Oh What a Paradise It Seems

To Benjamin Hale Cheever

ALSO BY JOHN CHEEVER

NOVELS

Falconer (1977)

Bullet Park (1969)

The Wapshot Scandal (1964)

The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

STORIES

The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

The World of Apples (1973)

The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964)

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961)

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1959)

The Enormous Radio (1953)

The Way Some People Live (1942)

1

T
HIS
is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night. The dogs are asleep and the saddle horses—Dombey and Trey—can be heard in their stalls across the dirt road beyond the orchard. The rain is gentle and needed but not needed with any desperation. The water tables are equitable, the nearby river is plentiful, the gardens and orchards—it is at a turning of the season—are irrigated ideally. Almost all the lights are out in the little village by the waterfall where the mill, so many years ago, used to produce gingham.

The granite walls of the mill still stand on the banks of the broad river and the mill owner’s house with its four Corinthian columns still crowns the only hill in town. You might think of it as a sleepy village, out of touch with a changing world, but in the weekly newspaper Unidentified Flying Objects are reported with great frequency. They are reported not only by housewives hanging out their clothes and by sportsmen hunting squirrels, but they have been seen by substantial members of the population, such as the vice-president of the bank and the wife of the chief of police.

Walking through the village, from north to south, you were bound to notice the number of dogs and that they were all high-spirited and that they were without exception
mongrels but mongrels with the marked characteristics of their mixed parentage and breeding. You might see a smooth-haired poodle, an Airedale with very short legs, or a dog that seemed to begin as a collie and ended as a Great Dane. These mixtures of blood—this newness of blood, you might say—had made them a highly spirited pack, and they hurried through the empty streets, late it seemed for some important meal, assignation or meeting, quite unfamiliar with the loneliness from which some of the population seemed to suffer. The town was named Janice after the mill owner’s first wife.

One of the most extraordinary things about the village and its place in history was that it presented no fast-food franchises of any sort. This was very unusual at the time and would lead one to imagine that the village suffered from some sort of affliction, such as great poverty or a lack of adventure among its people; but it was simply an error on the part of those computers on whose authority the sites for fast-food franchises are chosen. Another historical peculiarity of the place was the fact that its large mansions, those relics of another time, had not been reconstructed to serve as nursing homes for that vast population of the comatose and the dying who were kept alive, unconscionably, through trailblazing medical invention.

At the north end of the town was Beasley’s Pond—a deep body of water, shaped like a bent arm, with heavily forested shores. Here were water and greenery, and if one were a nineteenth-century painter one would put into the foreground a lovely woman on a mule, bent a little over the child she held and accompanied by a man with a staff. This
would enable the artist to label the painting “Flight into Egypt,” although all he had meant to commemorate was his bewildering pleasure in a fine landscape on a summer’s day.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless he sees the bright plumage of the bird called courage—
Cardinalis virginius
, in this case—and oh how his heart leapt. But what was a cardinal bird doing on East 78th Street? He called his oldest daughter, who lived in Janice, and asked if there was any skating. Their friendship was a highly practical relationship, characterized principally by skepticism. She said that it had been very cold, there was no snow, and while she had seen no skaters on the big pond she guessed that it was frozen. His skates, she knew, were in the attic along with his Piranesi folio and his collection of mounted butterflies. This was on a Sunday morning in late January and he took a train, a local, to the province where his daughter lived.

His name was Lemuel Sears. He was, as I say, an old man but not yet infirm. One would not have to help him across the street. He was old enough to remember when the horizons of his country were dominated by the beautiful and lachrymose wine-glass elm tree and when most of the bathtubs one stepped into had lions’ claws. He was old enough to remember the promise of dirigible travel, and he would never forget marching into one of the capital cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Turn and turn-about bombing had left nothing standing of this great crossroads that was higher than a man’s shoulder. In the ruined cathedral lay
the unburied dead. It was a lovely summer’s day. He was armed with the earliest of the gas-recoil rifles (M-1), prepared to kill the enemy and defend with his life the freedoms of speech, religion and travel.

His daughter kissed him lightly. Their relationship was, as I say, skeptical but quite profound. She was the daughter of sainted Amelia, his first wife. She handed him his skates and offered to drive him to the pond but he chose to walk. It was around four miles and he wore a business suit with a vest and a fur hat bought in one of the Eastern European countries where he had frequently traveled on business for a computer-container manufacturer. He had white hair that grew like quack grass and a cat-boat tan. He was of that generation and class that regard overcoats as a desperate last measure. Of course he wore gloves. The pond he walked to was called Beasley’s Pond but no one seemed to remember who the Beasleys had been. The pond was two and one half or three miles if one took the distance from end to end. It seemed to be frozen, although there were only four or five skaters on the ice and this was a clement Sunday afternoon.

Glancing at the scene Sears thought of how the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch painters had cornered the skating scene and that before the values of the art market had become chaotic there were usually, at the end of the art auction, half a dozen unsold Dutch skating scenes leaning against the unsold umbrella stand beside the unwanted harpsichord. Brueghel had done some skating scenes but Sears had seen a skating scene—a drawing—from a much earlier period—the twelfth century he thought—and he always happily remembered Alan Gardener, the English
paleontologist whose career was built on the thesis that the skate—or shate, since this came before any known language—had given
Homo sapiens
, as a hunter, the velocity that enabled him to outstrip Neanderthal man in the contest for supremacy. This was two hundred thousand years ago, much of the earth was covered with ice and the shate was made of the skull of the Judsas broadbill. That Alan Gardener’s thesis was all a fabrication was revealed very late in his career, but Sears found the poetry of his ideas abiding because the fleetness he felt on skates seemed to have the depth of an ancient experience, and he had always been partial to any attempt to defraud the academic universe.

He put on his skates and moved off. This was quite as natural to him as swimming. He wondered why there were so few skaters on the ice and he asked a young woman. She was barely marriageable, with dark hair and gold rings in her ears, and she carried a hockey stick like a parasol. “I know, I know,” she said, “but you see it hasn’t been frozen over like this for over a century. It’s been more than a century since it’s been this cold without snow. Isn’t it heavenly? I love it, I like it, I like it, I love it.” He had heard exactly that exclamation from a lover so many years ago that he could not remember her name or the color of her hair or precisely what the erotic acrobatics were that they were performing.

He skated and skated. The pleasure of fleetness seemed, as she had said, divine. Swinging down a long stretch of black ice gave Sears a sense of homecoming. At long last, at the end of a cold, long journey, he was returning to a place where his name was known and loved and lamps burned in
the rooms and fires in the hearth. It seemed to Sears that all the skaters moved over the ice with the happy conviction that they were on their way home. Home might be an empty room and an empty bed to many of them, including Sears, but swinging over the black ice convinced Sears that he was on his way home. Someone more skeptical might point out that this illuminated how ephemeral is our illusion of homecoming. There was a winter sunset and in this formidable show of light and color he unlaced his skates and returned to his apartment in the city.

But next Sunday he was back on the ice and this time there were more people. There were perhaps fifty—a small number for such a vast expanse of ice. A hockey rink had been improvised and somewhere to the left of this was an area where most of the skaters seemed to be accomplished at cutting figures; but most of the population, like Sears, simply went up and down, up and down, completely absorbed in the illusion that fleetness and grace were in their possession and had only to be revealed. Sears fell once or twice but then so did almost everyone else. Toward the end of the afternoon he maneuvered an accomplished brake-turn and stopped to listen to the voices of the skaters.

It was late. The shadow of a hill had darkened half the ice. The hockey game was in its last moments and the figure skaters had taken off their gear and gone home. The voices, considering the imminence of night, had an extraordinary lightness that reminded him of voices from a Mediterranean beach before, through the savagery of pollution, that coast was lost to us. He and his companions on the ice seemed to enjoy that extraordinary preoccupation with innocence that
absorbs people on a beach before the fall of darkness. So he skated again until the sunset, kissed his skeptical but loving daughter goodbye and returned to his place in the city.

It was two weeks or more later when Sears returned with his skates to find that the ice had melted and Beasley’s Pond was being used for a dump. It was a blow. Nearly a third of it had already been despoiled and on his right he saw the shell of a ten-year-old automobile and a little closer to him a dead dog. He thought his heart would break.

Why celebrate a dump, why endeavor to describe an aberration? Here was the discharge of a society that was inclined to nomadism without having lessened its passion for portables. Most wandering people evolve a culture of tents and saddles and migratory herds, but here was a wandering people with a passion for gigantic bedsteads and massive refrigerators. It was a clash between their mobility—their driftingness—and their love of permanence that had discharged its chaos into Beasley’s Pond.

Why dwell on a disaster—and it was an absolute disaster that Sears saw, but a disaster with a power of melancholy. Most men have bought for their beloved an electric toaster or a vacuum cleaner and have been rewarded with transports of bliss. To see these souvenirs of our early loves spread-eagled, rusted and upended by the force with which they were cast off can be a profoundly melancholy experience. Thousands upon thousands of wire clothes hangers sounded the only homely and genuine note.

When he returned to the city Sears called his law firm and asked them to investigate the tragedy of Beasley’s Pond. He also wrote a letter to the newspaper.

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