Introduction: This is a love story. It was written over the course of a few months at the end of 2012 and the start of 2013. It was my first real attempt at a piece of fiction, inspired by the flawed genius character arch-type most commonly exemplified by Sherlock Holmes. My hopes are to one day have enough time, energy and confidence to go back and punch it up a little bit, but until then it shall rest here.
As your father, it has always been my primary duty to protect and ensure your prosperity and continued happiness. This charge has set upon me certain decisions, made in the past that I, at the time, felt were for your greatest good. Now however, as I lay in reflection upon my life, I feel as though I may have wronged you in my handling of an incident that took place nearly eight years ago, when your brother Todd fell ill. Before I die, I wish to relate the circumstances surrounding that event, and beg your forgiveness for omitting the truth for all these years.
I have never doubted for a moment, that you would succeed in life as a surgeon, and nor have I ever questioned whether or not a suitable man would one day ask me for your hand in marriage. While both of these have transpired, and eroded, you must understand that being a father, on a biological level, creates an insatiable need to interfere with the lives of one’s children. Every parent does it on one level or another. What drives us to sign up a child for ballet, piano, swimming, or hockey, and why one over the other eludes me. I only know that the child themselves usually offers no indication over what their future self may benefit from most.
Who would have guessed that the stuffed football your mother and I originally bought for young Todd would be such an inspiration and driving factor for Arthur? Who would have thought that this five dollar gift, purchased because its color contrast matched the baby blue of his blanket would become so dear to baby Arthur – never letting it leave the crook of his arm. These coincidences in life have never had much of a place for serious discussion in our family I grant you, and perhaps it is my old age talking, but the harmony of these events have struck so deeply with me that I can no longer honor the promise I made to take this tale to the grave.
I only tell you this now, because I worry about you my dearest Melanie. Your recent days have been littered with misfortunes. While I cannot linger on this Earth for much longer, I cannot lay here without trying to help you find your way again.
I overheard your conversation with your mother during your visit to the hospital last week. I know you have given a notice of indefinite leave with your medical practice. I know the fragile state of your marriage has weighed heavily on you, and while I appreciate and understand the brave face you put on in my presence, you must know that, as your father, your pain reverberates deep within me on a level you cannot hide with smiles and malted chocolates.
In this medicated haze, I didn’t not hear but fragments of what was said between the two of you, but what stuck out in my mind was you saying, “Love isn’t real.”
For much of my life, I would have agreed with you. As you know, your mother and I are hardly honeymooners at this stage in our lives. She seems to have taken the news of my imminent passing with such a collected stride that to the untrained eye, it may seem as if it hadn’t effected her. But love does exist, and it as easy to believe in as the warmth of day coming from the sun. I cannot tell you how many times, once you and your brothers have left, and she believes me to be asleep, where I hear her weep quietly to herself and place her trembling hand on my arm so as not to disturb me, but in the tension in her quivers, I can feel her burning desire to throw herself on me and sob. My life a anthropologist has also given me much reason to doubt the notion of life as being more than an evolutionary response to care for a collective community, but in having felt the power and density from my own experience, I do now believe there is something deeper.
You will have to excuse my old memory Melanie. The conversations that follow, you may notice, are paraphrased in my own language. I am no writer, so you will have to pardon the fact that I do not know how to replicate the speaking tone of individuals whose conversations occurred years ago.
But the events began as such:
It was December, nearly eight years ago, and I was in my office in the north wing of the Amherst building. The window facing west allowed in the last lights day as I finished annotating some notes on a paper set to publish. I could not focus on my work however, as you know, several weeks prior to Christmas, Todd’s health had rapidly deteriorated. He had been vomiting for days on end. He could not eat, or bring himself to stay awake for longer than a few hours at a time, and his skin had grown a very stale yellow pallor. On a very primal level, the threat of your eldest son’s health dominates one’s mind, such that the completion of accurate bibliographic notation seems arbitrary at best. I kept reading the same reference line again and again – opening new tabs on my computer, only to realize I had two existing ones with the necessary information already available. The massive oak desk – which was suppose to be able to fit a full sized computer, an encyclopedia and two note pads on its surface with room to spare – seemed to have shrunk down, and the sweat of my own hands, chilled cold by the winter air, slowed my progress even more.
The graduate students and their distracting questions had gone away for the holiday, so I was left alone with my thoughts to fester and compound on one another. Thinking I was the only one in the building, I allowed myself to unravel slightly. The bottle of brandy that had stayed on my shelf as a decoration for three years, was opened, sampled, and promptly put away. My jacket removed, and suspenders left to dangle off the sides of my chair, opened my perception to the draft that was flowing from the west facing window to the door on the east. I closed my eyes, to hear the soft churning of wind, when my ears detected a second sound – the heavy clacking of men’s dress shoes drawing near. The university had shut down for the holiday days ago, and the night janitor wasn’t scheduled to come by for another four hours. Naturally, the academic in me sought the need to know the unknown. Suspenders and jacket in their proper place, and a stick of gum to quell the scent of alcohol – I have never wished to be part of the stereotype of a professor with brandy on his breath – I went out into the hall to meet the approaching steps.
He rounded the corner with the determined step of someone who knew where he was going, but his eyes wandered in such a way to suggest that he didn’t quite know where that place was. Through fogged glasses, he squinted at door names until his eyes detected myself, standing in a doorway about ten yards from him. He looked about thirty, the first few gray hairs beginning to show through jet black hair, roughly two inches long. Standing at just under two meters, his posture was slightly bent at the neck, most likely from years of leaning down to hear conversations. His frame was jaunt, and he looked borderline unhealthy in his weight. But despite this, coupled with the fact that he had clearly missed several days of shaving, he was dressed appropriately for being at a University – A gray suit, clearly older than he was, shoes that looked big, even on him, and a black sweater vest and pale red tie.
When he saw me, his face lit with recognition. I was taken aback by a simultaneous feeling of having met this young man before, and apprehension of someone I knew to be a complete stranger. It was as if he was one of those people you sat next to on the bus for years, but never said hello to, or more commonly in my case – and what I assumed his presence accounted for – a student on campus whose schedule had coincidentally overlapped with mine.
But he was here with cause, as I could tell when he smiled and began walking towards me. He did not limp, but had a peculiar gait – as if he were perpetually falling forwards only to be caught by a dead leg at each step. He seemed to have to heave his weight to advance, yet it did not seem unnatural or inefficient for him to walk in such a way. As we came into proximity he held out his hand, and recognizing by my expression that I had no idea who he was (although I should have) he said, “Dr. Thatcher, you don’t remember me, but I am a friend of your daughter’s and I would like to impose a moment of your time.”
His smile and the timbre of his tenor voice was full of the hope of a much younger man. Despite this, his childlike grin gave way to the features of his aging. Crowning at his eyes, crows feet were in the seeding phase around his grin. Upon closer inspection, there were more than a few graying hairs on his head – nothing like the salt and pepper you would expect on a man of fifty or so, but on him, who couldn’t have been older than thirty, was quite distinct. His eyes had the gloss and shine of youth, but under the brown spheres lay dark rings all too familiar to someone who spends his days with doctorate students. The man’s jaw was distinguished or he was malnourished, but his cheekbones rested rather high on his face. His clothes swayed loosely on him, billowing ever so slightly in the draft from my door.
I escorted him into my office, and he closed the door behind him. By cutting off the draft, I noticed how he had brought in with him the smell of the weather: dead leaves, wet smoke, and from his own person, several cups of coffee. He introduced himself as follows, pausing for long intervals at peculiar times and staring into a void. His word choice seeming more critical to his mind than the bizarre nature in which he presented himself to me. He ambled around the room as he spoke, contemplating whether or not to sit down. The man clearly wanted to play with some of the trinkets I had laying around the office, an old sailing compass, a rubix cube, a pen with a toy troll stuck on the end left behind by a student, yet as I saw him begin to reach for something he would immediately retract his hand in a much more violent manner than the initial action merited.
Here are his words as I recall them:
“Doctor, my name is Quinn Farstride.”
I knew the name from somewhere. He continued.
“It was recently brought to my attention that your elder son Todd has fallen to renal failure.”
“You learned this from Leda I presume? ” I interjected. There was something about Quinn’s face that had caught my attention. Being in the finishing stages of my own work on the subject, and having just read a student thesis on the theory, I could not but help to notice the range and intensity of Mr. Farstride’s micro-expressions.
His face was in constant flux – never allowing for one demeanor settle in. When he smiled, it seeped sadness from the corners of his mouth. He would from time to time bring his hand to his forehead to quell, what I assumed was a caffeine headache, and while his eyes reacted with winces of pain, he would smile widely. One side of his face emoted much more than the other, and while this is common, I had never seen it switch back and forth between the left and right sides of a face.
When I spoke, he first looked quite confused. I watched as he quickly retreated into his mind for a moment – the gears of thought whirling around like a dreidel – he looked at himself for a second in the glass of my bookcase and chuckled:
“Ah good Doctor, I understand I have aged horribly this past year or so, but I came by this information by my best friend, and your youngest daughter, Melanie.”
Then it struck me. I hadn’t passed by this young man in the gardens on campus, he had been a rarely seen, but well known presence in my home many ago, when you, my daughter were still a teenager. But having known you two were the same age, it hardly seemed credible to my eyes that the man who stood before me was only twenty-three and some months.
He was the boy who lived down the road from us for some years, and your dear friend. Perhaps if in the past I had been introduced to more than the back of his head I would have made the connection myself, but up until that point we had only met once or twice on a rushed hello. I did however, recall all the hours you and he would spend aimlessly walking around the neighborhood. Growing up, you had always been relatively quiet, especially around me in those days, so it always puzzled me as to what you two could be talking about day in and day out.
I remember talking to your mother about him, trying to discern if he was interested you, or if you two had started dating, but she was of complete confidence that nothing was to come of it – and I was inclined to believe her. The boy who walked around the neighborhood, and the man who stood before me, did not seem like a suitable choice for anyone, let alone my youngest daughter. The other wives and mothers thought him very strange – outside of his walkabouts with you, his only perceived company was an old golden spaniel. Standing in his presence now, I could understand what those old ladies were referring to. He possessed an intensity of mind that filled the room. It wasn’t entirely pleasant. But the density of his mental process, the time it took him to form thoughts, and the thoughts that ended up being produced and spoken aloud, generated a contrast and cacophony that left one wondering with what rough drafted idea he had begun, and why he found it so unsuitable as to pause and stare at an antique inkwell for eleven seconds.
He continued, “I do not know how well you know me, or the nature of my friendship to Melanie, but I will first present my proposal to you, and then argue my case and hopefully answer any outlying questions you may have.”
At this point I came under the brief assumption that he was trying to obtain my blessing for marriage, but the circumstances were too unordinary, and why would he lead off in reference to Todd’s sickness? The sun had finally set and the air turned colder. Quinn walked to the window and made a motion to it, silently asking permission to shut the window. I made a motion of approval. He used two hands and the weight of his bare frame to shut the heavy window, thick and cracking with layers of white paint. Much like his walk, the motion seemed to take up his whole being, yet it did not appear to cause him any strain. I thought to myself: How could he have visibly changed so much in this past year? He was always an active and healthy looking child, despite his squirrelish nature- constantly tromping through the woods around the neighborhood.
Quinn’s supposed outstanding fortitude had been a topic of discussion amongst the family after the last time he had stopped by the Thatcher home, roughly a year or two ago. Melanie, you probably recall this, but you had come home distraught after receiving a phone call that while traveling across the state, Quinn had been in a terrible train accident. His carriage rolled off the tracks, and despite many fatalities amongst the passengers and crew he had walked away with nothing more than a few glass cuts and a stiff shoulder. He even had the fortitude to stop by the house that same night to deliver a book to you Melanie, a copy of Flush by Virginia Woolf.
But what a transformation that young man had undergone – there was a noticeable loss of muscle mass and overall weight. Standing at just over six feet, his old weight of about one hundred and sixty pounds seemed thin on him before, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if standing before me, he clocked in closer to one hundred and forty. Despite the loss in mass, his presence stood taller than it did in years past. When I knew him as the boy you would walk around town with, he always presented himself in a crumpled up manner – as if he were trying to seem as small as possible. His neck would hunch over like a small child; shoulders cupped forward; perpetually staring at the ground. Now, his gaze sought out mine. He stood tall, and found himself very comfortable in my office, leaning every now and then on desks, shelves and sills.
He reached into his breast pocket and presented me with a small stack of papers, folded into fourths – it had been printed recently, but smelled of light tobacco. They were medical in nature, test results of some sort, dated two days prior. At the middle of the page was a highlighted line which read – Organ donor compatibility: Todd Thatcher against Quincey Eldridge Farstride – four out of six.
I flipped through each page, trying to make sense of any of the graphs, numbers or plots of data that lay before me. “It makes no earthly sense to me either Dr. Thatcher,” Quinn said, finally finding the courage to play with the hair of the troll doll – twirling it opposite of the pen, winding it tightly between his forefingers. “What I do understand is that my match is only one degree less compatible than the best possible match, your younger son Arthur, who is probably also a four, but could not be any higher than a five out of six, and unless Todd has a twin I am unaware of, a six out of six is already out of the question.”
“How could you have possibly done all this work? I only told Melanie of Todd’s condition but yesterday. These tests were completed two days ago.”
I had grown uncomfortable in this man’s presence. He seemed to be more involved in my family than I could have ever realized, an in that moment it was I who felt like the outsider, the stranger. He smiled warmly at me:
“Melanie is studying to become a doctor. Of course as soon as her own brother demonstrated signs of illness she began her own investigation. We spoke on the phone two weeks ago, and I instantly knew something was amiss. Although admittedly, I originally thought that Melanie’s cat Charles had fallen ill, after some probing, she relinquished what she knew. Todd had been bed ridden for several days, only getting up to vomit, and that the whites of his eyes and discharge had been brown, and his skin had yellowed.
I myself, have a limited and basic knowledge of medicine, but it doesn’t take too much medical knowledge to know that the symptoms indicated either the failure of the kidneys or the liver. Knowing that a transplant may be in order, I had myself tested for donor compatibility on both systems the day after I spoke with Melanie and then simply waited for Todd’s test to present itself at the hospital. The means in which I was able to monitor hospital records were unscrupulous to say the least, but the results I think will be so beneficial to everyone involved that I find a small bribe to an underpaid clerk, and a sizable donation to a hospital administrator around Christmas morally excusable. ”
At this point his face stopped its kaleidoscopic expressioning – he put the troll pen back down and he sat in the chair across from me – hunching over, he became again, that shy, wandering boy I recognized. The cracks of Mr. Farstride’s smile ran deep in his loose fitting skin, and despite it being one of the most human and genuine smiles I’ve ever seen, it was so laced with pain and sadness.
“Dr. Thatcher, I want you to take my kidney.”
I was so taken aback by now, I found myself at a loss for words. What possible motivation could this young man have had to go to such elaborate lengths for the benefit of a family that was not his own? At this point in time, my dear Melanie, you two hadn’t even seen each other since the train accident. From what I had heard in passing, the young man who sat before me lived halfway across the state, had a management position in an office, and was preparing to become engaged! I fumbled out my reply, “Surely Quinn, this is all premature. The doctors have not even confirmed that a transplant will be necessary.”
“But Dr. Thatcher, it may soon become required. Kidneys don’t just fail. There is an underlying cause that I haven’t been able to induce, and from the ring on your desk, and the drop falling down the brandy bottle behind you, I would have to guess that the doctors have not found said cause?”
“Well I say, should I expect a limping war surgeon behind you? Perhaps some violin music and cocaine?” We both laughed – mine full of nervousness and air, his short but hearty. The light in the office had faded into dusk shadows. Quinn went for the light switch, and I offered to reopen the brandy, to which he accepted with gratitude and eagerness. Over the first glass I explained to Quinn how the doctor had called an hour before his arrival, relaying that they were still searching for the cause of Todd’s sickness, finally asking for permission to perform dialysis.
I found myself pouring out to this young man in a way that I still don’t do with my closest friends. Perhaps it was the fact that he was at the same time, a complete stranger, a void and escape outside my own life, but at the same time, knew intimate details about my personal life and children, and so didn’t need a great deal of explanations to understand an abbreviated tale. Whatever the cause, we drank on. I even broke my tobacco-less run of five years around the third dram. The night had settled in and the shadows rested, casting long beams across the room like sunflower petals from the central lamp. I hadn’t stayed on campus this late in quite some time. There was something about the dim lighting that, to my eye, made the office feel very much like home. The white radiator in the west corner under the window, yellowed by incandescent light, creaked from expansion as the room warmed. At some point, I think it was around drink three, the blinds on the north wall were opened, displaying the half-moon and the field of wet, stomped grass that lay just beyond the university grounds. We were in and out of each chair, I hovered around the antique wing-back on the south eastern corner that I had found too pretentious to keep behind my desk. Quinn found my office chair, “well worn” and despite his previous apprehension with handling trinkets – I suspect the alcohol had killed this inhibition – he began freely fidgeting with the items on my desk; even opening a pen drawer, for which he immediately realized could be seen as rude by someone with something to hide and apologized profusely.
You must understand that the specifics and details of the conversation between Quinn and myself became hazier at this point, but I will do my best to summarize the general context of the discussion, focusing on the matter at hand: the health of your brother, and Quinn’s desire to donate his kidney.
After we had briefed each other on what we knew, could infer about the circumstances, he presented his argument in this manner:
“Dr. Thatcher, the dialysis is but a temporary solution, and a further indicator that a transplant in the near future will be necessary. I know that at your age, the risk of surgical complications is much higher, and being old fashioned as I am, I know that you would not want your wife, or daughters to go under the blade for this situation, which is why I believe you were thinking that in the worse case scenario, your youngest son Arthur would be the perfect candidate.”
“You seem to know my thoughts as I have them Quinn. Yes, I was just earlier this afternoon contemplating how to breach the subject to him, as he is set to arrive into town tomorrow morning.” I replied.
“I understand that he has been drafted by the university football team. That is quite an accomplishment. Their team has made it to the national championships twice in the past four years.”
“Yes, he is set to start training this coming summer.”
“Do you believe that he could possibly recover from a major surgery in time for training?” Quinn asked.
I could not answer. It was a question I hadn’t wanted to ask myself. Quinn sensed the darkness that welled in my heart and continued on:
“Do you believe that there is a strong possibility, that if Arthur were to comply with the surgery – which we both know he would; he loves you both very much. But that if he were to go under the knife, would it not forever compromise whatever athletic career he may be capable of? I had heard through the neighborhood grapevine that he had even been tentatively approached by the recruiter for the professionals. He is quite the rising star, Arthur.”
Empty words of rebuttal choked in my throat as he spoke.
“Now, Dr. Thatcher, I understand that a man of your good nature would find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible to accept a favor as the one I am offering you, but let me inform you of my own recent past, and hopefully by the end, you will see things my way and accept the terms I propose to you.
I am twenty-four now, and perhaps you are aware of this, but this is the age in which many serious mental disorders present themselves. Although I can safely say, there is no defining moment at which one’s mind is lost, there are situations and circumstances which can accelerate the process. I first began to suspect that the tethers of my mind had loosened at the age of sixteen when I was staring at the road on the way to school, and before my very eyes I perceived that the road, in fact the whole Earth, began to breathe – pulsing and rolling like an intelligent ocean, inhaling through the leaves of the trees and gusting outwards from the sound and vibrations of the ether of the air. The inanimate seeming so much more vibrant and alive than the stagnate life – if you could call it life – huddled in a temperate cafe, playing the same radio songs from forty minutes ago, drinking the same style of coffee from the same location made by the same passionless person behind the bar. The contrast! How one single leaf, twitching in the wind showed more appreciation for it’s time here than half of humanity. How… (he paused for a great deal of time here, reflecting, casting and reeling his thoughts again and again) I have, for several years now, kept this to myself. Melanie has had her suspicions, but I have confirmed nothing. It wasn’t until last year, in a bout of major depression, that I began to seek the care of a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with disorganized type schizophrenia.
Let me assure you, Dr. Thatcher, that this proposal is in no way associated with any delusions of grandeur. I do not believe myself to be on a mission from God, or any higher order, I merely wish to use the last remnants of my cognitive mind to create a positive impact in the world.
You see doctor, there is a difference between myself and your family. Take Arthur for instance: Here we have a promising young man, with a bright future ahead of him. He is good-natured, and pure of heart. His success in athletics will provide him with a comfortable living at which point he can forward the goodness and charity to others, much as you have with your fortunes. He is an individual, and your family is a group of people, whose greatest goods will come as positive contributions to a society.
By contrast, we must examine myself: My future is a bleak one, full of self-monitoring. I will fill my days with strictly-oriented schedules and routines to present myself, to the best of my abilities, as a functional member of society. I can optimistically hope for a job at some menial task, or clerical work. I will most likely require professional supervision, and perhaps a facility will be in order, if my condition should prove to be unmanageable by myself. The greatest good I can hope to achieve in the coming years is to mitigate and minimize the hardships my condition is bound to cause for those around me.
So really, Dr. Thatcher, I am asking you for a favor. I would like my last sane act to be a noble one. I would like myself, as I can perceive now, to be immortalized in this deed, so that in the future, when I am lost, I have a definite idea of the man I truly am; the man who I will try to uphold against my own illness.
Remove the risk of surgery from Arthur. Eliminate the possibility of compromising his future, and let me bear it. Give the risk to someone who can afford to take it. I have consulted my psychiatrist and she has agreed to omit my condition to the surgeons. I have essentially been declared fit for the procedure. The chance of organ rejection is only slightly higher for Todd, but it will keep Arthur from harm’s way.
He paused, and folded his hands together in conclusion. His grip was tight, and I could see the whites of his knuckles. Quinn’s knee oscillated like the drive of a train, causing his whole body to fluctuate. Smiles popped and crackled through his face – he looked exhausted, but full of life.
Something didn’t seem right about his body language. I felt as though he were omitting something, or that he was perhaps trying to deceive me in some way, although who could know what possible motivation a person could have in manipulating a father into accepting a second lease on life for his son? It was in the way he leaned towards me from my own office chair; it was the same way a salesperson concludes a pitch. It was too good to be true. My inebriated bravado came forward:
“What aren’t you telling me Quinn? Why are you coming to me? Why have you not asked Melanie first? Does she even know?”
He laughed again; short and hearty, trailing off and raising slightly in pitch.
“She musn’t know because she would never allow it. If she were to say no, I would obey. You, Dr. Thatcher, I can at least try to persuade and argue. With Melanie, her word is my law.”
He rose from my office chair and perused the book shelves. He went on, running his finger across the line of encyclopedias:
“Have you read ‘A Tale of Two Cities?'”
“No, Quinn, I can’t say I have.”
“It’s a wonderful story. One of my absolute favorites outside of Virginia Woolf’s works – who I see a disturbing lack of representation on your shelves – but since you haven’t read it, I will just speak the honest truth. I love Melanie sir. I love her more dearly than words can say. She is a wonderful young woman who deserves nothing but the best the world has to offer. I am not of the best the world can offer. I have long accepted that my future would be nothing but a detriment on her life. She deserves prosperity. I can only provide pain and misery. If, in being a creature of misfortune, I can somehow absorb and take on the pending hardships of your family, I beg you for your permission to do so. It would be a great honor to me, if I could have the privilege, many years from now, to look back and know that I had made this sacrifice for the continued happiness of one I loved. That I may give up a part of myself so that one she loves can continue on in her life.”
Quinn’s pauses became longer and longer, but his mind seemed to race faster and faster. I could see the tension mounting in him. His hands began to tremble slightly, and he squeezed them into tight balls and quickly released them, trying to quell whatever it was that was boiling within him.
“The thought of tragedy befalling her, or anyone she loves is unbearable to me. The idea of her weeping or grieving is unacceptable if preventable. Although we have grown apart, and although I am no longer a part of her daily life, I still love her with an intensity I cannot describe. All I can say, is that even when stimulated with reminders of her presence; a song, a smell, a moment; I am overwhelmed with physical reactions. Reactions sometimes so intense, that colleagues, my own bride to be, have mistakenly thought I was having an episode of some sort and called for medical assistance.”
“Sir, pardon my utter rudeness and lack of tact, but I know you and your wife lost your first child. His ashes remain in an urn above your fireplace. I know that for the first ten years of their lives, it was kept secret from your children. That must have been a terrible time, and I’m sure you of all people – one who experienced the loss of an intimate family member too soon – surely you would not want your daughter, your wife, your other children to experience such pain and pain again.”
An expression of horror came over Quinn as he realized what he had said. His voice left him, and he silently begged forgiveness as he made for the door in haste. The door was meant to be pushed open, but he pulled the knob several times before an episode of panic seemed to overtake him. He ran his hands through his hair, taking several strands with him. The tension in his whole body was clearly visible in the veins that now stood prevalent in his forearms, neck and temple. He began breathing at a rapid rate, and kept turning back and forth, trying to decide whether to stay or run away. His eyes were wide with fear and self-loathing, and his jaw clenched shut so tightly, I could see the muscles in his jaw pulsate. Although initially stunned by his outburst and revelation of knowledge of my firstborn, I was suddenly overtaken by pity for this creature. He was clearly battling some terrifying beast within him. I realized that he was not trying to deceive me, but trying to hide himself from me. His facades had failed him, and here he stood before me, a wild animal, trapped in a snare of its own cognition.
Quinn removed from his breast pocket a tin cigarette case, and without asking permission, put one to his lip, lit it with one hand, and offered me the case with the other. I took it from him, and opened the case. They were hand rolled, thin and twirled at the end, like he had done to the troll’s hair. I removed what I perceived to be the smallest of the lot and took his lighter from him.
We sat in silence for some time. I simply listened to him calm his breathing, wondering if I should go for help; if he needed psychiatric intervention of some sort; if perhaps I were even in some sort of danger in the company of this proclaimed schizophrenic. Without speaking, Quinn labored himself to the window and pried it open with both arms, cigarette dangling from his lips and small flakes of ash catching in the wisps of wind and landing on his jacket sleeve. He apologized for his behavior, for which I readily pardoned him. The tone of his voice had changed, as well as his body language. Before, when Quinn apologized for opening the desk drawer, his eyes were wide with worry, his hands fully involved in the motion as he begged forgiveness for a minor inconsequential slight; he was animated, full of life; his face crackling with emotion. Now, he seemed almost catatonic. His facial contortions ceased. Aside from the slight tremor in his hands, he made no motion as he stood by the window. The only indicator I had that he was still breathing was the fluctuating orange glow of the cigarette still hanging dryly between his lips.
Quinn finished his cigarette before he moved again, this time much more slowly than before. The fit had taken a tremendous toll on him. The brightness of his eyes had faded, and the bags the rested beneath them became more prevalent – the dominating feature on his face. Quinn snuffed the cigarette out with his fingers and tossed it out the window. He walked to the radiator and tried to warm himself. I was at a complete loss. I wanted to run, as I had no idea what could possibly come next. The events had been so erratic that his actual proposal was not on the forefront of my mind. I too, extinguished my half-smoked cigarette, and with no idea what to do at this point, poured us both more brandy.
The squeaking wheels of the night janitor’s cart made their way into the Amherst building. It seemed to bring Quinn back to reality. He took a sharp breath in through his nose, brushed the ash from his jacket, and straightened his tie. Taking in his surroundings, Quinn’s eye found the freshly poured brandy and sheepishly took it. Formalities and facades aside, he did not bother to politely sip at the glass, but downed the whole amount.
“I promise you doctor, while my lungs and liver have probably seen better days, my kidneys are in excellent health.” His smile crept in, one muscle at a time. It dawned on me, watching him piece himself back together the way old paint chips and forms piles on the floor of a home long abandoned, that Quinn existed in a perpetual state of anguish.
As the night janitor opened the door, the remnants of Quinn’s facade snapped into place. At once, he was the man who had strolled through the hallway a few hours earlier. He turned to the janitor, beaming with nods of gratitude and appreciation for the hard work carried out at a late hour on a cold night. Quinn offered him a cigarette, and I the last of the brandy. The janitor and I had had several encounters this past week. Todd being sick, while dominant in my mind, made me uneasy at home. I spoke with the janitor about menial things as Quinn paced around the room, his eyes dissecting every pen, book and folder in the office; even going so far as to organize my papers in a perfectly neat stack. I did not observe him do it, but at some point he scribbled down something on a pad of blue post-it notes, and without interrupting the conversation with the janitor and myself, silently bowed out. I could not hear his footsteps as I had at his arrival.
The night janitor excused himself to continue onto his duties, and I slumped back down into my office chair, unsure of what to make of the nights events. It had all gone by so quickly, that when I looked at the clock and saw that it was nearly midnight. I seriously doubted my abilities to make it home safely after the amount of alcohol we had consumed and so called on the services of a cab man with an attitude that matched his odor.
I did not return to the office for another three days; staying with your mother and doing all that I could – which was not much – to help take care of Todd. He looked so helpless, sleeping next to the dialysis machine that hissed, hummed and whined hour after hour. The only thing that seemed more difficult to watch than the deterioration of your brother was that of your mother; becoming jubilant with hope at him stirring and waking for a few moments, and lapsing into a deeper and darker depression when he fell back into slumber. The house filled itself with activity, but every task was carried out with a sombre slowness. The snow in the driveway had mounted and was shoveled. Pipes were frozen and thawed. Meals were cooked in a bland and kidney conscious manner. Everything carried out with the deliberation, fortitude and drive of a strong family at their wits end.
When I did return to the office, it was only to retrieve the antique sailing compass that I kept on my desk. As a boy, Todd had always been fond of it. On days when I took him with me to the campus, I would be there, typing away at some idea or another, and he would be off in his head, compass in hand, navigating the oceans of his imagination. As I hastily put the compass in my coat pocket, I noticed on top of the perfectly stacked pages of the annotated bibliography I had been working on, a single blue post-it, left by none other than Quinn Farstride. I walked around the desk and examined the note. I have it enclosed in this packet for you, Melanie.
Please forgive my odd behavior, and do consider my proposition.
If the time should come where you can find it within yourself to
accept my proposal, I can be reached at this number –
Please do not mention anything to Melanie. Thank you, Q F.
With other things dominating my mind space at the moment, I haphazardly crumpled the note and put it in my pocket with the compass. Enough time had passed to the point where I just found the encounter bizarre. I had not mentioned it to your mother, although when I had arrived home the night of the incident she could tell something was amiss. As soon as I stepped through the front door, she was fully aware that I had been drinking (“Why else would you have taken a cab home?”) and when she embraced me, (“Oh James, I worry about Todd too, but you mustn’t try to bear this weight on your own. We are a family after all.”) she then discerned that I had smoked as well. Between arriving home at late hour, the drinking, and having to run for her purse to pay the cab, it was this last offense that she took to the greatest. As you know, when your mother is truly offended, she says nothing, but instead creates a cloud of coldness around her, that is contrasted only by her unwavering half-smile.
In light of the events at home, I hadn’t quite found a means of acknowledging my fault and reconciling it with her. That is the tricky thing about your sweet mother. You always know when you’ve done something wrong, but she will never tell you what specifically (that, you must know on your own) and she will never tell you how to make up for it.
As you know, the distance between the campus and our home is walkable, only about two miles. While on the night of the incident with your childhood friend, it had been too cold for a man of my years to attempt, now in the crisp December morning it seemed like a wonderful way to clear my head. The cafe’s and book shops lining the road were showing their first sign of life. Opening the shops was mostly ceremonial during this time of year. With no students around, the employees seemed to open up, just for the experience of a lazy day. I stopped to look in the window display of Mrs. White’s used book store. The sun worn covers curled in the cold. Tattered volumes of Shakespeare, Proust and even a hard cover volume of the Harry Potter series lined the window front.
Mrs. White came out to greet me, and inquired about the family. She seemed to have shrunk down even further since I had last seen her. The rosy round face glowed happily, and her rotund frame (which I was shocked could still make it through the aisles of the store without utter calamity) bounced with each step. I made no indicator that anything was wrong, and quickly switched the subject to her. We talked about her family for some time and she walked with me up and down the aisles of her tiny shop with only perhaps three feet in-between each shelf, so that I had to walk at a slight angle to maintain a conversation with her. As I walked, the tail of my coat rocked back and forth, occasionally bumping into the shelves with a slight thump from the compass. To prevent any dings or scratches on the case, I steadied my jacket with my hand. Perhaps by some inner impulse, or the soft crinkle of the blue note next to the compass, I was reminded of my conversation with Quinn. No longer paying full attention to the story about the family of queer looking cardinals that had made house in her basement, I interjected and asked her if she had a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities.” It was a mandatory read for most of the English majors, so she had many copies. In her infinite politeness, she insisted I take it free of charge. It was a copy that had been read far too many times. Notes from multiple hands had been scribbled in, and half of the back cover was missing, which is why I suspect Mrs. White had no qualms about gifting it to me. I then told her that I needed to find some sort of gift for my wife to make up for a minor tiff, and asked what recommendations the good Mrs. White could offer from the works of Virginia Woolf. She lit up at this, and clapped her hands; Ms. Woolf was one of her favorite authors, and she always kept a good stock. Mrs. White span around, her festive sweater of a snowy mountain brushed the two aisles she had been meandering through and disappeared out of sight behind a box of biology textbooks, and the old wooden sliding ladder that didn’t seem capable of bearing her weight. As I leafed through the pages of “A Tale of Two Cities” I could hear her muttering to herself about which book would make the best gift. “Mrs. Dalloway would be the obvious choice and would give that real Woolf experience, but oh Jacob’s Room can’t be ignored… She could always start the cannon from the beginning with The Voyage Out, but it is so tragic. Who wants to read a tragedy around Christmas? Well my, aren’t most of her novels tragic anyway? There must be something just perfect… Oh but of course!
There was a ruffle and I heard her move from one side of the aisle to the other. There was a cry of triumph and the dear Mrs. White came bounding back to me with a small paperback. She explained while it wasn’t a part of her literary cannon, the book Moments of Being was a posthumous publication of some of her essays, and thought it would be a perfect gift. I thanked her for her help, and insisted I pay for both books as I had also invited her services. She smiled warmly at me and accepted. We parted ways with my pockets full.
The remainder of the walk went unnoticed to me, as I fell into my childhood habit of reading furiously as I walked. It was a trait that all of my children, with the exception of Arthur – who always stood tall, knowing exactly where he was going – had picked up on. It had been ages since I had read anything but dissertations and case studies of anthropological data, so the novel engrossed me. Without realizing it, I had walked past the road that turns towards our house, and kept walking towards the center of town. By the time I had realized I had walked a half-mile out of my way, the chill of winter made the idea of a cup of coffee irresistible. Lost in the narrative, I don’t recall where I ended up going, if I sat inside or out, or how many cups of coffee I ended up drinking, but when I checked my wristwatch after completing a good third of the novel it was already a quarter after noon. One particular line had jolted me from my hypnosis in the page, and it was the line I think that Quinn had in mind when he had concocted his little scheme.
“…think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!”
The line stayed with me for the journey home. Could Quinn have been so inspired by this novel? Was he so detached from the comforts of reality that he could so readily put himself in harm’s way to make a literary homage? If he had indeed lost his mind (which had begun to seem more and more likely), was I in any position to seek out help for the young man?
As I opened the front door, your mother was walking from the kitchen to greet me. Knowing that repeating the same minor offense from several nights prior was probably more irksome than smoking, I entered book in hand.
I greeted her and kissed her on the top of the head. After presenting my gift
to her, she looked it over and mused without missing a single beat, “She’s the one who walked into the river with rocks in her pockets, yes?” You know your mother’s sense of humor as well as I do, and in hearing this, I felt relieved that she could joke dryly about my attempts at cordial husbandry.