“Thank you for the honor. I am very—honored.”
You have been instructed to remove the clumsy black mortarboard at this point in the commencement ceremony. Now you incline your head so that a red ribbon bearing a brass medallion inscribed with the Latin phrase vincit omnia veritas can be looped around your neck. Then a royal-blue velvet doctoral hood with white satin trim is also lowered over your head and secured in place around your shoulders with a snap.
A rotund little man identified as the president of the college congratulates you, shakes your hand vigorously. You are left alone at the podium, smiling foolishly.
Applause. Not a thunderous applause but polite, even warm, you choose to think. You adjust the medallion, which falls heavily onto your breastbone. You stare out into the audience of expectant young faces as pale and translucent as sea anemones.
“ . . . an honor, and a pleasure . . . this celebratory occasion . . . ”
You have not died. You have been invited to receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the community college near your old hometown in upstate New York. In exchange, you are obliged to deliver the commencement address to several hundred black-robed graduates seated on bleachers on a playing field sodden from recent showers.
It is a chill pale day of cirrus clouds, a capricious wind borne southward from Lake Ontario. High overhead, with ominous frequency, fighter jets pass in formation. You express gratitude that the planes are on our side, but the joke, if that’s what it is, falls flat, or is muffled by the jets’ roaring; on the commencement stage behind you there is a polite sort of laughter from your hosts, but few among the graduates join in. No doubt they have grown so accustomed to fighter jets in the sky above the college—and their homes—that they no longer hear them. The graduates are a practical lot who have earned degrees in such subjects as education, hotel management, nursing, business administration, engineering, communication arts, forestry, animal husbandry.
You are obliged to speak louder, to be heard over the dull roar of the jets. You confide in the graduates that you have not been invited to the region of your birth to receive a degree, to give a lecture, to read from a new book or even to sign books, since you left thirty-six years ago. And so this commencement ceremony is indeed a significant event in your life. Wittily you say to your audience: “I am very grateful to my hosts for inviting me, after thirty-six years! I hope that in another thirty-six years they will invite me back again.”
But this remark, too, falls flat. Your audience stares at you with baffled smiles. Chagrined, you return to your written speech.
In the bleachers directly before you are the graduates of the college in their somber dark robes and mortarboards; behind them, and flanking them, are rows of guests—families, friends, visitors from the community. All of them gaze at you in silence. You had intended to speak in abstract terms of the value of a college education, but instead you speak of your childhood in the small city of Yewville nine miles away. You speak of the gratitude you feel for your teachers, some of whom are still living in the vicinity, though long retired. You speak of your family, most of whom are deceased. You speak of the beautiful rolling hills of western New York State, the stark glacial formations, the prevailing winds of this harsh landscape south of Lake Ontario. You speak of the public library in Yewville, where you’d spent so many hours as a young person.
You are wiping at your eyes. You feel as if you might burst into tears. The audience has become very quiet. Uncomfortable at witnessing such unfeigned emotion, in such circumstances. Nor are you comfortable out of your role, for you are the most calibrated of persons.
Soon, then, you conclude your speech. Your voice cracks, you feel you must apologize.
There is a moment’s silence—an awkward silence. Then, an outburst of applause.
The response from the graduates is especially warm, enthusiastic. Here and there individuals rise to their feet, applauding. For a dazed moment you think—Do I know them? But it is decades later; these are not your classmates.
Moved by gratitude, you think—Am I home, at last? Is this where I belong?
After the commencement luncheon you are brought in a hired car to the small city of your birth nine miles away.
At the luncheon you’d accepted the congratulations of college officials who claimed that they had never experienced graduates reacting so enthusiastically to any commencement speaker before. Wonderful how you connected with our graduates! Born here, went to school here, evoked the time and the place so we all had tears in our eyes . . .
Yet, as soon as you are alone in the rear of the hired car, headed for Yewville, the familiar landscape of your past drifts by silent as a dream and you find yourself transfixed with longing.
You’d intended to work on the drive. Such spare moments are valuable to you, you dare not waste them. In your lap your notebook lies untouched except for a single sentence that you will discover after you return home from Yewville, without remembering that you’d written it:
So little has changed, her temptation is to believe that she herself has not changed.
Farmland, rolling hills to the horizon. Glacial formations: drumlins, troughlike ridges in the soil, small mountains covered in deciduous trees. The roughened landscape looks as if it has been scraped with a great trowel, mirrored by similarly roughened clouds overhead, now covering most of the sky. There is a heightened wind from Lake Ontario, only just visible, a faint hazy blue in the distance.
Then, a long descent. Ahead is the Yewville River, as narrow and scintillant in the sun as a snake’s scales, and the Yewville Valley, famous for its thousands of acres of orchards: peaches, pears, apples. A two-lane wrought-iron bridge, scarcely changed since you saw it last. A blacktop state highway formerly two lanes, now three. Farmhouses, orchards. Grazing pastures: Holsteins, horses. Names of roads you haven’t recalled in decades that stir your heart like fragments of dreams.
Entering Yewville on the highway you see the old water tower silhouetted above the city. Now it has been defaced with graffiti, savage red initials, cryptic signs, familiar boasts—class of 2018 overwriting class of 2017. Graduating seniors from Yewville High have had a tradition of climbing the tower on the serpentine ladder, ignoring warning signs, boldly spray-painting their names, initials, class years on the metallic side of the tower. Every few years the water tower is power-cleaned of old fading graffiti, and a new generation climbs the serpentine ladder to make their claim.
You don’t want to recall the year you’d graduated from high school. Long ago in the previous century . . .
In the year you’d graduated, one of the (drunken) senior boys who’d climbed the water tower had fallen to his death. Not a friend of yours, though his name is indelibly imprinted in your memory: Jamie Haas.
Useless memories, yet precious. Virtually every name of every classmate of yours from elementary school through graduation is imprinted in your brain. You don’t want to speculate how many of your classmates have vanished, how few probably remain in Yewville, and of these how few will remember you and come to your presentation at the library this afternoon.
There you will be honored for the second time today, as Yewville’s “most distinguished literary figure.” So far as you know there has never been any other writer from Yewville, literary or otherwise.
Driving along Main Street, you are stirred by memories of shopping in these stores with your mother and your grandmother when you’d been a young girl. Led along the aisles of Yewville’s premier department store, Schulyer Brothers. The feel of a warm, firm adult hand gripping yours.
Disappointed to see that Schulyer Brothers, with its shiny onyx-black facade, has vanished and in its place is an office building with a dull stucco facade. What a loss! Vividly you recall the interior of the grand old store: high, hammered-tin ceilings, brass lighting fixtures, floor tiles of a dark, dusty rose marble . . .
Farther along Main Street you see that Sears, Roebuck has vanished as well. Flanagan’s Shoes is gone, replaced by a nail salon. Where Brewer’s restaurant was once, there is Main Street Grill. Where South Main Books was once, a vacated space with for rent/for sale signs in the dusty front window. But the Palace Theater remains, if somewhat shabby, and with a marquee advertising a local fire sale. The Empire Building, a dour twelve-floor office building invariably smelling inside of something sickish-sweet like ether, where you’d endured years of dentist and doctor appointments, remains at the end of the street like a totem of a bygone era.
The Mohigan Street bridge. And beneath the bridge, a pedestrian walkway along the river that is no longer maintained by the city and has been allowed to crumble. Rusted girders, broken concrete in vacant lots. A girl, so small, frightened—what was her name?—in sixth grade, poorly dressed, snarled hair, hounded by boys, screaming for them to let her alone. A girl with tight kinky hair, wet dark eyes, a girl with whom you’d sometimes walked to school, but you have forgotten her name . . .
Olive? Olivia? An unusual name . . . But no, you have forgotten.
So much to forget, in Yewville.
But you are recalling how, by the time you were in high school, less than twelve miles from Niagara Falls, Yewville was discovered to have been contaminated by hazardous waste materials from that stricken city. Downwind from Niagara Falls, Yewville was vulnerable to airborne toxins as well as seepage into the local water supply. Incidents of lead poisoning in very young children, an unnatural number of cancers, including leukemia, in the general population.
Yet you recall happy times. Sunday drives along the cliff above Lake Ontario, picnics on the rough-pebbled beach with your family. Visiting your grandmother after school in her house on Amsterdam Street. Butternut cookies, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. In winter, hot chocolate with melted marshmallows. Life seemed to have unfolded in Yewville without incident, like a Möbius strip that turns with almost imperceptible slowness, the long summers stretching to the very horizon.
Now your life passes with alarming rapidity. Each year is an acceleration. The future: a mirror in which you see no reflection.
Impulsively you ask your driver to take a brief detour, past your old middle school—DeWitt Clinton. (As a child, you’d never even known who DeWitt Clinton was. A New York State politician responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal.) On Amsterdam, a few blocks from where your grandmother lived—where she’d rented the upper half of a gray-shingled wood-frame house to be near the school for the three years you’d attended it. Passing the house in which your grandmother lived decades ago, you feel a sensation of profound loss, yet also elation—for you’d been loved once, cherished.
The old school has been renovated. Beige brick, stucco. Except for a wide expanse of patchy lawn in front, it resembles a small-parts factory. You wait to feel something but can’t even remember which door you’d entered. Who were your closest friends, with whom you walked to school. Abigail?
Lorraine? Not Olive—or was it Olivia . . .
Back on Main Street the driver is again required to detour, routed around a pedestrian mall. Here is an innovation for Yewville—a street without vehicles. Stunted trees, evergreen shrubs in pots, pastel-colored benches, a small (dry) fountain. The mall is only a block long and resembles a stage set composed of cheap materials. Several stores appear to be shuttered, for rent signs in windows. Not many shoppers, not many pedestrians. Are those people homeless? A truculent-looking woman in an oversize coat, knit cap pulled down over a bald scalp, beside a grocery-store cart heaped with her possessions. You feel a twinge of panic—is this woman someone you know, or who knows you? A former classmate, a neighbor?
But no. Most of your relatives are gone. It is a curious thing to realize that you are not relative to anyone any longer.
The driver of the hired car has been surreptitiously turning up the radio volume. Raucous hip-hop music is just audible, breaking your concentration on the drive. You would ask the driver to turn down the radio, or better yet turn it off, but hesitate to offend him, at least until you are on your way back to the airport at Buffalo.
It is the stately old Yewville Public Library to which you have been brought, to give a presentation and book signing. The head librarian, with whom you have been in correspondence, has spoken warmly to you of your many Yewville fans.
But as you climb out of the limousine you are overcome by a sensation of dismay, despair powerful as vertigo. Yes, the Yewville library is virtually unchanged—a dignified sandstone building in the Greek Revival style. For what does Yewville mean to you without your mother, your father, your grandmother? It is true that their spirits seem to dwell here—in the very air, heavy with moisture—yet there is no denying the blunt, crude fact that they are gone. And what does Yewville mean without your closest friends, Abigail, Lorraine, Beth? The boy you’d (secretly) liked, a particular friend of yours in math class, what was his name—Roland Kidd? You’d heard a decade ago that Roland had been stricken with a terrible neurological disease that had paralyzed his legs. You’d heard that he had died . . .
You give instructions to the driver: you will be inside the library approximately one hour. Then you will rejoin him, and he will drive you to the Buffalo airport as planned. Your single suitcase is in the trunk of the car. Your flight departs at 6:46 pm, and you do not intend to miss it.
You do not want to spend a second night in this place!
So many people are gone from your life. And especially here in Yewville, where (contrary to your wishful thinking) time has not ceased but moves at the same accelerating pace as elsewhere. No idea what the lives were of those whom you’d known here. No idea what has become of them, where they have vanished to. The teachers who’d praised you and imagined great things for you as if (wistfully, grandiloquently) speaking of themselves. Bearing you aloft on their wounded, faltering wings. Lighting a roadway for you with the uplifted torches of their hope, now gone. All those lives, those particular persons, their mannerisms, habits of speaking, smiling, all vanished, erased, unreal, and lacking immediacy. What is immediate is the corrugated tin-colored sky, which hurts your eyes, and a V-formation of planes passing high overhead, the grating radio music to which your driver will listen as soon as you leave him. What is immediate is your hand being shaken by a stranger—so often these days, a stranger—and your courteous robot response: “Oh yes. Thank you! I am honored to be here, too . . . ”
But there has been a change in plans, you are informed. In fact, your presentation at the Yewville library has been canceled. Indeed, a yellow band with rude black letters canceled has been taped over a poster announcing your visit, displayed at the front entrance of the library. The “N” obliterates your face in a grainy photograph from years ago.
You are too surprised to be indignant, hurt, or even relieved. You ask why your presentation has been canceled, even as you suppose it would be better not to ask, better not to know.
It seems that the library felt obliged to cancel your event because more people were expected than the library could accommodate safely. The terms “fire code” and “fire marshal” are uttered with an air of finality. You listen in disbelief.
The head librarian who’d written such gracious letters to you is not here to explain. Instead, an assistant librarian has taken her place. With a look of mild vexation the woman informs you that a few people have showed up after all to meet you, so you can sign books for them in a back room—“If you are up to it. We understand you are probably exhausted after your travels.”
You protest—you are not exhausted at all! You have come to Yewville instead of returning home immediately after the commencement because you’d looked forward to the visit, and had been assured that there were readers of your books here who were eager to meet you.
How petulant you sound, like a hurt child! And how nasal your voice in your ears, as if in mimicry of the western New York State accent you have been hearing since your arrival the previous day.
The assistant librarian listens to you politely. She introduces herself as Marian Beattie, as if this were a name that might mean something to you. The woman is middle-aged, stout, somewhat disheveled, with a doughy, oddly familiar face. Her bulky pantsuit is a wry cranberry color, in a fabric as synthetic as vinyl; her feet appear to be swollen, in bandagelike socks worn with open-toed sandals. Behind bifocals her eyes are blurry with moisture and a kind of malicious merriment. She exudes an air of ashy, unlaundered clothes, stained underarms.
How disappointed you are! You realize that you must have been anticipating this visit to Yewville with something like—hope? For it was here, long ago, that the elusive emotion was first kindled in your soul.
Soon short of breath, panting and puffing, and walking with difficulty on her bandaged feet, Marian Beattie leads you into the interior of the library. You see that it has been altered considerably since your girlhood, with an eye to the practical and utilitarian. The ceilings are no longer so magisterially high. The floor is obviously not marble but inexpensive tile meant to resemble marble. The chandeliered lights you recall have been replaced by tubes of ugly fluorescent lights that flicker as if on the verge of extinction.
“We’re particularly proud of our computer reference room,” Marian Beattie tells you.
What had been the reading room, one of the happy places of your life, has been transformed into a hall for computers. Three long tables, six computers at each table—rapidly you calculate eighteen computers for the relatively small Yewville library. At these are a few adults, mostly older men with sad, slack faces, and long-limbed teenagers scrolling through websites. No one glances at you in the doorway.
You recall how in this room, on shelves reaching to the ceiling, were books designated as Classics—tall, illustrated books that did not circulate like most library books but were required to be read in the library, at one of the long polished tables, or in one of the leather chairs in a corner of the room. Naively, as a girl you’d tried to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, even Plato’s Republic. Even Plato’s Great Dialogues. You smile to think of how little you must have grasped of these great works, like a child trying to climb a stone wall by the desperate effort of her small fingers, her weak muscles. Now the shelves of Classics have vanished, presumably into another region of the library.
With a condescending smile Miss Beattie leads you to the small room at the rear of the library where “fans” have gathered—fewer than a dozen people seated on folding chairs that look as if they have been hastily set up. Most of these are older individuals and one is in a wheelchair, formally attired in a tweed jacket, head crooked to one side with an expression of acute interest. Many are carrying books, presumably yours. In the front row is a middle-aged, frizzy-haired woman leaning far forward on her knees, staring at you so intensely that her face is furrowed with fine white lines.
In a bemused nasal voice Miss Beattie introduces you by saying that you need no introduction. There is a smattering of applause.
No podium here, no place to stand except awkwardly at the front of the room. You are far more uneasy here than you’d been at the commencement that morning, on a stage facing hundreds of people.
Hesitantly, you greet your audience. Your modesty is not feigned. You are very, very self-conscious. You cannot not see eyes fastened upon you or, worse yet, drifting downward to your feet, rising to your face, as you stammer that you are “very honored,” “very excited” to be back in your hometown after thirty-six years.
You decide not to explain why you are in the vicinity of Yewville. Calling attention to the fact that you’d received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the community college would seem at once boastful and pathetic, and there would be the bewilderment—what are humane letters?
A poster in the corridor claims that the Yewville Public Library was to have hosted a “conversation with Yewville’s best-selling author”—not “most distinguished literary figure” after all—this afternoon, and so at once several hands are raised in the audience. You are asked where you get your ideas and how old you were when you published your first story. Do you make an outline for a novel beforehand or “just start writing”? You are asked whether you type directly onto a computer or write by hand. You are asked whether you revise. You are asked how you know when you are finished with your revisions. What advice do you have for beginning writers? What advice do you have about getting an agent? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? What is your morning schedule? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? What is your remedy for writer’s block? Do you have children?
A heavyset woman in a sleeveless, tentlike dress who has come late sits in a chair by the door, panting. She lifts an arm from which slack flesh hangs in a tremulous web to inquire what tips you have for poets “just starting out”—and “do you have children?”
When you tell her that you don’t have children she smiles pityingly at you, as the others have done. “Ohhh! That’s too bad. Are you sorry?”
Politely, you explain that it would depend upon the children you might have had, whether you are sorry never to have had them; but since you don’t know who they might have been, it is impossible to answer the question.
A shrewd reply, you think. Yet your little audience looks baffled, dissatisfied.
“None of us knew what our children would be like, before we had them,” the heavyset woman points out sensibly. “But we had them anyway. And now we have grandchildren.”
This meets with murmured approval.
A bushy-bearded man who has been smiling at you declares that he has a bag of books for you to sign—“for next Christmas.” The bag is made of burlap, oil-stained. Covers on the books don’t look familiar. Several books are very old, smelling of mold.
A person with a wizened face asks brightly: “Do you think your life was worth it? All those books!”
Now you realize that everyone in the room is older—old. Most—all?—are former classmates of yours whose names you should know but have forgotten.
Not high school but earlier—middle school, grade school. Their faces are blurred with time. Several faces look as if they have begun to melt, decompose. The very air in the small space is sepia-toned, gluey. Yet eyes are alight, alert.
“Are you proud of yourself, exploiting your past here in Yewville?”
“Are you ashamed of yourself, exploiting your past here in Yewville?”
“Do you consider yourself underrated?”
“Do you consider yourself overrated?”
“You would not do it again, would you?”
“You could not do it again, could you?”
These bold remarks meet with muffled laughter, titters. Marian Beattie laughs heartily.
A woman with a smooth bald face, paisley kerchief tied about her hairless head, belligerently introduces herself as Lizzie Heardon—once a friend of yours? seventh grade? you are remembering, vaguely—proud to have been a kindergarten teacher for her entire life. Never wrote a word—never published a book, but took great joy in her career, and never regretted a moment.
Another woman—is this Abigail? so changed, you don’t want to acknowledge her—speaks of being married, having children, working hard as wife, mother, homemaker, caretaker for the elderly and the infirm in her family and in her husband’s family, working very hard, working damned hard, never wrote a word, never published a book, never had time to read a damned book, worked harder, grew older, grew old, died (in 1999). She has grandchildren, however. She is not (yet) forgotten.
And there is Olive . . . Olivia? One of the shrunken females, hardly more than child-size. She too is hairless, but wears a perky knitted cap. Hesitantly you smile at her. Hesitantly, you ask, “Did you ever forgive me?”
You’d run away and abandoned her by the river. Of course—she was the girl. The howling boys, peals of jeering laughter. Someone had been throwing chunks of concrete. A rusted rod. You did run—panicked, in terror.
But Olive, or Olivia, is saying now, laughing, “Ohhh no, that wasn’t me. You’re remembering wrong. In everything you write, you remember wrong. You were the one the boys chased, and caught—you were the one who cried, and tried to crawl away, and they laughed at you.”
“I—I was not . . . ”
“Of course you were. You were. That’s why you write such lies—to change the way things were, when you couldn’t change them any other way.”
“That is—not true. It is—just—certainly—not true . . . ”
You are speechless, indignant. Your eyes fill with tears. Olive, or Olivia, is rocking in her chair, laughing. She is maddeningly complacent, smug. You. You. You. You.
Fortunately the others are distracted by photographs of grandchildren being passed around. Exclamations of delight, pride. No one thinks to include you.
Vastly amused, Miss Beattie wipes her eyes. Tears of laughter have gathered in the fatty creases of her face. She asks a “favor” of you—to inscribe books for the library “for our special collection.” But she has only five of your numerous books, published long ago in the previous century.
“Is this all you have?” you ask, surprised.
“All? How many novels did Jane Austen write? Only five or six, yes? And she is immortal.” Miss Beattie speaks snidely to you.
To prove her point she brings a card catalogue drawer to show you. “You see? There are only five books under your name. Here are the cards.” You examine the dog-eared cards, which give the correct birthdate for you but also a death date—1979. You protest—this is a mistake. You are not dead.
Miss Beattie laughs. A clerical error, obviously!
You are hurt. You are incensed. You would wrest the drawer from Miss Beattie and cross out the ridiculous death date, but Miss Beattie returns the drawer to the card catalogue. (This antique feature of the old library, long superannuated by the online catalogue, has been moved to the rear of the library.)
With an impish expression Miss Beattie says, “By now you should have begun to recognize me. Are you really pretending you don’t know who I am?”
“I—I do not . . . ”
Miss Beattie regards you at close range with a skeptical smirk. It is plain that this annoying woman does not respect you—considers you deceptive, dishonest. You have no idea why. Your nostrils pinch with her distinctive scent, the intimate smell of her fleshy body, soiled clothing, oily hair. Not an altogether disagreeable scent, and somewhat familiar, like the interior of your laundry hamper.
“Look! Look closely.” Miss Beattie thrusts her face toward yours.
Badly you want to push away from the strong-willed woman, who treats you with such familiarity. She is just slightly shorter than you, at about five feet six inches, but heavier by as many as seventy pounds. She holds you in a kind of hypnosis, gazing ironically into your eyes.
The person you were meant to be, who’d never left Yewville.
The woman is saying, still with an attempt at lightness, levity, though now you sense the bitterness beneath, how she had not left Yewville on a fancy scholarship, as you did: “I didn’t abandon my family who needed me. I got a degree in library science at the state university at Elmira and came right back. That was good enough for me!”
How to respond to this accusation buried inside a boast.
It is true, you’d once thought you might be a librarian and remain in Yewville. Or a teacher. And it is true that you were the recipient of a fancy scholarship that bore you away as if on wide, extended wings—the leathery wings of Milton’s Lucifer, you’ve thought.
“But—I am not you. You are not—you are not me.”
Your rejoinder to Miss Beattie is feeble, nearly inaudible. For you have no idea how to respond to her.
You are happy for Miss Beattie that she is, or seems to be, so satisfied with her life in Yewville, yet you understand that you are being blamed, somehow, for not having stayed. Bitterly she tells you of those many classmates of yours who have passed away prematurely: individuals who died in car crashes and other accidents, of cirrhosis of the liver, of opioid overdoses, emphysema, strokes, heart attacks, cancer—“every kind of cancer”—as well as suicide—“every kind of suicide.”
You are overcome with remorse. Sympathy. Yes, and guilt. But you have no idea what to say.
If you’d failed to leave Yewville, if you’d failed utterly as a writer, and if you were living now in Yewville, how would that have altered the lives of Marian Beattie and the others? You would like to explain this, but Marian Beattie isn’t in a mood to listen to you. Now she is indignant: “But we don’t complain. Not hardly. We are patriotic. We are not treasonous, we don’t question our government. We don’t write fancy books that no one reads. We don’t look down our noses at the ‘common folk.’ ”
You would apologize, but Marian Beattie isn’t interested in an apology from you. Huffily she leads you to a “reception” in your honor: on a card table, a punch bowl filled with gasoline-colored liquid, paper cups, platters of orange cheese and Ritz crackers, scattered bowls of peanuts. “Mingle with your fans, please. Some of them have journeyed a long way.”
Grateful for something useful to do, you occupy yourself with signing books. Most of your audience has departed, but a few diehards remain, grinning at you. Pictures are taken with iPhones. You note that most of these books are years old, paperbacks with torn covers. No one seems to have purchased a hardcover copy of your most recent novel, and so you come to wonder if indeed it has been published yet or even written.
Signing books on the title page with a flourish, even your signature begins to be unrecognizable. Still you are being plied with a few final questions that buzz about your head like gnats. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What do you regret most about your life? Which is your favorite book of your own? Which is your least favorite? Would you do it all over again, if you had the choice, or would you choose another life?
Would you remain in Yewville instead of leaving as you did at the age of eighteen? In which case, where would you be at this very moment?
“Excuse me, please . . . ”
Edging out the others, the gentleman in the wheelchair rolls himself forward to meet you.
It appears that he is misshapen, or disfigured: his spine is twisted, one shoulder higher than the other, neck and head forced forward at an angle. In his lap, on his wasted thighs, is a large duffel bag filled with books as heavy and bulky as rocks.
You see with relief that this man, though severely handicapped, is relatively youthful-looking, with a head of thick gray-white hair, a ruddy complexion, earnest pale eyes. He is clean-shaven, well groomed. His clothes are of high quality, if somewhat worn. Tenderly he confronts you: “Do you remember me? Rollo.”
Of course you remember: Roland Kidd. Your friend from math class. Eighth, ninth grades. A tall soft-bodied boy with an unexpectedly sweet smile, a left eye with a slight cast. Roland, or Rollo, is telling you how he has read virtually everything you’ve written; he has followed your career for decades. In the duffel bag are the small fraction of your books he has brought from his library. “You know, I never married. I almost did—I was engaged more than once—but truth is, I never felt for any girl or woman the way I’ve felt for you. Many times over the years I wanted to write to you, to explain how important you are to me, how avidly I read everything you write. . . . I admit, I am searching for myself in your fiction, and a few times I think I’ve found portraits of myself, not altogether flattering, but—well, it is flattering to be made ‘immortal’ in prose. At least, I’ve discovered enough of myself in your fiction to keep reading, and to keep hoping.”
You are astonished to hear these extravagant words. You would recoil in disbelief except that Rollo Kidd speaks with enormous sincerity in the deep baritone voice of a radio broadcaster. So charismatic is he, the bullying Marian Beattie shrinks away abashed, the smirk fading from her face.
You want to ask Rollo Kidd what he can possibly mean—“searching for myself” in your fiction. You dare not ask Rollo Kidd what he can possibly mean—“never felt for any girl or woman the way I felt for you.”
Rollo is intent upon telling you about his house on Ridgemont Avenue with its walls of books in nearly every room, to the ceiling—“Many of them your books, dear. Both hardcover and paperback. I collect other contemporary American writers as well, but you are the center of my collection. Will you do me the honor of signing just a few books, inscribed to me? And dated? Thank you!”
Remarkably, Rollo has brought seventeen of your books to be signed—all hardcover. You are thrilled, a bit dazzled, as if a blinding light were shining in your face, out of a pit of darkness.
Signing books in the midst of chaos has been a kind of solace for you, like scrubbing a floor on your knees—in a way a pointless activity, except that the activity is the point. And now, signing Rollo Kidd’s books, so meticulously encased in plastic covers, you feel relief mounting to actual pleasure.
As you sign his books Rollo waits close by in his wheelchair. He speaks of his “fidelity”—his “longtime commitment”—to you; the only one of his classmates whom he’d respected, and one of the very few to leave Yewville. He confesses that, several times he did write to you in care of your publisher, but he never had a reply, which he attributed to your publisher not forwarding his letters.
Can this be true? You receive very few letters from readers, fewer in recent years than in the past, but had never given them much thought. From time to time people have complained to you that their letters to you hadn’t been forwarded. Possibly, Rollo Kidd’s letters had disappeared into that abyss. You feel a pang of regret, for (possibly) you would have answered Rollo’s letters. Even before the days of email, you sometimes replied to letters from strangers, in handwritten outbursts of sincerity.
Rollo thanks you profusely for signing his books. His eyes brim with tears; he is deeply moved. (Yes, Rollo’s left eye is indeed slightly out of focus. But both Rollo’s eyes are thick-lashed, rather beautiful. You have to wonder if you’d dared to notice years ago, when you were a girl.)
“Now I am hoping, my dear, that you might visit my house? Where I have a complete collection of your work? Not just hardcover books but paperbacks and other reprints, and many—many hundreds—of magazines and literary journals and anthologies in which your fiction has appeared. I would doubt that you own a complete set yourself. I think, my dear, you might see yourself in my collection, in my house, as you’ve never quite seen yourself.”
My dear. These words, too, are caressing, hypnotic. No one has called you “my dear” in a very long time.
“It’s only a short walk back to my house. Ten, fifteen minutes. I would be so honored! The culmination of my life, actually—to see you standing before shelves of your books—in my house. . . . Of course, you are welcome to spend the night here, instead of in the fancy hotel your hosts at the college have surely arranged. My house is at the farthest end of Ridgemont, overlooking the ravine and the river. Do you remember those old cobblestone houses we all admired when we were children? Like fairy-tale houses, with turrets, towers, slate roofs, wrought-iron fences? Built in the early years of the twentieth century? You remember.”
You do remember. Vaguely at first, then more vividly. Ridgemont was one of the few prestigious streets in Yewville, adjacent to Ridgemont Park. In the loneliness of your life in exile from Yewville you have often performed an eidetic exercise: making your way, on foot, along Ridgemont, seeing in your mind’s eye each of the distinctive old houses. Now you realize that the houses were small mansions built in imitation of English architectural styles—predominantly English Tudor. But there were other styles as well, one of them the large foursquare cobblestone house set back amid a lawn of tall elms—probably this is the house Rollo Kidd lives in. You wonder how on earth he came to acquire it. For, if you recall correctly, the Kidd family was no more affluent than your family.
“I have to admit, I purchased the house because of its numerous bookshelves—because I hoped to accommodate you. I became a local businessman—dabbled in real estate—expressly to make a little money and buy a house on Ridgemont Avenue. For I hoped, one day, if you ever returned to Yewville, you would come to visit me in that house. You would see what a shrine I have made for you, utterly without any expectation that you would ever come to me in this lifetime.”
In this lifetime. Rollo speaks with such extravagance, you can’t possibly believe him. Yet there is such genuine feeling in the man, such youthful energy, in contrast to his physical condition. . . . (Does Rollo have Parkinson’s disease? He makes no effort to hide the tremor in his left hand.)
You thank Rollo for his invitation but explain that you must return to your car, which has been hired to take you to the Buffalo airport. Yes, you did stay in a hotel the previous night, but you are leaving now, for your home in another state.
“You have a ‘home’ elsewhere, to which you intend to return? Really?” Rollo laughs, baring glistening teeth.
You find yourself laughing with him. It does seem absurd that you have a home not here in Yewville.
Uncanny, how familiar this dignified older man seems to you. The more you stare at him from this close perspective, the more he resembles the boy you’d known when you and he were twelve, thirteen years old. As if you’d grown older together, not hundreds—or is it thousands?—of miles apart.
Indeed, Rollo is more attractive now, in some respects, than he’d been as a pudgy adolescent. He has dressed himself in a dapper tweed sport coat and a cream-colored shirt, open at the throat. On his thin legs, trousers with a sharp crease. And on his feet limp as wooden blocks, black silk socks and polished black leather shoes.
So sorry. You explain to Rollo Kidd that you can’t visit his house. With genuine regret, you just can’t. Maybe another time . . .
Graciously you say farewell to the several admirers who remain at the card table sipping punch from paper cups. One of them, who’d claimed to be your old friend Lizzie Heardon, glares at you with an expression of intense dislike. You are feeling magnanimous, however. Rollo Kidd’s presence has suffused you with strength, even a sort of childish pride, and so you don’t turn away from Marian Beattie as you would like to do; instead, you grit your teeth and thank the spiteful woman, the woman you’d been meant to be, for her hospitality in welcoming you to the library.
“In another thirty-six years I hope that I will be invited back again,” you tell Miss Beattie, gaily.
You are leaving the library without a backward glance but—there comes Rollo Kidd wheeling himself after you. The man is not shy in pursuit but rather exhilarated, determined. As you descend the front steps he rolls himself down a parallel ramp, so swiftly that his thick, graying white hair, a silky sort of hair, is blown in the wind.
“Please accept my invitation, my dear. You will be astonished to see my house—a shrine to you. I wasn’t exaggerating! I promise I won’t expect you to sign more than a few of your limited-edition publications. These are kept under lock and key in a specially designed bookcase with glass doors that lock . . . ”
You see, at the curb, the stately black hired car awaiting you. Yet you linger, reluctant to be rude to Rollo Kidd. Your heart swells with the melancholy certainty that Rollo Kidd was meant to be your soul mate; yet, something went wrong in your early life, you’d missed each other. Even now you are thinking—You can return. You can begin again. Here is the one person in the world who cherishes you.
You are walking beside Rollo, who rolls himself at your side. Astonishing how companionable the two of you are, how familiar with each other; that you loom above Rollo in his wheelchair feels familiar to you as well. You note with approval how Rollo is determined to ignore his infirmity. Indeed, his upper arms and shoulders, his back, have thickened with muscle, in the effort of rolling his nonmotorized chair; the very slant of his head has been reimagined by the man as not a disability brought on by Parkinson’s disease but a sort of macho hypervigilance. This man is not meek, shy, invalided; he is aggressive, even belligerent. Here is a man not easily dissuaded. Here is a man who knows his own mind. He dares to take your hand that has drifted close to his, and will not readily surrender it.
You recall how as a boy, Rollo Kidd was admired by his teachers. He was invariably a class officer—eighth grade vice president, ninth grade president. Rollo was your (friendly) rival in English, science, math; Rollo received higher grades in math and science, but you excelled (usually) in English.
“At least stroll with me, my dear. Ridgewood Park is just a block away. And from the edge of the park, another five minutes to my house. From the front walk, I swear you can see bookshelves through the windows—you will see the spines of your own books, waiting for you. At all the windows! As if peering out at you. Wait and see—I’ve arranged it very cleverly—it will be quite a sight . . . ”
Gently you tug at your hand, to be freed of Rollo’s hand, but not assertively enough to induce Rollo to release it. And of course you would not jerk your hand away, that would be rude. You will walk with Rollo for a few minutes, into the park perhaps, but no farther; certainly not to Ridgemont Avenue. Your car is awaiting you at the curb in front of the library, and you have every intention of returning to it.
“Only a little farther, my dear! You will not be disappointed, I promise.”
Just the two of you. Rollo Kidd in his wheelchair, propelling himself along. You, on foot. Your (cool, slender) hand in Rollo’s (hot, fleshy) hand.
It is a chill bright day. The sky overhead appears to be impacted with clouds, light comes from all sides, there are no shadows. In the distance, nearly inaudible, a sound of thunder, or jet planes. Behind you and Rollo Kidd in his wheelchair, unobtrusively, out of the range of your vision, the shiny black limousine follows slowly, keeping pace.