Jamie Hernandez fought a lot as a kid. He wasn’t a bully, or always angry. He learned to fight from his older brothers, like a kitten might as it wrestled with its litter mates. A punch to the face didn’t shock or stun Jamie; he punched back without paying the blow any attention, other than to note how it was thrown, so as to avoid any more like it in the future.
He began fighting professionally at eighteen. He married Maria at nineteen.
Their first big argument happened six months later, about having a baby.
At its peak, Jamie went into the bedroom and brought back a padded sparring glove.
“Put this on,” he said.
“I want you to hit me.”
“I’m not going to hit you. Are you crazy?”
“Have you ever hit anyone?”
“Of course not.”
“Your words are worse than getting hit for me. I get hit all time. Use up some of your anger before we go on.”
Maria paced, fuming.
“Just pull on the glove.”
She did, but without conviction.
“Are you going to hit me?” she said.
He gave her a little shove.
“Stop it,” she said.
“Think about that baby.”
Maria closed her eyes. Her breath was heavy. Jamie gave her another little shove and she swung her arm awkwardly and tapped the side of his face.
He shoved her again, lightly, and she swung harder, this time with her eyes open, and hit him in the nose. He stepped back and sat down on the couch. Maria stood looking at him. He reached out and took her hand and pulled her down beside him.
“I don’t know how I feel about this,” she said.
“That’s how you’re supposed to feel,” he said.
Mary at fifteen was one girl in a group of girls at high school. She fit in. She shared the same interests and activities with the other girls. They were all attractive, bright, socially active, and cliquish.
This changed one Wednesday night when Mary had a vivid dream, or, as she thought of it – experienced it – a vision. A man in white told her that she was an extraordinary individual, that she was destined to accomplish great things, that she mattered. In the morning, the dream did not fade.
At school that day, she saw her friends in a different way. Each seemed distinct, different from the others. Her notion that they comprised a select club had evaporated. Her interest in fitting in, merging with the girls had evaporated.
She began to notice that many of her classmates moved in orbits alone, relatively unattached. There seemed to be a great deal of loneliness in the school. She spoke to some of these students. She developed tangential, fleeting, daily relationships with more and more of them.
By the time that she graduated, her vision still as bright in her mind as the night that it happened, she was part of, perhaps the center of, a complex web of human emotion and insight that connect most of those in her class, with each other, and with the world.
Up to his thirtieth birthday, Walter Hanaway appeared to be a normal guy, a typical member of his small-town community. He was a loving husband, doting father, dutiful son, hardworking middle-class fellow, born and bred in the county.
Walter participated in church, kept up his home, and got along with his neighbors.
He had hunted and fished since childhood. He killed a variety of animals, dressed his kill, and shared the results at the dinner table with his family. Dead eyes never bothered him.
On his thirtieth birthday, as he drove home from work, a girl darted in front of his car, out of nowhere. He hit the brakes, but the car struck her full on, throwing her off to the side. When Walter jumped out and ran over to her, he recognized immediately the death in her eyes.
He was upset of course. Called in the accident and waited for the police and an EMT truck to arrive. Answered questions, watched the officers measure the skid marks, watched the girl’s body taken away.
What bothered him later was that, looking down on the girl, he felt the same as he did when looking down on a dead deer, or rabbit, or fish. That did not seem right to him.
Later, when a friend invited him fishing, he said no without thinking. He did not renew his deer license. One day his wife came into the kitchen and found him standing with a fly swatter, staring at a fly walking across the front of the refrigerator.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said. She took the swatter from him and killed the fly.
Word got around that Walter was not normal. There was something wrong with him. Rumor had it that he had sold his deer gun and fishing tackle out of town.
My mother raised four of us by herself. She had little schooling and worked at a series of clerking and other such jobs while we were growing up. We spent a lot of time at our grandmother’s house before we were in school.
Mother was not a warm woman. She didn’t smile much. I guess we knew she loved us, but you couldn’t tell just by looking.
After we had all grown up and left home, she went to school and finally became a nurse. She spent the next twenty-five years working in the ICU. She never asked for help from any of us. Every spare cent she had went to charity.
Late in her life, I asked her why she had spent the whole of it doing for others, never giving herself anything, including time? Why had she devoted her life to others, but with such a hard and unrelenting attitude?
“My life was ruined early on,” she said. “Ruined beyond fixing. After that, there wasn’t anything left to do but try and help as many others as I could while I still drew breath, including you and your brothers and your sister. It wasn’t happy work, but it kept me satisfied enough and gave my anger someplace to go where it wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
Michael was slight of stature and wispy of soul. His personality touched those around him as lightly as thistledown. Hardy boys felt moved to sock him on the arm, just to see him wince, and speak to him with loud, rough voices, to try and move him by sound alone. These rough classmates did not injure him, in flesh or spirit, unless bruises to his mental world counted.
One day Michael climbed the hill behind his school. He was full of doubts. He knew that he could never share himself with anyone. Life was hard enough every day without talking to anyone about his feelings. At the top of the hill, he could look out at the countryside in all directions. A wind laid the grasses over and caused a quiet roaring in the copse down the far side. The sky was tangled with clouds, a colorless sun behind them. Michael looked up. A hawk soared in the wind overhead.
In that moment, he understood, as if someone had opened his head and insert the thought, that every individual on the planet was as small and as insignificant as was he, and that contrariwise, he could take in all existence just by looking and listening and smelling and touching the world around him. He stretched his arms out and came up on his tiptoes and let the wind wash over his face. When he came back down the hill, he moved with a strength that would carry him forward though life like a strong river current.
At seventy, Joseph Ostrowski was retired but felt jobless. He spent a lot of time thinking about the past, which had smoothed out in his memory to a gray plain; the highs of his personal history were no longer so high, the lows not so low. He kept returning to those moments in which he had made bad choices. The others involved were probably all dead, senile, or unrecognizably aged. His old neighborhood had been razed years ago.
Then Ostrowski got up one morning and said to his wife, “I’m going to walk around the world.”
“Are you all right?” she said. “What day is it?”
“It’s Monday. I’m not having a stroke. I’m going to walk around the world. It’s a big place and I probably won’t make it back alive.”
His wife was a volunteer at the hospital. She gave him his breakfast and left for work.
Ostrowski put on his walking shoes and his hat and set out. By noon, he was out in the countryside. He refused several offers of a ride, although he felt hungry. When his children were young, he had spent a lot of time outdoors with them. The sun, heavy on his shoulders, reminded him of this.
He accepted a ride when lunch became more important to him than his future. The couple that picked him up stopped at a coffee shop in a village. The three of them ate and chatted and Ostrowski stepped out onto the sidewalk feeling better than he had in a long time. The new town and new friends energized him.
He took his own sweet time walking back and got home after dark. His wife took his supper out of the oven and sat with him while he ate it. They planned a trip.
Ivana Ivanova is mentally ill. She has been institutionalized. Getting a fix on her character is not easy.
As a child she was often angry. She threw tantrums and her parents beat her when she did. The punishment did not change her. She kept to herself but did not seem lonely. She was brighter than the children around her.
She did well in school, except for incidents. These were occasions when she flew into a towering rage. No one could control her then. The adults restrained her until the fit passed. They kept her in school because her test scores boosted the school average.
As an adult, her paranoia became clear, as did a split in her personality that was labeled paranoid-type schizophrenia. Her closest friend was imaginary. She got along well with him. She felt affection for him. She treated him with respect.
When not threatened, Ivana led a quiet life, following the pursuits that interested her. She processed economic data for a major university. She was regarded as attractive, bright, and rather strange.
Several fellows approached her but this never ended well. The last of them, having been drinking, became aggressive. Ivana responded with an attack that left him in the hospital and lucky to be alive. Ivana’s personal freedom ended then, for good.
If we imagine Ivana in a perfectly benign setting, we can appreciate her as an unambitious, curious, productive human being – unacquisitive and moderate. Mix in the realities of the world, however, and this person can transform, in a blink, into a killing animal.
Arnold Jones signed on with a ranch in southwest Texas right out of high school. He spent a lot of time in the saddle alone, down in Big Bend country. He was a lean young man with skin headed for leather if he worked long enough. He was twenty-five before he met a young woman at a church dance in the town of Beeman. He had no idea where the past seven years had gone.
“I can’t marry you till I know what kind of man you are,” his new girlfriend told him. Her name was Angelina. “What kind of man are you?”
Arnold scratched his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never thought about it. I hardly feel like more than a boy anyway.”
“You don’t talk much, but you aren’t slow,” Angelina said.
“Out where I’ve been, there’s not much to talk to,” he said. “I never learned to drink or smoke. I can tell you that. I’m not much of a fighter, except when I have to.”
“I don’t mind your quiet,” Angelina said. “I’m no chatterbox myself. What about children? How are you with children? I’d expect to have a few.”
Arnold thought about that.
“I know something about calves and foals,” he said. “For the rest, I guess you’d have to teach me.”
“I imagine you’d be away a lot,” Angelina said.
“Not if we marry. The ranch would let me stay close in most of the time.”
They did marry, and Arnold handled his new responsibilities much like he handled his ranch job. He accepted the guidance of his wife, he took the position of husband as seriously as that of cowhand, and he found nothing to regret in his family or in the wide, spare land in which they lived.
Rebecca Sullivan was a pleasant young woman who always had plenty of friends. Through high school and college, I never heard her ask any of them for anything.
“Is it just me, or is it hot in here?” she would say. Someone would open the window.
She ran with a group of kids who learned to interpret her comments and recognize the requests hidden within them. She wasn’t manipulative, she was just… Well, I guess she was manipulative, but mainly, it was just hard for her, or impossible, to ask someone for something. But her methods were a workaround, not social thievery.
Fortunately for Rebecca, she had the great good luck to meet Tommy O’Malley.
“Is it hot in here?” she would say.
“Are you asking me to open the window?” Tommy would say.
“Not at all,” Rebecca would say.
Tommy would sit looking at her and finally she’d say, “All right. I was.”
Tommy would wait.
“All right,” Rebecca would say. Long pause. “Would you please… open the window for me?”
Tommy wasn’t being mean. He told me that his mother did the same thing as Rebecca and by now he just automatically responded the way he did to any question that seemed like a hidden request. He didn’t hold it against Rebecca; it sort of seemed natural to him that she behaved that way.
Later, when they were married, my wife and I went out to dinner with them.
“It’s so wonderful that you have a new baby boy,” Rebecca said to us. “I think having a child must be the most wonderful thing in the world. What do you think, Tommy?”
“I think it’s too soon,” Tommy said.
“Let me rephrase that,” Rebecca said. “It’s time that we had a baby and I want your help.”
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