By Darin Cozzens
It was those two wheelchairs in that nursing home in Billings last week that got me thinking again about the movie. Ben-Hur and I go way back. April 4, 1960. It was a Monday night. I remember because it was my eighth birthday, the age of accountability, according to Mormon doctrine. Given the occasion, I was allowed to eat my second saucer of cake and ice cream in front of our little black and white TV. Given where we lived—up toward Heart Mountain, halfway between Balford and Cody—our antenna picked up only one station. But that one station happened to be showing the Academy Awards ceremony. It was soon clear that Mr. Wyler’s screen adaptation of Mr. Wallace’s book was the darling of the evening.
“That must be some movie,” said my dad, who had worked all day flushing and rehanging a basement sewer line, a job the plumber before him had cut a lot of corners on.
Just before Bob Hope (the program’s host) announced the movie’s unprecedented eleventh and final award, my mother came into the living room, wet to the elbow from washing the dishes of my birthday meal, and told me to go to bed. She said she didn’t want me yawning through my own baptismal service the next evening. Then she placed a warm-wet hand on my head and asked, by way of preparatory quiz, “And what is it you commit to when you go down in the water?”
“To always remember Jesus and keep his commandments,” I recited, straight from our sacrament prayers.
“And?” she prompted, fishing for an addendum of her own.
“To love and forgive others.”
WHEN I MET Norris Grubgeld, I was twenty-seven and had watched Ben-Hur almost every Easter since my eighth birthday. In that time, I had come to greatly admire its theme, an addendum to my mother’s addendum: how to forgive, when such seems beyond human capacity. This, of course, is one of the grand tenets of Christianity. Thanks to a thousand sermons and Sunday school lessons, I knew it as well as I knew the sacrament prayer. It is a tenet I believe in, the only thing that explains why some wronged souls find peace and others don’t. As a bishop, the lay leader of the little ward in Balford, I regularly recommend it one on one to people who, for one reason or another, are not at peace. Yet it’s clear to me now that, until I ran into Grubgeld last week in Golden Oaks Nursing Home in Billings, Montana, admiring and recommending were all the farther I, Bishop Ed Beverly, had gone with that theme.
A long-unaddressed grudge, and its eventual remedy, make the only defensible parallel between my story and the movie’s story. For starters, Grubgeld was not a boyhood friend, as the Roman military tribune Messala is to Judah Ben-Hur; his power was exerted, not over the Jews in first-century Jerusalem, as Messala’s is, but over five English teachers, a speech instructor, and a libidinous drama coach at a place called Gafton College on the plains of Nebraska; and he never asked me to betray my people.
But he did fire me. He was the only boss in my life who saw fit to do that. You are now one of humanity’s wronged souls, Ed Beverly! In the twenty-five years since the firing, I had actually gotten to the point where I could laugh at such self-pitying rubbish. But time is responsible for that progress; time takes the edge off almost everything. And self-mockery is not forgiveness, which I realized very clearly when the mere sound of elbow crutches somewhere down a hall in the D-Wing of that nursing home (D for dementia) triggered exactly the same chill it triggered twenty-five years earlier.
Nothing notable about crutches in such a place except I knew this pair. The ca-chunk of wrist-collar linkage put me right back in that basement hall of the humanities building at Gafton College. When I had last seen Grubgeld, two states away, on an evening in mid-May of 1982, he was fifty-five, as I now am, and putting on his doctoral regalia for that year’s commencement exercises. I had stepped into the hall for a drink at the water fountain and caught a glimpse of him, from behind, settling his cap onto his ears, which, by virtue of their size and flare, would prevent it from settling any farther. By long tradition, commencement was held in the Oscar P. Duworth Chapel, on the other side of the tidy little Presbyterian campus, and, considering his means of mobility, he was going to have to hurry.
We were the only two still on the hall. Exempted as I was from attending graduation, I was using the time to box my things so as to meet the unsigned vacancy deadline (by sundown or else!) mysteriously taped to my office door during the hour I was gone for lunch. Exemption from graduation, by the way, was granted only for the direst of circumstances and required the approval of not only Chairman Grubgeld, but of his boss as well, a bow-tied, pipe-smoking dean by the name of Artie Lemon. By five, my colleagues were gone. The last three out were my friend Isaac Freed, workaholic Mildred Jo Fitzmeyer, and Hearn the libidinous drama coach (accompanied by two female students willing to laugh at enough of his suggestive jokes to secure an A in their “Stage Methods” class). It was an ideal moment for a farewell from the boss, yet there was no farewell. Grubgeld did not come up the hall to me, nor, in fairness, did I walk down the hall to him. All the best, Ed. Same to you, Nate. What would it have hurt either of us to say such words, to say something?
SHORTLY INTO ITS three-and-a-half hours, Ben-Hur becomes a story of grievance. When Judah refuses to disclose and help stamp out every last pocket of Jewish rebellion, Messala contrives to condemn his mother and sister to a leprous dungeon and Judah himself to an oar bench in one of Caesar’s galleys. Off-camera, for good measure, he orders the torture and imprisonment of Simonides, faithful servant to the House of Hur and father of Judah’s love interest, Esther.
I am well acquainted with other people’s grievances, little and big. You can’t teach as long as I’ve taught (Gafton plus Cody Community makes twenty-eight years) without hearing every student lamentation under the sun. And halfway through a projected six years or so as a Mormon bishop, I spend a lot of time listening to hard accounts of sickness, financial trouble, addiction, waywardness, selfishness, sexual folly. It is a rare case that doesn’t involve one human wronging another. Some of the hurt in those accounts settles so heavily on me that leaving the bishop’s office late Sunday or on a mid-week evening is like trudging a sand pit.
Still, I don’t personally know grievance as Judah knows grievance. By comparison, being fired is small-fry. For that matter, I don’t know grievance as Grubgeld knows it. Neither polio nor accident accounted for his paraplegia. I heard the story from Isaac Freed. At the bedside of eight-year-old Norrie Grubgeld, the doctor attributed the belly ache to gas, a diagnosis that greatly relieved parents who had to make do from the collection plate of a tiny Presbyterian church in my boss’s hometown of Burr, Nebraska. By the time the screams forced a midnight trip to a hospital forty miles away in Lincoln—half that distance by dirt road—the appendix had already ruptured. Oddly, the infection spared the organs and settled in the lower part of the spinal cord. Two weeks after the surgery, young Norrie crawled clumsily out of his hospital bed only to realize that, notwithstanding the doctor’s assurances, movement did not restore the feeling in his toes and legs. Specialists in Omaha confirmed that the handicap was permanent.
Freed first heard that story from senior department member Phyllis Lundquist, who had heard it directly from Grubgeld, shortly after his arrival at Gafton, in 1955, two years after her own. Despite her seniority, despite competence and leadership potential quite a bit more promising than his, she was passed over for chair. Phyllis had a nose for humbug, which understandably put a man like Artie Lemon on constant guard, no matter how studiously he affected calm with the smoking of his pipe. Hence the perceived retribution when, instead of winning the chair appointment, she found herself sitting on yet another committee. What would we ever do without you, Phyllis? She remembered, at the end of the appendix story, Grubgeld’s lip trembling and his voice so choked he could hardly finish his last sentence—much like her own lip and voice when she recounted her long history at Gafton College.
That kind of grievance—the faulty diagnosis, the parental oversight, the job snub, the genteel exploitation—puts mine in its place. But, big or little, it was the grievance that was mine to deal with. On an afternoon in mid-March of 1982, Grubgeld approached my not quite fully closed office door (stealth was not one of his gifts) and said, “Knock-knock-knock.” Before I could even respond, the big rubber floor grip of one crutch snaked between door and jamb, and, in an instant, I was fully exposed. “Got a minute,” he said, more as a command than a question.
According to a practice by then familiar to me, reprimands took place in his office. So what was this? He maneuvered, stiff-legged, to the ratty visitor’s chair, leaned his crutches against my bookcase, then dropped into the seat like a sandbag. “Ed,” he said, after shifting and settling, “I hate that it’s come to this, but you haven’t left me a lot of choice. Dean Lemon is right about that.”
Despite the gravity of the moment, there was a certain rueful humor to the claim that a man like Artie Lemon was right about anything. Rueful humor unabashed was my dad’s reaction when I showed up back in Balford, tail between my legs. He could hardly regard the loss of that particular job as much of a blow. “Six years of college,” he said, “and you could’ve made more unplugging toilets.” My dad had waded ashore at Tarawa amid floating limbs and torsos and thus knew more at age eighteen about indignity and injustice than I ever will. When the war ended, he came home to a trade that required dealing, at all hours, with pipes full of unspeakable nastiness. Compared to what could come from such experience, rueful humor looks pretty good.
Don’t misunderstand me. Whatever equanimity I might have claimed before my recent visit to Golden Oaks Nursing Home took twenty-five years to accrue—after a very slow start. On the actual occasion of my firing, my dander was up, hackles raised, spleen well exercised—in response to both the bad news and to the man delivering it. We had never liked each other. It was only with misgivings that he offered me a job in the first place and only out of desperation that I took it.
“And this religion of yours,” he had said toward the end of the job interview, “you have no plans to bring it into the classroom, I trust?”
It took only the first reprimand for me, the new hire with the oddball BYU on his transcript (instead of the typical U of N or Bellevue or Chadron), to know the dangers of “bringing” my religion anywhere Grubgeld might catch a whiff of it. Early in my first semester, after handing out copies of a short story by a Mormon writer—to supplement an anthology unit featuring Catholic writers and Protestant writers and Jewish writers—I was summoned to his office.
“Ed,” he said, “I thought I made myself more than clear on this sort of thing.”
The offense, I gathered, was a mixing of church and school. Never mind that Mildred Jo Fitzmeyer, in her technical writing class, taught the rudiments of document layout by having her students assemble the weekly bulletin for Gafton First Methodist’s Sunday service. Or that cheerful Tatum, speech teacher and part-time Baptist youth minister, used Bible-camp songs (accompanied by his guitar) to help students overcome stage fright. Or that Hearn the libidinous drama coach could, for twenty years, bring the religion of randy innuendo into classrooms and rehearsals, could regularly lubricate that innuendo with the religion of Beefeater’s gin, and so long as Gafton’s little auditorium filled on opening night, there was never a censure.
I didn’t realize the specific complaint against me and my religion until the second year’s reprimand. In a lesson on the amazing human capacity for taxonomy, I had listed on the chalkboard as many religions and subdivisions of religions as the students could think of. It was foolish enough to add mine to the list at all, but the death knell was locating it under the Christian heading. The Church’s full name, as I explained (while incriminating myself with chalk left unerased), is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, I granted, it’s a mouthful, but it serves as solid verification for those who are suspicious of the focus of our worship.
“Ed,” he said, after another summons to his office, “we are a progressive school, but we also have to be mindful of our heritage. We are, after all, a Christian college and are understandably discomfited by cults.”
“Mormonism isn’t a cult,” I said. In response to his dry chuckle and skeptical smile, I said—bravely, proudly, insubordinately, “I’m just as Christian as you are.”
For twenty-five years I have pondered the several ironies of that declaration.
After that reprimand, accompanied by a mandatory “Personal Improvement Plan” (PIP), I could have shined his orthopedic shoes, made his coffee, brought him baked goods every morning—as young colleague Libby McBride did—and never, in the remainder of his career, won his favor. At least that’s what I tell myself. We had never been easy in one another’s company, but after my Christianity boast, everything became adversarial.
Pick your example: During each of my three Decembers at Gafton, I left for Christmas break, and for Balford, before the department get-together at his house. Number two: I did not devise multiple-choice and true-false exams to mathematically counter poor grades on actual writing assignments. (Artie Lemon is the walking embodiment of the Peter Principle—T or F.) Alas, to mark those assignments, I used pencil and not department-issue red pens. Number three or four or whatever: I showed up for work each day earlier than the boss, which upset his routine considerably. Now I unlocked the main door and flipped on the hall light; now I got the first cold swallow of the day from the freshly disinfected water cooler; now I went first into the shiny-clean bathroom before settling into a swivel chair to note all other arrivals, including his. And I did most of that noting by ear since my door was almost fully closed, its hinge angle nowhere near the strongly suggested ninety degrees.
“Ed,” he said in another moment of exhortation, “a fully open door sends a better message to our students.” (This from a man whose antipathy for students was topped only by his antipathy for problem faculty members.)
Trifling and ludicrous as they were, such points became the substance of a constant antagonism. Considering his nature and considering mine—frequently unChristian, both of them—it was only a matter of time before I gave him grounds to fire me. Obviously he wanted a reason that wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with my religion. Yet there really could be no such reason for me. In saying that, I am not claiming persecution; I mean that if I had practiced the religion I profess, if I had heeded my mother’s addendum, I could have negotiated the frictions and kept my job. Mormonism is generally known for its prohibitions—tobacco, alcohol, illicit sex, and so on. But compared to loving your enemy, chastity is a cakewalk.
Eventually, as I said, Grubgeld found his reason to have done with me. As it happened, I was not enthusiastic about his favored method of marginally annotating student essays. This method, imported from some bygone conference workshop, was known in Gafton’s humanities department as RCS. Review-Consult-Solidify! Cryptic annotations, coded to sections of a grammar handbook, were drilled by the hour in mandatory department “in-service” sessions—as if just the right abbreviation, located beside a line containing this or that error, would somehow transform already certified carelessness into a sudden eagerness to correct and master. Pedagogically, the method was pure delusion. But pedagogy, I finally realized, wasn’t the point; the point was window dressing to persuade Dean Artie Lemon we were earning our keep. Yet there must have been a better way of communicating my thoughts about RCS than the way I chose in a department meeting in January of my third and final year. The whole approach, I argued, was Ridiculous-Comical-Stupid! And in saying so, I was Rude-Captious-Strident!
The truth is, RCS was no more delusional than most education quackery. Quackery is the coin of the realm and will forever have to be conceded by anyone who wants to teach. That fact wasn’t Grubgeld’s fault. Like me, like all of us, he had to live with contradictions and absurdities over which he had no control. Over time, that sort of impotence becomes a grievance all its own. Had I worried less about my defiance, I could have better seen the reasons for his.
And who could begrudge the man some defiance? A lifetime of rough terrain, starting with schoolyard miseries unnumbered, had brought him, by the time of our acquaintance, to some tried-and-true survival strategies: a felt businessman’s hat to protect his balding scalp, dark sun lenses clipped onto earthquake-resistant eyeglass frames, suspenders of sturdy elasticity, and different sole thicknesses on his cobbler-custom shoes to level his world as much as it could be leveled. And he was scrupulously independent. Though the college offered the use of its golf cart, he made a point of getting to questionably distant campus locations, like Duworth Chapel, under his own power. And he always carried his own things—briefcase, lunch box, umbrella—even made a point of not allowing others to open doors for him. “I’ve got it, thanks,” he said over and over, everywhere, all the time, all his life, until the curtness was as reflexive as breathing.
Grubgeld’s handicap, coincidentally, is the same handicap Simonides is left with after being tortured in a Roman dungeon called The Citadel. After his release, he owes his mobility to an ox of a man named Malluch, a fellow inmate left mute by his torturers. “Since then,” Simonides explains to Judah, “I have been his tongue, and he has been my legs. Together we make a considerable man.” As far as I know, Grubgeld has had no Malluch in his life, has allowed no such alliance with another human being.
After enough years away from Gafton, I came to pity Grubgeld. But my pity was more dodge than compassion. Pity of that kind I could give the man because pity is easy. It yields self-approval without any change of heart. And change of heart is what any Christian religion, especially mine, should be about. I lost my job not because I was Mormon, but because I wasn’t Mormon enough.
GIVEN THE NATURE of grievance, it’s only logical that Ben-Hur is also a story of revenge. “Your eyes are full of hate,” says Quintus Arrius when, as the new fleet consul, he first confronts Judah on an oar bench in the bowels of a galley. “That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength.” What Arrius can’t know is the object of that hate. Caesar Tiberius? The swarthy drummer who marks the rowing cadence? The calluses on the hands and rump of a nobleman? Maybe, in some perverse way, Arrius sees the hate of the galley slaves as a tribute to his own overseer beneficence. “We keep you alive to serve this ship,” he says upon assuming command of this particular vessel. “So row well and live.”
Despite the hackles raised reflexively by the boss sitting knee to knee with me in my cramped office, I knew the verdict being delivered had originated in the much more spacious office of Dean Artie Lemon, a world away in the administration building. That verdict was, of course, gravely pondered, piously regretted, then duly documented on a “Personnel Status Form.”
“You’ll want to take care of this as soon as possible, Nate.”
As men go, Artie Lemon and Norris Grubgeld were not particularly bad sorts, no more self-interested than most. Undoubtedly they regarded the firing as an unsavory chore that came with the territory. But what if the territory is the grievance? The machinations of systems and institutions, underlings stacked under more underlings, bureaucracy thick as backfat—show me any part of life that doesn’t take you into such territory. It’s hard to put a face on that.
But in the end the object doesn’t much matter. Bitterness is bitterness, and it’s not the object it cankers. This truth is well evident to the movie’s wise-man character, Balthasar. Not very far into his first meeting with Judah, he sorrows over the same quality Arrius commends: “I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur.” On the matter of hatred, Esther would side with the wise man. “Blood gets more blood,” she tells Judah, “as dog begets dog.”
After I was fired, the closest I came to craving vengeance was the indulging of a fantasy. This period of indulgence was brief, and the fantasy itself, pretty bland. In it, I always found my Gafton bosses in some unlikely predicament—waterless in Death Valley, blanketless in the Arctic, ladderless in a pit. The important point in my fantasy was that I had the upper hand.
We keep you alive to serve this college, so row well and live.
No sooner had Grubgeld told me my days were numbered than he said, “I want you to know, Ed, this is not personal.” Though popular as a rationalization, that line is tripe. Even if, in the matter of my firing, it were true of my boss—and it wasn’t—it certainly wasn’t true of me. In any firing, there’s always a person who soon won’t have a job to go to Monday morning or a paycheck to pick up on Friday. To the aggrieved, grievance is always personal! Without that fact, Judah would have no story. For that matter, I would have no story.
Regarding the actual fates of my Gafton bosses, I cannot be so cavalier as I was in fantasy. Among the news in a surprise phone call from Isaac Freed, some years back, was passing mention of Artie Lemon’s death from lung cancer. After all those committee meetings and council meetings and cabinet meetings, the perennial convulsions over enrollment, retention, accreditation, all that sloganeering and acronymic gobbledygook—after all that, Dean Artie Lemon finally made it to the coveted pinnacle from which golf greens and pension checks stretch to the horizon. But not a month after the retirement reception meatballs and vegetable tray in the foyer of Duworth Chapel, he woke up one morning coughing a cough that scared his wife. “Artie, you are going to have to give up that pipe.”
And as to Norris Grubgeld, desert and ice floe have nothing over exile in the D-Wing.
Even if I were to call the fates of these two men poetic justice, such justice would affect me the same way it affects Judah when Messala’s ruthlessness on Judea’s chariot track finally backfires. “I see no enemy,” Judah says to the trampled and dying tribune. Is he blind? Messala wonders. Or is he not man enough to acknowledge before him, on the surgeon’s table, “the smashed body of a wretched animal”? But Judah sees something other than enemy or animal. If not for that one troublesome point, his vengeance would be, as the gasping Messala puts it, a “triumph complete,” and the story could end. But Messala’s death avenges nothing! It resolves nothing! Judah’s mother and sister are still lepers, and more to the point, Judah’s bitterness is not in any way assuaged.
Telling the story of grievance is a paradox. The closer the teller comes to rendering his grievance accurately, the more he dooms the story to incompletion. What we actually want, in our resolutions, is a kind of poetic injustice: In our hearts we hope for a ladder out of the pit, even when the digging of it is our own doing. That’s why the movie can’t end with Judah’s revenge. In the movie, as in life, there’s more to it than that.
THE SPRING OF 1982 was a long time ago. I survived, and life worked out. Who knows, for instance, if I ever would have found a wife in Gafton, Nebraska—as I did not too long after moving back to Balford? Vivian Sebright, only child of Darl and Avis. This was not the only time in my life a reversal was compensated. Thanks to a government paperwork glitch, I was denied a missionary deferral and got drafted in July of 1970, my first summer out of high school. We were given to understand that we would be in Vietnam by Christmas. On the foggy December morning our C-130 transport was waiting on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base, a lieutenant colonel showed up out of the blue, and said, “I don’t suppose any of you inbred derelicts know how to type.” Thanks to Miss Waterstradt’s tenth-grade “Office Methods” class, which my mother had to beg me to take, I spent the rest of my hitch clerking stateside.
Yet somehow it’s easier to acknowledge a compensation when the reversal is a vagary, part of the faceless territory of life I was talking about. But suppose there is a face behind the reversal. You can acknowledge any number of related mercies, as I have, and still not forgive the face. To really let go of most grievance takes more than a counting of blessings or looking on the bright side or accentuating the positive. All that can’t hurt, but it’s not the same as making peace. “I’ve heard of a young rabbi,” Esther tells Judah. As she describes it, the young rabbi’s voice “traveled with such a still purpose it was more than a voice.” And what that voice-more-than-a-voice says, then and now, is that the only way to make peace is to forgive trespasses and love enemies.
Impossible. When finally forced to test such sentiments myself, that’s what I said. Living such sentiments would take a miracle, and a miracle of that kind always sounds more agreeable—and easier—in Sunday school than it turns out to be Monday morning. After so long in the galleys, Judah claims not to believe in miracles at all. “I must deal with Messala in my own way,” he tells Sheik Ilderim. For someone who doesn’t believe in God, such a statement is understandable. But from Judah? Irony begets irony. Just before the chariot race, he asks God to forgive him for seeking vengeance. That seems a strange and contradictory petition, much like many of my own. Then he ends the prayer by saying, “Into your hands I commit my life.” As long as he’s asking for contradictions, as long as he’s pledging his life, why not ask for and pledge the wherewithal to forgive the unforgiveable?
INITIALLY, MY VISIT to Golden Oaks Nursing Home had nothing to do with forgiveness. Out of duty, and little more, I had come to see the ninety-two-year-old bedridden mother of a disaffected member of the Balford Ward. But I was too late.
“Not more than twenty minutes ago,” the receptionist said. “Are you clergy?”
“Not quite,” I said.
“She ate such a good lunch,” said a girl in floral scrubs. “Even finished all her mashed potatoes.”
“I can’t call the funeral home until I get a hold of her next of kin,” the receptionist said. She kept nervously lifting, then replacing, the telephone receiver in its cradle. “Do you know it’s been two weeks since I heard anything from that poor lady’s family?”
It was the next of kin—the sixty-year-old disaffected daughter—who had called my number at Cody Community College the day before to air a few grievances of her own, chief among them my neglect of her mother, a lady who had never lived in Balford, a lady I had never met or, before that phone call, heard of. The deeper enmity, I gathered as the daughter went on and on, was between her and her mother. The scattered details came to this: Some years earlier they had had a falling out, and now, as people do, the daughter was grieving her own grievance.
“I’m sorry you drove all that way,” the receptionist said.
No regrets. While in the city, I would do a little shopping, run a few errands, get a bite to eat. I thanked her and turned to leave.
“You just never know when it’s your time,” said the girl in scrubs, utterly without guile or glibness. “I guess just try to be ready is all you can do.”
I had taken several steps, but now stopped. It was as if I had just heard the most profound sermon of my life. If only the disaffected daughter could have heard it in time. Errands and a bite to eat! The smallness of my concerns took my breath away.
And that is when I heard, or thought I heard, elbow crutches, somewhere down the D-Wing.
But that wing lay beyond thick double doors. A fire alarm buzzer would hardly have penetrated, let alone the sound of aluminum linkage. How had I heard anything at all? Yet I had. I hesitated, then turned back to the reception desk. It was a peculiar request, but at this point there was nothing for it: I had to venture into that region of the building.
“You know someone down there?” the receptionist asked.
There was no explaining the real draw, so I said I tried to visit such places, such people, whenever possible—which, given my church duties, is not entirely untrue.
The receptionist shrugged, said, “I imagine you know what you’re in for, then.”
I didn’t. But I couldn’t leave without tracing the sound. I can’t explain it. I was curious, anxious, guilty, haunted. And, as I moved toward the D-Wing, I was fixated on the wisdom of the girl in scrubs. Just before one of the thick doors latched behind me—and locked from the lobby side—she called out: “It’s like for some of them down there life is frozen seventy years ago.”
She was right again. Walking the hall of any D-Wing, anywhere, is like walking through a time tunnel. Most of the residents live in a past only they can see. But, in those residents, most visitors see only too clearly their own futures and, for that reason, are eager to be gone from the place before they even cross the threshold. The impulse is to give a wide berth to the paramedics’ draped gurney, ignore the hearse backed up discreetly to a side door, blot out the mattress stripped of its sheets and leak pad, the mop bucket, the cart full of disinfectant bottles, and find the main exit as briskly as your legs will carry you.
Down the well-buffed hall, door by door, room by room, I checked name cards—simple laser-printed 3×5’s. Each card fit into a plastic bracket screwed chest-high to the wall beside the door. Hospital, hotel, prison—all in one facility. The din of game shows and soap operas on two dozen wall-mounted televisions didn’t quite muffle the moaning of the bedfast, the mumbling of roamers, the clearly enunciated ramblings of one who stopped me to ask if I was going to the wedding, and another, who needed directions to a movie theater in Santa Fe.
“You looking for anybody in particular?” asked a big orderly. His nametag said Remundo. He wore a white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, even a white belt. The mop bucket was his. “Or maybe you’re looking for some thing?”
It was uncanny. Now the place was something beyond hospital or prison; now it was my past. The room Remundo pointed me to—last door on the left—occupied the same floor-plan location as the boss’s office in the basement hall at Gafton College. For an instant I saw, instead of Grubgeld, N. on a 3×5 card, a handsomely engraved nameplate:
Dr. Norris T. Grubgeld
Chair, Department of Humanities
“My door is always open,” he had said on the day he hired me.
But this one in Golden Oaks wasn’t; the hinge angle was nowhere close to ninety degrees. I knock-knock-knocked; no one answered; I entered. The bed linen was folded at the foot of the mattress, the television screen dark, the room bare of personal effects. In that moment, I was nearly overcome with the dread that Grubgeld, N. had also chosen today to depart this world, after eating all his mashed potatoes.
Back in the hall, I felt weird, disoriented. I needed to find Remundo, but I had the strangest feeling I wasn’t going to find him here. Because here was not here. Looking up and down the hall, I was back in that basement at Gafton. Same floor plan. There was cheerful Tatum’s office, with a laminated yellow smiley face tacked to his nameplate and the guitar case standing upright in a corner by his neat desk. Directly across the hall, Phyllis Lundquist, who kept, beneath the framed diplomas on her wall, her one Teacher of the Year plaque, the most overdue and well-deserved award of that kind ever given. And my good friend Isaac Freed, whose door was festooned with clipped comic strips, couplets, adages, epigrams. Weird thoughts ran through my mind. I tell you, for a time, in that nursing home in Billings, Montana, I was back treading the underground at Gafton College. Every day for three school years, I walked that hall—to and from class, bathroom, drinking fountain, microwave, supply room (for more pencils). Every day for three years I listened to its human sounds:
I might as well go squat at a stop sign with a piece of cardboard—WILL GRADE FOR FOOD.
The way to get over it is to just picture your audience in their underwear.
Twenty-seven years I’ve been here; surely that’s worth something.
Oh, Libby, you’re going to spoil me with these brownies of yours.
And endless giggles from that office right there, then a coed’s voice, from right there, saying, with mock indignation, “No fair!”
“That’s not fair,” I heard someone say just inside a doorway from which the edge of the yellow mop bucket protruded. This voice protesting the most recent injustice in the world came from the room closest to the D-Wing’s locked-from-the-outside double doors. The 3×5 said Coombs, D. So I was back in the land of Golden Oaks but soon realized that, in her mind, Coombs, D. was somewhere else. “No fair, Joey,” said a woman not all that much older than I am. Except there was no Joey. Just Remundo, mopping the closet-sized bathroom and patiently explaining: “I’m telling you, Miss C., he ain’t here; he’s long gone.” Miss C. or Coombs, D.—or whoever she was at the moment—monitored every move the orderly made. “We can’t play this game properly,” she insisted, “if you keep hiding in the outhouse. It’s no fair.”
An odd urgency impelled me. Half breathless, slightly dizzy, I crowded into the doorway with the hide-and-seek player, interrupted her to make my own complaint. “He’s not there,” I said to Remundo. “The room is empty.”
Remundo told Coombs, D. to go look for Joey in the barn, and when she had left us, he smiled a wide-mouthed smile full of big, even teeth. “It’s cool, man,” he said, mopping in slow motion. “Old Mr. G. ain’t gone nowhere we can’t find him, not in the five years I been here. Son’s a pilot, flies all over the world, but some reason picked Billings for home base. When his old man started losing his marbles, brought him up here from somewhere down South—”
“Nebraska,” I said.
“Bingo,” Remundo said. “Only child, I think. Mother’s dead, wanted to keep an eye on his pop, I guess.”
That’s right. He was married. The printed invitations to the Christmas parties I didn’t attend were from Dr. and Mrs. Norris Grubgeld. But I didn’t remember a child, had let the crutches become such a symbol of the man that I never considered the possibility. There was a lot I hadn’t considered twenty-five years ago.
“Retired something or other at a little college down there,” Remundo said, dipping the mop in the bucket’s dirty water, hauling it up again, lowering the hanging, dripping strands into the wringer. Every move was slow, slower, slowest, as if he had ahead of him the mopping of every stone atop the Great Wall of China and saw no good reason to rush. “Healthy as a horse, can tell you all about when he was a kid, but he don’t remember two minutes ago.”
When Coombs, D. came back from trying to find Joey in the barn, Remundo had to send me on my way. “Try the dayroom,” he said. “Just follow the hall down past the bend. Can’t miss it.” So I went beyond the bend and, in the process, past who knows how many barns and cellars and sandlots and gardens and porch swings. And at the end of that hall there was indeed a dayroom—one much too dim for its name. But Remundo was right: Grubgeld, N., husband and father, hadn’t gone anywhere, except eight hundred miles from Gafton, Nebraska. Even from behind, I recognized the thick black stems of his glasses and the generous ears those stems rested on.
He was in a wheelchair, sitting at a twelve-foot folding table spread with board games and a pile of undisturbed jigsaw puzzle pieces. Except for a floor pacer and another wheelchair rider napping in front of a television—this one blessedly muted—Norris Grubgeld was alone. Slowly I moved around the table so as to face him. Like me, with my paunch and receding hairline, my recent colonoscopy and joint stiffness of a morning, he had aged. Nostrils and ears sprouted hair, but the scalp was barren except for a few white strands combed sideways. The skin of his cheeks and neck was looser, the lenses of his glasses thicker. Only his chest and shoulders were unchanged. Even the gray sweater jacket zipped all the way to his throat could not conceal the breadth nor the muscling. During my Gafton days it hadn’t occurred to me: He had the upper body of a gymnast. I sat down in a folding chair across from him; he was scooting chess pieces around on a Monopoly board and did not look up.
There were no elbow crutches anywhere close to him. Nor any crutches by either of the other residents. Nor, when I thought about it, had I seen any crutches in the time warp of the hall. Walkers, canes, carts, IV poles—but no elbow crutches. And wheelchairs do not make the sound in question. Yet because of that sound I had been drawn to the D-Wing. And, with Remundo’s help, I had found Grubgeld, N. What were the odds? Almost exactly twenty-five years after we had sat across from each other for the last time in my basement office at Gafton College, there I was in a folding chair, sitting across from him again.
“Dr. Grubgeld?” I said as he pushed a king and pawn around Marvin Gardens and Park Place. “Norris?”
Finally he looked up from his game. Through the glinting lenses of his glasses, he studied me across the folding table.
“Norris?” I said, looking hard at those lenses. “Dr. Grubgeld? It’s me—Ed Beverly. Do you remember?”
He stared at me until scrutiny gave way to compassion. “But you can’t kill a king,” he explained. “He’s only subject to check-mate.”
“Do you remember me? Ed Beverly? Edwin?”
Grubgeld peered at me, as if mildly perplexed. Then slowly his expression changed, from perplexity, to fear, to anguish. “Papa,” he said suddenly, “where’s the doctor? My stomach hurts so bad.” He took off his glasses and said, “Why did he leave, Papa? Why?”
When he began to cry, I was moved in a way I’ve never been moved before.
At the very end of the movie, coming directly from Golgotha, Judah enters the once great House of Hur—now dark and run down—and is met by Esther. His unburdening, his change of heart, shows in his face. “Almost the moment he died,” Judah says, referring to the young rabbi, “I heard him say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
“Papa! Pa-pa!” my old boss said, weeping, “it feels like a knife!” Then he made a fist and slammed the game table so hard half the chess pieces bounced off the Monopoly board and clattered onto the tile floor. “Smash those crutches!” he said, crying, running at the nose, leaking at the mouth, all without the least hint of self-consciousness. “Smash the damn things! Smash them!”
As abruptly as it had started, the crying stopped. Slowly old Norris Grubgeld brought a sweater sleeve up to his nose, then on to his eyes. In three years’ time, I had seen those eyes only through the thickest of lenses. They now grew remarkably clear and penetrating, and he said, in his one and only lucid flash, “I know who you are, Ed Beverly.”
Almost thirty years of enmity, over what? Review-Consult-Solidify? The disproportion is staggering! Sitting across from my old boss, I knew, with the most sobering realization of my life, that the only person responsible for my wrongs and my grudges and my vanities was me, and that I therefore needed forgiveness as much as any other person on the planet needed it.
In his last line to Esther, the last line of dialogue in the movie, Judah explains what happened to him on Golgotha: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.” Then the camera moves to take in his mother and sister at the top of a long stairway, and he ascends to meet and embrace them, their reunion made even sweeter with his realization that the lepers are healed and whole, as he now is. The expression on his face is finally the whole sermon of Christianity.
Dozens of times I’ve watched that last scene. The moment always brings tears. I defy anyone to see it and not be moved. Only afterward does it get written off as something other than what it has to be if that young rabbi is, as Esther says he is, “a man more than a man.” Only afterward, when the feeling fades, does the film buff or critic come up with other reasons for the scene’s power. Maudlin emotion? Swelling score? Choreographed closure?
Only if you think that’s what such healing comes down to.
But I know it’s more than that—for princes, yeomen, borrowers, lenders, masters, hirelings. It’s better than resignation, better than pity or a tallying of trials and blessings, better even than rueful humor. For one stark moment across that game table, I saw Norris Grubgeld’s face, and, reflected in his eyes, my face—and both wore exactly the same expression Judah wears there at the end. This was the same expression, incidentally, on the face of the disaffected daughter when, much later that evening, with her still sitting with the telephone in her lap, in her little living room in Balford, I asked if maybe it wasn’t time to set her burden down, too.
First, though, I had to take my leave of Norris Grubgeld. Just after I said good-bye, just before I got up from the folding chair to head for home, the muted screen on the dayroom television went black. And just like that, the other wheelchair rider awoke, scrubbed the sleep from his eyes, got his bearings as much as they could be gotten, then slowly wheeled to an open space in the middle of the room. Before I knew it, Norris Grubgeld had put on his glasses, thumbed off his wheel brakes, and was nimbly maneuvering toward the same spot. Checking the floor tiles carefully, the two competitors came to some imaginary starting line. Nine laps around the dayroom? No foul play. No stretcher-bearers necessary. They then positioned themselves according to specifications only they could know, gripped a wheel in each hand, and finally—by default, I suppose—looked to me for a signal.
And I obliged.