I have lived in half a dozen states --- in the Midwest, the South, along the Eastern Seaboard --- but nowhere have I seen the evening light the way it appears on summer nights in Delaware. I struggle to tell you what it looks like, and chances are I won't succeed. That light is one of the few things I've come across that may actually be ineffable --- that is, beyond the scope of human language. And that's because it doesn't appear to be light at all so much as it seems simply to be a sigh of contentment, as though the earth itself has let off a breath of satisfaction.
Wherever I went, wherever I lived over the years, I remembered that light. As a child, I let it cover me with its warmth, and in that light I first sensed the very real presence of the eternal.
Within the first week of my return to Delaware, that particular light showed up to welcome me. I was sitting at the dining room table in the faculty house called Pine Glen on the campus of Seaton Preparatory School. Books, index cards, loose papers, and piles of lesson plans covered the length of the table as I prepared for the classes that would begin in a few days. I had been teaching for years, and yet the mounds of paper in front of me appeared as insurmountable as a range of snowcapped mountains. Not only was I nearly overcome by feelings of inadequacy, but just being back at Seaton --- now as a teacher rather than a student --- flooded me with a confusing ambivalence. This was a place that I had once so loved and yet so hated, a place that had once so kindly nurtured me, yet filled me with an agonizing fear.
I was feeling some of that same fear --- and it was leaning toward regret at having come back --- when I lifted my face toward the breeze drifting in through the open window. That certain familiar twilight was circling the pine trees outside like a contented cat, and as had happened before, something broke in upon my dread, and I was comforted. For several minutes I didn't move because I didn't want that feeling to fade. I had not known it for a very long time.
When I was young, I called such instances my moments of being. I stole that expression from the novelist Virginia Woolf, and I admit that I did so without compunction. For one thing, no one knew about my moments of being, including Virginia Woolf herself, who was dead. And for another thing, and maybe more importantly, what she and I meant by moments of being were two entirely different things.
I lowered my head to the papers again. Before I could get back to work, though, my thoughts were interrupted by a car pulling up in front of the old clapboard house that was Pine Glen. I wasn't expecting company and couldn't imagine who might be stopping by past eight o'clock in the evening. I stepped uneasily to the window and peered out at a pale blue Honda Accord coming to a stop in the circular drive. The front door of the car eased open, and the driver emerged, and in the moment of recognition I felt as though I really had finally come home to Delaware. Walking up the pebbled path to my door was my lifelong friend Natalie Primrose. No, I thought, shaking my head, it's Natalie Fraley, remember? Twenty years since I was her bridesmaid, and would I still not remember to call her by her married name?
I met her at the door, arms wide, and we laughed as we greeted each other with a long and joyous hug.
"I can't believe you're here, Beth," she cried as she pulled back to look at me.
"I can hardly believe it myself," I said. "Come on in."
She stepped inside and looked around. "Imagine you living in Pine Glen. I can't believe it," she said again.
"Well, it's true. Believe it or not, here I am. Teaching English at Seaton Prep."
"Teaching? You look exactly the same as when you were a student here!"
I laughed out loud. "Except that I've got twelve fewer inches of hair and several dozen wrinkles that I didn't have then."
"No way, Beth. You look great --- "
"So do you, Nat --- "
" --- and I like your hair shorter and wavy like that. How do you stay so thin? Look at me, carrying twenty pounds more than I should."
"Yeah, well, you've had three kids. I haven't."
"Still ..." She shook her head. "How long has it been since I last saw you? Fifteen years?"
"Something like that. Maybe more. Way too long, that's all I know."
"I hope you don't mind my just dropping by. Maybe I should have called ahead --- "
"Of course not!"
" --- but I couldn't wait to see you. Figures we'd be out of town with the in-laws when you arrived --- "
"When did you get back?"
"Just this afternoon. I told Ron and the kids they were on their own for the rest of the evening, and I jumped in the car and took off."
"I'm glad you did. Come on in and have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee? Soda?"
"Nothing, thanks. I won't stay long. Hey, it looks like you've lived here for years. How'd you get unpacked so fast?"
"Well, I've been here for almost a week already. Still, you should see the upstairs. Boxes everywhere."
I motioned her into the living room, but before she had gone three steps, she stopped. "Wow," she said. I watched her eyes move across the bookcases that lined the walls of the room. "This isn't a house; it's a library. I've never seen so many books all in one place."
I shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I've picked up a few over the years. Once I have them, I can't seem to part with them."
"You always did like to read, I know, but ..." She stopped and offered me a lopsided smile. "Well, books are probably more useful than my collection of ceramic cows. All they do is sit there looking silly. But I can't help it; I like them."
She took a seat in the wing chair by the fireplace and used the footstool to prop up one foot while the other foot stayed on the floor. I sat down on the couch across from her and tucked my feet beneath me.
"I have to say, Pine Glen looks a whole lot better than when the Buckleys lived here," she said. "Remember all that black suede furniture and those fuzzy psychedelic glow-in-the- dark posters they had on the walls? Talk about a lack of taste. And him an artist! This room looked like a cross between a funeral parlor and a really bad acid trip."
"How could I forget!" I laughed.
We were familiar with the Buckleys' décor because they had often hosted groups of students in their home on weekends. We all pitched in for pizza, then sat around talking about art and pop literature and the tunes of the Top 40 Countdown. Sometimes some of the kids brought their guitars, and we sat around singing songs by Cat Stevens and Jim Croce and Dan Fogelberg. Natalie and I came to these gatherings occasionally because her first love was art and Mr. Buckley was the upper school art teacher. His wife taught social studies and history in the middle school. Those were the daytime schoolapproved get-togethers at the Buckleys'. What the school authorities didn't know about were the late-night unauthorized get-togethers that Natalie and I only heard rumors of through the student grapevine. Apparently the Buckleys grew their own marijuana on a windowsill in one of the upstairs bedrooms, the yield of which they shared freely --- if quietly --- with certain members of the student body.
"But then, good grief," I went on, "it was the seventies! When you think about it, the Buckleys were really just a couple of hippies trying to make a living."
"Sure, I know. I liked them --- I'm not saying I didn't --- I just think, in hindsight, that Stan Buckley wouldn't have been my first choice for a high school art teacher. What were they thinking when they hired him? Talented or not, if any of my kids' teachers invited them over for late-night pot parties ..." She finished the sentence by shaking her head.
"Yeah, pretty wild, I know. But the kids would have been smoking pot anyway, with or without the Buckleys' homegrown stash. There was plenty of that stuff around."
"No kidding. And somehow we missed it all and had a good time anyway."
I smiled at my old friend. "Not that we were perfect, of course."
"I mean, don't you remember --- ?" I stopped and looked at her. I had almost asked her if she didn't remember the two of us sneaking across campus at night, heading toward faculty Cabin 1, where some of our friends were already waiting for us. But, on second thought, I didn't want to bring it up.
"Oh, nothing." I shrugged my shoulders and tried to pass it off with a small laugh.
"Well, anyway," she said, "I'm just so glad you're here."
"I am too. So tell me, how's life?"
"Good. Things are good. The kids are doing great, staying healthy. How about you?"
"I'm fine, I guess. A little nervous about school starting in a couple of days."
Suddenly Natalie's face collapsed into a picture of concern. I was about to assure her that I was always nervous at the start of a school year and that I'd soon get over it, but her mind was on something else.
"What about Nick?" she asked hesitantly. Nick Watson. The man I had left behind in Maryland when I accepted the position here at Seaton.
"It's over," I said.
"There's no hope at all?"
"No." I tried to smile, but the best I could offer was an uncertain tremor at the corners of my mouth. "I couldn't get him to commit. After three years, when I told him I wanted to move forward or break it off, he dawdled for a while and then just kind of drifted away." I didn't have to go into detail; Natalie knew most of the story already through e-mails and phone calls.
"I'm sorry, Beth," she said quietly.
I waved a hand nonchalantly. "You know me. Unlucky in love."
When she didn't respond, an uneasy silence fell over the room. I found myself groping for words to fill the void. "Hey, do you keep up with the old gang at all?" I finally asked, trying to sound cheerful.
"Umm, no. Not really. Last I heard, Janie was still up in Rochester working for some sort of chemical company. I don't know if you knew, but her husband left her a couple years back."
I nodded. "Yeah, she told me about it in a Christmas card."
"After almost twenty years together too." She clicked her tongue and sighed at the thought of Janie's failed marriage.
But I didn't want to talk about that. "What about the guys?" I asked.
She frowned in thought. "I've been really bad about keeping up with people. As far as I know, Ken's in Washington doing something or other with the government. I saw a notice in the alumni magazine about him once, saying he was married and had a couple of kids. At the time he was working as a lobbyist, I think --- out there trying to persuade politicians to see things his way."
"Sounds like Ken."
"Yeah. And Ray --- he's a doctor. I know that much for sure. He's over at Wilmington General, if I'm remembering right. I saw him briefly at the twentieth reunion but haven't seen him since."
"I remember hearing that he'd gone on to med school. I always knew he'd do well."
"Yeah, no question there."
"It's too bad we haven't kept in better touch. After the tenth reunion I never got back here again to visit, not even for homecoming. There didn't seem to be much reason to visit Delaware after Dad retired and the folks moved to North Carolina."
"Come back for homecoming?" Natalie said with a laugh. "I live right here in Hockessin, and I've hardly been to any of the reunions myself. Life just gets busy."
"That it does."
She was quiet a moment, then said, "Oh, and Artie! Apparently he's fallen off the face of the earth. The alumni office is trying to update its records, and no one can find him."
"Maybe he really did go off to the Belgian Congo to become a mercenary. Remember how he used to always talk about that?"
"He was one crazy kid."
"Yeah. But then, weren't we all?"
There were six of us in the old gang that hung out together in upper school. Three boys and three girls. The group congealed early in the eleventh grade when Mr. Fossett, the chemistry teacher, mysteriously failed to show up for class one morning. It was the period right before lunch, so with a couple of hours on our hands, five of us responded when Raymond Schmidt asked, "Anyone want to grab lunch at Burger King?" Ray drove a souped-up Camaro to school, and it was that car the six of us piled into, risking barn duty for the sake of Whoppers and fries. Ray had connections of sorts, since he was the great-nephew of the school's assistant headmaster, John Pettingill. Ray figured if we got caught leaving campus during school hours, we could go to his uncle and talk our way out of trouble. I wasn't so sure. Pettingill was known around campus as Commander because of his stint as a navy flyer during the Second World War. The product of military training in wartime, Commander generally ran a tight ship at Seaton and didn't put up with any nonsense. But I wasn't about to miss out on this midday adventure, even if it meant cleaning out the horse stalls later as punishment. So off we went to the strip of fast-food joints on Kirkwood Highway, returning right before fifth-period class without having piqued the suspicion of any of the staff. We pulled into campus high on sugar and saturated fat, laughing hysterically over the cardboard Burger King crowns we came back wearing. We were easily entertained in those days and found laughter in just about anything.
After that excursion it was understood that those of us who ventured out that day were a clan of sorts, bound to do everything together, as indivisible as a couple going steady, except we were six instead of two. We even gave our group a name, calling ourselves the Barbarians. As I remember, we chose the name after a history lecture in which Mr. Flint quoted someone as saying, "The future belongs to the barbarians." Surely that was us, wasn't it?
In addition, calling ourselves the Barbarians just seemed incredibly funny at the time. Most likely because no epithet could have been further from the truth.
We were a bunch of straight-laced kids, bookish, mostly clean-cut, out for the A, and all headed for college. We never got into any real trouble, never dabbled in drugs, knew nothing of sex beyond an occasional game of spin the bottle. We were the parents' dream in the ongoing nightmare of the sixties and seventies counterculture.
On graduation day, Raymond Schmidt and Jane Kidder shared the stage as class valedictorians. All of us were honored with awards --- Ray and Janie for leadership and scholastic achievement, Arthur Sochs for his skills in mathematics, Ken Cunningham for his work on student government, Natalie Primrose for art and design, and me --- I won the award I had long coveted, the Frank P. Milne Literary Award.
Oh, the future was ours, wasn't it?
But even on that day, in the midst of our accomplishment, in the midst of celebration, there was for four of us a certain melancholy that overshadowed all else. There was something left undone --- no, something left unknown --- and it gnawed at us like a cancer nibbling ever so slightly at someone's insides.
Now, all these years later, Natalie and I sat in the living room of Pine Glen, moving from vague memories of the past to talk of the present --- her freelance artwork, her children, my new position as English teacher at Seaton Preparatory School. Before we knew it, night had settled in, and at ten o'clock she rose to leave. We stood, and in that moment I felt the old ambivalence come over me again, that distant but very real sense of dread.
As we walked across the room, I asked, as if on sudden impulse, "Do you ever think about Mr. Dutton?"
She gave me an incredulous look, as though I had asked the unthinkable. But then she laughed --- actually laughed --- and said, "Heavens no. Why on earth would I think about him?"
She hugged me then and dashed to her car, waving. She left with a toot of her horn and the spinning of tires on the gravel drive.
She must have made her peace with it, then. I never did. I had tried to forget, but I found myself unable to erase the memory. It lessened over the years, of course, becoming a dull and intermittent ache, but still I went on wondering. There seemed to be no clear answer to the mystery that was Theodore Dutton, with all the whys left dangling before me like fruit gone bad on the vine.