Chapter 8 continues

The story so far: The class play goes surprisingly well.

 

Annette thanked him for the list he had left, confessed apologetically that there were several books on it that she’d never heard of before and said that, since she’d always wanted to read Charles Dickens, she chose “Great Expectations” first. She’d gone over to the dingy little town library — “without any expectations,” she laughed — and to her surprise actually found a copy there. She was nearly finished with it — she loved Pip and Magwitch, but hated Estella and Mrs. Haversham. In the library she’d been hopeful enough to show his list to the woman who staffed it two days a week — but none of Allen’s other books were there.

“So you just happened to pick the one book they had,” he said, smiling.

“I guess I was lucky. Actually, I’m never lucky. Maybe you brought me good luck.”

“I hope so.”

“Anyway, when I’m finished, I might have to ask to borrow the next one from you. Is that still all right? I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“It certainly is. May I ask what the next one is?”

“I’m really not sure yet. I might have to ask your advice.”

He said he would be happy to talk to her anytime.

***

Even when the weather turned colder, even when more snow fell, Allen Post walked at night. He was not likely to come across anybody on the streets in winter, even downtown, except a homeowner or a shopkeeper shoveling his walk.

Once he spotted the demented old woman who had greeted him when he first arrived in town. She was putting out her cat and did not respond to his wave. He shrugged.

He liked having the streets to himself, relished it. He found the cold air exhilarating, the stars shining more crisply than ever before. He’d spent a little time studying astronomy and was able to identify some of the constellations, Sirius and Orion and Cassiopeia. But he thought it better to just gaze into the dark sky and feel himself lost in the universe, swallowed up by the cosmos.

Closer to earth, weird and fantastic shadows stretched out to meet him at every corner. He wondered why the world had to grow old, and with it people — and why with people came corruption and conformity, the bright flames of idealism and self-reliance waning and flickering out. He wondered why people bundled themselves into cumbersome overcoats, stuffed their noses with nose drops and their throats with cough medicine, and ventured out timidly, cursing the cold, perhaps with a flask in their pocket, hurrying to a card party. Why does the match that every young person lights go out before he is able to set the world on fire — before he can rake up the ashes and begin again? Does such light ever warm one in his grave? He thought not. But just because Don Quixote and Captain Ahab had failed did not mean that others might not succeed.

He threw a left jab at Jupiter and a right hook at Rigel and waited for them to fall. They did not.

He would try again.

He couldn’t wait to get back to his classes in the morning.

It seemed to him that, aside from the argument offered in the brilliant quotations from James Michener that Greg Schmidt had sent him, the great value of English as a subject in the curriculum lay in the fact that it revealed the innermost struggles of all kinds of people, the heroes and heroines of novels. Wasn’t it true that students who read about such characters couldn’t help but learn from them — gain confidence and inspiration? He wanted an Anthology of Life from which he could teach, grouped by theme — idealism and realism, self-reliance and conformity, love, war, death and nature.

He wanted to hit them hard with works that had something to do with their own lives and might even change them.

***

She was an extrovert, it was true, he an introvert. She had spent her life in the rocky wastes of northern Montana, he in a large Midwestern city. She had only the credits needed to get a nursing degree, he had nearly enough for a Master’s Degree. Nevertheless, they’d got along remarkably well. And he looked forward every day to her next letter.

Mary Zane.

He had taught her to play tennis. He had taken her swimming, canoeing, hiking — to impromptu picnics and cookouts. She was ready for everything. If he told her that he was going to a baseball game at Nicollet Park, or to see his dad, or to get the oil changed in his car, she invariably said, “Take me with you?” He did. But they had not been lovers. When, early in their relationship, sitting in the car late at night outside the nurses’ dorm, he asked if he could kiss her, she said yes, but with reservations. She had to tell him something first: she didn’t want him to like her too much. He was deeply hurt but said it was OK. He got over his hurt fast.

In the evening they had gone for long rides, stopping for ice cream sundaes or hamburgers, after which they parked by Lake of the Isle or Lake Nokomis or Powderhorn Park and talked. He told her about his mother’s early death, his difficult childhood, the time he spent in the Army, his love of books and his plans to teach school. Although dorm rules required her to be in by eleven, she loved nothing more than to sign in late. He was her willing accomplice.

When school was out, when she went back to that little town in Montana (a place called Roy, so tiny it was hardly on the map), he wondered if he should have been more assertive when he was with her. Perhaps she looked upon him as a passive and indecisive young man who, since his mother had died when he was hardly more than a baby, was looking for a mother substitute instead of a wife. All of which, of course, was incorrect.

Three weeks after leaving Minneapolis, she returned for a delayed graduation ceremony. When they resumed their old activities, he tried to be more assertive. He did not tell her that he loved her, fearing it would destroy everything. But they held hands when they walked and exchanged occasional small kisses in the car. When he tried to kiss her more passionately, however, she drew back. “That’s another story,” she said.

Their last night together they walked around Loring Park in the heart of the city, hand in hand, looking at the stars, crossing a small bridge that passed over a narrow part of the lake, admiring the white swans in the water. A few couples sat on park benches, lovebirds. The branches of huge willows dipped close to the water. As they walked, he told her that he looked forward to being independent, free of his “auntie” and “uncle” Carlson (who had raised him and his brother after the death of his mother), free even of his father. He had no interest in getting married soon, he said — his younger brother was to marry next year. Rather, he hoped to save enough money during the year he taught school to travel. He wanted to see Europe. He wanted to see China. He wanted to see Mexico and South America. He wanted to experience life to the full. Sitting on a park bench, he quoted her lines from some of his favorite poems — poems of adventure and romance.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)

My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff

cut from the woods ….

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 8 continues.