‘The Knight of Sad Countenance’ by Ben Dolnick


From Five Chapters:

When Jacob still thought that he might end up there, he visited Will for a weekend at Harvard.  This was the winter of Jacob’s junior year, when life at home had started to feel like something worth leaving behind, and college — any college — loomed like an oasis on the horizon.  Will’s manner, when he came home during that first year at school, added to Jacob’s enchantment.  Will wore a hooded Harvard sweatshirt, and read books with monochrome covers: Warfare in the West, Origins of Monotheism.  All this seemed to Jacob slightly obnoxious, as did Will’s not-quite smile of anticipation when someone asked him where he was going to school, but it was an obnoxiousness Jacob would forgive if only he could take it up himself.

Will’s dorm, made of red brick with concrete moldings above the windows, stood behind a library that looked to Jacob like a building on the Washington Mall.  His suite, which he shared with four other freshmen, had wide wood floors, a Chinese board game balanced on a futon, chairs and lamps that could have been dragged in off the street.  “Thomas has an air mattress he’s not using, so we’ll just bring it into my room.”  Will’s roommates wandered through the suite all weekend in towels and flip-flops, sleeping and eating and working as if each one lived in a private time zone.  “It’s Little Vine!”  “Vine Jr.!”  They were nerdy in a proud, challenging way.  They volunteered for congressmen, wrote essays for Slate, applied for fellowships.  Their delight in their intelligence, their edgy ambition, was like an accent that they all had in common.

That first night it snowed, and Will took Jacob out for Indian food off Harvard Square with a roommate of his named Tian-Xi.  He’d worked the past two summers designing web pages for a software company.  He looked brightly up, trading plates with Will, and asked Jacob what he wanted to study.  “Are you interested in economics, like William?”  “William said you worked in a lab?”  It wasn’t until the second or third “William” that Jacob realized he didn’t say it because his English came from a classroom.  He said it because Will must have introduced himself that way.  William Vine. 

When Tian-Xi stood up to go to the bathroom Will wiped his mouth and said, “There was another Will in our orientation group.”

“Oh.  I was just surprised.”

“It’s not like I had some —”

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