Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.
It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.
They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.
His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.
Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”
Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.
The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”
“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”
He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.
“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”
Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.
“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.
Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.
He roused himself. “What does he want?”
“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”
“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”
“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”
Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.
“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”
“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.
“I suppose so.”
Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.
“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”
“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”
The butler entered to announce dinner.
Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.
“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.
Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.
“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.
He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”
In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal
Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.
He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.
The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.
“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”
“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.
Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”
“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.
“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”
“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.
It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.
“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.
At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.
“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”
“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.
He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.
Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.
Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.
It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.
“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.
“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”
“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.
He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.
At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.
After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.
He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.
“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.
“Oh, yes—he came.”
“You didn’t see him, of course?”
She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”
That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.
“Ready for your coffee, dear?”
He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….
She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.
Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.
“What is the matter?” she said, startled.
“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”
“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.
Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.
Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.
The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”
Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”
“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.
“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”
“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”
“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”
Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.
Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.
“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”
Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.
“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”
“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.
The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.
The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”
Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.
“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”
“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.
Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.
“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.
“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”
“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.
In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.
Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.
“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.
For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure
“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”
Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.
Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.
“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”
Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.
“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.
The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”
Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.
“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”
Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.
“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.
Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”
Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.
“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”
The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.
When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.
“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.
The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”
She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”
Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”
She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.
In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.
“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”
She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.
Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.
Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.
Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.
In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”
Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”
“That’s different,” said Waythorn.
She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.
“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.
The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.
He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.
And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.
From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.
One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”
“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.
He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.
The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.
Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.
The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.
“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”
He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.
The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”
“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”
But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.
She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.
“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.
As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.
“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.
The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.
“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.
Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.
She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.
“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”
She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.
She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.
323 Juneberry Way, Deptford, NJ 08096
(856) 848-0501 Lmanfredo@comcast.net
In certain places there exists a permeating pointlessness to life with an aura of despair so acute that its inhabitants come to be unafraid, or, at the very least, indifferent to the inevitability of death. Camden City is just such a place.
Camden is a torn down ravished ghost of a city, blighted by poverty and corruption, violence, drugs and disease. Its residents wallow amidst the decay which lies like a sickened, dying animal prostrate in the sun’s heat.
Within this city, in stark and ironic contrast, the modern glass and steel complex of Cooper University Hospital rises awash in bright, artificial light, a towering monument to mainstream mankind’s fierce desire to live. The hospital exists on sprawling acres of urban renewal, restored row houses lining its borders, a false oasis of promise in a true desert of desperation.
Frank Cash, senior partner of the distinguished Haddonfield law firm of Cash, Collings and Haver, slowly turned his shiny new BMW into the hospital’s enclosed parking garage. He stopped just short of the barrier arm as the dashboard digital flickered: 4:01 AM.
As the driver’s window lowered silently, a cold dampness from this dark November morning intruded into the car’s warm interior. Cash shuddered slightly against it, reaching a hand to the automated ticket machine and pressing a manicured finger against the glowing green button. He frowned unconsciously at the cheerful computer generated male voice which accompanied the dispensed parking stub.
“Welcome to the Cooper University Hospital Parking Facility.”
Tucking the stub into his pocket, Cash swung the car left and accelerated quickly up the smooth concrete ramp of the nearly deserted garage. It occurred to him that perhaps it would have been more prudent to use the family mini van as opposed to his 750. He noted a small cluster of parked vehicles at level two, centered around the elevator bank. He parked quickly and strode to an elevator.
Ten minutes later he stood facing a window in a small consultation room located within the emergency room. He gazed out across Haddon Avenue and eyed a squat building in the near distance. Emblazoned across the top the words ‘Camden Police Department’ gave fair warning to anyone in and around the hospital to behave themselves. Cooper had been as effectively isolated from the surrounding city as possible, Interstate 676 and parkland to the east, police headquarters to the north, renovated housing used as residences for hospital staff and medical offices to the south and west.
It had been a rather profitable project, Cash recalled as he scanned the scene, absentmindedly scraping a bit of soot from the sill before him, sleep stinging his eyes. Quite profitable.
As he waited, Cash’s thoughts returned to the events of last evening: the quiet dinner with family in his sprawling Victorian home in Moorestown, some reading, the late night news, sleep, and then the phone call.
“Hello?” he had whispered into the mouthpiece, glancing to his sleeping wife as she gently stirred beside him.
“Mr. Cash?” a tentative voice had begun. “It’s Ken, sir, Ken Barrows.”
Jesus Christ, Cash had thought, what could the most junior member of the firm possibly want at this hour?
“What the hell, Barrows, it’s almost three-thirty in the morning.”
“Yes, sir, I realize that. It’s just that … well, I’m on call tonight. For the FOP, you know, the police union. It’s my week to be on call.”
Cash frowned into the mouthpiece, again glancing to his wife. She seemed re-settled, her nightly sleeping pill working its wonder.
“And?” Cash asked harshly.
Barrows paused, perhaps suddenly rethinking the wisdom of the call himself. Then, assured by a recurring thought, he continued.
“There’s been a shooting, sir. A fatal police shooting. One person is dead, but no police were injured. The union rep called me from the scene a few minutes ago. He wants me down there.”
Cash’s frown turned to a scowl. “Of course he does, Barrows. That’s the purpose of having a lawyer on call twenty-four seven. It’s mandatory when you represent the unions. But why in God’s name did you feel it necessary to____”
“I thought you’d want to know, sir,” Barrows interrupted, a new confidence in his tone. “You see, the shooting was in Camden City. It was a white officer, the dead man is black. And the officer involved, the one who shot the perpetrator was … it was that new officer.” He paused here for effect. Barrows, despite his youth, was a good lawyer. He knew how to bring a point home effectively.
“It was Anthony Miles.” Another slight pause. “I thought it best you knew, sir. Of course, I can handle it if you’d like … but I thought you should know.”
Now Cash sat upright, indifferent to whether or not the movement would further disturb his wife. “Oh,” he said, his mind shifting sharply from disgruntled employer to defensive lawyer. “Oh,” he repeated.
After a brief silence, he spoke again. “Call the union rep at the scene. Tell him to put Miles into a radio car and get him over to Cooper ASAP. I’ll call ahead and get hold of whoever is in charge of the emergency room. I want Miles sedated. Tell the union rep to convince the kid that he’s stressed out and needs to see a doctor. Once the doctors get a drug into him, the law says he can’t be interviewed. It’ll buy us some time. I can be at the hospital in less than thirty minutes.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll call the rep. Shall I meet you there?”
Cash considered it. “No. Just make sure the rep gets Miles to the E.R. immediately. I’ll grease the wheels. I don’t want some intern refusing to sedate.”
“Yes, sir,” Barrows said, his confidence even stronger now. He was pleased with himself, Cash thought. As he should be.
“You were right to call, Ken. It shows good presence of mind.”
“Thank you, sir. I thought you should know.”
Cash slipped out of bed, shaving and dressing quickly. He left a note for his wife and drove to Route 38, leaving the lush, manicured splendor of Moorestown for a twenty minute drive to the barren, desolate wasteland of Camden City. As the BMW cut rapidly through misty darkness, Cash thought about Police Officer Anthony Miles.
Miles had gone directly to the Camden City Police Department after graduating the County Police Academy. Like all rookies, he had been assigned to routine patrol duty with a senior training officer. In most such cases, no one in any remotely influential position would have cause to notice or to care.
But Miles was different. Miles was the son of Curtis Miles, United States Attorney to the State of New Jersey. The Republican United States Attorney.
And Camden was ground zero for the Democratic machine that had maintained a strong and lucrative hold on New Jersey politics for more than two decades. Frank Cash, himself the son of a former county chairman, had lined his pockets and filled the coffers of his law firm with countless contracts, retainers and fees financed with state and county tax dollars. Indeed, his firm’s profitable representation of every police union in South Jersey was merely one such plum.
So when Cash sat down to lunch some months earlier with the current county chairman, the implications had not been lost on him.
Officer Miles, the chairman had suggested, was no ordinary rookie. His father was an ambitious, driven man who had chosen a pragmatic approach to what he hoped would be an unlimited political future: he would dedicate himself to fighting corruption in New Jersey – particularly Democratic corruption.
“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” the chairman said between forkfuls of shrimp. “If he’s serious about it.”
“Is he?” Cash asked.
The chairman laid down his fork, then patted his lips gently with a linen napkin.
“Yes, he is – it’s his ticket to the governor’s office.
Cash considered it. “What’s our exposure?”
The chairman shrugged. “Any is too much. This young cop has his own political juice, courtesy of his old man. If becoming a cop was all he really wanted, his father could have gotten him assigned to bikini patrol in some shore town or crabgrass stakeout in our neck of the woods. Why would he want to go to that shit-hole, Camden?”
“Maybe,” Cash offered with little conviction, “he just wants to be a real cop.”
“Yeah,” the chairman said, reaching once more for his fork. “And I’m Harry-fuckin’-Truman.”
He leaned in across the table, speaking more softly. Cash had to strain his ears to make out the words.
“Camden has about twenty-three hundred violent crimes per hundred thou population, compared to the national average of about four hundred fifty. It’s been named the most dangerous city in the entire country time after time. The state had to take over the entire police department and school system because they’re so fucked up. Tell me, why would the son of Curtis Miles, the guy who wants to be governor, maybe president someday, want to work in Camden? The kid’s a Rider University graduate, for Christ’s sake.”
The chairman sat back. “He’s a fuckin’ plant for his old man. You have any idea what motivated and hostile eyes can find in that environment?”
Cash sipped his wine before responding. “So you figure his father for a white knight sending his kid in to help?”
The chairman laughed. “White knight my ass. He’s no better than anybody else. He’s already greased some wheels for his son. The kid isn’t on the job six months, and he’s assigned to HIDTA already. The worst fuckin’ place for him, far as we’re concerned. No, Curtis Miles is no white knight. He’s just so ambitious he’s willing to throw his own son into the fire to help get him what he needs to nail Democrats.”
Cash shook his head. “We’ve chosen a nasty business for ourselves,” he said.
“Yes. And that kid working High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas can turn things even nastier.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
The chairman shrugged. “You’re the union lawyer. Sooner or later, this kid will most likely wind up in your lap. I want you to understand what you’ll be dealing with. I haven’t survived in this shit all these years without learning to anticipate.”
Cash drained his wine glass and reached for the bottle.
Now, forty minutes after leaving his bed, Frank Cash stared out the hospital window into the Camden night and sighed. He remembered long ago advice from his politician father. ‘There are winners and losers. Be a winner. It makes life bearable.’
He turned as the door to the small consultation room opened. It was the union representative, Peter Negron.
The man entered the room and closed the door softly behind him. “Hello, Mr. Cash. I didn’t figure you’d come down personally.”
“Yes, well, I have. Has Miles been sedated?”
“Yeah, the chief resident saw him soon as we got here. They jacked the kid up on Xanax. Five minutes later, two spooks from the county prosecutor’s office showed up. I told ‘em the kid was medicated and couldn’t talk to them… They left, said they’d see him tomorrow. They seemed pissed off.”
Cash grunted. “They’ll get over it. We needed to buy some time so I can get a handle on this.”
Negron nodded. “Okay. I was with Miles when the shooting went down. We were workin’ HIDTA city-wide, me and Miles and Sanchez.”
“Where’d it happen?”
“Line Street, between South Sixth and Roberts.”
“Tell me what happened.”
When Negron finished, Cash ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully. “Sounds pretty clean,” he said. Then pointedly added, “If that’s how it went down.”
Negron smiled and raised his right hand. “I swear on my eyes, counselor, I ain’t dumb enough to lie to the lawyer. ‘Specially for this kid.”
With their eyes locked, Cash nodded. “Go get him. Bring him to me.”
Negron turned and left.
When Miles entered the room, Cash was immediately stricken by his youthful appearance. Although twenty-two, he looked seventeen. His black hair was long, unkempt. It spilled over the collar of the faded Navy peacoat he wore. Dried vomit stained the front panel of the coat, its sour odor touching at Cash’s nostrils. Dark blood was splattered across the left cuff and forearm. The young man’s eyes were hollow and listless. A stubble of light whiskers covered his chin and touched at his cheeks, giving him a dirty, unpleasant look. While the clothing and grooming fit well with Miles’anti-narcotic assignment, he seemed a little too comfortable in the outfit. Cash found a mild and illogical disliking begin to dawn.
“Have a seat, Miles,” he said and watched as the cop slid a chair back from the small round table. Cash sat opposite him, folding his hands on the smooth plastic table top. How much bad news, he wondered, had been discussed in this very same room?
“Alright,” he said as Miles’ eyes lifted to meet his own. “My name is Frank Cash. My law firm represents members of the local chapter of your union, the Fraternal Order of Police. I’m here to help you deal with all this.”
Cash saw Miles’ gaze fall away, dropping to the table top, his body shaking with a sudden chill. His appearance seemed to suddenly morph into that of a frightened young boy caught in some youthful transgression and summoned to his father’s study. Cash found his initial suspicions and dislike begin to waver. In all his fifty-one years, he had never taken a life, not even that of a small animal or rodent. And here was this boy, barely out of school, who had violently sent a man to hell in what surely must have been a horrifying, desperate moment.
“Alright,” Cash repeated, gentler this time, softer. “State, county and city head-hunters will be hounding you tomorrow, son. I need you to tell me what happened, everything, every detail. Get it straight in your head. Let’s see where I can help. Just start from the beginning and go slowly. Tell me everything, even if it doesn’t sound very good. It’ll sound worse said cold tomorrow, believe me.”
Miles raised his eyes. “Negron said he told you everything already.”
Cash nodded. “Yes. He told me what he did and what he thinks he saw. I need you to tell me what you did. What you saw.”
Miles suddenly found his vision blurred with moisture. “Yes. I understand.”
The young policeman shifted himself in his seat, fixed an unblinking stare at the darkened window behind Cash and began to tell his story.
“We were on patrol, the three of us, me in the front recorder seat, Negron driving, Sanchez in back behind me. It musta been about two in the morning. We were cruising known drug locales; just eyeballing. Cold, crappy night like this, most of the deals were going down indoors. Anyway, we wind up on Line Street, heading east, just rolling passed the broken down houses along there.”
“Where is Line Street?” Cash asked.
Miles shrugged. “ ‘Bout six, seven blocks south of here, just east of Broadway.”
“What neighborhood is that?”
Another shrug. “I don’t know. Whitman Park, I guess.”
“So we’re just rolling along, real slow – maybe ten, fifteen tops. The street is narrow, a few parked cars here and there, some just abandoned. So we cross South Sixth Street heading toward Roberts. Northwest corner of Line and Sixth is an empty lot where some condemned buildings got demoed. There’s a fence around it, chain link. Even though we’re kinda looking around as we roll, none of us saw this old lady ‘til she was right in front of us, like she just appeared out of the dark, you know? Negron almost ran her over. Well, she makes us for cops and starts banging on the hood of the car and screaming at us.”
“Was she black? Hispanic, Caucasian, what?”Miles glanced briefly at Cash. “Hispanic.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, she’s all excited, so Sanchez gets out of the back seat and approaches her. He tins her and starts talking in Spanish, and she starts bawling and pointing to the only house on the north side of Line Street that’s still standing. It was the house she had come out of.”
“Had you seen her come out of it?”
“No, like one second the street was empty, the next second there she was, in front of the car.” Cash noticed the trembling begin to intensify, apparently overcoming the dosage of Xanax Miles had received. When Miles spoke again, there was a rise of pitch in his voice. “So anyway, I get out of the car and Sanchez winks at me and makes a face, like he’s saying, ‘Look at this old bitch, do you believe this?’”
“How old would you say she was?”
Miles shifted in his seat and leaned forward slightly, still directing his words at the black rectangle of the window. “Old. Pushing sixty. I don’t know.”
Cashed smiled slightly. “Go on.”
“So when I reach them, she starts speaking English, telling us there’s a black guy up on the second floor of the house, been acting crazy all night, people coming and going and she was trying to sleep and told him something and he cursed her and tried to hit her, and she got scared and ran out and saw us. So by now, Negron is standing there, too, and he asks her if she called the cops. She says no, there’s no phone in the house, no water, no electricity, nothing. We can see it’s boarded up, abandoned, and we figure her for a squatter. She tells us the black guy deals H, sometimes crack, the building is his base, everybody is afraid of him and all this kind of shit. So Sanchez starts writing it down, you know, to sort of appease her a little. We figure maybe she’s stoned, you know, old and stoned and half nuts. So then Negron says he feels like a little action, let’s check it out. Well, I’m a little bored myself, it was a slow tour and I figure, what the hell. So Sanchez stays at the car with the old lady to call in our ten-twenty. Me and Negron start walking toward the house.”
“Describe the house.”
“Two story brick, like all of them around there. Most of the windows boarded up. There was a narrow front covered porch with side steps leading up to it. The front door was missing, it was just a dark open hole. The east side of the house was just like the west, another empty lot.”
“Alright. Go on.”
“Well, me and Negron get to the house and I walk around the porch to the side steps. Just as I reach them, I hear Negron cursing. He stepped in dog shit. At least he hoped it was just dog shit. The place really stinks, piss, garbage, shit, everything. The nearest street light is burned out, it’s dark as hell …” Now Miles’ body seemed to tighten on itself, the trembling turning sharply into a steady shake. He tried desperately to moisten his mouth before speaking again.
“So, I’m laughing at Negron, he’s wiping his shoe on the edge of the porch. I start up the steps.”
“How many steps?”
“Four, maybe five.”
“Where’s your gun at this point?”
“Well, I have two guns on me. My Glock is in a belt holster under my coat, and a thirty-eight revolver is in the right coat pocket.”
“Both regulation side-arms?”
“Is your coat open or buttoned up?”
“Open. You know, it was warm inside the car, so it’s open.”
Cash glanced at the now tightly closed coat, the warmth of the room unable to reach Miles’ chill. “Go on.”
“The old lady told us this guy didn’t have a weapon, none that she saw, anyway. We figured it for a dispute between two homeless squatters, we’d check it out and then leave. So while Negron is still scraping shit off his shoe, I go up maybe two, three steps and I hear something coming from inside the doorway.”
“What did you hear?”
Miles’ shoulders twitched and his right hand jerked out of his lap, fisting. “A sharp double metallic click. Like a weapon being locked and loaded. Negron heard it, too. He said, “Fuck!” and I saw him duck in front of the porch and go for his gun. I just stood there, frozen.”
Cash sat back in his own seat, eyeing the young, trembling cop.
“Go on,” he said softly.
“All of a sudden this guy, this enormous fuckin’ guy is right there, right in the doorway, maybe eight, nine feet away from me. A huge, crazy looking guy, and he’s got a fuckin’ rifle in his hands. A rifle!” The words were pouring out now, and Cash held his questions. Let him spit it out, get it all out and overwith. The details, actual or invented, could wait. “I almost peed myself. I mean, this guy looked like a real maniac, sweating, cursing to himself, stepping out onto the porch and swinging that rifle back and forth.” Miles shook in spasm. He took a deep breath, held it briefly, then continued. “So I say, ‘Hey,’ you know, like a fuckin’ idiot, and the guy zeroes in on me, he don’t hesitate for a second. I’m telling you he was crazy, and he starts yelling at me, something about his old lady, about his kid, something like that, and he’s pointing the rifle at me and I know he’s gonna kill me, and I’ve got my left hand on the banister, you know, I was climbing the stairs, and so I push myself backwards. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, just throwing myself down the stairs. Then I hear this tremendous explosion and there’s a giant flash of light and I’m rolling down the stairs into the dirt and Jesus Christ, I swear I did pee myself. I mean, I felt it, you know, the warm piss in my pants. I thought it was blood, I thought I was shot. Mr. Cash, I swear to God I don’t remember taking it out, but my thirty-eight was in my hands and I’m pointing it at the guy and he’s swinging his aim over toward Negron who’s down behind the front of the porch yelling something about us being cops and the guy starts screamin’ he’s gonna kill us and he swings the rifle back at me, right at my fuckin’ chest and he jacks another round into the chamber and my gun goes off and the guy just blinks like bullets can’t hurt him and so I figure I missed. Then he fires again and I think I’m hit, I’m going to die, and I start firing over and over. The last shot I see his shirt, he’s wearing a tee-shirt, and I swear to God I see the shirt tear. It’s like slow motion. The shirt gets pushed in, like somebody poked him with a pencil or something, and then it pops out, out of the hole in his chest, and it’s torn, you know, the shirt is torn and it’s red with blood, and it just popped in, then out of his chest. Blood sprayed out of the hole – some of it hit me. It was like slow motion. Then he falls down, sits down actually. Negron goes rushing passed me. The guy drops the rifle and it slides down the steps and Negron, he’s all red and excited and he sticks his Glock in the guy’s face and says, ‘You son-of-a-bitch,’ and the guy just plops onto his back and his head hits the porch, and that’s it. That was it.”
Cash let a few moments elapse before asking, “Would you like some water or something? Coffee? Maybe the doctor can give you something more to relax you.”
“No, sir. No.” Tears welled in Miles’ eyes, and he wiped them quickly away. He sighed and looked down at the floor, his right leg shaking, anger and shame weighing heavily on him. The tears welled again, and Cash rose and turned to face the window, his back to the young man. Uneasy moments passed before he sat down again and spoke.
“What happened next?”
Miles shook his head clear. His voice was low, flat. “Sanchez came up and started running his hand over me. You know, I was down on the ground, the guy had fired right at me, so Sanchez figured I was hit. He kept saying, ‘Holy Christ, are you okay, are you okay?’ I stood up. Sanchez took the gun out of my hand and put it in my pocket. We just stood there looking at each other. Then Negron said, ‘Come on,’ and he ran into the house. There coulda been a second perp, we had to clear the place, so me and Sanchez followed him.”
“Did you look at the body?”
“The old lady told us the guy’s room was on the second floor. We went up. It was very dark. Then we saw an old kerosene lamp in what we figured was the guy’s room, that was the only light. Negron and Sanchez went in. That’s where they found the heroin on a small table against the wall. I just sorta wandered into the bathroom. And for the first time in my life my mind was a total blank. I wasn’t even thinking, “Hey, you’re not thinking about anything.’ It was just completely blank, empty. I had a pencil flash in my pocket. I took it out and turned it on. That’s when I saw myself in the old mirror, in the bathroom, you know, and I started … I started crying. But it was crazy, like I was crying for no reason, because my mind was blank, totally blank. I was just looking at my reflection, then I started shaking like a leaf and threw up in the sink. Just like that, I puked, and I felt so embarrassed. Negron came into the bathroom, he had his light on, too. I don’t know what he was saying, I felt so ashamed, and then he just went away and I was alone. I shut the door. I wanted to wash out the sink, clean myself up, but there was no running water. I didn’t want to leave the bathroom. I was embarrassed.” Miles shook his head slightly. “Then it dawned on me, what the hell, I did my job, I’ve got no reason to be ashamed. Then, all of a sudden, I got real hostile … like I was thinking ‘Fuck everybody, fuck them.’ It was stupid, I guess.”
Cash didn’t comment. Instead, he asked, “What happened next?”
“Sanchez came in, didn’t knock or anything, just opened the door and walked in. He said he was going to seal the building and call for the detectives. I think that’s when he told me they had found some crack, too, I don’t remember for sure. Anyway, I walked out of the bathroom. There were uniformed cops everywhere. Sanchez had put out a ‘shots fired – ten thirteen.’ I wandered off, went downstairs. Some neighborhood people were standing outside the house, a little crowd of them. I guess the radio cars woke ‘em up. It was very weird, this deserted street all of a sudden with this crowd … they looked like … like zombies or something. Like it was Halloween. They were talking and looking at the dead body and having a good time. I think some of them made me for the cop who shot the guy. I got some dirty looks, you know, and some mumbles. Most of them didn’t seem to care much, though. One old guy wanted to shake my hand, told me there were a few others around needed killing.”
“Where was the woman who had started the whole thing?” Cash asked.
“Some uniform was holding her in a black and white, waiting for the detectives. Anyway, I went to look at the body. You know …” He shrugged and let his voice trail off.
“You said the people were looking at the dead body. How’d you know it was dead?”
This seemed to stun Miles. How did he know? How did he know?
“I just figured. I don’t know, he looked dead.”
“You said before you hadn’t yet looked at the body, so how’d you know it looked dead?”
Miles did not respond. Instead he seemed puzzled, confused. Cash said softly, “Listen, Anthony, I’m only asking you what others will ask. And you have to provide the right answers. Just off the top of my head, you had better polish up your demeanor and change some terminology about certain things when you’re speaking to the investigators. And you need to make eye contact with them, not stare out the window like somebody reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. You can’t say you responded to the call because Negron wanted ‘action’ or because you were ‘bored.’ You can’t say you didn’t know what you were doing when you threw yourself down the stairs, you can’t say you don’t know how your weapon got into your hand. You can’t say you felt hostile or pissed off. Look, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, Anthony, but you need a tighter version, a neat, professional version. You took the call because the woman made an official complaint, you defensively threw yourself out of the way of the first shot, you drew your weapon, and after Negron’s shouted identification as police officers and the perpetrator’s second shot, you fired that weapon. Your gun just didn’t ‘go off,’ you fired in defense of your life and the life of your partners. Now I’ll ask you again, how’d you know the man was dead before you looked at the body?”
Miles realized he was sweating heavily and at last opened his coat. He shifted in his seat and looked into the lawyer’s eyes. “I knew he was dead because … because Negron had examined the body shortly after the shots were fired, and he told me that the perpetrator appeared to be dead.”
“Alright,” Cash said with a curt nod of his head. “And so after they sealed the house, what then? Did you speak to anyone? What did you do?”
“Sanchez approached me. He told me not to talk to anybody, not even another cop, until after Negron got a hold of the union lawyer. Then he slapped me on the arm and walked away; he was trying to disperse the crowd. In the meantime, more cops poured into the area. Negron was keeping guys away, you know, so they wouldn’t mess up the scene. I just sorta got lost in
“Is that when you looked at the body?”
Miles squirmed slightly in his seat. “Yeah. I walked over and there he was, just where he fell. His eyes were open.”
“What did you think when you looked at the body? Did you think, ‘This guy almost killed me,’ something like that?”
Miles hesitated. “Look, Mr. Cash, I didn’t think anything like that. And what does it matter what I thought? Thoughts don’t mean much. I had … I had crazy thoughts, but they weren’t anything like you might think.”
Cash smiled a thin, tired smile. “You’re right, Anthony, most thoughts don’t mean much. But tell me anyway. I need to get the whole picture in order to best protect you.”
Miles looked pale. He was trembling more noticeably now and clasping his hands together in an attempt to steady them. He suddenly removed his peacoat, folding and dropping it neatly to the floor. He looked up at Cash. “Alright,” he said. “You want to hear it, I’ll tell you. But like I said, it was a little crazy. I don’t really understand it, but here it is. I went over and looked at the body. It seemed sort of … sort of fake, you know? Like a mannequin or a pile of laundry. It was like … like a machine that somebody unplugged. And then, all of a sudden, I started thinking about … about college. When I took an anatomy class, senior year. The professor I had was great, he made it very interesting, you know? We learned about the human body, the bones and muscles, the glands, the brain, the blood and heart, all functioning together, forming a human being. You know, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you’re rich or poor or whether you’re good or evil, everybody’s got the same stuff inside, like a computer or something. Your values, your personality, that’s all secondary. What’s important is your body, your anatomy. That’s what I thought about when I looked at the guy. My anatomy elective.”
Cash said nothing when Miles fell silent. Over the years he had interviewed enough people to know when to be silent and when to speak. He knew Miles would continue. Cash didn’t care about body parts, he cared about the facts surrounding the shooting. And he was willing to let Miles digress for awhile if that’s what it took to gather those facts.
“Anyway,” Miles continued as though there had been no break in his narrative. “I just kept on thinking about anatomy and my professor. The human body was like God to him, he worshipped it. Like even though he spent years studying and teaching, he was still fascinated by it. Some of the students didn’t give a damn, but I did. I found it all so amazing. I remember discussing it one day with some blonde who sat next to me in class. She said it was boring, she only took the course because it fit into her schedule and was offered as a pass-fail. I tried to explain why it was so fascinating, but she was completely turned off by it. Then she said something that had never occurred to me. And it all came flooding back into my head while I was looking down at the bloody hole in that guy’s chest.”
Cash found himself frowning. “And what was that?”
Now Miles raised his eyes to meet Cash’s.
“She said, ‘This guy,’ meaning the professor, the one I figured was so cool, ‘This guy is a real cold bastard. He talks about people like they’re meat. To him, there’s no difference between anybody – just between dead and not dead.’ That’s what she said. At first it kind of pissed me off. But then after I thought about it, I began to see her point. And I had it filed away in my head all these years that she was right, you know? Like people really are more than just blood and veins and body parts. But when I looked at that body tonight, I realized the only difference between it and me was that it was dead and I wasn’t. The only difference. Its systems were shut down, mine weren’t. Its heart was stopped, mine was beating.” Miles shrugged. “See? Crazy, right?”
“Yes, well … people have odd thoughts at times like that.” Cash wanted more relevant information. “What about the perpetrator, Anthony? How many times had you shot him?”
“Well, there was the chest. There was also a side wound, the right side, by the ribs. And one of the bullets hit him in the hand. The EMT found that one. The detectives checked my gun. I had fired all six rounds.”
Cash reached across the table and patted Miles’ shoulder. “This sounds like a very clean shooting, son. If Sanchez goes along and the Crime Scene Unit confirms those two rifle shots, you’ll waltz through the mandatory Grand Jury inquest. You did what you were forced to do. You need to realize that, calm down a little.”
Miles looked up at Cash, his sad eyes hooded. “Mr. Cash,” he asked softly. “Have you ever wept?”
The question surprised the older man. “Sure, son, everyone cries,” he said. “Don’t think because you’re a man or a police officer that you’re not allowed to cry.”
Miles shook his head sharply and leaned forward in his seat. His tone implored Cash for understanding. “Not cry. I’m talking about weeping. When I looked at that guy, I sat down on the porch next to him and I wept. I mean, really wept. In my whole life I never did that; sure I’ve cried – from pain, frustration, anger, sorrow, but I never wept. Not until tonight.”
Cash straightened in his seat. Jesus, he thought, the kid was really taking this hard. All this crap about weeping and crying, as if there were some difference. “Look, son, it’s tough, we all cry, and no cop who saw you will ever mention it. They know it could be them next time.”
Miles reacted sharply, almost rising from his seat. “No, damn it,” he said in a suddenly strong, clear voice. “It’s not the macho thing, it’s not about crying, it’s about weeping! You don’t understand. I didn’t care about that guy, or his family, or his friends, nobody. I only cared about his body, his blood and his brain, his chemistry, his parts, his fuckin’ anatomy. All that incredible machinery, broken, dead. I wept for that. Don’t you understand? Nobody ever thinks about that or cares. But that’s all there is, Mr. Cash, that’s all there is to care about.”
Cash leaned back in his seat. “Listen, Anthony, you’re tired, you’re upset. You’re not making a hell-of-a-lot of sense here, and tomorrow no one will appreciate that kind of talk. It doesn’t sound … just doesn’t sound right, do you understand?”
Miles shook his head and suddenly stood up. He was still trembling. He stepped around the table to the window. “I don’t care how it sounds, it’s true. Just look out there.” He gestured at the window. Cash turned somewhat nervously, as much to keep his eye on Miles as to look out the window. “Look out at Camden. Tell me, what value does a person have if he’s a rapist, a murderer, a junkie? Or a liar or a cheat, or a mean bastard or skinflint for that matter? How many people out there fit that description, or part of that description? If some terrorist blew it all to hell, what would be said? All those poor people, those poor human beings, murdered. But they’d be talking … about something else, something totally different from what I’m saying. They wouldn’t care about the bodies, the machinery. That’s why I wept for that guy, because I destroyed his body. If his soul even existed, it wasn’t worth a damn to him, me or anybody else. Humans are pompous fools, they award themselves souls so they can look at a cow or a monkey and say, “I’m better than that, I’m a human being.’ So what, Mr. Cash? How can anyone really give a goddamn?”
Cash rose from his chair and moved closer to Miles. He faced the window, speaking to his own reflection in the darkened glass. “Anthony, you killed a man tonight. When you took this job, you must have asked yourself at least one time, ‘Am I willing to chance being killed? Am I willing to chance killing someone?’ Well, tonight it came to pass, son, and you did what had to be done. If you’re going to get all philosophical about it, you’ll only cause yourself a lot of grief. You wouldn’t be so damn philosophical if you were lying in the morgue right now, or up in the O.R. with a bullet lodged in your spine. You killed a man; I don’t give a damn if you think you killed his soul, his body or his goddamned asshole. He’s dead and you’re not. So when you’re interviewed tomorrow, you forget about all this bullshit and you talk facts; you talk distance in feet and inches, you talk lighting and visibility, and you talk police procedure. You talk it because that’s what they want to hear. That’s what they need to hear. If you have a problem with something, talk to a priest. If you can’t handle it, go see a psychiatrist. This is a police shooting and we talk facts, not bullshit. Do you understand me, Anthony?” Cash turned and looked the young officer in the eye. “Do you understand me?” he said into the bloodshot eye glaring back at him.
“Yes, I understand. It’s you who doesn’t understand. You prove my point. Answer the questions, fill out the forms, toe tag the corpse and shovel it under. Then on Sunday talk soul and spirit …” Miles paused and returned to his chair. He sat down heavily and spoke softly. “I’m sorry. Maybe I don’t know what I’m saying. Maybe you’re right. Maybe any damn thing. It’s dawn and I feel like I came to work a week ago. I’m exhausted. Can I go home now?”
Cash turned back to the window. “Where are your guns?”
“The detectives took them. They gave me a receipt.” Miles produced the wrinkled paper and placed it on the table.
Cash glanced at it. “Alright, put it away, hold onto it. You know procedure. You’ll be reassigned to a desk job until you’re cleared on the shooting. Tomorrow we’ll talk again and cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Then you’ll sit for your official interview. I’ll be there personally to monitor things.” Miles stood up and began to leave the room. “One more thing,” Cash said to the man’s back. “Stay home. Let Negron take you straight home and stay there. Don’t speak to anyone about the shooting, not even Negron. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Miles placed a hand on the door knob and started out. Before leaving, he turned slowly and spoke. “Mr. Cash,” he said softly. Cash looked at the young cop. “I know what everybody thinks. I know what you think. Tonight, any other cop would have been assigned some lawyer right out of school. But because of my father, you showed up personally. And I’m sure you know how grateful he’ll be for that.”
Cash wore a neutral expression. “Yes,” he said.
“I need you to understand something though. I want everybody to understand something. The last thing in the world my father wanted was for me to become a cop. He tried his best to change my mind, and when he couldn’t he tried to talk me out of working for Camden P.D. But he couldn’t do that, either. There are some good people in Camden, Mr. Cash. They’re trying to make a life for themselves.”
For the first time since entering the room, a small, tired smile touched Miles’ face as he continued.
“I just wanted to help them do it. That’s all I ever wanted. The other cops, they hardly talk to me. Negron and Sanchez have me for a partner because they pissed off the duty sergeant. But they’ve got me all wrong.”
He turned back to the door, speaking as he left the room.
“I was just trying to help.”
When Miles was gone, Cash turned to the window behind him, his cold grey eyes studying the early morning light as it began to nudge against the slowly dying night sky.
He stood there alone for quite some time. He wondered why Negron, from his position of cover behind the porch, had not fired.
He wondered why Sanchez had not fired.
And as the Camden sky grew brighter, he wondered about organs and brains, nerves and enzymes, anatomy and souls.
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I’d wake just long enough to be angry that he’d woken me. But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast. By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother’s coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porch light. If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there. In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons. I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.
But that winter I was too concerned with my own problems to think about my father’s. I was a skinny, unathletic, sorrowful boy who had few friends, and I was in love with Molly Rasmussen, one of the prettiest girls in Glencoe and the daughter of a man who had stopped my father on Main Street that fall, cursed him, and threatened to break his face. My father had bought a used Ford Galaxie from Mr. Rasmussen’s lot, but he hadn’t been able to make the payments and eventually Mr. Rasmussen repossessed it. Without a second car my mother couldn’t get to her job at the school lunchroom, so we drove our aging Chevy to Minneapolis, where no one knew my father, and bought a rust-pitted yellow Studebaker. A few days later Molly Rasmussen passed me in the hall at school and said, “I see you’ve got a new car,” then laughed. I was so mortified I hurried into a restroom, locked myself in a stall, and stood there for several minutes, breathing hard. Even after the bell rang for the next class, I didn’t move. I was furious at my father. I blamed him for the fact that Molly despised me, just as I had for some time blamed him for everything else that was wrong with my life—my gawky looks, my discount store clothes, my lack of friends.
That night, and others like it, I lay in bed and imagined who I’d be if my mother had married someone handsome and popular like Dick Moore, the PE teacher, or Smiley Swenson, who drove stock cars at the county fair, or even Mr. Rasmussen. Years before, my mother had told me how she met my father. A girl who worked with her at Woolworth’s had asked her if she wanted to go out with a friend of her boyfriend’s, an army man just back from the war. My mother had never agreed to a blind date before, or dated an older man, but for some reason this time she said yes. Lying there, I thought about that fateful moment. It seemed so fragile— she could as easily have said no and changed everything—and I wished, then, that she had said no, I wished she’d said she didn’t date strangers or she already had a date or she was going out of town—anything to alter the chance conjunction that would eventually produce me.
I know now that there was something suicidal about my desire to undo my parentage, but then I knew only that I wanted to be someone else. And I blamed my father for that wish. If I’d had a different father, I reasoned, I would be better looking, happier, more popular. When I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s thin face, his rust-red hair, downturned mouth, and bulging Adam’s apple, I didn’t know who I hated more, him or me. That winter I began parting my hair on the right instead of the left, as my father did, and whenever the house was empty I worked on changing my voice, practicing the inflections and accents of my classmates’ fathers as if they were clues to a new life. I did not think, then, that my father knew how I felt about him, but now that I have a son of my own, a son almost as old as I was then, I know different.
If I had known what my father was going through that winter, maybe I wouldn’t have treated him so badly. But I didn’t know anything until the January morning of his breakdown. I woke that morning to the sound of voices downstairs in the kitchen. At first I thought the sound was the wind rasping in the bare branches of the cottonwood outside my window, then I thought it was the radio. But after I lay there a moment I recognized my parents’ voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew they were arguing. They’d been arguing more than usual lately, and I hated it—not so much because I wanted them to be happy, though I did, but because I knew they’d take their anger out on me, snapping at me, telling me to chew with my mouth closed, asking me who gave me permission to put my feet up on the coffee table, ordering me to clean my room. I buried one ear in my pillow and covered the other with my blankets, but I could still hear them. They sounded distant, yet somehow close, like the sea crashing in a shell held to the ear. But after a while I couldn’t hear even the muffled sound of their voices, and I sat up in the bars of gray light slanting through the blinds and listened to the quiet. I didn’t know what was worse: their arguments or their silences. I sat there, barely breathing, waiting for some noise.
Finally I heard the back door bang shut and, a moment later, the Chevy cough to life. Only then did I dare get out of bed. Crossing to the window, I raised one slat of the blinds with a finger and saw, in the dim light, the driveway drifted shut with snow. Then my father came out of the garage and began shoveling, scooping the snow furiously and flinging it over his shoulder, as if each shovelful were a continuation of the argument. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew that it was red and that he was probably cursing under his breath. As he shoveled, the wind scuffed the drifts around him, swirling the snow into his eyes, but he didn’t stop or set his back to the wind. He just kept shoveling fiercely, and suddenly it occurred to me that he might have a heart attack, just as my friend Rob’s father had the winter before. For an instant I saw him slump over his shovel, then collapse face-first into the snow. As soon as this thought came to me, I did my best to convince myself that it arose from love and terror, but even then I knew part of me wished his death, and that knowledge went through me like a chill.
I lowered the slat on the blinds and got back into bed. The house was quiet but not peaceful. I knew that somewhere in the silence my mother was crying and I thought about going to comfort her, but I didn’t. After a while I heard my father rev the engine and back the Chevy down the driveway. Still I didn’t get up. And when my mother finally came to tell me it was time to get ready, her eyes and nose red and puffy, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. Normally she would have felt my forehead and cross-examined me about my symptoms, but that day I knew she’d be too upset to bother. “Okay, Danny,” she said. “Call me if you think you need to see a doctor.” And that was it. She shut the door and a few minutes later I heard the whine of the Studebaker’s cold engine, and then she was gone.
It wasn’t long after my mother left that my father came home. I was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV when I heard a car pull into the driveway. At first I thought my mother had changed her mind and come back to take me to school. But then the back door sprang open and I heard him. It was a sound I had never heard before, and since have heard only in my dreams, a sound that will make me sit up in the thick dark, my eyes open to nothing and my breath panting. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it was a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues. It sounded as if he were crying and talking at the same time, and in some strange way his words had become half-sobs and his sobs something more than words—or words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through. It scared me. I knew something terrible had happened, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to him and ask what was wrong, but I didn’t dare. I switched off the sound on the TV so he wouldn’t know I was home and sat there staring at the actors mouthing their lines. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. There, in the middle of the room, wearing his Goodyear jacket and work clothes, was my father. He was on his hands and knees, his head hanging as though it were too heavy to support, and he was rocking back and forth and babbling in a rhythmic stutter. It’s funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw him like that was the way he used to give me rides on his back, when I was little, bucking and neighing like a horse. And as soon as I thought it, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. “Dad?” I said. “What’s wrong?” But he didn’t hear me. I went over to him then. “Dad?” I said again, and touched him on the shoulder. He jerked at the touch and looked up at me, his lips moving but no sounds coming out of them now. His forehead was knotted and his eyes were red, almost raw-looking. He swallowed hard and for the first time spoke words I could recognize, though I did not understand them until years later, when I was myself a father.
“Danny,” he said. “Save me.”
Before I could finish dialing the school lunchroom’s number, my mother pulled into the driveway. Looking out the window, I saw her jump out of the car and run up the slick sidewalk, her camel- colored overcoat open and flapping in the wind. For a moment I was confused. Had I already called her? How much time had passed since I found my father on the kitchen floor? A minute? An hour? Then I realized that someone else must have told her something was wrong.
She burst in the back door then and called out, “Bill? Bill? Are you here?”
“Mom,” I said, “Dad’s—” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
She came in the kitchen without stopping to remove her galoshes. “Oh, Bill,” she said when she saw us, “are you all right?”
My father was sitting at the kitchen table now, his hands fluttering in his lap. A few moments before, I had helped him to his feet and, draping his arm over my shoulders, led him to the table like a wounded man.
“Helen,” he said. “It’s you.” He said it as if he hadn’t seen her for years.
My mother went over and knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but whether that statement was born of sorrow over something she had said or done or whether she just simply and guiltlessly wished he weren’t suffering, I never knew. Taking his hands in hers, she added, “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s going to be fine.” Then she turned to me. Her brown hair was wind-blown, and her face was so pale the smudges of rouge on her cheeks looked like bruises. “Danny,” she said, “I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes.”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes and tight lips. “Okay,” I said, and went back to the living room. There, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the television, the actors’ mouths moving wordlessly, their laughs eerily silent. I could hear my parents talking, their steady murmur broken from time to time by my father sobbing and my mother saying “Bill” over and over, in the tone mothers use to calm their babies, but I couldn’t hear enough of what they said to know what had happened. And I didn’t want to know either. I wanted them to be as silent as the people on the TV, I wanted all the words to stop, all the crying.
I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to drive the picture of my father on the kitchen floor out of my head. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my pulse tick in my throat. I was worried about my father but I was also angry that he was acting so strange. It didn’t seem fair that I had to have a father like that. I’d never seen anybody else’s father act that way, not even in a movie.
Outside, the wind shook the evergreens and every now and then a gust would rattle the windowpane. I lay there a long time, listening to the wind, until my heart stopped beating so hard.
Some time later, my mother came into the room and sat on the edge of the chair under the sunburst mirror. Her forehead was creased, and there were black mascara streaks on her cheeks. Leaning toward me, her hands clasped, she bit her lip, then said, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.” Her breath snagged on the last word, and I could hear her swallowing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She opened her mouth as if she were about to answer, but suddenly her eyes began to tear. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “After the doctor’s come. Just don’t worry, okay? I’ll explain everything.”
“The doctor?” I said.
“I’ll explain later,” she answered.
Then she left and I didn’t hear anything more until ten or fifteen minutes had passed and the doorbell rang. My mother ran to the door and opened it, and I heard her say, “Thank you for coming so quickly. He’s in the kitchen.” As they hurried down the hall past the living room, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Lewis and his black leather bag. It had been years since the doctors in our town, small as it was, made house calls, so I knew now that my father’s problem was something truly serious. The word emergency came into my mind, and though I tried to push it out, it kept coming back.
For the next half hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
It wasn’t until after Dr. Lewis had left and my father had taken the tranquilizers and gone upstairs to bed that my mother came back into the living room, sat down on the couch beside me, and told me what had happened. “Your father,” she began, and her voice cracked. Then she controlled herself and said, “Your father has been fired from his job.”
I looked at her. “Is that it?” I said. “That’s what all this fuss is about?” I couldn’t believe he’d put us through all this for something so unimportant. All he had to do was get a new job. What was the big deal?
“Let me explain,” my mother said. “He was fired some time ago. Ten days ago, to be exact. But he hadn’t said anything to me about it, and he just kept on getting up and going down to work every morning, like nothing had happened. And every day Mr. Siverhus told him to leave, and after arguing a while, he’d go. Then he’d spend the rest of the day driving around until quitting time, when he’d finally come home. But Mr. Siverhus got fed up and changed the locks, and when your father came to work today he couldn’t get in. He tried all three entrances, and when he found his key didn’t work in any of them, well, he threw a trash barrel through the showroom window and went inside.”
She paused for a moment, I think to see how I was taking this. I was trying to picture my father throwing a barrel through that huge, expensive window. It wasn’t easy to imagine. Even at his most angry, he had never been violent. He had never even threatened to hit me or my mother. But now he’d broken a window, and the law.
My mother went on. “Then when he was inside, he found that Mr. Siverhus had changed the lock on his office too, so he kicked the door in. When Mr. Siverhus came to work, he found your dad sitting at his desk, going over service accounts.” Her lips started to tremble. “He could have called the police,” she said, “but he called me instead. We owe him for that.”
That’s the story my mother told me. Though I was to find out later that she hadn’t told me the entire truth, she had told me enough of it to make me realize that my father had gone crazy. Something in him—whatever slender idea or feeling it is that connects us to the world—had broken, and he was not in the world anymore, he was outside it, horribly outside it, and could not get back in no matter how he tried. Somehow I knew this, even then. And I wondered if someday the same thing would happen to me.
The rest of that day, I stayed downstairs, watching TV or reading Sports Illustrated or Life, while my father slept or rested. My mother sat beside his bed, reading her ladies magazines while he slept and talking to him whenever he woke, and every now and then she came downstairs to tell me he was doing fine. She spoke as if he had some temporary fever, some twenty-four-hour virus, that would be gone by morning.
But the next morning, a Saturday, my father was still not himself. He didn’t feel like coming down for breakfast, so she made him scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast and took it up to him on a tray. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, but when she came back down awhile later all the food was still on the tray. She didn’t say anything about the untouched meal; she just said my father wanted to talk to me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m eating.” I had one sausage patty and a few bites of scrambled egg left on my plate.
“Not this minute,” she said. “When you’re done.”
I looked out the window. It had been snowing all morning, and the evergreens in the backyard looked like flocked Christmas trees waiting for strings of colored lights. Some sparrows were flying in and out of the branches, chirping, and others were lined up on the crossbars of the clothesline poles, their feathers fluffed out and blowing in the wind.
“I’m supposed to meet Rob at his house,” I lied. “I’ll be late.”
“Danny,” she said, in a way that warned me not to make her say any more.
“All right,” I said, and I shoved my plate aside and got up. “But I don’t have much time.”
Upstairs, I stopped at my father’s closed door. Normally I would have walked right in, but that day I felt I should knock. I felt as if I were visiting a stranger. Even his room—I didn’t think of it as belonging to my mother anymore—seemed strange, somehow separate from the rest of the house.
When I knocked, my father said, “Is that you, Danny?” and I stepped inside. All the blinds were shut, and the dim air smelled like a thick, musty mixture of hair tonic and Aqua Velva. My father was sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, wearing his old brown robe, nubbled from years of washings, and maroon corduroy slippers. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were dark and pouched.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me,” I said.
He touched a spot next to him on the bed. “Here. Sit down.”
I didn’t move. “I’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked away. For a moment we were silent, and I could hear the heat register ticking.
“I just wanted to tell you to take good care of your mother,” he said then.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What do you mean?”
He looked back at me, his gaze steady and empty, and I wondered how much of the way he was that moment was his medication and how much himself. “She needs someone to take care of her,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going to take care of her anymore?”
He cleared his throat again. “If I can.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why are you doing this to us? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he answered. “That’s the problem. Not a thing is going on.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t like it when you say things I can’t understand.”
“I don’t like it either,” he said. Then he added: “That wasn’t me yesterday. I want you to know that.”
“It sure looked like you. If it wasn’t you, who was it then?”
He stood up and walked across the carpet to the window. But he didn’t open the blinds; he just stood there, his back to me. “It’s all right for you to be mad,” he said.
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t lie, Danny.”
“I’m not lying. I just like my father to use the English language when he talks to me, that’s all.”
For a long moment he was quiet. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten I was in the room. Then he said, “My grandmother used to tell me there were exactly as many stars in the sky as there were people. If someone was born, there’d be a new star in the sky that night, and you could find it if you looked hard enough. And if someone died, you’d see that person’s star fall.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“People,” he answered. “Stars.”
Then he just stood there, staring at the blinds. I wondered if he was seeing stars there, or his grandmother, or what. And all of a sudden I felt my throat close up and my eyes start to sting. I was surprised—a moment before I’d been so angry, but now I was almost crying.
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what was wrong, so I could know how to feel about it; I wanted to be sad or angry, either one, but not both at the same time. “What happened?” I finally said. “Tell me.”
He turned, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, because he didn’t answer for a long time. And when he did, he seemed to be answering some other question, one I hadn’t asked.
“I was so arrogant,” he said. “I thought my life would work out.”
I stood there looking at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he said. “I hope to God you never do.”
“Quit talking like that.”
“Like you’re so smart and everything. Like you’re above all of this when it’s you that’s causing it all.”
He looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly.
“Well?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
He looked up. “You’re a good boy, Danny. I’m proud of you. I wish I could be a better father for you.”
I hesitate now to say what I said next. But then I didn’t hesitate.
“So do I,” I said bitterly. “So the hell do I.” And I turned to leave.
“Danny, wait,” my father said.
But I didn’t wait. And when I shut the door, I shut it hard.
Two days later, after he took to fits of weeping and laughing, we drove my father to the VA hospital in Minneapolis. Dr. Lewis had already called the hospital and made arrangements for his admission, so we were quickly escorted to his room on the seventh floor, where the psychiatric patients were kept. I had expected the psych ward to be a dreary, prisonlike place with barred doors and gray, windowless walls, but if anything, it was cheerier than the rest of the hospital. There were sky blue walls in the hallway, hung here and there with watercolor landscapes the patients had painted, and sunny yellow walls in the rooms, and there was a brightly lit lounge with a TV, card tables, and a shelf full of board games, and even a crafts center where the patients could do decoupage, leatherwork, mosaics, and macramé. And the patients we saw looked so normal that I almost wondered whether we were in the right place. Most of them were older, probably veterans of the First World War, but a few were my father’s age or younger. The old ones were the friendliest, nodding their bald heads or waving their liver-spotted hands as we passed, but even those who only looked at us seemed pleasant or, at the least, not hostile.
I was relieved by what I saw but evidently my father was not, for his eyes still had the quicksilver shimmer of fear they’d had all during the drive from Glencoe. He sat stiffly in the wheelchair and looked at the floor passing between his feet as the big-boned nurse pushed him down the hall toward his room.
We were lucky, the nurse told us, chatting away in a strange accent, which I later learned was Czech. There had been only one private room left, and my father had gotten it. And it had a lovely view of the hospital grounds. Sometimes she herself would stand in front of that window and watch the snow fall on the birches and park benches. It was such a beautiful sight. She asked my father if that didn’t sound nice, but he didn’t answer.
Then she wheeled him into the room and parked the chair beside the white, starched-looking bed. My father hadn’t wanted to sit in the chair when we checked him in at the admissions desk, but now he didn’t show any desire to get out of it.
“Well, what do you think of your room, Mr. Conroy?” the nurse asked. My mother stood beside her, a handkerchief squeezed in her hand.
My father looked at the chrome railing on the bed, the stainless steel tray beside it, and the plastic-sealed water glasses on the tray. Then he looked at my mother and me.
“I suppose it’s where I should be,” he said.
During the five weeks my father was in the hospital, my mother drove to Minneapolis twice a week to visit him. Despite her urgings, I refused to go with her. I wanted to forget about my father, to erase him from my life. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her I couldn’t stand to see him in that awful place, and she felt sorry for me and let me stay home. But almost every time she came back, she’d have a gift for me from him: a postcard of Minnehaha Falls decoupaged onto a walnut plaque, a leather billfold with my initials burned into the cover, a belt decorated with turquoise and white beads. And a request: would I come see him that weekend? But I never went.
Glencoe was a small town, and like all small towns it was devoted to gossip. I knew my classmates had heard about my father—many of them had no doubt driven past Goodyear to see the broken window the way they’d drive past a body shop to see a car that had been totaled—but only Rob said anything. When he asked what had happened, I told him what Dr. Lewis had told me, that my father was just overworked and exhausted. Rob didn’t believe me any more than I believed Dr. Lewis, but he pretended to accept that explanation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him more for that pretense, or less.
It took a couple of weeks for the gossip to reach me. One day during lunch Rob told me that Todd Knutson, whose father was a mechanic at Goodyear, was telling everybody my father had been fired for embezzling. “I know it’s a dirty lie,” Rob said, “but some kids think he’s telling the truth, so you’d better do something.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Tell them the truth. Set the record straight.”
I looked at my friend’s earnest, acne-scarred face. As soon as he’d told me the rumor, I’d known it was true, and in my heart I had already convicted my father. But I didn’t want my best friend to know that. Perhaps I was worried that he would turn against me too and I’d be completely alone.
“You bet I will,” I said. “I’ll make him eat those words.”
But I had no intention of defending my father. I was already planning to go see Mr. Siverhus right after school and ask him, straight out, for the truth, so I could confront my father with the evidence and shame him the way he had shamed me. I was furious with him for making me even more of an outcast than I had been—I was the son of a criminal now—and I wanted to make him pay for it. All during my afternoon classes, I imagined going to see him at the hospital and telling him I knew his secret. He’d deny it at first, I was sure, but as soon as he saw I knew everything, he’d confess. He’d beg my forgiveness, swearing he’d never do anything to embarrass me or my mother again, but nothing he could say would make any difference— I’d just turn and walk away. And if I were called into court to testify against him, I’d take the stand and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my eyes steady on him all the while, watching him sit there beside his lawyer, his head hung, speechless.
I was angry at my mother too, because she hadn’t told me everything. But I didn’t realize until that afternoon, when I drove down to Goodyear to see Mr. Siverhus, just how much she hadn’t told me.
Mr. Siverhus was a tall, silver-haired man who looked more like a banker than the manager of a tire store. He was wearing a starched white shirt, a blue-and-gray striped tie with a silver tie tack, and iridescent sharkskin trousers, and when he shook my hand he smiled so hard his crow’s-feet almost hid his eyes. He led me into his small but meticulous office, closing the door on the smell of grease and the noise of impact wrenches removing lugs from wheels, and I blurted out my question before either of us even sat down.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My mother,” I answered. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me if he thought my mother had already told me the truth. Then I asked him again: “Is it true?”
Mr. Siverhus didn’t answer right away. Instead, he gestured toward a chair opposite his gray metal desk and waited until I sat in it. Then he pushed some carefully stacked papers aside, sat on the edge of the desk, and asked me how my father was doing. I didn’t really know—my mother kept saying he was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her. Still, I said, “Fine.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I’m really terribly sorry about everything that’s happened. I hope you and your mother know that.”
He wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. Standing up, he wandered over to the gray file cabinet and looked out the window at the showroom, where the new tires and batteries were on display. He sighed, and I knew he didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“What your mother told you is true,” he said then. “Bill was taking money. Not much, you understand, but enough that it soon became obvious we had a problem. After some investigating, we found out he was the one. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Your father had been a loyal and hardworking employee for years, and he was the last person I would’ve expected to be stealing from us. But when we confronted him with it, he admitted it. He’d been having trouble making his mortgage payments, he said, and in a weak moment he’d taken some money and, later on, a little more. He seemed genuinely sorry about it and he swore he’d pay back every cent, so we gave him another chance.”
“But he did it again, didn’t he?” I said.
I don’t know if Mr. Siverhus noticed the anger shaking my voice or not. He just looked at me and let out a slow breath. “Yes,” he said sadly. “He did. And so I had to fire him. I told him we wouldn’t prosecute if he returned the money, and he promised he would.”
Then he went behind his desk and sat down heavily in his chair. “I hope you understand.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He leaned over the desk toward me. “I appreciate that,” he said. “You don’t know how badly I’ve felt about all of this. I keep thinking that maybe I should have handled it differently. I don’t know, when I think that he might have taken his life because of this, well, I—”
“Taken his life?” I interrupted.
Mr. Siverhus sat back in his chair. “Your mother didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second. I felt as if something had broken loose in my chest and risen into my throat, making it hard to breathe, to think.
“I assumed you knew,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I think you’d better talk to your mother about this, Danny. I don’t think I should be the one to tell you.”
“I need to know,” I said.
Mr. Siverhus looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Very well. But you have to realize that your father was under a lot of stress. I’m sure that by the time he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be back to normal, and you won’t ever have to worry about him getting like that again.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted him to go on.
Mr. Siverhus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I came to work that morning and found your father in his office, he had a gun in his hand. A revolver. At first, I thought he was going to shoot me. But then he put it up to his own head. I tell you, I was scared. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘that’s not the answer.’ And then I just kept talking. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get him to put the gun down. Then he left, and that’s when I called your mother.”
I must have had a strange look on my face because the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t all right. I felt woozy, as if I’d just discovered another world inside this one, a world that made this one false. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could stand up. Then I did.
“Thank you, Mr. Siverhus,” I said, and reached out to shake his hand. I wanted to say more but there was nothing to say. I turned and left.
Outside in the parking lot, I stood beside the Chevy, looking at the new showroom window and breathing in the cold. I was thinking how, only a few months before, I had been looking through my father’s dresser for his old army uniform, which I wanted to wear to Rob’s Halloween party, and I’d found the revolver tucked under his dress khakis in the bottom drawer. My father had always been full of warnings—don’t mow the lawn barefoot, never go swimming in a river, always drive defensively— but he had never even mentioned he owned this gun, much less warned me not to touch it. I wondered why, and I held the gun up to the light, as if I could somehow see through it to an understanding of its meaning. But I couldn’t—or at least I refused to believe that I could—and I put it back exactly where I found it and never mentioned it to anyone.
I didn’t tell my mother what I had learned from Mr. Siverhus, and I didn’t tell anyone else either. After dinner that night I went straight to my room and stayed there. I wanted to be alone, to figure things out, but the more I thought, the more I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if it was starting already, if I was already going crazy like my father, because I wasn’t sure who I was or what I felt. It had been a long time since I’d prayed, but that night I prayed that when I woke the next day everything would make sense again.
But the next morning I was still in a daze. Everything seemed so false, so disconnected from the real world I had glimpsed the day before, that I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. At school, the chatter of my classmates sounded as meaningless as my father’s babble, and everything I saw seemed out of focus, distorted, the way things do just before you faint. Walking down the hall, I saw Todd Knutson standing by his locker, talking with Bonnie Zempel, a friend of Molly Rasmussen’s, and suddenly I found myself walking up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, I hadn’t planned anything, and when I shoved Todd against his locker, it surprised me as much as it did him.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said to him. “My father died last night.” I’m not sure I can explain it now, but in a way I believed what I was saying, and my voice shook with a genuine grief.
Todd slowly lowered his fists. “What?” he said, and looked quickly at Bonnie’s startled, open face.
“He had cancer,” I said, biting down on the word to keep my mind from whirling. “A tumor on his brain. That’s why he did the things he did, taking that money and breaking that window and everything. He couldn’t help it.”
And then my grief was too much for me, and I turned and strode down the hall, tears coming into my eyes. I waited until I was around the corner and out of their sight, then I started running, as fast as I could. Only then did I come back into the world and wonder what I had done.
That afternoon, my mother appeared at the door of my algebra class in her blue uniform and black hair net. At first I thought she was going to embarrass me by waving at me, as she often did when she happened to pass one of my classrooms, but then I saw the look on her face. “Excuse me, Mr. Laughlin,” she said grimly, “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but I need to speak with my son for a moment.”
Mr. Laughlin turned his dour face from the blackboard, his stick of chalk suspended in mid-calculation, and said, “Certainly, Mrs. Conroy. I hope there’s nothing the matter.”
“No,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But out in the hall, she slapped my face hard.
“How dare you say your father is dead,” she said through clenched teeth. Her gray eyes were flinty and narrow.
“I didn’t,” I answered.
She raised her hand and slapped me again, even harder this time.
“Don’t you lie to me, Daniel.”
I started to cry. “Well, I wish he was,” I said. “I wish he was dead, so all of this could be over.”
My mother raised her hand again, but then she let it fall. “Go,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t bear to look at you another minute.”
I went back into the classroom and sat down. I felt awful about hurting my mother, but not so awful that I wasn’t worried whether my classmates had heard her slap me or noticed my burning cheek. I saw them looking at me and shaking their heads, heard them whispering and laughing under their breath, and I stood up, my head roiling, and asked if I could be excused.
Mr. Laughlin looked at me. Then, without even asking what was wrong, he wrote out a pass to the nurse’s office and handed it to me. As I left the room, I heard him say to the class, “That’s enough. If I hear one more remark . . .”
Later, lying on a cot in the nurse’s office, my hands folded over my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined I was dead and my parents and classmates were kneeling before my open coffin, their heads bowed in mourning.
After that day, my mother scheduled meetings for me with Father Ondahl, our priest, and Mr. Jenseth, the school counselor. She said she hoped they could help me through this difficult time, then added, “Obviously, I can’t.” I saw Father Ondahl two or three times, and as soon as I assured him that I still had my faith, though I did not, he said I’d be better off just seeing Mr. Jenseth from then on. I saw Mr. Jenseth three times a week for the next month, then once a week for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure how those meetings helped, or even if they did. All I know is that, in time, my feelings about my father, and about myself, changed.
My mother continued her visits to my father, but she no longer asked me to go along with her, and when she came home from seeing him, she waited until I asked before she’d tell me how he was. I wondered whether she’d told him I was seeing a counselor, and why, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wondered if she’d ever forgive me for my terrible lie.
Then one day, without telling me beforehand, she returned from Minneapolis with my father. “Danny,” she called, and I came out of the living room and saw them in the entryway. My father was stamping the snow off his black wingtips, and he had a suitcase in one hand and a watercolor of our house in the other, the windows yellow with light and a thin swirl of gray smoke rising from the red brick chimney. He looked pale and even thinner than I remembered. I was so surprised to see him, all I could say was, “You’re home.”
“That’s right,” he said, and put down the suitcase and painting. “The old man’s back.” Then he tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. I knew he wanted me to hug him and say how happy I was to see him, and part of me wanted to do that, too. But I didn’t. I just shook his hand as I would have an uncle’s or a stranger’s, then picked up the painting and looked at it.
“This is nice,” I said. “Real nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he answered.
And then we just stood there until my mother said, “Well, let’s get you unpacked, dear, and then we can all sit down and talk.” Despite everything that had happened, our life together after that winter was relatively peaceful. My father got a job at Firestone, and though for years he barely made enough to meet expenses, eventually he worked his way up to assistant manager and earned a good living. He occasionally lost his temper and succumbed to self-pity as he always had, but for the rest of his life, he was as normal and sane as anybody. Perhaps Dr. Lewis had been right after all, and all my father had needed was a good rest. In any case, by the time I was grown and married myself, his breakdown seemed a strange and impossible dream and I wondered, as I watched him play with my infant son, if I hadn’t imagined some of it. It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.
But of course it had not mended entirely, as my life had also not mended entirely. There was a barrier between us, the thin but indestructible memory of what we had been to each other that winter. I was never sure just how much he knew about the way I’d felt about him then, or even whether my mother had told him my lie about his death, but I knew he was aware that I hadn’t been a good son. Perhaps the barrier between us could have been broken with a single word—the word love or its synonym forgive—but as if by mutual pact we never spoke of that difficult winter or its consequences.
Only once did we come close to discussing it. He and my mother had come to visit me and my family in Minneapolis, and we had just finished our Sunday dinner. Caroline and my mother were clearing the table, Sam was playing on the kitchen floor with the dump truck my parents had bought him for his birthday, and my father and I were sitting in the living room watching “Sixty Minutes.” The black pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas was talking to Morley Safer about “the Spirit that descends upon us and inhabits our hearts.” Then the camera cut to a black woman standing in the midst of a clapping congregation, her eyes tightly closed and her face glowing with sweat as she rocked back and forth, speaking the incoherent language of angels or demons. Her syllables rose and fell, then mounted in a syntax of spiraling rapture until finally, overcome by the voice that had spoken through her, she sank to her knees, trembling, her eyes open and glistening. The congregation clapped harder then, some of them leaping and dancing as if their bodies were lifted by the collapse of hers, and they yelled, “Praise God!” and “Praise the Lord God Almighty!”
I glanced at my father, who sat watching this with a blank face, and wondered what he was thinking. Then, when the camera moved to another Pentecostal minister discussing a transcript of the woman’s speech, a transcript he claimed contained variations on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words she couldn’t possibly have known, I turned to him and asked, in a hesitant way, whether he wanted to keep watching or change channels.
My father’s milky blue eyes looked blurred, as if he were looking at something a long way off, and he cleared his throat before he spoke. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Do you want to watch it?”
I paused. Then I said, “No,” and changed the channel.
Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day he put a gun to his head and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for a while, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
“Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!!” was the incessant cry of our stepmother Sophie. It was the command that drove our household. She was a slight woman with a turned-up nose and a perky hairdo and the figure of a former Miss Alabama, which she was. She smoked Salems from dawn to dusk. We thought we could outlast her because of that, we thought that cancer would take her before she could claim our hearts. In this we were only partially correct. In the meantime, the ferocious bellow that issued forth from that perfect suburban figure was itself enough to sting us all into immediate and unconsidered action, no matter what our chosen field. It did not matter to Sophie whether our pursuits were intellectual or physical. Achievement was the bottom line.
There were seven of us. The tail-end of the family was dominated by two sets of twins, born just twelve months apart. The Quinns, the three of us called them. We did not think of the nickname as reductive. They were all boys, dark-haired and thin and grubby. They ran through the neighborhood like looters. They ran through our house like Tasmanian Devils, a whirl of teeth and limbs. Even in their sleep they ran, twitching their legs like wild dogs and barking to each other in their alien Quinn language. The content of their conversations: unknown. Supposition: sinister in intent. They had no mother until Sophie, who invaded the family unit when they were four. They had no memory of a mother to dictate their loyalties. Sophie trained them like laboratory monkeys. All of them athletes, all of them fierce and wild and beautiful. Lost to us. Winners.
Their sport was soccer. Sophie taught it to them, in the backyard. She dressed up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and pulled her hair back in a ponytail and put on a sweatband. Even when she was playing goalie she kept her Salems handy, lighting one after another, flicking the ashes in the short green grass. The Quinns wore their jeans at first; later, as they grew, black silky shorts and long-sleeved jerseys and cleats and bright blue knee-length socks. Sophie dribbled the ball around the yard and kept it from the Quinns, who raced and tripped after her. She played goalie by the side of the house, and the Quinns took turns shooting, trying to score on her. They spent hours out there in the backyard, even after the Quinns were teenagers and too big for her and too good as well. It’s a time-lapse movie, this memory of the Quinns, starting out as blue-jeaned ruffians and growing tall and graceful and colorful, until at the end they are big enough and strong enough to hoist her up on their shoulders and carry her in a ceremonial lap around the yard, the chant, the cry, rising up to the closed windows on the second floor: “Win, win, win, win, win, win, WIN!!!”
The status of the Quinns, present-day: halved. One of the younger Quinns dead of a heart episode at the age of twenty-five; one of the elder Quinns blown up in a late-night car wreck. The surviving Quinns are rarely seen: glimpsed once a year at Christmas with their own wild children and wild-haired wives gathered around the Christmas tree. Greetings from our families to yours. An unthinking gesture: the rest of us have no families, none but the one we fled.
The eldest of us was George. He was the one who carried the soul of the Real Mother. She was alive in his memory and his face, which was long and thin and fiercely gentle. Just like hers.
He was the one who had the stories of her. George was the one who knew best the last story about her. The last story about the Real Mother. How the youngest of the Quinns started crying together in the middle of the day and then the older ones joined in. Their howling filled the house. The Real Mother was in the bathtub. It was the first bath she’d allowed herself in many many months. Her hair was up in the shower cap. The one with the blue flowers printed on it. She heard the howling Quinns. We all heard the thundering Quinns. George was nine and he was outside in the yard playing on the monkey bars and he heard their yowl. He ran in because it went on so long and he ran upstairs to the crib-room which was down the hall from our room, next to Mother and Father’s room. The Quinns were lined up in their cribs, four red faces surrounded by light blue blankets. The room a cacophony. So loud George did not hear the thud. The thud she made. Downstairs. In the bathroom on the floor she lay on the watery tiles and would not get up. Who found her? We all did. We all went in there from wherever we were playing, all three of us. All but the Quinns. She had slipped on a water-toy before she could even get a towel to cover her and we all saw her. We all saw everything. The rest of it was just crying. That was the last story but only George was allowed to tell it.
George was crafty and brilliant. He was the brains of the family. He was the memory. His plot was simple: agree to everything Sophie suggested, pretend to accept her, and keep our hearts our own. He made straight A’s all through high school, and all through college, and we trusted everything about him. He was fastidious. He was carefully organized. He kept notecards on everything that Sophie did that was terrible, or different from what the Real Mother would have done. DOES NOT MAKE A HOSPITAL TUCK. ALWAYS BULLYING FOR BETTER GRADES. DRIVES TOO FAST. CANNOT CARRY A TUNE. He was the only one of us who could remember the Real Mother in enough detail to know when betrayal occurred.
Status of George, present-day: a short-order cook at the Waffle House. A genius at it. The waitresses write nothing down. He does the pancakes and the bacon and the waffles and the sausage and the scrambled, poached, fried and hardboiled eggs simultaneously. Economically. He is perfectly organized. He keeps the shouted orders in his head and blots out everything else and so is perfectly happy.
Janet was the next oldest, and she had her own stories, which she did not tell George. George was not a part of these stories which were secrets. One of the secrets was the secret of kissing glass. One of these secrets was the secret of the month. One of these secrets was the secret of the turtle. One of these secrets was the list of boys. One of these secrets was the Real Mother’s song, which had no words. One of these secrets was the shriek of colors. These were the secrets she told in the five motherless years. They were secrets from the Quinns and Father and George and when Sophie came they were secrets from her. Janet was the ugly one with all of the knowing. She was not ugly but she thought she was. She thought this because she was short, and because she had hair on her forearms which everyone always looked at immediately. “You’re the beautiful one,” she said. “You’re the one with the beautiful hair.” But it was not true, not really. When Sophie came she said the same thing, and then we knew that it could not be true.
Sophie spent hours fixing Janet’s hair, and showing her how to use makeup, and what kind of clothes to wear, and what her Best Colors are. Then Janet knew that she was the ugly one. Then the world became a place filled with mirrors. George wrote this down on a notecard. But Sophie talked to Janet, too, in ways that no one else would talk to her. She told her that looks were not everything, that minds and work and words could be more important. George knew that the secret message in everything Sophie told Janet was that she was ugly, and he made sure that Janet could always recognize the subtext of every conversation.
Janet’s Status: Doctor. Unmarried. Lonely. Alcoholic? In pictures she looks wild-eyed in her white coat, caught by surprise, a doe in headlights. The white coat is not purity. It is competence. The stethoscope around her neck is dark and silent, repelled by the heart.
Our father revealed a hidden talent for pet names after he married Sophie. “Come here, my little spider monkey,” we heard him heavy-breathing on some thundery nights. Was it always raining in those days, or is that a distortion of memory? Our father: “Come say hello to your organ grinder.” The Quinns: barking in Martian. Us: silent. Listening. Hardening in our beds like loaves of bread left out and forgotten. The names: Spider-Monkey. Organ Grinder. Cantaloupe. Beautiful. Daphne. Apollo. Jekyll. Hyde. And the sounds: Bark, bark, bark. Mew and mewl. Fish on the rocks. Loons in the water. Geese in the air. Bark and mewl and slap, slap, slap. What they do is love and it is not terror. Thunder rocked the house. We heard nothing. We heard nothing at all.
Can we doubt that our father loved her? In no way. It was a hard thing to reconcile with George’s notecards. George wanted to write down a special card for that: HAS BRAINWASHED OUR FATHER. But this did not seem right. He was so much happier than he had been in the years without a mother. He did not drink any more. He whistled, and we had never known that he could. He brought friends to dinner. He took us out to movies once a week. He started touching all of us again. If he was brainwashed, then it had been done in a way that made him happy. George was enraged. “Every time he kisses her, he forgets about where we came from. But we never will.” So the card that went into the file read : MAKES FATHER FORGET. He kept the cards all of the years he lived in the house, even when he was older, in high school, and should have known better. WEARS TOO-TIGHT SWEATERS. LIES ABOUT LOVE. TOUCHES HERSELF. MARRIED FOR MONEY. FLIRTS WITH OTHER MEN. DREAMS OUR DEATHS. He never relented. He made us read them. He never let us forget. We thought when he graduated from high school and went off to college that that was the end, that he had burned them, or shredded them, or buried them. In this, too, we were mistaken.
Status of our father: he remembers everything, and he will not forgive us. He has lost two wives and two children and the rest of us he has excised from his daily life. But he remembers. He still lives in the house. He has kept everything as it was. He remembers it all. He plots against us. His is the spirit of wrathful revenge.
One afternoon when all of us were supposed to still be at school, Sophie took out her high school cheerleader outfit. She put it on. It was not even tight anywhere, it still fit her perfectly. She had long since lost the pom-poms. In the short red skirt and the red sweater with the big T bisecting her chest, she rummaged through a trunk full of her old things. She had pictures of herself on the eve that she was crowned Miss Alabama, and in her graduation gown. These were framed but had never been hung on our walls. Also framed were her diplomas: high school and her B.A from the University of Alabama. She took these, and packets of old love letters from a half a dozen men, and playbills from productions she had starred in, and she spread them all out on the kitchen table. She did a little cheer then. “Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!” She heard the click of the kitchen door. She looked up. “Oh,” she said. She looked very young, and so obviously embarrassed that she was one of us. “You didn’t see that,” she said. “You weren’t even here. What are you doing home so early?” So it was a secret, just between the two of us. It was not shared with Janet or George. It was a secret that could have changed things, but didn’t.
Status: another body on the 34th floor of a building wrapped in reflective glass. Secretary/typist. Days spent with earphones strapped like electrodes to the head, transcribing meetings and minutes, secrets and plans. Nights spent in a box-room five minutes from the glass building. Walk to and from work past the million passive faces. Ears burn with words and words and words and words.
This spring Sophie died of cancer. Two of the Quinns were already dead; we were no strangers to death. But we wished this into being. It was terrible. When the cancer came she rode it fast; she was dead not two weeks after the diagnosis.
We came back for the funeral. It was afterwards that our father approached us, in the cemetery.
“I found your notecards,” he said to George. Nose to nose. Spittle and tears. “I found them in her things. You bastard, you killed her. You robbed her of every happiness. You are no children of mine. You were no children of hers.”
Sunlight fell upon us like a curse. The priest led my father away. George looked at both of us.
He knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing when he left them there for her, like a bomb in the bottom of a dresser drawer. We didn’t know. We thought he’d thrown them away, perhaps taken them with him.
But that was not the worst thing we did not know. It was what he said to us next:
“I don’t remember anything about her. Our real mother. I don’t remember how she dressed or what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember a single lullaby. I never did. I tried, but the only thing I could ever remember was her lying there dead.” He shrugged. He turned away.
We are impoverished of spirit, all of us. There is nothing more to disclose.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Geoff Schmidt from Out of Time
It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.
The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.
He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.
It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.
‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.
‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.
‘Believe in what?’
‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’
‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’
Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’
She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’
Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’
‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.
He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’
Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’
His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’
Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’
‘The use of what?’
‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’
Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.
Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’
‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’
Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’
‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’
‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’
Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’
‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’
Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’
‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’
‘Ah, I see.’
‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’
The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’
‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’
‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’
Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’
The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’
‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’
Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’
‘Well, what do you call a success?’
Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’
There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.
He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’
He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.
Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.
‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.
‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’
Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’
‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.
‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’
‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’
Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’
‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’
They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’
‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.
‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.
‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’
‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’
‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.
Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’
‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’
They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’
‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.
‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’
‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’
‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’
‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.
And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’
Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’
It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’
‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’
‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.
‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.
‘Then why did you never tell me———?’
‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’
Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’
‘Oh!’ said Lance.
‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’
‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’
‘Oh, one has always something.’
Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’
Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’
‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’
‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’
‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’
Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’
Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’
‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’
‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’
‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.
‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’
‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’
‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’
Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’
‘She’d throw him over.’
‘And come round to us?’
Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.
Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.
His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.
‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’
‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’
‘Still my mother?’
Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’
‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’
Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’
There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?‘
‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’
‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.
‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’
‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’
‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’
Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’
‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.
The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’
He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’
‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.
Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.
‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.
‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.
It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.
Two people came through the double glass doors of a twelve-story brick building and walked along the chain link fence to the parking lot. The tall, gray-haired man guided the short, white-haired woman by her elbow, urging her into a more energetic pace. Their heads were canted forward at the same watchful thrust, and anyone looking at them would have guessed correctly they were mother and son. The man was a solid six feet, not fat, but bullish in the shoulders and chest, and the woman, probably tall when she was younger, was now stooped and hollowed. The son’s tailored suit and expensive, well-made shoes reported success in the world, and his impatient pace, while the never-slowing lanes of traffic whizzed by the fence, suggested deadlines and engagements. Poor men stop to look at their environment; wealthy men pass through it on their way to somewhere else.
Though the old woman no longer had the same large body as her son, her face still had the vigor of opposition, evident in the stubborn, demanding chin. Leaning on her cane, hobbling beside him, she argued loudly, “I told you we can’t go yet. I didn’t say goodbye to my friend.”
He didn’t slow down, but he turned his head to say, “Gloria?”
“I have to say goodbye to her. She won’t know where I’ve gone.” “You’ve said goodbye to her five or six times already. All right? Okay? You’re done with saying goodbye to Gloria.”
She stopped, “I’m not done,” but the man kept going. “And what if I don’t like this new place?” she shouted.
He had reached the car. “What’s there not to like? It’s very nice.” (He had never actually seen it.) “They have animals. It’s in the country.”
Now she reached the car too. “But the people. Are they friendly?”
“What are they like?”
“They’re like you. They’re old.”
“But I have to be back at five thirty. For dinner.”
“No, we’re leaving. Remember? This is your last day in Buffalo, your last day at The Meadows. And god help me, here’s your final goodbye.”
He forced her around to get a last look at the enormous structure on one of the city’s busiest highways. The Meadows was a brick building built in the seventies that blighted the entire block with its tall, institutional facade and apron of black parking lots. “Goodbye Meadows,” he said, as though to a child, not bothering to hide his exasperation.
“Goodbye Meadows,” she repeated in a pure, obedient tone.
Sylvia Fleming hadn’t been in a car in many years. Within the fortress, a resident’s every need had been taken care of, and the few times it had been necessary to venture into the outside world, The Meadows provided a van which picked up and delivered residents to the garage in the basement so their feet never touched the earth and their lungs never breathed anything but interior air. Like many other people who lived there, Sylvia hadn’t worn anything but slippers since the day she entered. She didn’t own a pair of shoes anymore and earlier that morning, John’s brief glance at her flaking, bluish feet with their thick, raptor-like toenails had been enough to dissuade him from any attempt to take her to a store and purchase more ground-appropriate footwear.
Once they got on the interstate, he waited for her to fall asleep, but she stayed awake the entire time, making conversation.
“I don’t know, Mom. Mary moved to California. She and I are separated. A year ago, remember?”
“Right. I’m so mixed up I don’t know if I’m coming or going. By the way, no one asked me if I wanted to move.”
“Look, for the last time: You can’t stay there any longer. The Meadows has already rented your apartment to someone else.”
“Who told them they could do that? I happen to live there.”
“You did live there and now you’re moving away.”
He could see her staring at the complicated structure of bridges and ramps, the pillars that held up the massive swaths of concrete that loomed over the flat, industrial landscape of western New York, moving millions of cars in an infinite combination of directions. “It cost a lot, didn’t it? I was running out of money.”
“You’re right. This new place is cheaper. By half.”
“How’s your friend?”
“Your friend from work who came with you once.”
“Bentley? That was a long time ago. But actually, he’s the one who discovered this new place. It’s called Flora and Fauna.”
“That’s nice. Like The Meadows.”
“Not really. This place is out in the country. It’s much smaller. They have a garden and chickens and I think the food will be better.”
“So how’s Mary? Why didn’t she come with you?”
A month ago, when the report came that Mrs. Fleming’s mental and physical deterioration required a greater level of care than The Meadows could offer, they recommended The Orchards, their sister institution where each resident had a room rather than an apartment, and access to nursing and hygiene staff twenty-four hours a day. John had been tempted to say yes. It would have meant The Meadows movers and The Meadows van would have done the relocation and his only job would have been to sign a check. But something had made him pause. He wanted to do right for his mother, a person he had once loved, or at least, looking at the childhood photographs, it appeared he must have. Now he felt a mixture of guilt and duty, so he assigned the matter to Bentley. Two days later, Bentley put him on the phone with a woman named Rose Curtain. She was a registered nurse and she operated a home in the southern tier of New York State that provided just the level of care his mother needed. When he asked about vacancies, Ms. Curtain had said, “We’re not a large place. We never have more than three, and last week, well, our dear ninety-eight-year-old Arnie climbed the hill and his beautiful, south facing room is available.”
“Arnie climbed the hill?”
The Meadows had phoned again and requested that Mrs. Fleming be removed by the end of the month. “Deteriorating hygiene,” the officious caller informed him, “is the first sign the resident needs more extensive oversight. And the reports show that Mrs. Fleming…” But seeing Bentley step into his office, John ended the phone call. “So who is Rose Curtain?”
His employee stopped in the center of the room. “Rose? Well, very reliable. Very dependable. You would be satisfied, and I think your mother would be happy.”
“But who is she? How do you know about her place?”
Before answering, Bentley looked at the carpet. Then he looked up, and if John had hoped to see anything but the usual expression, he was disappointed. Bentley was never combative, nor arrogant, nor even mildly self-assured. His manner was apologetic, as though by his mere presence he might intrude. If John were given to wondering, which he wasn’t, he might have wondered if the many hours Bentley sat at his desk absorbing the shadowless blue of the computer screen had sucked all that was robust out of his body. His skin was the color and texture of eggshell. His hair was never anything but unwashed, and the mole on his neck sprouted a whisker. Though he had solid brown eyes, they were so unquestioning as to be without depth. Bentley was a quiet sufferer, just as he was a quiet accomplisher, and he had, over the years, earned John’s admiration. Lucky Cow, the company John had bought as a young man out of business school and grown from a small cheese-making business into a corporation with national distribution and universal name recognition, reflected not only the economic aggressiveness of John Fleming, but the inventive genius of Bentley Tomes.
Bentley knew cows. He knew cheese. That was his world. But when John saw that the business would not grow as he had envisioned unless it had broader appeal, he had developed a new division. Lucky Cow moved into the processed line and that line grew steadily while the line of natural products stayed flat. His business sense told him to drop it, and from that point on, he let demand dictate the direction the company took. As it turned out, Bentley, the farm boy, was willing to accept these changes and soon had learned his way around the world of food science. He hired the people who knew how to make a commodity that tasted like cheese, looked like cheese, smelled like cheese, but was made entirely out of soybeans. And now, pressured by the demands of the stockholders, a noisy crowd who had no patience with the volatility of a major ingredient that was dependent on weather and soil and other variables, Bentley had found the people who could create a commodity with the same CRA, cheese recognition attributes, but none of the unpredictability of actual food. They were considering inert materials. Still being tested were wood pulp derivatives mixed with coagulants. But could you get the public to eat a food that wasn’t a food at all?
It was Bentley who finessed that question. One ounce of Lucky Cow cheese product would satisfy the daily adult requirements of seven essential vitamins and minerals.
“Which ones?” John asked. “Because calcium, these days, is very popular.”
There was a mystery at the center of Lucky Cow. Mary had identified it one night in the midst of an argument and her succinct, biting description stayed with him long after she had left. Why do I think you don’t care? Because the guy you put all of your trust in, the guy you depend on, you haven’t even bothered to get to know. I know him better than you do. Because you’re incurious. People don’t interest you, John Fleming, only things. Accumulated things.
Some of that was not true. They had worked together thirty years, and John actually did know something about Bentley. He was not married. He did not have a girlfriend. Two facts. Both were understandable, given his behavior. Bentley was not a sexual being. There: a third fact. And yet, he was always sympathetic to John’s ongoing problems with Mary and his children and the various women he’d been involved with since she left. Maybe he was willing to listen because he didn’t have a personal life of his own. Maybe he was a closet something or other. If so, matter closed. John did not need to know any more about it, but now, watching him figure out how to answer the question about Rose, it came to him that perhaps Bentley was simply a virgin.
He stayed at his spot in the middle of the carpet, hands in his pockets. “We went to school together. My family’s dairy farm was next to her family’s dairy farm. Now she raises heifers.”
“She was your girlfriend?”
John saw a blush fill his employee’s cheeks even as he glanced down at his shoes, and then, sheepishly, back up at John. Bentley was wearing the same tan pants and tan jacket he always wore and the redness of his face with the worn and stained outfit made him appear even more scrappy. Several years ago, John had tucked a hefty Christmas bonus into a card with a note, Go treat yourself. He’d scribbled the name of “his man” at the only decent gentleman’s clothiers in Erie, where the corporate headquarters of Lucky Cow, because of financial advantages in the state of Pennsylvania, had relocated eleven years ago. But it didn’t change. The same perma-press jacket and slacks.
“In high school,” Bentley said. “But her father surprised us in the hayloft and she was sent away to a boarding school.”
“How awful,” John said, seeing everything a little too clearly. Bentley, in his awkward, forthright manner, attempting to ravage the girl next door, while all the little rustles and squeals that come with private acts alerting the murderous father. The pulling out, the terror, the slinking away. It would have wounded him for life.
Or maybe there hadn’t even been the chance for fucking. That was worse. To be surprised just when they were working up to it, to have the farmer stop it so violently that the shrunken, guilty prick stayed shrunken and guilty forever. Either way it was sad.
“On your recommendation we’ll check it out. I’ll pick my mother up on Saturday.” But that was a lie. There was no time to check it out; he’d have to move his mother right in, unless, of course, the place simply wasn’t safe. “Any of your family still in the area?”
“All gone.” Bentley’s voice was without emotion, his skin back to its normal whitish tone. He had no more to say, and so, with characteristic awkwardness, he turned and went out the door. John watched the worn heels of Bentley’s shoes, the baggy backside of his trousers pass into the hallway. It occurred to him that the horror of that night in his friend’s adolescence might explain everything. But insights of this nature, revealing private things, made John uncomfortable. Automatically, his fingers started to move across the keyboard. Toneless clicks filled the room and hundreds of exquisitely neutral numbers crossed the computer’s face.
The road was so empty and the odor of urine rising from his mother’s seat so sharp, that his foot had pressed the accelerator to the floor. The black Mercedes shot through the lush, green landscape like a stone fired with a boys sure aim from his slingshot.
The sign for Flora and Fauna was tiny, but he saw it just in time and made the turn. He pulled up in front of a farmhouse flanked by dilapidated outbuildings. Sylvia sat in the car, waiting until John came around to open her door. Then she unbuckled her seatbelt, set her cane on the ground, and very slowly placed one slippered foot next to it. The other followed, whereupon John leaned in and hoisted his mother onto her feet. Real ground. True air. She sniffed it. “I remember this,” she said.
They faced the house. The clapboard needed painting; the porch needed repair. There was an old barn and a field next to it with cows.
“What’s that?” Sylvia asked when a shrill bird-like sound startled them both.
“I believe it’s a chicken, they cackle.”
A small, white dog ran towards them, its tail wagging.
“But John, we forgot to get my things.”
“No, Mom, everything’s been taken care of. The movers came after we left and packed it all up. I’ve seen to everything.”
“No one asked me. Not once. Do you realize that? And I have to go to the bathroom. Fast.”’
But after three hours, Sylvia’s bathroom announcements no longer created the urgency they had at first. “Not a problem. I’m sure someone here can help you.” John took his mother’s elbow and pulled her across the rough, uneven grass. The screen door was closed, the cool breath of an empty hallway coming through it. He rapped on the doorframe. “Hello?”
“You’re here already!” a voice sang from deep in the interior. “Just a second! I’ll be right there!”
“I don’t have those pads or those disposable…” his mother remarked in a loud voice.
“You’re fine.” At each of the four rest areas, he’d guided her as far as the door of the Women’s and then dutifully waited outside to guide her back. Beyond that, he had no wish for information. “I’m sure she’ll have them.”
Color splashed across the screen and a woman with a mass of red hair and a wide, unrehearsed smile pushed it open. Bosom leading—she had the imperiousness common to large-chested women, people like his ex-wife—she stepped barefoot onto the porch and clapped her hands together.
“You’ve arrived, Sylvia Fleming! How very good of you to come on such a beautiful day!” She pulled his mother into her body for a hug. “And John Fleming.”
She was about to hug John too, but he stepped away and put out his hand.
“I’ve seen you before,” Sylvia said.
“My name is Rose. I bet you’re tired and thirsty. I bet you’d like to see your room.”
“What we need, I believe, is a bathroom,” John whispered.
“But first, I’ll show you the bathroom and help you get settled.”
“I’ve been here before,” Sylvia announced as Rose, holding her hand, stopping to slip her feet into a pair of rubber sandals that were waiting inside the door, led his mother down the hallway. She moved at the old woman’s pace so patiently there might not have been such a thing as time or other places to get to.
The floors glimmered and on a shelf he saw a vase of garden flowers.
“I know you.”
“Yes, you do. I’m Rose.”
“I was so rushed I didn’t bring any pads or any of those disposable….”
“Don’t you worry. I have everything you need. This is the bathroom. Let me show you.”
When the door shut behind them, John found himself alone in the hallway, eavesdropping as they chattered comfortably. “Exactly,” Rose was saying, “they go back in here. So you’ll always know where they are.”
“I remember. John brought me to your house before, because I remember that they go in there.”
“I’m glad it feels familiar. Then you won’t have to be nervous about moving in with us.”
“Oh no, I’m not nervous. I know you and I know this place. But The Meadows is where I live and I want to get back there because they’re going to wonder where I am.” She added in a polite tone, “You’ve been very kind to let me use your bathroom.”
Sylvia came out first and pronounced it a very nice place. “I would come here if I didn’t already have an apartment somewhere else.”
“Good, let me show you the bedroom.”
Rose took them to the end of the hallway and when she opened a door, a blaze of yellow light fell across the floorboards. “It gets the afternoon sun so this is where I keep my plants.”
They stepped into a large room filled with greenery. It had a single bed, a reading chair, and an enormous birdcage where a bird of many colors eyed them warily. “Sammy! Sammy!” it shrieked.
His mother hobbled up to it and said, “I’m Sylvia. Can you say Sylvia?”
“That’s Maurice. He loves Sammy and he’s always hoping that when the door opens it’s going to be her.”
“You’ll have to learn to say Sylvia,” his mother chided, clucking at Maurice as though she were familiar with the ways one made friends with parrots. “He knows me. See, we’ve been roommates before.”
The bed was covered with a soft blue quilt. Tiers of houseplants were arranged in front of the windows. It would be like sleeping in a terrarium, John thought.
“Dinner’s at five thirty. I really must get back.”
“Mom, we’ve been through this. You’re done with The Meadows. They kicked you out.”
“What do you mean? They didn’t kick me out.” She straightened herself up and in a queenly tone corrected him: “I am a resident.”
“You need more care. And you’ll get more care here. And that’s final. You have to get it into your head. This is your new place.” He couldn’t help it. Even though he knew very well that she wasn’t being dense on purpose, it had been a long day and all he really wanted was to have everything settled.
“There’s Sammy,” Rose said, slipping her hand into his mother’s. “Can you see her over there? She comes every afternoon to help me.”
Rose pointed out the window, and in the distance behind the barn, John saw something moving. But it wasn’t a person.
“She’s a senior in high school. She lives nearby and it’s faster coming over the hill,” Rose said.
As they watched, the movement took on definition and though he found it hard to believe at first, he realized as the object approached that it was indeed what it had seemed: a girl with long hair whipping about was galloping towards them on a brown horse.
“I know I’ve been here before,” Sylvia said in a soft and amazed voice. “I’ve seen that hill. I’ve seen that rider.”
They watched her dismount and lead the horse into the barn.
“Sam does the evening rounds, although right now you’re our only resident.”
“This room is very pretty,” Sylvia said. “I like it. I like the view. There’s so much to look at.”
John consulted his watch. They’d been there an hour and it was clear that the place would be fine. He clasped his mother’s hand and said, “I have to go now,” his voice thick with a sorrow that had nothing to do with this leave-taking.
“Drive carefully.” She was practiced in the routine of goodbye. She waited for the touch of his lips to her forehead and then made the remembered motherly remarks. “Don’t worry about me. And next time, bring Mary.”
The lake was only a few miles north of the highway. But there was no evidence of a huge body of water just beyond the hills. Just as well. His mind, empty of the usual “to do” list, watched the beautiful, black machine eat up the miles while his memory snagged itself on a conversation.
You’re nothing but a robot, she had said to him in the early hours of the day they had decided to separate. You don’t take anything into consideration except money. Money’s the ultimate goal.
“Go ahead,” he’d said sarcastically. “Don’t hold back. Now that you’re telling me what you really think, why not unburden yourself?”
Okay John. Then what about doing good? What about making a quality product? What about contributing to people’s health and well-being? Well, why go on. I won’t waste my breath.
He remembered how beautiful she had appeared at that moment, how wise and womanly and sad. But she couldn’t blame him for economics. “Numbers don’t lie. And I’m a good businessman because I understand growth. For your information, growth is necessary for a healthy business.” He’d finished with the brand of humility he’d learned at the therapist’s. “I’m good at growth. I’m not good at other things.”
That was not entirely true. As he knew all too well, growth was aggression. There were businesses that could plateau and still have healthy balance sheets, but he was too ambitious for that. He’d re-invented the entire cheese landscape and now Lucky Cow was not just a company any longer, but a force. Each time he altered the product it received national attention without even a full-scale advertising campaign and instead of TMS, targeted market saturation, they had BMS, bulk saturation. Now BMS drove the corporation. Lucky Cow altered packaging or ingredients continuously, simply to gain attention.
The therapist suggested that he and Mary spend a Saturday together every month and for a while, it seemed to be working. On a Saturday in June, Mary had wanted to explore the lake. They’d found a hidden path that took them to a small cove with a protected beach. The water was cold, invigorating. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she cried, dancing about with the simple pleasure of nakedness. He splashed out quickly; it was too cold. But he found a rock to sit on, and watched her play in the water while he rubbed himself dry with his shirt. When she came out, rinsed and glistening, they had moved in concert. He caught a stink of something on the wind, but it was from another cove, so he put it out of his mind, and together, following the lead of their bodies, they dropped down to the sand. But then he felt insects biting his legs, tiny pinpricks of pain, over and over. Sand fleas. He slapped them away until she took his hand and murmured softly, holding his hand to her mouth, her breast, stroking him, kissing him, opening herself. But it started again and finally, he couldn’t stand it, he jumped up.
Yes, it was too abrupt, but he couldn’t help it, they were annoying him.
Back in the car, Mary’s eyes were wet. She was pressed against the door, as far away from him as possible. He couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so he nosed the car along the curve of the lake and let it find the one lane blacktop, so unused there were weeds along the edge. It took them to a cove they had never visited. They discovered a hotel that seemed to operate mostly as a restaurant. The elegant, old-fashioned structure was three stories high, with a gingerbread porch cantilevered over the rocks. The tables were filled, the diners dressed as though for a party, women sparkling with jewelry and perfume, white-coated waiters balancing platters heaped with some kind of fish. They found a table on the outer edge, and in the spirit of the party they ordered it too. Smelt. The breaded, crispy, tiny fish, heaped on a silver platter, came with a dipping sauce. Mary was famished. She looked errant, disturbed, laughing too loudly, eating the fish with her fingers, dozens disappearing at once. He nibbled carefully, preferring the beer and celery to creatures that had been dragged from the oily bottom of a polluted lake.
Yes, he knew exactly what his mistakes were. Hadn’t they talked about it endlessly? But no amount of hushed dinner-time talk, her greasy fingers lifting the fish to her mouth, her laughter hanging on a precipice where it might at any moment dissolve into tears, could alter the fact that an army of small, stinging insects had attacked his legs and not hers. What was he supposed to do? He said he was sorry but apparently his timing was off. The time for sorry had been earlier. Well he didn’t understand then and he didn’t understand now how an intelligent adult woman could be so undone by such a tiny thing. Fleas! It was their last outing.
The phone rang. “How’d it go?” the familiar voice asked.
John was tempted to hedge a bit just out of habit. But why? Bentley was his friend. “It’s a nice place. I think she’ll get good care.”
“Great.” Bentley paused, taking a moment before revealing the real reason for the call. “What did you think of Rose?”
“Rose is remarkable. She’s everything you said. It’ll be a nice change from The Meadows. My God, now I realize what a horror that place was.”
“Do you think…” but Bentley hesitated and John could see him casting his eyes downwards. “Well, would it be all right, John, if I go there once to visit your mother? Do you think she’ll remember me?”
“Absolutely. She’ll be happy to see you. I guarantee it.”
“Good. I think I’d like to do that. It would give me a chance to say hello to Rose.”
“I’m getting into traffic,” John said, understanding as soon as the opportunity had passed that he should have suggested they go there together.
But Bentley, who was used to non-engagement, simply went on. “Okay, just listen. The tests are done. We know what to use. It’s not straw dust; it’s not wood pulp. Too much texture. Get this. It’s water. Plain, ordinary water. With seven essential vitamins and minerals, plus the oils and coagulants and stabilizers and flavorings. You know, the list.”
Water, John thought, coming into the city, weaving the Mercedes through the ribbons of traffic and then braking suddenly when the line slowed. On a beautiful summer day when he’d seen a girl galloping her horse down a hill, water, that plain and forthright, almost spiritual substance, seemed exactly right.
*Megen Staffel, “Leaving The Meadows” from The Exit Coach. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
You got it wrong, son. You exaggerated the wrong things and failed to exaggerate the right things. I know you’re supposed to know your business, but you wrote your story from a long way off and tried to make it sadder than it was. In your story, I shoot myself. I know you meant well, but you’re young and your life has been different than mine, so maybe your imagination isn’t mature enough just yet. The other problem is that you don’t believe in luck. You don’t believe, more specifically, that bad luck plays favorites. But it does, and it has, and that’s the story I mean to tell—again.
Three weeks before Christmas (not Christmas Eve), I was sitting up late at night holding a handgun. I’d been into a bottle of bourbon, and I was marching along inside a self-loathing campaign to end self-loathing. I was 61, broke and jobless, eyes and feet failing from diabetes, and no family to speak of except for a son who disliked salesmen. The only reason I was still alive is that your mother let me live in the backyard studio apartment she’d converted from a shed—“the condo,” as she called it. It’d been five years since I pulled into her yard with everything I owned crammed into my car, fresh from leaving my fifth wife. I’d driven eight hours from the Carolina mountains to the south Georgia flatlands, gambling your mother would take pity on me. I was grateful. Even with the slanted ceiling I bumped my head against, even with pecans smacking the tin roof like bombs all through the night. I was grateful to have a single friend who had a spare bed, and I told her so.
But you left out five years. It screws up the whole timeline, and your story amounts to one crazy night with no underpinning. You ignored how hard I tried. Every day for five years, my phone machine called a thousand numbers between Savannah and Jacksonville, targeting senior citizens who needed final expense insurance to offset burial costs (I bought some for myself, by the way). Every day, people waited for the end of my one-minute message just so they could record profanities and threats. I was happy to get one lead out of a thousand calls, lucky to sell one a month, and grateful if my commission check arrived a month after that.
I added water to the soup. I survived. Pretty soon, your Mom asked if I ever intended to pay rent. I wanted to, believe me, but every few months, I got further behind and things got so bad that I asked her for small loans—fifty dollars here and there for groceries. I felt guilty every time I asked, and the guilt never went away. On that night in early December, I reached a new low. I called to see if you could spare a loan.
“No problem,” you said.
I knew I’d interrupted something. I heard music and voices and silverware clinking on plates, and then I felt worse. Here you were, about to bring your future ex-spouse home to meet your parents, and here was your father, calling up to advertise his problems.
I said, “I’m embarrassed to have to ask.”
“No problem,” you said again.
“Yes it is,” I said. “I was married to a teacher once; I know what you make. The father is supposed to help the child,” I said. “Not the other way around.”
“I understand,” you said.
“No you don’t,” I said. “I hope you never do.”
There was a pause. Music played. Forks scraped plates. A woman laughed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said. “Sounds like you’re having a party.”
And you said, “Are you okay, Dad?”
“Thanks for sending a check,” I said. “I’m grateful.”
When we hung up is when I reached for my gun. A hundred dollars wasn’t going to solve anything. In a few days, I’d need another hundred. My license plates were expired, I had no car insurance, my phone bill was three months behind, and I couldn’t afford the gas to get to the Savannah VA clinic. Earlier that day, I’d emptied my one-gallon Lord Calvert bottle of saved up pocket change to buy two frozen pizzas and a pint of bourbon. So yes, I was in a serious funk.
But the problem with your little story is that you’re in too much of a damn hurry for me to shoot myself. You must believe I’ve always been poor. You know, your mother married me because I was talented and ambitious. A month into our marriage (after I lost my license) she drove me door to door so I could sell vacuums. Three months later, I was managing the office and training the salesmen, and taking business courses at the community college. Six years after that (three years after your Mom left and four years after I graduated from the Dale Carnegie Institute), I was sharing a stage with U.S. Presidents. Where the hell is that story?
The college president had hired me as PR director after I graduated, so it was my job, in 1976, to warm up campaign crowds and introduce the candidates. President Ford was arriving by helicopter—so when I saw one approaching, I whipped the crowd into a frenzy to welcome him. It was the wrong helicopter. His campaign staff was leading the way. And the crowd deflated. But I revived them, kept them energized, and by the time President Ford’s helicopter landed, they were louder than before. Afterward, President Ford wrote me this letter: Your charisma was most appreciated on this exhausting campaign trail. If my stay in the White House should get extended and you find yourself in need of a position, please let me know. A month later, a newspaper photographer shot a picture of Governor Reagan (campaigning for Ford) with his arm around my shoulder, looking up at me. I know you’ve seen it. Reagan wanted me to move to California to work for him. I had my picture taken with Carter, but I never framed it. Point is: I was once on course for a successful life.
Soon after that, the Carolina Eye Bank recruited me (with a hell of a raise, believe me) to head-up their PR department. I flew across the country giving speeches and raising money. I booked Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap for a charity concert, but they pulled out after I got fired. Why do people defeat themselves? I hope you never have to ask yourself this question. Two decades blurred by. I drank, my second wife divorced me, my mother died, I drank, ran for public office, forgave my father, remarried, lost the election to a crooked incumbent, my father died, I sold (a lot of) real estate, got divorced, remarried, drank, became an award-winning auctioneer, divorced, remarried, drank, divorced, owned my own business (which was very successful very briefly), remarried, poked a needle into my stomach four times a day, drank, divorced, moved.
What I’m saying is that I’ve been reaching for that gun for thirty years. And if you give one good shit about the truth, you should include this in your story: I lost my stomach for sales. I spent entire days driving around south Georgia and north Florida (paying for my own gas), tracking down leads provided by an art instruction correspondence school. I went to trailer parks and government housing complexes and followed dirt roads deep into the woods. When I saw how these people lived, I didn’t have the heart to hard-sell anyone. You made it seem like I was pressuring people to make bad choices. You portrayed me as deluding a single mother into believing that her retarded kid was going to be the next Van Gogh. Your story is dishonest. When I was younger, sure—I persuaded people to spend what they couldn’t afford on what they didn’t need. And it would still come easy for me—I’ve been the best salesman everywhere I worked—but I came to realize, while selling art instruction, that I could not sell something I didn’t believe in. And since there was nothing I believed in (except for final expense insurance), I saw no point in selling anything.
For three months, I managed a topless restaurant off I-95. Your mother called me the boob boss. It was a sleazy joint and I hated every second of it: 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., baby-sitting the girls. If it looked like one girl got special treatment, other girls accused me of getting special favors. What you imply, again, is dishonest. I promise you—I never laid a hand on any of them. I spent most of my time in the kitchen, dropping frozen patties on the grill. My diabetic feet couldn’t tolerate standing for twelve hours at a time, so I walked out one night at midnight, just as two girls got into a hair-pulling fight over a table of cash-waving men. The owners still haven’t paid me what they owe me. Three days later I was standing behind a convenience store counter. You should appreciate the pride-swallowing this required, since I once owned a convenience store, “Grand Central Station,” but I did not, as you suggest, inform every customer of this fact. I told no one. Believe me, I’ve heard enough of those kinds of stories to know how pitiful they sound.
I drove a cab for a week after that, mostly for dope-heads who popped the door and ran, sticking me with the fare. And yes, some crazy man stuck a knife against my neck and got all the money I had, including seven dollars from my own wallet, but there was no dialogue like the kind you must’ve gotten from television. There was no talking. I took the cab back to my boss and left it. He said I owed him for that night’s fare. I told him to kiss my ass and then went home. I was more depressed than ever. I started to under- stand—I mean really understand how desperate some people get, and I started thinking of doing something desperate myself.
So I called you. An hour after that, I was staring at the end of a gun. No offense, but I couldn’t think of a single reason not to shoot myself. So I took my gun and drove down to the Winn Dixie and parked in the alley behind the store.
I said, “Goodnight, Irene,” and it made me laugh. I told you about her—Miss America, but you don’t believe how close I came to moving with her to Lake Tahoe. We attended high school together in Asheville and met again at our 40th class reunion. Even though I didn’t graduate, the organizers sent me an invitation, so I said what the hell, maybe I’d sell some final expense insurance. And she came up to me, said she remembered me from my night shift as a rock-n-roll DJ, 1957-58. We talked all night, danced, traded phone numbers, met after that in Charleston for two different weekends. She’s a classy and intelligent lady and we liked talking to each other. And she’s humble—one time I asked a waitress if she had any idea who she was serving, and Irene asked me never to do that again.
When I confessed the truth about my finances, Irene broke it off. I don’t blame her. You slandered her as a shallow person, but that’s unfair. She was used to a certain standard of success, and I didn’t measure up. How would she have introduced me to her friends? How would I talk about my life to them? I wish her well. But sure, I was heartbroken. For a while, I imagined I might live out the rest of my life closer to how I envisioned it forty years before.
It was a clear and soft night, not raining and thundering, the way your story had it. It is true about the putrid smell of grease coming from the Winn Dixie Deli—at least you got that detail right—there was also the smell of rotting garbage coming from the dumpster ten feet away. After a couple minutes, I pulled up to the dumpster and threw the gun into it. Then I reached into the glovebox for my other gun, and tossed it in the dumpster too. I didn’t stumble upon any epiphany about the value of life, nor did I think of any good reason for living. I just knew I wasn’t thinking too well, and I didn’t trust myself with guns. In your story, classical music was playing while I shot myself. But there was no music. In fact, the radio in my Chrysler stopped working four years ago, about the time my air conditioner quit.
I know there’s some rule about a gun going off at the end if it shows up at the beginning, but if the story had ended with me shooting myself, it wouldn’t be much of a story, if you ask me. That’s too easy of an ending. Where you really screwed up is leaving off what happened the next day. “What happened next?” Isn’t that supposed to be the main question?
The next afternoon, I was reading the classifieds from Jude’s morning newspaper, and I saw where the police department was buying guns off the street for fifty bucks each, no questions asked. Nice timing, right? Story of my life. I went back to the dumpster. No one was around, so I pulled my car right up against it, climbed on the hood and looked over the top down into it. It was about half full, and I couldn’t see much except for bags and boxes and scattered shit, so I swung my leg over the top and climbed down in there. You ever been inside a dumpster? I wouldn’t recommend it. Two dozen flavors of shit. I moved it all around, covered every square inch, gagged a few times at the smells. Couple minutes later, I heard someone open the back door, so I stood up and saw a man carrying out a bag of garbage. He saw me too, and stopped. It was the same man I’d seen inside the store a dozen times putting up groceries. Maybe you’ve seen him. Stick-skinny man, wears thick glasses that make his eyes look too big, high- water pants, red windbreaker? I’d asked him a few times where to find something your mother had asked me to pick up, and he always led me to it, nearly sprinting, and I’d thank him, and he’d stand there and smile, and I’d thank him again, and he’d smile his rotten-toothed smile again like he’d just saved my life. But just then, while I was in the dumpster, and he was on the other side of it holding a bag of garbage, he didn’t recognize me.
He said, “Hey, you ain’t supposed to be in there.”
I agreed with him. I wasn’t supposed to be in there
“But people do throw away some interesting things, don’t they? You won’t believe what I found in there this morning.”
I already believed it.
“I found two guns in there, and both of them was loaded with bullets.” He nodded, persuading me.
I put my forearms on the side of the dumpster and looked above his head toward the sky, bright blue and soft—pleasant for December.
“You won’t believe what else?” he said.
I knew what was coming
“I took them to the police station and they gave me a hundred dollars. I was just going to turn them in, you know, in case they was murder weapons. I told them I’d found them in a dumpster, and they said it was my lucky day. You believe that?”
I believed it. I watched a few sea gulls swirl above the dumpster and waited for one of them to drop a shit-ball into my eye.
The guy said, “I got it right here in my pocket.” Then he pulled out the money and waved it at me, laughing without any sound coming out.
He said, “I figured I’d go to the Jacksonville flea market. Somebody’s got a big truck down there full of cheap movies.”
I looked past the sea gulls toward the sky, thinking that some years from now this might be funny. Just then, it wasn’t funny at all. I looked back at the man with the thick glasses whose eyes were too big. I said, “You guys hiring?”
He said, “You’d have to talk to Richard about that. You want me to get him?”
“No,” I told him. At first I thought I should go home and take a shower, change clothes, come back ready for an interview. Then I looked at this man and thought better of it. “Maybe you could just lead me to him,” I said.
So I climbed out of the dumpster, brushed myself off, and followed the guy through the back door, past a kid wrapping grapes, and down the dairy aisle to the manager’s office. When we got there, Richard wasn’t in. The assistant manager gave me an application.
My new friend said, “You can use me as a reference. Name’s Lonnie. L-o-n-n-i-e. I live over yonder.” He pointed to the frozen food aisle. Then he shook my hand and walked off.
I went back to my car and drove home. Your mother was moving all of her flowers inside because it was supposed to freeze that night, so I helped her carry them. Probably a hundred damn plants. When we finished, she asked if I was hungry. She’d made too much soup, she said. We sat at her table and talked of how we looked forward to your visit, and how we hoped you’d have more success with your first marriage than we had with ours. Then your mother asked me to promise her something.
“Please,” she said. “Do not offer our child any advice about relationships or money.”
It was an easy promise to make.
When you did come home, I was happy to see you. I was happy we got to talk alone one night. I told you this story that you made into your own version. But it reminds me now of what my father said whenever someone told a story that he suspected was mostly bullshit. He’d say, “Nothing ruins a good story like an eyewitness,” and then he’d be off and running with his own version of the story he claimed to know better because he’d seen it himself, but his version was mostly bullshit too.
So, I don’t mean to ruin your story—it’s your business to tell it the way you want to, and I realize that you’re young and you’re still learning, so screwing up is a natural part of the process. I hope the next time you’re home, we can talk about endings. I want to sit in the condo facing each other in my fine plastic furniture, and I want to ask whether you could imagine a story that ends more painfully because the hero continues living. Then I’ll pour us another round and tell you this story again.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Matt Cashion from Last Words of the Holy Ghost
One move leads to another move, and nowhere feels as good as you want it to feel; your childhood feels wrong, and this place feels wrong, and the next place feels wrong, and so you move again. Find a new job, a new apartment, meet a neighbor at the mailboxes; he has a dog named Kidney that terrifies you, but the neighbor is a new friend, the first one you meet and when he invites you to dinner you go because that’s what you do, you’ve just moved to the area.
His wife is sullen with red wine, glancing at you, and you understand, you do not like people either, though she does not realize this about you because you chat with her husband like you do like people, and he chatters back nervously as though he really does like people; he is one of those rarities, only he usually pretends not to like them because of the wife. Hence the nervousness. He has broken a rule bringing you here. Kidney scratches behind a closed door down the hall.
Your job is in an office with bright yellow walls; they are too yellow, and you point to them and say you now know what it’s like to work inside the sun. Everyone laughs, someone suggests we turn up the heat, and the next day someone brings you a bag of Sun Chips, then Sunny-D; soon they call you Sunny. You get a promotion. You go to the neighbor’s to celebrate, and the wife, takes Kidney for a walk. Neighbor tells you don’t take it personally. Neighbor is excited about the promotion.
Things slow down. Work. Coffee. Mailboxes. Neighbor. Your coworkers sense something. They make calls, fix blind-dates for your lunch hour, say: this might be the Moony you’re looking for! None of them are Moonies. You wish you could be friends with the neighbor’s wife who hates people, but you after all are a person, too.
Your mother calls. She says three houses opened up in their neighborhood and they are all good deals. Your dad snores in the background. Your mother says: I broke another plate today. Your mother says: I ran into your high school sweetheart. No, not married. Bald as a bat!
You move. Somewhere new. New neighbor, new job; it’s not hard, you are highly skilled. The walls are blue in the new office. They call you Skyler.
New neighbor’s dog Potato scratches down the hall. New neighbor has no wife. You sleep together. You move in together. Goodbye Potato. You tell your mother, she cries about it. At the office they call neighbor Nightler. Things slow down. Night- ler gets thin. You realize Nightler does not like people. He puts headphones on when you enter the room.
Your coworkers sense something. You hear whispers around his name. Bzzzzzz Nightler bzzzzzz. You close your door. Boy do you miss old Neighbor.
Your mother calls, says: we’re still here! Dad snoring. She says: we bought new plates today. We bought three. One for you.
The problem with people: one person leads to another person, and no one’s who you want them to be; even Mother feels wrong, and Nightler feels wrong, and the next one feels wrong.
Nightler says: I’m hungry. I think you should leave.
You move. This time you move backwards. Hello Neighbor. Hello Kidney. Hello wife that hates you. You say to Wife: I hate you, too. You say to Neighbor: I do not hate you. I do not really hate everyone, only I think I do when I get restless. Will you chain me here to your kitchen chair? Will you be my Moony?
Wife leaves with Kidney. Goodbye. Goodbye. You are unhappy being chained down the rest of your life. But it’s the only way to stop moving.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place
This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us. We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I. My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.
It was a very quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home. Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live. But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.
I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world. Its splendors stunned me and dazed me. We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth. For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.
There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic. My father was very agitated when the news of his death came. “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over. I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.” I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional. So I had a second visit to the capital that year.
Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul. This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course. You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair. We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus! Long live the Consul!”
(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch. I was very surprised at that. My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders. He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one. The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch. I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium. It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier. To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor. But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time. Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)
Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere. I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school. Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious. And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.
There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building. “I’ve seen it myself,” he said. “The ghost, I mean. He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much. My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living. For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.
But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there. Everyone in the village knew that. It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together. Hardly anyone ever went there. The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.
It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that. My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort. Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her. My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be? I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.
But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone. This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure. The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by. You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves. I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest. So I took my sister along.
I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted. Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging. What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found.
Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god. (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors. This made my grandmother angry, naturally. “But we are Romans,” she would say. “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)
It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going. The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often. We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there. (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)
Then we got into deeper, darker territory. The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here. Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves. I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak. I hadn’t mentioned it to her. So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.
Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness. The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor. But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here. We’d been hiking for hours, now. I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back.
It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides. I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her. And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.
“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.
“There,” said Friya. “Look.”
I followed her pointing hand. At first all I saw was more forest. But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge. Yes! Yes, it was! I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.
So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house. In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.
And then I saw the ghost.
He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls. His clothing hung in rags. He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast. I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.
For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified. Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.
“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured. “There really is a ghost here!”
Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her. But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly. He’s nothing but a scared old man.” And went to him unhesitatingly.
Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times. The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds. Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though. There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.
He was terrified of us. “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking. Latin was what he spoke. “Are you here to arrest me? I’m only the caretaker, you know. I’m not any kind of a danger. I’m only the caretaker.” His lips quavered. “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.
“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him. “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”
“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.
We laid him out on a couch. There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow. He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much. We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food. Then he closed his eyes without a word. I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off. We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.
“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken. Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings. No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here. In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more. I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger. Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was. Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another. And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.
When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened. Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.
“From the village, are you? How old are you? What are your names?”
“This is Friya,” I said. “I’m Tyr. She’s nine and I’m twelve.”
“Friya. Tyr.” He laughed. “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh? But times have changed.” There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant. He gave us a confidential, intimate smile. “Do you know whose place this was, you two? The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who! This was his hunting lodge. Caesar himself! He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”
He began to cough and sputter. Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.
“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir. You don’t have the strength.”
“You’re right. You’re right.” He patted her hand. His was like a skeleton’s. “How long ago it all was. But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ” A look of torment, of sorrow. “There isn’t any Caesar, is there? First Consul! Hail! Hail Junius Scaevola!” His voice cracked as he raised it.
“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him. “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”
“Dead? Scaevola? Is it so?” He shrugged. “I hear so little news. I’m only the caretaker, you know. I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “
But of course he wasn’t the caretaker. Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall. You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags. But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes. It was the royal face, all right. I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things. The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself. Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.
He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit. He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.
But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.
For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said. “It’s thousands of years old. You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you? You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?” And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.
That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges. I looked at them, mystified. “From Nova Roma,” he explained. “Where the redskinned people live. The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are. He went there almost every year to hunt. Do you see the trophies?” And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.
We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer. He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead. “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us. Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging. In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother. It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it. But he was grateful. Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt. He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me. I wondered about that. If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood. But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.
Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home. “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr? Or the Emperor himself?”
“He’s got to be one or the other. It’s the same face.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”
“The big portrait on the wall, silly. Of the Emperor. Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”
I thought she was out of her mind. But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.
What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day. “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said. “But you can have these. You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand. As relics of history.” His voice was bitter. From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver. “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said. They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man. “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”
“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.
Indeed he did. Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker. I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him. He began to tremble. I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again. “No,” he said faintly. “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ” And his shoulders shook and he began to cry. Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little. He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back. “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked. And his tale came pouring out of him.
A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur. He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius. He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.
Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power. We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny. To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.
Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths. Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week. Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi. Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.
Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained. But in the confusion he was overlooked. He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne. Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.
“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us. “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of. The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead. The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.
After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”
“And when did you come here?” I asked.
“Almost twenty years ago. Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I
could live here undisturbed. And so I have. And so I will, for however much time is left.” He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass. He drank it in a single gulp. “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost! What madness it was, to destroy the Empire! What greatness existed then!”
“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.
I kicked her ankle. She gave me a sour look.
Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village. We were trained to see the entire world in a glance. The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire. Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all? Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul? Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long. Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form. But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last? If one man can take power, so can another, or another. There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words. Or fifty. And every province will want to be an Empire in itself. Mark my words, children. Mark my words.”
I had never heard such treason in my life. Or anything so wrongheaded.
The Pax Romana? What Pax Romana? Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries. But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification? And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica? No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force. The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic. So my father had taught me.
But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood. Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these. I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty. And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.
When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said. “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure. All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered. When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them? But I want you to have these. Because you’ve been so kind to me. To remember me by. And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”
For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire. For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus. And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.
The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day. We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it. She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.
“Where did you get this thing? Where?”
I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much. But as usual she was ahead of me.
“We found it, grandmother. We dug it up.”
“You dug it up?”
“In the forest,” I put in. “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around. There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “
She turned it over and over in her hands. I had never seen her look so troubled. “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno! I want you to swear to me before the Goddess. And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”
Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.
Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother. I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “
I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too. It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.
She held the figurine out, its base toward me. “Do you see these marks here? This little crest stamped down here? It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr. That’s the mark of Caesar. This carving once belonged to the Emperor. Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest? Come, both of you! To the altar, and swear!”
“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly. “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”
“Of course not, child. Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”
“The haunted house in the woods,” she said. And I nodded my confirmation. What could I do? She would have taken us to the altar to swear.
Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was. The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.
Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense. And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother. He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended. And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors. But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble. We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic. Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.
We were children. We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.
Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting. Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions. Then things returned to normal. My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.
That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar. Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was. I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself. A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars. But, as I say, we were children then. We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism. Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.
“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later. “Stay away from it. Do you hear me? Stay away.”
And so we would have, because it was plainly an order. We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.
But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house. Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle. “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say. “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”
“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked. “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”
“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said. “Rifles don’t have ghosts. It’s a real rifle. And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”
I repeated all this to Friya.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“Go out there and warn him. They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”
“But father said – “
“Even so. The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide. Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”
There was no arguing with her. Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself. That left me with no choice. I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.
“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge. “I can tell.”
Friya always had a strange way of knowing things. I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.
We crept forward warily. There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced. Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other. I took a deep breath.
“You wait here,” I said, and went in.
It was frightful in there. The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments. Someone had slashed every painting to shreds. The collection of arms and armor was gone.
I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius. He wasn’t there. But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.
Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.
“We’re too late,” I told her.
It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course. They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job. I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had. So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall. I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.
Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down. I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line. During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”
“A long time ago, yes.”
I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.
Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it. And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”
He seemed taken off guard by that. He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled. “So you heard about that, did you?”
“I wondered if there was any truth to it. That he was a Caesar, I mean.”
Lucentius glanced away. “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone. “An old lying tramp. Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.” He gave me a peculiar look. And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.
A filthy old tramp, yes. But not, I think, a liar.
He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire. And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying. Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them. But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.
For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume. These matters are not so simple. The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt. The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil. What if there had been no Roma? What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build? Imagine the madness of it! But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage. Or so I think now.
In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it. I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus. Now and then I take it out and look at it. It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight. My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago. Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade. For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire. As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.
When I came down, Granpa’s door was barely open. A blade of candlelight from inside crossed the floor and the living room couch. Mom whispered orders. Someone prayed. When I peeked in, Mom’s hand touched the bed and her other was on Granpa’s chest. In the candlelight his mask was too thin, too much like his face. His chin had fallen. Someone closed his eyes.
I went upstairs and practiced lying stiff, my own eyes and mouth gaping in the dark, and wondered if the silence I heard would go away, if a deeper quiet would come, something Granpa could now hear. I sank backward into my mattress. I felt death like fast water rise and run over my sheets, my pillow, my ears and shoulders, the whole length of me submerged, all but my nose, a lump in the fast surface. I listened until my heart became loud, a meat-faced giant with bloody boots stomping through a village, so I awoke again and practiced not listening. I concentrated on all that was left of me, my open nostrils like two diminishing circles of breath that rose and fell.
Next came the noise of the birds and the light. Already the horizon sizzled. The distant pop and crackle of firecrackers was steadily marked more and more by an echoing boom. I remembered the excitement and the fireworks—it was the Fourth of July—and all the things my brother Rocky taught me that summer: M80s, bottle rockets, sizzlers, ashcans, and bottom-blasters.
Granpa was dead on the Fourth! He had looked like a dead man for so long and though I’d never known him when he wasn’t out of his mind, I couldn’t imagine the Fourth without him. Our entire family, all the Fitzgeralds and the Tomasinos (Aunt Maureen had married an Italian) always staked out the front of the Belleville firehouse with lawn chairs and coolers and boxes of sparklers for anyone who wanted one and all of us came to wave at Granpa in his fire chief’s hat and sash as he rode smiling like a mummy on display and waving from his own beach chair strapped to the roof of the hook and ladder. He’d been chief of the Volunteers for thirty years and honorary Parade Master every Fourth since he retired. The Fourth was the one day he got out of his pajamas. At home, he was skin and bones, his shoulders a hanger draped in a yellowed terrycloth robe as he wandered the house, as quiet as the cats. Dad explained I should treat him more like a four-year-old than a grown-up and be as patient as I would with any of my littlest cousins.
But Granpa and I had a running game of Tom and Jerry. Once I tied kite string around his ankles while he slept sitting up on the couch and when at last he stood, he toppled over the coffee table like a two-by-twelve. He didn’t even have time to put his hands out. Another time I dropped a shrew down the back of his union suit. His hair grew a little long and shaggy now and then and I got my cousins, the little Tomasino twins, Lynnie and Marie, walking tippy-toes and whispering, to put curlers in his hair while he snored. In return, I expected him if I was at my homework in the den or the kitchen having a doughnut. I could smell him or just know he was behind me and turn in time, before he put a gunnysack over my head or screeched in my ear. Once, a fireplace poker came down across my bowl as I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios. Milk went everywhere, onto the walls, the floor behind me, all over my shirt and face. Another time I was at the table doing penmanship when somehow I knew, thanks to an unmistakable sensation, a steak knife was at my temple. What I loved was to be in a quiet room, alone with my baseball cards or a book and realizing he was there too, in the chair next to me or standing with his back to the bookshelves and staring at me, his eyes lit like candles.
When Dad came to me with the news, I was in the living room watching Sunday morning cartoons. I listened politely and turned back to the TV. What concerned me though was the arrival from Vermont of my cousin Doreen, who always came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth. I was eleven and she was only nine but already in the fifth grade and smarter in her school than anyone. As far as they knew, I tolerated her because she was good at sports, being double-jointed, with quick, wiry little monkey legs. Because she was two years younger and a girl, I didn’t always treat her well, but secretly I loved her more than anyone. Always after she went home, she was all I thought of for weeks, the first thing when I opened my eyes in the morning and again as I had my cereal. For days I had long imaginary conversations with her. She was the last thing at night I saw before I fell asleep.
She was so pretty, it pained me to look at her. Her chin and cheeks and forehead were so perfectly shaped and so empty of freckles I could barely remember what she looked like. She used to squinch her nose and follow me everywhere when she was five, no matter how mean I was. Now her nose was as straight as a line drawn with a ruler and her glasses always slid down so she could peer over at me with her small gray eyes. Sometimes her eyes were green or blue, depending on her mood or the time of day, whether I was telling lies or not, whether she hated or loved me, though I never knew which color meant which.
She must have loved Granpa more than I did. She was crying into a big hanky when she stepped out of the car into the driveway. She wouldn’t look at me, though I’d been waiting for her all morning. She had come straight from church in her white stockings and blue round-toed shoes but when she finally looked at me I was startled at what a mess she was.
Aunt Angela was a mess, too. Her nose-blowing sent all three cats—Spooky, Clumpy, and mine, Ratface—around back. Uncle Paul, in a black suit and black tie, looked like he might be dead, too. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat and stared over the wheel after Angela and Doreen left the two passenger doors wide open.
Doreen just stood in the gravel, gripping her hanky. She stared at her shoes, her shoulders all jumpy as she sucked her lips. I looked hard at her and wondered why she was putting on this show. I had waited all morning and now that she was here, I despised her, as if she were some dressed-up circus chimp. Was she the one I loved? I wondered how to get rid of her.
Angela clumped noisily up the steps and pulled my head to her big bosom and squeezed me. She smelled sweet and sweaty, her bare arms hot on my neck for a moment before she ran indoors where the noise, the wailing, thanks to the Italians, began in earnest.
For a long time I stared curiously at Doreen, until I got bored with the pathetic little battle between her lips and her eyes.
“Hi, Doreen,” I said. “You submarine.”
Her gray eyes flashed green outrage and blue injustice. Then she said, “Hi,” and exploded into tears.
I thought of something and ran into the house. When I got back, I had two orange popsicles. She had gotten better hold of herself by then, the hanky and both her hands were in her pockets.
“Popsicle?” I asked.
She scowled. “How can you be thinking about popsicles?”
I looked at her for a long time, almost telling her I was glad Granpa Fitz was dead, then decided against it. I felt lovesick for a second, holding the two melting treats in my fists. Then I hated her again.
“Nothing wrong with popsicles,” I said. “I don’t care who died.”
“Aren’t you even upset?” she said.
“What?” I said, pretending I hadn’t understood.
“Aren’t you upset?” This time she screamed, her fists and front pockets forced down hard into the depths of her lap as she leaned toward me, peering up into my eyes, as if to see the inner dome of my empty skull.
“Why should I?” I shouted.
“Granpa Fitz is dead!”
This made me so angry, my shoulders, my arms, my whole body shook. How could she be such a little lap-dog? Who put her up to this?
“Haven’t you any sense?” I said, mimicking Mom.
“What did you say?” she said.
I could have screamed, but I whispered, “Granpa’s not dead!”
“What?” she said. “You’re sick.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. “You’ll see. At the parade. Granpa wouldn’t miss the parade. Not ever. Even if he was dead.”
Now her eyes were red with hatred. Her mouth was open, gasping for air.
“Cross my heart,” I said as she watched. I dragged my finger twice across my shirt. “Hope to die.”
There was such a fuss all morning. Two reporters from the Belleville Sentinel, the EMTs, the county coroner, the police and all the stupid little second-cousins in their church clothes came marching back and forth past us as Doreen and I sat on the porch in sunlight. We had covered a lot of ground by then.
“I can’t imagine what it’s all about,” I said and stood up. “Mom knows. So does Pop. I don’t see why everyone’s faking.”
Normally Doreen took a superior attitude whenever I got into a fix as ridiculous as this, but what pleasure our secret gave her by now. She peered intelligently down her perfect nose through her lenses at the yard, as if the inexplicable situation were some iridescent insect crawling across a slate. By then I had so easily enlisted her that I was unbearably bored. Where was Rocky? The morning before, he and Bean, his best friend, dragged me out of bed and assigned me a bag of dinged golfballs to carry down through the woods by the country club, where Bean buried the capped butt of a lead pipe in a mound of dirt. A hundred yards away, beyond an electric fence and a meadow, was the target we could see with Beanie’s binoculars. When everything was ready, he struck a match and held it while he peered through his binoculars with the other hand. Once he shouted FIRE, Rocky set an M80 to the flame then dropped it into the pipe. I shoved in a golfball and we dove for cover.
That was fun. There had been no wind and Rocky had our cannon calibrated so that pretty soon we hit the tee every shot. After the blast Bean jumped to his feet with his spyglasses and watched the old guys tee up, smoking cigars, climbing in and out of their carts oblivious to the white ordnance that bounced in their midst and danced into the high trees. Bean wouldn’t let us touch his binoculars but he gave a full report of what happened each time and Rocky made adjustments. Before long we were rolling in the dirt. One big fat guy Bean called Butterballs was so slow-moving we took three shots at him.
“Once,” Doreen said, interrupting my thoughts, “I heard Mommy say how rich she’ll be once Daddy kicks off. They both laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Dad said if he could just convince the insurance company (Doreen looked gravely at me when she said these two words) into believing he’d fallen into the incinerator at the garbage plant, we could live like royalty. Daddy said he’d grow a long beard and come back to get hired as her gardener. That was really all he ever wanted anyway, to just dig in the dirt like a dumb old gardener.”
She put the palms of her hands up and looked at me with big eyes. I wondered if I should ditch her and head now for the woods or wait until Rocky came for me. Rocky was always out of the house before all of us. He might not even know about Granpa yet and I suspected I knew where to find him. But shouldn’t they have come and got me? Maybe Bean couldn’t get any more M80s.
“Maybe Granpa just wants to fool the insurance company so we can all live like royalty,” she said and put her chin on her knee. I could see her thinking, how do royalty live? I had no clue either and before long I went down the steps to kick gravel out of the driveway onto the lawn. After she said a few more stupid things I realized I was furious at her for buying in so easily, but when I looked at her sideways she caught my eye, becoming suspicious at once.
“Granpa’s dead,” she hissed and her lip began to waver. I hated her so much then I shivered.
“He is not, stupid.”
“Is too!” She spit the words at my feet.
“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. “At the parade.”
“You won’t!” she said, without looking up.
“Goddamn you to hell,” I said. “You’ll see.”
At noon Mrs. Falato arrived, trailed by her sons Mark and Paul with huge trays of ham, roast beef and sliced cheeses in their arms. They ran back out and returned with another tray of subs and three cases of root beer. Doreen and I had made tentative peace by then and ate in a hurry on the porch. The commotion inside, the crying, the laughter and the drinking (the liquor cabinet had been opened early in the morning) reached a hysterical volume. When we were done we hid our plates under the hedge and charged through the Whalens’ yard out to London Road and ran the whole way into town. Our place in front of the firehouse was already taken so we ran for a long time on the sidewalk, through the dense crowd of families past the Comet Market, the Presbyterian Church, past Albee’s stationers and the hardware store.
“Wait!” said Doreen and stopped and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. I breathed fast too, but waved at her to come. The parade was about to start and we wouldn’t see a thing. When she pointed up behind me, I knew what she meant. No one was up by the flag yet except a fifth grader named Jamison who was bouncing a basketball against the pole. We ran and ducked through the gate and up the steps and arrived in full sunshine with a perfect view.
We claimed our places on the wall. We sat a minute until I said, “Save my seat” and ran back down the stairs and under the rail again, through the crowd and into Albee’s where I found myself looking up at the counter and a Styrofoam pyramid bristling with twenty-five-cent flags. Mr. Albee had turned to the top shelf for sun lotion a woman in a straw hat had asked about. In no hurry, I reached for a flag for Doreen. Then took one for me. Mr. Albee was still searching the shelf. I waited and watched him. A second later I was outside in the sunshine again, lost in the crowd. Flags waved everywhere. Everyone was all smiles. It must have been the warmest, sunniest, friendliest day in the history of America. When I heard the drums my heart nearly burst. Already our wall was a throng of kids and I charged up the steps to find Jamison standing in my spot next to Doreen.
“Hey!” I said and she looked at him sullenly.
“He’s just there till you get back,” she said.
“No, I ain’t,” he said. He had the basketball under his arm and a stripe of chocolate went from his mouth almost to his ear. He looked at me and tossed a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper into the crowd below.
“That’s my spot,” I said but he just smiled and gave me the finger.
When the trumpets sounded everyone turned, even Jamison, and I shoved him so hard he fell over an empty stroller. His basketball went bouncing onto the road. He was too surprised to even cry and the last I saw of him some adults with a picnic basket and a baby had jostled him out of the way.
“You’ll see,” I said and turned to give Doreen a flag. I said it again as the VFW brass came marching down the hill and she turned her eyes from me. Despite the excitement, the brass were a dull gang in suits and sashes and I would have shouted something rude if not for the majorette who marched in front. She was a lady I never saw except on the Fourth. I wondered who she was, embarrassed and thrilled by her tall white hat and feather, the black curls that framed her pretty pointed face, the short white marching skirt as it flapped about her thighs and her white boots that went up and up past her knees. She twirled the baton over her head, around her back and through her legs. I stared and stared at the white gloves over the elbows of her otherwise bare arms, hypnotized by a strange desire, and could find no escape from her until the Vietnam vets finally hit the drums at the hilltop. Then they sounded the trumpets and tubas and their fabulous band played medleys of tunes like “I Feel Good” and “Shake That Thing” and a jazzy version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
We had to stand on our toes to see Jonah O’Neil. He was the most famous war hero in Belleville now because of the things he had done in Vietnam and the collection of mementos everyone said he kept in a safe in his mom’s basement. Rocky once said Jonah had eyes like a cruel retard, which had given me nightmares, but he looked pitiful and bloated when I finally saw him, with giant elephant legs, the purple nose, his face the color of a spoiled ham. No one laughed at him as he marched in his fatigues, which were tight enough to burst the buttons and zippers, or the green beret bobby-pinned to the side of his head.
Next came the Korean War vets. Granpa had been a major in Korea and these were his best pals. Like the group before them, they followed Old Glory but all had their jaws squared and their corsairs tilted jauntily on their heads. Mr. Reid, who was a Scot and must have done something in Korea as well marched alongside them in a kilt and a bearskin busby. Mostly because of the busby, they got warm applause.
Amidst all the shouting and applause and laughter, the crying, the squealing babies, the sea of flags, the noise of the bands and the fire engine strobing red and blue intermittently beyond the hill, Doreen had been silent. Now and then she stood on tip-toes for a minute to scan the crowd. Once I got tired and sat down next to her feet. Her knees and her ankles in those little white socks were so pretty I wanted to close my eyes.
“Granpa rides the hook-and-ladder,” I said, looking up at her. Since she obviously knew, she didn’t bother to answer. I wanted to tell her Granpa never marched with the WWII vets either, when they came down the hill, but that would have been pointless also. All of them—except Mr. Cleary, who had lung cancer— had always looked bigger and stronger than him. They carried an attitude of victory and heroism in a way none of the others who had come before them had and a hush came over the crowd. No one shouted. Everyone stared at this, the largest troop of all, white-haired, bone-skinny or pot-bellied old geezers in sashes and corsairs marching silently below us as I tried to imagine all the Krauts and Japs they must have killed.
This year only three from WWI were alive. They rode in a racing blue Corvette convertible driven nervously by Lucy Farr, the prom queen who must have just gotten her license. Mr. Pilsen, who was ninety-two, kept standing in the tiny back seat to throw kisses and wave his flag but Mr. Stuart who sat in front in a kaiser hat turned around every few seconds and pushed him down into his seat. The other old guy, whose name I didn’t know, seemed asleep in the back as he slouched forward, resting his big strawberry of a nose on Lucy’s shoulder.
After that came the Civil War cannons. They were pulled by horses, the big wooden spokes in a blur followed by a dozen ponies of the Kilsy Civil War & Cavalry Club. The ponies were mounted this year by Union riders with blue uniforms, sabers, black boots and white gloves. All kinds of things came next—three librarians from the public library; Boy Scout troop number 111; the Belleville Brownies; the Masons; the Farr County Clown Club. The freshmen marching band, in torn-up, ketchup-stained blouses and bandages, canvas knickers and tricornered hats came near the end and sent a wave of laughter and applause through the crowd by playing their disorganized “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with tin whistles, flutes, a parade drum, a triangle and a bugle. It seemed the whole thing would never end when a cheer went up that was so loud Doreen covered her ears and sat down. I tapped her shoulder and handed her my flag. The cheer went up again and I realized the firemen marching in front of the engines, Irishmen to a man, were singing. The crowd all up and down the street began to sway and join in too, though by then whatever it was sounded more like a brawl than a song.
As the hook-and-ladder approached I could barely see over the shoulders of the grown-ups. The third cheer was so loud I had to scream at Doreen. She took my hand and I leapt to my toes in time to see Granpa’s sash and the fire hat laid out on the seat of his empty lawn chair, which had been duct-taped to the roof over the red cab and floated away from us, far out in the middle, like a toy boat on a wide colorful river.
Doreen let go of my hand. I looked up the street and down toward St. Paul’s. The commotion was everywhere the same. Everyone in the world had crowded onto the streets of Belleville. Weekenders from Boston and New York and Montreal had come for a peek at our majorette, our soldiers, our hook-and-ladder bearing an empty lawn chair dressed with a red fire chief’s hat and a green sash. For a minute the noise and crowd were complete, a deafening loneliness, the same as the silence I heard in the morning in my bed, after concentrating so long on the puzzle of Granpa’s absence.
Doreen sat at my feet and covered her ears again. It was the strangest thing, that Granpa Fitz was dead, as if something too big to see had changed—and changed everything else in ways that were too small to see. I sat down next to her, only half intending cruelty as I whispered into her delicate hair, but she shook her head, eyes closed, hands over her ears, to stop me.
I tried again but she was trapped by something. She kept her ears covered and shook and shook her head. I waited, until a platoon of state troopers on Harley Davidsons cleared the road with their metal thunder and brought me to my feet. Rocky loved motorcycles more than anything on earth. More than God. Almost as much as he loved Granpa. You could never say anything against Granpa or the Ultra Glides when Rocky was around. Where the hell was he? Shouldn’t someone find him? And tell him? Did he know? I searched the crowd for him but it was pointless. I checked the front of the firehouse. I watched the formation of white helmets pass below us and disappear into a rumble in the crowd, then turned back to the confusion up the street. Everywhere a thousand red, white and blue flags waved. When I saw Doreen’s hands over her face, I figured at least now she could hear.
I knelt and said, “Hello, Doreen. You jelly bean. Did you see him?”
She turned a savage, unfocused glare at me. She stared at my mouth now, hating me with perfect reason, as if I’d led her into a dangerous place then run off and left her.
“Did you?” she answered. “Did you, honestly?” Something in her eyes scared me.
I almost said it was a stupid question and didn’t matter anyway. She had been such a sucker. In a moment of violent confusion I had to stand, turning my back on her, and run to the flagpole which I kicked and kicked. I began to shake and the shaking took hold of me until my nose itched. I rubbed it furiously with the backs of my hands but my cheeks got hotter, my lips and all the muscles from my nose to my chin cinched tight by the time she called me, and asked me again.
When I turned she was standing with both flags in her hand, as if offering me a flower. I showed her a fist and said I would strangle her, anything to shut her up. I pointed a finger too close to her eye. She only frowned and crossed her arms. Then she scrunched her nose and looked past me over her glasses.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Peter Brown from A Bright Soothing noise