As Gabe drove back to Norris that same Wednesday, thoughts of two people filled his mind. One was his grandfather. “How are you doing, young feller?” Bill had said to him earlier that day.
“FINE, GRANDDAD.” Gabe learned during his first visit on Tuesday that he had to shout to make him hear. “REMEMBER ME FROM YESTERDAY? I’M GABE, STUART’S BOY.”
Gabe sighed as he took a kitchen chair and sat beside Bill’s own chair. “I’M GABE, STUART’S BOY.” He looked around at what seemed to him the bleak and austere surroundings of the apartment and he heard street sounds from the open window. He couldn’t imagine how lonely Bill must be.
“I don’t know any Stuart,” he said. “Stuart, you say? Is that Esther’s husband? Denise just came do to see me yesterday.”
“Stuart’s your son, Granddad.”
He sighed and put his hands on the kitchen table. “I’M YOUR GRANDSON GABE. I’M A TEACHER NOW. I LIVE IN NORRIS AND I WANTED TO SEE HOW YOU’RE DOING!”
“Well, pleased to meet you, sir! A preacher, you say? I’m Baptist myself, but I believe we’re all going to the same Heaven up above, just by different roads! You want money? I don’t get out to church but I give what I can!”
“NO, GRANDDAD. I’M JUST HERE TO VISIT YOU AGAIN.”
“I’ll tell you,” Bill said, looking repeatedly into his empty wallet, “the Good Lord has taken care of me. You don’t forget that. No, sir, you don’t forget that. I was in the trench with my buddy Frank one time. We were under fire–this was the Marne, you understand. Something blew up nearby us and I ducked. I said to him, ‘Frank,’ I said, ‘we’re going to get through this together, I promise. I promised your mama and I’m promising you, buddy!’ I patted him, just to reassure him, and my hand felt wet. Then I turned around and you know something? Frank was gone. Projectile of some sort, right in the chest. He wasn’t with me anymore, he was gone.”
He walked over to the window and gazed down upon Adams Street. “Well, that could’ve been me, son. That could’ve been me. I don’t remember so good anymore. No, sir, I don’t. I wish I did. The little girl downstairs comes and sees me every single day, rain or snow or sun! Sometimes I forget what she’s told me, you know. She fixed me supper just yesterday. Those Harmons, they’re good people. They try to make things right. But the Good Lord’s watched out for me time and time again. You hear me, boy? Time and time again! I don’t know why me, but he has. Me! That you don’t forget. That’s to keep. Right here,” he said, patting his heart with his bony, vein-ruined hand.
Gabe was not used to elderly people. He didn’t know how best to converse with him, and a mild anger clouded his thinking. What should he say? Hi, I’m Gabe. I’m thirty-one years old. I’ve done these several things with my life since I last saw you when I was a little boy in the late 1960s during a visit to Mayersburg. I remember very little about the visit except for playing on your living room floor with my sisters and having a vague sense that Mayersburg was a pleasant little town. I grew up and eventually understood that you and my father, Stuart, did not get along well, although my dad has made a series of attempts to stay in touch with you. I suspect that you took my dad for granted and at some point he could tolerate no more. You two exchanged harsh words which, once spoken, neither of you could call them back or forgive them said. I respected my father’s feelings. But now I regret that I’m sitting here, talking to you, my only living grandparent, as if to a total stranger, in a cheerless room over an old store. Is there a way I can help redeem this situation, perhaps by visiting you on occasion? I don’t know, because even before I came here I was terrifically sad because I don’t want to live in the rural Midwest and I don’t know anyone well enough to express how desolate I feel. And I feel sorry for myself because, though your words of faith are agreeable, you don’t even know who I am.
Instead of saying these things, he conversed with Bill as he would with a student who almost but did not quite have the right idea: by listening carefully, by elaborating words already said, by trying to find common ground for understanding. It’s a start, thought Gabe, as he wrapped up the visit and promised Bill that he’d see him again very soon.
Listening to the radio as he drove back to Norris that Wednesday, Gabe also considered another person: Rebecca Harmon. He felt so isolated in Illinois, he felt pleased at the prospect of, perhaps, finding a friend his own age. As the only brother of three sisters, Gabe enjoyed friendships with women as well as with men. He had no idea if they could become friends but he was happy to have made a second, more favorable impression to her. She was a little on the blunt side but she seemed to have those qualities of character and thoughtfulness that Gabe valued in people. He thought how startlingly pretty she was–her fair skin and those dark eyes and wavy auburn hair–but that was not the reason he liked her. In the absence of reconciliation between the older Haussers, Gabe felt grateful that she and her family had watched out for his grandfather these past several years. She has a sweet little dog, too! He hoped that during their time together on Sunday he and she might find some common ground for a friendship, but he felt sufficiently unsure of himself to wonder.
Yet feelings of self-directed uncertainty came all too easily for Gabe, and they were difficult to dismiss. Although he had many friendships with women, his luck with relationships was consistently mediocre and he sensed that his natural shyness invaded relationships the more deeply involved he became with women. He was not in the least misogynist but at this point in his life he was unwilling to enter any situation beyond a simple platonic friendship with a woman unless she–some hypothetical “she”–turned out to be very, very special.
As he drove, he surveyed his first few weeks in Illinois. In mid-May he had breathlessly arrived in Norris with his belongings packed into a U-Haul truck with his little car towed behind. He had beforehand located a nice apartment in a pleasant part of the small community; his apartment was one of four in a newer brick building that overlooked one of Norris’ several pretty, green parks. The place was not fancy but would suffice, he thought, until he could become better established in Illinois. Within a short time his apartment was, if not as neat as he referred, at least functional. He transported several boxes of books and files to his campus office and began planning how to decorate both the apartment and the office in a homey, satisfying manner. He’d visited a church, St. Martin’s Lutheran Church just two blocks down the street from his apartment. For the time being, he felt a cautious sanguinity about this new chapter of his life.
With the beginning of summer school in late May, he had settled into a preliminary routine. He rose very early to take his daily jog and exercise regimen, to study, and to organize the day’s lectures. He usually arrived at his office by 7:30 a.m. He taught two classes each day for summer school: The Birth of the Modern Age at 8:15 a.m., and Colonial America at 10:15 a.m. His classes had begun well. His shyness disappeared when he taught. Inevitably, a few students would complain about the workload and pace of a course and Gabe’s insistence that they complete their work on time.
By lunchtime each day, he felt very tired but he usually had afternoon tasks. He regretted taking on a full teaching load so soon after arriving. But he couldn’t imagine how unsettled and anxious he would have felt with no classes to teach all summer, and he deeply wanted to make a strong first impression in the history department. During the many times in his life he had moved Gabe discovered that busyness, combined with openness to unique aspects of his new locale, assuaged the ache of homesickness. This last move, though, was the most difficult yet. He desperately missed his old friends in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
During one evening a week before, he felt especially lonesome and homesick. He had finished washing his supper dishes and decided to take a drive, just to clear his head before he settled into the evening’s work of studying and arranging his apartment. He drove around Norris for a half-hour, exploring the town. Then he picked up a country road signed Illinois Route 312. After a short time he passed the southbound turn-off to another rural road, Illinois Route 611, but he had no idea where that highway led so he kept driving eastbound, past farm houses, barns, silos, and roadside trees. Feeling no better, he made a U-turn in the lot of an International Harvester dealership and returned to town.
He sighed, and an audible prayer forced itself through the thicket of his loneliness. “Lord, you know … I’m … just feeling really terrible, really self-involved, I guess. You know that I sincerely sought your guidance when I was job-hunting last year, but . . . I’m having struggles. Norris doesn’t yet feel good to me. Everyone has treated me very well so far, but I have this feeling that moving here was a huge mistake. But I know that you’re always with me,” he said, trying to reassure himself and place things in perspective. “If Norris turns out to be the wrong place, I’ll know that you’ll have prepared me for something else. I know you’re faithful, even though I fall so far short.”
He returned to his apartment and checked his answering machine, which contained one hang-up. His sadness returned more deeply. If he’d stayed at home, he would’ve had a phone call, at least!
He walked to the kitchen and, with a heavy desolation in his heart, made some coffee for the evening. A picture of Gayle, his former fiancée, lay semi-hidden in one of his kitchen drawers. He rummaged for it and looked at it a moment, her brown hair, and her blue eyes. He and Gayle had gone their separate ways less than two years before. He still missed her terribly, particularly during these recent, solitary days.
He worked with his books for an hour, sipping coffee, and then for variety he unpacked a few boxes. His arms were filled with a large stack of books when the telephone rang. He didn’t mind dropping them from mid-air so he could hurry to pick up. “Hello?”
“Hi, Gabe. Just checking on you! I tried earlier but you were out.”
“Hi, Dad! Doing fine.”
“Mom and I are out of town for a few days but I wanted to check on you and give you our phone number.” Gabe wrote the number on a pad next to his telephone. He wished his parents would come to visit him instead of traveling elsewhere. “So what’s happening in the big city?” Stuart joked.
Gabe chucked. “I think I’ve left the big city already, Dad. Norris seems terribly small.”
“How big is Norris these days?”
“The sign says 9300.”
“It’s grown since I was a kid.”
“Oh, it’s a pretty town. Everybody’s been really nice to me, so far.”
“Well, we’ll be out to see you before the summer’s done. You unpacked?”
“Not yet,” said Gabe, picking up the books from the floor. “I moved books and supplies to my office this past week. I’ve had one full week of classes, now . . .
“I’m feeling really isolated, Dad,” he added. “I guess that will pass in time. I was meaning to ask you–”
“–About your granddad?” said Stuart bleakly.
“Yes,” said Gabe, sighing, “you read my mind.”
“I just assumed the subject would come up eventually,”
Considering his words about this awkward subject, Gabe said, “I don’t want to do anything to hurt your feelings, but I thought I might drop in on him, to test the waters so to speak.”
“Well, do what you want to, Gabe. Just don’t put your feelings on the line, okay? Don’t think that you could rely upon my dad for much emotional solace. I’d hate to see you hurt by the situation between him and me. His landlady is a person about your age who–”
The doorbell rang. Good grief, thought Gabe. “Excuse me, Dad,” he said as he jumped from the sofa and went to the door. The minister of the St. Martin’s Lutheran Church stood outside in the hallway, so Gabe invited him in, showed him to the living room, then excused himself and finished the conversation with his father. Hanging up, he offered some coffee and the two men sat chatting for a comfortable and comforting duration. Pastor Sandifer was an older man who had served the church several years.
“How do you like Norris?” he asked as they talked.
“Tell you the truth, Pastor, I’m going a little crazy. It’s not that I dislike Norris exactly, because I always feel this way after moving to a new place.” Gabe explained his work, the subjects he taught at NSC, his love of teaching. “I always feel that my teaching is my way of serving the Lord,” he continued, “but sometimes I feel unsure of myself, especially in a brand-new setting.”
Rev. Sandifer smiled sympathetically. “Don’t we all, in one time or another! I don’t know if you knew this, but moving to a new location ranks very high on the list of stressful events in one’s life, near the death of a loved one, divorce, and the like.”
“I didn’t realize that!” he said, although he assumed that was true.
“I think your sentiment is wonderful, though. It’s wonderful to see a young man like yourself expressing your faith in that way! If it’s any assurance for your loneliness, I’d guess the Lord will be showing you some wonderful things. It’s just too bad we can’t see the future, isn’t it?”
“That’s the truth! Thanks. In that vein, Pastor, I wanted to ask you about activities at the church. I love to become involved in church programs.”
Rev. Sandifer told Gabe about the softball league, the weekly bible study groups, a singles’ group, and other programs. Gabe immediately expressed interest in softball league and one of the study groups. Visibly gratified at his volunteer spirit, Pastor provided him a copy of the parish newsletter and a packet of information for first-time visitors. He promised to introduce Gabe to the parishioners.
He ended the visit with a prayer for Gabe, that God would guide and comfort him in the new location and that God’s blessings would come upon him in a discernible way. Gabe felt two hundred percent better, especially soon after his earlier, desperate prayer.
He showed the pastor to the door. “Oh! I wanted to ask you, Rev. Sandifer. I have a relative in Mayersburg, Illinois. I’d like to see him, but I’m not even sure where Mayersburg is. I need to buy an Illinois map.”
“No, you don’t, at least for that trip. I’ll show you. It’s an easy drive, and very pretty.” Gabe followed the pastor to his car, a disaster area of Styrofoam coffee cups, papers, bulletins, and paraphernalia. Rev. Sandifer awkwardly fished a map from his glove compartment, fumbled with the map upon the hood of the car, patted it flat, and pointed with his finger. “There it is. Mayersburg is only a half-hour from here: not quite forty miles. You get on MacArthur Street here in town, then drive just a little ways east out of Norris. You’ll see that MacArthur turns into Route 312, and then after a mile or two, you’ll turn south on Route 611, which will take you straight into Mayersburg.”
“I know how to get to 312,” Gabe said, feeling the evening sun hot on his cheeks as he stood there in the apartment building’s small parking lot. “I was just on it, taking a little country drive. I think I saw the sign for 611, maybe.”
“Mayersburg is a pretty little town. I don’t get down there too much, but I’ve always been fond of the place. Good salt of the earth people. In mid-August, they have a combination pioneer festival and county fair that draws crowds from all over. Since you like history, you’d enjoy it.”
The two men shook hands and Pastor drove away to make other pastoral calls. Gabe went inside, returned to his apartment, took the doorknob, and found it locked. He patted his trouser pockets, and with a sick feeling remembered he’d left his keys on the kitchen counter. He could visualize their location. “Oh, brother,” he sighed. “What a jerk.”
He walked downstairs to find the landlord and then waited until she returned, which turned out to be an hour. But while he was waiting, something clicked in his head and he found the grace to laugh at his own self-pity. He resolved that, even if his grandfather indeed turned out to be poor company, he would find ways to escape the tyranny of his solitary mind.
Returning from Mayersburg that Wednesday afternoon, Gabe grabbed a quick bite at Burger King and arrived at the softball field a little after six. The Sluggers lost their softball game against St. Al’s Angels, the team of the St. Albert the Great Catholic Church. The Sluggers had played well, though; Gabe played shortstop. He liked his teammates, and they liked him.
After the game Gabe drove over to the college. No one was around, except students already in evening classes. Thankful his classes all occurred during the daytime, he let himself into the department office and found some students’ late papers in his box; Claudia, the department secretary, had also left a few students’ phone messages. Brushing the infield dust from his old clothes he unlocked his own office and sat there alone, among his many books, and returned calls to students, then he graded assignments and prepared his lecture notes for the next day’s classes. Finally he made some good progress shelving his books and decorating his office. After dark, he returned to his apartment and all those remaining unpacked boxes. So much for “hump day,” he thought
Gabe’s week had already been busy. He barely had time to think about much besides his work. The previous Monday had been a full day, with his usual classes and a two-hour faculty meeting that ran from tedious to divisive. Tuesday had been a marginally lighter day. Though he had work to do, on spontaneous impulse he’d driven down to try to visit his grandfather during the middle portion of the day, and there he met Rebecca Harmon for the first time. Afterward he stayed late at his office to work on a fellowship proposal that he wanted to submit by the end of June. Some of his students stopped to chat. His students seemed to enjoy talking with him, which Gabe took as a good sign of the rightness of his move to Norris. Wednesday and Thursday were filled with appointments and more meetings with students; the extra trip to Mayersburg and the softball game allowed him a few hours’ pause from his usual, hectic mental pace.
On Thursday evening he joined his Bible study group at church, a lively discussion on the book of Genesis which met in one of the Sunday school classrooms of St. Martin’s. The walls of the room were painted a cool blue and upon one side hung the well-known painting by Sallman, “Head of Christ.” The group was studying the biblical stories of Joseph. Prompted by Mrs. Kentie, an intelligent, outgoing and spry 80-year-old who was a charter member of St. Martin’s, the group discussed dreams. Mrs. Kentie said that God frequently suggested things to her in dreams. One person said she took the Bible literally and knew that God only speaks today in and through the Bible. Gabe gently asked whether, if one takes the Bible literally, then one has to believe God still speaks in dreams, given the experience of Jacob, Peter, and others. Not a biblical literalist, Gabe told the class he believed God may speak through dreams today but that the modern interpretation of dreams, that they are the products of our unconscious minds, seems more tenable. The study group began happily to debate the issue and didn’t break up until 10:30.
Gabe returned home tired yet filled with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. He usually unwound in the recliner with his Bible and the evening news. Thursday night, though, the news was already over when he arrived. He was disappointed; he wasn’t yet used to Central Time. He turned the television off, and his apartment was very quiet as he read his Bible. He read the words “A time to speak, a time to keep silence,” but the words did not themselves speak to him. He heard the sounds of his own footsteps as he went to the kitchen, took out the picture of Gayle, and looked at it for a while. Adjourning to his bedroom, he recited prayer requests in his mind but, halfway through a prayer for his family, he dozed off.
At about 1 a.m. early Friday morning he got a phone call; a wrong number, but the call shook him awake so badly he had difficulty falling asleep. Just my luck, he thought. The last time he looked at the bedroom clock, it read 2:48. Finally he drifted off but his alarm jarred him awake at 5:45. He needed to make a faculty breakfast with the social sciences dean by 7. He left the breakfast early and went straight to his 8:15 class.
“Doctor Gabe, you look like the living dead!” said Claudia when he returned to the office between his two classes. “I’ve got some cream for those circles under your eyes!” Claudia Metzger was a plainspoken woman in her early sixties who’d been department secretary for several years. In the two weeks they had known each other, she had taken a motherly liking to Gabe. He called him by his first name and his title with a hint of the Baltimore accent that Gabe so often heard in his own mother’s talk.
“Claudia, you always brighten my day with a kind word!” He glanced in his mailbox: memos, exams, and messages. “It’s been a big week.”
“Well, I’ve got my eye on you,” she said, not unkindly and pointing a slightly curved, arthritic finger at him. “I’ve seen you young fellows work themselves into a frenzy making a good first impression. You’re a fine young man and I don’t want you getting in too deep!”
“Keep telling me how young I am,” he said, smiling, as he reviewed her freshly produced copies of his next exam.
“Listen, honey, I’ve got five kids older than you! I’ve got gall stones older than you!” she said. “Don’t tell ME about youth! You’re doing fine here; I haven’t heard a bad word about you. So let me tell you again: relax a little!”
“Thanks for your concern, Claudia,” he said, glancing appreciatively at her.
“No ‘thanks,’ just do what I tell you!” and she laughed with pleasure at her own presumptuousness. “Are you ‘playing’ like I told you to do?”
He thought back on the week. “Oh, I did! I played softball the other night, and I went down to Mayersburg a few days ago to visit my grandfather.”
“That’s good, honey! How is he?”
“Not very good. He seems in good health but his mind is slipping. He’s not going to be able to live alone too much longer, I’m afraid. He lives in an apartment over a store, all by himself. I’m trying to arrange for him to move to a nursing home. I’ve been thinking about him.”
“It’s bad when they get that way,” said Claudia. “That’s how my mother is. She’s in a nursing home back in Bal’mer. Let me know if I can do anything.”
“Thanks. I’ve been speaking to my father about it. I guess we’ll just see what happens in the weeks ahead.” He looked at his messages. “Have many students been around yet?”
“Some, not too many. Pesky, aren’t they?”
He laughed. “Oh, a little, not too bad. Just needing a lot of ‘pushing’ to stay on track.”
“That’s how they tend to be here. They’re right out of high school, still figuring out what they’re doing and who they’ are. Many haven’t traveled very far from central Illinois. They’re pretty respectful and goodhearted these days. Back in the early Seventies, when the Sixties finally reached this part of Illinois, the students weren’t always so quiet, and we had one student several years ago who kept things really lively. But these days there aren’t so many ‘radical’ types around. I should tell you that some of your students are bragging about you.”
“What do they say?”
“They say you’re real fair and take time to explain everything clearly. They like how much you write on their assignments. They say you’re really caring. A couple of them told me they think you’re cute!”
Gabe chuckled. “I didn’t notice any students with seeing-eye dogs.”
After his second class, he returned to his office and chatted with two students who lingered at his door. Once he solved their problems, he closed the door, slipped off his penny-loafers and his jacket, loosened his tie, and crossed his stocking feet beneath the desk chair. A quiet moment at last. Then his phone rang. Darn it, he sighed deeply, feeling overwhelmed. It was Claudia. She always buzzed him to help him screen calls, but the call needed his attention. One of those kinds of days, Lord, he prayed to himself, a student who needed guidance and patience. He said a little mental prayer for each of him. He finally ate lunch in the office at 2. After the meal he felt tired but knew he had at least one more appointment–a student falling behind in the Colonial America class due to a series of life-crises–before he could head home and unwind. He rubbed his sleepy eyes.
At that moment, the phone rang. He reluctantly reached to answer it. “Doctor Gabe, it’s a call from Mayersburg.”
“Thanks, Claudia!” he said as he pressed the button for the first line. “Yes!” he said into the phone. “Wonderful! Thank you.”
He hung up then buzzed the department office. “Claudia! I have to drive down to Mayersburg and move my granddad to the nursing home,” he said excitedly. “All the arrangements have been finalized!”
He left the college and drove off. In the very next moment he was standing at the counter of Adams Street Antiques. “Ms. Harmon!” he said excitedly. “It’s settled. I’ll be moving Granddad this week.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she said, and she came out from behind the counter and took his face in her hands and with her wet lips kissed him full upon the mouth. They shared aggressive, delighted kisses on their lips, eyelids, cheeks, ears, and hair. Her pale skin felt smooth and cool to him and she smelled glorious. Then she caressed him as their tongues met in a wet and gentle duel; he rubbed her thighs and felt himself hard against the sweet curve of her pelvic bones. He pulled off her blouse as she opened his shirt and rubbed her hands across his chest. People inside the shop came and went, but thoughtfully let them be.
“Oh, Gabe, I love you so much, please, please,” she whispered.
“I love you, Rebecca, oh, I love you. I want you–Make love to me….”
They both heard a buzzer. “Shoot! Excuse me, Gabe” she said brightly. It buzzed again. “Hello! Yes, he’s here. Gabe? It’s Claudia–”
“What?” he said, confused, “What? What?”
He lunged, startled, at the phone upon his desk. “Doctor Gabe,” said Claudia, “it’s your three-o’clock appointment. He says can’t make it and has a pitiful story to tell you,” she teased.
His heart throbbed with the shock of sudden wakefulness. “Oh, um, pipe him through. Hello? David? Yes! …Yes! I understand. Just have the paper done by Monday, OK? If you take more time, you’ll get too far behind. Yes . . . Yes. Thank you! No, no, that’s all right. Glad to know what’s going on. Yes . . . Goodbye, David!”
He hung up and placed his face into his damp palms. Sighing, he sat back and shook his head with astonishment. He had never fallen asleep in his office before. Sometimes at night he had comical dreams about teaching. He’d dream that he came to class in his pajamas, or that no one liked his lecture and threw things at him. He knew that many teachers have dreams of that sort. Once in a great while he had erotic dreams about casual acquaintances; that, too, was surely not uncommon and carried no meaning beyond the perversity of one’s sleeping mind.
But . . . Rebecca Harmon. He had barely thought of her since he saw her again on Wednesday, two days ago. But, no. He realized that, almost continually since he met her, she had been in the very back of his mind. She had been a warm, mental presence that helped him through the busy week. He had barely noticed her but she had always been there, comforting his subconscious thoughts, giving him perspective and confidence, and accompanying him on his way.
“‘Doctor Gabe,'” he said aloud, feeling a familiar weightiness in his heart, the soft pressure of a heart in love, “I think you have a problem.”
He sighed again, and discretely adjusted himself in his trousers. He glanced out the office window at a young man and woman holding hands as they strolled to class beneath a tall, shady tree. He did not want to hurt like this again, not at all.
Then he laughed aloud when he thought of something. He wondered what kind of divine direction Mrs. Kentie might have found in that dream!