CHAPTER 23

Outside, a regular cop convention was shaping up. Blue trooper cars, white cruisers from the Lewiston P.D., a black-and-white from Brunswick, two more from Auburn. The police responsible for this automotive cornucopia ran hither and yon, ducked over low. More newsmen showed up. They poked cameras equipped with cobra-like telephoto lenses over the hoods of their vehicles. Sawhorses had been set up on the road above and below the school, along with double rows of those sooty little kerosene pots-to me those things always look like the bombs of some cartoon anarchist. The DPW people had put up a DETOUR sign. I guess they didn’t have anything more appropriate in stock-slow! MADMAN AT WORK, for instance. Don Grace and good old Tom were hobnobbing with a huge, blocky man in a state police uniform. Don seemed almost angry. The big blocky man was listening, but shaking his head. I took him to be Captain Frank Philbrick of the Maine State Police. I wondered if he knew I had a clear shot at him.

Carol Granger spoke up in a trembling voice. The shame on her face was alarming. I hadn’t told that story to shame her. “I was just a kid, Charlie.” “I know that,” I said, and smiled. “You were awful pretty that day. You sure didn’t look like a kid.”

“I had kind of a crush on Dicky Cable, too.”

“After the patty and all?”

She looked even more ashamed. “Worse than ever. I went with him to the eighth-grade picnic. He seemed… oh, daring, I guess. Wild. At the picnic he… you know, he got fresh, and I let him, a little. But that was the only time I went anyplace with him. I don’t even know where he is now.”

“Placerville Cemetery,” Dick Keene said flatly.

It gave me a nasty start. It was as if I had just seen the ghost of Mrs. Underwood. I could still have pointed to the places where Dicky had pounded on me. The idea that he was dead made for a strange, almost dreamy terror in my mind-and I saw a reflection of what I was feeling on Carol’s face. He got fresh, and I let him, a little, she had said. What, exactly, did that mean to a bright college-bound girl like Carol? Maybe he had kissed her. Maybe he had even gotten her out into the puckerbrush and mapped the virgin territory of her burgeoning chest. At the eighth grade picnic, God save us all. He had been daring and wild.

“What happened to him?” Don Lordi asked.

Dick spoke slowly. “He got hit by a car. That was really funny. Not ha-ha, you know, but peculiar. He got his driver’s license just last October, and he used to drive like a fool. Like a crazy man. I guess he wanted everybody to know he had, you know, balls. It got so that no one would ride with him, hardly. He had this 1966 Pontiac, did all the body work himself. Painted her bottle green, with the ace of spades on the passenger side.”

“Sure, I used to see that around,” Melvin said. “Over by the Harlow Rec.”

“Put in a Hearst four-shifter all by himself,” Dick said. “Four-barrel carb, overhead cam, fuel injection. She purred. Ninety in second gear. I was with him one night when he went up the Stackpole Road in Harlow at ninety-five. We go around Brissett’s Bend and we start to slide. I hit the floor. You’re right, Charlie. He looked weird when he was smiling. I dunno if he looked exactly like a lawnmower, but he sure looked weird. He just kept grinning and grinning all the time we were sliding. And he goes… like, to himself he goes, ‘I can hold ’er, I can hold ’er,’ over and over again. And he did, I made him stop, and I walked home. My legs were all rubber. A couple of months later he got hit by a delivery truck up in Lewiston while he was crossing Lisbon Street. Randy Milliken was with him, and Randy said he wasn’t even drunk or stoned. It was the truck driver’s fault entirely. He went to jail for ninety days. But Dicky was dead. Funny.”

Carol looked sick and white. I was afraid she might faint, and so, to take her mind somewhere else, I said, “Was your mother mad at me, Carol?”

“Huh?” She looked around in that funny, startled way she had.

“I called her a bag. A fat old bag, I think.”

“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose and then smiled, gratefully, I think, picking up on the gambit. “She was. She sure was. She thought that fight was all your fault.”

“Your mother and my mother used to both be in that club, didn’t they?”

“Books and Bridge? Yeah.” Her legs were still uncrossed, and now her knees were apart a little. She laughed. “I’ll tell you the truth, Charlie. I never really cared for your mother, even though I only saw her a couple of times to say hi to. My mother was always talking about how dreadfully intelligent Mrs. Decker was, what a very fine grasp she had on the novels of Henry James, stuff like that. And what a fine little gentleman you were.”

“Slicker than owl shit,” I agreed gravely. “You know, I used to get the same stuff about you.”

“You did?”

“Sure.” An idea suddenly rose up and smacked me on the nose. How could I have possibly missed it so long, an old surmiser like me? I laughed with sudden sour delight. “And I bet I know why she was so deternuned I was going to wear my suit. It’s called ‘matchmaking,’ or ‘Wouldn’t They Make a Lovely Couple?’ or, ‘Think of the Intelligent Offspring.’ Played by all the best families, Carol. Will you marry me?”

Carol looked at me with her mouth open. “They were…” She couldn’t seem to finish it.

“That’s what I think.”

She smiled; a little giggle escaped her. Then she laughed right out loud. It seemed a little disrespectful of the dead, but I let it pass. Although, to tell you the truth, Mrs. Underwood was never far from my mind. After all, I was almost standing on her.

“That big guy’s coming,” Billy Sawyer said.

Sure enough, Frank Philbrick was striding toward the school, looking neither right nor left. I hoped the news photographers were getting his good side; who knew, he might want to use some of the pix on this year’s Xmas cards. He walked through the main door. Down the hall, as if in another world, I could hear his vague steps pause and then go up to the office. It occurred to me in a strange sort of way that he seemed real only inside. Everything beyond the windows was television. They were the show, not me. My classmates felt the same way. It was on their faces.

Silence.

Chink. The intercom.

“Decker?”

“Yes, sir?” I said.

He was a heavy breather. You could hear him puffing and blowing into the mike up there like some large and sweaty animal. I don’t like that, never have. My father is like that on the telephone. A lot of heavy breathing in your ear, so you can almost smell the scotch and Pall Malls on his breath. It always seems unsanitary and somehow homosexual.

“This is a very funny situation you’ve put us all in, Decker.”

“I guess it is, sir.”

“We don’t particularly like the idea of shooting you.”

“No, sir, neither do I. I wouldn’t advise you to try.”

Heavy breathing. “Okay, let’s get it out of the henhouse and see what we got in the sack. What’s your price?”

“Price?” I said. “Price?” For one loony moment I had the impression he had taken me for an interesting piece of talking furniture-a Morns chair, maybe, equipped to huckster the prospective buyer with all sorts of pertinent info. At first the idea struck me funny. Then it made me mad.

“For letting them go. What do you want? Air time? You got it. Some sort of statement to the papers? You got that.” Snort-snort-snore. Likewise, puff-puff-puff. “But let’s do it and get it done before this thing turns into a hairball. But you got to tell us what you want.”

“You,” I said.

The breath stopped. Then it started again, puffing and blowing. It was starting to really get on my nerves. “You’ll have to explain that,” he said.

“Certainly, sir,” I said. “We can make a deal. Would you like to make a deal? Is that what you were saying?”

No answer. Puff, snort. Philbrick was on the six-o’clock news every Memorial Day and Labor Day, reading a please-drive-safely message off the teleprompter with a certain lumbering ineptitude that was fascinating and almost endearing. I had felt there was something familiar about him, something intimate that smacked of deja vu. Now I could place it. The breathing. Even on TV he sounded like a bull getting ready to mount Farmer Brown’s cow in the back forty.

“What’s your deal?”

“Tell me something first,” I said. “Is there anybody out there who thinks I might just decide to see how many people I can plug down here? Like Don Grace, for instance?”

“That piece of shit,” Sylvia said, then clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Who said that?” Philbrick barked.

Sylvia went white.

“Me,” I said. “I have certain transsexual tendencies too, sir.” I didn’t figure he would know what that meant and would be too wary to ask. “Could you answer my question?”

“Some people think you might go the rest of the way out of your gourd, yes,” he answered weightily. Somebody at the back of the room tittered. I don’t think the intercom picked it up.

“Okay, then,” I said. “The deal is this. You be the hero. Come down here. Unarmed. Come inside with your hands on your head. I’ll let everybody go. Then I’ll blow your fucking head off. Sir. How’s that for a deal? You buy it?”

Puff, snort, blow. “You got a dirty mouth, fella. There are girls down there. Young girls.”

Irma Bates looked around, startled, as if someone had just called her.

“The deal,” I said. “The deal.”

“No,” Philbrick said. “You’d shoot me and hold on to the hostages.” Puff, snort. “But I’ll come down. Maybe we can figure something out.”

“Fella,” I said patiently, “if you sign off and I don’t see you going out the same door you came in within fifteen seconds, someone in here is just going to swirl down the spout.”

Nobody looked particularly worried at the thought of just swirling down the spout.

Puff, puff. “Your chances of getting out of this alive are getting slimmer.”

“Frank, my man, none of us get out of it alive. Even my old man knows that.”

“Will you come out?”

“No.”

“If that’s how you feel.” He didn’t seem upset. “There’s a boy named Jones down there. I want to speak with him.”

It seemed okay. “You’re on, Ted,” I told him. “Your big chance, boy. Don’t blow it. Folks, this kid is going to dance his balls off before your very eyes.”

Ted was looking earnestly at the black grating of the intercom. “This is Ted Jones, sir.” On him, “sir” sounded good.

“Is everyone down there still all right, Jones?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How do you judge Decker’s stability?”

“I think he’s apt to do anything, sir,” he said, looking directly at me. There was a savage leer in his eyes. Carol looked suddenly angry. She opened her mouth as if to refute, and then, perhaps remembering her upcoming responsibilities as valedictorian and Leading Lamp of the Western World, she closed her mouth with a snap.

“Thank you, Mr. Jones.”

Ted looked absurdly pleased at being called mister.

“Decker?”

“Right here.”

Snort, snort. “Be seeing you.”

“I better see you,” I said. “Fifteen seconds.” Then, as an afterthought: “Philbrick?”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve got a shitty habit, you know it? I’ve noticed it on all those TV drive-safely pitches that you do. You breathe in people’s ears. You sound like a stallion in heat, Philbrick. That’s a shitty habit. You also sound like you’re reading off a teleprompter, even when you’re not. You ought to take care of stuff like that. You might save a life.”

Philbrick puffed and snorted thoughtfully.

“Screw, buddy,” he said, and the intercom clicked off.

Exactly twelve seconds later he came out the front door, striding stolidly along. When he got to the cars that had been driven onto the lawn, there was another conference. Philbrick gestured a lot.

Nobody said anything. Pat Fitzgerald was chewing a fingernail thoughtfully. Pig Pen had taken out another pencil and was studying it. And Sandra Cross was looking at me steadily. There seemed to be a kind of mist between us that made her glow.

“What about sex?” Carol said suddenly, and when everyone looked at her, she colored.

“Male,” Melvin said, and a couple of the jocks in the back of the room haw-hawed.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Carol looked very much as if she wished her mouth had been stitched closed. “I thought when someone started to act… well… you know, strangely…” She stopped in confusion, but Susan Brooks sprang to the ramparts.

“That’s right,” she said. “And you all ought to stop grinning. Everyone thinks sex is so dirty. That’s half what’s the matter with all of us. We worry about it.” She looked protectively at Carol.

“That’s what I meant,” Carol said. “Are you… well, did you have some bad experience?”

“Nothing since that time I went to bed with Mom,” I said blandly.

An expression of utter shock struck her face, and then she saw I was joking. Pig Pen snickered dolefully and went on looking at his pencil.

“No, really,” she said.

“Well,” I said, frowning. “I’ll tell about my sex life if you’ll tell about yours.”

“Oh…” She looked shocked again, but in a pleasant way.

Gracie Stanner laughed. “Cough up, Carol.” I had always gotten a murky impression that there was no love lost between those two girls, but now Grace seemed genuinely to be joking-as if some understood but never-mentioned inequality had been erased.

” ‘Ray, ‘ray,” Corky Herald said, grinning.

Carol was blushing furiously. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“Go on,” Don Lordi said. “It won’t hurt.”

“Everybody would tell,” Carol said. “I know the way bo… the way people talk around.”

“Secrets,” Mike Gavin whispered hoarsely, “give me more secrets.” Everybody laughed, but it was getting to be no laughing matter.

“You’re not being fair,” Susan Brooks said.

“That’s right,” I said. “Let’s drop it.”

“Oh… never mind,” Carol said. “I’ll talk. I’ll tell you something.”

It was my turn to be surprised. Everybody looked at her expectantly. I didn’t really know what they expected to hear-a bad case of penis envy, maybe, or Ten Nights with a Candle. I figured they were in for a disappointment, whatever it was. No whips, no chains, no night sweats. Small-town virgin, fresh, bright, pretty, and someday maybe she would blow Placerville and have a real life. Sometimes they change in college. Some of them discover existentialism and anomie and hash pipes. Sometimes they only join sororities and continue with the same sweet dream that began in junior high school, a dream so common to the pretty small-town virgins that it almost could have been cut from a Simplicity pattern, like a jumper or a Your Yummy Summer blouse or play skirt. There’s a whammy on bright girls and boys. If the bright ones have a twisted fiber, it shows. If they don’t, you can figure them as easily as square roots. Girls like Carol have a steady boyfriend and enjoy a little necking (but, as the Tubes say, “Don’t Touch Me There”), nothing overboard. It’s okay, I guess. You’d expect more, but, so sorry please, there just isn’t. Bright kids are like TV dinners. That’s all right. I don’t carry a big stick on that particular subject. Smart girls are just sort of dull.

And Carol Granger had that image. She went steady with Buck Thorne (the perfect American name). Buck was the center of the Placerville High Greyhounds, which had posted an 11-0 record the previous fall, a fact that Coach Bob “Stone Balls” Stoneham made much of at our frequent school-spirit assemblies.

Thorne was a good-natured shit who weighed in at a cool two-ten; not exactly the brightest thing on two feet (but college material, of course), and Carol probably had no trouble keeping him in line. I’ve noticed that pretty girls make the best lion tamers, too. Besides, I always had an idea that Buck Thorne thought the sexiest thing in the world was a quarterback sneak right up the middle.

“I’m a virgin,” Carol said defiantly, startling me up out of my thoughts. She crossed her legs as if to prove it symbolically, then abruptly uncrossed them. “And I don’t think it’s so bad, either. Being a virgin is like being bright.”

“It is?” Grace Stanner asked doubtfully.

“You have to work at it,” Carol said. “That’s what I meant, you have to work at it.” The idea seemed to please her. It scared the hell out of me.

“You mean Buck never…”

“Oh, he used to want to. I suppose he still does. But I made things pretty clear to him early in the game. And I’m not frigid or anything, or a puritan. It’s just that…”

She trailed off, searching.

“You wouldn’t want to get pregnant,” I said.

“No!” she said almost contemptuously. “I know all about that.” With something like shock I realized she was angry and upset because she was. Anger is a very difficult emotion for a programmed adolescent to handle. “I don’t live in books all the time. I read all about birth control in…” She bit her lip as the contradiction of what she was saying struck her.

“Well,” I said. I tapped the stock of the pistol lightly on the desk blotter. “This is serious, Carol. Very serious. I think a girl should know why she’s a virgin, don’t you?”

I know why!”

“Oh.” I nodded helpfully. Several girls were looking at her with interest.

“Because…”

Silence. Faintly, the sound of Jerry Kesserling using his whistle to direct traffic.

“Because…”

She looked around. Several of them flinched and looked down at their desks. Just then I would have given my house and lot, as the old farmers say, to know just how many virgins we had in here. “And you don’t all have to stare at me! I didn’t ask you to stare at me! I’m not going to talk about it! I don’t have to talk about it!”

She looked at me bitterly.

“People tear you down, that’s it. They grind you if you let them, just like Pig Pen said. They all want to pull you down to their level and make you dirty. Look at what they are doing to you, Charlie.”

I wasn’t sure they had done anything to me just yet, but I kept my mouth shut.

“I was walking along Congress Street in Portland just before Christmas last year. I was with Donna Taylor. We were buying Christmas presents. I’d just bought my sister a scarf in Porteus-Mitchell, and we were talking about it and laughing. Just silly stuff. We were giggling. It was about four o’clock and just starting to get dark. It was snowing. All the colored lights were on, and the shop windows were full of glitter and packages… pretty… and there was one of those Salvation Army Santa Clauses on the corner by Jones’s Book Shop. He was ringing his bell and smiling. I felt good. I felt really good. It was like the Christmas spirit, and all that. I was thinking about getting home and having hot chocolate with whipped cream on top of it. And then this old car drove by, and whoever was driving cranked his window down and yelled, ‘Hi, cunt!’”

Anne Lasky jumped. I have to admit that the word did sound awfully funny coming out of Carol Granger’s mouth.

“Just like that,” she said bitterly. “It was all wrecked. Spoiled. Like an apple you thought was good and then bit into a worm hole. ‘Hi, cunt.’ As if that was all there was, no person, just a huh-h-h…” Her mouth pulled down in a trembling, agonized grimace. “And that’s like being bright, too. They want to stuff things into your head until it’s all filled up. It’s a different hole, that’s all. That’s all.”

Sandra Cross’s eyes were half-closed, as if she dreamed. “You know,” she said. “I feel funny. I feel…”

I wanted to jump up and tell her to keep her mouth shut, tell her not to incriminate herself in this fool’s parade, but I couldn’t. Repeat, couldn’t. If I didn’t play by my rules, who would?

“I feel like this is all,” she said.

“Either all brains or all cunt,” Carol said with brittle good humor. “Doesn’t leave room for much else, does it?”

“Sometimes,” Sandra said, “I feel very empty.”

“I…” Carol began, and then looked at Sandra, startled. “You do?”

“Sure.” She looked thoughtfully out the broken windows. “I like to hang out clothes on windy days. Sometimes that’s all I feel like. A sheet on the line. You try to get interested in things… Politics, the school… I was on the Student Council last semester… but it’s not real, and it’s awfully dull. And there aren’t a lot of minorities or anything around here to fight for, or… well, you know. Important things. And so I let Ted do that to me.”

I looked carefully at Ted, who was looking at Sandra with his face frozen. A great blackness began to drizzle down on me. I felt my throat close.

“It wasn’t so hot,” Sandra said. “I don’t know what all the shouting’s about. It’s…” She looked at me, her eyes widening, but I could hardly see her. But I could see Ted. He was very clear. In fact, he seemed to be lit by a strange golden glow that stood out in the new clotted darkness like a halo, a supernormal aura.

I raised the pistol very carefully in both hands.

For a moment I thought about the inner caves of my body, the living machines that run on and on in the endless dark.

I was going to shoot him, but they shot me first.

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