From the novel-in-progress Yellow
Dordrecht. March, 1877.
Görlitz almost regretted leaving it: the fresh clean smell of rain that had started as he turned the corner of Voorstraat on to Tolbrugstraat. The weather, rather than turning his thoughts to mildew, braced him instead, helped clarify the decision of his indecision. Partly it was just the relief of having escaped the choking heat of Mrs. Barculo’s drawing room, which the widow, feeding her stove a steady diet of tinder, kept piping hot. Who needed a room so warm? What good did it do, except to put a man to sleep—or make him sick. The contrast with his drafty, half-frozen room in the boarding house almost made him faint. Of course it was not the stove that Mrs. Barculo really wanted to keep track of as much as the conversation between himself and her daughter. The widow would have them at the altar the next day if she could, as soon as Görlitz said the word. But why should he? Just because the old woman wanted it? The girl was passing pretty—a bit too pale and drastically thin, but well-formed around the eyes, with wispy autumn hair that some men might find interesting. She was pleasant if not ingenious company. He hardly minded spending time with her, which is why he kept going back. For four months now, she and the house had provided an easy way through dull Sunday afternoons, as well as one home meal a week.
But must the relationship turn to something more? He was only twenty-two, in his first year teaching at a school on Kolfstraat. If he were to survive the year’s long ordeal, he had to keep his mind strictly focused on the business at hand: instructing, managing, disciplining a group of ruthless brutes. Only two days before, he’d found himself summoning all his adult strength into a cudgel that he brought against the buttocks of one Gregor Hoffman, a blonde, snub-nosed, ferrety runt who had been trying all year to get under his skin. Hoffman was the unacknowledged leader of a group of seven or eight miscreants, encouraging and fomenting all kinds of miniature insurrections while not precisely participating in the acts himself. Someone else always got the blame. So far, Görlitz had beaten Brill and Ostrander and Spoor. He beat Mesick and Van Zandt. He beat Ring once: badly, dangerously. He was lucky the boy had recovered and kept mum about it. He beat Van Vleck—a stupid, block-faced kid, easily duped into crime—about every other day, beat him until he was red and tired and oozing from the exertion—hoping, he liked to think, that he was actually beating some sense into the clod. But none of these punishments ever seemed to make a difference. Because Hoffman, smirking and mooning as he watched other boys get cudgeled, was the one behind it all. Finally, last Friday, he’d caught Hoffman conspiring with Spoor. He found the evidence in a clumsily passed note. When he snatched away that bit of paper and saw the evidence writ in Hoffman’s hand, time stopped and the air beside his ears tolled as soundly as a church bell. This was the emotional highlight of Görlitz’s first year of teaching; perhaps, he was tempted to think in the triumph of the moment, the emotional highlight of his life. Seconds later, his heart overfull with gratitude for the presiding gods of education, Görlitz leveled his attack.
These were the petty battles and the midget victories of a teacher’s daily life. But they were necessary battles. If he did not fight them and did not win them, he would be pulled under and never heard from again. He must keep up his strength, his focus. He really could not handle the extra complication of marriage. Not now. Not with this girl, at least, who had yet to win him over, and not in this most fragile, most exhausting, most de-centered year of his existence. He could not fit one other concern in his craw than simply making it through. Outside the boardinghouse, he took a deep breath and was surprised at how much the air, when it came out of him, sounded like a sigh. He watched the rain on Tolbrugstraat a few seconds more, then turned to the door.
Inside, he found his roommate lodged in his same old place—a desk against the wall—his head bowed over a bible, scratching quotations in his short, sloppy, left-handed scrawl. Because he’d tried in the past, Görlitz knew he’d never be able to read a word of it. Somehow his roommate did.
“Goedenavond,” Görlitz said, not expecting an answer and not getting one. He settled on his bed, catty-corner to his roommate’s desk. He decided, for no good reason, to keep on his coat. It was damp from the snatch of rain and beginning to smell mildly rank, but as soon as Görlitz had come into the room he was overwhelmed with fatigue. He couldn’t bring himself to undress. Instead, he stared at the dingy lead-colored ceiling, then at the wall on his roommate’s side of the room. Fixed there were a clutter of amateur sketches, his roommate’s own work: trees with arms such as a child would draw; an erratically sloping street with a factory like a cardboard box in the background; a man, wearing a top hat shaped like a pear, carrying a valise that looked more like a watermelon; two different harbor scenes with monstrous, misshapen ships almost equal in length to the pier they docked beside. Görlitz supposed that the sketches represented Dordrecht, but they were drawn so badly it was hard to tell. Hung in intermittent spaces between the clumsy pencil sketches, shoehorned in at every angle, were prints of professional renderings of Christ: in the Garden, before Pilate, being whipped, wearing a crown of thorns, stumbling into the street beneath the weight of his wooden load; hanging on a cross. A whole gallery of suffering. Such a weird contrast with the regrettable pencil sketches, but on the other hand, how appropriate. His roommate was nothing else but a collection of contrasts. He seemed a good fellow, odd but not actually troublesome, excitable but generally too quiet to be an aggravation. Certainly queer. But, then again, who wasn’t queer in his own way?
His roommate tussled with scripture every night like a Jesuit—taking notes, annotating passages, composing hypothetical sermons—when all he really did was work as a clerk in a book store. Van Gogh had told Görlitz that he hoped someday to work as a minister in a remote village, just like his father, but Görlitz had noticed no actual motion toward that goal. Didn’t one need to attend university? Didn’t one need to be certified? Görlitz recalled the years of studying he endured before he started in his present job; he couldn’t imagine the requirements were any more lax for a man of the cloth. As far as he knew, you couldn’t get to the pulpit by way of a bookseller. Obviously Van Gogh was devout, but the clumsy ferocity with which he plowed through the bible made Görlitz wonder if his roommate’s aspiration was anything other than self-delusion, on the order of placing his ill-shapen drawings next to the works of real artists. Ah well, he would never know, would he? Van Gogh said he was not staying in Dordrecht for long, and Görlitz was thinking of finding more comfortable quarters himself before the next school year. He and this idiosyncratic associate would split; then he’d never hear about the man again.
“Done any drawing?” Görlitz asked, just to talk. He didn’t feel like thinking about the girl anymore, nor the obligation they were ever so politely trying to foist on him.
“Niets,” Van Gogh said, not lifting his nose from the bible.
“Not for weeks.” He jotted a few words on his sheet.
“That’s too bad.”
His roommate started, as if Görlitz had said something funny, but he quickly returned his attention to the bible.
“How come you hung up those pictures in particular?”
Van Gogh turned, squinted grayly. “Jesus Christ?”
“No, the others. You know. That street thing there and the harbor.”
“They are the only sketches I have. If I draw it, I hang it up.”
“Ah,” Görlitz breathed. “I imagined you sketching like mad all day at the bookshop and having dozens of drawings to choose from.”
Van Gogh showed a jaundiced half-smile—distant, almost patronizing. Quite patronizing, in fact. “I don’t have time for that sort of thing.”
“Why? If you like to do it.”
Van Gogh touched a hand to his bible. “I like this more.”
“This is my future. That”—he waved to the sketches—“is just for entertainment.”
Görlitz thought about that for a moment, let his eyes drift up to the uncluttered gray ceiling. He understood his roommate’s position, of course. Görlitz knew too well the onus of unavoidable responsibilities. His own work constantly taxed his discipline and threatened to plow him under: the preparation of his lessons, the testing and grading, the reams of paperwork. Most of all, the constant battle for control of the classroom. His first few months on the job, he was so purely destroyed at the end of each day he was not sure he could rise to do war on the next. Every night he told himself he should quit. Yet he didn’t. And he wouldn’t. On the other hand, life had to be about more than the onus of responsibility, didn’t it? Doesn’t a man have a right to enjoy the life he chooses? Or, rather, to choose a life he will enjoy?
“But if that’s what pleases you,” Görlitz tried. “If that’s what you choose to do with your time, when no one asks you—”
“I choose this, too. I choose this almost always.”
“I mean, when there’s no professional expectation—”
“I choose this more.”
Görlitz glanced over and saw that his roommate, while not exactly angry, certainly looked exercised. Görlitz only meant to make an idle inquiry, but obviously he’d hit a nerve.
“I would like to help save souls.”
Görlitz nodded. If he were to be honest, he would have to admit that, as someone who didn’t care enough to figure out whether or what he believed, he simply couldn’t understand a call to ministry. He could chat about art or ladies or free labor in the East Indies, but he grew embarrassed and incompetent before any religious question. And the idea of trying to save someone else’s soul made him positively squirm.
“How many services did you attend today?” Görlitz said.
The bit of flint calmed in his roommate’s eye.
“Oh. Just four.”
“Reformed. Of course. Then the Jensenist, which I found very interesting. Then Lutheran. And Roman.”
“Roman! Godsnaam, what are you doing trolling around down there for? I thought you were a good Calvinist.”
Van Gogh smiled broadly. He seemed to enjoy being the cause of such befuddlement.
“Do you really think that God cannot be found in other churches?”
Görlitz paused. He never thought much about where God might or might not be. “I suppose I think God can be found in many places, not just the churches.” Van Gogh blinked. He rearranged himself, his shoulders bowing like a man readying to push hard against a crate. Before Van Gogh could fire back Görlitz said: “So these sermons you’re writing—”
“I want to be prepared.”
“For when I deliver them.”
Görlitz smiled. “There’s no doubt you’ll be prepared, seeing as you’re years from being ordained.”
Van Gogh answered with a smile of his own, but Görlitz could see the effort it cost, the sadness at the back of his roommate’s blue eyes. He hadn’t meant for the comment to sting; he hadn’t meant it to do anything. He was merely making conversation. And he hoped, anyway, to suggest that someday Van Gogh would be ordained—an optimistic thought. But somehow it wasn’t optimism that came across. How he must want it. Van Gogh had told him of his recent stay in England: teaching, without pay, at a miserable school for neglected boys on the southeast coast, then acting as an amateur curate for some sorry schoolmaster’s church in London. Thankless, almost slavish, positions. Nothing he ever wanted to take on again. But, at the same time, Van Gogh seemed proud of the work he had done. Görlitz liked his roommate well enough, pitied him some, admired his steadfastness. But one thing the teacher could not fathom was the idea that Van Gogh had ever preached in a church. As much as he tried, Görlitz could simply not imagine this skinny, reclusive man with a needling voice performing for a crowd.
“You should step out,” Görlitz said. “The rain has freshened the evening.”
Van Gogh glanced nostalgically toward the window. “Ja, zou ik moeten.” I should. But then he turned back to the desk.
“Maybe sometime this week,” Görlitz said, “you and me should take another canal walk. It’s been a while.”
He saw his roommate nod, head bent, not looking at the words he affected to look at. “Many, many weeks.”
“We’ll do it then. Tomorrow. Before the dark sets in.”
“The dark sets in early.”
“All right. Next Sunday.”
Van Gogh almost responded but then stopped. Then he nodded. “Let’s plan on that. Thank you.”
Görlitz took off his coat and hung it on the bedpost. He untied his shoes. He pushed each off from the heel. He lay down, saw the same ceiling, smelled the acrid perfume of his perspiration. He would have to go to school again tomorrow, begin another week with those boys. He had been trying, successfully, not to think about the fact all day. Perhaps he should just close his eyes.
“You were at the widow’s?”
Görlitz started, looked over. Van Gogh was eying him intently, like a captive man hungry for a morsel of news from the greater world.
“Yes. It was pleasant enough. Although I worry she is expecting too much of me too soon. You know. In regards to her daughter.”
“Is that what the girl wants?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What are you going to do?”
Görlitz covered his eyes with his palms and rubbed. Red circles started on top of a dun-yellow platform against a background of charcoal gray. “That’s what I’ve got to figure out.” He sat up again and unbuttoned his shirt. He slipped it off his shoulders.
“Unless you’re sure, you’re a fool to marry her.”
“No one needs to marry. One may want to; one may expect to. But hardly anyone needs to.”
“I need to,” Görlitz said. “Someday.”
“All right, then. But wait until you’re thirty. No man needs to marry before then. For women it’s different. But, for men, I say thirty.”
Görlitz studied his roommate’s expression: the small, set mouth, the creased forehead, the sharp eyes eagling their message across the gray air of the room.
“When did your father marry?”
“Thirty,” Van Gogh said. “Well, twenty-seven.” A quick, abashed smile. “My mother was thirty.”
“Ah!” Gorlitz said, teasing. Then: “My father married at sixteen.”
“Zestien!” Van Gogh almost coughed the word. “That’s too young.”
“Yes. Well. He did it in secret. And my grandfather nearly killed him.”
“I’m sure the match could not have been a successful one.”
“Actually,” Görlitz said, the first sting of irritation rising, “I can only hope for a marriage as happy as that one.”
Van Gogh didn’t respond except to turn back to his bible. He fingered a page silently. He said over his shoulder, “The Lord says that in heaven there is no marriage. In heaven, all persons are angels.”
“We’re not in heaven yet,” Görlitz said. He smiled on purpose, hoping to keep the discussion light.
Van Gogh turned again to face him square, his eyes ticking. “Maybe if we all acted like angels we could manage to create a heaven here.”
Görlitz had no idea how to respond to such a preposterous proposition. Except with the obvious: “I’m not an angel.” Görlitz thought of how hard he paddled Hoffman. How much he had enjoyed it, unleashing weeks of frustration against the runty, red-faced twit. How happy he was to hear the boy scream—happier still when he saw the boy cry. “And I will need to marry. Someday.”
“It’s not just the Lord who says it. Paul does too. Paul says that it is better for followers to remain unmarried, just as he was unmarried. ‘Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.’” As he became more excited, Van Gogh’s thin voice rose and his freckled hands began to enunciate. “Perfecting holiness. That’s what I mean. That is the goal. Self-control, with an eye toward beatitude.”
Görlitz knew this discussion would go on for hours if he let it.
“Despite what you say, I’m sure those followers must have married. Otherwise none of us would be here. Are you saying Paul disapproved of all marriages?”
“Of course not. Under certain conditions he understood and condoned.”
“What were the conditions?”
Van Gogh’s eye dropped. “Remember that elsewhere Paul argues vigorously for chastity.”
“What were the conditions?”
“If one is burning.”
Görlitz laughed, head back, full throated. “Perfect,” he said. “That’s perfect. And I dare say most of us are burning.”
His roommate looked thoroughly chagrined, almost girlishly so, a flush full on his face. “Maybe,” he muttered before turning back to his studies. “Maybe not.”
Görlitz removed his trousers and laid them over the headboard. “Of course in most places there are alternatives to marriage—if you’re really on fire.”
Van Gogh’s back stiffened at once, as if he’d been stabbed. The man didn’t answer for a long time, although it was apparent he had heard. Finally, Van Gogh said in a low voice, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“I didn’t think so,” Görlitz said. He felt bad for this overly earnest, monkish fellow who didn’t or couldn’t hear the tone of a jest. Better to just stop talking, let Van Gogh lose himself in Saint Paul or whoever he was studying. Görlitz climbed under the covers. It was late now, and unlike his roommate, who never seemed to care if he was wrecked for lack of sleep when he went to work, Görlitz felt it painfully if he tried to manage his class on less than full rest. His head, his shoulders, his eyelids, the muscles of his lower back, even his spine ached the livelong day, making him groggy and irritable. Sometimes, Görlitz wondered if his roommate slept at all. Too often, Görlitz woke from some irascible dream to find the lamp on Van Gogh’s desk still lit. His roommate, as if exiled from his bed, would still be sitting there, bent over the open bible, his cheeks drawn and skin waxen in the smoky light, his face so sunken from exhaustion it might fall into his lap. Yet his eyes were ever open and moving across the page.
Görlitz picked up a book he’d left on the floor by his bed. It was a volume Van Gogh lent him, called L’oiseau. He’d never heard of the author—Jules Michelet—or the book, which Van Gogh had called one of the few treasures of his life. Görlitz’s French was rougher than it should be, so he found the book slow going, especially since the only time he could ever read was at night, in bed, with the languid gray halo of the man’s lamp for company. Most nights he fell asleep after less than a page. All Görlitz had been able to fathom so far was the barest outline of the general topic: the natural life of birds, with some soupy panegyrics to divine intention stirred in. This night, still keyed from his complicated evening at Mrs. Barculo’s, he held out a bit longer, but the text put him to sleep, after all. He had not understood it any better than before.