When afternoon was sputtering out in fallen leaves, in scarves pulled out of briefcases and in new beverages purchased by those more dependent on the black coffee sold in the little shop downtown, when the more diligent of students were making the long trek up Fallen Star Hill in retreat of the library booths, desks, tables, some up to the dorm houses, some behind the tennis courts for a smoke or a neck, some to the Vermont state store where cheap alcohol could be obtained with student body cards, Terrance Murphy was sitting with his extravagantly long legs—longer-looking in his time-worn, outgrown Brooks Brother’s slacks—propped up on the leather of his Restoration Hardware suitcase desk.
He was a young man, historically young for a professor, and it was for this inferiority of time—in which knowledge is so commonly understood to be doled out—that he found himself so often purchasing Restoration Hardware furniture and Christmas stocking stuffers and overpriced board-game sets, that he found himself at museums when they were beginning to close up the accompanying coffee shops, that he found himself dealing in antiquated sympathies, tapping out with his finger pads in the tables of the staffroom the chords of dead songs, as though to flesh out his intellectual foothold through decades purchased for too much in warehouse stores, in marble-lined public spaces, in Beethoven cassettes, in a frequent-buyer parking space designated at the north parking lot of the Westchester Mall.
At twenty-two Terrance Murphy had been to college at seventeen, had seen what little of the world he had seen in the rectangles of alternative films, had to his name a considerable wall of diplomas, no children of his own but a likeminded nephew whom he was of near enough age to act as advisor to a kind of physical sanctity he knew only distantly and briefly of, a habit of unintentional fasting, an alarm clock in which two thick plywood tennis rackets nodded inwardly at each other as though two classmates or lovers in cardinal revelation or secrecy.
At twenty-two he had slept with one woman and been gifted watches by two; he wondered often whether he were the sort of man handsome enough and yet bland enough to represent that ever-uniform image of ‘the husband,’ because whenever he went to dinner with anyone—friends, dates, fellow thesis-students—he always found them flattering him, speaking to him of to-be-inherited tennis clay, of windows reflecting sherbet orange on the Long Island Sound, of family names which strained sunlight white, of boarding school credentials that had taught, along with the Greek classics and the Roman moral sense, the smell of cashmere, as though prepositioning themselves, staking claims to ‘Terry Murphy, the husband’ as overtly as the staking of the American flag in the moon landing. Like this theory about the moon landing he sometimes entertained, picking un-hungrily at the contents of the breadbasket, he imagined this prescribed aspect of his life an orchestration of grave proportion, a ruse by his old roommate at Choate or his boyhood equestrian instructor to keep him celibate and anxious, because no one ever put out for him, and no one drank scotch in his presence; one afternoon in Cape Cod he sat in a camel-colored sweater on a poolside stretcher, wrapped in a fur, thinking of this, running a little crimson river with his Swiss Army knife up his left calve for the mere sake of disobedience, for the mere sake of action outside the bound of said orchestration. It had bothered him, he had thought, it had pained him that where he had found his brother had the privilege of the smuttiness of the drinks, the shitty bet-placing fervor of the horse races he had found he had an image of his sitting cross-legged in a ridiculously oversized house in Bedford, NY, a Serena and Lily carpet in the color slate, plaid pajama pants, the sullen dark eyes of his significant other watching, from the family couch, as he twirled between his fingers the tiny legs of children’s plastic figure horses.
He was constantly insecure, frequently unnerved. He was of the habit of imagining others’ morning routines, of the inclination toward eating his vegetables out of some vague fear instilled in him his hypochondriac father. He had dark hair, an English nose, a disarming and putty-rimmed smile. He had twice been accused of communist sympathies for having separated and parceled out his newspaper to have a section to read each weekday rather than a paperweight to ground or restrict his Sunday mornings; he’d avoided the repercussions by teaching a few extra hours, keeping the door to his office open longer hours, promising to help with the fall production musical, the track and field team, a cobbled together poem in the local newspaper exalting the campus steeple which he’d crumbed together with various drunken napkin scribblings, one-off bits of imagery in iambic pentameter, equating the shape of the spire quite appropriately to that of an icicle dribbled out meticulously in white frosting. He had no enemies, fewer opponents; at his best, he could rally a radical to his belief within the time expended in consuming a creampuff or another such cocktail snack.
Six PM had passed him without notice; when the flicker of his watch dial came, a tiny gold pick, he kicked his feet down off the desk and crossed his room to what proceedings must be accomplished for the evening, approaching the stack of plastic containers he’d brought from the grocery store which were, at present, tucked into the leather shoulder bag he’d had since freshman year of college and which sat slumped between the door-stop and the door, looking much like a lethargic bulldog or an animal hide.
He pulled the boxes out of his bag and began arranging their contents on silver plates, so that prepackaged croissants and shortbread cookies and little maple cakes removed their plastic shells and smeared with apple butter, cinnamon, slivered almonds, other such culinary delicacies as to mask the familiarity of this cake or that cookie to those bought in drunkenness at Duane Reed checkout line were lined along the table which graced his couch-back in a manner that he knew would be at the pleasure of his invited guests, the more advanced of his current undergraduates.
He had his little radio on an oldies channel, and when he turned the little chrome nob to the right, running the little ridged metal between the delicate padded ends of his right fingers, the refrain of a solemn and sad and un-placably familiar song was playing so that as he ran his cashmere sweater-sleeve over the surface of his desk, as he parted the curtains to the snowfield on the other said, the lacrosse field in the spring, then a white dirtied to a buttercream with the addition of dirt, Terry found himself trying to uncover where particularly the words “You must realize / Smoke gets in” fit in the purple soccer jersey and Grey Goose flat and leather couch scheme of those twenty two years he knew his own.
As Terry was failing to place the solemn tempo of the phrase, there was a terse and lazy knock at his door.
“Coming,” he called, hurrying to tuck the evidence of the pastry boxes under the black nylon of a vest left stored under the great leather rectangle of his desk.
It was Matthew Carnegie, strictly Matt to his inferiors (a broad category encompassing all but the select few of his classmates, the totality of New England’s ministers, doctors, professors, clerks, the more diminutive of his two brothers, a strawberry-blonde haired Anglo-Saxon specimen of a cousin, who was always, on sheer facial structure, was considered the more handsome, for the unbelievable thinness of his nose, the thin sweep of his mouth, the tragic delicacy of his somewhat reddish brow, but whom he declared dominance over, in all sports and measures, for his sheer physical size, taxicab drivers, bartenders, the Catholic Trinity, the staff of the Mark Cross Leather Goods, 55nd street, his father), no relation to the Carnegies of self-help fame, and a brutal, quick-mouthed man where the name held neither any blood relation nor had captured, to Terry Murphy’s three years’ supervision over such matters, any of his notice.
He had dark, close-shorn fleeced hair, a Jewish nose, the kind of arrogance evident in those superior of build which, by the benefit of superior application, is refurbished every month or week or so. He was wearing shorts, a navy blue and evidently worn Colby College Mules t-shirt, a North Face windbreaker, the evidence of a recent tryst hanging, both in cologne and in lethargy which had, along with the cold effect of the season, cast a kind of sturdy and immobile indication of contentment on his face.
On his way to the couch he dropped a bag of peppermints; his due payment and no more. Terry wondered as the couch bent to his weight what he had admired in Matt Carnegie which had lent him the privilege of familiarity with that room after all, but then there materialized a vague act of heroism, a written apology, some blatant blame he had taken for the vague actions of a group of men in mass for which Terry was sorry, in a fleeting and visceral pang made real by the paper-weight of its physical catalyst ensconced there on the couch, for having questioned his right at all. Terry again opened the door.
In came Henderson Cole, moderately tall but thin, somewhat waved hair of a medium brown, a thin and delicate face with the small triangle of an English nose, a baby blue oxford buttoned misaligned by two buttons, the kind of masculine foolishness derived of a kind of phantom want for a wider chest. Behind him a few paces was Wyatt Sampson, a small half-Asian girl with a voice Terry had heard articulated through the door and down the hall; she wore a genuine and simple leather purse the shape of a rectangle, legging pants which accentuated her most recent bout of rejecting sustenance, the entitlement, given an encounter at a recent holiday party with Matt, that she be allowed the privilege of the use of his full name, some reciprocal elbow room through which to recapture his ever-evasive and often distracted masculine attention.
As the students filled the room they edged tentatively toward the screen; Henderson hung near Terry’s desk, Matt sat half-heartedly reading some or other college publication on the couch, and Wyatt, though not smoking, stood, as one who smoked might stand, beside the curtains, so that when the movie began, all the room’s inhabitants were surprised to have found no tiny tangerine sun, throughout the duration of the title credits, produced by the posture she’d assumed against the glass panes or the outside sliding door.
The movie was a small-scale production, part documentary and part noir, which was to be released in a little theatre-room Terry had gone to the week before and which was to have real leather goods to buy outside the concession stand at a fold out table; he’d been supervising the practices for it which had, with the exception of a single smuggled Smirnoff’s incident, been running without pause for ten weeks. The filming had been completed the prior weekend.
A handsome man in white cotton colored pajamas, with a white cotton sleep-robe over and long, bare feet was the first figure to fill the screen following the title sequence; the shot followed closely as he finished writing a letter on a scrap of stationary marked with his name in tiny block letters, as he set aside the paper, assumed the leather square of a wallet from the desk and took to running his thumb over the nature of the leather grain. His thumb’s stroking the leather faded slowly into a similar tempo of motion used by a dark-haired woman in brushing her hair; she was wearing a little baby blue dress, oat colored and glossed flat shoes, looking with the mahogany slants of her eyes focused on her mahogany slants’ reflection into a wide and decorous bedroom mirror. When the brush halted at a little knot near the nape of her neck she said “Fuck it,” sending the rectangular silver missile flying into the mattress, turning the nob down on the room’s lights, Henderson let out a little utterance of the word, “Miller,” a low, breathy, sound, because she, too, was a student at Colby.
“Millerrrrr,” repeated Matt Carnegie, in earnest.
Wyatt Sampson moved from the sliding door to distract herself with a peppermint from the desk.
The next scene was a cut to a dark storeroom in which the floors bore a kind of red-brown tile; a voiceover began as the shots panned the room, covering, in waves, an array of black tools, leather stamps, boxes, great sheets of animal skin hung over racks as though folded breads left to dry. “The hide and tallow trade in California was a phenomenon of grave and exceptional importance—” A close-up of some of the hanging hides, “Which cemented the commercial dominance of the new land, and later state, in the world’s markets.”
The leather shape of an early football arced across the screen as the man who had previously donned pajamas dove shoulder first to capture the missile before the crimson line denoting the field’s end. “California leather found itself used across the United States and the world, however, the largest market by far for the western product was the eastern haven of New England, where land to grow cattle had become cost prohibitive—”
The football player was seen wiping his forehead on a little towel emblazoned with the Harvard ‘H’ as the camera followed his jogging back to a largely wooden locker room, to a dorm room with a desk behind which were tacked decrepit postcards for Harvard-Yale Games of years past, the NYSQE club 78th street, the hunter green-rimmed images of Georgian brick monstrosities softened with the casual lettering of ‘Provincetown,’ ‘Cape Cod,’ ‘Wellfleet,’ past a bathroom where hung a calendar with the events marked in crimson boxes; the shot followed him as he went through the motions of his late afternoon, a fresh shave with a mink brush, a newspaper taken and read in walking, flapping some in the wind, the stroll across a brick-dominated courtyard which culminated in his ordering a straw-colored drink in a glass cup the length of his calve.
As he sat the camera captured the thin, stooped area of his back as he leaned from his bar stool, in mid-afternoon exhaustion, over the counter, as he picked lethargically at salted snacks, the coaster beneath his glass, a little scab formed upon the curvature of his left ear. Beside him could be seen the stuffed square of a leather wallet stamped with the initials ‘EBH’ and a couple of scuff marks the shape and hue of breakfast oats.
“Much of the hide and tallow trade subsisted with merchants in Boston, who purchased raw hides from ranchos, or cattle farms, in California,” Terry Murphy’s voice spoke as the man continued to pick over himself, over the meagre offerings of the great Cambridge bar. His voice was confident, dark, but there was in it a degree of that sheepishness, a degree of that hesitance he had found himself incapable, despite a session of speaking classes and a sound conviction in his authority on a wide array of subjects, and had acquired, maybe in Dartmouth camp in boyhood, where he had known himself, for the first time, for the scope of his brain’s capability exceedingly young, maybe in his time at NYU Undergrad, in that Irish-pub and Hudson park jogging phase where he had always had the qualifications for space at the table or committee or publication or whatever entanglement of note to which admission was to be earned, but little had been the commandeering force.
There had been a certain discomfort, he thought, listening to himself, a certain palpable abrasiveness, a kind of catching of Velcro which highlighted and laid bare his situation’s unorthodoxy if it was a handsome, solemn, unorthodoxy, for which many would have killed to have been so much as in proximity to, that it was still an unorthodoxy and thus a kind of flaw, how vulnerable, how naked he had felt all those nights after discourse and those few messy mornings, when the day threw a wash of amber stained glass on the bar, drawing out the tiny particles in the velvet curtains, awakening the reddish tint in the mahogany, out with NYU colleagues, and had the authority, earned of him his mind, such company, such situational privilege, but lacked the ability of securing for himself, out of the sheer lack of age, the privilege of drink.
He thought of how naked he had felt in those bar and jogging days as he heard that sheepishness still in his voice, of the unnerving feeling he’d had that the world had knelt to him in mistake, by tremendous error, when he’d been asked for an interview, on a mere whim, in visiting a friend at MIT, when he’d sat spinning and laughing frightenedly, sheepish and unsure of himself in the kind of floor-to-ceiling-mahogany office, at nineteen, most wouldn’t see the duration of their lives. How it bruised a man, however exceptional he understood himself, to be handed things—newspaper columns, perfect bound purple magazines chock full of his words, honorary degrees, little silver beans and bronze disks affixed to grosgrain that should, in normal proceedings, have been handed with years between them, or handed not together, or handed not at all and withheld.
His dark voice, with its sheepish undertones continued, about its handsome manner, to speak to the room through its authority on the California hide and tallow trade, and Terry listened to it with his shoes off, with his feet propped up on his desk, with the white orb of a peppermint from which the outer layer had been sucked off caught between the delicate clamp of his teeth. The sheepish quality reminded him, too, of the fundamental indignance he felt as result of that one rejection he’d had, how he’d laid on his cot with the thin envelope held over his chest, simultaneously grieving and ecstatic, caught up and altogether stunned, for the first time, at the partiality of life.
He thought, the white orb of the peppermint clacking at his jaw as he prodded it, of the Harvard rejection letter, how he’d understood immediately its weight, how he’d understood immediately its having leant him the kind of empathy which would enable him comprehension, compassion. That the thin crimson envelope had stricken him a blow, a gorgeous blow, for it had enabled him later the kind of empathy that’d inclined him to reach for wallet to pay another’s bar bill, to find meaning in his father’s old blues songs, which had meant as little to him as to the deaf in boyhood, to find part of himself, if a sliver, in the cheap coffee and Henley shirts and dark-eyed exhaustion of the men he saw riding in the subway uptown in whose eyes could be found the roughness of Penn Station instead of Central, the crude smells of imitation cologne, in the eyes of which was less a want to escape that inertia of their respective bodies toward mediocrity than a kind of gaping at it, a kind of un-ending and infinitely refurbishing sense of misunderstanding, because there was a shock in it, unlike the dark room and bed on the floor and bright eyed Irish patriotism, Irish life-hunger as existed in the movies, because there was a feeling of betrayal, Terry knew, to those who woke each day to find little, a feeling of betrayal, he knew, because even when little becomes what one knows there is always the impression of having been scorned which remains even for those who long have ceded those stupid boyish hopes of silver tennis plates and bronze medals.
It was these men he wanted to comprehend, Terry thought, having finished the peppermint and begun the task of unwrapping another, these men who drew so far back from life, instinctively, as one draws back from a hot tray, however handsome, however momentarily noble they were, this protest or that editorial, the one Yale football game like the sputter of fish-flesh in pan, the golden though cheap crackle, the library sleep-in, a name printed in the campus magazine half by error, this with that gleam of salmon skin, receded from instead of moved to warm themselves by the heat of being so that when the better of their generation began the process of moving outside of rather than into themselves, as men do, piling bricks, inscribing their names on the gold plaques outside this building, that library, $50,000 to fix their name to a cause in the alumni monthly, they inversely sunk so far into mediocrity that they’d retreated into the un-judging caverns of bars and poolrooms.
That is what he wanted, Terry had remembered himself thinking, lying on the hard room-issue mattress in his room at Choate, the room a little ways from and overlooking the swimming facilities, the room with the humidifier, the keys to the soccer shed, an image of some old Olympic swimmer paused mid-dive in a yellowed and rounded-ended postcard long since fossilized. He wanted to comprehend why his father lectured his brother, when he was better to have abstained judgement, why his roommate read right-wing newsprint and couldn’t stomach Hemingway, why Edmund Cuomo drank wine out of a box. He wanted to comprehend these people, to have the yearning, the basic human lust others had showed before in his actions in theirs. He wanted to shake hands with Max Barnes for once, in the boardroom where they mixed machine coffee with scotch. He wanted to say he’d play tennis with him the long weekend and mean it. He wanted to know how to mean it.
And what else had he thought that day? It’d been something big. One of those little nuggets one comes across in sprawling around, as though in seeking a light-switch, and which one knows as instinctively as a hand differentiates placard from wall, the steel face of truth from otherwise. Some comment Max Barnes had said about eating fried chicken when he got depressed. Some nagging at the black-down triangle at the nape of his neck prodding him to wonder whether his cousin at Dartmouth was happier at the Jack-O-Lantern than he was in his position at the Daily, for he had fought ten other men for it—for, against the inherent failures pitted against his nature, the side of the family spared all but the most meagre of Gaelic sympathies, of a kind of ceaseless basin of resolve—he had won. Seven consecutive editorials judged by a committee, some ridiculous hazing business about sliding in one’s boxers in the snow. Ridiculousness that’d brought about a chest rash, a cut knee, one’s name the first after the cover page, hunter green and the lettering in fat white, an editorial platform through which to respectfully and most intellectually complain—
And the sheepishness from the TV brought Terry Murphy back to himself, back to the room, and he rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, he looked around at his surroundings as one who had been away and must reorient himself, how a man returns from the little restroom of the hall, smelling of baby wipes and Pottery Barn brown sugar potpourri, sliding his jaw some, reapportioning as the room widened itself to him a suitable place on the couch, reapportioning a plate with mustard and cocktail hotdogs, a stretch of plaid horse-blanket, an advantageous proximity to or from the fireplace. He settled and he settled quietly, self-consciously, stroking his knee as though to subdue himself, though it was only in the Irish pub and purple soccer jersey anterooms of that extraordinary mind, the Georgian brick walls of his boyhood in his stomach which has been stirred, and not the room. The room was still, and had been. The screen was gray. The young man played football in a crimson jersey, and had been playing football in a crimson jersey. He played it breathlessly so that Terry was able only to listen in part to his own sheepish voiceover.
“The remaining fat from the cattle was liquefied and separated, thus creating tallow, collected in repositories crafted from hides known as botas,” Terry listened to himself say, confidently, but with that unmistakable sheepishness remaining, too, in his voice. The rough caramel brown of a store room interior unfolded itself on the TV, the camera panning over work tables, the hung hides, little containers of clear and white materials, racks on which candles hung from un-snipped white wicks. “When the hides and tallow arrived back east,” said Terry, “the soaps and leathers were so popular in the Northeast, where leather and cattle produced goods were commodities, so that California fat could be found in nearly every soap bar in the showers of, in nearly every common room and dormitory of the New England colleges.”
“Wallets, loafers, briefcases, soaps, early football skins—” the frame panned in on a soft-ended rectangle on the silver shelf of a restroom, a cream-colored soap with integrated within it the speckled dots of cinnamon, the miniscule ragged wafers of harvested oats. “So that oatmeal soap at Princeton and wallets at Yale, so that the very candles which kept Harvard aglow those cold winters were raised not of the hard New England soil, through the snow, but purchased from across the continent, purchased from the wild and abundant western frontier—”
The frame panned in again on a leather, this the man’s arm reached over the back of a couch, the back of the girl’s dark hair visible against the chocolate brown color of the sink-down, and again spoke, this for the last time, that dark and sheepish though confident resonance of Terry’s Irish voice, “While the leather trade grew in New England, it was for many years that the east relied on the west for its goods, so that in every fiber of life in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, in even the most advanced northeastern cities there could be found in its traditions, in its routines, in all those products, those things which tame and add to life and make it less stringent, more warm, there could be found the brown and chestnut and tan colored bindings produced of California.”
Matt Carnegie stood just as soon as the dark sound of Terry’s voice faded into the oatmeal colored carpet, as soon as the final credits streamed over the black of the TV screen as quickly as a bit of dough run through a machine, so that a low and lethargic groan was produced the couch.
“So soon to go?” said Terry, walking to the lights.
“No,” said Matt Carnegie.
“’Gotta game or what?” said Terry.
“Dinner,” said Matt.
Terry looked at him wistfully, regrettably, darting his fingers in the peppermint bowl.
“Drinks,” Matt corrected himself, smoothing back his dark hair with his palm.
Henderson and Wyatt were still ensconced in the couch; he with a triangle of couch leather between his legs, the backs of his feet, in black Brooks Brother’s socks, removed his loafers, she with her legging-clad calves pulled up beside her on the couch.
“You, Henderson?” said Terry, tearing down the center the clear cellophane wrapped of the mint. Clacking his mouth around the red-lined orb. “Wyatt?”
“I’ll stay,” said Wyatt.
“Sure,” said Henderson, sliding his feet in and out of his shoes.
So as Matt Carnegie picked his coat up from where he’d hung it over the back of one of Terry’s leather club chairs leaned against the wall, Terry went to the shelf behind his desk and pushed aside two thick, glossy-spined books, the small morphed golden face of a soccer player paused mid-kick, his leg a gold extension of the jersey shorts represented by a certain draped chrome, melted over in a triangle fixing him indefinitely to his putty and bruise colored marble base, indefinitely to that one motion branded, in generalization, ‘Terrance E. Murphy, for His Notable Defense, NYU Varsity Soccer.’
“Alright,” said Matt Carnegie as Terry pulled down the Scrabble board from that mahogany shelf against his wall of diplomas, those deep brown cubbies in which to store one’s sympathies, one’s prides. Matt Carnegie shook Terry’s hand and Terry felt the strength of his shake through his grip, that physical confidence of his which lent him that confidence of mind, so clear, so simple.
“You want to keep score?” said Henderson to Terry, as Terry carried the board over to the couch, to the leather Restoration Hardware ottoman, as he watched, in carrying the heavy, gray-wood of the artificially warried of the box he had purchased, the previous November, in a fit of insecurity, for $395, as he watched, through the glass sliding doors of his desk, through the lightly snowed and cream colored expanse of what was the lacrosse field in spring, Matt Carnegie’s confident and walk in the direction of Fallen Star Hill.
“Terry?” repeated Henderson, but Terry was caught up in rationalizing his having purchased the overpriced board game through the well-made, sturdy nature of the deep maroon plastic of the little houses, the deep hunter green of the tiny plastic fragments denoting hotels, watching Matt Carnegie walk out over the hill.
“What?” said Terry, distractedly.
“The score. Do you want to keep—”
“Oh,” said Terry, sitting, settling his sheepishness, his thin and extravagantly long legs on the edge of a sink-down square. “Score. Sure. Yes.” So he took out the little pad from the box on which was inscribed the little boxed columns for tallying one’s points, so he picked with his sheepish, distracted index and middle fingers of his right hand at the pad’s top, that gray-gluey colored pliable plastic. So he thought of his having been close to, responsible for the movie, how in it, all those weeks enmeshed in what had been the simultaneous burden and privilege of its supervision, how he hadn’t cared about the other professor the participants, the actors had raved about, how little effect had that authority he himself had wielded over the production, how little had he cared about those clips of the Carlyle lobby, those clips of the bar one of the Colby students, some distinguished undergraduate film student had been allowed, with special permission, to film, the outside nature of those things to him, and with that nature the alarming fact that he was so removed of it, the production, his life, the NYU soccer game he had gone down to Manhattan in the frigid cold to have watched, to have stood freezing in a pair of jeans, a thin puffer coat, an underestimated impression of the weather and the clouds of his breath fogging his vision, how lackluster his claps had sounded through his white cashmere gloves, dulled by the layer, the alarming fact that these scenes, these pieces removed his life, his own life and no other man’s, mattered less to him than the newspaper messages of another country’s headlines. How little had he cared! How little did he care, still. Even in recognizing his separation he could not mend it. He felt already, even in thinking over how to mend this space, the coldness of the wall, the thickness of it, the scope of its weight as great and as unsurmountable as the walls of an ice castle he had been to one winter, one Christmastime, in visiting his brother at Michigan, so many years before, how dark it had been, how he had been able to see, through the thick sculpted wall, only the shapes of things, the shades, so that the great campus library in all its gothic glory, in all that academic fervor it harbored, endlessly contented by the cracked open spines of books, the electric graphite script of new dark-browed, sympathetic and enraptured men, reduced to a yam-colored glow through the ice, and there Grace Everett, who he supposedly loved, who he supposedly understood and empathized with, and in her he found none the old-boy camaraderie, none the hard assurance, none the habit of neglecting the bread at the table, not the burn along the backside of her left hand where she’d ruined that meal for him, the stupid Indian curry over rice, but only the back of a dark-haired head, the orb of a woven mitten whose material, despite his having bought it, that previous November, he was unsure, so clouded was his impression, so distant was his conviction in his respect for, in the pleasure he derived from such things . . .
How distant seemed life, these pleasures, how fast were they and impersonal, grazing him only momentarily and distantly, as though other men on the soccer field, the corner of a shoulder under a green Trinity jersey, the careless elbow hanging cold and limp behind the short sleeves of a chest running in ice blue jersey—How beautiful were they, how good were those things, he was remembering, those things from the land, the leather born of the land, like silk when rubbed right, like velvet, the old down comforter, that worn oxford in which the places at the wrists had been worn most bare, and yet how little did he feel them!
Henderson had picked from the crimson bag the highest letter, had, as Terry numbly penciled in the names of his students, his own, in neat, all-caps and meticulous little letters, watching Matt Carnegie disappear over the hill, watching his youth, that momentary proximity he had to it in his dorm room, that crimson envelope laying thinly on his chest, moving with his breath, laid across the middle of the board, the little wood-imitative squares in the little notches laid out for them the word Yale, claiming a smattering of points.
“Twenty-seven,” said Henderson.
“What?” said Terry.
“Yale. Twenty-seven points, it’s—”
So it was a proper noun, Terry thought. So it was outside those bounds laid out. So he didn’t care. Even that intellectualism of his was far from him, removed, so that he wished it back, even that one pain, how he’d wanted to go to Harvard and had to have gone instead to NYU with honors, how it had been a momentary pain, a momentary feeling, but that already replaced, as though by the overcompensation with the cushy pleasure of his being of the position at said institution to secure for his nephew a summer internship, a letter in a purple sleeve, a common last name at an Irish pub where it counted, a bit of concrete alongside the Hudson, some the sheepish and removed pleasure of his lost youth.
So he was a man, so this was life, he thought, remembering a tableaux of images he should have been touched by which had only grazed him like men along a field. So there had been that night at the Princeton bar when something as simple as a half-bad hamburger, a coffee, a table inscribed with shittily-scratched in names had pleased his cousin. So there had been the drive to the supermarket, the walking across the parking lot in shorts and puffer coats, the frigid North, and so the shape of that boyhood he and Patrick had somehow shared in that cold glass jar, the oversized Mott’s applesauce. So where Patrick ran his hands through the stuff, seductively kneaded it, frigid and thick, pressing the stuff to his face in a drunken haste and yet there was Terry, whose scotch had been little more than a still, amber-colored fountain all night, who couldn’t find in the cold pulverized fruit any of the old river water, any the shape of the little hills and dales, so cold, they had known as respectively well together.
So, this was life, he thought. So, things went.
He let Henderson play Yale, though it was illegitimate. He looked at the crude sash of pride draped his mouth and he let him have it, he looked at it as one looks at a wonder which one, though seeing in it the pieces, seeing the order of its parts, one knows oneself somehow fundamentally incapable of the imitation of. He thought of Matt Carnegie walking up over Fallen Star Hill, of the humidifier in his old dorm room. So, he thought, running the smooth letters in his hand, his wrist jammed into the crimson bag, this was life.