Bright Flows the River, page 49
“And what do you represent, Guy Jerald?”
“Money! And there never was a frigging woman who didn’t love money, and the smell of it! I know all about you, you see. Would you have fucked me if I had been a poor farmer, a mortgage-ridden farmer? Yes, I bet you would at that. Any port in a storm, I suppose!”
Her voice was very still. “Don’t talk to me like that, Guy. I’m not your wife, thank God. Or do you dare talk to Lucy like that? I suppose not. She has a brother to defend her. She has money. She is your wife, your property, the mother of your children, and you think she deserves your respect, and I do not.” Her breast rose and fell with a rage equal to his, and for a moment he was taken aback. The room was loud with their heavy breathing. Beth did not know that a trickle of blood was running from her mouth, but Guy saw it and something changed in his infuriated face. It was a peculiar change.
“Go back to your wife, Guy,” said Beth, in a pent quiet voice. “Go back to your money, your easy life, your comfortable life. Go back to what you hate, what you’ve always hated. You made your choice long ago, so now live with it. And never come here again, until you want to live.”
She put her hand to her agonized cheek and did not know of the quiet anguish in her face, and her brave expression. Her tawny eyes were brilliant with pain, but also with resolution.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t come here again. I promise you that! I’m sick of your foolishness; I’m sick of you and what you represent. We’ve had our fun, such as it was. I’m sick of your imbecile conversation, your prattle of ‘choices.’ You’re always babbling like that. It’s you who have never lived, not I. You’re only a silly goddamned middle-aged woman, and I’m ashamed I ever had anything to do with you. My whores have more sense than you have.” He threw the words at her as if they were stones.
Thunder shook the house and lightning lit up every window and the wind screamed in the chimney. The clock chimed half past six, and it was a sad and dolorous sound, and to Beth it was the end of everything.
“Go home, Guy,” she said. “Your wife is probably waiting dinner for you. Your wife, Guy.” She could not help the childish words. “Remember? You have a wife.”
“Yes, thank God,” he said, in a hoarse and brutal voice. “She never pretended to have intelligence. She accepts me as I am.”
Beth went to the door and opened it and stood by it, her face white as death but her eyes gleaming in the lamplight. “Goodbye,” she said.
He stood very still and looked at her and now his expression was strange and imploring. Then he walked past her into the stormy night. She closed the door quietly after him.
Her grief and sorrow were too dreadful for tears. She stood in the middle of the room and she trembled as if covered by ice. “Guy, Guy,” she whispered, and the desolation spread all about her like a tangible presence. “Oh, Guy.”
It was a long time before she could move. She was shivering and broken. When she sat down near a table she felt as if she was dying. Then she saw the notebook he had inadvertently left, his father’s notebook. With cold hands she picked it up and read it.
Then she said aloud, “I see. I see. Now I understand. Oh, Guy.” She put her head down on the table and cried until she could cry no more.
He had driven off into the wild summer storm, and he tried to kill himself.
Guy put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He was remembering it all. He was remembering the stunned shame, the wounded humiliation, on Beth’s face, on that summer night. Never had he talked before to other women, not even the cheapest of them, in such a voice and in such words. But he had shouted at Beth like that, Beth who had loved him and cherished him and had wanted only his peace of mind, who had suffered with him and consoled him and laughed with him and slept in his arms, and had given him what no other woman had ever given him: complete companionship and sympathy and tenderness. “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He had “killed” Beth and her love. He hated himself with violence; he writhed in his chair. He wanted to beg Beth’s forgiveness—but how could a woman so injured forgive him? Even the most profound love has its limits. Even in her pain she had not answered him as she should have done, with contempt and disgust. But Beth was a gentlewoman, and she would not descend to foulness as he had descended.
He knew that his “accident” had been reported in the newspapers, and no doubt it had also been reported that he was now in Mountain Valleys. So Beth knew. She had not written him, had not given him any indication that she was concerned for him. It was only just. He had killed the thing he had loved, in the most terrible fashion possible, and Beth would never permit him to see her again. It was over. It was asking too much for understanding. He had been abusive to Beth before, over the past year, when his oppressive life had become intolerable, that is, he had become sometimes insulting and extremely impatient with her, leaving her abruptly and shaking off her hands and glaring at her meanly. She had forgiven him when he had returned, days later, without warning. But she could not forgive this. She was a great lady, and great ladies did not forgive such savage attacks, such cruel derision, such filthy accusations.
But how could he live without her, she who had made his life one of meaning again, or at least had shown him the way to have meaning? She was no slave; she had probably suffered, but she was too intrepid to be devastated for long. He had no reason to live without her, but she had her steadfast reasons in herself to endure and survive. Once she had mentioned that she was leaving her farm to Joel; she had probably already done that and had left, and he would never find her again. She would make sure of that.
He had experienced anguish before, but those occasions could not compare with this. Once she had affectionately said, “You are your own worst enemy, Guy.” Now he knew that he had always been his worst enemy, and that no one had corrupted or perverted him or injured him—except himself. He had known men who had endured the worst of living, evil childhoods, undeserved injuries from friends, betrayals from those trusted, deaths of those dearest, under awful circumstances—they had shown little if any anger, and only sadness. They had not directed their pain upon others, as he had done. Because they were strong, because they accepted things most appalling with bravery.
I am not brave, I don’t even have courage, he thought. Do I have the courage to go on without Beth? I only know that what has been my life mustn’t be my life any longer. I owe that to Beth at least. Perhaps, someday—but there would be no “someday” for him and Beth. She had gone from him as irretrievably as to her grave.
I must go on, even if I don’t want to. Again, I owe that to Beth, to be a man. I owe nothing to my wife and children; I gave them as much as it was possible for me to give, and they have no rights any longer insofar as I am concerned. My father and Beth were right: It is my life. I must do something with it. I owe that to them. I owe them that duty, that gratitude for their love.
As they drove to Mountain Valleys, Emil glanced sideways at James Meyer with compassion. James had aged. His ruddiness had disappeared. He had a closed distraught expression; he was sunken in himself and his dreadful sorrow. Love, thought Emil, caused more suffering than it was worth—perhaps. Only once had James spoken in the last fifteen minutes. He had said, in a dull voice, “How long does it take to get married in Pennsylvania, Emil?” Emil had replied, “I will arrange it.”
A little later Emil said, “That thug who attacked you, James—I knew he would be coddled and ‘loved’ and let out on probation. Well, last night he killed a woman he was trying to rob, on the street. The weeping judge will probably sentence him to a year in jail, one of our nice new country clubs. It’s a strange thing. If a desperate man tries to hide a little of the money he has so painfully earned, from the tax gatherer, no ferocity is as fierce as the government’s, no wrath more vicious, so murderous. In Cranston, six months ago, a small businessman, who had worked hard and austerely all his life, ‘failed’ to report eight thousand dollars in income
James said in a distant voice, “But where is manhood in the world today? We all cower and slaver before our governments, instead of taking up arms against its cruelties and tyranny. We could stop all this monstrous thing in twenty-four hours, if we had any bravery at all. A bureaucrat is a cowardly snarling dog who can be set to run with a hard kick in his arse. But, it’s an old story. It was the bureaucrats and their mendicant misfits who murdered the Roman Empire, and it will happen again.”
“I never thought,” said Emil, “that my country would ever adopt Marxism, but she did. Now we are a covert Marxist country.”
“So is England, only more so,” said James. He seemed to arouse himself a little from his deep lethargy of grief. He seemed to be thinking. “I’ve been talking to Emma. She says I am needed, that I must go on—in spite of anything. That I must start to fight for my country. I couldn’t care less—as of now.”
“But you will,” said Emil. “You will.”
James uttered something that was between a blasphemous expletive and a groan.
“You can’t do anything else,” said Emil. “It is your life, James.”
“But what if your bloody life becomes meaningless?”
“It’s never meaningless, James. No life is meaningless, unless we make it so.”
“As our friend in Mountain Valleys has made his life meaningless,” said James, with the first bitterness he had ever expressed against Guy Jerald.
“Yes. Quite true. But he did it himself. He had a choice. I am sure. But he didn’t make the right choice, or perhaps, he never made a clear choice at all.”
“He just drifted into it, eh?”
Emil paused. “Or he was probably afraid of something.”
James said, “Just as I have been afraid, afraid to abandon my urbane comfortable life, my smiling cynical life, my satisfied life, for—”
Emil waited, but James did not go on. After a while he said, as if to himself, “My father made his clear choice. But then, he was a man.” He did not know it, but Emil saw it: A tear touched his lower lashes. How many of the helpless had his father rescued? There was no way of knowing. He had only given his life for them. Was that ridiculous, or was it the noblest thing a man could do?
It was a very dismal and depressing day—gray sky, gray snow, gray wind, gray air. James felt it all through his flesh. He thought of what Emma had told him this morning. “Love, you have your life to live, and it will be a fine life, worthy of you. Don’t tell me you can’t go on without me. I will always be with you. I couldn’t bear it if I thought you would give up in despair. Remember me, but with love and laughter and contentment. Anything else would be an insult to me. All those wonderful years! We were blessed. Now, you must go on with the work you must do, for your sake and mine.” She had smiled at him tenderly, with the old raffish glint in her eyes. “Otherwise, I’ll haunt you. This is a time for warriors, love.” She had kissed him. “Before you go, let’s make love again. I can’t have enough of you, you basket.” She smacked his bare buttocks soundly, and he had yelped and laughed.
Women like Emma and Beth and Marian gave not only faith to their men but bravery also. They tied their kerchiefs on a man’s lance and sent him off to battle. Emma, Emma, thought James, and he shivered in the warmth of the car. He must never break down before her again, and cause her more pain. He must pretend to be courageous, and he was enough of a psychiatrist to know that the posture a man frequently struck often could become second nature, and natural. For her sake he must try to be what she believed he was: a man like his father. In time he might believe it. But as of now there was such a hollowness in him, filled with cries.
When James and Emil parted in the corridor of Mountain Valleys, Emil noticed, with a little perturbation, that James wore a grim set expression, purposeful and forbidding, and he wondered why. He looked like a man deeply vengeful, even formidable. They had agreed to meet for lunch; Emil watched James march very fast down the corridor to Guy’s suite, and he scratched his ear. I wouldn’t like to be the target of whatever he’s got in mind, he thought.
James flung open the door of the suite, curtly dismissed the nurse, then stood, staring at Guy, who was seated at a table and not in his usual wing chair. But James, in his emotional state, did not notice that the table was covered with sheets of paper on which much had been written. He stood, breathing heavily, near the door and did not sit in his chair near the fraudulent fire. With an enormous effort he clenched his fists at his sides and reminded himself that he was a psychiatrist and psychiatrists did not display personal disarray to patients, particularly ones in Guy’s hazardous condition. So he breathed out hard, and said in an ominous voice, “Well.”
Guy started to rise from his chair, then, seeing James’s face, he sat down again, obviously shaken. His black eyes widened. He said, “Jim.” James turned from him and stared at the fire and his back was the back of a bull. His voice was low but pent as he said, “Damn you, you are as sane as I am, and you know it, but you are crouching there like a beaten misunderstood dog who has been battered half to death by unfeeling monsters! You’ve spent months pitying yourself, feeling a victim of fucking injustice, while all the time you were the bloody unjust one! Let me tell you something”—and he swung on Guy again—“this is the last time I am going to waste hours and breath on you, Jerry. I’m finished! I’ve had it. You make me ill.”
He tore his chair from near the fire and flung himself into it. Be quiet, said his physician’s inner voice, and he answered as soundlessly: The hell I will! He said aloud, “I’ve met many a man like you, Jerry, who shat up his life and then tried to end it, blaming not himself, but others, for the mess he has made on the carpet. Yes, you’ve had your rough spots; who hasn’t? But we cleaned up the spots ourselves. What do you know of the life of anyone else? Have you ever wondered? Have you ever had pity? Have you ever realized that we are all caught in the same human predicament of despair, loneliness, mental and physical suffering, anguish, hopelessness, abandonment—with little joy to compensate? I know you for what you are—a driven man. But you are the driver! No one harnessed you to the cart. You did. You married a fool of a woman—yes, she is a fool!—but no one forced you into that marriage. Instead of ridding yourself of her earlier you stayed with her. Why?
“Oh, I know the stupid reply you’d tell me, if you’d ever open your mouth long enough to give a reasonable answer! You’d say, ‘duty, responsibility.’ Catchwords, the words of a man who tries to explain his irrational conduct—which was motivated only by cowardice! Have you ever thought of what you did to your wife when you did not set her free to marry a man of her own kind, a foolish man as mindless as herself? Don’t look at me like that, damn you! Do you think she is happy being married to a man who was always a stranger to her, an incomprehensible stranger, who did not behave as she believed a man should behave—conforming and loving, a mere servant to his family, as most of you American men are? You revolted against her demands; I admit her demands were as demeaning and crass as are the demands of many women. You knew those demands were demeaning and crass, but you put up with them! Why? Duty again, responsibility? Do you think a man who abrogates his sacred duty to himself, his responsibility to himself as a full human soul, is admirable? No, he is a liar and a coward! I have an inkling about you now, Jerry. Your wife was a surrogate for so
He had to stop for breath. He did not know that his condemning, even his hating, face was ghastly and quivering with his own inner torment. Guy sat in silence, looking at him as a man looks at a judge.
“Oh, God,” James groaned. “Oh, my God.” He had done the most unpardonable thing a psychiatrist can do to a patient: He had projected his own anguish on another human being. But he could not help it. He was only a man after all. The last few days had broken him completely, he who had vowed that nothing would ever break him, that he was above the witless and doltish lack of discipline of lesser men. Emma, Emma, he thought with a deeper inward groaning. Oh, Emma, I really can’t stand it! His heart was thumping like a drum whose skin has been too tightly drawn. Its beat was erratic and infinitely painful. For Emma’s sake he had tried for resignation and thought he had achieved it. But he was not resigned at all.
Guy was looking at him strangely and something stirred in him—pity. Guy saw how distraught his friend was, how deep in his extremity, though he did not know why. He saw only the torture. Jim—always affable, always controlled, always understanding, always urbane, always humorous and in command—something had struck him down and was killing him. He said, “Jim?” But James did not hear him in the blackness of his own travail, where he lay, writhing.
James’s voice was choked when he could speak. “Your children. I’ve met them, have studied them. They are children of your loins, but they are not really your children, and never were. But how many children are really the offspring of their parents? A father should have compassion on his children, that he ever begot them. I think God has more pity for us than condemnation—for aren’t we His creatures, for whom He must bear the guilt? What did you expect of the strangers you casually begot? Perfection? Understanding? Gratitude? Love? It is wiser to look to a mongrel dog for these than to your children!
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