A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.

by Carson McCullers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

It is not yet dawn on a rainy morning when the twelve-year-old paperboy decides to have a cup of coffee at Leo’s café before finishing his paper route. There are few customers this morning: some soldiers, some laborers from the nearby mill, and an unusual looking man drinking beer alone. Leo, the surly owner of the streetcar café, pays little attention to the boy, and he is about to leave when the man with the beer calls to him. The boy cautiously approaches the man and is taken aback when the stranger declares that he loves him. Though the other customers laugh at this declaration, the man is deadly serious. Embarrassed and unsure of what to do next, the boy sits down when the man offers to explain what he means.

With the boy seated next to him, the man pulls out two photographs and tells the boy to examine them. Old and faded, both are of the same woman, whom the man identifies as his wife. As he begins his story, the boy, anxious to leave the café and finish his paper route, looks to Leo for help; when none is forthcoming, the boy starts to leave, but something in the man’s manner compels him to stay. Nervous but resigned, the boy listens, half convinced that the man is drunk.

However, the man seems sober and almost eerily serene as he explains that, to him, love is a “science”; by way of illustration, he tells the story of his marriage. Twelve years ago, when he was working as a railroad engineer, he had married the woman in the picture. He married for love and did everything he could to make her happy, never suspecting that she might be otherwise. Not even two years into the marriage, however, the man had come home one night to find that she had run away with another man. He was devastated: His love for her had made him feel complete, integrated, for the first time in his life. He spent two years traveling about the country looking for her, unable to find even a trace.

Despite Leo’s rude and vulgar interruptions, the story holds the boy’s attention, and the man goes on with it. In the two years that followed his search for his wife, he continued to be tormented by her memory. Though he could not remember her face at will, he would be reminded of her unexpectedly by the smallest details of daily life. Miserable, he started drinking. Only in the fifth year after his wife left him did he start to develop his “science” of love. After meditating about love and its failures, he decided that most men go about love incorrectly, falling in love for the first time with a woman. Instead, says the man, people should work up to such a love, falling in love first with less significant things: a tree, a rock, a cloud. He has now mastered this “science,” and now he can love anything—at will.

After the man has finished his story, the boy asks him if he has ever fallen in love with a woman again. The man admits that such a love is the last stage of his process, and that he has not yet worked up to it. After reminding the boy that he loves him, the man leaves the café, leaving the boy perplexed but strangely moved by the story.

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