It was the hour of twilight on a soft spring day toward the end of Aprilin the year of Our Lord 1929, and George Webber leaned his elbows on the sill of his back window and looked out at what he could see of New York. His eye took in the towering mass of the new hospital at the end of the block, its upper floors set back in terraces, the soaring walls salmon colored in the evening light. This side of the hospital, and directly opposite, was the lower structure of the annex, where the nurses and the waitresses lived. In the restof the block half a dozen old brick houses, squeezed together in a solid row, leaned wearily against each other and showed their backsides to him.
The air was strangely quiet. All the noises of the city were muted here into a distant hum, so unceasing that it seemed to belong to silence. Suddenly, through the open windows at the front of the house came the raucous splutter of a truck starting up at the loading platform of the warehouse across the street. The heavy motor warmed up with a full-throated roar, then there was a grinding clash of gears, and George felt the old house tremble under him as the truck swung out into the street and thundered off. The noise receded, grew fainter,then faded into the general hum, and all was quiet as before.
As George leaned looking out of his back window a nameless happiness welled within him and he shouted over to the waitresses in the hospital annex, who were ironing out as usual their two pairs of drawers and their flimsy little dresses. He heard, as from a great distance, the faint shouts of children playing in the streets, and, near at hand, the low voices of the people in the houses. He watched the cool, steep shadows, and saw how the evening fight was moving in the little squares of yards, each of which had in it something intimate, familiar, and revealing -- a patch of earth in which a pretty woman had been setting out flowers, working earnestly for hours and wearing a big straw hat and canvas gloves; a little plot of new-sown grass, solemnly watered every evening by a man with a square red face and a bald head; a tittle shed or playhouse or workshop for some business man's spare-time hobby; or a gay-painted table, some easy lounging chairs, and a huge bright-striped garden parasol to cover it, and a good-looking girl who had been sitting there all afternoon reading, with a coat thrown over her shoulders and a tall drink at her side.
Through some enchantment of the quiet and the westering fight and the smell of April in the air, it seemed to George that he knew these people all around him. He loved this old house on Twelfth Street, its red brick walls, its rooms of noble height and spaciousness, its old dark woods and floors that creaked; and in the magic of the moment it seemed to be enriched and given a profound and lonely dignity by all the human beings it had sheltered in its ninety years. The house became like a living presence. Every object seemed to have an animate vitality of its own -- walls, rooms, chairs, tables, even a half wet bath towel hanging from the shower ring above the tub, a coat thrown down upon a chair, and his papers, manuscripts, and books scattered about the room in wild confusion.
The simple joy he felt at being once more a part of such familiar things also contained an element of strangeness and unreality. With a sharp stab of wonder he reminded himself, as he had done a hundred times in the last few weeks, that he had really come home again-home to America, home to Manhattan's swarming rock, and home again to love; and his happiness was faintly edged with guilt when he remembered that less than a year before he had gone abroad in anger and despair, seeking to escape what now he had returned to.
In his bitter resolution of that spring a year ago, he had wanted most of all to get away from the woman he loved. Esther Jack was much older than he, married and living with her husband and grown daughter. But she had given George her love, and given it so deeply, so exclusively, that he had come to feel himself caught as in a trap. It was from that he had wanted to escape-that and the shameful memory of their savage quarrels, and a growing madness in himself which had increased in violence as she had tried to hold him. So he had finally left her and fled to Europe. He had gone away to forget her, only to find that he could not; he had done nothing but think of her all the time. The memory of her rosy, jolly face, her essential goodness, her sure and certain talent, and all the hours that they had spent together returned to torture him with new desire and longing for her.
Thus, fleeing from a love that still pursued him, he had become a wanderer in strange countries. He had traveled through England, France, and Germany, had seen countless new sights and people, and-cursing, whoring, drinking, brawling his way across the continent-had had his head bashed in, some teeth knocked out, and his nose broken in a beer-hall fight. And then, in the solitude of convalescence in a Munich hospital, lying in bed upon his back with his ruined face turned upward toward the ceiling, he had nothing else to do but think. There, at last, he had learned a little sense. There his madness had gone out of him, and for the first time in many years he had felt at peace within himself...
Excerpted from You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe Copyright © 1981 by Thomas Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
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