
hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted
features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking
goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern
colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to
it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she
kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide
nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at
a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay
her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about
Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that
Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail-every
last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded
by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it
since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old
issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and
on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her
crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New
England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a
summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a
home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous
piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism-which had replaced
communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security-was
succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged
president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying
on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived
America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most
treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In
the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous
grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were
everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a
calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not
many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long
ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the
astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection
from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough
for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her
embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you
don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper
columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was
possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the
president's malfeasance-what Buckley elsewhere called
Clinton's "incontinent carnality"-might best be remedied with nothing
so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century
punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding
associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for
Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the
virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman
Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of
castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective
perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the
ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when
the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and
the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to
one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining
in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people
was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in
the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so
crazy?," when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning,
discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that
transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the
brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,
draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the
White House to the other and bearing the legend a human being lives
here. It was the summer when-for the billionth time-the jumble, the
mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology
and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis
was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once
again confounded America.

Sometimes on a Saturday, Coleman Silk would give me a ring and invite
me to drive over from my side of the mountain after dinner to listen
to music, or to play, for a penny a point, a little gin rummy, or to
sit in his living room for a couple of hours and sip some cognac and
help him get through what was always for him the worst night of the
week. By the summer of 1998, he had been alone up here-alone in the
large old white clapboard house where he'd raised four children with
his wife, Iris-for close to two years, ever since Iris suffered a
stroke and died overnight while he was in the midst of battling with
the college over a charge of racism brought against him by two
students in one of his classes.
Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic
life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer,
something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the
prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek (as witness the
Conversational Greek and Latin Club that he started, heretically, as
a young instructor). His venerable survey course in ancient Greek
literature in translation-known as GHM, for Gods, Heroes, and Myth-
was popular with students precisely because of everything direct,
frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. "You know how
European literature begins?" he'd ask, after having taken the roll at
the first class meeting. "With a quarrel. All of European literature
springs from a fight." And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad
and read to the class the opening lines. "'Divine Muse, sing of the
ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled,
Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.' And what are they
quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a
barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A
girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war. Mia kouri-that
is how she is described in the poem. Mia, as in modern Greek, is the
indefinite article 'a'; kouri, or girl, evolves in modern Greek into
kori, meaning daughter. Now, Agamemnon much prefers this girl to his
wife, Clytemnestra. 'Clytemnestra is not as good as she is,' he
says, 'neither in face nor in figure.' That puts directly enough,
does it not, why he doesn't want to give her up? When Achilles
demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father in order to
assuage Apollo, the god who is murderously angry about the
circumstances surrounding her abduction, Agamemnon refuses: he'll
agree only if Achilles gives him his girl in exchange. Thus
reigniting Achilles. Adrenal Achilles: the most highly flammable of
explosive wildmen any writer has ever enjoyed portraying; especially
where his prestige and his appetite are concerned, the most
hypersensitive killing machine in the history of warfare. Celebrated
Achilles: alienated and estranged by a slight to his honor. Great
heroic Achilles, who, through the strength of his rage at an insult-
the insult of not getting the girl-isolates himself, positions
himself defiantly outside the very society whose glorious protector
he is and whose need of him is enormous. A quarrel, then, a brutal
quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of
sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against
the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a
warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe
begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are
going to begin there today . . ."
Coleman was one of a handful of Jews on the Athena faculty
when he was hired and perhaps among the first of the Jews permitted
to teach in a classics department anywhere in America; a few years
earlier, Athena's solitary Jew had been E. I. Lonoff, the all-but-
forgotten short story writer whom, back when I was myself a newly
published apprentice in trouble and eagerly seeking the validation of
a master, I had once paid a memorable visit to here. Through the
eighties and into the nineties, Coleman was also the first and only
Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty; then, in 1995, after
retiring as dean in order to round out his career back in the
classroom, he resumed teaching two of his courses under the aegis of
the combined languages and literature program that had absorbed the
Classics Department and that was run by Professor Delphine Roux. As
dean, and with the full support of an ambitious new president,
Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college
and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a
gentlemen's farm by aggressively encouraging the deadwood among the
faculty's old guard to seek early retirement, recruiting ambitious
young assistant professors, and revolutionizing the curriculum. It's
almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own
good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have
been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would
have been a classical studies chair established in his name, and
perhaps-given his importance to the twentieth-century revitalization
of the place-the humanities building or even North Hall, the
college's landmark, would have been renamed in his honor after his
death. In the small academic world where he had lived the bulk of his
life, he would have long ceased to be resented or controversial or
even feared, and, instead, officially glorified forever.
It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-
time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that
would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college-the
single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in
his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that,
as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.
The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken
attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to
learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to
elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in
the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these
people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"
Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his
successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism
brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be
black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in
which he'd publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman
told the dean, "I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic
character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a
single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in
its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I
had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known
perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an
invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am
totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never
have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they
spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My
colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is
preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of
these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of
work. What's galling is that the charge is not just false-it is
spectacularly false." Having said altogether enough in his defense,
considering the matter closed, he left for home.
Now, even ordinary deans, I am told, serving as they do in a
no man's land between the faculty and the higher administration,
invariably make enemies. They don't always grant the salary raises
that are requested or the convenient parking places that are so
coveted or the larger offices professors believe they are entitled
to. Candidates for appointments or promotion, especially in weak
departments, are routinely rejected. Departmental petitions for
additional faculty positions and secretarial help are almost always
turned down, as are requests for reduced teaching loads and for
freedom from early morning classes. Funds for travel to academic
conferences are regularly denied, et cetera, et cetera. But Coleman
had been no ordinary dean, and who he got rid of and how he got rid
of them, what he abolished and what he established, and how
audaciously he performed his job into the teeth of tremendous
resistance succeeded in more than merely slighting or offending a few
odd ingrates and malcontents. Under the protection of Pierce Roberts,
the handsome young hotshot president with all the hair who came in
and appointed him to the deanship-and who told him, "Changes are
going to be made, and anybody who's unhappy should just think about
leaving or early retirement"-Coleman had overturned everything. When,
eight years later, midway through Coleman's tenure, Roberts accepted
a prestigious Big Ten presidency, it was on the strength of a
reputation for all that had been achieved at Athena in record time-
achieved, however, not by the glamorous president who was essentially
a fund-raiser, who'd taken none of the hits and moved on from Athena
heralded and unscathed, but by his determined dean of faculty.
In the very first month he was appointed dean, Coleman had
invited every faculty member in for a talk, including several senior
professors who were the scions of the old county families who'd
founded and originally endowed the place and who themselves didn't
really need the money but gladly accepted their salaries. Each of
them was instructed beforehand to bring along his or her c.v., and if
someone didn't bring it, because he or she was too grand, Coleman had
it in front of him on his desk anyway. And for a full hour he kept
them there, sometimes even longer, until, having so persuasively
indicated that things at Athena had at long last changed, he had
begun to make them sweat. Nor did he hesitate to open the interview
by flipping through the c.v. and saying, "For the last eleven years,
just what have you been doing?" And when they told him, as an
overwhelming number of the faculty did, that they'd been publishing
regularly in Athena Notes, when he'd heard one time too many about
the philological, bibliographical, or archaeological scholarly
oddment each of them annually culled from an ancient Ph.D.
dissertation for "publication" in the mimeographed quarterly bound in
gray cardboard that was cataloged nowhere on earth but in the college
library, he was reputed to have dared to break the Athena civility
code by saying, "In other words, you people recycle your own trash."
Not only did he then shut down Athena Notes by returning the tiny
bequest to the donor-the father-in-law of the editor-but, to
encourage early retirement, he forced the deadest of the deadwood out
of the courses they'd been delivering by rote for the last twenty or
thirty years and into freshman English and the history survey and the
new freshman orientation program held during the hot last days of the
summer. He eliminated the ill-named Scholar of the Year Prize and
assigned the thousand dollars elsewhere. For the first time in the
college's history, he made people apply formally, with a detailed
project description, for paid sabbatical leave, which was more often
than not denied. He got rid of the clubby faculty lunchroom, which
boasted the most exquisite of the paneled oak interiors on the
campus, converted it back into the honors seminar room it was
intended to be, and made the faculty eat in the cafeteria with the
students. He insisted on faculty meetings-never holding them had made
the previous dean enormously popular. Coleman had attendance taken by
the faculty secretary so that even the eminences with the three-hour-
a-week schedules were forced onto the campus to show up. He found a
provision in the college constitution that said there were to be no
executive committees, and arguing that those stodgy impediments to
serious change had grown up only by convention and tradition, he
abolished them and ruled these faculty meetings by fiat, using each
as an occasion to announce what he was going to do next that was sure
to stir up even more resentment. Under his leadership, promotion
became difficult-and this, perhaps, was the greatest shock of all:
people were no longer promoted through rank automatically on the
basis of being popular teachers, and they didn't get salary increases
that weren't tied to merit. In short, he brought in competition, he
made the place competitive, which, as an early enemy noted, "is what
Jews do." And whenever an angry ad hoc committee was formed to go and
complain to Pierce Roberts, the president unfailingly backed Coleman.
In the Roberts years all the bright younger people he
recruited loved Coleman because of the room he was making for them
and because of the good people he began hiring out of graduate
programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale and Cornell-"the revolution of
quality," as they themselves liked to describe it. They prized him
for taking the ruling elite out of their little club and threatening
their self-presentation, which never fails to drive a pompous
professor crazy. All the older guys who were the weakest part of the
faculty had survived on the ways that they thought of themselves-the
greatest scholar of the year 100 b.c., and so forth-and once those
were challenged from above, their confidence eroded and, in a matter
of a few years, they had nearly all disappeared. Heady times! But
after Pierce Roberts moved on to the big job at Michigan, and Haines,
the new president, came in with no particular loyalty to Coleman-and,
unlike his predecessor, exhibiting no special tolerance for the brand
of bulldozing vanity and autocratic ego that had cleaned the place
out in so brief a period-and as the young people Coleman had kept on
as well as those he'd recruited began to become the veteran faculty,
a reaction against Dean Silk started to set in. How strong it was he
had never entirely realized until he counted all the people,
department by department, who seemed to be not at all displeased that
the word the old dean had chosen to characterize his two seemingly
nonexistent students was definable not only by the primary dictionary
meaning that he maintained was obviously the one he'd intended but by
the pejorative racial meaning that had sent his two black students to
lodge their complaint.

I remember clearly that April day two years back when Iris Silk died
and the insanity took hold of Coleman. Other than to offer a nod to
one or the other of them whenever our paths crossed down at the
general store or the post office, I had not really known the Silks or
anything much about them before then. I hadn't even known that
Coleman had grown up some four or five miles away from me in the tiny
Essex County town of East Orange, New Jersey, and that, as a 1944
graduate of East Orange High, he had been some six years ahead of me
in my neighboring Newark school. Coleman had made no effort to get to
know me, nor had I left New York and moved into a two-room cabin set
way back in a field on a rural road high in the Berkshires to meet
new people or to join a new community. The invitations I received
during my first months out here in 1993-to come to a dinner, to tea,
to a cocktail party, to trek to the college down in the valley to
deliver a public lecture or, if I preferred, to talk informally to a
literature class-I politely declined, and after that both the
neighbors and the college let me be to live and do my work on my own.
But then, on that afternoon two years back, having driven
directly from making arrangements for Iris's burial, Coleman was at
the side of my house, banging on the door and asking to be let in.
Though he had something urgent to ask, he couldn't stay seated for
more than thirty seconds to clarify what it was. He got up, sat down,
got up again, roamed round and round my workroom, speaking loudly and
in a rush, even menacingly shaking a fist in the air when-erroneously-
he believed emphasis was needed. I had to write something for him-he
all but ordered me to. If he wrote the story in all of its absurdity,
altering nothing, nobody would believe it, nobody would take it
seriously, people would say it was a ludicrous lie, a self-serving
exaggeration, they would say that more than his having uttered the
word "spooks" in a classroom had to lie behind his downfall. But if I
wrote it, if a professional writer wrote it . . .
All the restraint had collapsed within him, and so watching
him, listening to him-a man I did not know, but clearly someone
accomplished and of consequence now completely unhinged-was like
being present at a bad highway accident or a fire or a frightening
explosion, at a public disaster that mesmerizes as much by its
improbability as by its grotesqueness. The way he careened around the
room made me think of those familiar chickens that keep on going
after having been beheaded. His head had been lopped off, the head
encasing the educated brain of the once unassailable faculty dean and
classics professor, and what I was witnessing was the amputated rest
of him spinning out of control.
I-whose house he had never before entered, whose very voice
he had barely heard before-had to put aside whatever else I might be
doing and write about how his enemies at Athena, in striking out at
him, had instead felled her. Creating their false image of him,
calling him everything that he wasn't and could never be, they had
not merely misrepresented a professional career conducted with the
utmost seriousness and dedication-they had killed his wife of over
forty years. Killed her as if they'd taken aim and fired a bullet
into her heart. I had to write about this "absurdity,"
that "absurdity"-I, who then knew nothing about his woes at the
college and could not even begin to follow the chronology of the
horror that, for five months now, had engulfed him and the late Iris
Silk: the punishing immersion in meetings, hearings, and interviews,
the documents and letters submitted to college officials, to faculty
committees, to a pro bono black lawyer representing the two
students . . . the charges, denials, and countercharges, the
obtuseness, ignorance, and cynicism, the gross and deliberate
misinterpretations, the laborious, repetitious explanations, the
prosecutorial questions-and always, perpetually, the pervasive sense
of unreality. "Her murder!" Coleman cried, leaning across my desk and
hammering on it with his fist. "These people murdered Iris!"
The face he showed me, the face he placed no more than a foot
from my own, was by now dented and lopsided and-for the face of a
well-groomed, youthfully handsome older man-strangely repellent, more
than likely distorted from the toxic effect of all the emotion
coursing through him. It was, up close, bruised and ruined like a
piece of fruit that's been knocked from its stall in the marketplace
and kicked to and fro along the ground by the passing shoppers.
There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can
do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's
more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there
is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate
it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you
for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.
Murdered. For Coleman that alone explained how, out of
nowhere, the end could have come to an energetic sixty-four-year-old
woman of commanding presence and in perfect health, an abstract
painter whose canvases dominated the local art shows and who herself
autocratically administered the town artists' association, a poet
published in the county newspaper, in her day the college's leading
politically active opponent of bomb shelters, of strontium 90,
eventually of the Vietnam War, opinionated, unyielding, impolitic, an
imperious whirlwind of a woman recognizable a hundred yards away by
her great tangled wreath of wiry white hair; so strong a person,
apparently, that despite his own formidableness, the dean who
reputedly could steamroll anybody, the dean who had done the
academically impossible by bringing deliverance to Athena College,
could best his own wife at nothing other than tennis.
Once Coleman had come under attack, however-once the racist
charge had been taken up for investigation, not only by the new dean
of faculty but by the college's small black student organization and
by a black activist group from Pittsfield-the outright madness of it
blotted out the million difficulties of the Silks' marriage, and that
same imperiousness that had for four decades clashed with his own
obstinate autonomy and resulted in the unending friction of their
lives, Iris placed at the disposal of her husband's cause. Though for
years they had not slept in the same bed or been able to endure very
much of the other's conversation-or of the other's friends-the Silks
were side by side again, waving their fists in the faces of people
they hated more profoundly than, in their most insufferable moments,
they could manage to hate each other. All they'd had in common as
comradely lovers forty years earlier in Greenwich Village-when he was
at NYU finishing up his Ph.D. and Iris was an escapee fresh from two
nutty anarchist parents in Passaic and modeling for life drawing
classes at the Art Students League, armed already with her thicket of
important hair, big- featured and voluptuous, already then a
theatrical-looking high priestess in folkloric jewelry, the biblical
high priestess from before the time of the synagogue-all they'd had
in common in those Village days (except for the erotic passion) once
again broke wildly out into the open . . . until the morning when she
awakened with a ferocious headache and no feeling in one of her arms.
Coleman rushed her to the hospital, but by the next day she was dead.
"They meant to kill me and they got her instead." So Coleman
told me more than once during that unannounced visit to my house, and
then made sure to tell every single person at her funeral the
following afternoon. And so he still believed. He was not susceptible
to any other explanation. Ever since her death-and since he'd come to
recognize that his ordeal wasn't a subject I wished to address in my
fiction and he had accepted back from me all the documentation dumped
on my desk that day-he had been at work on a book of his own about
why he had resigned from Athena, a nonfiction book he was calling
Spooks.

There's a small FM station over in Springfield that on Saturday
nights, from six to midnight, takes a break from the regular
classical programming and plays big-band music for the first few
hours of the evening and then jazz later on. On my side of the
mountain you get nothing but static tuning to that frequency, but on
the slope where Coleman lives the reception's fine, and on the
occasions when he'd invite me for a Saturday evening drink, all those
sugary-sweet dance tunes that kids of our generation heard
continuously over the radio and played on the jukeboxes back in the
forties could be heard coming from Coleman's house as soon as I
stepped out of my car in his driveway. Coleman had it going full
blast not just on the living room stereo receiver but on the radio
beside his bed, the radio beside the shower, and the radio beside the
kitchen bread box. No matter what he might be doing around the house
on a Saturday night, until the station signed off at midnight-
following a ritual weekly half hour of Benny Goodman-he wasn't out of
earshot for a minute.
Oddly, he said, none of the serious stuff he'd been listening
to all his adult life put him into emotional motion the way that old
swing music now did: "Everything stoical within me unclenches and the
wish not to die, never to die, is almost too great to bear. And all
this," he explained, "from listening to Vaughn Monroe." Some nights,
every line of every song assumed a significance so bizarrely
momentous that he'd wind up dancing by himself the shuffling,
drifting, repetitious, uninspired, yet wonderfully serviceable, mood-
making fox trot that he used to dance with the East Orange High girls
on whom he pressed, through his trousers, his first meaningful
erections; and while he danced, nothing he was feeling, he told me,
was simulated, neither the terror (over extinction) nor the rapture
(over "You sigh, the song begins. You speak, and I hear violins").
The teardrops were all spontaneously shed, however astonished he may
have been by how little resistance he had to Helen O'Connell and Bob
Eberly alternately delivering the verses of "Green Eyes," however
much he might marvel at how Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey were able to
transform him into the kind of assailable old man he could never have
expected to be. "But let anyone born in 1926," he'd say, "try to stay
alone at home on a Saturday night in 1998 and listen to Dick Haymes
singing 'Those Little White Lies.' Just have them do that, and then
let them tell me afterwards if they have not understood at last the
celebrated doctrine of the catharsis effected by tragedy."
Coleman was cleaning up his dinner dishes when I came through
a screen door at the side of the house leading into the kitchen.
Because he was over the sink and the water was running, and because
the radio was loudly playing and he was singing along with the young
Frank Sinatra "Everything Happens to Me," he didn't hear me come in.
It was a hot night; Coleman wore a pair of denim shorts and sneakers,
and that was it. From behind, this man of seventy-one looked to be no
more than forty-slender and fit and forty. Coleman was not much over
five eight, if that, he was not heavily muscled, and yet there was a
lot of strength in him, and a lot of the bounce of the high school
athlete was still visible, the quickness, the urge to action that we
used to call pep. His tightly coiled, short-clipped hair had turned
the color of oatmeal, and so head-on, despite the boyish snub nose,
he didn't look quite so youthful as he might have if his hair were
still dark. Also, there were crevices carved deeply at either side of
his mouth, and in the greenish hazel eyes there was, since Iris's
death and his resignation from the college, much, much weariness and
spiritual depletion. Coleman had the incongruous, almost puppetlike
good looks that you confront in the aging faces of movie actors who
were famous on the screen as sparkling children and on whom the
juvenile star is indelibly stamped.
All in all, he remained a neat, attractive package of a man
even at his age, the small-nosed Jewish type with the facial heft in
the jaw, one of those crimped-haired Jews of a light yellowish skin
pigmentation who possess something of the ambiguous aura of the pale
blacks who are sometimes taken for white. When Coleman Silk was a
sailor at the Norfolk naval base down in Virginia at the close of
World War II, because his name didn't give him away as a Jew-because
it could as easily have been a Negro's name-he'd once been
identified, in a brothel, as a nigger trying to pass and been thrown
out. "Thrown out of a Norfolk whorehouse for being black, thrown out
of Athena College for being white." I'd heard stuff like that from
him frequently during these last two years, ravings about black anti-
Semitism and about his treacherous, cowardly colleagues that were
obviously being mainlined, unmodified, into his book.
"Thrown out of Athena," he told me, "for being a white Jew of
the sort those ignorant bastards call the enemy. That's who's made
their American misery. That's who stole them out of paradise. And
that's who's been holding them back all these years. What is the
major source of black suffering on this planet? They know the answer
without having to come to class. They know without having to open a
book. Without reading they know-without thinking they know. Who is
responsible? The same evil Old Testament monsters responsible for the
suffering of the Germans.
"They killed her, Nathan. And who would have thought that
Iris couldn't take it? But strong as she was, loud as she was, Iris
could not. Their brand of stupidity was too much even for a
juggernaut like my wife. 'Spooks.' And who here would defend me? Herb
Keble? As dean I brought Herb Keble into the college. Did it only
months after taking the job. Brought him in not just as the first
black in the social sciences but as the first black in anything other
than a custodial position. But Herb too has been radicalized by the
racism of Jews like me. 'I can't be with you on this, Coleman. I'm
going to have to be with them.' This is what he told me when I went
to ask for his support. To my face. I'm going to have to be with
them. Them!
"You should have seen Herb at Iris's funeral. Crushed.
Devastated. Somebody died? Herbert didn't intend for anybody to die.
These shenanigans were so much jockeying for power. To gain a bigger
say in how the college is run. They were just exploiting a useful
situation. It was a way to prod Haines and the administration into
doing what they otherwise would never have done. More blacks on
campus. More black students, more black professors. Representation-
that was the issue. The only issue. God knows nobody was meant to
die. Or to resign either. That too took Herbert by surprise. Why
should Coleman Silk resign? Nobody was going to fire him. Nobody
would dare to fire him. They were doing what they were doing just
because they could do it. Their intention was to hold my feet over
the flames just a little while longer-why couldn't I have been
patient and waited? By the next semester who would have remembered
any of it? The incident-the incident!-provided them with
an 'organizing issue' of the sort that was needed at a racially
retarded place like Athena. Why did I quit? By the time I quit it was
essentially over. What the hell was I quitting for?"
On just my previous visit, Coleman had begun waving something
in my face from the moment I'd come through the door, yet another
document from the hundreds of documents filed in the boxes
labeled "Spooks." "Here. One of my gifted colleagues. Writing about
one of the two who brought the charges against me-a student who had
never attended my class, flunked all but one of the other courses she
was taking, and rarely attended them. I thought she flunked because
she couldn't confront the material, let alone begin to master it, but
it turned out that she flunked because she was too intimidated by the
racism emanating from her white professors to work up the courage to
go to class. The very racism that I had articulated. In one of those
meetings, hearings, whatever they were, they asked me, 'What factors,
in your judgment, led to this student's failure?' 'What factors?' I
said. 'Indifference. Arrogance. Apathy. Personal distress. Who
knows?' 'But,' they asked me, 'in light of these factors, what
positive recommendations did you make to this student?' 'I didn't
make any. I'd never laid eyes on her. If I'd had the opportunity, I
would have recommended that she leave school.' 'Why?' they asked
me. 'Because she didn't belong in school.'
"Let me read from this document. Listen to this. Filed by a
colleague of mine supporting Tracy Cummings as someone we should not
be too harsh or too quick to judge, certainly not someone we should
turn away and reject. Tracy we must nurture, Tracy we must understand-
we have to know, this scholar tells us, 'where Tracy's coming from.'
Let me read you the last sentences. 'Tracy is from a rather difficult
background, in that she separated from her immediate family in tenth
grade and lived with relatives. As a result, she was not particularly
good at dealing with the realities of a situation. This defect I
admit. But she is ready, willing, and able to change her approach to
living. What I have seen coming to birth in her during these last
weeks is a realization of the seriousness of her avoidance of
reality.' Sentences composed by one Delphine Roux, chairman of
Languages and Literature, who teaches, among other things, a course
in French classicism. A realization of the seriousness of her
avoidance of reality. Ah, enough. Enough. This is sickening. This is
just too sickening."
That's what I witnessed, more often than not, when I came to
keep Coleman company on a Saturday night: a humiliating disgrace that
was still eating away at someone who was still fully vital. The great
man brought low and suffering still the shame of failure. Something
like what you might have seen had you dropped in on Nixon at San
Clemente or on Jimmy Carter, down in Georgia, before he began doing
penance for his defeat by becoming a carpenter. Something very sad.
And yet, despite my sympathy for Coleman's ordeal and for all he had
unjustly lost and for the near impossibility of his tearing himself
free from his bitterness, there were evenings when, after having
sipped only a few drops of his brandy, it required something like a
feat of magic for me to stay awake.
But on the night I'm describing, when we had drifted onto the
cool screened-in side porch that he used in the summertime as a
study, he was as fond of the world as a man can be. He'd pulled a
couple of bottles of beer from the refrigerator when we left the
kitchen, and we were seated across from each other at either side of
the long trestle table that was his desk out there and that was
stacked at one end with composition books, some twenty or thirty of
them, divided into three piles.
"Well, there it is," said Coleman, now this calm,
unoppressed, entirely new being. "That's it. That's Spooks. Finished
a first draft yesterday, spent all day today reading it through, and
every page of it made me sick. The violence in the handwriting was
enough to make me despise the author. That I should spend a single
quarter of an hour at this, let alone two years . . . Iris died
because of them? Who will believe it? I hardly believe it myself any
longer. To turn this screed into a book, to bleach out the raging
misery and turn it into something by a sane human being, would take
two years more at least. And what would I then have, aside from two
years more of thinking about 'them'? Not that I've given myself over
to forgiveness. Don't get me wrong: I hate the bastards. I hate the
fucking bastards the way Gulliver hates the whole human race after he
goes and lives with those horses. I hate them with a real biological
aversion. Though those horses I always found ridiculous. Didn't you?
I used to think of them as the wasp establishment that ran this place
when I first got here."
"You're in good form, Coleman-barely a glimmer of the old
madness. Three weeks, a month ago, whenever it was I saw you last,
you were still knee-deep in your own blood."
"Because of this thing. But I read it and it's shit and I'm
over it. I can't do what the pros do. Writing about myself, I can't
maneuver the creative remove. Page after page, it is still the raw
thing. It's a parody of the self-justifying memoir. The hopelessness
of explanation." Smiling, he said, "Kissinger can unload fourteen
hundred pages of this stuff every other year, but it's defeated me.
Blindly secure though I may seem to be in my narcissistic bubble, I'm
no match for him. I quit."
Now, most writers who are brought to a standstill after
rereading two years' work-even one year's work, merely half a year's
work-and finding it hopelessly misguided and bringing down on it the
critical guillotine are reduced to a state of suicidal despair from
which it can take months to begin to recover. Yet Coleman, by
abandoning a draft of a book as bad as the draft he'd finished, had
somehow managed to swim free not only from the wreck of the book but
from the wreck of his life. Without the book he appeared now to be
without the slightest craving to set the record straight; shed of the
passion to clear his name and criminalize as murderers his opponents,
he was embalmed no longer in injustice. Aside from watching Nelson
Mandela, on TV, forgiving his jailers even as he was leaving jail
with his last miserable jail meal still being assimilated into his
system, I'd never before seen a change of heart transform a martyred
being quite so swiftly. I couldn't understand it, and I at first
couldn't bring myself to believe in it either.
"Walking away like this, cheerfully saying, 'It's defeated
me,' walking away from all this work, from all this loathing-well,
how are you going to fill the outrage void?"
"I'm not." He got the cards and a notepad to keep score and
we pulled our chairs down to where the trestle table was clear of
papers. He shuffled the cards and I cut them and he dealt. And then,
in this odd, serene state of contentment brought on by the seeming
emancipation from despising everyone at Athena who, deliberately and
in bad faith, had misjudged, misused, and besmirched him-had plunged
him, for two years, into a misanthropic exertion of Swiftian
proportions-he began to rhapsodize about the great bygone days when
his cup ranneth over and his considerable talent for
conscientiousness was spent garnering and tendering pleasure.
Now that he was no longer grounded in his hate, we were going
to talk about women. This was a new Coleman. Or perhaps an old
Coleman, the oldest adult Coleman there was, the most satisfied
Coleman there had ever been. Not Coleman pre-spooks and unmaligned as
a racist, but the Coleman contaminated by desire alone.
"I came out of the navy, I got a place in the Village," he
began to tell me as he assembled his hand, "and all I had to do was
go down into the subway. It was like fishing down there. Go down into
the subway and come up with a girl. And then"-he stopped to pick up
my discard-"all at once, got my degree, got married, got my job,
kids, and that was the end of the fishing."
"Never fished again."
"Almost never. True. Virtually never. As good as never. Hear
these songs?" The four radios were playing in the house, and so even
out on the road it would have been impossible not to hear
them. "After the war, those were the songs," he said. "Four, five
years of the songs, the girls, and that fulfilled my every ideal. I
found a letter today. Cleaning out that Spooks stuff, found a letter
from one of the girls. The girl. After I got my first appointment,
out on Long Island, out at Adelphi, and Iris was pregnant with Jeff,
this letter arrived. A girl nearly six feet tall. Iris was a big girl
too. But not big like Steena. Iris was substantial. Steena was
something else. Steena sent me this letter in 1954 and it turned up
today while I was shoveling out the files."
From the back pocket of his shorts, Coleman pulled the
original envelope holding Steena's letter. He was still without a T-
shirt, which now that we were out of the kitchen and on the porch I
couldn't help but take note of-it was a warm July night, but not that
warm. He had never struck me before as a man whose considerable
vanity extended also to his anatomy. But now there seemed to me to be
something more than a mere at-homeness expressed in this exhibition
of his body's suntanned surface. On display were the shoulders, arms,
and chest of a smallish man still trim and attractive, a belly no
longer flat, to be sure, but nothing that had gotten seriously out of
hand-altogether the physique of someone who would seem to have been a
cunning and wily competitor at sports rather than an overpowering
one. And all this had previously been concealed from me, because he
was always shirted and also because of his having been so drastically
consumed by his rage.
Also previously concealed was the small, Popeye-ish, blue
tattoo situated at the top of his right arm, just at the shoulder
joining-the words "U.S. Navy" inscribed between the hooklike arms of
a shadowy little anchor and running along the hypotenuse of the
deltoid muscle. A tiny symbol, if one were needed, of all the million
circumstances of the other fellow's life, of that blizzard of details
that constitute the confusion of a human biography-a tiny symbol to
remind me why our understanding of people must always be at best
slightly wrong.
"Kept it? The letter? Still got it?" I said. "Must've been
some letter."
"A killing letter. Something had happened to me that I hadn't
understood until that letter. I was married, responsibly employed, we
were going to have a child, and yet I hadn't understood that the
Steenas were over. Got this letter and I realized that the serious
things had really begun, the serious life dedicated to serious
things. My father owned a saloon off Grove Street in East Orange.
You're a Weequahic boy, you don't know East Orange. It was the poor
end of town. He was one of those Jewish saloon keepers, they were all
over Jersey and, of course, they all had ties to the Reinfelds and to
the Mob-they had to have, to survive the Mob. My father wasn't a
roughneck but he was rough enough, and he wanted better for me. He
dropped dead my last year of high school. I was the only child. The
adored one. He wouldn't even let me work in his place when the types
there began to entertain me. Everything in life, including the saloon-
beginning with the saloon-was always pushing me to be a serious
student, and, back in those days, studying my high school Latin,
taking advanced Latin, taking Greek, which was still part of the old-
fashioned curriculum, the saloon keeper's kid couldn't have tried
harder to be any more serious."
There was some quick by-play between us and Coleman laid down
his cards to show me his winning hand. As I started to deal, he
resumed the story. I'd never heard it before. I'd never heard
anything before other than how he'd come by his hatred for the
college.
"Well," he said, "once I'd fulfilled my father's dream and
become an ultra-respectable college professor, I thought, as my
father did, that the serious life would now never end. That it could
never end once you had the credentials. But it ended, Nathan. 'Or are
they spooks?' and I'm out on my ass. When Roberts was here he liked
to tell people that my success as a dean flowed from learning my
manners in a saloon. President Roberts with his upper-class pedigree
liked that he had this barroom brawler parked just across the hall
from him. In front of the old guard particularly, Roberts pretended
to enjoy me for my background, though, as we know, Gentiles actually
hate those stories about the Jews and their remarkable rise from the
slums. Yes, there was a certain amount of mockery in Pierce Roberts,
and even then, yes, when I think about it, starting even then . . ."
But here he reined himself in. Wouldn't go on with it. He was
finished with the derangement of being the monarch deposed. The
grievance that will never die is hereby declared dead.
Back to Steena. Remembering Steena helps enormously.
"Met her in '48," he said. "I was twenty-two, on the GI Bill
at NYU, the navy behind me, and she was eighteen and only a few
months in New York. Had some kind of job there and was going to
college, too, but at night. Independent girl from Minnesota. Sure-of-
herself girl, or seemed so. Danish on one side, Icelandic on the
other. Quick. Smart. Pretty. Tall. Marvelously tall. That statuesque
recumbency. Never forgotten it. With her for two years. Used to call
her Voluptas. Psyche's daughter. The personification to the Romans of
sensual pleasure."
Now he put down his cards, picked up the envelope from where
he'd dropped it beside the discard pile, and pulled out the letter. A
typewritten letter a couple of pages long. "We'd run into each other.
I was in from Adelphi, in the city for the day, and there was Steena,
about twenty-four, twenty-five by then. We stopped and spoke, and I
told her my wife was pregnant, and she told me what she was doing,
and then we kissed goodbye, and that was it. About a week later this
letter came to me care of the college. It's dated. She dated it. Here-
'August 18, 1954.' 'Dear Coleman,' she says, 'I was very happy to see
you in New York. Brief as our meeting was, after I saw you I felt an
autumnal sadness, perhaps because the six years since we first met
make it wrenchingly obvious how many days of my life are "over." You
look very good, and I'm glad you're happy. You were also very
gentlemanly. You didn't swoop. Which is the one thing you did (or
seemed to do) when I first met you and you rented the basement room
on Sullivan Street. Do you remember yourself? You were incredibly
good at swooping, almost like birds do when they fly over land or sea
and spy something moving, something bursting with life, and dive down-
or zero in-and seize upon it. I was astonished, when we met, by your
flying energy. I remember being in your room the first time and, when
I arrived, I sat in a chair, and you were walking around the room
from place to place, occasionally stopping to perch on a stool or the
couch. You had a ratty Salvation Army couch where you slept before we
chipped in for The Mattress. You offered me a drink, which you handed
to me while scrutinizing me with an air of incredible wonder and
curiosity, as if it were some kind of miracle that I had hands and
could hold a glass, or that I had a mouth which might drink from it,
or that I had even materialized at all, in your room, a day after
we'd met on the subway. You were talking, asking questions, sometimes
answering questions, in a deadly serious and yet hilarious way, and I
was trying very hard to talk also but conversation was not coming as
easily to me. So there I was staring back at you, absorbing and
understanding far more than I expected to understand. But I couldn't
find words to speak to fill the space created by the fact that you
seemed attracted to me and that I was attracted to you. I kept
thinking, "I'm not ready. I just arrived in this city. Not now. But I
will be, with a little more time, a few more exchanged notes of
conversation, if I can think what I wish to say." ("Ready" for what,
I don't know. Not just making love. Ready to be.) But then
you "swooped," Coleman, nearly halfway across the room, to where I
was sitting, and I was flabbergasted but delighted. It was too soon,
but it wasn't.'"
He stopped reading when he heard, coming from the radio, the
first bars of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" being sung by
Sinatra. "I've got to dance," Coleman said. "Want to dance?"
I laughed. No, this was not the savage, embittered, embattled
avenger of Spooks, estranged from life and maddened by it-this was
not even another man. This was another soul. A boyish soul at that. I
got a strong picture then, both from Steena's letter and from
Coleman, shirtless, as he was reading it, of what Coleman Silk had
once been like. Before becoming a revolutionary dean, before becoming
a serious classics professor-and long before becoming Athena's pariah-
he had been not only a studious boy but a charming and seductive boy
as well. Excited. Mischievous. A bit demonic even, a snub-nosed, goat-
footed Pan. Once upon a time, before the serious things took over
completely.
"After I hear the rest of the letter," I replied to the
invitation to dance. "Read me the rest of Steena's letter."
"Three months out of Minnesota when we met. Just went down
into the subway and brought her up with me. Well," he said, "that was
1948 for you," and he turned back to her letter. "'I was quite taken
with you,'" he read, "'but I was concerned you might find me too
young, an uninteresting midwestern bland sort of girl, and besides,
you were dating someone "smart and nice and lovely" already, though
you added, with a sly smile, "I don't believe she and I will get
married." "Why not?" I asked. "I may be getting bored," you answered,
thereby ensuring that I would do anything I could think of not to
bore you, including dropping out of contact, if necessary, so as to
avoid the risk of becoming boring. Well, that's it. That's enough. I
shouldn't even bother you. I promise I won't ever again. Take care.
Take care. Take care. Take care. Very fondly, Steena.'"
"Well," I said, "that is 1948 for you."
"Come. Let's dance."
"But you mustn't sing into my ear."
"Come on. Get up."
What the hell, I thought, we'll both be dead soon enough, and
so I got up, and there on the porch Coleman Silk and I began to dance
the fox trot together. He led, and, as best I could, I followed. I
remembered that day he'd burst into my studio after making burial
arrangements for Iris and, out of his mind with grief and rage, told
me that I had to write for him the book about all the unbelievable
absurdities of his case, culminating in the murder of his wife. One
would have thought that never again would this man have a taste for
the foolishness of life, that all that was playful in him and
lighthearted had been destroyed and lost, right along with the
career, the reputation, and the formidable wife. Maybe why it didn't
even cross my mind to laugh and let him, if he wanted to, dance
around the porch by himself, just laugh and enjoy myself watching him-
maybe why I gave him my hand and let him place his arm around my back
and push me dreamily around that old bluestone floor was because I
had been there that day when her corpse was still warm and seen what
he'd looked like.
"I hope nobody from the volunteer fire department drives by,"
I said.
"Yeah," he said. "We don't want anybody tapping me on the
shoulder and asking, 'May I cut in?'"
On we danced. There was nothing overtly carnal in it, but
because Coleman was wearing only his denim shorts and my hand rested
easily on his warm back as if it were the back of a dog or a horse,
it wasn't entirely a mocking act. There was a semi-serious sincerity
in his guiding me about on the stone floor, not to mention a
thoughtless delight in just being alive, accidentally and clownishly
and for no reason alive-the kind of delight you take as a child when
you first learn to play a tune with a comb and toilet paper.
It was when we sat down that Coleman told me about the
woman. "I'm having an affair, Nathan. I'm having an affair with a
thirty-four-year-old woman. I can't tell you what it's done to me."
"We just finished dancing-you don't have to."
"I thought I couldn't take any more of anything. But when
this stuff comes back so late in life, out of nowhere, completely
unexpected, even unwanted, comes back at you and there's nothing to
dilute it with, when you're no longer striving on twenty-two fronts,
no longer deep in the daily disorder . . . when it's just this . . ."
"And when she's thirty-four."
"And ignitable. An ignitable woman. She's turned sex into a
vice again."
"'La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall.'"
"Seems so. I say, 'What is it like for you with somebody
seventy-one?' and she tells me, 'It's perfect with somebody seventy-
one. He's set in his ways and he can't change. You know what he is.
No surprises.'"
"What's made her so wise?"
"Surprises. Thirty-four years of savage surprises have given
her wisdom. But it's a very narrow, antisocial wisdom. It's savage,
too. It's the wisdom of somebody who expects nothing. That's her
wisdom, and that's her dignity, but it's negative wisdom, and that's
not the kind that keeps you on course day to day. This is a woman
whose life's been trying to grind her down almost for as long as
she's had life. Whatever she's learned comes from that."
I thought, He's found somebody he can talk with . . . and
then I thought, So have I. The moment a man starts to tell you about
sex, he's telling you something about the two of you. Ninety percent
of the time it doesn't happen, and probably it's as well it doesn't,
though if you can't get a level of candor on sex and you choose to
behave instead as if this isn't ever on your mind, the male
friendship is incomplete. Most men never find such a friend. It's not
common. But when it does happen, when two men find themselves in
agreement about this essential part of being a man, unafraid of being
judged, shamed, envied, or outdone, confident of not having the
confidence betrayed, their human connection can be very strong and an
unexpected intimacy results. This probably isn't usual for him, I was
thinking, but because he'd come to me in his worst moment, full of
the hatred that I'd watched poison him over the months, he feels the
freedom of being with someone who's seen you through a terrible
illness from the side of your bed. He feels not so much the urge to
brag as the enormous relief of not having to keep something so
bewilderingly new as his own rebirth totally to himself.
"Where did you find her?" I asked.
"I went to pick up my mail at the end of the day and there
she was, mopping the floor. She's the skinny blonde who sometimes
cleans out the post office. She's on the regular janitorial staff at
Athena. She's a full-time janitor where I was once dean. The woman
has nothing. Faunia Farley. That's her name. Faunia has absolutely
nothing."
"Why has she nothing?"
"She had a husband. He beat her so badly she ended up in a
coma. They had a dairy farm. He ran it so badly it went bankrupt. She
had two children. A space heater tipped over, caught fire, and both
children were asphyxiated. Aside from the ashes of the two children
that she keeps in a canister under her bed, she owns nothing of value
except an '83 Chevy. The only time I've seen her come close to crying
was when she told me, 'I don't know what to do with the ashes.' Rural
disaster has squeezed Faunia dry of even her tears. And she began
life a rich, privileged kid. Brought up in a big sprawling house
south of Boston. Fireplaces in the five bedrooms, the best antiques,
heirloom china-everything old and the best, the family included. She
can be surprisingly well spoken if she wants to be. But she's dropped
so far down the social ladder from so far up that by now she's a
pretty mixed bag of verbal beans. Faunia's been exiled from the
entitlement that should have been hers. Declassed. There's a real
democratization to her suffering."
"What undid her?"
"A stepfather undid her. Upper-bourgeois evil undid her.
There was a divorce when she was five. The prosperous father caught
the beautiful mother having an affair. The mother liked money,
remarried money, and the rich stepfather wouldn't leave Faunia alone.
Fondling her from the day he arrived. Couldn't stay away from her.
This blond angelic child, fondling her, fingering her-it's when he
tried fucking her that she ran away. She was fourteen. The mother
refused to believe her. They took her to a psychiatrist. Faunia told
the psychiatrist what happened, and after ten sessions the
psychiatrist too sided with the stepfather. 'Takes the side of those
who pay him,' Faunia says. 'Just like everyone.' The mother had an
affair with the psychiatrist afterward. That is the story, as she
reports it, of what launched her into the life of a tough having to
make her way on her own. Ran away from home, from high school, went
down south, worked there, came back up this way, got whatever work
she could, and at twenty married this farmer, older than herself, a
dairy farmer, a Vietnam vet, thinking that if they worked hard and
raised kids and made the farm work she could have a stable, ordinary
life, even if the guy was on the dumb side. Especially if he was on
the dumb side. She thought she might be better off being the one with
the brains. She thought that was her advantage. She was wrong. All
they had together was trouble. The farm failed. 'Jerk-off,' she tells
me, 'bought one tractor too many.' And regularly beat her up. Beat
her black and blue. You know what she presents as the high point of
the marriage? The event she calls 'the great warm shit fight.' One
evening they are in the barn after the milking arguing about
something, and a cow next to her takes a big shit, and Faunia picks
up a handful and flings it in Lester's face. He flings a handful
back, and that's how it started. She said to me, 'The warm shit fight
may have been the best time we had together.' At the end, they were
covered with cow shit and roaring with laughter, and, after washing
off with the hose in the barn, they went up to the house to fuck. But
that was carrying a good thing too far. That wasn't one-hundredth of
the fun of the fight. Fucking Lester wasn't ever fun-according to
Faunia, he didn't know how to do it. 'Too dumb even to fuck right.'
When she tells me that I am the perfect man, I tell her that I see
how that might seem so to her, coming to me after him."
"And fighting the Lesters of life with warm shit since she's
fourteen has made her what at thirty-four," I asked, "aside from
savagely wise? Tough? Shrewd? Enraged? Crazy?"
"The fighting life has made her tough, certainly sexually
tough, but it hasn't made her crazy. At least I don't think so yet.
Enraged? If it's there-and why wouldn't it be?-it's a furtive rage.
Rage without the rage. And, for someone who seems to have lived
entirely without luck, there's no lament in her-none she shows to me,
anyway. But as for shrewd, no. She says things sometimes that sound
shrewd. She says, 'Maybe you ought to think of me as a companion of
equal age who happens to look younger. I think that's where I'm at.'
When I asked, 'What do you want from me?' she said, 'Some
companionship. Maybe some knowledge. Sex. Pleasure. Don't worry.
That's it.' When I told her once she was wise beyond her years, she
told me, 'I'm dumb beyond my years.' She was sure smarter than
Lester, but shrewd? No. Something in Faunia is permanently fourteen
and as far as you can get from shrewd. She had an affair with her
boss, the guy who hired her. Smoky Hollenbeck. I hired him-guy who
runs the college's physical plant. Smoky used to be a football star
here. Back in the seventies I knew him as a student. Now he's a civil
engineer. He hires Faunia for the custodial staff, and even while
he's hiring her, she understands what's on his mind. The guy is
attracted to her. He's locked into an unexciting marriage, but he's
not angry with her about it-he's not looking at her disdainfully,
thinking, Why haven't you settled down, why are you still tramping
and whoring around? No bourgeois superiority from Smoky. Smoky is
doing all the right things and doing them beautifully-a wife, kids,
five kids, married as a man can be, a sports hero still around the
college, popular and admired in town-but he has a gift: he can also
step outside of that. You wouldn't believe it to talk to him. Mr.
Athena Square squared, performing in every single way he is supposed
to perform. Appears to have bought into the story of himself one
hundred percent. You would expect him to think, This stupid bitch
with her fucked-up life? Get her the fuck out of my office. But he
doesn't. Unlike everyone else in Athena, he is not so caught up in
the legend of Smoky that he is incapable of thinking, Yeah, this is a
real cunt I'd like to fuck. Or incapable of acting. He fucks her,
Nathan. Gets Faunia in bed with him and another of the women from the
custodial staff. Fucks 'em together. Goes on for six months. Then a
real estate woman, newly divorced, fresh on the local scene, she
joins the act. Smoky's circus. Smoky's secret three-ring circus. But
then, after six months, he drops her-takes Faunia out of the rotation
and drops her. I knew nothing about any of this till she told me. And
she only told me because one night in bed, her eyes roll back into
her head and she calls me by his name. Whispers to me, 'Smoky.' On
top of old Smoky. Her being with him in that ménage gave me a better
idea of the dame I was dealing with. Upped the ante. Gave me a jolt,
actually-this is no amateur. When I ask her how Smoky manages to
attract his hordes, she tells me, 'By the force of his
prick.' 'Explain,' I say, and she tells me, 'You know how when a real
cunt walks into a room, a man knows it? Well, the same thing happens
the other way round. With certain people, no matter what the
disguise, you understand what they're there to do.' In bed is the
only place where Faunia is in any way shrewd, Nathan. A spontaneous
physical shrewdness plays the leading role in bed-second lead played
by transgressive audacity. In bed nothing escapes Faunia's attention.
Her flesh has eyes. Her flesh sees everything. In bed she is a
powerful, coherent, unified being whose pleasure is in overstepping
the boundaries. In bed she is a deep phenomenon. Maybe that's a gift
of the molestation. When we go downstairs to the kitchen, when I
scramble some eggs and we sit there eating together, she's a kid.
Maybe that's a gift of the molestation too. I am in the company of a
blank-eyed, distracted, incoherent kid. This happens nowhere else.
But whenever we eat, there it is: me and my kid. Seems to be all the
daughter that's left in her. She can't sit up straight in her chair,
she can't string two sentences together having anything to do with
each other. All the seeming nonchalance about sex and tragedy, all of
that disappears, and I'm sitting there wanting to say to her, 'Pull
yourself up to the table, get the sleeve of my bathrobe out of your
plate, try to listen to what I'm saying, and look at me, damn it,
when you speak.'"
"Do you say it?"
"Doesn't seem advisable. No, I don't-not as long as I prefer
to preserve the intensity of what is there. I think of that canister
under her bed, where she keeps the ashes she doesn't know what to do
with, and I want to say, 'It's two years. It's time to bury them. If
you can't put them in the ground, then go down to the river and shake
out the ashes from the bridge. Let them float off. Let them go. I'll
go do it with you. We'll do it together.' But I am not the father to
this daughter-that's not the role I play here. I'm not her professor.
I'm not anyone's professor. From teaching people, correcting people,
advising and examining and enlightening people, I am retired. I am a
seventy-one-year-old man with a thirty-four-year-old mistress; this
disqualifies me, in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, from
enlightening anyone. I'm taking Viagra, Nathan. There's La Belle Dame
sans Merci. I owe all of this turbulence and happiness to Viagra.
Without Viagra none of this would be happening. Without Viagra I
would have a picture of the world appropriate to my age and wholly
different aims. Without Viagra I would have the dignity of an elderly
gentleman free from desire who behaves correctly. I would not be
doing something that makes no sense. I would not be doing something
unseemly, rash, ill considered, and potentially disastrous for all
involved. Without Viagra, I could continue, in my declining years, to
develop the broad impersonal perspective of an experienced and
educated honorably discharged man who has long ago given up the
sensual enjoyment of life. I could continue to draw profound
philosophical conclusions and have a steadying moral influence on the
young, instead of having put myself back into the perpetual state of
emergency that is sexual intoxication. Thanks to Viagra I've come to
understand Zeus's amorous transformations. That's what they should
have called Viagra. They should have called it Zeus."
Is he astonished to be telling me all this? I think he may
be. But he's too enlivened by it all to stop. The impulse is the same
one that drove him to dance with me. Yes, I thought, it's no longer
writing Spooks that's the defiant rebound from humiliation; it's
fucking Faunia. But there's more even than that driving him. There's
the wish to let the brute out, let that force out-for half an hour,
for two hours, for whatever, to be freed into the natural thing. He
was married a long time. He had kids. He was the dean at a college.
For forty years he was doing what was necessary to do. He was busy,
and the natural thing that is the brute was moved into a box. And now
that box is opened. Being a dean, being a father, being a husband,
being a scholar, a teacher, reading the books, giving the lectures,
marking the papers, giving the grades, it's over. At seventy-one
you're not the high-spirited, horny brute you were at twenty-six, of
course. But the remnants of the brute, the remnants of the natural
thing-he is in touch now with the remnants. And he's happy as a
result, he's grateful to be in touch with the remnants. He's more
than happy-he's thrilled, and he's bound, deeply bound to her
already, because of the thrill. It's not family that's doing it-
biology has no use for him anymore. It's not family, it's not
responsibility, it's not duty, it's not money, it's not a shared
philosophy or the love of literature, it's not big discussions of
great ideas. No, what binds him to her is the thrill. Tomorrow he
develops cancer, and boom. But today he has this thrill.
Why is he telling me? Because to be able to abandon oneself
to this freely, someone has to know it. He's free to be abandoned, I
thought, because there's nothing at stake. Because there is no
future. Because he's seventy-one and she's thirty-four. He's in it
not for learning, not for planning, but for adventure; he's in it as
she is: for the ride. He's been given a lot of license by those
thirty-seven years. An old man and, one last time, the sexual charge.
What is more moving for anybody?
"Of course I have to ask," Coleman said, "what she's doing
with me. What is really going through her mind? An exciting new
experience for her, to be with a man as old as her grandfather?"
"I suppose there is that type of woman," I said, "for whom it
is an exciting experience. There's every other type, why shouldn't
there be that type? Look, there is obviously a department somewhere,
Coleman, a federal agency that deals with old men, and she comes from
that agency."
"As a young guy," Coleman told me, "I was never involved with
ugly women. But in the navy I had a friend, Farriello, and ugly women
were his specialty. Down at Norfolk, if we went to a dance at a
church, if we went at night to the USO, Farriello made a beeline for
the ugliest girl. When I laughed at him, he told me I didn't know
what I was missing. They're frustrated, he told me. They're not as
beautiful, he told me, as the empresses you choose, so they'll do
whatever you want. Most men are stupid, he said, because they don't
know this. They don't understand that if only you approach the
ugliest woman, she is the one who is the most extraordinary. If you
can open her up, that is. But if you succeed? If you succeed in
opening her up, you don't know what to do first, she is vibrating so.
And all because she's ugly. Because she is never chosen. Because she
is in the corner when all the other girls dance. And that's what it's
like to be an old man. To be like that ugly girl. To be in the corner
at the dance."
"So Faunia's your Farriello."
He smiled. "More or less."
"Well, whatever else may be going on," I told him, "thanks to
Viagra you're no longer suffering the torture of writing that book."
"I think that's so," Coleman said. "I think that's true. That
stupid book. And did I tell you that Faunia can't read? I found this
out when we drove up to Vermont one night for dinner. Couldn't read
the menu. Tossed it aside. She has a way, when she wants to look
properly contemptuous, of lifting just a half of her upper lip,
lifting it a hair, and then speaking what's on her mind. Properly
contemptuous, she says to the waitress, 'Whatever he has, ditto.'"
"She went to school until she was fourteen. How come she
can't read?"
"The ability to read seems to have perished right along with
the childhood when she learned how. I asked her how this could
happen, but all she did was laugh. 'Easy,' she says. The good
liberals down at Athena are trying to encourage her to enter a
literacy program, but Faunia's not having it. 'And don't you try to
teach me. Do anything you want with me, anything,' she told me that
night, 'but don't pull that shit. Bad enough having to hear people
speak. Start teaching me to read, force me into that, push reading on
me, and it'll be you who push me over the edge.' All the way back
from Vermont, I was silent, and so was she. Not until we reached the
house did we utter a word to each other. 'You're not up to fucking
somebody who can't read,' she said. 'You're going to drop me because
I'm not a worthy, legitimate person who reads. You're going to say to
me, 'Learn to read or go.' 'No,' I told her, 'I'm going to fuck you
all the harder because you can't read.' 'Good,' she said, 'we
understand each other. I don't do it like those literate girls and I
don't want to be done to like them.' 'I'm going to fuck you,' I
said, 'for just what you are.' 'That's the ticket,' she says. We were
both laughing by then. Faunia's got the laugh of a barmaid who keeps
a baseball bat at her feet in case of trouble, and so she was
laughing that laugh of hers, that scrappy, I've-seen-it-all laugh-you
know, the coarse, easy laugh of the woman with a past-and by then
she's unzipping my fly. But she was right on the money about my
having decided to give her up. All the way back from Vermont I was
thinking exactly what she said I was thinking. But I'm not going to
do that. I'm not going to impose my wonderful virtue on her. Or on
myself. That's over. I know these things don't come without a cost. I
know that there's no insurance you can buy on this. I know how the
thing that's restoring you can wind up killing you. I know that every
mistake that a man can make usually has a sexual accelerator. But
right now I happen not to care. I wake up in the morning, there's a
towel on the floor, there's baby oil on the bedside table. How did
all that get there? Then I remember. Got there because I'm alive
again. Because I'm back in the tornado. Because this is what it is
with a capital isness. I'm not going to give her up, Nathan. I've
started to call her Voluptas."

As a result of surgery I had several years ago to remove my prostate-
cancer surgery that, though successful, was not without the adverse
aftereffects almost unavoidable in such operations because of nerve
damage and internal scarring-I've been left incontinent, and so, the
first thing I did when I got home from Coleman's was to dispose of
the absorbent cotton pad that I wear night and day, slipped inside
the crotch of my underwear the way a hot dog lies in a roll. Because
of the heat that evening, and because I wasn't going out to a public
place or a social gathering, I'd tried to get by with ordinary cotton
briefs pulled on over the pad instead of the plastic ones, and the
result was that the urine had seeped through to my khaki trousers. I
discovered when I got home that the trousers were discolored at the
front and that I smelled a little-the pads are treated, but there
was, on this occasion, an odor. I'd been so engaged by Coleman and
his story that I'd failed to monitor myself. All the while I was
there, drinking a beer, dancing with him, attending to the clarity-
the predictable rationality and descriptive clarity-with which he
worked to make less unsettling to himself this turn that life had
taken, I hadn't gone off to check myself, as ordinarily I do during
my waking hours, and so, what from time to time now happens to me
happened that night.
No, a mishap like this one doesn't throw me as much as it
used to when, in the months after the surgery, I was first
experimenting with the ways of handling the problem-and when, of
course, I was habituated to being a free and easy, dry and odorless
adult possessing an adult's mastery of the body's elementary
functions, someone who for some sixty years had gone about his
everyday business unworried about the status of his underclothes. Yet
I do suffer at least a pang of distress when I have to deal with
something messier than the ordinary inconvenience that is now a part
of my life, and I still despair to think that the contingency that
virtually defines the infant state will never be alleviated.
I was also left impotent by the surgery. The drug therapy
that was practically brand-new in the summer of 1998 and that had
already, in its short time on the market, proved to be something like
a miraculous elixir, restoring functional potency to many otherwise
healthy, elderly men like Coleman, was of no use to me because of the
extensive nerve damage done by the operation. For conditions like
mine Viagra could do nothing, though even had it proved helpful, I
don't believe I would have taken it.
I want to make clear that it wasn't impotence that led me
into a reclusive existence. To the contrary. I'd already been living
and writing for some eighteen months in my two-room cabin up here in
the Berkshires when, following a routine physical exam, I received a
preliminary diagnosis of prostate cancer and, a month later, after
the follow-up tests, went to Boston for the prostatectomy. My point
is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to
the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that
matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but
because I couldn't meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no
longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the
irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience-or the toughness, or the
shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the
erotic professionalism-to deal with its array of misleading and
contradictory meanings. As a result, I was able to lessen a little my
postoperative shock at the prospect of permanent impotence by
remembering that all the surgery had done was to make me hold to a
renunciation to which I had already voluntarily submitted. The
operation did no more than to enforce with finality a decision I'd
come to on my own, under the pressure of a lifelong experience of
entanglements but in a time of full, vigorous, and restless potency,
when the venturesome masculine mania to repeat the act-repeat it and
repeat it and repeat it-remained undeterred by physiological problems.
It wasn't until Coleman told me about himself and his
Voluptas that all the comforting delusions about the serenity
achieved through enlightened resignation vanished, and I completely
lost my equilibrium. Well into the morning I lay awake, powerless as
a lunatic to control my thinking, hypnotized by the other couple and
comparing them to my own washed-out state. I lay awake not even
trying to prevent myself from mentally reconstructing
the "transgressive audacity" Coleman was refusing to relinquish. And
my having danced around like a harmless eunuch with this still vital,
potent participant in the frenzy struck me now as anything but
charming self-satire.
How can one say, "No, this isn't a part of life," since it
always is? The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-
idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the
matter we are.

In the middle of the next week, Coleman got the anonymous letter, one
sentence long, subject, predicate, and pointed modifiers boldly
inscribed in a large hand across a single sheet of white typing
paper, the twelve-word message, intended as an indictment, filling
the sheet from top to bottom:
Everyone knows you're
sexually exploiting an
abused, illiterate
woman half your
age.
The writing on both the envelope and the letter was in red
ballpoint ink. Despite the envelope's New York City postmark, Coleman
recognized the handwriting immediately as that of the young French
woman who'd been his department chair when he'd returned to teaching
after stepping down from the deanship and who, later, had been among
those most eager to have him exposed as a racist and reprimanded for
the insult he had leveled at his absent black students.
In his Spooks files, on several of the documents generated by
his case, he found samples of handwriting that confirmed his
identification of Professor Delphine Roux, of Languages and
Literature, as the anonymous letter writer. Aside from her having
printed rather than written in script the first couple of words, she
hadn't made any effort that Coleman could see to put him off the
trail by falsifying her hand. She might have begun with that
intention but appeared to have abandoned it or forgotten about it
after getting no further than "Everyone knows." On the envelope, the
French-born professor hadn't even bothered to eschew the telltale
European sevens in Coleman's street address and zip code. This
laxness, an odd disregard-in an anonymous letter-for concealing the
signs of one's identity, might have been explained by some extreme
emotional state she was in that hadn't allowed her to think through
what she was doing before firing off the letter, except that it
hadn't been posted locally-and hastily-but appeared from the postmark
to have been transported some hundred and forty miles south before
being mailed. Maybe she had figured that there was nothing
distinctive or eccentric enough in her handwriting for him to be able
to recognize it from his days as dean; maybe she had failed to
remember the documents pertaining to his case, the notes of her two
interviews with Tracy Cummings that she had passed on to the faculty
investigating committee along with the final report that bore her
signature. Perhaps she didn't realize that, at Coleman's request, the
committee had provided him with a photocopy of her original notes and
all the other data pertinent to the complaint against him. Or maybe
she didn't care if he did determine who out there had uncovered his
secret: maybe she wanted both to taunt him with the menacing
aggressiveness of an anonymous indictment and, at the same time, to
all but disclose that the indictment had been brought by someone now
far from powerless.
The afternoon Coleman called and asked me to come over to see
the anonymous letter, all the samples of Delphine Roux's handwriting
from the Spooks files were neatly laid out on the kitchen table, both
the originals and copies of the originals that he'd already run off
and on which he'd circled, in red, every stroke of the pen that he
saw as replicating the strokes in the anonymous letter. Marked off
mainly were letters in isolation-a y, an s, an x, here a word-ending
e with a wide loop, here an e looking something like an i when
nestled up against an adjacent d but more like a conventionally
written e when preceding an r-and, though the similarities in writing
between the letter and the Spooks documents were noteworthy, it
wasn't until he showed me where his full name appeared on the
envelope and where it appeared in her interview notes with Tracy
Cummings that it seemed to me indisputable that he had nailed the
culprit who'd set out to nail him.
Everyone knows you're
sexually exploiting an
abused, illiterate
woman half your
age.
While I held the letter in my hand and as carefully as I
could-and as Coleman would have me do-appraised the choice of words
and their linear deployment as if they'd been composed not by
Delphine Roux but by Emily Dickinson, Coleman explained to me that it
was Faunia, out of that savage wisdom of hers, and not he who had
sworn them both to the secrecy that Delphine Roux had somehow
penetrated and was more or less threatening to expose. "I don't want
anybody butting in my life. All I want is a no-pressure bang once a
week, on the sly, with a man who's been through it all and is nicely
cooled out. Otherwise it's nobody's fucking business."
The nobody Faunia turned out mostly to be referring to was
Lester Farley, her ex-husband. Not that she'd been knocked around in
her life by this man alone-"How could I be, being out there on my own
since I was fourteen?" When she was seventeen, for example, and down
in Florida waitressing, the then-boyfriend not only beat her up and
trashed her apartment, he stole her vibrator. "That hurt," Faunia
said. And always, the provocation was jealousy. She'd looked at
another man the wrong way, she'd invited another man to look at her
the wrong way, she hadn't explained convincingly where she'd been for
the previous half hour, she'd spoken the wrong word, used the wrong
intonation, signaled, unsubstantially, she thought, that she was an
untrustworthy two-timing slut-whatever the reason, whoever he might
be would be over her swinging his fists and kicking his boots and
Faunia would be screaming for her life.
Lester Farley had sent her to the hospital twice in the year
before their divorce, and as he was still living somewhere in the
hills and, since the bankruptcy, working for the town road crew, and
as there was no doubting that he was still crazy, she was as
frightened for Coleman, she said, as she was for herself, should he
ever discover what was going on. She suspected that why Smoky had so
precipitously dumped her was because of some sort of run-in or brush
he'd had with Les Farley-because Les, a periodic stalker of his ex-
wife, had somehow found out about her and her boss, even though
Hollenbeck's trysting places were remarkably well hidden, tucked away
in remote corners of old buildings that no one but the boss of the
college physical plant could possibly know existed or have access to.
Reckless as it might seem for Smoky to be recruiting girlfriends from
his own custodial staff and then to be rendezvousing with them right
on campus, he was otherwise as meticulous in the management of his
sporting life as he was in his work for the college. With the same
professional dispatch that could get the campus roads cleared of a
blizzard in a matter of hours, he could, if need be, equally
expeditiously rid himself of one of his girls.
"So what do I do?" Coleman asked me. "I wasn't against
keeping this thing concealed even before I'd heard about the violent
ex-husband. I knew that something like this was coming. Forget that I
was once the dean where she now cleans the toilets. I'm seventy-one
and she's thirty-four. I could count on that alone to do it, I was
sure, and so, when she told me that it was nobody's business, I
figured, She's taken it out of my hands. I don't even have to broach
the subject. Play it like adultery? Fine with me. That's why we went
for dinner up in Vermont. That's why if our paths cross at the post
office, we don't even bother to say hello."
"Maybe somebody saw you in Vermont. Maybe somebody saw you
driving together in your car."
"True-that's probably what happened. That's all that could
have happened. It might have been Farley himself who saw us. Christ,
Nathan, I hadn't been on a date in almost fifty years-I thought the
restaurant . . . I'm an idiot."
"No, it wasn't idiocy. No, no-you just got claustrophobic.
Look," I said, "Delphine Roux-I won't pretend I understand why she
should care so passionately who you are screwing in your retirement,
but since we know that other people don't do well with somebody who
fails at being conventional, let's assume that she is one of these
other people. But you're not. You're free. A free and independent
man. A free and independent old man. You lost plenty quitting that
place, but what about what you've gained? It's no longer your job to
enlighten anyone-you said as much yourself. Nor is this a test of
whether you can or cannot rid yourself of every last social
inhibition. You may now be retired but you're a man who led virtually
the whole of life within the bounds of the communal academic society-
if I read you right, this is a most unusual thing for you. Perhaps
you never wanted Faunia to have happened. You may even believe that
you shouldn't want her to have happened. But the strongest defenses
are riddled with weakness, and so in slips the last thing in the
world you expected. At seventy-one, there is Faunia; in 1998, there
is Viagra; there once again is the all-but-forgotten thing. The
enormous comfort. The crude power. The disorienting intensity. Out of
nowhere, Coleman Silk's last great fling. For all we know, the last
great last-minute fling. So the particulars of Faunia Farley's
biography form an unlikely contrast to your own. So they don't
conform to decency's fantasy blueprint for who should be in bed with
a man of your years and your position-if anyone should be. Did what
resulted from your speaking the word 'spooks' conform to decency's
blueprint? Did Iris's stroke conform to decency's blueprint? Ignore
the inanely stupid letter. Why should you let it deter you?"
"Anonymous inanely stupid letter," he said. "Who has ever
sent me an anonymous letter? Who capable of rational thought sends
anyone an anonymous letter?"
"Maybe it's a French thing," I said. "Isn't there a lot of it
in Balzac? In Stendhal? Aren't there anonymous letters in The Red and
the Black?"
"I don't remember."
"Look, for some reason everything you do must have
ruthlessness as its explanation, and everything Delphine Roux does
must have virtue as its explanation. Isn't mythology full of giants
and monsters and snakes? By defining you as a monster, she defines
herself as a heroine. This is her slaying of the monster. This is her
revenge for your preying on the powerless. She's giving the whole
thing mythological status."
From the smile indulgently offered me, I saw that I wasn't
making much headway by spinning off, even jokingly, a pre-Homeric
interpretation of the anonymous indictment. "You can't find in
mythmaking," he told me, "an explanation for her mental processes.
She hasn't the imaginative resources for mythmaking. Her métier is
the stories that the peasants tell to account for their misery. The
evil eye. The casting of spells. I've cast a spell over Faunia. Her
métier is folktales full of witches and wizards."
We were enjoying ourselves now, and I realized that in my
effort to distract him from his rampaging pique by arguing for the
primacy of his pleasure, I had given a boost to his feeling for me-
and exposed mine for him. I was gushing and I knew it. I surprised
myself with my eagerness to please, felt myself saying too much,
explaining too much, overinvolved and overexcited in the way you are
when you're a kid and you think you've found a soul mate in the new
boy down the street and you feel yourself drawn by the force of the
courtship and so act as you don't normally do and a lot more openly
than you may even want to. But ever since he had banged on my door
the day after Iris's death and proposed that I write Spooks for him,
I had, without figuring or planning on it, fallen into a serious
friendship with Coleman Silk. I wasn't paying attention to his
predicament as merely a mental exercise. His difficulties mattered to
me, and this despite my determination to concern myself, in whatever
time I have left, with nothing but the daily demands of work, to be
engrossed by nothing but solid work, in search of adventure nowhere
else-to have not even a life of my own to care about, let alone
somebody else's.
And I realized all this with some disappointment. Abnegation
of society, abstention from distraction, a self-imposed separation
from every last professional yearning and social delusion and
cultural poison and alluring intimacy, a rigorous reclusion such as
that practiced by religious devouts who immure themselves in caves or
cells or isolated forest huts, is maintained on stuff more obdurate
than I am made of. I had lasted alone just five years-five years of
reading and writing a few miles up Madamaska Mountain in a pleasant
two-room cabin situated between a small pond at the back of my place
and, through the scrub across the dirt road, a ten-acre marsh where
the migrating Canada geese take shelter each evening and a patient
blue heron does its solitary angling all summer long. The secret to
living in the rush of the world with a minimum of pain is to get as
many people as possible to string along with your delusions; the
trick to living alone up here, away from all agitating entanglements,
allurements, and expectations, apart especially from one's own
intensity, is to organize the silence, to think of its mountaintop
plenitude as capital, silence as wealth exponentially increasing. The
encircling silence as your chosen source of advantage and your only
intimate. The trick is to find sustenance in (Hawthorne again) "the
communications of a solitary mind with itself." The secret is to find
sustenance in people like Hawthorne, in the wisdom of the brilliant
deceased.
It took time to face down the difficulties set by this
choice, time and heronlike patience to subdue the longings for
everything that had vanished, but after five years I'd become so
skillful at surgically carving up my days that there was no longer an
hour of the eventless existence I'd embraced that didn't have its
importance to me. Its necessity. Its excitement even. I no longer
indulged the pernicious wish for something else, and the last thing I
thought I could endure again was the sustained company of someone
else. The music I play after dinner is not a relief from the silence
but something like its substantiation: listening to music for an hour
or two every evening doesn't deprive me of the silence-the music is
the silence coming true. I swim for thirty minutes in my pond first
thing every summer morning, and, for the rest of the year, after my
morning of writing-and so long as the snow doesn't make hiking
impossible-I'm out on the mountain trails for a couple of hours
nearly every afternoon. There has been no recurrence of the cancer
that cost me my prostate. Sixty-five, fit, well, working hard-and I
know the score. I have to know it.
So why, then, having turned the experiment of radical
seclusion into a rich, full solitary existence-why, with no warning,
should I be lonely? Lonely for what? What's gone is gone. There's no
relaxing the rigor, no undoing the renunciations. Lonely for
precisely what? Simple: for what I had developed an aversion to. For
what I had turned my back on. For life. The entanglement with life.
This was how Coleman became my friend and how I came out from
under the stalwartness of living alone in my secluded house and
dealing with the cancer blows. Coleman Silk danced me right back into
life. First Athena College, then me-here was a man who made things
happen. Indeed, the dance that sealed our friendship was also what
made his disaster my subject. And made his disguise my subject. And
made the proper presentation of his secret my problem to solve. That
was how I ceased being able to live apart from the turbulence and
intensity that I had fled. I did no more than find a friend, and all
the world's malice came rushing in.

Later that afternoon, Coleman took me to meet Faunia at a small dairy
farm six miles from his house, where she lived rent-free in exchange
for sometimes doing the milking. The dairy operation, a few years old
now, had been initiated by two divorced women, college-educated
environmentalists, who'd each come from a New England farming family
and who had pooled their resources-pooled their young children as
well, six children who, as the owners liked to tell their customers,
weren't dependent on Sesame Street to learn where milk comes from-to
take on the almost impossible task of making a living by selling raw
milk. It was a unique operation, nothing like what was going on at
the big dairy farms, nothing impersonal or factorylike about it, a
place that wouldn't seem like a dairy farm to most people these days.
It was called Organic Livestock, and it produced and bottled the raw
milk that could be found in local general stores and in some of the
region's supermarkets and was available, at the farm, for steady
customers who purchased three or more gallons a week.
There were just eleven cows, purebred Jerseys, and each had
an old-fashioned cow name rather than a numbered ear tag to identify
it. Because their milk was not mixed with the milk of the huge herds
that are injected with all sorts of chemicals, and because,
uncompromised by pasteurization and unshattered by homogenization,
the milk took on the tinge, even faintly the flavor, of whatever they
were eating season by season-feed that had been grown without the use
of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers-and because their
milk was richer in nutrients than blended milk, it was prized by the
people around who tried to keep the family diet to whole rather than
processed foods. The farm has a strong following particularly among
the numerous people tucked away up here, the retired as well as those
raising families, in flight from the pollutants, frustrations, and
debasements of a big city. In the local weekly, a letter to the
editor will regularly appear from someone who has recently found a
better life out along these rural roads, and in reverent tones
mention will be made of Organic Livestock milk, not simply as a tasty
drink but as the embodiment of a freshening, sweetening country
purity that their city-battered idealism requires. Words
like "goodness" and "soul" crop up regularly in these published
letters, as if downing a glass of Organic Livestock milk were no less
a redemptive religious rite than a nutritional blessing. "When we
drink Organic Livestock milk, our body, soul, and spirit are getting
nourished as a whole. Various organs in our body receive this
wholeness and appreciate it in a way we may not perceive." Sentences
like that, sentences with which otherwise sensible adults, liberated
from whatever vexation had driven them from New York or Hartford or
Boston, can spend a pleasant few minutes at the desk pretending that
they are seven years old.
Though Coleman probably used, all told, no more than the half
cup of milk a day he poured over his morning cereal, he'd signed on
with Organic Livestock as a three-gallon-a-week customer. Doing this
allowed him to pick up his milk, fresh from the cow, right at the
farm-to drive his car in from the road and down the long tractor path
to the barn and to walk into the barn and get the milk cold out of
the refrigerator. He'd arranged to do this not so as to be able to
procure the price break extended to three-gallon customers but
because the refrigerator was set just inside the entryway to the barn
and only some fifteen feet from the stall where the cows were led in
to be milked one at a time, twice a day, and where at 5 p.m. (when he
showed up) Faunia, fresh from her duties at the college, would be
doing the milking a few times a week.
All he ever did there was watch her work. Even though there
was rarely anyone else around at that time, Coleman remained outside
the stall looking in and let her get on with the job without having
to bother to talk to him. Often they said nothing, because saying
nothing intensified their pleasure. She knew he was watching her;
knowing she knew, he watched all the harder-and that they weren't
able to couple down in the dirt didn't make a scrap of difference. It
was enough that they should be alone together somewhere other than in
his bed, it was enough to have to maintain the matter-of-factness of
being separated by unsurpassable social obstacles, to play their
roles as farm laborer and retired college professor, to perform
consummately at her being a strong, lean working woman of thirty-
four, a wordless illiterate, an elemental rustic of muscle and bone
who'd just been in the yard with the pitchfork cleaning up from the
morning milking, and at his being a thoughtful senior citizen of
seventy-one, an accomplished classicist, an amplitudinous brain of a
man replete with the vocabularies of two ancient tongues. It was
enough to be able to conduct themselves like two people who had
nothing whatsoever in common, all the while remembering how they
could distill to an orgasmic essence everything about them that was
irreconcilable, the human discrepancies that produced all the power.
It was enough to feel the thrill of leading a double life.
There was, at first glance, little to raise unduly one's
carnal expectations about the gaunt, lanky woman spattered with dirt,
wearing shorts and a T-shirt and rubber boots, whom I saw in with the
herd that afternoon and whom Coleman identified as his Voluptas. The
carnally authoritative-looking creatures were those with the bodies
that took up all the space, the creamy-colored cows with the free-
swinging, girderlike hips and the barrel-wide paunches and the
disproportionately cartoonish milk-swollen udders, the unagitated,
slow-moving, strife-free cows, each a fifteen-hundred-pound industry
of its own gratification, big-eyed beasts for whom chomping at one
extremity from a fodder-filled trough while being sucked dry at the
other by not one or two or three but by four pulsating, untiring
mechanical mouths-for whom sensual stimulus simultaneously at both
ends was their voluptuous due. Each of them deep into a bestial
existence blissfully lacking in spiritual depth: to squirt and to
chew, to crap and to piss, to graze and to sleep-that was their whole
raison d'être. Occasionally (Coleman explained to me) a human arm in
a long plastic glove is thrust into the rectum to haul out the manure
and then, by feeling with the glove through the rectal wall, guides
the other arm in inserting a syringelike breeding gun up the
reproductive tract to deposit semen. They propagate, that means,
without having to endure the disturbance of the bull, coddled even in
breeding and then assisted in delivery-and in what Faunia said could
prove to be an emotional process for everyone involved-even on below-
zero nights when a blizzard is blowing. The best of carnal
everything, including savoring at their leisure mushy, dripping
mouthfuls of their own stringy cud. Few courtesans have lived as
well, let alone workaday women.
Among those pleasured creatures and the aura they exuded of
an opulent, earthy oneness with female abundance, it was Faunia who
labored like the beast of burden for all that she seemed, with the
cows framing her figure, one of evolution's more pathetic flyweights.
Calling them to come out from the open shed where they were
reposefully sprawled in a mix of hay and shit-"Let's go, Daisy, don't
give me a hard time. C'mon now, Maggie, that's a good girl. Move your
ass, Flossie, you old bitch"-grabbing them by the collar and driving
and cajoling them through the sludge of the yard and up one step onto
the concrete floor of the milking parlor, shoving these cumbersome
Daisys and Maggies in toward the trough until they were secure in the
stanchion, measuring out and pouring them each their portion of
vitamins and feed, disinfecting the teats and wiping them clean and
starting the milk flow with a few jerks of the hand, then attaching
to the sterilized teats the suction cups at the end of the milk claw,
she was in motion constantly, fixed unwaveringly on each stage of the
milking but, in exaggerated contrast to their stubborn docility,
moving all the time with a beelike adroitness until the milk was
streaming through the clear milk tube into the shining stainless-
steel pail, and she at last stood quietly by, watching to make
certain that everything was working and that the cow too was standing
quietly. Then she was again in motion, massaging the udder to be sure
the cow was milked out, removing the teat cups, pouring out the feed
portion for the cow she would be milking after undoing the milked cow
from the stanchion, getting the grain for the next cow in front of
the alternate stanchion, and then, within the confines of that
smallish space, grabbing the milked cow by the collar again and
maneuvering her great bulk around, backing her up with a push,
shoving her with a shoulder, bossily telling her, "Get out, get on
out of here, just get-" and leading her back through the mud to the
shed.
Faunia Farley: thin-legged, thin-wristed, thin-armed, with
clearly discernible ribs and shoulder blades that protruded, and yet
when she tensed you saw that her limbs were hard; when she reached or
stretched for something you saw that her breasts were surprisingly
substantial; and when, because of the flies and the gnats buzzing the
herd on this close summer day, she slapped at her neck or her
backside, you saw something of how frisky she could be, despite the
otherwise straight-up style. You saw that her body was something more
than efficiently lean and severe, that she was a firmly made woman
precipitously poised at the moment when she is no longer ripening but
not yet deteriorating, a woman in the prime of her prime, whose
fistful of white hairs is fundamentally beguiling just because the
sharp Yankee contour of her cheeks and her jaw and the long
unmistakably female neck haven't yet been subject to the
transformations of aging.
"This is my neighbor," Coleman said to her when she took a
moment to wipe the sweat from her face with the crook of her elbow
and to look our way. "This is Nathan."
I hadn't expected composure. I was expecting someone openly
angrier. She acknowledged me with no more than a jerk of her chin,
but it was a gesture from which she got a lot of mileage. It was a
chin from which she got a lot of mileage. Keeping it up as she
normally did, it gave her-virility. That was in the response too:
something virile and implacable, as well as a little disreputable, in
that dead-on look. The look of someone for whom both sex and betrayal
are as basic as bread. The look of the runaway and the look that
results from the galling monotony of bad luck. Her hair, the golden
blond hair in the poignant first stage of its unpreventable
permutation, was twisted at the back through an elastic band, but a
lock kept falling toward her eyebrow as she worked, and now, while
silently looking our way, she pushed it back with her hand, and for
the first time I noticed in her face a small feature that, perhaps
wrongly, because I was searching for a sign, had the effect of
something telling: the convex fullness of the narrow arch of flesh
between the ridge of eyebrow and the upper eyelids. She was a thin-
lipped woman with a straight nose and clear blue eyes and good teeth
and a prominent jaw, and that puff of flesh just beneath her eyebrows
was her only exotic marking, the only emblem of allure, something
swollen with desire. It also accounted for a lot that was
unsettlingly obscure about the hard flatness of her gaze.
In all, Faunia was not the enticing siren who takes your
breath away but a clean-cut-looking woman about whom one thinks, As a
child she must have been very beautiful. Which she was: according to
Coleman, a golden, beautiful child with a rich stepfather who
wouldn't leave her alone and a spoiled mother who wouldn't protect
her.
We stood there watching while she milked each of the eleven
cows-Daisy, Maggie, Flossie, Bessy, Dolly, Maiden, Sweetheart,
Stupid, Emma, Friendly, and Jill-stood there while she went through
the same unvarying routine with every one of them, and when that was
finished and she moved into the whitewashed room with the big sinks
and the hoses and the sterilizing units adjacent to the milking
parlor, we watched her through that doorway mixing up the lye
solution and the cleansing agents and, after separating the vacuum
line from the pipeline and the teat cups from the claw and the two
milker pails from their covers-after disassembling the whole of the
milking unit that she'd taken in there with her-setting to work with
a variety of brushes and with sinkful after sinkful of clear water to
scrub every surface of every tube, valve, gasket, plug, plate, liner,
cap, disc, and piston until each was spotlessly clean and sanitized.
Before Coleman took his milk and we got back into his car to leave,
he and I had stood together by the refrigerator for close to an hour
and a half and, aside from the words he uttered to introduce me to
her, nobody human said anything more. All you could hear was the
whirring and the chirping of the barn swallows who nested there as
they whished through the rafters where the barn opened out behind us,
and the pellets dropping into the cement trough when she shook out
the feed pail, and the shuffling clump of the barely lifted hooves on
the milking parlor floor as Faunia, shoving and dragging and steering
the cows, positioned them into the stanchion, and then the suction
noise, the soft deep breathing of the milk pump.
After they were each buried four months later, I would
remember that milking session as though it were a theatrical
performance in which I had played the part of a walk-on, an extra,
which indeed I now am. Night after night, I could not sleep because I
couldn't stop being up there on the stage with the two leading actors
and the chorus of cows, observing this scene, flawlessly performed by
the entire ensemble, of an enamored old man watching at work the
cleaning woman-farmhand who is secretly his paramour: a scene of
pathos and hypnosis and sexual subjugation in which everything the
woman does with those cows, the way she handles them, touches them,
services them, talks to them, his greedy fascination appropriates; a
scene in which a man taken over by a force so long suppressed in him
that it had all but been extinguished revealed, before my eyes, the
resurgence of its stupefying power. It was something, I suppose, like
watching Aschenbach feverishly watching Tadzio-his sexual longing
brought to a boil by the anguishing fact of mortality-except that we
weren't in a luxury hotel on the Venice Lido nor were we characters
in a novel written in German or even, back then, in one written in
English: it was high summer and we were in a barn in the Northeast of
our country, in America in the year of America's presidential
impeachment, and, as yet, we were no more novelistic than the animals
were mythological or stuffed. The light and heat of the day (that
blessing), the unchanging quiet of each cow's life as it paralleled
that of all the others, the enamored old man studying the suppleness
of the efficient, energetic woman, the adulation rising in him, his
looking as though nothing more stirring had ever before happened to
him, and, too, my own willing waiting, my own fascination with their
extensive disparity as human types, with the nonuniformity, the
variability, the teeming irregularity of sexual arrangements-and with
the injunction upon us, human and bovine, the highly differentiated
and the all but undifferentiated, to live, not merely to endure but
to live, to go on taking, giving, feeding, milking, acknowledging
wholeheartedly, as the enigma that it is, the pointless
meaningfulness of living-all was recorded as real by tens of
thousands of minute impressions. The sensory fullness, the
copiousness, the abundant-superabundant-detail of life, which is the
rhapsody. And Coleman and Faunia, who are now dead, deep in the flow
of the unexpected, day by day, minute by minute, themselves details
in that superabundance.
Nothing lasts, and yet nothing passes, either. And nothing
passes just because nothing lasts.

The trouble with Les Farley began later that night, when Coleman
heard something stirring in the bushes outside his house, decided it
wasn't a deer or a raccoon, got up from the kitchen table where he
and Faunia had just finished their spaghetti dinner, and, from the
kitchen door, in the summer evening half-light, caught sight of a man
running across the field back of the house and toward the
woods. "Hey! You! Stop!" Coleman shouted, but the man neither stopped
nor looked back and disappeared quickly into the trees. This wasn't
the first time in recent months that Coleman believed he was being
watched by someone hiding within inches of the house, but previously
it had been later in the evening and too dark for him to know for
sure whether he had been alerted by the movements of a peeping Tom or
of an animal. And previously he had always been alone. This was the
first time Faunia was there, and it was she who, without having to
see the man's silhouette cutting across the field, identified the
trespasser as her ex-husband.
After the divorce, she told Coleman, Farley had spied on her
all the time, but in the months following the death of the two
children, when he was accusing her of having killed them by her
negligence, he was frighteningly unrelenting. Twice he popped up out
of nowhere-once in the parking lot of a supermarket, once when she
was at a gas station-and screamed out of the pickup
window, "Murdering whore! Murdering bitch! You murdered my kids, you
murdering bitch!" There were many mornings when, on her way to the
college, she'd look in the rearview mirror and there would be his
pickup truck and, back of the windshield, his face with the lips
mouthing, "You murdered my kids." Sometimes he'd be on the road
behind her when she was driving home from the college. She was then
still living in the unburned half of the bungalow-garage where the
children had been asphyxiated in the heater fire, and it was out of
fear of him that she'd moved from there to a room in Seeley Falls and
then, after a foiled suicide attempt, into the room at the dairy
farm, where the two owners and their small children were almost
always around and the danger was not so great of her being accosted
by him. Farley's pickup appeared in her rearview mirror less
frequently after the second move, and then, when there was no sign of
him for months, she hoped he might be gone for good. But now, Faunia
was sure of it, he'd somehow found out about Coleman and, enraged
again with everything that had always enraged him about her, he was
back at his crazy spying, hiding outside Coleman's house to see what
she was doing there. What they were doing there.
That night, when Faunia got into her car-the old Chevy that
Coleman preferred her to park, out of sight, inside his barn-Coleman
decided to follow close behind her in his own car for the six miles
until she was safely onto the dirt driveway that led past the cow
barn to the farmhouse. And then all the way back to his own house he
looked to see if anyone was behind him. At home, he walked from the
car shed to the house swinging a tire iron in one hand, swinging it
in all directions, hoping in that way to keep at bay anyone lurking
in the dark.
By the next morning, after eight hours on his bed contending
with his worries, Coleman had decided against lodging a complaint
with the state police. Because Farley's identity couldn't be
positively established, the police would be unable to do anything
about him anyway, and should it leak out that Coleman had contacted
them, his call would have served only to corroborate the gossip
already circulating about the former dean and the Athena janitor. Not
that, after his sleepless night, Coleman could resign himself to
doing nothing about everything: following breakfast, he phoned his
lawyer, Nelson Primus, and that afternoon went down to Athena to
consult with him about the anonymous letter and there, overriding
Primus's suggestion that he forget about it, prevailed on him to
write, as follows, to Delphine Roux at the college: "Dear Ms. Roux: I
represent Coleman Silk. Several days ago, you sent an anonymous
letter to Mr. Silk that is offensive, harassing, and denigrating to
Mr. Silk. The content of your letter reads: 'Everyone knows you're
sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age.' You
have, unfortunately, interjected yourself and become a participant in
something that is not your business. In doing that, you have violated
Mr. Silk's legal rights and are subject to suit."
A few days later Primus received three curt sentences back
from Delphine Roux's lawyer. The middle sentence, flatly denying the
charge that Delphine Roux was the author of the anonymous letter,
Coleman underlined in red. "None of the assertions in your letter are
correct," her lawyer had written to Primus, "and, indeed, they are
defamatory."
Immediately Coleman got from Primus the name of a certified
documents examiner in Boston, a handwriting analyst who did forensic
work for private corporations, U.S. government agencies, and the
state, and the next day, he himself drove the three hours to Boston
to deliver into the hands of the documents examiner his samples of
Delphine Roux's handwriting along with the anonymous letter and its
envelope. He received the findings in the mail the next week. "At
your request," read the report, "I examined and compared copies of
known handwriting of Delphine Roux with a questioned anonymous note
and an envelope addressed to Coleman Silk. You asked for a
determination of the authorship of the handwriting on the questioned
documents. My examination covers handwriting characteristics such as
slant, spacing, letter formation, line quality, pressure pattern,
proportion, letter height relationship, connections and initials and
terminal stroke formation. Based on the documents submitted, it is my
professional opinion that the hand that penned all the known
standards as Delphine Roux is one and the same hand that penned the
questioned anonymous note and envelope. Sincerely, Douglas Gordon,
CDE." When Coleman turned the examiner's report over to Nelson
Primus, with instructions to forward a copy to Delphine Roux's
lawyer, Primus no longer put up an argument, however distressing it
was to him to see Coleman nearly as enraged as he'd been back during
the crisis with the college.
In all, eight days had passed since the evening he'd seen
Farley fleeing into the woods, eight days during which he had
determined it would be best if Faunia stayed away and they
communicated by phone. So as not to invite spying on either of them
from any quarter, he didn't go out to the farm to fetch his raw milk
but stayed at home as much as he could and kept a careful watch
there, especially after dark, to determine if anyone was snooping
around. Faunia, in turn, was told to keep a lookout of her own at the
dairy farm and to check her rearview mirror when she drove
anywhere. "It's as though we're a menace to public safety," she told
him, laughing her laugh. "No, public health," he replied-"we're in
noncompliance with the board of health."
By the end of the eight days, when he had been able at least
to confirm Delphine Roux's identification as the letter writer if not
yet Farley's as the trespasser, Coleman decided to decide that he'd
done everything within his power to defend against all of this
disagreeable and provocative meddling. When Faunia phoned him that
afternoon during her lunch break and asked, "Is the quarantine over?"
he at last felt free of enough of his anxiety-or decided to decide to
be-to give the all-clear sign.
As he expected her to show up around seven that evening, he
swallowed a Viagra tablet at six and, after pouring himself a glass
of wine, walked outside with the phone to settle into a lawn chair
and telephone his daughter. He and Iris had reared four children: two
sons now into their forties, both college professors of science,
married and with children and living on the West Coast, and the
twins, Lisa and Mark, unmarried, in their late thirties, and both
living in New York. All but one of the Silk offspring tried to get up
to the Berkshires to see their father three or four times a year and
stayed in touch every month by phone. The exception was Mark, who'd
been at odds with Coleman all his life and sporadically cut himself
off completely.
Coleman was calling Lisa because he realized that it was more
than a month and maybe even two since he'd spoken to her. Perhaps he
was merely surrendering to a transient feeling of loneliness that
would have passed when Faunia arrived, but whatever his motive, he
could have had no inkling, before the phone call, of what was in
store. Surely the last thing he was looking for was yet more
opposition, least of all from that child whose voice alone-soft,
melodic, girlish still, despite twelve difficult years as a teacher
on the Lower East Side-he could always depend on to soothe him, to
calm him, sometimes to do even more: to infatuate him with this
daughter all over again. He was doing probably what most any aging
parent will do when, for any of a hundred reasons, he or she looks to
a long-distance phone call for a momentary reminder of the old terms
of reference. The unbroken, unequivocal history of tenderness between
Coleman and Lisa made of her the least affrontable person still close
to him.
Some three years earlier-back before the spooks incident-when
Lisa was wondering if she hadn't made an enormous mistake by giving
up classroom teaching to become a Reading Recovery teacher, Coleman
had gone down to New York and stayed several days to see how bad off
she was. Iris was alive then, very much alive, but it wasn't Iris's
enormous energy Lisa had wanted-it wasn't to be put into motion the
way Iris could put you in motion that she wanted-rather, it was the
former dean of faculty with his orderly, determined way of untangling
a mess. Iris was sure to tell her to forge ahead, leaving Lisa
overwhelmed and feeling trapped; with him there was the possibility
that, if Lisa made a compelling case against her own persevering, he
would tell her that, if she wished, she could cut her losses and quit-
which would, in turn, give her the gumption to go on.
He'd not only spent the first night sitting up late in her
living room and listening to her woes, but the next day he'd gone to
the school to see what it was that was burning her out. And he saw,
all right: in the morning, first thing, four back-to-back half-hour
sessions, each with a six- or seven-year-old who was among the lowest-
achieving students in the first and second grades, and after that,
for the rest of the day, forty-five-minute sessions with groups of
eight kids whose reading skills were no better than those of the one-
on-one kids but for whom there wasn't yet enough trained staff in the
intensive program.
"The regular class sizes are too big," Lisa told him, "and so
the teachers can't reach these kids. I was a classroom teacher. The
kids who are struggling-it's three out of thirty. Three or four. It's
not too bad. You have the progress of all the other kids helping you
along. Instead of stopping and giving the hopeless kids what they
need, teachers just sort of shuffle them through, thinking-or
pretending-they are moving with the continuum. They're shuffled to
the second grade, the third grade, the fourth grade, and then they
seriously fail. But here it's only these kids, the ones who can't be
reached and don't get reached, and because I'm very emotional about
my kids and teaching, it affects my whole being-my whole world. And
the school, the leadership-Dad, it's not good. You have a principal
who doesn't have a vision of what she wants, and you have a mishmash
of people doing what they think is best. Which is not necessarily
what is best. When I came here twelve years ago it was great. The
principal was really good. She turned the whole school around. But
now we've gone through twenty-one teachers in four years. Which is a
lot. We've lost a lot of good people. Two years ago I went into
Reading Recovery because I just got burnt out in the classroom. Ten
years of that day in and day out. I couldn't take any more."
He let her talk, said little, and, because she was but a few
years from forty, suppressed easily enough the impulse to take in his
arms this battered-by-reality daughter as he imagined she suppressed
the same impulse with the six-year-old kid who couldn't read. Lisa
had all of Iris's intensity without Iris's authority, and for someone
whose life existed only for others-incurable altruism was Lisa's
curse-she was, as a teacher, perpetually hovering at the edge of
depletion. There was generally a demanding boyfriend as well from
whom she could not withhold kindness, and for whom she turned herself
inside out, and for whom, unfailingly, her uncontaminated ethical
virginity became a great big bore. Lisa was always morally in over
her head, but without either the callousness to disappoint the need
of another or the strength to disillusion herself about her strength.
This was why he knew she would never quit the Reading Recovery
program, and also why such paternal pride as he had in her was not
only weighted with fear but at times tinged with an impatience
bordering on contempt.
"Thirty kids you have to take care of, the different levels
that the kids come in at, the different experiences they've had, and
you've got to make it all work," she was telling him. "Thirty diverse
kids from thirty diverse backgrounds learning thirty diverse ways.
That's a lot of management. That's a lot of paperwork. That's a lot
of everything. But that is still nothing compared to this. Sure, even
with this, even in Reading Recovery, I have days when I think, Today
I was good, but most days I want to jump out the window. I struggle a
lot as to whether this is the right program for me. Because I'm very
intense, in case you didn't know. I want to do it the right way, and
there is no right way-every kid is different and every kid is
hopeless, and I'm supposed to go in there and make it all work. Of
course everybody always struggles with the kids who can't learn. What
do you do with a kid who can't read? Think of it-a kid who can't
read. It's difficult, Daddy. Your ego gets a little caught up in it,
you know."

Lisa, who contains within her so much concern, whose
conscientiousness knows no ambivalence, who wishes to exist only to
assist. Lisa the Undisillusionable, Lisa the Unspeakably Idealistic.
Phone Lisa, he told himself, little imagining that he could ever
elicit from this foolishly saintly child of his the tone of steely
displeasure with which she received his call.
"You don't sound like yourself."
"I'm fine," she told him.
"What's wrong, Lisa?"
"Nothing."
"How's summer school? How's teaching?"
"Fine."
"And Josh?" The latest boyfriend.
"Fine."
"How are your kids? What happened to the little one who
couldn't recognize the letter n? Did he ever get to level ten? The
kid with all the n's in his name-Hernando."
"Everything's fine."
He then asked lightly, "Would you care to know how I am?"
"I know how you are."
"Do you?"
No answer.
"What's eating you, sweetheart?"
"Nothing." A "nothing," the second one, that meant all too
clearly, Don't you sweetheart me.
Something incomprehensible was happening. Who had told her?
What had they told her? As a high school kid and then in college
after the war he had pursued the most demanding curriculum; as dean
at Athena he had thrived on the difficulties of a taxing job; as the
accused in the spooks incident he had never once weakened in fighting
the false accusation against him; even his resignation from the
college had been an act not of capitulation but of outraged protest,
a deliberate manifestation of his unwavering contempt. But in all his
years of holding his own against whatever the task or the setback or
the shock, he had never-not even after Iris's death-felt as stripped
of all defenses as when Lisa, the embodiment of an almost mockable
kindness, gathered up into that one word "nothing" all the harshness
of feeling for which she had never before, in the whole of her life,
found a deserving object.
And then, even as Lisa's "nothing" was exuding its awful
meaning, Coleman saw a pickup truck moving along the blacktop road
down from the house-rolling at a crawl a couple of yards forward,
braking, very slowly rolling again, then braking again . . . Coleman
came to his feet, started uncertainly across the mown grass, craning
his head to get a look, and then, on the run, began to shout, "You!
What are you up to! Hey!" But the pickup quickly increased its speed
and was out of sight before Coleman could get near enough to discern
anything of use to him about either driver or truck. As he didn't
know one make from another and, from where he'd wound up, couldn't
even tell if the truck was new or old, all that he came away with was
its color, an indeterminate gray.
And now the phone was dead. In running across the lawn, he'd
inadvertently touched the off button. That, or Lisa had deliberately
broken the connection. When he redialed, a man answered. "Is this
Josh?" Coleman asked. "Yes," the man said. "This is Coleman Silk.
Lisa's father." After a moment's silence, the man said, "Lisa doesn't
want to talk," and hung up.
Mark's doing. It had to be. Could not be anyone else's.
Couldn't be this fucking Josh's-who was he? Coleman had no more idea
how Mark could have found out about Faunia than how Delphine Roux or
anyone else had, but that didn't matter right now-it was Mark who had
assailed his twin sister with their father's crime. For crime it
would be to that boy. Almost from the time he could speak, Mark
couldn't give up the idea that his father was against him: for the
two older sons because they were older and starred at school and
imbibed without complaint their father's intellectual pretensions;
for Lisa because she was Lisa, the family's little girl, indisputably
the child most indulged by her daddy; against Mark because everything
his twin sister was-adorable, adoring, virtuous, touching, noble to
the core-Mark was not and refused to be.
Mark's was probably the most difficult personality it was
ever Coleman's lot to try, not to understand-the resentments were all
too easy to understand-but to grapple with. The whining and sulking
had begun before he was old enough to go off to kindergarten, and the
protest against his family and their sense of things started soon
after and, despite all attempts at propitiation, solidified over the
years into his core. At the age of fourteen he vociferously supported
Nixon during the impeachment hearings while the rest of them were
rooting for the president to be imprisoned for life; at sixteen he
became an Orthodox Jew while the rest of them, taking their cue from
their anticlerical, atheistic parents, were Jews in little more than
name; at twenty he enraged his father by dropping out of Brandeis
with two semesters to go, and now, almost into his forties, having
taken up and jettisoned a dozen different jobs to which he considered
himself superior, he had discovered that he was a narrative poet.
Because of his unshakable enmity for his father, Mark had
made himself into whatever his family wasn't-more sadly to the point,
into whatever he wasn't. A clever boy, well read, with a quick mind
and a sharp tongue, he nonetheless could never see his way around
Coleman until, at thirty-eight, as a narrative poet on biblical
themes, he had come to nurse his great life-organizing aversion with
all the arrogance of someone who has succeeded at nothing. A devoted
girlfriend, a humorless, high-strung, religiously observant young
woman, earned their keep as a dental technician in Manhattan while
Mark stayed home in their Brooklyn walk-up and wrote the biblically
inspired poems that not even the Jewish magazines would publish,
interminable poems about how David had wronged his son Absalom and
how Isaac had wronged his son Esau and how Judah had wronged his
brother Joseph and about the curse of the prophet Nathan after David
sinned with Bathsheba-poems that, in one grandiosely ill-disguised
way or another, harked back to the idée fixe on which Markie had
staked everything and lost everything.
How could Lisa listen to him? How could Lisa take seriously
any charge brought by Markie when she knew what had been driving him
all his life? But then Lisa's being generous toward her brother,
however misbegotten she found the antagonisms that deformed him, went
back almost to their birth as twins. Because it was her nature to be
benevolent, and because even as a little schoolgirl she had suffered
the troubled conscience of the preferred child, she had always gently
indulged her twin brother's grievances and acted as his comforter in
family disputes. But must her solicitousness toward the less favored
of their twosome extend even to this crazy charge? And what was the
charge? What harmful act had the father committed, what injury had he
inflicted on his children that should put these twins in league with
Delphine Roux and Lester Farley? And the other two, his scientist
sons-were they and their scruples in on this too? When had he last
heard from them?
He remembered now that awful hour at the house after Iris's
funeral, remembered and was stung all over again by the charges that
Mark had brought against his father before the older boys moved in
and physically removed him to his old room for the rest of the
afternoon. In the days that followed, while the kids were all still
around, Coleman was willing to blame Markie's grief and not Mark for
what the boy had dared to say, but that didn't mean that he'd
forgotten or that he ever would. Markie had begun berating him only
minutes after they'd driven back from the cemetery. "The college
didn't do it. The blacks didn't do it. Your enemies didn't do it. You
did it. You killed mother. The way you kill everything! Because you
have to be right! Because you won't apologize, because every time you
are a hundred percent right, now it's Mother who's dead! And it all
could have been settled so easily-all of it settled in twenty-four
hours if you knew how once in your life to apologize. 'I'm sorry that
I said "spooks."' That's all you had to do, great man, just go to
those students and say you were sorry, and Mother would not be dead!"
Out on his lawn, Coleman was seized suddenly with the sort of
indignation he had not felt since the day following Markie's
outburst, when he'd written and submitted his resignation from the
college all in an hour's time. He knew that it was not correct to
have such feelings toward his children. He knew, from the spooks
incident, that indignation on such a scale was a form of madness, and
one to which he could succumb. He knew that indignation like this
could lead to no orderly and reasoned approach to the problem. He
knew as an educator how to educate and as a father how to father and
as a man of over seventy that one must regard nothing, particularly
within a family, even one containing a grudge-laden son like Mark, as
implacably unchangeable. And it wasn't from the spooks incident alone
that he knew about what can corrode and warp a man who believes
himself to have been grievously wronged. He knew from the wrath of
Achilles, the rage of Philoctetes, the fulminations of Medea, the
madness of Ajax, the despair of Electra, and the suffering of
Prometheus the many horrors that can ensue when the highest degree of
indignation is achieved and, in the name of justice, retribution is
exacted and a cycle of retaliation begins.
And it was lucky that he knew all this, because it took no
less than this, no less than the prophylaxis of the whole of Attic
tragedy and Greek epic poetry, to restrain him from phoning on the
spot to remind Markie what a little prick he was and always had been.

The head-on confrontation with Farley came some four hours later. As
I reconstruct it, Coleman, so as to be certain that no one was spying
on the house, was himself in and out the front door and the back door
and the kitchen door some six or seven times in the hours after
Faunia's arrival. It wasn't until somewhere around ten, when the two
of them were standing together inside the kitchen screen door,
holding each other before parting for the night, that he was able to
rise above all the corroding indignation and to allow the really
serious thing in his life-the intoxication with the last fling, what
Mann, writing of Aschenbach, called the "late adventure of the
feelings"-to reassert itself and take charge of him. As she was about
to leave, he at last found himself craving for her as though nothing
else mattered-and none of it did, not his daughter, not his sons, not
Faunia's ex-husband or Delphine Roux. This is not merely life, he
thought, this is the end of life. What was unendurable wasn't all
this ridiculous antipathy he and Faunia had aroused; what was
unendurable was that he was down to the last bucket of days, to the
bottom of the bucket, the time if there ever was a time to quit the
quarrel, to give up the rebuttal, to undo himself from the
conscientiousness with which he had raised the four lively children,
persisted in the combative marriage, influenced the recalcitrant
colleagues, and guided Athena's mediocre students, as best he could,
through a literature some twenty-five hundred years old. It was the
time to yield, to let this simple craving be his guide. Beyond their
accusation. Beyond their indictment. Beyond their judgment. Learn, he
told himself, before you die, to live beyond the jurisdiction of
their enraging, loathsome, stupid blame.

The encounter with Farley. The encounter that night with Farley, the
confrontation with a dairy farmer who had not meant to fail but did,
a road crew employee who gave his all to the town no matter how lowly
and degrading the task assigned him, a loyal American who'd served
his country with not one tour but two, who'd gone back a second time
to finish the goddamn job. Re-upped and went back because when he
comes home the first time everybody says that he isn't the same
person and that they don't recognize him, and he sees that it's true:
they're all afraid of him. He comes home to them from jungle warfare
and not only is he not appreciated but he is feared, so he might as
well go back. He wasn't expecting the hero treatment, but everybody
looking at him like that? So he goes back for the second tour, and
this time he is geared up. Pissed off. Pumped up. A very aggressive
warrior. The first time he wasn't all that gung ho. The first time he
was easygoing Les, who didn't know what it meant to feel hopeless.
The first time he was the boy from the Berkshires who put a lot of
trust in people and had no idea how cheap life could be, didn't know
what medication was, didn't feel inferior to anyone, happy-go-lucky
Les, no threat to society, tons of friends, fast cars, all that
stuff. The first time he'd cut off ears because he was there and it
was being done, but that was it. He wasn't one of those who once they
were in all that lawlessness couldn't wait to get going, the ones who
weren't too well put together or were pretty aggressive to start off
with and only needed the slightest opportunity to go ape-shit. One
guy in his unit, guy they called Big Man, he wasn't there one or two
days when he'd slashed some pregnant woman's belly open. Farley was
himself only beginning to get good at it at the end of his first
tour. But the second time, in this unit where there are a lot of
other guys who'd also come back and who hadn't come back just to kill
time or to make a couple extra bucks, this second time, in with these
guys who are always looking to be put out in front, ape-shit guys who
recognize the horror but know it is the very best moment of their
lives, he is ape-shit too. In a firefight, running from danger,
blasting with guns, you can't not be frightened, but you can go
berserk and get the rush, and so the second time he goes berserk. The
second time he fucking wreaks havoc. Living right out there on the
edge, full throttle, the excitement and the fear, and there's nothing
in civilian life that can match it. Door gunning. They're losing
helicopters and they need door gunners. They ask at some point for
door gunners and he jumps at it, he volunteers. Up there above the
action, and everything looks small from above, and he just guns down
huge. Whatever moves. Death and destruction, that is what door
gunning is all about. With the added attraction that you don't have
to be down in the jungle the whole time. But then he comes home and
it's not better than the first time, it's worse. Not like the guys in
World War II: they had the ship, they got to relax, someone took care
of them, asked them how they were. There's no transition. One day
he's door gunning in Vietnam, seeing choppers explode, in midair
seeing his buddies explode, down so low he smells skin cooking, hears
the cries, sees whole villages going up in flames, and the next day
he's back in the Berkshires. And now he really doesn't belong, and,
besides, he's got fears now about things going over his head. He
doesn't want to be around other people, he can't laugh or joke, he
feels that he is no longer a part of their world, that he has seen
and done things so outside what these people know about that he
cannot connect to them and they cannot connect to him. They told him
he could go home? How could he go home? He doesn't have a helicopter
at home. He stays by himself and he drinks, and when he tries the VA
they tell him he is just there to get the money while he knows he is
there to get the help. Early on, he tried to get government help and
all they gave him was some sleeping pills, so fuck the government.
Treated him like garbage. You're young, they told him, you'll get
over it. So he tries to get over it. Can't deal with the government,
so he'll have to do it on his own. Only it isn't easy after two tours
to come back and get settled all on his own. He's not calm. He's
agitated. He's restless. He's drinking. It doesn't take much to put
him into a rage. There are these things going over his head. Still he
tries: eventually gets the wife, the home, the kids, the farm. He
wants to be alone, but she wants to settle down and farm with him, so
he tries to want to settle down too. Stuff he remembers easygoing Les
wanting ten, fifteen years back, before Vietnam, he tries to want
again. The trouble is, he can't really feel for these folks. He's
sitting in the kitchen and he's eating with them and there's nothing.
No way he can go from that to this. Yet still he tries. A couple
times in the middle of the night he wakes up choking her, but it
isn't his fault-it's the government's fault. The government did that
to him. He thought she was the fucking enemy. What did she think he
was going to do? She knew he was going to come out of it. He never
hurt her and he never hurt the kids. That was all lies. She never
cared about anything except herself. He should have known never to
let her go off with those kids. She waited until he was in rehab-that
was why she wanted to get him into rehab. She said she wanted him to
be better so that they could be together again, and instead she used
the whole thing against him to get the kids away from him. The bitch.
The cunt. She tricked him. He should have known never to let her go
off with those kids. It was partly his own fault because he was so
drunk and they could get him to rehab by force, but it would have
been better if he'd taken them all out when he said he would. Should
have killed her, should have killed the kids, and would have if it
hadn't been for rehab. And she knew it, knew he'd have killed them
like that if she'd ever tried to take them away. He was the father-if
anybody was going to raise his kids it was him. If he couldn't take
care of them, the kids would be better off dead. She'd had no right
to steal his kids. Steals them, then she kills them. The payback for
what he did in Vietnam. They all said that at rehab-payback this and
payback that, but because everyone said it, didn't make it not so. It
was payback, all payback, the death of the kids was payback and the
carpenter she was fucking was payback. He didn't know why he hadn't
killed him. At first he just smelled the smoke. He was in the bushes
down the road watching the two of them in the carpenter's pickup.
They were parked in her driveway. She comes downstairs-the apartment
she's renting is over a garage back of some bungalow-and she gets in
the pickup and there's no light and there's no moon but he knows
what's going on. Then he smelled the smoke. The only way he'd
survived in Vietnam was that any change, a noise, the smell of an
animal, any movement at all in the jungle, and he could detect it
before anyone else-alert in the jungle like he was born there.
Couldn't see the smoke, couldn't see the flames, couldn't see
anything it was so dark, but all of a sudden he could smell the smoke
and these things are flying over his head and he began running. They
see him coming and they think he is going to steal the kids. They
don't know the building is on fire. They think he's gone nuts. But he
can smell the smoke and he knows it's coming from the second story
and he knows the kids are in there. He knows his wife, stupid bitch
cunt, isn't going to do anything because she's in the truck blowing
the carpenter. He runs right by them. He doesn't know where he is
now, forgets where he is, all he knows is that he's got to get in
there and up the stairs, and so he bashes in the side door and he's
running up to where the fire is, and that's when he sees the kids on
the stairs, huddled there at the top of the stairs, and they're
gasping, and that's when he picks them up. They're crumpled together
on the stairs and he picks them up and tears out the door. They're
alive, he's sure. He doesn't think there's a chance that they're not
alive. He just thinks they're scared. Then he looks up and who does
he see outside the door, standing there looking, but the carpenter.
That's when he lost it. Didn't know what he was doing. That's when he
went straight for his throat. Started choking him, and that bitch,
instead of going to the kids, worries about him choking the fucking
boyfriend. Fucking bitch worries about him killing her boyfriend
instead of about her own goddamn kids. And they would have made it.
That's why they died. Because she didn't give two shits about the
kids. She never did. They weren't dead when he picked them up. They
were warm. He knows what dead is. Two tours in Vietnam you're not
going to tell him what dead is. He can smell death when he needs to.
He can taste death. He knows what death is. They-were-not-dead. It
was the boyfriend who was going to be fucking dead, until the police,
in cahoots with the government, came with their guns, and that's when
they put him away. The bitch kills the kids, it's her neglect, and
they put him away. Jesus Christ, let me be right for a minute! The
bitch wasn't paying attention! She never does. Like when he had the
hunch they were headed for an ambush. Couldn't say why but he knew
they were being set up, and nobody believed him, and he was right.
Some new dumb officer comes into the company, won't listen to him,
and that's how people get killed. That's how people get burned to
hell! That's how assholes cause the death of your two best buddies!
They don't listen to him! They don't give him credit! He came back
alive, didn't he? He came back with all his limbs, he came back with
his dick-you know what that took? But she won't listen! Never! She
turned her back on him and she turned her back on his kids. He's just
a crazy Vietnam vet. But he knows things, goddamnit. And she knows
nothing. But do they put away the stupid bitch? They put him away.
They shoot him up with stuff. Again they put him in restraints, and
they won't let him out of the Northampton VA. And all he did was what
they had trained him to do: you see the enemy, you kill the enemy.
They train you for a year, then they try to kill you for a year, and
when you're just doing what they trained you to do, that is when they
fucking put the leather restraints on you and shoot you full of shit.
He did what they were training him to do, and while he was doing
that, his fucking wife is turning her back on his kids. He should
have killed them all when he could. Him especially. The boyfriend. He
should have cut their fucking heads off. He doesn't know why he
didn't. Better not come fucking near him. If he knows where the
fucking boyfriend is, he'll kill him so fast he won't know what hit
him, and they won't know he did it because he knows how to do it so
no one can hear it. Because that's what the government trained him to
do. He is a trained killer thanks to the government of the United
States. He did his job. He did what he was told to do. And this is
how he fucking gets treated? They get him down in the lockup ward,
they put him in the bubble, they send him to the fucking bubble! And
they won't even cut him a check. For all this he gets fucking twenty
percent. Twenty percent. He put his whole family through hell for
twenty percent. And even for that he has to grovel. "So, tell me what
happened," they say, the little social workers, the little
psychologists with their college degrees. "Did you kill anyone when
you were in Vietnam?" Was there anyone he didn't kill when he was in
Vietnam? Wasn't that what he was supposed to do when they sent him to
Vietnam? Fucking kill gooks. They said everything goes? So everything
went. It all relates to the word "kill." Kill gooks! If "Did you kill
anyone?" isn't bad enough, they give him a fucking gook psychiatrist,
this like Chink shit. He serves his country and he can't even get a
doctor who fucking speaks English. All round Northampton they've got
Chinese restaurants, they've got Vietnamese restaurants, Korean
markets-but him? If you're some Vietnamese, you're some Chink, you
make out, you get a restaurant, you get a market, you get a grocery
store, you get a family, you get a good education. But they got fuck-
all for him. Because they want him dead. They wish he never came
back. He is their worst nightmare. He was not supposed to come back.
And now this college professor. Know where he was when the government
sent us in there with one arm tied behind our backs? He was out there
leading the fucking protesters. They pay them, when they go to
college, to teach, to teach the kids, not to fucking protest the
Vietnam War. They didn't give us a fucking chance. They say we lost
the war. We didn't lose the war, the government lost the war. But
when fancy-pants professors felt like it, instead of teaching class
some day they go picketing out there against the war, and that is the
thanks he gets for serving his country. That is the thanks for the
shit he had to put up with day in and day out. He can't get a goddamn
night's sleep. He hasn't had a good night's sleep in fucking twenty-
six years. And for that, for that his wife goes down on some two-bit
kike professor? There weren't too many kikes in Vietnam, not that he
can remember. They were too busy getting their degrees. Jew bastard.
There's something wrong with those Jew bastards. They don't look
right. She goes down on him? Jesus Christ. Vomit, man. What was it
all for? She doesn't know what it's like. Never had a hard day in her
life. He never hurt her and he never hurt the kids. "Oh, my
stepfather was mean to me." Stepfather used to finger her. Should
have fucked her, that would have straightened her out a little. The
kids would be alive today. His fucking kids would be alive today!
He'd be like all the rest of those guys out there, with their
families and their nice cars. Instead of locked up in a fucking VA
facility. That was the thanks he got: Thorazine. His thanks was the
Thorazine shuffle. Just because he thought he was back in the Nam.

This was the Lester Farley who came roaring out of the bushes. This
was the man who came upon Coleman and Faunia as they stood just
inside the kitchen doorway, who came roaring at them out of the
darkness of the bushes at the side of the house. And all of that was
just a little of what was inside his head, night after night, all
through the spring and now into early summer, hiding for hours on
end, cramped, still, living through so much emotion, and waiting
there in hiding to see her doing it. Doing what she was doing when
her own two kids were suffocating to death in the smoke. This time it
wasn't even with a guy her age. Not even Farley's age. This time it
wasn't with her boss, the great All-American Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck
could give her something in return at least. You could almost respect
her for Hollenbeck. But now the woman was so far gone she would do it
for nothing with anybody. Now it was with a gray-haired skin-and-
bones old man, with a high-and-mighty Jew professor, his yellow Jew
face contorted with pleasure and his trembling old hands gripping her
head. Who else has a wife sucks off an old Jew? Who else! This time
the wanton, murdering, moaning bitch was pumping into her whoring
mouth the watery come of a disgusting old Jew, and Rawley and Les
Junior were still dead.
Payback. There was no end to it.

It felt like flying, it felt like Nam, it felt like the moment in
which you go wild. Crazier, suddenly, because she is sucking off that
Jew than because she killed the kids, Farley is flying upward,
screaming, and the Jew professor is screaming back, the Jew professor
is raising a tire iron, and it is only because Farley is unarmed-
because that night he'd come there right from fire department drill
and without a single one of the guns from his basement full of guns-
that he doesn't blow them away. How it happened that he didn't reach
for the tire iron and take it from him and end everything that way,
he would never know. Beautiful what he could have achieved with that
tire iron. "Put it down! I'll open your fuckin' head with it! Fuckin'
put it down!" And the Jew put it down. Luckily for the Jew, he put it
down.
After he made it home that night (never know how he did that
either) and right through to the early hours of the morning-when it
took five men from the fire department, five buddies of his, to hold
him down and get him into restraints and drive him over to
Northampton-Lester saw it all, everything, all at once, right there
in his own house enduring the heat, enduring the rain, the mud, giant
ants, killer bees on his own linoleum floor just beside the kitchen
table, being sick with diarrhea, headaches, sick from no food and no
water, short of ammo, certain this is his last night, waiting for it
to happen, Foster stepping on the booby trap, Quillen drowning,
himself almost drowning, freaking out, throwing grenades in every
direction and shouting "I don't want to die," the warplanes all mixed
up and shooting at them, Drago losing a leg, an arm, his nose,
Conrity's burned body sticking to his hands, unable to get a chopper
to land, the chopper saying they cannot land because we are under
attack and him so fucking angry knowing that he is going to die that
he is trying to shoot it down, shoot down our own chopper-the most
inhuman night he ever witnessed and it is right there now in his own
scumbag house, and the longest night too, his longest night on earth
and petrified with every move he makes, guys hollering and shitting
and crying, himself unprepared to hear so much crying, guys hit in
the face and dying, taking their last breath and dying, Conrity's
body all over his hands, Drago bleeding all over the place, Lester
trying to shake somebody dead awake and hollering, screaming without
stopping, "I don't want to die." No time out from death. No break
time from death. No running from death. No letup from death. Battling
death right through till morning and everything intense. The fear
intense, the anger intense, no helicopter willing to land and the
terrible smell of Drago's blood there in his own fucking house. He
did not know how bad it could smell. EVERYTHING SO INTENSE AND
EVERYBODY FAR FROM HOME AND ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY RAGE!
Nearly all the way to Northampton-till they couldn't stand it
anymore and gagged him-Farley is digging in late at night and waking
up in the morning to find that he's slept in someone's grave with the
maggots. "Please!" he cried. "No more of this! No more!" And so they
had no choice but to shut him up.
At the VA hospital, a place to which he could be brought only
by force and from which he'd been running for years-fleeing his whole
life from the hospital of a government he could not deal with-they
put him on the lockup ward, tied him to the bed, rehydrated him,
stabilized him, detoxified him, got him off the alcohol, treated him
for liver damage, and then, during the six weeks that followed, every
morning in his group therapy session he recounted how Rawley and Les
Junior had died. He told them all what happened, told them every day
what had failed to happen when he saw the suffocated faces of his two
little kids and knew for sure that they were dead.
"Numb," he said. "Fuckin' numb. No emotions. Numb to the
death of my own kids. My son's eyes are rolled in back of his head
and he has no pulse. He has no heartbeat. My son isn't fucking
breathing. My son. Little Les. The only son I will ever have. But I
did not feel anything. I was acting as if he was a stranger. Same
with Rawley. She was a stranger. My little girl. That fucking
Vietnam, you caused this! After all these years the war is over, and
you caused this! All my feelings are all fucked up. I feel like I've
been hit on the side of the head with a two-by-four when nothing is
happening. Then something is happening, something fucking huge, I
don't feel a fucking thing. Numbed out. My kids are dead, but my body
is numb and my mind is blank. Vietnam. That's why! I never did cry
for my kids. He was five and she was eight. I said to myself, 'Why
can't I feel?' I said, 'Why didn't I save them? Why couldn't I save
them?' Payback. Payback! I kept thinking about Vietnam. About all the
times I think I died. That's how I began to know that I can't die.
Because I died already. Because I died already in Vietnam. Because I
am a man who fucking died."
The group consisted of Vietnam vets like Farley except for
two from the Gulf War, crybabies who got a little sand in their eyes
in a four-day ground war. A hundred-hour war. A bunch of waiting in
the desert. The Vietnam vets were men who, in their postwar lives,
had themselves been through the worst-divorce, booze, drugs, crime,
the police, jail, the devastating lowness of depression,
uncontrollable crying, wanting to scream, wanting to smash something,
the hands trembling and the body twitching and the tightness in the
face and the sweats from head to toe from reliving the metal flying
and the brilliant explosions and the severed limbs, from reliving the
killing of the prisoners and the families and the old ladies and the
kids-and so, though they nodded their heads about Rawley and Little
Les and understood how he couldn't feel for them when he saw them
with their eyes rolled back because he himself was dead, they
nonetheless agreed, these really ill guys (in that rare moment when
any of them could manage to talk about anybody other than themselves
wandering around the streets ready to snap and yelling "Why?" at the
sky, about anybody else not getting the respect they should receive,
about anybody else not being happy until they were dead and buried
and forgotten), that Farley had better put it behind him and get on
with his life.
Get on with his life. He knows it's shit, but it's all he
has. Get on with it. Okay.
He was let out of the hospital late in August determined to
do that. And with the help of a support group that he joined, and one
guy in particular who walked with a cane and whose name was Jimmy
Borrero, he succeeded at least halfway; it was tough, but with
Jimmy's help he was doing it more or less, was on the wagon for
nearly three whole months, right up until November. But then-and not
because of something somebody said to him or because of something he
saw on TV or because of the approach of another familyless
Thanksgiving, but because there was no alternative for Farley, no way
to prevent the past from building back up, building up and calling
him to action and demanding from him an enormous response-instead of
it all being behind him, it was in front of him.
Once again, it was his life.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Philip Roth. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Passing (Identity) Fiction, African American men Fiction, College teachers Fiction, Newark (N, J, ) Fiction, Jewish men Fiction