One day when I was in college, many years ago, and our alarm clock rang at the crack of noon, and I lurched out of the bottom bunk and groggily thumped my roommate in the top bunk, he did not, for once, snarl and growl and slide his long legs over the side and leap down hurriedly to beat me to the shower so as to beat me to class, but lay in his bunk, silent and still.
I barked at him and ran for the shower so as to beat him to class, but when I got back to our room he had budged not an inch. This was weird because usually he was the soul of punctuality and he had never cut a class yet, a remarkable thing to say, as some of the young men on our floor had never been to class once, as far as we could tell, despite the fact that intellectual stimulus was ostensibly the product our parents were buying or borrowing for; these young men spent their time playing cards and records and basketball and football, and planning social expeditions and romantic conspiracies, and drinking beer and rum, and arranging dances and dates, and smuggling kegs and paramours into the hall against the rules, and etc. I remember one young man in particular who I do not think ever left the confines of our hall once in the years I lived there. He was a thin pale young man with a drawl who said he was from Antarctica. His roommates brought him food, we thought, although no one had ever seen him eat, and there was a rumor that he never slept, but prowled the attic in our hall all night long, dreaming of ice.
I asked my roommate if he was sick and he said no, and I asked him if something was broken and he said no, and then he told me that the phone had rung this morning, long before dawn, and that he had leapt down to grab it before I woke, because when the phone rings at four in the morning the news is never good, and indeed the news was bad: His dad had died. It was his mom calling. His dad had been sick but no one expected him to die but he died, a thousand miles away, suddenly, in his chair on the lawn, the chair with a view of the beach.
I had never cut a class either; I was just as alert as my roommate to the fact that our parents were scratching desperately to send us to college. But I cut class that day. I got dressed and climbed up into the top bunk and sat with my roommate all afternoon. I remember it was a glorious spring day and you could smell flowers and thick redolent plowed soil. Our college was set like Oz amid a vast sea of cornfields and the spring plowing was in full gear and you could smell the dense fat ancient patient soil and imagine it darker than brown, darker than black, composed of creatures that had died and were now preparing to enter creatures that lived.
Other guys came by over the course of the afternoon when they noticed we had missed class, and some guys brought sandwiches, and one guy hopped up in the top bunk with us for a while, which was a kindly thing to do, I thought. Some guys tried to be funny and some guys said religious things but mostly guys understood that just stopping by was enough. A lot of guys stopped by, I have to say. That’s what I wanted to tell you about this morning, that a lot of guys stopped by the top bunk and put a hand on my roommate’s shoulder or put a hand gently on his chest as he lay there weeping. That’s all. I have been paying attention to prayer and grace for 50 years now and I don’t think I ever saw anything as moving as that.
Finally late in the afternoon I had to go to work in the dining hall so I jumped down from the top bunk but another guy said he would take over for me and he climbed up. As I walked down the hall I saw a ragged line of guys waiting to lay a hand on my roommate’s shoulder. I have seen a lot of cool things in life but I have never seen anything cooler than that.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of Mink River. He will speak at Denison next year as part of the Beck Lecture Series.