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The Interview

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Before I met Paul I heard discussion about him. First from Gene Hankins, a longtime buddy. “This guy in my phys ed class . . . you should meet him. I never saw such agility. Coach says he won some sort of national foot-racing championship in his country before he came to the States. His name is Paul.”

Carol, secretary to the head of the music department, said, “This new fellow—sort of lean and very blond—how he makes a violin sing. I don’t know when the professor has been so enthusiastic about a new student. His name is Paul.”

My roommate, Mindy, seemed to float in from the library on the swirl of her skirt. “Remember this Paul character I’ve told you about? I went to school with him down south—until he was expelled.” She laughed and kicked off her blue flats. “Well, he’s here. I just saw him at the library— the same Paul who helped sneak a goat into the girls’ dorm and, can you imagine, stole the anatomy lab’s skeleton and tied it to the flagpole!” Secret remembered glee overcame Mindy.

“You should have seen the president’s face when he saw that! He didn’t ask any questions; he just said, ‘Bring Paul.’” Later that week I was working in the college newspaper office, trying to beat the first deadline. The chief came over and leaned his 180-pound frame on my rickety desk. “I picked up this lead on a feature story for you,” he said, wrinkling his nose in an unconscious attempt to push his horn-rimmed glasses back up on his nose. “It seems this skinny underclassman—” “

His name is Paul?” I asked, removing my feet from under the trembling table just in case. “Your little gift of extrasensory perception could be a distinct advantage to you in your present position if you could keep from flaunting it in the face of your superiors.”

It was Paul, all right. And I was not disappointed upon meeting him. My notebook open, my pencil poised, I began the interview. “I’ve heard of you from my roommate, Mindy.” I kept my eyes on his face. This should be quite the interview story if the faculty sponsor will only let it pass.

“Did Mindy mention that she has found me changed?”

Oh, what an exciting accent! If only I won’t forget its flavor.

“Yes, Paul. She says you are more—uh— serious now.”

“He acts a hundred years old” would be an exact quote, but we have to watch these things in interviews.

“Did some particular thing change you?” I continued.

“Yes. I fell in love.” This is more than I’d dared for. What a personality!

“Oh, you fell in love.” I hoped my voice made it sound as if it were a logical, expected answer. “What is the girl’s name?”

“Beth.” And a quick, bright smile flashed across his face. It occurred to me that he was enjoying this interview as much as I was. Perhaps I should come back to this line of questioning later.

“And why did you choose this school?”

“Beth is in nursing nearby.” Back to Beth again. What sort of creature is she? No other young man I know would give credit to a girl for so much influence in his life. Maybe it’s the girl I should interview.

“Are you in love?” His voice was kindly, interested.

“No.” A moment before, a day before, I had not thought my out-of-love state so unbearable; I had not thought of it at all. But now, sitting here in the slanted fall sunlight with this slight, blond boy, I felt hollow inside saying no to his question. I wished that I had not come to talk with him. I wished to be alone. I wished I were in love.

“Have you ever been in love?” What right has he to ask me questions like this?

“A hundred times, but never really once.” Something in the honesty of his asking demanded honesty in return.

“I understand.” And he smiled as if my answer had pleased him. “Then I will talk to you of love.” Love is . . . Something in the way he talked—I closed my notebook and pushed away my pencil. I wish I could remember everything he said.

“Love is something crowded into your very heart that is too big to be contained in the whole universe. So big that your heart, you think, must surely break with every next beat.” That is part of what he said. “It is looking at something you did not notice before, or perhaps found unpleasant—like looking at an ordinary slice of onion and seeing for the first time the delicacy of its sparkling crystal, intricately patterned beauty. It is finding new beauty everywhere—even within yourself.”

He talked on, and I found myself dreading every pause for fear he would stop. Finally he stood and said we must go. “Until I met Beth”—he shook his head slowly—“I was nothing. Ask Mindy—I only laughed all the time. But when God gives you something so awesome, you find new strength and energy for work; deeper feelings for the lonely, the barren ones who do not now know God.

“You will find love,” he said as we parted. “Do not accept any substitutes. You will find love, and you will wear it nicely.”

Sitting again in the newspaper office, I thought of onions and love. The chief thought only of deadlines. “Lengthy interview,” he said, tilting his head back in order to see me through his slipped glasses. I felt like a biology specimen. “Uh-huh. Lengthy interview. Thanks for the lead. Did you have any others in mind?”

The chief groaned and took his glasses completely off. He looked like a wounded buffalo. “He can’t do this to me.” Then, looking at his watch, “You can’t do this to me.” I began typing a letter to my parents. The clatter of those ancient keys worked like a tranquilizer.

He spoke more calmly. “What’s the matter, kid? Not enough for a story?”

I said, “Too much.” The chief did not understand.

Tragedy I did not see Paul often. We shared no classes or clubs, and we both worked more than average. But once in a while we would meet—in halls between classes, rushing to a meal—just enough time for a few words of conversation: he congratulating me on my interview techniques, or I warning him that the next time I would not be tricked.

Once I saw him with Beth. They were going on a holiday picnic. I remember that the soft gladness in her face made me think, It must be something too big for all the universe, crowded into your very heart. It really must be.

During Christmas vacation there was a news bulletin telling of a group of students killed in a car wreck. Beth was one of them. She was on her way home. There was a wreck; she was dead. I tried to imagine the glad, soft face in death. I tried to believe someone so loved and loving could stop being. I could not.

Back at school I had many things to occupy my attention—different classes and new friends with second semester—but the sight of Paul haunted me. When we passed I could not make little jokes as before; I could not bear to look at him. Some people wear sadness as a wall to keep away anything fresh or happy, and their sorrow becomes more bitterness than sadness. Others wear sadness as a wet, clinging blanket that will not let you forget it is there, for you see it, not the person it covers. It becomes a growing burden. Sometimes I think these people have forgotten the original cause of their burden and are concerned only with the sadness itself. I never saw anyone wear sorrow so beautifully as Paul. So bravely, so honestly he wore it. Quietly, awkwardly, as one would wear a coat grown too small. It did not fit him, but now he strove to stand proudly beneath its straining seams. In the paleness of his face, at the corners of his eyes, in the lowness of his voice, the sadness would not be hidden.

But his smile bravely assured you he was interested in your happiness. A month or so had passed since the tragedy, and one morning as I paid my account, I saw Paul standing outside the business office door. I knew he was waiting for me, as he had done in the past, but how could I speak to him now? I had meant to think of something to say to him before. Why had I waited all this time? But now I knew of nothing to say. In all the world nothing so awed me as sorrow for the dead. I did not really understand death—oh, I accepted it in my mind, and in my dispassionate hours, but death, its thought, left me with a child’s wild fear. He was waiting. I had to say something.

“Hello, Paul. This raise in tuition has me frantic. Have you seen anything so unreasonable?”

“It is very difficult,” he said, taking my books, “but I am working more hours now.” Now, I thought. He is working more hours now that Beth is gone. There was dry pain in my throat, trying to shape itself into words.

“Please don’t be sorry for me.” A few hurrying students walked by. “I have left most of the burden with God, and now I am learning acceptance. It is a slow and hard lesson. But it is my assignment.”

“But death . . .” He seemed so calm; I could not speak of the terror it held for me.

“Death is nothing,” he said softly. “Death is nothing but what we in our self-pity make it.” He talked on gently, as he had of love, forming his words carefully to express each shade of thought. How strange it was, knowing I should have strength to share with him at this time, yet feeling his sureness become my own as he talked.

As we walked into the brittle, pre-spring sunshine, I could almost imagine the bright clearness, the energy, of the resurrection morning. It had never been so real to me before.

“At her funeral,” Paul was saying, “I had some mountain flowers from my home country put into her hands. They grow only on the highest peaks of our mountains, and she loved those flowers— the effort, the adventure for which they stand.”

There was a long, comfortable silence. “I sometimes think . . .” He stopped and half laughed to himself. “I should not even tell it to you.”

“Oh, please, you must,” I urged.

“It is only a foolish thing I devised in my loneliness. It perhaps should not be spoken.” He closed his eyes and smiled as if he saw something I could not see. “On the beautiful, beautiful day of resurrection”—his voice sang over the words as if well familiar with them— “when those asleep in Jesus awaken and stand in the glad, golden light of God—there will be so many miracles that day, marvelous things on every side—I wonder whether God might not do one special thing—it would be so small—and let the mountain flowers Beth last held in her hands be as lovely as they were the day they bloomed. So that as she stands there in the first moment of breathless immortality and love for God, she would know who put them there. She would know also that just as the flowers of heavenly bloom so far exceed the earthly ones, so will the brightest thing we shared on earth be even more glorious in the day of God.”


This story originally appeared in the April 13, 1982, issue of Insight. Joan Marie Cook attended La Sierra University and later earned an M.A. in both social work and counseling. She moved to Texarkana, Texas, where she was a counselor in private practice, specializing in groups. Her husband, Charlie, had a vibrant, color-drenched art studio/gallery, and she liked to do groups in one of the rooms there. She has also worked as a school social worker and a psychotherapist in a psychiatric hospital. She published her first book at the age of 21, and she took up writing again later in life, applauded as having “the gift of storytelling.” She died at the age of 79 in September 2015.

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