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For thirty-odd years, this white narrow room at the top of a granite building in the midst of Duke University had been one place where Hutchins Mayfield never felt less than alive and useful by the day and the hour. For that long stretch he'd met his seminar students here, and this year's group was gathered for its first meeting of the week. There were fourteen of them, eight men and six women, aged nineteen to twenty-two; and by a pleasant accident, each had a winning face, though two of the men were still in the grip of post-adolescent narcolepsy frequent short fade-outs.
This noon they all sat, with Hutch at the head, round a long oak table by a wall of windows that opened on dogwoods in early spring riot; and though today was the class's last hour for dealing with Milton's early poems before moving on to Marvell and Herbert, even more students were dazed by the rising heat and the fragrance borne through every window.
In the hope of rousing them for a last twenty minutes, Hutch raised his voice slightly and asked who knew the Latin root of the word sincere.
A dozen dead sets of eyes shied from him.
He gave his routine fixed class grin, which meant I can wait you out till Doom.
Then the most skittish student of all raised her pale hand and fixed her eyes on Hutch immense and perfectly focused eyes, bluer than glacial lakes. When Hutch had urged her, months ago, to talk more in class, she'd told him that every time she spoke she was racked by dreams the following night. And still, volunteering, she was ready to bolt at the first sign of pressure from Hutch or the class.
Hutch flinched in the grip of her eyes but called her name. ''Karen?''
She said ''Without wax, from the Latin sine cere.''
''Right and what does that mean?''
She hadn't quite mustered the breath and daring for a full explanation; but with one long breath, she managed to say ''When a careless Roman sculptor botched his marble, he'd fill the blunder with smooth white wax. A sincere statue was one without wax.'' Once that was out, Karen blushed a dangerous color of red; and her right hand came up to cover her mouth.
Hutch recalled that Karen was the only member of the class who'd studied Latin, three years in high schoolman all but vanished yet nearvital skill. He thanked her, then said ''The thoroughly dumb but central question that's troubled critics of Milton's 'Lycidas' was stated most famously by pompous Dr. Samuel Johnson late in the eighteenth century. He of course objected mightily, if pointlessly, to the shepherd trappings of a pastoral poem -- what would he say about cowboy films today? He even claimed and I think I can very nearly quote him that 'He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honor.' I think he's as wrong as a critic can be, which is saying a lot; and I think I can prove it.''
Hutch paused to see if their faces could bear what he had in mind; and since the hour was nearly over, most of their eyes had opened wider and were at least faking consciousness again. So he said ''I'd like to read the whole poem aloud again, not because I love my own voice but because any poem is as dead on the page as the notes of a song unless you hear its music performed by a reasonably practiced competent musician. It'll take ten minutes; please wake up and listen.'' He grinned again.
The narcolepts shook themselves like drowned Labradors. They were oddly both redheads.
One woman with record-long bangs clamped her eyes shut.
Hutch said ''Remember now the most skillful technician in English poetry who lived after Milton was Tennyson, two centuries later. Tennyson was no pushover when it came to praising other poets very few poets are but he claimed more than once that 'Lycidas' is the highest touchstone of poetic appreciation in the English language: a touchstone being a device for gauging the gold content of metal. Presumably Tennyson meant that any other English poem, rubbed against 'Lycidas,' will show its gold or base alloy.''
Though Hutch had long since memorized the poem, all 193 lines, he looked to his book and started with Milton's prefatory note.
''In this monody the author bewails a learned friend unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish seas, 1637.''
Then he braced himself for the steeplechase run-through that had never failed to move him deeply.
''Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.''
From there on, along the crowded unpredictable way to its visionary end with Lycidas rescued and welcomed in Heaven by a glee club of saints and Christ himself, giving nectar shampoos Hutch stressed what always felt to him like the heart of the poem, its authentic cry. It sounded most clearly in the lines where Milton either feigned or surely poured out genuine grief for the loss of his college friend, Edward King, drowned in a shipwreck at age twenty-five, converted in the poem to an ancient shepherd named Lycidas and longed for in this piercing extravagant cry with its keening vowels.
''Thee shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows, and the hazel copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
Or frost to flowers, that their gay wardrobe wear,
When first the white thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd's ear.''
Ten minutes later at the poem's hushed end ''Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new'' Hutch was even more shaken than he'd meant to be. Strangely he hadn't quite foreseen a public collusion between Milton's subject and his own ongoing family tragedy. But at least he hadn't wept; so he sat for five seconds, looking out the window past the creamy white and cruciform blossoms toward the huge water oaks with their new leaves.
Then he faced the class again and repeated from memory the central lines ''Thee shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves....''When he thought they'd sunk as deep as they could into these young television-devastated brains, he said ''Estimate the wax content of those few lines.''
Even Karen looked fiummoxed again and turned aside.
Hutch tried another way.'' The sincerity quotient. Does Milton truly miss the sight of young Edward King, King's actual presence before the poet's eyes; if not, what's he doing in so many carefully laid-down words?'' When they all stayed blank as whitewashed walls, Hutch laughed. ''Anybody, for ten extra points. Take a flying risk for once in your life.'' (Through the years, except for the glorious and troubling late 1960s, most of his students had proved far more conservative than corporate lawyers.)
Finally Kim said ''He's showing off' the class beauty queen, lacquered and painted and grade-obsessed.
Whitney said ''Milton's almost thirty years old, right? Then I figure he's stretching he's using King's death as a chinning bar to test his own strengths. Can I write this thing? he seems to be saying, right through to the end.'' Since Whit was one of the midday nappers, his contributions were always surprising in their sane precision.
Still fire-truck red, Karen finally said ''I think Milton's discovering, as the ink leaves his pen, how terribly his friend drowned and vanished-they never even found the friend's corpse apparently. I think it sounds like Milton truly longs for him back.''
Hutch said ''Does it sound like longing, or does he really long?''
Karen winced and withdrew.
Whitney said ''What's the difference? Nobody can gauge that, now anyway.''
Hutch said ''Why not?''
''It's too far behind us, nearly four hundred years. The words have all changed; we can't hear their meaning.'' Whit lowered his near-white lashes like scrims down over green eyes.
Alisoun said ''Then let's all go home.'' She was six foot one, and any threat to unfold her long bones to their full height was always welcome.
Hutch asked her to explain.
''If four hundred years in the life of a language as widespread as English add up to nothing but failed communication, then I don't see any point in encouraging the human race to live another year. Let's lust quit and vacate.'' She was genuinely at the point of anger.
The other women looked officially startled; their mothering genes had felt the assault.
Erik turned his face, that was always stern, a notch or two sterner and set it on Alisoun. ''Get serious. I anyhow understand every syllable-not one of them's moved an inch in three centuries and I'm no genius of a reader, as you well know. Milton is literally desolate here, right here on this page, all this time later. The fact that he's also phenomenal at words and rhyme and music doesn't disqualify him for sincere grief. If that's been the problem about the poem since old Dr. Johnson, then it looks like critics are short on reasons to fan their gums.
''Hutch said ''Touché. They mostly are.''
But to general surprise, Karen recovered gall enough to say ''I have to disagree. Milton's mainly bragging, the way Kim said. The poem's primarily about himself 'Watch my lovely dust. Recommend me to God. Buy all my books.'''
Hutch smiled but raised a monitory finger. ''Milton didn't publish a book of poems for eight whole years after 'Lycidas.'''
So tremulous Karen took another long breath, faced Hutch unblinking and thrust toward the subject that no other student had found imaginable. ''Mr. Mayfield, have you written poems about your son?''
Startling as it was to have the question come from Karen, Hutch realized he'd waited months for someone to ask it. Now the demon's out and smashing round the room. In Karen's halting, plainly sympathetic voice, the question sounded answerable at least. Her boldness surely had to mean that the news of his son was widespread now and accepted as mentionable. Yet when Hutch looked round to all the faces -- some class was breaking up early outside; the hall was a din through the shut glass door -- all but Karen were blank as slate again. So Hutch offered the minimum he thought they could use. ''My grown son is sick with AIDS in New York. Till today no known AIDS patient has won. And no, Karen, I haven't written a word, on that subject anyhow. I doubt I ever can.''
Karen had the grace not to push on and make a connection with Milton, though she thought Anybody in genuine grief couldn't sit and write an intricate poem, not one we'd keep on reading for centuries.
But Hutch could read the drift in her eyes. ''Don't for an instant make the tempting mistake of thinking that I share Milton's powers -- nobody else in European poetry, not since Homer anyhow, can make that claim.''
Kim said ''Not Virgil, Dante or Shakespeare?''
Hutch shook his head No and suddenly felt a surge of pleasure -- a strange boiling from deep in his chest of pleased excitement to plant his feet down and crown John Milton supreme in all the great questions of life. He said ''Milton knows more than anyone else, in the western hemisphere in any case, in verse anyhow; and he's nine-tenths right on almost every question. Shakespeare is all a zillion bright guesses, bright or pitch-dark -- not one single answer. Dante knows just one big urgent thing.''
Whitney said ''Which is?''
Hutch said '''No rest but in your will' -- the your means God of course.''
Kim scowled, the regulation atheist.
And Karen's eyes plainly showed that she felt Hutch had shortchanged the subject she raised -- his son's present illness.
So he faced her directly and tried to give more. ''Even Milton will have found that not every loss, however picturesque, and not every joy, however rhythmic, will submit itself as poetry fodder -- as food for new poems.''
Karen accepted that but wanted still more. ''Can you think of a sadness or a genuine pleasure that wouldn't submit when you yourself tried to write it out?''
Hutch knew at once. ''In fact, I can -- oh many times over. But one in particular strikes me today. I'll be dealing with it again -- in my life, not my work -- in another few hours. Soon as I leave you today, I'll be driving up to my family's homeplace in the rolling country north of here, up near Virginia, for what should be a mildly pleasant occasion. We'll be celebrating the 101st birthday of a cousin of mine, named Grainger Walters. I've known the event was coming for a long time and have tried more than once to write a poem that would say what that man's meant to me since the day I was born -- a kind of older brother when my mother died, a surrogate father when my father died young, even a species of bighearted alien from some kind of Paradise, guarding and guiding me fairly successfully for six long decades. But a poem won't come, or hasn't come yet.''
Whitney said ''Do you understand why?''
''Not fully, no I don't. But I'm fairly sure the problem's buried somewhere in the fact that I'm all white -- pure Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genes, to the best of my knowledge -- and Grainger Walters is part black, the grandson of one of my Aryan great-grandfathers on up in Virginia, in Reconstruction days.''
Whitney suddenly strummed an imaginary banjo and sang to the tune of ''Way Down Upon the Swanee River,
''Hankey-pankey on the old plantation,
Far, far away.''
Alisoun said ''It's already been written.''
Hutch was puzzled.
''By Mary Chestnut in her famous diary; by Faulkner, in every paragraph -- by Robert Penn Warren too, a whole slew more. won't that be the main reason you're stymied? The job's been done.''
Since Hutch was a poet, not a novelist, the fact had never quite dawned that harshly. He instantly suspected She's at least a third right. But he said ''Wouldn't the fact that every one of you is white, that a black student at this university -- or any other -- very seldom takes courses in literature, mean that you're wrong? Far from being done to death, the subject of race in America -- race in its deepest historical and moment-by-moment contemporary ramifications -- has barely reached the level of audibility in our literature, much less the level of sane portrayal. A world of explaining remains to be done.''
Alisoun's answer was long-since ready. ''I've noticed how scarce blacks are in this department, yes; but the reason for that has got to be, they know you'll tell them nothing but lies -- our solemn white poems and stories about human one-ness, all our feeble alibis for common greed and meanness and worse: torture, murder. Every black student here, and I know quite a few -- I've made it my little white-girl project for the past three years -- has got those lies bred into their bones. They don't need to read Old Master's effusions. What have we got to tell them, we Western white folks, in poems and plays?''
Her immaculate pale green cotton sweater and short string of pearls had misinformed Hutch; he was shocked by her force. I'll think about that on the road today. For the present he could only say what he trusted. With all the self-trust of a lifelong teacher, his mind chose to seize the wheel of the talk and turn it his way. ''What conceivable subject -- any subject comprehensible to humans at least, of whatever color -- hasn't been done to death? The fact that Milton wrote 'Lycidas' has hardly prevented the writing of later great poems about dead youth.''
Alisoun said ''Name two.''
Hutch said ''Take three, off the top of my head -- Tennyson's 'In Memoriam,' Arnold's 'Thyrsis,' Robert Lowell's 'Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.'''
Erik said ''But isn't the theme of early death a whole lot more universal and available than the historical accident of Anglo and Afro-American miscegenation for three hundred years in a highly particular steamy place called the old Confederacy?''
Hutch waited, then had to say ''Thanks for the question; I need to think it over. I will admit I don't think William Faulkner is a genius compared to, say, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Faulkner knew a small hot patch of ground he invented; it lacked huge chunks of the actual world -- real women, for example: just half the human race unaccounted for. And responsible fathers, which many men are. Mothers who can love and not smother their young. Faulkner was the best student of wild and tame animals I've yet found in fiction; but as for his using up any large subject you'd meet in the real world, except maybe whiskey -- you recall Hemingway always called him 'Old Bourbon Mellifluous,' a well-aimed spear from one who'd consumed his own share of gin -- well, all Faulkner exhausted was runaway English; country show-off prose.
''And no other writer, since Faulkner drank himself out of sane action by the age of fifty, has really dived deep into that huge maelstrom called miscegenation on Southern ground -- the feeding of white on black, black on white -- though the problem has gone much further toward both solution and utter insolubility than Marse Will Faulkner ever dreamed possible.''
Hutch looked up to Alisoun, who'd waited him out, and smiled broadly at her. ''I'll prophesy for you what I'm likely to feel, if I think your question through for years -- I very much doubt that any reality that's widely experienced by human beings is ever worn out, not so long as the right he or she takes it up in flaming-new language.''
More than half the class now realized that the teacher had left himself open for a body blow. Are you the right man, and where're your deathless flaming-new words? But every watch showed the hour was ending.
So Hutch said ''I promise you more of an answer; but for now, one final word from the foreman here -- words as freshly minted and potently thrusting as the words of 'Lycidas' all but never come out of a human mind for any reason less than enormous feeling, a nearly stifling pressure to speak. My money anyhow is on John Milton's being mightily moved by his young friend's drowning -- by the chance that such a random disaster could fall on himself -- and by the near-sure existence of a just afterlife. But believe what you will, if the poem will support you. I'll see you on Wednesday. Read Andrew Marvell.''
Only Kim slid her chair back to rise.
Late as it was, the others seemed held in place, unsatisfied.
Hutch actually asked himself Are they facing their own eventual deaths?
And they held still another long moment -- even Kim balked, unsatisfied but gripped.
To free them, Hutch said the only thing that came. It was anyhow truthful. ''This poem -- 'Lycidas' -- means more to me than all but a few of the humans I've known, more than most anything I've ever owned or tried to keep. Except of course for my lost son -- he's lost to me; how I can't bear to tell you. If the world hadn't turned up creatures like Milton -- or Keats or Handel -- every century or so, I doubt I could live through the thought of my young son dying in pain, too far from me, refusing any help and even his mother's.'' He knew it sounded a little mad, maybe more than a little.
But none of their eyes betrayed fear or laughter; and even when they'd filed silently past him toward their crowded unthinkable lives -- Whit's hand touched his shoulder as he went -- the rising in Hutch's chest boiled on. What in God's name has got me happy?
The rising continued as Hutch stopped by his office to check the mail. He'd no sooner sat, though, before someone knocked -- a tall man behind the opaque glass. A little annoyed, Hutch called ''Come in.'' The darkhaired, dark-bearded man was familiar on sight anyhow -- Hutch had noticed him on the stairs and in the hallways for maybe two years. He was almost certainly a graduate student; but he held in place on the threshold, not speaking.
Hutch stood. ''I'm Hutchins Mayfield. May I help you?''
Entirely serious, the man said ''I very much doubt you can.''
Then check out immediately. But all Hutch said was ''We may never know if you don't fill me in.'' He motioned to the single red-leather chair that stood by his desk, for student callers.
Then the man launched a sudden spectacular smile, stepped in, shut the door and took the red chair. When Hutch was seated, the man held out a hand. ''I'm Hart Salter, sir, a doctoral candidate. I've watched you for years.''
''I've noticed you around, yes, but didn't see you watching me. You're bound to be bored.''
Again Hart took it seriously. ''Not bored exactly. Not fascinated either. I guess I've always tried to guess how poems get into your head from space.''
Hutch had taught one genuine lunatic student a few years back. Is this a fresh psycho? He thought he'd try first to lighten the tone. With both hands far above his head, he indicated the shape of a drainpipe running from thin air through the top of his skull. ''There's a long invisible pipeline, see, from the spring of the muses directly into my cerebral cortex.''
Hart said ''I've got no doubt about that.''
''Good. I only wish it were true.''
Hart said ''You fooled me. I've read all your poems; you're a real self-starter.''
''Warm thanks, Mr. Salter. I'm a cold engine now, a minor dud.'' Then dreading what was almost surely the answer, Hutch asked the question that seemed required. ''You write poems yourself?.'' The thought of a manuscript thrust at him here felt as real as a knife.
''Not a line of poetry, not since high school. No, I guess you're wondering why I'm here.''
''I had begun to wonder. I'm due out of here in the next ten minutes --''
Hart sprang up at once. ''I don't want to hold you.''
''No, sit by all means and tell me your errand.''
So Hart folded his endless legs again and sat. ''I'm in deep water, sir. It's in my marriage. I figured a poet might help me swim out.''
For the past three decades, student strangers had occasionally dropped in with personal problems for the resident poet. One excruciating twenty minutes had followed when a young man with hideous face burns had walked in to show Hutch the poems he'd written about his fate -- a gasoline bomb that had left him a monster. But has any lovelorn certified adult ever asked for love-help? Almost surely not. Hutch said ''My record on love is dismal, Mr. Salter. I'm alone as a dead tree.''
''Call me Hart, please -- Hart.'' He smiled his winning smile again. ''This is idiotic of me, I know; but since I've committed this ludicrous folly, let me ask one question.''
Hutch held up a finger and laughed. ''One question then, entirely free of charge.''
''How do you ever convince a woman that you actually love her?''
Hutch had noticed Hart's wedding band. ''You're presently married?''
''Yes sir, for three years, fully sworn at the altar with God and man watching --''
''God and humankind, Hart. Maybe you need a crash course in -- what? -- 'gender-sensitive language'?''
''Sir, if I get any more sensitive, my blood will ooze out of these fingernails.'' Hart showed ten long thick fingernails, well tended. ''The problem is, my wife can't believe me. I'm loyal as any Seeing Eye dog, I do well over half the chores (she works full-time in the Botany greenhouse), my body has never once cheated on her, I say the word love to her on the quarter-hour whenever we're together, but she says she literally cannot believe me. This morning she said she felt as abandoned as the world's last swallow.''
Hutch smiled. ''Assuming she meant the last bird, I like her image.''
''Oh she can crucify you, by the minute, with images.''
Hutch said ''Try writing her short letters maybe, that she can keep and reread at will. Try your first adult poem.''
''I guessed you'd say that.''
''What else could I say? -- you called on a poet.''
Hart flushed as fiercely as Karen, last hour. But he leaned back, thrust a broad hand into his jeans and brought out a single folded index card. ''I wrote the poem, just now in the local men's room. May I read it to you? -- I think it's a haiku.''
''By all means then -- no epic recitations though.''
Hart opened the card, spread it on his right knee but never looked down as he said
''In all this thicket of straight white trees,
A single burning bush, concealing you.''
Hutch said ''Well, it may be a little too bold to be a haiku; but it's striking all right. Will she mind the touch of eros?''
''No, that's one thing that's never been a problem.''
Hutch said ''Oh bountifully lucky pair!'' Then he pointed to his phone. ''Call your wife right now; read the poem to her, more than once. I'd be glad to hear it from any mate of mine.'' He was suddenly eager for Hart to succeed, so eager he threw off his usual caution about recognizing real poetry, however modest. ''I've got to leave, Hart. I'm overdue for my own family business. But use my phone for as long as you like; lust shut the door as you leave -- it locks itself.''
Hart half rose. ''I couldn't.''
''You can. You already have, with your poem. Now read it to -- who? You never said her name.''
''Stacy. Stacy Burnham -- she's kept her old name.''
Hutch was on his feet now. ''If you think it's appropriate, you can say I believe you.''
Hart said ''I may need to deep-six that.'' But then he could smile. He rose too, shook Hutch's hand again, then sat and carefully placed the phone call.
Only when he'd heard Hart's voice say ''Stacy?'' did Hutch shut the door behind him and go.
Two hours later, for whatever reason, Hutch was still nearly happy. The feeling that had sprung up at noon, in class, had only strengthened with the start of his trip. And against strong odds, it had lasted till now when he was in sight of his destination. At first he'd thought the change was caused by the day itself -- an early April afternoon, new leaves overhead, the deeps of the woods splodged with redbud and dogwood, the air desert-clear. The landscape twenty miles northeast of Durham had begun a slow change through another forty miles into what was still the land of Hutch's childhood, the only nature he'd loved on Earth, though he'd stood in various stages of awe in the presence of sights from the Jericho wilderness north to Lapland, west to Beijing and south to Rio.
In calm defiance of rusting billboards, trailer parks and all other man-made waste and ruin, the country Hutch drove through briskly was caught in its nearly invisible rolling -- a broad-backed brown and green undulation beneath dense evergreens and a wide pitched sky as royal-blue as the eyes of a watchful year-old boy or the banner at a high chivalric tilt in dark-age France. To Hutch it seemed, as it always had since his own father told him, the actual skin of a slumberous creature the size of a quarter of east Carolina and southside Virginia -- a creature that might yet prove benign if it ever roused and faced the living.
And as always, again Hutch pushed on silently across the broad hide, hoping at least to pass unseen in his odd elation. Or was his pleasure a simple prediction of the evening ahead, a birthday supper for his ancient cousin? Hutch slowed a little for the final curve, glanced to the rear-view mirror above him and grinned at his face.
After all these years it still surprised him to see how, this far along in life, he'd come to look like Rob his father who'd died a younger man than Hutch was today. Not that Rob was an unlikable model -- the same braced brow and jaw, the brown unflinching eyes, the still dark hair with its broad swag of white. So Hutch actually spoke to himself, ''You're bearing up better than you ought to be.'' It was true but the words hardly touched his pleasure as he entered the drive and stopped past the main house, by the vast oak -- his father's old homeplace, which Hutch had rented to friends years ago.
He sat still a moment and tested again this strange new feeling. Despite the bitter sadness and loss he knew was bound toward him -- him and his family -- Hutch felt like a lucky man on a hill. And he guessed it was not some temporary boost, ignited by the weather or a quick jet of natural endorphins in his blood. He'd had long stretches of joy all his life and he trusted pleasure. It had lasted for two hours alone on the road, and it somehow promised to last a good while. For an instant, it even crossed his mind that his sexual force might come back again. Except for occasional bouts with his own hand, sexual will had all but left him months ago when he learned for sure that his son was desperately ill at a distance. Yet he knew all feeling, all longing for love, must hide now -- for weeks or months -- till he buried his only child, his son who was dying in upper Manhattan, refusing phone calls or visits from home.
Hutch reached for his cousin's birthday gift and climbed out into pure good-smelling sun. He shut his eyes and let the light warm his face and neck. Then he looked around him. No other car or truck, no other human in sight or hearing -- Strawson and Emily must be in town. But Hutch had known this house and its setting all his life. He'd spent the best part of his boyhood here; it knew him well enough to let him arrive with no boisterous welcome. Only the fat old Labrador bitch on the porch turned to check; and once she knew him, she spared herself barking. Hutch called to her ''Maud, it's the Friendly Slasher -- go back to sleep.''
Maud ignored the news and resumed her watch on the empty road.
So Hutch walked on toward the squat white guest-house beyond the stable. The clapboard was freshly painted, the roof was sporting new bright green shingles, and every window was shut and shaded against the light. Once Hutch was there though, the door stood open. Even the rusty screen was propped wide.
A single day-moth made a lunge to enter, then fell back as if a broad hand had struck it.
Hutch paused at the foot of the three rock steps and spoke at a low pitch. ''Anybody breathing?'' A keen-eared child, or a bat, might have heard him. He was testing his cousin's ears and brain.
The voice that answered was lean and light, a note or two higher than in the old days but firm and unbroken with no growl or husk. ''One mean old soul in here; that's it -- enter at your own risk.''
Hutch said ''I'm hunting a birthday boy named Grainger Walters. You seen him today?''
The voice stayed put but spoke even stronger. ''He's not your boy but I've seen him every time I looked in the mirror for one-damn-hundred- and-one years today.''
''You're not in there with some young girl?''
''Haven't seen a girl in thirty, forty years. You coming in or not? -- I can't stand up.'' But there were sounds of a creaking chair, a tall body unfolding itself and then steps toward the door. A man was slowly there in the doorway behind the screen -- long powerful hands, skin the color of the starched khaki pants and shirt, brown eyes that had turned almost a pale sky-blue.
At first that seemed to Hutch the one sign of unusual age -- the eyes and the skin that lightened with every year as if time were canceling the first fact about this palpable body: its mingled blood. Hutch hadn't seen the old man in nearly four months. If there'd been a real change, it was maybe the eyebrows. The last of the snow-white eyebrows were gone, and the head was as hairless as any bronze bust. Then Hutch realized that the skull itself seemed larger and grander, grown to accommodate the huge filmy eyes. Otherwise the old man stood straight as ever since Hutch had known him -- a little shrunk in the chest and thighs but bolt upright and balanced steadily. ''Happy birthday, Cousin Grainger -- and a hundred more.''
Grainger Walters had given up smiling long since, except at unpredictable moments for unannounced reasons; but he showed the remains of his strong teeth now, and he tipped his bare head. ''Fall down here in the dirt on your knees, and pray I die after supper tonight.''
Hutch said ''Whoa here.''
''Whoa nothing -- I'm tired. Haven't slept since Christmas.''
''Why?'' Hutch had asked without thinking.
''If you don't know my reason, fool -- if you been sleeping good yourself -- then leave that package here on my stoop and head on out.'' Grainger turned and vanished back to his chair.
At first Hutch edged his way to the door and laid the gift where he'd been told to leave it. A powerful urge to run shot through him. If anyone living knew Hutch Mayfield from sole to crown, it was this old soul who'd say what he meant if he felt the need or the merest whim. Hutch waited the urge out; then climbed the steps and entered, shutting the screen door behind him. It took a whole minute before his eyes had opened to the indoor darkness, and while he waited he said ''You'll ruin your eyes in this dark.''
Grainger said ''Trying to. What do I need to see?''
''You might like to see how well I'm doing. I've trimmed off eight pounds since last Christmas; everybody thinks I'm ten years younger.''
''Not me'' Grainger said. ''You're sixty-three years old and look it -- sit down.''
Hutch said ''My birthday's not for six weeks. Don't rush me please.'' But he sat in the rocker across from the automatic chair he'd bought as a gift the previous spring when Grainger turned a hundred. You pressed a button; it gradually rose and stood you up with no exertion. When Hutch's eyes could finally see, he looked around the space for changes.
Nothing obvious, just the same strict order Grainger had laid down all his life, wherever he lived. This main room had its two good chairs and a long pine table against the wall with dozens of pictures framed above it -- various kin whom he and Hutch shared, caught in photographs ranging from the 1850s to now.
The center of the cluster was a single oval tinted picture of Grainger's wife Gracie, long gone and dead. The other face that caught at Hutch was his own child Wade at about age ten, in a fork of the oak tree not fifty yards from this dim room. Beside it was a tall dark picture of Rob, his own dead father and Grainger's great friend. No one had ever looked finer than Rob, not the way he was here, in summer whites for high-school commencement more than seventy years past -- a smiler as charged with electric attraction as the magnetic poles. All the others were distant kin and friends, a few stiff generals from the First World War (and oddly the Kaiser with his comical mustache) plus three or four modern Democratic politicians and Jacqueline Kennedy, a stalled gazelle of inestimable worth.
Otherwise there was only a big oil stove, a television and the neat narrow bed. It all looked as new and nearly unused as when Hutch had paid for Grainger and two boys to build the place thirty some years back. The kitchen and bathroom doors were shut.
When Hutch didn't speak but went on looking, Grainger said ''You planning to sell me out? It's worth every penny you paid me to build it -- two thousand, three hundred, twenty-two dollars and eighty-six cents. I got the receipts.'' He actually pressed his chair button to rise.
''Sit still please -- sit as long as you want. Every piece of this is yours and has always been.''
''Emily don't think so.''
It riled Hutch instantly. ''Emily's dead wrong.''
Grainger pointed through the wall toward the main house. ''She's all the time saying how much it cost them to keep me warm.''
It was then Hutch realized the oil stove was burning, though the front door was open. He put his palm out toward the heat. ''You know this blast furnace here is roaring?''
Grainger said ''I do.''
''Shall I shut the door?''
''Shall not. Mind your business.'' But he may have smiled again. ''I'm drying my clothes.''
Hutch looked -- had Grainger started fouling his pants? Then he noticed another khaki dress shirt, neatly hung on a wire hanger from the window ledge near the stove, and a pair of white socks. ''You put out a wash? I pay Emily money to wash your clothes.''
Grainger said ''She don't get them dry enough -- make my bones ache.''
''I warned her about that here last Christmas.''
''Remind her again; her memory's failing.''
Hutch said ''She's a whole lot younger than me.''
''You failing too.'' Grainger suddenly focused on Hutch's face and gave it a thorough search. He'd watched it make every change it had made, through six decades.
''Me failing?'' Hutch grinned. ''I'm in fairly good shape; taught school today.'' He flexed both arms in their blue sleeves.
Grainger shook his head firmly No. ''You're worse than you ever been in your life; you'll be worse soon.''
At first Hutch thought it was old-man meanness or hard-edged teasing. But then he wondered what Grainger knew. Hutch had never mentioned his grown son's illness; Emily and Straw knew little about it, if anything; surely Ann hadn't blabbed. Hutch said ''You know something l don't know?''
Grainger froze up slowly through the next long minute. He sat in place perfectly still; then again his eyes found Hutch's face as if they'd dug up the bones of a hand with scraps of skin. His old eyes were brimming.
So Hutch said ''Wade? You heard from Wade?''
Grainger nodded but offered no more.
''Just now. First thing this morning, still dark outdoors.'' Grainger pointed to the telephone screwed to the wall by the head of his bed.
''Wade called you today?''
''Wade calls me every birthday I've had since he could talk.''
''He told you he's sick?''
Grainger said ''I could hear it.''
''You ask how he was?''
''He told me himself.''
Hutch suddenly felt cut loose from a chain and flinging through space. ''He tell you it's this terrible AIDS?''
''This plague that's speeding all over the world, that kills you by wiping out your whole immune system so you're helpless to every germ and virus --''
Grainger said ''I watch the TV. I'm not on the moon yet.''
Hutch could grin briefly. ''But Wade told you himself, today?''
''You don't know how your one child's doing?''
That hurt more than Hutch's own deep self-blame. He said ''Wade hasn't talked to me in three months.''
''Try calling him up. They invented the phone when I was a boy.''
Hutch said ''He won't answer me, hangs up soon as he hears my voice.''
Again Grainger waited to estimate if Hutch could take the fresh news. He finally said ''Then you don't know he's blind.''
''Oh my Jesus --'' For an instant Hutch felt he'd pitch flat forward on the bare oak floor.
Grainger just nodded.
Then another man's voice called from well out of sight somewhere in the yard. ''Mr. Walters, you seen that out-of-work poet we used to know?''
Hutch knew it had to be Straw, Strawson Stuart -- the friend to whom he'd rented the place for nearly thirty years. Nobody but Strawson called Grainger Mr. Walters.
Grainger looked to Hutch and waved his hand slightly at the door. ''Go show him it's you. Tell him I ain't dead.''
Hutch was still too dazed to obey. So he and Grainger waited, silent, as footsteps came toward them.
Though Hutch had seen Straw on campus at Duke for a basketball game a month ago, there was always a welcome jolt in running across him in person and seeing how little his excellent face and body had changed in the forty years since he was Hutch's student in prep school in Virginia -- Hutch's first real job and his first strong taste of what seemed love at its full hot tilt. And here, for all of Grainger's news about Wade, Hutch stood up smiling to shake Straw's hand -- an enormous hand that always engulfed you a second longer than you intended and, above it, the nearly black eyes that would have looked natural in the face of a hurtling Mongol rider.
They were set, a little slant, in a head as strong and encouraging to see as any antique head of a grown man -- the Dying Gaul or Augustus Caesar in the prime of power, a face you'd follow through narrow straits. Hutch had lasted well enough too, but he always had to remind himself that Straw was only seven years younger -- fifty-six years old and tanned by bourbon like a well-cured hide yet untouched at the core by the years he'd breasted.
Straw let go of Hutch's hand and turned to Grainger. ''How long's he been here?''
Grainger said ''Time don't mean nothing to me. You ask him.'' He hooked an enormous thumb toward Hutch.
Hutch went to his chair; but since there was no seat for Straw but the floor or Grainger's bed, he stood and faced Straw. ''I've still got some of my faculties intact -- I can estimate I got here twenty minutes ago. You charging parking time in the drive?'' Hutch was only half joking; something was wrong here. Was Straw on the verge of one of his drunks (they'd grown increasingly rare in recent years but could still throw him badly for weeks at a time), or had Grainger let Straw know about Wade?
Straw said ''Oh no, I'm just guarding Mr. Walters. He promised he'd rest all afternoon so we wouldn't wear him out tonight.''
Hutch looked to Grainger and could see no sign of impatience or fatigue. But he also reminded himself he could see no adequate sign that this live body had lasted one year more than a century.
Grainger lifted a hand for quiet. ''Old Mrs. Joe Kennedy -- Miss Rose Fitzgerald, you know, the President's mother? She lust turned a hundred and three, going strong up yonder on the Cape Cod beach. Nobody tells her when to sleep or wake.''
Straw was suddenly as peaceful as the boy he'd been when Hutch first knew him, before the first drunk. He said to Grainger ''Well, Hutchins and I aren't President yet and you're no rose. Emily's up at the house now cooking the party. It's the size of a circus and headed your way. So Hutch and I plan to find beds and lie down to rest up for it. Let's stretch you out for a little nap too.'' Straw went to the old man and took his elbow to help him rise.
Grainger shook Straw off and pressed his stand button.
Hutch went to the other side to help Straw guide the frail bones to bed.
But once the chair had stood him upright, Grainger held in place to loosen his collar -- the pearly button; he never wore a tie. Then on his own he moved to the bed with no sign of age but a kind of dream slowness like fleeing in a nightmare with no hope of rescue.
First Grainger sat on the edge of the bed, then laid his head back and drew up his legs. Only then did he ask for help. ''Strawson, take my shoes off.''
Straw untied the clean black brogans and slipped them off. Beneath them the feet were in high thick cotton socks, spotlessly white.
Grainger said ''Hutchins, help smooth out my pants.''
Hutch arranged the khaki pants along and around the legs they covered -- smoothing wrinkles, straightening creases.
The old man's eyes were shut by then, the eyeballs big as pullet eggs through the thin tan lids. He hooked his thumbs in the waist of his pants. ''Now both of you cover my feet. I'm cold.''
Straw looked to Hutch; both silently grinned and together unfolded the green summer blanket and laid it over the legs, to the knees.
They were shutting the door when Grainger said ''Too mean to die.''
As Hutch glanced back, he met the opalescent eyes, open on him again.
Grainger told Hutch ''I'm talking about nothing but me. Nobody you know.''
Hutch said ''I've known you every day of my life.'' It was literally true and he had clear memories from as early as two and three years old of this same soul here.
But the old eyes shut again. ''That's what you think. Live on in the dark.'' Grainger gave a rough grumble and waved the boys off -- two tall men in late midlife, whose ages combined exceeded his by a mere eighteen years. Before they'd both got down his front steps, he was gone in sleep, entirely serene.
Outside Hutch turned toward the main house. A nap might not be a bad idea, or an hour alone in deep country quiet.
Straw, though, had turned left toward the pine woods. From a hundred yards' distance, the trees were so dense they looked more like a bulwark than trees, some old fortification abandoned but guarding still its forgotten cause. When Hutch didn't follow, Straw looked back. ''We need a short walk.''
Hutch fell in five yards behind him. They didn't make a sound between them till they were deep enough in the pines for all other signs of human life to be screened out so thickly that civilization seemed denied. Hutch thought he and Straw might have been air-dropped on an island owned by nothing but evergreens, a brown bird or two and the dark gray owl they startled awake (it flew ahead like a spirit guide in an Indian tale).
He and Straw were in sight of a small clearing with a single whitebarked sycamore before Hutch knew he was being led down the same dry path they'd taken thirty-seven years ago after they'd buried Rob, Hutch's father, and Straw had flunked out of Washington and Lee in his first semester and moved here with Grainger while Hutch went back to England to finish his graduate study. Hutch even spoke out now. ''You picking this same old trail on purpose?''
Straw never turned. ''What trail?''
''The one we took in '56 when I flew back from Rome for Rob's funeral.''
Straw said ''Sure, since you noticed, I did. Walk on a short way.''
The leafy ground began a slow decline toward the valley, and step by step Hutch could barely believe the near-silent show of early spring fullness. There were spry red cardinals every few yards. At his feet there were frequent blooms of a shape and color he'd never seen, and overhead there were glimpses of a sky so blue it seemed to be working to match the pleasure he'd felt today on the road. But what kept slamming against Hutch's eyes was not this masterful calm unfolding -- a natural life indifferent to him and all his kind, proceeding along its immortal rails -- but the new raw idea of his son's face, blind with all its other punishments, if Grainger was right. And what Hutch asked himself every step was What am I doing on a sightseeing hike five hundred miles from my only child, who needs me whether he'll say so or not?
After the better part of a mile, Straw pushed on faster ahead, then stopped with his back toward Hutch and waited stock-still.
Hutch came on and stopped in reach of Straw. Only then did he realize they'd come to a place he'd never seen, not in the childhood years he'd roamed these woods alone or with Rob or Grainger. Fifty yards downhill from where he and Straw stood, a wide creek ran in banks so even and clean that the whole scene looked manmade and tended.
The bed of the creek was deep and apparently clear of rocks; but hundreds of rocks in every shade of brown and white paved the banks and made a thick border, far as Hutch could see, to left and right. In broad clumps, scattered among the boulders, were flowers a foot high -- a bright egg-yellow. Late wild jonquils maybe?
The scene was admirable but a little funny. It had the look of an accidental stretch of city park, spliced in here and lost. Hutch looked to Straw to check for signals. Was he meant to laugh at the incongruities or praise whoever had curbed raw nature into this tame stretch?
Straw's eyes brimmed tears, though none had yet fallen.
Hutch said ''It's handsome. Who do we thank?''
''Grainger gets down here to tend all this?''
Straw hadn't faced Hutch, but he knuckled at his eyes and sat on the dry ground. ''Grainger spent most of his spare time, twenty-odd years ago, making this place right. He'd sometimes be down here in the neardark, hauling rocks till I'd come down and make him quit.''
''What was he planning?''
Straw said ''He never told me and I never asked. You know me -- I leave people to their own designs.''
''But somebody's keeping it up, I can see -- not Emily surely?''
Straw said ''Emily doesn't know it's here. Hell, Em doesn't know we live in the country, not for all the looking around she's done. Never walks an inch beyond the garden. No, I keep this place up, after every big storm -- pull on my hipboots and gouge it out again. I put in a hundred new bulbs last winter; every one of them lived. I take pictures of it for Grainger to see -- he hasn't been down here for, oh, eighteen years.''
Hutch had also sat and by now the sight looked more appropriate. The water even sounded pure and free-flowing from some intentionally guarded source way uphill from here. ''Why do you think he did it, back here where nobody much would see?''
Straw finally faced Hutch; his eyes had a trace of their old ferocity -- eyes you might see as your last sight before violent death. But his voice was low and steady on. ''Mr. Walters told me, fiat-out plain, the day he finished. He'd asked me, weeks before, to leave him be -- just let him work down here alone. But finally late one fall afternoon, he quietly found me when Em was in town. He led me to this spot, sat me down and said 'It's all I can leave you, Strawson.' I begged his pardon; I didn't understand. So he tried again. He laughed a long time -- he'd almost quit laughing, even back then -- and he said 'Your inheritance. My deathbed gift. Keep it clean in my memory.' I thanked him and then said 'You killing yourself some evening soon?'
''He picked that over in his mind and laughed again. 'It hasn't come to me that direcfiy, no. Very few black people kill themselves -- you noticed that? -- not with razors or guns, not fast anyhow. No, I'm just thinking I'm past eighty years old. The Bible doesn't promise but three score and ten; and very few of my family, black or pink, lived nearly that long.' So I told him I was sure we'd celebrate his hundredth together. He said he partly hoped I was right. Then he never mentioned the place again -- never came back down here, not to my knowledge; never asks me one word about it, even when I show him the pictures I take.''
Hutch owned all the land they'd crossed to get here; he owned this valley. Years back he'd tried to give it to Straw when Straw's daughter was born, an only child. But Straw had said he didn't want to ''lay up treasure''; instead, let him keep on supervising the Negro tenant who worked the tobacco and running the place on straight half-shares (Straw had money from his own dead mother). So Hutch thanked Straw for tending Grainger's peculiar improvement.
And Straw agreed as solemnly as if they'd concluded a treaty exchanging some isthmus or bridge.
Hutch couldn't help smiling. ''Hell, we may have the core of a gold mine on our hands -- buy the rest of the county, clear-cut all the trees, build a cinderblock music hall for tacky stars from Las Vegas and Nashville, run a paved road back here, build parking lots, lure in busioads of senior citizens; and I'll sell tickets when I retire. That'll be any day.''
For a moment, as he generally did, Straw took the idea seriously. Then his mouth seemed to fill with bile; he turned aside to spit. When he spoke to Hutch's eyes, it came straight as a tracer. ''I can see what you've turned into, friend. You can thank your Jesus that Wade is blind; he won't have to watch.''
Hutch actually thought Nothing anyone's said till now in my life was harder than that. In another ten seconds it still felt true. Hutch still hadn't smelt any liquor on Straw; he couldn't recall an offensive word he'd said to Straw in two decades (it had been twenty years since he'd criticized Emily for her Puritan-mother primness and jealousy). Had some postponed toll for years of self-loathing come down on Straw and poisoned him bad enough to flush hate from him -- not only hate but unearned nonsense, however well phrased? What does he see I've turned into?
Hutch thought through that before he registered Straw's main news. Straw knows about Wade. So Grainger's told him. Hutch had known since Christmas that Wade still phoned Grainger every few weeks, but he'd had no inkling that Grainger knew about the plague and its symptoms. And he'd never asked Grainger to keep anything he knew about Wade from Straw and Emily. Hutch himself, though, had kept it from Straw and everyone else except his own ex-wife -- Wade's mother Ann. Ann had been on her own for more than a year since leaving Hutch when she passed sixty-one.
Straw said ''You don't deserve that from me.'' He knocked a fist on Hutch's shin.
Hutch waited, thanked him but then said ''What have I turned into?''
Straw looked him over thoroughly again, shook his head in honest bafflement and said ''Can we talk about Wade instead? We might help him.''
''What don't you know?''
Straw said ''How long have you known Wade's sick?''
''Since late last summer, eight or nine months.''
''Did Wade tell you outright or call his mother first?''
Hutch thought Might have known Straw would go for the quick. He almost laughed. ''Wade came for a visit two winters ago. I hadn't quite guessed what Ann had in mind, and I doubt Wade knew before he arrived, but Ann had her own plans cooking by then. She was already hunting modest quarters to start her 'lunge at self-reliance' -- honest to God, she was calling it that. So sometime during that three-day visit, she brought young Wade in on her thrilling secret, and he helped her find the place she's rented out toward Hillsborough on Pleasant Green Road.
''Sometime on that same visit, Wade told her his trouble -- by then he'd only had minor infections -- and asked if he could count on coming home when he got bad. According to Ann, Wade asked if she could stand to move back in with me long enough to see him through to his own end, if the end-time came and he needed help? You know how Wade had shied off visits this far south in recent years, how he'd barely see us when we went to New York and then nowhere but in public restaurants or dark theaters -- he and his super-Afro friend.''
Straw said ''Wyatt Bondurant?''
''None other, the scourge of pink Caucasians. Anyhow, back to my sad story -- Ann's squatty little self-reliant house can barely hold her and her big designs on self-improvement, much less a man at least as sick as anybody left on Earth. But Ann told Wade she'd give all she had; she couldn't speak for me -- he must ask me himself. For whatever reasons, though, Wade left without asking me; and Ann didn't mention one word of his trouble till after she'd been on her own for long months.
''Then she called me one evening and asked to come by on the pretext of bringing me some jackass gadget she'd bought for my kitchen. In fifteen minutes she backed up that great truckload of sadness and poured it on me. Till then I'd got fairly used to the idea that Wade's friend Wyatt had turned him against us. But hearing that my son couldn't trust me with the news of his death -- and hearing it from Ann in the midst of this skit she's waltzing through -- well, it put an even harder freeze on our dealings, Wade's and mine.'' If Hutch had more to tell, it failed him.
Straw said ''So Wade is at the point of death in New York City, alone as any street-comer psycho, because you and Ann are peeved with each other?''
''That's likely to be a small piece of it, yes. It may be part of why he won't take my phone calls.''
''Forget the damned phone, Hutch. Walk to New York, if that's what it takes.''
''I've thought this through a billion times -- Wade's still a grown man, Straw. I don't have the right.''
Straw said ''Pardon me but I fail to comprehend how any quibble about your rights can be strong enough to keep a man, kind as you've been in your best days, from a son in a pit as low as this?''
Hutch was too full to speak.
Straw said ''Set me straight on a few things here -- Wade is not a junkie, right?''
''Don't cheapen this.''
''Don't worry; I'm not. I'm exercising my rights as I see fit. You may have forgot but I remember, clear as this minute, standing by Wade when he was an infant at the christening font and swearing to be his faithful godfather.''
Hutch shut his eyes and agreed. He could see it plain as Straw.
''Last time I looked, Wade wasn't a needle-drug addict. He's sure-God not hemophiliac.''
Hutch said ''No, Wade would barely take aspirin till this came on him.''
Straw's voice was like a voice that has reached the last conclusion available to humans, that exhausted and mild -- ''What other brands of adult catch this plague?'' When Hutch stood silent, Straw stated his finding. ''So Wade is queer.'' It was far from a question.
Hutch faced him; their eyes were no more than three feet apart.
Straw could watch you for hours on end and not blink once; he was steady-eyed here.
Hutch said ''That's an admirably educated guess.''
''It's the truth, mean as barbed wire; it's been the truth since before Wade finished grade school surely.''
Hutch said ''I doubt it was early as that; recall he loved more than one fine girl.'' He paused, then mutely agreed to Straw's finding. All right, we've both known it always. But he and Straw had never so much as broached it between them, not till today.
''Is there some kind of freeze-dried Baptist hypocrite hid down in your soul and holding you back from Wade Mayfield at the edge of his grave?''
Hutch said ''Not to my knowledge, no. I was never a Baptist, as you'd remember if you honored our past. If any one of your friends has loved pleasure, it's surely been me -- taking and giving.'' Hutch paused and met Straw's unbroken stare. ''I'd have thought you remembered. God knows, I seldom forgot our times.''
Straw watched Hutch again for a long quiet minute. Except for handshakes, no parts of their bodies had touched in nearly four decades. And for Straw that had never seemed a real deprivation, despite their pleasure. Now though, this close to Hutch's body, Straw saw again how well made his friend was, how nearly his face had refused to age and how his eyes had only strengthened in both directions -- Hutch drank in the world and sent it back out; something in his eyes always said Come. There's a better place here, an actual dream.
Straw asked himself now why he'd stopped answering. He broke his gaze and looked down to Grainger's all-but-maniacal water park below them. Then a memory he'd lost came back. ''You remember Wade nearly drowned, right there.'' Straw pointed to the central pool of the cleaned stretch.
Hutch said ''Lord, no.'' They'd kept it from him. ''When was it? Who saved him?''
Straw thought Grainger's name and recalled the event. But all that past suddenly seemed meaningless against the pressing weight of now. He faced Hutch and said the unavoidable thing. ''Let me drive you to New York tonight. We can bring Wade back. He'll listen to me.'' Straw suddenly drew back and flung a small white flint, an arrowhead he'd found underfoot. It missed every tree between them and the valley and thunked down in the midst of the creek.
Shocked as he was, Hutch at least turned the idea over. Wade tonight? Would he so much as answer the door, much less join them? At first Hutch could only think to ask ''Where would he stay? I'm teaching straight through till the end of the month.''
''There's Duke Hospital, for an obvious start. There's his mother in her house, ready to serve. Emily wouldn't object to Wade being here; I'll take him on gladly.''
Hutch said ''He won't move.''
Straw waited through half a long minute. Then he said ''Christ, do you love your son or not?''
''Friend, I honest to God don't know,'' but by then Hutch's own eyes had watered, and the sound of the words was criminal nonsense. The total weight of the postponed fact that Wade Mayfield was dying blind five hundred miles north, the only thing Hutch had expected to last of all he'd had a part in making except a few poems, the only human he'd loved with no real reservation since his own father died -- that whole weight caved in on him here. All over his body under the clothes, his actual skin begged to be held and touched. Hutch had waited too long, much more than a year, since any welcome hand had touched him. Now though, he couldn't ask or reach out for touch. So he stood, looked down to the creek a last time, then turned and headed back toward his car -- the main house, the car, the road, wherever.
Straw called out ''Answer yourself soon, boy. You've got to know'' -- know whether Hutch truly loved Wade or not. It didn't feel like a cruel question to Straw.
Hutch failed to answer though, failed to look back. And soon he was almost out of sight before Straw fell in behind him and followed. Straw made no effort to overtake Hutch; and when they were out of the woods into daylight, Straw paused at Grainger's to check on his nap while Hutch walked straight to the main house, the upstairs room that was always his on overnight visits.
An hour later Straw had already gone on to Grainger's with most of the meal, so Hutch and Emily came down the high back steps with only a tray of the last hot dishes and a box with the gifts. In the short walk Emily said, out of the blue, ''Hutch, we're heartbroken for all your family.''
If she'd flung off her darkish old-maid clothes and thrown herself on him, Hutch could hardly have felt a stranger surprise. In thirty years Emily had said very little to him that an unbiased witness might have called warm or generous. And it took Hutch a few yards of silent walking before he could say ''Em, it's awful. Thank you.''
''Whatever we can do, whatever on Earth --''
Have she and Straw huddled on some plan to bring Wade here and see him through to whatever end? Have they told it to Wade and has he agreed? It was hardly the worst thing that might happen next, but the thought of shouldering what was his duty onto others here -- even onto Strawson who truly was Wade's godfather and had loved him -- was painful for Hutch and scraped on his sense of failing to tend the single person alive who had full claim on his care. He shocked himself by saying ''Strawson just mentioned us going to see Wade -- him and me, soon.''
Emily's small white face burned a kind of fervor that Hutch hadn't seen since the early days when she'd tear into him and fight for her share of Straw's time and notice. ''Strawson very much wants to go with you, I know.''
''Since when, Emily?''
She paused to answer carefully. ''I think it was two nights ago, maybe three -- Strawson came back up to the house from Grainger's and said the old fellow had made him call Wade.''
''Straw talked to Wade a few days ago?''
''I thought Strawson told you --''
They were in earshot of Grainger's door; it was open again. Hutch quietly said ''Straw's barely told me he's alive, not for some years.'' He thought it would please her.
But again she surprised him. ''You're the only person, alive or dead, that I've never heard Strawson low-rate or laugh at or slash to ribbons.''
''He's known a lot of people.''
''In the Biblical sense.'' Still Em's face was showing a life it had seldom showed, a fined-down purpose that could drill through rock. ''I well know people have lined Strawson's road; but I've told you the truth, Hutch, the bare-knuckle truth. I thought you were in the business of truth -- teaching school, writing poems.''
By then they'd arrived at Grainger's front steps, and Emily had climbed the first one before Hutch touched her elbow to stop her. When she turned, he said ''I needed reminding.'' His eyes were not cutting.
And she understood that. She also knew it was as near to thanks as she'd get from Hutch Mayfield. She shut her eyes, ducked her chin, then raised her voice and called ''Mr. Grainger, we're all here with you.''
Hutch wondered since when she'd called Grainger Mister.
Inside Grainger said ''Stop where you are.''
Straw's voice laughed. ''Easy, Mr. Walters. We know them both. They're bringing provisions. Just let them unload.''
Inside, when the screen door shut behind them, Hutch saw that Grainger had changed his clothes -- a starched white shirt and gray wash pants with sharp creases, the small gold eagle-pin he'd found and polished not long ago (some relic of his infantry service in France in 1918). Can he dress himself; does Strawson help him? Again Hutch felt accused of failure -- this old man was literally his nearest live cousin, of whatever color. Grainger had been as strong a prop to Hutch's childhood as anyone, alive or dead -- as watchful, honest and guard-dog loyal. I should come on up here, soon as class ends, and stay till he dies.
But the clear fact was, Straw and Emily had been far closer to the old man than Hutch for decades. They'd lived with him daily throughout their marriage; they'd worked beside him as long as he could work; and they'd brought him up to the main house and nursed him through double pneumonia just last winter, not to speak of a hundred daily attentions. Hutch moved toward Grainger, gathered the long bird-bones of his shoulders into an embrace and said ''I owe most of my life to you.''
Grainger whispered slowly at Hutch's ear. ''Colored men bearing down on you tonight, big knives in their fist. Haul out of here now.'' It was said in urgent indelible conviction.
Hutch stepped back but said ''I think we've got a little time. Let's eat Em's supper.''
If that assurance meant anything to Grainger, he gave no sign. His eyes were still urging Hutch toward the door.
By then Straw and Emily had slid the table out from the wall, set the extra chairs that Straw had brought and spread the food. There was a good-sized roasted turkey breast with dressing, baked yams in their skins, macaroni and cheese, home-canned green beans, fresh biscuits, corn chowchow, a pitcher of milk and a bottle of good California red wine. Straw guided Grainger to his place at the head, assigned the right-hand chair to Hutch, the left chair to Emily and the foot to himself.
Then Hutch said ''Old cousin, you bless it.''
Grainger looked as distant as the outskirts of Cairo, not confused but gone.
Straw said ''Mr. Walters has pretty much quit on the Lord Above. You bless it, Hutch.''
Hutch had likewise been far less than observant since he gave up on all known Christian institutions during the boiling acid and blood of racial integration in the South, when the churches behaved at least as abominably as the Klan (a good deal more so; the churches knew better). But after a short pause now, he said ''Thanks for the three of you and this much food. Thanks above everything for Grainger Walters' life that has given us such long care and that goes on among us. Watch everyone we love who's not here with us.'' Only at the end did Hutch realize he'd addressed his blessing more to Strawson than God.
But eventually Emily said an ''Amen,'' then began to serve Grainger's plate a heaping plenty. If she knew what she was doing, then his appetite was healthy.
And once he had the food before him, Grainger set in at once to salt it heavily and slice the turkey into minute cubes. Then he ate it, not stopping, the way they'd all seen him eat for years. He'd neatly consume a particular item till it was exhausted -- the beans, the bread -- then move to another, around his plate clockwise. With each new item he'd fix his eyes on one of the three white table partners. He showed no detectable smile or frown to any of them. Maybe he couldn't see them at all but watched some memory from his long supply; but he never spoke, even when he turned to his tall glass of wine and downed it slowly in an unbroken swallow.
The others ate Emily's likable cooking in normal ways and traded the all but meaningless remarks of longstanding friends; but though the three of them kept mild faces, their separate minds were circling tightly.
Straw thought of nothing but Wade -- alone, he guessed, in a city where no strong man should live, much less a godson with the worst disease since white men sold smallpox-ridden blankets to American Indians and wiped out whole tribes, no trace left, not even their language. Straw's own child -- a textbook editor now in Georgia, pleasant to see and as cold as a bottle -- was as far from his mind as the strangers of Asia.
Emily thought Someway I'll wind up with Wade on my hands. My hands are full. How in God's name can I hold on to more? None of that was just mean-minded; with all her fears, she'd kept a decent heart alive in her.
Hutch thought almost entirely of Grainger. Whatever secret personal things this old man had been throughout his own life, he sat here tonight for Hutch as a relic of more than a century of his own family's unfillable hunger -- its adamant aim to survive and print its demands on a line of faces called Mayfield, Drewry, Kendal, Gatlin and whatever part-black Walters kin lived on from Hutch's white great-grandfather who'd wasted no chance to pass his traits down whatever human route would give him hot entrance.
Only for a moment did Hutch let himself think that -- with Grainger barren of any offspring and Hutch's own son racing toward death now with no more leavings than the memory of pleasure in a few young men as barren as Wade -- then one long line of bold contenders from one patch of ground was fading and sinking to Earth at last.
And though all the others assumed that Grainger was either asleep, upright in his chair, or had wandered into some thicket of memory, it was simply a fact that none of them except Grainger Walters -- in their thoughts here now -- had moved on into fresh knowledge and hope. Since a year ago when television brought him the ghetto riots from Los Angeles -- whole days and nights of fire and pillage by young black men -- Grainger's mind had frequently called up memories he'd heard in childhood from his slave-born great-great-grandmother Veenie.
Veenie had been born around 1820 in southeast Virginia and was halfway grown when a preacher named Turner led his short revolt of a few black men that managed to kill some fifty white people in the summer of 1831. Veenie had even told Grainger she'd stood not twenty yards from the scaffold and watched Turner hanged in the county seat when she'd been sent to town for one spool of thread. And somewhere in his trunk in this room, Grainger still had the buckeye -- the dry horse chestnut -- that Veenie had found near Nat's swinging corpse as she left the sight that morning and walked to the master's kitchen where she worked every day from sunrise to bedtime. That much pain and iron endurance had come and gone in the live presence of a woman Grainger had loved and leaned on, not fifty miles from where he sat tonight with three white people he'd worked to serve, one of whom was his cousin. Yet Veenie's cold blood, thick as a dragon's, crept through him tonight.
So the mixture of those two ominous thoughts -- the California riots and old Veenie's memories -- had preyed on Grainger ever since; and lately he'd spent long hours each day, and many whole nights, in the vivid certainty that wholesale righteous dreadful slaughter waited for every soul he'd cared about, live and dead (he specifically thought that the dead, white and black, would also rise at the Judgment with their strength renewed and turn on one another with pitchforks, butchering axes and hand-forged knives). And none of it worried him all that much since, in his mind, Grainger likewise knew he had enough Negro blood in his veins (he was more than half black) to be permitted to save two souls when the gore streamed at last. He'd long since chosen the two he'd rescue -- his dead wife Gracie, who'd abandoned him many years ago, and one young white man that sometimes (now in Grainger's shifting mind) wore the face of Rob Mayfield, then Hutch's own face and sometimes Straw's, then Wade's face the way it had looked in childhood: clear as a clean plate with two keen eyes, not bone-thin and blind, which it must be now.
The other thing that wove through Grainger's mind as he sat at the head of this bountiful table was a line of numbers he tried to recall -- 1-1-2-2-something-5-8-9-9. He barely knew it was Wade's phone number his mind was hunting; but he finally thought it was urgent to ask for somebody's help, whoever these people here might be -- he was no longer sure. So he reached for the fork on his empty plate and rapped the plate hard.
Straw said ''You don't plan to eat more tonight, Mr. Walters? We'll be up till day.''
Grainger ignored him but looked to Emily and said ''Tell me what this number means.'' This time he could only say ''1-1-something,'' then ''9-9-9.''
Emily went blank.
Even Straw was stumped.
Hutch quietly said ''He's working on Wade's telephone number.'' Then he said the whole number clearly toward Grainger. ''Wade's telephone number in New York City is 212-732-5899. You want to call Wade?''
Emily gently said ''No --''
Strawson said ''Let Mr. Walters say. It's his damned party; he's got his own plans.''
But Grainger's eyes had shut down firmly. He might very well have been dead upright.
And Hutch took the possibility seriously. He reached out, turned Grainger's wrist and held two fingers against the skin that was dry as any adder's. It was chill to the touch, and at first Hutch could find no pulse or motion. But he lightened his pressure till, finally, there seemed to be the wide-spaced thud of ongoing life. He moved his fingers to Grainger's neck, the hollow below the back of his jaw. There Hutch could sense an actual beat, still faint and slow.
Emily whispered ''The wine was too much for him, this late.''
Straw said ''He fades off like this a lot.'' When Hutch had taken his own hand back, Straw said ''Mr. Walters, we've got this cake to eat.''
Emily said ''He can have cake anytime. Let's put him to bed.''
Straw said ''He's fine, just playing possum.''
Hutch said ''First possum to live past a hundred. Let's lay him down.''
But though he spoke gently, Straw insisted on his own rights. ''I want to remember this night; get the cake.'' He'd drunk more than half the bottle of wine, though he showed no sign of more than his daily heat and focus.
Through the screen Hutch saw that the night was almost on them, and the air had turned cooler than he'd expected. He'd already seen Straw's camera by the door; so he said ''Take a picture if you want to now, but I doubt we'll need reminders of this.''
Grainger said ''I don't show up on film no more.'' Then he actually laughed, the first time in three years. His eyes stayed shut another long moment; then Grainger looked to Emily. ''Em, let's light us a bonfire and eat it.''
At first nobody quite understood; then Emily realized he meant the cake. ''I just put one candle on your cake, Mr. Grainger. Last year you started over on your age.''
Straw laughed. ''Last year we nearly had our own firestorm.''
Emily stood and went to the kitchen counter, lit the one green candle and brought the cake forward -- the caramel cake that Grainger had asked for, rich as any oil billionaire and made by a half-cracked widow down the road. Emily waited for Hutch or Strawson to sing; but though they faced her, they both stayed quiet.
So Grainger said ''Everybody's too old to sing but me'' and croaked his way through a curious version of the first line of ''Happy Birthday.'' Then he went mute again to eat the sizable slice Emily gave him. And when Straw stood to bring on the presents, Grainger only said ''I don't need a thing cash money can buy'' and held out his long raised palm to Straw.
Straw set the three boxes back by the door. ''You'll enjoy them tomorrow.'' The contents were socks and a pair of red suspenders and, from Hutch, a framed photograph of his mother -- Hutch's own mother Rachel, whom Grainger had known and helped years back. Till now she'd been absent from Grainger's wall of pictures; her death, in childbed, had pained him too hard.
To that point Straw had seemed cold sober, his alert best self. But when Grainger balked him from giving the gifts, Straw's face had gone slack. Then every cell around his eyes and mouth had crouched.
Hutch thought He's about to say something else mean.
But what Straw did was stand up soberly and go to Grainger's bed. He sat on the near edge, took up the phone and punched in eleven digits slowly.
If Grainger understood, he sat very still and thought I was right. Here comes what I dread.
Emily guessed at once what Straw was attempting.
Strangely it didn't dawn on Hutch. He was watching Grainger again, that lordly face, taking the sight of it back to his own first memories.
When they'd put the phone out here a few years ago, they'd hooked it up with a twenty-foot cord so Grainger could call for help from anywhere. Now Straw walked with the white receiver toward the table; and a moment after he stood by the old man, the number answered. Straw quietly said ''Wade, did I wake you up?'' Then, with waits, Straw said ''We're all down here for this big event'' and ''I'm glad to hear it'' and ''Tell it to Grainger.'' Straw put the receiver against Grainger's left ear.
Grainger's hand didn't come up to hold it, but he seemed to listen for half a minute. What he finally said was ''You can't see me.'' Wade must have answered something like ''No, not on the phone'' since Grainger said ''Here now in this room. You're looking right at me but I'm all gone.'' If Wade was still there, he either said nothing or launched a monologue -- Grainger said nothing else.
So Straw took the receiver back.
But Grainger's hand came up and seized it. He said to Wade ''Just do this for me.'' Then he leaned to hold out the phone to Hutch, to give him this chance.
It didn't startle Hutch or rile him. It was plainly as much a piece of this day as the ancient life that was still beside him in Grainger's body, a part of the course that Hutch had always understood to be laid down before him, a step or two ahead of his feet. He said ''Evening, Son.''
''Evening sir.'' Wade sounded younger, by maybe ten years, than the last time they'd talked.
''I've missed your voice.''
Skittish as Wade's mind had got in recent days, he'd thought of such a moment for months. A great run of stored scalding words waited in him. But he held himself back enough to say only ''I've missed a lot more than your voice, believe me.''
Grainger was still in his chair, watching Hutch. His eyes hadn't blinked in maybe two minutes.
Emily and Straw were in the kitchen, scraping plates.
That near to Grainger -- and all Grainger signified of their shared family's reckless waste -- Hutch was suddenly free to say to his child ''When can I see you?'' It felt like the first words ever between them.
And Wade's voice was still young and hard as a child's. ''I can't see you.''
Hutch thought he referred to the blindness Grainger and Straw had mentioned. ''I've heard about that. I'll help all I can.''
But Wade had intended a bigger refusal -- he couldn't imagine the sight of his father, after what had passed between them in recent years. He said ''I've got all the help I can use.''
''That much relieves me. But I'd still value the chance to see you. I finish classes in three more weeks.''
Wade seemed to be gone -- the wait was that long. Then a voice that was almost certainly his, though younger still, said ''What if I told you to come here right now -- by dawn at the latest?''
Hutch said ''I'd start driving.''
Wade took a real wait. ''How long could you stay?''
''Long as you need me, Son.''
''You lust said you had three more weeks of class.''
''I'll get a stand-in; that's my least concern. You say what you want.''
Wade drew a long breath but couldn't speak.
''Some friend's there with you tonight, I trust?''
Another pained wait, then finally Wade said ''I'm by myself.''
''For how long?''
''Another few minutes, maybe an hour.''
''Wyatt's still with you, right?'' Wyatt had been Wade's companion for nine years; he'd quickly become the main obstruction, and then an all but impassable wall between Hutch and Wade.
Wade said ''Not Wyatt.''
''He's dead.'' On its own, Wade's voice made a high rough cry like a wail on the TV news from Palestine.
Hutch thought Thank God but he said ''Oh no. I thought he wasn't sick at all.''
''Wyatt shot himself, downstairs, out on the street -- February 18th.''
At first Hutch could only think Has Ann known this and not told me? But he knew not to ask it. Keep pushing on. So he said it again another way. ''Wade, you're not all alone there, are you -- not in the night?''
''My neighbor checks in twice a day and runs errands for me. A man from the AIDS center comes every morning. I haven't seen a doctor in weeks, haven't needed to -- thank Christ for that.''
''But you're blind, they say.''
''Did Grainger tell you? I asked him not to.''
Hutch said ''He's here beside me right this minute. We've eaten his birthday cake, and it's past his bedtime by hours.'' Hutch could see that Grainger's eyes had shut and his head had drifted down onto his chest.
In the kitchen Straw and Emily were quiet, clearly waiting on Hutch to end the call.
Hutch was so overloaded with feelings, he could hardly think. ''Son, we need to let Grainger lie down. Can I call you back in half an hour?''
''No, professor. I need to get quiet.''
''Then I'll be there tomorrow.''
''No. Leave me alone, Hutch.'' Wade had called Hutch Father all his life till today.
Hutch heard the change and thought it was hopeful. He said ''I'll call you back in a little. If you don't want to talk, don't answer the phone.''
But Wade was gone -- had he heard the last words?
Hutch called his name again once, then rose and replaced the phone.
By the time Hutch turned back toward Grainger's chair, Straw was leaning to the old man's ear. ''Sleepy time down South.''
Grainger didn't respond; his head stayed limp on his chest, no sound.
For whatever cause, Hutch felt again the rush of strong pleasure -- was it pleasure or a strain of panic, he wondered? -- and he thought Let him go. It was Grainger he meant -- let him go on now to death and eventual rest, at the end of this night when the old man had flung what might be a bridge between father and son, both frozen in silence till this full night.
Straw already had Grainger out on the bed. Hutch watched him unbutton the collar button, the cuffs of the starched shirt; then as Straw moved lightly to loosen the belt, Hutch untied the high-topped shoes and shucked them, then laid the blanket back on the old man, foot to chin (Grainger often spent whole nights in his day clothes).
Grainger said to the air in general ''I told you they're coming with sickles, cutting a road, but nobody heard me.'' He was gone then, asleep, not ready to die; or death was not yet ready to take him -- no one else ever had or would.
When Hutch followed Straw down the steps, he walked a little behind in hopes of a quiet few minutes to print on his mind that last sight of Grainger. He might well see him tomorrow morning before he left -- he might be leaving tonight if Wade said ''Come on'' again -- but Hutch understood that, once he'd spread that blanket up three minutes ago, he'd made his final try at thanking a man: an openhanded unsparing kinsman, whom he'd never see matched in this world again.
The mold was as long gone as whatever mold made the architect of the Great Wall of China, the goldsmith who beat out the pure death mask for Tutankhamen's withered face; as gone as the captain of the last clandestine slave ship that worked the south Atlantic in the girlhood of Grainger's great-great-grandmother and who still plowed on through the old man's mind, though powerless to appall him now.
At the foot of the steps to the main house kitchen, Straw turned and saw Hutch lingering in the dark yard. Straw spoke out clearly. ''Take the air you need. I'll be inside. Call for me if you need me. I'll ride to Mars if you need me that far.''
Hutch bowed his head and waved and stayed by the big oak, seated against it, looking back through his blind son's life to the days when they'd run around this same tree -- Wade in the years before he was twelve, Hutch in his thirties, both flung by love like hawks by a storm.
It was past nine o'clock and fully dark before Hutch entered the main house and climbed to his bedroom on the second floor. It was the space he'd occupied when he lived with his father Rob in the country -- usefully lonely adolescent years with a mall more likable than most, though one who was apt to cause frequent pain, and with Grainger beside them much of the time. Straw and Emily, for thirty-odd years, had used Rob's old bedroom downstairs. It was directly under Hutch's; but though Hutch had left his door open now, he heard no sound except the normal creaks of a dry house older than Grainger.
Hutch had cleared his thoughts fairly well in the yard. He thought he understood that his forced encounter on the phone with Wade was the cause of the clairvoyant pleasure he'd felt through the day -- not pleasure in a son's far-off agony but in contact restored -- and Hutch had planned his next sure move. He wanted to sit here a few more minutes in a room that had sheltered much of his life, then to go back down and phone Wade again as he'd promised.
He'd repeat his offer to drive north tonight; he could be at Wade's West Side apartment by early morning and do what was called for. If Wade would agree to accept his help and come home, Hutch could simply lock the New York apartment, get Wade to the car by hook or crook and leave the chores of packing and shutting down a life till some decisive choice had been made, by death most likely. Life with a dying son in Durham would need its own plans. Hutch had a shaky confidence that somehow a path would open before him once he had the boy home.
A boy -- right -- thirty-two years old who had strong warnings of the danger he risked but who walked, open-eyed, into this destruction. The first need would be some reliable help, a companion or nurse. Surely Durham, a town with three huge hospitals, could offer qualified practical nurses to tide them through the last weeks of school. Then Hutch could take over full-time till the end. He'd already set his mind on the hope that Wade could die at home, the comfortable house where he'd grown up.
What will Ann try to do? Once Hutch had helped Ann move into her new life, he and she had hardly communicated except for business matters (and then mostly by letter); and -- strangely, though they used the same grocery store and shared many friends -- they hadn't met face-to-face in nearly ten months. Their mutual friends were not talebearers. Ann's new job kept her off Duke campus. And Hutch had gradually managed to fill, with friends and work, what had seemed like a sucking wound when Ann spent her first night in three decades outside their marriage -- outside the idea of their marriage at least; they'd of course been briefly parted by business trips. The thought of Ann tonight, with Wade's phone voice still strong in Hutch's ear, felt as distant and cool as a handsome old house seen from a fast car, trailing off in the dusk of a rearview mirror. It's me Wade has asked for, if anybody.
Hutch looked up, intending to head downstairs toward the nearest phone; and there stood Strawson, silent on the doorsill, both hands raised like a cornered thief. He'd changed into a dark blue polo shirt and black cotton trousers. Oddly Hutch thought Pallbearer's clothes.
Straw said ''Don't shoot.''
Hutch said ''Why would I?''
''I've stood here watching you a whole long minute. I know all your thoughts.''
Hutch shook his head No. ''We've lived apart much too long, old friend. I'm in deep hiding.'' It was only halfway meant as a joke. Like everyone, Hutch overestimated his own complexity.
Straw said ''You want to go get Wade tonight. You want to have all his death for yourself -- you and him in a room till it's over.''
''Tell me what's wrong with that.''
''You well know, Hutchins.''
''I wouldn't have asked you if I really knew.''
Straw said ''There's somebody still alive called Ann Mayfield, born Ann Gatlin -- used to be your wife; gave birth to your child. Wade loves her too.''
''You don't understand that Wade ordered both of us out of his life, long years ago; or so his friend Wyatt said by phone and fax and every other known means but letter bombs. Once you got Wade on the phone just now though, it was me he asked for -- not his mother.''
Straw said ''You truly sure Wade was in his right mind?'' It was not meant cruelly. Straw had read that dementia was often a late result of this plague.
''I'm going downstairs right now to call him back.''
Straw said ''Can I go with you?''
''Downstairs? -- it's your house, friend.''
''No, it's yours; I'm just the loyal tenant. I mean can I ride with you to New York? -- you'll need some help.''
Hutch said ''No I won't.''
''Hutchins, the last thing Wade Mayfield needs is a doting father dragging his pitiful body downstairs through a big apartment building and trying to navigate the eastern seaboard single-handed.''
Hutch said ''Look, I don't even know that I'm going. When you called Wade at Grainger's, the first thing he told me was 'Come tonight.' The longer we talked, the more he circled; then Grainger conked out. So I told Wade I'd try him one more time before bed. If he doesn't want to answer, he won't. He hasn't in months.''
''Christ, Hutch, of course he'll want to answer you.''
It came out of Straw with the old singeing force that had brought them together, almost as a matter of logical course, weeks after they'd met in a prep school classroom.
And it moved Hutch nearly as much as in those days -- few men past sixty get bearable tributes from a trustworthy source. ''Thank you, Strawson, but Wade may be exhausted.''
''Wade's still got ears.'' Straw glanced at his watch. ''It's past ten now; go call him. I'll wait here.''
As Hutch pushed past him, Straw entered the room and -- once he heard footsteps going down -- he silently stood in the midst of the rag rug, nothing to lean on, nothing to brace him. His arms extended a little from his sides, and he tried to ask for whatever mercy was possible this late in his life, a life that he knew was littered with failure and was not done yet with small but calculated meanness. Whatever hopes or demands for payment went through Straw's mind, his body stayed perfectly still in place, though the last time he'd worshiped anything but a naked body was in his lost childhood.
Straw stood in place the best part of two minutes till at last an enormous blunt shaft of pain forced downward through him, shaking him brutally. A mute bystander might have thought this excellent man with perfect eyes was dying where he stood, bludgeoned somehow by an unseen hand. Straw, though, took it to be the only answer he'd get, the only answer he'd had in years of terse claims on God or fate; and he knew he must take the answer straight to Hutch.
When Straw got to the dim long kitchen, Hutch was still at the counter by the hung-up phone. It looked like a baited iron bear trap in reach of his hand. Hutch seemed alarmingly older than he had a quarter hour ago -- gray and slumped. He didn't look up but at least he didn't ask Straw to leave.
Straw said ''I know the number if you lost it.''
''I got the number.''
''Somebody else answer?''
''No, it was Wade -- pretty certainly Wade. He sounded really stunned but he asked me if I'd ever lived through a dream where I couldn't find the walls or the floor, however high I flew or dived. I told him No; he waited and said 'A man I know is there this minute. Right this red minute.' Then he dropped his phone or left it off the hook -- I've tried twice more and just get a busy.''
Straw came a step closer and said ''I'm driving you up there then.''
Stunned as he was, Hutch could think of no reason to wait. ''When?''
''I can leave this minute.''
Hutch slowly looked around this room where he'd spent so much good time as a boy. Any rescue here? In fact, though the room still had its old long proportions, its old self was smothered under long years of Emily's apple-green paint, framed spurious coats of arms, stitched mottoes and furiously cheerful refrigerator decals. Apparently no rescue at all. So Hutch said ''Lead the way.'' Then he risked facing Straw -- he dreaded a collapse if he met those wholly demanding eyes. But here they were milder; and Hutch felt a little steadier, on a new pair of legs. ''Many thanks, old friend.''
Straw would have liked to leave it at that and hit the road, but he had to deliver the hurtful message he'd got upstairs. ''First, you need to call Ann Mayfield.''
At once Hutch agreed and touched the phone, but then he said ''Why?''
Straw prodded him onward. ''Just say I told you to do it, tonight.''
''What else do I tell her?''
''You're a grown man, Hutchins. You take it from there.'' When Hutch made no move to pick up the phone, Straw said ''What do you really want to say?''
Hutch knew right off. ''I want to tell her I'm bringing our son back home to die, the home she left long months ago. Wade spent the first two-thirds of his life in a house she's abandoned; she can stay gone now.''
Straw grinned. ''You used to be a Christian gent.''
''About ninety years back.''
''Wait -- ask Ann to help you. Just two or three words.''
''I don't want to see Ann. Not in this life.''
''She's got rights in this,'' Straw said. ''Look at me.''
Hutch actually looked at Strawson's eyes and recalled a fact that was easily forgot -- Straw was the fairest referee he'd known, however crazy.
Straw told him ''This is no child-custody case. A grown man's dying like shit in the road.''
Hutch took up the phone and surprised himself by knowing Ann's number (he'd called no more than twice in the past year).
In twenty seconds Ann's firm voice said ''Yes.'' Even here, its smoky resonance was sufficient warning of her steel-trap mind and her heart that had never yet trusted anyone's love for two steady hours.
Hutch said ''Don't tell rank strangers 'Yes' in the night, alone as you are.''
Ann was silent but she stayed on the line.
Hutch could taste her confusion and anger, so he tried to talk straight. ''Ann, I don't know when you saw Wade or talked to him last, but I've had no recent news till tonight. The quick truth is, he sounds really awful; so I'm driving up there tonight to get him. I thought you should know.''
''Are you at home?'' Ann's voice wasn't choked but odd and uncertain.
Hutch heard her word home and wondered if he'd waked her. Was she drinking? Surely not. No company with her surely. Anyhow he said ''I''ll bring Wade back to one of my homes -- I'm at Straw and Emily's; Straw's riding up with me.''
Ann said ''Let me speak to Strawson please.''
Hutch knew she lost no love on Straw, but he held the phone toward him.
Straw refused. ''Tell her No. This is your and her business entirely.''
Hutch agreed, then told her ''You and I'll settle this.''
Ann thought she'd glimpsed the trace of a chink in the wall Hutch was already building against her. ''Settle what? What's this we'll settle?''
''Wade Mayfield's death.''
Ann was adamant. ''You don't know he's dying.''
Hutch said ''This thing kills everything it touches.''
''It may have looked like that till now; but Hutch, there are people who've been infected for years, some for more than a decade -- I just read about them in Time magazine. They're somehow hanging on, doing their jobs. Don't kill Wade yet. Don't scare him to death -- you know how contagious anxiety is.'' When Hutch kept silent, she thought This won't sound maternal, whatever I feel; but she went on and lightened her voice to say ''I finally talked to Wade night before last; he seemed clear-headed and said not to worry.'' Then for the first time in many weeks, Ann lost grip on her own smothered feelings. Still she thought she managed to muffle the groan that broke from her, helpless.
Hutch heard it though. ''We'll know a lot more when Wade's back home. I'll very likely need you.'' He hadn't foreseen he'd say that much; and for a bad instant, he thought of denying it.
But Ann said ''You know I'll help, day and night.''
There was only one thing left for now. Hutch lowered his voice. ''You know Wyatt's dead.''
''Yes, his sister wrote me.''
''Wyatt had a grown sister?''
Ann said ''Very grown; she writes a fine letter.''
''And you didn't feel compelled to tell me our son was alone?''
Ann paused a long while. ''No, Hutch, I didn't. Wade asked me not to.''
''Asked you tonight?''
''In the letter -- Wyatt's sister's letter.''
Hutch felt a surge of revulsion that, though he'd never touched Ann in anger, might have ended in violence if they'd shared the same room. He waited it out, then could only say ''I guess this means Wade is ours again.'' Before the words were out of his mouth, Hutch heard their strangeness. He'd always half concealed from himself his conviction that Wyatt Bondurant had shanghaied Wade Mayfield from his home and borne him off to the glaring impasse where they'd all stood wordless till tonight. Hutch had never quite said as much, even to Ann.
But Ann echoed his sudden discovery of an old sense of ownership in Wade. ''Ours? -- I guess.''
''You say you talked with him two nights ago?''
Ann realized she'd stretched the truth. ''It was probably more like a week ago. We talked fairly normally for maybe five minutes; then he hung up on me; and when I've phoned him since, nobody answers.'' Whatever desertion Ann had doled out to Hutch, her voice here sounded bruised with regret.
Hutch said ''All right. I'm leaving for New York.''
''Will you let me know exactly what happens?''
''I'll call you from there -- you working tomorrow?''
Ann said ''All day. I'll tell them to put your call straight through.''
Hutch said ''Till then.''
But Ann held on and gentled her strength. ''I'll go anywhere or do anything that you or Wade need.''
That was one more piece of news to Hutch, so new that it almost angered him again and he almost laughed. She won't take simple requests from God, much less her legal mate. But the sight of Emily standing in the kitchen door made Hutch say at least ''Thank you'' to Ann.
When he'd hung up, Emily said ''Sandwiches and coffee won't take me a minute. Strawson, find the quart thermos; then you won't need to stop.'' No mention of how she'd heard or guessed that Straw was in on this belated lunge.
Hutch didn't know how long Emily had stood here or what she'd heard, but she had it all right -- no word to slow him or to stop Straw's going -- so he thanked her too.
She went to the counter and began to slice turkey.
Then there in the midst of Rob's old kitchen -- a kitchen that had served nearly two hundred years of kin and slaves, returning freedmen and the rickety children of wormy white tenants -- the wall that had held grief back inside Hutch broke and fell. He gave a single cry like an animal watching its own leg torn from the socket.
Straw acknowledged the sound. ''That may be all any of us can do. Let's go anyhow.''
Hutch agreed and sat with Straw at the table while Emily packed food; and though Hutch tried to think of old Grainger to steady his mind, he thought What if Grainger dies in the night? and was briefly troubled till again, in the silence as his mind turned to Wade, a slim flow of pleasure began in his chest.
It had been twenty years since Hutch had actually driven to New York, longer still since he and Straw had been alone together in a car for more than ten minutes; but exhaustion swamped him in the deep night in Delaware, and Hutch had to ask Straw to take the wheel. For half an hour Hutch stayed awake, feeling a duty to keep Straw company (though they barely spoke); but as they crossed the New Jersey line, Hutch settled his head against the side window. In five seconds he was deep asleep; and after three miles -- once Straw had looked toward him and silently granted his greater need for rest -- this dream came to Hutch, an astonishing girl.
The moment it started, his watchful mind recognized it as fact -- mere history, an accurate memory of an evening forty-four years back, the day he'd first made love to Ann. They'd met in their freshman year of college, both new students in a bonehead composition class; and though they were each as virgin as snow, they'd seriously liked each other on sight -- their looks, the keen young air around them -- and after a month of smaller meetings, Hutch had quietly worked toward a way they could meet entirely while the fall warmth lasted. Meet and go past the little they'd learned apart, in separate high schools with high school loves about as adventurous as day-old calves.
He'd borrowed his friend Jack Hagen's car -- illegal for a freshman -- and driven Ann out one Wednesday near sundown to a place he'd already scouted in the woods. They'd parked on the road, walked inward (not even holding hands) to a site as thunderous as any Hutch knew of between Carolina and the caves of Virginia -- a range of granite bluffs that climbed some hundred feet above a small river with its own serene rapids. They'd drunk the bottle of cider Hutch brought, tart but unfermented, with a box of cheese crackers; and then he'd actually fallen asleep to the sound of the water, darkening below them -- no sleep at all the previous night, a zoology exam. The nap was wildly unexpected and no part of his plan; he was still too green not to be overcome.
And he'd have slept hours if Ann hadn't waked him a half hour later by stroking his eyes. When Hutch looked up, she was curved above him -- her face some twenty inches away. In a few more seconds of bearing that awful distance between them, it seemed a literal prohibition against life itself. Ann was that good to see, that good to smell close. He didn't reach out though; she didn't reach down (her stroking hand was back in her lap).
So Hutch did the next thing he knew to do -- it boiled straight up from some old but never-used chamber of his brain, some legacy maybe from his bold grasping father. Very slowly, moving like a man in dense water, he stripped his clothes from neck to toe and stood bare beside Ann Gatlin, still seated. Hutch couldn't see it but his face, chest, arms, his groin and sex were shedding around him, like clean strong light, the only half conscious splendor of his frame, his flawless skin and the promise of his power.
Ann studied it all, grave-eyed as a girl on a Greek tombstone; then she also rose and -- a whole yard from him -- she followed suit with no trace of shame: a slow but determined unveiling of gifts even grander than any Hutch owned or had dared to want. The hair of her sex alone seemed both the safest thicket for hiding and rest and likewise a masterly crown of thorns, some medieval jeweler's handiwork to set on an ivory Christ in glory, back in victory from death and famished.
When Hutch reached toward her, to close the gap, they found they knew -- from longing and dreams -- each move to make next, each move in order, each more stunning than its previous neighbor: Paradise. In the dream, as it had in actual life, no sight had ever given Hutch more; no human being had known like Ann (that first best evening) his every hope and how to win them in smiling silence, passing them on with open hands.
And in the car, four decades onward, as Straw sped through the last of dark New Jersey, each moment of that hour -- instant by instant, purified of the spite and grudging of Hutch and Ann's long months apart -- rose in Hutch's starved mind again and not only gave him the useful reminder of all he'd won in better days but also smothered for actual minutes his dread of morning. Morning, Manhattan and Wade all but gone.
As a dim shine began to leak through the murk in the east toward the coast, Hutch gradually woke and tasted again the nearing core of his aim and purpose -- the bitter intent to save his child.
In the lingering night, Straw had got them onto the Jersey Turnpike and borne them on, by the dangerous moment, through an outrage of traffic like the silent forced evacuation of Hell. Its hard demands had him focused ahead as he'd barely been focused since his all-night lunges up and down the roads of his youth, mostly hunting for women to fold him in briefly and then fade off.
In Hutch's memory of the crowded road, it had never run through a likable landscape; but the past two decades had thrust the land, the houses and buildings deeper than he'd known into a frozen degradation or, worse, a total failure of human shame to burden the Earth and its live creatures with the active evil of outright greed and willful blindness to what the planet will bear till it recoils and wipes itself clean. No wonder at all the country's gone mad. Let it all come down soon, one silent crash. Let the plague roar on.
Hutch reined himself in. You're more than half asleep. This is normal America, love it or leave it. But then they passed the all but extraplanetary miles of oil refineries, fuming and hung with a million red lights, and then the final poisoned gray-green marshes; and Hutch was literally speechless with anger at an idea -- America -- botched very likely past redemption by the knowing hands of men no stronger than himself.
Only Straw could manage the adequate words as they plunged on through the lifting dark, toward the still-hid west bank of the Hudson. ''Don't you hope old God turns out to be just?''
Hutch said ''Oh no. I'm banking on his mercy.''
Straw waited a whole mile, then managed the tired start of a grin. ''Old-maid alarmist that you are, you would be in the mercy market. What have you ever done that could upset even the crankiest God?''
Grogged as he still was, Hutch turned and took in the full sight beside him -- not the blasted world but the one man driving. ''You say I failed you.''
Straw faced the road. ''That's my complaint, not God's.''
Through their years of friendship, Hutch had often misplaced the rock-ribbed fact of Straw's undamaged conviction of God, a thoroughly handmade spacious God with rules that resembled no other creed's but that kept a present and active hold on Strawson Stuart. Hutch said ''You think old God ever minded the times we had?''
Straw calmly turned his eyes from the road. ''Of course he did. I loved you, Hutchins. Nobody but you, not truly, not then -- not God nor woman nor trees nor deer, just Hutch Mayfield. Have you lost that?'' Straw faced the road again and righted the car.
Hutch shook his head at the clean-lined profile of a head that was still as fine as any, on any old coin. ''Never lost it, no. I recall every time our two hides touched -- right down to the look of the rooms we were in and how the light fell, how the instants tasted. They're memories strong as any I've got and I'm still grateful.''
Straw said ''I'm not just speaking of bodies. I'd have spent my whole life bearing your weight, if you'd said the word.''
Hutch could smile. ''I think you truly believe that. I think you may well believe you wanted that, forty years ago. But don't forget you were cheerfully mounting married women, virgins and spinsters by the literal dozen, in between our rare good innings together; and I was deep over my head with Ann before you ever stepped into my life.''
Straw said ''I can love anything on Earth with a body heat of eighty degrees, or anything higher, and a calm disposition -- I mean it; you know it or knew it years ago.'' Then, unexpected, he laughed the laugh of his own boyhood -- the laugh that had brought such steady rafts of excellent human bodies toward his own keen beauty and the power of his heart, well before he was grown.
Hutch saw him even more clearly again, remembered each atom of his face at its best; and not for the first time, he grieved at the choice he'd made against the boy Straw was. Even if the softer man here in the night burned slower and asked for far less worship, Straw was nonetheless a welcome presence -- a tangible gift to any close watcher. Finally Hutch thought of the question he'd asked himself years ago; it was still the main question for him and Straw. ''But what in God's name could you and I have done -- two thoroughly opposite brands of gent, trapped there in the country in too-big a house with an old Negro man and the rest of our lives to kill while the world snickered at us at the grocery store: two old sissies, harmless as house dust?''
Straw knew at once. ''Aside from the fact that you and I are about as sissy as Coach Knut Rockne, we'd have had everything any man and woman have.''
''Not live babies, Straw.''
''To hell with babies -- since when did America need more babies? We're strangling on babies.''
Hutch said ''Steady, friend. We'd have never had children, which is one huge lack in any arrangement that means to last; and worse, we'd have both had male-thinking minds. We'd have run out of things to talk about or to care for in common, and then we'd have just butted skulls round the clock like exceptionally dumb bull elephants. We'd have understood each other far too well before six months passed -- all our big and small testosterone traits.
''Every mystery we'd had for each other would have worn out fast -- we'd be as obvious as cheap fireworks. And that would have led to despising each other, then hate, then worse. We'd have loathed what time did to each other's bodies. And sooner or later, hot as we were, we'd have been sneaking out to cheat each other with every willing youngster in sight till we got so old we were paying for sex in motels and car seats.'' Hutch honestly thought they'd avoided just that.
Straw couldn't relent. ''What would have been worse than you killing me or vice versa? No great loss to anyone but Grainger, and he might not have noticed the absence. Or we could have made a suicide pact -- more people ought to take themselves out early and not ruin other people's outlook on life.'' Straw was plainly earnest.
Hutch had to grin.
And once Straw glared and failed to stop Hutch, he decided to join him. Their laughter rocked around in the fast car like stones in a bowl. But once they were quiet, Straw said ''We failed at our one big chance. Don't ever again, not in my presence anyhow, try to wiggle your hips and slide past the fact. The two of us together had something a whole lot better than we've ever had since; you chose to ignore it and here we stand, two pitiful starved-out men out of luck.''
Again Hutch felt the need to smile. There might be more than a gram of truth in Straw's tirade, but any chance they'd have had at a life was so far gone as to look like the smudge on a summer-night sky of the farthest star. So Hutch smiled and said ''I've been grateful to you every minute I've known you.''
Straw said ''That won't buy me a dry dip of snuff.'' He'd never dipped snuff and soon realized it, which caused him to laugh again. There were few better laughs on the whole East Coast.
In another half hour they'd crossed the jammed George Washington Bridge and in twenty more minutes were standing in a dark narrow hallway at the black steel door to Wade's apartment. The rooms Wade had shared for a decade with Wyatt were high in a well-kept building in the upper nineties over Riverside Drive, a neighborhood that had seen better times quite recently. The scattered filth, the broken heaved pavement, the rattled abandoned men and women posted every few yards with lost or frantic or merely dead eyes were plainly the normal state of things now.
Hutch hadn't stood here in at least four years, a little longer maybe; but surely it hadn't been this rejected by all human care. Forget it, nothing but nuclear holocaust could mend this now, do your own hard duty. He'd even dreamed, more than once in recent months, of standing at Wade's door, paralyzed to move; and now that he'd actually come, something balked him. His hand refused to reach toward the bell.
So at last Straw touched it -- no audible ring. He pressed it longer -- still no answer.
They waited more than a minute. Nothing.
Then the elevator door behind them opened on a single rider, a tall young woman.
When she saw Hutch and Straw, she stayed in the elevator but held the door open. The landing was maybe twelve feet by nine. The woman was no more than five feet from Hutch, and their eyes met at once.
Hutch first noticed her height and color. She was maybe six feet tall. Her skin was the shade of dry beach sand; and her hair was abundant and strong as horsetail, a lustrous natural black and long with the deep-set waves of a forties movie star. Warm as it was, she wore a black raincoat halfway to her shoes.
A quick automatic smile crossed her lips, then she went nearly grim with her dark eyes wide. She held a paper bag of what seemed milk and bread, and she still didn't move.
Hutch said ''My name is Hutchins Mayfield. Do you know my son Wade?''
That brought her out of the elevator, though she pocketed her keys again.
Silence seemed so much a part of her nature that Hutch told himself she must be mute. He asked an easy Yes or No question. ''Have you seen him this morning?''
She shook her head No, then finally said ''I'm Ivory Bondurant.''
An appealing voice, unmistakably black in its complex harmony. And Bondurant had been Wyatt's family name, though at closer range this woman looked ten years older than Wyatt, the last time Hutch had seen him at least. She'd be in her early forties then, remarkably preserved. Hutch extended his hand.
She took it lightly, meeting his eyes.
Hutch introduced Strawson and said ''We rang two minutes ago -- no answer yet.''
Ivory agreed, as grave as before. ''Did Wade expect this?''
What's this? Hutch wondered but he said ''Yes, I spoke with him late last night -- twice in fact.''
She persisted. ''I put him to bed at ten last night; he didn't mention visitors this morning.''
Hutch drew out his wallet, found his driver's license with the small photograph and held it toward her. ''I'm who I said. We've come to get Wade.''
Self-possessed as she was, for a moment Ivory was shocked and she showed it. Her eyes and mouth crouched. But she refused the license, brought out her keys and stepped toward the door.
Hutch touched her arm to slow her. ''What should we know?''
''I beg your pardon?''
''We've heard Wade's blind. He mentioned Wyatt's death. He sounded confused.''
Ivory's shock was relenting; she studied Hutch's face, then gave a smile that was startling in its force. ''Mr. Mayfield, all the above is correct. Your son has a ghastly disease that we're all but sure he got from my brother Wyatt. My brother took his own life when that was established -- shot himself downstairs in the street ten weeks ago. Wade Mayfield is on his way to being nearly as bad off as any starving child on television. But come on in; it's clean anyhow.'' Her sentences made a real shape in the air; she let the shape hang in place for a moment like a carefully drawn, remorselessly perfect Euclidean figure. Then she opened the door and stood aside to beckon the men in.
As he came, Hutch watched her unbutton her black coat. Beneath it, she wore a blood-red linen dress. He recalled that Mary Queen of Scots had dressed identically for her own beheading, astonishing all the bystanding henchmen of her murderous cousin Elizabeth of England.
The room was empty or it looked so at first. The spare but handsome chairs and tables that Hutch remembered -- the buffalo rug, the banks of records and tapes and playing machines: all were simply gone. A few dog-eared books stood by the baseboard, a sickly fern, a worn-out butterfly chair from the sixties, a radio playing what seemed to be Handel, a huge crumbled cork dartboard still bristling with darts. Hutch had bought that for Wade's ninth birthday, a gift that had seemed to displease the boy; yet here it was, a plucky survivor. Even the wood-slat blinds at the windows were gone; and the river was plain to see -- the filthy Hudson, still iron-blue and stately in the visible pace of its final surrender to the sea.
Ivory entered and locked the door behind them. When she saw the two men's baffled stares, she said ''They sold the things, piece by piece, for pittances.''
Hutch was speechless.
But Straw said ''Surely they had some insurance to help them along --''
Hutch realized he'd counted on the same thing. He only said ''Surely --''
But Ivory said ''Wade has a policy that covers more than half. But Wyatt's insurance canceled him out when they knew he was ill incurably. Then they were both hard up in no time. It broke my heart.''
Hutch took the three words as a hopeful break in Ivory's daunting mastery here. ''I understand you've been through hell.''
''I didn't know I was out of it yet'' -- her great smile again.
Hutch said ''I'll lighten your load today.'' He thought that was the literal truth; but once it was out, it sounded too grand.
Ivory heard the same sound. ''Are you sure, Mr. Mayfield? You don't know me --''
''Miss Bondurant, I didn't know you existed. Why did I come here so many times in the past decade and never see you?''
Ivory's voice lowered and hurried to say ''They didn't want you to know about me.'' But then she calmed herself. ''I didn't live here when you used to visit. I was married then.''
Hutch said ''Thank God you've been here lately. We clearly owe you a great debt of thanks. Tell me anything else I should know.''
She looked to Straw. ''Can you believe this?'' Her eyes narrowed down to contain their fury, but somehow she'd managed to gentle her voice.
Straw said ''I never believe anything my eyes or ears tell me.''
She said ''Lucky man. Stay put where you are. The world up here's a torture factory.'' Then she abruptly smiled, ''Tell your boss he'd need a very long year of time if I told him half of what he ought to know.''
Hutch accepted the strike; his only reply was to turn away to the window again.
But Straw touched Hutch's shoulder and said ''This man is nobody's boss, believe me; he's a sick man's father. Where have you put Wade?'' Straw's eyes were among the rare eyes in Manhattan that could meet lvory's blistering stare, instant for instant.
She finally whispered ''Brace both of yourselves, hard, and step through that door.'' She pointed to a shut door off the main room.
When Hutch balked again, Straw took the lead. At the door he looked back at Hutch, who was pale as tallow on a white plate. Straw bent, being taller than Hutch, and pressed his lips against his friend's taut forehead. Then Straw opened the door, a wall of stifling air fell on him, he stepped inside. The space was dark; a torn sheet was stapled across the one window. Straw said ''Old Wade, your godfather's here.''
From somewhere in the hot brown air, a young voice said ''Oh Godfather, I owe you a favor. Take a chair, sit down, exterminate me.'' What seemed an attempt at a laugh grated out.
Hutch's hand had found the switch for an overhead light.
The white glare rocketed round the space, then gradually showed another sparse room -- no chests or tables, one rocking chair that had been on Wade's great-grandmother's porch the night she eloped and started her branch of the Mayfield family, nothing else but a mattress on a rolling frame and bleached blank sheets.
It took a long moment before Hutch could see that -- pale as the sheets -- a body was lying on them, naked. Maybe forty or fifty pounds too thin. A chaos of bones, white skin thin as paint, tangled islands of dark chestnut hair, a skull that was helpless not to grin. Hutch thought Christ Jesus but he also smiled and held in place.
Straw went forward though, knelt by the mattress, took the thin shoulders lightly and bent to kiss the skull.
Wade whispered ''Hearty thanks'' and tried to say more, but his voice broke up. His eyes looked normal, they both stayed dry and fixed on Strawson, he'd still to meet his father's gaze.
Hutch reminded himself He can't see this; he stepped onward then and knelt next to Wade. His hand went out to the head and smoothed the sweaty hair.
Wade's eyes found him then and, so far as they could show feeling at all, they looked surprised and gratified. He said ''I'm pleased to see you, sir.'' When his lips closed again, the print of the teeth was stark through the skin.
Helpless, Hutch smiled. ''Do you see me?''
''Not to know who you are, but I recognize your outline.'' Wade stopped as if he'd never speak again and both eyes shut. Blinded, he put up a finger and traced the line of Hutch's head on the air. Then he looked out again and said ''You're giving off too much light.'' What seemed like another try at laughter rose and quit.
And a dry unwilling laugh escaped Hutch. ''Son, I'm in deeper dark than you.''
By then Straw had found a tan bedspread and laid it on Wade, up to the chin.
Wade's eyes had stayed shut; he was barely breathing -- asleep or in some private trance.
Straw felt for a pulse in the throat and faced Hutch. ''Let's get this child packed.''
Hutch confirmed the pulse for himself, then stood and followed Straw back to the front room. There they could hear low sounds from the kitchen. Again Straw led the way, Hutch behind him.
To Hutch at that moment, Straw's upright back was a sight as necessary as air, the slim last promise of a chance at survival.
Ivory, vivid still in her red dress, was warming milk on a low gas flame. She'd already made toast, buttered it and laid it in a deep blue bowl.
Hutch saw she was making old-fashioned milk-toast, a thing his father had craved when sick. It seemed another small promise of strength, the hope of home.
Ivory said ''If you gentlemen haven't had breakfast, I'm sorry to say this is all I've got -- I make milk-toast for Wade twice a day. There's a coffee shop two blocks due east.''
Straw said ''We've eaten''; and as if on signal, he and Hutch both stroked the grizzled stubble of their chins.
Ivory opened a drawer and Hutch could see a small scattering of white plastic cutlery -- knives, forks, spoons. He recalled his grandmother Mayfield's silver, ornate and heavy in the hand as a club. She'd left it, dozens of pieces, to Wade when he was a child. He'd stored it at home; and it hadn't been more than eight or nine years since Hutch himself had packed it carefully and brought it north, on his normal spring visit, hoping it might help propitiate Wyatt, who was already fending off Wade's kin. Surely silver hadn't survived the great sell-off?
Ivory had seen Hutch glance at the drawer. ''Sorry, Mr. Mayfield, that went also -- every silver piece the two of them owned. Wyatt had some too.''
In these blasted rooms, like swamped lean-to's to Wade's own fragile bones, that was no loss at all. Hutch thanked her again. Then he wondered Why thanks? Thanks for what? Why's she still here?
As if mind reading, Ivory said ''I've been the treasurer, the past six months, for my brother and Wade. It's all accounted for in that book there, by the day and to the penny.'' She pointed to a composition book on the counter -- blue back, green spine.
Hutch took a momentary writer's pleasure in the sight of a well-made waiting blank book; then he said ''I had no idea he'd run out of funds. He told me his firm paid him disability.''
''They did, Mr. Mayfield -- they still do -- but this plague eats money faster than people. And I told you Wyatt was completely bereft weeks before he died. Wade carried him gladly; he can still swear to that.''
Hutch said ''I don't doubt that for an instant.'' Still he rightly felt small. He'd had no thought of theft or deceit; he had none now. It was almost the only cardinal virtue he claimed to possess -- a genuine despisal of money, though he'd mostly had enough. This woman had apparently kept Wade alive for the past ten weeks since her own brother buckled and quit -- Wade was a likable gifted man, no mystery there, none greater than the sight of human kindness, always a shock. Hutch said ''What finally got Wyatt down?''
Ivory looked puzzled.
''Did his eyes fail too?''
The milk had begun to bubble and steam. Ivory drew it off the burner, poured it slowly on the toast and looked to Hutch. ''My brother never really got too desperately sick -- just a long succession of small but wearisome intestinal infections, nerve parasites, then a rush of lost weight, then finally a patch of Kaposi's sarcoma in the midst of his forehead like an Indian caste mark. At first he laughed that it made him a Brahmin. His doctor said he could have survived for months or years longer. He seemed to be one of these rare lucky people who somehow manage to keep the virus at a near standstill. No, I honestly think Wyatt Bondurant died from watching what he'd done to Wade Mayfield. He was sure it was him that gave AIDS to Wade; he never said why. Wade was grown when they met. Anyhow when the parasites got to Wade's eyes, Wyatt asked me here -- here by this stove -- if the two of them could count on me.''
Ivory took ten seconds to think her way onward. ''I took him to mean would I see them through to peaceful deaths. I'd have rather been asked to kill a new baby, but I told him Yes. Wyatt was the last of my generation. We'd seen each other through a South Bronx childhood, losing two sisters along the way; I couldn't leave him now. At the time I didn't know he meant to check out and leave Wade with me. But that was his plan. He got his own business matters in order, left a short message for me to read to Wade -- the last sentence was 'Now you're in safe hands.' That had to mean me; there was nobody else, that was safe anyhow. Then he found a short alley between here and the river and took himself out with a gun I forgot our father had brought up north from Virginia, sixty years ago. A schoolgirl found his body, coming home at dusk from band practice.''
It was simple as that then, in her eyes at least. Ivory Bondurant had made a deal with her brother; she was sticking by it now he was gone. She set a plastic spoon in the soaked toast, took up the tray and went toward the bedroom.
Hutch said ''You're bound to be a saint.''
Ivory thought about that and searched Hutch's eyes but found no clue to what he might mean, so she said ''I've had my own good reasons. It's been painful as anything I've ever known, but I don't claim any public-health medals. It was what I wanted to do, while I could. Wade mattered to me too.''
Hutch heard her past tense; but he mouthed the words Thank you, knowing his debt was too great to pay or to speak of here in these parched walls. When Ivory watched him but gave no answer, Hutch realized Straw was not there with him. He turned and called his name.
''In here.'' Straw had found the spare bedroom.
Hutch had assumed that Ivory was living in this space now; but when he entered the one spare room, he saw it was crammed with cardboard boxes, crates and two steamer trunks (one of them was the trunk Hutch had carried to Oxford near forty years ago).
Straw was seated by the river window on a solid box, and his face was bleak. In recent years he'd wept too often, always when sober; but he'd shed all the tears he had for this place and the sights it had seen -- his eyes were dry. In silence he reached into a shoe box beside him, gathered a thick handful of letters and held them toward Hutch.
Hutch said ''No, they're Wade's.''
Straw said ''There you're wrong. They're yours and Ann's -- every one of them are recent letters from you two, addressed to Wade and all of them sealed, the way you sent them.''
''Strawson, Wade's blind. We didn't know that.''
Straw whispered hard. ''That woman can read.'' He pointed through the wall to Ivory.
Hutch worked a slow path in through the crates and stood by Straw, looking down toward the river. A barge so rusty it seemed in the act of quick dissolution, an orange sugar cube; a big white dog like the hero of some Jack London story overseeing the battered stream, a woman with honey-colored hair who took what were almost surely two lobsters -- giant live lobsters -- from a pail and pitched them far out over the river. They sank like plummets, and Hutch asked Straw ''Would you rather be boiled to death in a pot and eaten by humans or thrown back live to the mercy of a river of human shit?''
Straw had seen the woman. ''I vote for the river. I've eaten my share of mammal manure; it hasn't stopped me yet.''
Hutch said ''You vote for leaving today?''
''What about Wade's doctor? We should notify whoever's been seeing him anyhow and ask for his charts to be mailed home. You settled the business with that smart woman?''
''She does seem fine -- no, we didn't get into details yet. She's feeding Wade.''
''Has she got a lob, other than here? A few sticks of furniture can't have brought them much capital. Maybe she's well-fixed on her own.''
Hutch said ''She and Wyatt were from the South Bronx. Or so he told me one hateful night, and she lust confirmed it.''
''Then you want my suggestion? I think I should go out and get us some breakfast -- a big hot feed for you, me and her. You make your final arrangements with Ivory, she tells us what we need to take, we make Wade a decent pallet in the car and head for home.''
Hutch was still facing the river and the white dog. More than ever, its size and patent vigor seemed the answer to a lonely boy's prayer -- a perfectly faithful creature who'd understand every thought you had. At last Hutch laid a hand at the back of Straw's broad neck. ''Whose home, old friend?''
Straw reached back and briefly covered the hand. ''Well, he grew up where you live; you're rattling around there in too much room. Ann's place is likely temporary. Emily and I will take him in a heartbeat -- we've got plenty of room, never sleep. But you make the choice, or ask Wade to choose.''
Hutch stayed quiet till he heard Ivory walk toward the kitchen again. Then he quietly said ''My place, no question.''
''You know I'll come there and stay to the end -- just say the word.''
''The end could be a long way off.''
Straw said ''You saw him. He's looking at the grave at fairly close range.''
Hutch felt a strong need to say Straw was wrong, but quietly again he said ''People do that sometimes for years.''
Straw laughed. ''Yes, Doctor, the human race for a start -- ''
The laugh had been short; but Wade heard it somehow and called out ''Godfather, come laugh in here.'' Weak as his voice was, its youth carried well.
Straw went at once.
Hutch followed him as far as the kitchen.
Ivory was rinsing the milk pan and bowl. ''I've got to get on to work, I'm afraid.''
''Excuse me but are you living here?''
At first she looked offended; then she understood. ''Oh no, I was in this building long before Wade and Wyatt. With my ex-husband, two floors down.''
Hutch heard the contradiction of what she'd said a short while back-that she hadn't lived here through most of Wade's tenure. But at the same moment, he first saw the wedding band on her left hand -- a ring at least, plain platinum -- and decided not to question her story. ''Where do you work?''
''Far downtown, an art gallery in Soho.''
''I'd be glad to drive you.''
She smiled, a glimpse of a whole other person -- one not seen in these walls for months or years. ''No you wouldn't'' she said. ''You get in morning traffic with me, and you'll never want to see Ivory again. I take the subway five days a week.''
Hutch said ''You know I want to take him home.''
Ivory said ''I've prayed you would. You know he couldn't ask.''
Hutch believed her but he had to ask this last soul alive a question that only she might answer. ''Why has he been so set against me?''
''My guess is, mainly pure loyalty to Wyatt.'' Hutch shut his eyes and agreed.
With no sign of vengeance, still she pressed ahead. ''You know Wyatt hated you and all you stand for -- all he could see; Wyatt trusted his eyes.'' She was suddenly splendid as any oak tree lit by lightning.
Hutch managed half a smile. ''I'm glad Wyatt knew so well what I stand for. I've yet to solve that mystery in more than six decades; and I've really tried -- Wyatt may have spent, oh, twenty conscious hours in my presence.''
Ivory was free to laugh in relief. She'd launched her attack on behalf of her brother; now she was free of that final duty (not that she'd ever thought Wyatt was all wrong).
But Hutch was not finished. ''Was it just the fact that I'm white and Southern?''
''That was part; Wyatt was radical back in college. So was I but I got my edge dulled as time passed, and Wyatt never did.''
''Hutch said ''Oh he was keen with me.''
''Maybe you earned that?'' Though Ivory's voice had made it a question, her eyes confirmed that she fully believed the answer was Yes.
Hutch waited ''Did he think I condemned the way they lived?''
''He knew you did; you told him so.''
Hutch said ''Wyatt may have thought I did. We had a bad meeting, the last time I saw him -- all three of us badly lost our heads on the subject of race and sex and all else. But no -- God, no -- with the life I've led, I've got very slim rights of condemnation over the worst soul alive on Earth.''
''But you never contacted them again?''
''I didn't, no -- not the two together. I was standing on form, I was Wade's only father, he was past twenty-one and he knew my address. Even so, I wrote him a good many letters that he never opened.''
Ivory took awhile to grant Hutch's premise. ''They were much too close -- I could see that myself. They were all but Siamese twins, most days. They doomed each other, is what it came to.''
To Hutch there seemed only one question left. ''How did Wyatt's hatred for so many white people part and make way for Wade?''
Ivory said ''My brother would pick at that subject, fairly often -- right here in Wade's presence. Wade always laughed and said he was the master Wyatt wanted, deep down. Wyatt would blare his hot satanic eyes and say 'Dream on, sweet honky -- little white sugar-tit. I'll get you yet.' ''She held in place and watched the words pierce Hutch: and for the only time today, her eyes nearly filled.
So Hutch only waited till she'd got her grip again. ''We're hoping to take Wade home today. Any reason why not? Anything or anybody we need to consult, any bills to pay?''
Ivory said ''His volunteer comes at ten to bathe him. All his medicine's in the bathroom cabinet; he usually understands what he takes and why. If not, the bottles are clearly labeled.'' She pointed again to the composition book. ''I've kept a record of all he's been through -- the names of the illnesses, the doctors and dates. You'll need that with you. There's a big box of Wade's papers in the spare bedroom; better take that too.''
Hutch said ''You think he can stand the drive -- eight or nine hours?''
''Mr. Mayfield, Wade's so up and down, I really can't tell you. Some days he has the strength to dress himself and walk with me around the block, very slowly. We got as far as the river last week, then sat down awhile and came back with even a little strength to spare. Other times he's too weak to raise his head, and I have to diaper him three times a night. His eyes are either three-fourths blind or fairly sharp, depending on circumstances I've never fathomed; and as you know from your call last night, his mind's not reliable. Some days he talks like a lucid gentleman. Other days, and a lot of nights, he's flinging way out on spider thread. No harm in him, though. Never says a mean word, not to me at least. Begs my pardon all day -- ''
''That's a Mayfield trait.''
''He's told me as much; he's a kind-natured man. I can tell you I'll miss him -- '' No tears fell but lvory's dark eyes widened further, and she bit at her lip.
Hutch said ''Please don't take this the least bit wrong, but we must owe you substantial money.''
''Thank you, I never doubted you'd be fair. May I write you about that later on?''
''Any day you're ready.''
Ivory said ''It won't be anything steep -- less than three hundred dollars, little odds and ends.''
''Is there anything left here that you want or can use?''
Her attention was already moving toward her job; in another few minutes she'd be seriously late. ''May I also think that over awhile?''
''By all means, please. I'll just pay the rent till I can come back up and clean things out -- if that's ever appropriate.'' Hutch could hear his refusal to face death's nearness.
Ivory looked round the bare room again. ''I've kept it as neat as I knew how.'' No ship's galley was ever cleaner.
Hutch said ''You've done a magnificent job -- I wasn't complaining. If I start in to thank you finally today, I'll just go to pieces.''
She was in the same fix. ''Let's both of us wait till we're ready. There's the phone and the mail; we'll communicate.'' She'd taken her black coat off a wall hook.
Hutch helped her put it on, concealing the bright dress. ''Then Strawson and I will likely clear out here before you're back. I guess we'll wait till the volunteer comes -- will she know details like the doctor's number?''
''It's a he, Mr. Mayfield. Yes, he knows more than me -- details anyhow. He's the saint you mentioned.''
''What's his name?''
''Jimmy Boat -- we call him Boatie. He'll be all the help you need.'' She was leaving; she put out a long hand in parting.
Hutch took it for maybe a moment too long. ''Wade may have told you that I've spent my life writing, when I wasn't teaching college. I've seldom felt at a real loss for words -- '' He bowed and pressed his forehead to her hand.
Ivory held in place, uncertain of how to use the old gesture or whether to refuse it. When she knew, she said ''I've read every word you've published, I think. I've had hard times of my own to weave through; you've been some help. I promise a letter in the next few weeks.'' She moved toward the hall door.
''Did you tell him goodbye?'' The moment it left Hutch, he was sorry he'd said it.
Ivory held in place at the door a long moment, her strong shoulders squared. But her face, when she turned, was the ground plan of pain. Her mouth moved to speak but nothing came, so she shook her head No and went her way.
In his mind, Hutch barely heard his own last thought as she vanished through the door. Wade was loved, all ways.
THey'd eaten the breakfast Straw brought in from two blocks east; and they had Wade propped up, in his robe, in the rocker when the volunteer let himself in with a key at ten o'clock. He came in, back first, carrying a satchel; so at first he didn't see the company; and when he faced the room, he yelled out ''God on high!'' He was tar black, maybe five foot six, built like a reinforced concrete emplacement in a World War II antitank defense; and his reddish hair was high in an old-fashioned Afro arrangement above a round face, no neck at all and a silver-gray and spotless jumpsuit.
Hutch and Straw got to their feet; but before they could speak, Wade said ''Boatie Boat, this is my father Hutch and my godfather Straw.''
Boat said ''I thought both of you were dead.'' But he set down the satchel and strode on toward them for crushing handshakes. Then he stood back and studied Wade in his chair. ''You're resurrected, child! I told you you'd live.'' To Hutch, Boat said ''Wade called me last night, told me you were on the road; and he made me promise not to let you see his frozen corpse.'' He touched Wade's wrist. ''You're still beating anyhow. No icicles yet.''
Wade said ''Boatie, these men are kidnaping me south. Next time you see me, I'll be warm as toast.''
Boat said ''South got too hot for me.'' He put out a flat hand and felt Wade's forehead. Then with both hands he lightly probed Wade's throat; the lymph nodes there were hard as kernels. ''No fever in you today at all. Sugar, you're cooling down.''
Straw asked Boatie ''Where you from in the South?''
''Take a flying guess.''
''Society Hill, South Carolina.''
Boat laughed. ''Way off.''
Hutch said ''Social Circle, Georgia?''
''Getting closer but wrong.''
Straw said ''Where exactly?'' He was only indulging the common need of country dwellers to place everybody they meet on a map of the actual ground.
But Boat slid into minstrel-darky tones. ''You honkies still hunting us runaways down -- lay back, white man; we free at last!''
Straw grinned and raised both hands in surrender. He'd been involved in no such complex racial theatrics since Martin Luther King opened so many eyes.
Despite his kidding-on-the-level, though, Boat showed no malice. For blind Wade's sake, he was eager to jive. ''I'm from Little Richard's hometown -- who know where that is?''
Hutch said ''Macon, Georgia -- the cradle of rock and roll, birthplace of Little Richard, all-time king!''
Boat folded both hands. ''Amen, pink Jesus.''
Wade crossed himself. ''Mother Mary, Amen.''
By then Boat was combing Wade's hair with his fingers and neatening his robe.
Wade accepted the service as a small welcome pleasure. He shut his eyes and, for a long instant, assumed unconsciously the look of a boypharaoh on his gilded barge, borne toward death and endless judgment, very nearly smiling.
Boat looked to Hutch. ''You taking this lovely friend out of here?'' In the course of eight words, his voice had changed again -- realistic now and sober.
Wade's eyes were still shut; he still looked serene but a wiry snake's voice came from his lips. ''Don't let this bastard here lay a hand on me.''
Boat laughed. ''Which one? -- there's three bastards here.''
Wade's eyes found Hutch. ''This main man, grinning like nobody's gone.''
Hutch thought That's me -- he's struck the truth finally: Wyatt Bondurant's truth.
Boat only continued stroking Wade's hair.
In ten more seconds Wade spoke again, the same cold voice. ''We'll cut if we have to.''
Boat brought two knuckles around and rapped lightly on the crest of Wade's forehead. Then Boat looked to Hutch and Straw; he shook his head sadly and mouthed four clear words -- Out of his mind. But what he said was ''Wish I was traveling toward green trees and water.''
And Wade's head moved to sign Come on, though he said no more.
So Hutch turned to Boat. ''Please come on with us.'' It was not an idle offer. He'd sensed at once that Boatie would be the perfect' help.
And Wade moaned confirmation of the offer.
Boat couldn't bear to turn Wade down, and he said it to Hutch. ''Don't both of you break my heart. This friend Wade here means as much to me as the rest of the friends and miserable boys I've helped up and down this town for a long mean time. Wade's got his own people though -- you fine gents and his mother's live, right? A lot of my boys don't have blood relations, and a lot that have got whole housefuls of kin get turned down by them as hateful as rats -- but I see you're strong enough to take what's happening.''
Hutch said ''I guess we'll know soon enough.''
Wade turned to his father. ''I doubt I'll be all that much trouble.''
It nearly downed Hutch; he literally swayed as in a wind.
But Boat leaned to Wade's ear with a secret, though he said it plainly. ''You going to live till the man says 'Quit.' That may not be for long years to come if you got loving care around you, steady like you need. You been here alone; that'll kill a big horse.''
Wade's eyes were still shut; and his voice was thin again but cheerful. ''I may not make it to Maryland.''
The three strong men considered that.
Then Straw said ''No, Wade, your godfather's driving every mile. You'll make it. I promise. I never failed yet.''
Wade said ''You never saw me this far gone either.''
Straw had to say ''Right.''
''Then promise me we'll make it again.'' Wade was in earnest.
Straw said ''Wade Mayfield, you're golden with me.''
Wade said ''Is that safe? What does golden mean?''
Straw said again ''Golden. You wait and see.'' He had no clear idea what he meant, but in his mouth it felt like the nearest thing to usable truth.
By noon Boat had bathed Wade, diapered him and dressed him in what seemed like too many clothes for a mild spring day. Then he laid Wade back on the bed to rest while he packed everything they'd need or could use in the way of clothes and medical equipment. He'd helped Hutch reach Wade's doctor by phone to learn any vital details and procedures-the main advice was simply to continue all medicines till Wade was back in the hands of another AIDS specialist; and when Hutch thanked the brusque man and said goodbye, the doctor suddenly lowered his voice and said ''You must have had a fine son.'' Then he was gone.
So while Hutch and Straw made several trips down to load the car, Boat sat on the floor by Wade's bed, near his wavering eyes, and worked in silence -- as he'd worked so often, near so many young men -- to call death closer.
Though he'd been raised in Georgia by his mother's mother in an African Methodist Episcopal church and had sung in the choir till the day he boarded the train north to Harlem, these hard recent years Boat had been forced to go his lone spiritual way. Now in the room where Wade Mayfield and Wyatt Bondurant had known good hours for actual years, a room that Wade was leaving soon and surely forever, Boat called up the face he always pictured for death itself -- a thin dark woman, very much like his mother who'd vanished long since on a bus toward Chicago-and he said a silent respectful prayer as that tall woman answered his call and stood in his mind at the foot of Wade's bed here, eight feet from Boat. Keep this child from messing his pants on the road. Let him get back far as his home and his mother, and let him see her face someway. Put him on whatever bed he slept in when he was a child and let him breathe easy till you're ready for him. Then come on into his clean safe room and lead him while he's picturing Wyatt in the days when they didn't know they'd killed each other like this and deserted a child.
When the packed car was ready and they'd got Wade up onto his feet, Boat stood on Wade's left with the boy's arm around him. Then he told Straw to stand on the right. Once they got their balance and Hutch was standing with two hands free, Boat said to Wade ''You got everything?''
Wade signified Yes.
''You sure you got all your papers and things -- your picture albums?''
Wade said ''Oh yes, I'm well stocked with pictures. I plan to meet Jesus in northern Virginia and get my eyes healed.''
Boat said ''You hold your tongue about Jesus. Be sweet to him, baby. He got us in this fix we're in.''
Wade said ''I don't believe that a minute and neither do you.''
Boat said ''All right. I was racing my lip.'' Then he was satisfied they could head down. He asked Hutch please to bring the satchel of soap and lotion and natural sponges he'd use on the five men he still had to see today; then he said ''Let's boogie on down the road.''
They'd gone three steps when Wade said ''Now -- ''
Each of the able-bodied men had privately thought that Wade might balk at the fence. Now they faced one another in blank disappointment.
Wade tried to think -- not a good day for thinking. So he said again ''No.''
Hutch thought Wyatt's got him and is hauling him back. It seemed more credible than what his eyes saw -- a splendid man, crushed and all but gone.
But finally Wade could recall what he wanted. ''Hutch, please step in the bedroom and bring that frame that's over the bed.''
Hutch couldn't recall a picture there, but he quickly obeyed and took the silver frame off the dark wall. Only in the window light of the main room could he catch a glimpse of what he held -- a landscape he himself had drawn near his mother's home in Goshen, Virginia when he was a boy and visiting there with Alice Matthews, his dead mother's friend: in the summer of 1944. Now was no time to think of meanings or omens in the clean-lined picture of a spine of mountains cloaked in dense evergreens. Why this of all things? Not thinking of blindness, Hutch showed it to Wade. ''This what you want?''
Wade's right hand came out and sized up the frame. Then he nodded Yes hard and took the next step to pass through the door into the dimlit hall. In those last inches Wade told himself This vanishes now. Never again. It felt worse than all his life till here, worse than the prospect of oncoming death.
Nobody spoke as Hutch double-locked the door, called the elevator, and they all rode down in its weird light to cross the lobby into strong April sun -- the morning of Passover, though they didn't know it, the night when God killed the firstborn son in every Egyptian overlord's house not marked with the blood of a slaughtered lamb.
In the light Wade looked even more devastated, gaunt as a flail. Not having seen himself for weeks, still he understood that and rigged a taut smile on his face, a try at pleasantness that looked like famine. So if you'd watched him every inch of the way toward the loaded car, you'd have seen no outward sign of the pain that went on tearing him like a tattered doll -- leaving the site of most of the good he'd tasted in his past grown life or would ever taste: the walls that held the memory of Wyatt Bondurant's beauty, his sudden ambushes of a stunning kindness, through long nights of juncture and mutual joy.
Hutch silently tried to tell himself that the source of all the strange elation he'd felt these past two days was finally shown to him as he led his son, his only child, toward the only home they'd had or would ever have.
As Hutch and Straw worked to lay Wade out on the pallet they'd made on the long backseat, the passersby barely slowed their headlong pace through the day, though some of them veered a little aside from a face and body as near gone as whoever this ghost was.
At the final moment of stillness at the curb -- Straw had cranked the car and was turning the wheel to enter traffic -- Wade somehow managed to raise himself and look to the street. No one heard him, even his father, but he said ''Adiós.'' Then he sank again and, before they were back across the great bridge, he'd drowned in the misty fatigue that lapped him constantly -- the main mercy now.
Copyright © 1995 by Reynolds Price
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