Wesley, it seems, was something of a personality. He wrote on lined blue paper for the most part, in an elegant hand. The first letter is dated,
"Lowell, Oct. 2d 1859
"I now take the pleasure of writing you a short note. I went to meeting this morning & after diner I went to take a walk up to the falls. It is quite a pleasent seenry, every thing is so new to me. There is a great meny people going & coming from the falls, but they are all strangers to me. Last Sunday I saw James Pushard the one we used to call little Jim, he works in the carpet factory I see him most every day, he buys his tobacco to the store of Buttrick & Co. Grocery business is some different from painting, I get along very well considering it is new to me, I think I shall like very much after I get broken in. We do grant deal of business & it keeps us all at work so I don't have much time to go about. I am going up to Mrs. Erskings after tea to see Miss C. Cooper I suppose you know her if you don't Henry does. I went home with her last Sunday night & now I am going up there so she can come home with me thats no more than right is it, I should like to see the folks in Frankfort & one in particular, I suppose you know who that is. Has Mr. Bridge got his house painted yet let me know when you write I suppose he does not like it very much. Well Charles if ever you come to Lowell come & see me our house is on Tyler St. the store is on Market St. No. 20 givus a call,
"It is geting late & I must go up & see Miss Cooper
"Give my love to all the folks
"Wes the Painter"
Monday, 14th It's a chilly, dreary morning. A while ago I walked to the post office, which is on the Gardiner road down the hill, across the culvert, and a few houses over, Turn right on the Gardiner road, pass a gas station, a church, and the village green, walk over the bridge that crosses over our river. The post office is the first house on the left, painted red. There's no RFD here, and all town residents must pick up their mail.
The postmistress, Mrs. Goodspeed, said, "Good mawnin'," and she'd been expecting me. There was a letter from Norine:
"We are fine here and hope you are too. Our friends have been kind at the College, and I have a job in the library. Don't worry about money.
"Drop us a note to let us know you've arrived safely. Melany sends her love, She doesn't understand. I'm not sure I do, either. Do you, Charles?
I bought a card at the window and sent it off. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before.
One more thing to feel guilty over.
Ever since Cara, things had been going downhill, and Cara was no one's fault but my own. It was either my fault or bewitchment. Or age. I'd rather not consider the latter too deeply — I'm still young enough: thirty-six isn't ancient. But I was less and less use in Norine's bed after Cara and I had broken off. Disease? Nerves? Probably the latter. But Norine had been growing colder over the years as well.
Certainly, nerves were part of it last year. From the beginning of the fall semester I had been growing more and more bitter with my students, almost none of them were in class to learn. I couldn't come to grips with the new romanticism and deliberate turning; away from the life of the mind that this generation has taken to heart. I saw everything through lenses that magnified the dark side of human nature — a side these kids were denying. In their denial I saw great danger, for I believe man is not basically good — nor basically bad — he is both. He is of two minds: the bestial, unthinking mind left over from the mud from which we've risen, and the specifically human, thinking but unfeeling, rational intellect.
If one abjures the latter, he gives himself over to shadow. If he does not consciously attempt to be human, he runs the danger of being animal.
All these notions my students derided. Man's animal nature was at least, in their opinion (if and when they could articulate their feelings), better than his brain, which had brought us more and more deadly technologies, fewer and fewer livable environments. It was time to try to believe in goodness; feeling is good, thinking is bad.
In January the doctors found evidence of ulcers. My affliction, in specific terms, was excess acid; in literary terms, an excess of Black Bile and deadly humours; in theological terms, a frustration of missionary zeal.
I come by these things honestly, as my father had the zeal, my mother the bile and humours, and their combination produced a writer in an Aristotelian mold. I detest mysticism, even though my preacher father was a truly good man, a la the Platonic conception. My students, had they known him, could have pointed to him and said, "See, it's possible."
But my mother was possible too. I had, over the years, watched her mind deteriorate as my father's grew stronger. It was as though his spirit and zeal had fed on hers and grown great as hers had grown weaker, and the strain of darkness in her clan flourished like nightshade till only bitterness remained; bitterness and a fear of death and loneliness, while my father looked forward to the end with his mortal eyes becoming blinder physically, but increasing proportionately in religious clarity of vision.
I saw something unwittingly vicious in this single-minded, zealous mission of my father's. He knew the truth, because he had seen the truth, and he was saved. Those who could not see the truth, like my mother, were lost, though he never said so in. so many words.
So there I stood in the classroom, surrounded by the saved, doomed because I could not see; destroyed because no monolith of Salvation inhabited my soul, but only an ambiguous duality, a combination of light end dark: Ouroboros, the worm that bites its tail and devours itself; the One made of All: birth and death, love and hate, microcosm end macrocosm, matter and spirit. I could not deny half of it. But which half would win in me?
Then, in the Spring, I sat before the television set and watched as the President sent us deeper into war; as flames engulfed the Black ghettos; as the National Guard shot some students, including girls strolling on a campus lawn.
As I watched the father of one of the girls speaking in rational bitterness to America, I raged, for I had a daughter too, and she might someday lie beneath a nationalist muzzle if this war went on another rational, honorable, technological ten years. I raged, and I joined the May Strike, standing on the steps of the Humanities Building with a picket sign, trying to persuade my colleagues and the more cautious students to join us in the rain, arguing in hastily-called faculty meetings, turning our classes into workshops, arranging Poets for Peace readings on the mall in front of the library.
For a while all. went well. The strike was successful on our campus, despite some sporadic violence and deadly editorials in the local papers.
Then, the students copped out! These believers in Good left the school in droves once they got their early marks, while I sat in class with one or two people and talked about ideality.
I remember an evening class to which none came but one of my extension students, an old shop teacher working on an M. Ed. who needed some English credits. I listened as he told a story.
The kids are always talking about morality, he said. But I don't understand what they mean. They've blown the lid off colleges all around the country because these youngsters got shot at a Midwest university, and I can understand that in a way. But they would laugh at me if I told them I'd just come from the funeral of an old friend and neighbor of mine, who was also shot. I feel his death was more tragic than the deaths of those girls, yet there were no headlines, only an obituary notice in the town paper, and a second-page story.
My friend, when he was ,younger, had been a geek — you know, a carny man. Hs stood in a sideshow and ate live chickens. Don't laugh. That's what he did for a living, and few livings were easy in the thirties. He did what he had to do to support a family. When he could, he quit.
Last week he was in a bar, and there was a woman there whom he didn't know, but she was being bullied by another man at the bar, who called her a foul name.
My friend got up and went over to this man. He said, "that's no way to talk to a lady." The other fellow said, "She's no lady. And stay the fuck out of my hair.'
The geek took him and pulled him off his barstool, shoved him through the door. "Let's go outside a minute," he said.
Instead, the other man pulled a gun and shot my friend dead on the spot, then ran out.
I've .just come from his funeral, and he died for honor, nut no one cares, He was a brave man, and a good father, but none of these kids could care less.
I said nothing, because I stood halfway between the old man and my students. In my mind I could see that tarnished honor in his mind, and the shining new one in the minds of my pupils, an honor that meant as little to most of them as the geek's meant to the righteous townsfolk who read the story in the newspaper. I could see a cosmic smirk spreading across the face of America at the geek's outmoded honor, and the smirk was of all generations, 'What the significance of this story is, I don't know, nor do I know why I include it here. except that, perhaps, it was the beginning of the end of my marriage. I became less of a man, less of a husband and father, if that were possible. I don't know where I am going, any more than Nothus does, but I have to write it all down. I see nothing up ahead, and when I look inward I see nothing but guilt for the many things: for loss of mission, for the mission itself; for my actions and inactions; for my inability to cope with love and honor and thought any longer, after so many years of surety.
I sit here, listening to the old books, writing a new one. They are all full of darkness, the shadow of one canceling out the light of another: Ouroboros spinning and, as he spins, devouring himself.