A Provincial Education

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This previously redacted chapter from As Earth Without Water lifts the veil from the personal history of the novel’s narrator, Angele Solomon, who pretends to be more urbane than she is and disowns the roots of her aesthetic aspirations. 


As I hunched on the bench by the lake under the gingko, long past sunset, Beatrice’s lost words floated up into the dark: Good Jesus, the things you don’t seem to know. Exactly. How to help; how to speak; who to speak to; whether speaking helped. Whether, if I spoke, I could ever be believed. Who brought you up? To what depth could I trace the taproot of my failure, besides to the place prepared for me long before conscious choice? Trapped on the outskirts of Sepal, in the tiny green house along the highway, a house fenced by yellow-leaved banana trees and scruffy unpruned azaleas, hedged about with rusting wheelbarrows and stacks of tires, surrounded by piles of scrap wood and metal draped with blue plastic tarps, choked under layer upon layer of objects whose presence spoke of poor choice or bad taste or ill luck or whatever sorrows a city girl might project on to a life she could not understand. It was not a neighborhood because there were no neighbors. The next closest dwelling lay more than a mile away, one of dozens sprawled along the grey skein of Interstate 98.

A thousand miles from there, and several hundred feet above street level, Beatrice’s fingers—poised at the inner skin of my elbow—had diagnosed a physical tightness, a muscle poised for flight although when we sat on her couch we were supposed to relax. But could I attribute anything like professional goodwill to her arch smile? She saw, in its completeness, the flattening she had helped to finish: the work of reducing depth to superficiality, a live thing to a dead one. My upbringing, a doe in November woods: her casual judgment, the impending rifle shot. She sat too close: point-blank range. Though I dared not tense and edge away from her, I feared she could smell the past’s odors—burnt cooking oil, motor grease, heating propane, mildew, grassy sweat, outgassing plastic—as if I had been made of the same flimsy materials as the house’s fixtures and features that were always, one after another, constantly breaking; as if I could never be whole, coming from such a fragile place, nor clean, from so much dirt: no matter how often we wiped down the high-traffic areas, the lightbulbs the next day would be furred with grime, the shelves frosted with dust, the corners crammed with old newspapers. I used to sit and estimate how long it would take them to burn to ash, if the space heater’s exposed coils ever sparked and caught fire—the veneer table littered with the highlighter-orange crumbs of a cheese-flavored snack and its packet that no one bothered to throw away; the ridged tin edge of the table partly separated from its side, revealing along the cork edge a scribble of the dried yellow glue that once held it together: the markers of a place nobody loved, not even the people who lived in it.

It didn’t take more than a handful of conversations with disappointed New England prep-school graduates, still reeling from finding themselves relegated to a second-tier school in the Midwest, to learn that the sentence I grew up in Mississippi would consistently meet with a spectrum of unpleasantries ranging from blank stares through nervous giggles to a battery of snide questions: Were you, like, a farm girl? Did you milk cows? Did you have to muck out the pigpen? Did you lose your virginity in a haystack?—questions which first upset and then amused me, as they showed their smooth suburban ignorance of how far removed the rural had become from the agricultural, in an America where they had never set foot. In the end I stopped telling anyone where I was from, but not until, in a thousand more or less incredulous variants, I had had to field the baffled cry, How did you end up here?

Maybe not the best way absolutely, but the best way I ever found, to fend it off was with cutting humor: on the L train, same as you, and if that didn’t work: I don’t know, how did you end up with a face like that? None of that is worth anything now. All that is left is sincerity, vulnerability, that strange and ominous vulture that sits on the fence and stares you down after the kingfishers and the cardinals have flown. You know its intention is to devour you, yet still you don’t chase it away.

I have said nobody loved this place. That is not quite true. I loved it, or parts of it: its oceanic skies, pine-thick hillsides, rolling grass meadows heavy with red clover. These things were my church, my religion—for the typical forms of which my parents claimed to have little sympathy. Their disaffiliation made our family odder and more exiled than our poverty, which, anyway, almost everyone around us shared. It was a poverty of mind as well as of materials. Here the language of the soul was the language of terror, not of hope.

Yet I couldn’t hear these words without seeing, too, the field of light pouring through the leaves of the pin oak, the way this field of light appeared to me as I lay on a wooden park bench below the leaves one afternoon in Hattiesburg. I would give the light its name only later, when, having skipped eighth-grade algebra to visit the library, I would see for the first time what looked like its photonegative pattern printed in an astronomy volume: a cloud nebula made up of hundreds of thousands of individual stars. One light, many points. Many lights.

The pattern was the same as the pattern of sun staring through oak leaves that overhung my first conscious memory: of waking from a nap on the hard hot green metal slats of a park bench in a strange part of town. As my older sisters told it, our mother had dragged us down into the government district to secure a copy of some official form or other, but first she had bought our quiet cooperation at the then-affordable price of fast-food sodas in cups. At seven and five, they, relative sophisticates, had been well able to handle the treat, which had flooded my small body with too much sugar and liquid until I felt like a fat balloon afloat on a fountain. I said nothing about my discomfort as we left the musty, mint-painted waiting room, nothing as we trudged down the cracked and unswept sidewalk dusted thick with yellow-green pollen, and nothing as a woman my mother slightly knew, with a newspaper under her arm, caught her up in conversation in the tree-lined public square.

Under a sun as heavy as a weighted blanket I put my small shoulder blades down, felt the warm metal through the polyester of my dress, listened to the woman chirping on about the latest society scandal and my sisters pretending to be magpies on the grass nearby as I yielded first to sleep and then to the inevitable.

Light and leaves, wet salt heat, a wordless cry of embarrassment—not mine—then: “Bless your heart, Lorraine”—over my head, as my mother’s hands shook and her lashes fought back rageful tears, as she grimly draped a blanket around me and, under it, changed my clothes from a Ziploc bag she carried in her purse—“it mus’ be hell tryin’ to train that tiny child, with all them other girls underfoot too, and all that other work you gotta do. It mus’ be hell. Husband gone all the dam time, and where does he take his money to, I don’t wonder.”

The woman muttered the last sentence half under her breath, half intending to be heard, half not. I don’t know if my mother heard her. If she did, she pretended not to. I heard. I saw my mother pretending, and I played along. This must be the rule of the game, to seem not to hear each other: not much fun.

“She needs God,” growled my mother under her breath, marching us girls away. I looked over my shoulder at the light and leaves I’d lost. The woman did not seem to know the light and leaves were there. She stood staring down at her newspaper, scuffing the toe of her tasseled loafer over and over into the red clay path.

So then “God” was a kind of sky—I could make sense of a woman needing a sky—and my body was “hell,” and I was something else, too, called “three.” With a sense of redemption at hand I looked forward to another lifetime passing, another whole three years, so that I could join my older sisters on the yellow bus to the public school. Not long before I went there I heard, and pretended not to hear, another man on another errand in the driveway of the green house, shouting into the window of my father’s pickup truck. Unfamiliar words, unfamiliar sounds, but the hostility of the look he directed at me and my sisters as we pushed our bare small toes against the edge of the pavement could not be mistaken.

My sisters. Their stories are not mine to tell, not right now, though what happened to them could so easily have happened to me that I often wonder how I really know I am myself and not one of them. One of them found a way out of our green-walled prison, but the other did not, and she is there to this day. But all you have asked to know is how I found my way.

At the elementary school in Sepal—a cold red brick box—the children policed each other, by which I mean they put ugly words on each other to cage each other into boxes and then pinched and poked and teased those children who wouldn’t use the same words they used. I guessed they must be learning this habit from their parents as much as from the teachers, who did not ever openly echo the children’s language but gently ratified it in their treatment of us. Watching the children, watching the teachers, I came to feel, was a way of learning false things. The way to learn true things was from looking at the pages that had been put in front of me to look at.

But the other children were as fascinating to study as any book. After learning as much about numbers and words as I could, I learned not to let anyone besides the teacher know that I knew it, then to avoid both children’s and teachers’ notice long enough to observe their riveting misdeeds. I had very little inventive mischief of my own but, as if to correct the lack, a hunger to know more and more about others’ errors. What made these children do such things, any of the things, they did? Why did they rip picture books, call names, squash classroom caterpillars in the chrysalis; why did they bite ears, kick dirt in faces, drop lunches into the ditch behind the fence? What made them perform for each other in this way?

But soon no one wanted to be merely watched in a performance. They wanted you to participate—they wanted you, too, to throw stones at the kid with the bent forehead. They wanted you to let the dog off the leash and laugh at its escape, to see if you could cut across the highway after it together without getting flattened. They wanted you to implicate yourself, because otherwise they couldn’t trust that you wouldn’t tell.

In middle school the misdeeds and the teasing took on first a latent and then an overt sexual undercurrent, at which point I dropped out of the school’s social life completely. A sixth-grade classmate, that fall when we were eleven, casually told me what had already happened to her—what I assumed could happen to me just as easily if I even looked at the boys responsible—and for some months after this I strove to become an unheard apparition, wishing I could altogether disappear. In the same months she made herself louder and louder, more and more overtly available, saying, in effect, yes to what she had wanted to say no to, saying I will be what you have made me instead of I will not. Before we were thirteen everybody “knew” about everything she and others had done, plus we “knew” about much more that in reality (she again confided, asking me to keep it a secret) she had never even thought of doing.

At no point did school really offer us any protection from the adult social world, but only reprised it in miniature and without the adult world’s sense of mutual benefit in leaving each other alone. My fear for a while was so intense that, if my home had been more appealing, I might have dropped out of school too. As it was, the bus ride and the steady stream of insults stayed preferable to the small stale interior and the fallow grassland: preferable to inconsequence.

I learned to hide that I knew the answer in class. I learned to write everything down but never to raise my hand. I learned to skip ahead and study the whole textbook while my classmates were struggling through the first quarter of it. I learned to hide the books I checked out from the school library, hide my visits there on pretexts of restroom trips or errands for teachers. I learned to conceal especially the crisp Barnes & Noble volumes my aunt Rachel, my father’s sister, sent me on each birthday. By means of extra chores done, secrets concealed, lies told, contraband hidden, I would also lure away the books she sent to my sisters, who then didn’t care about the books one way or another but who enjoyed having a bargaining chip, an advantage.

I learned to devour books in secret, an addict taking hits, the way others learned to squirrel away and abuse aerosols and solvents and, later, prescriptions. Then I brought my habit, only slightly more socially acceptable here in that adults would tolerate it, out into the open. I learned to spend lunchtime barricaded behind a hardback: while some kids might make snide remarks, they would soon stop if you gave no more than a scowl before dropping your eyes to the open pages again. I learned to ignore the jolting and the noise and the gasoline smell and the worst seating (right up front), to tune out volleys of insulting language, to live in an invulnerable keep and pour the boiling pitch of contempt over the walls. I built a secret city behind thousands of pages: a fortress, an enclosure.

Even better than words, for me, were images: photographs in old periodicals, catalogues of museum collections, line drawings, most of all reproductions of paintings—landscapes if I could find them, portraits, tableaux, interiors. Heroic battles left me cold, but I could stare at the detailing on a crown or the rendering of a distant tree for what felt like hours without noticing my own breath in my body. Words worked for me mainly as a means toward understanding what I was seeing, but pictures of the unfamiliar granted glimpses into new mysteries. Language served as the windowpane through which to look out; the image was the garden.

The thumbnail-sized floor plan of my high school’s library, its thinly filled shelves, would have impressed no one else whatsoever: but, to me, the space offered the nurturance I needed. I would skip lunch to spend time alone there, looking especially for travel magazines and art books, or the illustrated editions of nineteenth-century novels whose line drawings I liked then to copy. On my own there one afternoon I picked up what I thought was one such novel because of its binding: a dense blood-red leather, peeled and flaked at the corners, with gilt stamping on the spine. The library sticker lay differently on the cover: its position higher, its texture waxier. The age-speckled, deckle-edged pages smelled of cedar, must, and adhesive.

The text on the flyleaf jolted me into total focus, as if a switch had flipped in me: The Elements of Drawing, in Three Letters to Beginners.

I checked the thing out—incredible that no one here knew or cared enough to stop a teenage girl from carrying around such a delicate, valuable edition; for once, ignorance worked to my benefit—and it is not too much to say that it transformed me. I became the book, or it became me. Not that I memorized it all—although I will tell you, among many other things my college would teach me never to tell anyone, that from this book I absorbed whole passages so deeply that they became foundations of my mind. Laugh if you want—in a way it really is funny, as all young things are funny, most of all when they want not to be—but after Ruskin I was a different person. It changed nothing in my circumstances, in my inner world it changed everything. Because I disturbed no one else and put down the right answers on my school papers, I was left, if not alone, then alone enough: at liberty to make myself mentally absent from my surroundings, to be just as present as I chose, where I chose. It is easy to draw what appears to be a good line with a sweep of the hand, or with what is called freedom; the real difficulty and masterliness is in never letting the hand be free, but keeping it under entire control at every part of the line. Later on I knew enough to hide all this from professors whose ideas of freedom had nothing to do with self-control; I learned how to make the deliberate, the planned, the strategic, seem spontaneous: so Dylan and I would hold that much in common, after all.

Next time I wrote to Aunt Rachel, I asked her if, instead of a book, she could send a set of pencils and erasers and a sketchbook for my next birthday. To the box that arrived soon after, she had also added charcoals, pastels, and a field kit of watercolors. Until I moved to New Orleans, she sent me a fresh one every birthday, and until I moved to New Orleans this was the only help I asked from anyone. Until then, private lessons were out of the question; arts programs at my school had been cut: so, as in most other things, I substituted work for support. If no one listened when I complained, this did not matter much, because whenever I set myself to figure out a technique, I could rely on myself to learn and, after a while, to do it well.


You don’t need to hear again how I made it out of there, in body if not in mind: Aunt Rachel’s apartment, the scholarship, the charter school. But I would like to tell you how she helped me, what she said. That may help you make more sense of the contradictory, self-defeating thing I later became: so capable to create enchanting lies but never to render so much as an impression of the truth.

When the scholarship letter came through, I thought I was happy—but Aunt Rachel was beside herself, so much so that I had slightly to wonder whether at least some of her elation grew from the relief of a job well done and a workload about to shrink. For myself I felt a slight buzz of the illusory, a temptation to rip the letter and tape it back together just to prove its physical reality. But for her, the boilerplate lines must have rung with pure vindication.

That Saturday she took me to lunch at Galatoire’s with more than a bit of a flourish, insisting first on paying for a new dress for me and a costly cab ride. A funny way of celebrating, for a person whose shelves were lined with titles like A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia and The Wretched of the Earth—the contrast didn’t strike me then, but it does now.

During the ride Rachel made a rather self-conscious point of reciting snippets of the restaurant’s history, rattling off some of the famous names that had lunched at the place as though she wanted—absurdly, I thought—to imply that I must be living the beginning of a similarly storied life.

Then, over a spread whose like I had never seen outside the pages of a book—lobster bisque, French bread, salad misted with balsamic dressing, grilled snapper over wild rice, all followed by coffee and tiramisu—she told me in short compass a story that would have filled a novel, the story of her family’s past and mine. I wish I had her here again to repeat it in all its detail, but the full labyrinth of names and origins escapes me. All I can be certain of remembering is that she was my father’s much younger sister, that her side of the family had roots in New England but had lost much of its wealth during the Depression and had migrated south to manage directly what little remained of its interests in a hard-hit shipping business. Even so, they had owned a tall balconied house on Royal Street and a cloud-white yacht in the harbor, until Rachel’s older brothers—my father and a lost uncle—rebelled against respectability in ways she said were “too different from each other, and much too idiosyncratic, to cash out here and now.”

Whatever Rachel knew of my uncle, she kept to herself; perhaps she was hiding past faults, in case I might one day want to renew contact. About Edward, my father, she did not tell me anything I did not already know: that he had married my mother and soon afterward cut off contact with his parents, so that they had always blamed Lorraine for his estrangement—a story that did not track to the few facts we held, since Rachel had had our address at all due to Christmas cards my mother had sent more than a decade ago. Rachel and I both knew, and did not mention, the fact that Ed had all but abandoned the green house while Lorraine was pregnant with me and that his last visits had so much overlapped with my earliest days that I barely remembered his face.

But decades before all that—and in response to what they perceived as their sons’ youthful rejection of them—my grandparents, rebelling against rebellion, had turned religious. Under the influence of a fraudulent zealot whose special promise was to protect young girls from what he called “the evils of secularism,” Edith and Sherman Solomon had joined a tiny and supposedly Protestant sect that turned out in reality to be a cult. They had sold their historic home and their yacht, as well as their remaining shares in the shipping business, and had given all the money to their “pastor,” who later bolted with the proceeds and left Rachel and her father living in bare unfurnished rooms behind the warehouse he had converted into a sort of church commune. Even the warehouse had once belonged to the Solomons, but Sherman had given the deed away when he converted.

Not long before the pastor’s disappearance, Edith died in a violent crash with a tractor-trailer while she was driving one of the multi-ton eighteen-passenger vans the erstwhile commune owned. Rachel told me shakily that Sherman had suspected, as she herself still suspected, the pastor of having engineered the accident to make a point: her brake lines cut in secret, his ensuing sermon against women as drivers a previously planned attack rather than a grief-stricken reaction. This seemed to have been Sherman’s belief too. He had spoken out, at first, but his accusations had only driven the pastor to flee with the bulk of the community’s funds and the pastor’s remaining followers to close ranks against Sherman.

Threatened with expulsion from his last place of support—having cut ties to every other relationship and divested himself of the resources to resist—Sherman quieted down. The totaled van by then had long been hauled away for scrap; the escaped pastor was never found, his theft not provable as a theft because what he took had been legally recorded as a gift in his name. Even if Sherman could have backed up his case, he could never have afforded to force it to trial.

After that Sherman did not, because he could not, protect his daughter against the community’s ways of drilling what it called “life principles” into its girls. Those intrusive pressures and constant suspicions constituted their own kind of violation, Rachel said. “And I’ve been angry with him forever for letting them try to teach me those things. Just because I didn’t believe them didn’t mean they didn’t hurt.”

Sherman married again within the commune—more out of a feeling of helplessness, Rachel said, than out of love—a woman who tormented Rachel with endless demands for emotional confidences, disclosures, dramatic scenes: “I won’t inflict those details on you,” she said, “because the point isn’t anything she said to me, it’s what all her talk did to my father. She was what you’d call an emotional vampire. She drained him of significance, made him die inside before his body died.”

The one evidence of spirit left in Sherman after that was the continual mapping, the endless resentful planning, of legal battles against the commune for restitution over the wrongful death of his first wife. These long fruitless conversations, a kind of dry rot of the mind, ate up the rest of Rachel’s limited time with her father just as surely if he had launched into full-scale courtroom war.

“And I still don’t know what was worse,” she said, “being so disempowered myself in a context that tried to tell me my disempowerment was natural, or watching him be so powerless in a context that told him he had to have power to have value. We were both in bondage to lies. But which of us felt more pain? Even now I can’t say.”

And then I already knew how, at the age of eighteen, Rachel escaped, not without difficulty, and after some mistakes had rebuilt her mind with the help of mentors and therapists. She had told me that part of her education before; it was part of her standard lecture about how to avoid being exploited by men; but I had never known before how her family, my family, came into the picture of her past.

“That was why, when I saw how you were living, I knew I had to help you,” she told me, stirring a second sugar into her coffee, carefully tapping the small spoon on the cup’s rim so as not to stain the placid linen beneath. “Our circumstances are so different, but I saw myself in you. You were every bit as trapped as I was then. I see my younger self in you now. And now, well, you’ll still have to struggle, but you won’t have to struggle the way I did.”

Then she shook herself a little, as if waking from a dream, and said a series of things I can remember word for word to this day, as no one had ever talked to me in this way before. I know now that these must have been the things she herself had needed to hear, starting out, that no one had ever said to her at all, that she had had to puzzle out for herself:

“Never, never be intimidated by a professor. Do you know what the difference will be between you and the professor you’ll admire the most, this fall? A stack of books and somewhere between seven and forty years. I’m serious. Given time, you’ll do everything they have done—probably more, since you aren’t yet burdened with a sense of the past. Avoid that burden as long as you can. . . .

“Pay attention to what you wear, though. Seriously. You read Austen” (she had sent me a six-volume set for my fifteenth birthday) “and what are the characters constantly on about? Clothes and manners, manners and clothes. Why, do you think? They’re as sharp as hell when it comes to others’ opinions, because they know those opinions matter. They know that what they put on, the words they speak, the way they move—all these things send signals to the people around them. It’s true that signals like this don’t tell others who you are, but here’s what they do: They tell others who you think you are, how you expect them to treat you. That expectation shapes your life in ways you couldn’t predict. So read your Peggy Post, and look at a fashion magazine from time to time, but you don’t need to obsess. . . .

“Don’t date anyone in your first semester. Don’t leave your drink unattended at a party. Don’t join a sorority, unless you really want to spend hours planning parties you don’t get to decide whether or not to go to. Sororities are mostly for girls with tons of money and time to burn, and you know you have your way to make in the world, as Austen might put it. So, also: check your account balances and keep good records. Keep your scholarship; keep on making good grades. I don’t have to tell you not to waste time; that’s obviously not one of your vices, not that I think you have vices.

“Major in something you love: if you love your work, that love will help you overcome whatever life throws at you. But be a realist, not an idealist. Don’t run off and live alone in some one-room hovel; don’t turn down your chance at prosperity in pursuit of a purity no one ever finds—look, you and I both know you could. But you’d only make yourself miserable, and to no purpose. Sheer talent alone doesn’t get anyone anywhere anymore, because there’s just too much of it out there; you’ll have to think about positioning. But don’t think of that as compromise. Think of it as the art of living.

“Knowing all that, this may be the toughest leap of all to make—easy to say, hard to do—but don’t worry too much about what other people think. I know I was just telling you how much it matters what people think, but that’s only at the beginning. At a certain point you have to create yourself and stand by your creation. Stand up and be what you want to be and make yourself totally indifferent to how anyone else perceives that. Remember what they say, small minds talk about people, mediocre minds talk about things, and great minds talk about ideas. Decide to be great, and there won’t be anything that can keep you stuck on the level of people who want to be small.”

I loved, I love, Aunt Rachel. For that reason I wanted so much to believe this earnest, nerdy, damaged fervorino of hers represented some kind of bedrock truth about how to live. And maybe some of it holds good, on some level, as far as it goes. It seems clear to me now, though, that it does not go nearly far enough. Not knowing who I really was—neither of us knew yet—she did not know and could not tell me what I would really need to hear. What she was giving me was less advice than a creed: a sort of practical litany; a magic spell against desire, against emptiness. As such it proved terribly ineffective.


When it came time to leave for Chicago, I decided to ship my few belongings and ride the train rather than taking a flight. Aunt Rachel drove me to Union Station much too early, so that I had lunch that day in a molded plastic chair the color of butterscotch, with my legs draped over my suitcase and my eyes fixed on the nightmare of history in the form of the garish apocalyptic WPA-era murals on the station wall. Slavery, violence, prejudice, disease, the mechanization and anonymization of humanity: I felt I was leaving all this behind; I had no idea I was riding out of the eye of one hurricane right into another.

As I stared out the window, the simple fact of the coach’s start-and-stop, turbulent lurch through farmland and swampland provided a thrill: for nearly two decades I had been scanning this green landscape with longing, looking for a way out. The Amtrak coach’s window was scarcely cleaner than that of the green house on 98, but this window was moving. One sleepless night, rolling first over long bridges across vine-tangled wetlands, and then gradually up through fields full of cattle and corn, brought me farther away than I had ever been from this place before.

All alone, I crested the waves of joy and fought through the humiliations that come to everyone who travels to Somewhere from out of the middle of Nowhere: humiliations arising from unfamiliar names, customs, expectations, idioms, pronunciations. I became aware for the first time in my life that I spoke with a drawl so thick it made me almost incomprehensible. I learned how to talk all over again, this time in the style of my hallmates, with crisp consonants, nasal vowels, vocal fry. I discovered that despite my year of hard reading and harder climbing, I had still somehow graduated high school in total ignorance of core facts of history, government, economics, politics, culture—not just arts and letters, but even pop culture; especially that, since one of the few firm convictions Aunt Rachel, Ed, and Lorraine had all shared was a disdain for TV. Everyone around me seemed to speak a different language, to be from a different country. Unless I learned how to be from there too, I fully understood, what little skill I had gained I might as well not have.

I dove in and learned, desperate not to be so naïve anymore. I once again acquired a reputation as an intense one, as a piece of work, as honestly kind of a buzzkill. But this time I learned that these and other terms were applied, not always without justice, sometimes even with affection, to anyone who gave or even appeared to give any importance to the things they were supposed to be learning. The work that had started in Aunt Rachel’s study, I finished here, clinging to the language of theory as you might cling to a floating seat cushion: in the unlikely event of a water landing, you don’t stop to examine the scientific basis of the user’s manual or ask about the motivations of its writers. You just hang on.

But through all those years of hanging on, some incorrigible, unregenerable back corner of my mind kept staring out that smudged train window, kept fantasizing, kept imagining itself in another kind of vehicle on another kind of path, headed to New York already and then Rome and Florence and Chicago again. Where else. Always somewhere else. Always away.

On one side of the observation car, a marshy bayou draped with curtains of blight-obscuring kudzu—on the other, a bare flat of dry land, recently clear-cut of its pines, left looking raw and aching.

And here, again, tonight, on the other side of the monastery’s lake, a stand of pines: an accusing chorus of furies. How could I have thought, even so many years later, that I could get away? This damned nature still dwelt in every cell of me. To shed it would be to shear off the very skin I wore, not that I did not sometimes wish even that away. But the case remained the same for me as Dylan had stated it for himself: Where else would I go?