I had hoped the weather would be cool for my lunch with Bunny, because my best jacket was a scratchy dark tweed, but when I woke on Saturday it was hot and getting hotter.
‘Gonna be a scorcher today,’ said the janitor as I passed him in the hall. ‘Indian summer.’
The jacket was beautiful – Irish wool, gray with flecks of mossy green; I had bought it in San Francisco with nearly every cent I’d saved from my summer job – but it was much too heavy for a warm sunny day. I put it on and went to the bathroom to straighten my tie.
I was in no mood for talk and I was unpleasantly surprised to find Judy Poovey brushing her teeth at the sink. Judy Poovey lived a couple of doors down from me and seemed to think that because she was from Los Angeles we had a lot in common. She cornered me in hallways; tried to make me dance at parties; had told several girls that she was going to sleep with me, only in less delicate terms. She had wild clothes, frosted hair, a red Corvette with California plates bearing the legend judy p. Her voice was loud and rose frequently to a screech, which rang through the house like the cries of some terrifying tropical bird.
‘Hi, Richard,’ she said, and spit out a mouthful of toothpaste.
She was wearing cut-off jeans that had bizarre, frantic designs drawn on them in Magic Marker and a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff.
‘Hello,’ I said, setting to work on my tie.
‘You look cute today.’
‘Got a date?’
I looked away from the mirror, at her. ‘What?’
‘Where you going?’
By now, I was used to her interrogations, ‘Out to lunch.’
‘You know Bunny?’
Again, I turned to look at her. ‘Sort of. Do you?’
‘Sure. He was in my art history class. He’s hilarious. I hate that geeky friend of his, though, the other one with the glasses, what’s his name?’
‘Yeah, him.’ She leaned towards the mirror and began to fluff out her hair, swiveling her head this way and that. Her nails were Chanel red but so long they had to be the kind you bought at the drugstore. ‘I think he’s an asshole.’
‘I kind of like him,’ I said, offended.
‘I don’t.’ She parted her hair in the center, using the curved talon of her forefinger as a comb. ‘He’s always been a bastard to me. I hate those twins, too.’
‘Why? The twins are nice.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said, rolling a mascaraed eye at me in the mirror. ‘Listen to this. I was at this party last term, really drunk, and sort of slam-dancing, right? Everybody was crashing into everybody else, and for some reason this girl twin was walking through the dance floor and pow, I slammed right into her, really hard. So then she says something rude, like totally uncalled for, and first thing I knew I’d thrown my beer in her face. It was that kind of a night. I’d already had about six beers thrown on me, and it just seemed like the thing to do, you know?
‘So anyway, she starts yelling at me and in about half a second there’s the other twin and that Henry guy standing over me like they’re about to beat me up.’ She pulled her hair back from her face in a ponytail and inspected her profile in the mirror. ‘So anyway. I’m drunk, and these two guys are leaning over me in this menacing way, and you know that I Iciiry, he’s really big. It was kind of scary but I was too drunk to care so I just told them to fuck off,’ She turned from the mirror and smiled brilliantly. ‘I was drinking Kamikazes that night. Something terrible always happens to me when I drink Kamikazes. I wreck my car, I get into fights…”
She shrugged and turned back to the mirror. ‘Like I said, I just told them to fuck off. And the boy twin, he starts screaming at me. Like he really wants to kill me, you know? And that Henry just standing there, right, but to me he was scarier than the other one. So anyway. A friend of mine who used to go here and who’s really tough, he was in this motorcycle gang, into chains and shit – ever heard of Spike Romney?’
I had; in fact I’d seen him at my first Friday-night party. He was tremendous, well over two hundred pounds, with scars on his hands and steel toe-clips on his motorcycle boots.
‘Well, anyway, so Spike comes up and sees these people abusing me, and he shoves the twin on the shoulder and tells him to beat it, and before I knew it, the two of them had jumped on him. People were trying to pull that Henry off, too – lots of them, and they couldn’t do it. Six guys couldn’t pull him off.
Broke Spike’s collarbone and two of his ribs, and fucked up his face pretty bad. I told Spike he should’ve called the cops, but he was in some kind of trouble himself and wasn’t supposed to be on campus. It was a bad scene, though.’ She let her hair fall back around her face. ‘I mean, Spike is tough. And mean. You’d think he’d be able to beat the shit out of both those sissy guys in suits and ties and stuff.’
‘Hmm,’ I said, trying not to laugh. It was funny to think of Henry, with his little round glasses and his books in Pali, breaking Spike Romney’s collarbone.
‘It’s weird,’ said Judy. ‘I guess when uptight people like that get mad, they get really mad. Like my father.’
‘Yeah, I guess so,’ I said, looking back into the mirror and adjusting the knot on my tie.
‘Have a good time,’ she said listlessly, and started out the door. Then she stopped. ‘Say, aren’t you going to get hot in that jacket?’
‘Only good one I have.’
‘You want to try on this one I’ve got?’
I turned and looked at her. She was a major in Costume, Design and as such had all kinds of peculiar clothing in her room. ›j ‘Is it yours?’ I said.
‘I stole it from the wardrobe at the Costume shop. I was going to cut it up and make, like, a bustier out of it.’ *j Great, I thought, but I went along with her anyway. H The jacket, unexpectedly, was wonderful – old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green – a little loose, but it fit all right. ‘Judy,’ I said, looking at my cuffs.
‘This is wonderful. You sure you don’t mind?’
‘You can have it,’ said Judy. ‘I don’t have time to do anything with it. I’m too busy sewing those damned costumes for fucking As You Like It. It goes up in three weeks and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve got all these freshmen working for me this term that don’t know a sewing machine from a hole in the ground.’
‘By the way, love that jacket, old man,’ Bunny said to me as we were getting out of the taxi. ‘Silk, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It was my grandfather’s.’
Bunny pinched a piece of the rich, yellowy cloth near the cuff and rubbed it back and forth between his fingers. ‘Lovely piece,’ he said importantly. ‘Not quite the thing for this time of year, though.’
‘No?’ I said.
‘Naw. This is the East Coast, boy. I know they’re pretty laissez-faire about dress in your neck of the woods, but back here 52. they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long.
Blacks and blues, that’s the ticket, blacks and blues… Here, let me get that door for you. You know, I think you’ll like this place.
Not exactly the Polo Lounge, but for Vermont it’s not too bad, do you think?’
It was a tiny, beautiful restaurant with white tablecloths and bay windows opening onto a cottage garden – hedges and trellised roses, nasturtiums bordering the flagstone path. The customers were mostly middle-aged and prosperous: ruddy country-lawyer types who, according to the Vermont fashion, wore gumshoes with their Hickey-Freeman suits; ladies with frosted lipstick and challis skirts, nice looking in a kind of well-tanned, low-key way.
A couple glanced up at us as we came in, and I was well aware of the impression we were making- two handsome college boys, rich fathers and not a worry in the world. Though the ladies were mostly old enough to be my mother, one or two were actually quite attractive. Nice work if you could get it, I thought, imagining some youngish matron with a big house and nothing to do and a husband out of town on business all the time. Good dinners, some pocket money, maybe even something really big, like a car…
A waiter sidled up. ‘You have a reservation?’
‘Corcoran party,’ said Bunny, hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. ‘Where’s Caspar keeping himself today?’
‘On vacation. He’ll be back in two weeks.’
‘Well, good for him,’ said Bunny heartily.
Till tell him you asked for him.’
‘Do that, wouldja?’
‘Caspar’s a super guy,’ Bunny said as we followed the waiter to the table. ‘Maitre d’. Big old fellow with moustaches, Austrian or something. And not’ – he lowered his voice to a loud whisper ‘not a fag, either, if you can believe that. Queers love to work in restaurants, have you ever noticed that? I mean, every single fag ‘
I saw the back of our waiter’s neck stiffen slightly.
‘- I have ever known has been obsessed with food. I wonder, why is that? Something psychological? It seems to me that ‘
I put a finger to my lips and nodded at the waiter’s back, just as he turned and gave us an unspeakably evil look.
‘Is this table all right, gentlemen?’ he said.
‘Sure,’ said Bunny, beaming.
The waiter presented our menus with affected, sarcastic delicacy and stalked off. I sat down and opened the wine list, my face burning. Bunny, settling in his chair, took a sip of water and looked around happily. ‘This is a great place,’ he said.
‘But not the Polo,’ He rested an elbow on the table and raked the hair back from his eyes. ‘Do you go there often? The Polo, I mean.’
‘Not much.’ I’d never even heard of it, which was perhaps understandable as it was about four hundred miles from where I lived.
‘Seems like the kinda place you’d go with your father,’ said Bunny pensively. ‘For man-to-man talks and stuff. My dad’s like that about the Oak Bar at the Plaza. He took me and my brothers there to buy us our first drink when we turned eighteen.’
I am an only child; people’s siblings interest me. ‘Brothers?’ I said. ‘How many?’
‘Four. Teddy, Hugh, Patrick and Brady.’ He laughed. ‘It was terrible when Dad took me because I’m the baby, and it was such a big thing, and he was all “Here, son, have your first drink” and “Won’t be long before you’re sitting in my place” and “Probably I’ll be dead soon” and all that kind of junk. And the whole time there I was scared stiff. About a month before, my buddy Cloke and I had come up from Saint Jerome’s for the day to work on a history project at the library, and we’d run up a huge bill at the Oak Bar and slipped off without paying. You know, boyish spirits, but there I was again, with my dad.’
‘Did they recognize you?’
‘Yep,’ he said grimly. ‘Knew they would. But they were pretty decent about it. Didn’t say anything, just tacked the old bill onto my dad’s.’
I tried to picture the scene: the drunken old father, in a three-piece suit, swishing his Scotch or whatever it was he drank around in the glass. And Bunny. He looked a little soft but it was the softness of muscle gone to flesh. A big boy, the sort who played football in high school. And the sort of son every father secretly wants: big and good-natured and not awfully bright, fond of sports, gifted at backslapping and corny jokes. ‘Did he notice?’
I said. ‘Your dad?’
‘Naw. He was three sheets to the wind. If I’d of been the bartender at the Oak Room he wouldn’t have noticed.’
The waiter was heading towards us again.
‘Look, here comes Twinkletoes,’ said Bunny, busying himself with the menu. ‘Know what you want to eat?’
‘What’s in that, anyway?’ I asked Bunny, leaning to look at the drink the waiter had brought him. It was the size of a small fishbowl, bright coral, with colored straws and paper parasols and bits of fruit sticking out of it at frenetic angles.
Bunny pulled out one of the parasols and licked the end of it.
‘Lots of stuff. Rum, cranberry juice, coconut milk, triple sec, peach brandy, creme de menthe, I don’t know what all. Taste it, it’s good.’
‘No thank you, I don’t want any,’ I said.
‘First time I ever had one of these was when I was in Jamaica, two summers ago,’ said Bunny reminiscently. ‘Bartender named Sam cooked it up for me. “Drink three of these, son,” he said, “and you won’t be able to find the door” and bless me, I couldn’t.
Ever been to Jamaica?’
‘Not recently, no.’
‘Probably you’re used to palm trees and coconuts and all that sort of thing, in California and all.,’ thought it was wonderful.
Bought a pink bathing suit with flowers on it and everything.
Tried to get Henry to come down there with me but he said there was no culture, which I don’t think is true, they did have | some kind of a little museum or something.’ 3 ‘You get along with Henry?’
‘Oh, sure thing,’ said Bunny, reared back in his chair. ‘We were roommates. Freshman year.’
‘And you like him?’
‘Certainly, certainly. He’s a hard fellow to live with, though.
Hates noise, hates company, hates a mess. None of this bringing your date back to the room to listen to a couple Art Pepper records, if you know what I’m trying to get at.’
‘I think he’s sort of rude.’
Bunny shrugged. ‘That’s his way. See, his mind doesn’t work the same way yours and mine do. He’s always up in the clouds with Plato or something. Works too hard, takes himself too seriously, studying Sanskrit and Coptic and those other nutty languages. Henry, I tell him, if you’re going to waste your time learning something besides Greek – that and the King’s English are all I think a man needs, personally – why don’t you buy yourself some Berlitz records and brush up on your French. Find a little cancan girl or something. Voolay-voo coushay avec moi and all that.’
‘How many languages does he know?’
‘I lost count. Seven or eight. He can read hieroglyphics.’
Bunny shook his head fondly. ‘He’s a genius, that boy. He could be a translator for the UN if he wanted to be.’
‘Where’s he from?’
He said this in such a deadpan way I thought he was joking, and I laughed.
Bunny raised an amused eyebrow. ‘What? You thought he was from Buckingham Palace or something?’
I shrugged, still laughing. Henry was so peculiar, it was hard to imagine him being from anyplace.
‘Yep,’ said Bunny. ‘The Show-Me State. St Louis boy like old Tom Eliot. Father’s some kind of a construction tycoon – and not quite aboveboard, either, so my cousins in St Lou tell me.
Not that Henry will give you the slightest clue what his dad does.
Acts like he doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t care.’
‘Have you been to his house?’
‘Are you kidding? He’s so secretive, you’d think it was the Manhattan Project or something. But I met his mother one time.
Kind of by accident. She stopped in Hampden to see him on her way to New York and I bumped into her wandering around downstairs in Monmouth asking people if they knew where his room was.’
‘What was she like?’
‘Pretty lady. Dark hair and blue eyes like Henry, mink coat, too much lipstick and stuff if you ask me. Awfully young. Henry’s her only chick and she adores him.’ He leaned forward and lowered his voice. ‘Family’s got money like you wouldn’t believe. Millions and millions. Course it’s about as new as it comes, but a buck’s a buck, know what I mean?’ He winked. ‘By the way.
Meant to ask. How does your pop earn his filthy lucre?’
‘Oil,’ I said. It was partly true.
Bunny’s mouth fell open in a little round o. ‘You have oil wells?’
‘Well, we have one,’ I said modestly.
‘But it’s a good one?’
‘So they tell me.’
‘Boy,’ said Bunny, shaking his head. ‘The Golden West.’
‘It’s been good to us,’ I said.
‘Geez.’ Bunny said. ‘My dad’s just a lousy old bank president.’
I felt it necessary to change the subject, however awkwardly, as we were heading here towards treacherous waters. ‘If Henry’s from St Louis,’ I said, ‘how did he get to be so smart?’
This was an innocuous question but, unexpectedly, Bunny winced. ‘Henry had a bad accident when he was a little boy,’ he said. ‘Got hit by a car or something and nearly died. He was out of school for a couple years, had tutors and stuff, but for a long time he couldn’t do much but lie in bed and read. I guess he was one of those kids who can read at college level when they’re about two years old.’
‘Hit by a car?’
‘I think that’s what it was. Can’t think what else it could’ve been. He doesn’t like to talk about it.’ He lowered his voice.
‘Know the way he parts his hair, so it falls over the right eye?
That’s because there’s a scar there. Almost lost the eye, can’t see out of it too good. And the stiff way he walks, sort of a limp. Not that it matters, he’s strong as an ox. I don’t know what he did, lift weights or what, but he certainly built himself back up again. A regular Teddy Roosevelt, overcoming obstacles and all. You got to admire him for it.’ He brushed his hair back again and motioned to the waiter for another drink. ‘I mean, you take somebody like Francis. You ask me, he’s as smart as Henry. Society boy, tons of money. He’s had it too easy, though. He’s lazy. Likes to play.
Won’t do a thing after school but drink like a fish and go to parties.
Now Henry.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Couldn’t beat him away from Greek with a stick – Ah, thank you, there, sir,’ he said to the waiter, who was holding out another of the coral-colored drinks at arm’s length. ‘You want another?’
‘Go ahead, old man. On me.’
‘Another martini, I guess,’ I said to the waiter, who had already turned away. He turned to glare at me.
Thanks,’ I said weakly, looking away from his lingering, hateful smile until I was sure he had gone.
‘You know, there’s nothing I hate like I hate an officious fag,’ said Bunny pleasantly. ‘You ask me, I think they ought to round them all up and burn them at the stake.’
I’ve known men who run down homosexuality because they are uncomfortable with it, perhaps harbor inclinations in that area; and I’ve known men who run down homosexuality and mean it. At first I had placed Bunny in the first category. His glad-handing, varsity chumminess was totally alien and therefore suspect; then, too, he studied the classics, which are certainly harmless enough but which still provoke the raised eyebrow in some circles. (‘You wrant to know what Classics are?’ said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. Till tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.’ A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.)
The more I listened to Bunny, however, the more apparent it became that there was no affected laughter, no anxiety to please.
Instead, there was the blithe unselfconciousness of some crotchety old Veteran of Foreign Wars – married for years, father of multitudes – who finds the topic infinitely repugnant and amusing.
‘But your friend Francis?’ I said.
I was being snide, I suppose, or maybe I just wanted to see how he would wriggle out of that one. Though Francis might or might not have been homosexual – and could just as easily have been a really dangerous type of ladies’ man – he was certainly of that vulpine, well-dressed, unflappable sort who, to someone with Bunny’s alleged nose for such things, would rouse a certain suspicion.
Bunny raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s nonsense,’ he said curtly.
‘Who told you that?’
‘Nobody. Just Judy Poovey,’ I said, when I saw he wasn’t going to take nobody for an answer.
‘Well, I can see why she’d say it but nowadays everybody’s gay this and gay that. There’s still such a thing as an old-fashioned mama’s boy. All Francis needs is a girlfriend.’ He squinted at me through the tiny, crazed glasses. ‘And what about you?’ he said, a trifle belligerently.
‘You a single man? Got some little cheerleader waiting back home for you at Hollywood High?’
‘Well, no,’ I said. I didn’t feel like explaining my own girlfriend problems, not to him. It was only quite recently that I had managed to extricate myself from a long, claustrophobic relationship with a girl in California whom we will call Kathy. I met her my first year of college, and was initially attracted to her because she seemed an intelligent, brooding malcontent like myself; but after about a month, during which time she’d firmly glued herself to me, I began to realize, with some little horror, that she was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath. It lasted forever, like some weepy and endless made-for-TV movie – all the clinging, all the complaints, all the parking-lot confessions of ‘inadequacy’ and ‘poor self-image,’ all those banal sorrows. She was one of the main reasons I was in such an agony to leave home; she was also one of the reasons I was so wary of the bright, apparently innocuous flock of new girls I had met my first weeks of school.
The thought of her had turned me somber. Bunny leaned across the table.
‘Is it true,’ he said, ‘that the gals are prettier in California?’
I started laughing, so hard I thought my drink was going to blow out my nose.
‘Bathing beauties?’ He winked. ‘Beach Blanket Bingo?’
He was pleased. Like some jolly old dog of an uncle, he leaned across the table even further and began to tell me about his own girlfriend, whose name was Marion. ‘I know you’ve seen her,’ he said. ‘Just a little thing. Blond, blue-eyed, about so high?’
Actually, this rang a bell. I had seen Bunny in the post office, in the first week of school, talking rather officiously to a girl of this description.
‘Yep,’ said Bunny proudly, running his finger along the edge of his glass. ‘She’s my gal. Keeps me in line, I can tell you,’ This time, caught in mid-swallow, I laughed so hard I was close to choking.
‘And she’s an elementaryeducation major, too, don’t you love it?’ he said. ‘I mean, she’s a real girl.’ He drew his hands apart, as if to indicate a sizable space between them. ‘Long hair, got a little meat on her bones, isn’t afraid to wear a dress. I like that. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t care much for the brainy ones.
Take Camilla. She’s fun, and a good guy and all ‘
‘Come on,’ I said, still laughing. ‘She’s really pretty.’
‘That she is, that she is,’ he agreed, holding up a conciliatory palm. ‘Lovely girl. I’ve always said so. Looks just like a statue of Diana in my father’s club. All she lacks is a mother’s firm hand, but still, for my money, she’s what you call a bramble rose, as opposed to your hybrid tea. Doesn’t take the pains she ought, you know. And runs around half the time in her brother’s sloppy old clothes, which maybe some girls could get away with – well, frankly I don’t think any girls can really get away with it, but she certainly can’t. Looks too much like her brother. I mean to say, Charles is a handsome fellow and a sterling character all around, but I wouldn’t want to marry him, would I?’
He was on a roll and was about to say something else; but then, quite suddenly, he stopped, his face souring as if something unpleasant had occurred to him. I was puzzled, yet a little amused; was he afraid he’d said too much, afraid of seeming foolish? I was trying to think of a quick change of subject, to let him off the hook, but then he shifted in his chair and squinted across the room.
‘Look there,’ he said. ‘Think that’s us? It’s about time.’
Despite the vast amount we ate that afternoon – soups, lobsters, pates, mousses, an array appalling in variety and amount – we drank even more, three bottles of Taittinger on top of the cocktails, and brandy on top of that, so that, gradually, our table became the sole hub of convergence in the room, around which objects spun and blurred at a dizzying velocity. I kept drinking from glasses which kept appearing as if by magic, Bunny proposing toasts to everything from Hampden College to Benjamin Jowett to Periclean Athens, and the toasts becoming purpler and purpler as time wore on until, by the time the coffee arrived, it was getting dark. Bunny was so drunk by then he asked the waiter to bring us two cigars, which he did, along with the check, face down, on a little tray.
The dim room was whirling at what was now an incredible rate of speed, and the cigar, so far from helping that, made me see as well a series of luminous spots that were dark around the edges, and reminded me unpleasantly of those horrible one-celled creatures that I used to have to blink at through a microscope till my head swam. I put it out in the ashtray, or what I thought was the ashtray but was in fact my dessert plate. Bunny took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, unhooking them carefully from behind each ear, and began to polish them with a napkin. Without them, his eyes were small and weak and amiable, watery with smoke, crinkled at the edges with laughter.
‘Ah. That was some lunch, wasn’t it, old man?’ he said around the cigar clamped in his teeth, holding the glasses to the light to inspect them for dust. He looked like a very young Teddy Roosevelt, sans moustache, about to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill or go out and track a wildebeest or something.
‘It was wonderful. Thanks.’
He blew out a ponderous cloud of blue, foul-smelling smoke.
‘Great food, good company, lotsa drinks, couldn’t ask for much more, could we? What’s that song?’
*,’ want my dinner,’ sang Bunny, ‘and conversation, and… something, dum-te-dum.’
‘I don’t know, either. Ethel Merman sings it.’
The light was growing dimmer and, as I struggled to focus on objects outside our immediate area, I saw the place was empty except for us. In a distant corner hovered a pale shape which I believed to be our waiter, a being obscure, faintly supernatural in aspect, yet without that preoccupied air which shadows are said to possess: we were the sole focus of its attention; I felt it concentrating towards us its rays of spectral hate.
‘Uh,’ I said, shifting in my chair with a movement that almost made me lose my balance, ‘maybe we should go.’
Bunny waved his hand magnanimously and turned over the check, rummaging in a pocket as he studied it. In a moment he looked up and smiled. ‘I say, old horse.’
‘Hate to do this to you, but why don’t you stand me lunch this time.’
I raised a drunken eyebrow and laughed. ‘I don’t have a cent on me.’
‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘Funny thing. Seem to have left my wallet at home.’
‘Oh, come on. You’re joking.’
‘Not at all,’ he said lightly. ‘Haven’t a dime. I’d turn out my pockets for you, but Twinkletoes’d see.’
I became aware of our malevolent waiter, lurking in the shadows, no doubt listening to this exchange with interest. ‘How much is it?’ I said.
He ran an unsteady finger down the column of figures. ‘Comes to two hundred and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-nine cents,’ he said. ‘That’s without tip.’
I was stunned at this amount, and baffled at his lack of concern.
‘That’s a lot.’
‘All that booze, you know.’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Can’t you write a check or something?’ he said casually.
‘I don’t have any checks.’
Then put it on your card.’
‘I don’t have a card.’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘I don’t,’ I said, growing more irritated by the second.
Bunny pushed back his chair and stood up and looked around the restaurant with a studied carelessness, like a detective cruising a hotel lobby, and for one wild moment I thought he was going to make a dash for it. Then he clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Sit tight, old man,’ he whispered. ‘I’m going to make a phone call.’
And then he was off, his fists in his pockets, the white of his socks flashing in the dim.
He was gone a long time. I was wondering if he was going to come back at all, if he hadn’t just crawled out a window and left me to foot the bill, when finally a door shut somewhere and he sauntered back across the room.
‘Worry not, worry not,’ he said as he slid into his chair. ‘All’s well.’
‘What’d you do?’
‘In two shakes.’
‘Is he mad?’
‘Naw,’ said Bunny, brushing off this thought with a slight flick of the hand. ‘Happy to do it. Between you and me, I think he’s damned glad to get out of the house.’
After maybe ten extremely uncomfortable minutes, during which we pretended to sip at the dregs of our ice-cold coffee, Henry walked in, a book beneath his arm.
‘See?’ whispered Bunny. ‘Knew he’d come. Oh, hello,’ he said, as Henry approached the table. ‘Boy am I glad to see ‘
‘Where’s the check,’ said Henry, in a toneless and deadly voice.
‘Here you are, old pal,’ said Bunny, fumbling among the cups and glasses. ‘Thanks a million. I really owe you ‘
‘Hello,’ said Henry coldly, turning to me.
‘How are you?’ He was like a robot.
‘Here you go, old top,’ said Bunny, producing the check.
Henry looked hard at the total, his face motionless.
‘Well,’ said Bunny chummily, his voice booming in the tense silence, ‘I’d apologize for dragging you away from your book if you hadn’t brought it with you. What you got there? Any good?’
Without a word, Henry handed it to him. The lettering on the front was in some Oriental language. Bunny stared at it for a moment, then gave it back. ‘That’s nice,’ he said faintly.
‘Are you ready to go?’ Henry said abruptly.
‘Sure, sure,’ said Bunny hastily, leaping up and nearly knocking over the table. ‘Say the word. Undele, undele. Any time you want.’
Henry paid the check while Bunny hung behind him like a bad child. The ride home was excruciating. Bunny, in the back seat, kept up a sally of brilliant but doomed attempts at conversation, which one by one flared and sank, while Henry kept his eyes on the road and I sat in the front beside him, fidgeting with the built-in ashtray, snapping it in and out till finally I realized how irritating this was and forced myself, with difficulty, to stop.
He stopped at Bunny’s first. Bellowing a chain of incoherent pleasantries, Bunny slapped me on the shoulder and leapt out of the car. ‘Yes, well, Henry, Richard, here we are. Lovely. Fine.
Thank you so much – beautiful lunch – well, toodle-oo, yes, yes, goodbye -‘ The door slammed and he shot up the walk at a rapid clip.
Once he was inside, Henry turned to me. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said.
‘Oh, no, please,’ I said, embarrassed. ‘Just a mix-up. I’ll pay you back.’
He ran a hand through his hair and I was surprised to see it was trembling. ‘I wouldn’t dream of such a thing,’ he said curtly.
‘It’s his fault.’
‘He told you he was taking you out. Didn’t he?’
His voice had a slightly accusatory note. ‘Well, yes,’ I said.
‘And just happened to leave his wallet at home.’
‘It’s all right.’
‘It’s not all right,’ Henry snapped. ‘It’s a terrible trick. How were you to know? He takes it on faith that whoever he’s with can produce tremendous sums at a moment’s notice. He never thinks about these things, you know, how awkward it is for everyone. Besides, what if I hadn’t been at home?’
‘I’m sure he really just forgot.’
‘You took a taxi there,’ said Henry shortly. ‘Who paid for that?’
Automatically I started to protest, and then stopped cold. Bunny had paid for the taxi. He’d even made sort of a big deal of it.
‘You see,’ said Henry. ‘He’s not even very clever about it, is he? It’s bad enough he does it to anyone but I must say I never thought he’d have the nerve to try it on a perfect stranger.’
I didn’t know what to say. We drove to the front of Monmouth in silence.
‘Here you are,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s fine, really. Thank you, Henry.’
‘Good night, then.’
I stood under the porch light and watched him drive away.
Then I went inside and up to my room, where I collapsed on my bed in a drunken stupor.
‘We heard all about your lunch with Bunny,’ said Charles.
I laughed. It was late the next afternoon, a Sunday, and I’d been at my desk nearly all day reading the Parmenides. The Greek was rough going but I had a hangover, too, and I’d been at it so long that the letters didn’t even look like letters but something else, indecipherable, bird footprints on sand. I was staring out the window in a sort of trance, at the meadow cropped close like bright green velvet and billowing into carpeted hills at the horizon, when I saw the twins, far below, gliding like a pair of ghosts on the lawn.
I leaned out the window and called to them. They stopped and turned, hands shading brows, eyes screwed up against the evening glare. ‘Hello,’ they called, and their voices, faint and ragged, were almost one voice floating up to me. ‘Come down.’
So now we were walking in the grove behind the college, down by the scrubby little pine forest at the base of the mountains, with one of them on either side of me.
They looked particularly angelic, their blond hair windblown, both in white tennis sweaters and tennis shoes. I wasn’t sure why they’d asked me down. Though polite enough, they seemed wary and slightly puzzled, as if I were from some country with unfamiliar, eccentric customs, which made it necessary for them to take great caution in order not to startle or offend.
‘How’d you hear about it?’ I said. ‘The lunch?’
‘Bun called this morning. And Henry told us about it last night.’
‘I think he was pretty mad.’
Charles shrugged. ‘Mad at Bunny, maybe. Not at you.’
‘They don’t care for each other, do they?’
They seemed astonished to hear this.
‘They’re old friends,’ said Camilla.
‘Best friends, I would say,’ said Charles. ‘At one time you never saw them apart.’
‘They seem to argue quite a bit.’
‘Well, of course,’ said Camilla, ‘but that doesn’t mean they’re not fond of each other all the same. Henry’s so serious and Bun’s so sort of – well, not serious – that they really get along quite well.’
‘Yes,’ said Charles. ‘L’Allegro and II Penseroso. A well-matched pair. I think Bunny’s about the only person in the world who can make Henry laugh.’ He stopped suddenly and pointed into the distance. ‘Have you ever been down there?’ he said. ‘There’s a graveyard on that hill.’ j I could see it, just barely, through the pines – a flat, straggled line of tombstones, rickety and carious, skewed at such angles that they gave a hectic, uncanny effect of motion, as if some j hysterical force, a poltergeist perhaps, had scattered them only moments before.
‘It’s old,’ said Camilla. ‘From the i,’oos. There was a town there too, a church and a mill. Nothing left but foundations, but you can still see the gardens they planted. Pippin apples and wintersweet, moss roses growing where the houses were. God knows what happened up there. An epidemic, maybe. Or a fire.’
‘Or the Mohawks,’ said Charles. ‘You’ll have to go see it sometime. The cemetery especially.’
‘It’s pretty. Especially in the snow.’
The sun was low, burning gold through the trees, casting our shadows before us on the ground, long and distorted. We walked for a long time without saying anything. The air was musty with far-off bonfires, sharp with the edge of a twilight chill. There was no noise but the crunch of our shoes on the gravel path, the whistle of wind in the pines; I was sleepy and my head hurt and there was something not quite real about any of it, something like a dream. I felt that at any moment I might start, my head on a pile of books at my desk, and find myself in a darkening room, alone.
Suddenly Camilla stopped and put a finger to her lips. In a dead tree, split in two by lightning, were perched three huge, black birds, too big for crows. I had never seen anything like them before.
‘Ravens,’ said Charles.
We stood stock-still, watching them. One of them hopped clumsily to the end of a branch, which squeaked and bobbed under its weight and sent it squawking into the air. The other two followed, with a battery of flaps. They sailed over the meadow in a triangle formation, three dark shadows on the grass.
Charles laughed. ‘Three of them for three of us. That’s an augury, I bet.’
‘Of what?’ I said.
‘Don’t know,’ said Charles. ‘Henry’s the ornithomantist. The bird-diviner.’
‘He’s such an old Roman. He’d know.’
We had turned towards home and, at the top of a rise, I saw the gables of Monmouth House, bleak in the distance. The sky was cold and empty. A sliver of moon, like the white crescent of a thumbnail, floated in the dim. I was unused to those dreary autumn twilights, to chill and early dark; the nights fell too quickly and the hush that settled on the meadow in the evening filled me with a strange, tremulous sadness. Gloomily, I thought of Monmouth House: empty corridors, old gas-jets, the key turning in the lock of my room.
‘Well, see you later,’ Charles said, at the front door of Monmouth, his face pale in the glow of the porch lamp.
Off in the distance, I saw the lights in the dining hall, across Commons; could see dark silhouettes moving past the windows.
‘It was fun,’ I said, digging my hands in my pockets. ‘Want to come have dinner with me?’
‘Afraid not. We ought to be getting home.’
‘Oh, well,’ I said, disappointed but relieved. ‘Some other time.’
‘Well, you know…?’ said Camilla, turning to Charles.
He furrowed his eyebrows. ‘Hmnn,’ he said. ‘You’re right.’
‘Come have dinner at our house,’ said Camilla, turning impulsively back to me.
‘Oh, no,’ I said quickly.
‘No, but thanks. It’s all right, really.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said Charles graciously. ‘We’re not having anything very good but we’d like you to come,’ I felt a rush of gratitude towards him. I did want to go, rather a lot. ‘If you’re sure it’s no trouble,’ I said.
‘No trouble at all,’ said Camilla. ‘Let’s go.’
Charles and Camilla rented a furnished apartment on the third floor of a house in North Hampden. Stepping inside, one found oneself in a small living room with slanted walls and dormer windows. The armchairs and the lumpy sofa were upholstered in dusty brocades, threadbare at the arms: rose patterns on tan, acorns and oak leaves on mossy green. Everywhere were tattered doilies, dark with age. On the mantel of the fireplace (which I later discovered was inoperable) glittered a pair of lead-glass candelabra and a few pieces of tarnished silver plate.
Though not untidy, exactly, it verged on being so. Books were stacked on every available surface; the tables were cluttered with papers, ashtrays, bottles of whiskey, boxes of chocolates; umbrellas and galoshes made passage difficult in the narrow hall.
In Charles’s room clothes were scattered on the rug and a rich confusion of ties hung from the door of the wardrobe; Camilla’s night table was littered with empty teacups, leaky pens, dead marigolds in a water glass, and on the foot of her bed was laid a half-played game of solitaire. The layout of the place was peculiar, with unexpected windows and halls that led nowhere and low doors I had to duck to get through, and everywhere I looked was some fresh oddity: an old stereopticon (the palmy avenues of a ghostly Nice, receding in the sepia distance); arrowheads in a dusty glass case; a staghorn fern; a bird’s skeleton.
Charles went into the kitchen and began to open and shut cabinets Camilla made me a drink from a bottle of Irish whiskey which stood on top of a pile of National Geographies.
‘Have you been to the La Brea tar pits?’ she said, matter-offactly.
‘No,’ Helplessly perplexed, I gazed at my drink.
‘Imagine that. Charles,’ she said, into the kitchen, ‘he lives in California and he’s never been to the La Brea tar pits.’
Charles emerged in the doorway, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. ‘Really?’ he said, with childlike astonishment. ‘Why not?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But they’re so interesting. Really, just think of it.’
‘Do you know many people here from California?’ said Camilla.
‘You know Judy Poovey.’
I was startled: how did she know that? ‘She’s not my friend,’ I said.
‘Nor mine,’ she said. ‘Last year she threw a drink in my face.’
‘I heard about that,’ I said, laughing, but she didn’t smile.
‘Don’t believe everything you hear,’ she said, and took another sip of her drink. ‘Do you know who Cloke Rayburn is?’
I knew of him. There was a tight, fashionable clique of Californians at Hampden, mostly from San Francisco and L. A.; Cloke Rayburn was at its center, all bored smiles and sleepy eyes and cigarettes. The girls from Los Angeles, Judy Poovey included, were fanatically devoted to him. He was the sort you saw in the men’s room at parties, doing coke on the edge of the sink.
‘He’s a friend of Bunny’s.’
‘How’s that?’ I said, surprised.
‘They were at prep school together. At Saint Jerome’s in Pennsylvania.’
‘You know Hampden,’ said Charles, taking a large gulp of his 7i drink. ‘These progressive schools, they love the problem student, the underdog. Cloke came in from some college in Colorado after his first year. He went skiing every day and failed every class. Hampden’s the last place on earth ‘
‘For the worst people in the world,’ said Camilla, laughing.
‘Oh, come on now,’ I said.
‘Well, in a way, I think it’s true,’ said Charles. ‘Half the people here are here because nowhere else would let them in. Not that Hampden’s not a wonderful school. Maybe that’s why it’s wonderful. Take Henry, for instance. If Hampden hadn’t let him in, he probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all.’
‘I can’t believe that,’ I said.
‘Well, it does sound absurd, but he never went past tenth grade in high school and, 1 mean, how many decent colleges are likely to take a tenth-grade dropout? Then there’s the business of standardized tests. Henry refused to take the SATs – he’d probably score off the charts if he did, but he’s got some kind of aesthetic objection to them. You can imagine how that looks to an admissions board.’ He took another sip of his drink. ‘So, how did you end up here?’
The expression in his eyes was hard to read. ‘I liked the catalogue,’ I said.
‘And to the admissions board I’m sure that seemed a perfectly sensible reason for letting you in.’
I wished I had a glass of water. The room was hot and my throat was dry and the whiskey had left a terrible taste in my mouth, not that it was bad whiskey; it was actually quite good, but I had a hangover and I hadn’t eaten all day, and I felt, all at once, very nauseous.
There was a knock at the door and then a flurry of knocks.
Without a word, Charles drained his drink and ducked back into the kitchen while Camilla went to answer it.
Before it was even open all the way I could see the glint of little round glasses. There was a chorus of hellos, and there they 72. all were: Henry; Bunny, with a brown paper bag from the supermarket; Francis, majestic in his long black coat, clutching, with a black-gloved hand, the neck of a bottle of champagne.
The last inside, he leaned to kiss Camilla – not on the cheek, but on the mouth, with a loud and satisfied smack. ‘Hello, dear,’ he said. ‘What a happy mistake we have made. I’ve got champagne, and Bunny brought stout, so we can make black and tans. What have we got to eat tonight?’
I stood up.
For a fraction of a second they were struck silent. Then Bunny shoved his paper bag at Henry and stepped forward to shake my hand. ‘Well, well. If it isn’t my partner in crime,’ he said. ‘Haven’t had enough of going out to dinner, eh?’
He slapped me on the back and started to babble. I felt hot, and rather sick. My eyes wandered around the room. Francis was talking to Camilla. Henry, by the door, gave me a small nod and a smile, nearly imperceptible.
‘Excuse me,’ I said to Bunny. Till be back in just a minute.’
I found my way to the kitchen. It was like a kitchen in an old person’s house, with shabby red linoleum and – in keeping with this odd apartment – a door that led onto the roof. I filled a glass from the tap and bolted it, a case of too much, too quickly.
Charles had the oven open and was poking at some lamb chops with a fork.
I – due largely to a rather harrowing tour my sixth-grade class took through a meat-packing plant – have never been much of a meat eater; the smell of lamb I would not have found appealing in the best of circumstances, but it was particularly repulsive in my current state. The door to the roof was propped open with a kitchen chair, a draft blowing through the rusty screen. I filled my glass again and went to stand by the door: deep breaths, I thought, fresh air, that’s the ticket… Charles burned his finger, cursed, and slammed the oven shut. When he turned around he seemed surprised to find me.
‘Oh, hi,’ he said. ‘What is it? Can I get you another drink?’
He peered at my glass. ‘What’ve you got? Is that gin? Where did you dig that up?’
Henry appeared in the door. ‘Do you have an aspirin?’ he said to Charles.
‘Over there. Have a drink, why don’t you.’
Henry shook a few aspirins into his hand, along with a couple of mystery pills from his pocket, and washed them down with the glass of whiskey Charles gave him.
He had left the aspirin bottle on the counter and surreptitiously I went over and got a couple for myself, but Henry saw me do it. ‘Are you ill?’ he said, not unkindly.
‘No, just a headache,’ 1 said.
‘You don’t have them often, I hope?’
‘What?’ said Charles. ‘Is everybody sick?’
‘Why is everybody in here?’ Bunny’s pained voice came booming from the hallway. ‘When do we eat?’
‘Hold on, Bun, it’ll only be a minute.’
He sauntered in, peering over Charles’s shoulder at the tray of chops he’d just removed from the broiler. ‘Looks done to me,’ he said, and he reached over and picked up a tiny chop by the bone end and began to gnaw on it.
‘Bunny, don’t, really,’ said Charles. ‘There won’t be enough to go around.’
‘I’m starving,’ said Bunny with his mouth full. ‘Weak from hunger.’
‘Maybe we can save the bones for you to chew on,’ Henry said rudely.
‘Oh, shut up.’
‘Really, Bun, I wish you would wait just a minute,’ said Charles.
‘Okay,’ Bunny said, but he reached over and stole another chop when Charles’s back was turned. A thin trickle of pinkish juice trickled down his hand and disappeared into the cuff of his sleeve.
To say that the dinner went badly would be an exaggeration, but it didn’t go all that well, either. Though I didn’t do anything stupid, exactly, or say anything that I shouldn’t, I felt dejected and bilious, and I talked little and ate even less. Much of the talk centered around events to which I was not privy, and even Charles’s kind parenthetical remarks of explanation did not help much to clarify it. Henry and Francis argued interminably about how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion had stood: shoulder to shoulder (as Francis said) or (as Henry maintained) three or four feet apart. This led into an even longer argument – hard to follow and, to me, intensely boring – about whether Hesiod’s primordial Chaos was simply empty space or chaos in the modern sense of the word.
Camilla put on ajosephine Baker record; Bunny ate my lamb chop.
I left early. Both Francis and Henry offered to drive me home, which for some reason made me feel even worse. I told them I’d rather walk, thanks, and backed out of the apartment, smiling, practically delirious, my face burning under the collective gaze of cool, curious solicitude.
It wasn’t far to school, only fifteen minutes, but it was getting cold and my head hurt and the whole evening had left me with a keen sense of inadequacy and failure which grew keener with every step. I moved relentlessly over the evening, back and forth, straining to remember exact words, telling inflections, any subtle insults or kindnesses I might’ve missed, and my mind – quite willingly – supplied various distortions.
When I got to my room it was silver and alien with moonlight, the window still open and the Parmenides open on the desk where I had left it; a half-drunk coffee from the snack bar stood beside it, cold in its styrofoam cup. The room was chilly but I didn’t shut the window. Instead, I lay down on my bed, without taking off my shoes, without turning on the light.
As I lay on my side, staring at a pool of white moonlight on the wooden floor, a gust of wind blew the curtains out, long and pale as ghosts. As though an invisible hand were leafing through them, the pages of the Pannenides rippled back and forth.
I had meant to sleep only a few hours, but I woke with a start the next morning to find sunlight pouring in and the clock reading five of nine. Without stopping to shave or comb my hair or even change my clothes from the night before, I grabbed my Greek Prose composition book and my Liddell and Scott and ran to Julian’s office.
Except for Julian, who always made a point of arriving a few minutes late, everyone was there. From the hall I heard them talking, but when I opened the door they all fell quiet and looked at me.
No one said anything for a moment. Then Henry said: ‘Good morning.’
‘Good morning,’ I said. In the clear northern light they all looked fresh, well rested, startled at my appearance; they stared at me as I ran a self-conscious hand through my disheveled hair.
‘Looks like you didn’t meet up with a razor this morning, chap,’ said Bunny to me. ‘Looks like ‘
Then the door opened and Julian walked in.
There was a great deal to do in class that day, especially for me, being so far behind; on Tuesdays and Thursdays it might be pleasant to sit around and talk about literature, or philosophy, but the rest of the week was taken up in Greek grammar and prose composition and that, for the most part, was brutal, bludgeoning labor, labor that I – being older now, and a little less hardy would scarcely be able to force myself to do today. I had certainly plenty to worry about besides the coldness which apparently had infected my classmates once again, their crisp air of solidarity, the cool way their eyes seemed to look right through me. There had been an opening in their ranks, but now it was closed; I was bark, it seemed, exactly where I’d begun.
That afternoon, I went to see Julian on the pretext of talking about credit transfers, but with something very different on my mind.
For it seemed, quite suddenly, that my decision to drop everything for Greek had been a rash and foolish one, and made for all the wrong reasons. What had I been thinking of? I liked Greek, and I liked Julian, but I wasn’t sure if I liked his pupils or not and anyway, did I really want to spend my college career and subsequently my life looking at pictures of broken kouroi and poring over the Greek particles? Two years before, I had made a similar heedless decision which had plummeted me into a nightmarish, year-long round of chloroformed rabbits and day trips to the morgue, from which I had barely escaped at all. This was by no means as bad (with a shudder I remembered my old zoology lab, eight in the morning, the bobbing vats of fetal pigs), by no means -1 told myself- as bad as that. But still it seemed like a big mistake, and it was too late in the term to pickup my old classes or change counselors again.
I suppose I’d gone to see Julian in order to revive my flagging assurance, in hopes he would make me feel as certain as I had that first day. And I am fairly sure he would have done just that if only I had made it in to see him. But as it happened, I didn’t get to talk to him at all. Stepping onto the landing outside his office, I heard voices in the hall and stopped.
It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing in the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance. Making the vain, or rather paranoid, assumption that they might be talking about me, I took a step closer and peered as far as I could risk around the corner.
Julian finished speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry.
Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. ‘Should I do what is necessary?’
To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own.
‘You should only, ever, do what is necessary,’ he said.
What, I thought, the hell is going on? I stood at the top of the stairs, trying not to make a sound, wanting to leave before they saw me but afraid to move.
To my utter, utter surprise Henry leaned over and gave Julian a quick little businesslike kiss on the cheek. Then he turned to leave, but fortunately for me he looked over his shoulder to say one last thing; I crept down the stairs as quietly as I could, breaking into a run when I was at the second landing and out of earshot.
The week that followed was a solitary and surreal one. The leaves were changing; it rained a good deal and got dark early; in Monmouth House people gathered around the downstairs fireplace, burning logs stolen by stealth of night from the faculty house, and drank warm cider in their stocking feet. But I went straight to my classes and straight back to Monmouth and up the stairs to my room, bypassing all these homey firelit scenes and hardly speaking to a soul, even to the chummier sorts who invited me down to join in all this communal dorm fun.
I suppose I was only a little depressed, now the novelty of it had worn off, at the wildly alien character of the place in which I found myself: a strange land with strange customs and peoples and unpredictable weathers. I thought I was sick, though I don’t believe I really was; I was just cold all the time and unable to sleep, sometimes no more than an hour or two a night.
Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favorite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.
Tm a survivor,’ the girl at the party was saying to me. She was blond and tan and too tall – almost my height – and without even asking I knew she was from California. I suppose it was something in her voice, something about the expanse of reddened, freckled skin, stretched taut over a bony clavicle and a bonier sternum and ribcage and entirely unrelieved by breasts of any sort – which presented itself to me through the lacuna of a Gaultier corselet. It was Gaultier, I knew, because she’d sort of casually let that slip. To my eyes it looked only like a wet suit, laced crudely up the front.
She was shouting at me over the music. ‘I guess I’ve had a pretty hard life, with my injury and all’ (I had heard about this previously: loose tendons; dance world’s loss; performance-art’s gain) ‘but I guess I just have a very strong sense of myself, of my own needs. Other people are important to me, sure, but I always get what I want from them, you know.’ Her voice was brusque with the staccato Californians sometimes affect when they’re trying too hard to be from New York, but there was a bright hard edge of that Golden State cheeriness, too. A Cheerleader of the Damned. She was the kind of pretty, burnt-out, vacuous girl who at home wouldn’t have given me the time of day. But now I realized she was trying to pick me up. I hadn’t slept with anybody in Vermont except a little red-haired girl I met at a party on the first weekend. Somebody told me later she was a paper-mill heiress from the Midwest. Now I cut my eyes away whenever we met. (The gentleman’s way out, as my classmates used to joke.)
‘Do you want a cigarette?’ I shouted at this one.
‘I don’t smoke.’
‘I don’t, either, except at parties.’
She laughed. ‘Well, sure, give me one,’ she yelled in my ear.
‘You don’t know where we can find any pot, do you?’
While I was lighting the cigarette for her, someone elbowed me in the back and I lurched forward. The music was insanely loud and people were dancing and there was beer puddled on the floor and a rowdy mob at the bar. I couldn’t see much but a Dantesque mass of bodies on the dance floor and a cloud of smoke hovering near the ceiling, but I could see, where light from the corridor spilled into the darkness, an upturned glass here, a wide lipsticked laughing mouth there. As parties go, this was a nasty one and getting worse – already certain of the freshmen had begun to throw up as they waited in dismal lines for the bathroom – but it was Friday and I’d spent all week reading and I didn’t care. I knew none of my fellow Greek students would be there. Having been to every Friday night party since school began, I knew they avoided them like the Black Death.
‘Thanks,’ said the girl. She had edged into a stairwell, where things were a little quieter. Now it was possible to talk without shouting but I’d had about six vodka tonics and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her, I couldn’t even remember her name.
‘Uh, what’s your major,’ I said drunkenly at last.
She smiled. ‘Performance art. You asked me that already.’
‘Sorry. I forgot.’
She looked at me critically. ‘You ought to loosen up. Look at your hands. You’re very tense.’
‘This is about as loose as I get,’ I said, quite truthfully.
She looked at me, and a light of recognition began to dawn in her eyes. ‘I know who you are,’ she said, looking at my jacket and my tie that had the pictures of the men hunting deer on it.
‘Judy told me all about you. You’re the new guy who’s studying Greek with those creepos.’
‘Judy? Whar do you mean, Judy told you about me?’
She ignored this. ‘You had better watch out,’ she said. ‘I have heard some weird shit about those people.’
‘Like they worship the flicking Devil.’
‘The Greeks have no Devil,’ I said pedantically.
‘Well, that’s not what I heard.’
‘Well, so what. You’re wrong.’
‘That’s not all. I’ve heard some other stuff, too.’
She wouldn’t say.
‘Who told you this? Judy?’
‘Seth Gartrell,’ she said, as if that settled the matter.
As it happened, I knew Gartrell. He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, guttural verbs, and the word ‘postmodernist.’
‘That swine,’ I said. ‘You know him?’
She looked at me with a glitter of antagonism. ‘Seth Gartrell is my good friend.’
I really had had a bit much to drink. ‘Is he?’ I said. ‘Tell me, then. How does his girlfriend get all those black eyes? And does he really piss on his paintings like Jackson Pollock?’
‘Seth,’ she said coldly, ‘is a genius.’
‘Is that so? Then he’s certainly a master of deception, isn’t he?’
‘He is a wonderful painter. Conceptually, that is. Everybody in the art department says so.’
‘Well then. If everybody says it, it must be true,’ ‘A lot of people don’t like Seth.’ She was angry now. ‘I think a lot of people are just jealous of him.’
A hand tugged at the back of my sleeve, near the elbow. I shrugged it off. With my luck it could only be Judy Poovey, trying to hit up on me as she inevitably did about this time every Friday night. But the tug came again, this time sharper and more impatient; irritably I turned, and almost stumbled backwards into the blonde.
It was Camilla. Her iron-colored eyes were all I saw at first luminous, bemused, bright in the dim light from the bar. ‘Hi,’ she said.
I stared at her. ‘Helio,’ I said, trying to be nonchalant but delighted and beaming down at her all the same. ‘How are you?
What are you doing here? Can I get you a drink?’
‘Are you busy?’ she said.
It was hard to think. The little gold hairs were curled in a very engaging way at her temples. ‘No, no, I’m not busy at all,’ I said, looking not at her eyes but at this fascinating area around her forehead.
‘If you are, just say so,’ she said in an undertone, looking over my shoulder. ‘I don’t want to drag you away from anything.’
Of course: Miss Gaul tier. I turned around, half-expecting some snide comment, but she’d lost interest and was talking pointedly to someone else. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing a thing.’
‘Do you want to go to the country this weekend?’
‘We’re leaving now. Francis and me. He has a house about an hour from here.’
I was really drunk; otherwise I wouldn’t have just nodded and followed her without a single question. To get to the door, we had to make our way through the dance floor: sweat and heat, blinking Christmas lights, a dreadful crush of bodies. When finally we stepped outside, it was like falling into a pool of cool, still water. Shrieks and depraved music throbbed, muffled, through the closed windows.
‘My God,’ said Camilla. ‘Those things are hellish. People being sick all over the place.’
The pebbled drive was silver in the moonlight. Francis was standing in the shadows under some trees. When he saw us coming he stepped suddenly onto the lighted path. ‘Boo,’ he said.
We both jumped back. Francis smiled thinly, light glinting off his fraudulent pince-nez. Cigarette smoke curled from his nostrils.
‘Hello,’ he said to me, then glanced at Camilla. ‘I thought you’d run off,’ he said.
‘You should have come in with me.’
‘I’m glad I didn’t,’ said Francis, ‘because I saw some interesting things out here,’ ‘Like what?’
‘Like some security guards handing out a girl on a stretcher and a black dog attacking some hippies.’ He laughed, then tossed his car keys in the air and caught them with a jingle. ‘Are you ready?’
He had a convertible, an old Mustang, and we drove all the way to the country with the top down and the three of us in the front seat. Amazingly, I had never been in a convertible before, and it is even more amazing that I managed to fall asleep when both momentum and nerves should’ve kept me awake but I did, fell asleep with my cheek resting on the padded leather of the door, my sleepless week and the six vodka tonics hitting me as hard as an injection.
I remember little of the ride. Francis drove at a reasonable clip – he was a careful driver, unlike Henry, who drove fast and often recklessly and whose eyes were none too good besides. The night wind in my hair, their indistinct talk, the songs on the radio all mingled and blurred in my dreams. It seemed we’d been driving for only a few minutes when suddenly I was conscious of silence, and of Camilla’s hand on my shoulder. ‘Wake up,’ she said.
Dazed, half dreaming, not quite sure where I was, I shook my head and inched up in my seat. There was drool on my cheek and I wiped it off with the flat of my hand.
‘Arc you awake?’
‘Yes,’ I said, though I wasn’t. It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.
‘Geez,’ I said.
Francis was standing beside me, but I was scarcely aware of it till he spoke, and I was startled by the closeness of his voice. ‘You can’t get a very good idea of it at night,’ he said.
‘This belongs to you?’ I said.
He laughed. ‘No. It’s my aunt’s. Way too big for her, but she won’t sell it. She and my cousins come in the summer, and only a caretaker the rest of the year.’
The entrance hall had a sweet, musty smell and was so dim it seemed almost gaslit; the walls were spidery with the shadows of potted palms and on the ceilings, so high they made my head reel, loomed distorted traces of our own shadows. Someone in the back of the house was playing the piano. Photographs and gloomy, gilt-framed portraits lined the hall in long perspectives.
‘It smells terrible in here,’ said Francis. ‘Tomorrow, if it’s warm, we’ll air it out, Bunny gets asthma from all this dust…
That’s my great-grandmother,’ he said, pointing at a photograph which he saw had caught my attention. ‘And that’s her brother next to her – he went down on the Titanic, poor thing. They found his tennis racket floating around in the North Atlantic about three weeks afterward.’
‘Come see the library,’ said Camilla.
Francis close behind us, we went down the hall and through several rooms – a lemon-yellow sitting room with gilt mirrors and chandeliers, a dining room dark with mahogany, rooms I wanted to linger in but got only a glimpse of. The piano music got closer; it was Chopin, one of the preludes, maybe.
Walking into the library, I took in my breath sharply and stopped: glass-fronted bookcases and Gothic panels, stretching fifteen feet to a frescoed and plaster-medallioned ceiling. In the back of the room was a marble fireplace, big as a sepulchre, and a globed gasolier – dripping with prisms and strings of crystal beading – sparkled in the dim.
There was a piano, too, and Charles was playing, a glass of whiskey on the seat beside him. He was a little drunk; the Chopin was slurred and fluid, the notes melting sleepily into one another.
A breeze stirred the heavy, moth-eaten velvet curtains, ruffling his hair.
‘Golly,’ I said.
The playing stopped abruptly and Charles looked up. ‘Well there you are,’ he said. ‘You’re awfully late. Bunny’s gone to sleep.’
‘Where’s Henry?’ said Francis.
‘Working. He might come down before bed.’
Camilla went to the piano and took a sip from Charles’s glass.
‘You should have a look at these books,’ she said to me. ‘There’s a first edition oflvanhoe here.’
‘Actually, I think they sold that one,’ said Francis, sitting in a leather armchair and lighting a cigarette. ‘There are one or two interesting things but mostly it’s Marie Corelli and old Rover Boys.’
I walked over to the shelves. Something called London by somebody called Pennant, six volumes bound in red leather massive books, two feet tall. Next to it The Club History of London, an equally massive set, bound in pale calfhide. The libretto of The Pirates of Penzance. Numberless Bobbsey Twins. Byron’s Marino Faliero, bound in black leather, with the date 1821 stamped in gold on the spine.
‘Here, go make your own drink if you want one,’ Charles was saying to Camilla.
‘I don’t want my own. I want some of yours.’
He gave her the glass with one hand and, with the other, wobbled up a difficult backwards-and-forwards scale.
‘Play something,’ I said.
He rolled his eyes.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Camilla.
‘Of course, he can’t really play anything,’ Francis said in a sympathetic undertone.
Charles took a swallow of his drink and ran up another octave, trilling nonsensically on the keys with his right hand. Then he handed the glass to Camilla and, left hand free, reached down and turned the fibrillation into the opening notes of a Scott Joplin rag.
He played with relish, sleeves rolled up, smiling at his work, tinkling from the low ranges to the high with the tricky syncopation of a tap dancer going up a Ziegfeld staircase. Camilla, on the seat beside him, smiled at me. I smiled back, a little dazed.
The ceilings had set off a ghostly echo, giving all that desperate hilarity the quality of a memory even as I sat listening to it, memories of things I’d never known.
Charlestons on the wings of airborne biplanes. Parties on sinking ships, the icy water bubbling around the waists of the orchestra as they sawed out a last brave chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Actually, it wasn’t ‘Auld Lang Syne’ they’d sung, the night the Titanic went down, but hymns. Lots of hymns, and the Catholic priest saying Hail Marys, and the first-class salon which had really looked a lot like this: dark wood, potted palms, rose silk lampshades with their swaying fringe. I really had had a bit much to drink. I was sitting sideways in my chair, holding tight to the arms (Holy Mary, Mother of God), and even the floors were listing, like the decks of a foundering ship; like we might all slide to the other end with a hysterical wheeee! piano and all.
There were footsteps on the stair and Bunny, his eyes screwed up and his hair standing on end, tottered in wearing his pajamas.
‘What the hell,’ he said. ‘You woke me up.’ But nobody paid any attention to him. and finally he poured himself a drink and tottered back up the stairs with it, in his bare feet, to bed.
The chronological sorting of memories is an interesting business.
Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off – though their reality was far more interesting than any idealized version could possibly be – but it is here, in my memory, that they cease being totally foreign and begin to appear, for the first time, in shapes very like their bright old selves.
I too appear as something of a stranger in these early memories: watchful and grudging, oddly silent. All my life, people have taken my shyness for sullenness, snobbery, bad temper of one sort or another. ‘Stop looking so superior!’ my father sometimes used to shout at me when I was eating, watching television, or otherwise minding my own business. But this facial cast of mine (that’s what I think it is, really, a way my mouth has of turning down at the corners, it has little to do with my actual moods) has worked as often to my favor as to my disadvantage.
Months after I got to know the five of them, I found to my surprise that at the start they’d been nearly as bewildered by me as I by them. It never occurred to me that my behavior could seem to them anything but awkward and provincial, certainly not that it would appear as enigmatic as it in fact did; why, they eventually asked me, hadn’t I told anyone anything about myself?
Why had I gone to such lengths to avoid them? (Startled, I realized my trick of ducking into doorways wasn’t as clandestine as I’d thought.) And why hadn’t I returned any of their invitations?
Though I had believed they were snubbing me, now I realize they were only waiting, politely as maiden aunts, for me to make the next move.
At any rate, this was the weekend that things started to change, that the dark gaps between the street lamps begin to grow smaller and smaller, and farther apart, the first sign that one’s train is approaching familiar territory, and will soon be passing through the well-known, well-lighted streets of town. The house was their trump card, their fondest treasure, and that weekend they revealed it to me slyly, by degrees – the dizzy little turret rooms, the high-beamed attic, the old sleigh in the cellar, big enough to be pulled by four horses, astring with bells. The carriage barn was a caretaker’s house. (‘That’s Mrs Hatch in the yard. She’s very sweet but her husband is a Seventh-Day Adventist or something, quite strict. We have to hide all the bottles when he comes inside.’
‘Or he’ll get depressed and start leaving little tracts all over the place.’)
In the afternoon we wandered down to the lake, which was shared, discreetly, by several adjoining properties. On the way they pointed out the tennis court and the old summerhouse, a mock tholos, Doric by way of Pompeii, and Stanford White, and (said Francis, who was scornful of this Victorian effort at classicism) D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille. It was made of plaster, he said, and had come in pieces from Sears, Roebuck.
The grounds, in places, bore signs of the geometric Victorian trimness which had been their original form: drained fish-pools; the long white colonnades of skeleton pergolas; rock-bordered parterres where flowers no longer grew. But for the most part, these traces were obliterated, with the hedges running wild and native trees – slippery elm and tamarack – outnumbering the quince and Japanese maple.
The lake, surrounded by birches, was bright and very still.
Muddled in the rushes was a small wooden rowboat, painted white on the outside and blue within.
‘Can we take it out?’ I said, intrigued.
‘Of course. But we can’t all go, we’ll sink.’
I had never been in a boat in my life. Henry and Camilla went out with me – Henry at the oars, his sleeves rolled to the elbow and his dark jacket on the seat beside him. He had a habit, as I was later to discover, of trailing off into absorbed, didactic, entirely self-contained monologues, about whatever he happened to be interested in at the time – the Catuvellauni, or late Byzantine painting, or headhunting in the Solomon Islands. That day he was talking about Elizabeth and Leicester, I remember: the murdered wife, the royal barge, the queen on a white horse talking to the troops at Tilbury Fort, and Leicester and the Earl of Essex holding the bridle rein… The swish of the oars and the hypnotic thrum of dragonflies blended with his academic monotone. Camilla, flushed and sleepy, trailed her hand in the water. Yellow birch leaves blew from the trees and drifted down to rest on the surface. It was many years later, and far away, when I came across this passage in The Waste Land: Elizabeth and Leicester Beating oars The stern was formed A gilded shell Red and gold The brisk swell Rippled both shores Southwest wind Carried down stream The peal of bells White towers Weialala leia Wallala leilala We went to the other side of the lake and returned, half-blinded by the light on the water, to find Bunny and Charles on the front porch, eating ham sandwiches and playing cards.
‘Have some champagne, quick,’ Bunny said. ‘It’s going flat.’
‘Where is it?’
‘In the teapot.’
‘Mr Hatch would be beside himself if he saw a bottle on the porch,’ said Charles.
They were playing Go Fish: it was the only card game that Bunny knew.
On Sunday I woke early to a quiet house. Francis had given my clothes to Mrs Hatch to be laundered; putting on a bathrobe he’d lent me, I went downstairs to sit on the porch for a few minutes before the others woke up.
Outside, it was cool and still, the sky that hazy shade of white peculiar to autumn mornings, and the wicker chairs were drenched with dew. The hedges and the acres and acres of lawn were covered in a network of spider web that caught the dew in beads so that it glistened white as frost. Preparing for their journey south, the martins flapped and fretted in the eaves, and, from the blanket of mist hovering over the lake, I heard the harsh, lonely cry of the mallards.
‘Good morning,’ a cool voice behind me said.
Startled, I turned to see Henry sitting at the other end of the porch. He was without a jacket but otherwise immaculate for such an ungodly hour: trousers knife-pressed, his white shirt crisp with starch. On the table in front of him were books and papers, a steaming espresso pot and a tiny cup, and – I was surprised to see – an unfiltered cigarette burning in an ashtray.
‘You’re up early,’ I said.
‘I always rise early. The morning is the best time for me to work.’
I glanced at the books. ‘What are you doing, Greek?’
Henry set the cup back into its saucer. ‘A translation of Paradise Lost.’
‘Into what language?’
‘Latin,’ he said solemnly.
‘Hmm,’ 1 said. ‘Why?’
‘I am interested to see what I will wind up with. Milton to my way of thinking is our greatest English poet, greater than Shakespeare, but I think in some ways it was unfortunate that he chose to write in English – of course, he wrote a not inconsiderable amount of poetry in Latin, but that was early, in his student days; what I’m referring to is the later work. In Paradise Lost he pushes English to its very limits but I think no language without noun cases could possibly support the structural order he attempts to impose.’ He laid his cigarette back in the ashtray. I stared at it burning. ‘Will you have some coffee?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘I hope you slept well.’
‘I sleep better out here than I usually do,’ said Henry, adjusting his glasses and bending back over the lexicon. There was a subtle evidence of fatigue, and strain, in the slope of his shoulders which I, a veteran of many sleepless nights, recognized immediately.
Suddenly I realized that this unprofitable task of his was probably nothing more than a method of whiling away the early morning hours, much as other insomniacs do crossword puzzles.
‘Are you always up this early?’ I asked him.
‘Almost always,’ he said without looking up. ‘It’s beautiful here, but morning light can make the most vulgar things tolerable.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I said, and I did. About the only time of day I had been able to stand in Piano was the very early morning, almost dawn, when the streets were empty and the light was golden and kind on the dry grass, the chain-link fences, the solitary scrub-oaks.
Henry looked up from his books at me. ‘You’re not very happy where you come from, are you?’ he said.
I was startled at this Holmes-like deduction. He smiled at my evident discomfiture.
‘Don’t worry. You hide it very cleverly,’ he said, going back to his book. Then he looked up again. ‘The others really don’t understand that sort of thing, you know.’
He said this without malice, without empathy, without even much in the way of interest. I was not even sure what he meant, but, for the first time, I had a glimmer of something I had not previously understood: why the others were all so fond of him.
Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart. And I, being young myself, took these pronouncements of Henry’s very seriously. I doubt if Milton himself could have impressed me more.
I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class – have stayed with me through the years. It is easy, even now, for me to remember what their daily routines, which subsequently became my own, were like. Regardless of circumstance they lived like clockwork, with surprisingly little of that chaos which to me had always seemed so inherent a part of college life – irregular diet and work habits, trips to the Laundromat at one a. m. There were certain times of the day or night, even when the world was falling in, when you could always find Henry in the all-night study room of the library, or when you knew it would be useless to even look for Bunny, because he was on his Wednesday date with Marion or his Sunday walk. (Rather in the way that the Roman I Empire continued in a certain fashion to run itself even when there was no one left to run it and the reason behind it was entirely gone, much of this routine remained intact even during the terrible days after Bunny’s death. Up until the very end there was always, always, Sunday-night dinner at Charles and Camilla’s, except on the evening of the murder itself, when no one felt much like eating and it was postponed until Monday.)
I was surprised by how easily they managed to incorporate me into their cyclical, Byzantine existence. They were all so used to one another that I think they found me refreshing, and they were intrigued by even the most mundane of my habits: by my fondness for mystery novels and my chronic movie-going; by the fact that I used disposable razors from the supermarket and cut my own hair instead of going to the barber; even by the fact that I read papers and watched news on television from time to time (a habit which seemed to them an outrageous eccentricity, peculiar to me alone; none of them were the least bit interested in anything that went on in the world, and their ignorance of current events and even recent history was rather astounding.
Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled to learn from me that men had walked on the moon. ‘No,’ he said, putting down his fork.
‘It’s true,’ chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘I saw it,’ said Bunny. ‘It was on television.’
‘How did they get there? When did this happen?’).
They were still overwhelming as a group, and it was on an individual basis that I really got to know them. Because he knew I kept late hours, too, Henry would sometimes stop by late at night, on his way home from the library. Francis, who was a terrible hypochondriac and refused to go to the doctor alone, frequently dragged me along and it was, oddly enough, during those drives to the allergist in Manchester or the ear-nose-and throat man in Keene that we became friends. That fall, he had to have a root canal, over about four or five weeks; each Wednesday afternoon he would show up, white-faced and silent, at my room, and we would go together to a bar in town and drink until his appointment, at three. The ostensible purpose of my coming was so I could drive him home when he got out, woozy with laughing gas, but as I waited for him at the bar while he went across the street to the dentist’s office, I was generally in no better condition to drive than he was.
I liked the twins most. They treated me in a happy, offhand manner which implied I’d known them much longer than I had.
Camilla I was fondest of, but as much as I enjoyed her company I was slightly uneasy in her presence; not because of any lack of charm or kindness on her part, but because of a too-strong wish to impress her on mine. Though I looked forward to seeing her, and thought of her anxiously and often, I was more comfortable with Charles. He was a lot like his sister, impulsive and generous, but more moody; and though he sometimes had long gloomy spells, he was very talkative when not suffering from these. In either mood, I got along with him well. We borrowed Henry’s car, drove to Maine so he could have a club sandwich in a bar he liked there; went to Bennington, Manchester, the greyhound track in Pownal, where he ended up bringing home a dog too old to race, in order to save it from being put to sleep. The dog’s name was Frost. It loved Camilla, and followed her everywhere: Henry quoted long passages about Emma Bovary and her greyhound: ‘Sa pensee, sans but d’abord, vagabonda. it au hasard, comme sa levrette, quifaisait des cercles clans la campagne…’ But the dog was weak, and highly strung, and suffered a heart attack one bright December morning in the country, leaping from the porch in happy pursuit of a squirrel. This was by no means unexpected; the man at the track had warned Charles that she might not live the week; still, the twins were upset, and we spent a sad afternoon burying her in the back garden of Francis’s house, where one of I Francis’s aunts had an elaborate cat cemetery, complete with headstones.
The dog was fond of Bunny, too. It used to go with Bunny and me on long, grueling rambles through the countryside every Sunday, over fences and streams, through bogs and pastures.
Bunny was himself as fond of walks as an old dog – his hikes were so exhausting, he had a hard time finding anyone to accompany him except me and the dog – but it was because of those walks that I became familiar with the land around Hampden, the logging roads and hunter’s trails, all his hidden waterfalls and secret swimming holes.
Bunny’s girlfriend, Marion, was around surprisingly little; partially, I think, because he didn’t want her there but also, I think, because she was even less interested in us than we were in her.
(‘She likes to be with her girlfriends a lot,’ Bunny would say boastfully to Charles and me. ‘They talk about clothes and boys and all that kind of malarkey. You know.’) She was a small, petulant blonde from Connecticut, pretty in the same standard, round-faced way in which Bunny was handsome, and her manner of dress was at once girlish and shockingly matronly – flowered skirts, monogrammed sweaters with bags and shoes to match.
From time to time I would see her at a distance in the playground of the Early Childhood Center as I walked to class. It was some branch of the Elementary Education department at Hampden; kids from the town went to nursery school and kindergarten there, and there she would be with them, in her monogrammed sweaters, blowing a whistle and trying to make them all shut up and get in line.
No one would talk about it much, but I gathered that earlier, abortive attempts to include Marion in the activities of the group had ended in disaster. She liked Charles, who was generally polite to everyone and had the unflagging capacity to carry on conversations with anyone from little kids to the ladies who worked in the cafeteria; and she regarded Henry, as did most I everyone who knew him. with a kind of fearful respect; but she hated Camilla, and between her and Francis there had been some m catastrophic incident which was so frightful that no one would even talk about it. She and Bunny had a relationship the likes of which I had seldom seen except in couples married for twenty years or more, a relationship which vacillated between the touching and the annoying. In her dealings with him she was very bossy and businesslike, treating him in much the same way she handled her kindergarten pupils; he responded in kind, alternately wheedling, affectionate, or sulky. Most of the time he bore her nagging patiently, but when he did not, terrible fights ensued.
Sometimes he would knock on my door late at night, looking haggard and wild-eyed and more rumpled than usual, mumbling, ‘Lemme in, old man, you gotta help me, Marion’s on the warpath…’ Minutes later, there would be a neat report of sharp knocks at the door: rat-a-tat-tat. It would be Marion, her little mouth tight, looking like a small, angry doll.
‘Is Bunny there?’ she would say, stretching up on tiptoe and craning to look past me into the room.
‘He’s not here.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘He’s not here, Marion.’
‘Bunny!’ she would call out ominously.
And then, to my acute embarrassment, Bunny would emerge sheepishly in the doorway. ‘Hello, sweetie,’ ‘Where have you been?’
Bunny would hem and haw.
‘Well, I think we need to talk.’
‘I’m busy now, honey.’
‘Well’ – she would look at her tasteful little Cartier watch ‘I’m going home now. I’ll be up for about thirty minutes and then I’m going to sleep.’
‘I’ll see you in about twenty minutes, then.’
‘Hey, wait just a second there. I never said I was going to ‘
‘See you in a little while,’ she would say, and leave.
‘I’m not going,’ Bunny would say.
‘No, I wouldn’t.’
‘I mean, who does she think she is.’
‘I mean, gotta teach her a lesson sometime. I’m a busy man.
On the move. My time’s my own.’
An uneasy silence would fall. Finally Bunny would get up.
‘Guess I better go.’
‘All right, Bun.’
‘I mean, I’m not gonna go over to Marion’s, if that’s what you think,’ he’d say defensively.
‘Of course not.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Bunny would say distractedly, and bluster away.
The next day, he and Marion would be having lunch together or walking down by the playground. ‘So you and Marion got everything straightened out, huh?’ one of us would ask when next we saw him alone.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Bunny would say, embarrassed.
The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside.
Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis (overhead volley going out of court; poking dispiritedly in the tall grass with the ends of our rackets for the lost ball) we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.
Now that I think about it, it seems while we were out there we drank almost constantly – never very much at once, but the I thin liicklc of spirits which began with the Bloody Marys at ^ breakfast would last until bedtime, and that, more than anything ™ else, was probably responsible for our torpor. Bringing a book outside to read, I would fall asleep almost immediately in my chair; when I took the boat out I soon tired of rowing and allowed myself to drift all afternoon. (That boat! Sometimes, even now, when I have trouble sleeping, I try to imagine that I am lying in that rowboat, my head pillowed on the cross-slats of the stern, water lapping hollow through the wood and yellow birch leaves floating down to brush my face.) Occasionally, we would attempt something a little more ambitious. Once, when Francis found a Beretta and ammunition in his aunt’s night table, we went through a brief spate of target practice (the greyhound, jumpy from years of the starting gun, had to be secluded in the cellar), shooting at mason jars that were lined on a wicker tea-table we’d dragged into the yard. But that came to a quick end when Henry, who was very nearsighted, shot and killed a duck by mistake. He was quite shaken by it and we put the pistol away.
The others liked croquet, but Bunny and I didn’t; neither of us ever quite got the hang of it, and we always hacked and sliced at the ball as if we were playing golf. Every now and then, we roused ourselves sufficiently to go on a picnic. We were always too ambitious at the outset – the menu elaborate, the chosen spot distant and obscure – and they invariably ended with all of us hot and sleepy and slightly drunk, reluctant to start the long trudge home with the picnic things. Usually we lay around on the grass all afternoon, drinking martinis from a thermos bottle and watching the ants crawl in a glittering black thread on the messy cake plate, until finally the martinis ran out, and the sun went down, and we had to straggle home for dinner in the dark.
It was always a tremendous occasion if Julian accepted an invitation to dinner in the country. Francis would order all kinds of food from the grocery store and leaf through cookbooks and worry for days about what to serve, what wine to serve with it, which dishes to use, what to have in the wings as a backup course should the souffle fall. Tuxedos went to the cleaners; flowers came from the florists; Bunny put away his copy of The Bride of Fu Manchu and started carrying around a volume of Homer instead.
I don’t know why we insisted on making such a production of these dinners, because by the time Julian arrived we were invariably nervous and exhausted. They were a dreadful strain for everyone, the guest included, I am sure – though he always behaved with the greatest good cheer, and was graceful, and charming, and unflaggingly delighted with everyone and everything – this despite the fact that he only accepted on the average about one of every three such invitations. I found myself less able to conceal the evidences of stress, in my uncomfortable borrowed tuxedo, and with my less-than-extensive knowledge of dining etiquette. The others were more practiced at this particular dissimulation. Five minutes before Julian arrived, they might be slouched in the living room – curtains drawn, dinner simmering on chafing dishes in the kitchen, everyone tugging at collars and dull-eyed with fatigue – but the instant the doorbell rang their spines would straighten, conversation would snap to life, the very wrinkles would fall from their clothes.
Though, at the time, I found those dinners wearing and troublesome, now I find something very wonderful in my memory of them: that dark cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and a fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside. The whoosh of the flames was like a flock of birds, trapped and beating in a whirlwind near the ceiling. And I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the long mahogany banquet table, draped in linen, laden with china and candles and fruit and flowers, had simply vanished into thin air, like a magic casket in a fairy story.
There is a recurrent scene from those dinners that surfaces again and again, like an obsessive undercurrent in a dream. Julian, at the head of the long table, rises to his feet and lifts his wineglass.
‘Live forever,’ he says.
And the rest of us rise too, and clink our glasses across the table, like an army regiment crossing sabres: Henry and Bunny, Charles and Francis, Camilla and I. ‘Live forever,’ we chorus, throwing our glasses back in unison.
And always, always, that same toast. Live forever.
I wonder now that I was around them so much and yet knew so little of what was happening at the end of that term. Physically, there was very little indication that anything was happening at all – they were too clever for that – but even the tiny discrepancies that squeaked through their guard I met with a kind of willful blindness. That is to say: I wanted to maintain the illusion that their dealings with me were completely straightforward; that we were all friends, and no secrets, though the plain fact of it was that there were plenty of things they didn’t let me in on and would not for some time. And though I tried to ignore this I was aware of it all the same. I knew, for instance, that the five of them sometimes did things – what, exactly, I didn’t know – without inviting me, and that if put on the spot they would all stick together and lie about it, in a casual and quite convincing fashion. They were so convincing, in fact, so faultlessly orchestrated in the variations and counterpoint of falsehood (the twins’ unblinking carelessness striking a bright true note against Bunny’s tomfoolery, or Henry’s bored irritation at rehashing a trivial sequence of events) that I usually found myself believing them, often against evidence to the contrary.
Of course, I can see traces of what went on – to their credit, quite small traces – in retrospect; in the way they would sometimes disappear, very mysteriously, and hours later be vague about their whereabouts; in private jokes, asides in Greek or even I Latin which I was well aware were meant to go over my head.
Naturally, I disliked this, but there seemed nothing alarming or unusual about it; though some of those casual remarks and private jokes assumed a horrific significance much later. Towards the end of that term, for instance, Bunny had a maddening habit of breaking out into choruses of’The Farmer in the Dell’; I found it merely annoying and could not understand the violent agitation to which it provoked the rest of them: not knowing then, as I do now, that it must have chilled them all to the bone.
Of course I noticed things. I suppose, being around them as much as I was, it would have been impossible not to. But they were mostly quirks, discrepancies, most of them so minor that it will perhaps show you how little reason I had to imagine that anything was wrong. For instance: All five of them seemed unusually accident-prone. They were always getting scratched by cats, or cutting themselves shaving, or stumbling over footstools in the dark – reasonable explanations, certainly, but for sedentary people they had an odd excess of bruises and small wounds. There was also a strange preoccupation with the weather; strange, to me, because none of them seemed to be involved in activity which might be aided or impeded by weather of any sort. And yet they were obsessed with it, Henry in particular. He was concerned, primarily, with rapid drops in temperature; sometimes, in the car, he would punch around as frantically on the radio as a sea captain before a storm, searching for barometric readings, long-range forecasts, data of any sort.
The news that the mercury was sinking would plunge him into a sudden, inexplicable gloom. I wondered what he would do when winter came; but by the first snowfall, the preoccupation had vanished, never to return.
Little things. I remember waking up once in the country at six o’clock, while everyone was still in bed, and going downstairs to find the kitchen floors freshly washed, still wet, immaculate except for the bare, mysterious footprint of a Man Friday in the I clean sandbank between water heater and porch Sometimes 1 woke nights out there, half-dreaming, but vaguely conscious of Hi something; muffled voices, movement, the greyhound whining softly and pawing at my bedroom door… Once I heard a muttered exchange between the twins about some bed sheets.
‘Silly,’ Camilla was whispering – and I caught a glimpse of ragged, fluttering cloth, streaked with mud – ‘you took the wrong ones.
We can’t bring them back like this.’
‘We’ll substitute the others.’
‘But they’ll know. The Linen Service ones have a stamp. We’ll have to say we lost them.’
Though this exchange did not remain in my mind for long, I was puzzled, and even more so by the twins’ unsatisfactory manner when I asked about it. Another oddity was my discovery, one afternoon, of a large copper pot bubbling on the back burner of the stove, a peculiar smell emanating from it. I lifted the lid and a cloud of pungent, bitter steam hit me in the face. The pot was filled with limp, almond-shaped leaves, boiling away in about half a gallon of blackish water. What in God’s name, I thought, perplexed but also amused, and when I asked Francis he said, curtly, ‘For my bath.’
It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together – my future, my past, the whole of my life – and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!
We had so many happy days in the country that fall that from this vantage they merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. Around Halloween the last, stubborn wildflowers died away and the wind became sharp and gusty, blowing sbowers of yellow leaves on the gray, wrinkled surface of the lake. On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers. While the twins played cards at one end of the table, and Henry worked at the other, Francis sat curled in the window seat with a plate of little sandwiches in his lap, reading, in French, the Memoires of the Due de Saint-Simon, which for some reason he was determined to get through. He had gone to several schools in Europe and spoke excellent French, though he pronounced it with the same lazy, snob accent as his English; sometimes I got him to help me with my own lessons in first-year French, tedious little stories about Marie and Jean-Claude going to the tabac, which he read aloud in a languishing, hilarious drawl (‘Marie a apporte des legumes a son frere’) that sent everyone into hysterics. Bunny lay on his stomach on the hearth rug, doing his homework; occasionally he would steal one of Francis’s sandwiches or ask a pained question. Though Greek gave him so much trouble, he’d actually studied it far longer than any of the rest of us, since he was twelve, a circumstance about which he perpetually boasted. He suggested slyly that this had simply been a childish whim of his, a manifestation of early genius a la Alexander Pope; but the truth of the matter (as I learned from Henry) was that he suffered from fairly severe dyslexia and the Greek had been a mandatory course of therapy, his prep school having theorized it was good to force dyslexic students to study languages like Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, which did not utilize the Roman alphabet. At any rate, his talent as a linguist was considerably less than he led one to believe, and he was unable to wade through even the simplest assignments without continual questions, complaints, and infusions of food. Towards the end of term he had a flare-up of asthma and wandered wheezing around the house in pajamas and bathrobe, hair standing on end, gasping theatrically at his I inhaler. The pills he took for it (1 was informed, behind his back) made him irritable, kept him up at night, made him gain weight.
And I accepted this explanation for much of Bunny’s crabbiness at the end of the term, which subsequently I was to find was due to entirely different reasons.
What should I tell you? About the Saturday in December that Bunny ran around the house at five in the morning, yelling ‘First snow!’ and pouncing on our beds? Or the time Camilla tried to teach me the box step; or the time Bunny turned the boat over – with Henry and Francis in it – because he thought he saw a water snake? About Henry’s birthday party, or about the two instances when Francis’s mother- all red hair and alligator pumps and emeralds – turned up on her way to New York, trailing the Yorkshire terrier and the second husband? (She was a wild card, that mother of his; and Chris, her new husband, was a bit player * in a soap opera, barely older than Francis. Olivia was her name.
At the time I first met her, she had just been released from the Betty Ford Center after having been cured of alcoholism and an unspecified drug habit, and was launching merrily down the path of sin again. Charles once told me that she had knocked on his door in the middle of the night and asked if he would care to join her and Chris in bed. I still get cards from her at Christmas.)
One day, however, remains particularly vivid, a brilliant Saturday in October, one of the last summery days we had that year.
The night before – which had been rather cold – we’d stayed up drinking and talking till almost dawn, and I woke late, hot and vaguely nauseated, to find my blankets kicked to the foot of the bed and sun pouring through the window. I lay very still for a long time. The sun filtered through my eyelids a bright, painful red, and my damp legs prickled with the heat. Beneath me, the house was silent, shimmering and oppressive.
I made my way downstairs, my feet creaking on the steps.
The house was motionless, empty. Finally I found Francis and Bunny on the shady side of the porch. Bunny had on a T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts; Francis, his face flushed a blotchy albino pink, and his eyelids closed and almost fluttering with pain, was wearing a ratty terry-cloth bathrobe that was stolen from a hotel.
They were drinking prairie oysters. Francis pushed his over to me without looking at it. ‘Here, drink this,’ he said, Till be sick if I look at it another second.’
The yolk quivered, gently, in its bloody bath of ketchup and Worcestershire.7 don’t want it,’ I said, and pushed it back.
He crossed his legs and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. ‘I don’t know why I make these things,’ he said. ‘They never work. I have to go get some Alka-Seltzer.’
Charles closed the screen door behind him and wandered listlessly onto the porch in his red-striped bathrobe. ‘What you need,’ he said, ‘is an ice-cream float.’
‘You and your ice-cream floats.’
‘They work, I tell you. It’s very scientific. Cold things are good for nausea and -‘
‘You’re always saying that, Charles, but I just don’t think it’s true.’
‘Would you just listen to me for a second? The ice cream slows down your digestion. The Coke settles your stomach and the caffeine cures your headache. Sugar gives you energy. And besides, it makes you metabolize the alcohol faster. It’s the perfect food.’
‘Go make me one, would you?’ said Bunny.
‘Go make it yourself,’ said Charles, suddenly irritable.
‘Really,’ Francis said, ‘I think I just need an Alka-Seltzer.’
Henry – who had been up, and dressed, since the first wink of dawn – came down shortly, followed by a sleepy Camilla, damp and flushed from her bath, and her gold chrysanthemum of a head curled and chaotic. It was almost two in the afternoon. The greyhound lay on its side, drowsing, one chestnut-colored eye only partly closed and rolling grotesquely in the socket.
There was no Alka-Seltzer, so Francis went in and got a bottle of ginger ale and some glasses and ice and we sat for a while as the afternoon got brighter and hotter. Camilla – who was rarely content to sit still but was always itching to do something, anything, play cards, go for a picnic or a drive – was bored and restless, and made no secret of it. She had a book, but she wasn’t reading; her legs were thrown over the arm of her chair, one bare heel kicking, with obstinate, lethargic rhythm, at the wicker side. Finally, as much to humor her as anything, Francis suggested a walk to the lake. This cheered her instantly. There was nothing else to do, so Henry and I decided to go along. Charles and Bunny were asleep, and snoring in their chairs.
The sky was a fierce, burning blue, the trees ferocious shades of red and yellow. Francis, barefoot and still in his bathrobe, stepped precariously over rocks and branches, balancing his glass of ginger ale. Once we got to the lake he waded in, up to his knees, and beckoned dramatically like Saint John the Baptist.
We took off our shoes and socks. The water near the bank was a clear, pale green, cool over my ankles, and the pebbles at the bottom were dappled with sunlight. Henry, in coat and tie, waded out to where Francis stood, his trousers rolled to the knee, an old-fashioned banker in a surrealist painting. A wind rustled through the birches, blowing up the pale undersides of the leaves, and it caught in Camilla’s dress and billowed it out like a white balloon. She laughed, and smoothed it down quickly, only to have it blow out again.
The two of us walked near the shore, in the shallows barely covering our feet. The sun shimmered off the lake in bright waves – it didn’t look like a real lake but a mirage in the Sahara.
Henry and Francis were further out: Francis talking, gesticulating wildly in his white robe and Henry with his hands clasped behind his back, Satan listening patiently to the rantings of some desert prophet.
We walked a good distance around the lake’s edge, she and I, ^ then started back. Camilla, one hand shading her light-dazzled V eyes, was telling me a long story about something the dog had done – chewing up a sheepskin rug that belonged to the landlord, their efforts to disguise and finally to destroy the evidence – but I wasn’t following her very closely: she looked so much like her brother, yet his straightforward, uncompromising good looks were almost magical when repeated, with only slight variations, in her. She was a living reverie for me: the mere sight of her sparked an almost infinite range of fantasy, from Greek to Gothic, from vulgar to divine.
I was looking at the side of her face, listening to the sweet, throaty cadences of her voice, when I was jolted from my musing by a sharp exclamation. She stopped.
‘What is it?’ M She was staring down at the water. ‘Look,’ In the water, a dark plume of blood blossomed by her foot; as I blinked, a thin red tendril spiraled up and curled over her pale toes, undulating in the water like a thread of crimson smoke.
‘Jesus, what did you do?’
‘I don’t know. I stepped on something sharp.’ She put a hand on my shoulder and I held her by the waist. There was a shard of green glass, about three inches long, stuck in her foot just above the arch. The blood pulsed thickly with her heartbeat; the glass, stained with red, glittered wickedly in the sun.
‘What is it?’ she said, trying to lean over to see. ‘Is it bad?’
She had cut an artery. The blood was spurting out strong and fast.
‘Francis?’ I yelled. ‘Henry?’
‘Mother of God,’ said Francis when he got close enough to see, and started splashing towards us, holding the skirt of his robe out of the water with one hand. ‘What have you done to yourself?
Can you walk? Let me see,’ he said, out of breath.
Camilla tightened her grip on my arm. The bottom of her foot was glazed with red. Fat droplets ticked off the edge, spreading and dispersing like drops of ink in the clear water.
‘Oh, God,’ said Francis, closing his eyes. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘No,’ she said briskly, but I knew it did; I could feel her trembling and her face had gone white.
Suddenly Henry was there, too, leaning over her. ‘Put your arm around my neck,’ he said; deftly he whisked her up, as lightly as if she were made of straw, one arm under her head and the other beneath her knees. ‘Francis, run get the first-aid kit out of your car. We’ll meet you halfway.’
‘All right,’ said Francis, glad to be told what to do, and started splashing for the bank.
‘Henry, put me down. I’m bleeding all over you.’
He didn’t pay any attention to her. ‘Here, Richard,’ he said, ‘get that sock and tie it around her ankle.’
It was the first time I had even thought of a tourniquet; some kind of doctor I would have made. ‘Too tight?’ I asked her.
‘That’s fine. Henry, I wish you’d put me down. I’m too heavy for you.’
He smiled at her. There was a slight chip in one of his front teeth I’d never noticed before; it gave his smile a very engaging quality. ‘You’re light as a feather,’ he said.
Sometimes, when there’s been an accident and reality is too sudden and strange to comprehend, the surreal will take over.
Action slows to a dreamlike glide, frame by frame; the motion of a hand, a sentence spoken, fills an eternity. Little things – a cricket on a stem, the veined branches on a leaf- are magnified, brought from the background in achingly clear focus. And that was what happened then, walking over the meadow to the house.
It was like a painting too vivid to be real – every pebble, every blade of grass sharply defined, the sky so blue it hurt me to look at it. Camilla was limp in Henry’s arms, her head thrown back like a dead girl’s, and the curve of her throat beautiful and lifeless.
The hem of her dress fluttered abstractly in the breeze. Henry’s trousers were spattered with drops the size of quarters, too red to be blood, as if he’d had a paintbrush slung at him. In the overwhelming stillness, between our echoless footsteps, the pulse sang thin and fast in my ears.
Charles skidded down the hill, barefoot, still in his bathrobe, Francis at his heels. Henry knelt and set her on the grass, and she raised herself on her elbows.
‘Camilla, are you dead?’ said Charles, breathless, as he dropped to the ground to look at the wound.
‘Somebody,’ said Francis, unrolling a length of bandage, ‘is going to have to take that glass out of her foot.’
‘Want me to try?’ said Charles, looking up at her.
Charles, her heel in his hand, caught the glass between thumb and forefinger and pulled gently. Camilla caught her breath in a quick, wincing gasp.
Charles drew back like he’d been scalded. He made as if to touch her foot again, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. His fingertips were wet with blood.
‘Well, go on,’ said Camilla, her voice fairly steady.
‘I can’t do it. I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.’
‘It hurts anyway.’
‘I can’t,’ Charles said miserably, looking up at her.
‘Get out of the way,’ said Henry impatiently, and he knelt quickly and took her foot in his hand.
Charles turned away; he was almost as white as she was, and I wondered if that old story was true, that one twin felt pain when the other was injured.
Camilla flinched, her eyes wide; Henry held up the curved piece of glass in one bloody hand. ‘Consummatum est,’ he said.
Francis set to work with the iodine and the bandages.
‘My God,’ I said, picking up the red-stained shard and holding it to the light.
‘Good girl,’ said Francis, winding the bandages around the arch of her foot. Like most hypochondriacs, he had an oddly soothing bedside manner. ‘Look at you. You didn’t even cry.’
‘It didn’t hurt that much.’
‘The hell it didn’t,’ Francis said. ‘You were really brave.’
Henry stood up. ‘She was brave,’ he said.
Late that afternoon, Charles and I were sitting on the porch. It had turned suddenly cold; the sky was brilliantly sunny but the wind was up. Mr Hatch had come inside to start a fire, and I smelled a faint tang of wood smoke. Francis was inside, too, starting dinner; he was singing, and his high, clear voice, slightly out of key, floated out the kitchen window.
Camilla’s cut hadn’t been a serious one. Francis drove her to the emergency room – Bunny went, too, because he was annoyed at having slept through the excitement – and in an hour she was back, with six stitches in her foot, a bandage, and a bottle of Tylenol with codeine. Now Bunny and Henry were out playing croquet and she was with them, hopping around on her good foot and the toe of the other with a skipping gait that, from the porch, looked oddly jaunty.
Charles and I were drinking whiskey and soda. He had been trying to teach me to play piquet (‘because it’s what Rawdon Crawley plays in Vanity Fair’) but I was a slow learner and the cards lay abandoned.
Charles took a sip of his drink. He hadn’t bothered to dress all day. ‘I wish we didn’t have to go back to Hampden tomorrow,’ he said.
‘I wish we never had to go back,’ I said. ‘I wish we lived here.’
‘Well, maybe we can.’
‘I don’t mean now. But maybe we could. After school.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, Francis’s aunt won’t sell the house because she wants to keep it in the family. Francis could get it no from her for next to nothing when he turns twenty-one. And even if he couldn’t, Henry has more money than he knows what to do with. They could go in together and buy it. Easy,’ I was startled by this pragmatic answer.
‘I mean, all Henry wants to do when he finishes school, if he finishes, is to find some place where he can write his books and study the Twelve Great Cultures.’
‘What do you mean, if he finishes?’
‘I mean, he may not want to. He may get bored. He’s talked about leaving before. There’s no reason he’s got to be here, and he’s surely never going to have a job.’
‘You think not?’ I said, curious; I had always pictured Henry teaching Greek, in some forlorn but excellent college out in the Midwest.
Charles snorted. ‘Certainly not. Why should he? He doesn’t need the money, and he’d make a terrible teacher. And Francis has never worked in his life. I guess he could live with his mother, except he can’t stand that husband of hers. He’d like it better here. Julian wouldn’t be far away, either.’
I took a sip of my drink and looked out at the faraway figures on the lawn. Bunny, hair falling into his eyes, was preparing to make a shot, flexing the mallet and shifting back and forth on his feet like a professional golfer.
‘Does Julian have any family?’ I said.
‘No,’ said Charles, his mouth full of ice. ‘He has some nephews but he hates them. Look at this, would you,’ he said suddenly, half rising from his chair.
I looked. Across the lawn, Bunny had finally made his shot; the ball went wide of the sixth and seventh arches but, incredibly, hit the turning stake.
‘Watch,’ I said. ‘I bet he’ll try for another shot.’
‘He won’t get it, though,’ said Charles, sitting down again, his eyes still on the lawn. ‘Look at Henry. He’s putting his foot down,’ in Henry was pointing at the neglected arches and, even at that distance, I could tell he was quoting from the rule book; faintly, we could hear Bunny’s startled cries of protest.
‘My hangover’s about gone,’ Charles said presently.
‘Mine, too,’ I said. The light on the lawn was golden, casting long velvety shadows, and the cloudy, radiant sky was straight out of Constable; though I didn’t want to admit it, I was about half-drunk.
We were quiet for a while, watching. From the lawn I could hear the faint pock of mallet against croquet ball; from the window, above the clatter of pots and the slamming of cabinets, Francis was singing, as though it was the happiest song in the world:’ “We are little black sheep who have gone astray… Baa baa baa…
‘And if Francis buys the house?’ I said finally. ‘Think he’d let us live here?’
‘Sure. He’d be bored stiff if it was just him and Henry. I guess Bunny might have to work in the bank but he could always come up on weekends, if he leaves Marion and the kids at home.’
I laughed. Bunny had been talking the night before about how he wanted eight children, four boys and four girls; which had prompted a long, humorless speech from Henry about how the fulfillment of the reproductive cycle was, in nature, an invariable harbinger of swift decline and death.
‘It’s terrible,’ said Charles. ‘Really, I can just see him. Standing out in a yard wearing some kind of stupid apron.’
‘Cooking hamburgers on the grill.’
‘And about twenty kids running around him and screaming.’
A sudden wind rustled through the birches; a gust of yellow leaves came storming down. I took a sip of my drink. If I had grown up in that house I couldn’t have loved it more, couldn’t have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vines on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon, and the strip of highway visible -just barely – in the hills, beyond the trees. The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles beside me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe.
It was getting dark; soon it would be time for dinner. I finished my drink in a swallow. The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant – the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.
Francis was working up to a big finish on his song. ‘ “Gentlemen songsters off on a spree… Doomed from here to eternity Charles looked at me sideways. ‘So, what about you?’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, do you have any plans?’ He laughed. ‘What are you doing for the next forty or fifty years of your life?’
Out on the lawn, Bunny had just knocked Henry’s ball about seventy feet outside the court. There was a ragged burst of laughter; faint, but clear, it floated back across the evening air.
That laughter haunts me still.