My memories of the Corcorans’ post-funeral get-together are very foggy, due possibly to the handful of mixed painkillers I swallowed on the way there. But even morphia could not fully dull the horror of this event. Julian was there, which was something of a blessing; he drifted through the party like a good angel, making graceful small talk, knowing exactly the right thing to say to everyone, and behaving with such heavenly charm and diplomacy towards the Corcorans (whom he in fact disliked and vice versa) that even Mrs Corcoran was mollified. Besides – the pinnacle of glory as far as the Corcorans were concerned – it turned out that he was an old acquaintance of Paul Vanderfeller’s, and Francis, who happened to be nearby, said he hoped he never forgot the expression on Mr Corcoran’s face when Vanderfeller recognized Julian and greeted him (‘European-style,’ as Mrs Corcoran was heard explaining to a neighbor) with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
The little Corcorans – who seemed oddly elated by the morning’s sad events – skidded around in hilarious spirits: throwing croissants, shrieking with laughter, chasing through the crowd with a horrible toy that made an explosive noise like a fart. The caterers had screwed up as well – too much liquor, not enough food, a recipe for certain trouble. Ted and his wife fought without stopping. Bram Guernsey was sick on a linen sofa. Mr Corcoran swung to and fro between euphoria and the wildest of despairs.
After a bit of this, Mrs Corcoran went up to the bedroom, and came down again with a look on her face that was terrible to see.
In low tones, she told her husband that there had been ‘a burglary,’ a remark which – repeated by a well-meaning eavesdropper to his neighbor – spread rapidly around the room and generated a flurry of unwanted concern. When had it happened?
What was missing? Had the police been called? People abandoned their conversations and gravitated towards her in a murmuring swarm. She evaded their questions masterfully, with a martyred air. No, she said, there was no point in calling the police: the missing items were small things, of sentimental value, and of no use to anyone but herself.
Cloke found occasion to leave not long after this. And though no one said much about it, Henry too had left. Almost immediately after the funeral he’d collected his bags, got in his car, and driven away, with only the most perfunctory of goodbyes to the Corcorans and without a word to Julian, who was very anxious to talk to him. ‘He looks wretched,’ he said to Camilla and me (I unresponsive, deep in my Dalmane stupor). ‘I believe he should see a doctor.’
‘The last week has been hard on him,’ said Camilla.
‘Certainly. But I think Henry is a more sensitive fellow than we often give him credit for being. In many ways it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever get over this. He and Edmund were closer than I think you realize.’ He sighed. That was a peculiar poem he read, wasn’t it? I would have suggested something from the Phaedo.’
Things started to break up around two in the afternoon. We could have stayed for supper, could have stayed – if Mr Corcoran’s drunken invitations held true (Mrs Corcoran’s frosty smile behind his back informed us that they did not) – indefinitely, friends of the family, sleeping on our very own cots down in the basement; welcome to join in the life of the Corcoran household and share freely in its daily joys and sorrows: family holidays, babysitting the little ones, pitching in occasionally with the household chores, working together, as a team (he emphasized) which was the Corcoran way. It would not be a soft life – he was not soft with his boys – but it would be an almost unbelievably enriching one in terms of things like character, and pluck, and fine moral standards, the latter of which he did not expect that many of our parents had taken the trouble to teach us.
It was four o’clock before we finally got away. Now, for some reason, it was Charles and Camilla who weren’t speaking. They’d fought about something – I’d seen them arguing in the yard and all the way home, in the back seat, they sat side by side and stared straight ahead, their arms folded across their chests in what I am sure they did not realize was a comically identical fashion.
It felt as if I’d been away longer than I had. My room seemed abandoned and small, like it had stood empty for weeks. I opened the window and lay on my unmade bed. The sheets smelled musty. It was twilight.
Finally it was over but I felt strangely let down. I had classes on Monday: Greek and French. I hadn’t been to French in nearly three weeks and the thought of it gave me a twinge of anxiety.
Final papers. I rolled over on my stomach. Exams. And summer vacation in a month and a half, and where on earth was I going to spend it? Working for Dr Roland? Pumping gas in Piano?
I got up and took another Dalmane and lay down again.
Outside it was nearly dark. Through the walls I could hear my neighbor’s stereo: David Bowie. ‘This is Ground Control to Major Tom…’
I stared at the shadows on the ceiling.
In some strange country between dream and waking, I found myself in a cemetery, not the one Bunny was buried in but a different one, much older, and very famous – thick with hedges and evergreens, its cracked marble pavilions choked with vines.
I was walking along a narrow flagstone path. As I turned a corner, the white blossoms of an unexpected hydrangea – luminous clouds, floating pale in the shadows – brushed against my cheek.
I was looking for the tomb of a famous writer – Marcel Proust, I think, or maybe George Sand. Whoever it was, I knew they were buried in that place, but it was so overgrown I could hardly see the names on the stones, and it was getting dark besides.
I found myself at the top of a hill in a dark grove of pines. A smudged, smoky valley lay far beneath. I turned and looked back the way I’d come: a prickle of marble spires, dim mausoleums, pale in the growing darkness. Far below, a tiny light – a lantern, maybe, or a flashlight – bobbed towards me through the crowd of gravestones. I leaned forward to see more clearly, and then was startled by a crash in the shrubbery behind me.
It was the baby the Corcorans called Champ. It had tumbled the length of its body and was trying to stagger to its feet; after a moment it gave up and lay still, barefoot, shivering, its belly heaving in and out. It was wearing nothing but a plastic diaper and there were long ugly scratches on its arms and legs. I stared at it, aghast. The Corcorans were thoughtless but this was unconscionable; those monsters, I thought, those imbeciles, they just went off and left it here all by itself.
The baby was whimpering, its legs mottled blue with cold.
Clutched in one fat starfish of a hand was the plastic airplane which had come with its Happy Meal. I bent down to see if it was okay but as I did I heard, very near, the wry, ostentatious clearing of a throat.
What happened next took place in a flash. Looking over my shoulder I had only the most fleeting impression of the figure looming behind me, but the glimpse I got struck me stumbling backwards, screaming, falling down and down and down until at last I hit my own bed, which rushed up from the dark to meet me. The jolt knocked me awake. Trembling, I lay flat on my back for a moment, then scrambled for the light.
Desk, door, chair. I lay back, still trembling. Though his features had been clotted and ruined, with a thick, scabbed quality I that I did not like to remember even with the light on – still, 1 had known very well who it was, and in the dream he knew I knew.
After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, -I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four or five in the morning.
I felt strangely free. I took walks; saw some movies by myself; went to an off-campus party on Friday night, where I stood on the back porch of some teacher’s house and drank beer and heard a girl whisper about me to another girl, ‘He looks so sad, don’t you think?’ It was a clear night, with crickets and a million stars.
The girl was pretty, the bright-eyed, ebullient type I always go for. She struck up a conversation, and I could have gone home with her; but it was enough just to flirt, in the tender, uncertain way tragic characters do in films (shell-shocked veteran or brooding young widower; attracted to the young stranger yet haunted by a dark past which she in her innocence cannot share) and have the pleasure of watching the stars of empathy bloom in her kind eyes; feeling her sweet wish to rescue me from myself (and, oh, my dear, I thought, if you knew what a job you’d be taking on, if you only knew!); knowing that if I wanted to go home with her, I could.
Which I did not. Because – no matter what kindhearted strangers thought -1 was in need of neither company nor comfort.
All I wanted was to be alone. After the par. ty I didn’t go to my room but to Dr Roland’s office, where I knew no one would think to look for me. At night and on weekends it was wonderfully quiet, and once we got back from Connecticut I spent a great deal of time there – reading, napping on his couch, doing his work and my own.
At that time of night, even the janitors had left. The building was dark. I locked the office door behind me. The lamp on Dr Roland’s desk cast a warm, buttery circle of light and, after turning the radio on low to the classical station in Boston, I settled on the couch with my French grammar. Later, when I got sleepy, there would be a mystery novel, a cup of tea if I felt like it. Dr Roland’s bookshelves glowed warm and mysterious in the lamplight. Though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, it seemed to me that I was sneaking around somehow, leading a secret life which, pleasant though it was, was bound to catch up with me sooner or later.
Between the twins, discord still reigned. At lunch they would sometimes arrive as much as an hour apart. I sensed that the fault lay with Charles, who was surly and uncommunicative and – as lately was par for the course – drinking a little more than was good for him. Francis claimed to know nothing about it, but I had an idea he knew more than he was saying.
I had not spoken to Henry since the funeral nor even seen him. He didn’t show up at meals and wasn’t answering the telephone. At lunch on Saturday, I said: ‘Do you suppose Henry’s all right?’
‘Oh, he’s fine,’ said Camilla, busy with knife and fork.
‘How do you know?’
She paused, the fork in mid-air; her glance was like a light turned suddenly into my face. ‘Because I just saw him.’
‘At his apartment. This morning,’ she said, going back to her lunch.
‘So how is he?’
‘Okay. A little shaky still, but all right.’
Beside her, chin in hand, Charles glowered down at his untouched plate.
Neither of the twins was at dinner that night. Francis was talkative and in a good mood. Just back from Manchester and loaded with shopping bags, he showed me his purchases one by one: jackets, socks, suspenders, shirts in half a dozen different stripes, a fabulous array of neckties, one of which – a greeny-bronze silk with tangerine polka dots – was a present for me. (Francis was always generous with his clothes. He gave Charles and me his old suits by the armload; he was taller than Charles, and thinner than both of us, and we would have them altered by a tailor in town. I still wear a lot of those suits: Sulka, Aquascutum, Gieves and Hawkes.)
He had been to the bookstore, too. He had a biography of Cortes; a translation of Gregory of Tours; a study of Victorian murderesses, put out by the Harvard University Press. He had also bought a gift for Henry: a corpus of Mycenaean inscriptions from Knossos.
I looked through it. It was an enormous book. There was no text, only photograph after photograph of broken tablets with the inscriptions – in Linear B – reproduced in facsimile in the bottom. Some of the fragments had only a single character.
‘He’ll like this,’ I said.
‘Yes, I think he will,’ said Francis. ‘It was the most boring book I could find. I thought I might drop it off after dinner.’
‘Maybe I’ll come along,’ I said.
Francis lit a cigarette. ‘You can if you like. I’m not going in.
I’m just going to leave it on the porch.’
‘Oh, well, then,’ I said, oddly relieved.
I spent all day Sunday in Dr Roland’s office, from ten in the morning on. Around eleven that night I realized I’d had nothing to eat all day, nothing but coffee and some crackers from the Student Services office, so I got my things, locked up, and walked down to see if the Rathskeller was still open.
It was. The Rat was an extension of the snack bar, with lousy food mostly but there were a couple of pinball machines, and a jukebox, and though you couldn’t buy any kind of a real drink there they would give you a plastic cup of watered-down beer for only sixty cents.
That night it was loud and very crowded. The Rat made me nervous. To people like Jud and Frank, who were there every time the doors opened, it was the nexus of the universe. They were there now, at the center of an enthusiastic table of toadies and hangers-on, playing, with froth-mouthed relish, some game which apparently involved their trying to stab each other in the hand with a piece of broken glass.
I pushed my way to the front and ordered a slice of pizza and a beer. While I was waiting for the pizza to come out of the oven, I saw Charles, alone, at the end of the bar.
I said hello and he turned halfway. He was drunk; I could see it in the way he was sitting, not in an inebriated manner per se but as if a different person – a sluggish, sullen one – had occupied his body. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Good. It’s you.’
I wondered what he was doing in this obnoxious place, by himself, drinking bad beer when at home he had a cabinet full of the best liquor he could possibly want.
He was saying something I couldn’t make out over the music and shouting. ‘What?’ I said, leaning closer.
‘I said, could I borrow some money.’
He did some counting on his fingers. ‘Five dollars.’
I gave it to him. He was not so drunk that he was able to accept it without repeated apologies and promises to repay it.
‘I meant to go to the bank on Friday,’ he said.
‘No, really.’ Carefully, he took a crumpled check from his pocket.
‘My Nana sent me this. I can cash it on Monday no problem.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Felt like going out.’
He was not so drunk, now, that he couldn’t make it home on his own; but the Rat didn’t close for another two hours, and I didn’t much like the idea of his staying on by himself. Since Bunny’s funeral several strangers – including the secretary in the Social Sciences office – had approached me and tried to pick me for information. I had frozen them out, a trick I’d learned from Henry (no expression, pitiless gaze, forcing intruder to retreat in embarrassment); it was a nearly infallible tactic but dealing with these people when you were sober was one thing, and quite another if you were drunk. I wasn’t drunk, but I didn’t feel like hanging around the Rat until Charles got ready to leave, either.
Any effort to draw him away would, I knew, serve only to entrench him further; when he was drunk he had a perverse way of always wanting to do exactly the opposite of what anyone suggested.
‘Does Camilla know you’re here?’ I asked him.
He leaned over, palm on the bar to brace himself. ‘What?’
I asked him again, louder this time. His face darkened. ‘None of her business,’ he said, and turned back to his beer.
My food came. I paid for it and told Charles, ‘Excuse me, I’ll be right back.’
The men’s room was in a dank, smelly hallway that ran perpendicular to the bar. I turned down it, out of Charles’s view, to the pay phone on the wall. Some girl was on it, though, talking in German. I waited for ages, and was just about to leave when finally she hung up, and I dug in my pocket for a quarter and dialed the twins’ number.
The twins weren’t like Henry; if they were home, they would generally answer the phone. But no one did answer. I dialed again and glanced at my watch. Eleven-twenty. I couldn’t think where Camilla would be, that time of night, unless she was on her way over to get him.
I hung up the phone. The quarter tinkled into the slot. I pocketed it and headed back to Charles at the bar. For a moment I thought he had just moved somewhere into the crowd, but after standing there a moment or two I realized I wasn’t seeing him because he wasn’t there. He had drunk the rest of his beer and left.
Hampden, suddenly, was green as Heaven again. Most of the flowers had been killed by the snow except the late bloomers, honeysuckle and lilac and so forth, but the trees had come back bushier than ever, it seemed, deep and dark, foliage so dense that the way that ran through the woods to North Hampden was suddenly very narrow, green pushing in on both sides and shutting out the sunlight on the dank, buggy path.
On Monday I arrived at the Lyceum a little early and, in Julian’s office, found the windows open and Henry arranging peonies in a white vase. He looked as if he’d lost ten or fifteen pounds, which was nothing to someone Henry’s size but still I saw the thinness in his face and even in his wrists and hands; it wasn’t that, though, but something else, indefinable, that somehow had changed since I had seen him last.
Julian and he were talking – in jocular, mocking, pedantic Latin – like a couple of priests tidying the vestry before a mass.
A dark smell of brewing tea hung strong in the air.
Henry glanced up. ‘Salve, amice,’ he said, and a subtle animation flickered in his rigid features, usually so locked up, and distant: ‘Valesne? Quid est rei?’
‘You look well,’ I said to him, and he did.
He inclined his head slightly. His eyes, which had been murky and dilated while he was ill, were now the clearest of blues.
‘Benigne diets,’ he said. ‘I feel much better.’
Julian was clearing away the last of the rolls and jam – he and Henry had had breakfast together, quite a large one from the looks of it – and he laughed and said something I didn’t quite catch, some Horatian-sounding tag about meat being good for sorrow. I was glad to see that he seemed quite his bright, serene old self. He’d been almost inexplicably fond of Bunny, but strong emotion was distasteful to him, and a display of feeling normal by modern standards would to him have seemed exhibitionist and slightly shocking: I was fairly sure this death had affected him more than he let show. Then again, I suspect that Julian’s cheery, Socratic indifference to matters of life and death kept him from feeling too sad about anything for very long.
Francis arrived, and then Camilla; no Charles, he was probably in bed with a hangover. We all sat down at the big round table.
‘And now,’ said Julian, when everything was quiet, ‘I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?’
Those days, I took an enormous relish in my new-found freedom.
Now it appeared that we were safe, a huge darkness had lifted from my mind. The world was a fresh and wonderful place to me, green and bracing and entirely new, and I looked at it now with fresh new eyes.
I went on a lot of long walks by myself, through North Hampden, down to the Battenkill River. I liked especially going to the little country grocery in North Hampden (whose ancient proprietors, mother and son, were said to have been the inspiration for a famous and frequently anthologized horror story from the 19505) to buy a bottle of wine, and wandering down to the riverbank to drink it, then roaming around drunk all the rest of those glorious, golden, blazing afternoons – a waste of time, I was behind in school, there were papers to write and exams coming up but still I was young; the grass was green and the air was heavy with the sound of bees and I had just come back from the brink of Death itself, back to the sun and air. Now I was free; and my life, which I had thought was lost, stretched out indescribably precious and sweet before me.
On one of those afternoons I wandered by Henry’s house and found him in his hack yard digging a flower bed. He had on his gardening clothes – old trousers, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow – and in the wheelbarrow were tomato plants and cucumber, flats of strawberry and sunflower and scarlet geranium.
Three or four rosebushes with their roots tied in burlap were propped against the fence.
I let myself in through the side gate. I was quite drunk. ‘Hello,’
I said, ‘hello, hello, hello.’
He stopped and leaned on his shovel. A pale flush of sunburn glowed on the bridge of his nose.
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘Putting out some lettuces.’
There was a long silence, in which I noticed the ferns he’d dug up the afternoon we killed Bunny. Spleenwort, I remembered him calling them; Camilla had remarked on the witchiness of the name. He had planted them on the shady side of the house, near the cellar, where they grew dark and foamy in the cool.
I lurched back a bit, caught myself on the gatepost. ‘Are you going to stay here this summer?’ I said.
He looked at me closely, dusted his hands on his trousers. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘What about you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but only the day before I had put in an application at the Student Services office for an apartment-sitting job, in Brooklyn, for a history professor who was studying in England over the summer.
It sounded ideal – a rent-free place to stay in, nice part of Brooklyn, and no duties except watering the plants and taking care of a pair of Boston terriers, who couldn’t go to England because of the quarantine. My experience with Leo and the mandolins had made me wary, but the clerk had assured me that no, this was different, and she’d shown me a file of letters from happy students who had previously held the job. I had never been to Brooklyn and didn’t know a thing about it but I liked the idea of living in a city – any city, especially a strange one liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings; and nobody knowing who I was.
Henry was still looking at me. He pushed his glasses up on his nose. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘it’s pretty early in the afternoon.’
I laughed. I knew what he was thinking: first Charles, now me.
‘I’m okay,’ I said.
He went back to his work, sticking the shovel into the ground, stepping down hard on one side of the blade with a khaki-gaitered foot. His suspenders made a black X across his back. ‘Then you can give me a hand with these lettuces,’ he said. ‘There’s another spade in the toolshed.’
Late that night – two a. m. – my house chairperson pounded on my door and yelled that I had a phone call. Dazed with sleep, I put on my bathrobe and stumbled downstairs.
It was Francis. ‘What do you want?’ I said.
‘Richard, I’m having a heart attack,’ I looked with one eye at my house chairperson – Veronica, Valerie, I forget her name – who was standing by the phone with her arms folded over her chest, head to one side in an attitude of concern. I turned my back. ‘You’re all right,’ I said into the receiver. ‘Go back to sleep.’
‘Listen to me.’ His voice was panicky. ‘I’m having a heart attack. I think I’m going to die.’
‘No you’re not.’
‘I have all the symptoms. Pain in the left arm. Tightness in chest. Difficulty breathing.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I want you to come over here and drive me to the hospital.’
‘Why don’t you call the ambulance?’ I was so sleepy my eyes kept closing.
‘Because I’m scared of the ambulance,’ said Francis, but I couldn’t hear the rest because Veronica, whose ears had pricked up at the word ambulance, broke in excitedly.
‘If you need a paramedic, the guys up at the security booth know CPR,’ she said eagerly. They’re on call from midnight to six. They also run a van service to the hospital. If you want me to I’ll-‘
‘I don’t need a paramedic,’ I said. Francis was repeating my name frantically at the other end.
‘Here I am,’ I said.
‘Richard?’ His voice was weak and breathy. ‘Who are you talking to? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. Now listen to me ‘
‘Who said something about paramedic?’
‘Nobody. Now listen. Listen,’ I said, as he tried to talk over me. ‘Calm down. Tell me what’s wrong.’
‘I want you to come over. I feel really bad. I think my heart just stopped beating for a moment. I ‘
‘Are drugs involved?’ said Veronica in a confidential tone.
‘Look,’ I said to her, ‘I wish you’d be quiet and let me hear what this person is trying to say.’
‘Richard?’ said Francis. ‘Will you just come get me? Please?’
There was a brief silence.
‘All right,’ I said, ‘give me a few minutes,’ and I hung up the phone.
At Francis’s apartment I found him dressed except for his shoes, lying on his bed. ‘Feel my pulse,’ he said.
I did, to humor him. It was quick and strong. He lay there limply, eyelids fluttering. ‘What do you think is wrong with me?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. He was a bit flushed but he really didn’t look that bad. Still – though it would be insane, I knew, to mention it at that moment – it was possible that he had food poisoning or appendicitis or something.
‘Do you think I should go into the hospital?’
‘You tell me.’
He lay there a moment. ‘I don’t know. I really think I should,’ he said.
‘All right, then. If it’ll make you feel better. Come on. Sit up.’
He was not too ill to smoke in the car all the way to the hospital.
We circled around the drive and pulled up by the wide floodlit entrance marked Emergency. I stopped the car. We sat there for a moment.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I said.
He looked at me with astonishment and contempt.
‘You think I’m faking,’ he said.
‘No I don’t,’ I said, surprised; and, to be honest, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. ‘I just asked you a question.’
He got out of the car and slammed the door.
We had to wait about half an hour. Francis filled out his chart and sat sullenly reading back issues of Smithsonian magazine. But when the nurse finally called his name, he didn’t stand up.
‘That’s you,’ I said.
He still didn’t move.
‘Well, go on,’ I said.
He didn’t answer. He had a sort of wild look in his eye.
‘Look here,’ he finally said. ‘I’ve changed my mind.’
‘I said I’ve changed my mind. I want to go home.’
The nurse was standing in the doorway, listening to this exchange with interest.
‘That’s stupid,’ I said to him, irritated. ‘You’ve waited this ^ long.’ 1 ‘I changed my mind.’
‘You were the one who wanted to come.’
I knew this would shame him. Annoyed, avoiding my gaze, he slammed down his magazine and stalked through the double doors without looking back.
About ten minutes later an exhausted-looking doctor in a scrub shirt poked his head into the waiting room. I was the only person there.
‘Hi,’ he said curtly. ‘You with Mr Abernathy?’
‘Yes,’ ‘Would you step back with me for a moment, please?’
I got up and followed him. Francis was sitting on the edge of an examining table, fully clad, bent almost double and looking miserable.
‘Mr Abernathy will not put on a gown,’ said the doctor. ‘And he won’t let the nurse take any blood. I don’t know how he expects us to examine him if he won’t cooperate.’
There was a silence. The lights in the examining room were very bright. I was horribly embarrassed.
The doctor walked over to a sink and began to wash his hands.
‘You guys been doing any drugs tonight?’ he said casually.
I felt my face getting red. ‘No,’ I said.
‘A little cocaine? Some speed, maybe?’
‘If your friend here took something, it would help a lot if we knew what it was.’
‘Francis,’ I said weakly, and was silenced by a glare of hatred: et to, Brute.
‘How dare you,’ he snapped. ‘I didn’t take anything. You know very well I didn’t.’
‘Calm down,’ said the doctor. ‘Nobody’s accusing you of anything. But your behavior is a little irrational tonight, don’t you think?’
‘No,’ said Francis, after a confused pause.
The doctor rinsed his hands and dried them on a towel.
‘No?’ he said. ‘You come here in the middle of the night saying you’re having a heart attack and then you won’t let anyone near you? How do you expect me to know what is wrong with you?’
Francis didn’t answer. He was breathing hard. His eyes were cast downward and his face was a bright pink.
‘I’m not a mind reader,’ the doctor said at last. ‘But in my experience, somebody your age saying they’re having a heart attack, it’s one of two things.’
‘What?’ I finally said.
‘Well. Amphetamine poisoning, for one.’
‘It’s not that,’ Francis said angrily, glancing up.
‘All right, all right. Something else it could be is a panic disorder.’
‘What’s that?’ I said, carefully avoiding looking in Francis’s direction.
‘Like an anxiety attack. A sudden rush of fear. Heart palpitations.
Trembling and sweating. It can be quite severe. People often think they’re dying.’
Francis didn’t say anything.
‘Well?’ said the doctor. ‘Do you think that might be it?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Francis, after another confused pause.
The doctor leaned back against the sink. ‘Do you feel afraid a lot?’ he said. ‘For no good reason you can think of?’
By the time we left the hospital, it was a quarter after three.
Francis lit a cigarette in the parking lot. In his left hand he was grinding a piece of paper on which the doctor had written the name of a psychiatrist in town.
‘Are you mad?’ he said when we were in the car.
It was the second time he had asked. ‘No,’ I said.
‘I know you arc.’
The streets were dream-lit, deserted. The car top was down.
We drove past dark houses, turned onto a covered bridge. The tires thumped on the wooden planks.
‘Please don’t be mad at me,’ said Francis.
I ignored him. ‘Are you going to see that psychiatrist?’ I said.
‘It wouldn’t do any good. I know what’s bothering me.’
I didn’t say anything. When the word psychiatrist had come up, I had been alarmed. I was not a great believer in psychiatry but still, who knew what a trained eye might see in a personality test, a dream, even a slip of the tongue?
‘I went through analysis when I was a kid,’ Francis said. He sounded on the verge of tears. ‘I guess I must’ve been eleven or twelve. My mother was on some kind of Yoga kick and she yanked me out of my old school in Boston and packed me off to this terrible place in Switzerland. The Something Institute.
Everyone wore sandals with socks. There were classes in dervish dancing and the Kabbalah. All the White Level – that was what they called my grade, or form, whatever it was – had to do Chinese Quigong every morning and have four hours of Reichian analysis a week. I had to have six.’
‘How do you analyze a twelve-year-old kid?’
‘Lots of word association. Also weird games they made you play with anatomically correct dolls. They’d caught me and a couple of little French girls trying to sneak off the grounds – we were half-starved, macrobiotic food, you know, we were only trying to get down to the bureau de tabac to buy some chocolates but of course they insisted it had somehow been some sort of sexual incident. Not that they minded that sort of thing but they liked you to tell them about it and I was too ignorant to oblige.
The girls knew more about such matters and had made up some wild French story to please the shrink – menage a trots in some haystack, you can’t imagine how sick they thought I was for I repressing, this. Though I would’ve told them anything if I thought they’d send me home.’ He laughed, without much humor. ‘God. I remember the head of the Institute asking me once what character from fiction I most identified with, and I said Davy Balfour from Kidnapped.’
We were rounding a corner. Suddenly, in the wash of the headlights, a large animal loomed in my path. I hit the brakes hard. For half a moment I found myself looking through the windshield at a pair of glowing eyes. Then, in a flash, it bounded away.
We sat for a moment, shaken, at a full stop.
‘What was that?’ said Francis.
‘I don’t know. A deer maybe.’
‘That wasn’t a deer.’
‘Then a dog.’
‘It looked like some kind of a cat to me.’
Actually, that was what it had looked like to me too. ‘But it was too big,’ I said.
‘Maybe it was a cougar or something,’ ‘They don’t have those around here.’
‘They used to. They called them catamounts. Cat-o-the Mountain. Like Catamount Street in town.’
The night breeze was chilly. A dog barked somewhere. There wasn’t much traffic on that road at night.
I put the car in gear.
Francis had asked me not to tell anyone about our excursion to the emergency room but at the twins’ apartment on Sunday night I had a little too much to drink and I found myself telling the story to Charles in the kitchen after dinner.
Charles was sympathetic. He’d had some drinks himself but not as many as me. He was wearing an old seersucker suit which hung very loosely on him – he, too, had lost some weight – and a frayed old Sulka tie.
‘Poor Francois,’ he said. ‘He’s such a fruitcake. Is he going to see that shrink?’
‘I don’t know.’
He shook a cigarette from a pack of Lucky Strikes that Henry had left on the counter. ‘If I were you,’ he said, tapping the cigarette on the inside of his wrist and craning to make sure that no one was in the hall, ‘if I were you, I would advise him not to mention this to Henry.’
I waited for him to continue. He lit the cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke.
‘I mean, I’ve been drinking a bit more than I should,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m the first to admit that. But my God, I was the one who had to deal with the cops, not him. I’m the one who has to deal with Marion, for Christ sake. She calls me almost every night.
Let him try talking to her for a while and see how he feels… If I wanted to drink a bottle of whiskey a day I don’t see what he could say about it. I told him it was none of his business, and none of his business what you did, either.’
He looked at me with a blank, childish expression. Then he laughed.
‘Oh, you hadn’t heard?’ he said. ‘Now it’s you, too. Drinking too much. Wandering around drunk in the middle of the day.
Rolling down the road to ruin.’
I was startled. He laughed again at the look on my face but then we heard footsteps and the tinkle of ice in an advancing cocktail – Francis. He poked his head into the doorway and began to gabble good-naturedly about something or other, and after a few minutes we picked up our drinks and followed him back to the living room.
That was a cozy night, a happy night; lamps lit, sparkle of glasses, rain falling heavy on the roof. Outside, the treetops tumbled and tossed, with a foamy whoosh like club soda bubbling up in the glass. The windows were open and a damp cool breeze swirled through the curtains, bewitchingly wild and sweet.
Henry was in excellent spirits. Relaxed, sitting in an armchair with his legs stretched out in front of him, he was alert, well rested, quick with a laugh or a clever reply. Camilla looked enchanting.
She wore a narrow sleeveless dress, salmon-colored, which exposed a pair of pretty collarbones and the sweet frail vertebrae at the base of her neck – lovely kneecaps, lovely ankles, lovely bare, strong-muscled legs. The dress exaggerated her spareness of body, her unconscious and slightly masculine grace of posture; I loved her, loved the luscious, stuttering way she would blink while telling a story, or the way (faint echo of Charles) that she held a cigarette, caught in the knuckles of her bitten-nailed fingers.
She and Charles seemed to have made up. They didn’t talk much, but the old silent thread of twinship seemed in place again. They perched on the arms of each other’s chairs, and fetched drinks back and forth (a peculiar twin-ritual, complex and charged with meaning). Though I did not fully understand these observances, they were generally a sign that all was well. She, if anything, seemed the more conciliatory party, which seemed to disprove the hypothesis that he was at fault.
The mirror over the fireplace was the center of attention, a cloudy old mirror in a rosewood frame; nothing remarkable, they’d got it at a yard sale, but it was the first thing one saw when one stepped inside and now even more conspicuous because it was cracked – a dramatic splatter that radiated from the center like a spider’s web. How that had happened was such a funny story that Charles had to tell it twice, though it was his reenactment of it that was funny, really – spring housecleaning, sneezing and miserable with dust, sneezing himself right off his stepladder and landing on the mirror, which had just been washed and was on the floor.
‘What I don’t understand,’ said Henry, ‘is how you got it back up again without the glass falling out.’
‘It was a miracle. I wouldn’t touch it now. Don’t you think it looks kind of wonderful?’
Which it did, there was no denying it, the spotty dark glass shattered like a kaleidoscope and refracting the room into a hundred pieces.
Not until it was time to leave did I discover, quite by accident, how the mirror had actually been broken. I was standing on the hearth, my hand resting on the mantel, when I happened to look into the fireplace. The fireplace did not work. It had a screen and a pair of andirons, but the logs that lay across them were furry with dust. But now, glancing down, I saw something else: silver sparkles, bright-needled splinters from the broken mirror, mixed with large, unmistakable shards of a gold-rimmed highball glass, the twin of the one in my own hand. They were heavy old glasses, an inch thick at the bottom. Someone had thrown this one hard, with a pretty good arm, from across the room, hard enough to break it to pieces and to shatter the looking-glass behind my head.
Two nights later, I was woken again by a knock at my door.
Confused, in a foul temper, I switched on the lamp and reached blinking for my watch. It was three o’clock. ‘Who’s there?’ I said.
‘Henry,’ came the surprising reply.
I let him in, somewhat reluctantly. He didn’t sit down. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, but this is very important. I have a favor to ask of you.’
His tone was quick and businesslike. It alarmed me. I sat down on the edge of my bed.
‘Are you listening to me?’
‘What is it?’ I said.
‘About fifteen minutes ago I got a call from the police. Charles is in jail. He has been arrested for drunk driving. I want you to go down and get him out.’
A prickle rose on the nape of my neck. ‘What?’ I said.
‘He was driving my car. They got my name from the registration sticker. I have no idea what kind of condition he’s in.’ He reached into his pocket and handed me an unsealed envelope. ‘I expect it’s going to cost something to get him out, I don’t know what.’
I opened the envelope. Inside was a check, blank except for Henry’s signature, and a twenty-dollar bill.
‘I already told the police that I lent him the car,’ said Henry.
‘If there’s any question about that, have them call me.’ He was standing by the window, looking out. ‘In the morning I’ll get in touch with a lawyer. All I want you to do is get him out of there as soon as you can.’
It took a moment or two for this to sink in.
‘What about the money?’ I said at last.
‘Pay them whatever it costs,’ ‘I mean this twenty dollars.’
‘You’ll have to take a taxi. I took one over here. It’s waiting downstairs.’
There was a long silence. I still wasn’t awake. I was sitting there in just an undershirt and a pair of boxer shorts.
While I dressed, he stood at the window looking out at the dark meadow, hands clasped behind his back, oblivious to the jangle of clothes-hangers and my clumsy, sleep-dazed fumbling through the bureau drawers – serene, preoccupied; lost, apparently, in his own abstract concerns.
It wasn’t until I’d dropped Henry off and was being driven, at a rapid clip, towards the dark center of town, that I realized how poorly I had been apprised of the situation I was heading into.
Henry hadn’t told me a thing. Had there been an accident? For that matter, was anyone hurt? Besides, if this was such a big deal – and it was Henry’s car, after all – why wasn’t he coming, too?
A lone traffic light rocked on a wire over the empty intersection.
The jail, in Hampden town, was in an annex of the courthouse.
It was also the only building in the square that had any lights on that time of night. I told the taxi driver to wait and went inside.
Two policemen were sitting in a large, well-lit room. There were many filing cabinets, and metal desks behind partitions; an old-fashioned water cooler; a gumball machine from the Civitan Club (‘Your Change Changes Things’). I recognized one of the policemen – a fellow with a red moustache – from the search parties. The two of them were eating fried chicken, the sort you buy from under heat lamps in convenience stores, and watching ‘Sally Jessy Raphael’ on a portable black-and-white TV.
‘Hi,’ I said.
They looked up.
‘I came to see about getting my friend out of jail.’
The one with the red moustache wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. He was big and pleasant-looking, in his thirties. ‘That’s Charles Macaulay, I bet,’ he said.
He said this as if Charles were an old friend of his. Maybe he was. Charles had spent a lot of time down here when the stuff with Bunny was going on. The cops, he said, had been nice to him. They’d sent out for sandwiches, bought him Cokes from the machine.
‘You’re not the guy I talked to on the phone,’ said the other policeman. He was large and relaxed, about forty, with gray hair and a froglike mouth. ‘Is that your car out there?’
I explained. They ate their chicken and listened: big, friendly guys, big police.385 on their hips. The walls were covered in government-issue posters: fight birth defects, hire veterans, REPORT MAIL FRAUD.
‘Well, you know, we can’t let you have the car,’ said the policeman with the red moustache. ‘Mr Winter is going to have to come down here and pick it up himself.’
‘I don’t care about the car. I just want to get my friend out of jail.’
The other policeman looked at his watch. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘come back in about six hours, then.’
Was he joking? ‘I have the money,’ I said.
‘We can’t set bail. The judge will have to do that at the arraignment. Nine o’clock in the morning.’
Arraignment? My heart pumped. What the hell was that?
The cops were looking at me blandly as if to say, ‘Is that all?’
‘Can you tell me what happened?’ I said.
My voice sounded flat and strange to me. ‘What exactly did he do?’
‘State trooper pulled him over out on Deep Kill Road,’ said the gray-haired policeman. He said it as if he were reading it. ‘He was obviously intoxicated. He agreed to a Breathalyzer and failed it when it was administered. The trooper brought him down here and we put him in the lock-up. That was about two-twenty five a. m.’
Things still weren’t clear, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of the right questions to ask. Finally I said, ‘Can I see him?’
‘He’s fine, son,’ said the policeman with the red moustache.
‘You can see him first thing in the morning.’
All smiles, very friendly. There was nothing more to say. I thanked them and left.
When I got outside the cab was gone. I still had fifteen dollars from Henry’s twenty but to call another cab I’d have to go back inside the jail and I didn’t want to do that. So I walked down Main Street to the south end, where there was a pay phone in front of the lunch counter. It didn’t work.
So tired I was almost dreaming, I walked back to the square past the post office, past the hardware store, past the movie theater with its dead marquee: plate glass, cracked sidewalks, stars. Mountain cats in bas-relief prowled the friezes of the public library. I walked a long way, till the stores got sparse and the road was dark, walked on the deep singing shoulder of the highway till I got to the Greyhound bus station, sad in the moonlight, the first glimpse I’d ever had of Hampden. The terminal was closed. I sat outside, on a wooden bench beneath a yellow light bulb, waiting for it to open so I could go in and use the phone and have a cup of coffee.
The clerk – a fat man with lifeless eyes – came to unlock the place at six. We were the only people there. I went into the men’s room and washed my face and had not one cup of coffee but two, which the clerk sold me grudgingly from a pot he’d brewed on a hot plate behind the counter.
The sun was up, it was hard to see much through the grime streaked windows. Defunct timetables papered the walls; cigarette butts and chewing gum were stomped deep into the linoleum. The doors of the phone booth were covered in finger 4 prints. I closed them behind me and dialed Henry’s number, half-expecting he wouldn’t answer but to my surprise he did, on the second ring.
‘Where are you? What’s the matter?’ he said.
I explained what had happened. Ominous silence on the other end.
‘Was he in a cell by himself?’ he said at last.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Was he conscious? I mean, could he talk?’
‘I don’t know.’
Another long silence.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘he’s going before the judge at nine. Why don’t you meet me at the courthouse.’
Henry didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said: ‘It’s best if you handle it. There are other considerations involved.’
‘If there are other considerations I’d appreciate knowing what they are.’
‘Don’t be angry,’ he said quickly. ‘It’s just that I’ve had to deal with the police so much. They know me already, and they know him Coo. Besides’ – he paused – “I am afraid that I’m the last person Charles wants to see,’ ‘And why is that?’
‘Because we quarreled last night. It’s a long story,’ he said as I tried to interrupt. ‘But he was very upset when I saw him last.
And of all of us, I think you’re on the best terms with him at the moment.’
‘Hmph,’ I said, though secretly I was mollified.
‘Charles is very fond of you. You know that. Besides, the police don’t know who you are. I don’t think they’ll be likely to associate you with that other business.’
‘I don’t see that it matters at this point.’
‘I am afraid that it does matter. More than you might think.’
There was a silence, during which I felt acutely the hopelessness of ever trying to get to the bottom of anything with Henry.
He was like a propagandist, routinely withholding information, leaking it only when it served his purposes. ‘What are you trying to say to me?’ I said.
‘Now’s not the time to discuss it.’
‘If you want me to go down there, you’d better tell me what you’re talking about.’
When he spoke, his voice was crackly and distant. ‘Let’s just say that for a while things were much more touch-and-go than you realized. Charles has had a hard time. It’s no one’s fault really but he’s had to shoulder more than his share of the burden.’
‘I am not asking much of you.’
Only that I do what you tell me, I thought as I hung up the telephone.
The courtroom was down the hall from the cells, through a pair of swinging doors with windows at the top. It looked very much like what I’d seen of the rest of the courthouse, circa 1950 or so, with pecky linoleum tiles and paneling that was yellowed and sticky-looking with honey-colored varnish.
I had not expected so many people would be there. There were two tables before the judge’s bench, one with a couple of state troopers, the other with three or four unidentified men; a court reporter with her funny little typewriter; three more unidentified men in the spectators’ area, sitting well apart from each other, as well as a poor haggard lady in a tan raincoat who looked like she was getting beat up by somebody on a pretty regular basis.
We rose for the judge. Charles’s case was called first.
He padded through the doors like a sleepwalker, in his stocking feet, a court officer following close behind him. His face was blurry and thick. They’d taken his belt and tie as well as his shoes and he looked a little like he was in his pajamas.
The judge peered down at him. He was sour-faced, about sixty, with a thin mouth and big meaty jowls like a bloodhound’s.
‘You have an attorney?’ he said, in a strong Vermont accent.
‘No, sir,’ said Charles.
‘Wife or parent present?’
‘Can you post bail?’
‘No, sir,’ Charles said. He looked sweaty and disoriented.
I stood up. Charles didn’t see me but the judge did. ‘Are you here to post bail for Mr Macaulay?’ he said.
‘Yes, I am.’
Charles turned to stare, lips parted, his expression as blank and trancelike as a twelve-year-old’s.
‘It’ll be five hundred dollars you can pay it at the window down the hall to your left,’ said the judge in a bored monotone.
‘You’ll have to appear again in two weeks and I suggest you bring a lawyer. Do you have a job for which you need your vehicle?’
One of the shabby middle-aged men at the front spoke up.
‘It’s not his car, Your Honor.’
The judge glowered at Charles, suddenly fierce. ‘Is that correct?’ he said.
The owner was contacted. A Henry Winter. Goes to school up at the college. He says he lent the vehicle to Mr Macaulay for the evening.’
The judge snorted. To Charles he said gruffly: ‘Your license is suspended pending resolution and have Mr Winter here on the twenty-eighth.’
The whole business was amazingly quick. We were out of the courthouse by ten after nine.
The morning was damp and dewy, cold for May. Birds chattered in the black treetops. I was reeling with fatigue.
Charles hugged himself. ‘Christ, it’s cold,’ he said.
Across the empty streets, across the square, they were just pulling the blinds up at the bank. ‘Wait here,’ I said. Till go call a cab.’
He caught me by the arm. He was still drunk, but his night of boozing had done more damage to his clothes than to anything else; his face was fresh and flushed as a child’s. ‘Richard,’ he said.
‘You’re my friend, aren’t you?’
I was in no mood to stand around on the courthouse steps and listen to this sort of thing. ‘Sure,’ I said, and tried to disengage my arm.
But he only clutched me tighter. ‘Good old Richard,’ he said. “I know you are. I’m so glad it was you who came. I just want you to do me this one little favor.’
‘Don’t take me home.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Take me to the country. To Francis’s. I don’t have the key but Mrs Hatch could let me in or I could bust a window or something – no, listen. Listen to this. I could get in through the basement. I’ve done it millions of times. Wait,’ he said as I tried to interrupt again. ‘You could come, too. You could swing by school and get some clothes and ‘
‘Hold on,’ I said, for the third time. ‘I can’t take you anywhere.
I don’t have a car.’
His face changed, and he let go my arm. ‘Oh, right,’ he said with sudden bitterness. ‘Thanks a lot.’
‘Listen to me. I can’t. I don’t have a car. I came down here in a taxicab.’
‘We can go in Henry’s.’
‘No we can’t. The police took the keys.’
His hands were shaking. He ran them through his disordered hair. ‘Then come home with me. I don’t want to go home by myself.’ 1 ‘All right,’ I said. I was so tired I was seeing spots. ‘All right. j| Just wait. I’ll call a cab.’
‘No. No cab,’ he said, lurching backwards. ‘I don’t feel so hot.
I think I’d rather walk.’
This walk, from the courthouse steps to Charles’s apartment in North Hampden, was not an inconsiderable one. It was three miles, at least. A good portion of it lay along a stretch of highway.
Cars whooshed past in a rush of exhaust. I was dead tired. My head ached and my feet were like lead. But the morning air was cool and fresh and it seemed to bring Charles around a little.
About halfway, he stopped at the dusty roadside window of a Tastee Freeze, across the highway from the Veterans Hospital, and bought an ice-cream soda.
Our feet crunched on the gravel. Charles smoked a cigarette and drank his soda through a red-and-white-striped straw.
Blackflies whined around our ears.
‘So you and Henry had an argument,’ I said, just for something to say.
‘Who told you? Him?’
‘I couldn’t remember. It doesn’t matter. I’m tired of him telling me what to do.’
‘You know what I wonder,’ I said.
‘Not why he tells us what to do. But why we always do what he says.’
‘Beats me,’ said Charles. ‘It’s not as if much good has come of it.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
‘Are you kidding? The idea of that fucking bacchanal in the first place – who thought of that? Whose idea was it to take Bunny to Italy? Who the hell wrote that diary and left it lying around? The son of a bitch. I blame every bit of this on him.
Besides, you have no idea how close they were to finding us out.’
‘Who?’ I said, startled. ‘The police?’
The people from the FBI. There was a lot towards the end we didn’t tell the rest of you. Henry made me swear not to tell.’
‘Why? What happened?’
He threw down his cigarette. ‘Well, I mean, they had it confused,’ he said. ‘They thought Cloke was mixed up in it, they thought a lot of things. It’s funny. We’re so used to Henry. We don’t realize sometimes how he looks to other people.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I can think of a million examples.’ He laughed sleepily. ‘I remember last summer, when Henry was so gung-ho about renting a farmhouse, driving with him to a realtor’s office upstate. It was perfectly straightforward. He had a specific house in mind – big old place built in the i Soos, way out on some dirt road, tremendous grounds, servants’ quarters, the whole bit. He even had the cash in hand. They must’ve talked for two hours. The realtor called up her manager at home and asked him to come down to the office. The manager asked Henry a million questions. Called every one of his references. Everything was in order but even then they wouldn’t rent it to him.’
He laughed. ‘Well, Henry looks a bit too good to be true, doesn’t he? They couldn’t believe someone his age, a college student, would pay so much for a place that big and isolated, just to live all by himself and study the Twelve Great Cultures.’
‘What? They thought he was some kind of a crook?’
‘They thought he wasn’t entirely above-board, let’s put it that way. Apparently the men from the FBI thought the same thing.
They didn’t think he killed Bunny, but they thought he knew something he wasn’t telling. Obviously there had been a disagreement in Italy. Marion knew that, Cloke knew it, even Julian did.
They even tricked me into admitting it, though I didn’t tell that to Henry. If you ask me, I think what they really thought was that he and Bunny had some money sunk in Cloke’s drug-dealing business. That trip to Rome was a big mistake. They could’ve done it inconspicuously but Henry spent a fortune, throwing money around like crazy, they lived in a palazzo, for Christ sake.
People remembered them everywhere they went. I mean, you know Henry, that’s just the way he is but you have to look at it from their point of view. That illness of his must’ve looked pretty suspicious, too. Wiring a doctor in the States for Demerol. Plus those tickets to South America. Putting them on his credit card was about the stupidest thing he ever did.’
They found out about that?’ I said, horrified.
‘Certainly. When they suspect somebody is dealing drugs, the financial records are the first thing they check – and good God, of all places, South America. Luckily Henry’s dad really does own some property down there. Henry was able to cook up something fairly plausible – not that they believed him; it was more a matter of their not being able to disprove it.’
‘But I don’t understand where they got this stuff about drugs.’
‘Imagine how it looked to them. On one hand, there was Cloke. The police knew he was dealing drugs on a pretty substantial scale; they also figured he was probably the middleman for somebody a lot bigger. There was no obvious connection between that and Bunny, but then there was Bunny s best friend, with all this money, they can’t tell quite where it’s coming from.
And during those last months Bunny was throwing around plenty of money himself. Henry was giving it to him, of course, but they didn’t know that. Fancy restaurants. Italian suits. Besides.
Henry just looks suspicious. The way he acts. Even the way he dresses. He looks like one of those guys with horn-rimmed glasses and armbands in a gangster movie, you know, the one who cooks the books for Al Capone or something.’ He lit another cigarette. ‘Do you remember the night before they found Bunny’s body?’ he said. ‘When you and I went to that awful bar, the one with the TV, and I got so drunk?’
That was one of the worst nights of my life. It looked pretty bad for both of us. Henry was almost sure he was going to be arrested the next day.’
I was so appalled that for a moment I couldn’t speak. ‘Why, for God’s sake?’ I said at last.
He drew deeply on his cigarette. The FBI men came to see him that afternoon,’ he said. ‘Not long after they’d taken Cloke into custody. They told Henry they had enough probable cause to arrest half a dozen people, including himself, either for conspiracy or withholding evidence.’
‘Christ!’ I said, dumbfounded. ‘Haifa dozen people? Who?’
‘I don’t know exactly. They might’ve been bluffing but Henry was worried sick. He warned me they’d probably be coming over to my place and I just had to get out of there, I couldn’t sit around waiting for them. He made me promise not to tell you. Even Camilla didn’t know.’
There was a long pause.
‘But they didn’t arrest you,’ I said.
Charles laughed. I noticed that his hands still shook a little. ‘I think we have dear old Hampden College to thank for that,’ he said. ‘Of course, a lot of the stuff didn’t tie up; they figured that out from talking to Cloke. But still they knew they weren’t getting the truth and they probably would’ve kept after it if the college had been a little more cooperative. Once Bunny’s body was found, though, the administration just wanted to hush it up.
Too much bad publicity. Freshman applications had gone down something like twenty percent. And the town police – whose business it was, really – are very cooperative about such things.
Cloke was in a lot of trouble, you know – some of that drug stuff was serious, they could’ve thrown him in jail. But he got off with academic probation and fifty hours of community service. It didn’t even go on his school record.’
It took me some moments to digest this. Cars and trucks whooshed past.
After a while Charles laughed again. ‘It’s funny,’ he said, pushing his fists deep in his pockets. ‘We thought we were putting our ace man up front but if one of the rest of us had handled it it would’ve been much better. If it had been you. Or Francis. Even my sister. We could have avoided half of this.’
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s over now.’
‘No thanks to him. I was the one who had to deal with the police. He takes the credit, but it was me who actually had to sit around that goddamned station all hours drinking coffee and trying to make them like me, you know, trying to convince them we were all just a bunch of regular kids. Same with the FBI, and that was even worse. Being the front for everybody, you know, always on guard, having to say exactly the right thing and doing my best to size up things from their point of view, and you had to hit exactly the right note with these people, too, you couldn’t drop it for a second, trying to be all communicative and open yet concerned, too, you know, and at the same time not at all nervous, though I could hardly pick up a cup without being afraid of spilling it and a couple of times I was so panicky I thought I was just going to black out or break down or something. Do you know how hard that was? Do you think Henry would lower himself to do something like that? No. It was all right, of course, for me to do it but he couldn’t be bothered. Those people had never seen anything like Henry in their lives. Ill tell you the sort of thing he worried about. Like if he was carrying around the right book, if Homer would make a better impression than Thomas Aquinas. He was like something from another planet. If he was the only one they’d had to deal with he would have landed us all in the gas chamber.’
A lumber truck rattled past.
‘Good God,’ I finally said. I was quite shaken. ‘I’m glad I didn’t know.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, you’re right. It all came out okay. But I still don’t like the way he tries to lord it over me.’
We walked for a long time without saying anything.
‘Do you know where you’re going to spend the summer?’ said Charles.
‘I haven’t thought about it much,’ I said. I hadn’t heard anything about the situation in Brooklyn, which tended to make me think it had fallen through.
‘I’m going to Boston,’ Charles said. ‘Francis’s great-aunt has an apartment on Marlborough Street. Just a few doors from the Public Garden. She goes to the country in the summer and Francis said if I wanted to stay there, I could.’
‘It’s a big place. If you wanted, you could come too.’
‘You’d like it. Francis will be in New York but he’ll come up sometimes. Have you ever been to Boston?’
‘We’ll go to the Gardner Museum. And the piano bar at the Ritz.’
He was telling me about a museum they had at Harvard, some place where they had a million different flowers all made of colored glass, when all of a sudden, with alarming swiftness, a yellow Volkswagen swooped from the opposite lane and ground to a stop beside us.
It was Judy Poovey’s friend Tracy. She rolled down her window and gave us a brilliant smile. ‘Hi, guys,’ she said. ‘Want a ride?’
She dropped us off at Charles’s place. It was ten o’clock. Camilla wasn’t home.
‘God,’ said Charles, shouldering off his jacket. It fell, in a heap, on the floor.
‘How do you feel?’
‘Want some coffee?’
‘There’s some in the kitchen,’ Charles said, yawning and running a hand through his hair. ‘Mind if I have a bath?’
‘I’ll be out in a minute. That cell was filthy. I think I might have fleas.’
He was more than a minute. I could hear him sneezing, running the hot and cold taps, humming to himself. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of orange juice and put some raisin bread in the toaster.
While looking through the cabinet for coffee, I found a half-full jar of Horlick’s malted milk. The label stared at me like a reproach.
Bunny was the only one of us who ever drank malted milk.
I pushed it to the rear of the cabinet, behind a jug of maple syrup.
The coffee was ready and I was on my second batch of toast when I heard a key in the lock, the front door opening. Camilla stuck her head into the kitchen.
‘Hi, you,’ she said. Her hair was untidy and her face pale and watchful; she looked like a little boy.
‘Hi yourself. Want some breakfast?’
She sat down at the table beside me. ‘How did it go?’ she said.
I told her. She listened attentively, reached out and took a triangle of buttered toast from my plate and ate it as she listened.
‘Is he all right?’ she said.
I didn’t know exactly how she meant it, ‘all right.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
There was a long silence. Very faintly, on a downstairs radio, a sprightly female voice sang a song about yogurt, backed by a chorus of mooing cows.
She finished her toast and got up to pour herself some coffee.
The refrigerator hummed. I watched her rummage in the cabinet for a cup.
‘You know,’ I said, ‘you ought to throw away that jar of malted milk you have in there.’
It was a moment before she answered. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘In the closet there’s a scarf he left the last time he was here. I keep running across it. It still smells like him.’
‘Why don’t you get rid of it?’
‘I keep hoping I won’t have to. I hope one day I’ll open the closet door and it’ll be gone.’
‘I thought I heard you,’ said Charles, who had been standing in the kitchen door for I didn’t know how long. His hair was wet and all he had on was a bathrobe and in his voice was still a trace of that liquory thickness I knew so well. ‘I thought you were in class.’
‘Small class. Julian let us out early. How do you feel?’
‘Fabulous,’ said Charles, padding into the kitchen, his moist feet tracking prints that evaporated instantly on the shiny, tomato-red linoleum. He came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders; bending low, he put his lips close to the nape of her neck. ‘How about a kiss for your jailbird brother?’ he said.
She turned halfway, as if to touch her lips to his cheek, but he slid a palm down her back and tipped her face up to his and kissed her full on the mouth – not a brotherly kiss, there was no mistaking it for that, but a long, slow, greedy kiss, messy and voluptuous. His bathrobe fell slightly open as his left hand sank from her chin to neck, collarbone, base of throat, his fingertips just inside the edge of her thin polka-dot shirt and trembling over the warm skin there.
I was astounded. She didn’t flinch, didn’t move. When he came up for breath she pulled her chair in close to the table and reached for the sugar bowl as if nothing had happened. Spoon tinkled against china. The smell of Charles – damp, alcoholic, sweet with the linden-water he used for shaving – hung heavy in the air. She brought the cup up and took a sip and it was only then I remembered: Camilla didn’t like sugar in her coffee. She drank it unsweetened, with milk.
I was astounded. I felt I should say something – anything but I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
It was Charles who finally broke the silence. ‘I’m starving to death,’ he said, retying the knot of his bathrobe and pottering over to the refrigerator. The white door opened with a bark. He stooped to look in, his face radiant in the glacial light.
‘I think I’m going to make some scrambled eggs,’ he said.
‘Anyone else want some?’
Late that afternoon, after I’d gone home and had a shower and a nap, I went to visit Francis.
‘Come in, come in,’ he said, waving me in frenetically. His Greek books were spread out on the desk; a cigarette burned in a full ashtray. ‘What happened last night? Was Charles arrested’? Henry wouldn’t tell me a thing. I got part of the story from Camilla but she didn’t know the details… Sit down. Do you want a drink? What can I get for you?’
It was always fun to tell Francis a story. He leaned forward and hung on every word, reacting at appropriate intervals with astonishment, sympathy, dismay. When I was finished he bombarded me with questions. Normally, enjoying his rapt attention, I would have strung it out much longer, but after the first decent pause I said, ‘Now I want to ask you something.’
He was lighting a fresh cigarette. He clicked shut the lighter and brought his eyebrows down. ‘What is it?’
Though I had thought of various ways to phrase this question, it seemed, in the interests of clarity, most expedient to come to the point. ‘Do you think Charles and Camilla ever sleep together?’
He had just drawn in a big lungful of smoke. At my question it spurted out his nose the wrong way.
But he was coughing. ‘What makes you ask something like that?’ he finally said.
I told him what I’d seen that morning. He listened, his eyes red and streaming from the smoke.
‘That’s nothing,’ he said. ‘He was probably still drunk.’
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
He laid the burning cigarette in the ashtray. ‘All right,’ he said, blinking. ‘If you want my opinion. Yes. I think sometimes they do.’
There was a long silence. Francis closed his eyes, rubbed them with thumb and forefinger.
‘I don’t think it’s anything that happens too frequently,’ he said. ‘But you never know. Bunny always claimed he walked in on them once.’
I stared at him.
‘He told Henry, not me. I’m afraid I don’t know the details.
Apparently he had the key and you remember how he used to barge in without knocking – Come now,’ he said. ‘You must have had some idea.’
‘No,’ I said, though actually I had, from the time I’d first met them. I’d attributed this to my own mental perversity, some degenerate vagary of thought, a projection of my own desire because he was her brother, and they did look an awful lot alike, and the thought of them together brought, along with the predictable twinges of envy, scruple, surprise, another very much sharper one of excitement.
Francis was looking at me keenly. Suddenly I felt he knew exactly what I was thinking.
‘They’re very jealous of each other,’ he said. ‘He much more so than she. I always thought it was a childish, charming thing, you know, all verbal rough-and-tumble, even Julian used to tease them about it – I mean, I’m an only child, so is Henry, what do we know about such things? We used to talk about what fun it would be to have a sister.’ He chuckled. ‘More fun than either of us imagined, it seems,’ he said. ‘Not that I think it’s so terrible, either – from a moral standpoint, that is – but it’s not at all the casual, good-natured sort of thing that one might hope. It runs a lot more deep and nasty. Last fall, around the time when that farmer fellow…”
He trailed away, sat smoking for some moments, an expression of frustration and vague irritation on his face.
‘Well?’ I said. ‘What happened?’
‘Specifically?’ He shrugged. ‘I can’t tell you. I remember hardly anything that happened that night, which isn’t to say the tenor of it isn’t clear enough…’ He paused; started to speak but thought better of it; shook his head. ‘I mean, after that night it was obvious to everyone,’ he said. ‘Not that it wasn’t before. It’s just that Charles was so much worse than anyone had expected.
He sat staring into space for a moment. Then he shook his head and reached for another cigarette.
‘It’s impossible to explain,’ he said. ‘But one can also look at it on an extremely simple level. They were always keen on each other, those two. And I’m no prude, but this jealousy I find astounding. One thing I’ll say for Camilla, she’s more reasonable about that sort of thing. Perhaps she has to be.’
‘What sort of thing?’
‘About Charles going to bed with people.’
‘Who’s he been to bed with?’
He brought up his glass and took a big drink. The for one,’ he said. ‘That shouldn’t surprise you. If you drank as much as he does, I daresay I would have been to bed with you, too.’
Despite the archness of his tone – which normally would have irritated me – there was a melancholy undernote in his voice. He drained off the rest of the whiskey and set the glass down on the end table with a bang. He said, after a pause: ‘It hasn’t happened often. Three or four times. The first time when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman. We were up late, drinking in my room, one thing led to another. Loads of fun on a rainy night, but you should have seen us at breakfast the next morning.’ He laughed bleakly. ‘Remember the night Bunny died?’ he said. ‘When I was in your room? And Charles interrupted us at that rather unfortunate moment?’
I knew what he was going to tell me. ‘You left my room with him,’ I said.
‘Yes. He was awfully drunk. Actually a little too drunk. Which was quite convenient for him as he pretended not to remember it the next day. Charles is very prone to these attacks of amnesia after he spends the night at my house.’ He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. ‘He denies it all quite convincingly and the thing is, he expects me to play along with him, you know, pretend it never happened,’ he said. ‘I don’t even think he does it out of guilt. As a matter of fact he does it in this particularly lighthearted way which infuriates me.’
I said: ‘You like him a lot, don’t you?’
I don’t know what made me say this. Francis didn’t blink. ‘I don’t know,’ he said coldly, reaching for a cigarette with his long, nicotine-stained fingers. ‘I like him well enough, I suppose. We’re old friends. Certainly I don’t fool myself that it’s more than that.
But I’ve had a lot of fun with him, which is a great deal more than you can say about Camilla.’
That was what Bunny would have called a shot across the bow. I was too surprised to even answer.
Francis – though his satisfaction was evident – did not acknowledge his point. He leaned back in his chair by the window; the edges of his hair glowed metallic red in the sun. He said: ‘It’s unfortunate, but there it is. Neither one cares about anybody but himself- or herself, as the case may be. They like to present a unified front but I don’t even know how much they care about each other. Certainly they take a perverse pleasure in leading one on – yes, she does lead you on,’ he said when I tried to interrupt, ‘I’ve seen her do it. And the same with Henry. He used to be crazy about her, I’m sure you know that; for all I know he still is. As for Charles – well, basically, he likes girls. If he’s drunk, I’ll do. But -just when I’ve managed to harden my heart, he’ll turn around and be so sweet. I always fall for it. I don’t know why.’
He was quiet for a moment. ‘We don’t run much to looks in my family, you know, all knuckles and cheekbones and beaky noses,’ he said. ‘Maybe that’s why I tend to equate physical beauty with qualities with which it has absolutely nothing to do. I see a pretty mouth or a moody pair of eyes and imagine all sorts of deep affinities, private kinships. Never mind that half a dozen jerks are clustered round the same person, just because they’ve been duped by the same pair of eyes.’ He leaned over and energetically stubbed out his cigarette. ‘She’d behave a lot more like Charles if she were allowed to; he’s so possessive, though, he keeps her reeled in pretty tight. Can you imagine a worse situation? He watches her like a hawk. And he’s also rather poor – not that it matters much,’ he said hastily, realizing to whom he was speaking, ‘but he’s quite self-conscious about it. Very proud of his family, you know, very well aware that he himself is a sot.
There’s something kind of Roman about it, all this regard he puts in his sister’s honor. Bunny wouldn’t go near Camilla, you know, he would hardly even look at her. He used to say that she wasn’t his type but I think the old Dutchman in him just knew she was 5i6 bad medicine. My God… I remember once, a long time ago, we had dinner at a ridiculous Chinese restaurant in Bennington.
The Lobster Pagoda. It’s closed now. Red bead curtains and a shrine to the Buddha with an artificial waterfall. We drank a lot of drinks with umbrellas in them and Charles was horribly drunk – not that it was his fault, really; we were all drunk, the cocktails are always too strong in a place like that and besides, you never know quite what they put in them, do you? Outside, they had a footbridge to the parking lot that went over a moat with tame ducks and goldfish. Somehow Camilla and I got separated from everyone else, and we were waiting there. Comparing fortunes.
Hers said something like “Expect a kiss from the man of your dreams,” which was too good to pass up, so I – well, we were both drunk, and we got a little carried away – and then Charles barreled out of nowhere and grabbed me by the back of the neck and I thought he was going to throw me over the rail. Bunny was there, too, he pulled him off, and Charles had the sense to say he’d been joking but he wasn’t, he hurt me, twisted my arm behind my back and damn near pulled it out of the socket. I don’t know where Henry was. Probably looking at the moon and reciting some poem from the T’ang Dynasty.’
Subsequent events had knocked it from my mind, but the mention of Henry made me think of what Charles had told me that morning about the FBI – and of another question, this one regarding Henry too. I was wondering if this was the time to bring up either of them when Francis said, abruptly and in a tone suggestive of bad news to follow, ‘You know, I was at the doctor’s today.’
I waited for him to go on. He didn’t.
‘What for?’ I finally said.
‘Same stuff. Dizziness. Chest pains. I wake up in the night and can’t get my breath. Last week I went back to the hospital and let them run some tests but nothing turned up. They referred me to this other fellow. A neurologist.’
He shifted restlessly in his chair. ‘He didn’t find anything.
None of these hick doctors are any good. Julian gave me the name of a man in New York; he was the one who cured the Shah of Isram, you know, of that blood disease. It was in all the papers.
Julian says he’s the best diagnostician in the country and one of the best in the world. He’s booked two years in advance but Julian says maybe if he calls him, he might agree to see me.’
He was reaching for another cigarette, and the last, untouched, was still smoldering in the ashtray.
The way you smoke,’ I said, ‘no wonder you’re short of breath.’
That has nothing to do with it,’ he said irritably, tamping the cigarette on the back of his wrist. That’s just what these stupid Vermonters tell you. Stop smoking, cut out booze and coffee.
I’ve been smoking half my life. You think I don’t know how it affects me? You don’t get these nasty cramping pains in your chest from cigarettes, nor from having a few drinks, either.
Besides, I have all these other symptoms. Heart palpitations.
Ringing in the ears.’
‘Smoking can have totally weird effects on your body.’
Francis frequently made fun of me when I used some phrase he perceived as Californian. ‘Totally weird?’ he said maliciously, mimicking my accent: suburban, hollow, flat. ‘Rillyf I looked at him slouching in his chair: polka-dot tie, narrow Bally shoes, foxy narrow face. His grin was foxy too, and showed too many teeth. I was sick of him. I stood up. The room was so smoky that my eyes watered. ‘Yeah,’ 1 said. ‘I’ve got to go now.’
Francis’s snide expression faded. ‘You’re mad, aren’t you?’ he said anxiously.
‘Yes you are.’
‘No, I’m not,’ I said. These sudden, panicky attempts at conciliation annoyed me more than his insults.
‘I’m sorry. Don’t listen to me. I’m drunk, I’m sick, I didn’t mean it.’
Without warning I had a vision of Francis – twenty years later, fifty years, in a wheelchair. And of myself – older, too, sitting around with him in some smoky room, the two of us repeating this exchange for the thousandth time. At one time I had liked the idea, that the act, at least, had bound us together; we were not ordinary friends, but friends till-death-do-us-part. This thought had been my only comfort in the aftermath of Bunny’s death. Now it made me sick, knowing there was no way out. I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.
On the walk home from Francis’s – head down, sunk in a black, inarticulate tangle of anxiety and gloom – I heard Julian’s voice saying my name.
I turned. He was just coming out of the Lyceum. At the sight of his quizzical, kindly face – so sweet, so agreeable, so glad to see me – something wrenched deep in my chest.
‘Richard,’ he said again, as if there were no one on earth he could possibly be so delighted to see. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m just going over to North Hampden. Will you walk with me?’
I looked at the innocent, happy face and thought: If he only knew. It would kill him.
‘Julian, I’d love to, thanks,’ I said. ‘But I have to be getting home.’
He looked at me closely. The concern in his eyes made me nearly sick with self-loathing.
‘I see so little of you these days, Richard,’ he said. ‘I feel that you’re becoming just a shadow in my life.’
The benevolence, the spiritual calm, that radiated from him seemed so clear and true that, for a dizzying moment, I felt the darkness lift almost palpably from my heart. The relief was such 5i9 that I almost broke down sobbing; but then, looking at him again, 1 felt the whole poisonous weight come crashing back down, full force.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’
He can never know. We can never tell him.
‘Oh. Sure I am,’ I said. ‘I’m fine.’
Though the fuss about Bunny had mostly blown over, the college had still not returned quite to normal – and not at all in the new ‘Dragnet’ spirit of drug enforcement which had spread across campus. Gone were the nights when, on one’s way home from the Rathskeller, it was not unheard-of to see an occasional teacher standing under the bare light bulb of Durbinstall basement – Arnie Weinstein, say, the Marxist economist (Berkeley, ’69), or the haggard, scraggle-haired Englishman who taught classes in Sterne and Defoe.
Long gone. I had watched grim security men dismantling the underground laboratory, hauling out cartons of beakers and copper piping, while Durbinstall’s head chemist – a small, pimple faced boy from Akron named Cal Clarken – stood by and wept, still in his trademark high-top sneakers and lab coat. The anthropology teacher who for twenty years had taught ‘Voices and Visions: The Thought of Carlos Castaneda’ (a course which featured, at its conclusion, a mandatory campfire ritual at which pot was smoked) announced quite suddenly that he was leaving for Mexico on sabbatical. Arnie Weinstein took to frequenting the townie bars, where he attempted to discuss Marxist theory with hostile countermen. The scraggle-haired Englishman had returned to his primary interest, which was chasing girls twenty years younger than himself.
As part of the new ‘Drug Awareness’ policy, Hampden was hosting an intercollege tournament, in game-show format, which tested students’ knowledge about drugs and alcohol. The questions were developed by the National Council for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. The shows were moderated by a local TV personality (Liz Ocavello) and were broadcast live on Channel 12.
Unexpectedly, the quizzes proved wildly popular, though not in the spirit the sponsors might have hoped. Hampden had assembled a crack team which – like one of those commando forces in the movies, made up of desperate fugitives, men with freedom to gain and nothing to lose – proved virtually invincible.
It was an all-star lineup: Cloke Rayburn; Bram Guernsey; Jack Teitelbaum; Laura Stora; none other than the legendary Cal Clarken heading the team. Cal was participating in hopes of being allowed back into school next term; Cloke and Bram and Laura as part of their required hours of community service; Jack was merely along for the ride. Their combined expertise was nothing short of stunning. Together, they led Hampden to victory after crashing victory over Williams, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, fielding with dazzling speed and skill such questions as: Name five drugs in the Thorazine family, or: What are the effects of PCP?
But – even though business had been seriously curtailed – I was not surprised to find that Cloke was still plying his trade, though a good bit more discreetly than he had used to in the old days. One Thursday night before a party I went down to Judy’s room to ask for an aspirin and, after a brief but mysterious inquisition from behind the locked door, found Cloke inside, shades pulled, busy with her mirror and her druggist’s scales.
‘Hi,’ he said, ushering me quickly inside and locking the door behind me again. ‘What can I do for you tonight?’
‘Uh, nothing, thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m just looking for Judy. Where is she?’
‘Oh,’ he said, crossing back to his work. ‘She’s in the costume shop. I thought she probably sent you over. I like Judy but she’s got to make such a big production of everything, which is definitely not cool. Not cool’ – carefully, he tapped a measure of powder into an open fold of paper – ‘at all.’ His hands trembled; it was evident that he had been dipping pretty freely into his own wares. ‘But I had to toss my own scales, you know, after all that shit happened and what the fuck am I supposed to do? Go up to the infirmary? She was running around all day, at lunch and stuff, rubbing her nose and saying, “Gramma’s here, Gramma’s here,” lucky nobody knew what the fuck she was talking about, but still.’ He nodded at the open book beside him – Janson’s History of Art, which was cut practically to tatters. ‘Even these fucking bindles. She got fixated on the idea that I had to make these fancy ones, Jesus, open them up and there’s a fucking Tintoretto on the inside. And gets pissed if I cut them out so that the cupid’s butt or whatever isn’t, like, right in the center. How’s Camilla?’ he said, glancing up.
‘Fine,’ I said.1 didn’t want to think about Camilla. I didn’t want to think of anything having to do with Greek or Greek J class, either one. *
‘How’s she liking her new place?’ said Cloke.
He laughed. ‘Don’t you know?’ he said. ‘She moved.’
‘What? Where to?’
‘Don’t know. Down the street, probably. Stopped by to see the twins – hand me that blade, would you? – stopped by to see them yesterday and Henry was helping her put her stuff in boxes.’
He had abandoned his work at the scales and was now cutting out lines on the mirror. ‘Charles is going to Boston for the summer and she’s staying here. Said she didn’t want to stay there alone and it was too much of a pain to sublet. Sounds like there are going to be a lot of us here this summer.’ He offered me the mirror and a rolled-up twenty. ‘Bram and I are looking for a place right now.’
‘This is very good,’ I said, half a minute or so later, just as the first euphoric sparkle was starting to hit my synapses.
‘Yeah. It’s excellent, isn’t it? Especially after that awful shit of Laura’s that was going around. Those FBI guys analyzed it and said it was about eighty percent talcum powder or something.’
He wiped his nose. ‘Did they ever come talk to you, by the way?’
The FBI? No.’
Tm surprised. After all that lifeboat shit they were feeding everybody.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Christ. They were saying all kinds of weird stuff. There was a conspiracy going on. They knew that Henry and Charles and I were involved. We were all in bad trouble and there was only room for one guy on the lifeboat out. And that guy was going to be the guy that talked first.’ He sniffed again, and rubbed his nose with his knuckle. ‘In a way, it got worse after my dad sent the lawyer up. “Why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent,” all that kind of shit. Thing is, even the fucking lawyer couldn’t figure out what they were trying to get me to confess to. They kept saying that my friends – Henry and Charles – had ratted on me.
That they were the guilty ones, and if I didn’t start talking I might get blamed for something I didn’t even do.’
My heart was pounding, and not just from the cocaine. ‘Talking?’
I said. ‘About what?’
‘Search me. My lawyer said not to worry, that they were full of shit. I talked to Charles and he said they were giving him the same line, too. And 1 mean – I know you like Henry but I think he got pretty flipped out by the whole thing.’
‘Well, I mean, he’s so straight, probably never even had an overdue library book, and out of the blue here comes the fucking FB7 all over him. I don’t know what the hell he told them, but he was trying to point them in any direction but towards himself ‘Like what direction?’
‘Like me.’ He reached for a cigarette. ‘And, I hate to say it, but I think towards you.’
‘I never brought your name up, man. I hardly fucking know you. But they got it from somewhere. And it wasn’t from me.’
‘You mean they actually mentioned my name”!’ I said, after a stunned silence.
‘Maybe Marion gave it to them or something, I don’t know.
God knows, they had Bram’s name, Laura’s, even Jud Mac Kenna’s… Yours was only once or twice, towards the end there.
Don’t ask me why, but I had the idea the Feebies went over to talk to you. I guess that would’ve been the night before they found Bunny’s body. They were coming over to talk to Charles again, I know that, but Henry called and tipped him off that they were on the way. That was when I was staying over at the twins’.
Well, I didn’t want to see them, either, so I headed over to Bram’s, and Charles I guess just went to some townie bar and got completely rucked up.’
My heart was thumping so wildly I thought it would burst in my chest like a red balloon. Had Henry got scared, tried to sic 1 the FBI on me? That didn’t make sense. There was no way, at least that I could see, he could set me up without incriminating himself. Then again (paranoia, I thought,,’ have to stop this), maybe it was no coincidence that Charles had stopped by my room that night on his way to the bar. Maybe he had been apprised of the whole thing and – unbeknownst to Henry – had come over and successfully lured me out of harm’s way.
‘You look like you could use a drink, man,’ said Cloke presently.
‘Yeah,’ 1 said. I had been sitting for a long time without saying anything. ‘Yeah, I guess I could.’
‘Why don’t you go to the Villager tonight? Thirsty Thursday.
Two for the price of one.’
‘Are you going?’
‘Everybody’s going. Shit. You’re trying to tell me you never went to Thirsty Thursday before?’
So I went to Thirsty Thursday, with Cloke and Judy, with Bram and Sophie Dearbold and some friends of Sophie’s, and a lot of other people i didn’t even know, and though I don’t know what time I got home I didn’t wake up till six the next evening, when Sophie knocked at my door. My stomach hurt and my head was splitting in two, but I put on my robe and let her in. She had just got out of ceramics class and was wearing a T-shirt and faded old jeans. She had brought me a bagel from the snack bar.
‘Are you okay?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, though I had to hold on to the back of my chair to stand up.
‘You were really drunk last night.’
‘I know,’ I said. Getting out of bed had made me feel, suddenly, much worse. Red spots jumped in front of my eyes.
‘I was worried. I thought I’d better come check on you.’ She laughed. ‘Nobody’s seen you all day. Somebody told me they saw the flag at the guard booth at half-mast and I was afraid you might be dead.’
I sat on the bed, breathing hard, and stared at her. Her face was like a half-remembered fragment of dream – bar? I thought.
There had been the bar – Irish whiskeys and a pinball game with Bram, Sophie’s face blue in the sleazy neon light. More cocaine, cut into lines with a school ID, off the side of a compact-disc case. Then a ride in the back of someone’s truck, a Gulf sign on the highway, someone’s apartment? The rest of the evening was black. Vaguely I remembered a long, earnest conversation with Sophie, standing by an ice-filled sink in someone’s kitchen (Meister Brau and Genesee, MOMA calendar on the wall). Certainly – a coil of fear wrenched in my stomach – certainly I hadn’t said anything about Bunny. Certainly not. Rather frantically, I searched my memory. Certainly, if I had, she would not be in my room now, looking at me the way she was, would not have brought me this toasted bagel on a paper plate, the smell of which (it was an onion bagel) made me want to retch.
‘How did I get home?’ I said, looking up at her.
‘Don’t you remember?’
‘No.’ Blood hammered nightmarishly in my temples.
Then you were drunk. We called a cab from Jack Teitelbaum’s.’
‘And where did we go?’
Had we slept together? Her expression was neutral, offering no clue. If we had, I wasn’t sorry – I liked Sophie, I knew she liked me, she was one of the prettiest girls at Hampden besides – but this was the kind of thing you like to know for sure. I was trying to think how I could ask her, tactfully, when someone knocked at the door. The raps were like gun shots. Sharp pains ricocheted through my head.
‘Come in,’ said Sophie.
Francis stuck his head around the door. ‘Well, look at this, would you,’ he said. He liked Sophie. ‘It’s the car trip reunion j| and nobody asked me.’
Sophie stood up. ‘Francis! Hello! How’ve you been?’
‘Good, thanks. I haven’t talked to you since the funeral.’
‘I know. I was thinking about you just the other day. How have you been?’
I lay back on the bed, my stomach boiling. The two of them were conversing animatedly. I wished they would both leave.
‘Well well,’ said Francis after a long interlude, peering over Sophie’s shoulder at me. ‘What’s wrong with tiny patient?’
‘Too much to drink.’
He came over to the bed. He seemed, up close, slightly agitated. ‘Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson,’ he said brightly and then, in Greek, added: ‘Important news, my friend.’
My heart sank. I had screwed up. I had been careless, talked too much, said something weird. ‘What have I done?’ I said, I had said it in English. If Francis was flustered, he didn’t look it. ‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ he said. ‘Do you want some tea or something?’
I tried to figure out what he was trying to say. The pounding agony in my head was such that I couldn’t concentrate oil anything. Nausea swelled in a great green wave, trembled at the crest, sank and rolled again. I felt saturated with despair.
Everything, I thought tremulously, everything would be okay if only I could have a few moments of quiet and if I lay very, very still.
‘No,’ I said finally. ‘Please.’
The wave swelled again. I rolled over on my stomach and gave a long, miserable moan.
Sophie caught on first. ‘Come on,’ she said to Francis, ‘let’s go. I think we ought to let him go back to sleep.’
I fell into a tormented half-dreaming state from which I woke, several hours later, to a soft knock. The room was now dark.
The door creaked open and a flag of light fell in from the corridor.
Francis slipped in and closed the door behind him.
He switched on the weak reading lamp on my desk and pulled the chair over to my bed. ‘I’m sorry but I’ve got to talk to you,’ he said. ‘Something very odd has happened.’
I had forgotten my earlier fright; it came back in a sick, bilious wash. ‘What is it?’
‘Camilla has moved. She’s moved out of the apartment. All her things are gone. Charles is there right now, drunk nearly out of his mind. He says she’s living at the Albemarle Inn. Can you imagine? The Albemarle?’
I rubbed my eyes, trying to collect my thoughts. ‘But I knew that,’ I said finally.
‘You did?’ He was astonished. ‘Who told you?’
‘I think it was Cloke.’
‘Cloke? When was this?’
I explained, as far as memory allowed. ‘I forgot about it,’ I said.
‘Forgot? How could you forget something like that?’
I sat up a bit. Fresh pain surged through my head. ‘What ^ difference does it make?’ I said, a little angrily. ‘If she wants to w| leave I don’t blame her. Charles will just have to straighten up.
‘But the Albemarle?’ said Francis. ‘Do you have any idea how expensive it is?’
‘Of course I do,’ I said irritably. The Albemarle was the nicest inn in town. Presidents had stayed there, and movie stars. ‘So what?’
Francis put his head in his hands. ‘Richard,’ he said, ‘you’re dense. You must have brain damage.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘How about two hundred dollars a night? Do you think the twins have that kind of money? Who the hell do you think is paying for it?’
I stared at him.
‘Henry, that’s who,’ said Francis. ‘He came over when Charles was out and moved her there, lock, stock and barrel. Charles came home and her things were gone. Can you imagine? He can’t even get in touch with her, she’s registered under a different name. Henry won’t tell him anything. For that matter, he won’t tell me anything, either. Charles is absolutely beside himself. He asked me to call Henry and see if I could get anything out of him, I couldn’t, of course, he was like a brick wall.’
‘What’s the big deal? Why are they making such a secret of it?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know Camilla’s side but I think Henry is being very foolish.’
‘Maybe she has reasons of her own.’
‘She doesn’t think that way,’ said Francis, exasperated. ‘I know Henry. This is just the sort of thing he’d do and it’s just the way he’d do it. But even if there’s a good reason it’s the wrong way to go about it. Especially now. Charles is in a state. Henry should know better than to antagonize him after the other night.’
Uncomfortably, I thought of the walk home from the police station. ‘You know, there’s something I’ve meant to tell you,’ I said, and I told him about Charles’s outburst.
‘Oh, he’s mad at Henry all right,’ said Francis tersely. ‘He’s told me the same thing – that Henry pushed it all off on him, basically. But what does he expect? When you get down to it, I don’t think Henry asked all that much of him. That’s not the reason he’s angry. The real reason is Camilla. Do you want to know my theory?’
‘I think Camilla and Henry have been slipping around with each other for quite some time. I think Charles has been suspicious for a while but until lately he didn’t have any proof. Then he found something out. I don’t know what, exactly,’ he said, raising his hand as I tried to interrupt, ‘but it’s not hard to imagine.
I think it’s something he found out down at the Corcorans’.
Something he saw or heard. And I think it must’ve happened before we arrived. The night before they left for Connecticut with Cloke, everything seemed fine, but you remember what Charles was like when we got there. And by the time we left they weren’t even speaking.’
I told Francis what Cloke had said to me in the upstairs hallway.
‘God knows what happened, then, if Cloke was smart enough to catch on,’ said Francis. ‘Henry was sick, probably wasn’t thinking too clearly. And the week we came back, you know, when he holed up in his apartment, I think Camilla was there a lot. She was there, I know, the day I went to take him that Mycenaean book and I think she might have even spent the night a couple of times. But then he got well and Camilla came home and for a while after that, things were okay. Remember? Around the time you took me to the hospital?’
‘I don’t know about that,’ I said. I told him about the glass I had seen lying broken in the fireplace at the twins’ apartment.
‘Well, who knows what was really happening. At least they seemed better. And Henry was in good spirits too. Then there was that quarrel, the night Charles ended up in jail. Nobody seems to want to say exactly what that was all about but I’ll bet it had something to do with her. And now this. Good God.
Charles is in a bloody rage.’
‘Do you think he’s sleeping with her? Henry?’
‘If he’s not, he’s certainly done everything he possibly can to convince Charles that he is.’ He stood up. ‘I tried to call him again before I came over here,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t in. I expect he’s over at the Albemarle. I’m going to drive by and see if his car is there.’
‘There must be some way you can find out what room she’s in.’
‘I’ve thought about that. I can’t get anything out of the desk clerk. Maybe I’d have better luck talking to one of the maids, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at that sort of thing.’ He sighed. ‘I wish I could see her for just five minutes.’
‘If you find her, do you think you can talk her into coming home?’
‘I don’t know. I must say, I wouldn’t care to be living with Charles right now. But I still think everything would be okay if Henry would just keep out of it.’
After Francis left I fell asleep again. When I woke up it was four in the morning. I had slept for nearly twenty-four hours.
The nights that spring were unusually cold; this one was colder than most and the heat was on in the dormitories – steam heat, full blast, which made it unbearably stuffy even with the windows open. My sheets were damp with sweat. I got up and stuck my head out the window and took a few breaths. The chill air was so refreshing that I decided to put on some clothes and go for a walk.
The moon was full and very bright. Everything was silent except for the chirp of the crickets and the full foamy toss of the wind in the trees. Down at the Early Childhood Center, where Marion worked, the swings creaked gently to and fro, and the corkscrewed slide gleamed silver in the moonlight.
The most striking object in the playground was without question the giant snail. Some art students had built it, modeling it after the giant snail in the movie of Doctor Dolittle. It was pink, made of fiberglass, nearly eight feet tall, with a hollow shell so kids could play inside. Silent in the moonlight, it was like some patient prehistoric creature that had crawled down from the mountains: dumb, lonely, biding its time, untroubled by the articles of playground equipment which surrounded it.
Access to the snail’s interior was gained by a child-sized tunnel, maybe two feet high, at the base of the tail. From this runnel, I was extremely startled to see protruding a pair of adult male feet, shod in some oddly familiar brown-and-white spectator shoes.
On hands and knees, I leaned forward and stuck my head in the tunnel and was overwhelmed by the raw, powerful stink of whiskey. Light snores echoed in the close, boozy darkness. The shell, apparently, had acted as a brandy snifter, gathering and concentrating the vapors until they were so pungent I felt nauseated just to breathe them.
I caught and shook a bony kneecap. ‘Charles.’ My voice boomed and reverberated in the dark interior. ‘Charles.’
He began to flounder wildly, as if he had waked to find himself in ten feet of water. At length, and after repeated assurances that I was who I said I was, he fell on his back again, breathing hard.
‘Richard,’ he said thickly. ‘Thank God. I thought you were some kind of creature from space.’
At first it had been completely dark inside but now my eyes had adjusted I was aware of a faint, pinkish light, moonlight, just enough to see by, glowing through the translucent walls. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked him.
He sneezed. ‘I was depressed,’ he said. ‘I thought if I slept here it might make me feel better.’
‘No.’ He sneezed again, five or six times in a row. Then he slumped back on the floor.
I thought of the nursery-school kids, huddled round Charles the next morning like Lilliputians round the sleeping Gulliver.
The lady who ran the Childhood Center – a psychiatrist, whose office was down the hall from Dr Roland’s – seemed to me a pleasant, grandmotherly sort, though who could predict how she’d react to finding a drunk passed out on her playground.
‘Wake up, Charles,’ I said.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘You can’t sleep here.’
‘I can do whatever I want,’ he said haughtily.
‘Why don’t you come home with me? Have a drink.’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘Well -just one.’
He bumped his head, hard, while crawling out. The little kids were certainly going to love that smell of Johnnie Walker when they came to school in a few hours.
He had to lean on me on the way up the hill to Monmouth House.
‘Just one,’ he reminded me.
I was not in terrific shape myself and had a hard time hauling him up the stairs. Finally I reached my room and deposited him on my bed. He offered little resistance and lay there, mumbling, while I went down to the kitchen.
My offer of a drink had been a ruse. Quickly I searched the refrigerator but all I could find was a screw-top bottle of some syrupy Kosher stuff, strawberry-flavored, which had been there since Hanukkah. I’d tasted it once, with the idea of stealing it, and hurriedly spit it out and put the bottle back on the shelf.
That had been months ago. I slipped it under my shirt; but when I got upstairs, Charles’s head had rolled back against the wall where the headboard should have been and he was snoring.
Quietly, I put the bottle on my desk, got a book, and left.
Then I went to Dr Roland’s office, where I lay reading on the couch with my jacket thrown over me until the sun came up, and I turned off the lamp and went to sleep.
I woke around ten. It was Saturday, which surprised me a little; I’d lost track of the days. I went to the dining hall and had a late breakfast of tea and soft-boiled eggs, the first thing I’d eaten since Thursday. When I went to my room to change, around noon, Charles was still asleep in my bed. I shaved, put on a clean shirt, got my Greek books and went back to Dr Roland’s.
1 was ridiculously behind in my studies but not (as is often the case) so far behind as I’d thought. The hours went by without my noticing them. When I got hungry, around six, I went to the refrigerator in the Social Sciences office and found some leftover hors d’oeuvres and a piece of birthday cake, which I ate from my fingers off a paper plate at Dr Roland’s desk.
Since I wanted a bath, I came home around eleven, but when I unlocked the door and turned on the light, I was startled to find Charles still in my bed. He was sleeping, but the bottle of Kosher wine on the desk was half-empty. His face was flushed and pink.
When I shook him, he felt as though he had a good deal of fever.
‘Bunny,’ he said, waking with a start. ‘Where did he go?’
‘But he was here,’ he said, looking wildly round. ‘For a long time. I saw him.’
‘You’re dreaming, Charles.’
‘But I saw him. He was here. He was sitting on the foot of the bed.’
I went next door to borrow a thermometer. His temperature was nearly a hundred and three. I gave him two Tylenol and a glass of water and left him, rubbing his eyes and talking nonsense, to go downstairs and call Francis.
Francis wasn’t home. I decided to try Henry. To my surprise it was Francis, not Henry, who answered the phone.
‘Francis? What are you doing over there?’ I said.
‘Oh, hello, Richard,’ said Francis. He said it in a stagy way, as if for Henry’s benefit.
‘I guess you can’t really talk now.’
‘Look here. I need to ask you something.’ I explained to him about Charles, playground and all. ‘He seems pretty sick. What do you think I should do?’
‘The snail?’ said Francis. ‘You found him inside that giant snail?’
‘Yes. What should I do? I’m kind of worried.’
Francis put his hand over the receiver.1 could hear a muffled discussion. In a moment Henry came on the line. ‘Hello, Richard,’ he said. ‘What’s the matter?’
I had to explain all over again.
‘How high, did you say? A hundred and three?’
‘That’s rather a lot, isn’t it?’
I said that I thought it was.
‘Did you give him some aspirins?’
‘A few minutes ago.’
‘Well, then, why don’t you wait and see. I’m sure he’s fine.’
This was exactly what I wanted to hear.
‘You’re right,’ I said.
‘He probably caught cold sleeping out of doors. I’m sure he’ll be better in the morning.’
I spent the night on Dr Roland’s couch, and after breakfast, came back to my room with blueberry muffins and a half-gallon carton of orange juice which, with extraordinary difficulty, I had managed to steal from the buffet in the dining hall.
Charles was awake, but feverish and vague. From the state of the bedclothes, which were tumbled and tossed, blanket trailing on the floor and the stained ticking of the mattress showing where he’d pulled the sheets loose, I gathered he’d not had a very good night of it. He said he wasn’t hungry, but he managed a few limp little sips of the orange juice. The rest of the Kosher wine had disappeared, I noticed, in the night.
‘How do you feel?’ I asked him.
He lolled his head on the crumpled pillow. ‘Head hurts,’ he said sleepily. ‘I had a dream about Dante.’
‘We were at the Corcorans’ house,’ he mumbled. ‘Dante was there. He had a fat friend in a plaid shirt who yelled at us.’
I took his temperature; it was an even hundred. A bit lower, but still kind of high for the first thing in the morning. I gave him some more aspirin and wrote down my number at Dr Roland’s in case he wanted to call me, but when he realized I was leaving, he rolled his head back and gave me such a dazed and hopeless look that it stopped me cold in the middle of my explanation about how the switchboard re-routed calls to administrative offices on the weekends.
‘Or, I could stay here,’ I said. ‘If I wouldn’t be bothering you, that is.’
He pushed up on his elbows. His eyes were bloodshot and very bright. ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘I’m scared. Stay a little while.’
He asked me to read to him, but I didn’t have anything around but Greek books, and he didn’t want me to go to the library. So we played euchre on a dictionary balanced on his lap, and when that started to prove a bit much we switched to Casino. He won the first couple of games. Then he started losing. On the final hand – it was his deal – he shuffled the cards so poorly they were coming up in virtually exact sequence, which should not have made for very challenging play but he was so absentminded he kept trailing when he could easily have built or taken in. When I was reaching to increase a build, my hand brushed against his and I was taken aback by how dry and hot it was. And though the room was warm, he was shivering. I took his temperature. It had shot back to a hundred and three.
I went downstairs to call Francis, but neither he nor Henry was in. So I went back upstairs. There was no doubt about it: Charles looked terrible. I stood in the door looking at him for a moment, and then I said, ‘Wait a minute’ and went down the hall to Judy’s room.
I found her lying on her bed, watching a Mel Gibson movie on a VCR she’d borrowed from the video department. She was managing somehow to polish her fingernails, smoke a cigarette, and drink a Diet Coke all at the same time.
‘Look at Mel,’ she said. ‘Don’t you just love him? If he called up and asked me to marry him I would do it in, like, one second.’
‘Judy, what would you do if you had a hundred and three degrees of fever?’
‘I would go to the fucking doctor,’ she said without looking away from the TV.
I explained about Charles. ‘He’s really sick,’ I said. ‘What do you think I should do?’
She fanned a red taloned hand in the air, drying it, her eyes still fixed on the screen. ‘Take him to the emergency room.’
‘You’re not going to find any doctors on Sunday afternoon.
Want to use my car?’
‘That would be great.’
‘Keys are on the desk,’ she said absently. ‘Bye.’
I drove Charles to the hospital in the red Corvette. He was bright-eyed and quiet, staring straight ahead, his right cheek pressed to the cool window-glass. In the waiting room, while I looked through magazines I’d seen before, he sat without moving, staring at a faded color photograph from the 19605 which hung opposite, of a nurse who had a white-nailed finger pressed to a white-lipsticked, vaguely pornographic mouth, in a sexy injunction to hospital silence.
The doctor on duty was a woman. She’d been with Charles for only about five or ten minutes when she came from the back with his chart; leaning over the counter, she consulted briefly with the receptionist, who indicated me.
The doctor came over and sat beside me. She was like one of those cheery young physicians in Hawaiian shirts and tennis shoes that you see on TV shows. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I’ve just been looking at your friend. I think we’re going to have to keep him with us for a couple of days.’
I put down my magazine. This I hadn’t expected. ‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘It looks like bronchitis, but he’s very dehydrated. I want to put him on an IV. Also we need to get that fever down. He’ll be okay, but he needs rest and a good strong series of antibiotics, and to get those working as soon as we can we should give him those intravenously, too, for the first forty-eight hours at least.
You both in school up at the college?’
‘Is he under a lot of stress? Working on his thesis or something?’
‘He works pretty hard,’ I said cautiously. ‘Why?’
‘Oh, nothing. It just looks like he hasn’t been eating properly.
Bruises on his arms and legs, which look like a C deficiency, and he may be running low on some of the B vitamins as well. Tell me. Does he smoke?’
I couldn’t help but laugh. At any rate, she wouldn’t let me see him; she said she wanted to get some blood work done before the lab technicians left for the day, so I drove to the twins’ apartment to gather some of his things. The place was ominously neat. I packed pajamas, toothbrush, shaving kit, and a couple of paperback books (P. G. Wodehouse, who I thought might cheer him up) and left the suitcase with the receptionist.
Early the next morning, before I left for Greek, Judy knocked at my door and told me I had a call downstairs. I thought it was Francis or Henry – both of whom I’d tried to reach repeatedly the night before – or maybe even Camilla, but it was Charles.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Oh, very well.’ His voice had a strange, forced note of cheeriness.
‘It’s quite comfortable here. Thanks for bringing the suitcase by.’
‘No problem. Do you have one of those beds you can crank up and down?’
‘As a matter of fact I do. Listen. I want to ask you something.
Will you do me a favor?’
‘I’d like you to get a couple of things for me.’ He mentioned a book, and letter paper, and a bathrobe which I would find hanging on the inside of his closet door – ‘Also,’ he said hurriedly, ‘there’s a bottle of Scotch. You’ll find it in the drawer of my night table. Do you think you can get it out this morning?’
‘I have to go to Greek.’
‘Well, after Greek, then. What time do you think you’ll be here?’
I told him I would have to see about borrowing a car.
‘Don’t worry about that. Take a taxi. I’ll give you the money.
I really appreciate this, you know. What time should I expect you? Ten-thirty? Eleven?’
‘Probably more like eleven-thirty.’
‘That’s fine. Listen. I can’t talk, I’m in the patients’ lounge. I have to get back to bed before they miss me. You will come, won’t you?’
Till be there.’
‘Bathrobe and letter paper.’
‘And the Scotch.’
Camilla was not at class that morning, but Francis and Henry were. Julian was there when I arrived, and I explained that Charles was in the hospital.
Though Julian could be marvelously kind in difficult circumstances of all sorts, I sometimes got the feeling that he was less pleased by kindness itself than by the elegance of the gesture. But at this news he appeared genuinely concerned. ‘Poor Charles,’ he said. ‘It’s not serious, is it?’
“I don’t think so.’
‘Is he allowed any visitors? I shall telephone him this afternoon.
Can you think of anything he might like? Food is so dreadful in the hospital. I remember years ago, in New York, when a dear friend of mine was in Columbia Presbyterian – in the bloody Harkness Pavilion, for goodness’ sake – the chef at the old Le Chasseur used to send her dinner to her every single day…”
Henry, across the table, was absolutely inscrutable. I tried to catch Francis’s glance; he slid me a quick look, bit his lip and glanced away.
‘… and flowers,’ said Julian, ‘you’ve never seen so many flowers, she had so many I could only suspect that she was sending at least some of them to herself.’ He laughed. ‘Anyway.
I suppose there’s no need to ask where Camilla is this morning.’
I saw Francis’s eyes snap open. For a moment I was startled too, before I realized that he’d assumed – naturally, of course that she was at the hospital with Charles.
Julian’s eyebrows went down. ‘What’s wrong?’ he said.
The utter blankness which met this question made him smile.
‘It doesn’t do to be too Spartan about these things,’ he said kindly, after a very long pause; and I was grateful to see that, as usual, he was projecting his own tasteful interpretation upon the confusion. ‘Edmund was your friend. I too am very sorry that he is dead. But I think you are grieving yourselves sick over this, and not only does that not help him, it hurts you. And besides, is death really so terrible a thing? It seems terrible to you, because you are young, but who is to say he is not better off now than you are? Or – if death is a journey to another place – that you will not see him again?’
He opened his lexicon and began to search for his place. ‘It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing,’ he said. ‘You are like children. Afraid of the dark.’
Francis didn’t have his car with him, so after class I got Henry to drive me to Charles’s apartment. Francis – who came too – was nervous and on edge, chain-smoking and pacing in the foyer while Henry stood in the bedroom door and watched me get Charles’s things: quiet, expressionless, his eyes following me with an abstract calculation that entirely precluded the possibility of my asking him about Camilla – which I had determined to do as soon as we were alone – or, in fact, of asking practically anything at all.
I got the book, the letter paper, the bathrobe. The Scotch I hesitated over.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Henry.
I put the bottle back in the drawer and shut it. ‘Nothing,’ I said. Charles, I knew, would be furious. I would have to think of a good excuse.
He nodded at the closed drawer. ‘Did he ask you to bring that to him?’ he said.
I did not feel like discussing Charles’s personal business with Henry. I said: ‘He asked for cigarettes, too, but I don’t think he ought to have them.’
Francis had been pacing in the hall outside, prowling restlessly back and forth like a cat. During this exchange he paused in the door. Now I saw him dart a quick worried glance at Henry.
‘Well, you know…?’ he said hesitantly.
Henry said to me: ‘If he wants it – the bottle, that is – 1 think you’d better go ahead and take it to him.’
His tone annoyed me. ‘He’s sick,’ I said. ‘You haven’t even seen him. If you think you’re doing him a favor by -‘
‘Richard, he’s right,’ said Francis nervously, tapping a cigarette ash into his cupped palm. ‘I know about this a little bit. Sometimes, if you drink, it’s dangerous to stop too suddenly. Makes you sick. People can die of it.’
I was shocked by this. Charles’s drinking had never seemed so bad as all that. I did not comment on this, though, only said: ‘Well, if he’s that bad off, he’ll do a lot better in the hospital, won’t he?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Francis. ‘Do you want them to put him in a detox? Do you know what that’s like? When my mother came off drink that first time, she was out of her head. Seeing things. Wrestling with the nurse and yelling nutty stuff at the top of her lungs.’
‘Hate to think of Charles having DTs in the Catamount Memorial Hospital,’ said Henry. He went to the night table and got the bottle. It was a fifth, a little less than half full. ‘This will be cumbersome for him to hide,’ he said, holding it up by the neck.
‘We could pour it into something else,’ said Francis.
‘It would be easier, I think, if we bought him a new one. Less chance of it leaking all over everything. And if we get him one of those flat ones he can keep it under his pillow without much trouble.’
It was a drizzly morning, overcast and gray. Henry didn’t go with us to the hospital. He had us drop him off at his apartment – he had some excuse, plausible enough, I can’t remember what it was and when he got out of the car he gave me a hundred-dollar bill.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Give Charles my love. Will you buy some flowers for him or something?’
I looked at the bill, momentarily stunned. Francis snatched it from me and pushed it back at him. ‘Come on, Henry,’ he said, with an anger that surprised me. ‘Stop it.’
‘I want you to have it.’
‘Right. We’re supposed to get him a hundred dollars’ worth of flowers.’
‘Don’t forget to stop at the package store,’ said Henry coldly.
‘Do what you like with the rest of the money. Just give him the change, if you want. I don’t care.’
He pushed the money at me again and shut the car door, with a click that was more contemptuous than if he’d slammed it. I watched his stiff square back receding up the walk.
We bought Charles’s whiskey – Cutty Sark, in a flat bottle – and a basket of fruit, and a box of petit-fours, and a game of Chinese checkers, and, instead of cleaning out the day’s stock of carnations at the florist’s downtown, an Oncidium orchid, yellow with russet tiger-stripes, in a red clay pot.
On the way to the hospital, I asked Francis what had happened over the weekend.
‘Too upsetting. I don’t want to talk about it now,’ he said. ‘I did see her. Over at Henry’s.’
‘How is she?’
‘Fine. A little preoccupied but fine, basically. She said she didn’t want Charles to know where she was and that was all there was to it. I wish I could’ve talked to her alone, and of course Henry didn’t leave the room for a second.’ Restlessly, he felt in his pocket for a cigarette. ‘This may sound crazy,’ he said, ‘but before I saw her I’d been a little worried, you know? That something maybe had happened to her.’
I didn’t say anything. The same thought had crossed my mind, more than once.
‘I mean – not that I thought Henry would kill her or anything, but you know – it was strange. Her disappearing like that, without r a word to anybody. I -‘ He shook his head. ‘I hate to say this, but sometimes I wonder about Henry,’ he said. ‘Especially with things like – well, you know what I mean?’
I didn’t answer. Actually 1 did know what he meant, quite well. But it was too horrible for either of us to come out and say.
Charles had a semi-private room. He was in the bed nearer the door, separated by a curtain from his roommate: the Hampden County postmaster, as we later discovered, who was in for a prostate operation. On his side there were a lot of FTD flower arrangements, and corny get-well cards taped to the wall, and he was propped up in bed talking with some noisy family members: food smells, laughter, everything cheery and snug. More of his visitors trailed in after Francis and me, stopping, for an instant, to peer curiously over the curtain at Charles: silent, alone, flat on his back with an IV in his arm. His face was puffy and his skin rough and coarse-looking, broken out in some kind of a rash. His hair was so dirty it looked brown. He was watching cartoons on television, violent ones, little animals that looked like weasels cracking up cars and bashing each other on the head.
He struggled to sit up when we stepped into his partition.
Francis drew the curtain behind us, practically in the faces of the postmaster’s inquisitive visitors, a pair of middle-aged ladies, who were dying to get a good look at Charles and one of whom had craned around and cawed ‘Good morning!’ through the gap in the curtain, in the hopes of initiating conversation.
‘Dorothy! Louise!’ someone called from the other side. ‘Over here!’
There were rapid footsteps on the linoleum and henlike clucks and cries of greeting.
‘Damn them,’ said Charles. He was very hoarse and his voice was little more than a whisper. ‘He’s got people there all the time. They’re always coming in and out and trying to look at me.’
By way of distraction, I presented Charles with the orchid..-, ‘Really? You bought that for me, Richard?’ He seemed touched. – ‘
I was going to explain that it was from all of us – without coming out and mentioning Henry, exactly – but Francis shot me a warning look and I kept my mouth shut.
We unloaded the sack of presents. I’d half expected him to pounce on the Cutty Sark and tear it open in front of us, but he only thanked us and put the bottle in the compartment underneath his upright gray-plastic bed tray.
‘Have you talked to my sister?’ he said to Francis. He said it in a very cold way, as if he were saying Have you talked to my lawyer?
‘Yes,’ Francis said.
‘She’s all right?’
‘Seems to be.’.«’What does she have to say for herself?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I hope you told her I said go to hell.’
Francis didn’t answer. Charles picked up one of the books I had brought him and began to leaf through it sporadically.
‘Thanks for coming,’ he said. ‘I’m kind of tired now.’
‘He looks awful,’ said Francis in the car.
‘There’s got to be some way they can patch this up,’ I said.
‘Surely we can get Henry to call him and apologize.’
‘What good do you think that’s going to do? As long as Camilla’s at the Albemarle?’
‘Well, she doesn’t know he’s in the hospital, does she? This is kind of an emergency.’
‘I don’t know.’
The windshield wipers ticked back and forth. A cop in a rain slicker was directing traffic at the intersection. It was the cop with the red moustache. Recognizing Henry’s car, he smiled at us and beckoned for us to go through. We smiled and waved back, happy day, two guys on a ride – then drove for a block or two in grim, superstitious silence.
‘There’s got to be something we can do,’ I said at last.
‘I think we had better stay out of it.’
‘You can’t tell me that if she knew how sick he was, she wouldn’t be over at the hospital in five minutes.’
‘I’m not kidding,’ said Francis. ‘I think we both had better just stay out of it.’
But he only lit another cigarette and wouldn’t say anything else, no matter how I grilled him.
When I got back to my room I found Camilla sitting at my desk, reading a book. ‘Hi,’ she said, glancing up. ‘Your door was open.
I hope you don’t mind.’
Seeing her was like an electric shock. Unexpectedly I felt a surge of anger. Rain was blowing through the screen and I walked across the room to shut the window.
‘What are you doing here?’ I said.
‘I wanted to talk to you.’
‘How’s my brother?’
‘Why don’t you go see him yourself?’
She put down the book – ah, lovely, I thought helplessly, I loved her, I loved the very sight of her: she was wearing a cashmere sweater, soft gray-green, and her gray eyes had a luminous celadon tint. ‘You think you have to take sides,’ she said. ‘But you don’t.’
‘I’m not taking sides. I just think whatever you’re doing, you picked a bad time to do it.’
‘And what would be a good time?’ she said. ‘I want you to see something. Look.’
She held up a piece of the light hair near her temples. Underneath was a scabbed spot about the size of a quarter where someone had, apparently, pulled a handful of hair out by the roots. I was too startled to say a thing.
‘And this.’ She pushed up the sleeve of her sweater. The wrist was swollen and a bit discolored, but what horrified me was a tiny, evil burn on the underside of the forearm: a cigarette burn, gouged deep and ugly in the flesh.
It was a moment before I found my voice. ‘Good God, Camilla!
Charles did this?’
She pulled the sleeve down. ‘See what I mean?’ she said. Her voice was unemotional; her expression watchful, almost wry.
‘How long has this been going on?’
She ignored my question. ‘I know Charles,’ she said. ‘Better than you do. Staying away, just now, is much wiser.’
‘Whose idea was it that you stay at the Albemarle?’
‘How does he fit into this?’
She didn’t answer.
A horrible thought flashed across my mind. ‘He didn’t do this to you, did he?’ I said.
She looked at me in surprise. ‘No. Why would you think that?’
‘How am I supposed to know what to think?’
The sun came suddenly from behind a rain cloud, flooding the room with glorious light that wavered on the walls like water.
Camilla’s face burst into glowing bloom. A terrible sweetness boiled up in me. Everything, for a moment – mirror, ceiling, floor – was unstable and radiant as a dream. I felt a fierce, nearly irresistible desire to seize Camilla by her bruised wrist, twist her arm behind her back until she cried out, throw her on my bed: strangle her, rape her, I don’t know what. And then the cloud passed over the sun again, and the life went out of everything.
‘Why did you come here?’ I said.
‘Because I wanted to see you.’
‘I don’t know if you care what I think’ – I hated the sound of my voice, was unable to control it, everything I said was coming out in the same haughty, injured tone – ‘I don’t know if you care what I think, but I think you’re making things worse by staying at the Albemarle.’
‘And what do you think I should do?’
‘Why don’t you stay with Francis?’
She laughed. ‘Because Charles bullies poor Francis to death,’ she said. ‘Francis means well. I know that. But he couldn’t stand up to Charles for five minutes.’
‘If you asked him, he’d give you the money to go somewhere.’
‘I know he would. He offered to.’ She reached in her pocket for a cigarette; with a pang I saw they were Lucky Strikes, Henry’s brand.
‘You could take the money and stay wherever you like,’ I said.
‘You wouldn’t have to tell him where.’
‘Francis and I have gone over all this.’ She paused. ‘The thing is, I’m afraid of Charles. And Charles is afraid of Henry. That’s really all there is to it.’
I was shocked by the coldness with which she said this.
‘So is that it?’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re protecting your own interests?’
‘He tried to kill me,’ she said simply. Her eyes met mine, candid and clear.
‘And is Henry not afraid of Charles too?’
‘Why should he be?’
Once she realized what I meant, I was startled how quickly she leapt to his defense. ‘Charles would never do that,’ she said, with childlike swiftness.
‘Let’s say he did. Went to the police.’
‘But he wouldn’t.’
‘How do you know?’
‘And implicate the rest of us? Himself, too?’
‘At this point, I think he might not care.’
I said this intending to hurt her, and with pleasure I saw that I had. Her startled eyes met mine. ‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘But you’ve got to remember, Charles is sick now. He’s not himself. And the thing is, I believe he knows it.’ She paused. ‘I love Charles,’ she said. ‘I love him, and I know him better than anybody in the world. But he’s been under an awful lot of pressure, and when he’s drinking like this, I don’t know, he just becomes a different person. He won’t listen to anybody; I don’t know if he even remembers half the things he does. That’s why I thank God he’s in the hospital. If he has to stop for a day or two, maybe he’ll start thinking straight again.’
What would she think, I wondered, if she knew that Henry was sending him whiskey.
‘And do you think Henry really has Charles’s best interest at heart?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ she said, startled.
‘And yours too?’
‘Certainly. Why shouldn’t he?’
‘You do have a lot of faith in Henry, don’t you,’ I said.
‘He’s never let me down.’
For some reason, I felt a fresh swell of anger. ‘And what about Charles?’ I said.
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’ll be out of the hospital soon. You’ll have to see him.
What are you going to do then?’
‘Why are you so angry at me, Richard?’
I glanced at my hand. It was trembling. I hadn’t even realized it. I was trembling all over with rage.
‘Please leave,’ I said. ‘I wish you’d go.’
‘Just go. Please.’
She got up and took a step towards me. I stepped away. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘all right,’ and she turned around and left.
It rained all day and the rest of the night. I took some sleeping pills and went to the movies: Japanese film, I couldn’t seem to follow it. The characters loitered in deserted rooms, no one talking, everything silent for whole minutes except the hiss of the projector and rain pounding on the roof. The theater was empty except for a shadowy man in the back. Dust motes floated in the projector beam. It was raining when I came out, no stars, sky black as the ceiling of the movie house. The marquee lights melted on the wet pavement in long white gleams. I went back inside the glass doors to wait for my taxi, in the carpeted, popcorn-smelling lobby. I called Charles on the pay phone, but the hospital switchboard wouldn’t put me through: it was past visiting hours, she said, everyone was sleeping. I was still arguing with her when the taxi pulled up at the curb, long slants of rain illumined in the headlights and the tires throwing up low fans of water.
I dreamed about the stairs again that night. It was a dream I’d had often in the winter but seldom since. Once more, I was on the iron stairs at Leo’s – rusted thin, no railing – except now they stretched down into a dark infinity and the steps were all different sizes: some tall, some short, some as narrow as the width of my shoe. The drop was bottomless on either side. For some reason, I had to hurry, though I was terrified of falling. Down and down.
The stairs got more and more precarious, until finally they weren’t even stairs at all; farther down – and for some reason this was always the most terrifying thing of all – a man was going down them, far’ahead of me, really fast…
I woke around four, couldn’t get back to sleep. Too many of Mrs Corcoran’s tranquilizers: they’d started to backfire in my system, I was taking them in the daytime now, they wouldn’t knock me out anymore. I got out of bed and sat by the window.
My heartbeat trembled in my fingertips. Outside the black panes, past my ghost in the glass (Why so pale and wan, fond lover?) I heard the wind in the trees, felt the hills crowding around me in the dark.
I wished I could stop myself from thinking. But all sorts of things had begun to occur to me. For instance: why had Henry let me in on this, only two months (it seemed years, a lifetime) before? Because it was obvious, now, that his decision to tell me was a calculated move. He had appealed to my vanity, allowing me to think I’d figured it out by myself (good for you, he’d said, leaning back in his chair; I could still remember the look on his face as he’d said it, good for you, you’re just as smart as I’d thought you were); and I had congratulated myself in the glow of his praise, when in fact – I saw this now, I’d been too vain to see it then – he’d led me right to it, coaxing and flattering all the way. Perhaps – the thought crawled over me like a cold sweat – perhaps even my preliminary, accidental discovery had been engineered. The lexicon that had been misplaced, for instance: had Henry stolen it, knowing I’d come back for it? And the messy apartment I was sure to walk into; the flight numbers and so forth left deliberately, so it now seemed, by the phone; both were oversights unworthy of Henry. Maybe he’d wanted me to find out. Maybe he’d divined in me – correctly – this cowardice, this hideous pack instinct which would enable me to fall into step without question.
And it wasn’t just a question of having kept my mouth shut, I thought, staring with a sick feeling at my blurred reflection in the windowpane. Because they couldn’t have done it without me. Bunny had come to me, and I had delivered him right into Henry’s hands. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it.
‘You were the alarm bell, Richard,’ Henry had said. ‘I knew if he told anybody, he’d tell you first. And now that he has, I feel that we’re in for an extremely rapid progression of events.’
An extremely rapid progression of events. My flesh crawled, remembering the ironic, almost humorous twist he’d put on the last words – oh, God, I thought, my God, how could I have listened to him? He was right, too, about the rapid part at least.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Bunny was dead. And though I hadn’t done the actual pushing – which had seemed an essential distinction at the time – now that didn’t matter much anymore.
I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? If so, I wasn’t quite sure how he’d meant to manage it, but if he’d felt like doing it, there was no doubt in my mind he would have been able to. So much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know. And – though the immediate danger was apparently gone – there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t surface again a year, twenty years, fifty years from now. I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder.
New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.
It was still dark. Birds were chirping in the eaves. I pulled out my desk drawer and counted the rest of the sleeping pills: candy-colored pretties, bright on a sheet of typing paper. There were still quite a lot of them, plenty for my purposes. (Would Mrs Corcoran feel better if she knew this twist: that her stolen pills had killed her son’s killer?) So easy, to feel them go down my throat: but blinking in the glare of my desk lamp, I was struck with a wave of revulsion so strong it was almost nausea. Horrific as it was, the present dark, I was afraid to leave it for the other, permanent dark – jelly and bloat, the muddy pit. I had seen the shadow of it on Bunny’s face – stupid terror; the whole world opening upside down; his life exploding in a thunder of crows and the sky expanding empty over his stomach like a white ocean. Then nothing. Rotten stumps, sowbugs crawling in the fallen leaves. Dirt and dark.
I lay on my bed. I felt my heart limping in my chest, and was revolted by it, a pitiful muscle, sick and bloody, pulsing against 55i my ribs. Rain streamed down the windowpanes. The lawn out «side was sodden, swampy. When the sun came up, I saw, in the ™ small, cold light of dawn, that the flagstones outside were covered with earthworms: delicate, nasty, hundreds of them, twisting blind and helpless on the rain-dark sheets of slate.
In class on Tuesday, Julian mentioned he’d spoken to Charles on the telephone. ‘You’re right,’ he murmured. ‘He doesn’t sound well. Very groggy and confused, don’t you think? I suppose they have him under sedation?’ He smiled, sifting through his papers.
‘Poor Charles. I asked where Camilla was – I wanted to get her on the line, I couldn’t make any sense of what he was trying to tell me – and he said’ – (here his voice changed slightly, in imitation of Charles, a stranger might assume; but it was really Julian’s own voice, cultured and purring, only raised slightly in tone, as if he could not bear, even in mimicry, to substantively alter its own melodious cadence) – ‘he said, in the most melancholy voice, “She’s hiding from me.” He was dreaming, of course.
I thought it was rather sweet. So, to humor him, I said, “Well, then. You must hide your eyes and count to ten and she’ll come back.”‘
He laughed. ‘But he got angry at me. It was really rather charming of him. “No,” he said, “no she won’t.”
“But you’re dreaming,” I said to him. “No,” he said, “no I’m not. It’s not a dream. It’s real.”‘
The doctors couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with Charles. They’d tried two antibiotics over the course of the week, but the infection – whatever it was – didn’t respond. The third try was more successful. Francis, who went to see him Wednesday and Thursday, was told that Charles was improving, and that if everything went well he could come home over the weekend.
About ten o’clock on Friday, after another sleepless night, I walked over to Francis’s. It was a hot, overcast morning, trees shimmering in the heat. I felt haggard and exhausted. The warm air vibrated with the thrum of wasps and the drone of lawn mowers. Swifts chased and chittered, in fluttering pairs, through the sky.
My head hurt. I wished I had a pair of sunglasses. I wasn’t supposed to meet Francis until eleven-thirty but my room was a wreck, I hadn’t done laundry in weeks; it was too hot to do anything more taxing than lie on my tangled bed, and sweat, and try to ignore the bass of my neighbor’s stereo thumping through the wall. Jud and Frank were building some enormous, ramshackle, modernistic structure out on Commons lawn, and the hammers and the power drills had started early in the morning.
I didn’t know what it was – I had heard, variously, that it was a stage set, a sculpture, a Stonehenge-type monument to the Grateful Dead – but the first time I had looked out my window, dazed with Fiorinal, and seen the upright support posts rising stark from the lawn, I was flooded with black, irrational terror: gibbets, I thought, they’re putting up gibbets, they’re having a hanging on Commons lawn… The hallucination was over in a moment, but in a strange way it had persisted, manifesting itself in different lights like one of those pictures on the cover of horror paperbacks in the supermarket: turned one way, a smiling blond-haired child; turned the other, a skull in flames. Sometimes the structure was mundane, silly, perfectly harmless; though early in the morning, say, or around twilight, the world would drop away and there loomed a gallows, medieval and black, birds wheeling low in the skies overhead. At night, it cast its long shadow over what fitful sleep I was able to get.
The problem, basically, was that I had been taking too many pills; the ups now, periodically, mixed with the downs, because though the latter had ceased to put me effectively to sleep, they hung me over in the daytime, so that I wandered in a perpetual twilight. Unmedicated sleep was impossible, a fairy tale, some remote childhood dream. But I was running low on the downs; and though I knew I could probably get some more, from Cloke, or Bram, or somebody, I’d decided to cut them out for a couple of days – a good idea, in the abstract, but it was excruciating to emerge from my eerie submarine existence into this harsh stampede of noise and light. The world jangled with a sharp, discordant clarity: green everywhere, sweat and sap, weeds pushing through the spattered cracks of the old marble sidewalk; veined white slabs, heaved and buckled by a century’s worth of hard January freezes. A millionaire had put them down, those marble walks, a man who summered in North Hampden and threw himself from a window on Park Avenue in the 19205.
Behind the mountains the sky was overcast, dark as slate. There was pressure in the air; rain coming, sometime soon. Geraniums blazed from the white housefronts, the red of them, against the chalky clapboard, fierce and harrowing.
I turned down Water Street, which ran north past Henry’s house, and as I approached I saw a dark shadow in the back of his garden. No, I thought.
But it was. He was on his knees with a pail of water, and a cloth, and as I drew nearer I saw that he was washing not the flagstones, as I’d thought at first, but a rosebush. He was bent over it, polishing the leaves with meticulous care, like some crazed gardener from Alice in Wonderland.
I thought that any moment he must stop, but he didn’t, and finally I let myself in through the back gate. ‘Henry,’ I said. ‘What are you doing?’
He glanced up, calmly, not at all surprised to see me. ‘Spider mites,’ he said. ‘We’ve had a damp spring. I’ve sprayed them twice, but to get the eggs off it’s best to wash them by hand.’ He dropped the cloth in the pail. I noted, not for the first time lately, how well he looked, how his stiff sad manner had relaxed into a more natural one. I had never thought Henry handsome – indeed, I’d always thought that only the formality of his bearing saved him from mediocrity, as far as looks went – but now, less rigid, I and lockcd-up in his movements, he had a sure, tigerish grace the swiftness and ease of which surprised me. A lock of hair blew upon his forehead. ‘This is a Reine des Violettes,’ he said, indicating the rosebush. ‘A lovely old rose. Introduced in 1860.
And that is a Madame Isaac Pereire. The flowers smell of raspberries.’
I said: ‘Is Camilla here?’
There was no trace of emotion upon his face, or of any effort to conceal it. ‘No,’ he said, turning back to his work. ‘She was sleeping when I left. I didn’t want to wake her.’
It was shocking to hear him speak of her with such intimacy.
Pluto and Persephone. I looked at his back, prim as a parson’s, tried to imagine the two of them together. His big white hands with the square nails.
Henry said, unexpectedly: ‘How is Charles?’
‘All right,’ I said, after an awkward pause.
‘He’ll be coming home soon, I suppose.’
A dirty tarpaulin flapped loudly on the roof. He kept working.
His dark trousers, with the suspenders crossed over his white shirted back, gave him a vaguely Amish appearance.
‘Henry,’ I said.
He didn’t look up.
‘Henry, it’s none of my business, but I hope for God’s sake you know what you’re doing,’ I said. I paused, expecting some response, but there was none. ‘You haven’t seen Charles, but I have, and I don’t think you realize the shape he’s in. Ask Francis, if you don’t believe me. Even Julian’s noticed. I mean, I’ve tried to tell you, but I just don’t think you understand. He’s out of his mind, and Camilla has no idea, and I don’t know what we’ll do when he gets home. I’m not even sure he’ll be able to stay by himself. I mean ‘
‘I’m sorry,’ interrupted Henry, ‘but would you mind handing me those shears?’
There was a long silence. Finally, he reached over and got them himself. ‘All right,’ he said pleasantly. ‘Never mind.’ Very conscientiously, he parted the canes and clipped one in the middle, holding the shears at a careful slant, taking care not to injure a larger cane adjacent to it.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ I had a hard time keeping my voice down. There were windows open in the upstairs apartment that faced the back; I heard people talking, listening to the radio, moving around. ‘Why do you have to make things so hard for everybody?’ He didn’t turn around. I grabbed the shears from his hand and threw them, with a clatter, on the bricks. ‘Answer me,’ I said.
We looked at each other for a long moment. Behind his glasses, his eyes were steady and very blue.
Finally, he said, quietly: ‘Tell me.’
The intensity of his gaze frightened me. ‘What?’
‘You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?’
I was taken aback. ‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘Of course I do.’
‘Do you?’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter,’ he said, after a long, tense pause. ‘I don’t, either.’
‘What are you trying to get at?’
He shrugged. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Except that my life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did.’
He brushed the dirt from his hands. ‘But then it changed,’ he said. ‘The night I killed that man.’
I was jarred – a little spooked, as well – at so blatant a reference to something referred to, by mutual agreement, almost exclusively with codes, catchwords, a hundred different euphemisms.
‘It was the most important night of my life,’ he said calmly. ‘It enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted most.’
‘To live without thinking.’
Bees buzzed loudly in the honeysuckle. He went back to his rosebush, thinning the smaller branches at the top.
‘Before, I was paralyzed, though I didn’t really know it,’ he said. ‘It was because I thought too much, lived too much in the mind. It was hard to make decisions. I felt immobilized.’
‘Now,’ he said, ‘now, I know that I can do anything that I want.’ He glanced up. ‘And, unless I’m very wrong, you’ve experienced something similar yourself ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Oh, but I think you do. That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility.’
He was talking about the ravine. And, to my horror, 1 realized that in a way he was right. As ghastly as it had been, there was no denying that Bunny’s murder had thrown all subsequent events into a kind of glaring Technicolor. And, though this new lucidity of vision was frequently nerve-wracking, there was no denying that it was not an altogether unpleasant sensation.
‘I don’t understand what this has to do with anything,’ I said, to his back.
‘I’m not sure that I do, either,’ he said, assessing the balance of his rosebush, then removing, very carefully, another cane in the center. ‘Except that there’s not much which matters a great deal. The last six months have made that plain. And lately it has seemed important to find a thing or two which do. That’s all.’
As he said this, he trailed away. ‘There,’ he said at last. ‘Does that look all right? Or do I need to open it up more in the middle?’
‘Henry,’ I said. ‘Listen to me.’
‘I don’t want to take off too much,’ he said vaguely. ‘I should have done this a month ago. The canes bleed if they’re pruned this late, but better late than never, as they say.’
‘Henry. Please.’ I was on the verge of tears. ‘What’s the matter with you? Have you lost your mind? Don’t you understand what’s going on?’
He stood up, dusted his hands on his trousers. ‘I have to go in the house now,’ he said.
I watched him hang the shears on a peg, then walk away. At the last, I thought he was going to turn and say something, goodbye, anything. But he didn’t. He went inside. The door shut behind him.
I found Francis’s apartment darkened, razor slits of light showing through the closed Venetian blinds. He was asleep. The place smelled sour, and ashy. Cigarette butts floated in a gin glass.
There was a black, bubbled scorch in the varnish of the night table beside his bed.
I pulled the blinds to let some sun in. He rubbed his eyes, J| called me a strange name. Then he recognized me. ‘Oh,’ he said, his face screwed up, albino-pale. ‘You. What are you doing here?’
I reminded him that we had agreed to visit Charles.
‘What day is it?’
‘Friday,’ ‘Friday.’ He slumped back down in the bed. ‘I hate Fridays.
Wednesdays, too. Bad luck. Sorrowful Mystery on the Rosary.’
He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Then he said: ‘Do you get the sense something really awful is about to happen?’
I was alarmed. ‘No,’ I said, defensively, though this was far from true. ‘What do you think’s going to happen?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said without moving. ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’
‘You should open a window,’ I said. ‘It smells in here,’ ‘I don’t care. I can’t smell. I’ve got a sinus infection.’ Listlessly, with one hand, he groped for his cigarettes on the night table. ‘Jesus, I’m depressed,’ he said. ‘I can’t handle seeing Charles right now,’ ‘We’ve got to,’ ‘What time is it?’
‘About eleven,’ He was silent for a moment, then said: ‘Look here. I’ve got an idea. Let’s have some lunch. Then we’ll do it.’
‘We’ll worry about it the whole time.’
‘Let’s ask Julian, then. I’ll bet he’ll come.’
‘Why do you want to ask Julian?’
‘I’m depressed. Always nice to see him, anyway.’ He rolled over on his stomach. ‘Or maybe not. I don’t know.’
Julian answered the door – just a crack, as he had the very first time I’d knocked – and opened it wide when he saw who it was.
Immediately Francis asked him if he wanted to come to lunch.
‘Of course. I’d be delighted.’ He laughed. ‘This has been an odd morning indeed. Most peculiar. I’ll tell you about it on the way.’
Things which were odd, by Julian’s definition, often turned out to be amusingly mundane. By his own choice, he had so little contact with the outside world that he frequently considered the commonplace to be bizarre: an automatic-teller machine, for instance, or some new peculiarity in the supermarket – cereal shaped like vampires, or unrefrigerated yogurt sold in pop-top cans. All of us enjoyed hearing about these little forays of his into the twentieth century, so Francis and I pressed him to tell us what now had happened.
‘Well, the secretary from the Literature and Languages Division was just here,’ he said. ‘She had a letter for me. They have in and out boxes, you know, in the literature office – one can leave things to be typed or pick up messages there, though I never do. Anyone with whom I have the slightest wish to talk knows to reach me here. This letter’ – he indicated it, lying open on the table beside his reading glasses – ‘which was meant for me, somehow wound up in the box of a Mr Morse, who apparently is on sabbatical. His son came round to pick up his mail this morning and found it had been put by mistake into his father’s slot.’
‘What kind of letter?’ said Francis, leaning closer. ‘Who’s it from?’
‘Bunny,’ Julian said.
A bright knife of terror plunged through my heart. We stared at him, dumbstruck. Julian smiled at us, allowing a dramatic pause for our astonishment to blossom to the full.
‘Well, of course, it’s not really from Edmund,’ he said. ‘It’s a forgery, and not a very clever one. The thing is typewritten, and there’s no signature or date. That doesn’t seem quite legitimate, does it?’
Francis had found his voice. Typewritten?’ he said.
‘Bunny didn’t own a typewriter.’
‘Well, he was my student for nearly four years, and he never handed in anything typewritten to me. As far as I’m aware, he didn’t know how to type-write at all. Or did he?’ he said, looking up shrewdly.
‘No,’ said Francis, after an earnest, thoughtful pause, ‘no, I think you’re right’; and I echoed this, though I knew – and Francis knew, too – that as a matter of fact Bunny had known how to type. He didn’t have a typewriter of his own – this was perfectly true; but he frequently borrowed Francis’s, or used one of the sticky old manuals in the library. The fact was – though neither of us was about to point it out – that none of us, ever, gave typed things to Julian. There was a simple reason for this. It was impossible to write in Greek alphabet on an English typewriter; and though Henry actually had somewhere a little Greek alphabet portable, which he had purchased on holiday in Mykonos, he never used it because, as he explained to me, the keyboard was different from the English and it took him five minutes to type his own name.
‘It’s terribly sad that someone would want to play a trick like this,’ Julian said. ‘I can’t imagine who would do such a thing.’
‘How long had it been in the mailbox?’ Francis said. ‘Do you know?’
‘Well, that’s another thing,’ Julian said. ‘It might have been put in at any time. The secretary said that Mr Morse’s son hadn’t been to check his father’s box since March. Which means, of course, that it might have been slipped in yesterday.’ He indicated the envelope, on the table. ‘You see. There’s only my name, typewritten, on the front, no return address, no date, of course no postmark. Obviously it’s the work of a crank. The thing is, though, I can’t imagine why anyone would play such a cruel joke. I’d almost like to tell the Dean, though goodness knows I don’t want to stir things up again after all that fuss.’
Now that the first, horrible shock was over, I was starting to breathe a bit easier. ‘What sort of a letter is it?’ I asked him.
Julian shrugged. ‘You can have a look at it, if you like.’
I picked it up. Francis looked at it over my shoulder. It was single-spaced, on five or six small sheets of paper, some of which looked not unlike some writing paper which Bunny used to have.
But though the sheets were roughly the same size, they didn’t all match. I could tell, by the way the ribbon had struck a letter sometimes half-red and half-black, that it had been written on the typewriter in the all-night study room.
The letter itself was disjointed, incoherent, and – to my astonished eyes – unquestionably genuine. I skimmed it only briefly, and remember so little about it that I am unable to reproduce it here, but I do remember thinking that if Bunny wrote it, he was a lot closer to a breakdown than any of us had thought. It was filled with profanities of various sorts which it was difficult, even in the most desperate of circumstances, to imagine Bunny using in a letter to Julian. It was unsigned, but there were several clear references which made it plain that Bunny Corcoran, or someone purporting to be him, was the author. It was badly spelled, with a great many of Bunny’s characteristic errors, which fortunately couldn’t have meant much to Julian, as Bunny was such a poor writer that he usually had someone else go over his work before he handed it in. Even I might have had doubts about the 56i authorship, the thing was so garbled and paranoid, if not for the reference to the Battenkill murder: ‘He’ – (Henry, that is. or so the letter ran approximately at one point) – ‘is a fucking Monster.
He has killed a man and he wants to kill Me, too. Everybody is in on it. The man they killed in October, in Battenkill county.
His name was Mc Ree. I think they beat him to death I am not sure.’ There were other accusations – some of them true (the twins’ sexual practices), some not; all of which were so wild that they only served to discredit the whole. There was no mention of my name. The whole thing had a desperate, drunken tone that was not unfamiliar. Though this didn’t occur to me until later, I now believe he must have gone to the all-night study room and written it on the same night that he came drunk to my room – either directly before or after, probably after – in which case it was a pure stroke of luck we didn’t run into each other when I was on my way to the Science Building to telephone Henry. I remember only one other thing, which was its closing line, and the only thing I saw which struck a pang at me: ‘Please Help me, this is why I wrote you, you are the only person that can.’
‘Well, I don’t know who wrote this,’ said Francis at last, his tone offhand and perfectly casual, ‘but whoever they were, they certainly couldn’t spell.’
Julian laughed. I knew he didn’t have the slightest idea that the letter was real.
Francis took the letter and shuffled ruminatively through the pages. He stopped at the next-to-last sheet – which was of a slightly different color than the rest – and idly turned it over. ‘It seems that -‘ he said, and then stopped.
‘Seems that what?’ said Julian pleasantly.
There was a slight pause before Francis continued. ‘Seems that whoever wrote this needed a new typewriter ribbon,’ he said; but that was not what he was thinking, or I was thinking, or what he had been about to say. That had been struck from his mind when, turning the irregular sheet over, the two of us saw, with horror, what was on the back of it. It was a sheet of hotel stationery, engraved, at the top, with the address and letterhead of the Excelsior: the hotel where Bunny and Henry had stayed in Rome.
Henry told us, later, head in hands, that Bunny had asked him to buy him another box of stationery the day before he died. It was expensive stuff, white cream laid, imported from England; the best they had at the store in town. ‘If only I’d bought it for him,’ he said. ‘He asked me half a dozen times. But I figured, there wasn’t much point, you see…’ The sheet from the Excelsior wasn’t quite so heavy, or fine. Henry speculated – probably correctly – that Bunny had got to the bottom of the box, so he rooted around in his desk and found that piece, roughly the same size, and turned it over to use the back.
I tried not to look at it, but it kept obtruding at the corners of my vision. A palace, drawn in blue ink, with flowing script like the script on an Italian menu. Blue edges on the paper.
‘To tell you the truth,’ said Julian, ‘I didn’t even finish reading it. Obviously the perpetrator of this is quite disturbed. One can’t say, of course, but I think it must have been written by another student, don’t you?’
‘I can’t imagine that a member of the faculty would write something like this, if that’s what you mean,’ said Francis, turning the letterhead back over. We didn’t look at each other. I knew exactly what he was thinking: how can we steal this page? how can we get it away?
To distract Julian’s attention, I walked to the window. ‘It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?’ I said, my back to both of them. ‘It’s hard to believe there was snow on the ground hardly a month ago…’
I babbled on, hardly aware of what I was saying, and afraid to look around.
‘Yes,’ said Julian politely, ‘yes, it is lovely out,’ but his voice came not from where I was expecting it but farther away, near the bookcase. I turned and saw that he was putting on his coat.
From the look on Francis’s face, I knew he hadn’t succeeded. He was turned halfway, watching Julian from the corner of his eye; for a moment, when Julian turned his head to cough, it seemed like he was going to be able to get away with it but no sooner had he pulled the page out than Julian turned around, and he had no choice but to casually place it where it had been, as if the pages were out of order and he was simply rearranging them.
Julian smiled at us, by the door. ‘Are you boys ready?’ he said.
‘Certainly,’ said Francis, with more enthusiasm than I knew he felt. He laid the letter, folded, back on the table and the two of us followed him out, smiling and talking, though I could see the tension in the back of Francis’s shoulders and I was biting the inside of my bottom lip with frustration.
It was a miserable lunch. I remember hardly anything about it except that it was a very bright day, and we sat at a table too close to the window, and the glare in my eyes only increased my confusion and discomfort. And all the time we talked about the letter, the letter, the letter. Might whoever sent it have a grudge against Julian? Or was someone angry at us? Francis was more composed than me, but he was downing the glasses of house wine one after another, and a light sweat had broken out on his forehead.
Julian thought the letter was a fake. That was obvious. But if he saw the letterhead, the game was up, because he knew as well as we did that Bunny and Henry had stayed at the Excelsior for a couple of weeks. Our best hope was that he would simply throw it away, without showing it to anyone else or examining it further. But Julian liked intrigue, and secrecy, and this was the sort of thing that could keep him speculating for days. (‘No. Could it have been a faculty member? Do you think?’) I kept thinking about what he’d said earlier, about showing it to the Dean. We would have to get hold of it somehow. Break in his office, maybe.
But even assuming he left it there, in a place where we could find it, that meant waiting six or seven hours.
I drank a good deal during lunch, but by the time we were finished I was still so nervous that I had brandy with my dessert instead of coffee. Twice, Francis slipped away to telephone. I knew he was trying to get Henry, to ask him to go over to the office and nip the letter while we had Julian captive at the Brasserie; I knew also, from his tense smiles when he returned, that he wasn’t having any luck. After the second time he came back, an idea occurred to me: if he could leave to telephone, why couldn’t he just go out the back and get in his car and go get it himself? I would have slipped out and done it myself if I had only had the car keys. Too late – as Francis was paying the check – I realized what I should have said: that I’d left something in the car and needed the keys to go unlock the door and get it.
On the way back to school, in the charged silence, I realized that something we had always relied on was the ability to communicate whenever we wanted. Always, previously, in an emergency we could throw out something in Greek, under the guise of an aphorism or quotation. But now that was impossible.
Julian didn’t invite us back up to his office. We watched him going up the walk, waved as he turned at the back door to the Lyceum. It was, by now, about one-thirty in the afternoon.
We sat motionless in the car for a moment after he disappeared.
Francis’s chummy, goodbye smile had died on his face. Suddenly, and with a violence that frightened me, he leaned down and banged his forehead on the steering wheel. ‘Shit!’ he yelled. ‘Shit!
I grabbed his arm and shook it. ‘Shut up,’ I said.
‘Oh, shit,’ he wailed, rolling his head back, the heels of his hands pressed to his temples. ‘Shit. This is it, Richard.’
‘It’s over. We’ve had it. We’re going to jail.’
‘Shut up,’ 1 said again. His panic, oddly, had sobered me.
‘We’ve got to figure out what to do.’
‘Look,’ said Francis. ‘Let’s just go. If we leave now we can be in Montreal by dark. Nobody will ever find us.’
‘You’re not making any sense.’
‘We’ll stay in Montreal a couple of days. Sell the car. Then take the bus to, I don’t know, Saskatchewan or something. We’ll go to the weirdest place we can find.’
‘Francis, I wish you would calm down for a minute. I think we can handle this.’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Well, first, I think, we’ve got to find Henry.’
‘Henry?’ He looked at me in amazement. ‘What makes you think he’ll be any help? He’s so whacked-out, he doesn’t know which way -‘
‘Doesn’t he have a key to Julian’s office?’
He was quiet a moment. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I think he does.
Or he used to.’
‘There you go,’ I said. ‘We’ll find Henry and drive him over here. He can make some excuse to get Julian out of the office.
Then one of us can slip up the back stairs with the key.’
It was a good plan. The only problem was, running Henry down wasn’t so easy as we’d hoped. He wasn’t at his apartment, and when we went by the Albemarle, his car wasn’t there.
We drove back to campus to check the library, then back to the Albemarle. This time Francis and I got out of the car and walked around the grounds.
The Albemarle had been built in the nineteenth century, as a retreat for rich convalescents. It was shady and luxurious, with tall shutters and a big, cool porch – everyone from Rudyard Kipling to FDR had stayed there – but it wasn’t much bigger than a big private house.
‘You tried the desk clerk?’ 1 asked Francis.
‘Don’t even think about it. They’re registered under a phony name, and I’m sure Henry gave the innkeeper some story, because when I tried to talk to her the other night she clammed up in a second.’
‘Is there any way we can get in past the lobby?’
‘I have no idea. My mother and Chris stayed here once. It isn’t that big a place. There’s only one set of stairs that I know of, and you have to walk past the desk to get to them.’
‘What about downstairs?’
‘The thing is, I think they’re on an upper floor. Camilla said something about carrying bags upstairs. There might be fire stairs, but I wouldn’t know how to go about finding them.’
We stepped up onto the porch. Through the screen door we could see a dark, cool lobby and, behind the desk, a man of about sixty, his half-moon glasses pulled low on his nose, reading a copy of the Bennington Banner.
‘Is that the guy you talked to?’ I whispered.
‘No. His wife.’
‘Has he seen you before?’
I pushed open the door and stuck my head in for a moment, then went inside. The innkeeper glanced from his paper and gave us a supercilious up-and-down look. He was one of those prissy retirees one sees frequently in New England, the sort who subscribe to antique magazines and carry those canvas tote bags they give as gift premiums on public TV.
I gave him my best smile. Behind the desk, I noticed, was a pegboard with room keys. They were arranged in tiers according to floor. There were three keys – 2-B, -C, and -E – missing on the second floor, and only one – 3-A – on the third.
He was looking at us frostily. ‘How may I help you?’ he said.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘but do you know if our parents have arrived yet from California?’
He was surprised. He opened a ledger. ‘What’s the name?’
‘Rayburn. Mr and Mrs Cloke Rayburn.
‘I don’t see a reservation.’
‘I’m not sure they made one.’
He looked at me over the tops of his glasses. ‘Generally, we require a reservation, with deposit, at least forty-eight hours in advance,’ he said.
‘They didn’t think they’d need one this time of year.’
‘Well, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be room for them when they arrive,’ he said curtly.
I would have liked to have pointed out that his inn was more than half-empty, and that I didn’t see the guests exactly fighting to get in, but I smiled again and said, ‘I guess they’ll have to take their chances, then. Their plane got into Albany at noon. They should be here any minute.’
‘Do you mind if we wait?’
Obviously, he did. But he couldn’t say so. He nodded, his mouth pursed – thinking, no doubt, about the lecture on reservation policy he would deliver to my parents – and, with an ostentatious rattle, went back to his paper.
We sat down on a cramped Victorian sofa, as far from the desk as possible.
Francis was jittery and kept glancing around. ‘I don’t want to stay here,’ he whispered, his lips barely moving, close to my ear.
‘I’m afraid the wife will come back.’
‘This guy is from hell, isn’t he?’
The innkeeper was, very pointedly, not looking in our direction.
In fact, his back was to us. I put my hand on Francis’s arm.
I’ll be right back,’ I whispered. ‘Tell him I went looking for the men’s room.’
The stairs were carpeted and I managed to get up them without making much noise. I hurried down the corridor until I f saw 2-C, and 2.-B next to it. The doors were blank and foreboding, but this was no time to hesitate. I knocked oil 2-C. No answer. I knocked again, louder this time. ‘Camilla!’ I said.
At this, a small dog began to raise a racket, down the hall in 2-E. Nix that, I thought, and was about to knock on the third door, when suddenly it opened and there stood a middle-aged lady in a golfing skirt. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Are you looking for someone?’
It was funny, 1 thought, as I shot up the last flight of stairs, but I’d had a premonition they’d be on the top floor. In the corridor I passed a gaunt, sixtyish woman – print dress, harlequin glasses, sharp nasty face like a poodle – carrying a stack of folded towels.
‘Wait!’ she yelped. ‘Where are you going?’
But I was already past her, down the hall, banging at the door of 3-A. ‘Camilla!’ I shouted. ‘It’s Richard! Let me in!’
And then, there she was, like a miracle: sunlight streaming behind her into the hall, barefoot and blinking with surprise.
‘Hello,’ she said, ‘hello! What are you doing here?’ And, behind my shoulder, the innkeeper’s wife: ‘What do you think you’re doing here? Who are you?’
‘It’s all right,’ Camilla said.
I was out of breath. ‘Let me in,’ I gasped.
She pulled the door shut. It was a beautiful room – oak wainscoting, fireplace, only one bed, I noticed, in the room beyond, bedclothes tangled at the foot… ‘Is Henry here?’ I said.
‘What’s wrong?’ Bright circles of color burned high in her cheeks. ‘It’s Charles, isn’t it? What’s happened?’
Charles. I’d forgotten about him. I struggled to catch my breath.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t have time to explain. We’ve got to find Henry. Where is he?’
‘Why’ – she looked at the clock – ‘I believe he’s at Julian’s office.’
‘Yes. What’s the matter?’ she said, seeing the astonishment on my face. ‘He had an appointment, I think, at two.’
I hurried downstairs to get Francis before the innkeeper and his wife had a chance to compare notes.
‘What should we do?’ said Francis on the drive back to school.
‘Wait outside and watch for him?’
‘I’m afraid we’ll lose him. I think one of us better run up and get him.’
Francis lit a cigarette. The match flame wavered. ‘Maybe it’s okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe Henry managed to get hold of it.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. But I was thinking the same thing. If Henry saw the letterhead, I was pretty sure he’d try to take it, and I was pretty sure he’d be more efficient about it than Francis or me. Besides – it sounded petty but it was true – Henry was Julian’s favorite. If he put his mind to it, he could coerce away the whole letter on some pretext of giving it to the police, having the typing analyzed, who knew what he might come up with?
Francis glanced at me sideways. ‘If Julian found out about this,’ he said, ‘what do you think he would do?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, and I didn’t. It was such an unthinkable prospect that the only responses I could imagine him having were melodramatic and improbable. Julian suffering a fatal heart attack. Julian weeping uncontrollably, a broken man.
‘I can’t believe he’d turn us in.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But he couldn’t. He loves us.’
I didn’t say anything. Regardless of what Julian felt for me, there was no denying that what I felt for him was love and trust of a very genuine sort. As my own parents had distanced themselves from me more and more – a retreat they had been in the process of effecting for many years – it was Julian who had grown to be the sole figure of paternal benevolence in my life, or, indeed, of benevolence of any sort. To me, he seemed my only protector in the world.
‘It was a mistake,’ said Francis. ‘He has to understand,’ ‘Maybe,’ I said. I couldn’t conceive of his finding out, but as I tried to visualize myself explaining this catastrophe to someone, I realized that we would have an easier time explaining it to Julian than to anyone else. Perhaps, I thought, his reaction would be similar to my own. Perhaps he would see these murders as a sad, wild thing, haunted and picturesque (Tve done everything,’ old Tolstoy used to boast, ‘I’ve even killed a man’), instead of the basically selfish, evil act which it was.
‘You know that thingjulian used to say,’ said Francis.
‘About a Hindu saint being able to slay a thousand on the battlefield and it not being a sin unless he felt remorse.’
I had heard Julian say this, but had never understood what he meant. ‘We’re not Hindus,’ I said.
‘Richard,’ Julian said, in a tone which simultaneously welcomed me and let me know that I had come at a bad time.
‘Is Henry here? I need to talk to him about something.’
He looked surprised. ‘Of course,’ he said, and opened the door.
Henry was sitting at the table where we did our Greek. Julian’s empty chair, on the side by the window, was pulled close to his.
There were other papers on the table but the letter was in front of them. He glanced up. He did not look pleased to see me.
‘Henry, may I speak to you?’
‘Certainly,’ he said coldly.
I turned, to step into the hall, but he didn’t make a move to follow. He was avoiding my eye. Damn him, I thought. He thought I was trying to continue our earlier conversation in the garden.
‘Could you come out here for a minute?’ I said.
‘What is it?’
‘I need to tell you something.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘You mean, it’s something you want to tell me in private? he said.
1 could have killed him. Julian, politely, had been pretending not to follow this exchange, but his curiosity was aroused by this.
He was standing, waiting, behind his chair. ‘Oh, dear,’ he said. ‘I hope nothing’s wrong. Shall I leave?’
‘Oh, no, Julian,’ said Henry, looking not at Julian but at me.
‘Is everything all right?’ Julian asked me.
‘Yes, yes,’ I said. ‘I just need to see Henry for a second. It’s kind of important.’
‘Can’t it wait?’ said Henry.
The letter was spread out on the table. With horror, I saw that he was turning through it slowly, like a book, pretending to examine the pages one by one. He hadn’t seen the letterhead.
He didn’t know it was there.
‘Henry,’ I said. ‘It’s an emergency. I have to talk to you right now.’
He was struck by the urgency in my voice. He stopped, and pivoted in his chair to look at me – they were both staring now – and as he did, as part of the motion of turning, he turned over the page in his hand. My heart did a somersault. There was the letterhead, face-up on the table. White palace drawn in blue curlicues.
‘All right,’ said Henry. Then, to Julian: ‘I’m sorry. We’ll be back in a moment.’
‘Certainly,’ said Julian. He looked grave and concerned. ‘I hope nothing’s the matter.’
I wanted to cry. I had Henry’s attention; I had it, now, but I didn’t want it. The letterhead lay exposed on the table.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Henry, his eyes locked on mine.
He was attentive, poised as a cat. Julian was looking at me too. The letter lay on the table, between them, directly in Julian’s line of vision. He had only to glance down.
I darted my eyes at the letter, then at Henry. He understood in an instant, turned smooth but fast; but he wasn’t fast enough, and in that split-second, Julian looked down – casually, just an afterthought, but a second too soon.
I do not like to think about the silence that followed. Julian leaned over and looked at the letterhead for a long time. Then he picked up the page and examined it. Excekior. Via Veneto. Blue-inked battlements. I felt curiously light and empty-headed.
Julian put on his glasses and sat down. He looked through the whole thing, very carefully, front and back. I heard kids laughing, faintly, somewhere outside. At last he folded the letter and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket.
‘Well,’ he said at last. ‘Well, well, well.’
As is true of most incipient bad things in life, I had not really prepared myself for this possibility. And what I felt, standing there, was not fear or remorse but only terrible, crushing humiliation, a dreadful, red-faced shame I hadn’t felt since childhood.
And what was even worse was to see Henry, and to realize that he was feeling the same thing, and if anything, more acutely than myself. I hated him – was so angry I wanted to kill him – but somehow I was not prepared to see him like that.
Nobody said anything. Dust motes floated in a sunbeam. I thought of Camilla at the Albemarle, Charles in the hospital, Francis waiting trustfully in the car.
‘Julian,’ said Henry, ‘I can explain this.’
‘Please do,’ said Julian.
His voice chilled me to the bone. Though he and Henry had in common a distinct coldness of manner – sometimes, around them, the very temperature seemed almost to drop -1 had always thought Henry’s coldness essential, to the marrow, and Julian’s only a veneer for what was, at bottom, a warm and kindhearted nature. But the twinkle in Julian’s eye, as I looked at him now, was mechanical and dead. It was as if the charming theatrical curtain had dropped away and I saw him for the first time as he really was: not the benign old sage, the indulgent and protective good-parent of my dreams, but ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose beguiling trappings concealed a being watchful, capricious, and heartless.
Henry started to talk. It was so painful to hear him – Henry!
– stumble over his words that I am afraid I blocked out much of what he said. He began, in typical fashion, by attempting to justify himself but that soon faltered in the white glare of Julian’s silence. Then – I still shudder to remember it – a desperate, pleading note crept into his voice. ‘I disliked having to lie, of course’ – disliked! as if he were talking about an ugly necktie, a dull dinner party! – ‘we never wanted to lie to you, but it was necessary. That is, I felt it was necessary. The first matter was an accident; there was no use in worrying you about it, was there?
And then, with Bunny… He wasn’t a happy person in those last months. I’m sure you know that. He was having a lot of personal problems, problems with his family…’
He went on and on. Julian’s silence was vast, arctic. A black buzzing noise echoed in my head.,’ can’t stand this, I thought, I’ve got to leave, but still Henry talked, and still I stood there, and the sicker and blacker I felt to hear Henry’s voice and to see the look on Julian’s face.
Unable to stand it, I finally turned to go. Julian saw me do it.
Abruptly, he cut Henry off. ‘That’s enough,’ he said.
There was an awful pause. I stared at him. This is it, I thought, with a kind of fascinated horror. He won’t listen anymore. He doesn’t want to be left alone with him.
Julian reached into his pocket. The expression on his face was impossible to read. He took the letter out and handed it to Henry.
‘I think you’d better keep this,’ he said.
He didn’t get up from the table. The two of us left his office without a word. Funny, when I think about it now. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Henry and I didn’t speak in the hallway. Slowly, we drifted out, eyes averted, like strangers. As I went down the stairs he was standing by the windowsill on the landing, looking out, blind and unseeing.
Francis was panic-stricken when he saw the look on my face.
‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘Oh, my God. What’s happened?’
It was a long time before I could say anything. ‘Julian saw it,’
‘He saw the letterhead. Henry’s got it now.’
‘How’d he get it?’
‘Julian gave it to him.’
Francis was jubilant. ‘He gave it to him? He gave Henry the letter?’
‘And he’s not going to tell anyone?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
He was startled by the gloom in my voice.
‘But what’s the matter?’ he said shrilly. ‘You got it, didn’t you?
It’s okay. Everything’s all right now. Isn’t it?’
I was staring out the car window, at the window of Julian’s office.
‘No,’ I said, ‘no, I don’t really think that it is.’
Years ago, in an old notebook, I wrote: ‘One of Julian’s most attractive qualities is his inability to see anyone, or anything, in its true light.’ And under it, in a different ink, ‘maybe one of my most attractive qualities, as well (?)’
It has always been hard for me to talk about Julian without romanticizing him. In many ways, I loved him the most of all; I and it is with him that i am most tempted to embroider, to.^ flatter, to basically reinvent. I think that is because Julian himself “
” was constantly in the process of reinventing the people and events around him, conferring kindness, or wisdom, or bravery, or charm, on actions which contained nothing of the sort. It was one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be.
Now, of course, it would be easy for me to veer to the opposite extreme. I could say that the secret of Julian’s charm was that he latched on to young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality or why – even in the light of subsequent events – I still have an overwhelming wish to see him the way that I first saw him: as the wise old man who appeared to me out of nowhere on a desolate strip of road, with a bewitching offer to make all my dreams come true.
But even in fairy tales, these kindly old gentlemen with their fascinating offers are not always what they seem to be. That should not be a particularly difficult truth for me to accept at this point but for some reason it is. More than anything I wish I could say that Julian’s face crumbled when he heard what we had done.
I wish I could say that he put his head on the table and wept, wept for Bunny, wept for us, wept for the wrong turns and the life wasted: wept for himself, for being so blind, for having over and over again refused to see.
And the thing is, I had a strong temptation to say he had done these things anyway, though it wasn’t at all the truth.
George Orwell – a keen observer of what lay behind the glitter of constructed facades, social and otherwise – had met Julian on several occasions, and had not liked him. To a friend he wrote: ‘Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his “Asiatic serenity” is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror. Acton’ – this, apparently, Harold Acton, who was also in Paris then and a friend to both Orwell and Julian ‘disagrees.
But I think he is not a man to be trusted.’
I have thought a great deal about this passage, also about a particularly shrewd remark once made by, of all people, Bunny.
‘Y’know,’ he said, ‘Julian is like one of those people that’ll pick all his favorite chocolates out of the box and leave the rest.’ This seems rather enigmatic on the face of it, but actually I cannot think of a better metaphor for Julian’s personality. It is similar to another remark made to me once by Georges Laforgue, on an occasion when I had been extolling Julian to the skies. ‘Julian,’ he said curtly, ‘will never be a scholar of the very first rate, and that is because he is only capable of seeing things on a selective basis.’
When I disagreed – strenuously – and asked what was wrong with focusing one’s entire attention on only two things, if those two things were Art and Beauty, Laforgue replied: ‘There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.’
It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly – basically to falsify him – in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.
Charles was released from the hospital the following day. Despite Francis’s insistence that he come to his house for a while, he insisted on going home to his own apartment. His cheeks were sunken; he’d lost a lot of weight and he needed a haircut. He was sullen and depressed. We didn’t tell him what had happened.
I felt sorry for Francis. I could tell he was worried about Charles, and upset that he was so hostile and uncommunicative.
‘Would you like some lunch?’ he asked him.
‘Come on. Let’s go to the Brasserie.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘It’ll be good. I’ll buy you one of those roulage things you like for dessert.’
We went to the Brasserie. It was eleven o’clock in the morning.
By an unfortunate coincidence, the waiter sat us at the table by the window where Francis and I had sat with Julian less than twenty-four hours before. Charles wouldn’t look at a menu. He ordered two Bloody Marys and drank them in quick succession.
Then he ordered a third.
Francis and I put down our forks and exchanged an uneasy glance.
‘Charles,’ Francis said, ‘why don’t you get an omelet or something?’
‘I told you I’m not hungry.’
Francis picked up a menu and gave it a quick once-over. Then he motioned to the waiter.
‘I said I’m not fucking hungry,’ said Charles without looking up.
He was having a hard time keeping his cigarette balanced between his first and middle fingers.
Nobody had much to say after that. We finished eating and got the check, not before Charles had time to finish his third Bloody Mary and order a fourth. We had to help him to the car.
I was not much looking forward to going to Greek class, but when Monday rolled around I got up and went anyway. Henry and Camilla arrived separately – in case Charles decided to show up, I think – which, thank God, he didn’t. Henry, I noticed, was puffy and very pale. He stared out the window and ignored Francis and me.
Camilla was nervous – embarrassed, maybe, by the way Henry was acting. She was anxious to hear about Charles and asked a number of questions, to most of which she didn’t receive any response at all. Soon it was ten after; then fifteen.
‘I’ve never known Julian to be this late,’ said Camilla, looking at her watch.
Suddenly, Henry cleared his throat. His voice was strange and rusty, as if fallen into disuse. ‘He’s not coming,’ he said.
We turned to look at him.
‘What?’ said Francis.
‘I don’t think he’s going to come today.’
Just then we heard footsteps, and a knock at the door. It wasn’t Julian, but the Dean of Studies. He creaked open the door and looked inside.
‘Well, well,’ he said. He was a sly, balding man in his early fifties who had a reputation for being kind of a smart-aleck. ‘So this is what the Inner Sanctum looks like. The Holy of Holies.
I’ve never once been allowed up here.’
We looked at him.
‘Not bad,’ he said ruminatively. ‘I remember about fifteen years ago, before they built the new Science Building, they had to stick some of the counselors up here. This one psychologist liked to leave her door open, thought it gave things a friendly feeling. “Good morning,” she’d say to Julian whenever he walked past her door, “have a nice day.” Can you believe that Julian phoned Charming Williams, my wicked predecessor, and threat ened to quit unless she was moved?” He chuckled.’ “That dreadful woman.” That’s what he called her. “I can’t bear that dreadful woman accosting me every time I happen to walk by.”‘
This was a story which had some currency around Hampden, and the Dean had left some of it out. The psychologist had not only left her own door open but also had tried to get Julian to do the same.
‘To tell the truth,’ said the Dean, ‘I’d expected something a little more classical. Oil lamps. Discus throwing. Nude youths wrestling on the floor.’
‘What do you want?’ said Camilla, not very politely.
He paused, caught short, and gave her an oily smile. ‘We need to have a little talk,’ he said. ‘My office has just learned that Julian has been called away from school very suddenly. He has taken an indefinite leave of absence and does not know when he might return. Needless to say’ – a phrase he delivered with sarcastic delicacy – ‘this puts you all in a rather interesting position in terms of academics, especially as it is only three weeks until the end of term. I understand that he was not in the habit of giving a written examination?’
We stared at him.
‘Did you write papers? Sing songs? How was he accustomed to determining your final grade?’
‘An oral examination for the tutorials,’ Camilla said, ‘as well as a term paper for the Civilization class.’ She was the only one of us who was collected enough to speak. ‘For the composition classes, an extended translation, English to Greek, from a passage of his choosing.’
The Dean pretended to ponder this. Then he took a breath and said: ‘The problem you face, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that we currently have no other teacher able to take over your class.
Mr Delgado has a reading knowledge of Greek, and though he says he’d be happy to look at your written work he is teaching a full load this term. Julian himself was most unhelpful on this point. I asked him to suggest a possible replacement and he said there wasn’t any that he knew of.’
He took a piece of paper from his pocket. ‘Now here are the three possible alternatives which occur to me. The first is for you to take incompletes and finish the course work in the fall. The thing is, however, I’m far from certain that Literature and Languages will be hiring another Classics teacher. There is so little interest in the subject, and the general consensus seems to be that it should be phased out, especially now that we’re attempting to get the new Semiotics department off the ground.’
He took a deep breath. ‘The second alternative is for you to take incompletes and finish the work in summer school. The third possibility is that we bring in – mind you, on a temporary basis a substitute teacher. Understand this. At this point in time it is extremely doubtful that we will continue to offer the degree in Classics at Hampden. For those of you who choose to remain with us, I feel sure that the English department can absorb you with minimal loss of credit hours, though I think each of you in order to fulfill the department requirements are looking at two semesters of work above and beyond what you might’ve anticipated for graduation. At any rate.’ He looked at his list. ‘I am sure you have heard of Hackett, the preparatory school for boys,’ he said. ‘Hack ett has extensive offerings in the field of Classics. I contacted the headmaster this morning and he said he would be happy to send a master over twice a week to supervise you. Though this might seem the best option from your perspective, it would by no means be ideal, relying, as it does, upon the auspices of the ‘
It was at this moment that Charles chose to come crashing through the door.
He lurched in, looked around. Though he might not have been intoxicated technically, that very instant, he had been so recently enough for this to be an academic point. His shirttails hung out. His hair fell in long dirty strings over his eyes.
‘What?’ he said, after a moment. ‘Where’s Julian?’
‘Don’t you knock?’ said the Dean.
Charles turned, unsteadily, and looked at him.
‘What’s this?’ he said. ‘Who the hell are you?’
‘I,’ said the Dean sweetly, ‘am the Dean of Studies.’
‘What have you done with Julian?’
‘He has left you. And somewhat in the lurch if I dare say it.
He has been called very suddenly from the country and doesn’t know – or hasn’t thought – about his return. He gave me to understand that it was something with the State Department, the Isrami government and all that. I think we are fortunate not to have had more problems of this nature, with the princess having gone to school here. One thinks at the time only of the prestige of such a pupil, alas, and not for an instant of the possible repercussions. Though I can’t for the life of me imagine what the Isramis would want with Julian. Hampden’s own Salman Rushdie.’ He chuckled appreciatively, then consulted his sheet again. ‘At any rate. I have arranged for the master from Hackett to meet with you tomorrow, here, at three p. m. I hope there is no conflict of schedule for anyone. If that happens to be the case, however, it would be well for you to re-evaluate your priorities, as this is the only time that he will be available to answer your I knew that Camilla hadn’t seen Charles in well over a week, and I knew she couldn’t have been prepared to see him looking so bad, but she was gazing at him with an expression not so much of surprise as of panic, and horror. Even Henry looked taken aback.
‘… and, of course, this will entail a certain spirit of compromise on your parts too, as ‘
‘What?’ said Charles, interrupting him. ‘What did you say?
You said Julian’s gone?’
‘I must compliment you, young man, on your grasp of the English language.’
‘What happened? He just picked up and left?’
‘In essence, yes.
There was a brief pause. Then Charles said, in a loud, clear voice: ‘Henry, why do I think for some reason that this is all your fault?’
There followed a long and not too pleasant silence. Then Charles spun and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
The Dean cleared his throat.
‘As I was saying,’ he continued.
It is strange, but true, to relate, that at this point in time I was still capable of being upset by the fact that my career at Hampden had pretty much gone down the drain. When the Dean had said ‘two extra semesters,’ my blood ran cold. I knew, with the certainty I knew that night follows day, there was no way I could get my parents to make their measly, but quite necessary, contribution for an extra year. I’d lost time already, in three changes of major, in the transfer from California, and I’d lose even more if I transferred again – assuming that I could even get into another school, that I could get another scholarship, with my spotty records, with my spotty grades: why, I asked myself, oh, why, had I been so foolish, why hadn’t I picked something and stuck with it, how was it that I could currently be at the end of my third year of college and have basically nothing to show for it?
What made me angrier was that none of the others seemed to care. To them, I knew, this didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. What was it to them if they had to go an extra term?
What did it matter, if they failed to graduate, if they had to go back home? At least they had homes to go to. They had trust funds, allowances, dividend checks, doting grandmas, well connected uncles, loving families. College for them was only a way station, a sort of youthful diversion. But this was my main chance, the only one. And I had blown it.
I spent a frantic couple of hours pacing in my room – that is, I’d come to think of it as ‘mine’ but it wasn’t really, I had to be out in three weeks, already it seemed to be assuming a heartless air of impersonality – and drafting a memo to the financial aid office. The only way I could finish my degree – in essence, the only way I could ever acquire the means to support myself in any passably tolerable fashion – was if Hampden agreed to shoulder the entire cost of my education during this additional year. I pointed out, somewhat aggressively, that it wasn’t my fault Julian had decided to leave. I brought up every miserable commendation and award I’d won since the eighth grade. I argued that a year of classics could only bolster and enrich this now highly desirable course of study in English Literature.
Finally, my plea finished, and my handwriting a passionate scrawl, I fell down on my bed and went to sleep. At eleven o’clock I woke, made some changes, and headed for the all-night study room to type it up. On the way I stopped at the post office, where, to my immense gratification, a note in my box informed me that I had got the job apartment-sitting in Brooklyn, and that the professor wanted to meet with me sometime in the coming week to discuss my schedule.
Well, that’s the summer taken care of, I thought.
It was a beautiful night, full moon, the meadow like silver and the housefronts throwing square black shadows sharp as cutouts on the grass. Most of the windows were dark: everyone sleeping, early to bed. I hurried across the lawn to the library, where the lights of the all-night study room – The House of Eternal Learning,’ Bunny had called it in happier days – burned clear and bright on the top floor, shining yellow through the treetops. I went up the outside stairs – iron stairs, like a fire escape, like the steps in my nightmare – my shoes clattering on the metal in a way that might have given me the heebie-jeebies in a less distracted mood.
Then, through the window, I saw a dark figure in a black suit, alone. It was Henry. Books were piled in front of him but he wasn’t working. For some reason, 1 thought of that February night I had seen him standing in the shadows beneath the windows of Dr Roland’s office, dark and solitary, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and the snow whirling high in the empty arc of the streetlights.
I closed the door. ‘Henry,’ I said. ‘Henry. It’s me.’
He didn’t turn his head. ‘I just got back from Julian’s house,’ he said, in a monotone.
I sat down. ‘And?’
‘The place is shut up. He’s gone.’
There was a long silence.
‘I find it very hard to believe he’s done this, you know.’ The light glinted off his spectacles; beneath the dark, glossy hair his face was deadly pale. ‘It’s just such a cowardly thing to have done. That’s why he left, you know. Because he was afraid.’
The screens were open. A damp wind rustled in the trees.
Beyond them clouds sailed over the moon, fast and wild.
Henry took off his glasses. I never could get used to seeing him without them, that naked, vulnerable look he always had.
‘He’s a coward,’ he said. ‘In our circumstance, he would have done exactly what we did. He’s just too much of a hypocrite to admit it.’
I didn’t say anything.
‘He doesn’t even care that Bunny is dead. I could forgive him if that was why he felt this way, but it isn’t. He wouldn’t care if we’d killed half a dozen people. All that matters to him is keeping his own name out of it. Which is essentially what he said when I talked to him last night.’
‘You went to see him?’
‘Yes. One would hope that this matter would’ve seemed something more to him than just a question of his own comfort.
Even to have turned us in would have shown some strength of character, not that I wanted to be turned in. But it’s nothing but cowardice. Running away like this.’
Even after all that had happened, the bitterness and disappointment in his voice cut me to the heart.
‘Henry,’ I said. I wanted to say something profound, that Julian was only human, that he was old, that flesh and blood are frail and weak and that there comes a time when we have to transcend our teachers. But I found myself unable to say anything at all.
He turned his blind, unseeing eyes upon me.
‘I loved him more than my own father,’ he said.1 loved him more than anyone in the world.’
The wind was up. A gentle pitter of rain swept across the roof.
We sat there like that, not talking, for a very long time.
The next afternoon at three, I went to meet the new teacher.
When I stepped inside Julian’s office I was shocked. It was completely empty. The books, the rugs, the big round table were gone. All that was left were the curtains on the windows and a tacked-up Japanese print that Bunny had given him. Camilla was there, and Francis, looking pretty uncomfortable, and Henry. He was standing by the window doing his best to ignore the stranger.
The teacher had dragged in some chairs from the dining hall. He was a round-faced, fair-haired man of about thirty, in turtleneck and jeans. A wedding band shone conspicuously on one pink hand; he had a conspicuous smell of after-shave. ‘Welcome,’ he said, leaning to shake my hand, and in his voice I heard the enthusiasm and condescension of a man accustomed to working with adolescents. ‘My name is Dick Spence. Yours?’
It was a nightmarish hour. I really don’t have the heart to go into it: his patronizing tone at the start (handing out a page from the New Testament, saying, ‘Of course I don’t expect you to pick up the finer points, if you can get the sense, it’s okay with me’), a tone which metamorphosed gradually into surprise (‘Well!
Rather advanced, for undergraduates!’) and defensiveness (‘It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen students at your level’) and, ultimately, embarrassment. He was the chaplain at Hackett and his Greek, which he had mostly learned at seminary, was crude and inferior even by my standards. He was one of those language teachers who rely heavily on mnemonics. (‘Agathon. Do you know how I remember that word? “Agatha Christie writes good mysteries.'”) Henry’s look of contempt was indescribable. The rest of us were silent and humiliated. Matters were not helped by Charles stumbling in – obviously drunk – about twenty minutes into the class. His appearance prompted a rehash of previous formalities (‘Welcome! My name is Dick Spence.
Yours?’) and even, incredibly, a repetition of the agathon embarrassment.
When the lesson was over (teacher sneaking a look at his watch: ‘Well! Looks like we’re running out of time here!’) the five of us filed out in grim silence.
‘Well, it’s only two more weeks,’ said Francis, when we were outside.
Henry lit a cigarette. ‘I’m not going back,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ Charles said sarcastically. That’s right. That’ll show him.’
‘But Henry,’ said Francis, ‘you’ve got to go.’
He was smoking the cigarette with tight-lipped, resolute drags.
‘No, I don’t,’ he said.
‘Two weeks. That’s it.’
‘Poor fellow,’ said Camilla. ‘He’s doing the best he can.’
‘But that’s not good enough for him,’ said Charles loudly.
‘Who does he expect? Fucking Richmond Lattimore?’
‘Henry, if you don’t go you’ll fail,’ said Francis.
‘I don’t care.’
‘He doesn’t have to go to school,’ said Charles. ‘He can do whatever he fucking pleases. He can fail every single fucking class and his dad’ll still send him that fat allowance check every month ‘
‘Don’t say “fuck” anymore,’ said Henry, in a quiet but ominous voice.
‘Fuck? What’s the matter, Henry? You never heard that word 1 before? Isn’t that what you do to my sister every night?’
I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much’; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbors were building an addition to their house; later, he would claim she had,| provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Piano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?
And the thing of it was, that Charles and Henry had to appear together in court in less than a week, because of the business with Henry’s car.
Camilla, I knew, was worried sick. She – whom I had never known to fear anything – was afraid now; and though in a certain perverse way I was pleased at her distress, there was no denying that if Henry and Charles – who practically came to blows each time they were in the same room – were going to be forced to appear before a judge, and with some show of cooperation and friendship, there could be no possible outcome but disaster.
Henry had hired a lawyer in town. The hope that a third party would be able to reconcile these differences had granted Camilla a small measure of optimism, but in the afternoon on the day of the appointment, I received a telephone call from her.
‘Richard,’ she said. ‘I’ve got to talk to you and Francis.’
Her tone frightened me. When I arrived at Francis’s apartment, I found Francis badly shaken and Camilla in tears.
I had seen her cry only once before, and then only, I think, from nerves and exhaustion. But this was different. She was blank and hollow-eyed, and there was despair in the set of her features.
‘Camilla,’ I said. ‘What’s wrong?’
She didn’t answer immediately. She smoked one cigarette, then another. Little by little the story came out. Henry and Charles had gone to see the lawyer and Camilla, in capacity of peacemaker, had gone along. At first, it had seemed as if everything might be all right. Henry, apparently, had not hired the lawyer entirely from altruism but because the judge before whom they were to appear had a reputation for being tough on drunk drivers and there was a possibility – as Charles neither had a valid driver’s license nor was covered on Henry’s insurance – that Henry might lose his license or car or both. Charles, though he obviously felt himself martyred by the whole business, had nonetheless been willing to go along: not, as he told anyone who would listen, because he had any affection for Henry but because he was sick of being blamed for things that weren’t his fault, and if Henry lost his license he’d never hear the end of it.
But the meeting was a catastrophe. Charles, in the office, was sullen and uncommunicative. This was merely embarrassing but then – being prodded a bit too energetically by the attorney – he suddenly and quite without warning lost his head. ‘You should have heard him,’ said Camilla. ‘He told Henry he didn’t care if he lost his car. He told him he didn’t care if the judge put them both in jail for fifty years. And Henry – well, you can imagine how Henry reacted. He blew up. The lawyer thought they were out of their minds. He kept trying to get Charles to calm down, be reasonable. And Charles said: “I don’t care what happens to him. I don’t care if he dies. I wish he was dead.”‘
It got so bad, she said, the lawyer kicked them out of his office.
Doors were opening up and down the hallway: an insurance agent, the tax assessor, a dentist in a white coat, all poking their heads out to see what the fuss was about. Charles stormed off walked home, got a taxi, she didn’t know what he’d done.
She shook her head. ‘He was in a rage,’ she said; her voice was exhausted, hopeless. ‘As I was following him to the car, the lawyer pulled me aside. “Look here,” he said. “I don’t know what the situation is, but your brother is obviously quite disturbed. Please try to make him understand that if he doesn’t cool down, he’s going to be in a lot more trouble than he bargained for. This judge is not going to be particularly amenable to them even if they walk in there like a pair of lambs. Your brother is almost sure to be sentenced to an alcohol treatment program, which might not be a bad idea from what I’ve seen of him today. There’s a pretty good chance that the judge will give him probation, which is not as easy as it sounds. And there’s more than a gambler’s chance that he’s going to get either jail time or he’s going to get put in a locked ward over at the detox center in Manchester.”‘
She was extremely upset. Francis was ashen-faced.
‘What does Henry say?’ I asked her.
‘He says he doesn’t care about the car,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t care about anything. “Let him go to jail,” he says.’
‘You saw this judge?’ Francis said to me.
‘What was he like?’
‘To tell you the truth, he looked like a pretty tough customer,’
Francis lit a cigarette. ‘What would happen,’ he said, ‘if Charles didn’t show up?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m almost certain they’d come looking for him.’
‘But if they couldn’t find him?’
‘What are you suggesting?’ I said.
‘I think we ought to get Charles out of town for a while,’ said Francis. He looked tense and worried. ‘School’s almost over. It’s not as if anything’s keeping him here. I think we ought to pack him off to my mother and Chris in New York for a couple of weeks.’
‘The way he’s acting now?’
‘Drunk, you mean? You think my mother minds drunks? He’d be safe as a baby.’
‘I don’t think,’ said Camilla, ‘you’d be able to get him to go.’
‘I could take him myself,’ said Francis.
‘But what if he got away?’ I pointed out. ‘Vermont is one thing but he could get into a hell of a lot of trouble in New York.’
‘All right,’ said Francis irritably, ‘all right, it was just an idea.’
He ran a hand through his hair. ‘You know what we could do?
We could take him out to the country.’
‘To your place, you mean?’
‘What would that accomplish?’
‘Easy to get him there, for one thing. And once he’s out there, what’s he going to do? He won’t have a car. It’s miles from the road. You can’t get a Hampden taxi driver to pick you up for love nor money.’
Camilla was looking at him thoughtfully.
‘Charles loves to go to the country,’ she said.
‘I know,’ said Francis, pleased. ‘What could be simpler? And we won’t have to keep him there long. Richard and I can stay with him. I’ll buy a case of champagne. We’ll make it look like a party.’
It was not easy to get Charles to come to the door. We knocked for what seemed like half an hour. Camilla had given us a key, which we didn’t want to use unless we had to, but just as we were contemplating it the bolt snapped and Charles squinted at us through the crack.
He looked disordered, terrible. ‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ said Francis, quite easily, despite a slight, stunned pause of maybe a second. ‘Can we come in?’
Charles looked back and forth at the two of us. ‘Is anybody with you?’
‘No,’ Francis said.
He opened the door and let us in. The shades were pulled and the place had the sour smell of garbage. As my eyes adjusted to the dim I saw dirty dishes, apple cores and soup cans littering almost every conceivable surface. Beside the refrigerator, arranged with perverse neatness, stood a row of empty Scotch bottles.
A lithe shadow darted across the kitchen counter, twisting through the dirty pans and empty milk cartons: Jesus, I thought, is that a rat? But then it jumped to the floor, tail switching, and I saw it was a cat. Its eyes glowed at us in the dark.
‘Found her in an empty lot,’ said Charles. His breath, I noticed, did not have an alcoholic odor but a suspiciously minty one.
‘She’s not too tame.’ He pushed up the sleeve of his bathrobe and showed us a discolored, contaminated-looking crisscross of scratches on his forearm.
‘Charles,’ said Francis, jingling his car keys nervously, ‘we stopped by because we’re driving out to the country. Thought it might be nice to get away for a while. Do you want to come?’
Charles’s eyes narrowed. He pushed down his sleeve. ‘Did Henry send you?’ he said.
‘God, no,’ said Francis, surprised.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I haven’t seen him in days.’
Charles still didn t look convinced.
‘We’re not even speaking to him,’ I said.
Charles turned to look at me. His gaze was watery and a little unfocused. ‘Richard,’ he said. ‘Hi.’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve always liked you a lot.’
‘I like you, too.’
‘You wouldn’t go behind my back, would you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Because,’ he said, nodding at Francis, ‘because I know he would.’
Francis opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked as if he’d been slapped.
‘You underestimate Francis,’ I said to Charles, in a calm, quiet voice. It was a mistake the others often made with him, to try to reason with him in a methodical, aggressive way, when all he wanted was to be reassured like a child. ‘Francis likes you very much. He’s your friend. So am I.’
‘Are you?’ he said.
He pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, heavily. The cat slunk over and began to twine round his ankles. ‘I’m afraid,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’m afraid Henry’s going to kill me.’
Francis and I looked at each other.
‘Why?’ said Francis. ‘Why would he want to do that?’
‘Because I’m in the way.’ He looked up at us. ‘He’d do it, too, you know,’ he said. ‘For two cents.’ He nodded at a small, unlabeled medicine bottle on the counter. ‘You see that?’ he said.
‘Henry gave it to me. Couple of days ago.’
I picked it up. With a chill I recognized the Nembutals I’d stolen for Henry at the Corcorans’.
‘I don’t know what they are,’ said Charles, pushing the dirty hair from his eyes. ‘He told me they’d help me sleep. God knows I need something, but I’m afraid to take them.’
I handed the bottle to Francis. He looked at it, then up at me, horrified.
‘Capsules, too,’ said Charles. ‘No telling what he rilled them with.’
But he wouldn’t even have to, that was the evil thing. I remembered, with a sick feeling, having tried to impress upon Henry how dangerous these were when mixed with liquor.
Charles passed a hand over his eyes. ‘I’ve seen him sneaking around here at night,’ he said. ‘Out back. I don’t know what he’s doing.’
‘Yes. And if he tries anything with me,’ he said, ‘it’ll be the worst mistake he ever made in his life.’
We had less trouble enticing him to the car than I’d expected.
He was in a rambling, paranoid humor and was somewhat jj comforted by our solicitude. He asked repeatedly if Henry knew where we were going. ‘You haven’t talked to him, have you?’
‘No,’ we assured him, ‘no, of course not.’
He insisted on taking the cat with him. We had a terrible time catching it – Francis and I dodging round the dark kitchen, knocking dishes to the floor, trying to corner it behind the water heater while Charles stood anxiously by saying things like ‘Come on’ and ‘Good kitty.’ Finally, in desperation, I seized it by a scrawny black hindquarter – it thrashed around and sank its teeth into my arm – and, together, we managed to wrap it up in a dish towel so that only its head stuck out, eyes bulging and ears flattened back against the skull. We gave the mummified, hissing bundle to Charles. ‘Now, hold her tight,’ Francis kept saying in the car, glancing anxiously back in the rear-view mirror, ‘watch out, don’t let it get away ‘
But, of course, it did get away, catapulting into the front seat and nearly running Francis off the road. Then, after scrabbling around under the brake and gas pedal – Francis aghast, attempting simultaneously to avoid touching it and to kick it away from him – it settled on the floorboard by my feet, succumbing to an attack of diarrhea before falling into a glaring, prickle-haired trance.
I had not been out to Francis’s since the week before Bunny died.
The trees in the drive were in full leaf and the yard was overgrown and dark. Bees droned in the lilacs. Mr Hatch, mowing the lawn some thirty yards away, nodded and raised a hand at us.
The house was shadowy and cool. There were sheets on some of the furniture and dust balls on the hardwood floor. We locked the cat in an upstairs bathroom and Charles went down to the kitchen, to make himself something to eat, he said. He came back up with a jar of peanuts and a double martini in a water glass, which he carried into his room, and shut the door.
We didn’t see an awful lot of Charles for the next thirty-six hours or so. He stayed in his room eating peanuts, and drinking, and looking out the window like the old pirate in Treasure Island. Once he came down to the library while Francis and I were playing cards, but he refused our invitation to join in and poked listlessly through the shelves, finally meandering upstairs without choosing a book. He came down for coffee in the mornings, in an old bathrobe of Francis’s, and sat in the kitchen windowsill looking moodily over the lawn as if he were waiting for someone.
‘When do you think is the last time he had a bath?’ Francis whispered to me.
He had lost all interest in the cat. Francis sent Mr Hatch out for some cat food and each morning and evening Francis let himself in the bathroom to feed it (‘Get away,’ I heard him muttering, ‘get away from me, you devil,’) and came out again with a fouled crumple of newspaper, which he held from his body at arm’s length.
About six o’clock in the afternoon of our third day there, Francis was up in the attic digging around for ajar of old coins his aunt had said he could have if he could find it, and I was lying on the couch downstairs drinking iced tea and trying to memorize the irregular subjunctive verbs in French (for my final exam was in less than a week) when I heard the phone ringing in the kitchen.
I went to answer it.
It was Henry. ‘So there you are,’ he said.
There was a long, crackly silence. At last he said: ‘May I speak to Francis?’
‘He can’t come to the phone,’ I said. ‘What is it?’
‘I suppose you’ve got Charles out there with you.’
‘Look here, Henry,’ I said. ‘What’s the big idea giving Charles those sleeping pills?’
His voice came back at me brisk and cool. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Yes you do. I saw them.’
‘Those pills you gave me, you mean?’
‘Well, if he has them, he must have taken them from my medicine cabinet.’
‘He says you gave them to him,’ I said. ‘He thinks you’re trying to poison him.’
‘He is there, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we brought him out the day before yesterday…” and then I stopped, because it seemed to me that somewhere towards the beginning of this sentence I had heard a stealthy but distinct click, as of an extension being picked up.
‘Well, listen,’ Henry said. ‘I’d appreciate it if you could keep him out there a day or two longer. Everyone seems to think this should be some big secret but believe me, I’m happy to have him out of the way for a while. If he doesn’t come to court he’ll be guilty by default, but I don’t think there’s an awful lot they can do to him.’
It seemed 1 could hear breathing on the other end.
‘What is it?’ said Henry, suddenly wary.
Neither of us said anything for a moment.
‘Charles?’ I said. ‘Charles, is that you?’
Upstairs, the telephone slammed down.
I went up and knocked on Charles’s door. No answer. When I tried the knob, it was locked.
‘Charles,’ I said. ‘Let me in.’
‘Charles, it wasn’t anything,’ I said. ‘He called out of the blue.
All I did was answer the phone.’
Still no answer. I stood in the hall for a few minutes, the afternoon sun shining golden on the polished oak floor.
‘Really, Charles, I think you’re being a bit silly. Henry can’t hurt you. You’re perfectly safe out here.’
‘Bullshit,’ came the muffled reply from within.
There was nothing more to say. I went downstairs again, and back to the subjunctive verbs.
I must have fallen asleep on the couch, and I don’t know how much later it was – not a whole lot later, because it was still light out – when Francis shook me awake, not too gently.
‘Richard,’ he said. ‘Richard, you’ve got to wake up. Charles is gone.’
I sat up, rubbed my eyes. ‘Gone?’ I said. ‘But where could he go?’
‘I don’t know. He’s not in the house.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ve looked everywhere.’
‘He’s got to be around somewhere. Maybe he’s in the yard.’
‘I can’t find him.’
‘Maybe he’s hiding.’
‘Get up and help me look.’
I went upstairs. Francis ran outside. The screen door slammed behind him.
Charles’s room was in disarray and a half-empty bottle of Bombay gin – from the liquor cabinet in the library – was on the night table. None of his things were gone.
I went through all the upstairs rooms, then up to the attic.
Lampshades and picture frames, organdy party dresses yellowed with age. Gray wide-plank floors, so worn they -were almost fuzzy. A shaft of dusty cathedral light filtered through the stained glass porthole that faced the front of the house.
I went down the back staircase – low and claustrophobic, scarcely three feet wide – through the kitchen and butler’s pantry, and out onto the back porch. Some distance away, Francis and Mr Hatch were standing in the driveway. Mr Hatch was talking to Francis. I had never heard Mr Hatch say much of anything to anyone and he was plainly uncomfortable. He kept running a hand over his scalp. His manner was cringing and apologetic. i!
I met Francis on his way back to the house.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘this is a hell of a note.’ He looked a bit stunned.
‘Mr Hatch says he gave Charles the keys to his truck about an hour and a half ago.’
‘He said Charles came looking for him and said he had to run an errand. He promised to have the truck back in fifteen minutes.’
We looked at each other.
‘Where do you think he went?’ I said.
‘How should I know?’
‘Do you think he just took off?’
‘Looks that way, doesn’t it?’
We went back in the house – dim now with twilight – and sat by the window on a long davenport that had a sheet thrown over it. The warm air smelled like lilac. Across the lawn, we could hear Mr Hatch trying to get the lawn mower started up again.
Francis had his arms folded across the back of the davenport and his chin resting on his arms. He was looking out the window.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he said. ‘He’s stolen that truck, you know.’
‘Maybe he’ll be back.’
‘I’m afraid he’ll have a wreck. Or a cop will pull him over. I’ll bet you anything he’s plastered. That’s all he needs, getting stopped for drunk driving.’
‘Shouldn’t we go look for him?’
‘I wouldn’t know where to start. He could be halfway to Boston for all we know,’ ‘What else can we do? Sit around and wait for the phone to ring?’
First we tried the bars: the Farmer’s Inn, the Villager, the Boulder Tap and the Notty Pine. The Notch. The Four Squires. The Man of Kent. It was a hazy, gorgeous summer twilight and the gravel parking lots were packed with trucks but none of the trucks was Mr Hatch’s.
Just for the hell of it, we drove by the State Liquor Store. The aisles were bright and empty, splashy rum displays (‘Tropical Island Sweepstakes!’) competing with somber, medicinal rows of vodka and gin. A cardboard cutout advertising wine coolers twirled from the ceiling. There were no customers, and a fat old Vermonter with a naked woman tattooed on his forearm was leaning against the cash register, passing time with a kid who worked at the Mini-Mart next door.
‘So then,’ I heard him say in an undertone, ‘so then the guy pulls out a sawed-off shotgun. Emmett’s standing here beside me, right where I am now. “We don’t have the key to the cashbox,” he says. And the guy pulls the trigger and I seen Emmett’s brains’ – he gestured – ‘splatter all over that wall back there We drove to campus, to the library (‘He’s not there,’ said Francis, Till bet a million dollars’) and back to the bars again.
‘He’s left town,’ said Francis. ‘I know it,’ ‘Do you think Mr Hatch will call the police?’
‘What would you do? If it was your truck? He won’t do anything without talking to me, but if Charles isn’t back, say, by tomorrow afternoon…”
We decided to drive by the Albemarle. Henry’s car was parked out front. Francis and I went in the lobby cautiously, not knowing quite how we were going to deal with the innkeeper, but, miraculously, there was no one at the desk.
We went upstairs to 3-A. Camilla let us in. She and Henry were eating their dinner, from room service – lamb chops, bottle of burgundy, yellow rose in a bud vase.
Henry was not pleased to see us. ‘What can I do for you?’ he said, putting down his fork.
‘It’s Charles,’ said Francis. ‘He’s gone AWOL.’
He told them about the truck. I sat down beside Camilla. I was hungry and her lamb chops looked pretty good. She saw me looking at them and pushed the plate at me distractedly. ‘Here, have some,’ she said.
I did, and a glass of wine, too. Henry ate steadily as he listened.
‘Where do you think he’s gone?’ he said when Francis had finished.
‘How the hell should I know?’
‘You can keep Mr Hatch from pressing charges, can’t you?’
‘Not if he doesn’t get the truck back. Or if Charles cracks it up.’
‘How much could a truck like that possibly cost? Assuming your aunt didn’t buy it for him in the first place.’
‘That’s beside the point.’
Henry wiped his mouth with a napkin and reached in his pocket for a cigarette. ‘Charles is getting to be quite a problem,’ he said. ‘You know what I’ve been thinking? I wonder how much it would cost to hire a private nurse.’
‘To get him off drink, you mean?’
‘Of course. We can’t send him to the hospital, obviously.
Perhaps if we got a hotel room – not here, of course, but somewhere – and if we found some trustworthy person, maybe someone who didn’t speak English all that well…”
Camilla looked ill. She was slumped back in her chair. She said: ‘Henry, what are you going to do? Kidnap him?’
‘Kidnap is not the word that I would use.’
‘I’m afraid he’ll have a wreck. I think we ought to go look for him.’
‘We’ve looked all over town,’ said Francis. ‘I don’t think he’s in Hampden.’
‘Have you called the hospital?’
‘What I think we really ought to do,’ said Henry, ‘is call the police. Ask if there have been any traffic accidents. Do you think Mr Hatch will agree to say that he lent Charles the truck?’
‘He did lend Charles the truck.’
‘In that case,’ said Henry, ‘there should be no problem. Unless, of course, he gets stopped for drunk driving.’
‘Or unless we can’t find him.’
‘From my point of view,’ said Henry, ‘the best thing that Charles could do right now is to disappear entirely from the face of the earth.’
Suddenly there was a loud, frenetic banging at the door. We looked at one other.
Camilla’s face had gone blank with relief. ‘Charles,’ she said, ‘Charles,’ and she jumped up from her chair and started to the door; but no one had locked it behind us, and before she got there it flew open with a crash.
It was Charles. He stood in the doorway, blinking drunkenly around the room, and I was so surprised and glad to see him that it was a moment before I realized that he had a gun.
He stepped inside and kicked the door shut behind him. It was the little Beretta that Francis’s aunt kept in the night table, the one we’d used for target practice the fall before. We stared at him, thunderstruck.
At last Camilla said, and in a voice which was fairly steady: ‘Charles, what do you think you are doing?’
‘Out of the way,’ said Charles. He was very drunk.
‘So you’ve come to kill me?’ said Henry. He was still holding his cigarette. He was remarkably composed. ‘Is that it?’
‘And what do you suppose that will solve?’
‘You’ve ruined my life, you son of a bitch.’ He had the gun pointed at Henry’s chest. With a sinking feeling, I remembered what an expert shot he was, how he’d broken the rows of mason jars one by one.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Henry snapped; and I felt the first prickle of real panic at the back of my neck. This belligerent, bullying tone might work with Francis, maybe even with me, but it was a disastrous tack to take with Charles. ‘If anyone’s to blame for your problems, it’s you.’
I wanted to tell him to shut up, but before I could say anything Charles lurched abruptly to the side, to clear his shot.
Camilla stepped into his path. ‘Charles, give me the gun,’ she said.
He pushed the hair from his eyes with his forearm, holding the gun remarkably steady with his other hand. ‘I’m telling you, Milly.’ It was a pet name he had for her, one he seldom used.
‘You better get out of the way.’
‘Charles,’ said Francis. He was white as a ghost. ‘Sit down.
Have some wine. Let’s just forget about this.’
The window was open and the chirrup of the crickets washed in harsh and strong.
‘You bastard,’ said Charles, reeling backwards, and it was a moment before I realized, startled, that he was speaking not to Francis or Henry but to me. ‘I trusted you. You told him where I was.’
I was too petrified to answer. I blinked at him.
‘I knew where you were,’ said Henry coolly. ‘If you want to shoot me, Charles, go ahead and do it. It’ll be the stupidest thing you ever did in your life.’
‘The stupidest thing I ever did in my life was listening to you,’
What happened next took place in an instant. Charles raised his arm; and quick as a flash, Francis, who was standing closest to him, threw a glass of wine in his face. At the same time Henry sprang from his chair and rushed in. There were four pops in rapid succession, like a cap gun. With the second pop, I heard a windowpane shatter. And with the third I was conscious of a warm, stinging sensation in my abdomen, to the left of my navel.
Henry was holding Charles’s right forearm above his head with both hands, bending him backwards; Charles was struggling to get the gun with his left hand, but Henry twisted it from his wrist and it dropped to the carpet. Charles dove for it but Henry was too quick.
I was still standing. I’m shot, I thought, I’m shot. I reached down and touched my stomach. Blood. There was a small hole, slightly charred, in my white shirt: my Paul Smith shin, 1 thought, with a pang of anguish. I’d paid a week’s salary for it in San Francisco. My stomach felt very hot. Waves of heat radiating from the bull’s-eye.
Henry had the gun. He twisted Charles’s arm behind his back – Charles fighting, thrashing wildly about – and, nosing the pistol into his spine, shoved him away from the door.
I still hadn’t quite grasped what had happened. Maybe I should sit down, I thought. Was the bullet still in me? Was I going to die? The thought was ridiculous; it didn’t seem possible. My stomach burned but I felt oddly calm. Getting shot, I’d always thought, would hurt a lot more than this. Carefully, I stepped back, and felt the back of the chair I had been sitting in bump against my legs. I sat down.
Charles, despite having one arm pinned behind him, was trying to elbow Henry in the stomach with the other. Henry pushed him, staggering, across the room and into a chair. ‘Sit down,’ he said.
Charles tried to get up. Henry mashed him back down. He tried to get up a second time and Henry slapped him across the face with his open hand with a whack that was louder than the gunshots. Then, with the pistol on him, he stepped to the windows and drew the shades.
I put my hand over the hole in my shirt. Bending forward slightly, I felt a sharp pain. I expected everyone to stop and look at me. No one did. I wondered if I should call it to their attention.
Charles’s head was rolled against the back of the chair. I noticed that there was blood on his mouth. His eyes were glassy.
Awkwardly – he was holding the gun in his good hand Henry reached up and took off his spectacles and rubbed them on the front of his shirt. Then he hooked them over his ears again. ‘Well, Charles,’ he said. ‘You’ve done it now.’
I heard some kind of commotion downstairs, through the open window – footsteps, voices, a door slamming.
‘Do you think anybody heard?’ said Francis anxiously.
‘I should think they did,’ Henry said.
Camilla went over to Charles. Drunkenly, he made as if to push her away.
‘Get away from him,’ Henry said.
‘What are we going to do about this window?’ said Francis.
‘What are we going to do about me?’ I said.
They all turned and looked at me.
‘He shot me.’
Somehow, this remark did not elicit the dramatic response I expected. Before I had the chance to elaborate, there were footsteps on the stairs and somebody banged at the door.
‘What’s going on in there?’ I recognized the innkeeper’s voice.
Francis put his face in his hands. ‘Oh, shit,’ he said.
‘Open up in there.’
Charles, drunkenly, mumbled something and tried to raise his head. Henry bit his lip. He went to the window and looked out the corner of the shade.
Then he turned around. He still had the pistol. ‘Come here,’ he said to Camilla.
She looked at him in horror. So did Francis and I.
He beckoned to her with his gun arm. ‘Come here,’ he said.
I felt faint. What’s he doing? I thought, bewildered.
Camilla took a step away from him. Her gaze was terrified.
‘No, Henry,’ she said, ‘don’t…’
To my surprise, he smiled at her. ‘You think I’d hurt you?’ he said. ‘Come here.’
She went to him. He kissed her between the eyes, then whispered something – what, I’ve always wondered – in her ear.
‘I’ve got a key,’ the innkeeper yelled, pounding away at the door. Till use it.’
The room was swimming. Idiot, I thought wildly, just try the knob.
Henry kissed Camilla again. ‘I love you,’ he said. Then he said, out loud: ‘Come in.’
The door flew open. Henry raised the arm with the gun. He’s going to shoot them, I thought, dazed; the innkeeper and his wife, behind him, thought the same thing, because they froze about three steps into the room – but then I heard Camilla scream, ‘No, Henry!’ and, too late, I realized what he was going to do.
He put the pistol to his temple and fired, twice. Two flat cracks. They slammed his head to the left. It was the kick of the gun, I think, that triggered the second shot.
His mouth fell open. A draft, created by the open door, sucked the curtains into the gap of the open window. For a moment or two, they shuddered against the screen. Then they breathed out again, with something like a sigh; and Henry, his eyes squeezed tight, and his knees giving way beneath him, fell with a thud to the carpet.