So when he returned, we asked him why he had gone to live there and he said he’d just heard of it and thought it might be a nice place to live in for a while. He had lived in an old house built around a court. The walls were four feet thick and the windows were larger on the outside than they were on the inside; the sills slanted. They kept goats’ milk there on the window sills because the stone made the air cool. You could see the sticks of a hawk’s nest hanging over one corner of the roof, and Jesus, the landlady’s son—he looked up here to see if we thought it was funny that a man should be name Jesus, but none of us said anything. We read a great deal—he often whistled to it evenings. Yes, the food was good. They had a sausage with tomatoes in it that was very good and the wine was not like French wine, it was heavier and sweeter. And there were no fireplaces for heating but things called braseros. They were big pans like that with his arms stretched and on cold mornings they set it alight and covered the flame with ashes. They would put the brasero under a big table. The table had a sort of plush cover to it that hung down to the floor with slits in it. You put your feet through the slits and wrapped the cover around your waist. Then although your feet roasted, you could still see your breath and you couldn’t stay in the room long because of the fumes, and sitting by the brasero gave you chilblains but they were a common thing and no one minded. Klug asked him about he women. Where they—you know? The women were all right, he said. The peasant girls were very pretty but they faded early and got fat. Yes, but, Klug said impatiently, but he was talking then about the riots, how they used beer bottles full of black powder for bombs and when they bombed the convent, the nuns all ran out crying and waving their arms after the explosion and some fell on their knees and prayed in the midst of the rioters but the bomb had not even chipped the wall, it was four feet thick. All the houses were like that with big thick walls and the streets were narrow and the town was quiet. They could not hang the washing in the courtyards because it was too cool for it to dry, so they spread it on rocks beside the river when they finished. It was a very old town and they lived in the same way year after year. Gordon asked him about the spiritual remnants of medievalism. He answered that the people were very pious and went to the cathedral to pray for everything, even lost articles. The cathedral had small windows and the light was yellow inside, not like the gray light inside the cathedrals in île de France.
Well, I thought, as they talked on into the evening, it is not anything like that here. You see I remember this particular evening very clearly and all we said because it was the last time John had anything new to tell us, and from that time on, he has lived here with us in this town. We never thought he would settle here. It is a good enough town but nothing to the places he has seen, not even the kind of place you would close your book to watch if you went through on the train. First there are the ball-bearing factory and the electric bell factory, with the other factories hidden behind them; then there are trees hiding the houses with their backs turned toward you; and then you would see the spire, not of a cathedral, but of the Methodist church, and the town would soon dwindle away into the cornfields and just after that you could look at your watch to see how long before Chicago. It is not like Salamanca, but the four of us were born and grew up here and only John had gone away. And when he came home to see his mother, he would tell us these things that made us seem fools to ourselves for having stayed but we were busy with our work and could not follow him. There are maple trees on both sides of the streets and in the summer it is like driving through a tunnel of green leaves.
You see he never answered Gordon’s intelligent questions and he always disappointed Klug, who thinks that all the women in foreign countries wait on street corners after dark winking and motioning yonder with their heads. John seldom was an actor in his own play—he merely looked, it seemed, and told us what he saw. It was the best way, keeping himself out, but they would not admit it, so they kept on with the questions. They admitted it to themselves though. Klug said he talked of the peasant girls with their ankles shining under their tucked-up skirts doing the washing by the riverbank when he was scrubbing his hands after taking the cancer out of Mrs. Gira, the Polish washerwoman, and the nurse was counting the used wet sponges and the hospital smell made his stomach turn. And when the aldermen brought the plans of the new railroad station back to Gordon and sat down to talk and object for hours, he saw the smoke drifting from where the bomb exploded and the nuns praying in the confusion and one of the aldermen had spots on his waistcoat that he kept picking at. Though we had nothing but questions when he came, we all knew that the questions were merely little signs to show that we too might very well have been there and seen these things, and that it was nothing more important than chance that we had stayed here. He talked late and I remember there was a bat lurching to and fro under a light down the street.
Mrs. Gira got well though and it is a fine new railroad station.
He was in an old boathouse whistling. We heard him when we came down the path. The boathouse was so old the shingles curled and the weeds grew on the roof, and we used to tell him that someday the whole shebang would give way with him in it and he would have to swim out with the rafters round his neck. He had borrowed the use of it from Old Man Suggs, who hadn’t kept a boat in years. When we were kids I remember seeing it when we went to the river flats to look for dogtooth violets. It was a motor launch and he sold it when the tomato cannery started up. Every summer the river is full of blobs of red tomato pulp and no one wants to go out in a boat then. But John was building a sailboat. It was May then and he had worked all his spare time on it since the August before; every Saturday afternoon, and nights after supper he would go down and work by the light of three oil lamps he got from his mother. That was the winter we played so much poker and sometimes we would go to the boathouse at midnight and ask John to take a hand. He was always pleasant about it, without any scruples against gambling, but he never stopped working and we would shout above the hammer blows, “Where do you think you’re going in this boat when it’s finished? Going to haul tomatoes for the cannery?” He would laugh and say that a good many waters would wet this hull before she was much older. We would laugh because we knew he had got the phrase out of some book, and we would start up the path. The ripples on the water always shone in the lamplight and we could hear his hammer as far as the dirt road where we turned to Klug’s house. Often we played till midnight. I won a lot of money that winter.
When we entered the boathouse we could see it was nearly finished. It looked very big and white and seemed not too much to have put a winter’s work into. He was planing some teak for the deck, and when we came near there was the acrid leathery odor of the fresh shavings. We had seen pictures of yachts, and once or twice the ore boats on the big lakes, but the things we saw every day, the houses, trees, and grain elevators, went straight up from the ground. They had roots. If they had not, as they seemed, always been in one place, they always would be. John’s boat was a strange shape, curved for the water. Even in the dim boathouse, propped up with blocks, she seemed ready for movement. I looked at John with the handle of the plane easy in his hand, and we were going to be “professional” men, and I knew he would go away. The boat had sprung from some matrix within him that we would never understand, just as he was puzzled when Gordon asked how long she was and how many tons’ weight as if she were a heifer fattened for market. We went out of the boathouse, Klug said, “So long, skipper.”
He went away in the boat as I thought he would and after this he never came back for long at a time. God knows how he got the blocks from under her without any help, but one afternoon he launched her all by himself, and in ten days he had her rigged and the galley full of stores. He sailed away without saying anything to anyone, down our little river into the Ohio and then into the Mississippi and out into the Gulf below New Orleans. He was gone all summer into October. I saw him on the street when he returned. He was tanned almost black. We shook hands and I said, “Where did you go? Did you have a good trip?”
He looked at me a moment before answering. “Trip” means a journey you take in a car during your two-weeks vacation in the summer, maybe to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Niagara. It is a relaxation from your work. I could see as I said it that “trip” was the wrong word, but just how far wrong it took me years to find out and then I never was certain. I thought of his boat, a strange and unfamiliar shape, and how he, whom we had seen unsuspectingly every day through his boyhood, had made it.
“Yes, I had a good time.”
“Where did you go?”
“Well, down into the Gulf and around.”
“Yes, I put in at Havana,” and then as if he had at last found something he could tell me, “you know, Klug would like that place—they’ve got a park there where you can get free beer. It’s owned by a brewing company and you can go there and drink all you want, free.”
“Where else did you go?”
“Oh, the Tortugas, Haiti, Veracruz.”
He showed me a gold piece he had got off a pawnbroker in Port-au-Prince. He said it was a moidore. He was nineteen then.
[To be continued…]