Old Speed

Once upon a time, in eighth grade, Father McCall told us that if he taught Peter Taylor he’d get essays about loose horses, dead mothers, Church Street. He mentioned other writers. He said to bring something to read. He didn’t care what it was, he didn’t want us tracking whether Betsy’s hair was up or down. “You read your book, and I’ll read mine,” he said, “and if we don’t pester each other, maybe these writers will tell us what it means.” He spoke of mature habits of thought and childish symbolism. We chose to bring the writers whose voices he’d conjured because he’d tell pieces of stories, and we’d be enthralled, but he wouldn’t say what happened next.

He’d look up from his book about once a week. “What’s going on?” he’d ask us. “Don’t tell me, I don’t care,” he’d say, “but you’d better know.” He left us alone with those characters: a girl who finds she’s a beast, a stillborn baby in a too-large coffin, a mother who says: I would rather see him in the grave than in myself. A father who advises his terrified daughter to shut her eyes: Don’t seek things to fear in this world.

There was no curriculum, no test; Father McCall read his book, and we each read ours. There was silence, Peter Taylor’s voice asking whether imperturbability was a thing I’d achieved. When you’re repelled by someone, is it a matter of interest in their nature or plain old ineffable disgust? Can you sustain objective sympathy for someone? And on occasions that call for grace, are you awkward? The world as a whole is larger than anything you can comprehend, Taylor’s voice said, and Father McCall ate cashews out of a brown lunch bag, book in hand, seeming less and less like a priest.

—Tina Nettesheim

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