Alice

June 10th, 2010

Evenings often pass slowly for a man who lives alone. It might be supposed that, after years of living as a bachelor, I would be used to it, would have an established routine, a set of “hobbies,” regular activities with friends, for those long hours between supper and bedtime.

I do have friends, of course. I associate with many people in the course of earning my bread, and think that most of them think well of me-as I do of them. But the different patterns of our lives, and, it may be, some peculiarity of my own temperament (though certainly not active hostility), have discouraged friendships of the kind that might fill the lonely hours. I have morning friends, and afternoon friends, but no evening friends, it seems.

The people I know best laugh at the problem. They have overfilled these hours in their own lives, and often tell me how easy it is to find diversion in modern America. Perhaps this is the trouble. My loneliness may come from being out of tune with modern America, my tastes and values having been fashioned in a mold that should long ago have been discarded as obsolete, for I find little to attract me in most popular amusements.

My brother and his wife, for example, have suggested I buy a television set for my little apartment, and, on the theory that their long experience with this contrivance-an impressive specimen of which has become the hypnotic center of the world which they and their children inhabit-would qualify them to judge finer points of design and performance which would only baffle me, have offered to help me select a suitable model. But I have watched some of their favorite programs when I have been visiting at their home-to visit is to watch-and am baffled by their addiction to the peculiar activities of oddly mismatched family groups and miscellaneously handicapped detectives that people that little box. I am less tempted to invite such questionable guests into my living quarters than I would be to invite even the least well known of my neighbors. The evening hours are not that empty.

There are also those at the office who have shown a casual concern about my being so withdrawn, and, from time to time-in the spirit of good fellowship-have attempted to draw me into certain group activities, get me introduced to the “social whirl,” as one of the secretaries put it.

A number of them go bowling each week, representing our firm in an organized competition of some sort, and a few months ago one of their number had an illness in the family, leaving them “short a man.” My intuition was strongly against going, but these friends were determined that I should take advantage of this opportunity to discover the good times I have been missing, and appealed so insistently to this obligation to myself, as well the obligation to the “team” to pick up the weapons of a comrade out of action, that I felt it would be unreasonable to refuse to make the trial. I wrenched my finger so badly that it was difficult for me to write, or perform many of my other normal duties, for three or four days, and the constant rumble and clatter of the place gave me a terrible headache. The next time they asked me to “roll a few” it was with a wink, and there was general good-natured laughter when I very firmly declined. I had not entered very well into their beer-drinking and story-telling, either.

Whatever the reason, I don’t respond well to the dominant recreational stimuli of our time. For some years now I have found that, in spite of the recurrent loneliness, I am most happy spending my evenings with the books that I borrow from the public library and my own small collection of records-and, these last few months, with the old microscope that came to me at my father’s death.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have followed any systematic program of research with this microscope-no one could be less scientifically inclined, less diligent in defining objectives and disciplining method-but my reading, if it has not taken me down the expressways of human knowledge that lead to social and material distinction, has taken me into some interesting byways, and what I had come to know of the exploits of Leeuwenoek and Hooke with their early microscopes had captured my imagination sufficiently to provoke me to ask for father’s old instrument when the relatives were dividing up his things.

Spurred by the anticipation of experiences similar to those of these early explorers of worlds microscopic, I had immediately established a table in one corner of my sitting-room for my studies with the microscope, and had then turned a careful attention to its operation. I had seen my father use it many times, but his scientific equipment was precious to him-we boys were never allowed to touch it. And the memories I had of father’s procedures had been dimmed by the passage of those years that have taken so much of what was valuable in my childhood with them.

I spent several evenings, therefore, mastering the movements of the microscope, examining everything that fell to hand. There were many things interesting to inspect-drops of water, slivers of wood, hair, salt, dust-hundreds of things animal, vegetable, and mineral which are the constant components of our environment, but to the mysterious structures of which we remain oblivious. After a time, however, I came to concentrate on living things in this new little world I had discovered, and to ponder their reactions to intrusions of mine into their lives. An observer can learn to pit tiny creature against tiny creature, if he wishes, staging his own games, observing from his Olympian position microscopic wars of his own making, into which he might strike his thunder at will, and I imagine that in my younger years such sport would have held a stronger attraction for me.

But time tempers us all; I now have little appetite for violence in any dimension. I found it disturbing to watch the more aggressive species of bacteria, for example-they were too unprincipled to suffer in silence, and as impervious to moral instruction as the natural-born warrior is ever likely to be. I left such uncongenial company to carry on without my supervision and gradually moved to more temperate subjects. Then, one evening, I discovered Alice.

The memory of that evening stands out as a bright jewel in my mind’s eye, its luster only enhanced as the memories around it fade. I had been observing amoebae, well-mannered little animals that move with a rhythmic, flowing motion. As I focused upon first one, then another, in an absent-minded way, the restful grace of their movements lulled me into a peaceful empathy-I was gliding about in that drop of water as effortlessly as they. I do not know how long this reverie had continued when my attention was especially attracted to one little amoeba that was off by itself. Perhaps my own inclination to solitude established the first bond of sympathy, but there was something more. I had the vague and mildly unsettling feeling that this amoeba was different in more than in remaining aloof. I followed its movements with mounting interest, but for some time I could not establish what that difference was. Then, suddenly, I understood. I had waltz music playing on the phonograph, and the tiny amoeba was keeping time to it. And with style. How well I remember! With the simple sincerity of the natural artist this little dancer was expressing a profound and compelling melancholy. I was completely captivated.

As my thoughts go back to that evening, it is clear to me that a special spiritual kinship existed between Alice and me from the first. But I despair of describing that initial emotional experience. All men of a reflective habit of mind must regularly be frustrated by the impossibility of explaining to themselves, let alone to others, the enigmatic impulses that sometimes possess them. Only those who have themselves “felt the viper’s bite,” experienced the vivid and spontaneous birth of strong affection, can be expected to appreciate the strength of that first irresistible intuition; I knew with certainty, and in the instant of that revelation of what she was doing, that I had found a friend for my evenings, a spirit with powers over loneliness.

In the next moment the skeptical side of my mind asserted itself, suggesting that perhaps my imagination was deceiving me, that it only looked like this tiny amoeba was dancing. But the infinite grace and sensitive timing of the little creature could not be mistaken. For the rest of that evening, and for the next few evenings, I was content to watch and admire. Then, experimentally, I began to substitute other records from my limited collection. I found that only those with melancholy overtones inspired her. Alice ignored the rest. This drew me closer to her still; it was as if she were striving to give expression to some mournful and mysterious secret which she held in her heart-and which I understood to be my secret as well.

I do not remember when I first called her Alice. She just was Alice to me. Oh, I know well enough that an amoeba is neither he nor she-still-well, I could never think of Alice except as a gentle, sensitive anima completing my own spiritual unity, necessarily, if metaphorically, female. This was the way that her dancing impressed me; this was the quality of the secret we shared.

For some time I was a silent observer, content to watch her at her artistry. It never entered my mind that our relationship could go beyond this. Indeed, I was quite satisfied with things as they were. Then, on a night when she was in exceptional form, I found myself impulsively shouting, “Bravo, Alice! Well done! Well done!”

Horror of horrors-my little Alice was panic-stricken. She evidently had had no idea that anyone might have been watching her, and, shy creature that she is-or was-she looked frantically about, ready to dash away, once she had determined which way to dash. I quickly attempted to reassure her, explaining that I meant her no harm, that I was, in fact, her friend and admirer, one who sincerely appreciated her art. Little by little I convinced her, and as she began to believe me I could see that she really was quite pleased. We talked about her dancing, and I played the records that I knew she most enjoyed. By the end of the evening our friendship was securely established.

The evenings that followed were pleasant for both of us. I remember reading my favorite passages of poetry to her, and looking up to find tears in her eyes. I remember the hours we spent discussing the meaning of art, the significance of life, the nature of spiritual kinship and obligation, all the dark mysteries of the universe, concluding only that our beliefs and bewilderments seemed to be much the same. I would bring books on the dance from the library, and read to her from them, though technical analysis and the more abstract orders of aesthetic theory soon bored her. I invested in records that would give scope to her talents, taking great pleasure in watching her work out each new interpretation, as she taught me something of what her art had to teach.

She was a serious little worker, steadily improving her skills with obvious determination. She seemed always to be reaching, in fact-reaching, reaching-for something I can no better define than those theorists in the books could. But that quest was part of her very essence, of what she was, and of what she meant to me. Whatever she was reaching for, I came to feel it was the only thing worth reaching for, and wished to encourage her in any way I could. It became my quest, too. The determination was a matter of will, not of style, however; she never lost her graceful simplicity, and never lost the melancholy mood at the center of her art. Sometimes, when I asked her to, she would dance to something light and gay, pleased to please me, but the bias of her spirit never really altered-any gaiety was always muted by that dominant sobriety.

Then, yesterday evening, I could see that her melancholy had become especially intense. It was only after much coaxing, in an effort to brighten her mood a bit, that I got her to dance at all. I could not restrain my own tears as I watched her expressive movements. Her outline became so blurred that I checked a time or two to make sure the microscope was in focus. I had never pressed for the particulars of her secret sorrow, feeling that I understood it best in understanding its kinship with my own. But now I felt compelled to inquire more closely, an obligation imposed by our friendship.

“What is it, Alice?” I asked her. “Why are you so unhappy tonight? What can I do to help?”

She hesitated at first, sensing, as I can see now, that putting what troubled her into words would force her to face it that much sooner. Then it came, in a rush of emotion.

“I won’t be seeing you again. No! Please don’t say anything. I’ve known it would come, and there’s no help for it. You are my dearest friend-the only one who has understood-and yet, even as I know this moment will be our last together, I cannot tell you what that means to me. How little sense it would make to speak of . . . love.” Her voice faltered. Then she turned from me, with a sob, and, just like that, she was gone. I did not attempt to follow her.

A sense of impotency, a flooding weakness, descended upon me. With the instinct that is common to men and amoebae I realized that what Alice had said was true-I would never see her again. Only then did I fully appreciate how much I had come to depend upon her, and how slowly the evenings pass for a man who lives alone.

I did not want to come home at all this evening. I knew that the consciousness of what I had lost would be most intense where everything reminded me of those many happy hours. But where was there to go? The commercial establishments for escaping despair could do no more than compound a condition beyond their powers of distraction, and there was no one I knew with whom I would not have felt even more particularly alone. So I moped around my apartment, idly occupying myself with this unnecessary chore and that. I tried to read, but could not. Finally, in passing a mirror, I caught sight of myself, and had to laugh at my own dismal expression. “Has it come to this, Henry?” I asked myself. “Surely Alice would expect a show of more spirit.”

In the very face of my downcast mood, I put the liveliest record I owned, a collection of high spirited Greek folk songs, on the phonograph. I knew that such a subterfuge would have no real effect upon my spirits, but it was a way of defying despair.

With the same self-conscious bravado, I approached my microscope. At first I could hardly bring myself to touch it, but, by an act of will, I sat down carefully, mechanically arranged the instrument in the best light, and slowly brought it into focus.

My senses quickened. What was here? Then, with the illuminating force of the sun breaking out from behind heavy storm clouds, the world became a friendly place again. Two young amoebae were gaily dancing to my music.

My pleasure knew no bounds, for I was watching these talented youngsters as an old friend of the family.

* * *

Published  in Inscape, 1977

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