Cornell was a great wit and raconteur. He had an effortless
natural grace that made us feel we were all clever. He never
sought to be the center of attention, it's just that we could
never wait to see what he would say next. His wife, Priscilla,
couldn't take her eyes off of him she was so proud. He turned
out book after book, always bristling with intelligence. We all
felt so lucky to know him, to claim him as a part of our inner
circle. Without warning, he died one day. His family, about whom
we knew little, insisted that the funeral be a private affair.
We felt cheated, of course, not being able to say goodbye. He
was buried somewhere far from here. Priscilla wasn't answering
the phone. We all just wandered around in a daze, not really
wanting to get togther. Cornell wasn't even cool in his grave
wherever that waswhen rumors started circling about his affairs,
not just one or two, but perhaps dozens of them, or even hundreds.
His whole life seemed to be an intricate web of lies, and not just
to Priscilla but to all of us. Beneath the surface of the charm,
there must have been one scared, panicky animal, always planning
his next deception. I ran into Gwen downtown. "How's Priscilla
taking all of this?" I asked. "She's moved," she said. "She doesn't
want to see any of us ever again. Too painful." It all seemed
so sudden. And then the charges of plagiarism hit the papers.
The article cited endless instances of pure theft, and his life's
work was discredited, his honor lay in tatters. There seemed to be
a kind of awful joy taken in this work. His old friends in town
could barely speak of it. "Did you see that article?" "Yeah,
yeah." I never took his books down from the shelves to look at
anymore, and eventually I removed them and stored them in a box
in the garage. It wasn't long before the rumors and the articles
stopped altogether, and then it was as though he had never existed.
And, yes, Cornell had more life in him, more good cheer and warmth
and brilliance than anyone I have ever known. I had no way of
reconciling what had happened to him, what a swift, harsh vengeance
had struck down his memory. I had a picture of him on the mantel,
holding his glass up high, toasting the camera. We know now that
he was a man of many dark secrets. Maybe his name wasn't even
Cornell. Maybe he'd never gone to school. Maybe he wasn't
even a human being. Maybe he was just a piece of tumbleweed that
had taken on flesh for a while before blowing on, and he's laughing
still. I guess no one ever knew him, but, nonetheless, we all
loved him. I was getting all choked up just thinking about him
and staring at the photo on the mantel when the phone rang. It
was Emory. "Listen, Alex, you're not going to believe this, but
I think Cornell is alive." "What?" I said. "I was in the city
this weekend and I think I saw him. He's grown a mustache and
dyed his hair black, but I'm sure it was him. He was eating lunch
in this little Italian cafe with this really good-looking babe,"
he said. "I don't believe you, I mean, it must have been some
kind of mistake, just some guy who looked a little like Cornell,"
I said. "It was him all right. I recognized the laugh and the
gleam in his eye," he said. "Did you speak to him?" I said.
"Oh no, he was no longer the Cornell that we knew. He was someone
else altogether. I watched him a moment, then walked on," he said.
We said good night. It didn't matter to me one way or another if
he was dead or alive. Some of us had been touched by magic, and,
later, people wanted to tell you it wasn't magic but a bunch of lies,
you want to ask them, Who are you? Show me your bona fides.
I stared at his photo until it faded from view, and there was
nothing left but dust flowing across the prairie on a cold night
such as this. And then I went to bed.
James Tate, The Ghost Soldiers, Ecco Press, 2009.