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When Thomas Met Tess

One afternoon at the bookstore, Thomas paid for his coffee and found a seat at a table next to the frosty window. Spring was making is hesitant overtures, but it was going to be a long time before the piles of snow were gone from Saint Paul's streets. Removing his gloves and hat, he placed them into the sleeve of his jacket, which he now hung on the back of his chair. Out of his backpack came a textbook in which he was three chapters behind: Christian Dogmatics. The late afternoon sun warmed his shoulder as he settled into read and sip 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 still 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 the section of the store to stretch his legs. Momentarily, he encountered used books on a display.

Lazily, he thumbed through a walking tour called Haunted St. Paul, followed by a book called St. Paul’s Most Notorious Gangsters. Next, he found a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a famous historic resident, and finally a copy of F. Scott’s, The Beautiful and the Damned. Apparently, this display was intended to appeal to those with local interest. The Beautiful and the Damned recalled Needleman’s list of book report topics. Was that one on it, he wondered? Returning to his seat, he found the syllabus and scanned its list. The title was listed there. 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 that Fitzgerald was himself a part. It made sense that Needleman had included this one in his discussion of the need for the cross. Thomas set the book down.

On a separate display he noticed a set of novels, used paperbacks with worn and creased covers. A yellowing, tented card, on the table read “The Romantic Era”. This caught Thomas’ eye. He had fancied himself a bit of a Romantic, as much as he knew about this period. He at least knew enough to distinguish it from the “romance novels” that were sitting on a different display. Among the Romantics, his eyes settled on one title standing up against the spines of other books further back on the table. 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 unbearably sad. The cover announced: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. He looked for the author and found, “Thomas Hardy”. He recollected that this sounded like the author Mike had been reading for his report. He checked the inside and saw that a novel entitled Far from the Maddening Crowd was listed also as one of Hardy’s books.

Was this book also on Needleman’s list? Thomas went to check and found that it was. He was about to put it down, not willing to even entertain the thought of reading it. This was a long book, exactly what he feared from Needleman’s list. This was 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 to sit at his table.

Another twenty minutes of reading Christian Dogmatics and Thomas was drifting again. With dismay realized he had read the same paragraph three times. Having slumped in his chair, he sat up again, and again, 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 was empty as it had been all afternoon, save for the attendant who was restocking books near where he had been looking before. As he glanced that direction, Tess’s forlorn expression once more caught his eye from the display. It was a strange sensation to have his eye caught by a woman in a bookstore, though not at an adjacent table, but ironically from a book cover. 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 any reader of Hardy’s 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 now, conversely, its interior, with the reflection of a young man captured in its frame, dimly lit, and shadowed.

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