The Thomas Hardy Project: Book One Preview: The Hardy Girl, Ch 1 - 3
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Four Gen-X students at a midwestern seminary in the mid-1990s find their assumptions about life, love, and spiritual calling upturned, as they write papers reviewing Thomas Hardy novels. As they do so, each one finds themselves involved with a young woman who eerily embodies one of Hardy’s heroines in a modern setting. Their stories become ever more entwined; and the young men must confront darker aspects of their own characters before they are prepared to serve out their callings.
Book One: The Hardy Girl
It all began in a theology class at a midwestern seminary in the mid-1990s. At the bottom of a syllabus distributed to students in their second year were assignments that could be turned in for extra credit: book reports on classic, tragic, and imposingly lengthy novels. Dr. Nettleman had taught the class: An Introduction to Luther’s Theology of the Cross, for over thirty years. In that time, he had seen come and go earnest young men in tight, white-collared shirts, thin black ties, and square-rimmed glasses; these were replaced in the nineteen-seventies with shaggy-haired and Birkenstock-ed free-thinkers, only to be followed in the next decade by wedge-haired young men and by hair-sprayed young women, eager to represent their gender now seeking ordination. In all that time, the course material never changed.
In Nettleman’s mind there was no reason to change his approach to the class as the Gospel had not changed, nor had the Bible. If a few of his younger colleagues suggested to him that, while the Bible and the Gospel were timeless, the context of teaching theology constantly changed, Dr. Nettleman would clear his throat, look as though he were about to make a rebuttal, but then simply lift his bushy eyebrows and look down his nose. He had full confidence in his approach to the class.
But Nettleman was not the stuffy and humorless academic that all this might suggest. He was a man of books, not just theological, doctrinal, or philosophical, but literary. He had an artist’s soul. For him, the stories of the great masters, works of true literature, pointed at the ancient truths his students studied in the same manner that river plants, bending slightly in a slow-moving stream, will indicate the direction of the water’s flow which at first is imperceptible to the eye. Nettleman wanted his students to wrestle with how theology touched upon the canvas of human lives. What better way to do this than to expose them to some of the most complex characters in the western literary tradition. How this contributed to their training as ministers in tiny congregations in the rural expanse of the Great Plains, he left to the imagination. Nettleman was committed to the view that no man or woman is as simple as they might appear; that inside the breast of each one beat the heart of a hero or heroine, or at least a supporting character, akin to any that Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës, or Conrad could conjure up.
It was Nettleman’s intention that after their course reading had been completed, which included selections from Luther’s Works, various publications on systematic theology, and other such heady instructionals, the students were free to venture into the intersection of life and theology, encountering the fallenness of man in the pages of 19th and early 20th Century authors. It was there, imagined the professor, that his students would wrestle more deeply with the meaning of Christ’s cross, finding it to be less of a ‘means to an end’ or a ‘transaction,’ than a ‘second incarnation’; one made into humanity’s spiritual death and all its related darkness.
Amongst his students that year were four friends newly made. Having been assigned their rooms on the same floor and in the same dormitory hallway, it was natural that these young men ate together on their first day of their arrival at the school, opening their doors at noon to discover one another peering into the long hallway. Such an odd group it was, formed in the necessity of finding fellows and fellowship from amongst many of their own age, most having just graduated with bachelor’s degrees from institutions all over the country. And so, gathered into a new set of strangers, there was in force that ancient draw to association: to make kind or kindred; to have a tribe.
These four young men were all in their early twenties and unattached—these being their only shared characteristics. They did not have similar affinities for music or style; nor were they of similar scholarly ability. And yet, they did all enjoy beer; and it happened that just down the road from the seminary was a tavern that featured cheap food, even cheaper beer, and a wall of dartboards. These distractions were enough to occupy young men for at least the four years necessary to complete a seminary degree.
This was their second year, and it happened that all four of them were enrolled that spring semester in Nettleman’s Theology of the Cross class. This being Minnesota, the idea that it was “spring” carried its own irony. The only distinguishing feature between the fall and spring semester were their educational offerings, given that the weather was basically the same during both periods of time. The inhabitants of this northern land endured annually six to seven months of winter; there being a pause in the cold and dark of about five months into which was crammed: a hesitant spring, a rushed and anxious summer of humid and heavy air, and a crisp autumn that was summarily brushed aside by the returning winter, asserting itself in mid-November.
Winter sun was the natural state of this northern clime, its short day coupled with sixteen hours of darkness that set in around 4 PM in the depths of that season. The cold of this part of the country was a factor of simple geography. With no large body of water to temper the extremes, the full effect of continental winter settled in as a crystalline dome, impenetrable to all warm fronts and southerly winds until the tilt of the planet shattered its meniscus and gave a temporary reprieve.
One of the four young men was used to these extremes, having been raised in western North Dakota. This was Andrew, a tall and confident rust-haired, young man with a quick-witted mind. He grasped the principles of Biblical theology with the same rapidity as he had his undergraduate classes in liberal arts. He rarely had to study to maintain a good average. Of the four, he was the only one to take his seminary classes for grade, anticipating the potential for doctoral studies in the future. Andrew sported the goatee, black jeans, and thick-soled boots of his late-90s grunge-styling. Many afternoons, his dorm-room was the place the four gathered socially, its walls thumping with the industrial guitar rhythms, drums, dobro, and fiddles of the alternative country music Andrew enjoyed. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul boasted numerous live stages, giving Andrew ample opportunity to see his favorite cutting-edge performers as they came through the Upper Midwest. John Prine was his new obsession, a progenitor of this genre, but Andrew still boasted of his Bauhaus days when New Wave and Post-Punk dominated his collection. Andrew went by Andy in his childhood, Drew in High School, and Andrew as a post-graduate—the most recent iteration of his ever-evolving persona. Andrew seemed destined for a large influential church in the Chicago area.
Paul was opposite Andrew in this quadrad of unlikely friends. He hailed from Virginia, but he had completed his undergraduate in Cincinnati. Paul was slightly taller than Andrew and was built solid as a truck. He drove a truck too; and he styled himself as some version of an urban cowboy, listening to classic rock and ‘new’ country music, piped and turbo-charged, through the subwoofer mounted under the back seat of his vehicle. He kept his hair longer, sported a few tattoos, and spoke with a mild southern accent that was possibly authentic. Paul was tough and gruff, not what came to mind upon the mention of ‘seminarian’. But he also managed a disarming sense of humor that rounded out his personality. To the casual observer Paul seemed constructed by committee. Academically, Paul was not the strongest of the four, but he was the most committed to the Lutheran heritage of which he often spoke. Having bought a clerical collared shirt earlier than was necessary, he also seemed to idolize the outer expressions of pastoral authority. At odd times during the day, one might find Paul wandering the hallways of the seminary, dressed in a white Roman collar with a pectoral cross dangling around his neck, reciting portions of the catechism. Paul seemed destined to return to the small-town, or rural east.
The third member of the quadrad was Mike. Mike was shorter, blonde, and prematurely balding on the crown of his head. He most often dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Mike could often be found in his recliner in his dorm room, sporting white, thread-bare, undershorts, and three days’ worth of reddish-blonde stubble. But Mike had a sharp intellect, matching or surpassing even Andrew. His grasp of theological concepts was less intuitive, but his ability to retain pieces of information and place them into a congruent whole made him a force to reckon with in any classroom debate. Mike found his voice in any intelligent conversation. He was the most loyal friend of the quadrad and probably the most suited to ministry. He seemed destined for a congregation in the open country, somewhere further west of his hometown near Ames, Iowa.
Completing the quadrad was Thomas—in some ways the least noteworthy and most nondescript of the four. Tom was mid-height, mid-weight and only above average in intellect. Having come to the United States from Canada, he also carried the innate quietness and unassuming nature, common to those from north of the border. Thomas appeared distinctively, if not disappointingly ordinary, in the same way that Larry Mullen Jr was, ironically, the odd-ball in the band U2, precisely because he is the least odd-ballish. Thomas was always clean-shaven with a side-part he had worn since high school, roughly still the “prep” he was back then. Thomas he would have fit in as an extra or a crowd member in any John Hughes film. But the point of departure from Thomas’ nondescript-ness was his attraction to evangelicalism. This inclination put him in conflict at points with the other three, who were more mainstream in their Protestantism. This was generally tolerated by the others if Thomas did not make too much of it in classroom discussions. That Thomas enjoyed beer covered over most of the problems this spiritual bent created in late-night theological jousting.
The point at which this quadrad became worthy of observation was in the sixth week of their spring semester in Dr. Nettleman’s Cross class. As was normal for a Monday night, they were down at The Hatch, the tavern a quarter mile from their campus. Monday nights were slow, and The Hatch offered an unbelievable deal: $2 drafts of Grain Belt Premium with every meal. As the meals themselves were only six to eight dollars, it was the perfect place for poor and unattached post-graduates to spend time and what remained of their academic loans. It was also an ideal place for single men, young men who had moved far from home, facing four years of cloistered study and the sacrifices of ordained ministry. Had they girlfriends to entertain, The Hatch would not have been the place to do so beyond a single “meet the guys” excursion. The Hatch was a retreat to a simpler environment, to the comforts of fried food, greasy meat, beer, and loud music, all in a well-lit room that was mostly empty on Mondays. After three semesters together, conversations were predictable; so were the dart scores. Their perennial game was Cricket. Andrew, always the over-achiever, won at this too, scoring multiple bullseyes at the end of each match just to show he could.
“Damn, I’m good!” trumpeted Andrew. He balanced for a moment on his right foot after having landed a second consecutive bullseye. For a moment he poised comically as a gymnast or figure skater might hold their pose for style points at the end of a routine, except what was routine for Andrew was dominating every dart game.
“That’s enough for me,” eeyorded Mike. “I suck at this game, anyway.”
“Oh, come-on, Mike. I’ll buy you another game and another round,” encouraged Andrew.
“Oh, another two-dollar Grain Belt, huh? Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I’m good for it,” said Paul.
“Me too,” injected Thomas.
“Okay, last round gentleman,” announced Andrew. “You sure you’re gonna sit this one out, Mikey?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna finish this beer.”
Paul started off and landed a double-ten right away followed by an eighteen. Thomas missed one dart completely which hit the wall, bounced back and stuck at an odd angle in the stained carpet. His next dart picked up an eight. Andrew knocked off a bullseye and followed with a double-bull just for good measure. He always got better as the night went on. The game continued like that until Andrew closed out all the large numbers, making it impossible for anyone else to finish.
“That’s it, I’m done,” Thomas announced.
“Me too,” said Paul.
“Yes, you are,” said Andrew triumphantly again.
The three of them joined Mike at the table. It was almost time to settle up as The Hatch was soon closing. As they waited for the bill, each one fumbled through their wallets for a method of payment. With the dart game finished and no more beer to sip, the quadrad sat in silence, the words having run out as well.
After a few minutes Mike spoke up: “So, I’m doing that extra credit for Nettleman’s class,” he said, offhandledly. “I’m half-way through one of those novels.” Mike often took the conversation in a more sophisticated direction. But this late in the evening it was only as though he had tossed a few more poker chips onto a pile, seeing if anyone else would bid along with him.
“What? Why? Are you taking this for grade?” asked Paul, revealing he had chips to spare.
“Maybe,” said Mike.
“Andrew’s doing that,” observed Thomas.
“I’m not. It isn’t worth my effort,” said Paul decisively.
“Maybe for you, but not for me.” Mike seemed indignant.
“I would think about it, but those books are all so long and I’ve got Christian Dogmatics this semester too,” said Thomas. “I wouldn’t have the time, especially with work.” Tom had a part-time job at a local church working with 8th graders.
“I don’t have a lot else to do. I might as well,” Mike shrugged.
“So, what are you reading, Mikey?” asked Andrew, resting his chin casually, with his elbow on the table.
“It’s a Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd. My dad read all the Hardy novels when he was younger. He said he couldn’t put them down.”
“Oh man, unrequited love. I can only take so much of that,” said Andrew provocatively. Of the four, he was the most broadly experienced with relationships with the opposite sex, though it might be said of Paul that he was the most acutely experienced.
“I don’t get why is Nettleman is offering this. What do these old novels have to do with ministry?” asked Thomas.
“Everything, simply everything,” said Mike, emphasizing his point as he often did by chopping at the table surface with his right hand.
“Do you know what you’re going to write about? I’m guessing it has to connect to the other coursework,” said Paul.
“Totally. It’s half-written in my mind already.” Mike finished his beer in one swallow and said, “Well, that’s all I have to say on that topic.”
Silence pursued with the break in theme and the quadrad of friends mindlessly fingered their empty glasses. After almost two years together they were comfortable enough that silence had long ago lost its anxious edge. Soon the barmaid came to the table to collect their methods of payment. She was a pretty brunette named Terri. She had served them on Monday nights most of the year.
“Separate or together, gentlemen?” Terri asked an ironic smile. “Guess what, I’ve already separated them, imagine that!” Her Celtic curls bounced as she laughed, filling out her chin length bob and bangs.
“You know what? I’ll get them all this time,” said Paul.
The rest of the crew all looked at Paul with confusion.
“What’s wrong?” asked Paul surprised. “My parents forwarded me some money against next semester’s loan. I’ll treat.”
“You don’t have to do that, Paul,” said Mike.
“Yeah, not necessary, man.” echoed Thomas.
Paul shrugged. “It’s not my money anyway.”
“Well, it’s money you’re gonna owe back, doncha think?” challenged Mike.
“I don’t care, that’s months away. Here, I got it.” Paul handed a wad of cash to the waitress and pushed the other methods of payment back to their respective owners.
“I guess you can’t beat two-dollar beers when they are free,” said Andrew. “Thanks, Paul.”
“No problem, guys.”
The four buttoned up their coats, donned their hats and cloves, and trudged out into the cold February night.
“There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.”
The Sayings of Agur
Mike finished his paper for Nettleman two weeks later. As fitting his scholarly nature, it was ten pages longer than it needed to be. As it was a Monday night again and the Grain Belt special was on at The Hatch, the four made their way along the avenue leading down from the seminary. Circles of light from the streetlamps stretched along in this Victorian section of Saint Paul’s western suburbs. The homes were large and artfully adorned, recalling an era when monied families had constructed their “statements” in stone, wood, and glass. The young men traveled past the museum-like edifices, moving in and out of the circles of light, hunching their shoulders against the cold. Particles of snow hung in the air, too weightless to land; some of them swirled back up into the sky when caught in the white conical projections of their breaths. This being March, the cold had taken on a new dampness that always meant the threat of new snow.
Along the western horizon sat the Minneapolis skyline with its gold and silver hues. The buildings took on an expanded and hallowed glow in the snowy air; their light also illuminating the low-hanging clouds. The city appeared ethereal, vision-like, as though nothing could be obscured in its ring of light. Thomas especially liked the Minneapolis skyline. Each year he was careful to choose a dorm room that looked west toward this second city on the upper Mississippi where it rested on the horizon. Nights like this, the scene was inspiring, reminiscent of John the Apostle’s vision of the City of God. The tallest buildings were in the very center of the city, fifty stories or more, with lower classes of skyscrapers extending out in concentric rings. It made the city appear as two sides of a descending graph, mirrored on the Y-axis; or one might consider them reminiscent of monolithic stones set in a ring, though of modern construction, not ancient.
In the summer, the skyline provided the foreground for dramatic thunderstorms coming in from the west, the strongest that Thomas had ever witnessed. Having also grown up in the eastern section of North America, the extremes of the central continent were still new to him: both the dry and bitingly cold winters, as well as the relenting humidity of the summers with their frequent storms. The annual temperature swing of nearly one-hundred-and-thirty degrees seemed impossible to Thomas when he thought about it, yet it was consistently true. At the prodding of some friends in his first year at seminary, he had boiled a pot of water on a winter day of minus-thirty. Having taken that pot outside, he threw its contents into the air, only to watch the scalding water burst into a cloud of ice crystals that floated away in the wind. Not a drop of water had touched the ground. Thomas pictured those tiny shards again as he watched crystals of similar size float by his face as they approached The Hatch.
Inside, the music was expectedly loud. Unexpected was the number of people. Strange for a Monday night, there were only a few tables open. The quadrad took a table in the back close to the dartboards, which were also occupied by groups of college students.
“So, are we celebrating Mike’s paper?” Thomas asked as they sat down.
Mike smiled and wagged his head back and forth, adding in low tones: “Glad to have that thing done.”
“Well, was it worth it?” asked Paul with a laugh.
“You know? It was. Totally. Totally worth it. But that is not why I’m celebrating.”
The eyes of the other three looked up from their menus.
“Okay, I’ll bite. So, what’s up, Mikey?” Andrew inquired.
“Well, I’m not saying it’s official. But I might be dating someone,” answered Mike. Again, He gestured with his hand in his familiar way, chopping it on the table in front of him as he said this, awkwardly definitive.
“‘Might be dating someone?” Paul scoffed. “Okay, how do you do that? I’m interested.”
“Ah, give him a break,” said Andrew defensively on Mike’s behalf. “If he’s dating someone, he’s dating someone…”
There was another awkward silence as everyone waited for Mike to fill in the blanks. He seemed to relish the moment, sitting with a satisfied smile.
“Her name is Beth—Elizabeth, actually. She’s the daughter of a couple my parents chummed around with back in Des Moines. She’s a little older than I am and sadly, she lost her husband last year.”
Again, the awkward silence. This was not how most “I might be dating someone” stories usually started.
“He died?” Paul interjected, hoping to clarify.
“Yes, Einstein. That’s exactly what ‘lost her husband’ means. He died in a car accident. She’s got two little kids, a boy and a girl. She’s inherited some land that belonged to her husband’s family, some sort of hobby farm.”
“So, have you met her? Beth, is it?” asked Andrew, interested.
“Oh yeah. Our families were friends, so we saw each other a lot when we were younger. She got married in college and had kid one and kid two right away; they are separated by just a little over a year in age. I’m going to drive down next weekend and see her.”
“So, your parents are setting you up? What do you mean you might be dating her?” asked Thomas.
“Just how it sounds, I might be dating her. Meaning after this weekend, maybe I’ll try to date her.”
“Ohhhh!” everyone seemed to say at once.
Laughing, Paul offered, “I thought you guys had hooked up already… somehow.” Andrew gave Paul a quick backhand to the shoulder.
“Nice,” said Mike. “Well, I’ll see.”
“So, she told your parents she wanted to meet you… again?” asked Thomas, still trying to understand the purpose of the celebration.
“I guess it’s all up in the air. I think she is open to meeting someone. That’s all I know.”
“What is she like?” asked Andrew, trying to rescue the moment. “Describe her.”
“It’s been ten years, but I remember she’s pretty cute. Our families used to get together every couple of months. The last couple of times I saw her was in junior high. I was really intimidated. She got her bachelor’s in business from a community college in Iowa City. I guess she’s going to turn the hobby farm into some sort of long-term source of income. Horseback riding, local vegetables, that sort of thing.”
“She sounds like she knows what she’s doing,” said Thomas, impressed. “She does. Like I said, the older we got as kids the more intimidated I was.”
“Say, Mike. You know what’s going on here, don’t you?
“What?” asked Mike, hesitantly.
“Well, you just read the book…” Andrew raised one eyebrow.
Andrew shifted in his seat and gave the rest of the crew a quick glance. “Madding Crowd. Are you feeling a little like the main character? What’s his name? Oak?”
“Gabriel Oak?” asked Mike. “No.”
“So, she’s not just a little like Bathsheba? Business minded, independent?”
“What? Oh, man. Not really… What, you’ve read it?” asked Mike tentatively.
“Back in high school. I don’t remember much, but wasn’t that basically the situation with the heroine of Madding Crowd? I’m just joking really, but it fits, right?” asked Andrew, shrugging his shoulders innocently.
“Um,” hesitated Mike. “Well, I hadn’t thought of that. I had no reason to think of it either. But I guess some details fit. But there is way more to that story.”
“In my experience there are no coincidences,” observed Thomas serenely.
“I don’t know what y’all are talking about, I only know one Bathsheba. She’s the one King David watched having a shower,” chuckled Paul.
Mike laughed. “Well, there’s a lot more to that story too.”
“Anyways, Mike’s got a crush on a girl from his childhood. That is worth a toast,” concluded Andrew. “Let me start it off: To Mike, that he might do better than—”
“We expect?” interjected Paul.
“Shut up, lame-o!” countered Mike. “Forget the toast, let’s order, I’m starving. Next week I will let you know how it goes. Don’t ask me anything more about it till then.”
Thomas lay awake a few hours thinking about the conversation at the Hatch that night. He knew he shared Mike’s awkwardness, trying to navigate dating as a seminary student. It had been a while since he had seen anyone serious, though there had been one or two women at the seminary that had interested him. One, in particular had elicited in Thomas an alarming attraction and had left him confounded. She was beautiful, shockingly so, and Thomas had been paralyzed by self-doubt. He had been dating a girl from back home at the time, but it was ending, and it had ended badly a few months later. But since then he had made no move.
Shyness had always been a problem. Studying for ministry now, the question of dating and finding a life-mate, had only become more complicated. It loomed in the background for him, an unanswered question. Whoever he married would have to be resigned to a life of ministry as well; she would even need to have her own sense of calling to such a life. To put it plainly: how many women would want to date, let alone marry, a pastor? Like many of his peers in seminary, Thomas felt an urgency to find someone before graduating and being ordained; but at the same time, he felt a new paralysis regarding how to accomplish that. A simple solution was to become involved with a female student who was headed for the same career. Other students were open to this; the ‘pastor couple’ was a new phenomenon in many churches. But this did not appeal to Thomas.
Adding to this internal pressure were the moral expectations that surrounded his dating life as a seminarian. This was another reason he had not pursued the female student for whom he felt that alarming attraction. If he was honest, his feelings toward her scared him. Though Thomas would never have used the term “purity culture” to define the conflicting pressures he felt or the anxiousness with which he increasingly approached dating, he wanted to approach all these things with the responsibility fitting for a spiritual leader. It was not as though he feared possible allegations or damage to his reputation; it was more his sense of inner piety. It was as though everyone was watching him as an actor on a stage—God as well.
All this was amplified by a document that had circulated on campus earlier in the year. It put into writing the expectations of the local bishop’s office regarding how seminarians would conduct themselves in dating relationships. “Chaste” and “pure” were some of the terms used in the document’s wordy paragraphs. Reading Visions and Expectations, as it was titled, was an exercise in weeding through nice sounding phrases that couched moral expectations in the phraseology of positive self-image. Thomas wanted to aspire to these church standards too, feeling in them a natural nobility. But in the end, this only added to the emotional barriers that now accompanied numerous physical ones had there been a young woman in his life.
The final layer of complexity in this area of life was that of his parents. As their only child he wanted to please them, of course, which meant doing everything in this area of life rightly and finally getting married. His mother had put it all into words the previous Christmas: “I hope Thomas can find someone nice this year.” The whole extended family had witnessed this comment and understood its meaning. His parents had not approved of the girl he had dated most recently, the one from home, the relationship that had ended badly.
When Thomas needed to sort these things out, he tended to withdraw from the seminary, seeking a place where even other members of the quadrad would not find him. The other direction from The Hatch, leading along the avenue from the seminary toward Saint Paul, was a quiet corner of shops that served the local neighborhood. These included a small corner store, a gas station, a bank, a branch of the Saint Paul library, and a used bookstore. Thomas often walked this way just for a change of scenery, stopping in at the store for a snack and then on to the bookstore that also provided a few tables where patrons could read, and drink coffee ordered at a small counter. Over the last few months, the coffee shop also served as a different place to read for his coursework so as not to be distracted by the social atmosphere of the dorm. His time was limited due to his contracted work at a local congregation, leading the junior high youth group. Having to pay tuition in American dollars had necessitated the youth ministry job, but Thomas had found that he did not begrudge working with kids. Conversely, he liked it, finding a naturally affinity with them. As a result of these work hours in his weekly schedule, Thomas was used to just scraping by with only the minimal recommended course readings. But he needed a quiet place to get those done too.
Ironically, given his youth ministry work, the course of Thomas’ life right up to the beginning of his seminary career might have been described as a prolonged adolescence. Meandering might be the better term as it might call to mind a small steam, or rivulet, navigating a landscape on a slight decline: the water often redirecting easily and abruptly, turning this way, then that. Thomas had been inclined that way, moving about this way and that, and casually downhill, until his call to ministry. This call had come dramatically, even forcefully; it had included, he felt, even an audible voice. Having thought about it many times since, he had started to wonder if it was an actual voice he heard, or if the internal impression had been so ‘loud’ that it registered that way in his conscious mind. Regardless, it was forceful enough that he had abruptly left his original course of study, taking classes considered to be pre-seminary: philosophy, world religions, New Testament Greek, and such.
One afternoon at the bookstore down the street, Thomas paid for his coffee by dropping a dollar bill into a glass jar upon which was fixed a sign that said, “Thank You”, after which he found a seat next to the frosty window. Spring was making its hesitant overtures, but it was going to be a long time before the piles of snow melted from the frozen streets. Removing his gloves and hat, he placed them into the sleeve of his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. Out of his backpack came a large textbook in which he was three chapters behind in class reading: Christian Dogmatics. The late afternoon sun warmed his shoulder as he settled into it the best he could, sipping periodically at his cup. He read for about an hour, turning the pages slowly. Gradually, a wave of sleepiness washed over him, and a few times he caught himself sinking into a nap with his finger drifting on the page where he had been trying to focus. When a few more sips of coffee did not do the trick, Thomas stood up, stretched, and walked around a few tables displaying books of various genres. Lazily, he thumbed through a walking tour of the city called Haunted St. Paul, then another local history: St. Paul’s Most Notorious Gangsters. Next, he found a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous historic resident. Finally, he picked up a copy of F. Scott’s, The Beautiful and the Damned. Apparently, this display was intended to appeal to those with local interests.
The Beautiful and the Damned recalled to mind Nettleman’s list of book report option. Was that one on it, he wondered? Returning to his seat, he found the syllabus. The title was listed on the bottom. Returning to the display, he located the publisher’s summary on the back: “Life in the jazz age… young men and women caught up in the excesses of their time…” Thomas imagined how this novel would go, painting a picture of the debauchery of the generation of which Fitzgerald was a part. It made sense that Nettleman had included this one in his discussion of humanity’s spiritual crisis. Thomas set the book down.
On a separate display he encountered a different set of novels, used paperbacks with worn and creased covers. On the table a tented, and yellowing card read “The Romantic Era”. This caught Thomas’ eye. He had fancied himself a bit of a romantic, as much as he knew about the period. He at least knew enough to distinguish it from the “Romance Novels” featured on a different display. Among the Romantics, his eyes settled on one title resting against the spines of other books. The picture on the front was of a young woman; his mind told him “maid” was the correct term for the period. She was dressed in a peasant’s costume, her long hair unkempt but shimmering as she stood in a sun-dappled field as Renoir might have painted it. Her eyes were unbearably sad. The cover announced: “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. He looked for the author and found, “Thomas Hardy”. He remembered that this was the author Mike had been reading for his report. He checked the inside and saw that Mike’s novel, Far from the Maddening Crowd, was listed also as one of Hardy’s books.
Was this book also on Nettleman’s list? Thomas went to check and found that it was. He went to put it down, not willing to even entertain the thought of reading it. This was a long book, exactly what he feared from Nettleman’s list, more of a commitment than he had room for in his life right now. He set the book down where it had been resting in the display and went back his seat.
Another twenty minutes of reading Christian Dogmatics and Thomas was drifting again. With dismay, he realized had read the same paragraph three times. Having slumped in his chair, he sat up again and stretched. He rubbed his eyes and tried in vain to focus them on the miniscule print. He needed another break. He looked mindlessly around the store again. The place had been empty all afternoon, save for an attendant who was restocking books. As he glanced that direction, Tess’s forlorn expression caught his eye from the display. It was as though she had been staring at him all this time. The thought was enchanting. He tried to return to his Dogmatics textbook and its discussion of the “meaning and efficacy of the sacraments”, but he could not will his mind to focus. His eyes kept drifting back again to the hauntingly distressed eyes on the book cover.
The irony of this moment would not be lost on a reader familiar with the novel, Tess herself having unwittingly captured the attention of every man who encountered her—to her own detriment and undoing, and theirs. Trancelike, Thomas stood quickly and took Tess into his possession. He paid the attendant and once again took his seat by the window. Within moments, Thomas was caught in her unintentional webbing. He read for hours until long after the seasonally depressed sunlight had disappeared from the sky over the seminary. Now early evening, it was no longer the street scene outside the store that was viewed through the window next to his table, but conversely, its interior, with the reflection of a young man captured in its frame, dimly lit, and shadowed.