“You could make a movie about roses,” Jane was telling Eli. “And you would have all the elements for a great story: sex and violence, romance and intrigue, honor and betrayal.” They stood in the rose garden. Jane’s clippers flashed through the thorny branches, snipping and snapping like an angry mutt. Eli liked Jane. She was all business and she spoke her mind.
The garden itself was a blend of hybrid teas, floribundas, and old roses. A brick path fed from the back door of the house, past a stand of pink dogwood, into the garden. The path curled through regimental arrangements of bushes, shrubs, and climbers, circling in front of a hedge of Japanese yew, an arbor, a cedar bench, and looping around a smaller central bed filled with miniature roses and fairy roses, a sprinkling of alyssum and dianthus, too. Over a span of decades, Jane had lavished attention and love upon the garden. It was her solace, she told Eli when he first moved in, her solace for giving up dreams of becoming a horticulturalist. She had graduated college, married Gerald, gotten pregnant with their first boy, and that had been that. The boys were grown now, except for Rupert, her baby, but she could still tend the rose garden. She spent hours in the garden. She would deadhead and prune and weed and water. And when darkness settled, she would sit on the bench and watch the stars, one by one, prick tiny holes in the sky.
Eli had rented the third floor of the house in July, replacing the previous tenant, a black, bald blues guitarist named Othello, who had moved out for somewhat murky reasons that ensured his presence had not quite faded from the house. Jane admitted she had grown fond of Othello, who told her dusky tales about growing up poor and black in the rural South during the civil rights movement. When Eli moved in, she stood there, wiping her hands on her housedress, telling him she hoped he could spin a yarn as well as Othello. Eli had turned away. “I’m not much of a storyteller,” he said.
So Eli lived alone on the third floor, which included a small ballroom, along with two side bedrooms, and a large bathroom with an old, deep claw foot tub. A stairway ran along one side of the house, rising from the edge of the brick patio to a balcony extending from one of the bedrooms. Jane and Gerald said they did not mind if he used the ballroom as a library and study, and he should also feel free to inhabit the rest of the house as if it were his own home.
Jane and Gerald may have sensed the tender ache beneath the shell of competence and independence Eli presented to the world. They may not have. Certainly, it was in their natures to extend an open hand to their tenants, who were invariably young, single men trying to find their way. Jane, especially, welcomed them into her home as if they were children of her own. Previous tenants had occupied the third floor for many years, and in some cases Jane and Gerald surely became surrogate parents. Almost all stayed in regular touch after they moved away, once having been fledglings, Jane liked to say, now soaring on their own.
And so through the summer, Eli virtually lived in the ballroom, in which he had planted a desk, a rug, a table, a wing chair, piles of boxes of books (most now transferred to his McIntyre office), and a small stereo. During the day, he sat at his desk, writing and staring out on to the back yard, where he could see Jane in her garden or Rupert, home from college, lifting weights on the patio. When Eli raised his gaze beyond the oaks and maples rimming the yard, he could see the Willamette, snaking north toward its confluence with the Columbia, and beyond the towers of downtown Portland and the West Hills. After dinner, which he usually ate by himself, he would move to the wing chair and read far into the night, until rose tips suffused the eastern sky.
Out in the garden, Eli peered at the tags affixed to the stems of the bushes. Reine des Violettes. Souvenir de la Malmaison. “You’d need English subtitles for your movie,” he said to Jane.
“Not hardly,” she paused to point with the clippers. “There’s your Nymph’s Thigh. And your Mister Lincoln. And over there’s your Tropicana and your Peace. Like I said, it would be a good movie. Roses offer sensuality, indulgence, purity, love. Cleopatra stepping through rose petals to greet Mark Antony. Nero’s banquets, with petals strewn on the floor, draped from the ceiling in nets, petals in the food, in the beds. During the Middle Ages, you had the great rose windows of the cathedrals, the rose the flower of the Virgin. Roses indicate dynastic ambition, too. As in the War of the Roses. Or the Napoleonic Wars, when Josephine gathered cuttings from every nation conquered by her husband.”
Eli pulled a bud from one of the bushes. Its fragrance sailed past him like a song. He smiled at Jane. “And here we are, meeting sub rosa. Just like the Romans.”
She laughed, stepping back from the branches to eye her work. “I forgot to tell you,” she said. “There’s a letter on the kitchen table from your father.”
“What do you hear from your parents?” she said, casually.
“Not much. They’re okay.”
Jane moved around a bush, deadheading. “Stop mutilating that poor rosebud, Eli,” she said.
Eli tossed the bud to the ground. “They’ve been in Providence for the past month. My father was doing research at the John Carter Brown Library. My mother sketched. She’s working up a show on Parisian doors.”
“Such fascinating parents, dear. Both so talented.”
Jane changed the subject. “Classes begin next Wednesday, don’t they?”
Eli nodded again.
“You must be looking forward to jumping in.”
“I was. Until I got waylaid by Shahid. Now I’m not so sure.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Shahid,” Jane said. “He’s one student out of how many, eleven thousand?”
Eli shook his head. “He wasn’t like other students. White students mostly want to know where to find the next party. Black students, they’re not like that. They’re motivated, at least. But they’re consumed, too, by this sense of themselves as victims. That wasn’t, Shahid, though. He’s anything but a victim.” Eli paused. He smiled. “And I can’t even imagine him at a party.”
Jane had moved to the back of the garden, where creepers hid a garden shed. She rummaged in the shed. “How did he seem to you?” she called out.
“Confident. Arrogant. Like no one could touch him.”
Jane said nothing. The walls of the shed thumped. Eli wondered what she could be doing in there. He looked down. His toes plowed furrows in the dirt patch at his feet. He worried the patch, pushing out against the bricks. Finally, he stood up and made for the house. “Gerald looks ready to pull that chicken from the grill,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going to wash up.”
“That’s fine, dear,” Jane said, emerging from the shed, stooped and dusty, dragging a length of soaker hose behind her. “Tell Gerald I’ll be over in a bit. Don’t forget that letter from your father.”
Eli walked into the house, through the kitchen, past the letter on the table.
* * *
A few minutes later, Eli stepped back on to the patio. Rupert, Jane’s youngest son, flipped him a beer from the cooler. Eli opened the bottle and sank into one of the canvas chairs. “Hey man,” Rupert said, laughing, for no particular reason. Rupert thought everything was funny. “You rounding into shape? You think you can take me now?” A rising sprint star at Stanford, Rupert was tall and blonde, with hands easily large enough to palm a basketball and quarter-horse thighs that threatened, as he sat, to split the seams of his shorts. He was leaving the next day to start his junior year.
“I doubt I could take you in the quarter,” Eli said. He looked down at his legs, at their shape as they emerged from his shorts, tough, fibrous muscles wrapped tightly around stalks of bone. There was the scar tissue on his knee, too, pale and soft and smooth against the tanned flesh and dark hair on the rest of his legs. Since the move to Portland, even when overnight sleep eluded him, he ran at 6:00 every morning, when the air was still dew-sweet and fresh. Most often, he made straight for the river and loped four or five miles along its course before doubling back. But recently he had also done some tough workouts on the track at Tillamook State. Eli had produced some of his fastest times in recent years, really since college. He had signed up for a marathon in late May. It was the big spring running event in Portland, the Seven Bridges. The race usually attracted five or six thousand runners. Eli was hoping to finish among the top one hundred. “If you want to put in some laps,” he said to Rupert, “not just shoot your wad the first time around, then we might have something to talk about.”
Rupert stretched out his legs and flexed his quads. The muscles rippled like band iron. He smiled at Eli, cocksure and brazen. “You’re on, bro. When I come back home at Thanksgiving, we’ll go a mile. Four times around the track. It’d be classic.”
“It wouldn’t be classic,” he said to Rupert. “It would be blowout.” Eli relished the idea of racing Rupert. He’d trounce him, no question. But it would also be a way to gauge his fitness for the Seven Bridges.
“You’re a sprinter, Rupert,” Gerald said, walking down the steps from the kitchen, a bowl of potato salad in his hands. “You’ll wear yourself out in the first lap. The race wouldn’t be worth the price of admission.” He turned to Eli. “There’s a guy at the front door for you. Barry Amish, or some such name. Says he knows you from school.”
“No kidding!” Eli brightened.
Jane sat at the picnic table, wiping clean her tools with a rag. “Is he a friend of yours, Eli?” she said.
“Maybe,” Eli said.
“Invite him to join us,” she said briskly. “It’s the dinner hour.”
Harry stood at the front door twirling his mustache. He wore khaki shorts and flip-flops. His green Triumph sat idling in the driveway. “A night dreams are made of, Eli,” Harry said. He pointed to his Racing Form. “Codex in the first. Can’t miss. In a minute and ten, you’ll triple your money, earn enough to pay your rent for the next month. And then some.”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner? Jane invited you.”
“Jane. Do I know this woman, this Jane?”
Eli smiled. “I’ve told her about you, Harry. How you dictate while hanging from your boots. The horses. Your charming relationship with Dean Pritchard. She’s excited to meet you.”
“Let’s see, do I have time?” Harry looked at his watch. “I suppose I could spare an hour. It’s my policy not to refuse invitations from attractive women.”
* * *
Harry and Jane were deep in conversation about formal and tonal disintegration in the work of Kandinsky and Schoenberg prior to the outbreak of World War I. Rupert and Gerald were wondering whether Rupert’s old Chevy would make it to Palo Alto without overheating and blowing a gasket on the interstate. Eli poked his food. The air had softened. Smoke from the neighbor’s grill mingled with theirs. Older kids on the block played football in the street. How comfortable the warm air, how pleasing the conversation. How different from summer evenings in Princeton when he was a boy, with family dinners on the screen porch, mosquitos floating thick, like a cloud, just outside the netting, Tobias trying unsuccessfully to be warm and convivial, his irritation mounting in the heat and humidity.
Bonnie, why does Eli get so much of the lamb? When will you learn to apportion servings according to age and stature? Lawrence, when will you repay us for that window you broke? Evangeline, how many times need I tell you to forebear from bringing your rag dolls to the dinner table. And you, Eli, young fellow, when do you plan to bear down on those exercises? How do you intend to heal that knee without putting in the work? Eli? Would you like to answer me?
Eli sighed. Gerald put down his fork. He leaned forward, extending his long frame across the picnic table toward Eli, past the plates and glasses and serving platters, as if his torso were mounted on a series of hinges. He was a huge man with a long, ruddy face. Eli found himself staring right into it. Gerald was smiling. “How do you intend to handle your new problem, Professor?” he said.
“What problem would that be?” Eli said, noticing Harry and Jane, too, had stopped their conversation to listen.
“You know what I mean. Your run-in with this black fellow. Shahid. Do you really think he will leave you alone? How do you plan to deal with it?”
Eli looked at Jane. “Maybe I won’t do anything,” he said. “Maybe Shahid will leave me alone.”
“Can I put this delicately?” Gerald said. “He won’t. These black guys love conflict. Trust me. He’ll be on you like a scab all year if you let him.” Gerald went on. Tillamook State had been heading down the wrong path with the Diversity Project all along, he said. The school should scrap the program. There was anger, in the community and on campus. He had seen it coming down the pike for several years now. The idea Portlanders were somehow better equipped to absorb an influx of rough, untutored black kids, it was ludicrous. Used to be, when he was a boy, it was hard even to find blacks in Portland, unless a person knew where to look. That was a long time ago, before World War II. Before Henry Kaiser build Vanport and invited every black in America to move in. But now, with Tillamook State just a hop-skip-jump from downtown, and packs of alien kids, from who knows where, roaming the streets. Gerald stopped. As if his point had to be self-evident, even to a naif such as Eli.
“Gerald, leave the boy alone,” Jane said. “You’re just being difficult.”
Rupert laughed. “Dad freaks if he sees blacks in our part of Irvington. Kids from Albina drive down by the carload on Halloween. He won’t answer the door. What’s their business here? They don’t belong here. Why don’t they rob a candy store?”
Gerald was not amused. “Rupert communicates a healthy disregard for the wisdom of his elders,” he said to Eli. “But I would like to hear from you. You’re the expert on race relations.”
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” Eli said. In a way he could appreciate Gerald’s response, the nervous energy released by the subject of race. Gerald voiced feelings most people would recognize to be racist, but they carried an urgency suggesting he also understood, and was personally engaged by, this problem, the big problem, the culture clash, the concern no nation was large or expansive or generous enough to contain these two peoples, the black and the white. But Eli could not subscribe to the language used by Gerald, images, virtually microbiological, of black students as aliens and invaders. He swigged from his beer and shook his head. “I don’t know much about the Diversity Project,” he said to Gerald. “I don’t know too much about Shahid, either. I like Tillamook State, though. I’m happy to be here. I certainly have no sense black students pose a menace.”
“Let’s cut through the bullshit, Eli,” Gerald said. His eyes followed the stairway angling up the side of the house. “I’ve been in the ballroom with you. I’ve seen the books you’ve got up there. I have to admit they’re a welcome contrast to that damn guitar twang.” Gerald glanced at his wife. “Othello up there screeching every night,” he muttered. “Thought he was Muddy Waters.”
“Gerald! That’s enough!”
“No, Jane. It’s not enough. The point I’m making is that Eli is obviously a sober, high-minded young man. Christ, I can’t pronounce half the titles of his books, much less read them. So if he doesn’t want to tell us his thoughts about race relations, that’s fine. I just don’t want to be patronized.”
Harry stood up. “Gerald, I’m afraid I need to go,” he said. “But I’d like to throw in my two cents before leaving.”
“Go right ahead,” Gerald growled. “Everyone else is.”
“Eli is correct to keep his thoughts to himself. He’s a new professor. Race relations at Tillamook State are tense right now. It would be imprudent for him to offer opinions on matters which he does not know about first-hand. The only people to whom Eli owes an open accounting are his students. And he’ll have time enough for that next week.”
“Spoken like a true dean,” Eli said.
“Thank you,” Harry said, bowing. “I’m learning at the feet of the master, you know.” He reached for his Racing Form, which Rupert had begun to examine with interest. “Sorry young fellow,” Harry said. “I’m only allowed to corrupt one person at a time. Are you coming with me, Eli?” He pointed once again to Codex in the first race. “Rent money.”
“You guarantee this horse wins?” Eli said.
“You’ll cover my bet if it loses?”
“He’s backed you into a corner, Eli,” Rupert said.
Eli looked warily at Harry. “How about I send a bet out with you?”
“Nope. No proxy betting. I want you to experience the track in all its glory.”
“Don’t do it, Eli,” Jane said, smiling. “He’s the serpent in the garden.”
“Harry, I can’t even find time to prepare my classes,” Eli said. “You’re on your own tonight.”
Harry left, though not before telling Eli such lame excuses wouldn’t be sufficient to deter him in the future. Jane and Rupert rose to clear the table. Gerald sat back again, the hinges folding into themselves, until he was once more a normal-looking older man, hair mostly gray now, skin gone leathery and a little bit flappy, eyes a clear blue. “It’s getting late, Eli,” he said, the gravelly voice softening. “But let me give you some friendly advice. We’re delighted to have you with us in Portland. I mean that. You’re a fine young man. But professors don’t live in the real world. You sit around the ivory tower all day, counting angels on the head of a pin, trying to decide if God is indifferent, or only perverse. That may be fun and interesting and stimulating. But it’s not real. These black guys, they’re tough, they’ve been in the streets, and they’re not at Tillamook State to monkey around with old history lessons or wild metaphysical speculation. You don’t face them down the first day, they will chew you up. Then they’ll spit you out. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
* * *
Later that night, Eli wandered to the rose garden and sat on the bench, washed in moonlight. Gerald’s insistent questioning bothered him. This was what people always wanted, he thought. You’re the one who studies slavery, abolition, the Civil War, they would say. Prove to me you know what you’re talking about. Validate our prejudices and fears. Tell us what we should do. It didn’t matter that Eli had no idea what people should do, that he was only a historian. In this case, it didn’t even matter whether Shahid was really black. That Shahid asserted his blackness, the assertion not separable from his militancy, was enough. For Gerald, certainly, it was enough.
Jane was finishing up her evening chores in the garden. She dumped the yard waste, grass clippings, stems, buds, into the compost pile. She turned off the soaker hose. She coiled the hose, slipped it into the shed, wiped her hands on a rag, and sat down next to Eli.
“Don’t worry about Gerald,” she said. “He’s gruff. You get gruff in his business. Underneath, he’s a kind man. Even Othello. He likes Othello. Gerald used to visit Othello in the evenings. He’d bring a bottle of wine with him. Gerald would accompany Othello on the bongos! And oh they would laugh! He never wanted Othello to leave us.” Jane smiled at Eli. “Of course we’re both delighted to have you with us, dear.”
Eli shook his head and stared at the brick inlay beneath the bench, oversized sandmold brick reclaimed from a river mill south of Portland, a mottled rouge of accents, wine red, rose, salmon, orange, and purple.
Jane looked at the letter held tight in his hand.
“Did you open it?” she said.
“A few minutes ago.”
“What did he say?”
“He’s coming here.”
“To see you?”
“The history department sponsors an annual lecture. There’s nothing prestigious about it. But Tobias knows someone in the department. He’s doing the guy a favor. And yes, he wants to see me.”
Jane fell back into silence, and for a moment Eli forgot she was even there.
He thought about how he had been hired the previous spring, to introduce and teach an experimental course of study, spanning the full breadth of Western European and American intellectual history, spanning the full year, and combining classroom study with field research. He had coveted the position and worked every angle to get it. When he visited the Tillamook State campus in February, he aced the interview. Not more than two hours after his return to Berkeley, the phone rang. It was John Jergensen on the line, calling to offer him the position, taking care to tell him that out of 250 applicants he, Eli, had stood head and shoulders above the rest. There had been no speck of doubt in the mind of any committee member that he should receive the offer.
For all this preparation, for all this assertion of will, Tobias still attributed the outcome to an over determining set of providences governing the world. Tobias did not believe in God. He did believe in history though, undercurrents of destiny sweeping people along like so much flotsam. Tobias would say, and did say, Eli had in no sense chosen to teach at Tillamook State. As with all human choices, the boy was moving there for some deeper reason, to serve a greater, or at least a yet-hidden, historical purpose. No matter how obscure or hidden that destiny might now be, it would reveal itself in time.
Eli did not agree with his father. He believed in free will and accountability, in the accretion of personal happiness through deliberation and action. In each human endeavor, he thought, no matter how small, there must be craft, technical discipline, care and concern for completing and perfecting the human will that initially only desires. In this spirit, he had sought, and obtained, his position as a professor at Tillamook State. But though he believed he had chosen freely, and chosen well, the moral clarity he wished to ascribe to this act did not materialize.
The moon hung above Eli, bathing him in iridescence. Still, he felt shadowed, by memory, by doubt. In his mind, he hung yet in the shade of the vestibule, watching Shahid sweep by the statue of Faircloth and disappear behind its mass. He wondered now about the issues of destiny and choice, whether anyone could ever fully master their past, securely lock it away. He thought about his own childhood, his attempts to rise above its pain, to construct a new foundation for his life upon that higher ground. Portland and Tillamook State were part of a conscious effort to build anew. He hadn’t factored a Shahid into the calculus. But he might have guessed, had he imagined ways in which the ghost of his childhood would return to haunt him, to crash his party, he might have guessed it would assume the spectral form of a racial daemon. Eli wondered what actually had brought him to Tillamook State, his own, conscious will, or something deeper and more inchoate. He wondered if his father might have been right after all about the deeper forces that govern human movements across the stage of life.
“There’s a nip in the air, tonight,” Jane said, finally. “Fall’s not too far off.” She stood up. “Let’s go in, Eli. Join me and Gerald for a nightcap in the living room.”