He held the book at arm's length and slowly read its title, "Socrates... by A. E. Taylor."
He'd spotted it immediately up on the New Shelf at the town library. "Are you really sure, Asa?" Miss Rouelle tipped her head off to one side and looked at him with one eye.
"Yes ma'am," he'd answered. She'd smiled with only one side of her face as she reached for the pencil with the date stamp fastened to the point end. And she smiled again as she handed Socrates over the counter to him. "There you are, Asa," she sang more than said.
He'd been a little afraid of the book. More than a little, actually, he had to admit. But now, being able to understand -- really understand it -- made him feel... He paused in his thoughts, scratched his head and realized he needed a new word. Unable to think of one, he bounced off the bed, carefully laid Socrates face down on the counterpane, ran to his jacket and found his spiral note pad, turned to a fresh page, entered the date and drew a rectangle with three dots ascending along the left-right diagonal. Below the figure, he wrote: "The feeling the brain gets when you know you really know something for the very first time -- and know that you really know." Boy! Imagine a single word that could catch all that! He slipped the pad back into its pocket, decided on second thought to transfer the jacket from the chair to the closet, and then started back to the bed.
"Wait!" he said, and instead went to the window. Was Poppa anywhere in sight? He would have to tell Poppa. At least about understanding A. E. Taylor's Socrates. Because it was Poppa who had saved him from not understanding philosophy at all.
Asa had started out by reading the articles on philosophy in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Or at least he'd tried reading them. And he'd also looked at the books in the town library. But he hadn't understood a single thing he was reading. Not anything. Even when he made a word list and looked up every last unfamiliar one in the dictionary. Not anything! Philosophy even made his mind wonder. Sometimes worse than Grampa's prayers. How much more unphilosophical could you get than that!
One evening after supper he'd gone into Momma's library and was reading on the floor when he saw the toes of Poppa's boots in the doorway. Asa looked up, and Poppa was watching him. But -- and he hardly talked any more, anyway -- Poppa said nothing to Asa. On Saturday, though, Poppa did talk. "Ride on along with me, son," he said, "over to Port Monmouth." Asa could help steady the end of a desk Poppa'd built for some newspaper fella who'd rented a cottage on the Wolff place. They went straight from there clear over to New Brunswick. And Poppa took him into a bookstore. "Them there, near the window, ma'am," Poppa said to the lady at the counter. Was it all right if the boy tried 'em out? She smiled and said of course and was sure Asa would be utterly fascinated. They'd just been published, and the professors and simply everybody were buying them for their children. Asa immediately went to the P's. And right then and there! And for the very first time in his entire life! Oh! his entire life. Yes! Yes! He finally knew what anybody was writing about when they were writing about philosophy. He'd had to swallow back the tears when Poppa took the pocketbook from his bib pocket and twisted open the hasp.
Asa insisted on carrying the box. Then he and Poppa just sat in the cab of the truck. And, believe it or not, Poppa talked and talked as though Momma was with them.
Poppa told Asa about his people. "The one tried to know the needs of the other." He told Asa of the time he'd left home. He'd just passed twenty- two. Poppa went to his father and said his conscience would force him to leave home. They talked. They prayed. They even washed each and others feet, which wasn't their particular custom, but which they borrowed from the Old Brethren for the most solemn occasions. Then Poppa and Poppa's father rendered each other the solemn kiss. They called in the rest of the family, men and boys on one side of the room, woman and girls on the other. They gave each solemn kisses. Afterwards, Poppa's mother stayed behind to give him her special blessing. She went to her cedar chest, found a Becky box and took out her own father's watch. She handed it to Poppa and told him to carry it not as an ornament but to bear the time of his people wherever he went. Poppa slipped out the watch and showed it to Asa. Poppa's father told Poppa to carry their love with him. In the morning, Poppa shaved off his beard, dressed in clean work clothes and packed an extra shirt and union suit in his tool bag. Sister Pearl had baked him a sweet potato pie. After breakfast, brother Park took him into Strasburg. Poppa caught the jitney to Lancaster where he bought a one- way ticket to New York City.
It was the dead of night when Poppa arrived in Pennsylvania Station. With his tool bag for a pillow, he slept on a bench in the waiting room. The next day he found work as a cabinetmaker. He saved his money to buy land of his own. He did carpentry work on the side, too, with the same purpose in mind. And it was his extra work that "brung me to Loretta." He wasn't a churchgoing man, himself. But he did build a communion alter for a Methodist church up in East Harlem. The bishop tracked him down to ask if he'd be available for other work; which he certainly was. The bishop recommended him to Reverend Overfield. Poppa took the Jersey Central train down one evening to see for himself just what it was Reverend Overfield had in mind. "And..."
Poppa didn't finish the story. He stopped talking, gripped the steering wheel as though he was going to break it in half and just stared at the windshield.
"Thank you, Poppa," Asa had said. Poppa turned to face him. Then he chuckled and patted the carton on Asa's lap. "They won't run off, son. Here, let's put 'em down on the floorboard." It was the first time Asa had heard Poppa laughed since...
"Thank you very much, Poppa," Asa had said again. Then he asked why the men among Poppa's people kiss each other. "Romans, Sixteen, Sixteen," Poppa'd said, "'Salute one another with a holy kiss.'"
Asa asked if he could salute Poppa. Poppa leaned over. Was that the right way? "It'll do, son. More than do." Then Poppa kissed Asa on the cheek. And when Asa thanked him again, Poppa said, "Thank you, son." And then he bounded out of the cab and cranked the engine.
"Poppa, Poppa, Poppa," Asa muttered, now, as he looked toward the field but could see his father only in imagination. "You regenerated philosophy. You gave it a second chance."
He regenerated you, Asa Zook, the deep part of his brain declared, which startled him because he didn't know a person's brain could talk. Asa listened, expecting to hear more. But the Deep Brain said nothing further.
Asa went back to his bed and continued with A. E. Taylor's Socrates.
Miss Rouelle's blouse intrigued Asa. From the far side of the room it appeared light blue. A little nearer and the cloth looked like white dots on a deeper blue background. But up close, where he could smell her perfume, the dots turned out to be tiny four- leaf clovers. Which blouse did he prefer? He certainly liked the color from the distance and also at the intermediate range. But he especially liked being near Miss Rouelle. And that would have been true, whatever she was wearing. Partly, he liked the way she smelled. It was sort of like flowers. But up close, he could watch her long fingers manipulate the yellow pencil off its point and onto the attached little date stamp. Deft was the word he'd recently discovered for that. Deft was something he'd never had. His clumsy hands would surely break the lead on the pencil. And Miss Rouelle did it so easily.
She was younger than Momma. Her lips were thinner. Her cheeks weren't rosy. She wasn't as tall, either. Her hair was a little darker, and she wore it in a soft bun that bounced up and down on the back of her neck when she walked. Momma'd only tied her hair back when she worked at the stove or ran clothes through the ringer.
The nicest thing about Miss Rouelle, though, Asa, decided as he watched, was her smile: which she was just now showing as she handed books over the circulation desk to two grinning little girls. "Thank you Miss Rouelle," they sang back in unison, as Asa was sure they did in school when addressing their teacher. They were both very pretty, he decided, and returned their smile when they looked at him.
Miss Rouelle turned to Asa. "How did you like it, Asa?"
He handed her the Socrates. Before he knew what he was saying he was blurting out that it was the very best book he'd ever read (including the junior encyclopedia, he suddenly realized). She was grinning with only one side of her mouth, and one of her eyebrows went up high on her forehead. "What in particular interests you about Socrates?" she asked. He told her how he'd kept running across Socrateses name again and again when he read about philosophy. And then he saw a whole book about him on the shelf. And..."Tell me about..." she glanced at the cover, "A- - E- - Taylor, Asa."
Asa talked on and on and couldn't make his mouth stop until he had to step away from the counter to let a man check out a book by Zane Gray. Asa would have to try that, he thought, when he found some free time.
"Please continue, Asa," Miss Rouelle said as she filed the Zane Gray card. She rested her elbows on the counter and propped her chin with both hands. Asa told her of how he went about reading philosophy, now. First, he'd see if the topic was in his junior encyclopedia, as Socrates was. Next, he'd run downstairs to his mother's library and look in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he could understand if he'd read the junior encyclopedia, first. Finally, when he came into town, he'd come in to Miss Rouelle's library to see if she had a whole book on the subject. Anyway, Socrates taught the youth of Athens that knowledge is virtue, which was exactly what Asa had started out thinking virtue was in the first place -- knowledge. "Please elaborate, Asa" Miss Rouelle eventually asked.
"Well..." Asa thought philosophy was searching for goodness through knowledge. But he'd become confused for a while and had some doubts. "Doubts until I discovered Socrates, Miss Rouelle."
"Tell me more, Asa, about this virtue-knowledge thing, can you?"
"Well..." if you wanted to be a good librarian, you'd have to know libraries. She blushed, and he thought he had, too. If you want to be a good cabinetmaker, you'd have to know your choices of woods. "If you want to be a good philosopher, you have to know philosophy." And A. E. Taylor explained very clearly that Socrates believed that the highest of virtues was "Knowledge of knowledge, Miss Rouelle. Which is the same thing as philosophy."
"What about being a good person, Asa?" She asked the question through her lips, without raising her chin from her hands. He'd never seen anybody talk with their teeth clenched before.
"To be a good person, we must first know what a person is."
"Do you think you know what a person is, Asa?"
"No ma'am. Not the way a philosopher needs to know something." Her eyes twinkled like two playful stars. He'd really thought a lot about the subject, he said, especially after he read about the death of Socrates. He told her that he'd written his thoughts into a thick ledger book his father gave him but unfortunately he didn't have it with him. He'd see what he could do from memory, if she still wanted to listen.
"Oh, yes, Asa," she said.
Socrates died rather than take back... ["disclaim," she suggested]...disclaim what he'd told the youth of Athens, Asa went on. Did Asa happen to know a good word for such a "characteristic?" She suggested "Courage. And add 'honesty.'"
Honest! Courage! Said together, they made Asa think of Poppa, although he didn't say that to Miss Rouelle. But something else slipped out of his mouth before he had a chance to think about it. "Love." He paused and thought. Did Love really fit Socrates? Yes, the Deep Brain said. Asa wondered if Miss Rouelle had heard it, too. Then he apologized to her for how scrambled eggsy it all seemed to be coming out.
"It doesn't sound scrambled to me, Asa." She seemed to be accepting Love on the Socrates list without an explanation. [Asa doubted that Socrates would have let him get away with that.] Miss Rouelle excused herself to help one of Asa's classmates find a French grammar book.
During the pause, he asked the Deep Brain to explain what it had said about Love. The Deep Brain remained silent. It was a silly request, anyway, Asa decided. He should do his own thinking. Which he did until Miss Rouelle returned.
"Socrates chose truth above life, Miss Rouelle. He never thought he really knew what the truth was. Only that a philosopher must seek it and seek it and seek it. And Socrates sought and sought and sought. Because he loved truth. And, Miss Rouelle, I love him. He had more courage and honesty and love than anyone who ever lived, I think."
She wasn't smiling now. She eased from her stool, raised the drop leaf and came from behind the counter. Then she took him by the hand. "Come with me, Asa. There's something I think you'd want very much to know."
They went through the stacks to the P's. Miss Rouelle climbed up a step stool, and the peach hem of her slip showed as she stretched high up for one of two volumes marked, "Plato." Then, perching on the top step of the stool, holding the book wide open in the flat of her palm, she used the nimble fingers of her free hand to mother through the pages. "Here's what I want, Asa," she whispered. "Please read this aloud." She handed him the book and pointed at a paragraph with the nail of her little finger. "It is what the greatest Greek philosopher, Plato thought of Socrates."
Asa's hushed tones pleased his own ears as he read Plato's words: "...of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best." When Asa looked up, Miss Rouelle's eyes were full of tears. And his own throat felt very full. Although he forced himself not to, Asa could have cried. The philosopher Plato had given the boy Zook the person, Socrates.
Miss Rouelle taught Asa how to use a library: how to begin at the reference stack, identify and then chase a piece of knowledge through the index cards, to the shelves and into the books. And she was so quick! She taught him what a bibliography was, where to find a book not in her collection, how to locate other works in print. She took him behind the counter ("Is it really all right?"), showed him volumes thicker than any he'd ever seen before. She produced photographs of the reading rooms in the great libraries in New York and Paris. "Most universities also have extensive collections, Asa." She'd be glad to write a letter of introduction to... Perhaps "if your father is willing to take you to New Brunswick..." Poppa was willing.
Miss Rouelle showed him magazines and "scholarly journals"; she recommended books. What wasn't in her library, or she didn't own personally, she'd borrow from other libraries, "Just for you, Asa."
She taught him how librarians keep files and catalog books; how she herself kept notes; and, "Just as important," how to keep track of "research." And she christened his ledger books, "Asa Zook's Journal."
But more important than anything else, though, and why he loved her so very, very much, she listened. Listened sometimes by the hour -- providing, of course, that they remembered to keep their voices at a whisper. And there were days in school when he thought about little other than getting on his bike and pumping as fast as his legs would pump in order to tell her of a thought or discovery or treasure from the previous night's readings. She seemed to know a word for just about everything. He showed her his "provisional" code for unknown words. "It's like cuneiform," she said, which he had to look up.
But Asa didn't like poetry, which Miss Rouelle said, "Veritably creates my soul." Most novels bored him; he usually had to put them down, unfinished. He eventually confessed his general dislikes of "fiction" to her. She laughed. And then she admitted that, for her part, she wasn't "all that consumed" by philosophy, "per se." But true friendship wasn't "founded on sameness of taste," she added. "We are kindred spirits because we love ideas, Asa" A good idea was something friends could always share whether either or both believed it or not, and whether the source was philosophy, politics or poetry.
"Or the woods or the sky or the sea," Asa added. She seemed very pleased. He liked pleasing her.
The orderliness of the library made him aware of his mess. And not just the way his room looked, either. He had to develop a system, a schedule, a routine. Or else his research would become chaos. And time! Wow, was there so little of it. Time had to be budgeted or some things never got done.
Mornings, as soon as he got back from the hen house with the breakfast eggs (Poppa absolutely refused to let him do the milking when school was in session but relented on the chickens), Asa would read the junior encyclopedia, which he kept in his room, and which now went very fast. Their teachers let them read if they finished their lessons ahead of time. Asa always took a couple of books to school (without naked people in them), usually science books because he didn't usually need a dictionary or encyclopedia to understand them; especially biology and chemistry, which he could lay across the book well and, with his desk top up, read as he listened to the teacher. Once he got his ear pulled for doing that. But the teacher apologized after he told her -- and then demonstrated -- that he'd been paying attention to her. He hadn't known before that teachers ever apologized to pupils. Afterward, she let him borrow more interesting textbooks. One day she called him to the desk and said he could put his organic chemistry book up on his desk and didn't have to listen to what she was saying. But he was used to the position, he told her. And he was usually interested in what she was saying. "Thank you," she replied, although he wasn't quite sure for just what. At the end of the school year, she gave him a history book, and he gave her a smoked ham.
Immediately after school, he'd race to Miss Rouelle's for books or to look up "items" from the previous evening's work. He eventually stopped annoying her with every notion that popped into his head. But he ran to her with an idea or fact he thought she might not know; or if she did know, would want to "savor" with him. Just being in the same room with her was sweet joy enough.
If the ground permitted (and sometimes when it did not), he rode home cross- country. For some reason, these were the times when he felt most like a philosopher. Always, absolutely always, there was something new to appreciate in the field or meadow or wood or brook, even after sundown. But "Oooh," Miss Rouelle said once, "I get the willies thinking of you out in the dark woods in the dead of night." It was quite safe, he assured her, but he guessed she didn't believe him. "You'd never catch me out there," she declared.
After he washed the dishes (Raymond cleared and dried), it was time to get down to serious reading. At first, he tried Momma's library where Poppa read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times or worked on account books. But Raymond asked too many questions. And soon Asa transferred to "My laboratory of ideas," as, writing in the Journal, he had christened his room.
He usually broke for a hot chocolate just before Raymond's bedtime. Then the three would talk, and either he or Poppa would try to answer Raymond's questions. Asa would take Raymond upstairs and tell him a Timmy Story, as they'd come to be called. Poppa would soon follow to tuck Raymond in and kiss him goodnight.
After that, Asa would sort out the thoughts of the day and write the worthy ones into the Journal and trash the rest.
He went to bed only when he was very sleepy. But he almost always enjoyed bed. For he'd just lie back, relax, take the grip off his mind and let it just wander like clouds and think whatever it pleased. Sometimes, if the mind encountered a very important thought, he'd grab on, bolt out of bed and write the thought down. But only if the thought was both brand new and very exciting. Because the mind seemed to enjoy being set free. Ooh!
One such pop-out-of-the-bed idea occurred on a day when he saw the season's first new rabbit. The mind had drifted from thoughts about the animal to what he'd been researching. "That's why I feel like a philosopher out in the deep woods!" And up Asa popped.
Philosophy isn't just in the pages of books, isn't just in somebody's mind. "It is out there in nature," he wrote. No! Yes! But not perfectly put. Philosophy was out there in Nature, Nature with a capital N. Nature was the something out there that had been nameless since he was a little boy. Nature was what made life return. Nature was the source of the truth and meaningfulness he pursued. Nature was where he'd find knowledge and discover virtue. Nature was where he'd find his beloved philosophy.
Then cried, but they were tears of joy.
Asa awoke excited the next morning, hurried through the chicken chores and wished he didn't have to go to school. Because now he had to select the branch of philosophy that would become his life's work. Then, trying to save valuable time, he actually wasted it: he skipped reading his junior encyclopedia and then tried to cram serious research into the too- short interval before school. When he realized his stupid mistake, he almost cursed. But he'd forsworn profanity for fear of acquiring the habit and infecting Raymond with it. Raymond would have mortified Gramma. Which, if Asa had been the proximate cause, would have been "Unphilosophical!"
Asa did not compound his mistake that day by taking a philosophy book to school. Then he couldn't have paid attention to the teacher. And that would have been unphilosophical, too. Yet by mid- morning, as he half- read about the embryology of the chicken and less than half- heard the teacher discuss the Dred Scott decision, his mind kept slipping his hold and trying to think about philosophy. He skipped Miss Rouelle that day, and even the woods. Poppa stopped work and called to him as he raced into the driveway. "You all right, son?" Asa called back the answer and repeated it to Raymond as he bolted through the kitchen and into the library: Yes, he was just fine, fine! But very, very busy. Raymond didn't pester.
Asa loaded up on those big encyclopedia volumes he thought he'd need, ran upstairs and, without even remembering to take off his jacket, began devouring the entries on the major branches of phil....
"Of my immortal soul!" And by the time Raymond's little knuckles were tentatively rapping the signal for supper, Asa knew what he wanted to know. He discussed it with Poppa as they ate.
Metaphysics and logic would be his fields, the first because it sought Nature's truth and meaningfulness beyond what we can touch or see or hear: "To domains where only pure intellect can penetrate." And the second, because logic was the philosopher's hammer, saw, screwdriver and monkey wrench. Logic, Asa went on, was how the philosopher tests truth. Poppa liked that there logic, he allowed.
After he finished describing his plans, Asa asked Poppa if he could have an advance on his share of the lima bean crop, " to buy some textbooks..." Poppa didn't even wait for the end of supper but just fished out his pocketbook, peeled off three ten dollar bills and laid them beside Asa's plate. Poppa, smiling (which was very unusual), even offered to do the dishes. "No thank you, Poppa." Socrates, Asa explained, had tried to be a good citizen of Athens (although Asa did not tell Poppa that Socrates had been a soldier). But, "Yes," Asa agreed with Poppa that the three of them should go to Momma's grave on Saturday before they took Raymond to the parsonage for his piano lesson with Gramma.
On the following afternoon, Poppa was waiting outside school. "Come on son," he said. Asa should put his bike in the truck bed, and they'd ride over to New Brunswick and pick up them textbooks at the university bookstore.
"I love you, Poppa," Asa said as they turned onto the state highway.
Asa found that he could wade right into logic. It was so...so "Logical." And it was as though he'd already studied the subject and needed only the vocabulary.
But, he soon wrote, "Metaphysics has a demanding price on it. I must know a philosopher's entire philosophy to comprehend his metaphysics." Which meant dealing with the one philosophical subject he did not like: "Ethics!"
"Does it taste like eggplant?" Raymond asked. Poppa laughed, too.
Until now, Asa realized, he'd approached philosophy "Like a swallow cruising for insects." His studies had to have order and direction and plan. And he had to have a synoptic view. He couldn't just up and read every work there was from A to Z. It was just too vast. Instead, he'd have to "consume the history of philosophy." He set a target: the end of the school year; after that he'd begin reading philosophers' original works.
He was just two days over the mark on the history of philosophy. But when he turned to the philosophical writings themselves, "My campaign has bogged down." And less than a week into summer: "I had underestimated the difficulty of this material and overestimated my insight." Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was "just plain hard." John Dewey's criticism of metaphysics as a whole (recommended to him by a philosophy major who worked at the university bookstore in New Brunswick) was "not easily refuted." And from his knowledge of science, or what he'd observed personally of Nature, he knew, "Philosophers of old, lacking in much of what is today common information, often proceeded from false premises to invalid conclusions." And soon, "I see the process of philosophy as much more important than the product. The pursuit of implications -- not the formulation of doctrines -- is the real source of wisdom, and the true goal of philosophy, which is why Plato and Aristotle or Berkeley convey wisdom for us, even today. Accordingly, I classify myself as a Socratic."
And "Science shall be the principal source of my starting materials..."
But," Unlike philosophy, science seems unconcerned with implications, with ideas, with the grand view of knowledge..."
When Grampa discovered what he was up to, "The dear, blessed man!" He bought Asa the entire eleven volume set of Aristotle's Metaphysics. "Beautiful little pocket- sized gems...I carry one wherever I go."
In late summer, Miss Rouelle, "Skewered me on a dilemma."
"I have something special for you, Asa," she sang when he entered the library one afternoon. "When I saw it in the catalog of new releases, my heart fluttered. 'Asa must see this,' I declared. But I couldn't justify spending library funds. For I know that no one else in town would read it. And I decided right there and then, it is high time I gave my dear friend Asa Zook a personal gift."
She reached under the counter and brought up a package. Asa unwrapped it. The cover read, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
Ethics! Asa's throat almost snapped shut. How could he tell her he didn't read original works of ethics? The alternative: deceive her! Deceive Miss Rouelle? That would be the Platonic idea of unsocratically unphilosophical behavior. Which left either hurting her or wasting his precious time on a book less useful than Zane Gray.
Well...He'd just have to find the time to read this "...Nicomachean Ethics...." At least it was Aristotle's.
His heart sank even further when he read in the introduction of how Aristotle's ethics came to be written down, although part of it was, admittedly, a little interesting. For he could imagine Aristotle strolling back and forth, pausing beside a pillar, talking, expounding, creating extemporaneously, right there on the very spot, some of the greatest thoughts ever thought. Nicomachus had been one among the audiences. And what Asa held in his hands were really lecture notes, notes loaded, no doubt, with misstatements and misinterpretations and Nicomachus own biases and shortcomings. There was even another Aristotelian ethics: Eudemian, which had a good sound to it, Asa reflected. But one ethics was more than enough, Asa decided, even if it was Aristotle's.
Like his copy of Metaphysics , Miss Rouelle's gift was for the serious classical scholar: printed with pages of English and Greek texts facing each other. Greek? Asa began to wonder if the two languages gave the same meaning. Of course, they wouldn't, silly! He already knew that from French and German. Clearly, he was going to have to learn Greek. But that Greek! Even the letters looked like partridge tracks. And side- by- side, he couldn't be sure which English word went with what Greek track. But, thumbing through his precious Metaphysics, "I see that I must totally master this language." Being able to read Metaphysics in Greek would make even ethics worthwhile.
He discussed the problem with Miss Rouelle. "No," learning the Greek alphabet and using a Greek- English dictionary would not suffice, not at all!. He had to know syntax. She didn't have a single Greek grammar book in the library. She could order one through interlibrary loan. But, "Say!" Something suddenly occurred to her. Dr. Overfield might just have what Asa needed. He'd undoubtedly studied ancient Greek at the seminary. Perhaps his own grandfather could provide the basic instruction?
Which transformed Asa's dilemma into a genuine conundrum.
Asa, of course, still attended church. Not to have done so would have broken Grampa's heart. Which would have been mercilessness on Asa Zook's part. And then what if Poppa stopped going? Or worse, Raymond? Besides, Asa genuinely enjoyed Grampa's sermons. More so, in fact, since philosophy had become a part of his life. And they all enjoyed Anita's spectacular Sunday dinners at the parsonage, especially Poppa.
Of course, Asa said nothing about his personal attitudes towards God or religion. Socrates had not solved all of his dilemmas, either. Asa had postulated, "Honesty does not demand complete revelation of all one's thoughts"; and he had vowed to be silent about religion, unless forced to defend truth. This new Greek thing Miss Rouelle had thrust upon him, he feared, might force just such a defense. There was no way of not taking her advice. She'd surely inquire. Even the prospect of lying to Miss Rouelle...That was simply out of the question.
Asa broached the subject at the dinner table, after Anita set the gravy boat next to Poppa and took her seat next to Gramma.
Grampa became excited, excused himself from the table and, still carrying his napkin, went upstairs. He soon returned, shaking his head and waving a thin, gray volume. It had been up in the attic for an eon, he declared. He was sad to say that virtually all he'd learned had vanished. He'd never been an enthusiastic scholar of classics , he admitted. Suddenly, Grampa's face brightened. "Say," he said. "I know! Pete -- Dr. Dicampo -- is just the man for us." He'd all but earned his degree in classical linguistics before the war broke out, Grampa went on; his "flock" had just returned to New York; they had a big lawn over there in Long Branch; by the mowing of which, Grampa'd just bet, Asa could earn some of the very best instruction in Greek there was to be had. And that Pete -- Dr. Dicampo -- was doubtless itching for just this sort of intellectual excitement. Grampa'd be in Long Branch tomorrow and would make the necessary inquiries...."If it meets with your approval, of course, Elwood." Which, of course, it did.
Everyone at the table seemed to become very cheerful. Grampa kept glancing Asa's way as he told an anecdote about pigs let into the apple orchard to devour the windfall, pigs that ate and ate all the fruit on the ground but never, ever looked up toward its source. Everyone stopped eating and talking to listen to a poem Raymond had learned in Summer Sunday School about fog coming in on the feet of little cats. That called for applause, Grampa said, and everyone clapped, including Raymond. Poppa turned to Gramma and said the dumplings were like eiderdown. Anita lowered her head and blushed when Gramma said that the credit belong to "The Girl." Poppa repeated the compliment to Anita. They had shoofly pie for dessert, no less. Anita had baked it, "Special for Elwood," Gramma said.
After dinner, Asa helped Anita with the dishes. She was pretty, he realized. They could hear Gramma and Raymond playing a duet version of "On An Old Rugged Cross," on the piano, which Anita hummed slightly out of tune. When they joined the others, Poppa was telling Grampa something about making another two dozen folding chairs for the Sunday School room as part of the tithe. "Say," Grampa interrupted. That reminded him. The Bishop had called the other day and wanted Poppa to do the interior of the new church at Matawan. Grampa'd said he'd inquire into Elwood's schedule. And of course, it was a cash- paying job.
Amid the joy about him, Asa Zook reached a conclusion: Guilt is a serious burden for a human being. Because he felt terribly guilty right there and then.
Why? Grampa thinks I want to pursue Greek for the Calling. And my reasons are just the opposite. I feel guilty because this good and gentle man, whom I dearly love, is deceived. Guilty because I am the source of the deception. But why should I feel guilty? I would never willfully deceive anyone. And certainly not my Grampa. I haven't lied. I have merely not expounded my private thoughts. For to do so would destroy all that is here. My guilt, in truth, is irrational. And unphilosophical. If: a), I won't speak against the truth and, b), I shall not commit that which would hurt others, then c), I should feel...Happy! the Deep Brain declared. As looked about the table to see if anyone else had heard Deep Brain's command.
But happy was precisely how Asa began to feel as guilt dissolved from his conscious being and he looked about him and just let himself love and love and love with all his capacity.
Asa had always enjoyed the reverberating sensations of tires against boardwalk planks but very rarely got the opportunity to take the pleasure. This morning was still early enough for the boardwalk to be accommodatingly deserted for a fast- moving bike. He sped to the far end before cycling back and focusing on what brought him to Long Branch in the first place. When he saw the address he was looking for, he accelerated, made a sharp left turn, hurdled the island in the middle of Ocean Avenue, vaulted the curb, angled into the driveway and abruptly retarded his rate to just enough to keep the bike vertical as he slowly absorbed his first impressions of the Dicampo's summer place.
Most ocean front houses sported "setting" porches. "Now Elwood..." Momma often said when they'd come across such an edifice. Poppa's eyes would twinkle. And, especially if Poppa said "Ladies' Aide," Momma would lean her head against the side of his shoulder and giggle from deep within her throat. Although he hadn't understood the joke, Asa laughed too, then. Later, when he was studying transitive and intransitive verbs, he realized the source of the mirth. For a little while "setting porches" did seem amusing, and they evoked thoughts of gas and hens and ladies who used mostly pronouns in their subjects and predicates. And thoughts of backsides. But not backsides like Momma's. Or even Gramma's, come to think of it (although Asa suspected that Gramma would like to have had a setting- porch backside). Backsides too constrained for the owner 'to sit.' And how sad. For even stout women's backside made sitting seem graceful. The setters wore a kind of uniform: superstructures instead of hats, suffocating perfume and vast expanses of expensive cloth. And they corseted their bodies as though grace demanded disfigurement. No, they weren't to be laughed at, he eventually concluded. Indeed almost cried about! For the setters willfully denied their womanhood. Denied themselves. And they'd deny it to every pretty girl and every comely thing. Why? Asa Zook had no answers. Only regrets.
The French gray house he was approaching had a setter's porch on its front and flanks. As he inspected more carefully, he could see valiant attempts of artists in wood or shrub to relieve the originally intended inhumanity. At least, now, a passerby could choose to ignore the property, as one does garbage scow on a magnificent sea. He rode slowly up the concrete driveway, swerved to avoid a recently crushed toad and parked beside a munificent stand of blue hydrangea.
Empty cane- back chairs on the porch rocked to the easy sway of the ocean's breeze. Immediately, he wished Raymond were along. He could almost hear his brother ask, "Hey, Ace. Can we pretend something, Ace?" Could they make believe that ghosts were in those chairs? Ghosts of ship- wrecked sailors, Ace? Asa would answer, "Yes," but only if the ghosts were the sailors' lives returned to Nature, and not the spooks Raymond probably had in mind. Raymond's gaze would shift to the left and his mouth would remain open as he'd ponder for a moment; then he'd grin and, with Poppa's usage, proudly "allow as how" real ghosts were "better 'n fake spooks, anyhow." He'd once actually told Asa, "Real ghosts don't scare people, Ace. Fake ones do." Asa had agreed, and had made a note in the Journal to return to the subject when Raymond was old enough to grasp the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This morning both he and Raymond would have been ready for a first approximation.
Asa transferred a blue bandanna from his neck to his forehead. He inspected the expanse of grass between the parallel driveways and estimated the square area. Except for a flagpole ringed by whitewashed sea stones, the lawn was free of obstacles. He'd be able to maintain a running stride. Forty- five minutes! he thought. Unless the mower's blades were dull. He glanced east. At ground level, the front hedge blocked his view of the ocean. From the porch deck, to which he immediately bounded, he could look on a line across the avenue, the boardwalk, the beach and the sea itself, all the way out to the sky, which he greeted with a grin.
Dr. Dicampo was down there, Asa realized, apparently surf fishing and evidently waving...waving for Asa to join him, which the boy immediately did.
"Do you fish?" Dr. Dicampo called in his heavily accented speech as Asa giant- stepped over the sand.
"In the bay," Asa responded. Or off the breakwaters, piers and jetties; and in the brooks and ponds; but with a drop line or a cane pole. Never with rod and reel or from the surf.
"My namesake was called the Fisher of Men," Dr. Dicampo said (Asa knew). "Fishing is the allegory of my profession. But this morning, I am a fisher of flounders." His laughter carried far enough for a distant fisherman to turn and look. Dr. Dicampo also enjoyed an early morning dip, he said, and recommended this morning's water, if Asa happened to have on his bathing suit, which he didn't. "Too bad!" A city ordinance proscribed naked bathing. "And we must keep the laws of Caesar where and when we can."
Sicily had been part of ancient Greece. Did Asa know this? (Yes.) Italians and Greeks of today were among the world's most skillful fishermen, and their techniques trace directly back to ancient times. (Asa did not know that.) "A coastal Sicilian boy may be forgiven for not learning to read. But never for ignorance of the ways of the sea." Dr. Dicampo chuckled. "But, you, Mister Zook would starve without the written word."
Would Asa care to try his rod and reel? He laughed again: it was not exactly the equipment of his ancestors. Dr. Dicampo demonstrated his baiting technique and method of casting. Asa practiced a few dry casts. Then he put squid on the hook and cast in earnest. Within moments, the line gave a tug, and the reel began to hiss. The rod arched severely, and despite the unfamiliarity of the equipment, Asa knew well the meaning of the moving weight suddenly alive in his hands. Then after a jerk and a pull, the line went slack. "The Lord has another plan for him, this day," Dr. Dicampo said and suggested several modifications in Asa's style. Asa re- baited and re- cast. In minutes he reeled in a dinner- sized flounder.
On their way across the avenue, Dr. Dicampo gripped Asa's shoulder in one powerful hand, and when they reached the other side, he said, "And you my young friend will become the fisher of the truth."
Asa set about mowing the lawn while Dr. Dicampo went for a shower and shave. The mower's blades had been expertly sharpened and its wheels freshly oiled and balanced. Asa finished ten minutes ahead of schedule.
They went into the study for the lesson. Dr. Dicampo opened with a long introductory discussion of what one may expect to learn about a language "no longer spoken as a native tongue." He talked about gesture and inflection; about the subtle toning of words and phrases; of the use of the hands and face to "coax forth the nuances of thought." Then he read a line from Hamlet. And he read it again, this time changing inflections and emphasis until he made Asa laugh. At last, they got down to Greek.
After the lesson they went to the kitchen. The cook set out a plate of warm oatmeal cookies and a pitcher of cold butter milk. She'd cleaned Asa's flounder, she said, and it was in the ice box. Asa asked her please to accept it as a house gift. She smiled, thanked him and disappeared into the pantry.
"Tell me, Asa," Dr. Dicampo asked. "Tell me about this great hunger in you to probe the meanings of the Greek? Do you know the reasons yourself?"
Asa washed down a bite of cookie, licked off his milk mustache and answered, "I think I know, in part, sir. But I cannot tell it." Asa clenched his teeth and looked at Dr. Dicampo.
Dr. Dicampo's smile vanished, and he studied Asa for several seconds. Then, extending a great hairy arm across the table, he took Asa's free hand and spoke softly: "And I would not force you to tell me, Asa Zook, not even if I had the power."
Asa's dilemma had scarcely dispersed in genitive adjectives and conjugated weak verbs when, like a jack- in- the- box, up again popped trouble. Was the metaphor appropriate? "Well...." he chuckled, jack- in- the- box certainly fit one component of it. And the fortuitous description might otherwise have made him laugh aloud except for...for...this...this It. When considered as a whole, though, It was more like the gradually rising tide, ignored at first, but then swelling and growing and becoming the all- submerging fact of life. His life!
His reactions especially toward Miss Rouelle should have forewarned him. For a change had occurred relative, particularly, to her. Yet afterwards, after he was head deep, after he back- tracked through his memories, he discovered that Its precise moment of onset had involved not Miss Rouelle, but Anita.
They had just begun Sunday dinner. Anita was standing next to him ladling clam chowder. He could smell armpit. Her armpit, he realized. She smiled at him, as she often did. And he thought, how beautiful she is; which he often did, too. Suddenly came powerful urge to urinate. At least that's what he thought when he excused himself and went to the bathroom. Except for the fact that he'd been mistaken, that his bladder was virtually empty, he washed his hands, returned to the table became engrossed in Anita's cooking and Grampa's anecdotes and thought no more about it. No more, at least at the time.
Soon afterwards, he found his mind wandering as he read. Even Greek! And suddenly he was thinking of Miss Rouelle. And that blank urge to urinate! Eventually, he learned to dismiss the sensation as a false alarm.
Then by some strange quirk of memory, he happened to recall a short passage in the Boy Scout Handbook, a passage he hadn't read in years, under the heading, "Wet Dreams." What made "Wet Dreams" noteworthy at all was that it totally mystified him and seemed like Gramma talking on the telephone with other ladies. For reasons he could not explicitly give, he found himself re- reading the cryptic item; and finding it no more comprehensible now than before.
The It was unlike any previous irrationality he'd suffered in that he could not simply will It away. Eventually, he considered bringing the full weight of philosophy down on the problem. But he didn't know where to start, let alone pursue a meaningful or truthful course. It was vagueness, itself. It assumed no form. He couldn't approach Miss Rouelle. Because he couldn't point to what It was. All he could say, for sure, was that nearness to her, or even just the thought of her, provoked another attack.
It! It! It! Miss Rouelle! Miss Rouelle! Miss Rouelle! And sometimes Anita.
When, by some blessed act of Nature, he was granted a moments respite, he would reflect on his love for Miss Rouelle, "Which has grown to fill many dimensions since A. E. Taylor's Socrates," he wrote. He would form an image of her and focus on particular details. The sparkle of her teeth, for instance, when complemented by the curl of her lips, could only belong to a mouth such as hers. Or take her hair, always with a few mischievous strands, loose and motile in the surrounding sunlight. And he would love and love and love her. Then, bang! another It attack, "superposed on my love for Miss Rouelle."
One night he had a strange dream. Miss Rouelle was there from the start. Anita joined her later on. Momma was in it briefly at the end. Except for his suffering, nothing seemed to happen. Nothing! Then, suddenly, he was wide awake, sitting straight up in bed. His pajama pants were wet. He hadn't wet the bed, ever in his conscious recollections. But wait! The passage on wet dreams! It must be some insidious disease associated with bed- wetting! "Must I contend with enuresis as well?
"Wait!" he cried out, bounded from the bed, wide awake now, and darted to his desk to reconstruct the scene.
The dream had been what? Pleasurable? What noun describes my sensations just before I exploded into consciousness? Desire? Yes, but desire is far too weak. Passion? As a background for it all, yes. Using desire and passion, he began a search through the Thesaurus and Funk and Wagnalls. "Concupiscence...urge...yen..." he mumbled as he checked definitions, antonyms and etymologies and tried to match the morphemes with his emotions. And then he found the perfect word. Oh! A short, pithy, primitive, Anglo- Saxon word announcing exactly how It. -- No! How he had felt! "It is Lust!" he called out.
Lust! It was exactly what he felt for Miss Rouelle. Lust. Lust. Lust. To lust, lusted, lusting. I lust, you lust, he (she, it) lusts, we lust, they lust. The lust. Lustful. Lustfully. Lusty. Lustfulness. "Lust! Lust! Lust!" Oh boy!
Strange, he reflected. The word was not really new to him. But its meaning certainly was. One dictionary gave the definition, "sinful desire" to the verb form. And Asa felt a twinge of guilt as he tried saying aloud: "I lust for Miss Rouelle."
Guilt? Shame? "As though I want to rob her of something!" Why? It occurred to him, suddenly, that he wasn't lusting for her at the moment. Aha! Had the wet dream dissipated his lust? "No! The dream satisfied my lust." Even better: "Gratified it!" The wet dream was to my lust what food is to hunger. And why, then, the guilt? What shame can possibly attend the gratification of the body's needs? But what need? Surely not urinating. He dropped his pajama pants. The wetness had given way to stickiness. This is no residue of urine! And then his barnyard observations and his research concatenated with the percepts from his nose and fingers. And he suddenly knew the agency of the dream's wetness. "Semen." But I hadn't been copulating. Wait! Was the dream quasi- copulation? Into the Journal he wrote: "Lemma: lust is the stimulus for coitus." Then a footnote: "I am amazed and amused by the fact that, until now, I had never realized this most crucial fact of biological existence. I had researched sex in some depth. At least I thought I had. But like any other topic, coitus was merely a subject to be filed under C. But, with no more connotations than eating or defecating, I'd made no further connections of the subject to myself. Not of this magnitude."
Now he summoned into the vestibule of his consciousness all he knew about sex. And he deliberated. Obviously, his knowledge had had a serious void in it: the referent of lust.
He wrote: "Without lust there is no renewal, no springtime, no rebirth, no regeneration of life. And, therefore, any guilt and shame associated with lust are irrational. Worse: Unphilosophical!" And instantly, Asa Zook felt no more guilt or shame about his lust for Miss Rouelle.
"But why am I not lusting for her at this instant? Do I love her now?
"With all I am," he said softly. Then another thought surfaced, and he wrote: "Yet I want to be lusting for her at this moment. And from this subjective fact, I reason that lust is connected to love; to my love. But I love much for which I have never lusted. And I can readily envisage lust without love -- as I can gluttony without appetite. Herein lies a philosopher's gambit, a privilege not open to the stud or the boar. Choice! I shall never lust without also loving."
Did he lust for Anita? Yes, he did. But he also loved her. He thought of girls in church and at school. He had not lusted for them. But he certainly could. And he could easily love them, too. Then he tried an experiment. Closing his eyes, he created the image of a woman he had never seen before. And he slowly turned her head toward him, slightly altered her coquettish profile and let her smile glide into his line of sight. Immediately, he felt a first twinge of lust. And, at once, he felt love. He chased away his experimental image and opened his eyes. "Nature endows us with choice."
He relaxed back into the chair and briefly rested. And immediately, as he subsequently logged in the Journal, "When I relax and let my mind freely chose its mate: Miss Rouelle! I am a bonded swan.
He returned to bed pleasantly exhausted. After a few moments the soothing darkness loosened his hold on the mind. And again the mind found her, dressed in blue blouse of miniature cloverleaf, her naughty tresses disobeying bobby pins and teasing innocent, passer- by sunbeams into taking their image along for the ride. "I love you," he whispered.
Did her lust match his? He wondered. Was it the same for a woman as it was for a boy...a man? Could he openly discuss lust with her now? Guilt and shame? Had she long since dispatched her guilt and shame as he had his? Then the impudent left side of his mind posed a question: Why do people wear clothes, Asa Zook? "Lust is...very powerful," he replied. "We must dampen lust, as we control the urge to overeat."
There is more to it than that, Asa, Deep Brain advised. "Elaborate, please." When the Deep Brain, of course, did not respond, Asa promised himself to research the subject with extreme care. And now he relaxed, again. And she returned, Miss Rouelle. And, except for her, a rising tide of lust submerged all else.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved.
May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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