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October 1, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 324-328)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Nathaniel wasn't sure where he was running to, or, for that matter, what he was running from, but with each city block, his sprint decreased, as the rain was decreasing, toward a quick walk. Whether the pace of his mind, ever more meandering as the original surge of perplexity faded into consideration, caused his feet to slow or the more rational pace of his legs gave his thoughts wider breadth, he began to think, as he walked through the thickening crowd of people around him, of what he should do.

Around him, he knew, were thousands of lives, each with its own concerns. What's more, on the faces of the vast majority, Nathaniel could not see a trace of recognition, even on those that dared to look at him. It is a huge and populated world, he thought. There must be somewhere that I can go.

Though he didn't fear that Huck would chase him, he suddenly realized that, as one of the myriad different faces in the street, each with its own hue and texture, he was indistinguishable. Perhaps, he mused, were he of a mind to lower his eyes in accord with the unwritten, pervasive dictum, he could actually disappear. For as long as he could keep his head down and keep himself quiet and acting only along the direct middle line of behavior, he might even be able to disappear from himself; surely, then, could he give all of those who would use him, not even his self but just his name, the slip. After all, if he ceased to be the man behind his name, Nathaniel Ariss, the Nathaniel Ariss who seemed to be in such a bind, would no longer exist.

With each person who harshly grazed his shoulder, he might be brushing arms with an entirely different person of the same name. Similarly, he noted faces that, as he fancied, matched his to lengths just shy of exactness, yet only his facial features disguised his particular self. Why, if people could share names or features and still be different people, could he not combine the two and become another person, though one with the same name and face? But, it came to him as he passed a dusky little book store, this was the exact problem that he now faced: he could not have been less akin to the boy whom Holden had unearthed, but the world would not acknowledge him as somebody else.

Now that this particular avenue of casuistry had been cut off, he realized that he would be unable to turn his back on himself — it just wouldn't be, well... him. He chuckled, not out of desperation or nervousness, as had been increasingly the case with his laughter, but out of sincere amusement with the silliness of his largely semantic conundrum. But this simple trick of words helped him to move toward a new perspective.

"The way out of my predicament," he spoke out loud, disregarding the sidelong glances around him, "isn't to run from the past; it's to slow down in the present."

He stopped in place, feeling, rather than hearing, the discontented grunts at his doing so. In this huge and populated world, with all its pursuant options, the easiest way to escape problems might truly be to ignore them, without even allowing the problems the weight of an active dismissal. He would simply walk right past them as if they weren't there. Strength, real gargantuan physical strength wasn't seen in the being who could buffet a path through the crowd, but in the being who was unaware of the crowd, so why could the same not be true of more mental obstacles? He wouldn't battle with the world to reclaim his life, he would simply reclaim it.

A shadow skirting across his nose caused Nathaniel to look up, and a quick gust of cold air curled around his ears and hooked into his nostrils. Likewise, his eyes were assaulted by the cold, mechanical light of neon and spotlights and headlights jumbled together in the whole artificial bonfire of Times Square.

Nathaniel's first thought was to turn his steps away so that his mind might not be distracted by the harsh cacophony of material life. But he stood his ground, forcing himself to acknowledge that he must, after all his theorizing, deal in the world of which this spot was so appropriate a representation. He glared at the bright lights, moving and stationary, the flashing, informationless proponents of barely distinguishable products — identified not by value or even use, but by name. He watched a bus speed past, no longer devoted to advertising by means only of a side-panel, but splashed entirely with colors in the name of some scarcely decipherable service. He forced himself to stare at the torn posters of adulterated beauty.

Then he turned his eyes to the people around him. He watched all the familiar images of New York pass him by: from the fur-bedecked trophy wives of lascivious old men to other old men who were bedraggled in filth; from the pompous police officers to the cocky hoodlums; from the dealers to the beggars. He spotted a stairwell across the way that he knew would bring him into the intestines of the city.

Let me make of this a symbolic act, he thought. Just as he had been resolving to stride through his trials as if they were but vague clouds that wafted across the sky of his private world, he would slip through the crowd and the traffic. Just as he must first lower himself in his plans, so, too, would he descend into the subway. From there, his symbol and his life would blend together over the course of time. His actions would become less symbolic and more effectual.

He decided now what he would do: once he emerged from the bowels of the city downtown, he would reclaim his car and return to Rhode Island. He would persuade Jen to leave with him, less with excuses than before and more with vows. Together, they would head out for the Pequod, where they would weather the winter and emerge new people. The somewhat harsher living would bind them together. They would share the welcome birth of spring and know each other for their selves rather than their names, abilities, or accomplishments. Then they would return to the world, married, now, in reality if not in fact. By summer, the world would have forgotten him, and he could begin rebuilding his life, with more strength this time because he would be sharing the labor and rewards with someone who would know not just who he was, but who he had been, and have hopes of who they were to become together.

With this resolution, Nathaniel plunged through the bodies that flooded the sidewalk around him and marched across the street, unthreatened by the racing traffic that seemed, miraculously, to sway its own course for his sake. In the space of a breath, and not a bit disheveled, Nathaniel hopped onto the concrete island in the midst of the pandemonium. Even the light around him seemed to have changed, even the smells. This was not the same world that had watched the sun disappear to the West. This world had hope. Nathaniel looked up triumphantly.

Within a mass of passing pedestrians, he thought he saw a familiar face, but he was not unsettled, as he had been several times earlier, by the strange coincidence that suggested some esoteric and possibly cryptic scheme. In fact, he was anxious to share his moment of resolution.

"Alex!" he called out.

But his call had apparently not been necessary; Alex had already spotted him and was walking his way. Nathaniel held out his hand and smiled. This is how he would defeat the world, with a welcome. Alex reached out his own, and Nathaniel stepped toward him to shake it but saw that the spot into which he would put his hand was occupied by what looked to be a long shard of glass. Before he could withdraw his greeting, Nathaniel felt the sharp pain that explained the blood that gushed from his palm where Alex had pressed the glass into it.

Nathaniel looked into Alex's face, and Alex smiled at him coyly. Nathaniel pressed his bleeding hand with a corner of his jacket, looked at Alex again, and in a puzzling gasp asked, "Why?"

The answer came in a slightly accented near-kiss whisper in his ear: "I'm not an American."

Alex stepped back, and Nathaniel looked toward his hand as at something unreal.

He looked down at his wound and the sanguine liquid that splattered instant stains on the filthy, discolored, and splotchy pavement. When he looked up, Alex had disappeared. Nathaniel was alone in that indistinguishable crowd, looking ambiguously relieved or disappointed, but, without a doubt to anyone who saw him, decidedly unheroic.


It seems as if the neon lights ought to warm the floor of the city, where the shade of the tall buildings is not impenetrable, but the wind that whips through the channels of the streets makes the air bitter cold. The people shuffle past each other with nary a glance. Some meander aimlessly, lost as they are and anonymous in the mass of bodies that might be pungent were it not so cold. Others run. Whether to or away appears to make no difference, they rebound off the meanderers and the strollers. Amazingly, none of these hustlers collide with one another, only with those who choose a slower pace. A faceless man on a bicycle whips through the racing cars and hops the curb onto the sidewalk, nearly rolling over an old man who is propped up against a mesh wire garbage can. His can jingles, but he doesn't notice the bicyclist.

Nor does he notice the horns nor the grumbling engines that spit their smoke through growling exhaust pipes. He has ceased, it seems, to hear these sounds, or to see the steam that rises from the sewers and the manholes. He still smells the decay, though, despite the cold. It is in his nostrils, more a memory than a sense.

A young boy crouches beside the road, glancing up and down the street at the rushing cars. He sees an opening and sprints across. Some might say that he barely makes it, but he laughs with the exhilaration. He scurries off toward an unknown destination.

But the boy is depressing, even as he adds a sparkle to the mass of duplicate citizens. Please, let us away, for it is too much to think of getting caught up in these other plotless stories. Soon, we hope, we might cross the river and return to our brook, and let us see if we might persuade Nathaniel to raise his eyes from the cold filthy floor and to leave with us.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 1, 2006 8:32 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches