As I was reading last night—reading a book, I should explain, which was otherwise merely commonplace; one of those somewhat political, somewhat philosophical, somewhat historical books which can now be bought by the pound each month—I was struck by a certain remark of the author’s. It seemed to me at the time an interesting, if almost self-evident, idea; and afterward, when I had turned the page, and many other pages, and was half through a new chapter bearing very little relation to what had gone before, this idea found its way back into my consciousness and there acted as a sort of filter between my mind and the book until I put it down and, still thinking, went up to bed.
The idea which had so forcibly struck me was simply this: that every man has had in the course of his life some extraordinary experience, some dislocation of all we expect from nature and probability, of such magnitude that he might in his own person serve as a living proof of Hamlet’s hackneyed precept—but that he has, nearly always, been so conditioned to consider himself the most mundane of creatures, that, finding no relationship to the remainder of his life in this extraordinary experience, he has forgotten it.
It seemed to me (considering the immense extent of the universe of the senses and the minute size of that area of it we think of as “everyday”) that this must certainly be correct. Yet if it were true of every man it ought also to be true of me—and try as I might I could remember no such extraordinary circumstance.
When I had switched off the light I lay recalling, very pleasantly on the whole, my life. It has been a pleasant life, though I fear a dull, and perhaps a lonely, one. I live now not five miles from the hospital in which I was born, and have lived nowhere else. Here I grew up, learned a profession, practiced, and, much sooner than most men, retired. I have twice been married, but both marriages were brief, and both ended in friendly separations; the truth is that my wives (both of them) bored me—and I am very much afraid I bored them as well.
As I lay in bed, then, thinking of times when my grandfather had taken me fishing and of skating parties with friends, and about our high school team (on which I was a substitute quarterback, but one so much inferior to the first-string occupant of that position that I almost never got into a game unless we were several touchdowns ahead, which was not often), it at last occurred to me that there has, in fact, been one thread of the strange—I might almost say the incredible, though not the supernatural—in my own history.
It is simply this: Living all my life, as I have, in a town of less than a hundred thousand population, I have been dimly aware of the existence of a certain woman without ever meeting her or gaining any sure idea of her appearance.
But even this is not, perhaps, as extraordinary as it may sound. I have never made an effort to meet this woman, and I doubt that she has ever attempted to meet me, if, indeed, she is aware that I exist. On the other hand, we are neither of us invalids, nor are we blind. This woman—her name is Suzanne (though I fear most of us here have always pronounced it “Susan”) Delage—lives, or at least so I have always vaguely supposed, on the eastern edge of our little city; I live on the western. I doubt that we, as children, attended the same elementary school, but I know that we were, for four years, at the same high school. I was able to ascertain this as a matter of certainty through my yearbooks, which my mother, with that more or less formalized sentimentality characteristic of her, saved for me in the attic of this tall, silent frame house (itself saved for me as well).
Actually, of the four volumes which must originally have existed, only two remain—those for my sophomore and senior years. There are a number of pages missing from the class picture section of the earlier book, and I seem to recall that these were torn out and cut up to obtain the individual photographs many decades ago. My own face is among those missing, as well as Suzanne Delage’s; but in another section, one devoted to social activities, a girl’s club (it was called, I think, the Pie Club) is shown, and one of the names given in the caption is Suzanne’s. Unfortunately the girls in the picture are so loosely grouped—around a stove and work table—that it is not possible to be certain in every case which name should be attached to which young lady; besides, a number of them have their backs to the camera.
The senior book should have told me more—at least so I thought when I, at last, came across it at the end of an hour or so of rummaging. It is whole and undamaged, and I, thanks largely to football, have no less than four pictures in various parts of it. Suzanne Delage has none. On one of the closing pages a woebegone roll of names reminds me of something I had forgotten for many years—that there was an epidemic of some kind (I think Spanish influenza) just at the time the pictures for the annual were to be taken. Suzanne is listed as one of those “unable to be photographed.”
I should explain that ours was one of those overgrown schools found in the vicinity of small towns, a school repeatedly expanded because the growth of the town itself had been slow (though always faster, so it seemed in retrospect, than anyone had anticipated) and the taxpayers had not wanted to authorize a new one. It was large enough, in short, that only a few leading students—the star athletes, the class officers, the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones whom we, in those naïve times, called “queens”—were known to everyone.
The rest of us, if we moved socially at all, went by classes and cliques. A student might know the others in his English and algebra rooms; the cliques—at least the ones I remember—were the football players and their girls, the children of the rich, the boys and girls whose families attended a certain fundamentalist church on the outskirts of town; and certain racial minorities, the chess and debating society types, and the toughs. It sounds, I suppose, as though there were a group for everyone, and at the time (since I was fairly well entrenched among the athletes) I believe I thought myself (if I thought about the matter at all) that there was. I now realize that all these little coteries embraced no more than a third of the school, but whether Suzanne Delage had entry to one or more of them I do not know.
I should, however, have made her acquaintance long before I entered high school, since Mrs. Delage, Suzanne’s mother, was one of my own mother’s close friends. They had met, I think at about the time I was eight, through a shared passion (much more widespread in our area, I think, than in the country as a whole, and more ardently pursued in the past than it is now) for collecting antique fabrics; in other words, for embroidered tablecloths, for quilts, crocheting of all kinds, afghans, crewel work, hand-hooked rugs, and the like. If my mother or her friends could discover a sampler, or a bedspread or “comfortable” made in the earlier part of the nineteenth century (it was their enduring hope, I think never well satisfied, to find a piece from what they called “American Revolution times”—by which they meant the eighteenth, even such dates as 1790 or 1799), a piece well made and decorated—the more the better—in the unschooled, traditional ways of the old farm families, then their joy and their pride knew no bounds. If, in addition, the work was that of some notable woman—or to be more precise, of some woman relation of some notable man; the sister, say, of a lieutenant governor—and could be authenticated, the home of the finder became a sort of shrine to which visitors were brought, and to which solitary pilgrims from other towns came (ringing our bell—for we possessed, as a result of Mother’s efforts, a vast appliquéd quilt which had been the civil-wartime employment of the wife of a major in a fencible Zouave regiment—usually at about ten-thirty in the morning and offering, in introduction, a complicated recitation of friendships and cousincies linking themselves to our own family) bearing homage like cookies on a plate and eager to hear, for the better direction of their own future strategies, a circumstantial description of the inquiries and overheard clues, the offers made and rejected and made again, which had led to the acquisition of that precious object which would, as terminator of the interview, at last be brought forth in a glory of moth crystals, and spread sparkling clean (for of course these collected pieces were never used) over the living room sofa to be admired.
Mrs. Delage, who became my mother’s friend, possessed pieces of her own as valuable as the major’s wife’s quilt (which was, as my mother never tired of pointing out, entirely hand-sewn) and a collection, too, of lesser treasures ranking, as my mother herself admitted, with our own hoard. Together they scoured the countryside for more, and made trips (trips so exhausting that I was, as a boy, always surprised to see how very willing, in a few weeks, my mother was to go again) to view the riches of neighboring counties—and even, once or twice, by rail, of neighboring states. It would therefore have been entirely logical for Mrs. Delage to have been our frequent guest, at least for tea; and for her to have brought, occasionally, her little daughter Suzanne, whom I would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate.
This would doubtless have occurred but for a circumstance of a kind peculiar, I think, to towns exactly the size of ours, and incomprehensible not only to the residents of cities, but to truly rural people as well. There lived, directly across the brick-paved street from us, a bitter old woman, a widow, who for some reason never explained to me detested Mrs. Delage. It was lawful for my mother to be friendly with Suzanne’s, but if (women in small towns somehow know these things) she had gone so far as to invite Mrs. Delage to our house this widow would at once have become her enemy for life. The invitation was never given, and I believe my mother’s friend died while I was at college.
Thus while I was still small I was hardly aware of Suzanne Delage, though my mother often mentioned hers; in high school, as I indicated, though I was in much closer proximity to the girl herself this was hardly altered. I heard of her vaguely, in connection perhaps with some friend of a friend. I must surely have seen her in the corridors hundreds of times—if one can be said to see, in a crowd, people one does not know. I must sometimes have shared classrooms with her, and certainly we were together at assembly and in the vast study hall. She would have attended many of the same dances I did, and it is even possible that I danced with her—but I do not really believe that, and if, indeed, it happened, the years have so effectively sponged the event from my mind that no slightest trace remains.
And in fact I think I would never have recalled the name of Suzanne Delage at all, as I lay in bed last night listening to the creaking of this empty house in the autumn wind and searching the recesses of my memory for some extraordinary incident with which to attest the author’s thesis, if it had not been for something that took place a few days ago.
I had been shopping, and happened to meet, on the sidewalk in front of one of the larger stores, a woman of my own age whom I have known all my life and who is now the wife of a friend. We stood chatting for a moment—she, after the usual half-teasing reproaches about my (supposed) gay bachelor life, gossiping about her husband and children. As she turned to leave, a girl of fifteen or so came out of the store and, smiling but intent upon her own concerns, walked quickly past us and down the street. Her hair was of a lustrous black, and her complexion as pure as milk; but it was not these that for a moment enchanted me, nor the virginal breasts half afraid to press the soft angora of her sweater, nor the little waist I might have circled with my two hands. Rather it was an air, at once insouciant and shy, of vivacity coupled with an innocence and intelligence that were hers alone. To the woman beside me I said: “What a charming child. Who is she?”
“Her name?” My friend’s wife frowned and snapped her fingers. “I can’t think of it. But of course you know whose she is, don’t you? She’s the very image of her mother at that age—Suzanne Delage.”
© 1980 by Gene Wolfe.
Originally published in Edges,
edited by Ursula K. Le Guin & Virginia Kidd.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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