‘Show Me Your Dantes’

An excerpt from a new novel by Randy Boyagoda
This story is included in these collections
(PNC Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

For my interview, the old man brought me to a sitting room on the main floor of his house, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at a big, flat snowy field that ended at a thick stand of evergreens. There were neatly stacked copies of National Review and Time on the coffee table. The mantel above the gas fireplace had photographs in black frames—a bride and groom on the front steps of a small-town church; a little boy with big lips in a two-piece velveteen suit and knee socks; two young men in army fatigues, arms around in each other, smiling and smoking and squinting in tropical sunlight; a younger old man surrounded by workers, everyone in light-colored jeans and company T-shirts cutting a giant cake shaped like a clamshell and decorated with spaceships and laser beams. 

“You have a very nice house,” I said. 

“Thank you, Prin. It’s new. Truth be told, I had it built after my wife died a couple of years ago. The old place, over in town, where we raised Hugh, who I know you met in Indianapolis, was just too big for one man. I would have been rattling around in there. Can I get you anything? Keurig? Diet Coke?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Take a seat. So, I understand you’re a professor. I actually read something of yours, about seahorses and male anatomy in Canadian literature, I think. Pretty specialized stuff, I have to say. It was published in…”

PMLA.”

“Which stands for?”

Papers in Marine Literature and Art.” 

“Right. And I also know about your situation in the Middle East and that you were involved in an educational business venture there that didn’t work out.”

“Yes.”

“At least, I know what can be known about it.”

“I had to sign something.”

“I’m not looking for details. But I do commend you for going over in the first place. Whatever you did to get out of there, well, it’s none of my business, but congratulations. I know getting out of hell’s a lot harder than getting into it. Vietnam.”

“Your son mentioned you were a veteran.”

“Hugh’s a National Guardsman.”

“Yes. He mentioned that as well when we spoke.”

“Trying to impress you! With that!”

“I actually gave a public lecture on Kafka while I was there, kind of like the Dante talks I gave last month. That’s when I met your son.”

“I saw the emails about it. Also, you’re Catholic, and a family man, correct?” 

“Yes.” 

“Did Hugh say that’s what I would ask when I brought you in for this?” 

“He did.” 

He leaned across the coffee table. 

“What else did he say?” 

“He said that if I’m hired, I would have to move to Terre-Haute, and that the position involves a Dante-related construction project, and that I’d be working closely with you.” 

“Working with me, or working for me? Which one?” 

“Working for you.” 

“Because I don’t need a babysitter with a PhD.”

He stood up. 

Was the interview over?

“Is the interview over?”

“Follow me.”

We walked to the garage. Inside, behind two old Cadillacs in pristine condition, was a staircase to the second floor. Above a solid-wood door was a woodworked sign, the letters burned in florid Germanic script. Mantua Cave

“Up there, behind that door, my friend, is the finest private collection of Dante editions and Dante memorabilia in the entire Midwest. Would you like to take a look?” said Charlie. 

“Sure,” I said.

“That didn’t sound as enthusiastic as I was expecting, Prin. You know, I used to get requests from all over the place—England, Germany, even from the East Coast schools.”

“Mr. Tracker, I think I’d be more enthusiastic if I had a sense of what this is all about.” 

“Fair ball. And look, if this is going to work out, just call me Mr. Tracker in front of my people from the plant—not for me, for them. But otherwise, it’s Charlie.”  

“Understood, Charlie.”

“Good. Why don’t we go for a drive and you can see for yourself what this is all about? If you’re not interested, you can call Uber to come pick you up. If you are interested, and I think you’re going to be interested, Prin, I really do, then we can come back here and talk, and I can show you my Dantes.” 

 

We drove into Terre-Haute. The day was cold and bright and blue. Chimney stacks, exhaust pipes, mouths all steaming and smoking. Charlie told me his company was America’s largest family-owned packaging company still operating west of Pittsburgh. He founded Tracker Packaging after Vietnam. He’d started with a few employees, and now five hundred people worked for him. Worked for Hugh, he corrected. There had been plenty of offers over the years to move to Arizona and that kind of thing, and the unions had tried to get in there, and multinationals and pension funds from Connecticut and Spain were always trying to buy them, but Charlie and his people had stuck it out in Terre-Haute. Most of the other manufacturers around town—Coke bottles, CDs, DVDs, ICBMs—had either moved or shut down. All the new business was in treatment centers, retirement homes, prisons, and retraining programs. The people were still the same. 

“What do you make packages for?” I asked. 

“Prin, that’s the big question these days. When it comes to clear packaging, and a company our size, the machines can really only handle a few molds at the scale the client’s looking for, and if you pick the wrong one, you’re in trouble. Before they went completely offshore, we used to work with toy companies a lot—action figures, baby dolls, toy guns, miniature tea sets. Turn of the century, we won the sole U.S. clamshell contract for the new Star Wars line. We’ve held our own against South Korea, then Taiwan, and now China. But that Jar-Jar Binks almost killed us!”

“I see.”

If you are interested, and I think you’re going to be interested, Prin, I really do, then we can come back here and talk, and I can show you my Dantes.

“But we survived. And these days, it’s mostly clamshells and tubes for ladies’ cosmetics. Rigids are an option, more masstige cosmetics is another.”

“Massage cosmetics?”

“Masstige. Industry term. Mass-market prestige. Hugh really wants us to go into medical. Not just medical. He wants us to go into pharmaceutical.” 

“Pills?” 

“Pills.” 

A man and a woman were walking along the avenue just ahead of us, where the downtown seemed to start—auto-parts stores and Walgreens and Wendy’s were giving way to bail bonds and pawnshops and liquor stores and lime-washed bunker bars, their Budweiser signs glowing red against dim, narrow windows trailing scraggy old tinsel. The man was carrying a black garbage bag that bulged with dirty laundry and the woman was pushing a stroller. They were wearing ski jackets over pajama bottoms, plaid and pink. Both had long hair that looked like overcooked pasta, and they walked with a languid-to-rickety bounce, as if their bodies were built of clattering coat hangers. When Charlie drove past, I turned and saw their bony and pocked faces, the deep wells around their vacant eyes. Their mouths were moving like they were chewing gum and chatting, but they were doing neither. They were neither young nor old. Two little kids in washed-out snowsuits sat in the stroller. The older one had her arms around the younger one, who was sitting in her lap holding a Spider-Man.

“Pills,” said Charlie.

 

We continued on through Terre-Haute’s little downtown—rows of brick buildings chipped and discolored and broken up here and there by vacant lots. Downtown Terre-Haute looked like the mouth of a retired hockey player. A few blocks further on was the Wabash River, the cold January air raising steam from its still water.

“I’d quote Dante on the Arno to you, but the people he connects to his river he also puts in hell. I’m long out, thank God!” said Charlie.

“Which puts you where, now?” I said.

“I like that. No one asks me questions like that, Prin. They just humor me because I’m the boss.” 

“You’re either in Purgatory or Paradise, to think in Dante’s terms.” 

“What I think isn’t what I believe though, friend. I’m a Christian. I’m not a Catholic.”

“No Purgatory.” 

“For a couple of reasons. But what about you?”

“Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m Catholic.”

“Right. So you get to think in Dante and believe in what you think. That situation in the Middle East, I take it that was your inferno.”

“You could say that.”

“And now you’re in Terre-Haute and you’re looking at a job that might keep you here for a year. What about your wife and kids?”

“They’re living in Milwaukee while some work’s being done on our house in Toronto.”

“I’m sure we could find a family-sized place here for all of you.”

“I don’t expect they’d move.”

“Don’t want to pull them out of their dance classes and all?” 

“Right.”

“Sure.”

He kept driving. Past a hospital complex we came to a great paved plaza. It led to two basketball arenas. One was old. One was new. A few cars were parked near the entrances. A traffic-attendant booth was set up between the arenas. A chubby man stepped out and waved. 

“Here we are, pilgrim. Welcome to Dante’s Indiana.”

 

ii.

 

“Charlie, what’s a Dante theme park?” 

“Well sure, everybody has that question.”

“And you’re the guy to answer it, right?”

He smiled and shifted around in his seat. 

“A lot more than the consultants and the professors, I’ll tell you.”

“So?”

“You ready? You want to hear this? When you do, Prin, you’re in for the whole thing.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Here we are, pilgrim. Welcome to Dante’s Indiana.

“Well, you know about Disney World.”

“Of course.”

“And you know about Genesis Extreme.”

“Genesis Extreme? No.”

“Doesn’t your family watch America’s Got Jesus?”

“I’ve heard of it. Something about a boycott, last year.’

“They won’t even let us have a TV show anymore.”

“I’m guessing you have something in mind that’s somewhere between Disney World and a biblical talent show?”

 “More like, a cross between Disney World and a biblical theme park.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t know how much Hugh told you, or how he put it. How’d he put it?”

“He said this was your retirement project.”

Charlie snorted. 

“Makes it sound like I’m painting a sailboat or something. Anyway, I know he wants to keep me busy and away from the company. But I’m also looking at this as a businessman, Prin. As a way to help out a town and a lot of folks in need. Because, if we get this right, well, I think there’s a lot in Dante that would appeal to a whole lot of people. Different types of people.”

“Masstige.”

He tapped his nose. 

 “Can I clear?” said a young Hispanic woman. 

She was wearing a black-and-ketchup apron over a white shirt and black bowtie. Charlie thanked her. We were having lunch in an empty Steak ’n Shake. We hadn’t gone into either arena. I’d wanted to, but Charlie said it was premature and that we would startle the horses. I asked what horses, and Charlie had suggested burgers.

“People like her, Prin. She can’t take her kids to Disney World on Steak ’n Shake money, but she can take them down the street, to a real American theme park. Couple of rides, some games, maybe learn a little, too. And she’s not alone, trust me.” 

I nodded and sipped my malt. Charlie’s eyes were bright, his pale cheeks red. Sitting against the hardback booth in his red-plaid hunting shirt, his face flushed, it looked like the restaurant’s deep-red walls were bleeding into him.

How convincing was I, so far?  

“Prin, we should play poker sometime. I can see it all over your face. But hear me out. A couple of years ago, when I was getting ready to leave the company, I leased our town’s two empty basketball arenas for a dollar-a-year for fifty years. Hugh and I talked it over, went back and forth, back and forth, you know. Anyway, eventually we landed on a plan. City Hall was probably just happy we cleared out the addicts from the arenas after they built the new one to attract a WNBA team. Which, news flash, didn’t work out. What I’m doing isn’t some crazy old man idea. Or just a retirement project.” 

“Of course. Hugh didn’t just say this was your retirement project, Charlie. He told me this was serious. A big deal.”

“Did he say that too?”

 “Absolutely.”

“Glad to hear. Not the kind of thing he’d say directly to me, of course. No fault there. Fathers and sons.” 

“Yes.”

“And believe me, I’d love to learn a little more about you. But first, business. Just think about this like I do, for a minute. Basically, the value proposition is this: anybody in Middle America who’d go to both Disney and Genesis Extreme can cut the difference and save money by coming to Dante’s Indiana, instead. Did you know, Prin, that something like half of all Americans who call themselves middle-class—and by way the way, all Americans call themselves middle-class—live within a day’s drive of right here, Terre-Haute, the middle of the middle of the middle of America? That’s the main market. And then there’s homeschoolers and private-academy types, wanting to bring their kids to something entertaining and educational, and then there’s your unicorn-blood types who think Inferno’s the only thing he ever wrote, and general amusement-park people, who’ll go anywhere, and then the regular people from around here who’re looking to go somewhere safe and clean. There used to be lots of good places you could drive to and get home the same day, but now there’s only one left. It’s outside town. I used to take Hugh there in the summers. No one takes their kids there anymore. Did Hugh really say that?” 

“Say what?” 

“That this was serious? A really big deal?” 

“A sequenced investment in the town and company.”

Charlie gave me a funny look.

“That’s the way he put it?” 

“Something like that, yes.”

He nodded.

“Charlie, I’m still having trouble imagining what this is.”

He half stood up and stretched out his arms. 

“Picture a Great American Heaven and Hell!”

I looked around the empty restaurant.

“Everything will be based on something in Dante but also make sense for your everyday American. Masstige, remember? So there’s going to be rides, floor-shows, I don’t know, acrobats, sorcerers, spaceships, choirs. People walking around dressed like angels, devils, demons, fireworks, light shows, ice capades. We’ll get some iPads set up so you can learn more about Dante, serve some devil dogs, angel-food cake. I’d like to donate my collection and have a dedicated room for it—”

“Your Dante stuff, from above the garage?”

“Not stuff, Prin. Believe me, not just stuff.”

“Sorry.”

“I want to do it, and he won’t let me. Says it’s too valuable to let the public see it.”

“Hugh?”

“No. Somebody else you’d be working with.”   

He crossed his arms. 

“Anyway, the theme park consultants who worked up the initial feasibility report pitched staying on all the way through—the turnkey model, and I was tempted, and obviously Hugh wanted me to do that, but I like going with my own people. So we compromised.” 

“Which means?”

“They retrofitted both arenas for indoor-theme-park use. To qualify for the state credits, they had to hire 50 percent local labor, and Prin, they hired 50.1 percent. But still, those were good jobs, and there’s more to come. The next step is to fit out the arenas with rides and concessions, and then hire the service staff and park performers. But we’re behind schedule. We’ve already missed the summer market and so now we’re pegged for the fall. Inferno will open on Halloween, and Paradiso twenty-four hours later.” 

“What about Purgatory?”

“Fair ball. Look, there were only two vacant arenas, and, well, everybody gets Heaven and Hell, Prin, and no offence, but Purgatory is more of a, well, you know.”

“Yes.”

I looked around the empty restaurant, the smudged daylight, the listless streets outside. How long was I going to be in this place?

“Anyway, at the current pace, that’s not going to happen either. But before I call in the consultants to take over, I want to try one more approach. Hugh agrees. I need to add someone to my team. Make a change.” 

“You want me to replace one of your own people?”

He made a sour face.

“Not exactly one of my own. The guys and the young lady are fine. More than fine. Good people. The problem is, when this all started, we found out that we’d also qualify for a stack of tax breaks if the project could be designated as educational. It made good sense, business-wise, and so I asked the fellow who helped me put together my Dante collection to sign on as the academic resource. He said yes right away. Maybe too fast. But I can’t blame him. As usual, he was between teaching jobs, and the private-rare-books-library-building business isn’t booming these days, and it turns out we don’t even have to pay him. He qualified for a state retraining program and asked me if he could bring along a couple of his friends. I said sure. Didn’t touch our bottom line and we could list them and their PhDs on our reports. Everybody’s happy. But then things went sideways.”

“How?”

“You ever watch mob shows, Prin?”

“A few.”

“So you know what a no-show job is?”

“Yes, I know about no-show jobs.”

“Well, tell them then! They show up, every day, and they think they owe it to the taxpayers of Indiana to make sure that every part of our park is educational and based on Dante. They keep saying this is their ‘stated academic duty to the project.’ Must be in the fine print somewhere. And guess what? There’s a problem with every idea! Nothing from the consultants is educational enough or faithful enough to Dante!”

“And you don’t want to be arguing with them, yourself.”

“Me, in the same room with them? Telling old stories and bringing the donuts? Now that would be a retirement project.”

“But you can’t get rid of them without losing your tax credits.”

“Exactly! See? You get it. I wish we’d found you earlier.”

“So it’s a good thing I’m not a Dante scholar? I mean, I’m no expert.” 

“Which is the last thing we need in this country! Look, you’re a believer but you don’t swing your rosary around, and you can read a footnote without sounding like a footnote. A Catholic professor but not too much of a Catholic professor. Am I right?”

I nodded. 

“So I’d be working with the other professors?”

“More as part of the main team. You’d be working with the project manager and the other team leaders already working with her—in operations and procurement—and you’d check in with me once a week or so. I’m looking for a one-year commitment. Six thousand a month, and all the help you need with taxes and immigration. We’ll give you an apartment and a car and a travel allowance to see your family or bring them here. That’s up to you. There’s also a budget for research,” said Charlie.

Seventy-two thousand dollars for a year. American. Most of that I could bank. I’d live on jerky and water. Molly and the girls would come home to a new house, a new pool, new life savings.  

“Prin?”

“Sorry. You said a budget for research? You mean books?” 

He snorted and jerked his thumb at the restaurant window. 

“I have all the books you need.” 

“Then what?”

“Well, if you want to visit Disney or Genesis Extreme to get some ideas.”

“Wasn’t Dante from Florence?” 

“Good one. I once dragged a teenaged Hugh there with me. Maybe I’ve had my Purgatory already, right?”

“He mentioned the two of you were going back this spring,” I said. 

“He said that, huh? Who knows? Maybe it’ll actually happen. You travel a lot with your kids?”

“Not lately. As I mentioned, they’re in Milwaukee.”

“With?”

“With their mother. My wife. That’s right. I mentioned this to Hugh as well.”

“None of our business, of course. And Hugh’s one to talk about family life.”

“So what now?” I said. 

“Well, it’s four o’clock and the Sycamores are playing Valpo tonight and I want to vacuum the car before tip-off. Or I can TiVo it and tell you why, I mean really why, I’m doing this. Decision time. What’s it going to be, Prin?” 

“Show me your Dantes.”

 

iii.

 

“I went to Vietnam in 1971. My father was at Normandy. My grandfather fought in the Argonne Forest, under Black Jack Pershing himself. You can find Tracker tombstones in Union and Confederate cemeteries. Military service is something we take seriously, and always have. Hugh could have gone to Afghanistan, even Iraq. He gave out sandwiches at the Superdome during Katrina. Which is neither here nor there, I know. Anyway, I’m telling you this so you’ll know that when I went to Vietnam I was a different kind of cherry. I was ready to do what was needed, like my father, and his father, and his fathers, but what a mess. By 1971, nobody who wasn’t a career officer could say what was needed in Vietnam, except more drugs and don’t be the last man to die for no good reason. And the career officers just said shoot more of them. I won’t use the term. I always hated it. I didn’t like that shoot-first, shoot-always attitude any more than I liked the lack of discipline with the other grunts. So I was kind of in no man’s land.

“Two weeks after I arrived—picture a tailgate party in the jungle, but you were always waiting for somebody to shoot you—our firebase was attacked in the middle of the night by fifty little guys in swim shorts and grease. We were supposed to hand over the base to the South Vietnamese at the end of the month, and they already had a small detachment with us. They weren’t touched. Zero casualties, and zero shots fired from their position. Eighty of us were killed. Bodies burned all over the place. To this day, Prin, I cannot be anywhere near a pig roast. It was suffering and burning hell and nobody, not even Dante, not even Dante, has anything on the real thing. I know they say he saw men being burned alive in Florence, and that he would have been sentenced to the same thing if he ever came home, but in the poem—in your Purgatorio—the most he says is that he remembers the sight of it, not the smell. I don’t think anyone can say what it smells like. I don’t think anyone should. Anyway, while the brass were planning investigations and who to relieve of duty and that kind of thing, the ARVN guys, the South Vietnamese, wanted to prove their innocence. They wanted to prove they were on our side. Remember, the VC didn’t go anywhere near their part of the base, and during the attack they didn’t defend. They had a big howitzer mounted, and no shots fired. 

It was suffering and burning hell and nobody, not even Dante, not even Dante, has anything on the real thing.

“A while after the attack, I don’t remember how many days anymore, two Arvins came up to me and another cherry, an Italian fellow from Brooklyn. I didn’t really know him at the time. I never did, really. Other guys called him Kelly Blue Book because he obviously wasn’t Irish and he was always reading this little blue book. The joke was—he was Italian, and probably a greaser, a mechanic, so what else would he be reading? All I knew was that whatever he was always reading wasn’t the Kelly Blue Book and it wasn’t the Bible. Anyway, the Arvins wanted to show us something in the village down the road, but there was no way we were leaving the base, or what was left of the base. They kept saying we should come with them. We said no. They went hooch to hooch. Nobody budged. You could tell this was driving them a little crazy. They stopped asking for a couple of days but then started all over again, this time just to come to their part of our base. The Italian from Brooklyn puts his book in his pocket and says to me, ‘Let’s go see.’ I said we might be killed, captured, or court-martialed. He said we were already sitting ducks for all three options. He said he was going. Don’t ask me why—maybe I was feeling bad I didn’t do much of anything except save my own life in the attack, maybe I was thinking about what my father and my grandfather would have done—but I was twenty years old and pretty sure I wasn’t going to see twenty-one. So I went.” 

“And?” I said.

We were sitting in leather chairs in Charlie’s private library above his four-car garage. The place hummed with a humidity-optimization system meant to preserve the collection, and was lit by warm yellow library lights. The walls were lined in bookcases that shone like dark molasses. It felt like we were sitting in a honeycomb.

The bookcases were filled with editions and commentaries and divided by blown-up photographs of Charlie with Robert Hollander, Roberto Benigni, Tom Hanks. One wall had four clocks, showing the times in Jerusalem, India, Spain, and Indiana. Another wall displayed honorary degrees from Wheaton, Baylor, Grove City, and Dordt, and also elaborate, fat wax citations from the Dante Society of America and Casa Dante, Firenze. In between the bookcases and the leather chairs were tabletop vitrines. They held large, very old books, their covers red and black and dented along the edges, the titles embossed in flaky gold letters, the inside pages frittered here and there. In two other vitrines, long, yellowy sheets rested on pillowy white fabric: dense writing, in black ink, with tendril- and talon-wrapped giant first letters facing drawings of dark woods, lost faces, roiling and torqued bodies. 

“So we go, and there’s a bunch of them standing around a hut. Inside, all you can hear is a man, and he’s crying. Sobbing. Just heaving and crying. Crying and crying. We figure out that they’ve taken someone from the village that they say knows who attacked us, where they are now, that kind of thing. They’re keeping him in the hut until he tells them, so they can prove it wasn’t them. What they did in that hut, they did for us. They did that, for us.” 

His voice broke, and he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. His cheeks, so red at lunch, were bone white. 

He looked away, nodded to himself, smiled at me, and took a deep breath. 

“You alright? Do you want to take a moment?”

“Thanks. Happens every time I tell this part. What we did to them, during the war, I mean, you’ve probably seen pictures. It was awful. What they did to us, same. Same. But what they did to each other during the war…the things you heard about. Back then, I thought they were just trying to scare the new grunts with stories of burying people alive and cutting off men’s heads in front of wives and children and that kind of thing. Plus half the guys telling the stories were drunk. The other half were drunk and high. So I just thought they were trying to shake us fresh cherries from the tree. That’s what I thought. But then there we were, at the Arvin part of the base, and the man in the hut was crying and it was a weird crying, a bad crying. Two of the Arvins yelled into the hut and the man kept crying as if he didn’t hear them or didn’t care, and they opened the door and yelled again, kind of like for him to come out. He didn’t. They told us to come closer. We didn’t. Now these Arvins are getting nervous and twitchy and we weren’t given sidearms or anything, and I’m thinking maybe we should go back, but then Kelly Blue Book from Brooklyn says to me ‘Keep an eye,’ and he goes up to the hut and he thinks about it, and then he looks inside. ‘Jesus! NO!’ he says, and flies out of there and bangs into me and holds me at the shoulders like he’s drunk, and he heads back to his hooch. He stopped and threw up. Threw up again. I watched him go. Then I looked back at the hut. The crying hadn’t stopped. The Arvins are telling me to look, too. They’re calling me to come and see.”

“Did you go? Did you look inside?”

“Two boys and a girl. His kids. His children. They put his children in there with him and starved them to death right in front of him so he would tell who did it, where they were, whatever. Little kids. He probably didn’t know anything about the attack. Or he knew everything, but the cause mattered that much. Which is bull. Three little kids, right in front of you? Your own little kids? No cause matters that much. He didn’t know anything about the attack and those kids didn’t know anything, but they wanted us to see, the Arvins, they wanted us to see they didn’t know anything about it, either. This was their way of showing us.  

“I went back to find the guy from Brooklyn and he was sitting in his hooch with that blue book on his lap. He wasn’t reading. He was just looking down at it, kind of catatonic. It was this blue book, right here,” said Charlie. 

He handed me a clear plastic bag. Inside was a piece of very soft, butter-yellow leather, wrapped around a small royal-blue book. There was maybe a bird embossed on the front cover; it was hard to make out through the fading and mold. The spine was broken and the cover boards were held in place with a rubber band. You could see some of the loose papers between the boards: Italian on one side, English on the other. 

“He was reading Dante in Vietnam,” I said.

“Not just reading it, Prin. He was seeing it all around him. He saw Dante in there, in that hut,” said Charlie.

“Ugolino.”

“Ugolino.” 

“But the village man, he didn’t, he didn’t—”

“No. He didn’t eat his children like Ugolino in the tower. He just watched them starve to death.”

“Why do you have his book, Charlie? Is that how you started collecting?”

“Look. I mean, really, look. Over there. In that middle case, I have a 1529 Venetian edition, Prin. Jacopo Da Borgofranco, at the request of the great Lucantonio Giunta. The only other copy in all of America’s up the road, at Notre Dame. And a few more editions as good as that. But that little book in your hands, that falling-apart 1958 reprint of the seventeenth edition of J. M. Dent and Sons. Temple Classics. Wheeler translation. Probably sells for pennies over on Amazon. That book matters more to me than anything else in this room.”

“Because of who read it before you?”

“Good. You’re really listening. The next morning, I woke up and there it was, the book, on the ground beside my cot. He must have left it there before he, well, all we know is that he walked off the base in the middle of the night and even with all the extra watches and the new tripwires after the attack, nobody noticed. I like to think he’s still alive out there, somewhere. Maybe I’ll run into him at a car show some summer. I mean, if he knew Ugolino’s story, he knew the rest of Inferno well enough to know what happens to suicides in the next world.”

Neither of us spoke for a while. 

Money for the house. The pool. Bring them home. 

But what was he asking for?

“Still with me, friend?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“I thought so. That look.”

“What look?”

“The look a man gets when there’s more to something than he thought. Am I right?”

“Go on, Charlie.”

“Yes. I thought so. I did, Prin. Now, if this works out, about this thing between us: Whatever Hugh says about it, whatever goes on outside this room, it needs to be about more than just you getting the job. None of the other professors I’ve interviewed have gotten this far. Have made me want to get this far. Go this far. Sure, I’ve built this room and still read a canto a day every day and I’ve visited Florence and taken the tours and all. But for me, I started reading Dante in country, and I didn’t understand a damned thing except that a man could live or die from reading it, which I’d thought was only true of the Bible. But I wanted to read it, to live. So forget the PhD. Have you ever felt like that, Prin, just from reading a book?”

“Yes.”

“From Dante? The Bible?”

“No. It was from A Christmas Carol, a couple of weeks ago.”

“Come again?”

“My kids were in a pageant. I hadn’t seen them in a while.”

“I see.”

I put aside his blue book and rubbed the scars on my forehead. Knuckled my eyes. A pulling had started. 

“What do you want to say, Prin? I mean, what do you really want to say?”

“When do I start? I want to start.”

“Is that all, Prin? Really? Or is it that you can’t because you had to sign something?”

“No. It’s not that, Charlie.”

“What is it, then, Prin?”

“Something else.”

“Someone else?”

“Yes. More than one. I want this job so I can bring them home. So I can go home.”

“Good. You’ve already started. See you next week.” 

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: 

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto. His new novel, Dante’s Indiana, from which this excerpt has been adapted, will be published in September.

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