… what stirs the imagination is best kept in the imagination.–Paul Auster, Invisible
Sonny’s just met Horace and Clara, but instead of moving through the crowd, he’s stayed with them, talking for the past 10 minutes. They’re the only people here younger than 30. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know it was going to be like this,” Sonny semi-shouts, flapping his hand at the frantically chattering people. They’re standing in the 12-walled President’s Dining Room. “It’s what faculty do all over the world–drink cocktails and make godawful boring conversation.” From the walls, past presidents of Afton College smile down upon them–there are also portraits of the founder, Edward Clemens Nelson, and his wife, Margaret Pendleton Nelson. Sonny calls attention to the regal-bosomed woman in the painting and tells his new friends what he just found out a few minutes ago, that campus wits refer to this 12-walled room as the Dodecaheadroom. Horace smiles, and Clara blushes, but she laughs, so that Sonny’s impressed with what a good sport she is. In the days to follow, Sonny Carson and Horace and Clara Houseman will each explain to someone on campus, “We took an immediate liking to each other.” For some weeks to come, they will go on trying to explain to themselves the speed and intensity of their mutual affection. Clara and Horace think of the relationship as almost comically wholesome. Sonny doesn’t imagine himself as wholesome, but he keeps that to himself. Thoughtful and mannerly Horace is the big brother he wishes he’d had growing up. And Clara’s damned cute.
Horace is a couple of inches taller than Sonny, but otherwise not that much bigger. Horace can see that Sonny isn’t put off by his size–or by the way he thinks through what he’s going to say before he says it. Here at the reception, Sonny stands slightly to Horace’s right side and a little closer than most men like to do. Horace decides it’s a familial impulse on Sonny’s part. He likes it. He also likes it that Sonny knows a lot of facts. He knows, for instance, that the money that founded Afton College was Pendleton money, from Margaret’s family. “They essentially built a college for Edward and made him the president,” Sonny tells Horace and Clara. “Her money,” Clara says and lifts her champagne glass to Sonny. “I like that.” Horace notices how Clara is presenting herself to Sonny as a faculty wife–this is new for both of them. He gives Sonny a grin and lifts his glass, too. “What else do you know about this place?” he asks.
Sonny’s a little swimmy-headed from the champagne and from the way Clara’s eyes widened when she lifted her glass to him. He doesn’t think she’s flirting exactly–every few minutes he’s seen Clara or Horace touch each other on the sleeve, the hand, the shoulder. Sonny knows what’s what with all that touching–but there’s also an energy she sends his way. He may not be able to define it, but it pumps a little air into his tires. “What did you say?” Sonny asks Horace. Horace smiles and repeats himself. “Oh yeah,” Sonny says. “Well, what fascinates me is that Margaret kept a diary that’s like an unofficial history of the place. I got interested in her diary because of the numbers. She was Afton’s first statistician. Evidently she liked numbers even more than I do. She kept track of how many students, how many horses, how many faculty members, how many service people. She also kept track of the money in those early years.” He looks Horace in the eye as he speaks, but then turns his attention to Clara when he’s finished.
“To Margaret Pendleton Nelson,” Clara says and raises her glass to Sonny, then to her husband. “To Margaret!” they say almost in unison and loud enough to turn a few heads in the crowd of reception-attenders surrounding them. Then they laugh at themselves and at how ridiculous they must seem. “We’re already a clique,” Clara says. She’s giddy with the look of the room, the grandness of the party, the dressed-up citizens of the college–and the fact that Sonny seems to be so comfortable in her presence. She was worried she and Horace wouldn’t fit in–and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter as long as Sonny stands here and talks with them. His bemused face pleases her, his city accent, his confidence–but what pleases her most of all is how he and Horace have taken to each other. She can see how animated both men are. Clara’s a worrier, has been since childhood, and she’s learned to keep her worries mostly out of sight. The new anxiety that came to her on their honeymoon is that she won’t be able to hold Horace’s interest. He’ll get tired of her, he’ll come to see that she isn’t any kind of an intellectual, she’s just become what her parents wanted her to be, and even now she doesn’t really know what she wants to do with herself. In that moment, here at the President’s party, with the champagne quickening her pulse and their new friend offering a welcome, enlivening presence, none of that seems to matter.
Newly married, he’s intoxicated with Clara’s body–which she treats as if it means so little to her that she’s surprised by how moved he is by it–and she’s perfectly willing to share it with him as much as he likes. He appreciates the round-the-clock availability of sex, of course, but occasionally the thought ambushes him that maybe he doesn’t want the sex as much as Clara does. “This is what I’ve been waiting for,” she says one morning after they’ve done it almost before they’re awake. She’s glancing over her shoulder at him on her way to the shower.
Their sex is a project they seem to have taken on without saying so, an ongoing refinement of how their bodies seem to suit each other. Or of what works best for them. A way of communicating arises that’s both primitive and subtle–a groan says keep doing that, a yelp means too hard, a sigh slyly suggests turn over, a low humming translates as nothing but this, only this, please just this. To Horace it feels like their bodies are teaching them another language. They’re getting somewhere, moving toward something. There will come an ecstatic unfolding of their wings when they’ll rise skyward in tandem. Horace snorts at the vision.
Another thought that twists his mouth in private moments is that maybe it’s demons they’re on the verge of becoming–hellish creatures with raw scraped flesh they’ll have to keep rubbing against each other forever. Silly as that idea is, Horace understands there’s a side of their sex he can hardly bear, he doesn’t know why. He imagines it’s the same for Clara. At first, as a joke, they start keeping track of how much time they spend in the bedroom of their new apartment. It’s a lot. But then they start having sex in the living room, then Horace’s study, the bathroom, the kitchen, and all that time counts, too. They bicker pleasantly over the time calculations and the locations of their intercourse. Out of breath from just having had it on the staircase, he says, “We haven’t had it in the patio yet.” Now Clara’s the one to snort. “I think we’ll be in trouble, if we do that,” she says. “Let me up, please.”
Well, so Clara has her limits, but he has his as well. In the writhing of their bodies, there are moments when Horace wants to leave the bedroom, leave the apartment, leave his body, fly cleanly and entirely out of his life.
Sonny doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He knows he’s flirting, but he’s doing it in a correct way. He’s twenty-eight years old and entirely aware of being a little too smart, too good looking, and too confident. He can’t help knowing what he’s got. So he makes an effort to be a modest person. He doesn’t want to be a jerk, or he doesn’t want people to think he’s a jerk, but he’s afraid that deep down, being a jerk is his nature. So in his opinion he has no choice–he has to try to nudge himself in the direction of modesty, humility, sensitivity to others.
It’s because he’s sensitive to his new friend and colleague, Horace Houseman, that he makes it his job to be Horace’s friend. Being Horace’s friend also obligates him to be Clara’s friend. In spite of being small, slender, and very modest in her way of dressing, Clara Houseman radiates an energy that transmits straight into Sonny’s erotic imagination. He’s certain Clara intends nothing beyond mannerly hospitality. How she provokes him is a collateral effect of the way she and Horace are locked into each other’s frequency. He can see that, he can feel it. And he isn’t jealous of it. That kind of exclusive focus on a single other human being is exactly what Sonny is not looking for. Also, he really likes both Horace and Clara–they’re charming, decent, generous people. He wants to be a good friend to each of them. Even so, he wakes up one night convinced of Clara’s presence, so vivid and immediate, he feels it in his palms, his fingertips, his tongue.
From the dream, Sonny realizes Clara dresses the way she does to understate the fullness of her breasts. This is when he recognizes himself as a bad friend and–in a part of himself over which he has little control–a vile human being. He isn’t about to avoid contact with the Housemans, and he isn’t going to be able to ignore the effect Clara has on him. What he can do is cultivate a mild and disinterested affection–that’s the façade he needs to present when he’s around the Housemans.
The first morning Assistant Professor Houseman walked into his Am Lit I class, he found twenty-five students waiting for him. Seated, composed, sweatered, skirted, ear-ringed, barretted, loafered, and fragrant, they might have been quietly sitting in that room an hour or more. In graduate school Horace had led discussion groups, but he’d never had a class of his own. A wave of anxiety very nearly pulled him back out into the hallway. Their faces were heartbreakingly alert. His own heart hammered, but he pressed forward. There was a podium upon which he spread his papers and the stack of syllabi he’d brought to hand out. He made himself survey the room and try to look directly into the face of each young woman.
Walking through the rows of seats to distribute his syllabus one at a time was a way to remain quiet and to get his bearings. As he walked back to the podium, he took note of the squares of sunlight beaming down through the high windows. It helped to be reminded of the world and the day outside. He pronounced the words “Good morning,” floating them out into the room over their heads, then was much relieved to hear the soft murmur of good mornings that answered him. So, doing his best to accommodate the energy crackling between him and the room full of young female students, Horace set forth upon his lifelong career.
Sonny’s bachelorhood carries with it some free tickets. It’s 1960. He’s only five or six years older than the senior girls at Afton. His academic field is statistics, but Sonny knows a lot about many fields, and though he knows at least a little bit about girls, he isn’t a sexual predator. Sometimes he thinks he’s a fool not to be. If he were more aggressive, he might harvest the favors of half the senior class.
But he also isn’t a prude, and so on a couple of occasions, he does sleep with an Afton girl–one night in a motel with each of them. They aren’t students from his classes, but they are statistics majors whom he sees around the department. Sonny finds himself summoned to the Provost’s office a week after the second episode, to receive a brisk indoctrination into the rules and customs pertaining to carnal experience between students and faculty at a southern all-women’s college. The Provost is a pleasant and worldly person with a tight permanent who’s been at Afton her whole career. She makes it clear to Sonny that, by her standards, his transgressions are mild and entirely ordinary; if, however, a similar report comes to her before he is granted tenure–assuming he will be granted it–he’ll be dismissed from his position and not likely to be employed by any other reputable college or university in the country. She’s very chipper as she speaks, but Sonny is shaken and embarrassed. He’s also shocked that what he thought to be a discreet dalliance was within 48 hours a topic of discussion in the dormitories and a rumor that made its way to the Provost’s ear.
Sonny knows he likes sex, though he also knows it’s a complicated subject. But he likes women in general, and he thinks there’s nothing complicated about that. He just likes them. He attributes the liking to his having spent so much time looking after his sister when they were kids, and he gives himself moderately high marks in his alignment with women. Sure, he doesn’t like the controlling aspect of some women he’s known, but Katie wasn’t like that–even as a really little kid, she’d been a grand companion. And he thinks he’ll eventually make his way toward a relationship like that with a woman.
So it’s both a happiness and a trouble to him to spend time with Horace and Clara. Clara’s told him he has a standing invitation to join them for the evening meal whenever he’s in the mood. Horace told him he has a standing invitation to ring their doorbell any time day or night, and they’ll let him in. These invitations were extended late on a December evening after a long dinner in the Housemans’ apartment during which the three of them had consumed four bottles of wine. Sonny knows their words were not to be taken literally. But he values them anyway. He knows where he stands with the Housemans, and he thrives on the warmth and generosity that flows back and forth between the three of them.
What’s problematic is that that was the same evening when he also understood that he’d been thinking about Clara way more than he was thinking about Horace and that he was thinking about her in a boyish crush kind of way. He was dreaming about her–wet dreams, for pity’s sake. He knows it’s unhealthy to nurture these thoughts, to imagine some connection between them that no one else can see or understand. And though he’s not about to give voice to these thoughts, he’s already developed a habit of turning his eyes away from Clara when he catches himself wanting to stare at her.
In that spring of his first year at Afton, Horace begins to take regular walks around the loop that circles the college. He knows himself to be a person who needs daily exercise, but in the first months of his marriage, he spent most of his nonworking hours with Clara. And they’d taken some walks, but they were so leisurely that Horace couldn’t count them as exercise. When Clara took a job in the Riverton city planning office, Horace started walking the loop at a pace that suited him.
He likes it that the two big hills of the campus make his pulse accelerate but that he has the stamina to take them without slowing down. He likes the gradually warming weather, especially the clear days after a rain when the mountains on both sides of the campus become so hugely visible that they’re like some uncommon form of animal life. And–when she comes home from work and the two of them are in the kitchen having a cocktail and fixing dinner–he likes telling Clara what he’s seen that day. Afton has plenty of bird life, and there’s a small creek that runs alongside the campus where ducks live and where a heron is said to show up occasionally. Also there are turkey buzzards that greatly interest Horace. “They were doing that high altitude swirling today,” he’ll tell Clara, and then he’ll describe how they seem to dance a swirling pattern in the sky–rising and falling, moving out of and returning to the swirling circle–patterns that are dance-like. “I think there’s a turkey buzzard choreographer up there with them,” he tells her. “Merce Cunningham Turkey Buzzard,” he says.
He loves it when she smiles to herself over something he says. He thinks he likes her smiling silence even more than her companionable laughter.
On his walks Horace finds himself repeating some patterns of his own. At the top of the big hill along the front side of the campus is a graveyard surrounded by a brick wall. It contains members of the family of the Afton founder, Edward Clemens Nelson. He’s counted the graves; there are 87 of them–something to tell Sonny if he can remember to do it. The little cemetery also contains plantings of boxwood and half a dozen very old, western-looking cedar trees that appeal to Horace. He likes entering the side gate of the graveyard, then following a path of his own design around the grassy back area, then straight up through the shadows and gravestones to exit at the front. That way, when he comes out the front gate, he’s headed directly toward the barely visible roadway that goes straight and level along the hilltop to a slope for some four hundred yards before it curves down to the hard surface of the loop road.
From the two tracks of this straight gravel-and-mud roadway, Horace can see blue and bluer layers of mountains into the far distance, forty or fifty miles out beyond the other side of the city. On either side of him rise the mountains that border this part of the Riverton valley–Redstone Mountain directly alongside the campus is such a notable presence that it comforts Horace as it seems to comfort almost everyone who pays attention to it.
On his first exploration of the campus, when Horace walked up the path through the high grass, dozens of goldfinches rose up out of the green stuff before him and flew out away from him in rising and falling loops. It was as if they were guiding him toward some extraordinary destination.
The hilltop is also the place where Horace established what he likes to think of as a personal relationship with the turkey buzzards. On rainy days they’re often perched in the trees that border the field, a dozen or so on the bare limbs of several trees, black blobs that aren’t especially skittish of humans. He’s taken to calling out to them, albeit softly, whenever he sees them like that. “Hello, my friends,” he’ll say, and it amuses him to think of such allegedly mournful creatures as his friends. Horace discovers that he can walk close enough to their trees to make out the red heads of the birds–instead of being frightened of him, they seem almost interested.
It’s above the big hillside field that Horace sees the buzzards’ high swirling–and the way a circling formation sometimes shifts gradually over the hillside and off toward the mountains on the far side of the campus. Sometimes it looks as if there are more than a hundred of those big-winged gliders up there, though Horace knows the number is closer to 40 or 50. In the big field, too, sometimes a few of them will sail down to perch on the hay bales or even land on the ground in groups of six or seven, where they look ungainly and common. Most remarkably they sometimes glide very low over the hill, slowly and gorgeously maneuvering close enough for Horace to imagine they’re studying him as he studies them. When they coast in close and silent, Horace sees how they rely on slight slants of the feathers at the tips of their wings for their turns. When he views them from below, the feathers at the backs of their wings appear startlingly white–and in late afternoon sunlight those feathers turn the brilliant reddish orange Horace associates with Apache war bonnets.
Since Sonny lives alone–and has done so since his junior year of college–it comes naturally to him to speak aloud when he’s in his little house on campus. With or without company, either way, he speaks. He’s not one to sing in the shower, but he likes to fill his spacious living room with semi-musical bellowing–O sole mio, or Oh my love, my darling are among his favorites for the moment when he steps into the room stark naked to cool off from his morning shower, which he likes so hot he can barely stand it. He also likes recitations from the Doo Wop songs of the past decade, such as My darling, I need you, and Can’t see a thing in the sky / I only have eyes for you.
Sonny’s an early riser, and so his moment of stepping naked into the living room and unleashing an operatic profession of love occurs just around daylight. One whole wall of the room is glass, on the other side of which is a slight hill that looks down onto student dormitories. The lights are off in this room when Sonny enters and saunters in his cooling-off circle that leads him back to the steamy bathroom to shave. But almost every morning the thought occurs to him that if a student happens to catch a glimpse of Professor Carson in his morning mode and reports him to Security, well, then there he’ll be, sitting in the Provost’s office again.
This particular morning, after his living room performance and his shave, and after putting his clothes on, Sonny enters his kitchen to make coffee, and he’s thinking about one thing and another, talking his way through what’s on his mind. Maybe the thing to do is give you a nickname, Clario, Clarina, Cleopatra, something just to get a little distance. Clean it up, Cleo, cauterize it before it gets out of control. Change it up. Same face, same sweet smile, same eyes that say things to me they don’t even know they’re saying–but different name. That way if you come to me in the night, it’ll just be us strangers under the covers. Nothing wrong with it if you’re Corinna and not Clara. Clara lives over there on the other side of the road with my good pal, Horace. Keeps her clothes on, sleeps in a big nightgown. Corinna makes her way over here to my house, takes her clothes off the minute she steps in the door.
Sonny gazes out his kitchen window, soliloquizing, waiting for his coffee to finish brewing, when he’s utterly stopped in his conversation by the sight of an Afton student walking up Faculty Avenue in her riding pants and riding boots, carrying her helmet. When she and Sonny are maybe ten yards from each other, she turns her eyes toward his kitchen window and sees him watching her. Sonny blushes, but he knows that the student rider is blushing, too. Lonely, lonely, little life I got here, Corinna, he sings in his Elvis voice.
His coffee is ready. When he pours it into his big mug, it comes to him that what he really loves, what he really, really, couldn’t ever possibly give up is exactly this loneliness he’s got here. Exactly this.
One afternoon Horace overhears his students talking among themselves about something they call “ring night.” He gathers that during a forthcoming campus-wide ritual, the juniors will receive their college rings from the seniors. The students’ voices suggest to Horace that ring night is something they’ve looked forward to and that there’s some naughtiness associated with it. He imagines a party with drinking, singing, and dancing, and he understands that neither boys nor faculty members will be present. From his months-long acquaintance with them, he’s known Afton students to be mostly innocent girls, almost comically less jaded and worldly than the undergraduates he knew at the University of New Hampshire and UNC. What they do among themselves is none of his business, and anyway, lately he’s been thinking about the heron. He caught a glimpse of it the day before, just a quick sighting of its wing and tail feathers as it silently maneuvered up along the narrow flight path between the tree branches that hovered above the creek. The only evidence of its visit was a bobbing limb over the water’s surface. Eventually I’ll see it, Horace promised himself.
The next afternoon, on his customary walk around the loop–after class and before he goes home to start supper–Horace notices unnaturally bright-colored feathers here and there along the hillside as he approaches the graveyard–splotches of scarlet, royal blue, yellow, orange, and green. They’re scattered, and there aren’t a great many of them, but their presence on this uniformly green hillside is somewhat mysterious, though mostly just silly.
As he comes up onto the flat hilltop, he sees a cluttered and trampled area in the field, just a few steps off the parallel paths of the roadway. Here there are more than a few of the tawdry feathers scattered in a circle in the grass that seems singed, though there is no scent of a fire. Horace steps over to the darkened place to try to make out what the other things are that he’s seeing. He finds discarded containers of chocolate syrup and whipped cream. He finds marshmallows, many of which are coated with chocolate syrup, strewn around the grass and mud. And of course he finds clots and clumps of the many-colored feathers. With what feels like considerable satisfaction–Aha! There’s more!–Horace’s mind seizes upon these details. Suddenly he’s witnessing a circle of chanting young women surrounding a smaller group of girls huddled together to withstand the shower of syrup and whipped cream and marshmallows pelting down upon them.
Horace blinks at the scene coming into focus in his mind. The girls of the inner circle have stripped down to their underwear. A couple of them are students of Horace’s–he knows their faces well. They’re wailing in real or pretend suffering. The faces of the outer circle are twisted with pleasure. One of those girls squirting a can of whipped cream steps into the inner circle to smear the stuff into the hair of one of Horace’s students. Another of them darts back and forth to the inner circle of suffering ones, smacking their bodies with clumps of feathers that stick to their skin.
Horace turns and walks briskly toward the brick walls of the graveyard a hundred and fifty yards away. He’s emotionally stirred up, but there is no clarity to what he feels. Of course he disapproves of the behavior of the students–the outer circle of seniors–but that condemnation is only a small part of what he feels. He also registers some physical nausea, but this, too, isn’t of much note. Walking ordinarily helps Horace sort out his thinking, but now each step seems to move him deeper into confusion. He’s pretty sure what he feels is guilt. An intensely piercing variety of guilt. But how can it be that? He hasn’t done anything. Has he?
Okay, Sonny can face the truth when he has to. He’s even got a joke about it–Don’t get enough abuse from anybody else, try abusing yourself. Funny? The truth is that everybody gets configured a certain way, and Sonny’s way is mostly mono-sexual. That’s just how he came into this world. Even when he’s had girlfriends–and he has, he has, plenty of ladies take an interest in somebody who’s smart and got the gift of gab like he has and somebody who might be a little bit of a jerk like he is but who’s nevertheless making an effort to be good. The ladies like me, Sonny assures himself. But even in the two semi-relationships he’s had with women who wanted sex just as much as he did, Sonny found himself looking for occasions to be with himself. To get off by myself–that’s how he would put it. From around age nine or 10, Sonny’s truest sexual fidelity has been to himself.
It’s not so much the self part of it that troubles him, it’s the others part: He moves through a lot of others. Barbara had been in the final stages of moving in to his apartment, they’d both been excited about presenting themselves to their grad student friends as a couple, when they got into an argument over whether to wash the dishes before going to bed or leave them for the next morning. It was their first and last argument–Sonny ended it by telling her, “Look, these dishes are not the problem; you’re the problem. I’ll help you move your things back over to your place in the morning,” and Barbara’s saying, “Hey–why wait till tomorrow? Let’s do it right now.” And in silence, they moved her stuff–four carloads worth of it–out of his place and back to hers. End of relationship. Sonny admits to himself that it was 80, maybe 90, percent his fault and that it was ongoing evidence of his being a jerk.
With Sue Ellen (who was probably the sweetest young woman he’s ever known), it hadn’t even gotten that far when he told her that much as he enjoyed sleeping with her–she’d been over to his place three nights in a row–he didn’t like her taste in clothes. Just like that. She just looked at him with her lip trembling. Did Sonny feel bad? Hell, no, he couldn’t wait for her to walk out of his apartment. To get her sweetness the hell out of his sight. Which she finally did after six tears–yes, Sonny counted them–rolled down her cheeks. He shut the door behind her, walked straight into his bedroom and commenced his solitary ritual. Fulfilled his true desire. When he thinks hard about the kind of life he’s evidently constructed for himself, he makes himself more than a little sick.
Okay, the worst he didn’t realize for a while, because it was located in a territory where Sonny deliberately turned off the analytical mode of his inner life. It had to do with the pictures Sonny used for what he called his “inspiration.” The pictures mostly came from the mainstream skin magazines that Sonny subscribed to. When a new issue arrived, Sonny turned the pages front to back so as to carry out a quick inventory. Then he’d set it aside and come back to it that evening, knowing exactly which picture he wanted for his evening’s pleasure. Sometimes a Miss June or a College Girl of the Midwest would inspire him for as many as three occasions. More likely, she’d endure only once, and then maybe he’d come back to her after a week or so.
And here it is: Sonny’s hooked on turnover. When that insight arrived–which was not long before he came to Afton–Sonny knew absolutely A) that no matter how hard he tries not to be, he’s doomed to be a lifelong jerk and B) that he’s unfit for a “real” relationship with a woman. No matter how much she cares about him, understands him, admires him, et cetera, he doesn’t have it in him to stick with somebody. So is everybody a discard? Sonny really doesn’t want to think so, but he behaves as if that’s the case. He understands himself to be a mutation. Jerk is precisely the right name for what he is. Jerk. Just sounding that single harsh syllable makes Sonny’s lips curl in bemusement and self-loathing.
The next two days Horace takes his walk up through the graveyard, then down the mud and gravel roadway to the place where the girls carried out their ring night antics. His heart thuds as he approaches the place, and he can’t keep himself from stopping there, or pacing around the edge of it and staring at the scattered debris. He’s up there alone, in a high place where he can see for miles to the west and north, and the weather’s warm now–full spring has arrived. Horace opines it was a seasonal force that impelled the young ladies of Afton to carry out these perverse ceremonies. He can feel the pleasure it gave that tall senior girl to squirt whipped cream over the shivering junior girl’s shoulders and smear it down her back. “Turn around!” he hears the tall one shout, and the power of her voice seems to proceed out of his own chest. “Push your bra down!” the tall one orders just before she squirts the chocolate sauce over the junior girl’s chest. He hears the laughter of the other seniors, seven or eight of them up here in the deep night. This is a thing that can happen only up here where people usually don’t go after dark. A thing that can happen only one night a year, because these girls can’t stand to show this part of themselves more than once in their four years of college.
“Get down on your knees, bitch! You made me spill this nasty stuff on my foot. Now I want you to clean it off with your tongue. And you’d better be fast about it.” This is when Horace feels a stirring in his pants. The junior girl has got down on all fours, bending her head almost to the ground to lick the senior’s foot. This tableau is so horrifyingly compelling that Horace has to force himself to turn away from the desecrated place. He makes himself lift his head and continue his walk. He’s facing the clean distance out to the southwest where the sunlit blue mountains seem to promise what Horace wants for Clara and himself. Not a pious life, but a correct one, a life without meanness.
This is new for Sonny. Every night this week he’s gone to bed with Corinna. He’s felt no desire to go to his archives for Miss Montana or page 143 of Holiday in Amsterdam. He needs nothing but his thoughts. He feels oddly pure and righteous. He imagines her doing the shimmy for him–it’s what he really, really wants–shaking her ample breasts, speaking to him breathlessly, in a tone unlike any she would use with Horace. Another language. Sonny thinks he and Corinna will probably get around to talking dirty and that she’ll find out she likes that, too. But he isn’t about to rush it.
Horace is glad the plastic bag fits into his jacket pocket. He doesn’t want to be seen carrying it up onto the hillside field, though he wants the trash still to be there, hopes that on this, the fourth day since fouling the place, the students have not returned to clean up. The students rarely come up onto the hill anyway, which suits Horace just fine. He likes having it to himself, as he almost always does. One day an art teacher brought her class up to the graveyard to do some sketching, and he’d hated that.
Today is cool but sunny, with a little breeze. Horace begins by picking up the mostly empty containers of whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Then he works on gathering the feathers, which stick to his fingers because of the chocolate that seems to be everywhere. Horace knows he has the stuff on his shoe soles, and he hopes it will wear off before he gets back to the apartment. It would be just too strange to try to explain to Clara why he’s tracked chocolate onto their wall-to-wall carpeting. Finally he picks up the marshmallows, which have an obscene, slippery feel to them from the wetness of the grass and weeds and, of course, from the chocolate. Horace realizes he’s sweating from the constant bending over and standing up. When he looks at his watch, he realizes he’s been working almost an hour, and he still has the outlying wind-blown feathers to gather up. It won’t do to leave any trace of the ring-night ritual if he can possibly help it. The longer he works on it, the more certain he becomes. The clean-up must be absolute.
Sonny runs into Clara outside the college post office. They’re face to face before Sonny has a chance to prepare himself. She’s almost a foot shorter than he is, and so he has to look down at her, which means he takes special note of her very dark, shiny, and slightly tousled hair. He’s about to say he likes her hair this way–though the truth is he hasn’t made up his mind about it–but such a comment would be just so sophomoric. So he ends up opening his mouth and closing it again before he gets caught in a trance of staring into her face. Which is an act that feels deeply wrong–it’s exactly what he’s trained himself not to do when he socializes with the Housemans. He tries to wrench his eyes off to the side.
“Hello, Sonny,” Clara says, her mouth forming a little restrained smile. He realizes that he’s never been around only her, just the two of them. Now she’s waiting for him to say something really smart or to tease her as he always does when they’re around Horace, and all he can think to say to her is that he’s never noticed how tea-cup pale her skin is and how there’s almost a shade of blue where her hair borders her temples and that these tiny dilations of her nostrils are just the most darling features imaginable. He says nothing. She’s dressed more casually than he’s ever seen her, a sweatshirt, old blue jeans, and sneakers–which makes him want to ask her if she’s doing some painting at the apartment or going for a hike or what. But then he realizes he shouldn’t be scanning her body up and down this way, and so he does a little side step to begin moving around her, at the same time he says, “Hello, Clara,” and moves toward the post office door. He sees disappointment wash over her face–he’s certain he’s not imagining that, and it makes him all the more uncomfortable. So he exerts himself to rescue the situation and blurts, “Great to see you,” as he slips through the door into the foyer. With his hand raised in a wave to her through the glass door, he backs toward the area where his post office box is located. He’s pretty sure she shakes her head ever so slightly before she turns away.
There are students milling around Sonny when his mind snaps him through a crackling sequence of thoughts. Clara possesses very little bosom at all. Clara sees Sonny as the jester who hangs around her royal husband. Clara has just landed in his discard pile. And if he could, Sonny would vaporize himself.
Beyond the Body
While Horace leans against the brick wall of the graveyard, half a dozen turkey buzzards gradually come swirling and gliding down from high up in sky, lower and lower over the hillside. The day’s sunny and breezy, so that the big birds hardly have to move their extended wings to drift through great swatches of space. He stands there, pivoting his body slowly to follow the flight of one of the birds swooping low over the grassy flank of the slanted field. The buzzards seem aware of him; they coast low and veer away only after they’ve given him a detailed view of the white undersides of their wings. I’m not dead, Horace says aloud to them. I’m many years away from that, my fine feathered friends. It feels wonderful to speak to creatures that could not care less what noise he makes, to say these words with no human being near enough to hear them.
Then Horace does something that feels both strange and right–he lifts his hand above his head, arrows his fingers toward one slowly sailing over to his left. As if it has received a command, the bird turns in his direction and drifts downward. It comes so close, then seems to float about ten yards above and directly in front of Horace. He watches it with such intensity that he feels buoyed upward. The bird’s crimson head angles down toward him. For one exultant moment Horace thinks it might actually touch his extended fingers. But of course he knows that’s a silly thought. The buzzard evidently thinks so, too, because it slowly wheels away and soars down over the hillside.
Just at twilight Sonny’s stepped out of his house and begun walking the loop around the campus. He’s never done this before, mostly because he considers himself an indoors person. But he likes this hour of the day because it puts him in a reverie over Vespers and how he and Katie walked together to St. Stephens in Queens for the Vespers services during Lent. They’d held hands. Brother and sister, they’d walked and held hands and hadn’t even thought about it, because they were children.
Horace is out here, too. He’s walked the loop a hundred times or more, but it’s unusual for him to be out at this time of day. Clara’s been invited by a friend from work to attend a concert in Riverton this evening, which has made them both rather proud of her. In these first months of their marriage, she’s spent all her evenings in the apartment. Horace has occasionally had to be out for meetings or dinners with guests of the college. Right now he’s absorbed in how this half-light changes the landscape. He won’t be seeing turkey buzzards, though he knows they roost in the trees over behind the graveyard.
Sonny’s walked past the riding barn and the tennis courts. Now he’s approaching the place where the road runs parallel to the creek. In his nine months of teaching at Afton College, he’s heard students and colleagues mention Careful Creek, but he’s never seen it before. He might have walked by without noticing it now, except for the sudden fragrance of water in the air. Sweet as rotting wood, that smell makes him think of a girl he met at Jones Beach, with whom he once ran through a thunderstorm. He can see her face, but when he tries to remember her name, it won’t come back.
Horace has taken his usual path through the graveyard. He’s heading straight across the spine of the hill. He can’t see the mountains in the distance, but the sky is lavender, and a few stars are out. If Clara were with him, she’d love this soft air and light. He gets a little stab of guilt for never having brought her up here. But he knows she’d want to linger, to savor the mood. Some of Horace’s pleasure comes from moving briskly through the landscape. He’s striding down the hill. Soon he’ll reach the creek–which he’s loved since his first day on campus.
Along the water’s edge, twilight is the hour of greatest creature activity. Catbirds, jays, bluebirds, and sparrows flit among the trees. Turtles graze the bottom. Insects dip and hover over the water’s surface. Suckers rise to take nymphs, leaving quickly disappearing circles.
The light’s faded enough that Sonny’s paying almost no attention to the creek, the trees, even the road he walks on. He’s obsessing over what happened with Clara. He knows it’s ridiculous, but he’s actually grieving over the loss of her. Coulda been faithful to you, Corinna, he murmurs to himself. Why’d you have to ambush me at the post office? Then it occurs to him that at least now he can stop torturing himself when he’s around Horace and Clara. Guess I ain’t torn no more, he says. That’s when he catches sight of it.
Horace isn’t used to this absence of light. He strains to see his usual points of interest. Along the road and in the parking lot, streetlights switch on, so that he sees a man approaching him, some poor man caught up in his troubles, walking with his head down. When the man stops in his tracks, Horace recognizes his pal Sonny. Then he looks over where Sonny’s looking. It’s what he hasn’t ever seen before, and the sight of it freezes him in place.
Sonny can’t stand to stay still and keep his mouth shut any longer. “Great Jesus–what are you?” he shouts at it. He knows it’s stupid, what he’s said.
The heron’s a ghost rising from the water, and though its wing strokes are silent, they’re powerful. In a few seconds it’s a hundred yards upstream.
“Not Jesus,” Horace says as he walks up to Sonny. He’s irked at his pal for scaring the bird away, but that dissolves when he sees Sonny’s face.
“Hey, Horace!” Sonny’s beaming. The sight of his friend fills Sonny with irrational joy. He grabs Horace’s sleeve.
For that single moment the heron was still and one-dimensional as a paper cutout, and in the light from the street it shone like platinum. To the men who witnessed it, it looked so wildly sculpted that it might have tumbled down from the moon into Careful Creek. This particular heron will never again be seen by Horace Houseman or Sonny Carson. They may never see another heron in a natural setting. But for now, under a streetlight shining down on them, these two freshman professors at Afton College grasp each other’s arms awkwardly and step in a circle. If a student saw them, she’d think they were drunk and laugh out loud. But of course they’re sober, and they’d both be embarrassed if they thought anyone had seen them.
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