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Excerpt: 'The Sunlight Dialogues'

Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark.

-Isaiah 56:10

In late August, 1966, the city jail in Batavia, New York, held four regular prisoners, that is, four prisoners who were being kept on something more than an overnight basis. Three had been bound over for trial; the fourth was being held, by order of the court, until the County could administer a psychiatric examination. The identity of this fourth prisoner was not yet known. He seemed to be about forty. He'd been arrested on August 23rd for painting the word love in large, white, official-looking letters across two lanes of Oak Street, just short of the New York State Thruway. As the police were in the act of arresting him he had managed to burn all the papers in his billfold (dancing up and down, shaking like a leaf), and he refused to say now a halfway sensible word about himself, except that he was "an anarchist, a student." His face was slightly disfigured by what looked like a phosphor burn — the kind men get in wars. Whether he was actually a student (he was an anarchist, all right) there was no way of telling. He seemed too old for that, and there was no college in Batavia; but the town was not large and they knew he was not from there. There were of course plenty of colleges elsewhere in Western New York, and there was always the possibility that he'd come from someplace far away. The Chief of Police — it was then Fred Clumly — would sit in his office in front of the cellblock and talk about it with whoever happened to be there — one of his men or Judge Sam White or May Dance from Probation. "I think he's from California," Clumly would say. But he wouldn't say why. "It's the way he talks," he would explain, squinting, sitting with his bare white elbows planted on the desk like trees. Clumly's whole body was creased and white and completely hairless. He'd had a disease when he was in the Navy, years ago. Aside from the whiteness and the hairlessness, his only remarkable features were his large nose, which was like a mole's, and his teeth, which were strikingly white and without a flaw. The whiteness, the hairlessness, the oversized nose all gave him the look of a philosopher pale from too much reading, or a man who has slept three nights in the belly of a whale.

It was of course not true that the prisoner's way of talking was noticeably Californian. But Clumly hated California, or anyway felt alarmed by it. He would sit with his Look magazine, at home in his livingroom, squinting irascibly, fascinated, at the blurry color photograph of a waitress with breasts completely bare, smiling, standing in what looked like a kind of cardboard window, holding out a coffee-pot to Clumly. Clumly's wife was a blind woman with bright glass eyes and small, pinched features and a body as white as his own. Her small shoulders sagged and her neck was long, so that her head seemed to sway above her like a hairy sunflower. He minded the way she filled her teacup, one finger over the rim to watch the level, and he minded the way she talked to herself perpetually, going about the house with her lips moving as though she were some kind of old-fashioned priestess forever at her prayers, or insane. Also, she whined. But Clumly was not bitter. "Nobody's life is perfect," he sometimes said to himself, which was true.

"Also," he said to Mickey Salvador, the new man, "what makes me think California is that beard."

"Like the riots," Salvador said.

"That's it," Clumly said. "You ever see a beard like that around Batavia?"

"Only Old Man Hoyt," Salvador said.


"And Walazynski."

"Correct," Clumly said. It was all coming clearer in his mind.

"And that Russian guy." Salvador tugged at his collar and stretched his neck, thinking. "Brotski, the one that sells Watchtower." He laughed. "With the leather pants."

Clumly scowled, and Salvador stopped laughing.

"I was out to L.A. once myself," Salvador said. "I wish to hell I'd got up to San Francisco."

A little daintily, Clumly picked up the half-smoked cigar from his ashtray, pressed the end firm, and lit it.

Salvador said, "My brother Jimmy had a beard once. It came in red. Jesus to God."

But Clumly was shaking his head, gloomy. "San Francisco," he said. "What's this country coming to?"

"I guess they all got beards in Vietnam there. But I guess that's different. My old lady's got a mustache. Shit, my old lady got hair all over her, just like a monkey." Salvador looked thoughtful.

"California," Clumly said solemnly. "That's what he'll be." But on his hands, where the flesh had not been damaged, the prisoner had no tan, and that was strange. He had large white hands, like those in pictures of King David in the Bible. The tip of the cigar was sharp and acid on Clumly's lip and he thought again of quitting, but he knew he wouldn't. It passed through his mind that there was a beach somewhere in California where there was a car, a 1935 model, he couldn't remember what make it was, and inside the car a couple of lovers made out of old wire in the back seat, and some ladies' underpants. It was supposed to be an art work. Clumly had used it in a speech to the Rotary once. A sign of the times. "That's it," he said. "That's where he's from all right."

"Monkeys," Salvador said. "Shoo!"

That night Chief Clumly stood for a long time at the door of the cellblock looking at the scarred and bearded prisoner. Then he went out to his car and sat there awhile, brooding, half-listening to the radio, and then he drove home, shaking his head, thinking. He was 64, and he'd lived in Batavia his whole life, except for the three years he'd spent in the Navy, and half of that he'd spent staring at a hospital wall down in Texas.

"It's a funny business," he said aloud, above the noise of the police radio. He searched for words, squinting into the half-dark of the treelined street. (He was driving down North Lyon now, past tall, narrow, two-story houses with porches that went the full width of each house, old latticework at each end of the porches, and here and there a bike leaned up against the steps. Even with their lights on, the houses looked abandoned, like habitations depopulated by plague. You had a feeling there would be dragons in the cellars, and upstairs, owls. The curtains in the livingroom windows were drawn, and there was no one out, not a car on the street except his own. No light showed but the incorporeal glow of television sets. On some of the lawns there were bushy evergreens, and yet he could remember when all this was new, the lawns plain and bare, the trees along the sidewalks all small and straight and as self-conscious looking as the new, white houses, now gray or dark green or fading yellow. He could remember when the evergreens were six feet tall, full of colored lights at Christmas, and the snow on the lawns reflected the light, pale blue and yellow and pink. He'd driven a Wonder Bakery truck in those days — Good Bread for Six Reasons — and before that he'd been the Watkins man — panaceas and potions — for the Indian Reservation.) But no words came, only the light of a cat's eyes beside the curb. At LaCrosse he slowed almost to a stop and turned. The houses were older, even taller here, like old-time castles. They stood in the cool, cavernous gaps between oak trees a century old. He went up the gravel driveway to where his garage sat half-bidden under burnt-out lilacs and surrounded by high weeds. In the glow of the headlights, the weeds looked chalky white and vaguely reminded him of something. It was as if he expected something terrible to come out from their scratchy, bone-dry-looking obscurity — a leopard, say, or a lion, or the mastiff bitch that belonged to the Caldwells next door. But nothing came, and only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly's mind had for a moment slipped into expectancy. He put the car away, locked the garage, and walked around to the front of the house for the paper. It took him a while to find it. The trees blocked the light from the streetlamp, and as usual, there were no lights on in the house. He'd told her and told her about that. He found the paper by the side of the porch steps, almost under them, where you'd swear the little devil could never have put it except on purpose. Then, very slowly, weary all at once, he went in, unfolding the paper as he went. "Funny business," he said again thoughtfully, as he locked the front door behind him. He could hear her in the kitchen. The house smelled of stew with cabbage in it.

"Is that you, Fred?" she whined.

He held his nose lightly with his left hand and thought, as he'd occasionally thought before, how weird it would be if it were not him but some stranger, some lunatic escaped from the hospital up in Buffalo. The man would stand smiling, not answering, his glistening eyes bugging out like a toad's, surprised at the sound of a voice in the unlighted house, and after a moment she would appear in the near-darkness at the diningroom door, her high, chinless head alert and listening, white as death.

"Fred?" she called again, "is that you, Fred?"

"Just me," Clumly said, calm. He snapped on the lights.

He sat picking at his food, across from her, saying nothing while he ate, as usual. If there were hairs in the stew, he did not notice. Years ago — so long ago he could hardly remember it — he'd said something to her once about a hair in some food, and it had set off a terrible scene. She'd cried and cried, and she'd locked herself in the bathroom and said she was going to kill herself. "I'll cut my throat with a razorblade," she said. "Where are the razorblades?" And he'd stood bent over outside the bathroom door calling to her through the keyhole, begging her not to; he'd even sobbed, but purposely, hoping to persuade her, not really from grief. She had complained that he didn't love her, she was a burden to the world; and even as he reasoned and pleaded with her Clumly had realized, calmly, sensibly, that all she said was, well, sad but true. But in the same rush of clear-headed detachment he had recognized, like Jacob of old when he found he'd got Leah, whose arms were like sticks and whose mouth was as flat as a salamander's, that he'd have to be a monster to tell her the truth. What would the poor woman do, no beauty any more, without a skill or a talent in the world? He'd made a mistake in marrying her, one he might never have made if he'd been a few years older when they met, but his mistake, nevertheless. A mistake he was stuck with.

He'd been 20 when they met, and she'd been 18. He was in the Navy, just getting his eyes opened. He'd gone to his first house of prostitution when they'd put in at the Virgin Islands, and they all sat in one small room with a radio playing foreign music, three other sailors and himself and the four brown, queerly familyless women (it seemed to him) in their slippery dresses and no underwear, their black hair as slick as silk — all of them drinking sludgy black stuff which smelled like Luden's Cough Syrup, but which they said was rum. He felt caught in an ominous spell. They looked like gypsies with crowns of plastic flowers in their hair. The room smelled rotten, the drink was poison, and touching the woman he had happened to end up with thrilled and repelled him — she was 30 if she was a day. Vockshy, Vasty, her name was. Something. Before long, whether from the poisonous drink or from Presbyterian shame, Clumly was vomiting in the street more violently than he would have thought possible for a human. He had to stand watch bent double the next day, and ever since that night his liver had been bad and whenever he was tired he'd walk slightly bent at the waist. Nevertheless, this is living! he'd thought. "Work like the devil, play like the devil," they said on the ship. Bam. When he went back to the whorehouse, Vockshy or Vasty was "occupied," he had to take a different girl. This queerly upset him. And then, home on leave, he'd found the pale and musing blind girl standing there soft as a flag beside an oak tree with burning green leaves or, rather, the nearly blind girl: at that time she had sight enough to be put in charge of younger children from the Blind School, to lead them around laughing like circus people in time of pestilence, help them with their schoolwork, or, like the eldest orphaned child, punish them when they were bad. They were playing in the shaded hollow below her, and she, standing by the oak tree, was watching and listening and smelling the wind, she said. Her talk was like poetry in those days. She'd grown out of that later, as one does. Her voice was as soft as a southern breeze on the Mediterranean, so soft Clumly had to lean toward her to hear blushing — twisting the sailor's hat in his hands. And so for two weeks they met every day, as if by accident, to walk and talk among the large trees or make pictures in the dirt with sticks or stones, or to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon (the thought of her breasts beneath the brassiere and high-collared blouse made him pale), and when he had to leave again she promised she would write. Eventually they'd gotten married. She seemed saintlike to him, and noble as a queen. He felt such an ache of tenderness for her, such reverence, almost, for what he called then her quiet courage, he could hardly sleep nights. He wrote to her constantly, slavishly, after the first two weeks, before he'd even thought about marrying her, and the letters that came to him from her (on pink or blue scalloped paper, awkwardly typed because she couldn't see well enough to read over what she'd written or even make sure what she said made sense) he read over and over...

Excerpted by permission from The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner, Copyright 1972.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Gardner