Morris Schutt, aged fifty-one, was a syndicated journalist, well liked and read by many, who wrote a weekly column in which he described the life of a fifty-one-year-old man who drove a Jaguar, was married to a psychiatrist, played pickup basketball, showed a fondness for Jewish novelists, suffered mildly from tinnitus, had sex once or twice a week depending on how much wine he and his wife drank, and who cared for his mother, a hypochondriac and a borderline narcoleptic. There was a son as well, who had just turned twenty and who coloured his mother’s hair every six weeks. He was a gentle, slothful boy. He had tried university, disliked it, and dropped out. He played online poker. He smoked too much weed. There was some concern that he might be dealing, though there were worse things than selling dope—like accosting old women and stealing their purses, or having sex with animals. Morris longed for the true and the beautiful and the good in his column, and though he could not be certain, he anticipated that we are saved by hope. Readers responded with hopeful thoughts. They appreciated Morris’s wry take on the world, his sardonic skepticism, his “straight shooting,” his seeming annulment of the private, and his family’s apparent openness. As is the case with most columnists, readers believed that because Morris wrote in the first person, the life he described was his own. They identified with the domestic dramas, the small failures, the financial burdens, and the difficulties of family relationships. Men especially recognized themselves and wrote to Morris as if he were a friend. As is also the case with columnists, Morris did little to dissuade anyone. As a journalist, he knew the fine line that existed between truth and fiction and he felt he was adept at walking that tightrope. Sometimes,
however, he was brought up short by his apparent honesty, by his capacity to appear to be revealing the truth when all he was doing was offering the shell of himself. But he understood that he worked in a temporal, modern world, and if he had doubts or took the time to reflect on the thinness of his thoughts, it did not take long for him to push these doubts aside and then to sit down and write another column.
And then Morris’s son joined the army as an infantryman, passed through training in Wainwright, Alberta, and within a year and a half he was deployed to Afghanistan. And he died. And everything changed in Morris’s life. His wife let her hair go grey and she stopped having sex with Morris. She confessed that at night, when she knew that her two daughters and her grandson were safely sleeping, she imagined a dark place she might run to, but there was no place far enough, there was no corner dark enough. And Morris, who had always cunningly told the world about his private life, began to lose his grasp of himself. The madness trickled into his columns, and in one of the last pieces he wrote in the late summer of 2007, he borrowed overtly from the seventeenth-century mystic Jacob Boehme, and he descended into the second-person voice, alienating many of his readers.
You are like a fugitive. The hardness is fixed and you are on a turning wheel, one part of you striving upwards, the other striving downwards, and you are full of both desire and will. So the wheel spins and has no destination and there then results the greatest disquietude, comparable to a furious madness, from which results a terrible anguish. You wish to bend time, to pass through it. Of course. You desperately wish to regain your son. Absolutely. You desire him, you want to experience your own reflection, and so you grasp, you lay out crafty plans, you manoeuvre and beg. Yet, to no avail, because your son is dead. The wheel turns and you have no destination where to arrive.
His agent, Robert, a rational man with a sharp chin and a distrust of anything contemplative, phoned Morris and said that his columns had become too wistful and he told him to retool them. “Everyone’s threatening dismissal. Everyone. You’re killing your cash cow here, Morris.”
“I write what I write,” Morris said. He said that he was not a word processor, that he could not just mass-produce essays on demand. “You have no sense of art.”
“Your own life has seeped too much into these columns,” Robert said. He liked to string together words like “seeped” and “too much.” He smelled a loss of income and he was panicking.
“This is a first for you,” Morris said. “All this time I’ve stolen from my own life, and not happily, I should say. I’ve sold myself to the highest bidder, to readers who are fond of human interest and self-reference and biography. Given them the aging mother who is based on my father, the remote spouse, the son who dyes his mother’s hair, the pot smoking, the fumbled sexuality, the American brother who is a duplicate of my own brother, Samuel, and my grandchild whom I’m not allowed to see. And finally I offered up my dead son, hoping it would bring some peace. All of this, and now you complain about seepage? You are a philistine and you are, contrary to your highfalutin sense of yourself, astonishingly middle class.”
“Before.” Robert paused and then sighed, and Morris imagined him leaning forward as if to convey a secret. “Listen. Before, when you first began writing this column, you were generous. Of course you excavated your own life, but you did it circumspectly, with a kind of mockery. You nailed the truth in a lighthearted manner. Lately, you’ve become too serious. Bleak. Nobody wants to read about unhappiness. What the fuck is all this mysticism? ”
“The reader doesn’t mind.”
“But he does. He’s complaining. The letters! Numbers are way down. You’re frightening people. Christ, you’re frightening me. Take a leave. Sort things out. Better than losing the column completely. You need this column. You need the money. It’ll carry you through to old age. Find a good person to talk to, and when you’re ready to come back, your column will still be here. But take some time.”
Morris closed his eyes, then opened them. “I’ve been thinking that I could just drop out of sight and there could be a note from the editor saying that I have cancer, or that I died quickly, without warning. Perhaps an aneurism.”
“Jesus, Morris. You don’t want to kill yourself. I’ll handle it. It will be done tastefully. Keep writing the columns for yourself and at some point you will pass through this.” His tone was wry. He had read Morris’s piece written in the second-person voice and hadn’t liked it and now he was mimicking him. But gently. He said, “How’s Lucille? You talk to her? ”
“We talk. Though not lately. She’s seeing someone else.”
“You should find someone else.”
“I have. Ursula.”
After a dinner of poached pickerel and wild rice, he made himself an espresso and drank it in one shot. Then he rolled a joint and smoked it on his third-floor balcony overlooking the street below. It was warm for September and in the sky to the west dark clouds were piling up. There were girls in tight jeans and sleeveless tops strolling along the sidewalk. Some had boys on their arms, some had big purses, and many had both. The boys were immature; they seemed coltish and awkward and were always half a step behind the girls. On the corner there was a patio bar that was filling up with mostly young people, though there was an older couple, perhaps in their late forties, who had found a distant table. They were drinking red wine and the woman was smoking and leaning toward the man, touching his arm and then stroking his face. Morris experienced an ache in his chest and stepped inside his condo. He sat down at his computer and began a column that was truncated and elliptical and was lifted from Petrarch.
You will stand safely on the shore, watching others being shipwrecked and hearing their cries in silence. The spectacle will indeed arouse your pity; but your own safety, compared with others’ danger, will arouse just as much pleasure. That is why I am sure you will eventually get rid of all your sadness. Just so. But then you will think, What if I am not safe on shore? What if I am in the midst of the wreck? And you will have to reckon with yourself.
He did not write, as he always did, “This is the truth,” which had been the four words with which he had ended every column. This particular piece was unfinished, and in any case, the claim to truth was fraudulent. He’d known this from the beginning, when he had first typed those closing words, but some greater force had guided him. Everyone—his readers, his editors, those who wrote letters back to him—all of them liked that he announced the truth. Only his family rebuked him. Lucille had said that he was exploiting those who loved him. She no longer wanted to be fodder for his writing. He’d argued that if he did not use what was in front of him, the clay of his own life, then he would have nothing to say. “Use your imagination,” Lucille said. She had an office on the fifteenth floor of a downtown corporate building and she would come home and tell Morris about her patients. Though these people remained nameless, they were very real. There was the man who couldn’t have sex unless he was wearing a red dress. The woman who kept changing her identity, using the phone book to discover new names. The adolescent boy who tried to kill his father as he slept. And there were those, ordinary people like him, who were overwhelmed by staying alive. They were addicted to the material, to commerce, to the comfort of stuff. The world was mad. He had used Lucille’s stories, the people she worked with, as a taking-off point for much of his earlier writing. Very much disguised, these people had entered his column. And then there came the day—he can still remember the tiny quiver of recognition—when he began to use his own life, and though he suspected he was betraying his family, he saw himself harnessed to some great fated and unguided wagon. The astounding fact was that his readership grew. People were hungry for the personal and the private. He offered himself up as if he were both Abraham and Isaac, and he laid himself out on the altar and took up the knife as if to slay himself. And how he had succeeded.
Not long after Martin died, Morris, in a painful and irrational attempt to justify his son’s death, had begun to stop people on the street and ask them, “Are you free? ” It was not a casual question; in fact, it was a hard-found query, full of irony. Using the convoluted logic of politicians and generals, Morris reasoned thus: (1) Freedom is everything. (2) We are in danger of losing our freedom. (3) Our freedom must be defended. (4) We must seek young men to defend that freedom. (5) The young men will die doing so. (6) But they will preserve our liberty. (7) Therefore, we are free. And so Morris began to ask the question “Are you free? ” which did not go well, because people misunderstood, thinking that they were being asked if they had a moment to talk, or as one young man said, backing up, “Get lost, fag.” And then Morris began to ask, “Do you have freedom? ” and this too was difficult, but it was both general and personal enough to make people think. Or so he thought. “Sir, sir, do you have a minute? ” he asked a man in a suit carrying a briefcase near the Trizec building at the corner of Portage and Main, certainly a banker or a lawyer, and when the man paused and Morris asked the question, the man shook his flat head and he moved on. Morris looked down at himself as if to understand whether he looked like a panhandler, or appeared to be mad. He was wearing jeans and a dark jacket. He had shaved, though he might have looked a little grey around the jaw. He attempted to talk to several more people, two women and an older man, but they too snubbed him, although the man, bald and with rheumy eyes, did say that he would be free when he won the lottery. Morris discovered that an answer, any answer, was more possible if he approached those working as the slaves of modern society: waitresses, bank tellers, the barista at Second Cup, taxi drivers. He also learned to couch the question in less obvious ways, as an offhand curiosity, or as part of a random survey. A few people patronized him but most thought him foolish. He was astounded by the indignation, the lack of thought. Of the two people who talked to him at length, one was a drunk standing outside the Sherbrook Inn, the other was a young man on a bicycle to whom Morris offered one hundred dollars to answer one question. The young man refused the money with a smile. He was a Christian, he said. And then he proceeded, over the next half-hour, to try to convert Morris.
Lucille, when she discovered what he was doing, said that of course no one, absolutely no one, would answer that kind of question, especially when it was asked by some stranger on a city bus. “People are just trying to make it through the day. They don’t want to be accosted,” she said.
“But it was Martin, and boys like Martin, who made it easier for those people to make it through the day. Martin died so that Ian, our neighbour, could buy a new Lexus every spring. So that your cousin Annalena could send her daughter to Juilliard. So that Libby can be free to choose what colour of iPod she wants.”
“Or so that,” Lucille said, “as a girl, Libby can choose whether or not to suffer circumcision. Or to be educated.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, come on. It was the Muslims who saved Plato’s writing from the Christian fanatics.”
“You’re sad and angry, Morris, and you’re taking it out on complete strangers.” She said she worried about him.
Ursula was an American woman who wanted to be but was not yet his lover. She was six years younger than he was and he had come to know her in December of 2006, when she sent him a letter in response to one of his syndicated columns that he had written ten months after his son died. The column, one of the hardest he had ever written, and something he had put off for a long time, had been about a young soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. He had described the soldier’s fear and his bravery, and he had referred to the boy’s emails and phone calls to his parents in which he had talked about the good that the army was doing. He had also mentioned his own fear and the boy’s doubt, the sense that people at home didn’t truly believe or support what the soldiers were doing. “There are times, Dad, when I’m not even sure. I get scared, Dad. Scared that I’m going to be killed over here.” The whole column was written in the third person, and only at the end did Morris write, “This boy? This beautiful twenty-year-old with his life ahead of him? This boy who was killed? This was my son.”
He received Ursula’s letter via his agent. She wrote:
Dear Mr. Schutt,
My name is Ursula Frank and I live on a dairy farm two hours from Minneapolis. This is not far from where you live, and though an international border separates us, I feel very close to you today. I just finished reading your column about your son who was killed in Afghanistan. My heart broke as you described your son’s death. I also had a son who was killed during the war, only he was in Iraq. His name was Harley. He was nineteen and he was killed last year by a bomb that exploded underneath the Humvee he was driving. He died immediately. When I heard about my son’s death and felt that first wave of shock, and then waited and waited and finally watched his casket being lowered from the transport plane, all of that was easy compared to what came after, and that’s why I’m writing you. It’s amazing to hear from someone who has lost a son to war like me and who is able to write about it in such a public way. I’ve read your column before but I’ve never thought, Oh, I should write him. And then, when I read your last column, I felt that you were sitting right beside me, telling me the story of your son. I’m not sure how to talk about your son or how to talk to you. Oh, I know that you are famous and that I’m just small fry and that you probably won’t even read this letter, but I wanted to send it, I wanted to write it on actual paper, using a pen, and I wanted to fold it and push it into an envelope and put a stamp on the envelope and drop it into a mailbox. These small things are what save me these days from my constant fear. Even though the worst thing that can happen has happened, the death of my child, I’m still very angry. And I’m afraid. In your article you mentioned the word “fear” and I thought to myself, Oh, he might be afraid as well. Is that true? Thank you for listening.
Her writing was so formal and yet so clear and so moving that he wrote her back immediately. He too wrote on paper, with a pen, and mailed it to her through regular post, making sure his own return address was written on the top left-hand corner. He first talked about her son, and how sorry he was, and he said that he might be able to gauge her grief, though grief was personal and he didn’t want to be presumptuous. He said that he did not see her as “small fry,” not at all. And he certainly wasn’t famous. And then he addressed what was most poignant in her letter, the question of fear.
Oh, yes, Ms. Frank, I am afraid of many things. Of sleeping and dreaming of my son and then waking to find that I was only dreaming. Of the darkness, of death, of life itself, of plodding through the day, always aware that I am alive when my son is dead. That makes me unbearably sad and it makes me fearful. And I am afraid of the possibility that I will lose my daughters as well, or my grandson, Jake, who grasps after life, though I do not see him often and have been told that I cannot see him. What kind of world is it that we live in where a grandfather cannot spend time with his grandson? And truth? I am afraid of truth, because if I truly look at myself, I will despair. Of happiness as well, because if I am happy, then I have let go of my sorrow.
I was walking by the river the other day and I saw the ducks and they were diving for food, their tiny rumps pointing to the sky, and I stood and watched them, little things, no need of lodging or clothing or money, just the feathers on their backs and their webbed feet, such intricate elaborate instruments, and for a brief moment I forgot who I was, and when I returned to myself, I realized that I had been experiencing happiness, allowing my emotions to whip my reason, and I was filled with panic. I am full of betrayal and selfishness. And you. I am afraid of you, Ursula, because you allow me to speak in this manner, freely, with no editing, no red pencil striking out the emotion. Are you Jewish?
And so began a correspondence that was intelligent and flirtatious and raw. And hidden. Morris did not tell Lucille about Ursula, and because he was the one to retrieve the mail, Lucille remained unaware. The privacy and the secrecy allowed his imagination to soar in the letters; so different from the mundane scribblings of a columnist. He was starting to see that by confessing to the public he had damaged himself and his family. At the time, he believed it had been healthy, that he was honest and worthy, that he was truer than the average man. Now he saw that he had been deceiving himself. This secret correspondence with Ursula left him giddy and alive. He talked about Martin and she talked about Harley. She told him about her life as the wife of a dairy farmer. She’d met her husband when he spent a year working in Holland. They fell in love; she quit school and moved to America, a country that was very different from the one she was raised in. “I never planned to be a farmer’s wife,” she wrote, “but here I am, in the middle of a life that I chose when I was too young to know better. I always imagined I would have a career of my own, use my education.” She apologized; she hated whiners. She said that her husband Cal had closed himself off after Harley’s death, and if she didn’t have Morris to talk to, she would be alone in the world. He echoed these words and, in a moment of brilliant betrayal, said that he felt closer to her than he did to his own wife. This did not surprise or frighten Ursula. She agreed. They spoke of longing and loss and they spoke of sex. He said that ever since Martin died he had become more interested in sex, as if death had dredged up some hidden desire inside of him, as if this was his way of overthrowing his own demise. He said that his wife found his feelings contrary and frightening. She claimed that he was in denial and that sex was masking his grief. It wasn’t normal to want to have sex when you were broken hearted. “It is what it is,” he wrote. “I refuse to be conquered by despair.”
Ursula wrote back and asked him what he looked like, and then she described herself, but she did it in a circumspect manner, so that if Morris had been asked to make a sketch of Ursula Frank, he would have been hard pressed to do so. She said that she was not Jewish. “Funny question.” Then she had given her height, five foot eight, and she said that her arms were muscular and that her bum was too big, but the other facts she offered were odd: the size of her feet, the difficulty in maintaining her nails, the mole below her right eye, a trait she had passed on to Harley. She liked to shop for fine clothes. Cal thought she spent too much money on shoes; she had no place to wear them. Morris was excited. He wrote that he loved women’s shoes. He shopped for his wife, bought her boots and outfits of all sorts. He liked the feel of women’s clothing. He liked to pass through a shop and press the cloth between his fingers. “Do you think this fey? ” he asked. She responded and said that she had looked up the word “fey” in the dictionary and it meant “fated to die.” What did he mean? He wrote back that he had meant “affected,” as in, some gay men are affected. “Do you think that this behaviour is too effeminate? ” She said that she did not like to think of him as gay or effeminate. That worried her. She had imagined that he was quite masculine, that he seemed strong, both physically and morally. She said that she felt guilty because she had not told Cal about her letters to him. She asked if he had told Lucille. She knew Lucille’s name, she knew what Lucille did for a living, and she was intimidated by her education and status. He wrote back and said that Lucille did not know about the letters, that this was a private affair and none of Lucille’s business. “It’s not like you and I are having sex,” he wrote. “We haven’t even faced each other, nor do we truly know what the other person looks like, so why should we feel guilty for something that is non-existent? ” She said that she disagreed. Their relationship was very real. She wrote: “I think of you often. I imagine changing this correspondence to e-mail so that you could send me a photograph of yourself. And then I think, No, this is better. I like the mystery, the sense of the unknown. So often the physical gets in the way, don’t you think? ” She said that her favourite cow, Meera, had taken sick and so had to be slaughtered. He asked if all the cows had names, and she said, “Yes, this is why it’s so hard when they die.” She got up with Cal at 4:30 every morning to milk. They milked again at 5 p.m. “The cows don’t go away,” she said.
For several months they continued this correspondence and often the letters crossed paths in the mail. Lucille discovered one of Ursula’s letters a few days after she and Morris had decided to separate. On the spring day that Lucille told him that she could no longer live with him, that their relationship as husband and wife was drawing to a close—she was so typically formal and uptight, thought Morris—they were sitting eating breakfast in the nook that had been built when Martin was three. The memory of torn-down plaster and lath, the empty hole for the large window that now looked out onto the garden. The dust and chaos and Martin wandering about, holding his toy hammer, banging ineffectually at the old lumber, imitating the workmen. Look at me. Such hope back then, no sense of needing to rehearse for what was to come. Morris had come to believe that he had failed to rehearse Martin’s death. Certainly this must have been Lucille’s method. She was prepared, like Telamon, who said, I knew, when I fathered them, that they must die. She would never be surprised. She looked up from her newspaper and, without any preamble, wondered at what point he was going to admit that he had some involvement in Martin’s death. She had raised this subject before and so the question was not unexpected. He laid down his knife, folded his own section of the newspaper, and looked at Lucille carefully. She was quite beautiful, wearing a sleeveless top that showed off the strong shoulders that he used to stoop toward and kiss. What a strange mind you have, Morris, he thought, admiring your wife, picturing yourself bending to kiss her shoulders even as she berates you. And then, suddenly, he was imagining the letterhead of some lawyer, and written beneath would be the words: “Morris and Lucille Schutt are separating due to incompatibility brought on by the anguish that arrived with the death of their son.”
“Why are you doing this? ” he said. “I know you’re desperate to explain Martin’s death, and that the simplest way to do this is to have me take the blame, but I wasn’t there, I didn’t pull the trigger. I did not kill him.”
Morris moved from the house that he’d lived in with Lucille for over twenty years into a newly renovated condominium on Corydon. He bought two leather chairs and a small kitchen table, a few utensils and a frying pan, some cutlery and plates, drove his library over in the back of his Jaguar. He kept only the books he valued greatly, and he arranged them alphabetically. Adorno, Babel, Bellow, Buber, Coetzee, DeLillo, et cetera, Kincaid, Kosinski, Lessing, McCarthy, Nabokov, Niebuhr, O’Connor, et cetera, Roth, Updike, et cetera. All necessary companions. For a bed, he purchased a solid futon that left him stiff and irritable in the morning. The antique bureau and the dining room set that he’d inherited from his parents were delivered by a moving company that he hired. His walls were bare and so he rented a number of paintings from the art gallery. Two watercolours he placed in the living room, the third, titled Bouquet, he hung above his bed. The quiet surprised him. He missed the sound of someone else puttering at the edges of his life. He found a few good choral CDs and played them throughout the day because the voices made him feel less lonely. One day in June, Lucille dropped off his mail, noting with disdain that there was a letter from the farmer’s wife. “But then, you’re free to do as you please now.”
In his last letter, Morris talked about the failure of his marriage, Lucille’s reaction to the correspondence, and his relationship with Ursula. He said: “She calls it a relationship. In fact, she says we’re having an affair. She likes to think she is right in most everything, but in this she might be wrong. How can you have an affair with someone you’ve never met? Please, tell me.”
Her response was brief, hastily written. She asked him if he would meet her in Minneapolis the following weekend. “This must seem very cheeky and it probably won’t work,” she wrote, “but I believe you have to ask for what you want and then deal with the answer.” She was going to be in Minneapolis by herself for two days and she knew that it took only seven or eight hours to drive from where he lived, and she wanted to meet him. She wrote: “I can feel a real bond between us. You’ve been so honest, and I sense that you need someone to talk to, just as I need someone to talk to. We have our sons in common and I believe that we have much more in common. I’m being aggressive, I know that, and I’ll understand if you never write me again, but I think that it’s important that we see each other, look at each other. Writing letters says only so much, and in the end we have to talk face to face. Don’t you agree? ”
He read the letter twice and then put it aside. He picked it up again almost immediately and read it once more, looking for a trick in the writing, a possible deception, but he found only a pure candour that impressed and excited him. She had said nothing about Lucille and though this was disconcerting, he imagined she might be shading in the spaces. She would be loath to describe the obvious. He had not felt like this since he was much younger and falling in love with Lucille. The world was suddenly full and vibrant. He felt foolish and alive. He wrote back and said yes.
This appeared in the September 2010 issue.
David Bergen will publish a new novel, Stranger, in September.