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Seven Demons Worse

 by Ewen Harris

The story of Huston Evans is offered in three parts.  Part One shows Evans just after the untimely death of his wife, a strictly non-academic type who had brought gentleness and decency into his life.  In a smoldering rage against the campus community which scoffed at her (and against the God who took her away), Evans embarks upon a strange program of revenge: he begins accepting the sexual propositions (as he had never done in the old days) of his avant-garde colleagues.  The chapters of this section are named after figures from Greek myth who capture the essence of each encounter.  In "Tydeus", Evans's conduct evokes the mythic warrior whose dying act was to take a bite out of an enemy: he physically threatens his odious boss.  For the first time in his life, he savors the thrill of power unfettered by scruples--a taste which he soon derives also from sexual relation- ships.  The lonely, unreserved Fidelia of "Kalypso" resembles the island goddess whose embraces do not suffice to keep her wandering lover.  The confident, politically correct Gervaise is "Kirke", the sinister temptress who turns men into beasts.  Her art of sensuality nearly drives Evans's vengeful designs out of his head.  Having barely escaped her magic, he enters into a loathsome "love affair" with Emily, another political dynamo on campus, yet so self- absorbed that her beauty only makes her the more repellent.  Her chapter is called "Megaira" after the hate-driven fury.

By now, Evans has begun to recognize the longing for self- destruction lurking behind his revenge.  He attempts to snap out of his moral tailspin.  Unfortunately, his new habit of life is not easy to dispose of.  In "Ariadne", he walks away from two kind-hearted women from his past who wish only to find something like love.  Looking desperately for a way out of his moral labyrinth, he renews a relationship with Jane, a diffident woman with profound psychological problems which keep her from wanting any man she might have.  Evans had once loved her, and he now seeks to guide that love toward permanence; yet their immediate sexual intimacy robs him of his former mystique and renders him so suspect to Jane that she figuratively freezes beneath his touch: hence she is "Daphne".

The semester ends as Part One concludes; but before he can escape the campus, Evans is compelled to meet with his quondam mentor Eliot --after whom the chapter "Teiresias" is named.  Eliot is indeed a kind of blind seer.  He cannot comprehend Evans's reluctance to dance the mad bacchanal of campus politics in pursuit of success.  The rupture of this fragile friendship puts the finishing touch upon Evans's spiritual exhaustion.

For, to top off his ordeal, Evans has just suffered the loss of his mother.  This stoical woman's high expectations are vaguely the subject of Part Two.  More directly, this section sees Evans return home to a small southern town for the funeral and settling of affairs.  "Hypnos", or Sleep, traces his awkward reunion with his younger brother Mace, largely a stranger to him.  Upon returning him to the airport, Evans discovers that Mace is both married and awaiting the imminent birth of his first child--secrets which the mother's prejudices forced him to bottle up, since his wife is Hispanic.

Stung by his own unfairness to Mace, Evans is now poised for another bout of despair.  In "Oneiros" (Dream), he allows his erstwhile acquaintance SuEllen to rope him into the singles circle at the local church.  He resists her personal advances; but upon attending church, he is treated to a sermon which explains all suffering as failure to put enough in the collection plate (a chapter called "Kokytos", the wailing river of Hell).  This perversion of Christianity so revolts him that he loses his newfound bearings.  Only the naive Sharyn lends support --a simple country girl who attaches herself to him during Sunday school.  The support extends far into the evening; and in "Moira" (the goddess of fate), events reach the same old climax with an inevitable rhythm.  Evans had sworn off further sexual adventures, so his lapse with Sharyn convinces him that he is truly irredeemable.  In "Lethe" (Oblivion), he passes several introverted days at his mother's house pondering how to repair his exploitation of the girl while digging up mementos of past futility.  When SuEllen renews her pursuit in the middle of his gloom, he angrily and blindly heads off on the interstate.

Part Three opens as Evans flees to an unknown destination.  After hours of driving, he recognizes this objective in the vast nullity of the desert (a sea of sand for which the chapter is named: "Thalassa").  He spends the next several days picking around a tiny town.  The desert's nothing- ness slowly becomes courage, simplicity, and endurance to him.  The chapter title "Aster" is drawn both from the night sky's infinite beauty and from Stella, the woman who all alone runs the motel where he stays.  Evans's heart finally thaws here.  He sees that he has demanded a comprehensible happiness from God rather than accepting that the world's misery is deeply rooted in human nature.

To rededicate himself, Evans plunges into the desert on foot.  He intends a kind of penance of bodily pain-- perhaps death; but as he proceeds, he realizes that this passionate act is misguided.  His ultimate test must be to re-enter the world of the living.  By midday, he has renounced his trek and resolved to ask Sharyn to marry him.  In her simple heart he will find the vigor to begin a new life.  This chapter is named "Helios" (Sun), both for the desert and also for the streaming inner light which the dunes ignite.

The final chapter, "Gaia" (Earth), does indeed bring Evans back to earth.  He is opportunely picked up by a couple of roving geologists whose comic friendship opens up another side of existence to him, a life of the mind but not of campus pseudo-intellectualism.  The story ends as he dials Sharyn's number that evening.  His new beginning is well under way.

"I admire Seven Demons Worse a great deal. It is written in an effective and rich style, and is splendidly original." Dr. Jeffrey Hart, Professor Emeritus of English, Dartmouth College (and nationally syndicated columnist)

ISBN: 1-57579-106-4 (paperbound: Arcturus Press)

"Engrossing.... I hated to have to put it aside for anything else. With ... John Moseby as its author it could not be other than erudite, but the novel does not read as though the author were attempting to impress readers with his intellect." Lillian Baggett, retired English professor, Union University

"Seven Demons Worse reflects an extraordinary degree of mental and spiritual health and balance.... I want copies for both my older and my younger friends." Ramona Scarborough, Registered Nurse, Jackson TN

"I found Seven Demons Worse to be very original and extremely thought- provoking. I have finally found written words to describe many of my own disgusted thoughts on the state of the "intellectual" world that I (thankfully) was only briefly a part of. In some cases it was almost disturbing to think that Evans thought or reacted in ways that I felt I myself would have.... A friend of mine who also read it has yet to stop raving about it... and wondered if you had based some of the characters on professors at his law school."  Derek Steed; student, artist, and musician; Bonnie IL

"The principal pleasure that I derived from the novel is its style, particularly the metamorphoses from the sulfurous verbal fireworks of Part One; to the more pulled-down, more reflective language of Part Two; to the quiet though multi-toned narration in Part Three.... I don't mean that the style can be chopped into three; the modes overlap, and the narrator's voice is unified-- unmistakably his own throughout. But as his experiences change, so does the style. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel very much."  Dr. Paxton Hart, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Texas at Tyler

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In this early chapter, Professor Huston Evans, having lost the wife whose chaste love indemnified him for years of loneliness in the academic world of ruthless hedonism, adopts the lifestyle of those he most abhors.  It is a kind of vengeance which he himself has not thought through, and which immediately begins to pollute his own spirit.

She surprised him yet again (despite his earlier resolve that she would never more surprise him) in a display of tenderness when the last hold was released. She allowed him to slide down slowly over her ribs, so that his cheek came to a pillowy rest against her small, compact breast. At the same moment, she passed an arm (which he had inadvertently pinned against a cushion) around his waist, whose nakedness she sought and found easily beneath the loose folds of his disheveled clothing. Her other hand, its fingers flexing in and out, ran through her close-cropped hair. Then, as if measuring his hair against her own, she repeated the gesture once from his forehead to his ear. With this last movement, her eyelids finally lifted and her wide, dark pupils focused on him distantly, meditatively, as on a pleasant vista revealed from a great height.

"That was beautiful," she announced in a small, matter-of-fact voice--the very voice which she had used to sing the praise of that evening's Sauvignon blanc.

Evans was awkward in his utter comfort. Even his wife had never cradled him so intimately, so shamelessly, into the feminine swellings of her chest, like a young mother trying to suckle her babe... even his wife? Would he, then, have found in this a greater degree of intimacy with Sheila? Was this tenderness--to rub against another the most densely wired parts of one's epidermis? Was this love--had he always been wrong, after all, and the others always been right? Had Sheila, then, been just as hung-up and backward as he, and was he only now discovering... what? What was he now discovering?

For five minutes, ten minutes, they said nothing more... but her words kept fluttering through his mind like a bird trapped in a house. Like the bird, the words eventually found an open window.

"Beautiful... you said it was beautiful... in the sense of aesthetic?" he frowned vocally. "Beautiful like a work of art?"

"Ah, yes--I forgot that you believed in aesthetics... `something immutably human', wasn't that it? Well, if you wish, certainly! Would not any human have found that beautiful? Haven't we always--won't we always? What other species enjoys love-making as we do?"

She sang these words from deep in her throat. Finally she gave a little laugh, a little flash of her brilliant teeth, and rolled her eyes ceiling-ward in philosophical triumph.

Evans shifted and fidgeted more than ever. For some reason, although he had never lain more luxuriously in his life, he had to straighten his spine and lift himself upon an elbow. "But is there no difference..." he mumbled, and then trailed off, scrutinizing in disbelief the face which no longer saw him.

"No difference between what?" she retorted beatifically, still tracing the wrinkles in her ceiling's plaster map like a god about to pronounce that his creation was good.

He couldn't hold it back. Even the neurological excitement which had stolen away his will just now could not quite muzzle the voice that he heard speaking with his tongue. "No difference between... pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind? Between good food and Pachobel? Shouldn't there be a difference... or if there isn't... in those cases where there isn't... doesn't that deserve to be called love? But that's not... that's certainly not us, is it?"

He might have been melting into her private dream for all she detected of his unease. She murmured, almost as if dozing off, "I don't see why our act should not be considered one of love, and one of beauty, too. Why not both lovely and beautiful? The human act of love is a very highly evolved behavior, as I was just saying. What other animal do you know that can make love just right, so that it produces a pleasure rather than relieves a pain? And there are so many gradations to love, so many ways to make it a little better... a little slower or deeper. The highest act of love requires an artist's touch, a blend of long experience and inborn genius. You, I am happy to say, have the genius!"

Ignoring the compliment and the purring that went with it, Evans quickly answered, "There are a lot of things the human animal does which make us distinct, but few of them are... artistically elevating."

"Whether this one was artistic or not, there was certainly a very fine elevation!"

And she guffawed, obviously quite pleased with the obscene double entendre.

The jollity of her eighth-grade coarseness shocked him as nothing else this evening had yet done--shocked him in a way that she could neither have designed nor, perhaps, imagined. Until this instant, he had remained somewhat awed by her intelligence, her self-assurance, her effortless suavete; but now--what a coarse fool he himself had been for holding in secret veneration her laureated, gilt-edged brand of book-smarts! He rose on his arm a little farther, hiding in the activity an attempt to cover some of his nakedness, and merely grunted.

"Why do you keep moving around? Turn off the lamp, if you like."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. Maybe I'll go get a drink."

But for once he found his body languid; and he wondered, propped rather painfully on an elbow, what new snares and oubliettes might be involved in a trip to the kitchen and back. Would he be settling in for the night? Did he want to settle in for the night? The prospect of another "beautiful" excursion into her body--and another, and another-- was terrifyingly attractive to him. He realized at that moment that he might never tire of the symphonies conducted by her thighs, her hands, her scarlet lips and ivory teeth--that she would tire of and discard him in a week, as he had done Felicia, and that he would be less able to face a day without her then than he had already proved himself able to face these many months without Sheila. He understood now why men bequeathed their ties to her in utter capitulation. Under the circumstances, her exaction was quite charitable: she might have demanded furs, jewels, promotions, honors, murders, or suicides. She had been decidedly restrained.

He felt Gervaise's hand slip away from his waist, and heard a faint sigh of resignation. Entirely without intending it, he had won a very small battle of wills. The thought perversely panicked him: he was losing her, perhaps--he was letting her get away--letting himself get away from her. He barely managed to suppress a lunge back upon the divan's arm which would have steeped his senses in her once again.

Her teeth flashed now in a new kind of laugh--a laugh that either made no sound or died in her lean white throat. In a flicker of lashes, her eyes appeared to lower, not yet to his level, but to an angle of the ceiling and the wall, their descent somewhat stealthy, somewhat coiling, as if preparing a defense or an attack. "So you didn't enjoy it--is that what you're trying to say?"

"No!" he blurted, almost betraying his new resolve. He found an enticing taste of salt against his teeth, and imagined her body's touch first reflexively, then reflectively; but the muscles in his slack cheeks, frozen by some mystery of grace, failed to register the leer. "No, I did not say I didn't enjoy it! I said that the beautiful and the enjoyable are not necessarily the same thing... or maybe I'm trying to say that there's joy, and then again, there's joy. Oh, what's the use? I... I don't know why I'm trying to explain something like this to someone like you. I knew your politics and your convictions. It's my own problem. I should never have come. In fact... I'd really better be going."

He heaved himself up with a profound sigh, as if the noise of exhalation might hide the flurry of readjusted clothing. Behind him, she cried out in a new voice, an inarticulate, interrupted shout of dismay, of indignation, which stabbed at his back between the shoulder blades.

"What are you leaving for? You don't have to leave! We're just getting started! I've got two guest bathrooms--you can take your pick. The pipes may be old, but the water runs. Or if you prefer, I'll draw you a bath with an old pewter pitcher and scrub your back." The stiff, steely edge of irritation in her voice had already metamorphosed back into a caress. "I even have a closet full of men's clothes--Rhett Butler must have left them here. Or maybe Daniel Boone. You can take your pick of those, too. Maybe a warm tub bath and something more comfortable will improve your mood. Seriously, I'm a good masseuse..."

"I'll bet you are!" he smiled malignly, giving in--and then, as if another part of him were answering an alarm, he heard himself muse aloud, "I wonder if old Dan'l ever wore a necktie?"

"What did you say?"

Almost imperceptibly, his shoulder lifted a little higher between them, as if to ward off a blow. Which part of him would claim his tongue next?

"Look, what I mean is... well, come on! Why draw this out between us? You know we have no future together."

"Who said anything about the future? I thought we were talking about tonight!"

"Okay, okay!" He fought his way loose from himself to the surface, sitting straight up in a gesture that roughly tossed his partner on the cushions. "I said `ties', didn't I? So what about the ties? You tell me. Rumor has it that your closets are full of them--and you don't do anything to kill the rumors. I hear you joked about them during your speech in Chicago."

"Ah! So that's it!" she laughed unmerrily--her laugh seemed to have as many registers as a flute. He turned to face her fully, and found the glistening teeth--but also two eyes drawing fiercely into a squint. Her head was lifted, now propped up (still comfortably, still dominatingly) by the thin, laced fingers joined behind her hairless neck. He could not help but admire the naked elbows, matched perfectly, pointing upward in curves like rare ivory carvings on either side of the lampshade. "I do believe you're jealous, Professor Evans. If you felt that way about it, why did you come here in the first place? Why are you saying this now, after making love to me?"

"That's it!" he cried. "It's the making love! Yes, I enjoyed it--I enjoyed you! Do you identify yourself with it--is that love?"

"Well, what do you call it?" she bandied imperially from the throne of her splendid arms--but a miraculous blush began to stain her cheeks. "Whatever it was, you were quick enough to join in! Or did you just come for the pop? Downtown's the other way--maybe you missed your exit."

"Oh, how very funny... and what compassion for the sisters!"

"I have compassion for anyone who has to make her living off of cowboys like you, Duke." The stain was already gone--had it ever existed? "If you hurry, you can still round up three or four more before daylight."

Evans clenched his teeth over the words that were scalding them: adolescent volleys of sarcasm, snide ironies that would have brought him to the level of what he most detested. At the same time, sitting coolly behind the curtain where his strings were pulled, that resistant part of himself was delighting in this surge of resentment, which might just sweep the foolish little man out the way he had entered. Even at this instant, however, if she had said, "Please stay"... but no, of that there was absolutely no possibility. For if she had done so, would she not have been Felicia? Wouldn't Felicia have said that if given the chance? (And if she had, wouldn't he have refused?)

"In the first place," he stammered, standing square and straight before her, "I have never in my life... done the vile thing you suggest. I have never taken advantage of any woman, either by paying her money or toying with her affections... or never, at any rate, before I started studying at your school."

"If that's what's bothering you," she laughed--yet another laugh, its peal echoing off the ceiling like a bell, "you may put your conscience at ease. You haven't robbed me of anything! Don't flatter yourself."

"No, but you've robbed me of something--or would have if I hadn't given it away. Would you believe I used to be free? I used to be able to get free of myself, and all of you. There were things... above us all... and then you liberators arrived in your tanks. Now I have to live in your laid-back nothing-matters Disneyworld of blast-offs and happy landings! I've turned into the same piece of crap as... as all the rest of you."

"Welcome to the twenty-first century, where everybody and everything is a piece of crap... yes, I'd say that about sums it up. What's the matter, Cyrano--did you have an American dream that got lost? A chirping little housewife slinging Hamburger Helper and shuttling the kids to Roller Rink? `Honey, please balance the checkbook! Honey, please give Bobby a good talking to! Honey, I'll love you for ever and ever!' Did the cowboy want to settle down and hang up his pistola? The future, you said? Jesus Christ, man, were you going to propose holy matrimony to me just because we had good sex?"

And she laughed and laughed and laughed like a tipsy debutante at a New Year's Eve party, her white teeth and fully extended throat turned into an orchestra of merry crystal sounds.

He ignored the laughter, or rather talked between its holes. "So now beauty is just plain old good sex. Fine... now we're getting somewhere. Do you say, then, that you loved each of these men that donated his necktie? I mean, were you in love with each one? Did you feel love for him at the time? Or was all that just good sex, too?"

"Once upon a time--it seems ages ago now, doesn't it?--I said we made love," she countered with a sigh, her laughter exhausted. "We created together a difficult experience called love--like two collaborating artists, to use your own metaphor."

"Not my metaphor," he winced.

"All right... we made something together which was lovely."

"Without reference to you or the other person--just lovely in itself?"

Her hands came flying loose in a stunning display of naked white flesh. "Okay, have it your way! It was just sex! Sex! Everybody else enjoys sex, but you--you alone, of all the men I've ever known--you have to have your guilt, too! And you have to share it with me, like some kind of Seventh Day Anal Repressive knocking on doors! I'm not into guilt, okay? Just go! Just leave! Try another door! I can't hack you possessive types! I can't imagine what you think you came here to prove, with all your patriarchal--"

"I'm not upset about the number of men," he intruded, not angrily but earnestly, his shirt now fully buttoned up, his unoccupied hands thrust into his trouser pockets (where their flexing fists were poorly hidden). "It's not the number of ties--it's the ties! Why ties? There are other fabrics in the world, or I'm much mistaken. Why must you advertise these little conquests? Or if they don't signify conquests, why do you let on that they do? What's the joke? What does it all prove--what did you come here to prove, to this sick city, to this university? Are you proving that you just don't care? That you've never cared? That you're above and beyond caring? That sex is just sex--a little work of art that you mount, frame, and hang, a dish that you season and swallow until you get peckish again? I thought your whole thing was to denounce the bourgeois morals of modern Western society. What could be more bourgeois than wearing a ledger of transactions around your waist? You might as well tie an abacus to your sleeve. Why the counting? That's what I don't get. Do you win a prize? Do you go into a drive-through chain at some point, or merge with Wal-Mart? It's really just an object with you, isn't it--a countable object, a coin clinking into your piggy bank. You're not looking for anything. You're not missing anything. You have nothing to share and nothing to say. And if your books sell well, you'll have a whole generation of confused little bourgeois cheerleaders and princesses counting up their times like rings of the cash register, nothing missing, nothing to share, no wants, no needs--just like the guy who won the lottery. Well, wake me when the revolution's over."

"Just go," she said. "Just go."

Evans drives west without any specific intent (other than a vaguely suicidal one) upon realizing the squalid futility of his "vengeance".  As the novel nears its climax, her begins to assemble from the desert's seeming emptiness some of the answers he seeks.

That evening, after cleaning up very carefully, he went again to the diner, which was empty now as at every other time he had seen it. He heard voices in the kitchen, and eased himself into the doorway's light. The young woman was dishing up supper for two small children (one of whom had brought him his silverware last night). Without intending to stare, he became briefly mesmerized by the two heads of thick, splendid, tawny hair that bobbed over their plates like tethered balloons. The cough which cleared his throat was not engineered.

The woman straightened herself, apologized, and seated him out front. "We don't get many customers," she said. "Most people go downtown... but you know," she added, knitting her brow in grim earnestness, "that place ain't very clean. I wouldn't eat there. That's why I keep the diner open." She was slender--a bit too slender, as if she had worked herself to the bone--but her quick, accurate movements showed no sign of weariness. He thought of Sheila more than once as he watched her. When he had finished at last (with a piece of the same pie which he heard her dole out to the little girl and boy in back--it was the lure in her strategy to keep them quiet), he left an enormous tip.

The sun had not yet set. He settled himself into an iron-frame chair placed under the awning at his door. (Even in the shade, it had held the day's warmth, and its sudden dry embrace sent a shiver of pleasure through him.) He watched the desert mellow, its white waves of sand subsiding into a blue glow and the stark arms of drowning cactus massing into tranquil islets. He remembered his first thoughts upon seeing the desert (was it only yesterday?) and was surprised at their nihilism. The desert, a mere sun-bleached skeleton--a stunned hulk stripped of all living pomp and circumstance? It was so much more, so entirely different: it held the very essence of life, the majesty of suffering. Stripped of pretense, yes--but the mercilessly eroded dross of hypocrisy, far from leaving a nothingness exposed, allowed the pure power of endurance to sweat beneath the sun and thrust its racked arms into the infinite sky. By no accident had Moses and Mohammed and the prophets all brought faith from their desert wilderness. He remembered even farther back than yesterday, incredibly far back, to his last curt words aimed at SuEllen, her town, and their pseudo-religion. He had been right, through no fault of his own, when he had implied that they believed in nothing. They believed in what they could touch and possess, which would one day make new deserts from its decay; and they believed in a god who would resist the desert--who would exempt them from it and let them touch and possess through all eternity. They believed in an idol carved after their own image and dedicated to Unbelief.

Like Jonah, he had sprung out of the dark pit into which he had been swallowed alive just so that he could denounce them... yet wherein was he different? Had he, too, not wanted a happiness made according to his specifications for the length of his natural life? He hadn't been greedy--he didn't expect to live forever, and after this life he would even have been content with oblivion, as long as he and Sheila had enjoyed thirty-five good years together to make up for the thirty-five without her. God had owed him for those lean years, and the debt was payable now, please, and in terms that he could comprehend. Even if there were nothing afterward--even if there turned out to be no God--there should be someone or something to see that he got paid... not much, just everything--just exactly what he wanted. And so he had created exactly the kind of universe that would exist if there were no God, where everything had to make sense here and now, and then had expected his God to come dwell in it. Or rather, he had been shocked to find that his God did not dwell in it when Sheila died senselessly. And his faith had worn away like dross, leaving a lifeless skeleton rather than the crystal-hard but malleable paradox of sand.

His hostess briefly disappeared with a clean pillow into the cabin next to his, then emerged with the final words of an energetic assurance ("Just let me know!") trailing over her shoulder to someone inside. He nodded to her, and she hovered over him.

"Did you say something to me just then, Mr. Evans? I'm sorry, she wanted an extra pillow--"

"No, no, I..." He shrugged languidly in his warm chair, following a rare car down the highway with his gaze. "I must have been talking to myself."

"You do that a lot out here!" she laughed--a short, blunt, honest laugh, ever so much like Sheila's. "The desert will make you talk to yourself."

"I can think of worse things to do," he murmured.

There was a pause, during which the car heading out on the highway flicked on its lights. Dusk had already filled some of the furrows between the dunes, and the sun had perhaps already set somewhere behind the adobe buildings, somewhere in the far west.

"You like the desert, don't you, Mr. Evans--I mean, you really like it?"

He ran his hand over his chin and frowned, frowned into the disheveled eastern horizon whose patches of cholla and Spanish dagger were far less prickly now than the first star... but the woman didn't move a muscle and made no effort to withdraw or subdue her question. "It helps me to believe in things," he said at last, very quietly.

There was yet another pause--the right kind of pause, which showed that she had understood. Then, for the first time since she had stopped at his side, she made a perceptible gesture, and he found a wide-brimmed, slightly creased sombrero in his face, his nostrils filling with the sweet scent of straw.

"Take this. It's my husband's, but he's never worn it much. Says the brim gets in his way when he hammers. Between you and me, those guys kid him about it. They called him Pancho Villa the one time he wore it out. But the Mexicans--I tell you what, they know how to survive out here. Besides..." and she paused just long enough to lay the hat in his lap, "Dan could buy him a new one with that tip you left me."

"Thank you," he said simply, his head bowed over the gift.

"Just be sure you wear it," she pursued, as if she were talking to the little boy in the kitchen. "You don't need to be walking around with your head uncovered." And she cocked a finger at him, turning her earnestness to irony. "We that live here know better."

As he watched her slender figure work speedily, accurately, through the long shadows to the front office and vanish on yet another mission, his recollections of Sheila became more numerous and aggressive than they had ever been. It was as though he had walked into an ambush. He remembered her in blue jeans--not a designer name with artificially tattered cuffs and holed knees such as his students wore in some costume-ball attempt at a proletarian gesture, but the off-brand from K-Mart, faded but never ragged, sometimes stained with a spot of oil (there wasn't much she didn't know about tractor engines, even though her small hands could scarcely open a fresh jar of preserves). He remembered her in her homemade dresses, clean and earnest like a black-and-white photograph, ready to laugh but never willing to feign laughter, ready to say "no" to a bad idea but never to crush anyone's hopes or wishes. He remembered her with children, always nieces and nephews and strangers' children, more at ease with them than were their own parents, because nothing of importance to them was quaint or cute or silly or anything less than important to her--because she herself had the heart of a child.

"How I miss you, Sheila," he thought after the vanished figure--and then realized that the words had been spoken out loud. He reared himself up noiselessly, withdrew into his room, and wept for the first time--the first time since that night in the hospital more than a year ago.

And there was much to weep for. There was much distance between them now, perhaps more than he could ever traverse. If there was nothing after death, of course, then she was gone to him forever, and he might as well finish blowing up the world... but if there were something after death, as she had believed unshakably and as he had always claimed to believe, then... then she was still gone to him forever--for an infinitely longer forever, since he would forever be conscious of the separation--all because he had thrown away his faith. Just when it had counted. Now he would never, ever see her again, and the best he could hope for was a finite never.

But then they would all have been right, Gervaise and Max and the elders of SuEllen's church--they would all have been right to slash and plunder in their various ways and amass their various heart's desires, because there could be no realizable desire except for what one might touch and possess, and there could be no reckoning to pay later for undetected, unwitnessed murders. What had he been trying to prove in all those miserable weeks of settling scores, of ripping off masks, if not that they could not be right--that their falsehood was manifest even in this world, and that the love of truth would spew them out, whole and raw? He had not proved the necessity of something else, but he had proved beyond his own obscurest visions of success--beyond his satisfaction, and well into his numbest horror--the futility, the utter insanity, of life devoted to touching and possessing.

There was nothing left to do, then, but start over. Somehow he had to erase his new identity, his new anonymity, and start again from scratch.

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