One winter in rural Virginia, where I grew up, there was a terrible tragedy in our small town. The mother of a well-known student from the local high school was run over and killed by a speeding, drunk teenager one evening while she was out walking with her husband. I was in my early teens, and I remember driving past the scene with my father shortly after it happened. The ambulance had already come and gone. All that remained was a police car with its blue flashers on and a crowd of people standing around in their heavy coats. The Christmas lights were still up on the houses, and so it must have been before New Year’s, but that may not be correct. In fact, this could all very well have happened the following year, when the blizzard came, or even the one after that.
What I am sure of is that the drunk driver was a classmate and friend of the student whose mother he had killed. He was sentenced in court as a minor, and I think he did only a year or two in a juvenile detention facility, so that he returned to the high school for his senior year, much to the outrage of the local community.
I had just started at the school that year as a seventh-grader, so it was with a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety that I found myself one afternoon, on a bathroom break from science class, in the same empty hallway as these two young men. Much had been said about the accident, and the driver’s return to school, and now here they were: two old friends separated by a crime that most people called a murder, approaching one another in a quiet stretch of corridor for the first time since everything had changed.
The moment was so large in my mind at the time. And yet I hadn’t thought of it in nearly two decades, until this summer when I read So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, a slim, powerful novel at the heart of which is a friendship cleaved apart by violence and a fateful encounter years later in a school hallway.
The book opens with a fatal pistol shot on an Illinois farm. A tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson is found dead in a milking barn early on a winter morning. We are then given a brief overview of the crime scene, the victim, and the rural town of Lincoln in the 1920s. It seems plausible to wonder if Maxwell is encircling this barn and its environs much as Truman Capote did with the Clutter home. But this is not the stuff of In Cold Blood, and Maxwell pulls back abruptly at the start of the next chapter:
I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.
That shameful act occurs a year and a half later, after the narrator moves with his family to Chicago. Hurrying to class one autumn morning at his new high school, he sees his old friend Cletus Smith walking toward him. The boys had enjoyed a kind of mute kinship in Lincoln, clinging to each other amid tragedy: for Cletus, the breakup of his parents, and for the narrator, the death of his mother from a flu epidemic. By now, the narrator knows that it was Cletus’s father who killed Wilson, and that it was over Wilson having an affair with Cletus’s mother. Maxwell describes a range of options for how he could have greeted Cletus, finally determining that if he had simply “turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it would have been the right thing to do.” Instead, he goes right by Cletus without saying a word, and his guilt is immediately sealed.
Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite in the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I?
What follows for the rest of the novel is an attempt by the narrator to reconstruct the days and weeks on those two farms before the murder took place. It is a way to reconnect with Cletus, the narrator says, but more than anything it is an effort to atone for his own behavior that day in the hallway by providing a kind of court document of what might have happened, “the testimony that [Cletus] was never called upon to give.”
However, Maxwell isn’t as concerned with the crime itself as he is with the simple act of returning to his hometown. What he favors most are the small moments that an older—and wiser—man would remember about his childhood there. (Maxwell was in his seventies when the novel was first serialized in the New Yorker in 1979.) Accordingly, anything lurid is stripped of its power or attractiveness. That opening pistol shot—just one—“could have been a car backfiring,” as three laborers working on the edge of town remarked after they heard it. Lust and betrayal, so key to the events of the book, are presented without passion or judgment. Even the farm animals refuse to be incensed:
All day long he thought about her. The cows sensed that he hardly knew what he was doing and turned their heads as far as the stanchions would permit and looked at him gravely.
Instead of fanning out the violence like a prairie fire, as a younger writer might, especially today, Maxwell shows us a dog waiting for a boy to arrive home from school on his bicycle, a father and son milking cows together in a barn at dawn, sunlight on counter tops in a country kitchen before supper is served. All will be lost, but it is beautiful to stand in these simple country houses and follow Maxwell’s yearning gaze. Like any good host, he seems to really want us there with him. He even goes so far as to enlist our help:
The reader will also have to do a certain amount of imagining. He must imagine a deck of cards spread out face down on a table, and then he must turn one over, only it is not the eight of hearts or the jack of diamonds but a perfectly ordinary quarter of an hour out of Cletus’s past life. But first I need to invent a dog…
We don’t have to do much of this ‘imagining’ ourselves, thanks to Maxwell’s brilliantly clear, nearly transparent writing style. But I did find myself engaging in a reconstruction of my own, reliving scenes from my childhood, like that day in the school hallway, and then wondering where everyone was now and if I could have behaved better when I knew them. By the time I finished reading the book, Maxwell’s manifestations of guilt and loss had become twofold, his intertwined with my own. This, I realized, is what makes the book seem so much bigger than its 135 pages.
Maxwell seems to be unconcerned with any distinction between what really happened and how it could have been. Early on, he admits that a memory of “snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms” of his family’s half-built home might not be true at all; that he might in fact be remembering a photograph and not “an actual experience.”
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory… is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life to ever be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.
Memory is essentially a lie, or at the very least a fabrication, Maxwell tells us. So, why not take heart in our ability to reimagine the past? By drawing us into his childhood, Maxwell shows us how to revisit our own. We become the storytellers of our own lives.
I have since tried to remember exactly how that showdown went in the school hallway on that early autumn afternoon in Virginia. The long rows of lockers, footsteps ringing out on the polished marble floor, the two of them stopping an arm’s length from one another and waiting for a never-ending moment—these things feel certain, and if they are recreated now in my remembering, it wouldn’t make much of a difference anyways.
In the years to follow, there would be a civil lawsuit filed against the family of the driver, and a settlement so punishing that his family would be forced to sell everything and clear out of town. I like to think that the name of the mother lived on through memorial scholarships, but all I can really recall are many lectures by teachers and parents and other authority figures in which she was used as a warning, especially around the holidays, against the dangers of drunk driving.
But all that would come later. In a way, it is not important. I suppose it also doesn’t matter if I cannot remember who moved first in that hallway, who broke the spell after that long pause. What counts is that it happened at all. That it seemed, even as I was watching them, that I had only now just turned the corner and found them already locked in an embrace.