January 2023

The Square

Harriet Halliday Renaud

            Anton Tillis, urban designer, professor of City and Regional Planning, conceived of The Square while a condemned corner rooming house, four blocks south of the university, burned down in the middle of the night, a day after the last of its transients was routed.

            The rotting shingles made a dramatic leaping fire, with tongues of flame, thin as slicing knives, suddenly shooting to astonishing heights. The message about the fire was transmitted by means of various known networks and hidden nerve endings, and immediately misshapen shadows issued from mist-veiled buildings. These materialized, under the yellow sodium-vapor street lights, into quick people on their way, making a giddied getaway from dailiness.

            The air was charged with their cheeriness and high spirits. Some were exhilarated because they had been handed an amended agenda without request; some because they had been sprung from waking alone in the merciless black of the night when there is no escape from coming to terms with yourself; some because they hoped if they could even once decode an unpredicted shift in the rhythm of an ordinary day, valuable directions would emerge. A number, as always, were simply pleased with fires.

            At the destination, the greenish-maize fire engines filled the streets. And what with the great coils of hoses winding and unwinding on the sidewalks, the swift, mysterious activities of the firemen in their ponderous slickered gear, the police slipping backed into driveways, unloading cameras, lights, tangles of wire, and loud gesturing crews, the spectators came upon a scene which, shimmering with heat and light and motion, had taken on the haze of a dream-like, dislocated universe in which a world full of flame spun free of hazard.

            The usual sense of spurious community sprang up among the viewers. Crowded and craning, they felt instantly incorporated into the enactments taking place on the street, privileged and enlivened, and several made excited-sounding statements into microphones thrust at them by invisible hands.

            Periodically cautioned to leave by garbled voices blaring from bull horns, many left and returned with friends, relatives, roommates, and dogs on leashes. Some came running with small sleepy children, heads bobbing, sitting on their shoulders, the children's quilted jackets ballooned out with air so that they looked like small soft bugs.

            A longtime follower of fires, Tillis arrived early, having heard a news bulletin on his bedside radio. He noted, for future mention, several visual instances of reversal in the normal order of things: The sky seemed dense with black seaweed, for example, whereas yellow and orange rays, like the sun's, flared straight ahead, providing a beacon. When the occasion arose, he thought, he would not only describe his playfully observed anomaly, but also the deplorable circusy atmosphere created by the many many irresponsibles in the community. There was always a price to pay, Tillis thought, when there was an inappropriate response to a natural

            After a short while, however, the spectacle only lapped around the edges of Tillis's attention, which fixed itself wholly on something else. Watching from across the street from the burning building, in his full-length brown leather coat over beige silk pongee pajamas, he had seen that he was in a neighborhood of elderly frame homes, several housing small, illegal, barely discreet operations—a travel agency, a furniture refinishing shop, a cold print press. Already lapsed from its strictly residential character, Tillis foresaw the under-financed, doomed light industry that would insinuate itself among these life-battered houses and commercial bungles, edging the whole vicinity into the decay of an interstitial area, a breeding and staging ground for garages, experimental delinquency, and low crime.

            The natural deterrent to this inexorable social slide came to Tillis in a flash. The fire was raging on an inevitable site for a superlative small urban mall.

            Tillis saw the design for the mall whole, almost immediately—two stories, redwood, with a cobbled courtyard, two staircases, one on each end, and a beautifully eased ramp for the wheelchairs. A latticed platform would extend from the landing on the left, over perhaps a fourth of the area, and from this, in this temperate climate, white blooming wisteria could be forced to drift throughout most of the year. The front entrance, wide and open to easy access, would be flanked by hedges, dark, thick, and squared off, solid and impenetrable.

            By the time Tillis returned home, the mall stood built in his mind. He tempered his natural inclination to develop a set piece about it; after all, it would make a marvelous story, that he had gone to a fire and been bestowed a vision. But as he had reminded students over the years, "The first line comes as a gift from the gods. The second line we make ourselves, straining all our resources." Tillis felt he had clearly been given a first line, but that it would be an absurd, an amateurish exercise to involve himself, to strain. A project like a mall was a remarkably sprawling matter, with its fate in the hands and pockets of numerous unknowns and sticky, balky knowns.

            In the morning, Tillis told his wife, "The site of the last night's fire happens to be an ideal location for a handsome set of stores dealing in arts, crafts, and the more important artistic artifacts. A cultural miniature mall, if you will."

            She turned from the stove and looked at him. The look carried a great deal of complicated material in it, embedded in which were a number of questions. They had been married six years, and had two children, and she had learned to limit herself, in a number of areas, to unvoiced questions. She had been one of his students, and it was from him that she had learned to ask: Who owned the property? Would the owners, perhaps a syndicate, want to develop? If not, would they sell? Who would present the case to the Planning Commission, the Community Development Agency, the City Council, to argue that this was "the highest and best use" of the property?

            "Premature thinking, Sara," he said firmly, addressing her, as he often did, as though she were a very small committee.

            Nevertheless, he burnished his vision with the heat of his cranky obsessiveness, and revealed it in bits to his students and assorted colleagues. It made for excellent impromptu corridor lectures and spontaneous lunchtime sketches on the faculty club's paper napkins. It also provided useful assignments, and he fanned out the students in his zoning design seminar to do a feasibility study for a small complex of shops, a strip mall, on a corner property in a transitional area no more than six blocks south and west from one of the borders of a hypothetical state university.

            A short, bulky, barrel-chested man with a slight lisp and a minor hip swivel, Tillis had been an active homosexual up until the night before his marriage. The hip movement was by now competently incorporated in a brisk, rolling kind of swagger. And although he had grown up in Alhambra, California, where his transplanted Chicago-born parents managed a franchised dry cleaning storefront, he had early in his freshman year, when he changed his name from Arnold to Anton, developed something Germanic in his speech. This melded convincingly, with a small amount of moisture, into the lisp, his long pouting lower lip, and a natural talent for pedantry, which he cultivated.

            Tillis re-shaped his wide soft chin by rimming it with a short, beautifully crafted beard. He would have preferred a more assertive style, but he recognized that his face was already crowded, with round heavy cheeks, full pale lips, and a fleshy nose.

            Throughout his youth and earlier manhood, Tillis's redeeming physical feature and best sexual bargaining chip had been his large, plum-brown liquid eyes. But these he gradually drained of their smoldering ambiguity after he decided to give up men as lovers, and in the course of throwing himself into marriage and a life of compensations, his quenched and emptied eyes had become still as stones. By now, Tillis's look, in public and private, was an unblinking signal of the possibility of sudden and powerful verbal assault.

            Tillis's classes were enormously popular. He had come to planning after degrees in philosophy and political science, and the students sensed that he never came to them empty. He had a fount of energetic opinions, glossed with dogmatism, that slid easily into notebooks; a stockpile of information that was wide-ranging, anecdotal, and useful; and mannerisms that lent themselves to imitation and mimicry. Among themselves, the students hooted at his pomposities, but they also believed that he deeply meant and understood what he said to them in class.

            After a particularly incisive formulation, Tillis sometimes splayed the fingers of his right hand and rotated them, flicking his wrist and forming his hand into a balled cage to imprison the rounded thought. Once each quarter he said, as a closing utterance, "'Trouve avant de chercher.' Finding before seeking. That is a thought from the great French poet, Valéry. This finding requires a permit; one applies for it from oneself, and it is always received for the asking. So it is altogether a beautiful possibility. It is also a necessity in life. It will be necessary, for example, to the conduct of your future careers—whatever they may become when you begin to tinker with your schooling. Finding before seeking. A phenomenon and a cliché. One must, however, make oneself open to it. I commend to you such an opening."

            At some point Tillis said, to each new class, "No conception of civic design is adequate, is acceptable, that does not envisage the city, in its ideal form, as a work of art. It is to learn how to achieve this sublime goal that we are investigating here how to influence the orderly, the healthy, the efficient development of communities and their environs. What we are concerned with, at base, as you all already suspect, is space—how to arrange, rearrange, fill, shape it—how, in a word, to control it."

            Tillis prepared and rehearsed his lectures, and then presented them with studied spontaneity, speaking with the precision, enthusiasm, and occasional charming awkwardness of someone expressing himself fluently in an acquired language. Lecturing, Tillis in his calculated disguise could be taken for a seasoned character actor in rehearsal.

            Whether in a lecture hall, outside his office addressing student loiterers, or hurrying with a few of them through the winding halls to a class, Tillis's manner rarely altered. It promised accessibility, even future intimacy, but in fact his obliviousness to others achieved a perfect distancing.

            Year after year, Tillis postured for, taught, indoctrinated, and won over even the more skeptical graduate students, whose work he addressed equally with serious attention, and who took for a noble even-handedness what was simply his natural neglect to distinguish between them.


            The shops in the little complex, Tillis said here and there over the months, would have to fit into the organicity of the whole. The applicant shopkeepers would be screened as to their purposes and the style of their minds. He envisioned a tucked-away horticultural haven, for example, that would entice consumers of taste who would shun any flower-stall scheme of a shop (because flowers for the house, of course, they grew themselves), but who would be drawn to the rarer plants. Certainly such plantspersons could be developed into serious collectors of unusual flora on at least a national scale. And could furthermore be encouraged to pay for seminars on the environmental and soil conditions related to their specific floral hobby. An altogether paying proposition, the whole arrangement…

            He envisaged the perfect coffee store (more accurately, a coffee storehouse), Tillis said, which would without question evolve into the hub of the entire little complex. It would make available the incomparable beans from worldwide markets to grind at home, which was, of course, the single wholly satisfactory method for producing a drinkable coffee. Perhaps a different coffee each day could be brewed on the premises of the store to be drunk outside, where there would be small tables under the indispensable awning, such as were found on the Continent everywhere, but too infrequently in our own home region.

            His own wife, to mention a highly personal matter, Tillis said to an undergraduate class—surely it was at the very least a minor barbarity that she had no wholly acceptable public place to sit outdoors, to rest from shopping or after she came home from one of her exhausting docent tours at the Asian Museum, and drink a coffee in congenial surroundings, and read. He would stop short of mentioning questions of entitlement, of perhaps a simple civic amenity…

            To colleagues and graduate students, singly or in groups, and at dinners and cocktail parties, Tillis gave what he labeled verbal glimpses into his fondest dream for the phantom complex:

            "I conceive of a store, a simple stark repository, actually, that would stock first of all instruments intimately related to the great music written for them," Tillis said.

            Being a realist, he said, he would forego active consideration of the instruments that Bach and Handel and Corelli wrote for—the Baroque, unmodernized violin, cello, gamba, the flute, the oboe, the recorder, the rare, rare Baroque horn, and so on. These instruments were, with great effort, even now available, but he never wanted to lose sight of the fact that this miniature mall, after all was to be a commercial thrust, and would modern ears adapt to the harshness, the jangle of those early instruments in ensemble? Would today's listener be patient enough with the discordant energy produced to hear the rhythm in the sound and the clear musical line of each instrument as it had been written? Unlikely, was it not? However, Tillis also said, think of the virginals, the lyre, the dulcimer, the sitar (our lute, of course)—all much more easily acquired. And along with the muted harpsichord, why not its relative, the assertive celesta? And as for relatives—do not neglect the heckelphone, only an octave lower than our venerable oboe. All these would do—have done—excellent justice to the great composers, I have been told, even if a different justice than they had conceived of. Gradually attuned, would not performers, serious buffs, students, become a paying constituency?


            A quick study and a veteran researcher, Tillis imparted what he gleaned as though he were revealing secrets. There were other musical themes as well, he took to reminding listeners. He would leap over the marvelous mandolins, the Milanese and Neapolitan both, he said, and recall for them the Japanese silk-strung zithers, for example, the koto and the shakuhachi. It was perhaps an irrelevant bit of trivia, he chortled to gratified students, to dwell for an instant on the fact that these were once sex-related instruments, the former played exclusively by women, the latter by husbands. Of course the frantic Westernization of that part of the world had put a final kaput to all that, so that by now they were played by whoever could put a hand to them.

            These were not really rarities, Tillis said, arguing, over lunch, with a colleague or two in his office, during coffee and dessert at a faculty dinner. Why did so much provincialism abound? Could not the whole complex, the entire miniature mall, a Square, if you will, be a celebration of a conglomerate of cultures? Riding a newly acquired hobbyhorse, Tillis's subject for a time became kites. What of a shop that would sell only kites, he challenged his students. Two obvious, practical advantages spring to mind, do they not? Kites themselves are an unparalleled visual treat, and the materials—bamboo, light papers, crushed glass, mylar, strings, and so on, are easily stored, do not steal space. And especially in this still stratified society of ours, how else could one secure so affordable a symbol of man's impulse to overcome his earth boundedness, his given limits in the social order?

            Consider the kite-flyer, Tillis said: A person in the act of contriving to channel the flow of air to his own uses; a lone individual bent on beating nature at its own game, no less—manipulating its wind to overcome its gravity. What a nerve. What a noble, inspiring, even entrepreneurial nerve. Surely this effrontery has a seductive appeal to the emotional, intellectual, human adventurer in us all, to our shared divine discontent…

            There were too many kite genres and styles to approach a surface sweep of them, Tillis regretted, but he would direct attention to the glorious Indian Tukkals and the Japanese fighting kites—among them the Nagasaki, for example, and especially that brilliant oddity, the wan-wan, a flight-worthy twenty yards in diameter, with a 480-foot tail, and a 35-leg bridle, that customarily weighed in at no more than a ton.

            He did not conceive of a store that would handle any of the exotica, of course, but there were many kites of the more conventional order to attract the fun-loving and imaginative, as well, the parents of ever-demanding children and their endless school projects. Certainly all of this predicted an immense profit-maker, Tillis proclaimed; it only needed proper presentation to a buying public.

            There was no reason, Tillis said, that a commercial enterprise made to glow with the patinae of several cultural traditions could not also be a financial success. Spare him the argument that for the most part, only nostalgia buffs would be attracted. No. Nostalgiacs do not spend money for treasures that evoke the riches of the past. Rather, they are hoarders and hoard their boredom with the present.

            The ambiance of the university, Tillis said, would surely drape itself accordingly and profitably over that section of the flatlands where a small mall, a Square, could be made to rise.

            Tillis's recitations came to be somewhat of a vogue, and a good deal of what he said, playing and preening with notions, floated outside his own department and the university and into the outside world.

            And then one weekday afternoon at a lakeside park, something took place which was rich with consequence for Tillis and Sara. Between quarters, and after turning in the course grades to the registrar, Tillis came home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Sara and the children were leaving with a picnic blanket, an inflated purple and yellow ball, an orange frisbee, and a long moss-green mat over which the symbols of the zodiac pranced in repeats and assorted colors. The somewhat thick pad had been woven by one of Sara's three sisters and sent for no special occasion between the births of the Tillis's two girls.

            It had come with a note to Sara that said, "Yours is the last of this breed of mat because now all five of us have one. By now the sun, lots of bottoms, and etceteras, have turned the figures on my mat into ghosts of their former selves. And Hollis's Annie left theirs on the boat, folded like an offering to the elements, and now several of their Leos, Tauruses, and Aries look as though they're on their knees. For heaven's sake, don't be too careful with yours. Let's each of us fade in our own way, with pleasure."

            Before he shortly forgot about it altogether, Tillis was nettled by almost everything he read into the note and the gift—their tone of careless privilege, the ring of easy sibling affection that reinforced his lifelong conviction that there were certain emotions only those born rich could afford, the surprising evidence of verbal agility and accomplishment in a woman so casual, groomed, and secure in her fortunate place in life. That all this largely echoed qualities he had first seen in Sara, Tillis had long ago forgotten.


            Sara came to Tillis's attention when she brought an assignment to his office with a brief, delicately embroidered tale about why it was a day late. When she gave him the paper, Tillis was struck by her hands, which were narrow and unmarked in any way, the unringed fingers so slender they appeared fragile and vulnerable, as though they would curl at a touch. Because she was a fair girl, her hands had tanned to a gold, and to Tillis they looked as though they had just been minted and never been used.

            Going down in the elevator, Tillis saw that she was wearing a fitted leather or leather-like jacket with her jeans, and short boots with heels. There were no other clues in her uncurled light brown hair, shoulder-blade length, or watercolor blue-green eyes, or very young, unremarkable face. She seemed slight, thriftily constructed, Tillis said to himself, and not like one of the ones who bounced into class with their breasts floating all over the place, or one of the tall ones that made him feel surrounded.

            They left the campus and walked in the same direction, Tillis on his way to the garage where his car was having its regular timing and carburation check. When Sara turned into a student fee car lot, Tillis asked for a lift; students were gratified, he knew, to be imposed on by faculty. She flushed high on her cheeks, which made her pale eyes appear greener, and walked over to a not very clean chocolate brown Jaguar XJS. Tillis saw from the offhandedness with which she let him into the car and drove it that she was uninterested in it as a status symbol and very possibly unaware of its cost. He was sure now that the jacket was leather and the boots, of course, Italian. And when he competently drifted the talk to the car, she told him her brother had given it to her because he didn't think her old MG was safe, and then had gotten himself a Ferrari which their parents thought was too powerful to be safe. She smiled then for the first time, with a pleasant openness that glowed on her rather sober small face, and Tillis thought of gold again.

            He hadn't been born lucky, Tillis thought, but he had an eye for luck. This time it had led him to an intuition about the student. "I was correct," Tillis graded himself, although he made a minor adjustment in one of his first impressions. He would hereinafter have to consider the girl as neatly, rather than thriftily constructed, because not even as a figure of speech could a term related to economy apply to a person so embowered with expensive possessions.

            Tillis waited until Sara had been out of his class for a quarter, and then he married her for her meekness, her money, and her hands. Also, because it was time for him to marry. Although the university had a much-vaulted reputation for tolerance, Tillis had long ago decided not to trust in this; he had anticipated that one day he would have to give up his hidden private life, with its vulnerable, intricate secrecies. And by now the faculty on the lower middle rung of the academic ladder with him, all in social and academic cliques, all rivals, were settled into the department's mandatory style of reciprocal socializing on home grounds. To enter into this, Tillis saw, it was necessary to have on display a wholly visible pattern of conventional domesticity.

            From the first, Sara had been carried along by Tillis's almost immediate assumption that they would get married. She was startled and dazzled by being pursued by a professor, and the wooing gave her an enjoyable cachet with her dorm mates, but more importantly, she was a convert of Tillis's. She had signed up for courses in urban studies and planning with a neutral level of interest, at the behest of her family. She was aware that one day she and her sisters and brother would have control of properties in several states, but as the youngest, it hadn't occurred to her yet that any information or act of hers could have any effect on the life or shape of actual real estate and land and its natural assets.

            "Even if you just learn the good questions to ask, later on," her oldest sister said.

            As a student, Sara dutifully took notes on Tillis's lecture about the ideal conception of the city as a work of art, and never thought about it again. She was used to professor-talk; her notebooks were filled with it. At exam times, she read her notes and held them in mind just long enough to slide them onto her test papers. She generally got very good grades and no one paid any more attention to her than she had to the course material.

            Then one day, near the end of his undergraduate urban studies course, Tillis said: "When I speak of the city as a work of art, do not mistake me; my reference is not to some comfy abstraction that you can file away as simply another soft trial at summoning unobtainable perfection. No. Nor should reference to controlling space be considered as a yearning to develop for artistic effect. Again, no. What we must seek, always, are ways to integrate meaningful design with how people actually live—in the inner-cities, the towns, the suburbs, the cauldrons of the neighborhoods, the school grounds, the small farm communities.

            "It has been famously written that in planning for cities, we must be ever aware of the regenerative energy of 'the ballet of the streets'. I add that we must always be alert to the goal to enrich, and for this we must first discover the needs and wants and habits of those for whom we propose to build, or rearrange, or tear down.

            "I endow you with a formulation to keep in the forefront of your thinking when at long last you infiltrate the world of planning and design. This formulation is: It is idle and even sinful to veer in the direction of substituting the order of art for the order of life. Write this down, read it over and over, mouth the words to yourself often, in full awareness that in all beginnings, as in the first beginning, is the word."

            Awash in the cascades of Tillis's words, Sara felt a thrill at her first inkling of the humanized, enlivening possibilities in the field of planning and development. Eventually, primed by Tillis as a suitor, she transferred this feeling, enlarged with admiration and gratitude, to the person who had pointed her to a new place and lit it.


            Tillis had been surprised and relieved when Sara turned out not to be sexually inexperienced, although he was initially dismayed by the warmth and purity of her ardor. He was also enviously rankled (before he quickly learned its advantages) by the range of skills that large sums of money had trained into the girl's soft, apparently vernal hands. Without repenting his choice, Tillis the planner was nevertheless aware, for the first two months, before he put the idea out of his mind, that despite his great care, he had acquired a wife with a somewhat misleading frontage.

           In the marriage, Tillis ruled by seniority, punishing silences, and a denial of shared assumptions. Decisions and choices, large and small, swayed with Tillis's moods, the outcomes of the daily secret wars he waged with the world.

            "Expected at eight this evening? By whom? I have a full evening of work planned. You will have to enlighten me, Sara, if you want me to behave like a wrapped parcel for you to take along at will. No, Sara, you could only have obtained my agreement to be expected if you first poured a controlled substance into my ear and then whispered into it…"


            "Good for me to spend some time with the children? Good? This is an absolute good that you are prepared to defend backward and forward in time, in space, like a scientific principle, as a predetermined value to govern my behavior? Do you, by chance, have a crude fact that you use as your basis for calculation…?"


            The effect on Sara of Tillis's backing, filling, and bullying was to glaze her face with a listening look, as though she were traveling private corridors of her mind in which she was trying to hear a cadence, catch a note that kept eluding her. By the time their second child was born, Sara had haltingly come to the knowledge that there was a nerve of feeling hidden in Tillis, buried in layers of insecurities and evasions, and that this was inaccessible to her. She was nevertheless a young woman with a strong sense of obligation to her marriage and particularly to her children, and for some years she had thought that she could make restitution to Tillis for whatever had wounded him so badly that he could not love, although she thought this less and less.

            Tillis's confiscatory use of the marriage also sent Sara on a regular round of visits. Each year, at a different season, she took her small children and spent several weeks with her parents in the far west, two weeks with each of her sisters in different states, and a month with her brother, a marine illustrator, who had based himself on one of the smaller islands in Hawaii with his wife, their five small children, and a telescope, "to watch the whales mate."

            On one of the visits to the island, Tillis joined Sara and his little girls "to see what is all this nonsense about whales." Sara's brother Hollis and his young serene wife were warmly hospitable and as always nodded and smiled at Tillis's bumptiousness as though he were delivering news from another country. Before the end of the first week, Tillis said, "We leave in two days, Sara. This is intolerable, this roosting."

            When Sara found Hollis to tell him about the decision to leave early, he was drawing a hopscotch on a floor canvas with chalks. He told the children to rummage in the chalk box for the colors they wanted for the border, and looked over their choices carefully. Then he said, "You know something, Saralove? It is a proven scientific fact that feeding certain people compliance makes them vicious. Large percentages have been known to be driven into a feeding frenzy; the more they get, the more they need."

            "Oh, Hollis," Sara said, very seriously, "Anton is a brilliant man, especially in his field, and he had a hard time—he was really mismatched in his early life with his parents and their life—somehow. I don't know how, really, but you have to understand—"

            Hollis got up quickly, herded the children out of the room, and closed the door. "Screw understanding," he said, and opened the door and brought the children back in.


            "Ah," Tillis said to his colleagues, "my Sara operates in the Victorian mode, does she not? One paid one's yearly respects to Mama and Papa, brought them the grandchildren, and then visited the rest of the family to measure the progeny against one another. I am often reminded of Hawthorne's journal and letters, and the repeated references to his worshipful Sophia's visits and visits and visits to her Peabody family entire…"


            On the day that Tillis came home unexpectedly at noon, he uncharacteristically went along on the picnic. "Such a pastoral notion, Sara," he said. It would be a brief outing, Sara told him, because the children were due at the university faculty-student pool for a swimming lesson at two.

            "Ah, the pool. Still another session at the exclusive Guava Gulch?" Tillis said, it being his often-expressed opinion that the children's lessons were an excuse for the faculty wives to gossip and eat fruit. On weekends he referred to the pool as the Hellespont because he had once seen a large foreign visiting Classics professor, in hand-knitted knee-length swimming trunks, stamp with rage on the tufted, unyielding grass at the edge of the pool. The black pelt on his chest and upper back matted with sweat, the middle-aged father had been attempting, in mounting despair and four languages, to teach a very young child the principle of coordinating a basic flutter kick with the American crawl.

            Tillis drove the five miles to the park directing currents of censure against the sins and errors that surrounded him: the incompetently managed traffic, the improperly placed and ambiguously worded signs to the park picnic area, the little girls' giggling on the floor of the back seat.

At the lake, Sara spread the mat and gave the children the purple and yellow ball to play with while she laid out the food. As Tillis and Sara and the children ate, sitting cross-legged, the sunshine all around them, everything sparkled—the lake, the last beads of morning dew on the grass, the stainless steel thermoses of milk and juices, the orange plastic frisbee, the children's warmed, radiant faces, Sara's chain with the three Roman coins, the moisture that had gathered on the pale down over her lip.

            "If this sun gets violent, we leave immediately, Sara," Tillis said. But lying back with his eyes closed, he felt only a light touch of warmth on his lids. A fragrance wafted to him, and he thought of how even errant flora could become pervasive. The sounds that came to him were drifting threads of talk and play from other groups around the lake, murmurings swept up and brought by small breezes. Closer to him, Sara played her game with the children.

"I am slicing," she said,

"A minute, a second, a whole day," the answers came, tumbling with their laughter.

"I am chewing—"

Silence, and then a triumphant, "Surprise. I like that one, Mommy, I like that one especially. Chewing surprise makes it last."

"I like it too," Sara said. "I am touching—"

"I am touching remember," the older child said.

"Those are just plain wonderful," Sara said. "Now what do you have in your hand?"

"I have a hello in my right hand," the younger child said.

"I have a whisper in my two hands closed up," the older child said.

To Tillis, his children's voices sounded high and clear, pure as a blockflöte, he thought, and wondered if that was one of the instruments he had edited out of his lectures on the visionary music store.

Lying on his back in the gentle early warmth of the day, his knees slightly raised, Tillis felt the young joyous noises and Sara's ardent maternal voice encircling him. He opened his eyes a slit and saw an inch of lawn and thought of Marvell's line about a green thought in a green shade. A stream of peace seeped into him and flowed through the furrows of his fervent discontent, over the stiffened ridges of the constant rage that powered him. And slowly panic gathered in him as he felt the invading calm he could neither control nor use, the lethal lulling, the dreaded threat to the defended, embattled self he had chiseled with such fierce life-menacing blows.

Fear ticking in him, Tillis found himself on his feet, and for an instant before he saw Sara and the children on the mat, beginning to clear away the picnic, he was blinded by the small benign red rings the sun had caused to move in his eyes. When he did see them, before he left to go to the men's room, they looked to him, his fair wife and children, like a still life seen at a distance, shimmering figures in frightening flashes of gold.

He found the toilets in a small turreted building, a fake playground version of something English and historical, behind a dense barrier of Guatemalan Holly which has produced a quantity of small, colorful, inedible fruit. Inside, a man with a pony tail neatly tied with a leather thong, an ironed denim shirt with unbuttoned cuffs, and two small rhinestone studs in one ear, was standing in front of the mirror, washing his hands. Looking deeply into the man's eyes in the mirror, Tillis said, as he had so many times in his past, unmarried life, "Can you help me?" And the undercover policeman, after giving him the appropriate cautions demanded by law, arrested him.

Tillis regarded the ruin of his life as the facts rose before his stony eyes, and he arranged, rearranged, and settled them on the way back to where Sara was waiting. When Sara saw the two men approach, Tillis with his clenched face and trapped smile like an alarm bark, the stranger slightly to the side and behind him, she picked up and threw the orange frisbee as far as she could, and told the children to go after it.

"I asked this deranged gentleman to help me with directions back to this area," Tillis said evenly, with all the customary promise of fitful malice beneath his mannered civility. "I think he must have been taught his trade in another societal realm."

Sara only nodded, and although something that happened to her look was not precisely relief, the wondering wrinkle between her eyes evened somewhat, and her nod was the kind a listener sometimes gives when a dominant seventh chord is resolved.

The story of the arrest appeared in one late edition of an afternoon paper, with Tillis's name misspelled and the name of his department garbled. After that the university handled everything, and the members of Tillis's department met and pledged not to discuss the matter, even among themselves. Tillis was given his half-sabbatical early, and the department secretary set the wheels in motion for renting his house to visiting faculty.

"We go to Tokyo, of course," Tillis told Sara. "They have been wanting me there, at the Waseda University, and now they will have me."

"We'll travel after that," Sara said. "I think for another year at least. It will be all right with the department now that you have tenure. They want you here, too. I can sell stock for the money."

"This is an intervention, Sara?" Tillis said. But Sara's pale irises only flickered, and Tillis did not pursue the point since she had, after all, only said what he would have willed her to say.

They traveled, after Japan, to China, Sri Lanka, São Paulo, and Bogotá, before they toured Mexico. Their last six months they spent in France and Italy.

            Four times each year Sara sent the department secretary a letter to be duplicated and circulated, and sometimes included pictures of the children in ethnic costumes. The letters were pleasantly descriptive, factual, dotted with easy, unself-conscious references to members of the department and their families, and also to Tillis's more amusing opinions about travel in general, and the cultural characteristics, art, music, and architecture of the various cities. In one of the letters, she said that she looked forward to returning, going back to the university, and finishing her work on urban planning.


            The Tillises came back two years later without flurry of any kind, as smoothly and easily as their cleverly packed, well-managed baggage went through customs. Their most pressing immediate problem was one of exposure: A highly unusual, unseasonal frost had killed the five Pittosporum that had shielded their house, and they found their front door, the children's play yard, and the front rock garden open to any casual eye, unprotected. The death of the trees was a particular surprise because they had been fortunate trees and singularly free even of the aphids and scale insects to which the genus was held to be susceptible.

            Except for the harried activities of finding workmen to build an interim fence and plant permanent trees, Tillis and Sara slipped into the habits they had lived with before. They had stood aside to let time pass, and going on ahead of them, time had done its job, opening and closing doors, windows, and closets of all kinds, airing everything out.

            Tillis returned as someone in the shape of a professor in the City and Regional Planning Department of a major university, and it was generally agreed that his travels had only enlarged and enriched his prodigious stock of general information, quotations, anecdotes, inflexible and worthwhile opinions, and knowledge of the field of development, about which he had a projected book. There did seem to be a change in him, although it was not altogether clear what the change was. His face had become disordered in some way that could not be fully accounted for by his new full muttonchops, and his eyes, whose expression of ready, restrained frontal attack had not altered, looked smudged. In conversation, Tillis now took to stepping a little to the side of and behind the person he was talking with, rather like a dentist at work whose eye you could not meet, or a discreet policeman walking with a suspect.

            Sara returned looking as though she had been divested of any visible layers of her body that she didn't need for survival. When she turned her head, cords showed in her long neck and knobs appeared on her spare shoulders, and her cheekbones, barely wrapped in biscuity pale skin, had the flinty shine of a hard wood, such as lignum vitae, that natives carve to sell to tourists. She had, however, added something. She now wore glasses—large unrimmed ovals with hairline gold earpieces. "I lost one of my contacts in Beijing," she explained, "and after that I realized how much more dependable these are."

            The manner that had made it easy for Tillis's colleagues and their wives to be fond of her had not changed. The clarity of her intentions was soothing and comforting, and sometimes they forgot to be sorry for her because she had made the classic error of marrying her professor, in this instance a brilliant, edgy, armored, hectoring man who had brought them to the brink of a profound social and personal abyss. And so they were grateful to her for the grace with which she had absorbed the scandal that had gradually become inert in her absence.

            She still, as always, was the first up from the dinner table, to help clear away, as though she was the little sister to them all. And when she handed about either her own or her hostess's hors d'oeuvres and drinks, she approached the men in conversation with great care, as though an offering at the wrong moment might injure their talk. But behind the new glasses her sea-blue eyes jumped from face to face so as not to miss anything, having learned that it was the things people let drop, that you didn't pay enough attention to, that you tripped over.


            Tillis, re-installed on campus, was met with widespread sentimental charity. And many of the faculty and old students who dropped into his office made a point of mentioning that the little mall he had played with as such an entertaining notion had indeed materialized, even as not precisely as he had envisioned it. Perhaps what he had drawn on all those paper napkins had not been made flesh, a colleague told him, but it had certainly been made redwood.

            Tillis laughed his laugh full of sibilants, but more than another year passed before he went to The Square one day at noon. He entered it between browning, damaged hedges into a din of disorderly noises and crowding and incessant motion, and walked past the signs of desertion: the dusty For Lease stores, the display windows with recycled clothing and indeterminate wares, the shoe store window announcing a sale and filled with bumpy configurations of boxes. When he looked up from the densely littered ground, he saw a single tattered banner on a pole, and wisps of wisteria lying limp on a small overhead trellis, its old, spent blossoms clinging to the top of the hedge. The combined odors from ethnic eateries, which came to him as a stench, seemed to be diffused with an overpowering smell of roasting coffee beans, and Tillis, afraid to lose himself in rage and bewilderment, left.

            "But it is full of lunatic absurdities, that arrangement of atrocities they have named The Square. Full," Tillis informed Sara later. "It is a distortion, an insult, to the art of planning. I myself will not, of course, ever put my foot to the place again. It would have been better—immensely immensely better—to go to the vulgarities of fountains and a plaza, with a vendor in a cart hawking frankfurters and lemonade. And the hedge—yes, a hedge was installed—has been tortured, obviously from the first—willfully tortured, it is clear. Criminal vandals have systematically—because these are not random acts only, Sara—systematically gouged what could have been something splendid to the eye and easeful to the soul, with twisted cans and vicious broken bottles and edged implements, objects by now contorted and unnamable.

            "And then vandals have stood back and shot arrows at it; they jut out there still, arrows and darts—the whole hedge sending monstrous messages, is it not? And by what authority is this permitted? There is a great deal of blame to lay somewhere. I will not, myself, pursue the matter, but there is unquestionably a doorway at which blame can rightly be laid."

            Sara had been to The Square many times, and was even then brewing a pot of The Coffee Storehouse's house blend. She went with her classmates for lunch, and to the small markets for gourmet and specialty foods, and of course for the coffee beans. Her initial dismay at the shape the little mall had taken kept her from bringing it up to Tillis who, full of bluster, was nevertheless finding it difficult to find firm footing again on campus. New generations of students, who had not heard of him, seemed less responsive to the somewhat irregular knowledge he fanned out before them, more resistive to his seizures of conviction. And as time passed, a good moment didn't present itself for talking about the mall which, Sara thought, someone would tell him about, in any event.

            By now, accustomed to The Square's visual slope towards entropy, Sara had begun to think that perhaps it was not deteriorating, but dissolving into life. Very little of Tillis's cranky, excited, wondrous vision had been realized or survived, but the little mall seemed to her to be filled with pulsing life—a collective life that had set its imprint on the property and changed the plan. The Square now was disorderly, uncouth, irreverent, inventive, and selfish, but that would change. If there was one thing Sara had learned, it was that the winds of change, though they may seem only to lurk, are in constant operation, making their moves, large and small. So the ravaging of the hedge, for example, might be a small, transitory gesture made at a point in time out of recklessness and boredom. Gradually, the students would leave, shifting the scenery of their lives, cautiously testing ways to compromise their own greenness. And gradually, others would come and go, and make of The Square what was required. Sometime, there might be baroque instruments. There might be kites.

            Sara had an idea that gave her a frisson for a moment: it was that probably the hedge needed to come down, that it had been vandalized for that purpose. It was an idea that had come without her seeking it, and she felt immediately that it was an answer to something, and that it was the right one. But for now she said something else to Tillis.

            "I've been to The Square," she said carefully, "and I was surprised at how much of your physical design was followed. For the rest, life took over, didn't it? So The Square may evolve, become different, and if it only gets worse, it will get renovated, won't it? The people who invested—it's to their own self-interest, isn't it? And now that you're here, you could have an input, if you wanted to get involved in any renewal?"

            Sara was in the clothes she wore now to campus—pants and sweatshirt with an indeterminate logo and running shoes—so as to look like the others, although Tillis thought this was unseemly. Occasionally, when he talked to her, Tillis could see himself slowly losing grains of her attention.

            "Renovated. Renewed," Tillis said, fiercely. In a small, stray moment of self-recognition, he knew the stubborn density with which he had held to his vision of a beautiful, functional, cultural mini-mall, but he also felt that his conception had had a purity and even nobility of purpose.

            And standing in his house around which the new, replaced trees still had not grown enough to shield it, Tillis the romantic addressed the world to which he was exposed. From a throat thick with rage and regret, he faced an open window and called out, "We have come too late. It cannot be as it was meant to be, and we have come upon it too late, much much too late…"




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Harriet Halliday Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Harriet Halliday Renaud was a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor from 1935 to 2016, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar. For more of her writings in Scene4, check the Archives

©2022 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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