THE LATE FORTIES AND THE FIFTIESIn middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love. I feel that there has been some miscarriage, some wrong turning, but 1 do not know when it took place and I have no hope of finding it.Thinking for a week about Leander, Betsey, and Eben without writing a word, without making any progress. And so I see all my plans—the voyage to Genoa, etc.—collapse. Is there something intrinsically wrong with these three, that I can't grasp them? Thinking this morning to discard the opera.Yesterday was rainy and deeply overcast. At four B. and I walked up Holbrook Road to the K.s', The clearing wind had begun to blow. As the overcast was displaced with brilliance and color, as more and more light poured into the valley, the hour seemed tumultuous and exalting. Backgammon and gin.Skating one afternoon at the Newberry's. The end of a very cold winter day. The ice, contracting in the cold, made a noise like thunder. Walking up the frozen field to the house we could hear it thundering. We went back that night. There was no one else on the pond. The G.s' dog was barking. There was no moon and the ice was black. It seemed, skating out into the center of the pond, that the number of stars I could see was multiplied. They seemed as thickly sown as a rush of snowflakes. As I skated back to the end of the pond, the number seemed to diminish. I was confounded. It could have been the whiskey and the wine. It could have been my utter ignorance of cosmology.To church; the second Sunday in Lent. From the bank president's wife behind me drifted the smell of camphor from her furs, and the stales of her breath, as she sang, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." The Old Testament dealt with should the Father eat bitter grapes; the New with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The sermon with the doctrine of Incarnation. The rector has a plain mind. If it has any charms, they are the charms of plainness. Through inheritance and cultivation he has reached an impermeable homeliness. His mind and his face are one. He spoke of the impressive historical documentation of Christ's birth, miracles, and death. The church is meant to evoke rural England. The summoning bells, the late-winter sunlight, the lancet windows, the hand-cut stone. But these are real fragments of a real past. World without end, I murmur, shutting my eyes, Amen. But I seem to stand outside the realm of God's mercy.I would like not to be vindictive or narrow. I would like to avoid phony compassion. Thinking of the midsummer night, "Parlons francais," the drunkard said. I see that this is small. I see in the five-and-ten-cent store yesterday that my descriptions of Betsey's pleasure are small. It stinks of peanuts and cheap candy. A love song drifts over from the phonograph-record department. The salesgirl is elaborately painted. You buy what you want; and you leave. The street is sunny. The blind Negress on the bus says, "I'm by myself. I'm by myself at home now. I'm by myself on the street. I'm by myself. I'm by myself so much I'm like a statue. I'm by myself like a statue all the time." She shakes her portable radio. "She ain't working. I've had her on since Ninety-sixth Street and she ain't made a sound. I guess I'll have to get her fixed again. She wears out quick." The man on the train. "Well, I guess I look cheerful enough, but I'm on my way to the hospital. They just called me from the office to tell me that C. fell out of an apple tree and broke her leg in two places. They called me at the office a few minutes ago and I rushed over here and took the train. . . ."These Westchester Sunday nights. There has usually been a party on Saturday night so you wake up with a faint hangover and a mouth burned by a green cigar. The clothes you have left in a heap on the floor smell of stale perfume. You take a shower. You put on old clothes. You drive your wife to church and your children to Sunday school. You rake the leaves off the flower bed. They are too wet to burn. You put a chemical fertilizer on the lawn and examine the bulbs. The Rockinhams, on their way to a Sunday-lunch party at the Armstrongs', shout their good mornings from the sidewalk. "Isn't it a glorious day; glorious, glorious." Your wife and children return from church, still in their stiff clothes. You have a drink before lunch. Sometimes there are guests. You take a walk; you rake more leaves. The children scatter to play with other children. The southbound local, the train that aunts, uncles, and cousins who have gone into the suburbs for lunch take home; the train that cooks, maids, butlers, and other menservants take into town for their half holiday. Sunday is almost over.Awake before dawn, feeling tired and full of resolutions. Do not drink. Do not et cetera, et cetera. The noise of birdsong swelling: flickers, chickadees, cardinals. Then in the midst of this loud noise I thought I heard a parrot. "Prolly want a crackeer," he said. "Prolly want a crackeer." Woke tired and took the 7:44. The river blanketed with a mist. The voices overheard. "Well, then she boiled it and then she broiled it." He raised his face and drew over it a beatific look as if he were tasting last night's dinner again. "Well, we've got one of those electric rotisseries." "Oh, New York's nothing like Chicago; nothing like it." On Twenty-third Street I read a sign: "DON'T LOSE YOUR LOVED ONE BECAUSE OF UGLY FAT." There was a window full of crucifixes made out of plastic. The surface of the city is paradoxical. For a mind cast in paradox it is reassuring to find this surface. Thinking again, in the dentist's chair, that I am like a prisoner who is trying to escape from jail by the wrong route. For all one knows, that door may stand open, although I continue to dig a tunnel with a teaspoon. Oh, I think, if I could only taste a little success. But don't I approach it by deepening the pit in which I stand? Mary in the morning, asleep, looking like the girl I fell in love with. Her round arms lie outside the covers. Her brown hair is loose. The abiding quality of seriousness and pureness.In the dark hour you cannot call on goods and chattels to save you, or old ski trails or the paths to streams. You must find something greater. And the mind in which the forces of contumely and destruction seem greater than the forces of creativity. Creativity is there, but it seems, in relation to the forces of destruction, like the nipple on a balloon. So, made up of so much destruction and with such a slender knowledge of love he appears poorly as a husband, son, and lover—masked in a rag of a smile and a striped tie and a few faint observations. Oh so deeply rooted in this mind are the needs and the habits of prayer. Having triumphantly separated himself from the foolishness of religion, he goes by the church—he hears the bells in the morning—in the churlish and unhappy frame of mind of a man who has been excommunicated. He feels the lash of expulsion. And oh this poor mind, casting desperately around a room for some detail that will give it form and meaning, seizes always on an ashtray heaped with butts or a crooked stocking, a tear in the rug. And then he sees the sky! the poignant blue, the line of darkness rising like a lid; the perfect clearness of line and color that means that a northwest wind has scoured the overcast and blown it out to sea. So his mind wanders between the ashtray and the twilight while most of the known world lies somewhere in between. He worries, he worries about his mustache, his old navy raincoat, his weight, his hair, his teeth, the stiffness in his left knee, and if his anxiety ever transcends this it is to worry about a nation of paltry men, conceived in his image and likeness—or, if he is a world federalist, to worry about a world. Why has the sweetness gone? It would all come back with a new car or a bonus or a little of the recognition that he deserves for his hard work. A convertible; a trip to Spain.The stubborn dreariness of this rainy Sunday. Down at the station there are only a few travellers for the southbound local. A cook with a paper bag full of leftovers and a hand-me-down coat is going to Yonkers to visit her relations. A maiden aunt out for Sunday lunch is returning. The last is a figure of mystery, a man in a worn polo coat beneath which show the striped pants and boiled shirt of a tuxedo. These are the only passengers and they seem to have come here unwilling to catch a train and make a hopeless journey. In the waiting room and the cabstand, both of them unattended, a telephone rings and rings and rings. Fishnets for shad and bass are strung out into the water, and the rain, like a much finer net, encircles the county with a stir of reassuring and dreary noise. Racks of string hang above the railroad track like the old-fashioned fly nets worn by livery horses. It is a stubborn and an infinite dreariness, rooted in the stupor, the discomfort, or the downright misery of a heavy churchgoer's lunch. The ballgame has been rained out but not the "Emperor" Concerto or the "Jupiter" Symphony. More than half the world is in an unrefreshing sleep.But between the waiting room and the freight house there is a view of water and mountains. The eye goes up for miles and miles, for while the little rain makes the shore dim, nothing is obscured. Here there is more power and space than you had expected. The smudge from a distant tugboat, discouraged and scattered by the little rain, drifts toward the water. There is a mountain as round as a plump knee and a mountain cut like a cock's crest and even a faint smell of the wilderness—dead bloodworms and wet corduroy—for three fishermen are strung along the narrow bank between the railroad tracks and the water. Oh it is so dreary that one's teeth seem literally to ache. The smell of boiled beef lingers in the upstairs hall.As I approach my fortieth birthday without having accomplished any one of the things I intended to accomplish—without ever having achieved the deep creativity that I have worked toward for all this time—I feel that I take a minor, an obscure, a dim position that is not my destiny but that is my fault, as if I had lacked, somewhere along the line, the wit and courage to contain myself competently within the shapes at hand. I think of Leander and all the others. It is not that these are stories of failure; that is not what is frightening. It is that they are dull annals; that they are of no import; that Leander, walking in the garden at dusk in the throes of a violent passion, is of no importance to anyone. It does not matter. It does not matter. . . .In town for lunch. The air-conditioning, the smell of perfume and gin, the attentions of the headwaiter, the real and unreal sense of haste, importance, and freedom that clings to the theatre. It was a beautiful day in town, windy, clear, and fresh. The girls on the street are a joy. A girl with bare arms by the St. Regis; a girl with bare shoulders on Fifty-seventh Street; dark eyes and light eyes and red hair and above all the wonderful sense of dignity and purpose in their clear features. But there is the imperfect joining of the carnal world and the world of courage and other spiritual matters. I seem, after half a lifetime, to have made no progress, unless resignation is progress. There is the erotic hour of waking, which is like birth. There is the light or the rainfall, some ingenuous symbol by which one returns to the visible, perhaps the mature world. There is the euphoria, the sense that life is no more than it appears to be, light and water and trees and pleasant people that can be brought crashing down by a neck, a hand, an obscenity written on a toilet door. There is always, somewhere, this hint of aberrant carnality. The worst of it is that it seems labyrinthine; I come back again and again to the image of a naked prisoner in an unlocked cell, and to tell the truth I don't know how he will escape. Death figures here, the unwillingness to live. Many of these shapes seem like the shapes of death; one approaches them with the same amorousness, the same sense of terrible dread. I say to myself that the body can be washed clean of any indulgence; the only sin is despair, but I speak meaninglessly in my own case. Chasteness is real; the morning adjures one to be chaste. Chasteness is waking. I could not wash the obscenity off myself. But in all this thinking there is a lack of space, of latitude, of light and humor. Thinking back to "The Reasonable Music," it seems to me, for this reason, to be a bad, a febrile, story. Play a little baseball and the Gordian knot crumbles into dust.Is there anything more wonderful than the Monday morning train: the 8:22? The weekend—say a long summer weekend like the Fourth—has left you rested. There have been picnics, fireworks, excursions to the beach—all the pleasant things we do together. On Sunday we had cocktails late and a pickup supper in the garden. We see the darkness end the weekend without any regret—it has all been so pleasant. In the garden we can hear, from the west, the noise of traffic on the parkway rise to a high pitch that it will hold until nearly midnight, as other families drive back to the city from the mountains or the shore; and the sleeping children, the clothing hung in the backseat, the infinity of headlights—the sense we take from these overcrowded Sunday roads of a gigantic evacuation, a gigantic pilgrimage—is all a part of this hour. You water the grass, tell the children a story, take a bath, and get into bed. The morning is brilliant and fresh. Your wife drives you to the train in the convertible. The children and the dog come along. From the minute you wake up you seem to be on the verge of an irrepressible joy. The drive down Alewives Lane to the station seems triumphal, and when you see the station below you and the trees and the few people who have already gathered there, waiting in the morning sun, and when you kiss your wife and your children goodbye and give the dog's ears a scratch and say good morning all around the platform and unfold the Tribune and hear the train, the 8:22, coming down the tracks, it seems to me a wonderful thing.
Copyright © 2008 by John Cheever. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.