Affenlight slipped out of his office, a slim volume of Whitman tucked into his inside jacket pocket like a concealed weapon. He headed toward his car, staying close to the bleached-stone walls of Scull Hall so he couldn’t be seen from the windows above. Scull Hall, though similar in size and design to the other buildings on the Small Quad, was supposed to look slightly more distinguished, housing as it did the president’s office and quarters, and to that end the narrow strip of earth between the foundation and the sidewalk had already been churned and fertilized and planted with spring bulbs. The damp soil, sprinkled with tiny white nutritional pellets, sent up a pleasingly dense black odor. He’d told Pella he needed to work until four, whereupon they’d drive to Door County to buy her some new clothes.
He drove fast and parked the Audi. The glass doors of St. Anne’s parted to grant him entrance. Affenlight dropped his cigarette butt into a trash can and thought of Pella’s mother, who’d spent her life—or at least the part during which he’d known her—among the sick and dying, but never seemed to suffer a moment of physical or psychological weakness. Perhaps she was blessed with a hardy constitution, or perhaps she couldn’t afford to complain or feel pain when she had so many fragile bodies to tend to. When Affenlight caught the flu or fell into one of his grim moods, she would frown and ignore him. He’d dismissed this as a lack of sympathy, and even perhaps a form of stupidity, but maybe it was wisdom instead. Had he learned—would he ever learn—to discard the thoughts he could not use? It remained an open question, how much sympathy love could stand.
When he walked into Owen’s room, Owen was sitting up in bed, and a very composed-looking African-American woman in a tailored suit was sitting in his—in Affenlight’s—chair, though she’d dragged it closer to the bed than Affenlight would ever have dared. “President Affenlight,” Owen said, his voice improved since yesterday. “What a nice surprise.”
The woman rose and extended her hand. “Genevieve Wister.” Her tone and smile suggested some sort of ownership of the room. A doctor, then, or a physical therapist—they probably dispensed with uniforms on the weekend. Her skirt was cut just above the knee. Her heels, though low, made it virtually impossible not to notice the long sleek muscles of her calves.
She continued to clasp his hand, several beats past what Affenlight had anticipated. “A personal visit from the school president,” she said, her tone occupying some hard-to-identify spot between wry and impressed, “after a bump on the head. I’ve always known that Owen was in good hands here at Westish, but this surpasses everything.”
Always known? Affenlight looked from Genevieve Wister to Owen Dunne, and back and again. Owen nodded, as if in response to an audible question. “My mother,” he explained.
“Ah.” It occurred to Affenlight that if someone aimed a gun at his chest right now, Whitman would take the bullet. The little green-clad book rested against his heart like a hidden ridiculous earnestness. What had he been thinking, bringing poems, poems about sturdy lads, supple lads, lads who lay athwart your hips? It wasn’t just ridiculous; it was criminal.
Even as he thought this, his spirits dipped at the loss of the chance to read to Owen. He’d been dreaming of it all morning. But Whitman! What was he thinking? Reading aloud was already borderline intimate, one voice, two pairs of ears, well-shaped words—you didn’t need to press your luck. He should have brought Tocqueville. Or William James. Or Plato. No, not Plato.
He released Genevieve Wister’s hand and bathed her in the most charming, mother-schmoozing smile he could muster. Still, he felt jittery, as if addressing an authority-wielding elder rather than someone twelve or fifteen years younger than he. “The surname threw me,” he said apologetically.
“When I divorced Owen’s father, I decided that ‘Owen Wister’ wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Ah,” Affenlight said again dumbly. What a strange thing love was! You met an excruciatingly beautiful creature, one who seemed too well formed to have sprung from sperm and egg and that whole imperfect error-prone process—and then you met his mother.
“Good news,” Owen said. “They’re setting me free today.”
“You won’t have to travel so far to visit, President Affenlight,” Genevieve joked.
“Wonderful,” Affenlight said. “That’s wonderful.” The longer he looked, the more attuned he became to the resemblances between mother and son. At first the differences in their skin color had fooled him. Owen’s—apart from his parti-colored, metallically bright bruises—was close in hue to Affenlight’s own, though ashen where Affenlight’s was ruddy. Genevieve, on the other hand, was extremely darkly complected in a West African way. Owen’s black, Affenlight thought. He’d known this, of course, but seeing his mother made it plain.
Genevieve’s features were sharper, more forceful than Owen’s, but their dark eyes were nearly identical, and the true similarities were in their bodies: the same modest, gently sloping shoulders, the same soft limbs and long graceful fingers. The way she sat down on the edge of the bed, gesturing Affenlight toward the vacated chair with a slight, lively movement of her palm, might have been something she’d learned from countless hours of observing her son. Or, of course, the other way around.
“I really can’t stay,” Affenlight said. “I just dropped by to ensure Owen was being well cared for. Clearly”—he offered Genevieve a solicitous smile—“he is.”
“Well, you’re very kind to take such an interest,” Genevieve said.
“My pleasure.” Affenlight took out his handkerchief to wipe his brow. He hadn’t felt this awkward in a social situation since—well, since last night with Henry, in Owen’s room. But before that it had been a long time.
“Perhaps you’d let me make a small show of thanks? Owen and I would love it if you could join us later for dinner.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” Affenlight said quickly, but maybe that bordered on rudeness. “That is, I’d love to, and you’re extremely kind to offer, but unfortunately—well, not unfortunately, of course—my daughter’s just arrived from San Francisco. In fact”—he glanced at his watch—“I’m late to meet her ri—”
“Your daughter?” Genevieve said. “How perfect! I thought you were going to claim a business engagement. The four of us can dine together. My treat.”
Why, why hadn’t he claimed a business engagement? Affenlight appealed silently to Owen, but Owen, propped against his pillows, looked as amused and detached as if he were watching a movie. “It’s not every day my mother comes to town,” he pointed out.
Genevieve nodded. “I’m allergic to the Midwest.”
“So’s my daughter,” Affenlight allowed, and something in his tone—he heard it as readily as Owen and Genevieve did—marked this as an acceptance of the invitation. “There’s a French place near the campus,” he said. “Maison Robert. It’s a little down at the heel, but the food is good.”
“That sounds perfect,” Genevieve said.
As Affenlight inched toward the door, she stood up and extended her arms in a pre-embrace posture. Affenlight tried to minimize the contact and make it more of an air-hug, but she wrapped him up familiarly. Their chests sandwiched the Whitman. “What’s that?” Genevieve asked, releasing him and tapping the book’s cover through Affenlight’s jacket fabric.
“Nothing,” said Affenlight hastily. “Just a little reading material.”
“May I?” Genevieve clearly was one of those people who didn’t mind touching other people. Before Affenlight could twist away, she reached behind his lapel and extracted the book. “Owen, look—Walt Whitman. Your favorite.”
“Whitman’s not my favorite,” Owen said. “Too gay.”
“Oh, stop,” said Genevieve, with a wave of her book-holding arm. Affenlight thought about snatching the book back, but it was way too late. “You used to love Whitman.”
“Sure, when I was twelve.” Owen glanced at Affenlight. “Whitman appeals to the newly gay. He’s like a gateway drug.”
“I’m sure he appeals to all kinds of people,” Genevieve said. “He’s the poet of democracy.”
The unhurt corner of Owen’s mouth turned upward in a smile. “Is that what they’re calling it now?”
Affenlight needed a cigarette more than he ever had when he smoked half a pack a day. What year did they finally ban smoking in hospitals? What happened if you did it anyway? He both did and didn’t want Owen to figure him out—like that dirty picture on Owen’s laptop, the possibility of being figured out made things more real, more thrilling and terrifying—but what he certainly did not want was for Owen to figure him out in front of his mother. Affenlight was glad that Genevieve had said what she said about the poet of democracy; otherwise he would have said it, or something like it, and felt like a fool.
“All through high school you loved Whitman,” Genevieve said. “What’s the one about the tree? The oak tree?” She opened the book and began to scan the table of contents.
“Please, put that thing away,” said Owen as if it were a soiled diaper. He coughed and, avoiding as well as possible the blood-stiffened, drug-slackened side of his mouth, began carefully to declaim the poem: “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing, / All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches…”
Affenlight’s heart grew calm at the sound of Owen’s voice reciting the familiar words. So much of one’s life was spent reading; it made sense not to do it alone. And he’d always loved the poem, admired in the narrator exactly what the narrator admires in the oak tree—manifest independence—even while the narrator insists on his thorough dependence on his friends.
Halfway through, Owen broke off. “Bah,” he said. “My head.”
Affenlight couldn’t help himself. He cleared his throat and picked up where Owen left off, stumbling over only the phrase “manly love.” “For all that,” he concluded, unable to keep from shifting into a slightly higher oratorical gear, “and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space, / Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a lover, near, / I know very well I could not.”
“Bravo,” cheered Genevieve. She handed Affenlight his book.
Affenlight smiled sheepishly. He felt both good and exposed. He wondered briefly about the precise etymology of the word flush: you flushed when you were happy and exhilarated, you flushed when you were humiliated, and you flushed a bird from cover before you shot it. He looked at Owen to see if he could see what Owen thought of his recitation, but Owen’s eyes were closed, not in a sleepy way but like Sherlock Holmes at the opera, ears alert, a gentle smile on his lips.
“Well,” said Affenlight, “I suppose I’d better be off. Pella and I will see you tonight.”
“What a lovely name.” Genevieve clasped Affenlight’s hands warmly in farewell. “Who knows, O? Maybe this Pella Affenlight will turn out to be your ideal woman. She certainly has a dashing enough father.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Owen said, eyes still closed. “It hurts my face.”