Because he believed in leading a disciplined life, Amos Townsend tried to go to bed at the same time every night, eleven o’clock, or close to it. Some nights he fell asleep right away, and even as his grip on consciousness slipped he felt a flood of gratitude for the loss. Most nights he lay awake an hour or more, enduring the contours of his pillow and the fact of his bones pressing into the mattress. Sleeplessness bred in him the most desperate irritation; he realized he hated flannel sheets (although he loved them earlier in the day, or at least the thought of them), and that the length of his legs made him furious (length and knobbiness inherited from his father), legs that consistently tangled in the ridiculous sheets and kept him from sleeping. What disturbed him most was simply the hour of midnight, and the dark bedroom, and the waves of fatigue and pity that stole over and seemed to steal something from him. Amos believed that both discipline and grace were muscles he had to keep exercised, oxygenated, in order that they might be called upon in an emergency, and nights for him were often an emergency, and sometimes he muttered low and exasperated, “Dear Lord, please just let me fall asleep already,” and then waited for grace to descend on him with a shadowy nod.
A single thing gnawed at him at night, an idea he had no name for, although if anyone asked him he could have written a book, as they say, on the subject. Perhaps he was even called to write it, but he was vexed by the how and the why. Amos knew as well as anyone what went into writing a book, having written a master’s thesis, and he considered the process to be akin to having one’s nerves stripped with a curry comb. A ghastly experience, not to be endured. He imagined the tower of reference books clotting his study, and the notecards he would use to try to keep his thoughts straight, and the inevitable architectural work that would need to be employed, and the hours spent in the overstuffed chair facing Plum Street, lost in thought and picking at the threads in the upholstery; and most of all, the way writing a book makes a person feel that he’d rather be anywhere than inside his own skin. He’d rather be on Plum Street, that’s for sure, kicking along in a tangle of leaves or stopping to pet one of the litter of mountain cur pups born next door (beautiful little dogs that would be feral in the blink of an eye — he knew he should pet them quickly, before he lost his chance). But if he were on Plum Street his mind would be drawn to his own study window, and he would think with longing of the work he could be doing and how work is the only thing that saves the soul, the only thing that makes a man a man, as he remembered Emerson saying, or something like it. Writing a book brings a single, irreducible truth right out to the edges of a person: There is no place to be, there is no place in this world, it is impossible to be happy.
And why? why another book in the morass of Self-Improvement and the self-published, all those elegant novels remaindered and shelves of poetry unread? Why Amos Townsend’s ideas, when there are such game and handsome exegetes for the world’s mysteries as Richard Feynman and Brian Greene and that bald man with the big glasses who can connect everything in the world into a single theory? Psychics and expatriates and musicologists and postmodernists, not to mention Harold Bloom, or Updike with his fifty novels (good ones, too), all typing away while the world sleeps, or is sleepless: no. A book by Amos would be unnecessary.
At 11:47, thinking of Updike, Amos smacked his own thigh in frustration and performed the fourth quarter of what he thought of as his Human Drillbit routine, in which he turned from his right side to his stomach, and from his stomach to his left side, and from his left side to his back, and from his back to his right side, on and on, drilling himself closer, he hoped, to sleep. Amos liked to consider himself a man with a cynic’s smile, more apt to turn it against himself than against the world, and did so, on his back once again, staring at the shadows on the ceiling. He smiled at himself and his own suffering. His suffering. Every evening of his growing-up years he sat at the dining room table with his parents and his younger brother, Samuel, in front of the cold fireplace, and watched his father say a simple prayer and then look at his family with his habitual expression: a closed-mouth grin, the barely discernible lift of his eyebrows that said, Well, here we are again. And his mother had her own version of it, didn’t she? patting her napkin in her lap or straightening her skirt, the way she pursed her lips and let her gaze fall to the floor.
A life within limits, that’s what his father had taught him to live. The elder Townsend might as well have taken young Amos by the hand and walked him to the seashore — except they lived in southwestern Ohio — and pointed to the shoreline and said, “Do you see? It’s insurmountable.” Best to smile, and offer your neighbor an extended hand, and be thankful for your roast beef and linen napkins. Amos remembered how, in the end, his father spent almost every day with his face in his hands, sobbing dryly. No one could unearth the reasons for his sorrow, and Amos didn’t try. (“Isn’t it enough,” Amos finally whispered to his mother, after watching her claw at his father’s pajama top for the hundredth time and beg him, beg him to tell her why he wept so, “isn’t it enough that he’s crying?” His mother had looked at him like he was a stranger, and surely he had felt like one.)
Somewhere in those years at home with his parents, living the odd life of a preacher’s child (in which he was part of his father’s pastorate and part of his father, too, which granted him privilege in the congregation), Amos learned to smile patiently at everyone in town — the members of Lost Creek Church of the Brethren, kind, pious, hardworking people who were committed to community life — but also at the conservatives of the town, and the gun owners, the cruel, florid men who attended the town’s other churches devoutly, men who, even holding open the door for a neighbor at the diner or speaking to Pastor Townsend on the street, were inches away from something guttural, some crassness or abomination. “All God’s creatures,” his father used to say, walking home in the bright Sunday afternoons of Amos’s memory. Pastor Townsend loved, it seemed to Amos now, the worst aspects of human nature, because the display of such validated in him his long-held and hopeless belief in something Calvinistic. (Although the elder Townsend would never have admitted such a thing — heavens, no. The Church of the Brethren — the faith of Amos’s father and of his father before him — broke away from the Calvinists during the Protestant Reformation, but Amos couldn’t shake it, this feeling that a trace of the old world, of the Old Man, remained.) Doom or damnation or predestination, all revealed providentially through our unkindnesses and injustices and unchecked appetites — this is what Amos learned to look for from his good father.
I cannot write a book and I will not write a book, Amos thought, drumming his fingers against the mattress, but if I were to write it, where would I begin? He would begin not back there in rural Ohio in his father’s church, although that would have been an interesting place to start, but in his very own heart, in his second year in seminary, when he first read Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. It was a small book (compared to the rest of Tillich) and the argument being made seemed deceptively simple: We all have an object which represents our Ultimate Concern. For some the object may be celebrity or personal power or money, or even something like romantic love and family. Institutions, including Christianity, have historically elevated the moral good to the status of the Ultimate. But there is really only one ultimate, unconditional concern, and that is for the Unconditional itself, what Tillich called our “passion for the infinite.” We grasp the notion of the infinite immediately and personally, and yet it is seldom the object to which we dedicate our lives, and this is where Amos began to feel nervous. We elevate the finite, which has as its only power that of flux and decay, and when our ultimate concern fails to achieve ultimacy, we live lives that are hopelessly broken, and we know it.
On the day they were to begin discussing the book, Amos walked into the classroom feeling both thrilled and sick, because how was he, how were any of them, to go on, now that they realized who they were and how they had been living? He watched his fellow seminarians enter the classroom one by one, until all nine were there, fine people, all of them, but none seemed to realize what they held in their hand, the localized nuclear event. They chattered, they rearranged their book bags, they set out portable tape recorders. One man systematically offered everyone a stick of gum. When the professor walked in, a middle-aged and serious man Amos trusted without hesitation, and put his book down on the desk and said, “So. Are we ready to discuss Tillich?” Amos felt his stomach lurch sideways and then turn over. It was the same feeling he had watching newsreels of bodies being bulldozed into an open grave: the approach of the bottom line, life irreducible.
They began to discuss the book, and Amos could see that his professor took it as seriously as Amos himself did, the revolutionary idea that even Beauty and Justice are only concerns of the highest order, and do not achieve Ultimacy. God alone. Sola Deus. And who manages that, in this hardscrabble and knocked-together life? Well, almost no one, Amos realized, sitting there in class. His father hadn’t, his mother hadn’t, no one from his congregation — those carpenters and farmers and quilters, sincere, gentle people — had managed it. His professor had not, although he clearly wished it possible. And it was then and there that the idea began to form in Amos that there is a universal element in the human condition, something alchemical, and it’s nearly visible, it radiates off people in waves, and you can see it everywhere, all the time.
His thinking was interrupted by Mike, a man in his 40s who always wore short-sleeved dress shirts washed thin. “Listen, I worked in middle management at IBM for 16 years, and I can tell you, business people don’t know they’re broken. They don’t care about ultimacy or the lack of it in their lives.”
And then Anita, who had grown up in a series of foster homes, said, “It seems to me that the farther away a person moves from thinking about what does or doesn’t achieve ultimacy, the happier he is. The happiest people I know in the world are the cruelest. They rest in it, somehow.” And on around the table it went, one student after another disagreeing with Tillich’s proposition.
The professor asked, “What about when the middle managers at IBM look in the mirror first thing in the morning, or last thing at night? What do they see there?”
“They see profit and loss,” Mike answered, “and I don’t mean metaphorically. They see the company they work for.”
Amos said nothing; his tongue seemed to have failed him. But he thought one thing over and over, the way he used to think a single thought in church on Sunday until he nearly choked on it: You are all wrong. You are all completely wrong about this. We live lives that are hopelessly broken, and we know it.
At 12:22 Amos decided his imaginary book needed anecdote: Everyone loves a story. But more than that, he would be remiss if, in making a claim about the nature of humanity both broad and oblique, he failed to include humanity itself. So he would begin with Steve and Lydia, because that was where he first truly understood the idea, the nameless idea that rendered him sleepless.
Could it have been ten years ago, or closer to 12? Amos was not yet 30, and just out of seminary, when he was called by his district to a small congregation in a town called Mechanicsville. Mechanicsville was little more than two streets crossing, surrounded by farmland; the only business was a general store that offered dusty loaves of bread and canned vegetables. Most of the people who lived there worked in Dayton, 15 miles east, all the family farms having long since been sold to corporate agribusinesses. The first time Amos drove through town his heart felt leaden, and he could hear his father offering his perennial advice: Unhappy? Can’t get started? Lower your standards.
He sank into the little white cottage behind the church, put his books on plywood bookcases, bought a tea kettle, took up his post. But Amos was frightened every Sunday as he stood before his congregation (18 people if the sun was shining), and felt he had no authority, God-given or otherwise, nothing like what his father had provided on his darkest day. Who was Amos to comfort the sick or the bereaved; who was he to give advice or explicate the Scriptures?
And who were these people, anyway? All through the late fall and early winter, in order to pick up his mail at the local post office, Amos had to walk past the home of a man named Skeeter, and there was very often a large dead deer hanging from its back feet (or worse, on a hook through the gut) by a series of winches and pulleys on a tree inches from the sidewalk. Amos’s hometown had the only opera house in the whole of Ohio; there were no dead animals in the trees of his youth.
The deer were hung to bleed, Amos knew, and he was able to take that in stride, but he began to be bothered by the sight rather deeply. He began to see the deer in his sleep (and certainly when he couldn’t sleep), and not so much the carnage as the details: a whorl of lightened fur just above the thick muscle of a hind leg, or the delicate curve of a nostril. They had beautiful eyelashes and their lips looked like velvet, and the way they hung made them appear to still be running, or reaching with their front legs for the safety of the ground. And he couldn’t walk on the other side of the street because on that side was a family whose name he was never able to learn; they had a standing army of delinquent teenagers and a vicious pit bull on a chain that could reach the sidewalk and then some, a dog that was frantic to kill a grown person.
Neither Skeeter nor the Pit Bulls attended Amos’s church, and just as well. But they were there, the feeling of them, and they represented one of the basic facts of the town. The people who did attend were not so different (they had all grown up together), but they had the depth and decency to wonder about the unseen world, and to ponder an ethical system, outdated and unreliable as it increasingly seemed to Amos.
Steve and Lydia were typical, really, of the town and of a certain way of life. Steve was short and round, with dark hair that never seemed clean, and large, brown, watery eyes. He was jovial and appeared to have a good heart. For years, since he’d graduated from high school, Steve had sold campers and RVs at a lot a few miles outside Dayton, and he seemed to make a comfortable living. He loved Lydia, who was shorter and rounder and talked too loudly. She sold, Amos wasn’t sure what to call them, knickknacks? ornaments? things with which to decorate a home? and they were uniformly ugly and caused a bubble of despair to rise in Amos’s esophagus each time Lydia brought him a catalogue. They had two children, Brian, who was 12, and Karen, who was 16. Both kids were dark like their dad, silent, and overweight. They were involved in nothing, no sports, no activities or clubs. The few times Amos tried to talk to Karen she had blushed furiously and answered him in a mortified whisper. Every week when Amos saw them he couldn’t help but wonder if there was ever a conversation about anything in Steve and Lydia’s household, apart from grocery lists and car maintenance. They all seemed so resigned and complacent; so blank. They were curious about nothing, they exhibited no restlessness, they seemed to want nothing more than they had. The slightest reference, on Amos’s part, to an inner life, seemed to bounce off their collective surface like a foreign language, and finally, Amos was forced to consider that perhaps there was simply no there there. They were human, yes, and they bore immortal souls. All God’s creatures. But Amos didn’t understand them any more than he understood bison or oak trees.
One Sunday, as they passed through the receiving line, Steve shook Amos’s hand and said, in a sly and conspiratorial way, “Were you at the game last night?” And for a number of empty moments Amos couldn’t imagine which game he was meant to remember. A card game? a game of chance? Rook, Scrabble? and then realized Steve was talking about the county basketball team, of which the members of his congregation seemed inordinately fond.
“Oh, no. No, I’m afraid I missed it.”
Steve leaned in even closer, so that his mouth nearly touched Amos’s collarbone. “We’re hotter than a popcorn fart, this year.” And then he backed away, pleased with his analogy and his daring, to have said such a thing in the vestibule of a church. Steve’s eyes shifted left and right to see if anyone had heard him, all the while leading Lydia out the door by the elbow and nodding his head in agreement with his own pronouncement.
The phrase rang in Amos’s head for a day — he had absolutely no idea what it meant — and considering it was a form of torture. The fact of the phrase caused the sky to bleaken and his skin to itch, and by Monday night, when he was unable to sleep, Amos despised his own sensibilities and also despised the world. He smiled in the dark and drummed his fingers against his chest. He even laughed, some, before he fell asleep, and then Tuesday morning the organist at church, May, called him much too early, earlier than he ever liked to be awakened, and told him that Steve and Lydia’s daughter Karen had died in the night of peritonitis, after her appendix burst at home. They hadn’t known she was sick, and hadn’t heard her calling weakly and in terrific pain from her bedroom, because they all slept with televisions on in their rooms. May mentioned this detail in passing, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, but Amos was struck dumb. They were all in their separate bedrooms on a Monday night, asleep with televisions on? Their daughter, a 16-year-old girl, was dying and they couldn’t hear her? This great and mysterious thing, this outrageous event, happened to those people?
“I thought you ought to know,” May said, sniffling, into the silence.
“Because you’re their pastor and maybe you want to head over to the funeral home.”
“Oh God. Of course. Thank you, May,” Amos said, hanging up. He reached for his clothes and tried with all his heart to imagine what he might say to Steve and Lydia, but there was nothing. And so he tried emptying out his mind and heart and allowing the Holy Spirit to fill him, but the nothing was then full of nothing. He was out of his league, he was no match for this one, and more than anything, it had happened to them? What comfort could there be beyond the most wretchedly platitudinal? And if, finally, he was called upon to offer those platitudes, could he do it?
It was worse, of course, than he could have imagined: When Amos arrived in the funeral director’s office Steve was doubled over in a chair and gasping. Lydia had been tranquilized and simply sat, staring out the window. Brian had been sent to his grandparents. As Amos turned the corner into the arrangements room, the funeral director met him with such a look of gratitude that to Amos was filled with foreboding, and then Steve realized Amos was standing there and rose from his chair with a force that caused it to topple over backward. Lydia never flinched.
Steve threw himself on Amos, wailing, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God,” in such a piteous way that Amos began to weep, all the while thinking, This won’t do at all, and finally it was the funeral director who calmed them all down, who spoke the phrases Amos couldn’t have allowed himself to say, and thus Steve and Lydia settled the business of burying their daughter.
At the funeral Amos delivered the kindest eulogy he could have written, about the light in Karen and how that light had rejoined the eternal light of God, which he believed. He said things he didn’t believe, about how we will all be transformed in the blink of an eye, about how we will all be reunited in heaven, where there is neither suffering nor death, anymore. The church had been filled with hysterical teenagers, more teenagers than Amos had ever seen in a single place. Even the Pit Bull children were there. Amos had no idea where they had all come from or who they were or what they wanted; certainly Mechanicsville couldn’t lay claim to this much youth. He knew from May that Karen had had few friends, and yet there they all were, wailing and comforting one another and distracting Steve and Lydia, which was maybe good in the end but seemed cruel at the time.
Amos stayed in Mechanicsville for a year after Karen died, and the church closed in around Steve and Lydia, in the way that small towns and certain denominations take care of their own. Amos, too, did what he could. He offered to counsel them, and when they failed to keep their counseling appointments, he offered them anything else they wanted: to cook their meals or keep their dog while they went camping for the weekend. He tried to cut their grass, but Steve waved him away, despondently. They continued to come to church every Sunday, wrapped in a silence and vacancy Amos doubted they would survive. They survived.
He would use those images in the early part of the book (if there were a book, and there never would be): The deer on the hook. The dog flying out to the end of its chain. A father knocking his chair backward. This is evidence, Amos would say to Mike, his fellow seminarian from long ago.
Evidence of what? Mike would ask, genuinely curious.
Amos pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and prayed for sleep, trying not to consider the events of the last week, the final chapter added to his bleak metaphysics.
I don’t know, Amos would answer. I simply don’t know.
“Amos Awake” is excerpted from Haven Kimmel’s new novel, The Solace of Leaving Early
(c) 2002 Haven Kimmel
Permission granted by The Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Haven Kimmel is the author of The Solace of Leaving Early, selected by Booksense as the best book of the summer. She is also the author of a memoir, A Girl Called Zippy, and the Book of Revelation in the forthcoming Killing the Buddha book, A Heretic’s Bible.