You who live in the cities may have noticed the same sort of thing near an intersection or in front of a grocery store or by the river docks, but on my trips to Washington and New York and cities in Europe, I have never seen it. In crossroads towns and along rural roads where cars must touch both shoulders to pass, I sometimes, as I drive, come upon a solitary man -- always past middle age, often not fastidiously shaven -- who stands in the ditch, or sits on the steps of a modest frame house and greets with a wave of the arm each automobile that passes by. In communities such as the ones in wich these men live, if drunkenness or senility or some other form of idleness or illness were the cause of such behavior, the man's family and friends would restrain him from making a public display of his weakness. I've wondered what, then, can make these men stand or sit for hours each day, like toll collectors, and carry out their roles with such gravity and constancy.
My wife and I, in the years that we have lived outside of Charlottesville, have come to know a few facts about one such man, facts that have caused us to look at others like him with something more than wonder and sympathy.
Meg and I are teachers, she in the public schools and I in a private one. I'd never meant to be a schoolteacher, as she had always meant to, but when I graduated from the university in the mid-'60s, I couldn't afford to go on to graduate school, so I took a teaching job to avoid the draft. When Meg and I got married two years later, the chance of my being drafted was reduced, but I was used to teaching (even liked it, as I'd tell Meg) and it was always easier to teach for another year than to go back to college. I'm still at the same prep school, and they've asked me to be dean of boys next year.
The summer of our wedding we moved into a small cottage, which once had been a guest house, at Oakhill, a large estate about 10 miles south of town. The cottage is comfortable enough, and it faces the side of the main house, a beautiful, white, 19th-century structure which we jokingly call "the Manse." A plump, blue-haired lady, who refers to us -- with no joke intended -- as "the cottagers," rents the Mase for a song, and lives all alone there. All alone, that is, except for her wooden children, as we call her antique furniture, which she rightfully values so highly. We speak of living in the Manse ourselves someday, but we do this privately, because our neighbor is past 70, and we don't want people to think that we are waiting for her to die.
That first fall, Meg and I began driving to school together each morning, a routine we've followed for all these years. We've come to know each twist and dip along the several miles of country road leading to the highway, a straight, four-lane road which takes us into town. We usually pass school buses along the way, frequently we must stop as a bus picks up students. Dozens of children wait along our route, and we've watched some of them grow up.
Several caught our attention the first fall. Close to home we'd pass two boys, one perhaps 8 and his brother 10, the younger blond and the older brown-haired. They always wore matching clothes -- the same khaki pants and yellow windbreakers in the fall and spring, and the same hooded corduroy parkas and leather hunting boots in the winter. We hardly ever saw their faces, and I'm sure they never noticed us. Mostly we saw their backs as they absorbedly (but stiffly, because of their clean clothes) explored the ditch and culvery by their driveway. Further along, near a store at the intersection of the rural road and the highway, a girl of about 17 would wait. Often she was posed like a streetwalker leaning against a doorjamb. Her family's mailbox, white with GOOLRICK stenciled on it in large red letters, supported her, and her long-stockinged short-skirt legs reached almost to the blacktop. Despite her sultry posture, she was so far from soliciting attention from us or from anyone who passed by that she seemed in a kind of trance.
Halfway to town, along a stretch where the southbound lanes of the highway are about 50 feet higher up the side of a hill than the northbound lanes, we would pass a boy of about 14 and a man of about 60. We first noticed them because the old man was the only person along the way to wait with a child for the bus, and because the boy often waved to us as we passed. The man stood next to the boy as he waved, and also watched the cars go by, but he never joined the boy in his pasttime. He would smile a smile that showed his pride in the boy, but there was none of the indulgence with which an older person might look upon a child's game. Or so it seemed to us in the glimpses we got of them each morning. These glimpses, which came to us randomly and almost unconsciously at first, aroused our curiosity. Soon Meg and I began to talk about them each morning as we passed, and to compare what we were able to observe in the seconds that the two were in plain view.
"What an unlikely pair those two make," Meg said one morning. She was right: The boy did not look as if he belonged to the man. The man was barrel-chested and ruddy; the boy was frail-looking and so pale that, if we could have looked closely at him, we might have seen a bluish tint to his skin from the veins beneath it. The man had a round face, encircled by the white hair under his cap and the white whiskers, always about a week's growth, along his jaw. The boy's face was angular, its bland length broken by his dark brows and black-rimmed glasses. The man stood solidly posed, his weight on his heels and his hands in the stomach pockets of his overalls. The boy seemed loose-jointed as he waved, and his head would bob almost as if he couldn't control it. His clothes were too large for him, and instead of plaid shirts and faded denims -- the working clothes which the old man wore -- he wore bright V-neck sweaters and dark, cuffed trousers which seemed more appropriate for a college boy of an earlier time.
And yet something in the way the two stood together, nearly touching, seeming to lean towards each other in affection, made us know that they were members of the same family.
Morning after morning we passed them, and many afternoons, if we did not stay in town for dinner and a movie, but drove straight home from school, we saw the old man waiting for the school bus, standing at the edge of the median, where it began to drop off steeply. One afternoon we reached him just after the bus did, and we waited in the left-hand lane as the boy got off and crossed in front of us. As the man waited, he waved to the children on the bus. We watched the children wave back, and Meg asked, "What do they think of the old man's devotion? I wonder if the boy gets teased because of it." I said, "Well, he never seems ashamed of his grandfather -- and I think he would if the children made fun of them." Just then the boy proved my point by accepting a one-armed hug from the old man. Without even a backward glance at the bus, they disappeared together down the side of the hill.
One morning we came upon them just after we had passed the bus, and found them in a tender kiss, the old man bent over slightly, his hands still in his overalls pockets, and the boy on his toes to receive it, his head cocked back, and their lips just brushing.
Meg said, "Look Mark. They must kiss like that every day when they see the school bus coming. So sweetly."
"Damnit, Meg," I said, without knowing why I was angry. But I did not say anything more, and Meg was graceful enough to let it pass. It wasn't because I was embarrassed to have caught them in such a posture. In fact, I think now that it was the absence of any embarrassment that caused my outburst. It was as if we felt ourselves to be invisible as we sped past in our small car. As if the windows of the car were one-way mirrors through which we could see and not be seen.
And they didn't seem to notice us, although they were aware, apparently, of the approaching eyes of the children on the bus. But that was the only time that year, or for several years, that the two showed any self-consciousness before the world that passed by on the highway, other than the simpleminded waving which the boy later outgrew.
Simpleminded is what we had decided the boy was. That would explain everything: the waving, the boy's unselfconsciousness, and the understanding which his unselfconsciousness implied in the other children on the bus.
But the next year we learned that we were wrong. That year the boy began to attend the high school where Meg teaches. Meg noticed him in the halls the first week of school, and asked around until she found someone who taught him.
When I picked her up after school one afternoon her first words were, "I found a teacher who has him -- for algebra."
"Algebra? His first year in high school?" I asked.
"Yes. It turns out he has this amazing aptitude for math. He's supposed to be a math genius."
We both were suprised, and this new information only increased our interest in the two. Many afternoons Meg would tell me some bits of news she had picked up about the boy. She learned from the rest of his teachers that he was an average student in his other subject. And from his math teacher, whose interest in him had begun to match our own, Meg heard that Ned -- his name was Ned Spivey -- was popular with his classmates. This also suprised us, because we'd learned that he was not good at sports and that he spoke with a country accent; and we knew that he did not dress fashionably. These might have been enough to isolate him from the mostly suburban kids who attended the high school. But his teachers said he was able to win his classmates' friendship simply by being friendly himself. He wasn't shy, and any standoffishness in the people around him did not register with him.
But what we were able to learn about Ned was not enough to explain that which had originally puzzled us most. Why did this old man, who looked like a farmer without a farm, wait every morning and afternoon for this skinny boy in borrowed clothes who bobbed beside him like a kite on a stort string on a breezy day?
Perhaps our interest in Ned Spivey seems inordinate. I don't say that it wasn't. But we are teachers; we're supposed to take an interest in young people. We're in the children business, you might say.
The truth is, we don't seem to get as close to our students as we might. Most of them like and respect us, we think, but somehow we do not form the personal ties with students that other teachers do. Of course we are no longer as close in age to our students as many of the other teachers are. And living in the country, as we do, isolates use from them to a certain extent. We are not as likely to run into one of them after school, and they are not as likely to drop by our house as they might be if we lived in town. The same holds true for our colleagues and friends, for that matter.
And in the summers we usually go away, on a trip which has its genesis in out big bed on some winter night. We often spend whole evenings in bed when it is cold, reading or grading papers. The furnace in the cottage is no match for a cold night, so we huddle under our electric blanket. There, Meg will say, "Mark, let's go to Florence this summer. We'll get the name of a nice pensione, and go for a whole month. We'll have time to see everything and become real Florentines."
I will answer, "Don't be silly. We can't become Florentines in a month. Maybe we should just move away. What is there to keep us here? We could pick a city -- not Florence, but some city where we could get jobs -- and go live there for a few years. Become real New Yorkers or San Franciscans or Washingtonians. What do you think of that?"
"Sounds wonderful," Meg will say, and slip closer to me.
So I'll send off our letters of application for teaching jobs in one of those cities, and Meg, perhaps because she knows us better than I do, will write -- "just in case" -- to a pensione or to an inexpensive hotel on the Left Bank. By the time the requests for interviews come in response to my letters, it is spring in Virginia, and we are unwilling to give up even two days of it to go to New York, much less to consider moving there. And when we hear from the pensione or the hotel we decide that a month is too long -- we'll go crazy in a month -- and we make reservations for two weeks, and end up staying a week and wandering for the other week. We've seen a lot of Europe that way. But we can't say that we know Rome or London or Salzburg, only that we've been there.
The place we do know well is the 250 acres of Oakhill. In spring and fall, we put on old clothes every day after school and tramp around for an hour or so before dinner. If it is warm enough, we take Zeke, our spaniel, down to the river for a swim. The Manse and our cottage are on top of a hill in a stand of huge oaks. The river -- the Albemarle River, which is the size of a large creek -- runs part way around the hill. The best swimming spot is behind our cottage, down a path we've widened so much that it is passable even in summer, when the undergrowth returns. The path is steep, and we usually barrel down it, slowing about halfway to walk calmy past a honeybee hive. At the bottom, where the hill flattens into a broad curve of bottom land beside the river, there's barbed wire. We slow down again to duck under it, but Zeke doesn't break stride, sometimes letting out a little yelp as he dives beneath the wire and sprints across the field to the river. This land was cultivated once, then used for grazing, and now goes unused. Sycamores, as tall as the hill itself, grow along the stream. At the bottom they are smooth and milky white and so big that Meg and I can't join arms around them. Zeke paddles after sticks I throw for him. In the spring, Meg picks wild flowers or in the fall gathers dried weeds to arrange. The sun sets on the side of the hill from Zeke's swimming spot, and when the shadows cross the fields to us, we start back home. It's chilly in the growing dusk, but we are warm from the exertion of climbing. Zeke drinks greedily from his water bowl when we reach home.
There are paths, some of which the deer have made, that lead to other parts of the estate: the cut-stone foundation of an old bridge; a small stable and paddock, overgrown with weeds; a pond on a dammed creek, out of which water once was pumped to the lawns. In the spring and fall we walk these paths too, and we've come to love the places to which they lead. We talk about returning them to their former state. About how we'd have cows grazing and crops growing and the bridge rebuilt and a horse in the stable and the lawns watered. If this were our place, we think. And if the cottage weren't so small and so cold in the winter -- if we lived in the Manse, say -- perhaps we'd start a family, as our parents urge us to do. Meg wants a child, and so do I, at least in winter, when it is lonely living so far from town. But in the spring we put that off for one more year, too.
Near the end of our fourth year together in the country, we noticed on our way to school one morning that the old man was not standing by the road with Ned. We could not remember the man ever missing a day, and we wondered if something had happened to him. When he was not there again the next day, our curiosity was uncontainable. Without even consulting Meg I pulled the car over, and she, knowing perfectly my intention, rolled down her window and asked the boy if he would like a ride to school.
Ned seemed to recognize Meg as a teacher, and accepted her offer without hesitation.
He had to sit in the small space behind the bucket seats of our MG, and since the top was down, he leaned forward between us to keep the wind from blowing too strongly in his face.
After a moment he said, "I figure in the last four years you've pased by more than 700 times; why'd you stop today?"
Meg and I exchanged a quick glance past his face, and I saw in the same glance that he was smiling.
I said, "Well there isn't much room in this car with the top up." And when he did not respond to that, I added, "But we also noticed that your grandfather hasn't been with you these last two days, and we were afraid that he was sick or something.
"My grandfather's been dead since before I was born," Ned replied. "You mean my father. And he's mad, not sick."
"mad at you?" Meg asked.
The boy had grown -- he looked cramped in the car -- but he was still thin and pale, still wore the same black-rimmed glasses. His head still bobbed a little more than it should have, as he looked at Meg.
"Yes ma'am. He's so mad he won't even talk to me at the supper table."
"What did you do?" Meg asked. Her smile said she couldn't believe it was anything too serious.
Ned said, "Joined the Army. I want to learn computer science, but Daddy won't send me to school. It doesn't matter -- I would have been drafted anyway. He can't see that, though. He says there's no reason to go and volunteer. But they'll teach me to computer science in the Army."
"Aren't you worried about going to Vietnam?" I asked.
"Well, my teachers say I have a gift for math. I guess the Army'll see that and keep me out of the fighting. I don't want to fight; they'll see that."
"Is your father afriad you'll have to go to the war?" Meg asked.
"He's afraid if I go away I won't cme back. He says if I go into computer science I'll go away like my brothers and he'll never see me again. The rest went off to one city or another, Baltimore, Roanoke, Charlotte, and now they never come back. Daddy said he tried to hold me to him, since I was the last boy, and so much younger than the rest. And now he thinks I'm turning my back on him, too, by volunteering. But he's wrong; I'll come back and stay." And then he craned his neck so the warm spring wind blew across his face, and he smiled wisely, as if he were thinking of the day when he would be back, when his father would forgive him and see that he had been right all along.
For the last two weeks of that school year, we made a point of leaving our house a few minutes early each morning, so that Ned was not yet out waiting for the bus as we passed. Meg never said whether she spoke to Ned at school during those days before he graduated, but I feel sure that she did not.
The next fall we left for school again at the usual time. There were children waiting along the way, as always, but they were mostly not the same children whom we had seen the first year. The two little boys had grown up enough to be tried of exploring the ditch by their driveway. They walked down the road now and waited for the bus with a group of other kids. They no longer dressed alike. We did not know what had happened to the Goolrick girl until we saw her wedding picture in the Charlottesville paper one day. The couple had planned to settle not far from where her parents live. Perhaps her children are among the new faces along our route.
We were not surprised to see that norbody stood by Ned's driveway the fall after he graduated. What did surprise us was that, one morning in early Janurary, we saw Ned's father standing in the old place. He seemed much as he always had: the same round, red face under the same billed cap; the same wool-lined denim jacket he'd worn in other winters, over the same overalls; and the same benign, vacant smile on his face. When we passed by he looked at us perfunctorily; no recognition showed in the gesture. In the afternoon the old man was standing on the side of the hill, where he had stood to meet Ned's bus. Again he waved unseeingly.
If there are others in the family -- a wife, a brother -- they must not mind him standing there like that, because for six years now it has been the same.
Tonight Meg and I had an awful fight, one of those arguments which begins as nothing and ends up leaving hollow places in the heart that cannot be refilled. At its height, and well past the point where our attacks and counterattacks bore any relation to each other, she said, "We might have done something about Ned Spivey if we'd tried. But no -- I knew what you were thinking -- we had gotten ourselves too deeply in it as it was. And now we can't even bring ourselves to stop the car to speak to Mr. Spivey!"
With that, sobbing pitifully, she left the house and drove away.
After she had gone, I thought of what I should have told her: That if we had moved to a city, as we have talked of doing, perhaps a scrawny country boy would not have mattered so much to us; or, if we had settled in the country and not just slept here, isolated from the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants by the acres and acres of this estate, which are ours to roam and to explore, but which we do not own, then perhaps we would have known what to say to Ned, or what to do for him.
As for Mr. Spivey, I don't think that I am ashamed to stop and talk to him. But what would be the point? What is it that I would take responsibility for? For a war in which I would not fight? For a boy's aspirations and an old man's disappointments? And who am I, the passerby, to offer consolation to the one passed by? And what consolation would I offer Mr. Spivey? Would he feel better to know that I have seen in him something of myself? No, there's nothing I could say to him and nothing he could say to me. It's better that I don't stop.
Meg is back. Zeke heard her first and met her out in the yard. I could hear them cooing to each other like mother and child. Now I can hear Meg down in the kitchen fixing popcorn, and I know she's ready for a reconciliation. Me too. I'm going down to her, and we'll be reconciled before the kernels finish popping.
We used to say to each other sometimes when we passed Ned's father that we hoped to drive by one morning and see Ned standing there again, dressed in a suit perhaps, and watching with kindly understanding as his father waved to us.
I don't think we'll say that ever again.