Twenty years ago, when they seemed on the verge of a friendship, Henry found Stuart Hartwick tolerable. That is, their wives got on well, and Stuart’s conversation amused despite his arcane obsessions.
A few years from 30, Stuart bulked large and portly, formal even at leisure, his white shirts always crisp with starch, his trousers sharply creased, his black slip-on shoes gleaming. His speech, like the rest of him, resounded with precision, each word carefully chosen and articulated. His dark mustache was almost square, and red-veined jowls sagged over tight collars. Unlike Henry, whose brief adulthood had been pinched by academic poverty, he had traveled so widely, imparted such esoteric knowledge of Baltic ferries, Hapsburg palaces, rare wines, and fine silks that Henry found himself content to be an audience.
Their wives had met first, Henry’s Elaine and Stuart’s Winnie. Young mothers of eight-month-old babies, Joy and Stuart, Jr., nicknamed Tink by Winnie, the two women found immediate compatibility in talk of formulas, diaper services, and sudden fevers. But Henry couldn’t imagine them exchanging a sentence before the babies. Winnie, slow and bland, seemed to have spent her life waiting for the identity that motherhood would bring. Elaine’s dark eyes blazed with promise. In 50 years, when their grandchildren were parents, he still would be discovering her.
Henry and Elaine made their first formal visit to the Hartwicks on a Sunday afternoon in late September, maneuvering through a grid of hard-packed dirt roads miles from their university. Henry, enjoying a rare day away from the heaped books in his library carrel, sang out at the dark soil and rich green crops, Elaine laughing at his excitement. Their car pitched over unseen railroad tracks camouflaged by a growth of thick weeds. “We’re in the fertility belt,” he cried, reaching back to squeeze Joy’s small foot.
Stuart and Winnie rented a large white house overwhelmed by vines and sagging branches far from neighbors in a farming township called Oxford.
“I know it’s rather isolated here,” Stuart said to Henry in lieu of a greeting as they shook hands in the foyer, “but I’ve always wanted to live in Oxford.” His face suddenly reddened as deep chuckles rumbled from his middle. It was one of the few intentional jokes Henry ever heard Stuart make.
“And it’s just right for Stuart to do his research,” Winnie added. “He needs absolute quiet.” Every now and then she brightened with little outbursts of enthusiasm that Henry found attractive. Usually she was a plain woman with pallid skin and drab hair.
Inside the living room of overstuffed chairs and family antiques he had shipped from back East, Stuart sat, crossed his legs, and sipped sherry. Winnie poured from a decanter for Henry and Elaine, then put Joy in the playpen with Tink.
“She’s so dainty,” Winnie said. Even though the babies were only a week apart in birth dates, Tink was a head taller and ten pounds heavier. Joy, in pink tights and frilly white visiting dress, sucked on her pacifier while the boy hugged a stuffed panda and scowled.
The mothers took chairs near the playpen, and Henry found himself across the room with Stuart, glancing over at the babies, fascinated by his daughter’s play. When Tink reached out a tentative hand and touched Joy’s face, his blood surged. “Cute boy you have,” he told Stuart, suddenly warming to the man. Stuart fell into a coughing fit.
Henry looked away through a doorway into a room filled with precisely shelved books, many leather bound, totally unlike his own shaggy paperbacks stuffed into orange crates. He envied the man that room, a sanctuary where for several hours each day he could be alone with his own mind, where neither wife nor child could interrupt the pleasure of contemplation, the thrill of insights.
Stuart stood and led him inside, announcing that he had done the fine binding himself, precisely summarizing the technique. He reached to an upper shelf and slipped out several thin volumes in brown leather. “I’d like to show you my diaries.”
Henry took the one offered and ran fingertips over the goldleafed tooling, then opened into the unlined pages of immaculate italic lettering. The heading for each entry was written out in full: Friday, September the twentieth, Nineteen hundred and sixty-three. Henry, fascinated, closed his eyes to breathe in the leather scent, pressed a palm against the fine rag paper. After turning a few pages, he realized the pattern of the entries: first the exact time of Stuart’s rising, a sentence or two on the weather, a summary of the day’s activities, usually something like “nine hours at my desk with Saint-Beuve,” and finally summaries of his insights.
Now Henry became curious. He took another volume from Stuart’s hand, one that ended only a month before, and flipped through in search of something truly personal, an emotion, a note of upset or caring, a reference to Winnie or Tink. But Coleridge dominated. Stuart had been watching him with close expectation. Henry returned the diaries into his hands and said, truthfully, that they were beautiful books.
When the Hartwicks made their return visit to the apartment Henry and Elaine rented in town, Elaine fussed for hours, dusting and redusting, straightening the prints, stacking stray books, repositioning chairs six inches this way or that.
“Would you like me to repaper the walls?” Henry asked.
“It’s so tiny and cluttered here. This place wasn’t meant for a baby.”
“We’ll sell Joy. Trade her in on a Chippendale end table.”
“Winnie has such lovely things. China. A silver tea service.”
“And Stuart is the most cultivated man I know.” Henry paused to smile. “He’s got cultivation coming out of his ears.”
“Like stuffing. He’s the stuffiest man I’ve ever met.”
“But we’ve got charm, wit, and winning ways. An afternoon with us will make Stuart grovel with envy.”
Just as he spoke the man’s name, the door buzzer sounded, exactly at the arranged time. Winnie carried a squirming Tink and a shoulder bag of bottles and diapers. Stuart held only a tissue-wrapped gift Bordeaux and a marked volume in his other hand. “There’s a passage I’ve been wanting to show you,” he told Henry.
Elaine accepted the wine and Winnie looked about for a place to deposit Tink while she ran back to the car for his toys and blanket. She stood holding the baby at arm’s length, Stuart deliberately avoiding her eyes, as if he had arrived alone. Embarrassed, but not sure for whom, Henry took Tink from her and at once sensed a presence quite different from Joy. The boy twisted in his arms; strands of fine hair tickled his chin.
“Be careful,” Stuart said. “It might be wet.”
Winnie came back in seconds, retrieving her son and exclaiming how cozy the apartment was.
Stuart announced that he had been considering Longinus recently and began presenting insights as if he had prepared his conversation like a formal lecture. Henry had trouble following the man’s ideas, sensing that he had entered a complex chain of thought rather late along the way.
Tink hit Joy with a plastic locomotive, Joy began to cry, and Winnie—mortified—gave her son a light swat on his thick pad of diaper. Outraged, he howled even louder than Joy. Each woman quickly embraced her child.
“He’s been so cranky today,” Winnie said by way of apology.
Elaine nodded. “Joy gets that way too.”
The babies shrieked, red-faced, mouths wide, gasping for breath.
“It’s hard to imagine so much noise coming from such tiny creatures,” Henry said to bridge the awkwardness.
But Stuart, pinpricks of sweat on his forehead, ignored him and spoke directly to Winnie. “If you can’t control that child, get it out of this room!”
Elaine looked quickly to Henry and then down at the rug. “Maybe we can go into the bedroom,” she said to Winnie, half-whispering. Winnie nodded, and at once they disappeared with the babies.
The moment the door closed, Stuart resumed the bass drone of his discourse. Henry couldn’t listen to a word of it. He sat shocked by the realization that this man scorned his own child.
For weeks the couples did not see each other, though Winnie called Elaine for long conversations several times every few days. “She’s so lonely out there. When Stuart isn’t using the car, he’s closed off in his library.”
Henry dreaded running into Stuart at the university, but he never did, until one afternoon the large man, his bulk buttoned into a blue blazer, approached him on the library steps. “I’ve been meaning to discuss a matter with you.”
At once Henry assumed Stuart would explain his behavior toward his son. Instead he wanted to share thoughts about Lawrence Sterne, some elaborate thesis about the interplay between the temporal and the phenomenal and the atemporal and the noumenal. Henry tried to follow the argument, uncertain whether he was in the presence of genius or a bizarre form of madness.
“But Stuart,” he could not help saying after ten minutes of anxious listening, “Tristram Shandy is a funny book.”
Stuart frowned, squashing his mustache. “I suppose it is,” he said as if this were a new idea that must be digested very slowly.
Then he looked at his watch. “I didn’t realize the time. I must be off to my Oxford.” He gave one of his rare throat-clearing laughs. “My little center of learning.”
“Regards to Winnie,” he called after the man’s broad back.
The next week, just one day after the doctor confirmed Elaine’s suspicion that she was pregnant again, Winnie called while Elaine had Joy at the park. Henry, coat on and eager to spend the afternoon in his carrel, explained that she would be back in an hour.
“I know she’s not home,” Winnie said. “She told me this morning. I have to talk with you.”
“Yes?” Henry sensed great import in her tone. He paused, expecting her to go on.
“Not on the phone.” He realized she was whispering. “Stuart is letting me have the car for shopping. Can we meet in town?”
Henry agreed, even though it meant rearranging his day, taking time from his research, without the slightest idea of what she might want.
When Henry arrived, Winnie was waiting in the Sears parking lot, Tink asleep in a bassinet on the back seat of the ponderous station wagon.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Henry asked, not sure what they would do with the baby.
“Can we just talk in the car?”
“Fine.” He got in beside her and met her eyes, noticing for the first time how vulnerable they were. Her hands rubbed the steering wheel. “What did you want to talk about?”
Winnie breathed deeply and looked away from him, straight out the windshield, “Tink was an accident.”
He waited for more, something of significance, but finally said, “So was Joy. We’d planned to wait.”
“I mean a real accident.” Tears ran down the side of her nose. “Stuart never wanted children.”
She was sobbing and Henry realized what he should have known weeks before. “Have you told Elaine?” he asked.
“I’ve been too ashamed to tell anyone. Then I saw you holding Tink. You’re such a wonderful father.”
She lifted his hand and pressed the knuckles to her burning cheek. Embarrassed, he let her tears fall onto his flesh and waited through the long silence until she was finally released him.
He squeezed her hand. “Tink is a sweet, handsome boy. Stuart will come to love him.”
Her sobs discomforted him, almost made him guilty for loving his own wife and child so much.
Before she drove away, as Henry was starting his car, Winnie called out to him. “Please promise me that you’ll never say anything about today to Elaine. She’s my best friend.”
At home he found Elaine and Joy napping on the big double bed and lay down to pull them into his embrace. He placed his open hand on Elaine’s stomach even though he knew signs of life were months away.
The invitation came in the mail, a gold embossed card with date and time entered in Stuart’s italic hand. “I’ll call and claim morning sickness.” Elaine slipped it into a stack of journals.
“I thought you liked Winnie,” Henry said.
“She’s sweet and sad. But I won’t spend another afternoon watching Stuart treat that poor child like a creature turned over on a slimy log.”
“I’ll play with him. Practice for a boy.”
“Stuart will seal you off in that library the second you come through the door. That’s my idea of hell.”
“But imagine his library in this apartment. A room that’s not cluttered with racks of drying diapers where I could do my work in peace. No more cage of a carrel. My books and my family. Only having to open a door to get from one to the other.”
“Is that your Oxford?”
“I don’t need a magic city. My life can be perfect anywhere.” He kissed her and pulled the bulge of her middle tight against him.
“Do we have to visit Stuart and Winnie?”
He nodded, annoyed by the burden of Winnie’s secret.
At twilight, Henry drove away from their second visit to the Hartwicks in Oxford, lulled himself into a delicious dream of his family in a house like that, he with his walls of books, Elaine with her crafts studio, Joy and the new baby in their nursery.
Joy, missing her nap, slept on Elaine’s lap, her face rubbing against her mother’s breast as the car bounced along the deserted country road. Henry prolonged the silence, unwilling to open a conversation that would unleash Elaine’s dislike of Stuart. Of course the day had been a disaster, Stuart practically ripping Tink from Henry’s arms when he tried to hold the boy, Winnie sniffling back tears the whole time. He’d wanted to punch Stuart, drive his fist into the man’s puffed face. No more. He made a private vow never to go back. He’d stay out of other people’s lives. He had his own family to care about.
The rich glow of the horizon dazzled his eyes. He blinked and noticed the wooden X of the crossing sign, recalling the surprising thump of tracks from the first time they drove the route. Elaine brushed Joy’s fine curls with her lips and hummed. The sign’s paint was weathered down to bare wood, a poorly tended relic, Henry thought, of long past travelers.
At the sudden thunder of engine noise, he felt his mind hang suspended in indecision, as if it were an enormous weight balanced just inside the windshield. Then he yanked the wheel and swerved, but the impact blew off the driver’s door and threw him from the car, away from the mangled steel that crushed his wife and daughter.
Henry lay in a coma three weeks and spent four months in a body cast. Both legs suffered compound breaks; three ribs were cracked, his skull fractured, a lung punctured.
When he was out of traction, several weeks before his release, Winnie came to visit.
“Tink is with a sitter,” she told him as if that explanation were vital.
“I wanted to see you right away, but they weren’t allowing visitors. And then when you were conscious again my life fell apart.”
“Stuart left us.” She caught her breath. “One day he collected all his things, all his books and papers, packed the station wagon, and drove back East. I stood there and screamed the whole time. Tink was screaming too, but I couldn’t even pick him up.”
I m sorry.
She stopped talking and went pale. “Oh my God! I’m the one who should be sorry.”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” he said.
She nodded, again and again.
“Tell me about you,” he said to make her stop.
“It’s just Tink and me now. We moved to an apartment in town. I couldn’t stay in that house in Oxford. Stuart’s mother sends money. There’s plenty of money. I try to believe that Tink will be better off away from a father who despises him.”
“You’re probably right.”
Winnie put her hand next to his on the crisp white sheet, and it struck him how alive it was, that it could touch and feel. That it was the wrong hand.
“What will you be doing now?” she asked. Her fingers seemed to tremble.
He buried his hand beneath the blanket. “Go away. I wish I could find a place a million miles from here.”
Through the endless immobile days, unable to read, unwilling to watch television, Henry had envisioned Stuart’s library, the walls of shelves, the odor of handtooled bindings, the deep impression of print on creamy pages. He imagined the books so often they became transformed into his own possessions, a room he had never known before, four walls filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of leather volumes. No odor, no window, just a thick wool rug and a carved wooden chair. A place where he could shut out all other thoughts.
But the day the doctor, always gravely polite, told him that he would be released, he let himself remember the apartment he had lived in with Elaine and Joy—the shabby graduate student furniture, the prints cut from art magazines, but most of all the paperbacks wedged into wooden crates. He would have torn those books apart, burned them in one great bonfire, sworn a pledge never to read again if that would have returned his wife and child.
When he moved, he abandoned all possessions, but a thousand miles away he accumulated new books and read for hours each day. He justified his life through research, as if each note he took were a small payment exacted by some terrible debt. At night, when he could not sleep, he lifted a volume from his night table and snapped on the reading light.
Over the years, Henry slowly admitted the world into his life, first accepting invitations for dinner, then for weekend gatherings, finally traveling to new places, cataloguing views and vistas in his notes.
He lost his dread of women, eventually lived with one, then another, and for three years a nurse called Barbara. But she took a job a thousand miles away, weeping for the first time the morning of her leaving. “You’re a kind, sweet man. But you never let me know you.”
“If I ever loved anyone so much again,” Henry told her, “I’d spend every moment of every day in terror.”
Years later, on a leave in Oxford, Henry converted dollars to pounds at the Barclay’s Bank branch on the High Street and walked toward Carfax. He noticed a large man in British tweeds and a six-foot scarf staring at him from the gray wall of Queen’s College.
“I say,” the man called to him. “Don’t I know you?”
The bass voice made Henry look closer. Immediately, he felt a desperate sinking. It was Stuart Hartwick, 30 pounds heavier, the patch of mustache all grey now.
“It’s Henry of course.” Stuart gave a ceremonial wave. “I always assumed we would meet again.”
Henry resisted the impulse to run. Instead he said, “I see you’ve finally gotten to the real Oxford.”
“Quite.” Stuart seemed to miss the allusion to his old joke. “I’ve followed your career with interest, Henry. Read your books and articles. They’re not my way of seeing things of course. But apparently you’ve made a success for yourself.”
“I’m afraid I don’t keep up as much as I should. I’ve missed your work.”
“I don’t find it necessary to publish.” Stuart cleared his throat. “Well, Henry, what brings you here?”
“A grant. And you?”
“Newman and the Oxford Movement, of course.”
“Where are you teaching?”
“I don’t teach.” Stuart seemed offended. “I’ve never taught.”
Henry took a long look at his watch, savoring each tick as if it held an eternity. “I’d better eat something before my appointment.” He stepped away.
“Excellent. I’ll join you.”
Henry, ashamed at his helplessness, led Stuart to a pub in a 14th-century courtyard off Cornmarket away from the mid-day bustle where he normally enjoyed the steak and kidney, the lukewarm bitter in quiet solitude. They sat at one corner of a crowded table, Henry on a stool, Stuart on the wall bench beside a tiny old lady with rouged cheeks and shopping bundles piled on her lap.
“It’s rather awkward for me at this moment,” Stuart said.
“In what way?”
“Stuart is here. In Oxford.”
After a second Henry realized he meant his son, Tink. “At which college?”
Stuart snorted. “None. He came here two days ago to track me down.”
“How is he?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“But you said he’s here.”
“I’ve managed to avoid him so far. But he left a note at my bank.”
“The bank?” Once again, Henry felt bewildered by one of Stuart’s explanations.
“My address is a secret. I hope he won’t recognize me on the street.”
“I’ve chosen to have no part of paternity.”
The old lady set her mouth and clutched her packages.
“But what does Winnie think of all this?”
“That,” Stuart said as if suppressing great anger, “is another story.”
He did not explain, silently slicing his gammon steak while Henry, with a sudden pang, recalled the long-forgotten warmth of babies in his arms.
A pounding on the apartment door awoke Henry at 6 a. m. It was still dark outside. He sat up in bed and called, “What is it?” The pounding sounded louder. He rubbed his eyes, ran fingers through his hair, and realized he had to use the toilet. “Just a minute,” he called. When he came back, he put on slippers and a pair of trousers.
A pudgy young man stood on his doorstep, dressed in rumpled blue denim, a rucksack strapped over his shoulders. A wispy beard grew on a red-rashed chin. Henry knew the soft brown eyes at once.
“Where’s my father?” the boy demanded.
“I have no idea. How did you get this address?”
“He left it at his bank. In case of emergency. I spent the night finding the damn street. It’s all crooked alleys in this town.”
Henry’s neck tensed, but he only sighed resignation. Still half asleep, he held the door wide. “Come inside, Tink.”
The young man froze. “Where did you get that name?”
“I knew you when you were a baby.” Henry gestured toward an armchair.
Tink let the rucksack slide off his shoulder and collapsed into the cushions. Only then did Henry recognize his exhaustion. He offered coffee, but Tink shook his head.
“How is your mother?” Henry saw a hand trembling on a white sheet.
“The same as always.”
“What does she do?”
“Nothing.” Tink frowned. “Nobody in our family does anything. We all live off Grandma’s money. My mother spends her days polishing the silver. She can count butter knives for hours.”
“Why are you so angry with her?”
“She just gave up when my father walked out.”
Henry’s hand tingled with the sensation of her burning cheek, the touch of her tears on his knuckles. “She loved you so much.”
Tink glared. “She treats me like a victim. Her poor abandoned baby.”
He slouched in the chair, mouth drooping bleakly. Yet Henry studied him with rapt concentration, suddenly realizing that Tink was a long-awaited visitor. He spoke very slowly. “You used to play with my daughter.”
Tink gave him a blank look.
“Her name was Joy,” Henry said, wondering if Tink could sense the pain it cost him to speak it aloud after so many years.
Tink dozed, and Henry watched him, imagining what it would be like to search for Stuart in Oxford. He would try all the obvious places—the Bodleian, Blackwell’s, up and down Broad Street and narrow Turl, the Ashmolean Museum, and finally some of the college chapels—Merton, Christ Church, Pembroke. Then it occurred to him that Newman’s college had been Oriel. But he knew Stuart would no longer be in that library, the porter explaining how Mr. Hartwick had suddenly packed all his papers and rushed off.
Henry pictured catching Stuart at the train station, grabbing him by the lapels and shouting, “Your son is in my flat.” And Stuart brushing away his hands. “That woman violated our agreement. No children. My work requires absolute freedom from the ordinary.”
With a toe, Henry touched the bulging rucksack on his rug, pushed against the dead weight.
“What will you do now?” Henry asked Tink after he awoke, as they drank instant coffee and ate crackers.
“Go home. Look for a room. Find a job. I won’t sponge off Grandma the rest of my life the way my father does.”
“Why did you come here, Tink?”
Tink looked down at his shoes. “To make him admit he has a son.”
“He doesn’t know how to be a father, Tink.”
“Most men do it every day.”
“Yes. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
Tink stood and gripped a canvas strap, ready to leave.
Henry stood with him and held his arm. “Did your mother ever tell you about me?” he asked urgently.
Henry scanned the room, overwhelmed by foreignness, the buckled wallpaper, the ancient fixtures, the scarred bookcases. He gripped the back of a loveseat. “The accident.”
Tink shook his head, then blinked with surprise. “Were you the ones?”
“My family.” Henry dug fingers into the upholstery as if a great force was about to blast him through the sealed walls that had been his safety.
“Whenever she tells that story, she ends up crying.”
“I’ve never let myself cry.” Henry clutched even tighter, pressed his feet down into the rug.
“She made my father invite you.”
“I accepted it.”
“To be with them? Why?”
For you. But Henry did not speak aloud, amazed at the memory of his motive, at the strangeness of having this grown man standing before him, at all the years separating him from his own life. “I’m glad you came,” Henry finally said.
Tink hoisted the rucksack onto his shoulders.
Henry saw himself taking Winnie’s hand in the hospital. The idea had seemed preposterous then, awful in a grief so absolute it numbed his soul. If not Winnie, some other woman, some other child. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, looking back at a stranger’s bookcases.
“Forget about him, about her. Choose your own life.”
He watched closely as Tink descended the stairs, each worn step thumping under his weight. When the front door closed, he crossed to the window and saw Tink in the street, pausing briefly and then swept off in the morning flow of the waking city—clerks with thick briefcases, old women on bicycles, undergraduates trailing long striped scarves, schoolchildren skipping beside stone walls.
A glowing sunrise dazzled the soaring spires. Tink stepped with the others toward the bright rays and then turned a corner. Henry imagined him walking all day, never looking back, suddenly discovering something new that would change his life.
He swung the windows wide and felt the breeze on his face, heard human voices rise from the street around him, the laughter of the children. With an ache of longing, he reached his arms toward all the life of Oxford.