Bright flows the river, p.48

Bright Flows the River, page 48


Bright Flows the River

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  I have troubled the world with my footsteps

  And found no place to be comforted. As a child

  I said to Heaven, “Is this my home?”

  And He did not answer. I found no peace,

  No warm roof, no laughing fire, no loving hands,

  No language I ever learned to speak. I can

  Only make mute gestures, and in the mist

  Which surrounds me I can only grope,

  Crying, “Are You there?”

  I am answered always in a foreign tongue

  Which eludes me. In Your Heart, O God,

  Shall I find my place? You have not answered yet.

  But then, You are known to speak only in centuries.

  Remember, God, I live only in days,

  And with days You have cursed man. With the hours

  You have counted his bones, as the Egyptians,

  In their games, threw down their painted sticks.

  Are we Your merriment, Father? Or Your affliction?

  You answered on Calvary.

  Guy’s hands pressed down the book and he shut his eyes. I never knew, he thought. I believed my father laughed and sang and joked his life away—yet here is the evidence of his human despair. He had thought his father a complete agnostic if not an atheist. Yet here was the fumbling evidence of his secret pain, his secret love. He had thought Tom satisfied with his life, completely satisfied with his hours and his days, and Sal. But here was the evidence that he, too, was a stranger in a strange land, questioning, hoping, desolate, speaking but not understood, asking but never answered. “You answered on Calvary.” Was that the last mute cry of a dying man who really had no hope?

  I never knew, thought Guy, I never knew my father. I never knew anyone else, perhaps not even Beth. I never knew myself.

  “We go brawling and kicking to our death, we who have never lived.”

  Guy thought: I believed he had gone to his death with humor and courage. I did not know that he fought in himself. What in hell did I ever know? I saw only faces. I never saw the man.

  “If you have no bravery in the face of life, die like a whimpering child.”

  His father had been brave; he had more than courage. He had not smilingly succumbed to life. He had challenged it, and had lived. But I never lived, thought Guy. I once did, in dreams, I think. But I forgot the dream.

  “Live your life, for it is all you have. Live it wrongly, live it painfully, live it angrily. But, live it.”

  I never lived. It is now too late.

  Another short crude poem:

  There is no sin except not loving.

  A life without love is like a life

  Without wine and sun, without laughter.

  Love wildly, love strongly, love with will,

  And deny those who would deny you.

  Beth, thought Guy. And he left his office and drove to the little farm.

  It was a hot and rainy summer early evening, and though it was not yet five o’clock it was dark with gathering storm. Lightning flickered through the hills like glittering swords lancing into flesh and surly thunder answered far off in dusky boiling clouds. Blasts of wind made the heavy car waver; ditches chattered with water. Trees creaked uneasily, their wet leaves dancing in the headlights. The air was heavy and seething with heat. Guy was driving too fast—his usual way—for he felt that he could not wait to see Beth and to tell her of the day’s encounter with Sam Kurtz. Once or twice the clouds were torn apart and the colorless sun floated for a moment or two in the billowing rack, only to be submerged again. The raw fierce light blinded Guy for an instant.

  What should he tell Beth? She would understand, of course, but all at once he knew her understanding would not comfort him. The air conditioning in the car blew in his face but could not cool him. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest irregularly and he vaguely wondered if he were about to have a heart attack. He had seen Beth yesterday. It was not his way, lately, to see her too often, for a reason he was afraid to acknowledge. “God, I’m tired,” he muttered aloud, and had a thought to turn about and return to his house. But the thought suddenly appalled him. His empty house, where he had never really lived; his wife, whom he tolerated but whose voice he could not endure: What was there for him? What had ever been there? He came to a crossroads and almost turned into it. It led to what had once been his father’s farm, and now, too, there was nothing there for him. What had made him instinctively try to turn there, before he came to his senses and continued on his way to Beth’s house? He only knew a sense of profound loss, of rootlessness, of something vanished, some consolation denied, some refuge demolished. He ached with grief and with an obscure rage. His father’s notebook pressed into his side like a living hand. In a few years he would be sixty.

  Tell me, where all past years are,

  Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.

  What had he done with his life? He had worked, and he had made money. But something vital had eluded him. No, he had eluded it himself. It had not run from him; he had run from it. He knew, all at once, that Beth more than suspected this also. He could see her eyes clearly, thoughtful and conjecturing, as if she waited for him to tell her something. Over and over he had said to her, these past five years, defiantly, challenging, “We all have dreams when we are young, but we compromise with reality—don’t we?” She had never replied, but had only gazed at him sadly—waiting. God damn it, waiting for what? He felt a rush of anger against her, a hostility. But he was on the way to see her. He slowed down and again almost turned the car about. If only he could drink as other men drank, and fall into a stupor. But try as he often did liquor unnerved him in large quantities, made his flesh creep, his head ache.

  Damn Sam Kurtz for coming to see him after all these years! Sam had uncovered a noxious cistern, a sewer. The lost years. But every man has his lost years—doesn’t he? Looking back at them, he reminded himself that duty, responsibility, stability, were the mark of a man and not a dreaming fool who dreamed impossible dreams in his youth. A man does not live for himself alone. (“It’s your life, kiddo.”) Once again Guy felt bitterness against his father and forgot what he had read in the notebook. No man’s life is his own, despite what Tom had said over many years. Unless he was insane, unbalanced, he understood that he must compromise, adjust, substitute performance for aimless fantasies. A man could not live in a civilized fashion, in a civilized society, unless he conformed, in a great measure, to its mores. Otherwise he was an outlaw, a fool. Wasn’t he? Unless he was satisfied with nothing—but who, except one who would have nothing to do with the world and its incessant demands—could be satisfied with nothing and be contented to live in a beggarly milieu? He had argued this with his father years before, and Tom had replied, “Who says you have to be contented with nothing? ‘In the devil’s booth all things are sold—each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold.’ I chose my life and I’m reasonably happy with it. But that don’t mean you have to live the life I live, or anyone else’s life. You’ve just got to sort out what you really want out of living, and it’s your choice, always your choice.”

  Circumstances, thought Guy tonight, make your choices. Fear makes your choices. He was startled by his own thought, and denied it angrily. I’m losing my mind, he said to himself.

  Through the shimmering rain he came upon Beth’s house, drove up her driveway, got out of the car, and ran through the downpour to the door. It was unlocked, as usual, as if waiting for him. A glare of sun came out briefly, and showed the barn and its lighted lantern and a youth working there, milking the cows, and whistling. Beth’s dog, a nondescript but amiable brute, rushed out barking and wagging its tail at the familiar car. The lightning and the thunder prowled closer and the thick dark rain increased.

  The pleasant living room was empty though lamps were lighted. Beth was in the kitchen; Guy could hear her humming and the rattle of pans. He discovered that he was out of breath, though the run from the car had been short. He shook the drops of rain from
his shoulders; they left wet stains on the light fabric. “Beth!” he called, and did not know that his voice was not only commanding but enraged.

  Her humming stopped. She was startled; she came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her white apron. “Why, Guy,” she said, her face at once luminous at the sight of him, “I didn’t expect you tonight.” She came to him and put her arms about his neck and kissed him soundly and with delight. He pulled her to him, breathing rapidly, but he did not kiss her. She moved a little back from him and studied his face, which was deeply flushed.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked, in alarm.

  “What the hell could be wrong?” His voice was hard and rough. “I just thought I’d like to see you, that’s all.”

  But she continued to study him with gravity. Those amber eyes darkened subtly as if with pain. “I’m so happy you came,” she said, gently. “Let me get you a drink. I have only some braised short ribs tonight.”

  “The hell with food. I’m not hungry. Yes, get me a drink. I’m tired.”

  He fell into a chair and stared sullenly in front of him, in obvious resentment. He rubbed his flushed forehead and winced. He yawned abruptly. She was accustomed to his moods, but never before had he seemed so desperate, so lonely, so hagridden. He had aged these past few months, had become very thin and very nervous, as if he could not rest. The gray at his temples had widened. All at once Beth was frightened. He was in this room with her, yet he was not here at all. He was wandering frenziedly about, far from her. The room was hot, yet Beth felt chilled. She smoothed her blue cotton frock and apron, then silently went to the kitchen for whiskey. She found that her hands were trembling. There was such a lack of sound from the living room, yet a tenseness hovered there, waited, like a storm. There was no creaking from the chair, no snap of a lighter to light a cigarette. The only sound was the approaching thunder. The house might have been empty except for herself. She prepared the drink and took it into the other room. Guy was sitting as she had left him, staring sightlessly before him, but the muscles of his face were clenched. He looked very ill, very alone. Beth put the glass in his hand. He did not thank her, as usual. It was as if she were not there. He raised the glass to his lips and did not sip the whiskey. He drank it all in one gulp.

  “Do you want to tell me, darling?” Beth asked. He lifted his black eyes and there was a sort of furious rage in them.

  “Tell you what, for God’s sake?”

  Unlike any other woman, Beth did not press him, asked nothing more. She merely sat down near him and put her hands on her knees. The room simmered with the rich fragrance of braised meat and onions. The rain was increasing; it lashed at the windows in gusts. Guy suddenly glanced at Beth, and his black eyes were sunken yet full of lighted wrath.

  “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “You sit there as if at a wake, or a funeral.”

  Beth smiled faintly; she forced herself to smile. “I’ve had a hot busy day,” she replied, careful to keep her voice light. “I’ve been preserving quinces.”

  He shrugged as though disgusted with her. “What trivial things you find to do,” he remarked. He held out his empty glass to her and she took it.

  “Preparing for winter isn’t trivial, Guy. It does come, you know.”

  He muttered something profane. She went to the kitchen and refilled his glass. Her heart was beating fast with renewed alarm, and a new fear for him. Something was tearing at him, some rage, some helpless repudiation. When he was in a bad mood—and the bad moods were increasing lately—she was no longer frightened that he was tired of her. His moods had nothing to do with her herself. But they had never been as tumultuous as this present mood. Never before had his face been so darkly flushed, so clenched, nor his eyes so ferocious, so denying. She brought the freshened glass back to him. He made a gesture as if to refuse it, then snatched it from her.

  “You’re like all other women,” he said in that newly rough tone. “You want an explanation for everything, no matter how unimportant. I’ve had a rugged day today. Damn it, that’s all.”

  “Very well,” she said, and felt some anger of her own, yet it was at once followed by an aching compassion. “The air is very humid, and the storm is getting worse.”

  “Is it?” he asked, in a sneering voice. “I didn’t notice. Oh, I forgot. You’re afraid of summer storms, aren’t you? Like any other silly woman.”

  She could not help saying, “If you’d ever seen cattle killed by lightning, or a farmhouse set on fire by it, or a tree shattered, you’d be afraid of storms, too.”

  “Oh, shit,” he said. “I’ve lived on a farm. I know all about it. Let me alone, will you?”

  He looked at her as at any enemy. She could not bear that look. She silently rose and went back into the kitchen. She wanted to cry. He was very ill. His hand had shook as he had taken the glass from her. He was losing control of himself, very rapidly. She had never seen him so close to collapse as she did now. True, he had sometimes been gloomy and evidently distraught, and lately he had appeared extremely restless and besieged on several occasions, but never so totally near the edge as tonight. What had happened today to reduce him to this deep and disordered inner turbulence? This lack of command over himself? He had very often been cruelly rude to her when beset, but never such rudeness as tonight. He had usually apologized. He had not apologized now.

  There was a vivid red flash against the kitchen windows and then such a blast of thunder that the glass rattled. Beth put her hands over her ears. That had been very near, very dangerous. The rain and wind roared against the windows. Joel came into the kitchen, drenched. “Hey, that was a near thing, Miz Turner,” he said. “Think it struck something close by.”

  Beth tried to smile at him. He said, “See Mr. Jerald’s here tonight.”

  “Yes,” said Beth. “Want a slice of raspberry pie, Joel, and some milk?”

  He accepted with a youth’s pleasure. He sat down at the scrubbed kitchen table. He had taken off the farm boots and was in his socks, white and clean. Beth looked at him fondly. There were times when she wished she had a son like Joel, but only at rare intervals. His artless farm boy’s face was rosy, his gray eyes clear and wide, his blond hair wet. Life would never be very confusing to this direct youth, who knew what he wanted. He wanted land of his own. He did not know that Beth had left her small farm to him in her will. There were times, lately, because of Guy’s growing savage moods and verbal abuse, when she had even thought of giving the farm to Joel and going away, perhaps forever.

  She was startled when she saw Guy on the threshold of the kitchen, standing in the doorway. Joel started to smile at him, then, seeing Guy’s face, he colored, began to eat the pie very rapidly.

  “I never see you here without you feeding your face,” said Guy, in an ugly voice. “Do you ever stop eating?”

  “Guy!” said Beth, outraged. But Joel stood up with young dignity and said, “Thanks, Miz Turner. See you tomorrow.” He opened the back door and disappeared in the thunderous darkness.

  Guy looked at Beth formidably. “Why do you cater to that brat?” he asked. “He’s as stupid as a cow.”

  “Guy,” she said. “You’re not yourself. You have always been so kind to Joel, and you know he’s not stupid. He knows what he wants—”

  It was as if lightning had ignited him. He was infuriated. “And I don’t, eh?” He flung his empty glass from him and it crashed on the floor and broke. For a long moment they both stared at the shards. “God damn,” said Guy, slowly and loudly, and he turned and went back into the living room.

  Beth stood in the kitchen and she trembled with terror. Never had he been like this before in all the years she had known him. She went into the other room. Guy was standing near a window, his hands in his trouser pockets, and he was looking at the storm. Feeling her presence, he swung about and faced her and she saw the repudiating and terrible hatred and despair in his eyes.

  “I’m not coming here anymore,” he said, and it was the v
oice of a hating stranger. “You upset me.”

  Beth felt an enormous sickness and hollowness in her breast, an awful sorrow and desolation. He continued to stare at her and she felt ugly and repulsive and drab, and old. The room and the man shook before her. But she said, quietly enough, “Very well, Guy. It’s your choice.”

  “Choice, choice, choice!” he shouted at her. “What the hell do you know about choices, you and your bovine contentment? You’re as stupid and as shallow as my father was—you and your choices!”

  So, thought Beth, that’s it. There was a new stir of anger in her, and a sudden coldness. She said, “At least we had the courage to live our lives.”

  “And, I never did! That’s what you mean, isn’t it?” He struck a table with his fist and the lamp on it jumped.

  She drew a deep breath. “Yes, that’s what I mean, Guy. I’ve watched you for years, and I know what’s tearing you apart. I’ve watched you killing yourself. No, please. Let me finish. I can’t bear it any longer, watching you die day by day. I can’t live under these circumstances.”

  “You’re an idiot! I wonder what the hell I ever saw in you. A superficial woman, pretending to be intelligent and wise! You haven’t the brains to think rationally—”

  “Guy!” her voice rose, for all she said to herself: It’s over, finally and irretrievably over. “I don’t make any pretense at all, about anything. I know one thing for certain: You hate your life. You don’t hate me. You hate yourself. I know what you’ve always wanted. You wanted to be a doctor, a medical researcher. But you didn’t have the courage to make the right choice. You didn’t have the courage to live.”

  To her horror he reached out and struck her violently across the mouth. She fell back, holding her face, in which something had exploded. Then she stood, dropping her hand, confronting him fearlessly.

  For an instant or two he looked aghast; he even looked at the hand which had struck her. Then the dusky red of rage returned to his face and his eyes leapt with black light at her.

  “You’d have liked that, wouldn’t you?” He almost yelled. “You’d have loved a weak poor man, wouldn’t you? A man as worthless as any father! Yes, I bet you would have! The hell you would, damn you! You’d never even have looked at me! You love what I represent—”

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