The First Belief

Fiction Bonnie Nadzam

William and Samuel Luce were national heroes. By age twenty-eight, these supremely intelligent twin brothers from humble midwestern roots were distinguished visiting professors at the most eminent universities in the world, and in no less than seven subjects: comparative literature, mathematics, philosophy, physics, chemistry, economics, and the history of the world.

At forty-five they were advising presidents of both developed and emerging economies, and with diplomatic brilliance, they consulted privately among revolutionaries of all stripes. They were beloved for their round, clear eyes of cornflower blue; for their gentleness; for their humility; and above all for a feverish quest for knowledge with which they attempted to drive that old, senile, two-headed dialectic to its knees.

At age sixty, for the justice systems both national and international they’d modeled then implemented over the course of twenty-five years, they were awarded matching intergovernmental medals of genius: huge medallions of smooth white gold they kept wrapped in stiff linen within velveteen boxes in their desk drawers.

At seventy, they shared Time magazine’s person-of-the-year honor. In the cover photo, two sets of even white teeth, two frosty, neatly trimmed white beards, two easy chairs, two huge gilt-edged books open on their laps. For their intellectual honesty, the subtitle read, and, further along in the text: for providing the ground upon which every post-postmodern innovation will be founded. From their spacious home apartments they contributed to nearly every major intellectual, educational, political, and social institution in their own country and abroad.

Unexpectedly, after a difficult year and particularly difficult winter, Samuel fell ill and died in his sleep. He’d been deteriorating all winter, it’s true. The night before, clearly distressed, he had snapped at William, Don’t comfort me! Above all else, William, do not comfort me. He was seventy-seven years old.

During all their life together they had believed that, metaphysically speaking, truth shared many of the properties of water: at a standard pressure and temperature, it existed in a kind of dynamic equilibrium between observable fact and unknowable mystery; it was a universal solvent; it was necessary for life; it filled all empty vessels and wells from the deepest bottoms upward. As such, truth required a tight container to hold her in such a way that men and women might study and immerse themselves in her.

To this purpose, the Luce twins lived in neat, square rooms on the top floor of a tall building in a city organized on a hill, woke just before dawn, limited themselves to one cup of tea per morning, studied and wrote much of the day, sent out their discoveries and observations by post and then, later, electronically. They generally held as much to a predictable routine as they could. They had regular checkups, took their vitamins, twice a month indulged in a little sherry or scotch. They were decent, reliable men. Especially as they got older, there was little need to leave the building at all, so they rarely did. So when William found among his deceased brother’s things a map, a list of supplies, and a plan to flee the apartment and the city, he was astonished.

In his last months, Samuel had seemed a little eccentric; perhaps William had even witnessed some early dementia. Every evening, it seemed, Samuel had nightmares from which he’d rouse himself with one sharp, low, haunted moan. He sat alone in the quiet more than usual, without any reading material before him, and was hesitant to work on anything at all. When he did read, it was from nearly unreadable purple mimeograph and ditto sheets, or from yellowed proofs marked with White-Out and faded red ink.

“What is it you’re looking for?”

“Little nagging doubt,” he muttered.

“What is it?”

“Horrendous, Willy. Horrendous.”

And that was strange, for they hadn’t gone by Willy and Sammy since grade school. “Tell me. I can help you find it.”

“Don’t know what it is. Know it when I find it.”

Over the course of the winter he hunted through their bookshelves, nine full file cabinets, even seeming to cast about in the corners of the room and air before him, searching with increasing vexation and frustration. He slept little, he ate little, and he began to neglect his personal hygiene.

“What is it that’s vexing you?” William asked nearly every morning of that bleak season as he brought Samuel his tea. “I’m worried about you.” Once, Samuel responded.

“I was right.”

“About what.”

“I hoped I was wrong. But I was right.”

“Samuel, for God’s sake.”

“Delusion, Willy. Fundamental.” The old man’s eyes leaked. He covered his face with his hands and bowed his head.

“You’re seeing things? Sam? Please. Talk to me.”

The map he’d left behind was a simple, pen-line sketch that would take anyone who followed it to a very discoverable and unmysterious place in western Illinois. It was a place William knew well, though neither of them had been back home for years. In fact, it was so long ago that the whole region had taken on the essence and gravity of myth, becoming precisely the kind of place you’d need a hand-drawn map to find. Samuel had drawn, folded, and put it away as if it were a path to buried treasure. At the X that would mark the so-called spot, he had written: The First Belief.

William sat down for lunch at their kitchen table, which was now his alone, with the map and list before him. That they were dated over a year ago did not soften the blow. If anything, it made William feel worse: for a full year his brother had kept this secret? William sat still, absorbing the shock of the betrayal. It was like suddenly plunging into cold dark water, and he came up coughing, flailing at nothing, for there was no longer any brother to confront or ask questions. He studied the map, the list of things Samuel had jotted down: a dress suit; dancing shoes; new boots, and a blue-checked square-dancing shirt (someone had once jokingly told the twins that blue shirts would bring out the color in their eyes, attract the ladies). So Sammy was going back to Plainview to go dancing? William might have laughed at the outrageousness of the list if it hadn’t burned him right behind the eyes.

His own secret was a dream, and in his dream, in a yellow dress that filled with light and flared out from the waist, a dark-haired woman was setting fried chicken and sliced pears onto little picnic plates set on a white cloth smoothed over bright grass. Behind her was a creek in which three children—hers and William’s—were splashing. The ache of William’s longing and the simplicity of a thing he could so easily have had outraged him. He lifted the cup before him and hurled it across the room, where it smashed against the wall and fell in a glitter of milk and broken glass.

Poor Samuel’s map and list of supplies had to be more than a statement of regrets, of possible fatigue with the limitations of his William’s company, of doubts over their joint body of some five thousand publications on philosophy, law, politics, and literature. As the very fact of the map indicated, what Samuel was thinking of went much farther back.


It was a bright spring day in Plainview, 1947, when between penmanship and recess all the second-grade boys and girls were presented with two different ways of thinking. Two epistemologies, Miss Hays called the lesson, and Sammy and Willy were thrilled to have the new, multisyllable word.

“You get to make the choice,” Miss Hays explained, “without any outside influence or persuasion; it is entirely up to you, and it is of the utmost importance. However,” they were told, “as your choice will no doubt inform much of the rest of your life, you are advised to consider the matter carefully for homework, and report your decision in first period tomorrow.”

It was the beginning of everything. Even at their tender age, Sammy and Willy considered themselves seekers of truth. On the walk home, and over dinner, and late into the night, side by side in their twin beds and across the dark between them, they talked it over. It was high spring. A fragrant, warm breeze moved in through the open second-story window, and passing cars pushed window-frame shadows across the bedroom wall. The room was pregnant with mystery and possibility, in part because they knew it was.

One way of thinking, they had been told, was sort of process based. It would require that they observe the inventory of the world, its passerine, tall grasses, starlight, various chemical and physical properties, et cetera, and based upon their observations variously draw and test their assumptions about nature, reality, the planet, the bodies they were inhabiting, et cetera. They would likely end up tossing more conclusions than were maintained, if indeed their capacities and gifts allowed for the persistence of even one or two lasting suppositions. This mode of thinking was, they were told, more of an aspiration to knowledge than, say, a direct route. There was something romantic about it, Sammy thought. Something that made his heart swell. And given the quickening in his blood on that spring night, he was tempted by it.

But the other way of thinking seemed more responsible. It was one of collecting beliefs based on their compatibility with earlier judgments, and rejecting those that were obviously at odds with things that experience and previous analysis had taught them to be true. By this model, knowledge and to some extent life itself would become a sort of scaffolding from which they would be able to perceive a particular kind of view. Think of it, Miss Hays had said, as building a tower.

It did not seem like a trick question; it seemed like the best homework assignment they’d ever had. They were gifted boys, and they took it very seriously. If there were any flaw in the way they approached it, it was in thinking the freedom of choice could be equated to choosing based on personal preference, like picking, say, marmalade over peanut butter on your toast. And though they were twins and it might have afforded history an interesting study had they chosen differently, in the end they each chose the second model. They were going to be engaged in nation building and space exploration, to name just a couple of their aspirations (they weren’t naive to think so, for they really were very able-minded boys and did indeed end up making profound contributions to both nation building and space exploration). And as anyone could tell, the second model was more appropriate when you were talking progress in a material world.

At school the next day, they discovered most of their classmates had also chosen the second model, and they found this heartening. So did Miss Hays, who rightly believed the rest of the twentieth century, and beyond, would require extraordinary innovation and thinking of them all.


William dusted off their old Plymouth, which had been stored untouched in the building’s parking lot for nearly a decade, filled a suitcase—albeit not with blue shirts and dancing shoes—and began following his brother’s map. He found it useful, actually, since the landscape between the city on the hill and old Plainview had changed so much, he would have had trouble navigating it had the map been drawn by anyone other than his identical twin brother and longtime companion. The ground leveled out, the houses thinned, and he crossed one, then two wide, flat, muddy rivers gliding south. It was all very familiar, this wide-open country, but he had an uneasy feeling just the same. As he drove he felt doors closing behind him the way they do in horror movies when the protagonist enters a haunted house he knows he should stay out of. Only for William, the haunted house was the wide world—not one that tended toward stability or equilibrium—it was nothing like a container that would hold water—but rife with contingencies, chaos. And the house, the uncanny shelter of his beautiful apartment, the gold medal for good thinking, and the ghost of his brother… that’s what he was walking out of.

He was, of course, an intelligent man with all the powers of inductive and deductive thinking at his command. So as he drove he understood it was just as if he were going over a cliff, hurtling toward the bottom of something, toward that First Belief upon which he and/or Samuel has assembled all subsequent beliefs. He wondered how many there were—he’d studied and experienced enough to know that reliable beliefs are few and far between. What had been that first, unshakeable one he’d been preserving and protecting? There was something horribly wrong with it, if his brother could be trusted, and it had tormented the poor soul through his last days. As a critical thinker, William couldn’t help but steer toward whatever his brother had discovered. Samuel was not an intellectual bully; all of his studies and publications were well intentioned, careful, and fair. He would not have pushed or pulled William into anything he believed might hurt him. He would’ve wanted William to discover this himself. It was maybe a little patronizing, pedagogically speaking, but this was how they’d always communicated to each other on combined projects: with hints, clues, and then, eventually, joint celebration at some crucial revelatory moment.

Soon he was in a region of the Midwest that resembled his old hometown. Combed rows of soil in the fallow fields to the north, high green corn to the south. Then a café adjoined to a gas station, perfectly timed, for he was all off his schedule, exhausted and hungry too. There were clouds coming in and it looked like rain. He was surprised to find himself thinking it would be nice to have a cup of coffee—in the afternoon!—and sit inside a café window while the rain came down. If he had ever done this in his lifetime, he didn’t know when. He must have gotten the idea from some story. As he walked to the front door the temperature dropped, and fine cold needles of rain came sideways against his face and neck. By the time he was inside, the rain was falling in gleaming rods.

Sitting with his coffee in a heavy porcelain mug and watching the rain is just what he was doing when a car pulled up, and out came a man in a jacket and blue jeans holding a folded newspaper over his head as he walked around to help his wife out, now holding the newspaper over her head. William set his mug down carefully and touched his fingers to his mouth. His heart began to race, and his breath caught in his throat. The woman was wearing a yellow dress that flared out from her narrow waist, and dark hair spilled down her back. A coincidence, William thought. A truly remarkable coincidence. When the man and his wife stepped inside they were laughing, shaking the rain from their hair. The woman smoothed her dress.

This is no time warp, William, he said to himself, and watched from behind the coffee mug. His old red-rimmed eyes watered. Under his arms and at his temples he broke out in a sweat. This man and his wife had come up in a modern vehicle and everybody else in here was dressed as if it were exactly what it was: the twenty-first century. And he was as old now as he’d been when he walked in. It was just an odd coincidence. He rubbed his face with his hands. The waitress brought his lunch.

The sky rained itself out and cleared. Outside the window, the sun was high and white. When William finished his coffee and plain hamburger, he saw that the woman’s husband had gone to the men’s room. As if he were a young man asking a young lady out on a date (which he had only done once, in college), the temporary absence of the other guy gave him a little heart. He stood, pocketed his change, left a fair tip on the table, and, when passing her booth, slowed down and cleared his throat. She looked up.

“I just wanted to compliment you on your dress,” he said, his hat trembling in his hands. “Very elegant.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, coloring. “It was my mother’s.”

“Your mother’s, you say.” He nodded, his lips drawn into a thin, closed smile. “She must be very beautiful?”

“Oh,” her face broke out into a full smile. “That’s very kind.”

“And you have siblings?”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Two.”

“Both boys.”

“Yes.”

“I thought so.” He tipped his hat. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

As he started the car he watched the woman’s husband rejoin her in their booth. She leaned in over the table and glanced out at William, no doubt telling her spouse about the strange little conversation they’d just had. So there it was, a young woman who could’ve been his daughter. He backed out through oily rain puddles and pulled onto the frontage road. As he drove he wished it would all show itself to him that way very clearly: what might have been. Fact would be kinder to him than his imagination.

According to the map, William had about ninety miles more to drive. He was tired and shaky when he finally passed through Plainview, which was now all but a blank and windswept ghost town. The road narrowed into a ribbon of dirt winding through a light green wash of shimmering flyaway grass and came to an end right where Samuel had marked the map with an X: George Washington Elementary School. And not just the school, but, now that he looked closely, the baseball diamond out behind the building. The school itself was empty, its windows boarded, the old asphalt cracked apart by weeds. The surrounding bur oaks were huge, and their roots burst up under the asphalt and sidewalk. Though there was nobody around, for William the place was full of sound and color. Especially the ball field, which was all dirt, Russian thistle, pennycress, and the white floss of dandelions.

He watched it all play out before him like a movie. There was Sammy gazing after the yellow-braided Melissa Benson—whatever became of her? There was Miss Hays in her lace-collared shirt with her thick brown hair pinned up behind her ears. And there he was, Willy, practicing his windup and his pitch against the bricks, and there—oh God—was Tommy Thompson in his red cap. Hollow cheeks and close-set dark eyes, his long arms and long white hands. Whatever happened to Tommy? If Sammy and Willy had any rival at George Washington and in the school years afterward, it was Tommy Thompson. He was athletic, graceful, and mysteriously, darkly handsome where the twins were a little sunny, a little ruddy. When the game was politics and charm, Tommy was class president. When the game was square dancing, Tommy had his arm around the waist of yellow-haired Melissa Benson. And when the game was baseball, Tommy pitched. The class president issue had not bothered either of them, for they were not so charismatic or extroverted as they were fiercely inquisitive, but William recalled some dark looks and sulking from Samuel about Melissa Benson. And for William’s part, he could never let it go about Tommy being the better pitcher. He dreamed about it, oh, maybe a third as much as he dreamed about the woman in the yellow dress.

Out on the field, Willy was ever second baseman and Sammy, catcher. Thus were the three of them—Willy, Tommy, Sammy—lined up across every impromptu and official game they played, from first grade to their senior year in high school. In all that time, Willy never pitched a single game. And often those yellow braids were on the sidelines.

On the day when Sammy and Willy and their peers had made their all-important epistemological choice, there’d been a scrimmage. Smell of rain in the grass, earthworms arranging themselves in cipher on the new concrete sidewalk. And thinking of it, old William realized he could smell that rain. There it was—for it was now, too, a spring afternoon. How long had it been since he’d smelled that smell? Had he simply been ignoring it?

He’d had a small failure in that scrimmage; he could recall it even now—a man doesn’t get as far in the world as William Luce did without being highly self-critical and sensitive to his own shortcomings—it was a point of importance for him, and he Samuel both were committed to being ever open and increasingly aware of their own limitations and deficiencies. As he recalled, someone was stealing second that day: Geoff Middleton. The name came back to William even as the figure of the boy suddenly appeared across the empty lot, an apparition with thick orange hair, fat pink lips. Stepping off first, watching the pitcher, ready to make his move. There, behind home, was Sammy. Then Tommy Thompson, in a neat, fluid movement, threw the pitch, and whoever was at bat swung—William squinted in the empty lot but could not see the ghost boy’s face—and missed. Young Sammy Luce was up like a new spring, and hurled the pitch back, over Tommy’s head to Willy, who kept his foot on the base and caught the ball just as Middleton came sliding in, untagged.

As William stood there in his old philosopher’s shoes, his wrinkled hands hanging empty at his sides, he could see himself on second, and could see very clearly the look Tommy had given him that day. At the time Willy had been sure he had Middleton. Just sure of it. But Tommy’s look and slight shrug had communicated otherwise: safe, but we’ll get him before he hits home. No big deal. Tommy Thompson was, of course, ever gracious and easygoing. Then William saw it—the X on the map. Heat rose up from his belly to his hairline and his face burned with shame. For an instant, Willy’s eyes locked with Sammy’s, and he knew just what his brother was thinking, because Willy was thinking the same thing. It was directed at Tommy, but it could’ve been anyone: My God, I am so much better than that guy.

“Each new issue feels like a public report from many individual private spheres.” —Antoine Wilson

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Issue 18

ISSUE

18

Summer 2013

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