Here’s where I am, on this day buried deep in gray-and-white January: I’m in a tiny Vermont village — general store with a beer cooler and sandwiches made-to-order, post office open for its afternoon hours, volunteer fire department. It’s early afternoon, and I’m walking back to my library with an armful of mail, and no one’s around, the store empty of customers, no passing cars or granite trucks on Route 14 — no one but me and my library mail and a man on the steps of an unused church. He’s pressing his phone, and he doesn’t look at me.
I stand there, on the pavement, looking at him. I know who he is, as I’m sure he knows who I am, although we’ve never exchanged a single word between us. I know he’s been at my desk, illicitly after hours in the library, sitting with his hands on the worn wood, surrounded by stacks of books, my untidy bins of yarn and crochet hooks, the hastily piled colored scraps of paper. All around are small offerings from children — tiny notes to Miss Brett, a sketch of a piglet, an orange origami box holding a clay snowman. Miniature paper airplanes folded by 7-year-old hands.
On this January day, I keep thinking back to that sunny October afternoon, the leaves turning gold and russet. Had I known that man would be dead within months, I might have stood there a little longer and then walked over to him, said, Come in through the door and not the window.
As a writer, I’ve spent years training myself to look for junctures, to know actions matter far more than thoughts — and yet, that afternoon, I kept walking. Maybe I guessed I had all the time in the world, maybe I judged some things can slide without action and the world will work its own wonders. Maybe it was simply that the day was a fine autumn one, and I believed I had things to do.
I turned left, up the dirt road, and carried on with whatever I was thinking, and that particular day passed in the great finality of the past.
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil… There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden