I stood in line with the others and made my way slowly to the front of the chapel, head bowed, my arms folded in front of my crotch. I still didn’t feel right about it, so I lingered near the back of the line. I wondered what it tasted like. The exchange students were all ahead of me. I naturally seemed to fall in with the exchange students at St. Martin’s. There was Antouman, the Gambian prince, who was always trying to impress us and had never seen snow. Antouman claimed that in Gambia they played tennis without the mesh in the racket, to make the game more of a challenge. There was quiet Pearson from Rhodesia, who told us of the Rhodesian customs agents who’d slashed the soles of his shoes to pieces to see if he was smuggling anything. And my roommate, Kaysone, from Laos, who was always smiling, and passed himself off as innocent, but was the biggest cynic I’d ever met. They had a weekly contest going to see who could gulp the most Communion wine from Father Wilson’s chalice. I saw them make their way back to their seats one by one, their mouths bulging. Antouman from Gambia poked his cheek as he walked past me with a mischievous look. A thin trickle of wine edged down one side of his chin.
When it was my turn, Father Wilson raised his eyebrows and smiled at me. I could tell what he was thinking — that he had worked a miracle, getting a Jew to accept Communion. I wanted to tell him that I was only there for the wine, but I didn’t say anything. I smiled back at him.
On my first day at St. Martin’s, I’d pleaded, “I shouldn’t have to go to chapel, because I’m Jewish.” He had looked at me like he’d never heard of Jews. We were standing on the tennis court, and Father Wilson, who coached the tennis team, was dressed in shorts and a purple-and-white knit vest.
“It’s in our literature,” he said, fiddling with the mesh of his racket while I had my audience with him. “You should have considered that before you came here. It’s not so bad. Besides, if you miss chapel you get six demerits, and that means work crew.” He looked at me kindly. “You don’t want work crew, son.” He pointed with his racket past the tennis courts to a pond. “You see that?” he said. “Work crew built that last year.”
“I didn’t read the literature,” I admitted. With a name like St. Martin’s, the school obviously wasn’t a yeshiva. But my older brother had gone to an Episcopal school in Connecticut that had only a nominal relation to the church, and I’d assumed that all Episcopal schools operated the same way.
Father Wilson stepped forward and picked up a tennis ball, bouncing it easily on his racket. He glanced back and gave me a thin smile. “I thought Jews were supposed to be smart.” He tossed the ball up in the air in a line as straight as a ruler.
Since then, I’d written a scathing editorial in the school newspaper against mandatory chapel. I’d always been taught to speak my mind, regardless of the consequences. None of the exchange students really minded going to chapel, but I thought it was an outrage. I was proud of my editorial, and considered it a ringing rebuke that would make the evil regime of St. Martin’s come tumbling down. I felt a bit like Samson: endangered by my boldness, yes, but if I had to be destroyed for the greater good when the pillars crashed around me, so be it. Instead of handing out punishment, however, Father Wilson ignored me.
Now the young priest beside him placed a bland white cracker in my mouth, and I ate it. Then Father Wilson tipped his chalice to my lips. I grabbed it and started guzzling. Sweet, very sweet. It tasted like Mogen David. Father Wilson yanked the chalice back and looked at me sternly, but didn’t say anything.
“All right,” Antouman whispered when I took my seat.
“Way to go,” Kaysone said, and gave me a low five, hidden by the pew in front of us.
One day early in the semester, our English teacher, Mrs. Gooch, sat on her desk in front of the class explaining Jonathan Edwards to us. “These sermons,” she said, “are our earliest examples of American literature, even though they weren’t written as literature per se, but as a practical guide for our salvation. In these Puritan writings we find the cornerstone of our indigenous literature. Does anyone know what indigenous means?”
She ignored my raised hand. “Does anyone know why we consider this literature?” she asked. I waved my arm from side to side in case she hadn’t seen me.
Mrs. Gooch had the loveliest voice I’d ever heard, and I wanted to answer every question for her. Her father owned a peach orchard in Gafney, South Carolina, and she’d told us on the first day of class that if we behaved ourselves she’d bring us a basket of peaches from her daddy’s orchard in the spring. On the other hand, she planned to subtract a peach for every day we acted lackluster. After two weeks, we were down to about a dozen peaches. I was the only one in class who ever had my hand up, and I had it up all the time.
Kay and I were the only two people paying attention to Mrs. Gooch. Everyone else was looking out the windows at the leaves blowing off the trees.
Still, Mrs. Gooch scanned the class for signs of life, sitting on the edge of her desk. She had a bubble of blond hair and chewed gum constantly, smacking it loudly, perhaps to keep us awake.
“Does anyone know what literature is?” she asked. She pointed to Travis Boovey, who had his legs stretched out. Travis wore his hair in a ponytail, was from nearby Boone, North Carolina, and spoke with a thick mountain accent. He was on scholarship, thanks to the policy at St. Martin’s of admitting several poor students from the local community every year. He seemed as foreign to St. Martin’s as the exchange students and I were, only in a different way. On weekends, Travis went squirrel shooting. He was a pothead and could get his hands on radiator moonshine that might make you blind.
I didn’t like Travis, and there was no sign he liked me. He was always on work crew, always getting in trouble, but so far he hadn’t been expelled. He had a foul mouth, and talked all the time about having sex with his girlfriend in the bushes outside the chapel.
“Travis,” Mrs. Gooch said now, “I’m sure your small but perfect mind has more important considerations than Jonathan Edwards, but if you could see fit to withdraw your head from your duffel bag for one precious moment, I would love to hear your answer to my last question.”
Travis didn’t even turn to face Mrs. Gooch. He thought for a moment and said, “Because it wanted to get to the other side.”
The class, or at least those paying attention, laughed, and Travis bowed his head gratefully.
“Not any answer to any question,” she said.
Kay raised his hand, and Mrs. Gooch’s eyebrows went up. “Yes, Kay?” she said.
“I know what literature is, bitch,” he said.
The class snapped to attention. At the sound of that word, Mrs. Gooch had gone blank, her index finger frozen in midair. Her lips were slightly parted, and I focused now on those lips, wondering what pronouncement would come from them. My own mouth felt dry. Still, Mrs. Gooch didn’t say anything. She sat on her desk, scanning the tops of our heads. I tried to sit up straight, my eyes forward on a speck of blackboard. I tried to look fiercely innocent.
She smiled in a pinched sort of way, and said quietly, almost too quiet for anyone to hear, “Kay, may I see you in the hall for a moment?”
“Yes, bitch,” Kay said, and stood up, still smiling.
Someone giggled. Someone else made a sound like the wind had been knocked out of him. Mrs. Gooch raised her eyebrows again. The sounds stopped.
While Mrs. Gooch and Kay were out in the hall, we all strained to hear what she was saying. But we couldn’t hear a thing. I looked over at Travis, who had the most innocent expression of all. He saw me staring at him and drew his mouth down into a horrified look, and widened his eyes. He held his hands out, palms up.
When Mrs. Gooch and Kay reappeared, Kay wasn’t smiling anymore. He walked quickly to his seat, head down. Mrs. Gooch sat back down on her desk and searched our faces again.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. We all bowed our heads. “Playing tricks on a foreign boy.” Mrs. Gooch made one of those pointless appeals to the class that the person who’d set up Kaysone should come forward as a matter of honor. She made it sound like a glorious thing, taking responsibility and being punished, but none of us was quite that foolish.
After chapel that Sunday, Travis appeared from around the side of the building, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. “Y’all want to take a nature hike with me out to Spruce Point?” he asked the exchange students and me.
I wondered why Travis would want to take a nature hike with us, or why we’d want to go with him. Whenever we went off campus we had to sign a logbook and give our destination and our reason for going, and we had to get permission from the Teacher of the Day. A nature hike at Spruce Point meant that you were going to get high.
“Who’s the Teacher of the Day?” I asked Travis.
“Hasty,” he mumbled.
“No thanks,” I said. Now I understood why he’d asked us on the nature hike. “Come on, guys,” I said, and the exchange students started trailing after me like disciples. All except for Kay, who said, “I go.”
“Kay,” I said, “it’s Hasty. You want to be sent back to Laos?”
“I go,” Kay repeated, smiling. “Nature hike.”
Hasty was the toughest of the teachers, the most zealous enforcer of the various codes of behavior at St. Martin’s. He even enforced on his own time. Hasty taught logic and trig and coached lacrosse. With all that going on, he still found time on Friday nights to patrol the grounds by flashlight with Mr. Garner, the assistant headmaster. They were called the Bush Patrol, and any couples they caught making out were expelled. When Hasty was the Teacher of the Day, you couldn’t get away with anything. There were other teachers who were a lot more lenient, like the Westerly brothers, Randy and Bobby. Randy taught geometry and Bobby taught sociology, and both threw parties at which they allowed students to drink, get high, or make out.
“Come on,” Travis pleaded. “You think Hasty’s going to suspect anything if it’s you guys going on the nature hike?”
“With you he would,” I said.
“Get serious,” said Travis. “Some China dude getting wasted?”
“In Gambia we smoke cigars of marijuana this long,” Antouman said, and he stretched his arms. “They cost a nickel.”
“No shit,” said Travis. “Well, OK, then. You know where I’m coming from.”
Antouman seemed pleased by Travis’s response. Pearson wanted to go, too.
We found Hasty on the gravel road by the dining hall. When he saw our assembled group, he scratched his head and gave us a narrow look. If not for his short height, Hasty could have been a poster boy for the Aryan Nation. He had severe blue eyes and a blond buzz cut and perfect baby skin without a blemish. I’d never said more than two words to him; he wasn’t a talkative man, and I didn’t want to get to know him better, anyway.
Hasty asked us what we were going to do on our nature hike.
“Just look around,” I said.
“Nature,” Travis answered. Travis wasn’t the best spokesman for the group. Whatever he said came out sounding sarcastic, because it usually was.
Hasty looked to his side and mumbled something, like he had some companion there. Then he waved his hand at us and said, “Yeah, get out of here.”
We walked a mile through the woods beyond the soccer field. St. Martin’s was on top of a mountain, and Spruce Point was a cliff with a view of the valley. It rose 150 feet, most of it sheer rock except for a ledge near the middle. At the bottom and all around was pine forest. Another mountain covered with pine sloped gradually up on the left of the valley, and ahead to the west stood Mount Mitchell in the distance. Off to the right, a forest stretched out over hills as far as you could see. The only thing that made the landscape imperfect was part of a mountain that had been shaved where high-tension wires ran up the side.
We sat away from the ledge, in a little depression in the rock beside a lone pine, out of plain view and cast in shadow. From his backpack, Travis took his clear plastic bong, tinted a smoky yellow-orange, with scratches and fissures in it. He’d picked up the bong from his room after Hasty had OK’d the trip. Pearson, Antouman, Kay, and I all stared in wonder as Travis removed the seeds from the pot and set them aside on a handkerchief. He had small hands, surprisingly delicate and clean for someone who acted so tough. When he was done, he popped a seed in his mouth. “Waste not, want not,” he said, and gave us each a seed, which we chewed as though this were part of some ancient ritual. I felt like I had as a child when the barber put hot shaving cream on the back of my neck and swiped it off. Even though there was no logical purpose to what he did, I was secretly thrilled, partly because I didn’t know the purpose. It seemed like some immense and exquisite mystery. After that, no haircut was ever quite as good.
Travis filled the silver bowl of the bong and gave it to Kay. Then he lit it. The pot crackled and flared red. The water bubbled and the tube filled with smoke as Kay inhaled. Then it was Pearson’s turn, but he shyly waved the bong away. Pearson hadn’t chewed his seed either, but had stared at it and then closed his palm, as though it might sprout in there.
“Peer pressure, peer pressure,” Travis said, and laughed, but Pearson looked as if he had no idea what Travis was talking about. “That’s all right, man,” Travis said, filling the bowl and passing the bong to Antouman.
When Travis lit the pot, Antouman blew into the pipe instead of inhaling. Water spurted into the bowl, soaking the weed.
“Man,” said Travis in a tragic voice, the word drawn into several syllables, “what are you doing? You don’t blow. You gotta suck,” and he drew in his breath sharply.
Kay, Pearson, and I laughed, but Travis cursed as he scooped the wet pot from the bowl, and Antouman looked embarrassed.
After we’d all taken a turn — all except for Pearson — we sat in a kind of syrupy silence for minutes.
“Why don’t you go to chapel, Travis?” Pearson asked. Pearson was soft-spoken and long limbed, and sat with his bony arms wrapped around his legs. He was gentle and hated no one but the English, which always seemed strange because he spoke with an English accent.
“I don’t know,” Travis said. “Makes me dizzy, I guess.”
“Really?” Pearson said.
“It’s like some people have height problems, but with me it’s chapel. Heights don’t bother me none.”
Pearson nodded solemnly. “You afraid of God?”
Travis thought a second. “No, can’t say that’s it.”
“Organized religion?” I asked.
“What is this, twenty questions? Why’s it so damn important whether I go to church or not? It just closes me in. My mama says that when my dad died, I told her I was going to be a priest so I could talk to him regular, but I don’t remember that. There wasn’t no one could talk to him, not even when he was alive. He was the only churchgoer in my family.”
Again we fell into silence, until finally Travis said, “Hey, listen. Where you come from, do y’all tell jokes?”
We nodded — me, too, though I came from the same place that Travis came from, more or less.
“I have joke,” said Kay, and he told us about some woman in Vientiane who was hailing a taxi. First she waved her arm at the cabdriver, and he saw her but didn’t pull over. Then she waved her other arm, too, and he still didn’t pull over. Finally, she waved both arms and her left leg, too. That’s where the joke ended. Kay smiled devilishly at us.
“That’s funny,” Pearson announced, but no one laughed.
Next, Antouman told a joke about a rooster sitting on a fence. A chicken walked by and the rooster fell off the fence. The end.
Antouman looked at us as though we should have been clutching our sides.
“My turn,” Travis said. “There was this zebra trying to get into heaven. He went up to Saint Peter, and Saint Peter said, ‘Are you black or white?’ because Saint Peter needed to know where the zebra should go in heaven. The zebra scratched his head and said, ‘I don’t know. I never thought about it before.’ Saint Peter said, ‘Go ask God. He’s over there.’ So the zebra went away and came back a little later and said, ‘I guess I’m white.’ ‘Yeah?’ said Saint Peter. ‘How do you know?’ ‘Well,’ the zebra said, ‘God said, “You are what you are,” and if I was black he would have said, “You is what you is.” ’ ”
I had my eyes closed. Was it over? I opened my eyes, and Travis was just making it worse, looking at us wide-eyed with hilarity and saying, “You get it? ‘You is what you is.’ ”
The others seemed too polite or too shocked to say anything, or maybe they didn’t understand. “Travis!” I said.
“What?” Travis said. “I didn’t say nothing about the Jewish race.”
Kay picked up the bong and examined it. “Bowl is empty,” he said, handing it to Travis, who absently started filling it.
“We’re not a race,” I said.
Antouman looked like he understood perfectly well, if not the exact slight, then at least the fact that he’d been insulted. His head lifted slowly on his neck, as if it were operated by hydraulics, and he seemed at that moment the Gambian prince he claimed to be. (We knew he was from Gambia all right, but none of us knew if he was really a prince, or if that was just another one of his tales.) He narrowed his eyes at Travis, then turned away and looked toward the far mountains. Pearson seemed to understand as well, but he didn’t say anything either. Maybe he was used to far worse in Rhodesia.
“OK, OK,” Travis said, laughing. “ ‘You is what you is’ — present company excluded. That make you feel better?”
We were done with jokes and I brooded for a while, wondering what I could say to make it clear that I sided with the others, not Travis.
“I hate America,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Travis said. “You don’t know shit. What do you hate about America?”
“The waste,” I said. “The corruption. The hypocrisy. The oppression.”
“Love it or leave it, man.”
“That’s not really an argument,” I said, “just an order.”
“Damn straight,” he said.
That’s when Pearson laughed. He laughed as if he’d just gotten some joke we’d told ten minutes ago. Pearson had a sweet laugh and a winning smile. He laughed like someone who was laughing because he was high — for no apparent reason. But Pearson hadn’t smoked anything. Contact high, I thought. I’d smoked pot only a few times before, and this was the first time I’d felt any effects, but I knew all the jargon and was proud of myself for diagnosing his laughter so readily.
“What’s so funny?” Travis said.
The question only made Pearson laugh harder, and his laughter was catching; soon Kay and Travis and I were laughing, too, though none of us understood the others’ jokes. The only person who wasn’t laughing was Antouman, who still looked out past the cliff. Kay passed the bong to Antouman and blew smoke out of his nostrils.
Travis stood up and stumbled toward the edge of Spruce Point. At the lip of the cliff, he went down on his belly and snaked forward, grabbing a tiny bush with one hand and leaning over.
“Zero at six o’clock!” he shouted.
“Travis, what you doing?” Kay said.
“Spitting on zebras.”
I heard Travis fall, but didn’t see it. A scream burst out of him. Branches snapped, cracked and snapped, and then a dull and empty sound, like he was nothing but a full laundry bag.
We ran to the edge. I was dizzy and stunned and high, afraid of what I’d see when I looked over, and afraid I’d fall, too. I couldn’t hear him, and I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the forest floor, only the needled canopy, a branch or two dancing up and down. A breeze, a suck of air, swirled around us, and the trees below swayed some more.
The four of us looked at each other, and a moan came from one of us. Then I heard another moan, and I thought I might be moaning, but it was from below. And that moan turned into a shriek. I could certainly hear him now, but I still couldn’t see him. The sound of him, like all the pain a person could possibly hold, saved up over a lifetime, rose up the face of the cliff and seemed to blow and fade through the tops of the pines and dash through the surrounding hills like a quick-moving storm. (Later, people told us they could hear his screams all the way back on campus.) Kay yelled down. It was horrible standing there, not knowing what to do, with Travis shrieking at the top of his lungs.
“Please!” Travis screamed. “Please, please, please!” rhythmically, until it turned into “God, God, God, I’ll give you anything. Anything! I’ll give you a million dollars. I’ll give you a million dollars!”
I wanted to do something that would make him stop screaming, something that would release him from his pain.
Pearson and Kay ran for help. Antouman and I stayed. We yelled down encouragement: “They’ll be here soon!” But of course he didn’t hear a word of it. There wasn’t any way to reach him, and, truthfully, I was thankful for that. I don’t know if I could have done it, anyway. I didn’t want to see him. My legs were wobbling, and I had to sit down, I still felt so dizzy.
Travis bargained with God for an hour before the paramedics arrived, and it took them another half-hour to reach him. One man rappelled down the cliff face. We had to stand back. Another man asked us how it had happened. I was dumbstruck. They asked me how I felt and I shook my head. They sent a stretcher down the cliff. We had to stand back, and I looked away when they brought Travis up. They asked us how it happened and I shook my head.
We felt Travis’s presence long after he was gone. The first day it snowed, Antouman crouched in the hallway of the main class building. Travis had told him that snow was poisonous to black people, and Antouman, so outrageous with his own lies, believed, in turn, the most ridiculous lies he was told. Travis had also told him that if you jumped in snow you’d bounce. I went up to Antouman and told him none of it was true. He stood up then to his full height and walked regally out of the building, as though the snow wouldn’t dare touch him.
Kay went home with me for winter break. We took the bus up to Chicago. In the bus station on Randolph Street, waiting for our connection to South Bend, Kay said what a violent country America was, and I said that wasn’t true. It was a myth. Even though I’d criticized America at Spruce Point, I felt strange hearing such criticism from a foreigner.
“American don’t care for no one but himself,” Kay said. “He let everyone die. Vietnam die. Cambodia die. Soon Laos die. But America will never die.”
And in a bizarre fashion it all seemed to come true right there in the bus station, just for Kay’s benefit, just to prove me wrong. Outside, it was snowing hard, and I noticed people hanging on phones, pretending to talk so the cops wouldn’t throw them out in the street. Then an old white man attacked two black men with a baseball bat. After they were dragged apart, the black men were arrested. No one said anything. Business as usual. Then a woman was stabbed on the escalator. We didn’t see it happen, but saw the blood. Then a prostitute with black bruises showing through her heavy makeup sat down next to Kay and talked softly to him. He answered back, smiling, but I couldn’t hear what he said. If it all hadn’t been so horrifying, I might have laughed. I’d never seen that much violence in my life, let alone in one single evening. None of it seemed to faze Kay, though.
Over break, my parents left us alone, except at dinner, when they’d ask Kay questions about his country. My dad spoke English loudly to Kay, as though Kay were deaf, not merely foreign. My mother treated him like some dumb beast, an ox who’d miraculously learned a few words. She opened her eyes wide when she spoke to him, and used poor grammar. “Kay want more bread?” she’d say, and Kay would shake his head, mortified.
Mostly, Kay and I watched football. Kay became an avid fan. I usually preferred baseball, but that winter football fascinated me, too. Kay and I yelled and screamed in the TV room until we were hoarse. Sometimes we yelled for no reason at all. Maybe it was some kind of release.
Between plays, Kay taught me Laotian words. I never seemed to get the intonations right, but he was patient and repeated the words slowly. We had the idea that someday I’d become an exchange student in Laos, maybe when I went to college. I could go to the university in Vientiane, and live with Kay’s parents.
“Ban. That mean ‘village.’
“Phnong. That mean ‘slave.’
“Chaufa. That mean ‘messiah.’
“Khabot. That mean ‘traitor.’ ”
“Why teach me that, Kay? When am I going to say messiah in Laotian? Teach me something I might say when I come to Laos. These words are useless.”
“So what?” Kay said. “Useless word good as any.”
Father Wilson, dressed in his robes, approached me after chapel and put his arm on my shoulder. He always looked uncomfortable in those robes. He seemed much more comfortable in tennis whites. The tennis court was where he could be found most often, working on his serve or his backhand.
He nodded at Kaysone, who looked down at his feet as though he’d stolen something. Father Wilson looked as if he believed Kay had stolen something, though he hadn’t figured out what. Kay mumbled an excuse and walked away.
I wondered what Father Wilson could want with me. He wasn’t the type who normally came up to you to chit-chat, unless you were a teacher or on the tennis team. He knew who I was in a vague way — the Jew who’d made honor roll and had the best grades of any sophomore, but who didn’t realize that St. Martin’s was a religious school. Who knows, maybe he pitied such outrageous naiveté, because there on the steps of the chapel he had a change of heart and offered me a deal: I didn’t have to go to chapel anymore on Sundays.
There was a hitch. He said I had to find alternative services I could attend, and find transportation. Of course, that meant I would miss out on Communion, which I’d started to grow fond of; it was my only source of wine. And I still had to go to Thursday-evening services in the chapel. There was another hitch. Father Wilson said I should take a break from writing those editorials. “Personally, they don’t bother me,” he said, “but you’re upsetting some of the other students. They think you’re not being respectful enough of our school’s denomination.” I tried to think of which students I might have offended, but no one leapt to mind. Then Father Wilson brought up Travis. “You boys who were there,” he said, “I know you’re sort of their spokesman, and those foreign boys tend to be shy. . . .” The week after Travis died, Father Wilson had added an extra service, and later the school’s board of directors had voted to name the rose garden by Father Wilson’s house after Travis: the Travis Boovey Memorial Rose Garden. “Tell me if anyone is having any troubles, OK?”
“OK,” I said.
Sometimes I dreamed of Travis, but I tried not to think of him too much. At night, I heard his screams, his bargaining with God. I felt I hadn’t known him well enough to hear such intimate dealings, to eavesdrop on his final discussion with God. None of the exchange students had talked much about Travis either, except for Kaysone, who said he felt nothing about Travis’s death. “Nothing?” I said.
“Nothing,” he assured me.
By the following Sunday, I’d found my chapel alternative. Bobby Westerly, the cool sociology teacher who let students get high in his apartment, went every Sunday to Quaker services, and he offered to take me along. The services were held in a house on the ledge across from Spruce Point. If you’d strung a bridge from Spruce Point to that house on the ledge, you could have been there in five minutes. But the only route from St. Martin’s was the winding mountain roads, and it took forty-five minutes to reach the place. The owner of the house was a woman in her seventies named Dorothy Samuelson, who had visited ninety-eight countries and written forty-five books on politics and peace.
I liked the Quakers. They sat around in a circle silently. No one said a word unless they had something worth saying, and for a little while the world seemed like a calm and simple place. Dorothy had a picture window from which you could see Spruce Point directly. While the others had their eyes closed, I’d stare at the cliff and try to make out a path to the bottom. From this angle, the rock face didn’t look as steep as it did when you were standing on top of it. I was pretty sure that Antouman and I could have made our way down to comfort Travis, and sitting there in Dorothy’s living room, I did my best to convince myself that I would have gone had I known for sure there was a way.
For Easter, we were required to participate in something called morning watch. To me and the exchange students it was just another inexplicable Episcopal ritual, something we were forced to do. We could have been mice running in a wheel and it would have made as much sense to us, or filled us with as much faith. The gist of it was that all the students on campus had to take turns going to the chapel and praying on Easter. It was like a relay race. Even I couldn’t get out of this. Everyone was required to participate, no matter what religion, no matter what excuse, and if you failed to keep your appointment with Christ, the punishment was work crew for the rest of the year.
A week before Easter, Kay and I were sitting in our dorm room, Kay writing a letter to his parents in Laos, and I reading Slaughterhouse Five. Kay hadn’t heard from his parents in three months. When he first arrived, he’d received a letter from them every two weeks. His father was a government official in Vientiane. The letters told of the mounting victories of the rebel Pathet Lao, and of the chaos in the countryside. And then the letters had stopped. Kay must have been terrified, but he didn’t show it. He still made wisecracks and seemed impervious to pain. But he’d also turned into one of the school’s premier potheads.
Someone knocked on the door and opened it before we could say, “Come in.” We didn’t have locks. According to the administration, we shouldn’t have anything to hide, anyway. They were afraid we’d fornicate and get high behind locked doors — which of course was true, but it still seemed unfair. And then, of course, you wouldn’t want to bar the 450-year-old security guard who made a bed check every morning at two, shining a flashlight in your face. He was easy to fool — just put a broom and a pillow under the covers and sneak off whenever you wanted.
Antouman stood before us carrying his laundry bag. He came into the room and said, “I got some wine.”
“Not so loud, Antouman,” I said.
“You want to get loaded?”
“Where’d you get the wine?” Kay asked, turning around in his seat at his desk. I was sprawled on the lower bunk of our bed. I put down my book and sat up. Antouman was swaying. He leaned against the windowsill at the far end of the room and regarded us through heavy-lidded eyes. He looked like he was going to fall asleep at any moment.
“The chapel,” he said.
Antouman took the bottle of wine from his laundry bag. There was only a third of the bottle left.
“Jesus,” I said, “put that back. Take it out of here.”
“How did you get it?” Kay said. “Did anyone see you?”
He shook his head.
“Antouman,” I said, “you could get into a lot of trouble. You could be expelled.” I wanted him out of our room as soon as possible.
I was pretty sure this wine wasn’t Christ’s blood any more than Milk Duds were his kidneys, but I wasn’t positive. Maybe it was all that accumulated time in chapel, but I thought: If this guy really exists, he probably doesn’t want you drinking his blood wholesale.
“Take a sip,” Antouman said, stumbling over to Kay. He knocked into the desk, and some wine sloshed on Kay’s folded letter to his parents. Kay jumped up.
“Get out of here,” I whispered fiercely.
But Antouman wouldn’t leave until we’d each had a sip. Kay tipped his head back and took a long pull, then passed the bottle on to me. We were silent. I eyed the door as I tilted the bottle to my lips.
“Why don’t you go to bed, Antouman?” I tried to steer him out of the room.
“I don’t want to go to bed. I want to drink with you, my friends!” He made an expansive gesture with his arms and almost toppled over.
“It’s late,” Kay said quietly.
“I want to drink with you!”
I put a finger to my lips. “Not here.”
“OK, where?” he whispered, spraying me with his winy breath. “Spruce Point?” He sputtered and laughed. “I’ll drink at Spruce Point. I’ll do it.” He placed his arm across my shoulder the way Father Wilson had when he told me I didn’t have to go to chapel anymore.
“OK, then, Spruce Point,” Kaysone said. He looked at Antouman and smiled, then placed the bottle of wine back in Antouman’s laundry bag.
“Will you join us?” Kay said, looking at me.
“OK,” I said. “Maybe. In a while.”
“Promise?” Antouman asked.
I nodded. My shoulders were tense and I held the door open for them. After they left, I stood by Kaysone’s desk for a long time, staring at nothing, waiting for some sound, waiting to hear their yells as Hasty and Garner dragged them across the campus by their arms — that’s how they would have done it, for effect. But I didn’t hear a thing. I waited up for Kaysone, but he didn’t return. So I made a dummy out of a broom and a pillow to fool the security guard, placed it in his bunk, and turned off the lights.
I dreamed that Travis was back at St. Martin’s, but changed. He kept to himself now, wasn’t loud and obnoxious like he’d always been, but timid, almost ashamed that he’d fallen. He hardly seemed a part of the campus anymore, and most students avoided him. A few asked him what it had been like, but he didn’t seem to hear them, just said, “I gotta go,” and hobbled off on his crutches. To some, he was a fool — spitting off the edge like that. To others, mostly the younger students, he was almost godlike, an object of awe and veneration.
I saw him again in the chapel, a place he wouldn’t have been caught dead in before his fall. His hair was in a ponytail, and he wore an army jacket, which was against the rules, but no one told him to take it off. He rose unsteadily to his feet with the help of his crutches and sang. He could sit to listen and stand to sing, but he couldn’t kneel to pray. He looked older, ragged, like some Confederate soldier who’d gone through the wringer for a country that no longer existed.
After the service, I approached Travis, but he turned away and hobbled outside. “What’s wrong, Travis?” I said when I caught up to him on the steps.
“I was screaming and you didn’t help me.”
“Sure, we got help.”
“I was screaming,” he said, looking past me. “Why didn’t you come down?”
“How?” I said. “Did you want me to fall, too?”
“There was a path.”
“I didn’t see any path.”
“There was a path,” he said.
At five till four on Easter morning, the 450-year-old guard came into my room, shone a flashlight on my face, and wheezed out the mummy equivalent of “Time to get up, son.”
I got up, crossed the quad to the chapel, and went inside. Off the main room was a smaller one with a heavy oak door. After a couple of minutes, the door slowly swung open and Antouman exited. We both lowered our eyes and passed each other without a word.
Inside, about a million flowers were arranged around a large crucifix. This Jesus looked quite uncomfortable, and I was kind of spooked to be there alone. What was I supposed to do for five minutes, anyway?
“Chaufa?” I tried out.
I wondered what I’d do if he started talking to me, but Jesus just remained uncomfortable, depressed, and silent.
The next Saturday, I got up early to watch work crew. Most of the exchange students had chosen work crew over morning watch, all except for Antouman. Even Pearson, who was Christian. It wasn’t anything organized. It wasn’t anything anyone said or wrote.
I didn’t join their protest. I didn’t see what it proved. Father Wilson would have his way, and that was the only way at St. Martin’s. I knew that now. And what good was there in making a statement if all it did was get you in trouble?
Still, there was something strange about it, these foreign students with tools in their hands working away while everyone else slept in. I watched from my window and didn’t say anything as Pearson and Kay struggled silently with their shovels and saws. I watched as they whitewashed trees and then moved on to shovel gravel. I imagined everyone else on campus watching them, too, even Father Wilson.