The children’s beds were against opposite walls in the room. Mavis’s had a pink nylon mosquito net suspended from the ceiling, which she loved, and had draped in a circle around her bed year-round. It made Mavis feel safer, as though it were a thing inside which she could see out, but others could not see in—she liked being closed-in and secret and she would invite in, for a short time, her mother or her father to read her a story. She liked The Witch in the Wood, The Magic World, Fog Magic, and The Friendly Ghost, all of which were hers—she owned all of them plus others and could read them any time she wanted to. Tonight Miss Crawford had read a story from The Magic World, and Lewis had listened from his side of the room, and then she had tucked them both in and said goodnight. But now Lewis was fussing with his blankets; he kept moving his legs and stirring them up in spirals, and she told him to stop it.
In the family room Diane sat in an armchair with the coffee table brought near, and studied for her exams. She imagined Mr Winthrop spending time in the very armchair she sat in, drinking his french connections and pulling at a slat of the blinds for every noise that could be interpreted as hostile. He had been in the war, he said, and maintained that, as a result, his nerves were quite bad, and he was unable to trust his interpretation of stimuli—passing cars, kids on their bikes with their cards in the spokes, which sounded, in his defence like the rat-a-tat-rat of german machine-gun fire, also the milk truck, steps on the pavement, the clinking of flatware in the kitchen and the flushing of the toilet. The sensation as he described it was like having someone very suddenly shout in his face—the effect was a surge of aggression and fear, and a fierce, decisive jealousy for his home, his children, for the street on which he lived and the country to which he pledged allegiance. Every day the enemy had arrived, and every night he went to sleep attempting to put those enemies to permanent rest. Some of his friends had gotten off easy, and he perhaps envied them for that—one was a petty officer in the navy stationed off the coast of Greenland for almost his entire tour, told stories of shenanigans, rule violations, sights of the horizon at dawn and the cold of midwinter on the arctic, and then when he returned was decorated, ate cake, and picked up where he left off. Mr Winthrop had seen a man get sawn in two by a stationary gun—had seen it and remembered it vividly. He was able, over a chicken-fried stake, to recall the hue of the blood that had gushed from the upper-half of a man he had had a conversation with earlier that morning, and he had run with him several hundred feet before understanding what it was he was doing—some other part of him had taken over and his conscious, rational aspect had seized, was dallying somewhere in his head with cards, with banana cake recipes, with letters expected or received, with the captain’s puzzling idiom about too much sauce for the gander. Mr Winthrop had described how the body, at first rigid, its back pressed against him, arms up, one elbow bent as though in salute, gradually slackened under his hold, relented, and the man had disappeared. Diane was studying to become a nurse—it was the only way such a conversation could be a shared thing between them, such Rabelaisian observation, and it was, for Mr Winthrop had poured himself one of his french connections, a gin and soda for her, had lit a cigarette, dinner forgone, and spoke with a kind of curious, detached and antinomian enjoyment of the topic. “Where, then is the soul?” he had said. “Where was that person that I spoke to that morning? Is it a thing spatially located like the body? It can’t have been in the body, I was holding that, not a thing had changed about it, and I can only guess that a soul can’t be shredded in two by a hail of bullets—he was not certainly a half a person when I began to carry him—no, a whole person, with a half a body, bleeding down my pants with every heartbeat. I didn’t feel anything leave, but I felt change, and perhaps that’s the only way to approach it sensibly, because I’ve heard it said that the soul leaves the body at death, but no leavetaking occurs—it’s a change that takes place, and that’s the extent of it. For one minute the mind, somewhere, nowhere, is animating the body, and at a certain time decided without us, it ceases too, and only insofar as we see through the eyes of a body we were assigned to at the beginning, whenever that is, and now we see through the infinite eyes of a universe immaterial, unknown, do we move, for otherwise no move takes place. We shift modes from one of subjectivity, to objectivity, and perhaps then we’ll experience not simply our own eternal wrong, but the wrong of the created order in absentia—we hold together as a single thing, a person, only the more to be overwhelmed with the entirety of all the world’s pain at once. And will we be in time? I think so, for I think we can only truly enjoy our eternal damnation with that familiar spoon-by-spoon way we’ve been taught to enjoy all the savour of life with, and besides I think, as a result of my several readings on this particular question, that the creation of time is an undoable thing—one cannot be at one time a created thing, and then an uncreated thing, which is what timelessness would require. No, Diane, I think in the final analysis, the mind resides in God somehow, the Kingdom of God, a part of us if we choose, a hopelessly cyclical thing for the philosopher—do we hold ourselves, do we hold the thing that holds ourselves? Are we our own or God’s? Are we, as persons experiencing ourselves able, actually, to love others? We know hate is an expression of selfness, along with other things—lust, envy, suspicion, and on—and love, in fact, is an expression, impossibly, of otherness. Jesus was able, I don’t know who else, it truly is the act of a god, love, and I don’t think we really know what it is. Here’s to the soul,” he said, not wanting to toast love with his wife so close by in the kitchen, and finished his drink, and Diane had finished hers.
Mr Winthrop had an unsettling kind of genius about him. If his home was unextraordinary, the man himself was superextraordinary. Besides a mystical kind of eloquence, he apparently possessed powers of the psychic kind. Diane had met Mr Winthrop at a county fair in Meriden, where her friend Genie had moved after high school with her husband Roland. They had gone not expecting to enjoy themselves particularly, but looked forward to it enough—it was the reason Diane had visited when she did instead of on another day, but they had been all night previously suffering with Roland’s childlike turn in mood, aroused by his incapacity to handle Genie’s ambiguity on any issue, and at a point they had both had to retreat into the bathroom and lock the door, and Genie had cried, and Diane had cried, and they both slept crooked in the bathtub with towels for pillows, hungry and mascara-stained. In the morning they felt exhausted, they wandered the fair grounds like two quiet, listless urchins, Genie with a packet of salted plums she said made her feel sick, but which she continued with glazed eyes to eat, slowly, one-by-one. Diane tried to smile as much as she could and point out rides, boys, funny hairstyles, children playing and teasing, but Genie was beat, and it made Diane feel lonely.
Mr Winthrop had a booth set up called Major’s Magic, where he performed various impossibly good card tricks that made Genie scared enough to leave. He referred to himself as John, employed no reference to the military beside the sign out the front with its proudly waving American flag and fireworks jettisoning from what looked like a Superfortress bomber. Diane suspected it might have been a gimmick invented by someone else, perhaps his wife, and she instantly liked him for that—there was something inexplicably sweet about it, he in his dark linen suit, reluctantly, maybe deferentially represented by his wife’s average art, average gimmick, average idea, but he in his self-serious way unapologetically good at what he did. Unembarrassed. Well-spoken too, something she noticed right away.
When Genie had left he had laughed ruthlessly and then demonstrated by way of apology enough of his art to convince Diane that his tricks truly did rely on legerdemain and clever distraction, which put her somewhat at ease. After this Mr Winthrop said nothing for a while, but seemed to meditate something, leaning back, picking at his deck of cards. It made Diane feel as though she were in an interview. In another circumstance she might have been tempted to say something, perhaps thank you and goodbye, but Mr Winthrop had an unusual command about him and it aroused in Diane an eagerness to be of use to him.
“Yes,” he said after a time, and asked Diane to unhook the folds of the tent door. She did, and they were in darkness and quiet.