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Chapter 15

We hardly speak as we leave Woolworth. Paul walks slightly in front of me, creating enough space for us to keep to ourselves, and in the distance I can make out the tower of the chapel. Police cars squat at its feet like toads beneath an oak, weathering out a storm. Lines of police tape rock in the dying wind. Bill Stein's snow angel must be gone by now, not even a dimple in the white.

We arrive at Dod to find Charlie awake but preparing for bed once again. He's been cleaning up the common room, ordering stray papers and arranging unopened mail into piles, trying to shake off what he saw in the ambulance. After checking his watch, he looks at us disapprovingly but is too tired to make much of it. I stand by and listen as Paul explains what we saw at the museum, knowing that Charlie will insist we call the police. After I explain that we were going through Stein's belongings when we found the letters, though, even Charlie seems to think better of it.

Paul and I retreat into the bedroom and change clothes wordlessly, then go to our separate bunks. As I lie there, recalling the emotion in his voice as he described Curry, something occurs to me that I've never understood before. There was, if only briefly, a quiet perfection to their relationship. Curry had never succeeded in understanding the Hypnerotomachia, until Paul came into his life and solved what Curry couldn't, so they could share it together. And Paul had always wanted for so much, until Richard Curry came into his life and showed him what he'd never had, so they could share it together. Like Delia and James in the old O. Henry story-James who sold his gold watch to buy Delia combs for her hair, and Delia who sold her hair to buy James a chain for his watch-their gifts and sacrifices match perfectly. But this time there's a happy twist. The only thing one had to give was all the other needed.

I can't hold it against Paul that he's had this kind of luck. If anyone deserves it, he's the one. Paul never had a family, a face in a picture frame, a voice on the other end of the line. Even after my father died I had all of those things, imperfect as they might be. Yet there's something larger at stake here. The portmaster's diary may prove that my father was right about the Hypnerotomachiathat he saw it for what it was, past the dust and the ages, through the forest of dead languages and woodcuts. I disbelieved him, thinking it was ridiculous and vain and shortsighted, the whole idea that there could be anything special about such a tired old book. And all that time, while I accused him of an error of perspective, the only error of perspective was mine.

Don't do it to yourself, Tom, Paul says unexpectedly from above, so quiet that I barely hear him.

Do what?

Feel sorry for yourself.

I was thinking about my dad.

I know. Try to think of something else.

Like what?

I don't know. Like us.

I don't understand.

The four of us. Try to be grateful for what you have. He hesitates. What about next year? Which way are you leaning?

I don't know.

Texas?

Maybe. But Katie will still be back here.

His sheets rustle as he repositions himself. What if I told you I might be in Chicago?

What do you mean?

For a Ph.D. I got my letter the day after you did.

Tin stunned.

Where did you think I was going next year? he asks.

To work with Pinto at Yale. Why Chicago?

Pinto's retiring this year. And Chicago's a better program anyway. Melotti is still there.

Melotti. One of the few other Hypnerotomachia scholars I actually remember my father mentioning.

Besides, Paul adds, if it was good enough for your dad, then it's good enough for me, right?

The same idea occurred to me before applying, but what I'd meant by it was, if my father could get in, then so could I.

I guess.

So what do you think?

About you going to Chicago?

He hesitates again. I've missed the point.

About us going to Chicago.

Floorboards creak above us, movement in another world.

Why didn't you tell me?

I didn't know how you'd feel, he says.

You'd be doing the same program he did.

As much as I could.

I'm not sure I could take it, being dogged by my father for five more years. I would see him in Paul's shadow even more than I do now.

Is that your first choice?

It's a long time before he responds.

Taft and Melotti are the only two left.

Hypnerotomachia scholars, I realize he means.

I could always work with a nonspecialist on campus here, he says. Batali or Todesco.

But writing a Hypnerotomachia dissertation for a nonspecialist would be like writing music for the deaf.

You should go to Chicago, I say, trying to sound like my heart's in it. And maybe it is.

Does that mean you're going to Texas?

I haven't made up my mind.

You know, it doesn't always have to be about him.

It's not.

Well, Paul says, deciding not to press, I guess we've got the same deadline.

The two envelopes are lying where I left them, side by side on his desk. The desk, it occurs to me, where Paul began to unlock the Hypnerotomachia. For a second I imagine my father hovering over it, a guardian angel, guiding Paul toward the truth every night since the beginning. Strange to think I was right here, just a few feet away, asleep almost the whole time.

Get some rest, Paul says, and I can hear him roll over in his bunk with a long, labored breath. The force of what's happened is returning.

What are you going to do in the morning? I ask, wondering if he wants to talk about it.

I have to ask Richard about those letters, he says.

Do you want me to come with you?

I should go alone.

We don't speak again that night.

Paul falls asleep quickly, to judge from his breathing. I wish I could do the same, but my mind is too crowded for that. I wonder what my father would've thought, knowing we'd found the portmaster's diary after all these years. It might've lightened the loneliness I always supposed he felt, working so long at something that meant so little to so few. I think it would've changed things for him, knowing his son had finally come around.

Why'd you come late? I'd asked him one night, after he showed up at halftime during the last basketball game I ever played.

I'm sorry, he said. It took me longer than I expected.

He was walking in front of me back to the car, preparing to drive us home. I fixed my eyes on the patch of hair he always forgot to comb, the one he couldn't see in the mirror. It was mid-November, but he'd come to the game in a spring jacket, so absorbed at the office that he'd picked the wrong one from the coatrack.

What did? I prodded. Work?

Work was the euphemism I used, avoiding the title that was such an embarrassment to me around my friends.

Not work, he said quietly. Traffic.

On the way back, he kept the speedometer just two or three miles per hour above the speed limit, the way he always did. The tiny disobedience of it, the way he refused to be bound by rules, but could never really break them, grated on me more and more after getting my driver's permit.

You played well, I thought, he said, looking over at me in the passenger's seat. You made both of the foul shots I saw.

I was oh for-five in the first half. I told Coach Ames I didn't want to play anymore.

That he didn't pause told me he'd seen it coming.

You quit? Why?

The smart take from the strong, I said, knowing it would be the next thing out of his mouth. But the tall take from the short.

He seemed to blame himself after that, as if basketball had been the final straw between us. Two weeks later, when I returned from school, the hoop and backboard in our driveway had been taken down and given to a local charity. My mother said she wasn't sure why he'd done it. Because he thought it would make things better, was all she could say.

With that in mind, I try to imagine the greatest gift I could've given my father. And as sleep descends on me, the answer seems strangely clear: my faith in his idols. That was what he wanted all along-to feel that we were united by something permanent, to know that as long as he and I believed in the same things, we would never be apart. What a job I did, making sure that never happened. The Hypnerotomachia was no different from piano lessons and basketball and the way he parted his hair: his mistake. Then, just as he must've known would happen, the moment I lost faith in that book, we were more and more apart, even sitting around the same dinner table. He'd done his best to tie a knot that would never slip, and I managed to untie it.

Hope, Paul said to me once, which whispered from Pandora's box only after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things. Without it, there is only time. And time pushes at our backs like a centrifuge, forcing us outward and away, until it nudges us into oblivion. That, I think, is the only explanation for what happened to my father and me, just as it happened to Taft and Curry, the same way it will happen to the four of us here in Dod, inseparable as we seem. It's a law of motion, a fact of physics that Charlie could name, no different from the stages of white dwarfs and red giants. Like all things in the universe, we are destined from birth to diverge. Time is simply the yardstick of our separation. If we are particles in a sea of distance, exploded from an original whole, then there is a science to our solitude. We are lonely in proportion to our years.


Chapter 14 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 16