Tall and too thin, sometimes stooped but now bent bravely forward into the wind, old Duncan Elliott heads southward in Central Park, down a steep and cindery path—his scattered, shamed and tormented mind still alert to the avoidance of dangerously large steel baby carriages, and runners (he must not be run down by babies or by runners, he cautions himself), but most of his thoughts are concentrated on the question of comparative evils: of all that has befallen him lately, and particularly today, what is worse—or rather, which is worst of all? To have been abandoned by one’s fourth and one had hoped final wife, or to have made a total fool of one’s self discussing that event, even trying as it were to explain it away.
Duncan is a distinguished professor, now an emeritus at a large midwestern university (for all the good that is doing him now); his wife Cath left the month before, in hot September; disconsolately travelling to New York, in part to cheer himself up, along with some publishing business, Duncan forgot the possibility of chill late October breezes.
Or—he continues his plaintive litany—is the worst thing of all to have broken off and lost an old, much filled and refilled tooth, leaving what must be a conspicuously ugly black hole in the forefront of one’s mouth? Oh, what matter which is worse! thinks Duncan then. All of these things have happened (the most recent being the tooth, which only came to his attention out here in the cold) and he can stand none of them.
The runners that Duncan encounters along his way are grim-faced, red and sweaty, and the young mothers pushing those carriages are scruffy, sloppily dressed; and the babies are, well, babies. Where are the handsome, glamorous pairs of lovers that one used to glimpse in New York, in Central Park? Duncan asks this wistful question of himself, and then he answers (insanely!): On Ocracoke Island. For it is to Ocracoke that Cath has run off with her poet, and in his mind Duncan has just seen the two of them, Cath and Brennan O’Donahue (of all corny, phoney, false-literary names), Brennan as hand- some and fair as Cath herself is—he sees Brennan and Cath and scores of other couples, air young and blond, all healthy and beautiful, and running, running like horses, on a wild and endless beach.
Cath’s gesture—if you call running off to an island with a poet a gesture—was made even less bearable for Duncan by the publicity it drew; she had to choose a famous poet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, brawling media hero of a poet. A small item in Newsweek (Newsmakers) described O’Donahue as having run off to Ocracoke Island “like a pirate, a professor’s wife his plunder.” Very poetic for a news magazine, Duncan thought: perhaps Brennan himself had written the item? In any case a lot of people seemed to know whose wife was meant.
At times Duncan feels literally murderous: he will go there to Ocracoke and shoot them both, and then himself. He has found the place on a map, and it looks as though you had to take a ferry from a town called Swansquarter. Swansquarter? But surely murder would be a more respectable, even a nobler act than a lot of talk, miliating to recall.
Nearing his hotel, and the promise of some comfort, Dun- can begins though to dread the coming night. He is to dine with Emily, his second wife: his briefest marriage, that to Emily, and perhaps for that reason they have stayed in touch, have remained almost friends. Emily and Cath have even met, Duncan now recalls, on a trip to New York that he and Cath took, just before their marriage. Emily is a painter, beginning to be quite successful. She is, as they all have been, considerably younger than Duncan.
(Younger and in one way or another very talented, all of them, Duncan reflects. More talented than he? That was surely a problem with Jessica, the first wife, a poet who took a very low view of criticism. Less so with Emily, perhaps because painting is, well, not literary, and they were not together very long. The worst was Janice, herself a professor, a literary critic. Undoubtedly Janice in her way was responsible for Cath, who is talentless, a born appreciator.)
But: unless he exercises the utmost caution, for which he feels himself much too tired, devoid of resources, Duncan fears that he will simply repeat the follies of the day, with Emily, tonight. He will talk again—perhaps even more ridiculously—about Cath; obviously he will do so, since she and Emily have met. Emily by now is probably—is undoubtedly a feminist; she could finish him off entirely.
At the hotel desk Duncan looks longingly toward the cubbyholes of messages. If only there were a pink phone slip from Emily, cancelling, for whatever reason. (Or: a slip saying Cath had called?) But there is nothing, and heavily now Duncan walks over to the elevator. He rings, ascends.
This making a fool of himself began for Duncan at break- fast, in the somewhat dingy diningroom of his hotel, as he talked (or tried to explain) to Jasper Wilkes, a former student, and began to babble: “In point of fact I actually encouraged her to have an affair—or affairs; one can’t say I wasn’t generous. Ironically enough, she could be said to be doing just what I told her to do. In a sense.”
Jasper repeated, “In a sense,” with perhaps too much relish. A highly successful advertising executive since abandoning academe, Jasper is a prematurely, quite shiningly bald young man, with clever, hooded eyes.
“After all,” Duncan continued, long fingers playing with his croissant’s cold buttery remains, “I’m very busy. And besides.” He smiled briefly, sadly, implying much. “Of course.” Jasper’s eyes closed, but his voice had an agreeing sound.
Gulping at strong lukewarm coffee —he had just sent back for fresh—Duncan had a nervously exhilarated sense that this was not how men talked to each other, or, not usually. Or perhaps these days they do? They are ’open’ with each other, as women have always been? In any case he hoped that he had not got out of his depth, with Jasper. The coffee had made him feel a little drunk.
And at the word ’depth’ his mind stopped, totally, and replayed, depth, depth. He had suddenly, involuntarily seen Atlantic waves, brilliant and mountainous, quite possibly fatal. He had imagined Ocracoke Island. Again.
But could Jasper be in a hurry? Off somewhere? Duncan was conscious of wanting to prolong (oh! all day) this relieving, if highly unusual conversation. “Precisely,” he hastened to agree with what he imagined Jasper just had said. “I intended something discreet and, I suppose I also hoped, something minor. A dalliance more or less along my own lines. My old lines, I suppose I should say.” He attempted a modest laugh, but the sound was bleak.
“Right,” Jasper agreed. “Something to take up a certain amount of her time and energy. Rather like going to a gym.”
The two men exchanged looks in which there was expressed some shock at their complicitous cynicism, but more pure pleasure—or so Duncan for the moment believed.
The coffee arrived, at which Jasper frowned, conclusively proving to Duncan that he was after all in a hurry; he did not even want more coffee.
“The point is,” said Jasper, in a summing-up way, “whether or not you want her back. One. And, two, if you do, how to get her.”
Unprepared for this précis, Duncan felt quite dizzied.
Nor was he prepared for what came next, which was Jasper’s efficient departure: a smooth rise to his feet, and a firm, sincere handshake. Lots of eye contact. Murmurs of friendship. And then Jasper was gone, last glimpsed as a narrow, animated back departing through the door that led out to the lobby.
Quite disconcerted, and alone with his hot, unconsoling coffee, Duncan looked around. This room had got uglier, he thought, trying to recall what he used to like about it. Surely not the pictures, the big bright oils which all looked like copies of famous works, giving the room a spurious look of ’taste’? Never the pictures, he concluded, and surely not the inferior coffee, and fake croissants. Dismally he reminded himself that he had always chosen this hotel for reasons of economy, never for charm.
Now everything seemed to disturb him, though: the room with its awful art, the bad coffee, and particularly his just ended conversation with Jasper Wilkes. And why? Rerunning that conversation, he suceeded in finding nothing truly objectionable. (Unless: that crack about going to gyms—would that have been a ’put-on’?) Bright Jasper, though. All agreement, stating and restating Duncan’s own views in a clear succinct way. But perhaps that very succinctness was the problem? Especially at the end, just before Jasper hurried off to wherever?
Leaning back into the once-pneumatic banquette, for reassurance Duncan stroked his hair, now white but still gratifyingly thick and fine. How Jasper must envy his hair! That in itself could explain quite a lot.