There was a photograph buried in his father’s dresser drawer, a photograph of his father standing, in uniform, on a beach with a strange woman. They did not stand as a couple. Their bodies did not even touch, but from his father’s familiar hunched posture, from the look of his hands resting easily in his pockets and his easy smile and the defiant, slight tilt of his head – against the wind, perhaps? – the picture made clear that something powerful and pathetic and haughty bound the man to this scene, this sand, this woman. There were palm trees in the background, the only honest note of romance and of wind; later, from what little he learned from Jack’s, reticent Jack’s stories, Tom gathered this must be Ceylon. They had heard some of his stories, Tom and his sisters. The stories always conjured up the same image, of a man in uniform alone in the jungle, glimpsed as if by the gods through the shifting clouds on an Oriental scroll-painting. And then gone. The woman for her part was very pretty, though not as at ease as the man, with her dark hair and her scowl, and her big smile showing odd long teeth.
Tom always imagined himself asking his father about it, someday. Someday when the time was perfect, when they were alone, when a spell of sweetness and quiet had fallen upon them, as it sometimes can among people who love each other: a kind of evening hush to the emotions, to one’s whole character, when not a wind stirs, and old bubbles come to the surface and one wants to confess – a soup correctly, barely simmering in a pot is said to "smile" – and everything seems possible. Jack had almost seized such moments himself, once or twice, to tell Elspeth everything. Mercifully he never had.
Only the time had never yet come for their son either. Tom had grown up and gone off to his own war. When he returned, having seen and especially done things he still could not grasp were real, his reticent father strode forward from the crowd and locked him in a shocking, breathtaking embrace. In his daze Tom almost said, "Gee, I didn’t know I was that important." More important than any cause, evidently. What a strange thought. But they hugged him, everyone, on his return, as if it were true. And if his survival was that blessed, why had he gone at all? Each dazed thought limped along after the other. He was thinking in language again, for the first time in a long time. Was it the same at his father’s homecoming? Jack had merely returned a married man as usual and got on with earning his living, professor of Oriental languages and history, unroller of cloud-filled scrolls. Maybe long waits and ocean voyages home have something to do with calmer receptions, or maybe it was just the reality of victory. Tom went back to school too, not to resume teaching already mastered things, but only to begin to learn how to earn his living.
He sat down tremulously to the feast, and here is where his entire personality was emptied out, stirred around, and put back in, far more potent stuff than it had been before. He was more important than any cause, certainly, except this one – teaching – because in this one he became himself. It was a simple enough matter. What he learned, what attracted him to more learning, was basically an emotional postscript to his powerful father’s hug at the airport. That was why the lessons all resonated so. Everything he had known up to now was corrupt and a lie. That explained the hug. Even people, even heroes like Jack who pretend to have served goodness secretly just want their own sons to survive; nothing is more valuable than you – than me, Tom, and what I will begin to understand now, from new men, not my father. Tom was a good person, and no one who was not an ogre or stupid could fail to be moved, to have his interior stirred, by this new information.
Dear God, but there’s no tonic like a liberal university education. The specifics, about coffee and banana growers in league with the CIA or the misfortune of Lenin gutting Marx of his humanism, were only details. At the very first he was furious about those details, true. It was sickening to hear put into words, words and words and thousands of words, crazy angry things that could not be contested because there they were, in books and, worse, in films. Girls in class burst out sobbing in the flashing blue darkness. They saw soldiers invading a university, bodies in the street. It was hard to have flayed all sorts of simple assumptions he had not even realized were assumptions. His professors hated assumptions. Only children had them. "Common sense?" they roared angrily.
But Tom was good. He changed. Even his mother’s Bible instruction came back to him. "He that hateth reproof is brutish." And his father had hugged him when he returned, like any father. All people are the same, just people. The struggling human family must win through to peace on its own terms. No outsider has the right to judge. Better professors than Jack said to him, "We grow." Growth is painful. True. More importantly, it also guides us past and explains other pains.
An English comic novelist, and one of his father’s favorites at that, summed it up as "’Pessimism, etc.,’" but Tom never read that. It would have been too late anyway. What he learned was shaming and intoxicating and it cleared the daze. He learned a perspective, a way of looking at things from a kind of majestic trained underview, always perfect, seamless, brave, noble, dignified, true – in short, revolutionary. It amounted to a kind of victory after all, only better than his father’s because it was not tethered to a particular place or cause outside himself. Nor to a land. It was interior and perpetual and, most beautifully of all, political, so it could change, sharpen its sights at any time with the best of political truths. Provided it kept to the trained underview, of course, but what intelligent person, past his first pains, would not do that? Only a child would not. You could always spot the children by their stature.
When it was all over and he was a "Doctor" himself he went to a secondhand bookstore and bought a poster photograph of a lush jungle scene with an Oriental woman in the foreground wearing a conical straw hat. He put it up on his apartment wall to remind himself of everything he now was.
Naturally his ambition in life became to clear the daze for everyone, for the young, for all time. He became another Professor Howard, and a superb one. He also married and had a son of his own, and then got divorced. It was his duty and joy to settle down, right in his hometown, to bequeath to others all that he had won through the painful instruction of extraordinary men. They were great men, his second and real fathers, real veterans – the information they had at their fingertips! Where had they come from? Who had been the first to understand? – men wildly different from his father. He approached the gleaming glass and silver doors of the college that first August morning only hoping he could do half what they had done.
He could not. For twenty years he tried to whip up enthusiasms about politics and "shining paths" among nice kids who mostly kept strictly silent. Once every year or two someone would look back at him with his own eyes, when young, but to Tom that didn’t seem enough. He wanted disciples in the thousands. Most of them looked at him politely, as if they were all locked together in a dull zoo. They took notes. The young men had big biceps. Sometimes one of the eager girls telephoned the White House for information that would have been easily available at the dumpy little public library, but that too was rare. What was happening? How had it been so different before?
In his courage at least he was his father’s son, but finally even he got sick of it. He felt a failure, peerless in a pejorative sense – having no peers. Part of his trouble was that the world had changed (who could have imagined the wrong flag flying over the Kremlin?) but surely the world never changes as much as all that. His own teachers represented a long tradition and they had taught and thought through many changes and gotten stronger for them. The point was to go on applying the majestic trained underview to something, anything, but somehow teaching was no longer its venue. Not for him.
His new fiancee Paula, thirty-three and a former student, God help him, sloe-eyed, two curtains of brown hair like satin framing her face, wanted him to move away with her and take the journalism job she had unearthed for him. He told his ex-wife about it over the phone and she was delighted for him. "Go for it," she said. "I can’t believe you’ve stood it this long. No one we ever knew is still teaching." He felt like the stupid husband, ever the last to know.
"What’s happened?" he asked, and she said, "You’re in the boondocks, that’s what happened. You need to be in a big university or else researching. Closer to civilization, they’re a little more on the ball."
"This newspaper is out in the boondocks."
Maybe. What should he do? Dad, what would you do? I cannot believe it of myself – Professor Howard, leaving teaching. Who was that woman on the beach? Did you ever do anything wrong, anything you would change if you could, do you have any regrets? What should I do? What can I best do?
He walked up the shady front walk to his parents’ house, the old homestead, the house of his and his sisters’ childhood. His father and mother had aged from thirty-eight to seventy-eight and beyond here. Only forty years, or a little more now. He remembered the night his father had delivered the youngest, his little sister Norah, himself. Tom had peeked into his parents’ bedroom and had seen the open suitcase and the unmade bed. Jack had gotten Elspeth on her feet and was slowly supporting her, waddling, toward the door when she paused and held her breath and crumpled very still against him. In a minute she fumbled back, sweating, to the bed, and then Tom’s father caught sight of him and shouted "Go to bed!" and kicked the door shut.
Forty years ago. Norah was forty. Tom had not been afraid that night. He understood his mother was going to have the baby right now and that his father was going to bring it. Everything would be fine. And it was. The next Monday Jack returned to his classroom and to his colleagues’ congratulations and hearty smacks on the back. Young women looked on eavesdropping, wondering if the very private Professor Howard could possibly be more devastating.
Tom always associated Norah with the picture hidden in the dresser drawer, too, but really that made no sense. Surely he hadn’t been snooping that young. There was a treacly poem in the McGuffey Readers, wasn’t there, "Forty Years Ago," addressed to a "Tom." ("But the master sleeps upon the hill, Which, coated o’er with snow, Afforded us a sliding place ....") He had come back here after his war and his divorce and now he came back for – what, advice? He could not imagine his parents going back home, hat in hand, at fifty. They had taken in their own parents to live with them and all the kids by that age.
The October afternoon was splendid, but hardly seemed conducive to revelations and secrets anyway. The wind blew strong and the sun slanted up low under the blue sky, through the canopy of vivid green and yellow trees. Cars tooled along the busy street as usual, and radios played. Some girls rode by on their bikes. It was paradise, far more so than any place with sand and palms, but a businesslike, everyday paradise. And there was nothing simmering, or confessional, or twilight-ish to be felt.
"Hello?" he called, and let himself in the front door. Jack sat in a chair in a sunny window beside a potted palm, reading. He looked up and focused. "Tom!" he said. He rose stiffly from his chair and came and held on to his son’s forearms. "Tom. Sit down, sit down. How are you?"
"Your mother’s out shopping." Jack eased himself back into his chair at the sunny window.
That was either too bad, as it would make mere banter more difficult – there was no one like Elspeth to keep a conversation moving – or else it was a stroke of luck. What woman, even at eighty, wants to sit and talk about a photograph of an eternally young and mysterious creature at a beach with her soldier-husband fifty and more years ago? If his mother stayed away long enough Tom dared to think that perhaps the confessional, twilight mood he was after was his for the making. But then Jack spoke. You never knew, with him. Sometimes it seemed he had been dipped in manners at about age three and had never broken out of their hard golden amber. Sometimes he skipped all form, took advantage of the absence of female fluttering, and came straight to the point.
"So. Your mother says the teaching career is, uh ... has kind of hit a rough spot."
"What? Oh. Yes, I think so," Tom answered, plunging into it. He rubbed his beard. "I don’t know. It’s been over twenty years. Maybe I’m just burnt out, although I hate that jargon. Didn’t you get tired of it?"
"I had an easier subject to teach. It was a skill, nouns and verbs. Characters and radicals. It’s awfully hard to teach politics. I think it was Aristotle who said you shouldn’t. Not to the young."
That’s why I wanted to do it, Tom felt a bit of the old gorge rising. But for the first time in a long time he looked at his father instead, and considered him as he must have been, one professional to another, considered him as if he himself were an incoming, ignorant student, anxious to learn Siamese or something. Oh yes, he had heard about Dad, when he got older and entered the professional pipeline too. The famed Professor Howard. He was burly and handsome then, quite like the soldier – the officer, don’t forget – in the photograph. Young women made fools of themselves over him, no matter how many children they knew he had. They called Oriental consulates for him and told him so, when all they need have done was study their verbs. He remained always the soul of decency. He loved his wife, and looked the young women kindly in the eyes and explained what the assignment had really been. (Actually what he wanted to do was to wring their fathers’ necks and only then ask them how long they thought these little jenny-wrens could survive in the East.)
Circumspection with young wrens was a knack Tom did not learn as readily. He smiled too much. Forty years ago, Tom and Norah and all the other sisters stood in awe of Dad, of his big jutting features and the gravelled voice that lent authority to every look. They knew they were loved and stood in awe of that, too. Jack didn’t embrace children much then. For them he was a mysterious, pharaonic profile against a sheet of Oriental calligraphy on a wall. With their mother it was different. Tom remembered the way his father’s face corrugated up when he took their mother in his arms and kissed her. And she would tell her friends about him. She would say with exasperated pride that she had taken him shopping and he had picked out all her clothes, and they all suited her better than her own choices. What a joy it was to be married to a man who gave commands, not often but when they were needed, who watched to see when he could be of service to a woman.
Tom thought all marriages were like that. It wasn’t like in stupid modern movies – he watched them with Daniel, watched Daniel’s face as he watched them – when a man and woman laugh and have fun together and that’s supposed to be all of love. No. Don’t lift that, Elspeth. I’ll do that. It’s time – no, it’s too late? I’ll deliver the baby. You’re safe. That was love.
He recalled himself to the sunlit October room and the presence of his father, eighty, in the easy chair. "I wouldn’t have thought you can’t teach politics, teach the truth, but I suppose that could be it. I just don’t feel that I’m reaching anybody. Haven’t for a long time. These kids need credit hours. Is that all they wanted with you? I mean the successful teachers around me are the ones preaching to the choir now. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Those of us who still want to get them to think, to have an open mind, are ...well. Maybe we don’t belong in the boondocks, that’s all."
Jack nodded, and as a teacher picked out the one question in his son’s speech. "I don’t know. All those years ago I can’t recall anybody talking about credit hours much. I suppose that may have been all they wanted. I was teaching a skill. It wasn’t open to discussion. Thank God. Whatever else they believed in didn’t interest me. They weren’t my possession." He paused, noting the scolding tone that had crept into his voice. "It may be changing times, too. I think the worm is turning." He meant to express a thought that had come to him like a purr as he put down the newspaper this morning and gazed off, past his coffee mug, into the middle distance. Three separate headlines that day advised him that the topsy-turvy habit which had, to his mind, remorselessly and without his leave transformed his own father’s civilized world into his children’s barbarous one, was perhaps being outgrown. A court decision here, a referendum there, an opinion column elsewhere: it seemed people were at last trying to find their footing again. Thank God he had lived to see hope.
But they both grew embarrassed at speaking as it were past each other, in metaphors and quotations that may have made sense in their own private thoughts but did not adduce to conversation. What choir? What worm? What do you mean, possessions? I don’t consider my students mine. I teach them how to think, not what. Here between them also was the distressing memory, inevitable, of the time Jack had come to meet his son for lunch and had paced for a while outside the younger Professor Howard’s classroom, smoking, listening with pride, at first, to Tom’s lecture. This was more than twenty years ago. Jack was burly and grizzled. Tom, already an enthusiastic, arm-waving classroom performer, happened in the middle of his florid talk to glance out the door and see his father stop pacing abruptly, turn, slowly crush out his cigarette, and look daggers, like a basilisk, right at him. One professional to another. What had he done? His father went and leaned against a pillar, motionless but still in view, until class was over and the students streamed out. The two men ate lunch in silence, the pale blond son getting madder and madder and the dark father looming massively over his coffee.
Well, that was years ago. "Just let them learn," Jack had said then, spitting the words out with effort. "I know, Dad," Tom had answered, puzzled. They both knew it was not an answer. In the pause now, nevertheless, Tom, the former teacher, the father and provider of grandsons, felt love for his father well up like sugar in the blood.
"Dad. This is apropos of nothing, but. When I – when I was little I have to admit I went rummaging through you and Mom’s – through your and Mom’s drawers occasionally. I know I should have been thrashed for it. But I used to find this old photograph that fascinated me. It was of you on a beach with this woman."
Now that he had said it, he felt as terrified as if he were six and had been caught. Maybe Professor Howard would still thrash him. He looked up. Jack was smiling slowly, right at him. The basilisk smiled. "Yes, I know it."
"Did you know I had seen it?" Tom grinned.
"Where was it taken? Ceylon?"
"Before or after the bridge?"
"I’m not sure. Either way, maybe."
Either way. Tom was free to imagine Jack and the woman in some sort of bungalow the night before, she weeping, desperate, he grim but loving; or afterward, months afterward perhaps. Perhaps he strode up to her on the beach, limping, with the sun blindingly behind him so she did not recognize him. He knelt quickly, splashing sand on her thighs, and kissed her with all his force. She tried to speak but only gasped, laughing, and he shut his eyes at the sound of her voice. In a few minutes they got up, packed her things away, and retreated to privacy. Tom could hear the ocean outside.
"Who was she?"
Jack had a vision of her face the day before he left for good. It seemed to float in the surf, in waves caught in his memory, in the memory of an angle of sunlight unchanged in half a century, her face a mask of tragedy and anger. It floated there like a discarded native mask on the beach. Shame pricked him again, a cold little pin-prick in the gut.
"A friend. A very kind lady." Shame. Shame. Stop thinking about it. He had almost told Tom years ago, that day at lunch. He was so angry that day. You think you’ve turned over every rock there is, he wanted to say then. You think you’ve discovered pessimism. And growth is painful. Listen to this.
"Did Mom ever know?"
Tom leaned forward. "Don’t you think in the last fifty-odd years she’s found that picture?"
"I don’t think so. Married people have privacy."
I never did, Tom almost blurted out. "Oh. Well. Anyway, it’s none of my business."
Jack smiled. There was an uncomfortable pause. Then he said, "So, if you don’t teach, what will you do?"
"Paula has a job all lined up for me, actually. At an independent newspaper that’s doing quite well. It looks like I may be a journalist. Of course, it means moving."
"Just downstate. Not far. We’re looking at houses about an hour away."
"Well, thank God. Your mother will be glad to hear that. We’d hate to have you go any farther away than you are now. All you kids."
"I would never have moved too far from Daniel."
"Yes, that’s true. Well, thank God." He shifted a little in the chair. "A journalist! That’s wonderful. Wonderful. You’ll like the writing part." Jack was so relieved at not losing his son to the threat of relocation that the gorge that had risen, a little, just about evaporated. It looks like I might be a journalist, Tom had said, and Jack’s first thought, not a purr, reeled off unbidden in his head as if somebody else, not an aged father, had spoken it there. Oh my dear boy, always and everlastingly the search for power. Always and everlastingly teaching "how to think." People know how. Where did language come from?
"Yes, that and not grading other people’s writing and other people’s exams. These kids .... It’s not what I ever expected to do with my life, but I think it’s the right thing, now." He almost used the phrase "I’m in a place in my life where" but he caught himself, knowing Jack, the linguist, would hate it.
But Jack was moving restlessly in his chair and that made Tom nervous. It was silly to be morbid but he always felt, with old people, that any second might be the last. Jack tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair and then got up with surprising strength. "Just a minute," he said, and walked off down the hall to his bedroom. Tom looked out the window. Sun and sky and all the commonplace things that had been in the world half an hour ago were still there. A neighbor two doors down was still waxing his car.
In a few minutes his father returned with a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He handed it to Tom. "Talking of Daniel reminded me. I’ve got a few things he may be interested in. Both of you, I mean. You can keep them, or give them to him."
Tom took the package and began to open it while his father sat down again. Inside there was a uniform, well folded, a ring, a medal, a picture of Jack when young – yes, he had forgotten he looked like that – and a few letters. Oh my God, Tom thought, smiling a frozen smile as he rifled the package, the photograph is in here. He’s stashed it here and he’s going to give it to me. I don’t want it.
But it wasn’t there. In his relief, his smile faded. One of the letters, though, on big thick paper and very official-looking, almost nineteenth-century-looking, was just the one Dad had been rumored to have all these years. Who first told him she had seen it, Linda, or Pam? One of the sisters who had ended up marrying cops. How had he missed it in his own snooping? There was the famed enormous signature above phrases like "ambush" and "grievously wounded." "Your valour." Tom looked up.
"Well. All right. This is amazing. Didn’t you want anyone to know?"
"Your mother knows. So did my parents and my superiors. That was enough."
"I guess it would be." Tom stopped and handled everything slowly, one by one. "You’re sure I can have these?"
"You’re more than welcome to them. Hang them on the wall beside your own." This last came gently.
"Oh no. What, for some great victory? Killing people? Mine are in a drawer, too. I don’t know why I haven’t thrown them out."
Jack did want to thrash him. He kept silent for a minute. "Does Daniel know?"
"I don’t know." They looked at each other, both exhausted, but smiled wanly. "Probably."
Later that afternoon, after his mother had returned and they had visited for a while, Tom said goodbye, having forgotten all about asking advice, and went back to his own house and his sorting and packing in preparation for his move – and for a wedding, soon. "Oh, you’re finally giving away your old stuff, are you?" Elspeth had remarked to her husband, glancing at and instantly recognizing the brown paper parcel in Tom’s hands. "Is the ring in there? That was pretty valuable, wasn’t it?"
"Yes, it’s in there," Jack answered. "I thought it was high time somebody had those things. Maybe Daniel might like to look at them. They’re no use to me."
"Good," Elspeth said, and that was the end of it. She had gone on chatting and putting away groceries. Tom watched her. She was an unknowable lady in many ways, as reticent as Jack, and well matched to him despite their periodic, fiery quarrels. The "brainwashing" of her generation had been one of her most frequent conversational themes at the dinner table during Tom’s childhood, yet when her own children, unbrainwashed, free, got their share of divorces she snorted with private contempt. What she still called Women’s Lib had delighted her at the beginning; now she snorted at her young women neighbors who put two children in day care ("I raised eight!") and did not cook. Her brother retired from a job he loved and moved to Texas, and she treated this as a grievous moral mystery. "Things just got so different for him," she said, "new people coming on the job ...." She shuddered, a moral shudder, not a bigoted one. "It’s different for you young people, you’ve grown up with this. But people our age – it’s just too difficult to adjust. He had to get out." And that, too, was the end of that.
Tom watched her and chatted with them both and went on holding the parcel, another moral mystery. He felt he was holding the sound of the ocean in his hands, holding his father’s youth, and a bomb all in one. Holding also some woman whose fate and memories God alone knew. She stood eternally on that beach, young, pretty, and scowling, a passion untouched. It was impossible to imagine her, eighty years old herself. How ironic that Ceylon was a new country now, with its own separatist movement. He almost felt he had been there.
Yes, but whom would he ever teach about it? Alone in his house that night he straightened up, abandoned his packing and went back to the parcel of his father’s things not once but several times. He opened it and took out the big, nineteenth-century- looking letter. It was not that Sri Lanka was not important. It was. How often had he bullied and mocked and prodded his students into revealing what little they knew of foreign affairs? He wanted them to care about something outside themselves. He wanted to give them the majestic trained underview – it was so simple – because he loved them. If he couldn’t do it anymore, who would? The idea of the world no longer being important enough to teach about ate at him; it was that, not unlike a cold pin-prick of shame in the gut, that he had to combat.
He concentrated on the paper. He might have been praying. I’m the son of a man who got a letter like this, he thought. The paper was so thick and had been folded so long that it seemed to hold itself up delicately and strongly in his hands, like an animal. After a few minutes he actually nodded at it. If change is needed, I can change. He once thought he could teach forever because he possessed the master key to political truths and teaching only meant infinitely copying the key. Now he knew otherwise. This was humility. He would accept his shortcomings, and take himself off to a different task in life. After folding the letter again – it closed in upon itself obediently, like an animal going into a shell – he put it back in its envelope and then back into the parcel. He packed it in a box of clothes intended for one of his dresser drawers, too.
When Paula learned he had made up his mind, she was thrilled. Looking forward to an engagement ring shortly, she went out and bought him a book of inspirational quotations, and laid a new bookmark in a page bearing a line which seemed blessedly appropriate. It was something about the folly of not changing when failure made change necessary, and it was a quote from the very same person who had signed his father’s letter. "When a cherished scheme has failed," he read. Tom was the opposite of superstitious, but he read the quote silently three times in Paula’s presence, laughed, then drew her face to his and kissed her deeply.
They married, and bought a house an hour away, as he had assured his father. Tom saw a lot, more than ever, of Daniel, growing up so handsome. He saw more of his parents too. There was so much to do and so many distractions in his new job and life that after all he scarcely had time to miss the routine of teaching. On a practical level, he had first to grow accustomed, as Paula warned him, to a woman boss, Renee, a red-headed education major not much older than Paula. Tom was old enough and had been established enough in his previous profession to have never known a woman superior before. More humility. But at growth he was a past master, and he had chosen a good home for it. It was a going concern, this newspaper. Its circulation, thanks to a respected parent, climbed sturdily and it was well thought of. Thanks to Paula’s influence Renee started him with what he surmised were the more glamorous assignments. At any rate they interested him very much. He investigated the fate of a small independent radio station being hounded off the air in California, ostensibly because of federal tax irregularities but much more probably because of its coverage of industrial pollution and migrant workers’ problems. This was exactly what he wanted, exactly where he could make a difference.
After the radio station piece (the station stayed on the air longer than it might have) he started a series about wrongfully convicted prison inmates. He walked into a prison for the first time. There was no smell like it. Several men he wrote about had their convictions overturned and were released to freedom and their families. What else was he doing, really, than just pointing to a map and asking people to get outside themselves, to think about "foreign" affairs – it was the title of his column – to think about evil, to do something about evil, just as he always had? Only now, among grown people, he got results. He sincerely hoped the college kids were being taught adequately about Sri Lanka and so on, but for himself, he needed results. He had been baying at the moon for twenty years. Enough. His writing earned praise, and a following.
He was happy. Paula had twin girls, so beautiful, so beautiful. Some of the causes that Paula also wanted him to get involved with on his days off were, he had to admit, a bit dreary. Left to himself he would have thought the change he had made, the new work he was doing so well, was about as much as could be asked of him. He had ceased baying at the moon, he had ceased, so to speak, effetely opening locks with his master key, and now she wanted him to scrub the barn floor and water the animals as well. He was growing older, had long since reached the stage where, as the book of pertinent quotations said, "one wants to live as one pleases." When were you allowed merely to be human, when were you allowed pleasure, not occasionally (because you had to remember some people were suffering) but all the time? But he compelled himself. He accepted his limitations and strove to overcome them, and help her in homeless shelters and soup kitchens because it was right, not because he actually preferred it to sitting on his front porch with a drink and a book about painting. (Humility. But he did have some leisure and for it he found new leisure interests. Art turned out to be one. He loved Titian’s women, loved their sweet lordly faces amid russet draperies and silver-green landscapes. Sometimes his attention strayed even from his art books. He thought about wine, rocked his baby daughters’ double buggy, watched birds in the summer foliage. Good Lord, he thought. I’m becoming a naturalist.)
Occasionally a former student looked him up and wrote him, asking for a reference to apply for a scholarship or graduate school. He always wrote glowingly, gladly, whoever they were. Sometimes ex-prisoners wrote him, and at the sight of the smudged envelopes he felt a pin-prick of unease in the gut.
Tom was still young, just beginning a second life, and a new parent of young children. He could not help smirking at the descriptions of the great ports he read about in his wine books, "superb in the bottle now, but with fifty years of life ahead." And Jack was never any more forthcoming, nor any more judgmental, with his son than he had ever been. "You’ll find your niche," he had always said. That was his idea of advice, perhaps that was his generation’s idea of advice. Much good it does, to be descended from the strong, silent types. A strong silent embrace at the airport can send a son spinning into another world.
The next time they met they talked about the weather for quite a while. Comically enough, as time passed they both, like men, forgot Tom’s visit to the house that October day, and its purport. They would have found their own forgetfulness extraordinary if they had been reminded of it, and would then never have forgotten the subject again – the way re-reading an old diary can plant things in the mind that are never again uprooted, however trivial they were.
This was not so trivial. But they simply forgot about it. The photograph of the woman and handsome Jack stayed buried in a drawer. Years later when the time came to sell the old house and divvy up Jack and Elspeth’s things, it was accidentally, blindly, and forever thrown out.