Outside Those Walls

by Jonah Smith-Bartlett

My father insisted that I attend Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, because it was once the school of Gil Hodges, his third-favorite ballplayer of all time and his absolute favorite first baseman.

By my sophomore year, I surrendered to the fact that I would not become a close friend to a future Hall of Fame gold glover, but instead a favorite project for the priests that roamed the campus like rabid squirrels, ready to bite the underclassmen with a stinging shot of holiness. “Clarence Richards!” they would call out to me, breaking prayerful silence or psalmic utterances, hoping, I assumed, that this would be the day of penitence for the boy of academic mediocrity but alcoholic exceptionalism. I was just as amazed as they were, if not more, when I noticed exactly how fast my short legs could take me.

For those men who had dedicated themselves to lives of celibacy, I was frankly surprised and somewhat disappointed at how soon, certainly by my junior year, they had deemed me a lost cause for Saint Jude. The exception was wiry Father Anthony, who daily left a new volume of rigid theology outside my dormitory door. The most memorable of these, that is, the one that I recall now, twenty-two years later, was The Precious Blood : or, The price of our salvation by Frederick William Faber. Within this thick book, Father Anthony underlined a number of paragraphs with light pencil marks. An example of Faber’s work (and I can’t imagine that this Frederick William Faber was a joy to be around in any social setting) was:

“Alas! We have felt the weightiness of sin, and know that there is nothing like it. Life has brought many sorrows to us, and many fears. Our hearts have ached a thousand times. Tears have flowed. Sleep has fled. Food has been nauseous to us, even when our weakness craved for it. But never have we felt anything like the dead weight of a mortal sin.”

Later I would learn that Faber wasn’t wholly isolated by his theological rigidity. He did occasionally speak quite plainly. “Every moment of resistance to temptation,” he wrote, “is a victory.”

By the beginning of senior year, almost all students at Saint Joseph’s had resigned themselves to the idea that free will, had it ever existed at all, was now certainly over. Their character (and the content of this character would determine the content of their future) was cemented in the choices of the previous three years. The boys with the wire-rimmed glasses and briefcases who fancied themselves the head of the student body politic were on their way to city halls and state legislatures. The philosophy majors, many of whom were poetry minors, were off to compose the elegies of young hopes of financial success. The artists would starve by passion, and the writers by the lack of the right word. And the education and the business majors who had thus far managed to avoid much ambition at all would do just fine. Those who lacked a vision for their future as graduation loomed large (and I was in this repellant bunch) twiddled thumbs, loosened belts, said things like, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” and “See you in the Funnies,” and wrapped pillows around their heads so as not to hear the noise of the alarm clock at their bedside.

Saint Joseph’s, now including even Father Anthony, was ready to get rid of me. Yet, despite full academic satiation, I found myself hungry. My stomach grumbled even after a large meal and my mind raced late into the night, causing a sleeplessness that made my whole body ache throughout the next day. I was sore because, really unbeknownst to me, I had been straining since I first stepped foot onto that campus. I felt like an old horse still forced to pull a carriage—some unjust treachery soon to break me in two. I couldn’t explain it until I remembered Frederick William Faber’s tamer words: “Every moment of resistance to temptation is a victory.” I had resisted for nearly four years.

What it was that I resisted wasn’t immediately clear. By temptation, I figured, Frederick William Faber meant vice, if not outright sin, and I had successfully indulged in my fair share of vices. The summation of my years at Saint Joseph’s was one temptation after the next, a series of trials down paths of gluttony and lust. These were only two of the seven deadly sins. To me the ratio was rather admirable. In this game I was hitting .285, just slightly above the lifetime .270 batting average of the great Gil Hodges.

* * *

“Brother Clarence!” Nicholas Galloway called to me from the porch of the apartment that he shared with two farmer boys from just a few miles up the road. His hair was slicked back with Vaseline and he wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt with a thin, light-blue tie. His reputation on campus was unrivaled in its undergraduate magnitude, but the esteem awarded that reputation shifted dramatically depending on the narrator. For those who spoke highly of Nicholas Galloway, they would note that he had a fine taste in expensive bourbon, excavated well-buried humor from tragic global news stories, and played violin. Those who spoke ill of him would note with disgust his indiscriminate licentiousness. Nicholas was glad to have this be the topic of dining hall conversation. How much they cared made him laugh.

“Hi, Nicholas,” I said with some formality. We shared a couple classes. I knew the reputation well, but not the boy.

“I was watching you walk this way,” he said. “Thought you would be headed home, but you came this way and here you are. You looked like your head was in the clouds. What were you thinking about?”

I was thinking about a hunger, a sleeplessness, and a strain. None of these was I any more willing to share with him than with Father Anthony.

“Graduation is just two months away,” I said. For seniors this was the most innocuous of conversations. We held in common that sense of impending fear, even more than the usual commentary on the weather.

“And the great wide world out there,” Galloway said. “Any idea what you are going to do when you are set loose out there?”

“No. What about you?”

“No,” he said, running his fingers down the thin blue tie, trying to rid it of wrinkles that were never there. “But I’ve found that the worry does very little good. Well, actually no good at all. So I’ve given up on worry, not that that stranglehold wasn’t a hell of a hard thing to wrestle away. It’s been instilled in me by a couple of hard-nosed parents who wouldn’t let me near the busy streets until I was well past ten years old. Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do you. When you accept that, this warm feeling grows in your gut. It’s hot chocolate on Christmas morning before any of the presents are opened. Or when the bell would ring after gym class. Do you know what I mean?”

“Sure,” I said. “The great escape.”

“No, not escape,” Nicholas Galloway said. “Liberation.”

I spent many nights in his bed. For a week I crawled through his window, worried about what the farmer boys would think. Nicholas encouraged me to take even the smallest dose of bravery and I began to use the front door. He laughed at my anxiety, what I considered to be a brave dive into the deep unknown. Nicholas conjured up memories. Earlier realizations. That boy whose assigned seat I always stole in a middle school history class. I called it a practical joke. In some ways it was, I suppose, though I was the mark. A friend’s older brother who boasted by using his broad shoulders and thick arms to lift cinder blocks above his head. A swimming coach. A movie star. A Language Arts teacher who tried again and again to explain the profound need of Odysseus to make his way home. Why home, I thought, when adventure was abounding outside those cavernous Greek walls where Penelope wept?

This seemed to be it. The hunger beginning, at least, to be satisfied. I must admit that I was surprised when the whole world didn’t shift. There was nothing dramatic. It was just as if I had been looking at a simple multiple choice question for my entire life, and during one of those nights with that strange bedfellow, I finally realized that the answer was “all of the above”.

I awkwardly searched his manhood for my own. That’s what it was at the end of the day. I figured him to be my biographer, revealing to me short but poignant chapters that I never knew were there. I fumbled to read them when he turned off the small lamp on the nightstand. I find it trite now, but up until the point when I fell into the world of Nicholas Galloway, I hadn’t known pleasure, just contentment. My bodily pain now, or most of it at least, was a result of immature ecstasy. And best of all, he played the violin for me. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Then, drunk on whatever concoction this was, I asked him, “Do you love me?”

“No,” Nicholas Galloway said. “Not yet.”

And that word—yet—could have offered hope. Though I didn’t tie myself to it. I wasn’t bound to it. What would be the purpose? It was the opposite of liberation. So instead, certainly doomed by that word, I threw the rope above those vowels and hung myself.

We walked the stage, took the diploma, and shook the hands of unfamiliar administrators. Pomp and Circumstance and we were gone.

* * *

I sat in the dentist’s office and pondered my choices. Home and Garden. The New Yorker. Popular Mechanics. For years the door of the bistro that I managed was thoroughly stuck. It took all the power I had in both arms to open it up and get a whiff of what had been voted online as the best tomato soup in town. A new and overly enthusiastic employee took oil to the hinges. That morning I pulled again with all my might. The door, now good and loose, swung widely and caught me directly in the face. I chipped a top right incisor. Now here I was waiting for a Dr. Prescott, D.D.S., who was on the ninetieth minute of his hour lunch break.

Knowing nothing about growing tomatoes and caring little for a three-page debate on the best domestically made riding lawnmowers, I opted for The New Yorker. A cartoon of President Obama made the cover, running in the direction of the White House and away from a stampede of red, zealous Republican elephants. I skimmed through the black-and-white cartoons inside the magazine—talking dogs in offices, alligators at an airport gate, and an elderly couple siting at a breakfast table and arguing over a newspaper headline. Something about Medicare. Frankly, I didn’t understand a single one. One article after another written for the Sunday brunch mimosa-sipping elites. There was nothing that interested me enough to distract me from the pain of the chipped tooth. I ran my tongue across it. It was sharp enough to not try that again, a blade protecting the vulnerable nerve. Then, nearly putting the magazine down to instead close my eyes and nap until the young assistant behind the desk awoke me, I stumbled across a short story. “A Coward and a Quiet Boy” by one Mr. Nicholas Galloway.

And here some excerpts:

“The most remarkable quality about Stephen was the weakness in his wrists. He couldn’t pull himself up to who he ought to be. He couldn’t lower himself down to who he actually was.”

It became very clear, and I suppose that I appreciated the most minor favor of a pseudonym, that I was Stephen.

“For the third night in a row, I awoke to find him, this time dressed in a thoroughly wrinkled olive-green suit, crawling through my window. He tumbled onto the floor and tried to gather together his dignity before whispering my name. ‘Nicky!’”

I never once called him “Nicky.”

“Stephen saw a glowing dot on the horizon, and when squinting, he realized that ever-so-slowly it drew closer. It could have been the bourbon that he took from my desk drawer that persuaded him of a grand illusion. This was the judgement of God on its way. None of his studies had prepared for him the inevitable end. None of his whispers, those few whispers of truth, protected him. The priests didn’t know who he became when he loosened his belt. Neither did his parents. Neither did his professors, his classmates, or that small handful of misfit friends. He had confessed only to me and refused to confess to Him. Well, He knew what happened when those spring nights swallowed Stephen up with their steadfast intention to induce sweat by one way or another. He knew.”

The conclusion came when Nicky left Stephen to endure his unsympathetic self-affliction. Nicky moved east, and Stephen, in that allusion to tragedy, limped westward. Very precise adjectives and verbs generous to the author, if not authentic, made Nicholas Galloway’s choice in that final paragraph to be inarguably valiant.

The author Nicholas Galloway, stated a short italicized paragraph not long after Stephen’s betrayal, was an author-in-residence at Collins College in the Berkshires.

I drove toward the Green Mountains in a Jeep that was new to the Avis Car Rental lot. Two days before I chipped my tooth on the door of the bistro, my Ford Taurus had blown a gasket near my favorite record store and was now locked up until further notice at Hal’s Auto Shop. Inside the Jeep I felt bold (as opposed to the Taurus, where I felt safe) and rolled down the driver’s side window to smell all the potent scents of farmland. Soon I found myself twenty-four miles above the speed limit with a radio station playing the anarchic chords of the MC5. Collins College was only an hour further north. My anger felt playful in a strange way, in the same manner, I assumed, as it would set upon a fueled-up boxer in his corner just before the bell rings.

The student behind the welcome desk in the main hall of Collins College was thick in body, hair, and odor, and wore a dark-gray knit cap. It wasn’t hard to imagine him working down at the docks in a Baltimore or even a Gulfport, Mississippi. I approached with some hesitancy only to find him as friendly as he could possibly be. His name was Benjamin, he was from Bangor, Maine, and he was an American History Major. I hadn’t inquired about any of these and realized, I suppose, that the long hours at the Collins College welcome desk (situated, Benjamin mentioned as well, at the further point on campus from the Student Center) might make any mighty longshoreman ready for kind companionship. I saw to use his kind and certainly loquacious nature to my advantage. With no hesitancy or ask for identification, he personally walked me up two sets of stairs and down two hallways until we both stood outside the office door of Professor Galloway. His task completed, Benjamin gave me a hearty pat on the back and returned to his lonely, ground-level watchtower.

Nicholas did not recognize me when he answered the door, but due to what I assume was a sense of faint familiarity, he invited me inside. A young, long-legged woman sat on a leather couch to the right of his desk. Her blonde hair fit her well, despite being cut with a sure vision but no real plan of execution. She offered a wide smile. It was warm as well. She was a beauty. Not a leading lady of the silver screen, to be truthful, but one with a real shot at modeling blouses in a JC Penny catalog.

“Have a seat,” Nicholas said with such earnestness that I refrained from clocking him immediately. “So, I suppose I might have missed it, so please remind me. Could you give me your name again?”

“I never gave it,” I said. I was tempted to say “Stephen”.

“Oh,” Nicholas said, turning to the woman on the couch who then smiled at him as widely and warmly as she smiled at me. “Well then, might I impose upon you my own introduction? My name is Nicholas Galloway.”

“I know,” I replied, trying to summon up a smile of my own. Given the circumstances I would settle for sardonic. “I’m a fan.”

“Oh,” Nicholas said with surprise. It felt good to know that this surprised him. “Welcome then! How can I help?”

I had a hundred answers to this question and not just the ones that I had concocted in the Jeep as I passed one tiny New England clapboard town after another. They ranged back decades and they haunted me even now, I realized in that tiny professorial office, more times than I would have liked to admit. How could he help? It seemed like the answer was, in every possible way. And although he hadn’t helped, although he had abandoned me to a long, lonely, and wicked road of self-discovery, although he had revealed a naked chapter of that self-discovery (and a chapter, mind you, better left in the past) in The New Yorker that I found at the office of Dr. Prescott, D.D.S., as I looked across that desk to faint familiarity beneath fatty cheeks and thinning hair, I couldn’t help but feel after all of this a fond affection for the man.

“Hi, I’m Jennifer Galloway.” I hadn’t time to answer before the wife stood from the couch and took my hand in both of hers. The tall, blonde, smiling, finally satisfying wife. “And I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Clarence Richards,” I said.

Very kindly Nicholas asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, obliged me the final contents of a low sugar bowl, and invited me to stay a while. I took him up on both offers. He was very apologetic when he said that he had a dinner with some trustees in just a half hour. He rolled his eyes when he mentioned the trustees and Jennifer half-covered a giggle with her hand. Just the dull duties, he explained, that came with the job of a writer in residence. He asked where I was from and with no desire to be truthful I answered with an obtuse “down South.” That seemed to satisfy him and no follow-up questions came. He asked if I read a couple writers who had been especially influential upon him, and when I responded that I had not, he didn’t seem particularly disappointed. He said, now chewing on the end of a pen, that his favorite protagonist was still small-town America and his favorite antagonist was the foil of conformity to an outdated American dream. He noted—and here is the obvious—that occasionally what reviewers refer to as a “slice of life” was occasionally a slice of his own life. He sprinkled autobiography. He rubbed his cheeks in amusement and feigned embarrassment. “I think I have a few copies of my latest novel left,” he said. Then he pulled a book called A Long Winter at Wendell’s Farm from a stack beneath his desk and signed it. “Dear Clarence, Here’s something for a slow summer weekend. Yours, Nicholas Galloway.” I thanked him and he thanked me as well. So as not to be left out, Jennifer thanked no one in particular. She blushed, which I found charming, and I left. As I left, I felt the air turn to a mild irritation. They would be spending the night with the trustees when they should be spending it together.

Nicholas Galloway did not remember me. Not long after I had last seen that boy who played violin for me in no clothing at all, we both became men. And at some point when he became a man, no longer hiding behind any facade of either wit or depravity, he forgot me. His elusiveness in my life now drew me closer in bludgeoning longing for him than I had ever been when we slept side by side. I deeply desired to know myself in whatever way he once knew me. I’d become useful to him in a way that I would never have wanted, outside those walls, but a way I have come to accept, as one must accept things when there is no one to blame. With the whole of me fading, the smallest bit lasted. And nameless to him he’d called me a plot, a theme, a conflict, and finally, thanks be to God, a conclusion.

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