Authors: Cynthia Voigt
“Not me,” Sammy announced. “I don't believe in it anyway becauseâit's always looking backward, all those billions of years backward. It's already finished with.”
“I can't imagine billions. Of anything,” Maybeth said.
“I can, millions,” Sammy said. “I can grasp things in millions, like millions of dollars, or potatoes. And miles, if you imagine space. Can't you imagine millions of space miles?”
“Thousands,” Gram said. “That's my outside limit. Dollars or potatoes or milesÂ .Â .Â . and years, too. I can just about encompass a millennium. I can line up millennia in my imagination, but I'm still only counting in thousands. Which, as far as I can gather from James, is about what most people can imagine, which seems appropriate for a Johnny-come-lately species like man. But it all makes me about too tired to think.”
“Yeah,” Dicey agreed. Gram's eyes looked peaceful enough, and interested, but without any snap to them. “Yeah, I know. But I think I think in ones, anyway.”
“That doesn't make sense,” Sammy protested.
Dicey shrugged. It probably didn't, but it felt true.
“And the names,” James went on, ignoring what people said, as he often did when he was worked up about an idea. “Precambrian, Jurassic, Cenozoicâthey're such great names, heavy and thick, like layers of rocks resting on each other. You should have taken geology, Jeff. The dinosaurs, for example, they were around for one hundred and fifty million years. Man has been around for only, what? Maybe a million, give or take, and that's just if you define man as a tool-making hominid. What we know about, recorded history, isn't even ten thousandÂ .Â .Â .” His voice trailed off as he thought about it. “And we think we're so important.”
“Not important,” Jeff corrected him. “Particular, maybe. Different from any other creature.”
“What do you mean?” Sammy demanded. “That we're really just like ants?”
“Worse,” James said. “Like caddis flies, that live only for a day, that have their whole lives in just one day.”
“But if you look at it that way, what does one life matter?” Sammy asked.
“Looked at that way, it doesn't,” James said.
“Then how am I supposed to take mine?” Sammy asked. He glared at his brother. “Anyway, it's not really true, or it's not the only thing that's true.” He thought some more. “And anyway, if it really doesn't matter, then it doesn't make any difference. I mean, it doesn't matter that it doesn't matter.”
That didn't make much sense to Dicey, but James was just staring at Sammy. “Cripes, Sammy,” James asked, “how can you even think of wasting your life playing tennis?”
For a minute, Dicey thought Sammy might lose his temper. He'd grown tall, over six feet; exercise had given him thick muscles over his shoulders and chest; when he sat back, anger in his eyes, she thought it might be pretty lively if Sammy lost his temper. Then he shook his head, and grinned at James: “I'm not. And it's not wasting, anyway, to do something well. You don't think so, either, so don't try to kid me. Otherwise, why aren't you taking those straight premed courses?”
Dicey wished she had the energy to think about everything she was hearing and seeing. She was seeing, like dim, shadowy figures in a fog, the men her brothers were growing up into. They even looked a lot like men grown, at this point. She would have liked to get into the argument, because she had the feeling that she knew what her life was for. She had the feeling that what she knew and wanted was important. She was going to build boats, and she
wasn't going to let anything stand in her way. Not even geology. Thinking that, her head resting against the back of her chair and her legs stretched out under the table, Dicey smiled to herself. As if geology was actually trying to get in her way, as if geologyâall those millions and billions of years piled up on each otherâas if it was going to pay any attention to Dicey Tillerman at all.
“Are you two through eating yet?” Gram demanded. “Because I'm about as uncomfortable as I care to get in this chair, and your sister is slithering away under the tableâ”
Dicey sat up.
“Isn't there dessert?” Sammy wondered.
“There's leftover pie,” Maybeth told him. “But I thought we'd do the dishes first.”
Sammy groaned, but it was only a token protest. James reached out to serve himself another large spoonful of jambalaya, and Sammy groaned again. “If you're not talking, you're eating. I thought we were ready to finish.”
James ignored Sammy. “The courses I'm taking are fine, and I can pick up anything I need for premed laterâexcept”âhe put his fork into his mouth, chewed, swallowedâ“I'm in trouble with the Shakespeare.”
“But, James,” Maybeth said, “you never have trouble in school. Are you worried?”
James nodded, and ate on. When he put his fork down, it was Maybeth he looked at. She was the easiest one of all of them to talk to, because she listened without interruptingâand that was because, Dicey thought, waiting to hear whatever it was James was going to say, Maybeth wasn't sure she could understand. The rest of them were pretty sure they understood things, and that made them bad listeners. Sometimes.
Gram, for example, interrupted James before he could start. “It can't be too serious,” she decided. “Is there any reason we
can't move into the living room? Where there are soft chairs and a fire burning. You didn't let that fire burn out, did you?”
In the living room Dicey took one of the big pillows Maybeth and Gram had made out of scraps of fabric and lay down on her stomach, facing the fire. The pillow was soft under her elbows and chest. The fire glowed warm on her face, a bed of gray ashes mixed with red-hot coals, with the black, burned skeletons of logs lying across it.
Sammy piled wood on the fire. Lying there, Dicey watched the little blue flames come cradling up around the new logs. Lying there, she could listen to her family's voices, and to the sounds they made shifting in their seats, and to the soft, plastic click of Gram's knitting needles behind everything.
From what he was saying, it sounded like James didn't know if he was going to pass the Shakespeare course, which would cost him his scholarship. Without that scholarshipâwhich paid for everything, books, tuition, dormitory expensesâhe couldn't go to Yale.
“I don't understand how you can be in trouble,” Jeff said.
“Because of the professor.”
“But, James,” Sammy protested, “teachers always like you, because you're so smart.”
“It's not that simple. It's not as simple as a personality conflict.”
“And you like Shakespeare,” Jeff said.
“Let me explain,” James said. “See, Professor Browningâhe's one of the old professors. This is his last year, and he's been teaching about ten years past retirement age because he really is good. He wanted to continue and they wanted him to. He's one of those professors who went to Yale as an undergraduate, and got a Rhodes scholarshipâyou have to be terrific to get a Rhodes.”
“I know,” Jeff said. “Why doesn't he like you?”
“But he does. That's the trouble. And I think he's good, too, and I like him.”
“Then what's the problem?” Sammy asked. “You aren't making sense.”
“The problem isÂ .Â .Â . See, the course started out with the comedies. I did well because, well, the way Professor Browning looks at things, his worldview, is a lot like the comedies. The way the comedies say nothing is real or true, or trustworthy. Like, at the end of
, when the duke finally falls in love with Viola. You wanted that to happen, right? It was what would happen in a well-ordered universe, so you believe it. But if you think about it, there's no good reason, and the duke had said all during the play he'd always love OliviaÂ .Â .Â . and Olivia had married Sebastien thinking he was Viola, whom she'd fallen in love with at first glance, thinking she was a boy andâall the couples, even Sir Toby and Maria, end up married, the way we feel they ought to, butâit's all chance. The whole play argues that love is irrational. You can't rely on it.”
“I see how he's reading it,” Jeff said. That was lucky, because Dicey knew the title but she'd never had time to read the play, even if she'd wanted to. Jeff could talk with James about this better than she'd ever be able to.
“Professor Browning cares about how I do, and what I think of the course. More than that, he really believes literature is important, not just because he teaches it, but because if people read and feel and think, they live better lives. Just because he isn't what he used to be, that isn't his fault. Just because he's old.”
“Watch how you use that word,” Gram warned him.
“You aren't old,” James told her. “Professor Browning is kind ofâcrumbling at the edges of his mind? The trouble I'm in isânow we're talking about the tragedies, and will be for the rest of the year, and he has exactly the same way of thinking about
themâas if they uncreate, destroy, make chaos. But there's more to them, you know? Always, at the end, the world of the play is made better, even though the individual isâlost. But if I think and write about the tragedies as having this re-creation aspect, I'll fail the course.”
“He'll fail you because you don't agree with him?” Sammy said.
“I didn't say he was perfect. I said he's crumbling.”
“I can sympathize with all that crumbling,” Gram said.
“That's really dumb,” Sammy told Gram, “and you know it. Let James talk, Gram, and stop trying to grab all the attention.”
“I wasn't,” Gram sputtered, “I don'tâ” Dicey turned her head and caught, as she thought she would, her grandmother's sudden smile. Sammy sat on the arm of Gram's chair, just grinning down at her, teasing. “That reminds me, Dicey,” Gram said, “that man, Ken, from Annapolis called. He wants you to call him back.”
“Okay, thanks.” Ken Forbeck was a ship's carpenter who kept his eye out for wood; he knew Dicey was interested in becoming a boatbuilder. Tomorrow was a holiday, but she could call him the next day and find out what he wanted, find out if he had some wood for her to look at.
“Does this mean,” Jeff asked James, “you're going to have to fail the course?”
She could take the truck up to Annapolis, so that if it was wood she could use, and she could afford it, she could bring it back with her. She had never tested exactly how much wood the truck could carry.
“If I did, it would cost me the scholarship. I have to maintain a B average.”
fail it,” Sammy said.
She hoped the weather would clear, because you didn't want to take good wood out on this kind of drizzly day, not for the
two-and-a-half-hour drive, not open on the bed of the truck. But, she thought, James never failed courses.
“It would be stupid to fail,” Sammy told his brother. “Losing everything because of one professor disagreeing with your ideas.”
“And he'd really mind, too, if I did, becauseâhe's decided I'm his swan-song student. The last best one. He really wants me to be brilliant for him. If I'm notâhe'll feel as if he's failed, too.”
“Can you do that well in it?” Jeff wondered.
“Sure. I can see how he's thinking. It's not even as if I'm sure he's wrong. I just don't look at it the same way.”
“But to do that,” Sammy said, “you'd have to lie about what you think is true. You can't do that, James.”
“Why not? People do it all the time.”
“But if I don't, I'll fail. I've never failed anything, in school.”
“Yes, you have, in tenth grade, when you turned in that kid for cheating off of you, when you turned yourself in for helping him cheat. You failed that assignment with a zero.”
“That was different. And besides, it was only one assignment, not the whole grade. I don't have anything lower than an A on my record, except for that one B. Ever.”
“Those are just grades,” Sammy said.
“Grades mean something. You know that.”
“Maybe, but I don't care becauseâjust because you get A's doesn't mean you're the best person. All it means is you're good at going to school. You can't use grades to mean anything, James.”
“So you think I should fail it,” James concluded. “Jeff, what do you think?”
“Can't you talk to your faculty adviser?”
“But I don't want to make any trouble for Professor Browning. It's not as if he doesn't work, or care, or isn't thinking about what he's doing; it's not as if he's a bad teacher.”
“Well,” Jeff summarized the situation, “it looks then as if you can pass, and belie yourself; or you can fail, and disappoint someone you would rather please, and lose your scholarship as well.”
“That's it,” James said. “I've never failed a course.”
“Then pass it, get the A,” Sammy advised.
“But I know how awful it feels to pretend to think what you don't,” James protested. “It's likeâlike selling yourself into slavery, orâworseâselling your brothers and sisters, maybe, or your own children. I dunno, I don't have childrenâ”
“I'm glad to hear that,” Gram said.
“Because, if you can't be true to what you thinkÂ .Â .Â .” James's voice faded away.
“Flunk,” Sammy advised.
Dicey didn't have any opinion about what James should do. She rolled over onto her back. Behind the sofa, the top half of the Christmas tree rose, looped around with strings of popcorn mixed with cranberries. The strings looked like jewelry, like long necklaces around a shaggy throat, like rubies set in among some strange undiscovered gem that was part pearl, part sea foam.
“Gram?” James asked. “What do you think?”