I DON’T CARE how long you’ve been teaching. Nothing prepares you to handle a fastidious sixteenth-century theologian who wants to write romance novels. A great many questions sprang to mind when John Calvin strode into our classroom that first night. What had he been doing with himself for the past five hundred years? Why a workshop here, in St. Louis, rather than Geneva? How could he still be trudging about in those hard-cast shoes with the outsized buckles?
I often have questions about students, but I’ve learned to keep the wall of professionalism mostly unscaled. Otherwise they’ll drop by your house and clog your personal email account and presume a grasping intimacy that you only want with a few of them, on your terms. This is the reason I endeavored to restrain my curiosity about John.
The thing is, it was supposed to be easy summer money. A workshop at the local community college. The school had received funds—federal stimulus money, perhaps, or a grant from one of those foundations bemonikered with the long-stretching names of the dead—to support creative writing among nontraditional students. And I was out of the summer rotation at the small, marginally elite college where I am a professor—where I profess.
I was on the outs with my wife as well. She’d started a job in France, managing production at an aircraft assembly plant that was woefully behind schedule. We were using the time apart as a trial separation, she said. Because I was emotionally unavailable, and insecure, and had a habit of fucking graduate students. The truth is that my therapist had also tentatively diagnosed me as a narcissist—he actually read the description to me and peered over his copy of the DSM to see if I cared to confess to it—but I wasn’t about to tell Angela. My other flaws felt surmountable, but that sketch in the psychiatric manual sounded like real depravity.
I wanted to come with her to France for the summer. I’d even scripted a tentative itinerary of museum visits and small-town tours. I actually wanted to do those things with her, rekindle the fire after twenty-three years, maybe even tell her at the right time, over a bottle of wine, about my newly diagnosed narcissism. It was going to be cathartic, or at least different.
Then she dropped the bomb: she was going alone. We would talk by phone but not see each other, except at Christmas, maybe. She needed to get herself in a healthy place, she said. Make some decisions.
When my friend and colleague Bill Mitchell told me about the community college workshop, I laughed. I had decided to use this time to get in shape. Maybe pick up the unfinished novel that had undone me as a writer, luring me into itself and then closing up in a thicket of indiscernible character motivations and ridiculously complicated subplots. I blamed that novel for my drinking, and for two of my three graduate student indiscretions. Teach at a freaking community college? I thought you were my friend, Bill.
But the pay was good, and the truth is that I was afraid of all that time alone. I had grand visions of rising early each morning for a brisk run along the cool, shaded streets of our suburb, followed by a bran muffin, then vigorous writing into the afternoon, after which an intelligent film or some edifying reading or maybe, on occasion, even vespers.
The grandiosity of this vision made me suspicious It was too pure for a borderline alcoholic, student-fucking narcissist. If my plans had been more realistic, I might have believed them.
So Bill made a phone call and I got the workshop. There were ten students the first night—a plumber with tattooed arms; a recovering gangbanger who upped the plumber’s ante with neck tats; two beaming, chubby lesbians in organic cotton; a salesman with shiny shoes; three thin, overly tanned housewives who huddled cross-legged and nursed exotic coffee drinks; a teenaged girl with a scarf on her head whose leukemia had recently been judged in remission; and Gil, a middle-aged divorcé who slouched at his desk and wrote angrily in his notebook with a felt-tip pen. I knew right away that I hated Gil, but I had hope for the rest of them. If not hope, then something less than contempt.
We opened as every writing workshop opens. Perhaps it began in a cave somewhere, eager students crouched on rocks in a circle, bits of flint or granite clutched in their grimy hands, hopefully surveying their instructor until he grunted at them to tell their names and what sorts of wall-scratching they do.
The plumber’s name is Deke. I had never met a Deke. I can’t even guess what Christian name Deke is derived from. I liked that we were starting that way, right out of the chute with a gritty, blue-collar name. It seemed a promising harbinger. Deke wanted to write a novel about a plumber who solves mysteries in his spare time. He wrung his hands as he said it, as if he were revealing that he likes to burn things.
The gangbanger announced that his name is Truth. His fellow students nodded gravely. Truth wanted to write about a gangbanger who goes straight. The lesbians are Donna and Kate. Donna was writing a novel about a committed lesbian couple who own a bookstore in Vermont and solve mysteries. She gave Deke a reassuring wink. Deke wrung his thick hands. Kate said she wanted to write a memoir about growing up on a dairy farm in Michigan.
“Um, this is a fiction writing class,” I explained. “There’s a creative nonfiction offering in the fall, though.” I only knew this because I’d browsed the catalogue to see if any of my colleagues ever taught here. If they did, they used pseudonyms.
Kate nodded, her face screwed up in thought. “Well,” she said, “I suppose I can write a novel about a girl growing up on a dairy farm. In Wisconsin.” She and Donna nodded at me earnestly. I pointed to the salesman who leaned over his desk, his foot pumping up and down in anticipation. “I’m Todd,” he said, “and I’m writing a novel about an intergalactic conflict between the Xenods and the Hewpacks. You see, it’s set in 3048, when earth has long ago become uninhabitable. Admiral Glory, leader of the Xenods—”
“Todd,” I said. “We’ll all do a synopsis for next week.”
“Oh,” he said. “Okay.” He sat back in his chair and adjusted his tie in a manner that earlier might have appeared dignified, but which now seemed a signifier of close-guarded insanity. The tittering housewives were all writing short stories about marriage and love affairs. We were back on track. Gil was writing about a man who plots an elaborate revenge against his cheating ex-wife. A shock.
Abby, the cancer survivor, had a soft voice. We all stopped shifting in our uncomfortable chairs and listened. She wanted to write about an old woman looking back on her difficult rural life and finding redemption in it. Nobody knew what to say to that, but we’d all decided to be encouraging to Abby the moment we realized her head scarf had nothing to do with religion.
I had just passed out my syllabus—really more a list of warnings and important deadlines than anything else—when John Calvin strode through the doorway, his black shoes clopping on the scuffed linoleum, a worn leather valise in his hand, a three-quarter length cape clinging to his bony shoulders like a funeral shroud. “This is,” he said with the bored enunciation of a magistrate, his words softened by a French accent, “the creative writing workshop, yes? An elective?” The corner of his mouth turned up at his second question.
We all stared. He surveyed us each in turn, his eyes flinty beneath delicate gray eyebrows. He seemed to be filing us away in boxes. I ran a finger along my class roster. “What’s your name?”
I double-checked. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not finding you on my roster.”
“This is fiction writing, yes?”
“Then it is where I am meant to be.” He eased into a seat next to Abby, sternly assaying her scarf. She smiled at him. He returned her smile with a grim tightening of his lips.
My normal routine, the first class, is to wax eloquent about writing. I tell them to write true, and to give each character his civil rights, and to mercilessly root out cliché. I’ll be honest: it’s me time. I’m going to spend the rest of the semester reading their miserable scribbling; they can indulge me for an hour.
John Calvin penned copious notes in a spidery script. He cradled one of those notebooks with a black spine and mottled black and white covers, and marked in it with a cheap ballpoint pen that seemed to befuddle him. Several times he drew his head away from his page and scrutinized what he’d written—what I’d said—as if to discern its merit. The other students took notes—all except for Truth, who slouched in his chair and bobbed his head like I was a song—and they did so unquestioningly. I remembered that I’d not asked John about himself.
“My name is Jean Calvin,” he said, flaring briefly into a French accent, “but you may call me John. I am a lawyer by training, and a theologian by practice. I’ve written many books. The most important is Institutes of the Christian Religion.” His face changed, became almost wistful. “Have you heard of it?”
We shook our heads.
Calvin nodded, as if this were the answer he’d expected. “Now I would like to write romantic Christian fiction. About godly men and women who fall in love, by the foreordination of God, and enter into the union of marriage. I think the church will be well served by my new enterprise.”
The other students looked at him. They looked at me. I dismissed class early.
That night I had a few drinks and called Angela. It was early morning in France. “Do you miss me?” I asked.
“Have you been drinking?”
“You should go to bed.”
“I’m not sleepy. Talk to me.”
“I have a big planning meeting this morning.”
“I love big plans. Tell me about it.”
“Go to bed, Tom.”
Deke the plumber and Todd the salesman had given me chapters from their novels by email, which I’d emailed to the other students. A person’s email address can tell you a lot about him. Most of their addresses were simply their first and last names, separated by dots. Todd’s, on the other hand, was SpaceInvaders599. “It’s my top-secret personal address,” he said. I was now certain he had a mental disorder.
Abby the cancer survivor’s was Whispering2U. Truth’s was GangstaFreedom. And Calvin’s was ElectOne. I don’t know if this meant he was one of many among the elect (I’d done a Wikipedia search), or if he was the only one, or the first one, or if this represented his appeal to God to narrow heaven’s door. I emailed them all from an account the community college gave me.
SpaceInvader Todd was a terrible writer. He seemed to spend most of his energy crafting exotic names for everything—his characters, their spaceships, the planets, the alien flora and fauna. His characters never spoke; they shouted. He wrote depressingly long paragraphs of detailed exposition, interspersing them with agitated dialogue. The chapter culminated in an awkward interspecies lovemaking scene. Todd was hopeless.
Deke wasn’t half bad. His chapter was formulaic mystery set-up, but this is, I gather, what mystery readers want. They have no truck, most of them, with our postmodern, angst-ridden bullshit. They want a murder, and a plucky investigator, and for somebody, at the end of it all, to go to jail. Deke was their man. He wrote crisply, if with clichés, and he killed his victim quick. I imagine he’s a pretty diligent plumber.
Ordinarily, students need some encouragement before they’ll tear into one another’s work, but Calvin had his hand raised before I could finish soliciting comments. He clasped Deke’s chapter, his face indignant.
“It is profane.”
“I’m sorry?” There was uncomfortable shifting in chairs. Deke stared down at his chapter and curled the edges with his thick hands.
Calvin slapped the manuscript with pale fingers. “Profanity. Profanity. His characters speak with vile tongues. Also, I didn’t understand the murderer’s motivation.”
“Well,” I said cautiously, “profanity is really a question of style.”
“It is an offense against God.”
“Perhaps, but in this class we are concerned with whether it is an offense against literature.”
The housewives tittered. Gil scribbled furiously with his felt-tip pen. Todd raised his hand and I pointed to him with wary thankfulness.
“I guess I have some profanity too, but you might not be able to tell because it’s Hewpack language. Page seven, Argenbogle says ‘grak,’ and on page nine—”
“We’ll get to you in a bit, Todd.”
He nodded congenially.
“John, tell me about your concerns regarding the motivation for the killing.” Calvin took the bait. His explanation was classic unsophisticated reader stuff. They need to see a reason for everything within a half-page of its occurrence. I listened patiently, and asked others what they thought, and we all breathed easier now that Calvin was distracted from being offended for God. After that, Deke did well enough with his classmates. They nibbled at the edges, but they didn’t devour him. He nodded as they spoke, scribbled in the margins of his manuscript, and did his best to appear grateful rather than crushed.
Nobody knew what to say about Todd’s manuscript. Even Calvin was at a loss. “I do not see the profit in speaking of other times and worlds,” he intoned, “when none exists but for what God has ordained here.” Everyone else focused on whether the names were too distracting, and nodded sickly when Todd asked them if the love scene “worked.”
“Work on your dialogue,” I told him. “People shouldn’t shout that much. Even aliens.”
I asked Calvin to stay after class. He stood rigid in his shiny, buckled shoes while I stuffed papers into my bag and waited for the other students to file out. “I think,” I told him, “you should ease up on the God talk.”
He squinted his heavy-lidded eyes. “Does it displease you, the word of God?”
“Oh no,” I lied. I tried to smile. “It’s just that it might make some of your classmates uncomfortable.”
He seemed to ponder this. “It is a harsh tonic for the reprobate,” he allowed.
“Besides,” I said, “we need to focus on each other’s words.” I patted his manuscript, which he’d passed out at the start of class. “Looking forward to this.”
I think he blushed.
Angela hadn’t been answering my emails, not really. I sent her paragraphs about things I heard on NPR, my class, the landscaping I was doing in our back yard, even John Calvin. I told her I missed her. I tried to draw her into a sensual exchange. Each email got a single-sentence reply. Hadn’t heard about that in the news here. Hope your students aren’t all awful. Glad to hear you’re putting in some fruit bushes. That last one gave me hope at first; why would she be glad unless she intended to come back home? But then it occurred to me that she had the resale value in mind. She ignored my sexy banter altogether.
I called her the Friday after my second class. It was late at night again, and I was drinking again. I’d been carrying on some email banter with Sheila, one of the thin housewives. She was forty or so, with curved hips and a habit of catching your eyes when she spoke. We’d gone on about poetry, and I did my best to sound clever and vaguely wounded. She soaked it up, and soon we were hinting about what it’s like to live with people who don’t appreciate your creativity. Sheila had to sign off, and my mind turned to Angela.
I’d been working up the notion that she was sleeping with someone. A Frenchman, most likely. I spent an hour online, trying to find a flight that would put me there Saturday night, so I could catch her in the act. Everything was going to cost what I was making for my summer class. I called her, thinking that in her half-sleep she might give something away. She didn’t answer, and so I stumbled through a message about how I was up and thinking of her and had something interesting to tell her only now I couldn’t remember it and could she please call me right away. I told her I loved her and that I hoped it was all right and for her to have a good day.
She called back half an hour later. “Tom, are you okay?”
“I think so. How are you?” I listened for the telltale sound of a man.
“Getting ready for work on a Saturday morning, so how do you think?”
It was brusque. I tried to take solace in something one of my therapists had said once, that hatred is better than indifference.
“I miss you,” I said.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course. How are you?”
“I have to go, Tom.”
“I love you.”
It was better than goodbye, her bye-bye. But she hadn’t said she loved me in months. Sometimes I tried to trick her into it, to trigger her married person’s love you reflex, but she was vigilant. I couldn’t sleep, so I picked up Calvin’s manuscript.
Having seen most of John Calvin’s novel now, I can confidently say that it should never, under any circumstances, be printed. It is an unholy union of treacly, passionless romance and fifty-page stretches of speechifying that evoke what Ayn Rand might have produced had she been born a pilgrim. Its characters don’t fall in love; they realize their mutual obligation to bond for the glory of God. Its villains don’t have conflicting motives or complex psyches; they are all Catholics and reprobates who die by lightning, or tumbling rocks, or pistol duels. The narrator, who is either the Holy Spirit or an addled old woman (I still can’t tell; Calvin turned red and refused to answer when I put the question to him) interrupts every few paragraphs to explain that what has just transpired has been the irrevocable intention of God since before the ages. That sort of thing. Had I been a Christian when I started this monstrosity, I would have renounced the faith before I was halfway through.
To make matters worse, it was well written. I mean, it was wretched through and through, but his grammar was perfect, his clichés limited to the Bible talk, his sense for economy of word choice impeccable. I’d never before seen such a finely crafted piece of abominable prose. If there is a hell, I am quite certain its libraries are filled with the precise novels of John Calvin.
Which is why I was astounded to hear my students speak well of it. “I hadn’t thought about fate that way,” Deke said, “but it makes perfect sense.”
The housewives clutched their lattés thoughtfully and nodded their approval. Even Sheila, who I’d been counting on as an ally. Calvin sat at his desk with his arms folded, a luxuriant smile across his face. “I’ve never been much for religion,” Donna the lesbian said, “but I kinda like the thought that God is up there directing all of us.” Kate patted her hand.
“True that,” said Truth. I didn’t know if by true he meant truth overall, or if it was just a street way of saying that he, Truth, personally agreed.
“Although,” Gil said, his felt-tip pen about to snap in his hands, “you kinda get lost in the speeches.”
Calvin cut him a glance. I hated that it was Gil who shared my dislike. I tried to steer them in the direction of realism. “But is love like this?” I asked. “Calculated and rational and, well, so cold?” My voice was too expectant. I tempered it with a judicious gaze.
“Well,” soft-spoken Abby offered, “maybe real love is more a matter of duty than feeling.”
Everyone nodded. Calvin patted her hand, and then seemed to catch himself. He withdrew it sharply.
“Yes, yes,” I answered, more abruptly than I’d intended, “duty and all that, but what about this God-directing-it-all business? Don’t you believe people fall in love?”
“It is God,” Calvin announced, “who directs their fall.”
One of the housewives made a little swooning noise in her throat.
I was tired that night, and I didn’t eat or drink. I wanted to talk to Angela, and so I sat clicking through television channels until I knew she was rising for work. She answered just as I thought her phone was going to plunge me into voicemail.
“Do you think we were meant to be?” I asked.
“Do you think God planned it all out, for us to be together?”
“You don’t believe in God.”
“I’m indifferent to his existence. There’s a difference.”
“Are you drunk?”
“No. Haven’t had a drink all week.”
“I have to get ready for work. All kinds of problems in the wing assembly, and the Germans are coming tomorrow.”
“But what about us? Do you think it was some cosmic plan?”
“I don’t know, Tom.”
I emailed Sheila, expecting no reply given the hour. It was a clever little email, quoting her something from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer as if I’d just read it and thought of her. She was up, and she wrote me back. I danced a clever little email dance with Sheila. She quoted me scraps of poetry. I could see her curled up with her laptop on the luxurious couch in her banker husband’s home, wearing stylish yet comfortable pajama pants, her bronzed, toned arms extended from her sleeveless top, hurriedly surfing the internet for Pablo Neruda quotes to drop into her replies. I hate Neruda. We agreed we should have a drink soon.
This predestination business began to seep into everyone’s writing. Sheila and the other housewives submitted short stories with lovers who were not star-crossed, but star-guided. I read Sheila’s especially closely, like a researcher, searching for hints, vulnerabilities, a hook from which to spin out a narrative between the two of us. Her protagonist’s lover was an old boyfriend returned to town, an ex-soldier. There was no room to convert that guy into a forlorn, misunderstood literature professor.
The others were just as troubling. Donna’s bookstore-owning, mystery-solving lesbian couple were fulfilling their destinies. All the harbingers surrounding Kate’s young protagonist, the girl on the dairy farm, foretold that she would one day keep her own cows. Even disaffected Gil worked in foreordination; his misused protagonist should have read the copious signs that his wife was a slut.
I tried to disabuse them of the notion. “You know what will happen because you are the authors,” I explained. “But you have to afford them a choice. You have to give them their goddamned civil rights.”
Calvin shook his head and sighed. He’d steered most of them away from profanity. After a few promising starts, their characters didn’t curse any more. Todd the salesman even cleaned up his alien language. He would insert just one letter for the curse word and follow it with a dash. “Z— off!” his protagonist might shout. “K— you!” would be the villain’s reply.
Truth was the exception. He gave us two chapters to read, and they were mostly dialogue. Street language. I had stopped drinking, which felt most days like my head was stuffed with cotton, and so I couldn’t really follow what was happening in Truth’s story. Someone had dissed someone and was going to get capped, and somebody else was secretly studying so he could get his knowledge on and break free from the hood. I think that was the plot, in between all the obscure urban phrases and the steady deployment of every possible conjugation of “motherfucker.”
I read it with glee, anticipating the coming schism in our class. Truth was so genuine and cool that everyone wanted to like him, even when they couldn’t understand him. But there was no way Calvin was going to give him a pass on all those motherfuckers and crack babies. People were going to have to choose. Which was my entire point.
“This is,” Calvin intoned the night we workshopped Truth’s chapters, “a gripping depiction of the world in which depravity reigns. It is an insightful portrait of creation before a new heaven and earth are formed.”
Truth tapped a loose fist to his chest and pointed two fingers of respect at Calvin. John nodded gravely. Other students queued up to voice their admiration.
“But John,” I sputtered, “what about the profanity?”
“A fallen world is profane.”
“But a few weeks back you denounced Deke’s chapter. You said profanity offends God.”
“Then won’t this offend God?” I was trying to affect the stance of a reasonable person, gently but relentlessly teasing out someone else’s irrationality, but there was a pitch to my voice that I didn’t like. Like an engine with something coming unbolted. Angela knows what to do when things come unbolted, but not me. “I mean, your aesthetics are a little muddled. How can profanity be offensive sometimes and not others?”
“It is a mystery,” Calvin declared.
“True that,” said Truth.
“I do not understand your notes,” Calvin said to me after class. I sat on a desk as he stood before me, tapping the floor with the toe of his creased, buckled shoe. He clutched my copy of his manuscript in a sallow hand.
“Was my handwriting indecipherable?”
“Your handwriting was adequate. It was your rejection of God’s sovereignty. I understand that you are the professor of literature, but I am the theologian.”
“Yes, well, it’s not your theology I dispute. It’s the way you treat your characters. You’re moving them across a great chess board. You don’t give them any volition.”
“They are creatures of my contrivance. What volition can they have?”
“Give them wants and hopes. Give the good ones weakness and the wicked ones virtue. Make them real and see where they try to go.”
Calvin cocked his head sideways, almost like a child.
“Look, you want to write love stories, yes?”
He nodded, two spots of rose on his forlorn child’s cheeks.
“Then let your characters choose to love each other. Don’t march them into one another’s arms and talk about duty and foreordination. Just…let them love. Or not love.”
His eyes hardened. “This is a theological matter.”
“It’s a matter of human nature.”
“Which is God’s province.”
“John, don’t you think people have a choice about who they love?”
He eyed me warily. “Whom,” he said. “And what do you mean by choice?”
“I mean, do you think a woman can look at a man she knows, all his failings and selfish parts, and decide to love him anyway? Or that she can see all he isn’t, and decide she can live with him in spite of the empty places?”
He squinted at me. “Yes, but only if God wills it.”
“What does he care?”
“He is God.”
“Doesn’t he want us all to love one another?”
“Then why would he get in the way? Why would he will someone not to love someone else?”
“It is a mystery.”
He pondered his worn shoes. I wondered how many miles they’d covered, if they wear like he seems to wear, perpetually old but decaying no further, lingering in this earthly husk according to some inscrutable purpose.
“Let me ask you this, John. Can you at least consider letting some of your characters do something unexpected?”
“Meaning something that the reader can’t predict from the first paragraph. Let your good guys falter. Let your villains find redemption.”
“But this is not the way of creation.”
He rolled his eyes. We’ve been over this before.
“Listen, it can all be part of God’s mysterious plan, can’t it? Can’t one of your characters be something other than what you set out to make him? Won’t God allow it? Or at least you?”
He gazed at me in silent confusion, or judgment, or both.
“I want to come for a visit,” I told Angela in my late night, her early morning. I was drinking again.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“Are you seeing someone?”
She sighed. “I can’t believe you’re asking me that.”
“I’m sorry. I miss you. Please let me come.”
“I have an early meeting, Tom. I have to go.”
“Is there any hope left? Or are we on rails now?”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“Are we racing down the tracks toward the abyss, with no brakes, and nothing waiting on us but the end of it?” I wrote my worst prose when I was drinking.
Angela sighed. It was the exasperated sound she might have made at one of our children, if they’d lived, if not for a truck and a malfunctioning stoplight nineteen years ago, if not for random chance or the providence of a monstrous god. “I don’t know about any of that,” Angela said. “I’m just taking it day by day.”
“But if each day is determined mostly by what happened yesterday, you won’t end up anywhere different. Don’t we need to end up somewhere different?”
Another sigh. “I only know how to live this day that’s in front of me. I can’t worry about breaking patterns. That’s your job, Tom. I have to go.”
“But what if I can’t break the pattern either?” I asked the dial tone. It was probably best she didn’t hear my question. I stood under the faltering kitchen light, phone in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other, wearing nothing but boxers. I hated the gentle slope of my stomach, the way it was beginning to protrude even when I wore a loose shirt. I hated the quiet. No matter what I did for the rest of the night, I would wake up with that stomach, in this silent, empty house. There was no changing what had happened and what I had done. My body felt light, the way it does in a rollercoaster car hurtling along its single rail. I decided to kill John Calvin.
I expected, when I woke the next day with the thud of dehydrated blood in my eardrums, that I would abandon this impulse to kill Calvin. Instead, my resolve, in the crystalline haze of morning, was more precise. The world had been flattened, something I could only now see clearly with the advent of this dour predestinationist. We were under a spell—if not the whole world, then this sliver of the world that was mine, which is always, for any of us, the world.
Someone had flattened it and tilted it upward and now we were all careening into the abyss. That someone was either God, or a man who claimed to know him well. I couldn’t kill God, but I could kill a man. If Calvin had manufactured this God-monster, then maybe killing him could get even a narcissistic student-fucking agnostic into heaven. And if Calvin was a true prophet, well, in that case I preferred hell.
The clarity of my intention was so preternaturally sharp that I stopped drinking altogether, for fear that I would cloud it. I kept waiting for it to dissipate in the days that followed, like all clouds and passions, but instead it grew roots and took the form of conviction: John Calvin must die.
It had been a long time since I’d held a conviction. I brought the revolver, which I hadn’t fired in years, to class in my faded satchel, tucked serenely between copies of next week’s manuscripts.
Making the copies was an act of defiance. I didn’t have to shoot Calvin. I could decide against it at the last minute, in which case my students would want next week’s reading. Or I could not shoot him and still withhold the manuscripts. Or I could pass them out and shoot myself, leaving each student to decide whether the readings were still obligatory.
We were discussing Abby’s chapter this week, from her novel about the old woman looking back on her life. The woman, whose name was Hazel, had endured the loss of her husband at a young age, and then each of her three sons, one at eight, the next at twenty-two, the last at forty-one. She had no other family. She could no longer keep her home. She was facing the prospect of living her remaining years in a state-run facility. Hazel had embraced each tragedy according to the way of religious women, with quiet, teary-eyed martyrdom. But now she was worn thin, and embittered at God’s silence. She was beginning to believe that suffering wasn’t the necessary emblem of a higher good, that it didn’t have a purpose beyond its very endurance.
Calvin quoted the Bible to Abby. “‘All things work together for good, to those who love God and who are called according to his purpose,’” he intoned.
“That doesn’t mean,” Abby countered in her quiet voice, “that everything that happens is good, that God is happy about it.”
“He has foreordained all things for his own pleasure and glory.”
I casually eased my hand into my satchel until I felt the cold prickly burl of the gun handle. Abby stroked the smooth face of her manuscript. “I disagree,” she said.
“This woman, this Hazel—she is losing the true faith. She was grounded before these changes in her. The elect cannot be damned. Either you must signal her reprobation sooner, or eliminate this inconsistency in her character.”
“Maybe it’s her salvation she’s working out,” Deke the plumber said. He seemed to surprise himself.
“She is disintegrating,” Calvin said. He looked from one face to another, sensing the turning of the tide. I could feel it, too, in the shifting of bodies, the beginnings of scowls.
“Well, I think she’s integrating,” Kate said. “Becoming her true self. And I think God loves the person she’ll be.” Donna gripped her hand.
“All things work together for good,” Calvin repeated.
“Maybe,” Truth said, “you got to rethink what is and ain’t good.”
I took my hand off the gun.
That night I emailed Angela and told her not to be surprised if I figured out where she was on a map and showed up on her doorstep with a bottle of cheap French wine. I’m desperate to win you back, I wrote, and desperate men aren’t afraid to make fools of themselves. You can’t turn me away, because I don’t speak French. I’ll starve out there. I admit I was hoping she’d tell me to come.
After I sent the email to Angela, I wrote to Sheila. I felt the belly-thrill of seeing her respond to my chat almost immediately. We bantered, and I pushed the boundary, intimating that man cannot live by words alone, that the late-night hours are the lonely hours. We’ve been abandoned in different ways, she wrote back. Women need more than words, too, you know.
There is a moment, for the seducer and player with words, when you know how it will end. You see where your character will go, how far she will go, what she will do when she arrives at the heretofore hidden place, and then all the words and deeds fall to their destinations like brickwork. I asked Sheila if she wanted to meet for a drink the next night, and she agreed, and I knew what we would do, and I knew she did as well. She signed off; her husband was finally home.
I felt elated, but behind that, a cloud of mourning. Always before, the cloud had come afterward. But here it was at the start, and suddenly I was afraid. I was afraid not of John Calvin’s hell, but of this, this unalterable present, this nature beneath my skin that propelled me forward like a character in his novel. What if he was right, that the good will do good and the evil will do evil? What if none of us can cross over?
I decided to put the revolver’s barrel in my mouth. It was my only remaining act of autonomy. The elect don’t kill themselves, of course. But surely a reprobate would do it only after sleeping with Sheila, she of the toned bronze arms and limber legs, and not before. But if I launched a bullet into my brain beforehand, what would that make me?
Me. If nothing else, I would be mine.
Angela’s reply arrived with a tinny ping. Ha ha, she wrote. That was it. I forgot about the revolver for the time being. No literary scholar in history has spent more energy deconstructing a mirrored word. After thinking it over until near dawn, putting myself in Angela’s head, imagining her deciphering me while she imagined me writing to her, I was no nearer to epiphany. In the best case, ha ha was her schoolgirl laugh, the laugh I hadn’t heard in months, maybe years. It said that she didn’t dare admit it, but she hoped I would come. The worst case was that she pitied me, and didn’t want to tell me once again not to come, and so instead she was laughing it off. Silly old Tom. You know you hate to fly. Stay home with your books and your pretty students.
I could ask her, but then she would say no. Of that I was certain. The very strength of going, and therefore the only hope in it, came from its indeterminacy. There was no vulnerability otherwise, and therefore no love, not really, at least not the kind that was going to save us.
I emailed Sheila and told her I had a raging case of hemorrhoids that had inexplicably flared up, and that I couldn’t meet her any time soon.
There was no way my self-humiliation was foreordained. God himself couldn’t see that coming, not from a preening, image-obsessed flirt like me. I felt like a running back in open field now, juking and dodging tacklers, darting anywhere except where they expect me to go. Rays of sun began to pierce a broken cloud line outside my kitchen window. I ate one of Angela’s cinnamon and brown sugar Pop-Tarts, which I hate. It didn’t taste so bad. The world was becoming unpredictable. I was single-handedly rending a hole in the tight fabric of predestination.
We had nothing left to read for the last class, and so I told them a story, about a man whose wife has gone. He has lost her, deservedly so, because he has lost himself. But he thinks that if he can find her, he will find himself, or at least the best part of himself, or at least the part of himself worth keeping. I asked them whether it was believable, for a man to drink and piss and fuck away his life for nineteen years, and yet dash across the finish line at the last minute, just under the wire, right before the final bell. It happens in stories because we want it to happen, because it never seems to happen in life. I looked at them one by one, at their embarrassed faces, and waited for them to pass judgment.
“I don’t care if it works or not,” Donna said. “I like it.” Kate nodded.
“I think that ought to count for whether something is a good story,” Deke said.
“If a person can’t change,” Abby said, in her strongest voice yet, her eyes on Calvin, “then he may as well just lie down and die.”
Calvin nodded, his face something like chastened. “It is a mystery,” he said gently, “the heart of man and the mind of God.”
“Not everybody stays lost,” Truth said.
I gave everyone an A. Even John Calvin. The department chair was incensed, and left me several messages. He demanded a reassessment. “There’s no way they all earned As,” he said. “It’s not very judicious of you.”
Which was precisely the point.
So now I sit huddled in a cheap airplane seat, hurtling across the ocean, three maps of Toulouse in my satchel. I’ve used a red felt-tip pen to trace a different route to Angela’s apartment on each map. I lose my way easily. I don’t know what will happen. I do not know.
I like to think that God is a good author, watching his characters to see where we will go, perhaps nudging us from time to time, striking us with disaster here and mercy there, but always, always, affording us some space to breathe. Maybe he even affords it to poor John Calvin, who, last I saw him, was clopping from my classroom with his tattered manuscript in hand, his own characters mercilessly bound, that strange, sad, dour look on his face, walking who knows where next, but weighted down with the certainty that wherever it may be, it has been from the beginning of time where he was supposed to be.
As for me, if not for my fear of flying I might stay suspended in this blue air for eternity, balanced forever between where I have been and where I am going, the uncertain future stretched out before me like a shimmering sea.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.