Authors: Thomas Christopher Greene
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He arrives at the park by walking down Central Park West and then entering through the opening at West Seventy-seventh Street. This is in the winter. It is early morning, and the sun is little more than an orangey haze behind heavy clouds in the east. Light snow flurries fill the air. There are not many people out, a few runners and women bundled against the cold pushing strollers.
He walks down the asphalt drive and when he reaches a path with a small wooden footbridge he stops for a moment, and it is there somewhere, a snatch of memory, but he cannot reach it. An elderly couple comes toward him, out for their morning walk. The man gives him a hearty good morning but he looks right through him. What is it he remembers? It is something beautiful, he is sure of it, but it eludes him like so many things seem to do nowadays.
If he could access it, what he would see was a day twenty years earlier, in this same spot. Though it was not winter, but a bright fall day, the maples bleeding red, and he is not alone. Elizabeth is here, as is his son, Ethan. They had gone to the museum and then had lunch before coming into the park. Ethan’s first trip to New York, and he is five, and though he loved the museum with its giant dinosaur skeletons, it is the park that draws his attention. The day could not be more glorious. Seasonably warm and without a cloud in the sky: a magical Manhattan day.
Ethan runs ahead of them on the path. His wife takes his arm, leans into him. He looks down and smiles at her. They don’t need to speak, for they are both drinking in the moment, the day, the happiness of their boy, and the gift of this experience. There is no reason to give it words.
Ethan finds a gnarled tree on the side of the path, one that grows horizontally just a foot or so above the ground. He immediately climbs up on top of it, shimmying his little body over its trunk, and the two of them sit on a bench a few feet away and watch him.
A couple of times they suggest they should keep walking, but the boy will not have it. He has found a tree perfectly suited for him and he demands in the way that children do that he be watched, admired, and studied as he climbs it one way, then the other. And this is okay, for they are in no rush. It is a small moment, but a perfect one. The child is right: Where else would they rather be? What could be more complete?
Now, standing on the same path, with the snow picking up and falling more steadily around him, he gives up trying to find this memory and instead focuses on the snow, tracing individual flakes as they come in front of his field of vision and then disappear. He is alone suddenly. There is no one walking in either direction. The park is his. He takes off his hat and places it on the ground. Then he removes his jacket. Next he undoes his tie and then his shirt and his undershirt. Soon he is naked, and he sets off again, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the path, and he moves up and over the hilly terrain, his eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the people who gasp when they come around a corner to find him marching toward them. All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him.
Why don’t you tell us what happened?”
“Where should I start?”
“Where do you want to start?”
He looks at the men sitting across from him. It is a stupid question, he thinks.
He says, “At the beginning, of course.”
“That would be helpful,” says the man who does all the talking.
“Why do you care?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you care? Just as it sounds.” He was growing exasperated. “What am I to you?”
“Sir, do we need to refresh you on how we found you?”
“I was in the park.”
One of the men laughs. The other one silences him with his hand. “Yes, you were in the park. Naked. Twenty-degree weather. Snow on the ground. Walking in Central Park naked.”
“Is that a crime?”
“Yes. It is, in fact.”
“In Vermont it’s not.”
“Yes. You can be naked. You just can’t be obscene.”
“What’s the difference?”
He sighs. He looks down at his clothes. They are too big for him. He is practically swimming in these damn clothes.
“Do I have to answer that?”
“Good. Because that will tire me.”
“Just start, then.”
“Okay,” he says. “But I want some coffee. Strong coffee. Black.”
The man nods. “We’ll get that for you. Begin.”
He leans forward. “The beginning,” he says. “This is how it starts.”
It starts with the most innocent of gestures. She does something girls the world over do. She uses her long fingers to pull strands of straw-colored hair behind her ears.
She is leaning over her book at her desk in the front row. I have not noticed her before, though it is only the second day since I’ve returned to the classroom. She is rather unremarkable. Maybe I’ve passed her on the walks around campus, but I don’t remember seeing her before.
She looks up. She is pretty but in a sad-eyed Slavic kind of way. Her face slightly off-center, green eyes with small bags under them that will only grow with age, her skin clear and pink. I get lost looking at her. I forget for a moment the rest of the class, and when she turns her gaze away from the blackboard behind me to my face, I become aware of all the eyes on me. Time to speak. I look over their heads and find my voice.
It was the chair of the board’s idea that I step back into the classroom. At first the suggestion angered me. Especially how it was framed. You seem distracted, Arthur, Dick Ives said to me after the last board meeting.
“Just didn’t bring my A game, Dick,” I said.
“It’s not just that,” said Dick. “More of a general feeling the board has.”
“This isn’t about golf again, is it?” It is well known that I hate golf. It is a silly game. Hitting a tiny ball with a stick for hours on end, and the board has been after me to do more of it. That donors expect it. For the life of me I have never been able to figure out what golf has to do with education at the Lancaster School.
“God, no,” Dick said. “It might benefit you to get back to your first love. Dip your toe in. Get closer to the mission. The capital campaign is done. Couldn’t be a better time.”
And so in the fall I return to my old discipline, English, by teaching one class. I choose the Russians. I always loved the Russians—Pushkin and Lermontov; Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov; Dostoevsky and the great Tolstoy. The atmosphere, the ethos of their work. They remind me of Vermont in November. Dark moors and muted colors, landscapes awash in brown. Lives determined by birthright and accidents of fate.
Anyway, immediately I see the wisdom of Dick’s advice. Standing in the classroom with the fall sun streaming through the windows, looking out over my charges, hearing the rise and fall of my voice—it is like I am transported back in time. I am twenty-four again, a year removed from Yale. In the classroom, where I belong. Literature matters. Literature is important. This, I think, is why you raise money, why you build buildings, why you endure endless bus travel over these hills for Wednesday and Saturday sporting events. Because in few corners of the world can you find the deeper human truths still being taught as they should be. The kind of truths that mold minds and create leaders. Lancaster has yet to produce a president, though it has come close. Perhaps in this room in front of me, I imagine, sits one of them.
I turn my attention back to the classroom. Handsome, preppy teenagers, the lot of them. The chosen ones. I pose a question, and it pleases me. The way it is constructed, grand enough to be rhetorical but also grounded.
I look around. A few hands go up. I look over at her. Her hand is raised. She looks confident. Something about her speaks to me, and I cannot figure out what. I call on her and I don’t fully hear what she says, though she has a nice voice. Instead I am fixated on her face, as if somewhere in those sad eyes resides a clue as to why her pulling her hair behind her ears has made me notice her in a way that tells me that it has been a long time since I have noticed anything at all.
That night at dinner I look for her. My table, the headmaster’s table, is at the far end of the great dining room with its high ceilings and chandeliers. My own chair always faces the entirety of the room, the great arched windows behind me. Every three weeks the students rotate tables. The idea is that, in time, they get to know the entire faculty and their families. It is a good system, I guess, though sometimes I wish we could follow other schools and move away from formal dining. My father would disagree, but I never liked the small talk.
I look over at my wife, Elizabeth. She has decided to come to dinner tonight. She does not appear all the time anymore, which is unusual for a spouse at Lancaster, especially for the wife of the head of school. Elizabeth is wearing tennis clothes. I frown. Hardly appropriate. Tennis is her new and overwhelming obsession these past years. She plays as soon as her work at the library ends, and often rises before I do to hit serve after serve from a raised bucket on one of the indoor courts. This I cannot understand, though she tells me she finds it hypnotic and therapeutic.
“Just serving over and over to no one?” I say to her once.
“Yes,” she says.
“I don’t get it.”
“There are lots of things you don’t get about me,” she says.
As I am remembering this, one of the students at the table, a redheaded sophomore boy who fancies himself a clown, is telling a story. He is from a well-known family, and this adolescent clownishness I have seen dozens of times. It is his way of drawing attention to himself, and while not particularly endearing to adults now, it will serve him well later. I half-listen to his story, something about Mr. Linder’s math class, though the other kids laugh heartily, as does Elizabeth.
And then I see her. She comes out of the kitchen with a tray in her hand. She is waiting tables, which isn’t what it sounds like, since all the students at Lancaster are required to have campus jobs. Though any jobs associated with the cafeteria are among the least desirable, and at the minimum she is not a star athlete. All the athletes get simple jobs, like cleaning the basketball courts, which is done by the maintenance crew anyway.
I turn to Elizabeth and whisper, “This girl, coming by with the tray, do you know her?”
Elizabeth looks up. “She’s new. Why?”
“She’s in my class. Said something interesting, that’s all.”
“Jewish,” says Elizabeth softly.
“What’s interesting about that?”
“Nothing,” I say, though a picture begins to form in my mind. She is new and a junior, which is rare at Lancaster, and suggests she is smart. An overachiever from a suburban high school, Westchester perhaps, or even New Jersey, Short Hills or some such place. New-money parents. Dad an ambulance-chasing attorney or in middle management at Morgan Stanley. Commutes into the city. Mom who favors yellow gold, lots of it.