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In Light's Delay

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you
      went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
                                                  — Hopkins

1

Academe

The evening breezes brushed against the ivy curling around the fir trees near Deady Hall. Sitting on the cold stone steps, indistinct in the growing darkness, Doug Herman gazed absent-mindedly as the ivy, awakened it seemed, clutched the bark tighter, pressing its flat leaves against the trees’ roughness. Around him on the campus, the wide-leaved oak, the madrona, the thin fir and sharp pine began to rustle. The faint hint of a rainstorm breathed in the wind.

At his back, the windows of Deady Hall glowed through the shadows; the old history building still hummed with energy. Occasionally he could hear the doors of the examination room open and close, followed by the sound of muffled voices—and then a few tired students would walk down the steps and away into the darkness.

With a summer of work ahead, he tried to absorb the last impressions of freedom. His first year at the university in Eugene was like an escape from prison. Last night . . . last night was a silent farewell. He’d walked into this same darkness, down the tight asphalt alleys of the city. From haggard brick walls, from water seeping down garbage-strewn gutters, he’d slipped into newer, winding streets, lawns stretching indefinitely, houses large and white with windows like gray puddles.

As the houses thinned, he’d felt his spirits rise and breathed deeper, taking the night into himself, and when he reached a field of last year’s uncut hay, matted and bleached by spring rain, he sprawled out on the earth like a dog, while his mind ran free.

Youthful fantasies! Charging through trees, sylvan, hairy-hooved, he’d trumpeted and thundered, half man, half beast. Again he leapt, bounded like a startled deer, soared. Suddenly, he saw spring slip off, naked, running through the forest—and he was after her, exuberant, excited by his quickened pulse, the crashing cascade of blood in his head. He chased nude flickerings, buttocks gleaming between tree trunks, and then she fell, gasping in the sand at the water’s edge, melting away before him in the cool sea.

Now the vision faded again as Doug waited on the cold steps for his best friend, Phil Lockfall, to finish the history exam. Footsteps behind him announced the major horde of test takers. Scuffling by, some gleamed in glory for inspired essays; others drifted past, pale, but happy the torture was over, retreating with sighs of relief.

But still no Phil.

Instead, Doug’s roommate came, short, fat Gordon Owens—pontificating as usual. Doug saw him make his way through disciples eager to know the answer. His clothes, swaying robes, his words, majestic declamations of what they should have know.

Sliding over to let the chatterers pass, Doug thought of his latest attempt to ruffle Gordon. They were arguing about the existence of God and the afterlife. At one point, tired of the discussion, Doug interrupted to say there wouldn’t be any Catholics in heaven, so Gordon might as well quit worrying about its existence. Thinking of how Gordon had flushed, Doug grinned. “For a preacher’s son,” Gordon had replied, “you argue like an idiot.”

Leaning back into the steps of Deady Hall, wrinkling his nose to lift his glasses, Doug watched his roommate angle off up the sidewalk toward the dorm. Good old Gordy sure had been distant since then. But what had really shocked Gordon was the night Phil Lockfall and Ray Spencer had carried Doug into the room—dripping wet and green sick. The three had started the evening in Phil’s room, drinking vodka and orange juice and playing cards. In the middle of a game of Down the Tube, Phil suddenly jumped to his feet, his black, curly hair bobbing over his forehead.

“Hey, let’s go get Rich Tyler,” he said. Rich, a pimply- faced, crew-cut kid, worked in the fountain area of Tiffany’s drugstore, just off campus. Doug had met him once and didn’t care for him. All Rich could talk about were the hot cars he and his buddies supposedly spent their weekends stripping.

“His shift should be just about over,” Phil said. “He can get us some free ice. No use drinking this stuff warm.”

They hid the bottle and glasses in a drawer under the bed—in case the dorm counselor came by on inspection—and set off for the store. While the others rounded up some ice, Doug bought some Fritos, and when they were ready to go, Rich came along with them, carrying a quart of Gallo wine under his jacket.

Back in the room, it seemed everyone was getting high except Doug. Rich was chugging his bottle of wine and Ray and Phil were a conspiracy of giggles. Doug, left behind in their exuberance, sat with drawn brows. He was in a bad mood, first because he was drinking as much as they and didn’t feel it and second because Phil, in a fit of laughter, had fallen back on the bed like an immense hard-shelled bug and crushed his Fritos.

Rich’s bottle was nearly empty. “Hey!” He stood and waved his arms dramatically. “This is Dads’ Weekend! Let’s take a walk around campus and greet the poor suckers.” Phil and Ray jumped at the idea. In a minute, talking excitedly, they were in their coats and ready to go.

Doug had stopped them. “Give me a minute, will you, Phil? I need another swig or two.” Phil, rising on the toes of his tennis shoes, his wiry frame dancing, looked at him and then frowned.

“Well, hurry it up. Let’s get going.” He stared at Doug as if he thought Doug were bragging about how much he could hold. Rich offered Doug the dregs of his wine, but Doug shook his head and grabbed the bottle of vodka. With the others at the door, he poured himself a full glass and drank it down.

“Catch the desk lamp, will you?” Phil called.

“Hell, leave it!” Rich shouted.

Ray, more serious than the rest, even when drunk, shoved him in the shoulder. “ Quieter, dammit.”

Doug took another long swig from the bottle, capped it, and ran for the door.

Outside, in the cold air of a May evening in Oregon, the four stood in a huddle, zipping up their coats, and trying to decide where to go first.

Ray, a tall handsome fellow who was usually silent, finally made a suggestion. “Let’s go up by Hamilton. Oggle all the freshmen women.”

Rich looked skyward, his eyes rolling back into his head. “Aw, come on. You gotta be kidding. They’re so stuck up they hang from the ceiling.”

A discussion ensued, ending in an argument. Ray, stubborn as always, took off by himself. “Now he’ll go bust someone’s tail,” said Phil, who knew him best. “Just let him go. He likes to be by himself anyway.”

With Rich in the middle, Phil and Doug had traipsed off up the main sidewalk toward the Student Union. Rich was really out of it by that time, swaggering and singing fragments of dirty songs and shouting at girls across the street. An older couple passed them on the sidewalk.

“Welcome folks!” Rich yelled at their backs. “Your daughter’s safe. Long as we’re patrollin’ the streets.”

Phil and Doug dropped back. “Don’t mind him,” Doug said, putting his hands in his pockets and shrugging. “He just studied one day too many!” “After all,” as Phil said to Doug when they were alone, we gotta hold up the name of the school.” Hell, that was funny, they thought, laughing until tears came. Rich was the one doing that!

When they’d calmed down, Rich had disappeared somewhere in the car lot by the health building.

“I gotta take a leak,” Phil said, stopping by some trees near a girls dorm.

“Dammit, Phil,” Doug whispered. “Those people can see you.

Phil giggled. “Watch,” he shouted, “a rainbow!”

Doug stepped farther into the shadows and relieved himself in turn, laughing so hard he had trouble keeping his shoes dry. Phil came staggering over. “You know what?” he stuttered in between giggles. “I think a girl I know saw me. Wonder what she’ll say in class Monday?” Looking around to see if she was still in sight, Phil realized again that Rich was gone. “Hey Doug, where’s Rich?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Come on. We’d better find him. He’s pretty bad off.”

The two had set off around the health building. At the far end they’d found Rich lying on his face in the wet grass.

“Come on, Rich.” Doug pulled at his elbow. “On your feet!”

Rich moaned and dug his hands into the grass. Phil poked him in the back. “Hey, old man, you’ll catch cold.” Rich turned his head away.

“We gotta get him moving,” Phil said. “Back to the dorm. Let’s lift him.”

“God, he’s sure heavy!” Rich was hanging on Doug’s left shoulder.

“Keep him on his feet. He’s lighter then.” The two began to beg and order Rich along. “That’s right, forward march! Keep those feet moving.”

Inside the dorm, they carried Rich to his room. Doug was a little dizzy and told Phil he had to go to the bathroom.

“Go on then. I’ll put him to bed and we can go out again. Get us a cup of coffee at the Dog House.”

“He sure got drunk, didn’t he?”

“God, anybody would on a quart of wine. Rotten stuff, too. He drank it too fast.”

In the john on the toilet, Doug began to feel the vodka. Too hot, he thought. Stuffy in here. Better to be outside.

He was reaching for his pants when he started heaving. No chance to make it around to the toilet. He couldn’t think. He tried to get his head down inside the cubicle and sprawled out on the floor, at first fighting tears in his eyes from the vomiting, but soon oblivious to all.

What seemed like hours later, he heard Phil’s voice. “Oh shit! Hey Ray, Doug’s passed out. His pants are down and he’s lying around the toilet.”

“Come on,” it was Ray, back from his own walk, “let’s get him to the shower and clean up the place before Littlemier gets here.”

But it was too late. The counselor was in the john, followed by a group of laughing students. For all of them this was the first time they’d seen Doug drunk. He’d always seemed one of the “pure” ones, an egghead who roomed with Gordon Owens.

The counselor, knowing Doug was a good student and one of the more orderly of the dorm boys, discreetly left the john, leaving word it would be forgotten if someone cleaned up the mess.

Doug, face down, felt himself being lifted by his arms and legs. “Hey, Doug!” one of the guys yelled, laughing and gawking. “You ever going to drink again?” Faces had leered grotesquely inches from his, the words hitting his ears like sticks on a kettle drum.

“Dammit, why not?” Doug muttered weakly. “Just ’cause I got sick once. Doesn’t mean I won’t drink again.” The damn idiots thought it was funny.

They laid him on the shower floor, his face against the tiles. “Put the jacket under his head,” Ray said.

“Augghh.” Doug shivered when the water hit him. “Not so cold.” His teeth began to chatter. “Come on, hotter.”

Ray looked at Phil. “Hell, what’ll I do? It’s already hot enough to burn me.”

“More! I want more!” Doug was bouncing on the floor like spit on a hot griddle. “Hotter! Hotter!”

They turned the water as hot as it would go and left to clean up the john. Doug lay on the floor swearing at himself, feeling a fool but too sick to really care.

Later when Phil and Ray came in for him, Doug protested. “Just leave me here. Feels good.” They argued, while he hugged the floor. “Nope,” Ray said finally. “Come on, we can’t just leave you here all night. You got to get to bed.”

So, in a half crouch, after they’d pulled off all his clothes, Doug set out between the two down the hall. He was apologetic. “Sorry to bother you two. I just drank too much too fast. Shouldn’t have sat in that hot toilet.”

“Gordon’ll have a shock,” Phil said.

“Oh God!” Doug moaned. “Do we have to tell him? Maybe he won’t wake up.”

“He already knows,” Ray said. “It’s all over the whole dorm. You don’t think it’s going to be kept quiet that a preacher’s kid got crocked out of his gord, do you?”

The only fortunate thing was that Gordon had seen Doug was too sick to talk and had discreetly kept his sermon to himself. Ever since that night, Doug could tell Gordon considered him one of the damned. Tough titty, he thought, now at least he didn’t have to sneak off all the time as if Gordon were his chaperone.

With the cold stone steps beginning to prickle, Doug stood up and leaned against the concrete balustrade. Restless, anticipating Phil’s arrival and the promise of more lively diversions, Doug thought of yesterday’s fracas, typical of the free-for-alls of final’s week.

End of the term activities, it seemed, acquired a special intensity—outlandish events soothed tense minds; extravagance became a virtue. Even the dorm rowdies, as long as they kept their commotion outside the dorm, caroused with impunity.

Yesterday’s water fight, in which Doug’s dorm had challenged McClain Hall, a girls dorm, was an example of a cathartic moment which muddied his clothes, but cleansed his mind.

Doug learned of the fight only as it neared its climax. The thunder of feet in the hall brought him to his door, while Gordon, still calmly seated at his desk, merely twisted his head to learn what foolishness was now disturbing his preparations for their upcoming history final.

“What is it?” someone shouted.

“Water fight! Come on! We’re dunking McClain!”

Doug tossed a history book on his bed and tore off for Phil’s room, leaving Gordon (thank God!) to study alone.

By the time Doug and Phil reached the mill race, the fight was almost over. Several wet girls stood around awkwardly, shoulders hunched as they tried to ring water from their hair and drenched sweatshirts.

Curious onlookers were now in danger. Four stout guys grabbed a girl walking down the sidewalk and rushed with her toward the pond. Doug tried to join the group, struggling to find a handhold, but failing.

Phil was beside him then, wet and grinning. “Come on!” he shouted. Let’s get another!”

Envious that Phil should be wet—had some girls thrown him in?—Doug jumped into the pond with the next victim. A gesture of courtesy, he told himself!

And that was yesterday. Doug looked over the balustrade at another group of students disappearing beneath the trees on their way to the Student Union. Where in the hell was Phil? Had he somehow slipped by unnoticed? Just when he was wondering if he should go back inside or leave, he felt a clap on the back.

“Hey, man, didn’t think you’d wait!”

Before Doug could reply, Phil took off running. “Let’s go find some scantily dressed if not nude nymphs,” he shouted over his shoulder.

Doug whooped, stumbled down the steps, shouted “or nymphomaniacs,” and took off springing after him.

In the dorm, Doug stopped to get a warmer coat before joining Phil. The evening had turned cool, though it had been an unusually warm May for Eugene. Out above Robbins Hall, Doug could see the moon, small and pale; gray whisps of clouds, like veils of spider web, floated past her face.

On their way to the Dog House restaurant, riding bikes although neither one had a headlamp, Phil mentioned the fact that he’d met a new girl earlier in the day in the Student Union bowling alley.

Doug swerved to miss a barely seen pothole. “What about her?”

“She knows you.”

He sat up and looked back at Phil. “What’s her name?”

“Patty Darr.”

Doug turned back, saw a car coming, and pulled to the right to let it pass.

“Do you know anything about her?” Phil asked nonchalantly.

“Not much really. Seen and said ‘hi’ a few times. She was in my biology lab. Sat two tables away.”

“She thinks you’re handsome.”

Doug snorted, pleased. “Hey, no surprise,” he joked, knowing it would irritate Phil. “After all, every girl in this school is dying over my bawd.” Gave him a chance to get even. Phil liked to brag about all his conquests and was always hinting that he’d taken so and so to bed. Doug thought he was probably a virgin despite what he said.

Phil paused for a moment, letting the silence emphasize his words. “I’ve got a date with her for Saturday night.”

Now Doug’s smile was forced. He was aggravated he hadn’t had the guts to ask her out himself. She just seemed too popular. He didn’t respond and they crossed Franklin Boulevard in silence, the topic dropped while they parked their bikes at the entrance to the restaurant.

In the Dog House, over coffee, Phil continued. “You know, Doug. I’ve found the secret to attracting girls.”

Oh shit, Doug thought. Here we go with another hour of boasting. There was no one more irritating than Phil in his homiletic moments.

“Self-confidence. All you gotta have is confidence.” Phil droned on for fifteen minutes, rambling on and on from the film Lust for Life-(“That could’ve been a picture about me. Just don’t let people get to you.”)—to Faust—(“You know what Mephisto tells Faust, right? Self-confidence is the key. Goethe knew. Everyone’s got to find out for himself though”).

Shit, what presumption. He’s not only Van Gogh, he’s Mephisto now.

“I mean, let me give you an example. I saw Sharon again last week—and you know how cool she’s been to me recently. Anyway, I acted halfway indifferent to her and she started responding. I wound up taking her to the show with Ray—good thing one of us has a car! She kept playing kneesies with me, and toesies too, and even elbowsies.”

Phil started to laugh and Doug joined him. “I think she had the hots,” Phil said, as they were leaving the restaurant. “If we’d had the car to ourselves, we’d have made it on the way home.”

Outside, Doug mentioned his English final the next day. “Shit!” Phil exclaimed. “The night’s young. The test’s not till three. You can sleep in. Maybe we can crash a party.”

Doug started to protest but gave in. Hell, summer and more work were coming soon enough. They bicycled back across Franklin Boulevard toward campus. “You know what I saw in front of the dorm last Friday night? A bunch of frat guys had rented a U-Haul truck, put in a few mattresses and a keg of beer. They were driving around trying to pick up girls at the dorms.”

“Tell those frat shits to leave our women alone,” Phil shouted, racing ahead. “You know what’s gray and comes in quarts?”

Doug pedaled to reach him. “What?” was his terse reply, a grin breaking out already.

“An elephant!”

They laughed insanely, but the crisp air soon sobered their hilarity. The moon was hidden now by thicker clouds coming in from the coast, yet in the darkness the campus lay strangely more resplendent, golden lamps casting shadows and mysterious shapes along the paths.

“Why don’t we ride over to Ray Spencer’s house?” Phil suggested. “I have a bottle of sloe gin there—if he hasn’t gotten to it yet.”

From the dusky campus, they rode out to Broadway, nearly deserted now. It was as if they’d passed through a curtain. Bright colored lights cut the night, delineating every building with the sharpness of a scalpel. Only the all-night Eugene Bakery showed any sign of life; even the taverns were shut.

Ray Spencer lived out near 25th and Alder in a garage converted into a small apartment. There was only one room in the place with a small bathroom and pantry at the back. When they arrived, the windows were dark. “Is he asleep?” Doug wondered.

“Naw, I don’t think so. His car’s gone. Probably out with his girl.”

Doug had seen Ray’s girlfriend once. A beautiful, tall blonde, with a model’s angular face. Phil had told him she liked Ray’s brand new ’65 Chevy. Was that what it took to get dates? No, Ray was better looking than Phil.

After trying in vain to pry open the front and side windows, they found the small bathroom window unlocked. Phil took off his coat. “Give me a push, Doug, and I’ll let you in the front door.”

Doug bent over and started to boost him in head first.

“Hey, careful!” Phil protested. “There’re rose vines here.” Half inside the bathroom, upside down, Phil began to kick. A clatter of falling objects broke the near silence. Doug leaned in. “Quiter, Phil, dammit. We’ll wake the neighbors.”

“Hang on! Hang on! You’re shoving my head into the toilet.”

“Put the seat down.”

“There isn’t any!”

Phil’s legs jerked out of his grasp and Doug, laughing, heard another bombardment of falling bottles. Phil floundered in the dark now, swearing.

“What’n the hell does Spencer keep on his toilet? He’s got an antique shop in here.”

“Just don’t break anything. I’ll meet you at the front door.”

Inside, they found the sloe gin, washed a couple of dirty glasses, and made themselves at home with a deck of cards. Ray didn’t return until after three. Although a little peeved that they’d broken in, he sat down to play a game of Hearts.

“Just one, though,” he told them. “I’m going to bed after this game. If you guys are tired, one of you can use the couch and one the other half of the bed.”

Phil jumped to his feet and pulled a coin from his pocket. “Let’s flip for the bed, Doug.”

Phil promptly won the flip and, soon after, the game as well.

Minutes later, happy he’d lost the coin flip, Doug lay on the couch in darkness, thinking, wishing the summer wasn’t so near. Phil intended to go to California to work in a resort near Guerneville, and Ray would go back home to Depoe Bay to work on his dad’s salmon fleet. Both jobs sounded better to Doug than working on the farm all summer. On the farm, if you weren’t picking up hay bales all night ’cause you were afraid of rain in the morning, or digging trenches ’cause you had a tall cow in heat and a short bull, you were sweating in the sun, feeding slop to the pigs, burning last winter’s rotting hay, or cleaning chicken shit from beneath the wire coops. None too exciting. At least there was a chance he might get to do some construction work. His dad, a construction superintendent since he’d left the ministry, might put him on as a laborer.

Uncomfortable on the sofa, he longed for activity. The gin hadn’t left any heaviness or desire for sleep. Ray was lightly snoring and Phil seemed pretty quiet.

“Phil,” he whispered. “You awake?”

“Yeah.” Phil responded instantly, as if he too had been waiting.

“Want to go out again? I’m not tired.”

“Me neither. Let’s go downtown.”

They glided to their feet quietly, talking in whispers, picking their way in the dark around the table and scattered chairs. Ray didn’t stir.

Outside in the cold, a new world appeared. It was nearly four o’clock, the clouds had sealed in—hermetic—and, except for the street lights, the world hunkered down solid black. Each block took on a new dimension in the chill electric light, the streets now somehow narrower and longer. In the silence, the bicycle tires whistled plaintively. As they drew near the center of town, Doug wondered if there were any restaurants open that early and Phil mentioned the Greyhound Station. “The food’s not great but they’ve got magazines we can look at.”

Despite the hour, a few people were loitering on the barren streets in front of the station with its blue neon clock. After coffee and sweet rolls, Phil bought a magazine, the one with the most pictures of semi-nude women, and the two rode back toward campus, warmed and enlivened again.

When Doug suggested climbing venerable Friendly Hall, familiar home of Modern Languages—and said he knew a way, Phil greeted the announcement with joy. Parking their bikes at the side, they found an old fire escape leading to the roof.

“We can’t reach the bottom of that, can we?” Phil asked.

“Sure. It’s not that high. It drops all the way to the ground. I saw it from a window of my Italian class. It’s just hidden behind those shrubs.”

Doug led the way and the two crawled along the stiff ground under the prickly shrubs, forcing their way through the lower branches. Next to the wall of the building, a cleared space left room to stand and when they did before them rose the magic beanstalk.

“I’ll go first.” Phil’s feet clambered already on the lower rungs.

“Okay, but take it easy. They might be slippery.”

Phil, halfway to the landing by the first floor window, stopped and whispered down to Doug. “Yeah. Be careful. There’s a mist or something frozen on them.”

They moved up slowly, climbing past the first and second floor windows. The building was higher than it seemed, the ground farther away than they’d thought possible. When they reached the fourth floor and looked down, both felt a clutch of fear.

“Hey Doug!” Doug looked up at Phil’s tennis shoes, his friend’s form foreshortened above him. “There’s a gable here we’ll have to get by. The roof slants in, too, and there’s no ladder. If we can climb up the eave without slipping, it’s flat on top.”

“Take it easy, okay?” Doug pleaded. “Don’t go too fast, Phil. If you slip, we’re in a hell of a mess.”

“I won’t. Come on.”

Reaching the top of the roof, Doug paused for breath, his heart beating violently. A stretch of the fire escape ladder climbed up in open air, and without the support of the wall beside him he was cautious and scared. He climbed without looking down, checking to make sure each time he gripped the cold iron that his hands held firm.

Level with the gable finally, he could see Phil bracing himself between the V of two sloping walls. “How’d you get up there?”

“I grabbed the gutter, kept one hand on the ladder and pulled myself on to the roof.”

Doug did the same and for a moment felt the surge of adrenalin that came with the realization he was hanging on the edge of an icy roof. And then he clambered over the top, swearing at Phil because he was laughing.

“Now, dammit, we have to climb up that slant. We can’t grab the edge of the shingles, can we?”

Phil tried it. “They might break.” The two paused to think.

“Say,” Doug exclaimed, “have you thought about getting down?”

Phil grinned. “Let’s not think about it. Maybe I can shove you up the side, Doug, and once you get to the top you can give me a hand up.”

“Will I be able to reach you when I’m on top?”

“I think so.”

Slowly, Doug crept up the slant, Phil’s hands on his heels.

“Hurry, Doug, it’s hard to hold on here.”

“My hands are there.” Grasping the edge, with an extra shove from Phil, he pulled himself up, and soon both were standing on the roof, breathing heavily, excited at their conquest.

Phil slapped his legs, running along the roof. “God, what a view! You can see half the campus and the mill race.” They strolled back and forth along the top, admiring the campus, glittering in early morning darkness, the dawn still delayed by a blanket of clouds.

“I know what,” Phil burst out. “Let’s take a leak off the side.”

Doug agreed happily and shortly a warm cloud of steam rose from two arching waterfalls.

“Isn’t this fantastic, Doug? It’s great staying up all night.”

“This is my first time,” Doug said. “I wish we’d done it earlier in the term.”

As they talked, still panting in excitement, small puffs of vapor rose about their heads and, with the elusiveness of morning fog, disappeared into the air. Below them lay thousands of sleeping dormitory students in dark, solemn buildings. Silence loomed over the campus, vast like an immense iceberg in a misty sea—and nothing except themselves seemed real. After a bit, they would see a campus policeman walking toward the building and fearing he’d seen them make an excited get-away back down the slippery fire escape and away into the night. But at the moment, oblivious to the future, they felt masters of the world that stretched below them, masters of it and of the night.

—Reprinted from In Light's Delay by Ron Terpening by permission of Desert Bloom Press. Copyright © Ron Terpening, 1988. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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