A Prodigal's Return
by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, is the author of Housekeeping and Mother Country. This article is excerpted from Home, by Marilyne Robinson, © Marilynne Robinson. Home is published by Farrar & Giroux. This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 9, 2008, pp. 36-38. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted Brock.
Set parallel in time, place and theme to Gilead, her prizewinning novel of 2004, Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Home, takes the reader inside the home of retired Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton for another perspective on Jack Boughton, the black sheep of the family, who left Gilead as a young man after fathering a child. Now, 20 years later, Jack has returned home unexpectedly from St. Louis. He finds his younger sister Glory, 38, also home, recuperating from a relationship that ended badly. As brother and sister proceed to care for the elderly Boughton, they get to know each other for the first time as adults. In this segment, Jack makes an effort to redeem himself in the eyes of his godfather, "Ames"--John Ames, the elderly Boughton's best friend and the central character of Gilead.
Sunday morning Jack came downstairs dressed and shaved, in his stocking feet, carrying his shoes, to avoid waking his father. He looked at Glory and shrugged as if to say, What have I got to lose, and she handed him a cup of coffee. He sipped it, leaning against the refrigerator. Then he went to the money drawer and took two dollars. "For the collection plate," he said softly. "I owe you." He brushed at the brim of his hat. "Do you mind if I borrow your watch? Then I can take a little walk before the service begins." She gave him the watch and he glanced at it and then slipped it into his jacket pocket. "Well," he said, "here goes." He stopped in the porch to put on his shoes and adjust his hat, and he left.
Half an hour later she heard her father stirring, and she took him his tray of coffee and applesauce and buttered toast and the aspirin tablets with a glass of water. She was still in her robe and slippers and wearing a hairnet. He said, "Aren't you feeling well, my dear? No church today? Maybe I should call Ames and tell him we'll have to have dinner another time--"
"No, Papa, I'm fine. I stayed home today so Jack could go."
"Go to church? Jack?"
"Jack went to church?"
"Ames's church. As a gesture of respect, he said."
"Yes, well, that's very good. John can give a fine sermon. That new fellow we've got now, I'm not so sure about him. I might go to the Congregationalists myself. If I went anywhere. Well." He laughed. "This is something. This is quite a day."
He sat perfectly still for a minute, smiling into space, considering. "Just when you're about to give up entirely! The Lord is wonderful!"
"Maybe you shouldn't read too much into it, Papa."
"Read into it! It's just a fact! You go to church and there you are!" He said, "I thought I must have turned him against it all. I really did. I've heard of that in preachers' families. More than once."
"Well, he seems to have had some contact with a church in St. Louis. He says he played piano for them."
"Did he! I wouldn't know that. He doesn't talk to me very much. Never did." He laughed. "Your mother used to ask me, Why do we keep paying for piano lessons for that boy? Because he wouldn't practice, you know. If you tried to make him, he'd just walk out the door. But I said I thought something might come of it. He'd go to the lessons when Teddy went. Yes. I told her I thought we should treat all the children the same, Jack, too." He sat there smiling, his face bright with vindication. "It's wonderful. You make some sort of decision, just a little choice you can't even quite explain, and years later--Well, I knew he was clever. That was clear to me. He was always paying more attention than he would let on. But I knew it, I did." He laughed at the thought of his own shrewdness. "Yes."
Glory said, "He seems to have friends in the church there."
"Friends! Well, I suppose he would. That just happens in a church, doesn't it. He didn't really have friends as a boy, though. He never seemed to want them. I've prayed his whole life that he'd have a friend or two. It often came to my mind, you know, that loneliness of his. And it didn't really occur to me--it honestly never occurred to me--that off in St. Louis somewhere my prayers were being answered! Isn't that something!" He shook his head. "It would have been a weight off my heart, I'll tell you that. I could have spared myself years of grief, just by having a little trust. There's a lesson in that." Then he said, "I do wonder what happened, though. I mean, right now he doesn't strike me as a man who feels he has friends. Then I could be wrong."
"He doesn't tell me very much either."
"Well," he said, "here I am worrying, and this is a remarkable day! I have to bestir myself. Would you mind giving my hair a little trim, Glory? I've been feeling sort of shaggy. It's probably my imagination, mostly." He laughed. "Not much there anymore, I know. Still."
So she brought her father into the kitchen, sat him down, wrapped a towel around his shoulders and tucked it close around his neck. She got a comb and the pair of shears and set to work. His hair had vanished, or was on the point of vanishing, not through ordinary loss but by a process of rarification. It was so fine, so white and weightless, that it eddied into soft curls. Wafted, she thought. She hated to cut it off, since there seemed very little chance that it could grow back again as it was. It was like cutting a young child's hair. But her father claimed to be irked by the prettiness of it. Fauntleroy in his dotage, he said.
So she clipped and trimmed, making more work of it than it was in order to satisfy him that some change had been accomplished, combing it down a little with water so he would feel sleek and trim. The nape of his neck, the backs of his ears. The visible strain of holding the great human head upright for decades and decades. Some ancient said it is what makes us different from the beasts, that our eyes are not turned downward to the earth. Most of the time. It was Ovid. At the end of so much effort, the neck seemed frail, but the head was still lifted up, and the ears stood there, still shaped for attention, soft as they were. She'd have left all the lovely hair, which looked like gentle bewilderment, just as the lifted head and the ears looked like waiting grown old, like trust grown old.
"Yes," her father said, "whenever I thought of him, he was always alone, the way he used to be, and I would wonder what kind of life he could have, with no one even to care how he was, what he needed. I realize that was the one thing I thought I knew, that he would be alone." He laughed. "Yes, that cost me a lot of grief, and I never thought to question it. I prayed about that more than any one thing, I believe."
The screen door opened and Jack came into the porch, then into the kitchen. He looked at her and shrugged. "My courage failed," he said. "I thought if you were dressed you might be able to go late. Sorry."
After a moment her father said, "Come here, son," and held out his hands. Jack set his hat on the table and came to the old man and let him take his hands. "There is nothing surprising in this," the old man said. "Not at all." There was a quaver in his voice, so he cleared his throat. "Many people find it hard to go to church if they've been away for a while. I've seen it very often. And I'd say to them, It's because it means something to you. The decision is important to you. As it should be! So, you see, there's no reason at all to be disappointed. I used to say, The Sabbath is faithful. In a week she'll be here again." And he laughed, sadly, and patted Jack's hands.
Jack looked down at him, tender and distant. "Next week," he said.
Glory combed through her father's hair and then kissed it where it was whitest and thinnest, just at the top of his head. "All done," she said, and took the towel off from around him.
Jack said, "I don't suppose you'd have time for another customer."
"Well, sure." She was surprised. They had always been so careful of him, almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile. It had enforced a peculiar decorum on them all, even on their mother. There was always the moment when they acknowledged this--no hugging, no roughhousing could include him. Even his father patted his shoulder tentatively, shy and cautious. Why should a child have defended his loneliness that way? But let him have his ways, their father said, or he would be gone. He'd smile at them across that distance, and the smile was sad and hard, and it meant estrangement, even when he was with them.
Her father was also surprised. He said, "Well, I'll get myself out of your way here." Glory helped him up from his chair. "I've got to give the paper a little going over, if Ames is coming. I have to be up to the minute in case he starts talking politics." She settled him by the window, and when she came back, Jack was still standing there, waiting.
"You're probably busy," he said.
"Not especially. But I have to warn you, I don't make any claims for myself as a barber. I really just pretend to cut Papa's hair."
Jack said, "If you could trim it a little. I should have gone to the barbershop yesterday. I might have felt a little less disreputable."
"This morning? You looked fine."
"No." He took off his jacket, and she wrapped the towel around his neck and around his shoulders. "I could feel it. It was like an itchiness under my skin. Like--scurrility. I thought it might be my clothes. I mean that they made it obvious. More obvious."
He shied away from her touch. "You're going to have to sit still," she said. "Is it Ames?"
"Him, too. But I can't really say the experience is unfamiliar. It has come over me from time to time. It rarely lasts more than a few months." He laughed. "I shouldn't have asked you to do this. You don't have to." "Sit still."
"You can't commiserate. You have never felt disreputable."
"How do you know?"
"Am I right?"
"I am right." He said, "In case you're wondering, scurrility seems to be contagious. Be warned. I should wear a leper bell. I suppose I do."
"No, I'm only exaggerating."
"You didn't actually go inside the church."
"I didn't even cross the street."
She put her hand under his chin and lifted his head. Had she ever touched his face before? "I can't really see what I'm doing here. You'll have to sit up."
"I suppose old Ames must have seen me there. Loitering. Lurking. Eyeing his flock." He laughed. "What a fool I am."
"I'm going to trim around your ears. I've got to get it even."
He crossed his ankles and folded his hands and sat there obediently while she snipped at one side and then the other. She tipped up his face again to judge the effect. There were tears on his cheeks. She took a corner of the towel and patted them away, and he smiled at her.
"Exasperation," he said. "I'm so tired of myself."