The two-hour final episode answered absolutely nothing. Not one thing. Basically, it appears that the series' creators simply threw all sorts of things out there to tantalize people and then had absolutely no idea where to go with it or what to do. This is a very, very bad idea. The audience for "Lost" will abandon the show over the summer and it will creak out a few more months until it is deservedly cancelled. Audiences will go for a sucker punch once, but no longer. Bye bye "Lost." It's been lousy to know ya.
Podhoretz may or may not have a better understanding than I do of the primetime television audience. (I'd wager on the "may.") But there's room to argue that he's applying the wrong standard to the show: it isn't so much of a seasonal series as a long-running epic. The significant difference, in my characterization, is that the former emphasizes the what happened, while the latter has the more artistic emphasis on what does it mean.
The fact is that we did get some answers in the finale, after a fashion, but they were clues to the plot's direction rather than the filled in blanks that Podhoretz wanted. We've gotten a glimpse of the "they" who whisper in the jungle. We know which child they were after. We've seen that the mysterious hatch, rather than opening directly into some sort of spaceship, goes deep into the island. More thematically, the writers gave us a glimpse of a probable central tension to define the next season, if not the show itself: faith versus science.
The show's audience might be inclined, therefore, to give it at least another season. The decisive factor thereafter will be whether viewers get the sense that the writers are just stringing them along or are actually going somewhere. Podhoretz's assessment is already that the writers are luring the audience from episode to episode with empty noises. The nature of the show and the way in which it has begun and progressed, with a limited cast within a delineated setting, suggest intentions other than running for the maximum number of seasons.
Me, I've got another complaint a "scandal" to use Podhoretz's word about the season finale, but I might use the topic for my next column... (To be continued.)
I've been posting less than I ever have during the history of this blog less, even, than when I had the stresses and extra work of a teacher back in the autumn and the reason isn't, any longer, that I haven't found anything of interest to write about.
The unexciting, nuance-lacking reason for my silence is that I'm trying to get all of this year's house projects in before the summer gets up to speed. Somehow, I don't suspect that I'd want to be leveling the front yard with dirt on 80-degree days. Moreover, there are concepts of which I've heard tell "relaxing" and "enjoying your home" that I'd like to investigate, and looming labor would seem likely to impede upon my exploration.
So, the front yard fence is built. That leaves a portion of the backyard fence to build, a house to paint, and a patio to make usable. I'm hopeful that I'll be done before the Fourth of July.
In the meantime, I think I'm managing to wrap a schedule around my days. With the arrival of summer repeats on television, June should be a more active month on Dust in the Light than was May.
Huck's lower lip and eyebrows pushed upward into identical arches, and he shook his head. "Yer mind's made up, ain't it?"
"Then what'd be the pint?"
The silence returned softly to their walk. From her vantage point, D. could see mountains in every direction. The sun's position, still very nearly overhead, distributed an even shadelessness upon the land. Not, as is so at extremes of the day, enlightening one range and darkening another, but laying smoothly over them all, at least from D.'s perspective. In the morning, she thought, the sun-tipped western mountains might come to symbolize a hope for the day, whereas the evening ascended like a flood up the eastern mountains. It was also true, however, that the day sprang from the east and departed to the west. Perhaps the lazy effect of midday came from the lack of these uncomfortable distinctions.
The time of year was such that the semiplush foliage on the trees seemed to be the full stock, and therefore meager. For some, the effect that this has is one of longing for the past, when the springs were greener. D. understood, however, that the next week or two would bring a storm, and the next after that a wave of heat to urge the trees to produce their own shade. To justify her conclusion, D. had to cast her mind back to her pre-city days. Days when she was young and not yet working. The working world rarely noticed but short glimpses of change, making it seem rapid and untraceable. This was especially true for those working in the city, where the collection of natural things affected by a change of season was far smaller.
But even though the leaves and the flowers and, hence, the pollen were not yet ample enough to compare to a memory of the previous spring, D. recognized a smell on the air that she had forgotten through the winter, though she did recall intending to remember it. She wondered what else she might recall of the spring and of the country were she to stay away from the city for just a bit longer. That wouldn't mean that I had to stay here, she thought. Necessarily.
A bird chirped from a nearby bush as if calling out a warning to the next bird on the watch line. D. looked toward a sound and came to a cautious stop to watch a bunny that was nibbling on something and watching the passing humans with some anxiety. Huck took a few more steps before he noticed that D. had stopped. When he followed her eyes to the bunny, he smiled as a country boy may be wont to smile at the amazement of city folk at something as commonplace as a rabbit. Much as a farmer must find it strange that a couple of cows could cause spectator traffic.
At some inaudible signal, the bunny bounded off into the underbrush, creating a slight stir in the remnant leaves of fall and some low hanging twigs, all of which rustled and seemed to pass their rustling up into the larger branches of the trees, which swayed and increased the general murmur. The movement and sound of nature grew into a wind which spread the hum and began to whistle gently. As the wind gusted, the whistle changed its pitch slightly, until it sounded as if the mountains themselves were preparing to break out in song. And when the wind subsided, D. could hear a continued whistle, as of an Irish jig, that was too precise to be natural. Huck smiled when D. looked to him for explanation.
Soon a young man, about thirty and moderate of proportion and height, emerged around a bend in the path that Huck and D. had been approaching.
"Huck! How are you?" the young man hailed.
"Not bad. Yerself?" The two men shook hands and then hugged as friends are apt to do after long periods of separation. After a few congenialities, Huck told the young man that he was just helping D. find her car and would meet him at the house in a bit.
It occurred to D. that she would not be hearing this newcomer's story, whatever it might be. He had the scraggly beginnings of an unseasonable beard, which matched his hair mostly light blond, but suggesting a red tinge. His nearly teal eyes twinkled, and D. thought that they alone might be full of tales.
"Oh," said the young man, showing no inclination to sway the plans of anyone involved, "I'll walk with you if you don't mind." Smiling at D., he explained, "Lord knows who I'll get stuck talking to if I go to the house now."
Huck interjected, "Well, the young lady's had some frights, so it'd have ta be up ta her."
"I don't mind," D. mumbled as if her mind were elsewhere.
The newcomer smiled and stuck out his hand. "I'm glad to be able to meet you, even if you are on your way away. I'm John." Noticing a slightly curious look pass over D.'s face, John added, "But everybody calls me Steinbeck so as not to confuse me with the old guy."
D. shook his hand and asked, "John Steinbeck? Isn't that against the rules?"
Laughing, Steinbeck said, "Well you might say that I've found a loophole. It was the name that I wanted for myself, and it was not a little pleasing to see how much Nathaniel enjoyed figuring out why it wasn't against the rules and then considering all the implications. Unfortunately, he decided that one of those implications is that I'm not allowed to speak directly of myself often, and that is one of the few pleasures that I've always tried to reserve. On the other hand, it has made me a tremendous conversationalist because, as my namesake wrote, 'if a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.' Huck, didn't you say something along those lines?"
Huck smiled at the game, "Maybe sump'n like that."
Feeling that she had missed something, D. let her mind return to the seasons. "What is the date?" she asked Steinbeck.
"Early May is the most exact that I know."
D.'s thought escaped as incredulous words, "That means that I've been here for almost two months." Funny, but D. almost felt as if somebody should have come looking for her after so much time. She knew that, even had somebody searched, she would have been exceedingly difficult to find, but she also knew that there was something important about the fact that she didn't believe there to be anybody who would look for her.
"What's your thinking on that?" Steinbeck asked her.
D. stepped out of her thought, "Excuse me?"
"I gather that your disbelief at the span of time that you've been here means that you didn't think it had been that long. So was it eventfulness or eventlessness that made it seem so short?"
D. thought about it. "It's been a little of both. Now that I think about it, though, it seems like I've been here longer, but that it's gone by quickly."
"That sounds about right," Steinbeck responded. "When you're busy, time flies by on wings of occupation, but when it's past, a length of time seems as long as the number of events that happened within it. The real John Steinbeck called them posts on which to drape our conception of time."
D. looked around. The season had changed enough that she did not recognize the path that they followed, but somehow she felt that it was the very same one down which John, the elder, had led her in the opposite direction. It seemed only a short time ago, yet she felt as if something had changed within her, as it had around her, that left only the distance across a thin crevice between her arrival and this moment, her departure.
Steinbeck broke the silence. "That's how it was my first and second years. There were some days that felt as if they would never end and others that I prayed without hope to extend, either because I was enjoying them or because there was something that left the day crooked, without its being done before a new day. Looking back, it seems that there were so many more of those that were too short and that they weren't quite as short as they had seemed. But the days that seemed long seem now, in the memory, hardly to have existed. To tell the truth, the way those summers went, particularly the second, I could have done with more of the interminable dull days that I can't seem to remember."
D. smiled a little.
"I'm sorry," Steinbeck apologized. "You're on your way out, and I'm beginning my lectures."
D. hesitated and then said, "No, that's alright. It'll pass the time while we walk."
She was going to hear another story after all. And she wasn't sure how she felt about it.
"I came fairly late in the season. I don't think there's anything remarkable about that, or about my reasons for heading out into the wild or the choices and ways that led me here, but I mention it because I've always felt as if I came into the middle of something, and I've never quite felt right about that summer. I've seen movies and missed the beginning, and even later, when I'd managed to see the whole thing through, there was always an uneven feel to the film for me.
"So I came late, like a belated child, to this family in the woods. And it is like a family, with each person's differences. We're all kinds of people. Those who are running from something, and those who are running from nothing. Some are well read, and some aren't. I like to think that we each bring something or other to the group, like one might bring wine and another pretzels to a gathering. But the individuality, that's what's kept me returning these past several years: the beauty of variety. I've heard it said that even the most brilliant colors need another color, or only white or black, to offset them, and I believe it to be true of people, too.
"Somehow, though, I remember remarking the unique fact that everybody here was kind in their own way of being kind. I suppose it is a self-screening crowd. We're all lonesome for something, and lonesome people, because they feel for themselves, feel for others to at least a small degree.
"Of course, the loneliest, and the kindest, was Nathaniel. Some people, as I understand, think he's crazy or full of bull or full of himself, but I think anyone who believes that is missing something. I think he's desperately brilliant and brilliantly clear of thought, and therefore, since he is human and has his own secret pains, his are more pronounced to the degree of his own capacity for understanding others and himself. Nathaniel has a view of humanity that is probably reserved for those great men who rise up once or twice a century and share a little of their own understanding with the rest of us in the hopes of changing the world. More often than not, I believe, such understanding is too disturbing for the common man, and we turn away from it after only brief periods of trial. We do keep a piece of it within, but I think that we tend to keep something nonessential like a name or a saying. We keep the face but not the style, and we go back to our lives vaguely feeling that the world doesn't have to be this way.
"Knowing this, and feeling it to be true, is why it must be an awfully lonely thing being great. And Nathaniel is perhaps the loneliest man that I've ever known.
"This is not to say that he is cold or aloof. He's just like a child who has discovered that his parents are not perfect, because he knows more than they. When I first met him here, I think that he was still in a sort of panic to discover if it was he or the world who was the blunderer. I got out of him, once, that one or both of his parents had recently and suddenly died when he first came to the Pequod. I would have liked to have known his parents, or whoever the two were who must have formed him. (And there must have been two: one bright and warm like a California sunset and the other all midnights and lines.) You could almost see them struggling within him. And that might be why he came out here in the first place. Maybe he was trying to get away from the demands of the world, the money, the sex, the dealings with other and strange people.
"If all emotions and interactions between people come down to love in some way or other, then I think in his way Nathaniel was running away from love. But, as it always seems to go, love well sex, anyway found him. Even out here."
Part of what makes a danger of modern approaches to addressing public policies that bear on "progress" is that we tend to view them on an individual basis, and when we do realize that they are tangential to each other, we hesitate to follow the implications but so deeply. (Sometimes the hesitance results from the complexity, sometimes from the sense that we'll be proven wrong in what we want to believe.)
My latest column for TheFactIs.org dwells on the intersection of embryonic stem cell research, "right to die" trends, socialist healthcare schemes, and radical life extension. Ultimately, I don't think any of these issues can be fully appreciated without consideration of the others. (And many others, but one can only do so much in fewer than 1,000 words.)
D. spent the remainder of the morning in the open courtyard and hadn't seen anybody but Huck, Martin, and Holden. Martin seemed embarrassed when he walked by on the balcony. It looked as if he made a point of not looking at her. When the sun was almost directly over her head, D. decided to make her way to the kitchen and see what was going on with lunch. There was nobody there, so she made herself a sandwich, which, for no particular reason, she decided to eat in the dining room. The floor creaked as she made her way across the hall.
She put her plate on the table in front of the nearest chair, but looking over her shoulder, picked it up and walked around to the seat in which Holden had been sitting earlier. As she passed one of the southern windows, she noticed him at the edge of the forest stamping what looked like pants into the dirt. She shook her head and sat down.
After taking a bite of her sandwich, D. glanced into a box on the seat to her right. There were at least four dozen notebooks of many colors and varieties. Sticking out a bit was one of those with black and white speckled covers that she had used for all of her classes when she was younger. She took another bite out of the sandwich, put it down on her plate, and wiped her hand on her dress.
The first page of the speckled notebook was filled with the type of drawings that any junior high school boy might draw. There were pictures of eyes, some crying. There were pictures of mouths, some laughing, some frowning, some snarling. In the bottom right-hand corner was the first sketch of a stick figure flip-book that somebody, she assumed Nathaniel, had drawn. After another bite of her sandwich, she took the notebook in both of her hands and flipped through the pages.
The stick figure person began to run around in circles and beat its head. It succeeded in cracking the head open, and another stick figure person began to emerge: hands first, then a head with a halo over it. The pictures stopped just as the angel stick figure had extracted itself down to its waist. D. took another bite out of her sandwich and watched the incomplete metamorphosis of the stick figure person again.
At the top of the page after which the artist had apparently lost his impetus, Nathaniel had written "History." She knew that he had done it because on the next line were the words "by Nathaniel Ariss." She began to read what looked like the beginning of a story written in a boy's sloppy letters:
The sun beat down on the field in it's cold Winter way. The grass was brown and the trees were bare. The field was a dull, drab ocean of cold wind with a Y on each side and was surounded by a gravel oval. The sun brought a little life to the field by glinting off any shiny object it could find. There were bottles brought by a caravan of cars and discarded when empty. There were cans left by the audience after the show was over. And off to one side there was a star shining more brightly than any of the other assorted litter. The star was shining with a purpose to be discovered. It gleemed so brilliantly that it seemed to break free of the faded metal casing of a necklace charm. Then a hand folded around the star and forced it back into its prison.
D. stopped reading and ate some more of her sandwich. Holden walked through the front door and smiled when he saw what she was doing. "You'll get hooked," he said. The pants that he had been trampling in the dirt were slung over his shoulder, and D. could see the leather label, which said, "Versace." Expensive pants to be dragging around in the mud, she thought.
"I just wanted something to glance through while I ate," she responded.
"Oh. Which one are you reading?"
Taking her time, D. chewed and swallowed the bit of sandwich that she had in her mouth. "I guess it's called 'History.'"
Holden thought for a moment and then informed her, "I don't think I ever read that one. It might be from when he was younger or something. I like to read the stuff that he wrote later. I think it was Jake who told me once that the better educated somebody is the more value is in the thing that they write."
Though attempting to appear as if she weren't initiating a conversation, D. told him that she didn't think that was always true.
"Of course not," said Holden. "Nothing's always true."
They both looked as footsteps on the stairs turned out to be Martin's. Holden waved his hand. "Hey, Martin. How was your goddam winter?"
Without answering, Martin offered an incomplete wave and nodded his way into the kitchen.
"He's the type of guy that never likes to answer you when you ask him a straightforward question," Holden explained, turning back to D. "You know," he began, "I was thinking about you leaving, and I was wondering if I could give you my address or something. Or if we could set up a place where you could write something or like scratch it into a telephone pole or something."
"Well, what I wanted to know. I mean, what I've been thinking about is whether as you're driving away you'll feel like you're disappearing or something every time you turn onto a different street. What I'm trying to say is, I always think that even though you keep taking smaller and smaller roads when you come here and the trees get thicker and all, at least you're coming someplace and not going away, but when you leave a place... well it's kind of spooky, but you feel like you're not going anywhere, just sort of... well... disappearing."
"Sounds like you don't need me to write anything to you."
"I don't. It's just that... that I've never asked anybody here because I always think that they'll think that I'm doing everything backassward and not according to the rules and all. But since I'll never see you again, I'd kind of like to know if you feel the same way. All you'd have to do is write a 'yes' or 'no' in a special place that I'll know to look."
"I don't think so."
"Oh. OK. I was just asking." Holden pulled out a chair and threw the box that was on it under the table. He sat down.
D. started eating her sandwich again. Weirdo, she thought.
After a moment, Holden started talking again. "If you leave, you know, you might get all depressed because you'll keep wondering what's happening to us all."
Looking at him out of the tops of her eyes, D. told him that she'd take the risk.
"If you're into that sort of thing, then I guess you could do that. It's just that, if you don't stay here and meet everybody, and get to like everybody so much that you plan to come back, you'll always be wondering where the hell we all go when it's winter. You'll know that we couldn't just stay here and ignore the rest of our lives and all. I mean, we don't just die or hibernate or anything, and you'll start to wonder if we don't die or hibernate or something, or stay here, then we must be somewhere doing something, and you'll wonder what it is. It won't be like a funeral where you can get in your car and never come back and always know that whoever it was that you left there will always be right there because they're dead."
D. swallowed a chunk of bread. She often had trouble eating when people insisted on talking to her during the meal. As she bit into the sandwich again, Nick strode through the front door and across the hall.
"Hey Nick," called Holden.
Nick waved and started up the stairs but turned and walked to where he could see D. "So, are you leaving us?" he asked her.
"Yes, I'm just waiting for Huck to show up."
Nick nodded. "Well, it was delightful to meet you. I don't suppose I could charm you into staying?" His smile was debonair.
Smiling back, D. told him that she didn't think so.
"Well, then. Have a safe trip home," he said, bowed, and sprung up the stairs.
Holden waited until he could no longer hear Nick's footsteps and then said, "He's always in a big goddam hurry. It's like he's runnin' away from something. He's probably only going to go fix himself up or something, like he wants to be all handsome as he runs away. And for who? For nobody, that's who."
D. ate the last of her sandwich.
"But on the other hand," Holden started up again, "if you were to stay until you thought that you might come back next year, then it's like everything stayed just where it was when you come back. I mean everybody is just the same, that is. It's always like that. You don't even need to put everybody in a glass case like they have at the Museum of Natural History. They're the same because they want to be. It's like that carousel in Central Park that always played the same music until somebody came along and changed it on everybody. Hell, that guy must have thought he was being pretty goddam funny or something. Certain things shouldn't be changed."
"I agree," D. vouchsafed an answer. "Now if you'll excuse me..."
"You can go if you really want to. Who's going to stop you? Not me. It's up to you. Just don't be stupid and tell everybody or write about us."
"Don't worry," she smirked, "your secret's safe with me."
"Oh. I don't give a damn about that. You could draw a goddam map to the house if you wanted to. I'm just saying for you. Because maybe if you do you'll start missing everybody."
D. threw the notebook back into the box and stood up. "Excuse me," she said as she walked past Holden into the entranceway.
"Hold on," he stopped her. "There's something I want to show you."
D. looked toward the kitchen and then at the plate in her hand. "What?" she asked tersely.
Getting down on his hands and knees, Holden crawled under the table, moving a chair out of his way. "It's under here," he said.
A "pfff" slipped between D.'s lips, and she said, "I'm not going to crawl around on the floor with you."
"I'm just not going to."
Mumbling something about people never wanting to crawl around on the floor with somebody who just wants to show them something interesting, Holden told her, "Alright. You don't have to if you squat down a little."
D. shook her head, an annoyed look on her face, but she did as he had requested. The table was of an old sort, with intricate designs running around its edge and a veritable web of interlocking beams and supports. She remembered playing with dolls under a similar, but smaller, table at her grandfather's house when she was a little girl. She almost had an impulse to slip under the table, if only to better picture the strange look of giant grown-up legs from a child's perspective.
"It's right here," said Holden. He was pointing to something carved into a crossbeam.
Squinting a little, D. could make out what it said. It said, "Fuck You." She stood up, not quite understanding her intense irritation, and stepped out of the room, sorry that she had been so soft as to humor Holden. "Lovely," she said.
Holden scampered out from under the table. "Well I didn't write it! That's for goddam sure."
"I'm not saying that you did," said D. without turning. She was halfway to the kitchen.
Holden stopped at the edge of the entrance hall and shouted, "Glad to've met you."
A few feet away from the kitchen door, D. stopped and turned around. "What did you say?"
Looking slightly flustered, Holden repeated himself and then added, "You know, you have to say that stuff if you want to stay alive."
D. went into the kitchen.
The sun is directly overhead, and the wind has increased to a mild pitch. The trees sway, but in contrary directions, as if there are several breezes all blowing their allotted acres in whichever direction they please.
The house groans as the front door swings open and two figures step out. The first is an older man, graying slightly, but dressed and smiling as if he were a boy. Behind Huck, D. glides down the porch steps onto the soft lawn. The growing grass caresses her ankles.
"Is't this way?" Huck asks.
"I believe so," D. responds.
Nodding, Huck holds a branch up so that D. may walk under it, and they disappear through the same bush through which John led her not so long ago in the opposite direction.
In one of the southern windows on the ground floor, a curtain flutters even though the window is closed and the breeze cannot reach it to set it into motion.
Perhaps writerly excess came at the expense of clarity in the previous post, so to put it plainly: I love carpentry, and I'd be perfectly content to have it become my career at the very least until I've learned enough to be reasonably proficient at it. My worry which isn't as deep as its echo may have seemed in that bit of writing posted just before I rushed to get ready for work is that I'll have to content myself with its being some sort of substitution for the writing.
Proper perspective, I've found, can transform what appear to be hardships into opportunities, even into a source of glory. The question that I find myself asking, of late, is whether there's a danger of making perspective a passive form of misdirected action.
I turned thirty on Wednesday, and I don't know what to write.
Throughout my teens, my literary outlet was the pop/rock song. By the time my adolescence had faded in my early twenties, I'd written over a hundred of them, and while dreams of a musician's stardom lingered for several years, the songs faded as well. (Although not so quickly that I wasn't able to translate them into rough recordings and sheet music.)
My early-to-mid twenties brought poetry and fiction. Some short stories. A novel. And these I took so far as to self publish. This outlet has not faded. Indeed, the follow-up to A Whispering Through the Branches a novel in verse calls to me persistently, despite my persistently shushing it to patient silence.
As thirty has approached, the sentences that I've strung together have been in the service of nonfiction commentary. Here, as readers of Dust in the Light are surely aware, I've gotten so far as to have others pay to publish what I've written. Nonetheless, I didn't manage to make that pay sufficient to cover life's necessities, and for the time being, those necessities have bottomed out the scale on the side of work.
Carpentry shares some inherent qualities with writing. There's a certain degree of creativity mixed with a larger degree of problem solving (the mixture depending on the specifics of the task, or genre, at hand). Each craft justifies the verb "construction." Some of the urges that lead me to write are partially fulfilled in my day job. Yet, carpentry is not writing, and even if some prestidigitation with perspective and metaphor could help me to see it as such, I do not want it to be the defining literary outlet of my thirties.
So I suppose I misspoke. I do know what to write. What I do not know is from where I'll draw the time. The old hands on the construction site assure me that a thirty-year-old has plenty of time. Perhaps they're right, and perhaps I should take oblong comfort in my impatience and sense of immediacy to write; it has something of the feel of youth.
D. woke up quite a bit earlier the next morning. She wondered if she had slept at all or if the sun had crept early to the horizon without warning. She hadn't dreamt, and so her last memory was of dangling her keys above her eyes, thinking.
She panicked and padded around on the bed. She threw the pillows from its head to its foot and looked over the edge at the floor. Jim was sleeping with the key ring between his paws. Quite a guard dog, D. mused.
Jim opened one eye as she picked up the keys. "Good morning, Jim," said D., patting him on the head. Jim stood up and stretched like a cat.
After getting out of bed and putting on her dress, D. walked Jim down to the front door. There was nobody in the courtyard, and the front hall was silent and peaceful, and the morning sun shone through the cracks around the door, sending dust specks into swirls. D. let Jim outside and shut the door quietly. Turning around, she looked up at the stained glass window. She wondered how close the sun would get to its center and was puzzled at a tiny pang of regret that she wouldn't find out. She would be gone by then.
"You look like you're trying to feel a good-bye," called a voice from her left. D. jumped a little. Sitting in one of the chairs on the other side of the dining room table, with his feet up and a notebook resting on his knees, was a young man who looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties. He had scruffy brown hair, dirty sneakers, worn jeans, and a blue sweater.
Partly because she was becoming used to surprises in this house, and partly because her surprise was directed, this time, mostly at herself for not having looked into that room when she came down the stairs, D. paused only slightly before responding, "I'm not trying to, but strangely enough I am."
"Well, if you're going to leave a place, you always feel worse if you don't," said the young man. "I'm Holden."
He didn't show any signs that he intended to stand up, so D. walked toward him and stopped at the spot where one room turned into the other.
"So what's it look like to you?" asked Holden.
"That window that you were looking at. Everybody likes to think that it's something different."
D. looked over her shoulder but couldn't see the window from where she stood. The stairs were in the way. "I don't know. Am I allowed to just see a window?"
"Well, I'm not gonna be the one to tell you that you can't. That's all it is to me. But as far as windows go, it's better than most."
"Why do you say that?" asked D., trying to remember what his response might be.
"I don't know. I guess I like a window that you can't see into or out of too easy unless you really want to. I hate windows that you're always seeing people out of whenever you walk by them, even if you're not in the mood for that kind of thing. I mean if you're sort of thinking about something and you're forced to see another thing that makes you think about something else and forget what it was that you wanted to be thinking about. Who wants a window like that? Nobody. With this window, if you are in the mood, then you can look through that piece in the middle and see even better because it's like a magnifying glass."
D. smiled. "Does it work that way?"
"I think so," said Holden, "but I've never tried it."
Letting out a small laugh of a breath, D. glanced toward where the window would be if she were able to see it.
"So you're leaving, then?" asked Holden.
"Well that's too bad. It'd be nice to see a girl around here for a change. Even if all you did was look out the windows or something."
Smiling sarcastically, D. said, "I'm glad that you have such a liberated view of women."
"Oh!" Holden looked embarrassed. "I didn't mean it like that. Really. I mean, I guess you'd be great and fun to talk to and all, but I don't know you that well. If you're the type of girl that you could hang out with and just sort of play a game with or anything, it'd be nice to have you around. I don't know if I'm saying this right, but you know what I mean. I mean, there aren't many people around here that are clear-headed all the time and able to carry on a normal goddam conversation." He looked down at the notebook on his lap. "So if you're leaving now, why did you come here in the first place?"
"It wasn't on purpose; I can assure you of that."
"It never is. But that doesn't explain why you would want to leave."
D. thought for a moment. "Why would I stay?"
Looking up at her, Holden told her that he didn't know. "There are worse places to be. If you don't have anywhere that you have to be and all."
D. could hear Jim whimpering quietly to be let in, so she crossed the entrance hall and opened the door. There was nobody around, leading her to believe that it was even earlier than she had thought. The morning sun sparkled like a waking eye through the half-filled branches of the trees on the other side of the yard. She heard a page being turned.
"What are you reading?" she asked Holden when she had returned to her post and stood there for a moment as if unnoticed.
"Oh, just a notebook. Nathaniel's got a million of them all stuffed in boxes in here. They're really kind of neat. I could just read these the whole time I'm here and never know how long I'd been doing it."
"What's in them?"
"Mostly just random thoughts and stuff. Some of them are from classes and have algebra and school crap in them. Those are my favorites, because sometimes he would write poems in them to keep from being bored. I was always bored in school."
"Did you write much poetry?"
Holden laughed sheepishly. "No, I never did anything like that. I drew some pictures and that kind of crap. I don't really have the talent for it. Nathaniel, though. Boy, he can write. One of these boxes has a whole bunch of the beginnings of books and stories that he never got around to finishing. He could be a hell of a writer if he ever finished anything. What kills me is when I read those stories and I just have to go call up to his room when I'm all done with what's written and try to get Nathaniel to tell me how it was going to end."
"Does he tell you?"
"No, not yet. He usually asks me what I think and all that teacher type of crap. The thing about Nathaniel is that he knows just about every goddam thing there is to know about. I mean he's one of those guys that knows that you can't know everything and that if somebody really wants to know how a story ends or something, then they probably can figure out how it's supposed to. But then he knows that, too, so he probably knows that if somebody else finishes his stories then they'll do it how they want and it'd be like an insult that they didn't think enough of him to try to write it how he would've. If I did finish one, I probably wouldn't show anybody, anyway, because I'd be worried that they thought that I was trying to write it the way I thought Nathaniel would do it and not the way I wanted to. But I'm not a fiction writer. Maybe some of these other guys could just up and jump into somebody else's story, but not me. What if I finished it the way I wanted and that wasn't the way it was supposed to be at all? Then everybody would get all touchy as hell about it and wish that they had tried because they'd think they could do it better. People are always thinking they can do everything better than you."
"Sounds like charming company."
Holden put his feet down on the ground and shook his head with wide, pleading eyes, like a child who has mistakenly implicated a friend in some misdemeanor. "Oh, I don't mean it like that. These guys are actually better than most other people. I mean, I might be the only normal bastard here, but it's the same everywhere. If you're going to go somewhere to get away, you could go somewhere with a lot more goddam phonies. I mean you could go somewhere where there's all these stupid bastards who don't even have a brain or a sense of humor. Or where everybody's so smart that they know they're smart and act like it. Those kind of people never like to talk to real people, and when they do, they only like to talk about whatever they want to talk about."
Suppressing a yawn, D. began to excuse herself, but Holden asked her to wait.
"You could stay if you wanted, couldn't you? There's nothing you can't do here that you can somewhere else. I mean, if you know a lot about art and literature and those kinds of things you could have quite a good time here for a while. Of course, there isn't any place in the world that you can stay for a long time and not get bored, except maybe if you get drunk all the time. But why did you come in the first place if you're going to leave before you really get to know everybody?"
"I told you, I had no intention of coming in the first place," D. was losing patience. She felt like she was talking to one of those people who's really nice, but who could drive her crazy if she had to talk to them for too long a time.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Longer than I've liked."
"Well then how come it's taken you this long to decide to leave?"
"It hasn't been a question of deciding: I just couldn't. Somebody had my car keys."
Holden offered her a distracted look as if to say that things weren't supposed to happen that way. "Well then now you ought to stay because it would be your choice. People can't just leave everywhere just because they can. Nobody would ever be anywhere, they'd always be in-between. You can't stop doing something that you haven't even started."
"But I haven't started anything."
"Well then what's the point of leaving? It's like Jake told me when I first got here, 'Even if you didn't think you were coming here, or didn't really know you wanted to come here, you must have been looking for something that you couldn't find anywhere else.'"
"I'm trying to explain to you that I didn't come..."
Just then, Jim came scampering down the stairs with Huck close behind him. "Good mornin' all," Huck said. He smiled at D. and greeted Holden. "Anibody want some coffee an' brekfast?"
Huck didn't protest much when he found out that D. was intending to leave before lunch. He merely suggested that she not leave on an empty stomach, told her that he'd be "sahry ta see y'go," and offered to walk her to her car if she wanted. She thanked him and said she'd appreciate it.
Holden waited a little while before he came into the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice. He said that he didn't eat much and might have a Swiss cheese sandwich later.
"Hope ya brought yer own cheese," Huck told him, "'cause we ain't got none."
Holden didn't seem to be too upset. "I'll probably just skip lunch then, I'm not a very big eater. That's why I'm so skinny," he explained. He stopped D. when she was about to dump the eggs that she hadn't eaten in the garbage and asked if he could finish them.
After breakfast, Holden found D. staring out the window in her room, half-mindlessly scratching Jim behind the ears. He stood in her doorway for a while and then said, "I look out the window a lot when I'm feeling lonely."
D. glanced over her shoulder before she turned around.
"Did I scare you?" asked Holden.
"No. Actually you didn't." Then, "I've got this funny feeling that I should be packing or something."
"Packing always depresses me. But sometimes if you feel like you should be packing and you don't have anything to pack it's even sadder. But at least if you don't have anything to pack, then nobody has to look at your suitcases and think about how theirs are better."
D. jumped a little as a branch, moved by a gust of wind, tapped at her window. "Well, one wouldn't want to upset the sensibilities of the better off."
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that," said Holden. "I can be quite sarcastic sometimes. Sometimes I don't really mean a single thing that I say."
Sitting on the bed, D. said, "That's mature."
"I'm not," Holden told her, jumping forward as if to assure her of something. "I know I'm not. People always tell me that I shouldn't always do the kinds of things that I do to keep from getting bored. But I don't always act like that. People always think that just 'cause you do something sometimes you always do them. Sometimes I can be very quiet and humble if there's something to keep my mind off being bored. I really can."
D. glanced toward the window. Perhaps sensing that he was losing his audience, Holden stepped a little farther into the room. "I can see why you would want to leave and all," he said.
"Oh you can?"
"Sure. It's always kind of boring here at first. I mean, when I got here it was in the middle of the summer and everybody was around and having a grand old time. And Nathaniel was always playing the piano. When he wasn't making a fool of himself, that is."
"I was under the impression that you thought that he was a genius."
"He is, though. It's funny, he could write this poem that makes you want to hug him or beat him up or something, but then in person he's always getting as emotional as hell. You know what it is? He's very emotional. He really is. Sometimes he's too affectionate, too. He's exactly the type of guy that could write something that you love to read as long as you can put it down and go look at a goddam beaver make a dam or something and come back to it when you're in the mood again, but you wouldn't want to be stuck listening to him reading it over and over. But who would want to listen to anybody read anything all the time? Not me."
Feigning comprehension with a forced "hmm," D. stood up and looked out the window again. Holden stood where he was for a minute or two and then sat down in the chair and sighed to draw attention to himself.
"You can't really blame him, though. He's gotten a hell of a lot better since my first summer. I mean John would do that to anybody if they were stuck in a house with him for a whole goddam winter and all. Always saying something and then nodding about it and then saying it again. Whatever he's talking about. You know what I think? I think that he doesn't know his ass from his elbow. He's always talking about the rules and stuff like it's his goddam job to make sure that everybody knows all the crap they're supposed to be doing and be not doing. What a swell job for an old-as-hell guy to have."
Holden stopped talking and waited for a response, but D. only looked out at the trees. Then she began to make the excuse of wanting to wash up a little, but Holden interrupted her. "And the only time Nathaniel's really mean at all is when Martin won't leave him alone. I mean I feel sorry for Martin and all, but he's exactly the type of guy that won't leave a room when you want him to. Everybody in the world would know that they weren't wanted around, but not Martin. You practically have to curse at him to get rid of him 'til he finally gets the message. And then he'll still hang around for a while just to make sure that you weren't just horsing around with him. He could bring out the old sadist in anybody.
"But he's alright. It's nice to have him two doors down from your room and all, but I wouldn't want to be right next to him for Chrissakes. If you live next to a guy like Ack... I mean... Martin, he thinks that he can just walk in whenever the hell he wants to and make it look like a mistake. Like he just walked in the wrong door or something and didn't even realize that it wasn't his room until you started talking to him. That's why I picked the middle room on the other side. I didn't want to be right next to Jake. I mean he's smart and witty, if you know what I mean, but he's quite a heavy drinker, and who needs a big guy like that climbing into bed with you in the middle of the night when he's drunk as a bastard and can't see straight enough to tell that he's in the wrong room? Not me. I mean at least Nick can hold his liquor. He's usually pretty friendly, too. Sometimes I don't think he's always acting like himself, but at least he's willing to be the guy who lives in the next room over from Martin. When I first got here, Nick was always hanging around Nathaniel, and of course Martin was always there, too. And Jake was always kind of waiting for his turn. You know what I hate? I hate when people feel like they've gotta take turns to hang around somebody. I don't care; as many people can hang around me as want to.
"Goddam Nick. He's always saying that Nathaniel says 'old sport' all the time, but he really doesn't. Nick kills me with that 'old sport' crap. It's like Nick wants to say it all the time and the only way he feels like he can do it is to say that Nathaniel said it. Nathaniel would never say anything like 'old sport.' It's too phony."
"Listen, Holden, I don't mean to be rude..."
"That's just the thing," Holden leaned back in the chair. "Nathaniel's never rude. I mean you can just say anything to him, and he'll never get mad. He's aces, Nathaniel. Just a little emotional is all."
D. tried to say something.
Holden stood up and started to leave the room. "Well, I've got some things I've got to do." He stopped at the door and turned around. "Say, what'a ya wanna leave for anyway? I mean where do you have to go?"
"Yeah, I can understand that, but where do you live? Goddam New York or someplace? I hate New York. What's terrible about New York is that you can hear somebody laugh clear across town. You can never be alone in New York because some chucklehead's always laughing uptown or something. It's the loneliest place in the world. It really is. I mean you could be sitting on your roof and wondering how in the hell you're going to eat or something that week, and the next thing you know some big shot is letting you know just how great his life is way the hell uptown or something. Who wants to spend their summer in a place like that? Not me."
Raising her eyebrows as if to concede the point, D. shrugged.
"You know what I think?" asked Holden. "I think you'll get to New York or wherever and figure out that it doesn't interest you. You could leave this place and find out that you didn't know that you really wanted to stay. I mean, sometimes you don't know where you want to be 'til you hang around someplace that you really don't want to be. At least if you stayed 'til everybody got here you could say that you made a fair choice. Deciding to leave now would be like going to bed when you're not even tired." He paused. "I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say by that, but I mean it." He shuffled his feet. "Well, I have to go do some things. Are you going to stay for lunch at least."
"Yes, I probably will. Huck convinced me that it would be a good idea."
"OK. I'll see you later then."
Holden left the room, and D. could hear his footsteps moving down the balcony.
As I've announced elsewhere (I think), I'll be writing a biweekly column, published Thursdays, for TheFactIs.org, an online opinion magazine jointly sponsored by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Culture of Life Foundation. My first offering is "Communicating with the 'Faces of Hate'," about conservative Christians' designation, in certain circles, as an unprotected
Although it hasn't seemed like it, around here, I've been getting a grip on my daily schedule. I've had extra writing to do, this week, as well as non-writing stuff that will ultimately further the same ends.
Thank you for continuing to come by. In the very near future, I should be able to begin rewarding that effort.
D. ate chicken with Huck and Jake. They had made extra for those who weren't there for the meal, and it fell on D. to inform Nick and Martin. They were both in Nick's room drinking champagne. Nick's walls were covered with tapestries, and the two men thanked her very cordially.
Jake and Huck were very friendly with each other, and they got D. to feel comfortable with them. Jake was kind, but at the same time he seemed tough. He seemed like a big brother, or the fat kid in high school gotten strong without losing his perspective.
Later, everybody gathered in the courtyard and then went off on their own. D. sat in her room reading. Night slipped over the house. Somehow, the room was too warm for her, so she had the window open halfway. Jim was with her.
When she got tired, D. closed and locked her door and lay down in her bed. She watched the ebb of moon shadows on her walls and her ceiling. The night was quiet and tranquil. D. was amazed at the calmness with which the day had passed.
Once her senses had adjusted to the night, she heard first a whimper and then sobs floating in from outside. She went to the window. The crier was on the northern porch below her. D. put on her robe, lit her candle, opened the door, and looked cautiously around; she whistled to Jim to follow.
It looked like everybody had retired to their rooms except John, who was snoring in his chair. Taking the front stairs, she went through the kitchen and opened the other door enough to see into the northern hallway. A single candle lay on the floor at the center of the corridor and reflected yellowish red light off the windows and sent flickering shadows across the paintings. She opened the door a little more. All of the canvases had plain wooden frames except for the one at which she hadn't looked yet, which had a fancier frame, and Jake was standing at the French doors looking out into the dark woods.
D. opened the door all the way and walked into the hall. Her candle helped to cancel out the flickers of Jake's. He heard her and turned around. Tears had made lines on his face and gathered in his beard at his cheek bones.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Did I wake you?"
"No. I'd just gone to bed."
"Oh. Listen, if you're tired, why don't you get some sleep."
Jake turned away.
D. started to do the same but didn't. "I don't think you ever finished that fairy tale that you were telling me."
Jake chuckled and wiped his eyes.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to be indifferent in the daylight, but it's a lot harder at night," he said. "You don't have to listen to me if you don't want to. You must think me odd to be crying on the first night of my vacation."
"I don't. Honestly." Seeing such a big man in tears brought a sympathy out in her that she could not explain. "I wasn't really tired anyway."
Jake nodded and started to come into the hall.
"Could we go somewhere else, though?" asked D. "Being so close to the windows gives me the creeps."
They went into the kitchen and sat down. After a moment of silence, a moment that D. strove to fill with an exuded sense of openness, Jake started talking.
He seemed relieved to have the chance to hear himself speak. "Well, to jump right into the matter, Nathaniel drank hell's own amount of liquor that summer. I'm not sure what set it off in him, or why he kept drinking when it only made him more miserable, but he did. And nobody seemed too concerned by it, including myself. For all I knew, this was his usual state. As Martin put it, 'He is the only man I know who is as intelligent when he's drunk as when he's sober.' I don't know about that, but he's certainly more than charming enough to balance the scales. Martin probably thinks what he does because Nathaniel can lead him in circles of wordplay drunk or sober.
"It was Martin who kicked the whole thing off that evening. He, Nathaniel, and I were sitting on the eastern porch, and Nathaniel was blind drunk.
"'You're an angel, Martin. Simply an angel,' he said.
"Martin blushed and said, 'Why do you say that?'
"'Well, no matter what you do you're so damn...' he stopped.
"'No. No. That's not what I was going to say at all. I mean to say that you must be an angel because whatever you do you...' he stopped again.
"'... do it well? I try.'
"'No. No. Quite the contrary. But it seems that there's...'
"'Well, there's something that keeps you from...'
"'For God's sake, Nathaniel,' Martin said, 'finish your sentences.'
"'Why? You're probably better off finishing them yourself.'
"'But I really am inquisitive on what you're saying.'
"Nathaniel rolled his eyes by rolling his entire head and said, 'That's not the right word!'
"'Oh,' Martin blushed. 'Alright then: curious. But you don't have to be so inclement about it.'
"Nathaniel walked into the house and came back a moment later with another drink. He sloshed some of it on himself as he spoke. 'The miraculous thing about you, Martin, is that you always avoid consequences.'
"Martin stood up in offense. 'Why, that's only because I try not to do those things that lead to adverse... things.'
"'Everybody does those things' I said. 'When there's opportunity.'
"Nathaniel wagged a finger in my direction as if to suggest that I had said exactly what he had planned to. Martin stammered for a response and ended up just slithering inside. After a while Nathaniel turned to me and said, 'I'm really a hell of a bastard.'
"I told him that he wasn't, but he insisted that I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.
"'But we pay for it all eventually, though. Don't we.' It wasn't a question. 'I just want...' he added. 'I just want to do something that I want to do. Do you know what I want to do?'
"'What do you want to do?'
"'I want to do something.' He sipped his drink and slapped his thigh. 'I want to do something that will justify everything I've done so far.'
"He looked at me, and for a moment it didn't seem like the booze had dimmed his eyes. I felt that I could see all the way into his eyes and see what it was that those eyes had looked at to make them so deep.
"I told him that what he was saying was like wanting what you can never have. If you get what you thought you couldn't have, you don't want it. When you do something that erases everything that you've done, you lose sight of why you've done it.
"'Best not to think about it,' I said. But I knew when I said it that I was giving advice that would be impossible to follow. I suggested that maybe he needed to get out of here and get back to some routine.
"'Oh, I stay here because it's the only place in the world where I can have a routine because it's the only place in which I don't know anybody.' he said.
"That was as much as he wanted to talk at that time, so we went inside and found everybody in the courtyard. Martin was in his room typing. Something happens to the courtyard at night. All the candles and the shadows make everything look differently. Nathaniel fell asleep on the grass, and eventually everybody drifted off to their rooms except Nick. He tried to wake up Nathaniel.
"'Oh lay off him,' I said. I think I was looking for a fight. 'He's fine where he is. If he wakes up I'll take care of him.'
"'I'm sure you will.' He tried to lift him again.
"'I said leave him alone. Just because you spent some time alone with him last fall doesn't mean he needs you to be his personal protector. Christ, Nick. You follow him around like a puppy dog when all he really wants is to be left alone. And believe me, I know why you do it.'
"'And what do you know about what anybody wants? You haven't half the breeding he does. Hell, I'm not even sure that you breed.'
"I guess he was looking for a fight, too. We're of conflicting types Nick and me.
"'What's that supposed to mean?' I said.
"'You figure it out.'
"He nearly had Nathaniel upright, and Nathaniel had woken to an unintelligible murmuring state.
"'Just sit him in the chair then. He doesn't need you to tuck him into bed.'
"I saw that he had no intention of listening to me, so I decided to help. I moved up to put Nathaniel's free arm over my shoulders and Nick pushed me away. He took me by surprise, so I tripped over my own feet and fell to the ground.
"Nathaniel had woken up enough to see me fall and looked at Nick and said, 'Why don't you just go away? Can't you see that you're not wanted?'
"I don't know if Nathaniel was sincere in what he had said; in fact, I'm pretty sure that he thought that he was quoting he did that sometimes when he couldn't think; he quoted things he had memorized along the way but Nick took it pretty hard and just let him go and stormed out of the yard. Nathaniel fell down. I noticed that everybody was standing on the balconies outside their rooms and looking down at us. I felt like I should bow. I got up and went over to him.
"'Are you alright?' I asked.
"Nathaniel was falling asleep again. 'I think I was too hard on him. I don't want him to leave.'
"'No,' I said. 'I don't think he'd deprive us of his company.'
"Huck came down the stairs and helped me put Nathaniel to bed. As we were closing the door I heard Nathaniel calling my name.
"'Jake,' he said. 'We've got to stop putting things on the tab. It's gonna be awful hard to pay.'
"'I know,' I said. 'We will.'
"I shut the door. Huck and I walked down here to the kitchen to warm up some milk. We had just poured the milk when Nick came in. He had tears in his eyes, though I don't think he ever lets them fall.
"'Look,' he said. 'I don't know what that was all about. I'm sorry.' He held out his hand for me to shake it. I hesitated, and he said, 'please.'
"I shook his hand, and he went away. I felt badly for him. It wasn't his fault that he was so possessive of Nathaniel. It wasn't his fault that he was looking for an angle. It's just who he's learned to be, here and elsewhere. I don't think he knows much about love, and it seemed that it wouldn't take much to bring his entire world crashing down.
"'It's like bein' in church, bein' all the way out here,' said Huck.
"'What do you mean?'
"'Well, I reckon there's no need to be ashamed'v askin' fergiveness.'
"'I wouldn't hold that against him. It actually makes me feel for him a bit.'
"'I warn't talkin' 'bout Nick. I meant you. Y'oughtta pity him. He's prob'ly more'n need of it'n any a' us, on a bad road as he is.'
Jake put down the water he had been drinking. "I know what you're thinking."
"What's that?" asked D.
"That we've all got some kind of sickness. That I'm sick."
"No. No more than the rest of the world."
"I thank you for saying that, but I feel badly about that night even if I still find it hard to handle Nick. I've tried to keep him out of trouble but… well, I was a little drunk that night, and when you're drunk no matter what you say it's just careless."
D. got the feeling that Jake had just said more than he had intended, but not enough for her to understand why she felt that way. "Then why don't you..."
The door to the entrance hall swung shut, though neither had noticed it open. Jake jumped to his feet, ran to the door, and shoved it open. A shape was running out the front door.
"That's Alex," D. said.
Jake started to run after him.
"No, Jake, don't."
"Don't worry. He won't hurt me."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm not his friend."
The door shut. D. waited and then, not even realizing the puzzling nature of Jake's response, took her candle and went cautiously up to her room with Jim. Jake's a big man, she thought.
D. was pacing in her room. There was a knock on the door.
"Who is it?"
She opened the door, and he came in. He looked winded.
"He got away."
He reached in his pocket. "But he dropped these. Are they yours?" He pulled out a key ring.
"Yes," said D. "Yes they are."
Jake gave her the keys and said goodnight. She locked the door behind him.
"I hope you decide to stay," Jake said through the door.
He walked to his room three doors away.
The house is quiet. An owl calls out in the willow. In her room, D. lies in bed dangling a silver key ring over her face. She pushes it under her pillow. The wind blowing through the window extinguishes her candle. She shuts the window, locks it, and closes the curtain. Giving Jim a fond pat on the head, she undresses and climbs into her bed to sleep.
A breeze flows across the northern lawn of the house, erasing two sets of heavy footprints, tumbles over the porch, and slips through the French doors. A candle that has been left in the corridor flutters and then goes out. The light of the moon moves in. All of the paintings are dark except for the one with an ornately carved frame. That one seems to glow with a neon phosphorescence. On it a gaunt gray face with tearing blue eyes stares toward the south. Its hair is disheveled. There are small bumps like growing horns above the temples.
Apart from qualities of intellect and literacy, what makes Andrew Sullivan so interesting to address is the fact that he's an excellent debater and, as such, is willing to take risks with his rhetoric. As when he approaches statism to declare the Constitution a "workable civil version" of religion, he's willing to give glimpses of cards that a more cautious man with his objectives might keep obscured.
The downside is the frustrated reaction that he can inspire in those who sense that his emphasis is on debate rather than intellect that the principles under consideration aren't really open for discussion. Consequently, the statements that make up his arguments periodically give the impression of boxing steps rather than exposition. Once frustration has subsided, however, one can look to the areas around which Sullivan has danced to discover the heart of the matter. (Whether his contradictions and avoidance are deliberate or instinctive is a question of how much credit the reader wishes to give him, and it is one on which I vacillate.)
For example, in a recent response to Jonah Goldberg, Sullivan defines fundamentalism in relation to politics and dogma:
Just as Oakeshott very carefully allows a place within Western political thought for the politics of faith, so do I within what might be called conservatism. My worry is when that faith becomes fundamentalist, i.e. less interested in political arrangements than divine imperatives.
Yet, in the subsequent paragraph, he decries neocon cynicism as follows:
I have to say I'm not too enamored of outsiders backing fundamentalism in faiths they do not share for political purposes. But, hey, that's been the neocon position on religion for a long time: we don't believe it, but it's good for the masses.
In one breath, Sullivan worries that public faith is drifting from the political realm to the religious. In the next, he complains of those who treat religious groups as factions with which they may or may not be able to join for political purposes. But if the proper role of religion in the public sphere is to make "political arrangements" (a vexingly vague term in Sullivan's usage), then why would it be inappropriate for outsiders to encourage arrangements that suit them? Or, as Goldberg puts it, "Would Andrew support outsiders backing 'reform' in these faiths?"
The curiosity is that Sullivan who believes that "it's best to leave religion out of" political questions of morality to maximize a freedom characterized by radical individualism handles individuals strictly according to their roles within his political framework. Neocons "don't believe [in religion], but it's good for the masses." There are neocons, and there are religious people. Folks who fall within religious segments of the broader neocon category, as I probably do, will find Sullivan's analysis particularly discordant.
Because this separation is untenable beyond a very narrow range of argumentation, Sullivan must chase it across the boundary of religion, where it renders thus: The "central tenets" of religious groups involve faith in particular facts (e.g., that Jesus was the Messiah), but drawing social and political conclusions from those facts is "Evangelical fundamentalism and the creeping infallibilism of Wojtyla-Ratzinger." Apparently, it can be a matter of religious Truth that Jesus was the Word of God, but the implications of what He actually said must remain ever open for debate within and outside of a particular "religious tradition."
Observers of modern society, generally, and Andrew Sullivan, specifically, understand that this distinction transfers all too easily to people's personal worldviews. What they believe is one thing; what they do is another. There are religious creeds, and there are personal preferences, and the former can only be said to be true to the extent that they do not infringe on the latter.
And here we reach the heart of the matter. Sullivan professes that his "first concern with any religious argument is: is it true? Not: is it useful?" What he does not explain is how one determines whether a religious argument is true or false. Long familiarity with his work leads me to think that his determination of Truth ultimately flows from his intuition and desires. Although I would join him in arguing that the faithful must incorporate these factors into their searches, I would suggest to Andrew Sullivan as I would to the secular neocons whom he describes that a religion's utility toward good ends is also evidence of its truth.
One point that Christians put forward in support of Jesus' divinity is His wisdom that His teachings ring true, that His parables apply to our lives, that His instructions effect what He promises when followed. There is certianly space in this for ecumenism and "political arrangements"; others can act in accordance with the Truth of the Word without knowing (or admitting) that they do so.
There is also, we should all agree, room for the truth in politics. If a religion's prescriptions increase the measure of good in the world, then a rational society may very well be able to trace their functions in non-religious terms. Furthermore, a rational society founded in an ideal of pluralism can properly require advocates of one policy or another to do the work that such tracing entails. Only an irrational society would mark as invalid any policies that people of faith claim to be in accordance with God's will simply on the grounds that others disagree.
The following suggestion of Andrew Sullivan's, which I read in a piece by Jonah Goldberg, strikes me as surprising coming from a European and shocking coming from a Catholic:
[Conservatives of doubt] can point to the astonishing success and durability of the U.S. experiment to buttress the notion that the Constitution is a much more stable defense of human equality than that inherent in any religion. The Constitution itself has far wider support among citizens than any theological argument. To put it another way: You don't need an actual religion when you already have a workable civil version in place.
Readers will be aware that I'm a patriot in the conservative sense, but I have to ask: By what historical standard is two hundred years and change evidence of durability? People who live among monuments to their cultures that date back millennia might be hard-pressed to stifle a chuckle. Similarly, those whose religions are defined by documents and traditions with the same or longer heritage might wonder whether Sullivan is playing games with the terms that qualify something as durable. The question of success would be just as arguable (especially if we factor in the acceleration of social change over time).
In its jarring lack of doubt about its own premises, Sullivan's odd bit of argument by convenient assertion appears to be an attempt to tiptoe past an inconvenient factor in his assessment of the American people. Goldberg writes of the "both-and" (versus an "either-or") that defines conservatives as people who have both "skepticism about the new and faith in the old." But the self-contradiction inherent in Sullivan's blind confidence in doubtfulness lays bare a more fundamental "both-and": the Constitution may indeed have "far wider support among citizens than any [particular] theological argument," but that is only because Americans believe that in one way or another their theological arguments are, themselves, embedded within the Constitution.
This attitude manifests most directly in those who believe that (for example) "America is a Christian nation" as a Constitutional matter. Sullivan disagrees with that saying, no doubt, but he can't deny that those who agree with it are likely to be among the Constitution's supporters.
The less direct means of embedment in my view, the proper Constitutional understanding is that religious principles exist in the civil sphere as a function of the governmental processes that the Constitution lays out. This sort of support for the Constitution hinges on citizens' ability to shape their government according to their moral beliefs.
It is not enough to treat "moral appeals" simply as free speech to be restricted to "crusades for personal salvation, evangelism, or social work, rather than... legislative change." To the extent that Sullivan is correct that the "purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'" it must also allow them (as the Declaration continues in the very same sentence) "to alter" their government, "laying its Foundation on such Principles... as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Andrew Sullivan is prominent among commentators throwing about the dark image of theocracy, but again, he seems to be playing games with terminology. Theocracy does not describe a particular set of policies or even the moral authority that informs them. It describes the civil authority that determines them: those acting as God's explicit representatives. With democracy, on the other hand, all authority must filter through the people.
That Sullivan has now gone so far as to suggest that the Constitution establishes a "civil version" of and replacement for religion reveals how much closer those of his political persuasion are to theocracy than are the "conservatives of faith" whom they oppose. That zealots for individual license traverse a dim alleyway to tyranny is evident in their conviction that their preferred policies from abortion to same-sex marriage are subjects of Constitutional guarantee.
Even those supposed "theocrats" who would go so far as to argue for mandatory prayers in their local public schools don't argue that the judiciary ought to find that the Constitution requires them.
The latest Notes & Commentary essay by Maureen Mullarkey is "Three Realists," reviewing Israel Hershberg in a group show at Marlborough, Philip Pearlstein at Adam Baumbold, and William Bailey at Betty Cuningham.
D. heard several voices in the courtyard when she woke up the next morning, so she walked out onto the balcony without much worry after she had slipped into her white dress. The sun was high overhead, and she knew that she had slept much later than she had been. Below her, Huck, John, and Martin were talking about something or other, in which she took no interest because, having slept so late, she expected to take a proportionate amount of time to wake up.
"I see the new girl's fine'ly 'cided to show," Huck called up.
Martin had been preparing to speak and huffed mildly. D. rubbed her right eye with her knuckle and mumbled.
"There's still some coffee in the kitchen," Huck said.
D. yawned and nodded and walked down the eastern stairs and into the kitchen. She pulled a cup from one of the pegs on the wall by the sink and poured herself coffee and drank it black and quickly. The coffee was lukewarm. Drinking a second cup, she ate a cold leftover pancake. Her third cup of coffee emptied the pot, and D. sat down to drink it.
The slight scare the night before had left her in an excited enough state that she had stayed up late with the four men of whom she was not afraid. They had all been quite drunk and moderately amusing. D. had been sober, and she had slept late.
Huck came into the kitchen followed by Jim and commenced to make more coffee. He told D. that there had been no sign of Alex and that she didn't really have to be afraid in the daytime at least. She agreed. Waking up this morning had felt like rising to a Sunday in any small resort hotel where all the guests know each other and the proprietor is mysteriously absent. The coffee was almost finished.
"What's through that door?" D. asked.
"Oh, that's jest the northern hallway. There's some paintin's that Jake drew."
"Are they any good."
"I reckon they are, but some'v his newer'nes are a little modern fer my tastes."
With another cup of coffee, D. headed for the door. Huck clicked his tongue two times and nodded toward her back. Jim slipped through the door as it closed.
The corridor into which the door had opened was about six paces wide and went the length of the house into the ballroom. Halfway down the hallway two French doors faced each other, one in each wall, as did eight evenly spaced windows. D. noticed that some of the panes had been removed from the inside windows, probably to replace those on the outside, and the backs of books were visible in lieu of the courtyard. Jake's paintings filled the blank spaces between the windows and doors on both sides.
The first painting on D.'s left was not much more than a mediocre sketch of a proud looking matador framed by too-long horns, but the mediocrity was offset by the intricate furls of the cape, in which D. felt as if she could find beautiful images if only she could look more closely than she seemed able. She turned around. The picture opposite the one with the cape was also black and white and exhibited a human shape standing with arms uplifted against a turbulent gray sky on what appeared to be one of the western towers. Again, the picture was unremarkable but for the effort that had been put into the intricacy of one aspect, in this case the clouds.
The next set of pictures were more colorful. Headless blue eyes looking over a book on one wall stared at a smeared man spinning from a blur with horns on the other.
The bull-fighting series continued on the left with not much more than a colorful streak arching over a brown splotch, and the only detail was a pencil-drawn hand gripping a menacing horn. D. turned around. A black shape was contorted over a detailed drawing of the courtyard piano as if gently stroking it. The shape had little by way of definition, but the gentleness of the playing was somehow conveyed.
Crossing the hall to the inside, D. looked at a canvas with random splotches of blue suggesting the shape of a prostrate person over a pool of red, and surrounding the blue and red, grained yellow spread all around, and floating above the blue was a flowing red billow. D. realized that the lines of this streak were reminiscent, as if modeled upon those of the cape in the first painting, and she was turning to stroll back down the hallway and compare the two when the flicker of somebody entering the hallway through the outside French doors caused her to stop and gasp.
The man who strode into the hallway was tall, but not burly. He wore a short brown beard and classically short brown hair. His eyes were brown. Tucked into his blue jeans was a tan button-down shirt.
"Hello," he said.
D. staggered back a step and breathed a faint reply.
"Did I scare you?"
"Yes. Yes you did."
"I'm sorry. I don't like to use the front door, and there isn't usually anybody in this hallway."
"That's all right. I just thought you might be somebody else?"
"Well, who would I be?"
"The guy who attacked me and stole my car keys."
"Oh?" he asked. "That's not a usual part of the ethics."
"So I've been told."
"Who was he?"
D. looked the man full in the face. There was no malice in his eyes. But she wondered, "Who are you?"
The man stammered. "Oh, I'm sorry." He held out his right hand. "I'm Jake."
D. looked at Jake's hand. She shook it lightly. "Hello," she said. "I don't suppose you want to know mine?"
"Not if it's real." Jake looked down. Jim was looking up at him with his tongue out. "Hey Jim." Jake scratched behind the dog's ears. Jim wagged his tail.
D. smiled. "Strange that you should arrive just as I've discovered your paintings."
"Yes. I suppose it is."
He gave Jim a hearty smack on the side. Jim spun around in a blithe circle with his tongue hanging out.
"So this guy," Jake said, "was he attractive?"
"Excuse me?" asked D. It really was a strange question.
Jake cleared his throat. "Would you say he was a great looking boy?"
D. wrinkled her eyebrows. "Alex?"
"If that's his name."
"I really didn't get that good a look at him. Why?"
They were quiet for a moment. Jake looked through the French doors at the trees. The leaves were filling in the gaps quickly as if before their eyes.
"I should say hello to everybody," he said and walked down the hall, through the door, and into the kitchen.
D. watched after him for a moment, feeling surreal, as if she ought to know some stage directions to apply. A flurry of wind moved through the ankle high grass, through the door, and into the corridor, cooling her ankles and convincing her that she was corporeal. She shut the door and followed Jake.
Everybody was in the courtyard when Jake walked in, followed by D. He hugged Huck, shook hands with John, waved to Martin, and nodded in Nick's general direction. After brief greetings, he excused himself and walked outside through the ballroom.
The men returned to what they had been doing. D. looked around and then meandered to the upstairs bathroom, where she washed her face and gargled some mouthwash. Then she mulled about her room deciding what to do.
Jake returned in half an hour with a large jangling duffelbag and two leather wine-bags dangling from each shoulder. In the short time that it took D. to make the trip down to the courtyard, one of the four leather satchels had made its way into everybody's hands. Nick turned down the wine but went up to his room next to Martin's, and the popping of a cork was heard. When the first wine-bag was empty, another made the rounds. Nick came back.
The conversation began lightly, while everybody was still aware enough to be careful. The topics were those that most people reserve for the beginning of reunions, but since questions of everyday life were forbidden, there really wasn't much to talk about, and the conversation didn't stay light for long. D. slipped into the kitchen to make more coffee. She didn't want any wine at this time of day. Jim followed her.
"So what's this I hear about somebody forcing the lady to stay against her will?" Jake asked when she was gone.
"Well, there really warn't much we could do 'bout it." Huck said. "I been watchin' fer the guy, but I ain't seen him. I reckon she'd stay now even if she had her keys."
"I think we saw him in the bushes last night," Nick said. He sipped his champagne. "She looked dreadfully frightened."
"What's his story, John?" Jake said.
"He seemed pleasant enough before she came. Kept to himself mostly. Wonderful pianist. I suppose I had a favorable opinion of him."
"How did he show up?"
"In the middle of the night, badly beaten. He said that he got lost and had quite a few falls while rambling about."
"I'd believe that," Martin said.
"Me, too," said Nick. He hid his face in his glass.
"His story is just simple and believable enough to mistrust it," Jake said. He looked at Nick.
"If I told the truth when I came, I don't see why we shouldn't believe him," said Martin. "People, on average, are only mendacious when they've something to hide, and since my story is much the same as his, I can only assume that he is telling the truth."
"Mendacious." Jake said. "Did you learn that word today?"
Martin looked down at his hands. "Last week."
"Well, you don't know a hell of a lot about people."
"And you do?"
"No, but you think that you do."
D. came into the courtyard carrying a cup. The conversation stopped as if they had been talking about her. The third wine-bag was passing hands. Jim bounded around allowing everyone to pet him.
"So Huck," Jake said, "I see you haven't had cause to stuff Jim yet."
D. looked at him in surprised disgust. "That's a horrible thing to say."
"At's a'right," said Huck. He was smiling. "It's a bit a' raillin' 'tween us."
"Still. I don't see the humor."
"I would never joke with a friend in that manner," Martin assured D.
"I'm sure that's only because you've got more enemies than you can handle by just being ingenuous," Jake said. "Maybe you should give joking a try."
Martin looked flustered. D. almost felt badly for him.
"Now, now," Nick said, "there's no reason to be picking on poor Martin. You're no better than him, Jake, and you know it."
"What's the matter, Nick? You two have something brewing?"
"Why don't you cut it out, Jake? You haven't even been here for two hours, and you're already causing trouble."
"You're right. Why don't you change the subject."
Nobody spoke. A small bird landed high in the willow and whistled.
"How 'bout some lunch?" Huck asked.
Martin skipped lunch in order to return to work. After the meal, John disappeared, and Nick was reading in his room. D. had intended to take a look at the final painting in the northern hallway and then see what was on the walls in the southern, but Huck had sat down at the piano, and she wanted to listen to the jazz that he was playing. Huck wasn't much of a piano player, so he repeated himself often. Soon Jake emptied his duffelbag of wine bottles and strolled off into the woods.
The sun was framed between the western towers when Jake walked back into the courtyard. D. looked up from her book. Jim pricked up his ears.
"Where is everybody?" Jake asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Huck's taking a nap."
Nick's door was closed. Martin's door was open.
"You'll have to excuse my behavior before."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"I don't know if you've noticed yet," said Jake, "but Nick brings out the worst in me. In anybody, really."
"I can see how he could rub the wrong way. But then again, I could see how you all could rub somebody the wrong way."
"Really? I thought that we were all pretty nice people."
Jake agreed. "So what did you think of my paintings."
"They're not bad."
"Well, I'm not an aficionado. Of that at least. I only paint two each summer that I'm here. I don't have the time or the excuses the rest of the year."
"So this is your fifth year."
"Yes. And I don't know what to paint."
"I noticed that you haven't painted the house yet. You could paint that."
"It could use it." Jake smiled.
D. looked at him for a moment and then smiled back.
"I meant that you could paint a picture of it."
"I suppose I could, but it seems pointless to hang a picture in a house that shows what can be seen by walking out of it."
"You could take the picture with you when you leave. Or is that against the rules?"
Jake nodded and sat in John's chair thinking. "I used to think it was ugly, you know."
"The façade of this house. But it's begun to appeal to me."
"I think it's spooky."
"That's because it's spring. The summers here are like a fairy tale. I imagine that the winters are a nightmare. We're in-between right now."
"I don't know how John stays here all winter by himself."
"John gets by. Sometimes I think that's the reason he reads all those horrific stories."
"To build up immunity?"
"No. To see what it's about. That way it's all explainable and has a definite end."
"But reading a story about the unknown won't circumvent reactions to it in the real world."
"It will if you have faith."
Jake walked across the courtyard to get the one wine-bag that hadn't spilled its contents yet. He came back, sat down, and took a drink. "After Nathaniel stayed through the winter one year and saw what the Pequod was really like, he gave John a list of books."
"This isn't the way the Pequod really is?"
"No. In the summer everything is unreal, and there aren't any perceivable consequences. The time is too short. At least usually. I think the fact that Nathaniel stayed here through that winter, the one before I came for the first time, and probably the state of mind that he was in at the time, blended the two fairy tale seasons."
Jake held the wine-bag above his head, and a stream of wine squirted into his mouth. D. went into the kitchen for a glass of water and returned.
"So what was the fairy tale?"
"I don't know if that's the best thing to call it, but I guess it'll do."
Jake drank more wine.
"I found this house in April. Normally, I guess, John would have been my only company. But like I said, Nathaniel had stayed through the winter. I think his problem had been himself, so he stayed because moving from here to somewhere else wouldn't have helped him any. At least here he wasn't surrounded by people he knew.
"By April, the house was a mess. It had snowed late in the season that year. The courtyard was full of it, and there were liquor bottles sticking up here and there. Nathaniel was too skinny, and he was sitting in John's chair when I first saw him. From what John told me later, Nathaniel hadn't been too concerned with food that winter, but the bottles had never run out. John didn't mind.
"It all felt like something I had been through before, only from a different perspective, so I decided to stay and help. I don't know why. I was in a helpful mood I guess; maybe it was only to help myself. I brought food and shoveled the courtyard. Nathaniel didn't talk to me for a little over a week. It took me several trips to get all the garbage to my car and several more to deliver it to the nearest dump. When I was finally finished, I found Nathaniel waiting for me on the eastern porch.
"'Hello,' I said.
"'I've been so miserable,' he said.
"After that, we talked more and more. Mostly about silly things and at times I felt like a therapist. He's very smart, you know. And such a fine looking boy. He told me things that he probably shouldn't have about himself and vaguely hinted at others of terrible darkness. I listened carefully and promised not to tell anybody. It didn't take me long to begin feeling very affectionately toward him. I suppose I even got to where I loved him." Jake looked at D. "Like a close friend, that is."
"Of course," said D.
"Eventually people started arriving, and they all monopolized Nathaniel's attention for a while. I didn't mind. I spent most of this time sitting apart from everybody watching. Nathaniel seemed to cheer up, and I was very glad to see it.
"He would sometimes try to involve me in their conversations, especially when he was tight. That was most of the time. One night he was blind. He found it damn funny that it was so difficult to talk to me because he didn't know what to call me. That was the night that Nick arrived.
"'Nick!' Nathaniel said. 'See,' he said to me, 'everybody has a name. Why don't you have a name yet?'
"Nick acted as if he knew Nathaniel better than anybody else present. Mostly, it seemed his superior attitude was directed at me. Nathaniel plucked at the piano and continued to drink and eventually fell asleep. Nick insisted that he carry him to his room. John told him that it wasn't necessary, and Huck offered to help. Nick made a big deal out of having been the last person to leave the autumn before and wouldn't let anybody help him. He seemed to like the idea of everyone knowing that he had been more or less alone with Nathaniel for some time.
"I guess that's when I started to hate him. The fact that it was a matter of course for everybody to get their moment with Nathaniel didn't seem to matter to him; nobody else seemed to feel so superior about it. I guess I couldn't help but profile Nick right there."
Jake paused as Nick's door swung open. He Nick looked down at them as if he knew what they were talking about and then walked toward the bathroom by the southern spiral staircase in accentuated ambivalence.
Jake drank the last of the wine in the bag. "I think I'll go see what I can do for dinner. Wake up Huck; he won't want to have slept through the entire day."