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Summer vacation has come to an end, and Devon begins its 163rd year. The same teachers are in place, the same hymns are being sung, the same sermon is being given, and the same announcements are being made. The only difference in the school for Gene is the absence of the maids because of the war and the absence of Finny.
Gene gets settled into his same room, the one he had shared with Finny the previous year. He then leaves for an appointment at the crew house, which is down on the banks of Naguamsett, the lower river. He is running late for the meeting, which is completely contrary to Gene's nature. As he passes the Devon River, he thinks of Finny. He remembers how on one occasion, he stood balancing himself on a canoe in the river, like a god.
Arriving at the Naguamsett River, which is saline and brackish, he notices it is full of seaweed, making it appear especially ugly. It is a sharp contrast to the lovely Devon River, which runs through the school grounds before emptying into the Naguamsett. The Devon, into which Gene and Finny often jumped, is safe and clean. The crew manager, Quackenbush, is annoyed with Gene for being late and impolitely reprimands him. Gene begins his duties as an assistant to Quackenbush, a job often held by boys with some kind of physical disability; Gene thinks the job is going to be rough because of the manager's attitude. When he calls Gene a "maimed son of a bitch," Gene loses his patience and hits him across the face. Both of them start fighting and fall into the river. Quackenbush tells Gene that he is no longer wanted for the job.
As Gene, who is dripping wet, heads back to his room, one of the teachers, Mr. Ludsbury, approaches him and reproves him for his careless behavior during the summer session. He then tells Gene that there is a long distance telephone call for him. Gene is surprised to hear Finny's voice on the other end; he has called to wish his a good first day. He is very happy when Gene tells him that nobody has taken his place in his room and Finny says Gene must save the space for him. Finny then tells Gene that since he can no longer play sports, "you are going to play them for me." At this moment, Gene realizes how much he has really damaged his best friend; he has truly brought him down below his level. His guilt surges forth.
When Gene returns to Devon from summer vacation, he is placed in his old room that he shared with Finny. He realizes that for the first time he will have to face life at Devon without his best friend. The thought is depressing too him. In fact, he is so uninterested in school life that he is late to his first appointment of the session. Amazingly, the normally punctual Gene does not even care that he is tardy. Quackenbush, the crew manager, does care about his lateness. He screams at him and calls him names; the mild mannered Gene then hits the manager in the face, revealing how disturbed and uncontrolled he really is. The two of them fall into the dirty river; it is a symbolic act of washing away Gene's purity. Because of Finny's accident, he is no longer worthy of the clean Devon, but must wallow in the filth of the lower river. When he emerges from the Naguamsett, he feels dirty and wants to hurry home and take a bath.
On the way back to his room, one of the teachers reprimands Gene for his carelessness during the summer session. He then tells him there is a long distance phone call for him. It is Finny, who has called to wish his best friend good luck with the new term. He is delighted to learn from Gene that no one has taken his place in the room. He then tells Gene that since he can no longer play sports, Gene will have to do it for him. Gene feels terrible, realizing the damage he has done to Finny; he is crippled both mentally and physically. He also feels guilty because Finny has such trust and faith in him.
It is important to notice that the first image that Gene has of Finny in the chapter is the time when he stood like a river god on a floating canoe. The mental picture connotes several things: to Gene, Finny had been a free flowing spirit, much like the free flowing water; he was also a super hero or demigod to him. This image is a sharp contrast to the reality of what Finny has become. The phone call reminds Gene of the difference.
It is significant that Gene had accepted the job as assistant crew manager; it is an easy position that is usually handled by students with physical handicaps. Gene's acceptance of the job indicates two things. First, he sees himself as physically, or at least athletically, handicapped, especially in comparison to Finny. Secondly, since in many ways he has become one with Finny, it is an appropriate job, since his friend is now crippled.
During the chapter, Gene continues to learn about his world and his own reaction to it. In fact, Knowles' central concern is the mentality of Gene. Through plain and direct narration, he communicates the narrator's thoughts and emotions. It is also important to note now deftly Knowles switches back and forth between time. Within Gene's central flashback to his days as a student at Devon, there are additional flashbacks. The technique, however, is never confusing. The reader easily follows the story line even though it is not totally chronological.