"This's Poppa, Joyce," she heard when she finally managed to lift the receiver."
"He's alive. Can you come home, daughter?"
Her indignation began to recover as the Marine Corps helicopter passed above the Jersey shore of Delaware Bay. And it extended to Poppa, as well. How dare he? How dare they all? Zook ways! What madness had sucked her into their nether world? Asa was some form of...well, yes, Creep! And so was Poppa. "No," she muttered. Not 'Poppa.' Papa! No, not that either! It was Mister Zook from now on!
She recounted what Poppa had said on the phone: He'd seen Asa go into the house and knew when he come out carrying the crate with the lamp parts and that there long slide rule, the boy was headed for the sea. And something wasn't right. After he'd thought on it some he climbed down off the roof, got in the truck and followed. He found Asa's briefcase on the beach and his clothes and his eyeglasses down near the water. Then he saw Asa out in the water, and the current was carrying him to'ards the breakwater. Poppa was sure Asa'd be smashed to pieces. Then Asa went under. Joyce closed her eyes and shuddered. Poppa'd run out along the breakwater. "I was taking off my shoes when up he come again." Joyce bit her lip to hold back the tears. The horror seemed worse now recalling Poppa's words than when he'd actually said them. "He just ups, out of the water and leaps from one rock to another 'til he reaches the top of the breakwater. Collapses less than twenty foot away from me. Nose and one ear is bleedin'. 'T. S. Eliot' is all he says. I know he didn't realize I was beside him."
Joyce desperately needed to cry. T. S. Eliot! To battle back the tears, she silently recited most of the 'Little Gidding.'
The helicopter settled down in the butter bean field, and Ray was on his way out in his truck to meet her. He said nothing as he assisted her to the truck and helped her up into the cab. He remained silent as he maneuvered the vehicle to do the least damage to the crop.
Poppa was waiting on the porch. He said nothing until they reached the room. Asa was in bed. "He's asleep. Sedative. Couple broke ribs, Doc Clever says. Busted eardrum. Pulled hamstrings in the right thigh."
Asa's arms were badly abraded, Joyce could see, and his right wrist and hand were taped. A severe bruise, extending between his left cheekbone and hairline, was turning blue and yellow. "Doc Clever don't like his blood pressure, either," Poppa added. "I'll leave you alone with him," he said and was gone.
Joyce dragged her rocking chair close to the bed. Asa's lips were badly cut, she noticed. And he seemed much smaller than he actually was. "Just another piss ant like the rest of us, aren't you Asa Zook?" She didn't love him now. Nor hate him, either. Nor pity, nor scorn, nor...anything. Not any object of 'to feel.' She was here beside her husband because he was her responsibility. Like a vote on the floor. Or the garbage to be put in the incinerator instead of pitched out the window.
He could not have wanted life. Better stated: he couldn't have both: a) wanted to live and b) gone into that sea. Propositions a and b were as mutually exclusive as rise and fall. Nor could the sea have drawn him into itself against his calculated will. [Calculated? Correct. But chilling. Substitute with "reasoned" she said.] But how did he ever escape? Luck? Pure physical accident? Random chance? And having failed -- and nearly precipitated the drowning of his father -- could he ever fully face his life again? Would he give the sea another chance?
"You poor schlemiel." Is he mad? Had he always been a madman? Had she mistaken madness for genius? She encouraged it. Encouraged! Jesus Christ, she'd devoted her very being to its cause.
She stood, moved a floor lamp next to the rocking chair and went to turn off the room lights. As she was reaching for the switch, his big leather accountant's briefcase caught her attention. It was on the swivel chair by his desk. She hated that bag. It transported his calculations. The execrable calculations! Is that what drove him into the sea? She went to the bag, and unbuckled one strap. A few grains of sand fell on the floor. She started to undo the second strap, but stopped herself. "I have no moral right to do this." She rebuckled the straps. To avoid satisfying her true desires for the abstract poison within the bag, she transferred her attention, and her person, to the bank of bookshelves on the far side of the room. His Journal attracted her: row upon heterogeneous row of ledgers, their spines rudely numbered and marked with inclusive entry dates, some spanning years; others only days.
Except for an occasional new page he'd explicitly asked her to read, she'd never looked into the Journal. To have done so had never occurred to her, until now. Of course he would not have objected, would doubtless have taken it as an act of love. Which it would have been. Until now. "And now, Joyce?" Now the Journal of Asa Zook was a potential source of important information --"Of evidence!" She had every right to inspect it. No, it went far beyond that: She had an obligation to do so. She transferred an arm load of volumes to the floor beside her rocking chair.
Joyce picked up "Vol. 1" and randomly opened it to a middle page. The passage contained symbolic logic. Immediately she riffled back to find the entry date for the item. "My god, he was still only a little boy," she muttered. And she turned to volume's first page and began carefully reading.
Much of what Joyce finds, even among the earliest entries, comes as no surprise. Asa had either recounted the idea or incident to her or else made its essence an integral part of his life or his work. But if she'd ever had any doubts about his genius, the chronicle of the child would have completely dispelled them.
Vocabulary hinders his early progress. To compensate and "...hold onto my butterfly- like thoughts..." he invents a provisional language, until "...my word stores fill up." There is method and syntax in the symbols. As time passes, he compiles a dictionary with which Joyce can read the boy's thoughts in their original form. And even after he learns the correct English word, he often resorts to his own language "in order to avoid ambiguity or to clarify a connotation."
Then during a brief interval his vocabulary veritably quadruples by the day. The period is just after Poppa purchases the junior encyclopedia. ["Poppa, Poppa," Joyce uttered softly as she read.]
Joyce arrives again at where he'd begun the study of logic. She rechecks the date. In five weeks, the boy is already reading the advanced textbooks. She'd had two logic courses in her junior year in college. But the boy's notes, descriptions and observations clarify ideas that, until now, had remained opaque to her, despite her A's in the courses.
The same is true of whatever subject he undertakes. The child utterly refuses to move on until the topic is integrally a part of his thinking. Eventually, he reflects on his own approach: "The whole mind must be the teacher of the conscious selves." It is as though the child divides himself into instructor and pupil.
His reading speed had always astonished her. But even the child is able to consume an entire page of print at a glance.
Now a Miss Rouelle becomes an ever increasing subject of his narrative. [Jeanette Rouelle? Joyce knows her. She is from the northern county of the district: a literate and charming little spinster who has been a precinct coordinator ever since Joyce's first race for Congress.] "The magnificent human being," Joyce utters, as Asa reconstructs the young and -- although Joyce cannot visualize it -- beautiful Miss Rouelle.
Page by fascinating page, Joyce reads, volume by incredible volume, carrying one stack to the shelves, returning on tiptoes with another. As Asa passes through puberty, he amusedly shocks her by his frankness and detail; by his total absence of fear of any knowledge. Even when the child is patently wrong, he is always in the pursuit of truth. And with puberty, as Joyce suspects, Miss Rouelle assumes a new role. As the elements of his story unfold, Joyce apprehends the outcome and is filled with dread. But where the climax should occur, Miss Rouelle vanishes with the abruptness and finality of suicide by shotgun. And Asa's cryptic entry about the sea provokes a shiver and evokes the recollection of how she threw her arms around him and begged in vain for a promise never again to tempt the violent waters.
Joyce paused, closed her eyes and let her mind synthesize a whole from the elements she's been consuming. One truth arose from the pages, one Existenz. Whether high or low, serious or jesting, literal or satirical, whether at the fringe of an abstract universe or in the matrices of day- to- day wants and needs, Asa's chronicle had grown, alto- relievo, from a stratum of unrelenting grief. From a cosmos of utter agony, initially endured; then tolerated; then accepted; then assimilated into the firmament of a whole life. And finally, thereby, transformed into a conquered domain. A hell of hurt subdued, ultimately, by the will to love, to live, to be. Even in this boy, even in spite of her desire finally to be free of him, Joyce could not deny what was immortal on those pages: Asa Zook. Her Asa Zook. The tears streamed freely down her cheeks.
Joyce resumed reading, quickly now, for she understood the plot, grasped the themes, knew the principals. College is a playful time for him. Playful, if one means a schedule of classes that would overtax three graduate students. During his freshman year he is already taking the advanced courses in subjects of interest to him. He reads during most lectures. And yet he is seldom bored, although he will drop a course in a moment, "if I detect a bogus refrain in a professor's remarks." Exams? The Journal is silent on the subject. But his notes could be used as a textbook in whatever he happens to be studying. He plans to skip the masters degree and go directly to the Ph.D. until he decides to join the army. But he anticipates "inadequate library facilities at military installations," and will write a master's thesis "to keep my hands as well as my head busy."
The military entries, she has more knowledge of than the Journal actually contains. Then Joyce herself appears. "Marshmallows." She smiled until she turned the page, read and then reread aloud, "Anita."
Joyce stopped reading. "No more, Joyce," she commanded. "I will not feed my insanity another raw morsel of me." She replaced the Journal volumes to the shelf. Then she turned on the amber night light under her own desk, flicked off the lamp beside the rocking chair and cautiously crawled onto the bed, over the covers. She eased close and, with his breathing as a guide, found and lightly touched her lips to his. He stirred. In a moment he rasped, "Joyce?"
"The poet saved me, Joyce."
She continued to listen. When she realized he was sleeping, she let her head sag deeper into her pillow. In a moment, she briefly realized, she would be joining him.
Asa was still asleep when Joyce awoke. She changed from her rumpled business suit into jeans and a poplin shirt, washed her face and began reading Plato's dialogs, first the 'Apology' and then the 'Phaedo' in search of a line with which to communicate the thought to him indirectly that she'd require no explanations about the sea. But the death of Socrates did not fit the occasion, she realized. Poppa had said something about T. S. Eliot. And Asa had uttered something about the poet. She took down her own copy of Four Quartets and was reading 'East Coker' when Asa's eyelids fluttered and blinked open. She transferred from the rocking chair to the edge of the bed and kissed him lightly, first on his cut and parched lips, then on the cheek. "Try not to talk, Asa. It may hurt your ribs."
"I must work, Joyce," he spoke hoarsely. "I see that you have my salvation in your hands." She held up the thin, threadbare navy blue volume. He nodded, yes.
"You're probably too sore to get up."
"I found my theory, Joyce. I saw it totally in a flash as I was about to die. All of its elements were about me, in the sea. And in me. In my memory. In Nature. And every part perfectly fit into place. I could not surrender. I had to live, at least long enough to render the theory in words."
"No, Joyce. As philosophy. The science can come later. And perhaps calculations after that. But what lives within me now, Joyce, is a philosophy."
"But I don't think you'll be able to hold a pen for several days, dear."
He examined his writing hand. His thumb and wrist were sprained, he observed. Then he drew back the quilt and inspected the tape on his leg and ribs. "The sea is a brutal lover," he said.
"Wait until you see yourself in the mirror. Are you hungry?"
"Yes, dear, I am," he answered. Now she smiled, found an unbruised spot on his face and kissed him again. He sat up, and she fluffed and arranged pillows to prop him against the headboard. Then he gestured for her to come into his arms.
"You're in no condition for that, Dr. Zook." She grinned at him, and he grinned at her.
"I awoke with very strong desires for you, Joyce."
"I can see that." She felt her ears blush.
"But I must work, Joyce. I must."
"Can you dictate it?"
"I have never been able to use the Dictaphone."
"I know that, dear. I meant, if you told it to me, I could write it down. It wouldn't seem like dictation to you but, perhaps, more like a lecture."
"It could take several days, Joyce. Are you in recess."
"No. But I could do nothing more important than help you bring your theory into culture as a whole." She stood. "Darnit, Asa, you're making me horny. I'd better go downstairs and get us some breakfast. I'll call my office while I'm at it. And I better let Mrs. Rowan know you won't be in for a while."
"That will be unnecessary, Joyce."
"I don't understand."
"I have resigned my position at Havering."
Although Joyce walked as fast as she could, the distance between her and Poppa increased with every stride. And she was...already...out...of...breath...and had a stitch in her side.
Asa's nephew Timothy skipped happily alongside her. "What's the matter Aunt Joyce?" he asked when she simply could not... take...one... more... step!
"Please...Timmy...Run and ask the Grossdawdy to stop...so I can catch up --"
Before she could complete the sentence, the boy was bounding across the furrowed field, singing out, "Grossdawdy."
Oh how she loved that child, she thought as she watched him. He'd always been her favorite. Because he resembled Asa? But so did the others. This morning, because of last night's reading, she knew why she loved the boy so much. He was living the childhood Asa would have had if Momma Zook hadn't died. Timothy knew the happiness pain, like a branding iron, had erased from Asa's boyhood.
Poppa had reigned up his horses, turned and was waving his straw hat. Then, Timothy skipping beside him, Poppa was striding toward her. She'd recovered her wind sufficiently to begin walking to him.
Timothy. He liked being around her. "Can I go too, Aunt Joyce?" She was usually more than delighted to have him along. Love begets love, she said to herself as she watched him now. "Recursive amplification," Asa'd called it. [Ugh! Joyce hadn't had the heart to reply.] And now she knew why she could hardly keep her eyes off the child.
"He brings to the universe what a loving God would have permitted my Asa," she said aloud. Do I love Asa that much? So much that what belongs transcendentally to him, I also love? The question was its own answer, of course, she decided. Poppa and Timothy were close enough for her to read the happiness in the boy's face and the grave concern in his grandfather's. She tried to signal Poppa with her broadest smile and most carefree wave.
"Morning, daughter," Poppa called.
"Good morning Poppa," she sang in response.
When they were close, he halted, leaned forward in anticipating of a kiss on the cheek while holding his sweaty body back out of harm's reach. But to heck with that, Joyce said to herself, and threw her arms around his neck and hugged and kissed him with all her might. "He's all right, Poppa," she said softly.
"So I gather," Poppa said. "And you're all right, too, I see."
"Yes, although...Would you like to come up and have a cocoa with us while he eats breakfast?"
"No thank you, Joyce. I have to take advantage of the good weather. I know more now than I'd get from sitting and talking." His reply seemed especially sweet, she thought. She wanted him to know she took it as such. But the explicit words weren't at all right for this moment. Instead, Joyce said what else was on her mind. "I love you, Poppa." And she rendered the solemn Zook kiss.
"I love you too, Joyce." He turned to Timothy, smiled and tousled the boy's hair. Then he started back to his animals.
Joyce put her arm around Timothy's shoulders and they began walking back to the house. After a few steps, Joyce paused and turned around. "Poppa," she called out. "Thank you, Poppa."
"Thank you too, daughter," he shouted back.
Ray's pickup entered the driveway as Joyce and Timothy crossed the back yard. He waved and waited for them beside the truck. They exchanged good mornings. Ray reminded Timothy about the school bus. The boy kissed his aunt and his father and bounded into the house. Ray put his arm about Joyce and guided her to the new wing on the house.
"Is Asa in one piece?" Ray asked. "I mean inside?"
"I'm all right, Ray."
"The two of you, together?"
"In the spiritual sense, Ray, we'll always be together. For as long as either of us is alive. Whether we'll continue as we were, I'm just not sure. I'm not even sure if the question ought to be confronted. But I won't walk away from him while he needs me. Not if I can truly fulfill those needs."
Ray's roofing foreman (mercifully!) came around from the front of the house carrying a ladder. "Gutters and down spouts is all up, Ray," he said and proceeded to the truck. His momentary presence allowed Joyce to break off a discussion she really did not want to be having.
"We'll just let happen what will happen, Ray," and she shifted to questions about progress on the new part of the house.
Millie appeared at the kitchen door, called to Joyce that her office was on the line and invited the roofing foreman in for a cup of coffee.
After Joyce put down the phone, she considered calling Fish to see what the resignation business was all about. "No!" she said just under her breath, "Philosophy must take precedence over science." The Havering matter, whatever it was, could wait. Asa's theory could not.
Millie had prepared their breakfast, personally, and was loading the tray when Joyce entered the kitchen. The roofing foreman was thanking "Miz Zook" and raving about the crust of her peach pie. He nodded to Joyce, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, rose, put on his cap and backed almost bowing out the kitchen door. Her girl, Millie said, was rounding up the little ones for their bath, with which she and Millie would shortly be involved -- unless Joyce needed help or anything. And if Joyce did want something, "Please holler, dear." And, oh! Doc Clever would be by some time in the late afternoon.
Asa was in his bathrobe and at his desk. Joyce started to protest, but he reassured her he was merely checking the damage, that he had no intention of trying anything strenuous and would get right back to bed after they ate what looked to be a magnificent breakfast.
Joyce set the tray on a utility table beside her desk and got a chair for herself. Then, as they often did when they ate alone, each fed the other from his or her plate.
"Do I still get to write for you, Asa?" she asked when he was able to hold a slice of toast to her lips.
"Yes, Joyce. You'll account for its deliverance.
After the food was gone -- all of it (another Zook way) -- she helped him back to bed. She started toward her own desk for a fresh steno pad. "No, dear," he called. "Use the Journal, please." It was open on his desk. He had already filled in the title line in a shaky hand. Joyce paused and slowly read it:
Joyce Zook and Asa Zook
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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