Herewith is a passage from Brightfellow in which its main character changes identities. No longer is he known as Stub—a strange and lost figure—but as Charter, a young, Fullbright scholar. The identity of Charter is a lie, of course, but in this brief section, he sees the possibilities and promise of becoming someone new. Asthma is a daughter of one of the other professors who lives on the Circle. She has captured the imagination of Stub/Charter, who believes she is the key to recapturing his lost childhood. —Jason DeYoung
Everything changes. Because Billy, Professor Emeritus, lonely, long in tooth, all angles, all elbows and knees (and he has always been this way, graceful and unwieldy at the same time, his broad shoulders holding it all together), open-faced, of sunny disposition, an optimist, wearing a cotton shirt the color of Dijon mustard, hunts down Charter Chase and finds him.
“There you are!” he says. “I’ve been looking all over. Been prowling the stacks!” He puts out his hand and they shake, like gentlemen. Billy cuts to the chase. “Charter,” he says, “I’ve been wondering about . . . well. About your digs.Are they adequate?”
“Ah . . . well . . .” Charter laughs uncomfortably. “You know what it is like to be a poor student, but—”
“Of course I do!” Billy cries. “Indeed I do! So here’s the thing, son,” and he pats Charter on the shoulder paternally (or so Charter supposes, having never received anything like this from his father). “I live alone, ” Billy continues as they make their way together down the steep library steps and into the full light of day. “The house is far too big. I barely enter the upstairs. There’s an entire living space up there, bedroom, bath, study.” They approach Faculty Circle and he points to one of the several gracious faux-Tudor houses with pitched roofs and screened-in porches. The stucco façade is a pleasant shade of sand, the wooden window frames painted a rich chocolate. “The place is shipshape of course. Nicely kept up by buildings and grounds. But I imagine you are familiar with the Circle.”
Charter is not only familiar with the Circle, but with Billy’s house. It was Billy’s countertop that had once provided him with a cooling pie. Charter nods. Says, “Yes. The Provost had a little get-together for the foreign students a while ago—”
“Of course!” Billy considers his rehearsed delivery. “Uh,” he says. “Here’s the thing. Here you are, a Fulbright scholar far from home living—or so I imagine—in inadequate housing and, well, surely you can see where I am coming from.”
“Sir. I do. I do. I do not dare . . . it’s too kind, far too kind.” Charter runs his fingers through hair he knows is in need of some attention, and which Billy addresses at once.
“Have you, have you . . . been to an American barber?”
“No, Billy. Short on funds and as you can see I am personally not too handy in that direction.”
“I’ll take you to town. I know a good man there. Now, the upstairs is nicely done up.” They stand together on the Circle now, looking at his house, which shares a lawn and a lilac hedge with Asthma’s.
“Terrific closets. Full use of the screen porch,” Billy says, “the kitchen. Do you cook?”
“Of course not. You are busy. With Loon! Who could have imagined this! My own days of being busy are over. I’ll cook for the two of us. I am bored cooking for myself. Losing touch! Look at this scar.” He throws a hand into Charter’s face. “Trimming a radish.” He thrusts the tip of a thumb into his mouth and sucks it. “I am, therefore, in all simplicity, no strings attached, proposing a proper dwelling, nicely done up by Margaret, who blessedly is gone to Wisconsin and out of our hair, yours and mine. One of the perks of being a college professor—in case of divorce, the professor cannot give the spouse the house! My campus digs are…on the house! On the house!” He laughs almost to tears, raving as they pace together around the Circle. I’ll get the upstairs tidied up and then, Charter, it’s yours. In the meantime, come for supper. Are you free?” Charter nods. “Six. I’ll show you your digs, get the cleaning lady—she’ll be here later in the week—to give the place a thorough…Do you need help moving?”
“Sir, Billy. You will be amazed by the little I have. My things, such a nuisance, but it’s o.k., really, were lost in transit. The authorities… nothing doing!” (Already Charter was picking up on Billy’s manner of speech.) “Nothing doing! But, hey! I get by! On a shoestring, of course …”
“That’s my boy!” Billy slaps Charter on the back. “Till six!” And off he goes.
Charter has a new good-looking back pack purloined from Hum Hall at the final semester’s end a month earlier: solid canvas duck, color of good tobacco, hand sewn, leather trim and straps—a Brunchhauser! He will pick up a pair of serviceable rubber-soled leather boots, heavy for the season but good for walking the woods, a top-of-the-line sweater, and two handsome striped shirts, all currently in a gym locker. He makes his way to the gym and showers, thinking: This could be good. Despite the risks. The heavy price if discovered. Then, suddenly ecstatic, he roars. That night he writes:
The chapel bells guide my hours. To their chimes (every fifteen minutes!) time unspools, the seasons and their constellations spill across campus like a sea. I set off for Billy’s a few minutes before six and arrived just as the bells chimed:
Doing! Dang! Doing!
Doing! Dang! Doing!
As I walked up the Old Boy’s path holding my head high, I considered the nature of destiny. A garden snake rode the grass beside me, the smell of garlic and tomatoes stimulated every nerve in my body, and a flock of swifts disturbed the quiet blue of the sky: And let fowl fly above the earth in front of the vault of Heaven. (Vanderloon quoting the Bible.)
Billy could not be happier having popped the question (a silly way to put it!). Once, he had popped the question to Margaret (fatal mistake!); this time he has simply offered a few vacant rooms to a young scholar. But loneliness has been leeching the marrow from his bones and as he tends to supper, rinsing greens thoughtfully, stirring spaghetti sauce, exuberance overtakes him. The boy, he is certain, will be an easy, grateful companion. He needs attending to; there’s something unfinished about him; he’s wounded somehow, much too thin, older than his years. Billy will feed him the meals he does best: spaghetti, beef with gravy—solid American middle-class fare—along with some of the great dishes of Normandy he came to love during summers spent abroad. Billy also bakes a pie. (Once, he had baked a perfect rhubarb pie that had volatilized as it cooled on the counter. He liked to say it was a miracle: That pie was so flawless it went to Heaven! But things did have a way of going missing on the Circle. Goldie insisted it was poltergeists.)
Billy sets the table. He grates the Parmesan, sets out a small bowl of red-pepper flakes, and sprinkles a pinch of oregano into the sauce for its final fifteen minutes. Precisely at six Charter arrives and the two sit down to supper, the one facing the other. Looking into a deep white dish brimming with hot noodles and large meatballs sweating juice, Charter is moved nearly to tears.
“Biblical!” he exclaims.
“Why biblical?” Billy wonders.
“It’s ambrosial and…gives off beams of light!”
“You’ve been reading too much Loon,” Billy jokes. “I’ve only served you a dish of spaghetti.” Yet he is pleased. “Curious you say that, though…” He tells his young guest about the vanishing pie. Charter blushes, but briefly. Billy’s innocence in the matter is evident. “Are you religious?”
“No,” Charter tells him. “Although I like to consider just how horny Noah’s toenails were when he hit six hundred.”
“Moses had horns…,” Billy muses and then confides: “I am a private sort. Reclusive you could say. In this way I am much like your friend Vanderloon, although he has taken it to extremes. Perhaps campus life breeds recluses. Well. What I mean to say is you will find it quiet in the house. You will be able to work undisturbed. The Circle could not be more conducive to study. Well…there are the children and they have their games, but still…they really don’t create much disturbance. Let me show you your room!”
What impresses Charter about the house first of all is that there are no photographs, no family pictures on the mantel or sideboard, no dead parents, ancestors, pets. Apparently Billy is not only wifeless, he’s childless. This is comforting. If there had been photos everywhere Charter would have felt like an intruder. But he thinks instead that he can do well here. He will enter into a serious study of Vanderloon’s ideas, not just collect them as one collects curiosities. Not just wander in the books aimlessly.
The house is spare; apparently Margaret had brought along a great deal of family furniture that left the house when she did. Billy has gone for a certain modernist minimalism, uncommon on the Circle. The few pieces he has acquired are angular, blond, the lamps as disquieting as space aliens. On the walls are a few framed museum posters, someone named Rothko who Charter thinks must have been a house painter, and a Dalí that causes him so much anxiety he will stay clear of it during his tenure in the house. An inscrutable Boz Heiffer.
Together they climb the stairs and reach a hallway lit by a clearstory: the light! Billy leads him to a large room furnished with a desk and chair, a reading chair, and a number of those peculiar lamps, each one pointing at them accusingly. “Ah!” Billy laughs. “The cleaning lady, I don’t know why…” He redirects them into a more serviceable angle.
Above the desk is a large window. Stub’s heart leaps; his ears are ringing; he feels like singing: the room has an unobstructed view of Asthma’s own.
This excerpt is reprinted by permission from Brightfellow (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Rikki Ducornet.
Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and is the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits internationally. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.