RIFT

Miranda discovered there was something in the apartment.

It was behind the TV set in the corner of the living room.  But later in the evening when she phoned Grant, who had left on a business trip a few days earlier, she made no mention of her discovery.  Why make him worry?  He had other things to worry about out there in the distant metropolis.  Or maybe he didn’t?  Doubt started gnawing at her: only the other night she’d dreamed of her husband in bars and the things he was getting up to with sluts; though they might go by a different, fancier name in those parts—Miranda couldn’t remember the exact word—she was quite sure they were just sluts, engaging in slutty practices.

After the routine call was over she sat in the kitchen until late at night, and as the light of a small lamp illuminated her hands and fingers, and long shadows crept along the floor and opposite wall, Miranda wondered why this had to happen to her, of all people.  Actually, not just to her, to Grant as well—but Grant didn’t have an inkling of it.  Or did he?  Was he lying in a hotel bed somewhere with an inkling?  Was he on the twentieth or thirtieth floor of a skyscraper, in the middle of negotiations, with an inkling?

Miranda had grown up in a family where nothing ever appeared behind the TV set.  Her parents had never mentioned such a possibility to her, though they were happy to discuss in her presence the petty scandals involving their neighbors or people at work.  But perhaps they had it in their bedroom too.  Their daughter had never been allowed to go in there.  Could it have been in their bedroom?  Did they take it along when they went on vacation?  One of those trips they used to go on, leaving their daughter with her relatives in the countryside?

She went to the hallway and called a friend, for she felt the need to discuss this unexpected problem with somebody.  A few sentences into the conversation she replied, baffled, “You mean I should go and see a psychiatrist?”

“Of course.  You’ve got to.  What if you’re just imagining it all?”

“You mean hallucinating?  You really think I’m hallucinating?”

“But what if it isn’t there at all?    From what you’re saying, it’s almost the size of a wardrobe closet . . . Could something like that even fit behind the TV set?”

“Candra, believe me, it’s there!”

“I doubt it.  Look, you know Dr. Acker . . . “

“The one with the beard?”

“No, the one who goes to Britt’s”

“Where does he sit?”

“Right at the back, underneath the speakers.”

“I don’t know him at all.”

“Well then you know the other one, what’s his name . . . help me out . . . “

“You mean Dr. Frechette?”

“Exactly.”

“But he’s not a psychiatrist, he’s a psychologist.”

“All right, all right, a psychologist might do for starters . . . “

“What do you mean, for starters?  It’s as big as a wardrobe and you’re calling this starters?”

“I’ve already told you there’s no way it could be as big as a wardrobe.  Just calm down.  I’m sure it’s much, much smaller.”

“So how big do you think it is?”

“Let’s agree it’s the size of a matchbox, at most.  It’s absolutely tiny.”

“Listen . . .  How about you come and take a look?”

“That’s out of the question.  I can’t.”

“Why?  Look, come over!  Please help me.”

“But how?  What’s this got to do with me?  And anyway, I’m in a complicated situation.”

“I don’t understand.”

“ . . . “

“What is it?  Can’t you talk?”

“Uhm.”

“All of a sudden you can’t talk when I need you to do me a favor.  Can’t you even whisper?”

“I can do that.  But what am I supposed to whisper?  You’d better go and check again . . . “

“But I’ve been watching it the whole time.  Actually . . . not the whole time, just now I was looking out the window . . . at the door to the hair salon . . . you know where I mean . . . “

“Of course, I do.  At the door.  So what’s there?”

“There . . . “

“C’mon, what is it?”

“Nothing!  Nothing at all!  Don’t you understand?  It’s not there.  It’s only here, behind the TV.  Why don’t I imagine it’s out there, too, if I’m only imagining it?  Let me tell you why: because it just isn’t out there, only here.  And you were lying.”

“How was I lying?”

“When you said you could only whisper.  Just now you were so curious about what was there by the door to the hair salon that you started shouting.  Out of curiosity.  And the only reason you found it so fascinating was because you go to that salon yourself.  So the only time you’re willing to listen to me, without accusing me of being crazy, is when it involves you too?”

The phone call ended on a rather uneasy note.

Miranda sat down at the kitchen table, picked up a mirror, and examined the pale skin of her pale face.  It shone in the kitchen night.  The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the corners of the mouth.  Thoughtfully, Miranda went on to examine her shoulders, chest, and legs.  It would have been almost impossible to distinguish the whole from others of this kind.  Or perhaps sometimes, thanks to one’s clothes, the ways in which the clothes were discarded, a body’s particular way of being naked.  The way of being naked?  Yes: see yourself for who you are!  Step in front of the mirror, get to know yourself from the outside, but intimately!  Let the inside follow.  Follow the inside!

Miranda stood up, then sat down again.

 

Grant came home a few days later, left his bags in the hall, took off his shoes, went to the bathroom, took a shower, and, after thoroughly drying himself with a thick bath towel, headed for the living room.  She was waiting for him there.  Thinking of the sluts and the bars.  And also of herself, her role.  Was she supposed to float up into the sky now, all dreamy-eyed and happy?  Or should she let barbiturates, medication, or a psychiatrist take care of everything?  She stepped back a little to let Grant pass.  He sat down in the armchair and switched on the TV with the remote.  The flickering light carved objects out of the dark.

That’s when Grant noticed it.

It was moving slowly, sinister and inevitable.  Grant didn’t say anything.  His face looked like a mask stretched on a rack of bone.   Only when his wife whispered hysterically to him did he respond, commenting that, in his view, it made the living room even cozier than before, covering himself with his statement as though it were a precious tapestry. 

Miranda ran out of the apartment and called Candra on her cellphone.  She was panting:

“I know everything!”

“What do you know?”

“It’s turned up at your place too!  That’s why you can’t talk!  It’s watching you!  It’s listening to you!  It’s growing!”

“ . . . “

“Don’t you have anything to say to that?”

“I told you I can’t talk.”

 “Well, whisper then.”

“Yes, it turned up here, too.  But that was a long time ago.  It’s stopped growing now, although, I admit, it’s not getting any smaller either.  We’ve gotten used to it.  As it is.  Look, I know how you feel, it’s not easy to come to terms with the new situation at first . . .  But is it really new?  Okay, I know you never counted on this.  You didn’t expect . . . didn’t visualize it quite like this.  What woman would expect such a thing?  I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to you—to you and Grant.  Last time you called, I thought you might be exaggerating a little.  Because in our place it didn’t grow quite so fast!  Peter and I had been together for six years by the time we first noticed it!  But times have changed, life is moving faster . . . I know I’m probably not putting it well, but then the fact is, the world’s gotten faster, so that you and Grant . . .  Even though you’ve only been together for two years—it’s been two years, hasn’t it?  Or three?  Anyway, for some reason it’s happening faster.  Oh dear, I guess I am just behind the times.”

“Candra, I love you, you’re my only friend.  But why did you have to keep this secret from me, of all things?”

“I’m telling you: I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to you.!”

“And what about your parents?  At home, when you were growing up . . .  Did they have a problem too?  You know what I mean.”

“Of course.  Nearly every family in our building had it.  I remember the Jacobsons, they had to move because of it: it simply pushed them out of their apartment.  One morning it was overflowing into the hallway.  Can you imagine how delicate the situation was?  Bursting out of your door?  And you and your children have to sleep on the stairs because you have nowhere else to go?  Well, my parents took their children in for a few days, they stayed in my room, but I didn’t like them.  It eventually turned out to be for the best.  It followed them everywhere; in the end they were staying in a place in Coon Rapids, but one night, after it caused a scandal by swelling up, making the whole place burst, they took a radical step; moving to another state.  Now they have a wonderful life.  She’s living in the Dakotas with the kids and he’s somewhere in Boston.  They split up as soon as they left the state.  Don’t you get it?  It was a question of life or death.  But actually, in cases like this, it’s always a question of life or death.”

“But why did my mom never even hint at it?”

“That’s what women are like: though we can see—right from the beginning, actually—how things happen and how they’re going to end, inevitably we keep hoping . . . and making the same mistakes.  We just don’t learn our lesson.  Typically.  Not even seeing the way that our own parents have ended up prevents us from letting the same thing happen to us and our children.  From their earliest days, we push them toward doing the same thing to their kids when the time comes.  It’s like some compulsion, can’t you feel it?”

“Candra!  I thought I was going round the bend!”

“That’s right.  You are going round the bend, but nobody will notice you’re mad.  It’s a collective madness.  You’re no different from anyone else.  How can you diagnose madness if everyone is mad?”

Miranda had no idea.

She could see it was watching her intently from behind the set.  Or rather, not from behind but from underneath the TV, which by now was floating on top of it, swaying from side to side like a swimmer on an air-mattress.

Miranda stood on the balcony.

She leaned against the stove.

She even dreamed of going for a hike in the genuine, unadulterated countryside.

And wherever she happened to be, she wondered what it was that she and Grant actually wanted from one another.  Wherever she might be she also wondered how she could get into the closet where she kept her large suitcase from before she was married, because by now the thing was cluttering up the whole room, blocking the way to the closet.  And when it got especially bad, between the thirteenth and fourteenth cup of coffee, between a wistful stare from the balcony down to the street and at the high-rise opposite—into the windows of prison cells similar to her own—between calm resignation and quiet horror, in addition to other more important and essential things, Miranda thought that you need a partner to close the clasp on your necklace, and that you need a necklace to find a partner. 

Ladies In Waiting

Halper, the village real estate man said with a squint, “You’re the same people that looked at that place back in April, aren’t you?  Sure you are.  The ones that got caught in that freak snowstorm and spent the night there.  Mr. and Mrs. Sommerfield, isn’t it?”

“Sommerfeld,” Norman corrected, frowning at a photograph on the wall of the old man’s dingy office, a yellowed, fly-spotted picture of the house itself, in all its decay and drabness.

“And you want to look at it again?”

“Yes!” Linda exclaimed.

Both men looked at her sharply because of her vehemence.  Norman, her husband, was alarmed a new at the eagerness that suddenly flamed in her lovely brown eyes and as suddenly was replaced by a look of guilt.  Yes–unmistakably a look of guilt.

“I mean,” she stammered, “we will want a big old house that we can do over, Mr. Halper.  We’ve never stopped looking.  And we keep thinking the Creighton place just might do.”

You keep thinking it might do, Norman silently corrected.  He himself had intensely disliked the place when Halper showed it to them four months ago.  The sharp edge of his abhorrence was not even blunted and time would never dull his remembrance of that shocking expression on Linda’s face.  When they stepped through that hundred-seventy-year-old doorway again, he would hate and fear the house as much as before, he was certain.

Would he again see that look on his wife’s face?  God forbid!

“Well,” Halper said, “there’s no need for me to go along with you this time, I guess.  I’ll just ask you to return the key when you’re through, same as you did before.”

Norman accepted the key tag from him and walked unhappily out of the car.

 It was four miles from the town to the house.  One mile of narrow blacktop, three of a dirt road that seemed forlorn and forgotten even in this neglected part of the state.  At three in the afternoon of an awesomely hot August day the car made the only sound in a deep silence.  The sun’s heat had robbed even birds and insects of their voices.

Norman was silent too–with apprehension.  Beside him his adored wife of less than two years leaned forward to peer through the windshield for the first glimpse of their destination, seeming to have forgotten he existed.  And there it was.

Nothing had changed.  it was big and ugly, with a sagging front porch and too few windows.  It was old.  It was gray because almost all of its white paint had long ago weathered off.  According to old Halper, the Crieghtons had lived there for generations, having come from Salem where one of their women in the days of witch madness had been hanged for practicing demonolatry.  A likely story.

As he stopped the car by the porch steps, Norman glanced at the woman beside him.  His beloved.  His childhood sweetheart.  Why, in God’s name, was she eager to come here again?  She had not been so in the beginning.  For days after that harrowing ordeal she ahd been depressed, unwilling to even talk about it.

But then, weeks later, the change.  Ah, yes, the change!  So subtle at first, or at least as subtle as her unsophisticated nature could contrive.  “Norm . . . do you remember that old house we were snowbound in?  do you suppose we might have liked it if things had been different . . .?

Then not so subtle.  “Norm, can we look at the Creighton place again?  Please?  Norm?”

As he fumbled the key into the lock, he reached for her hand.  “Are you all right, Hon?”

“Of course!”  The same tone of voice she had used in Halper’s shabby office.  Impatient.  Critical.  Don’t ask silly questions!

With a premonition of disaster he pushed the door open.

It was the same.

Furnished, Halper had called it, trying to be facetious.  There were dusty ruins of furniture and carpets and–yes–the impression that someone or something was using them, that the house had not been empty for eight years, as Halper had claimed.  Now the feeling returned to Norman as he trailed his wife through the downstairs rooms and up the staircase to the bedchambers above.  And the feeling was strong!  He wanted desperately to seize her hand again and shout,  “No, no, Darling!  Come out of here!”

Upstairs when she halted in the big front bedroom, turning slowly to look about her, he said helplessly, “Hon, please–what is it?  What do you want?”

No answer.  He had ceased to exist.  She even bumped into him as she went past to sit on the old four-poster with its mildewed mattress.  And seated there, she stared emptily into space as she had done before.

He went to her and took her hands.  “Linda, for God’s sake!  What is it with this place?”

She looked up at him and smiled.  “I’m all right.  Don’t worry, Darling.”

There had been an old blanket on the bed when they entered this room before.  He had thought of wrapping her in it because she was shivering, the house was frigid for April, and with the car trapped in deepening snow they would have to spend the night here.  But the blanket had reeked from age and she had cringed from the touch of it.

Then–”Wait,” he had said with a flash of inspiration.  “Maybe if I could jam this under a tire! . . . Come on.  It’s at least worth a try.”

“I’m cold, Norm.  let me stay here.”

“You’ll be all right?  Not scared?”

“Better scared than frozen.”

“Well . . . I won’t be long.”

How long was he gone?  Ten minutes?  Twenty?  Twice the car had seemed about to pull free from the snow’s mushy grip.  Twice the wheel had spun the sodden blanket out from under and sent it flying through space like a huge yellow bird, and he’d been forced to go groping after it with icy wind lashing his frozen face.  Say twenty minutes, certainly no longer.  Then, giving it up as a bad job, he had trudged despondently back to the house and climbed the stairs again to the front bedroom.

And there she sat on the bed, as she was sitting now.  White as the snow itself.  Wide-eyed.  Staring at or into something that only she could see.

“Linda!  What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  Nothing . . . “

He grasped her shoulders.  “Look at me!  Stop staring like that!  What’s happened?”

“I thought I heard something.  Saw something.”

“Saw what?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t remember.”

Lifting her from the bed, he put his arm about her and glowered defiantly at the empty doorway.  Strange.  A paper-thin layer of mist or smoke moved along the floor there, drifting out into the hall.  And there were floating shapes of the same darkish stuff trapped in the room’s corners, as though left behind when the chamber emptied itself of the large mass.  Or was he imagining these things?  One moment they seemed to be there; a moment later they were gone.

And was he also imagining the odor?  It had not been present in the musty air of this room before; it certainly seemed to be now, unless his senses were playing tricks on him.  A peculiarly robust smell, unquestionably male.  But now it was fading.

Never mind.  There was someone in this house, by God!  He had felt an alien presence when Halper was here; even more so after the agent’s departure.  Someone, something, following them about, watching them.

The back of Linda’s dress was unzipped; he realized then.  His hands pressing her to him, suddenly found themselves inside the garment, on her body.  And her body was cold.  Colder than the snow he had struggled with outside.  Cold and clammy.

The zipper.  He fumbled for it, found it drawn all the way down.  What had she tried to do?  This was his wife, who loved him.  This was the person who only a few weeks ago, at the club, had savagely slapped the face of the town’s richest, handsomest playboy for daring to hint at a mate-swapping arrangement.  Slowly he drew the zipper up again, then held her at arm’s length and looked again at her face.

She seemed unaware he had touched her.  Or that he existed.  She was entirely alone, still gazing into that secret world in which he had no place.

The ret of the night had seemed endless.  Linda lying on the bed, he sitting beside her waiting for daylight.  She seemed to sleep some of the time; at other times, though she said nothing even when spoken to, he sensed she was as wide awake as he.  About four o’clock the wind died and the snow stopped its wet slapping at the windowpanes.  No dawn had ever been so welcome, even though he was still unable to free the car and they both had to walk into town to send a tow truck for it.

And now he had let her persuade him to come back here.  He must be insane.

“Norman?”

She sat there on the bed, the same bed, but at least she was looking at him now.  Not through him into that secret world of hers.  “Norman, you do like this house a little, don’t you?”

“If you mean could I ever seriously consider living here–” emphatically, he shook his head.  “My God, no!  it gives me the horrors!”

“It’s really a lovely old house, Norman.  We could work on it a little by little.  Do you think I’m crazy?”

“If you can imagine living in this mausoleum, I know you’re crazy.  My God, woman, you were nearly frightened out of your wits here.  In this very room, too.”

“Was I, Norman?  Really?”

“Yes, you were!  If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never stop seeing that look on your face.”

“What kind of look was it, Norman?”

“I don’t know.  That’s just it–I don’t know!  What in heaven’s name were you seeing when I walked back in here after my session with the car?  What was that mist?  That smell?”

Smiling, she reached for his hands.  “I don’t remember any mist or smell, Norman.  I was just frightened.  I told you–I thought I heard something.”

“You saw something too, you said.”

“Did I say that?  I’ve forgotten.”  Still smiling, she looked around the room–at the garden of faded roses on shreds of time-stained wallpaper, at the shabby bureau with its solitary broken cut-glass vase.  “Mr. Halper was to blame for what happened, Norman.  His talk of demons.”

“Halper didn’t do that much talking, Linda.”

“Well, he told us about the woman who was hanged in Salem.  I can see now, of course, that he threw that out as bait, because I told him you write mystery novels.  He probably pictured you sitting in some Dracula cape, scratching out your books with a quill, by lamplight, and thought this would be a marvelous setting for it.”  Her soft laugh was a welcome sound, reminding Norman he loved this girl and she loved him–that their life together, except for her inexplicable interest in this house, was full of gentleness and caring.

But he could not let her win this debate.  “Linda, listen, if this is such a fine old house, why has it been empty for eight years?”

“Well, Mr. Halper explained that, Norman.”

“Did he?  I don’t seem to recall any explanation.”

“He said that the last person to live here was a woman who dies eight years ago at ninety-three.  Her married name was Stanhope, I think he said, but she was a Creighton–she even had the same given name, Prudence, as the woman hanged in Salem for worshipping demons.  And when she passed away there was some legal question about the property because her husband had died some years before in an asylum, leaving no will.”

Norman reluctantly nodded.  The truth was he hadn’t paid much attention to the real estate man’s talk, but he did recall the remark that the last man of the house had been committed to an asylum for the insane.  Probably from having lived in such a gloomy place for so long, he thought at the time.

Annoyed with himself for having lost the debate–at least, for not having won it–he turned from the bed and walked to a window, where he stood gazing down at the yard.  Right down there, four months ago, was where he had struggled to free the car.  Frowning on the spot now, he suddenly said aloud, “Wait.  That’s damn queer.”

“What is it, Dear?”

“I’ve always thought we left the car in a low spot that night.  A spot where the snow must have drifted extra deep, I mean,  but we didn’t.  we were in the highest part of the yard.”

“Perhaps the ground is soft there.”

“Uh-uh.  It’s rocky.”

“Then it might have been slippery?”

“Well, I suppose–”  suddenly he pressed closer to the window glass.  “Oh, damn!  We’ve got a flat.”

“What, Norman?”

“A flat!  Those are new tires, too.  We must have picked up a nail on our way to this stupid place.”  Striding back to the bed, he caught her hand.  “Come on.  I’m not leaving you here this time!”

She didn’t protest.  Obediently she followed him downstairs to the front door.  On the porch she hesitated briefly, glancing back in what seemed to be a moment of panic, but when he again grasped her hand, she meekly went with him down the steps and out to the car.

The left front was the flat one.  Hunkering down beside it, he searched for the culprit nail but failed to find any.  It was underneath, no doubt.  Things like flat tires always annoyed him, in a properly organized world they wouldn’t happen.  Of course, in such a world there would not be the kind of road one had to travel to reach this place, nor would there be such an impossible house to begin with.

Muttering to himself, he opened the trunk, extracted the jack, tools, and spare and went to work.

Strange.  There was no nail in the offending tire.  No cut or bruise either.  The tire must have been badly made.  The thought did not improve his mood as, on his knees, he wrestled the spare into place.

Then when he lowered the jack, the spare gently flattened under the car’s weight and he knelt there staring at it in disbelief.  “What the hell . . . ?”  nothing like this had ever happened to him before.

He jacked the car up again, took the spare off and examined it.  No nail, no break, no bruise.  It was a new tire like the others.  He had a repair kit for tubeless tires in the trunk; he recalled–bought one day on impulse.  “Repair a puncture in minutes without even taking the tire off the car.”  But how could you repair a puncture that wasn’t there?

“Linda, this is crazy.  We’ll have to walk back to town, the way we did before.”  he turned his head.  “Linda?”

She was not there.

He lurched to his feet.  “Linda!  Where are you?”  How long had she been gone?  He must have been working on the car for fifteen or twenty minutes.  She hadn’t spoken in that time, he suddenly realized.  Had she slipped back into the house the moment he became absorbed in his task?  She knew well enough how intensely he concentrated on such things.  How when he was writing, for instance, she could walk through the room without his even knowing it.

“Linda, for God’s sake–no!”  Hoarsely shouting her name, he stumbled toward the house.  The door clattered open when he flung himself against it and the sound filled his ears as he staggered down the hall.  But now the hall was not just an ancient, dusty corridor; it was a dim tunnel filled with premature darkness and strange whisperings.

He knew where she must be.  In that cursed room at the top of the stairs where he had seen that look on her face four months ago, and where she had tried so cunningly to conceal the truth from him this time.  But the room was hard to reach now.  A swirling mist choked the staircase, repeatedly causing him to stumble.  Things resembling hands darted out of it to clutch at him and hold him back.

He stopped in confusion, and the hands nudged him forward again.  Their owner was playing a game with him, he realized, mocking his frantic efforts to reach the bedroom, yet at the same time seductively urging him to try even harder.  And the whispering made words, or seemed to.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

In the upstairs hall, too, the swirling mist challenged him, deepening into a moving mass that hid the door of the room.  But he needed no compass to find that door.  Gasping and cursing–”Damn you, leave me alone!  Get out of my way!”  he struggled to it and found it open as he and Linda had left it.  Hands outthrust, he groped his way over the threshold.

The alien presence here was stronger.  The sense of being confronted by some unseen creature was all but overwhelming.  Yet the assault upon him was less vio0lent now that he had reached the room.  The hands groping for him in the eerie darkness were even gentle, caressing.  They clung with a velvet softness that was strangely pleasurable, and there was something voluptuously female about him, even to a faint but pervasive female odor.

An odor, not a perfume.  A body scent, drug like in its effect upon his senses.  Bewildered, he ceased his struggle for a moment to see what would happen.  The whispering became an invitation, a promise of incredible delights. But he allowed himself only a moment of listening and then, shouting Linda’s name, hurled himself at the bed again.  This time he was able to reach it.

But she was not sitting there staring into that secret world of hers, as he had expected.  The bed was empty and the seductive voice in the darkness softly laughed at his dismay.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

He felt himself taken from behind by the shoulders, turned and ever so gently pushed.  He fell floating onto the old mattress, halfheartedly thrusting up his arms to keep the advancing shadow-form from possessing him.  But it flowed down over him, onto him, despite his feeble resistance, and the female smell tantalized his senses again, destroying his will to resist.

As he ceased struggling, he heard a sound of rusty hinges creaking in that part of the room’s dimness where the door was, and then a soft thud.  The door had been closed.  But he did not cry out.  He felt no alarm.  It was good to be here on the bed, luxuriating in this sensuous caressing softness.  As he became quiescent it flowed over him with unrestrained indulgence, touching and stroking him to heights of ecstasy.

Now the unseen hands, having opened his shirt, slowly and seductively glided down his body to his belt . . .

He heard a new sound then.  For a moment it bewildered him because, although coming through the ancient wall behind him, from the adjoining bedroom, it placed him at once in his own bedroom at home.  Linda and he had joked about it often, as true lovers could–the explosive little syllables to which she always gave voice when making love.

So she was content, too.  Good.  Everything was straightforward and aboveboard, then.  After all, as the fellow at the club had suggested, mate swapping was an in thing . . . wasn’t it?  All kinds of people did it.

He must buy this house, as Linda had suggested.  Of course.  She was absolutely right.  With a sigh of happiness he closed his eyes and relaxed, no longer made reluctant by a feeling of guilt.

But–something was wrong.  Distinctly, now, he felt not two hands caressing him, but more.  And were they hands?  They suddenly seemed cold, clammy, frighteningly eager.

Opening his eyes, he was startled to find that the misty darkness had dissolved and he could see.  Perhaps the seeing came with total surrender, or with the final abandonment of his guilt feeling.  He lay on his back, naked, with his nameless partner half beside him, half on him.  He saw her scaly, misshapen breasts overflowing his chest and her monstrous, demonic face swaying in space before his own.  And as he screamed, he saw that she did have more than two hands:  she had a whole writhing mass of them at the ends of long, searching tentacles.

The last thing he saw before his scream became that of a madman was a row of three others like her squatting by the wall, their tentacles restlessly reaching toward him as they impatiently awaited their turn.

 

 

LAKE OF LIFE LOST

That night, Janette woke from real life, and found herself by the side of the same lake as the night before.  Though the bank on which she lay was hard clay, cool and damp as the night around her, a mat of sewn magnolia leaves had been laid out beneath her, filled with moss.  Under her head was a celadon-green pillow made of cloth softer than any lamb suede she had ever felt.  A single magnolia blossom drifted down from the branches over her head and brushed her throat, as it tumbled noiselessly onto the mat.  She sat up.

She was alert now.  Waiting.

She stood.  The lake’s incandescent surface was the tranquil dark silver of a black pearl.  It reflected the reeds and rushes surrounding it.  For a moment she worried about her appearance and considered walking down to the shore to check herself in the water.  Just as she had the night before, however, she knew without a doubt that there was no need to be afraid.  She was beautiful.  She looked better, much, much, better than she did in real life.

Her hair would be long, fine, and straight, but fluid.  A russet-gold.  Her face would be long, the bones underneath strong and curved as if made by someone who carved violins from expensive wood.  Every line would be softened by the quietest of shadows and her skin would match the color found on the palest Siamese cat, creamy with a faint tan.  The complexion would be unmarred.

She was dressed in a fine mail,  the chinks made from rose alabaster carved into the shapes of leaves and fitted one over another.  It did not feel heavy.  She was strong.  In her grasp was a book of poems and stories written in another place, by a no longer childish but not yet fully adult hand.  Her hand.

Her wait was short.  Out of the cloudless sky flew a magnificent black swan, circling over the water.  Its wingspan was more than twenty feet across, its eyes and legs the same silver black as the lake.  So dark were the bird’s feathers they were barely distinguishable from the night until it dipped below the level of the reeds and landed with a graceful splash.  Its breastbone as it cut the water left behind gentle ripples, like the raised ornamentation on the back of a woman’s hand mirror.

The swan drifted back and forth on the lake, eyeing her warily but with interest.  Whether it was shyness or reluctance or fear she couldn’t say, but it had done this last night for what she figured to be nearly an hour.  Then it had taken off again and stroked towards the horizon long before dawn was due.

Tonight, however, she grew impatient.  Instead of holding still she moved quietly to the water’s edge.  The swan noticed at once and stopped in the center of the lake.

She didn’t understand.  Every time so far, every detail had been under her control, everything ordered and predictable and eerily peaceful, just the way she wanted it.  Why wouldn’t the swan come near?

Though she wore short gray boots more exquisite than any she could ever hope to own for real, she didn’t care.  She stepped into the water and began to wade toward the swan.  It surprised her then.  Suddenly swimming toward her.

Janette backed out of the lake and up the bank, almost returning to the magnolia tree.

Gliding, the swan reached the shore.  Sweeping itself onto dry land with a single beat of his wings, he was bird no more.  Rather, he was a young man, as she’d known he must be; a year or two older at the most than she was.  He was built sparely, with refined, supple arms and chest and neck.  His black hair ruffled in the breeze like feathers blown against their grain.

He bowed his head slightly as he walked up the bank, lowered gaze watching algae give way to bare clay and then low moss.  Shame seemed an indelible part of his expression.  She didn’t understand it.  It wasn’t what she had expected.

She went to her mat and sat down on it, thinking he would follow.

He shook his head.  “You don’t want me to,” she felt, not heard him tell her.

“Yes, I do,” she said aloud and stood up again to fetch him.

But when she tried to embrace him, he no longer had arms.  They had become wings again.  Her encounter with his human form was so brief, she had time to touch his hair only once, running fingers along soft locks as razor-edged as feathers, before her arms encircled a swan’s neck, and the bird nipped her on the shoulder to make her stop.

 

Janette opened her eyes and stared at the tray positioned over her hospital bed, vials of drugs lined up against its near edge, waiting for injection into her IV.  She still clutched her journal, but its cover was grimy and discolored from holding it with feverish hands.  She could feel that her panties were wet.  The nurses would know she’d had a wet dream, but say nothing.  The nurses knew everything about her.

Janette fell into a fitful lethargy after writing only a few lines of her dream into her book, woke to write a few more, than became only semiconscious once again.  The third time she dredged herself out of the fever, her parents were perched on the edges of their chairs at her bedside, her father looking angry as he usually did, not angry at her, just angry, and her mother surreptitiously inventorying the increasing sarcomas covering her daughter’s hands and arms, using their size and number as an indicator of the amount of time left.

“Those hard-hearted legislative bastards may  not have any feelings,”  her  father started, “. . . or guts . . .” he digressed, “Don’t any of them have daughters?  Doesn’t one damn politician in this country have children anymore?”  Though he didn’t notice it, he punctuated almost every word by stabbing himself in the back of the hand with his pen.  The short blue marks made an inappropriate counterpoint to his expensive manicure.

Janette looked from her father’s to her mother’s hands.  The more widespread the sarcomas on Janette’s hands became, the more obsessively her father had begun caring for his own hands.  Her mother, however, no longer painted her nails or cared for her cuticles, or even put lotion on her hands.  Her mother’s were penance and a statement of self-consciousness and the desperate state she had been put in by her daughter’s illness.  They were also meant to ease the horrible contrast between the diseased and the healthy.

Janette hated how much their hands told her, but she knew both her parents loved her.  She smiled at them.

“I swear,” her father said, “if I could just get my hands on a few of those condescending idiots and–.”

“How are you today, honey?” her mother interrupted.  “Are you still recovering from your trip?”  Her mother’s voice caught after ‘recovering”, as the censor in her head must have told her what an awful choice of phrasing that had been.  “Do you need me to talk to the doctor?”

About morphine, was what she meant.

“ . . . but the rest of the state is behind you, Janie sweetie.  Look what started pouring in today.”  Her father hefted two huge canvas sacks, with scuff marks all over them, from the post office, and stuffed with letters, padded envelopes, and boxes.

She thought of the stories regularly carried in the tabloids, about sick people whose lives were spared by letter-writing campaigns from concerned readers,  as if the human body was a television show you could save from cancellation.

The pressure in her head was so severe it was frustrating trying to listen to him.  She felt like part of her brain was being forced against the inside of her forehead, which was what her rapidly growing lymphomas were doing.  Just enduring the pain made her want to hyperventilate, as if she were putting forth some great physical effort, running the hundred-yard hurdles over and over again, endlessly without a break.  Under such a regimen even the best athlete would break down, cramping and moaning.  But she couldn’t breathe deeply or quickly at all.  The tumor had already damaged her lungs, she needed to take oxygen periodically.

Even lifting her gaze to meet her parent’s depleted her as well.  She kept trying to do it, kept trying and trying.  She couldn’t believe something so simple as moving her eyes was such a big deal.

So she continued to stare at their hands.  After awhile it became impossible to concentrate on her father’s voice anyway, and she closed her eyes.

“Do you want me to talk to the doctor?” her mother asked again, sounding very close to Janette’s right ear.

“No, Mom,” she said.  She didn’t like to talk anymore.  Her words were slurred because of the tumors.  It scared her mother so much.

Hoping her smile followed her into unconsciousness, she let herself drift away.

 

The swan circled and circled overhead.  Monotonously.  Calmly.  Conserving energy.  Gliding.  Beating his wings only when it was necessary to stay aloft.

He was stalling.  He was afraid to come down.

But she had called him here so eventually he had to come down.

When he did, he landed at the end of the lake farthest from her, so far away she didn’t even hear his wings ruffling the surface.  He swam aimlessly about a tiny inlet, acting as if she wasn’t there.  Every once in awhile, however, the swan’s head and neck would loop gracefully around, on the pretense that the bird wanted to preen his feathers.  But she knew he watched her.

Janette decided to walk around to his shore.  For some reason her mail felt heavier that night, the air lukewarm instead of cool.  Her surroundings weren’t as invigorating as they had been during her previous visits.  Her stride grew short, then shorter, until finally, no matter how much she pushed,  she couldn’t prod her legs beyond a listless walk.  It took her most of the night to round the lake.

He never left, though.  He never moved to an inlet farther on.  It was almost dawn when she crouched by the water’s edge on a beach made of taupe-colored pebbles the size of peas, and watched him swimming idly twenty feet away.  For several minutes she studied him, while scooping up water and listening to it sift through her fingers, dribbling back into the lake.

“Why are you ashamed to come to me?” she asked finally.

He didn’t answer, but flew toward her onto the shore, transforming into the same young man as before.  He walked past her, up a low hill covered knee-deep in poppies.

Turning, he beckoned to her, then disappeared over the crest of the hill.

She followed and came soon to a peach tree, alone on the landscape.  Its long, narrow leaves were so dark a green that the logic of this world suggested they used the darkness the way other trees used sunlight.  The tree was filled with ripe fruit.  He plucked one and gave it to her.  Its skin was velvety black.  She cupped a hand over it, then hesitated and let go.

Sensing her fear, he urged it on her again.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “but . . . “

Reaching for it, he stared at her with a serious expression and then took the first bite himself.  His throat quivered slightly as he swallowed, reminding her of the swan.  The fruit inside the black skin was a rich rose-orange.

He offered the peach to her again, holding it with the tips of his fingers so that when she took it, there would be little chance of physical contact between them.  Once more she wrapped her hand around it.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  Then she darted around his out-stretched arm and kissed the juice left on his lips.  “But it’s not what I want.”

Startled, he shied back, dropping the peach.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You can’t let me touch you,” a soft, clear voice circled her thoughts.  “I’ll kill you.”

“Why would I be afraid of that now?  Do you think I’m afraid?”

“I’m not talking about fear.  You’ve called Death’s child,” the tones grew shaky.  “I’m the son of the first death.”

His transformation into bird did not go smoothly.  His face was still human as he lifted above the trees, his breast more skin than feather.

She couldn’t tell if he had made himself completely over before he disappeared.  She picked up the peach.  The exposed flesh was covered in hard, little nodules of dried mud, which she carefully brushed away.  Raising the fruit to her lips, she tasted his taste again, hot and sweet, juice too startling and potent to drink, like tea made from mead instead of water.

 

Coming to, she saw a nurse by her bedside with a needle stuck into her IV.  They’d begun morphine.  Her body and mind relaxed into a deeper useless.  The new drug wouldn’t get rid of the pain, so much as deny her access to it.  To her, the drug was making her smaller in a sense, making her . . . less, so she was able to feel less’

“Have you been practicing your lucid dreaming?” a male voice asked.

“I’m sorry, what?”  It was her therapist sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“Have you tried it yet?” he asked with sincere interest.  For the first time she noticed that his hair was black.  Was he the source of the dream swan?  She wasn’t sure, she didn’t want to discount it, but he seemed too old at twenty-eight and, she thought ruefully, definitely too heavy to fly.

“The dreaming?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I was wondering if you’d tried it and if it was helping.”

“No,” she told him.

She couldn’t say if he believed that.  He sat patiently waiting for her to begin, for her to give him a topic to latch on to.  She couldn’t start and right then that determined the subject for this session.  They were going to talk about anger, about her getting the disease, and about living out the rage it had engendered no matter the amount of time she had left to do it.

 

Her mother was back next morning, babbling under pressure.  No doubt she’d received a bad report from the doctor before she’d stepped in.

“Daddy and I were thinking,” she said, “about your journal.  You write so well, and I can tell from looking at the book that you’ve just about used all the pages.  Would you like us to do something special with it, um, when you’re done with it?”

Though Janette hated to show how possessive she felt about it, she clutched the book closer to her under the sheets.

“Perhaps take it to a publisher?” her mother asked.

Thankfully, their conversation was interrupted.  Out in the hallway, they heard a fight going on with someone in a wheelchair.  Janette figured it to be around six-thirty in the morning, the time they got the more ambulatory up and moving toward their various therapeutic destinations.

“Let me walk, damn it!” shouted a male voice emptied of most emotions other than resentment

Rubber soles and rubber wheels squeaked sharply, sounding like a tussle on a basketball court.

“Why can’t you just let me push you?” another man’s voice.  “Survivors know better than to waste their strength on the trivial stuff.  They save it up, to use for what’s important.”

“I’ve been putting my strength in a goddamn Keogh account for the last two days.  I’m tired of being in beds and wheelchairs and loungers.  Now, please!  Let me walk!”

Several seconds of nothing but background hospital noise.  Janette’s nurse moved on the next bed.  A horrendous sigh came from outside.

“Okay, Bruce, that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.  Come on, get up.”  Stifled grunting.  A wheelchair sent banging into the wall just to the left of Janette’s open door.  Uncoordinated feet shuffling forward in vinyl-soled slippers.  “But if you get sick and puke up your entire intestinal tract like the last time, I’m not taking the heat.”

“That’s what I love about you, Harold.  You’re just a demon for responsibility.”  This said by the tall male patient finally being helped past her door on foot by an orderly.  Bruce, the hospital worker had called him.  He looked both younger and older than Janette estimated him to be, about twenty-four.  Younger because he was big-boned and meant to carry a lot of weight, which he wasn’t now.  And older because the pain lines and the uneven complexion of disease were already settling into his face, the skin graying around his lips and eyes.

Bruce must have begun exhibiting his full symptoms only recently.  He still looked pretty much okay.  His hair, cut in big blunt shocks, flopped down over his face, but it was still shiny and thick.  It wasn’t drained of life yet, being a healthy dark brown.  While he’d clearly lost weight, he still had an athlete’s shoulders, and his calves, visible below the hospital gown, made her think of a pole-vaulter she’d had a crush on in her sophomore year.

Just then, Bruce turned his attention away from the orderly, a gesture of defiance, and glanced into Janette’s room.  Since she was closest to the door, she was the first person he saw.  Only his eyes registered his sudden discomfort at the sight she presented.  Then he recognized her.  The intensity in her eyes said he was adamant about that recognition, though he couldn’t place it.

Ten feet from now, he’d figure out who she was.  He’d remember her face from the news.  The young woman who’d testified before state and federal health agencies for more money to educate teens on the dangers of careless sex.  The girl who wanted politicians to spend more money for shelters and hospices.  The girl who some critics said used her condition’s gruesome appearance as a terrorist tactic.

His last impression as he passed the door was fright, very personal and deep.  He’d seen times to come in her.  She turned her face sharply away.

Don’t look at me, she thought.  Please.

 

Janette’s mat was turning brown and brittle.  Before, the magnolias’ foliage had always stayed green, eternally new, but now the leaves were dying.  They took on scalpel edges and sharp points like the disposable lancets used to draw drops of blood for testing.  Dozens of them stuck her in the arms when she rolled over and sat up.  From inside the mat, the moss padding wheezed dust with each movement.

The dampness was gone, the night’s cool, too.  Heat had shrunken the lake and evaporated the midnight-blue clouds that often lingered near the sunset horizon.  The reeds and rushes smelled brackish.  The air was fever dry.

For hours she sat motionless on the mat, wishing she could wake up.  What good was this place now, when the swan wouldn’t come to her, and the disease was taking it over?  She’d never known that dying magnolia blossoms felt exactly like pieces of old, popped balloons, rubbery and tired.

Every once in a while, she thought she detected movement far away in the sky, a familiar silhouette.  But each time it was only her imagination, or a shimmer in the rapidly heating atmosphere.

 

She woke to hear someone bawling and choking and coughing up.  

It was her.

I’m suffocating.

She could feel them; her lungs heavy and sodden as steaming cardboard inside her chest.  Ever since the doctor had listed the side effects she could expect from the tumors, Janette had lived with a constant, justified panic of not getting enough air.  The struggle between what her involuntary reflexes wanted and what her body could still deliver was a losing one.

Crying hoarsely for the nurse, she raked at her chest and fumbled for the call button.  A hand she couldn’t see pulled hers away from the controls.  She scratched and wrestled for them.  Desperation gave her the edge to wrest the call switch back, then press the button again and again.

Until she felt the oxygen tube being shoved up her nostril.  The chill rush of oxygen streamed through her nasal passages and down her windpipe.

“Shh, Janette,” said the graveyard duty nurse.  “We’ve got the oxygen going.  The doctor will be here in a minute, sweetie.  So you try not to fight so much, okay?”

She tried to quiet herself, to be good and please the nurse, but the panic wouldn’t go away, and she realized she no longer had control of her emotions.  They weren’t even valid emotions anymore, it seemed, but noises her messed-up brain was using to save her.

When the doctor came in, he pronounced her to have pneumocytosis, “which we were prepared for, Janette.”  Trying to reassure.  “We haven’t been caught off guard.  We know how to deal with it.”

Stupid things, she thought.  They all say such stupid things.

She spent a restless, terrified day, trying to breathe better and clear her badly blurred vision by blinking again and again.

She did survive this first battle with pneumonia.  Antibiotics worked for the time being.  Her vision improved a little, but it was closing down, the epripheral portion gone and the bouts of bleariness becoming longer.  Her headaches reached a point where she’d black out periodically from the pain.

During the sleepless times, she missed her world by the lake, but even when she could sleep, she didn’t go there.  Every time she felt herself lapsing she told herself she’d wake up there, but it never happened.  It wasn’t that she didn’t dream any longer.  She dreamed.  Of all the things she should be doing but was too lazy to work on anymore.  She began to wonder if the part of her mind that would normally allow her access to the lake was already destroyed, dead before her.

For hours she stared at her TV.  This thing will never leave my arm, for as long as I live, she thought.  It drove her crazy, kind of.  Made her want to rip at the needle.  In fact, she dared herself to, worked herself up to the idea during the most delirious moments, and would have done it a couple of times if she hadn’t felt so drained, so beyond will.

During her next visit from the staff psychotherapist, she told him about her urge to do it.  She tuned out his response though, and put herself on automatic for his questions.

What must it be like for the therapist to be here? she wondered instead.  What a weird concept, therapy for the dying.  Social services version of last rites, she thought, a fundamental anathema, and sort of a an extravaganza of resources, too.

She may not have listened, but the therapist must have spoken to someone.  When she was feeling only a little bit better, they made a special exception and wheeled her out to the atrium one morning.  A registered nurse had to sit nearby to monitor her alone.

Janette had been trying to catch up on her stories about the dreams ever since the pneumonia.  She’d put off chronicling that last dream by the dying lake for days.  Always, she’d been an overachiever.  Her parents had been proud of that fact, and she’d been proud of it.  There had never been a time when she didn’t have about ten projects going at once.

“You feel anger, don’t you?” the therapist had asked her once or twice.  “Towards the disease.  Anger about what it’s doing to you.”  He never asked if Janette had anger toward herself.  Or what she really had.  Guilt.

Guilt because she no longer worked at anything really.  She had allowed college and her parents to fall away.  She felt like a loser.

Today, though, she determined to accomplish something, even if all that meant was a couple of paragraphs about the last dream.  If all she did was explain why she’d needed to make up the world by the lake.

She tried convincing herself that sitting out among the greenery, basking in the sunlight coming through the greenhouse windows gave her the energy she needed to work.  She took up her mechanical pencil and arduously aligned its tip with the first blank line of a page she could barely make out.

Seconds later her fingers cramped and she lost her grip on the pencil.  Two sentences were evidently beyond her.  The pencil rolled and dropped to the floor.

“Here, let me,” said a male voice she knew.  The pencil was picked up and laid next to her hand splayed on the wheelchair’s tray.

Bruce.

“Doesn’t look broken, “ he said, picked it up again, clicked some fresh lead into the tip, then laid it down.

Janette didn’t move to retrieve it.  All her concentration was placed in keeping her hand from jerking spastically in front of him.

He still looked good.  Relatively.  Of course, it had only been about two and a half weeks since she’d seen him outside her door, but she suspected he’d be the type to stay almost handsome until close to the end.

“You know, if you want, you could dictate to me,” he said.  She could him discreetly reading over her shoulder.

“No.”  With her good hand, she softly closed the book.  She was terrified of what he might have read.  “Thank you, though.”

“What is it?” he asked.  “What you’re writing, I mean.”

“Personal.”

He nodded.  He’d been standing when he retrieved the pencil for her, crouching beside her chair while he talked, with his hair smelling incongruently of Physoderm, instead of shampoo or, worse, sweat from too many days of restless sleep.  Now he sagged to the white-tiled floor and sat cross-legged next to her.

“What do you write about?” he said, persisting.  “Do you write about being afraid?  Maybe letters to people that’ll, you know, live on?  Apologizing?  Wishing them well?  Or just what you’re feeling from day to day?”

“Dreams,” she said.

He glanced up very intent.  His eyes suddenly had too much concern in them, even for someone sensitized to this issue.

“What type of dreams?”

Her response was bitter, but she was proud of the honesty.  She’d never been so forthright.  She wasn’t ashamed of the bitterness.

“Things I don’t ever get to have,” she told him.

Bruce flinched.  He looked down at his knees.  In a few minutes he got up and moved to another part of the atrium without having said another word.

She was puzzled and hurt by the reaction.  It destroyed her confidence in publicly admitting her bitterness, just as swiftly as she’d mustered it up.

 

The sky was purple-white with lightning, striking again and again, split seconds apart.  It was coming her way.  Thunder cracked so loudly, it felt as if she were shut up in a room with it, as if it bounced off the ceiling of her world by the lake.  Rain refused to fall, though, and the clouds looked thin and empty.  Not even a breeze came up to brush the final leaves off the magnolia or spread the piles of them beneath it tumbling along the shore.

Janette sat against the tree’s trunk, idly tearing the mat apart tiny piece by tiny piece.  The mat had represented so much to her when this place had been alive.  Now it only made her angry.  Each leaf was surprisingly tough, stiff like water-ruined leather after it’s dried.  Almost impossible to rip.

She knew she should get away from the tree.  Besides herself it was the only object of any height for the lightning to strike.  But this was her world and she understood the lightning intimately.  She couldn’t escape it.  The disease had finally broken into her night kingdom.  This was a dream, after all.  Not reality, but an analog of it.  The lightning was going to hit her no matter where she went.  She knew exactly what it would feel like.

Like sharpened thorns in her blood, the pain pricking new wounds deep inside her where neither she nor doctors could get to them; excruciating tears in muscles and artery and bone.  Such agony could drive her mind into that surreal place where mad people lived, never precisely awake, nor living the temporary terrors the healthy dreamed while asleep.

So while she pictured herself running over the sullen landscape, the barren hills, hunting for shelter, crouching uselessly in shallow ravines, it seemed more reasonable to simply sit and wait.

The swan dove at her from behind, surprising her from a direction he’d never chosen before.  His wings raked her face as he flew around the tree, one claw ripping out a strand of her hair.  Had it been intentional?  His feathers smelled of ozone.

He stalled out his flight prior to reaching the shore, and landed as a man with his back facing her.  He was furious.  He was frustrated.

Knocked flat by his pass, Janette hadn’t gotten to her feet when he spun about.

“Who do you think you are to keep calling me here?  You know I don’t want you to.”  his words burned in her mind’s ear.

“This is my world.  I’m in control here.  And I want you to give me what no one else will or can,” she said.

“Release from your pain,” he said accusingly.  “You want me to take it away by taking your life.”

“I want you to touch me.”

“And kill you.”  Nearly hissing.

“I’m already about to die.  Why do  I have to keep saying it?  I’m about to die.  I’m ready to die!”

“But if I touch you here, you die that much quicker.”

“So?”

“It’s a choice.”

“And I’m making it.”

Suddenly her cheek stung.  It had taken this long for the slap from his feathers to register.  “. . . I wasn’t asking you to kill me.

I can’t say it.  She couldn’t.  but she wanted to.

She had to.

“I was asking you to make love to me.”

He looked at her in silent incredulity.

“So I wouldn’t have died without knowing what real love felt like,” she explained.

“When I was a little girl I’d go to church,” she went on, “waiting to hear God’s voice, looking at the stained glass and expecting to hear God whisper in my ear, desperately wishing he would speak up.  He wouldn’t have had to say much, just call my name.  But you know I don’t think he  speaks to people anymore.  Not really.  You know it in your heart, but don’t want to admit it to yourself.  You think, how powerful is this God anyway?  How real is he if he can’t even whisper, I love you, Janette, in the golden voice you imagine him having.

“That’s the way it was with the man who gave me this.  I kept thinking the act would make us lovers,  that this special intimacy was waiting for me, because that’s what the movies say happens.  But I knew it wasn’t really special, not with him or anyone else before.  I kept telling myself over and over that it could be that way if I only believed.  But I never heard the words, I love you, Janette.  I never even felt them, I love you, Janette.  Never.

That’s why I called you here.  I thought you could show me how love was supposed to feel.  Even if there’s nothing after I die.  I wanted to know there was something real about love when I was alive.”

He didn’t move.  Not a muscle in his face moved.

She felt horrible.  Rejected.  She didn’t bother to apologize as she turned away.  He could probably tell from the stunned regret she showed that she was sorry.  She walked toward the tree, to sit on the other side and forget the lake until she finally woke up.

Three steps later, a ticklish breeze lifted the hair behind her ear.  Turning for a last look, she was startled when her face met his hand, which he cupped gently about her cheek.

His eyes meowed with mistrust, not of her, she thought, but of what he did as he took her down roughly to the bank’s powdery dust, dust so fine it puffed and rippled out around her head like silk.

There was a great deal of sorrow in his passion, a great deal of love in his anger.  He made love as if this were the only pleasure he would ever be allowed, and she realized that in that way they were too alike.

Afterward Janette lay very still next to him in their world, one hand resting on her breast, feeling her speeding pulse tapping against her fingers at a dozen places just below her skin.  It felt like rain pattering inside herself.  As it slowed, the storm finally broke.  Droplets stippled the dust on their faces, and cooled their feverish bodies.

 

She woke weeping silently.  Of all the ways she had expected to fell, she never thought she would cry.  But she was awake for only the briefest of moments, just enough to taste a tear on her lips.

 

“Your hair is russet-gold,” he murmured.  “The bones beneath your face are curved and strong, as if sculpted by one who makes the finest violins . . . each line softened by the quietest of shadows.”

 

I REMEMBER

I remember the sky, and the sun burning like a golden penny flicked into a deep blue pool, and the scuttling white clouds that changed in to magic ships and whales and turreted castles as they drift across the bottomless sea of my mind’s eye.  I remember the winds that skimmed the clouds, smoothing and rippling them into serene grandeur or boiling them into froth.  I remember the same wind dipping low to caress the grass, making it sway and tremble, or whipping through the branches of trees and making them sing with a wild, keening organ note.  I remember the silence that was like a brazen shout echoing among the hills.

–It is raining.  The sky is slate-gray and greatly churning.  It looks like a soggy dishrag being squeezed dry, and the moisture is dirty water that falls in pounding sheets, pressing down the tall grass.  The drops pock the ground, and the loosely-packed soil is slowly turning into mud, with the rain spattering it, making it shimmer.

And I remember the trains.  I remember lying in bed as a child, swathed in warm blankets, sniffing suspiciously and eagerly at the embryonic darkness of my room and listening to the big trains wail and murmur in the freight yard beyond.  I remember lying awake night after night, frightened and darkly fascinated, keeping very still so that the darkness wouldn’t see me, and listening to the hollow booms and metallic moans as the trains coupled and linked below my window.  I remember that I thought that the trains were alive, big dark beasts who came to dance and to hunt each other through the dappled moonlight of the world outside my room, and when I would listen to the whispering clatter of their passing and feel the room quiver ever so slightly in response, I would get a crawly feeling in my chest and a prickling along the back of my neck, and then I would wish that I could watch them dance, although I knew that I never would.  And I remember that it was different when I watched the trains during the daytime, for even though I clung to my aunt’s hand and stared wide-eyed at their steam-belching and spark-spitting, they were just big iron beasts putting on a show for me; they weren’t magic then, they were hiding the magic inside them and pretending to be metal monsters and waiting for the darkness.  I remember that I knew even then that I couldn’t go to sleep at night until I was soothed by the muttering lullaby of steel and the soft, rhythmical hiss-clatter of a rain booming over a switch.  And I remember that some nights the bellowing of a fast freight or the cruel shriek of a train’s whistle would make me tremble and feel cold suddenly, even under my blanket-mountain, and I would find myself thinking about the rain-soaked ground and blood and black cloth and half-understood references to my grandmother going away, and the darkness would suddenly seem to curl in upon itself and become diamond hard and press down upon my eyes, and I would whimper and the fading whistle would snatch the sound from my mouth and trail it away into the night.  And I remember that I would pretend that I had tiptoed to the window to watch the trains dance, which I never really dared to do because I knew that I would die if I did, and then I would close my eyes and pretend that I was a train, and in my mind’s eye I would be hanging disembodied in the darkness a few inches above the shining tracks, and then the tracks would begin to slide along under me, slowly at first then fast and smooth like flowing syrup, and then the darkness would be flashing by and then I would be moving out and away, surrounded by the wailing roar and evil chuckling of a fast freight slashing through the night, hearing my whistle scream with the majestic cruelty of a swooping eagle and feeling the switches boom and clatter hollowly under me, and I would fall asleep still moving out and away, away and out.

–The rain is stopping slowly, trailing away from the field, brushing the ground like long, dangling gray fingers.  The tall grass creeps erect again, bobbing drunkenly, shedding its burden of water as a dog shakes himself dry after a swim.  There are vicious little crosswinds in the wake of the storm, and they make the grass whip even more violently than the departing caress of the rain.  The sky is splitting open above, black rain clouds pivoting sharply on a central point, allowing a sudden wide wedge of blue to appear.  The overcast churns and tumbles and clots like wet heavy earth turned by a spade.  The sky is now a crazy mosaic of mingled blue and gray.  The wind picks up, chews at the edge of the tousling vegetation, spinning it to the fineness of cotton candy and then lashing it away.  A broad shaft of sunlight falls from the dark undersides of the clouds, thrusting it at the ground and drenching it in a golden cathedral glow, filled with shimmering green highlights.  The effect is like that of light through a stained-glass window, and objects bathed in the light seem to glow very faintly from within, seem to be suddenly transformed into dappled molten bronze.  There is a gnarled, shaggy tree in the center of a pool of sunlight, which is filled with wet, disgruntled birds, hesitantly, cautiously, beginning to sing again–

And I remember wandering around in the forest as a boy and looking for nothing and finding everything and that clump of woods was magic and those rocks were a rustler’s fort and there were dinosaurs crashing through the brush just out of sight and everyone knew there were dragons swimming in the sea just below the waves and an old glittery piece of Coke bottle was a magic jewel that could let you fly or make you invisible and everybody knew that you whistled twice and crossed your fingers when you walked by the deserted old house or something shuddery and scaly would get you.  You argued about bang-you’re-dead-no-I’m-not and you had a keen gun that could endlessly dispatch all the icky monsters who hung out near the swing set in your backyard without ever running out of ammunition.  And I remember that as a kid I was nuts about finding a magic cave and I used to think that there was a cave under every rock, and I would get a long stick to use as a lever and I would sweat and strain until I had managed to turn the rock over, and then when I didn’t find any tunnel under the rock I would think that the tunnel was there but it was filled in with dirt, and I would get a shovel and I would dig three or four feet down looking for the tunnel and the magic cave and then I would go home for a dinner of beans and franks and cornbread.  And I remember that once I did find a little cave hidden under a big rock and I couldn’t believe it.  I was shocked and angry and I didn’t want it to be there but it was, so I stuck my head inside it to look around because something wouldn’t leave until I did and it was dark in there and hot and very still and the darkness seemed to be blinking at me and I thought I heard something rustling and moving and I got scared and started to cry.  I ran away and then I got a big stick and came back, still crying, and pushed and heaved at that rock until it thudded back over the cave and hid it forever.  And I remember that the next day I went out again to hunt for a magic cave.

—The rain has stopped.  A bird flaps away from the tree and then settles back down on an outside branch.  The branch dips and sways with the bird’s weight, its leaves heavy with rain.  The tree steams in the sun, and a million raindrops become tiny jewels, microscopic prisms, gleaming and winking, loving and transfiguring the light even as it destroys them and they dissolve into invisible vapor puffs to be swirled into the air and absorbed by the waiting clouds above.  The air is wet and clean and fresh; it seems to squeak as the tall grass saws through it and the wind runs its fingernails lightly along its surface.  The day is squally and gusty after the storm, high shining overcast split by ragged ribbons of blue that look like several fjords.  The bird preens and fluffs its feather disgustedly, chattering and scolding at the rain, but keeping a tiny bright eye carefully cocked in case the storm should take offense at the light stream of insults and come roaring back.  Between the tufts of grass the ground has turned to black mud, soggy as a sponge, puddled by tiny pools of steaming rainwater.  There is an arm and leg lying in the mud, close enough to make out the texture of the tattered fabric clothing the arm, so close that the upper arm fades up and past the viewpoint and into a huge blur in the extreme corner of the field of view.  The arm is bent back at an unnatural angle and the stiff fingers are hooked into talons that seem to claw toward the gray sky–

And I remember a day in the sixth grade when we were struggling in the cloakroom with our coats and I couldn’t get mine off because the cloth was caught in the zipper and Denny was talking about how his father was a jet pilot and he sure hoped the war wasn’t over before he grew up because he wanted to kill some of those ass-holes like his father was doing and then later in the boy’s room everyone was arguing about who had the biggest one and showing them and Denny could piss further than anybody else.  I remember that noon we were playing kick the can.  The can rolled down the side of the hill and we all went down after it and somebody said hey look and we found a place inside a bunch of bushes where the grass was all flattened down and broken and there were pages of a magazine scattered all  over and Denny picked one up and spread it out and it was a picture of a girl with only a pair of pants on and everyone got real quiet.  I could hear the girls chanting in the schoolyard as they jumped rope and kids yelling.  Everybody was scared and her eyes seemed to be looking back right out of the picture and somebody finally licked his lips and said what’re those things stickin’ outta her, ah, and he didn’t know the word and one of the bigger kids said tits and he said yeah what are those things stickin’ outta her tits and I couldn’t say anything because I was so surprised to find out that girls had those little brown things like we did except hers were pointy and hard and made me tremble and Denny said hell I know about that I’ve had hundreds of girls but he was licking nervously at his lips as he said it and he was breathing funny too.  And I remember that afternoon I was sitting at my desk near the window and the sun was hot and I was bathed in the rolling drone of our math class and I wasn’t understanding any of it and listening less.  I remember that I knew I had to go to the bathroom and I didn’t want to raise my hand because our math teacher was a girl with brown hair and eyeglasses and I was staring at the place where I knew her pointy things must be under her blouse and I was thinking about touching them to see what they felt like and that made me feel funny somehow and I thought that if I raised my hand she would be able to see into my head and she’d know and she’d tell everybody what I was thinking and then she’d get mad and punish me for thinking bad things, so I didn’t say anything but I had to go real bad and if I looked close I thought I could see two extra little bulges in her blouse where her pointy things were pushing against the cloth and I started thinking about what it would feel like if she pushed them up against me and that made me feel even more funny and sort of hollow and sick inside and I couldn’t wait any longer and I raised my hand and left the room but it was too late and I wet myself while I was still on the way to the boy’s room.  I didn’t know what to do so I went back to the classroom with my pants all wet and smelly and the math teacher looked at me and said what did you do and I was scared and Denny yelled he pissed in his pants and the math teacher got very mad and everybody was laughing and suddenly the kids in my class didn’t have any faces only laughing mouths and I wanted to curl up into a bal l where nobody could get me.  Once I had seen my grandfather digging with a garden spade turning over the dark wet earth.  There was half a worm mixed in with the dirt and it writhed and squirmed until the next shovelful covered it up.

–Most of the rain has boiled away, leaving only a few of the larger puddles that have gathered in the shallow depressions between grass clumps.  The mud is slowly solidifying under the hot sun, hardening into ruts, miniature ridges, mountains and valleys.  An ant appears at the edge of the field of vision, emerging warily from the roots of the tall grass, pushing its way free of the tangled jungle.  The blades of grass tower over it, forming a tightly woven web and filtering the hot yellow sunlight into a dusky green half-light.  The ant pauses at the edge of the muddy open space, reluctant to exchange the cool tunnel of the grass for the dangers of level ground.  Slowly, the ant picks its way across the sticky mud, skirting a pebble half again as big as it is.  It is streaked with veins of darker rock and has a tiny flake of quartz embedded in it near the top.  The elements have rounded it into a smooth oval, except for a dent on the far side that exposes its porous core.  The ant finishes its cautious circumnavigation of the pebble and meanders slowly toward the arm, slipping on the slick, mud-spattered fabric.  The ant works its way down the arm to the wrist and stops, sampling the air.  It stands among the bristly black hairs, antennae vibrating.  The big blue vein in the wrist can be seen under its tiny feet.  The ant continues to walk down the wrist, pushing its way through the stiff hair, climbing onto the hand and walking purposely through the hollow of the thumb.  Slowly, it disappears around the knuckle of the first finger–

And I remember a day when I was in the first year of high school and my voice was changing and I was starting to grow hair in unusual places and I was sitting in English class and I wasn’t paying too much attention even though I’m usually pretty good in English because I was in love with the girl in front of me.  I remember that she had long legs and soft brown hair and a laugh like a bell.  The sun was coming in the window behind her and the sunlight made the downy hair on the back of her neck glow very faintly.  I wanted to touch it with my fingertips and I wanted to undo the knot that held her hair to the top of her head and I wanted her hair to cascade down over my face soft against my skin and cover me.  With the sunlight I could see the strap of her bra underneath her thin dress and I wanted to slide my fingers underneath it and unhook it and stroke her velvety skin.  I remember that I could feel my body stirring and my mouth was dry and painful and the zipper of her dress was open a bit at the top and I could see the tanned texture of her skin and see she had a brown mole on her shoulder and my hand trembled with the urge to touch it (and the teacher said something about Shakespeare) and when she turned her head to whisper to Denny across the row her eyes were deep and beautiful and I wanted to kiss them softly, brush them lightly as a bird’s wing (and Hamlet was something or other).  I caught a glimpse of her tongue darting wetly from between her lips and pressing against her white teeth and that was almost too much to bear and I wanted to kiss her lips softly and then I wanted to crush them flat and then I wanted to bite them and sting them until she cried and I could comfort and soothe her and that frightened me because I didn’t understand it.  My thighs were tight and prickly and the blood pounded at the base of my throat (and Elsinore something).  The bang rang shrilly and I couldn’t get up because all I could see was the fabric of her dress taut over her hips as she stood up and I stared at her hips and her belly and her thighs as she walked away and wondered what her thing would look like and I was scared.  I remember that I finally got up enough nerve to ask her for a date during lunch period and she looked at me incredulously for a second and then laughed, just laughed contemptuously and walked away without saying a word.  I remember her laughter.  And I remember wandering around town that night heading aimlessly into nowhere trying to escape from the pressure and the emptiness and passing a car parked on a dark street corner just as the moon swung out from behind a cloud.  There was a light that danced and I could hear the freight trains booming faraway and she was in the backseat with Denny and they were locked together and her skirt was hiked up.  I could see the white flash of flesh all the way up her leg and he had his hand under her blouse on her breast and I could see his knuckles moving under the fabric and the freight train roared and clattered as it hit the switch.  He was kissing her and biting her and she was kissing him back with her lips pressed tight against his lips and her hair floating all around them like a cloud and the train was whispering away from town and then he was on top of her pressing her down and I felt like I was going to be sick.  I started to vomit but stopped because I was afraid of the noise.  She was moaning and making small low whimpering noises I’d never heard anyone make before and I had to run before the darkness crushed me and I didn’t want to vomit when I got home because I’d feel ashamed and disgusted afterward but I knew that I was going to have to because my stomach was heaving and my skin was on fire and I thought that my heart was going to explode.  And I remember that I eventually got a date for the dance with Judy from my history class who was a nice girl although plain.  But all night long as I danced with her I could only see my first love moaning and writhing under Denny just as the worm had writhed under the thrust of the garden spade into the dark earth long ago and as I ran toward home that night I heard the train vanish into the night trailing a cruelly arrogant whistle behind until it faded to a memory and there was nothing left.

–The ant reappears on the underside of the index finger, pauses, antennae flickering inquisitively, and then begins to walk down the palm following the deep groove known as the life line until it reaches the wrist.  For a moment, it appears as if the ant will vanish into the space between the wrist and the frayed, bloodstained cuff of the shirt, but it changes its mind and slides back down the wrist to the ground on the far side.  The ant struggles for a moment in the stiff mud, and then crawls determinedly off across the crusted ground.  At the extreme edge of the field of vision, just before the blur that is the upper arm, there is the jagged, pebbly edge of a shell hole.  Half over the lip of the hole, grossly out of proportion at this distance, is half of a large earthworm, partially buried by the fresh turned dirt brown thrown up by the explosion.  The ant pokes suspiciously at the worm–

And I remember the waiting room at the train station and the weight of my suitcase in my hand and the way the big iron voice rolled unintelligibly around the high ceiling as the stationmaster announced the incoming trains.  Cigar and cigarette smoke was thick in the air and the massive exhaust fan was laboring in vain to clear some of the choking fog away.  The place reeked of urine and age and an old dog twitched and moaned in his ancient sleep as he curled close against an equally ancient radiator that hissed and panted and belched white jets of steam.  I stood by the door and looked out along the track to where the shining steel disappeared into the darkness and I suddenly thought it looked like a magic cave and then I wondered if I thought that was supposed to be funny and I wanted to laugh only I wanted to cry too and so I could do neither and instead I tightened my arm around Judy’s waist and pulled her closer against me and kissed the silken hollow of her throat.  I could feel the sharp bone in her hip jabbing against mine and I didn’t care because that was pain that was pleasure and I felt the gentle resilience of her breast suddenly against my ribcage and felt her arm tighten protectively around me and her fingernails bite sharply into my arm.  I knew that she was trying not to cry and if I said anything at all it would make her start and there would be a sloppy scene we’d been trying to avoid and so I said nothing but only held her and kissed her lightly on the eyes.  I knew that people were looking at us and I didn’t give a damn and I knew that she wanted me and wanted me to stay and we both knew that I couldn’t and all around us about ten other young men were going through a similar  tableaux with their girlfriends or folks and everybody was stern and pale and worried and trying to look unconcerned and casual and so many women were trying not to cry that the humidity in the station was trembling at the saturation point.  I remember Denny standing near the door with a foot propped on his suitcase.  He was flashing his too-white teeth and his too-wide smile.  He reeked of cheap cologne as he told his small knot of admirers in an overly loud voice that he didn’t give a damn if he went or not because he’d knocked up a broad and her old man was tryin’ to put the screws on him and this was a good way to get outta town anyway and the government would protect him from the old man.  He’d come home in a year or so on top of the world and the heat would be off and he could start collectin’ female scalps again.  Besides his father had been in and been a hero and he could do anything better than that old bastard and besides he hated those goddamned greasy ass-holes and he was gonna get him one see if he didn’t.  I remember that the train came quietly in then and that it still looked like a big iron beast although now it was a silent beast with no smoke or sparks but with magic still hidden inside it although I knew now that it might be dark magic.  We had to climb inside then and I was kissing Judy good-bye and telling her I loved her and she was kissing me and telling me she would wait for me and I don’t know if we were telling the truth or even if we knew ourselves what the truth was.  Then Judy was crying openly and I was swallowed by the iron beast and we were away from the town and snickering across the web of tracks and booming over the switches and I saw my old house flash by.  I could see my old window and I almost imagined that I could see myself as a kid with my nose pressed against the window looking out and watching my older self roar by and neither of us suspecting that the other was there and neither of us ever working up the nerve to watch the trains dance.  And I remember that all during the long train ride I could hear Denny’s raucous voice somewhere in the distance talking about how he couldn’t wait to get over there and he’d heard that snatch over there was prime stuff and free too and he was gonna get him one of those goddamned S.O.B.s and as the train slashed across the wide fertile farmlands of the Midwest the last thing I knew before sleep that night was the wet smell of freshly turned earth.

–The ant noses the worm disdainfully and then passes out of the field of vision.  The only movement now is the ripple of the tall grass and the flash of birds in the shaggy tree.  The sky is clouding up again, thunderheads rumbling up over the horizon and rolling across the sky.  Two large forms appear near the shaggy tree at the other extreme of the field of vision.  The singing of the birds stops as if turned off by a switch.  The two forms move vaguely near the shaggy tree, rustling the grass.  The angle of vision gives a foreshortening effect, and it is difficult to make out just what the forms are.  There is a sharp command, the human voice sounding strangely thin under the sighing of the wind.  The two figures move away from the shaggy tree, pushing through the grass.  They are medics; haggard, dirty soldiers with big red crosses painted on their helmets and armbands and several days growth on their chins.  They look tired, harried, scared, and determined, and they are moving rapidly, half-crouching, searching for something on the ground and darting frequent glances back over their shoulders.  As they approach they seem to grow larger and larger, elongating toward the sky as their movement shifts the perspective.  They stop a few feet away and reach down, lifting up a body that has been hidden by the tall grass.  It is Denny, the back of his head blown away, his eyes bulging horribly open.  The medics lower Denny’s body back into the sheltering grass and bend over it fumbling with something.  They finally straighten, glance hurriedly about and move forward.  The two grimy figures swell until they fill practically the entire field of vision, only random patches of sky and the ground underfoot visible around their bulk.  The medics come to a stop about a foot away.  The scarred, battered, mud-baked boot of a medic now dominates the scene, looking big as a mountain.  From the combat boot, the medic’s leg seems to stretch incredibly toward the sky, like a fatigue-swathed beanstalk, with just a suggestion of a head and a helmet floating somewhere at the top.  The other medic cannot be seen at all now, having stepped over and out of sight.  The shallow breathing and occasional obscenities can be heard.  The first medic bends over, his huge hand seeming to leap down from the sky, and touches the arm, lifting the wrist and feeling for a pulse.  The medic holds the wrist for awhile and then sighs and lets go.  The wrist plops limply back into the cold, sucking mud, splattering it.  The medic’s hand swells in the direction of the upper arm, and then fades momentarily, although his wrist remains blurrily visible and his arm seems to stretch like a highway into the middle distance.  The medic tugs, and his hand comes back clutching a tarnished dog tag.  Both of the medic’s hands disappear forward.  Hands prying the jaws open, jamming the dog tag into the teeth, the metal cold and slimy against the tongue and gums, pressing the jaws firmly closed again, the dog tag feels huge and immovable inside the mouth.  The world is the medic’s face now, looming like a scarred cliff inches away, his bloodshot twitching eyes as huge as moons, his mouth, hanging slackly open with exhaustion, as cavernous and bottomless as a magic cave to a little boy.  The medic has halitosis, his breath filled with the richly corrupt smell of freshly turned earth.  The medic stretches out two fingers which block out the sky.  The medic’s fingertips are the only thing in the world now.  They are stained and dirty and one has a white scar across the whorls.  The medic’s fingertips touch the eyelids and press them down.  And now there is nothing but darkness–

And I remember the way the dawn would crack the eastern sky, the rosy blush slowly spreading and staining the black of night, chasing away the darkness, driving away the stars.  And I remember the way a woman looks at you when she loves you, and the sound a kitten makes when it’s happy, and the way that snowflakes blur and melt against a warm windowpane.  I remember.  I remember.

 

THE HOMES OF THE STARS

Last night, I heard it again.  About eleven, I stood at the kitchen counter, slathered peanut butter onto a stale slice of wheat toast, and scanned months-old letters to the editor in an A section pulled at random from the overflow around the recycle bin.  “New Tax Will Halt Teen Smoking.”  “Economy Slipping Under Bush.”  “Leave President To Nation’s Business.”  the little headlines gave the otherwise routine letters such urgency, like telegraphed messages from some war-torn front where issues are being decided, where news is happening.  As I chewed my Skippy-coated bread, I turned one-handed to the movie listings, just to reassure myself that everything I had skipped in the winter wasn’t worth the trouble anyway, and then I heard a slowly approaching car.

We don’t get much traffic on my street, a residential loop in a quiet neighborhood, and so even we single guys who don’t have kids in the yard unconsciously register the sounds of each passing vehicle.  But this was the fifth night in a row, and so I set down my snack and listened.

 

Kevin used to identify each passing car, just for practice.

“Fairlane.”

“Crown Victoria.”

“Super Beetle.”

This was back home, when we were as bored as two seventeen year olds could be.

“Even I can tell a Super Beetle,” I said.  I slugged my orange Crush and lowered the bottle to look with admiration at the bright orange foam.

Kevin frowned, picked up his feet, and rotated on the bench of the picnic table so his back was to the street.

Without thinking, I said, “Mind, you’ll get splinters.”  I heard my mother speaking and winced.

Now Kevin looked straight ahead at the South High outdoor basketball court, where Shirley and her friends, but mostly Shirley (who barely knew us, but whose house was fourth on our daily route) were playing a pick-up game, laughing and sweating and raking their long black hair from their foreheads.  As each car passed behind him, he continued his litany.

“Jeep.”

“Ford pickup.”

“Charger.”

I didn’t know enough to catch him in an error, of course but I have no doubt he was right on the money, every time.  I never learned cars; I learned other things, that year and the next fifteen years, to my surprise and exhilaration and shame, but I never learned cars, and so I am ill-equipped to stand in my kitchen and identify a car driving slowly past at eleven o’clock at night.

Not even when, about five minutes later, it gives me another chance, drives past again in the other direction, as if it had gotten as far as the next cul-de-sac and turned around.

It passes so slowly that I am sure it is about to turn into someone’s driveway, someone’s, mine, but it hasn’t for five nights now.  I couldn’t tell you if I had to what make of car it is.

I could guess though.

Maybe tonight, if, when it passes by, I’ll go to the front door and pull back the dusty curtain that never gets pulled back except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and see for myself what make of car it is.  See if I recognize it.  But all I did last night, and the four nights before, was stand at my kitchen counter, fingertips black with old news, jaws chunky peanut-buttered shut (for I am a creature of habit), stare unseeing at the piled-up sink, and trace in my head every long gone step on the map, to the homes of the stars.

 

Even when all we had were bicycles, Kevin and I spent most of our time together riding around town.  We rode from convenience store to convenience store, Slim Jims in our pockets and folded comic books stuffed into the waistbands of our jeans.  We never rode side by side or in single file, but in loopy serpentine patterns, roughly parallel that weaved among trees and parked cars and water sprinklers.  We had earnest and serious conversations that lasted for hours and were entirely shouted from bike to bike, never less than ten feet.  Our paths intersected with hair-raising frequency, but we never ran into each other.  At suppertime, we never actually said good-bye, but veered off in different directions, continuing to holler at each other, one more joke that had to told, one more snappy comeback to make, until the other voice faded into the distance, and we realized we were riding alone, and talking to ourselves.  I remember nothing of what we said to each other all those long afternoons, but I remember the rush of wind past my ears, and the shirttail of my red jersey snapping behind me like a hound, and the slab of sidewalk that a big tree root thrust up beneath me the last block before home, so that I could steer around it at the last second and feel terribly skillful, or using it as a launching ramp and stand up on the pedals and hang there, suspended, invincible, until the pavement caught up with my tires again.

Then we were sixteen and got our licenses.  Kevin’s bicycle went into the corner of his room, festooned with clothes that weren’t quite ready to wash yet; mine was hung on nails inside the garage, in a place of honor beside my older sister’s red wagon and my late Great-Grandfather Dominic’s homemade bamboo fishing poles.  Kevin had been studying Consumer Reports and Car & Driver  and prowling dealerships for months and, with his father’s help, he bought a used ‘78 Firebird, bright red exterior, black leather upholstery, cassette stereo, and a host of tire and engine features that Kevin could rattle off like an auctioneer but that I could never quite remember afterward. Being a fan of old gangster movies,  Kevin called it his “getaway car.”  Kevin and his dad got a great deal, because the get away car had a dent in the side and its headlights were slightly cock-eyed.  “Makes it unique,” Kevin said.  “We’ll get those fixed right up,” his dad said, and, of course, they never did.  I inherited the car my father had driven on his route for years, a beige Volkswagen Beetle that was missing its front passenger seat.  My father had removed it so that he’d have an open place to put his deliveries.  Now, like so many of my family’s theoretical belongings, the seat was “out there in the garage,” a phrase to which my father would invariably add, “somewhere.”

We always took Kevin’s car; Kevin always drove.

We went to a lot of movies and sometimes went on real trips, following the church van to Fargo or to Valleyfair and enjoying a freedom of movement unique in the Lutheran Hi-League.  But mostly we rode around town, looking–and only looking–at girls.  We found out where they lived, and drove past their houses everyday, hoping they might be outside, hoping to get a glimpse of them, but paying tribute in any case to all they added to what we fancied as our dried-up and wasted and miserable lives.

“We need music,” Kevin said.  “Take the wheel will you, Phil?”

I reached across and steered while he turned and rummaged among the tapes in the backseat.  I knew it was the closest I would ever get to driving Kevin’s car.

“In Hollywood,: I said, “people on street corners sell maps to the stars’ homes.  Tourists buy the maps and drive around, hoping to see Clint Eastwood mowing his lawn, or something.”  I had never been to Hollywood, but I had learned about theses maps the night before on PM Magazine.

“What do you want?  You want Stones?  You want Beatles?  You want Aerosmith?  What?”

“Mostly they see high walls,” I said, “and locked gates.”  I was proud to have detected this irony alone.

“We should go there,” Kevin said.  “Just take off driving one day and go.”

“Intersection coming up.”

“Red light?”

“Green.”

Kevin continued to rummage.  “Our map,” he said, “exists only in our heads.”

“That’s where the girls exist, too.”

“Oh, no,” Kevin said, turning back around and taking the wheel just in time to drive through the intersection.  “They’re out there.  Maybe not in this dinky-ass town, but somewhere.  They’re real.  We’ll just never know them.  That’s all.”

I had nothing to add to that, but I fully agreed with him.  I had concluded, way back at thirteen, that I was doomed to a monastic life, and I rather wished that I were a Catholic so that could take full advantage of it.  Monastic Lutherans had nowhere to go; they just got gray and pudgy, and lived with their mothers.  Kevin pushed a tape into the deck; it snapped shut like a trap, and the speakers began to throb.

 

Lisa lived in a huge Tudor house of gray stone across the street from the fifteenth fairway.  To our knowledge, she did not play golf, but she was a runner, and on a fortunate evening we could meet up with her three or four times on the slow easy curves of Country Club Drive.  She had a long stride and a steady rhythm and never looked winded, though she did maintain a look of thoughtful concentration and always seemed focused on the patch of asphalt just a few feet ahead, as if it were pacing her.  At intersections, she jogged in place, looking around at the world in surprise, and was likely to smile and throw up a hand if we made so bold as to wave.

Kevin especially admired Lisa because she took such good care of her car, a plum-colored late-model Corvette that she washed and waxed in her driveway evry Saturday afternoon, beginning about one o’clock.  For hours, she catered to her car’s needs, stroking and rubbing it with hand towels and soft brushes, soaping then rinsing, so that successive gentle tides foamed down the hood.  Eventually, Lisa seemed to be lying face to face with herself across the gleaming purple hood, her palm pressed to the other Lisa’s palm, hands moving together in lazy circles like the halfhearted sparring of lovers in August.

Crystal’s house was low and brick, with a patio that stretched its whole length.  From March through October, for hours each day, Crystal lay on this patio, working on her tan–”laying out,” she would have called it.  She must have tanned successive interior layers of her skin, because even in winter she was dusky Amazonian bronze, a hue that matched her auburn hair, but made her white teeth a constant surprise.  Frequent debates as we passed Crystal’s house: Which bikini was best, the white or the yellow?  Which position was best, face up or face down?  What about the bottles and jars that crowded the dainty wrought-iron table at her elbow?  Did those hold mere store-bought lotions, or were they brimful of Crystal’s private skin-care recipes, gathered from donors willing and unwilling by the dark of the moon?  Kevin swore that once, when we drove past, he clearly saw amid the Coppertone jumble a half stick of butter and a bottle of Wesson oil.

Gabrielle lived out on the edge of town, technically within the town limits but really in the country, in a big old crossroads farmhouse with a deep porch mostly hidden by morning glories and ivy.  She lived with her grandparents, who couldn’t get around so well anymore, and so it was usually Gabrielle who climbed the tall ladder and raked out the gutters, cleared the maple tree limbs off the roof of the porch, scraped the shutters, and then painted them.  She had long black hair that stretched nearly to the ragged hem of her denim shorts.  She didn’t tie her hair back when she worked, no matter how hot the day, and she was tall even without the ladder.

Dianne lived in a three-story house with cardboard in two windows and with thickets of metal roosters and lightning rods up top.  At school, she wore ancient black ankle-length dresses in all weathers, walked with her head down, and spoke to no one, not even when called upon in class, so that the teachers finally gave up.  Her hair was an impenetrable mop that covered her face almost entirely.  But she always smiled a tiny secret smile, and her chin beneath was sharp and delicate, and when she scampered down the hall, hugging the lockers, her skirts whispered generations of old chants and endearments.  Dianne never came outside at all.

 

Sherlyn’s house was the first house on the tour.  Only two blocks from Kevin’s, it sat on the brink of a small and suspect pond, one that was only about fifty feet across at its widest.  No visible stream fed this pond or emptied it, and birds, swimmers, and fish all shunned it.  The pond was a failure as a pond, but a marginal success as an investment, an “extra” that made a half-dozen nondescript brick ranch houses cost a bit more than their landlocked neighbors.  Sherlyn’s house was distinguished by a big swing set that sat in the middle of a treeless yard.  It was a swaybacked metal A-frame scavenged from the elementary school.  In all weathers, day or night, since her family moved to town when she was six, Sherlyn could be found out there swinging.  The older she got, the higher she swung, the more reckless and joyful her sparkle and grin.  When she was sixteen, tanned legs pumping in the afternoon sun, she regularly swung so high that the chains went slack for a half second at the top of the arc before she dropped.

“Zero gee,” Kevin said as we drove slowly past.  Kevin aand I didn’t swing anymore; it made us nauseated.

Once a year, Sherlyn actually came out  to the car to say hi.  Each Christmas, the people who lived on the pond, flush with their investment, expressed their communal pride with a brilliant lighting display.  For weeks, everyone on town drove slowly, dutifully, and repeatedly around the pond and over its single bridge to see the thousands of white firefly lights that the people of the pond draped along roofs, bushes, [porches, and railings, and stretched across wire frames to approximate reindeer, Grinches, and magi.  The reflection on the water was striking, undisturbed as it was by current or life.  For hours each night, a single line of cars crept bumper-to-bumper across the bridge, past Santa-clad residents who handed out candy canes and filled a wicker basket with donations for the needy and for the electric company.  Painted on a weather-beaten sandwich board at the foot of the bridge was a bright red cursive missal: “Thank you/ Merry Christmas/Speed Limit 25.”

At least once a night, Kevin and I drove through this display, hoping to catch Sherlyn on Santa duty.  At least once a year, we got lucky.

“Hey there, little boys, want some candy?”  She dropped a shimmering fistful into Kevin’s lap. “No, listen, take them.  Dad said when I gave them all out I could come inside.  I’m freezing my ass off out here.  Oh, hi, Phil.  So, where you guys headed?”

“No place,” we said together.

She walked alongside Kevin’s Firebird, tugging down her beard to scratch her cheek.  “Damn thing must be made of fiberglass.  Hey, check out the Cobb’s house.  Doesn’t that second reindeer look like he’s humping Rudolph?  I don’t know what they were thinking.  No?  Well, it’s clear as day from my room.  Maybe I’ve just looked at it too long.  When is Christmas, anyway.  You guys don’t know what it’s like, all these doggone lights, you can see them with your eyes closed.  I’ve been sleeping over at Melissa’s where it’s dark.  Well, I reckon if I go past the end of the bridge, the trolls will get me.  Yeah, right, big laugh there.  See you later.”  then ducking her head in again:  “You too, Phil>’

With the smoothness of practice, Kevin and I snicked our mirrors into place (his the driver’s side, mine the overhead) so we could watch Sherlyn’s freezing ass walk away.  Her Santa pants were baggy and sexless, but we watched until the four-wheel drive behind us honked and flashed its deer lights.  By the time we drove down to the traffic circle and made the loop and got back in line again,  Sherlyn’s place had been taken by her neighbor, Mr. Clark.

“Merry Christmas, Kevin, Phil,” he said.  “Your names came up at choir practice the other day.  We’d love to have you young fellas join us in the hand bells.  It’s fun, you don’t have to sing, and it’s a real ministry, too.”  He apologized for having run out of candy canes, and instead gave us three-by-four comics about Hell.

 

Kari’s house always made us feel especially sophisticated, especially daring.

“Can you imagine?” Kevin asked.  “Can you imagine, just for a moment, what our parents would do?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “No, I can’t imagine.”

“I think you should try.  I think we both should try to envision this.  That way we’ll be prepared for anything in life, anything at all.”

I cranked down the window until it balked.  “I don’t even want to think about it,” I said.  I pressed the pane outward until it was back on track, then I lowered it the rest of the way.

“Oh, but you’ve been thinking about it haven’t you?  You’re the one who found out where she lived.  You’re the one that kept wanting to drive past her house.”

“It’s the quickest route between Laura’s and Nancy’s, that’s all,” I said.  “But if it’s such a terrible hardship, then you can go around the world instead, for all I care.  You’re the driver; I’m just sitting here.”

He fidgeted, legs wide, left hand drumming the windowsill, fingertips of his right hand barely nudging the steering wheel.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I think she’s a babe.  But this neighborhood, I don’t know.  It makes me nervous.  I feel like everybody we pass is looking at us.”

“Do what you like.  I’m just sitting here,” I said.  I craned to see Kari’s house as we drove around the corner.

Kari lived in what our parents and our friends and every other person we knew, when they were feeling especially liberal, broad-minded, and genteel, called the poorer part of town.  Kari’s yard was something else all right: bright yellows, reds, oranges, and purples, bursting from a dozen flowerbeds.  Every so often, when she wasn’t at cheerleading practice, Kari knelt in the garden, a huge beribboned hat–her grandmother’s maybe–shading her striking angular face.  Her shoulders tightened, loosened, tightened again as she pressed something into place.  Without moving her hands, she looked up at us as we passed.  She smiled widely, and her lips mouthed the word “Hey.”

Once we were around the corner, Kevin gunned the engine.

“Uh-uh, no sir, hang it up,” Kevin said.  “Not in my family, not in this town.  Thousands of miles away, maybe.  That might work.  Oh, but they’d want photos,  wouldn’t they?  Darn.  The other week, all my aunts were sitting around the kitchen table, complaining about their daughters-in-law.  My son’s wife is snotty, my son’s wife is lazy, they aren’t good mothers, they aren’t treating our boys right, and so on and so on.  Just giving ‘em down the country, you know?”

“Uh-huh.  I hear you.”

“And I finally spoke up and said, ‘Well, I know I’m never going to introduce you all to any wife of mine, ‘cause you all sure won’t like her, either.’ ”

“What’d they say to that?”

“They all laughed, and Aunt Virginia said, ‘Kevin, don’t you worry, ‘cause you’re the only boy in the family that’s got any sense.  We know we’d like any girl you’d pick out.’  and then Aunt Bev added, ‘Long as she isn’t any of those from yonder on the poorer side!’  And they all nodded–I mean they were serious!”

After a long pause, he added, half to himself, “It’s not as if I’m bringing anybody home, anyway.”

“You bring me home with you sometimes,” I said.

“Yeah, and they don’t like you either,” he said, and immediately cut me a wide-eyed look of mock horror that made me laugh out loud.  “I’m kidding.  You know they like you.”

“Families always like me,” I said.  “Mamas especially.  It’s the daughters themselves that aren’t real interested.  And a mama’s approval is the kiss of death.  At this moment, I bet you, mamas all over town are saying, ‘What about that nice boy, Phil?  He’s so respectful, he goes to church, he makes such good grades,’ and don’t you know those girls so hot they can’t stand it.”

Kevin laughed and laughed.

“Oh, Phil!” I gasped.  “Oh, Phil, your SAT score is so–so big!”

“Maybe you should forget the girls and date the mamas,” Kevin said.  “You know, eliminate the middleman.  Go right to the source.”

“Eewww, that’s crude.”  I clawed at the door as if trying to get out.  “Help!  Help!  I’m in the clutches of a crude man!”

“Suppose Nancy’s home from Florida yet?”

“I dunno.  Let’s go see.”

“Now, you aren’t starting to boss me around, are you?”

“I’m just sitting here.”

He poked me repeatedly with his finger,  making  me  giggle and twist around on the seat.  “ ‘Cause I’ll just put you out by the side of the road, you start bossing me.”

“I’m not!” I gasped.  “Quit!  Uncle!  Uncle!  I’m not!”

“Well, all right, then.”

 

On September 17, 1981, we turned the corner at the library and headed toward the high school, past the tennis courts.  The setting sun made everything golden.  Over the engine, we heard doubled and redoubled the muted grunts and soft swats and scuffs of impact; ball on racket, shoe on clay.  The various players on the adjoining courts moved with such choreography that I felt a pang to join them.

“Is tennis anything like badminton?” I asked.  “I used to be okay at badminton.  My father and I would play it over the back fence, and the dogs would go wild.”

“It’s more expensive,” Kevin said.  “Look, there she is.  Right on time.”

Denise, her back to us, was up ahead, walking slowly toward the parking lot on the sidewalk nearest me.  Her racket was on one shoulder, a towel around her neck.  Her skirt swayed as if she were walking much faster.

As we passed, I heard a strange sound: a single Road Runner beep.  In the side mirror, tiny retreating Denise raised her free hand and waved.  I turned to stare at Kevin, who looked straight ahead.

“The horn?” I asked.  “You honked the horn?”

“Well, you waved,” he said.  “I saw you.”

I yanked my arm inside.  The windblown hairs on my forearm tingled.  “I wasn’t waving.  I was holding my hand up to feel the breeze.”

“She waved at you.”

“W ell, I didn’t wave at her,” I said.  “She waved because you  honked.”

“Okay,” he said, turning into the parking lot.  “She waved at both of us, then.”

“She waved at you.  I don’t care, it doesn’t matter.  But she definitely waved at you.”

“Are we fighting?” he asked.  He re-entered the street, turned back the way we had come.  Denise was near, walking toward us.

“Of course we’re not fighting.  Are you going to honk at her again?”

“Are you going to wave at her again?”

Denise looked behind her for traffic, stepped off the sidewalk, and darted across the street, into our lane, racket lifted like an Olympic torch.

“Look out!”

“What the hell!”

Kevin hit the brakes.  The passenger seat slid forward on its track, and my knees slammed into the dash.  Dozens of cassettes on the backseat cascaded onto the floor.  Only a foot or two in front of the stopped car stood Denise, arms folded, one hip thrust out.  She regarded us without expression, blew a large pink bubble that reached her nose and then collapsed into her mouth.

“Hi, guys,” she said.

Kevin opened his door and stood, on foot on the pavement.  “For crying out loud, Denise, are you okay?  We could’ve killed you!”

“I was trying to flag you down,” she said.

“What?  Why?” Kevin asked.  “Was there something wrong with the car?”  I saw him swivel, and I knew that, out of sight, he was glancing toward the tires, the hood, the tailpipe.

“Nothing’s wrong with the car, Kevin,” she said, chewing with half her mouth, arms still folded.  “It’s a really neat car.  Whenever I see it, I think, ‘Golly, Kevin must take mighty good care of that car.’  I get a lot of chances to think about that, Kevin, ‘cause every day you guys drive by my house at least twice, and whenever I leave tennis practice, you drive past me, and turn around in the lot, and drive past me again, and every time you do that, I think, ‘He takes mighty good care of that goldarn car just to drive past me all the time.’ “

Someone behind us honked and pulled around.  A pickup truck driver, who threw us the bird.

“Do you ever stop?  No.  say hi at school?  Either of you?  No.  Call me?  Shit.”  she shifted her weight to the other hip, unfolded her arms, whipped the towel from around her neck, and swatted at the hood with it.  “So all I want to know is, just what’s the deal?  Kevin?  Phil?  I see you in there.  Phil, you can’t hide.  What’s up, Phil?  You tell me.  Your chauffeur’s catching flies out here.”

Looking up at Denise, even though I half expected at any moment to be arrested for perversion or struck from behind by a truck or beaten to death with a tennis racket, purple waffle patterns scaring my corpse,  I realized that I had never felt such exhilaration, not even that night on Zumbro Hill, when Kevin passed a hundred and twenty.  My knees didn’t hurt anymore.  The moment I realized this, naturally, the feeling of exhilaration began to ebb, and so before I lost my resolve, I slowly stuck my head out the window, smiled what I hoped was a smile, and called out, “Can we give you a lift, Denise?”

A station wagon swung past us with a honk.  Denise looked at me, at Kevin, at me again.  She plucked her gum from her mouth, tossed it, looked down at the pavement, and then up and then down again, much younger and almost shy.  In a small voice, she said, “Yeah.”  She cleared throat.  “yeah.  Yes.  That’s . . . nice of you.  Thank you.”

I let her have my seat, of course.  I got in the back, atop a shifting pile of cassettes and books and plastic boxes of lug nuts, but right behind her, close enough to smell her: not sweat, exactly, but salt and earth, like the beach before the tide comes in.

“Where to?” Kevin asked.

“California,” she said, and laughed, hands across her face.  “Golly, Denise,” she asked, “where did that come from?  Oh, I don’t know.  Where y’all going?  I mean, whatever.  Let’s just go, okay?  Let’s just . . . go.”

 

We talked:  School.  Movies.  Bands.  Homework.  Everything.  Nothing.  What else?  Drove around.  For hours.

Her ponytail was short but full, a single blonde twist that she gathered up in one hand and lifted as she tilted her head forward.  I thought she was looking at something on the floor, and I wondered for a second whether I had tracked something in.

“Phil?” she asked, head still forward.  No one outside my family had made my name a question before.  “Would you be a sweetie and rub my neck?”

 The hum of tires, the zing of crickets, the shrill steam of air flowing through the crack that the passenger window never quite closed.

“Ma’am?”

“My neck.  It’s all stove up and tight from tennis.  Would you rub the kinks out for me?”

“Sure,” I said, too loudly and too quickly.  My hands moved as slowly as in a nightmare.  Twice I thought I had them nearly to her neck when I realized I was merely rehearsing the action in my head, so I had to do it all over again.  Kevin shifted gears, slowed into a turn, sped up, shifted gears again, and still I hadn’t touched her.  My forearms were lifted; my hands were outstretched, palms down; my fingers were trembling.  I must have looked like a mesmerist.  You are sleepy, very sleepy.  Which movie was it where the person in the front seat knew nothing about the clutching hands in the back?  I could picture the driver’s face as the hands crept closer: Christopher Lee, maybe?  No: Donald Pleasence?

“Phil,” she said.  “Are you still awake back there?”

The car went into another turn, and I heard a soft murmur of complaint from the tires.  Kevin was speeding up.

My fingertips brushed the back of her neck.  I yanked them back, then moved forward again.  This time I held them there, barely touching.  Her neck was so smooth, so hot, slightly-damp?  And what’s this?  Little hairs!  Hairs as soft as a baby’s head!  No one ever told me there would be hairs . . .

“You’ll have to rub harder than that, Phil.”  still holding her hair aloft with her right hand, she reached up with her left and pressed my fingers into her neck.  “Like that.  Right–there.  And there.  Feel how tight it is?”  she rotated her hand over mine, and trapped between her damp palm and her searing neck I did feel something both supple and taut.  “Oooh, yeah, like that.”  she pulled her hand away, and I kept up the motions.  “Oh, that feels good . . .”

The sun was truly down by now, and lighted houses scudded past.  Those distinctive dormer windows–wasn’t that Lisa’s house?  And, in the next block, wasn’t that Kim’s driveway?

We were following the route.  We were passing all the homes of the stars.

Kevin said nothing, but drove faster and faster.  I kept rubbing, pressing, kneading, not having the faintest idea of what I was doing but following the lead of Denise’s sighs and murmurs.  “Yeah, my shoulder there . . . oh, this is wonderful.  You’ll have to stop this in about three hours, you know?”

After about five minutes or ten or twenty, without looking up, she raised her left index finger and stabbed the dashboard.  A tape came on.  I don’t remember which tape it was.  I do remember that it played through both sides and started over.

Kevin was speeding.  Each screeching turn threw us off balance.  Where were the cops?  Where was all the other traffic?  We passed Jane’s house.  Tina’s house.  Streetlights strobed the car like an electric storm.  We passed Cynthia’s house–hadn’t we already?  Beneath my hands, Denise’s shoulders braced and rolled and braced again.  I held on.  My arms ached.  Past the corner of my eye flashed a stop sign.  My fingers kept working.  Kevin wrenched up the volume on the stereo.  The bass line throbbed into my neck and shoulder blades, as if the car were reciprocating.

Gravel crunched beneath us.  “Darn,” Kevin muttered, and yanked the wheel, fighting to stay on the road.  Denise snapped her head up, looked at him.  I saw her profile against the radio dial.

“I want to drive,” she said.

Kevin put on the brakes, too swiftly.  Atop a surging flood of gravel, the car jolted and shuddred to a standstill off the side of the road.  The doors flew open, and both Kevin and Denise leaped out.   My exhilaration long gone, my arms aching, I felt trapped, suffocating.  I snatched up the seat latch, levered forward the passenger seat, and stepped humpbacked and out of balance into the surprisingly cool night air.  Over there was the Episcopal church, over there the Amoco station.  We were only a few blocks from my house.  My right hand stung;  I had torn a nail on the seat latch.  I slung it back and forth as Kevin stepped around the car.  Denise was already in the driver’s seat.

“You want to sit in front?”  Kevin sounded hoarse.

“No,” I said.  “No, thanks.  Listen, I think I’ll, uh, I think I’ll just call it a night.  I’m nearly home anyway.  I can, uh, walk from here.”  I called out to Denise, leaning down and looking in: “I can walk from here.”  her face was unreadable, but her eyes gleamed.

“Huh?” Kevin said.  It was like a grunt.  He cleared his throat.  “What do you mean walk?  it’s early yet.”

The car was still running.  The exhaust blew over me in a cloud, made me dizzy.  “No, really, you guys go on.  I’m serious.  I’ll be fine.  Go on, really.  I’ll see you later on.”

“We could drop you off,” Kevin said.  He spoke politely but awkwardly, as if we had never met.  “Let’s do that.  We’ll drop you off in your yard.”

Denise revved the motor.  It was too dark to see Kevin’s expression as he looked at her.  Her fingers moved across the lighted instrument panel, pulled out the switch that started the emergency flashers, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, pushed it back again.  “Cool,” she said.

“I’ll see you later,” I said.  “Okay?  See you, Denise.  Call me tomorrow,” I said to Kevin.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said, not looking back.  I waved a cavalier wave, and stuck my hands in my pockets, trying to look nonchalant as I stumbled along the crumbling asphalt shoulder in the dark.

Behind me, two doors slammed.  I heard the car lurching back onto the highway, gravel spewing, and I heard it making a u-turn, away from town and toward the west, toward the lake, toward the woods.  As the engine gunned, my shoulders twitched and I ducked my head, because I expected the screech of gears, but all I heard was steady and swift acceleration, first into second, then into third, as the Firebird sped away, into fourth, and then it was just me, walking.

 

They never came back.

Kevin’s parents got a couple letters, a few postcards.  California.  They shared them with Denise’s parents, but no one else.  “Kevin wants everyone to know that they’re doing fine,” that’s all his mom and dad would say.  But they didn’t look reassured.  Miss Audrey down at the paper, who always professed to know a lot more than she wrote in her column,  told my father that she hadn’t seen the mail herself, mind you, but she had heard from people who should know that the letters were strange, rambling things, not one bit like Kevin, and the cards had postmarks that were simply, somehow, wrong.  But who could predict, Miss Audrey, when postcards might arrive, or in what order.  Why, sometimes they sit in the post office for years, and sometimes they never show up at all.  Criminal, Miss Audrey mourned, just criminal.

Denise’s parents got no mail at all.

I never did, either, except maybe one thing.  I don’t know that you could call it mail.  no stamps, no postmark, no handwriting.  It wasn’t even in the mailbox.  But it felt like mail to me.

It was lying on my front porch one morning–this was years later, not long after I got my own place, thought I was settled.  At first I thought it was the paper, but no, as usual the paper was spiked down deep in the hedge.  This was lying face up and foursquare on the welcome mat.  It was one of those Hollywood maps, showing where the homes of the stars can be found.

I spread it across the kitchen table and anchored it with the sugar bowl and a couple of iron-shaped trivets, because it was stiff and new and didn’t want to lay flat.  you know how maps are.  It was bright white paper, and mighty thick, too.  I didn’t know they made maps so thick anymore.  I ran my finger over sharp paper ridges and down straight paper canyons and looked for anyone I knew.  No, Clint Eastwood wasn’t there.  Nor was anyone else whose movies I had seen at the mall.  A lot of the names I just didn’t recognize, but some I knew from cable, from the nostalgia channels.

I was pretty sure most of them were dead.

I searched the index for Kevin’s name, for Denise’s.  I didn’t see them.  I felt relieved sort of.

“California,” I said aloud.  Once it had been four jaunty syllables, up and down and up and down, a kid on a bicycle, going no place.  California.  Now  it was a series of low urgent blasts, someone leaning on the horn, saying, come on.  Saying, hurry up.  Saying you’re not too late.  Not yet.  Not yet.

California.

 

It’s nearly eleven.  I stand in the cool rush of the refrigerator door, forgetting what I came for, and straining to hear.  The train is passing a bit late, over behind the campus.  My windows are open, so the air conditioning is pouring out into the yard and fat bugs are  smacking themselves against the screen, but this way I can hear everything clearly.  The rattle as my neighbor hauls down his garage door, secures everything for the night.  On the other side, another neighbor trundles a trash can out to the curb, then plods back.  I am standing at the kitchen counter now.  Behind me, the refrigerator door is swinging shut, or close enough.  I hear a car coming.

The same car.

I move to the living room, to the front door.  I part the curtain.  The car is coming closer, but even more slowly than before.  Nearly stopping.  It must be in first gear by now.  There was always that slight rattle, just within the threshold of hearing, when you put it in first gear.  Yes.  And the slightly cock-eyed headlights, yes, and the dent in the side.  I can’t clearly see the interior, even under the streetlight, but it looks like two people in the front.

Two people?  Or just one?

And then it’s the other side of the neighbor’s hedge, and gone, but I can still hear the engine, and I know that it’s going to turn, and come back.

My hand is on the doorknob.  The map is in my pocket.  The night air is surprisingly cool.  I flip on the porch light as I step out, and I stand illuminated in a cloud of tiny beating wings, waiting for them to come back, come back and see me standing here, waiting, waiting, oh, how long I’ve been waiting.  I want to walk out there and stand in front of the car and make it stop, really I do, but I can’t, I can’t move, I’m trapped here, trapped in this place, trapped in this time, don’t drive past again, I’m here, I’m ready, I wasn’t then but now I am, really I am, please.  Please stop.  Present or past, alive or dead, what does it matter, what did it ever matter?  Please.  Stop.

Please.

  

 

ADVENTURE OF THE GHOSTLY LIBRARY

A story written in the ilk of

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

When I opened the door of our lodgings one summer day during the third year of our joint residency of No. 8C Chilworth Street, I found my friend Andrew Nataro standing with one arm on the mantel, waiting with a thin edge of impatience upon either my arrival or that of someone else, and ready to go out, for his hat lay close by.

“You’re just in time, Adams,” he said, “–and if the inclination moves you–to join me in another of my little inquiries.  This time, evidently, into the supernatural.”

“The supernatural!” I exclaimed, depositing my bag.

“So it would seem.”  He pointed to a letter thrown carelessly upon the table.

I picked it up and was immediately aware of the fine quality of the paper and the embossed name:   Mrs.Pamela Glass.  Her communication was brief.

            Dear Mr. Nataro:

           I should be extremely obliged if you could see your way to call upon me

          sometime latertoday or tomorrow, at your convenience,  to investigate

         a troublesome matter which hardly seems to be within the jurisdiction of

        the Metropolitan Police.  I do believe the library is haunted.  Mr. Eylandt

         says it is not, but I can hardly doubt the evidence of my own senses.

Her signature was followed by a Sydehham address.

“I’ve sent for a cab,” said Nataro

“Who is Mr. Eylandt?” I asked.

“A self-styled psychic investigator.  He lives in Chelsea and has had some considerable success, I am told.”

“A charlatan!”

“If he were, he would hardly have turned down our client.  What do you make of it, Adams? You know my methods.”

I studied the letter which I still held, while Nataro waited to hear how much I had learned from his spontaneous and frequent lectures in ratiocination.  “If the quality of the paper is any indication, the lady is not without means,” I said.

“Correct!”

“Unless she is an heiress, she is probably of middle age or over.”

“Go on,” urged —–, smiling.

“She is upset because, though she begins well, she rapidly becomes very unclear.”

“And provocative,” said Nataro.   “Who could resist a ghost in a library, eh?”

“But what do you make of it?” I pressed him.

“Well, much the same as you,” he said generously.  “But I rather think the lady is not a young heiress.  She would hardly be living in Sydenham if she were.  No, I think we shall find that she recently acquired a house there and has not been in residence very long.  Something is wrong with the library.”

“Nataro, you don’t seriously think it’s haunted?”

“Do you believe in ghosts, Adams?”

“Certainly not!”

“Do I detect the slightest hesitation in your answer?” he chuckled.  “Ought we not to say, rather, we believe there are certain phenomena which science as yet has not correctly explained or interpreted?”  He raised his head suddenly, listening.  “I believe that is our cab drawing to the curb.”

A moment later the sound of a horn from below verified Nataro’s deduction.

Nataro clapped his hat on his head and we were off.

Our clients house was built of brick, two and a half stories in height, with dormers on the gable floor.  It was large and spreading and build on a knoll, partly into the slope of the earth, thought it seemed at first glance to crown the rise there.  It was plainly of the late Victorian construction, and while it was not shabby, it just escaped looking genteel.  Adjacent houses were not quite far enough away from it to give the lawn and garden the kind of spaciousness required to set the house off to its best advantage in a neighborhood which was slowly declining from its former status.

Our client received us in the library.  Mrs. Glass was a slender diminutive woman with flashing blue eyes and whitening hair.  She wore an air of fixed determination which her smile at sight of Nataro did not diminish.

“Mr. Nataro, I was confident you would come,” she greeted us.

She acknowledged Natro’s introduction of me courteously and went on.  “This is the haunted room.”

“Let us just hear your account of what has happened from the beginning, Mrs. Glass,” suggested Nataro.

“Very well.”  She sat for a silently, trying to decide where to begin her narrative.  “I suppose, Mr. Nataro, it began about a month ago.  Mrs. Hanson, a housekeeper I had hired was cleaning late in the library when she heard someone singing.  It seemed to come, she said, ‘from the books.’  Something about a ‘dead man.’  It faded away.  Two nights later she woke after a dream and went downstairs to get a sedative from the medicine cabinet.  She heard something in the library.  She thought perhaps I was indisposed and went to the library.  But the library, of course, was dark.  However, there was a shaft of moonlight in the room–it was bright outside, and therefore a ring of illumination was in the library, too–and in that shaft, Mr. Nataro, Mrs. Hanson believed she saw the bearded face of an old man that seemed to glare fiercely at her.  It was only for a moment.  Then Mrs. Hanson found the switch and turned on the light.  Of course, there was no one in the library but herself.  It was enough for her; she was so sure that she had seen a ghost that next morning, after all the windows and doors were found locked and bolted, she gave notice.  I was not entirely sorry to see them go–her husband worked as a caretaker of the grounds–because I suspected Hanson of taking food from the cellars and refrigerator for their married daughter.  That is not an uncommon problem with servants in England, I am told.”

“I should have thought you a native, Mrs. Glass,” said Nataro.  You’ve been away?”

“Kenya, yes.  But I was born here.  It was for reasons of sentiment that I took this house.  I should have taken a better location.  But I was little more than a street waif in Sydenham, as a child, and somehow the houses here represented the epitome of splendor.  When the agent notified me that this one was to be let, I couldn’t resist taking it.  But the tables turned–the houses have come down in the world and I have come up, and there are so many things I miss–the hawkers and the carts, for which cars are no substitute, the rumble of the underground since the Nunhead-Crystal Place Line has been discontinued, and all and all I fear my sentiments have led me to make an ill-advised choice.  The ghost, of course, is only the crowning touch.”

“You believe in him, then, Mrs. Glass?”

“I’ve seen him, Mr. Nataro.”  She spoke as matter-of-factly as if she were speaking of some casual natural phenomenon.  “It was a week ago.  I wasn’t entirely satisfied that Mrs. Hanson had not seen something.  It could have been an hallucination.  If she had started awake from a dream and fancied she saw something in their room, why, yes, I could easily have believed it a transitory hallucination, which might occur commonly enough after a dream.  But Mrs. Hanson had been awake enough to walk downstairs, take a sedative, and start back up when she heard something in the library.  So the dream had had time enough in which to wear off.  I am myself not easily frightened.  My late husband and I lived in border country in Kenya, and some of the Kikuyu are unfriendly.

“Mr. Nataro, I examined the library carefully.  As you can see, shelving covers most of the walls.  I had very few personal books to add–the rest were here.  I bought the house fully furnished, as the former owner had died and there were no near heirs.  That is, there was a brother, I understand, but he was out of the country and had no intention of returning to London.  He put the house up for sale, and my agents, Messrs. Bossard and Sonnenfeld, in Lordship Lane, secured it for me.  The books are therefore the property of the former owner, a Captain Byrd, who appears to have been very widely read, for there are collections ranging from early British poetry to crime and detective fiction.  But that is hardly pertinent.  My own books occupy scarcely two shelves over there–all but a few are jacketed, as you see, Mr. Nataro.  Well, my examination of the library indicated that the position of these books as I had placed them were altered.  It seemed to me that they had been handled, perhaps even read.  They are not of any great consequence–recent novels, some by Proust and Mauriac, an account of Kenya, and the like.  It was possible that one of the servants had become interested in them; I did not inquire.  Nevertheless, I became very sensitive and alert about the library.  One night last week–Thursday, I believe–while I lay reading, late, in my room, I distinctly heard a book or some such object fall in this room.

“I got out of bed, took my flashlight, and crept down the stairs in then dark.  Mr. Nataro, I sensed someone’s or something’s moving about below.  I could feel the disturbance of the air at the foot of the stairs where something had passed.  I went directly to the library and from the threshold of that door over there I turned my flashlight into the room and put on its light.  Mr. Nataro, I saw a horrifying thing.  I saw the face of an old man, matted with beard, with wild unkempt hair raying outward from his head; it glared fiercely, menacingly at me.  I admit that I faltered and fell back; the flashlight almost fell from my hands.  Nevertheless, I summoned enough courage to snap on the overhead light.  Mr. Nataro–there was no one in the room beside myself.  I stood in the doorway.  No one had passed me.  Yet, I swear it, I had seen precisely the same apparition that Mrs. Hanson had described!  It was there for one second–in the next it was gone–as if the very books had swallowed it up.

“Mr. Nataro, I am not an imaginative woman, and I am not given to hallucinations.  I saw what I had seen; there was no question of that.  I went around at once to make certain that the windows and doors were locked; all were; nothing had been tampered with.  I had seen something, and everything about it suggested a supernatural apparition.  I spoke to Mr. Bossard.  He told me that Clayton Byrd had never made any reference to anything out of the ordinary about the house.  He had personally known Mr. Byrd’s old uncle, Captain William Byrd, from whom he had inherited the house, and the Captain had never once complained about the house.  He admitted that it did not seem to be a matter for the regular police, and mentioned Mr. Eylandt as well as yourself.  I’m sure you know Mr. Eylandt, whose forte is psychic investigation.  He came–and as nearly as I can describe it, he felt the library and assured me that there were no supernatural forces at work here.  So I applied to you, Mr. Nataro, and I hope you will lay the ghost for me.”

Nataro smiled almost benignly, which lent his handsome feral face a briefly gargoyle-like expression.  “My modest powers, I fear, do not permit me to feel the presence of the supernatural, but I must admit to some interest in your little problem,” he said, thoughtfully.  “Let me ask you, on the occasion on which you saw the apparition–last Thursday–were you aware of anyone’s breathing?”

“No, Mr. Nataro.  I don’t believe ghosts are held to breathe.”

“Ah, Mrs. Glass, in such matters I must defer to your judgment–you appear to have seen a ghost; I have not seen one.”  His eyes danced.  “Let us concentrate for a moment on its disappearance.  Was it accompanied by any sound?”

Our client sat for a long moment in deep thought.  “I believe it was, Mr. Nataro,” she said at last.  “Now that I think of it.”

“Can you describe it?”

“As best I can recall, it was something like the sound a book dropped on the carpet might make.”

“But there was no book on the floor when you turned the light on?”

“I do not remember that there was.”

“Will you show me exactly where the specter stood when you saw it?”

 She got up with alacrity, crossed to her right, and stood next to the shelving there.  She was in a position almost directly across from the entrance to the library from the adjacent room; a light flashed from the threshold would almost certainly strike the shelving there.

“You see, Mr. Nataro–there isn’t even a window in this wall through which someone could have escaped if it were unlocked.”

“Yes, yes,” said Nataro with an absent air.  “Some ghosts vanish without a sound, we are told, and some in a thunderclap.  And this one with the sound of a book dropped upon the carpet!”  he sat for a few moments, eyes closed, his long tapering fingers tented before him, touching his chin occasionally.  Me opened his eyes again and asked, “Has anything in the house–other than your books–been disturbed, Mrs. Glass?”

“If you mean my jewelry or the silver–no, Mr. Nataro.”

“A ghost with a taste for literature!  There are indeed all things under the sun.  the library has, of course, been cleaned since the visitation?”

“Every Saturday, Mr. Nataro.”

“Today is Thursday–a week since your experience.  Has anything taken place since then, Mrs. Glass?”

“Nothing, Mr. Nataro.”

“If you will excuse me,” he said, coming to his feet, “I would like to examine the room.”

Thereupon he began that process of intensive examination which never ceased to amaze and amuse me.  He took the position that our client had just left to return to her chair, and stood, I guessed, fixing directions.  He gazed at the high windows along the south wall; I concluded that he was estimating the angle of a shaft of moonlight and deducing that the ghost, as seen by Mrs. Hanson, had been standing at or near the same place when it was observed.  Having satisfied himself, he gave his attention to the floor, first squatting there, then coming to his knees and crawling about.  Now and then he picked something off the carpet and put it into one of the tiny envelopes he habitually carried.  He crept all along the east wall, went around the north, and circled the room in this fashion, while our client watched him with singular interest, saying nothing and making no attempt to conceal her astonishment.  He finished at last, and got to his feet once more rubbing his hands together.

“Pray tell me, Mrs. Glass, can you supply a length of thread of a kind that is not too tensile, that will break readily?”

“What color, Mr. Nataro?”

“Trust a lady to think of that!” he said, smiling.  “Color is of no object, but if you offer a choice, I would prefer black.”

“I believe so.  Wait here.”

Our client rose and left the library.

“Are you expecting to catch a ghost with thread, Nataro?” I asked.

“Say rather I expect to test a phenomenon.”

“That is one of the simplest devices I have ever known you to use.”

“Is it not?’ he agreed, nodding.  “I submit, however, that the simple is always preferable to the complex.”

Mrs. Glass retuned, holding out a spool of black thread.  “Will this do, Mr. Nataro?”

Nataro took it, unwound a little of thread, and pulled it apart readily.  “Capital!” he answered.  “This is adequately soft.”

He walked swiftly over to the north wall, took a book off the third shelf, which was slightly over two feet from the floor, and tied a string around it.  Then he restored the book to its place, setting it done carefully.  He walked away, unwinding the spool, until he reached the south wall, where he taunted the thread and tied the end around a book there.  He now had an almost invisible thread that reached from north to south across the library at a distance of about six feet from the east wall, and within the line of the windows.

He returned the spool of thread to our client.  “Now, then, can we be assured that no one will enter the library for a day or two?  Perhaps the Saturday cleaning can be dispensed with?”

“Of course it can, Mr. Nataro,” said Mrs. Glass, clearly mystified.

“Very well, Mrs. Glass.  I trust you will notify me at once if the thread is broken–or any other untoward event occurs.  In the meantime, there are a few little inquiries I want to make.”our client bade us farewell with considerably more perplexity than she had displayed in her recital of the curious events which had befallen her.

Once outside, Nataro looked at his watch.  “I fancy we may just have time to catch Mr. Bossard at his office, which is just down Sydenham Hill and so within walking distance.”  He gazed at me, his eyes twinkling.  “Coming, Adams?”

I fell into step at his side and for a few moments we walked in silence.  Nataro striding along with his long arms swinging loosely at his sides, his keen eye darting here and there, as if in perpetual and merciless search of facts with which to substantiate his deductions.

I broke the silence between us.  “Nataro, you surely don’t believe in Mrs. Glass’ ghost?”

“What is a ghost?” he replied.  “Something seen.  Not necessarily supernatural.  Agreed?’

“Agreed,” I said.  ‘It may be a hallucination, illusion, some natural phenomenon misinterpreted.”

“So the question is not about the reality ofm ghosts, but did our client see a ghost or did she not?  She believes she did.  We are willing to believe that she saw something.  Now, it was either a ghost or it was not a ghost.”

“Pure logic.”

“Let us fall back upon it.  Ghost or no ghost, what is its motivation?”

“I thought that plain as anything,” I said dryly.  “The purpose is to frighten Mrs. Glass away from the house.”

“I submit few such matters are plain as anything.  Why?”

“Someone wishes to gain possession of Mrs. Glass’ house.”

“Anyone wishing to do so could surely have bought it from the agents before Mrs. Glass did.  But let us assume that you are correct.  How, then, did he get in?”

“That remains to be determined.”

“Quite right.  And we shall determine it.  But one other little matter perplexes me in relation to your theory.  That is this–if someone were bent upon frightening Mrs. Glass from the house does it not seem to you singular that we have no evidence that he initiated any of those little scenes where he was observed?”

“I should say it was deuced clever of him.”

“It does not seem strange to you that if someone intended to frighten our client from the house, he should permit himself to be seen only by accident?  And that after but the briefest of appearances, he should vanish before the full effectiveness of the apparition could be felt?”

“When you put it that way, of course, it is a little farfetched.”

“I fear we must abandon your theory, Adams, sound as it is in every other respect.”

He stopped suddenly.  “I believe this is the address we want.  Ah, yes–here we are.  Bossard and Sonnenfeld, 223C.”

We mounted the stairs of the ancient but durable building and found ourselves presently in mid-nineteenth-century quarters.  A clerk came forward at our entrance.

“Good day, gentlemen.  Can we be of service?”

“I am interested in seeing Mr. Ladimore Bossard,” said Nataro.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Bossard has just left the office for the rest of the day.  Would you care to make an appointment?”

“No, thank you.  My business is of some considerable urgency and I shall have to follow him home.”

The clerk hesitated momentarily, then said, “I should not think that necessary, sir.  You could find him around the corner at the Bronze Boar.  He likes to spend an hour or so at the pub with an old friend or two before going home.  Look for a short ruddy gentleman with bushy white sideburns.”

Nataro thanked him again, and we made our way back down the stairs and out to the street.  In only a few minutes we were entering the Bronze Boar.  Despite the crowd in the pub, nitro’s quick eyes immediately found the object of our search, sitting at a round table near one wall, in aimless conversation with another gentleman of similar age, close to sixty, wearing, unless I were sadly mistaken, the air of one practicing my own profession.

We made our way to the table.

“Mr. Ladimore Bossard?” asked Nataro.

“That infernal clerk has given me away again!” cried Bossard, but with such a jovial smile that it was clear he did not mind.  “What can I do for you?”

“Sir, you were kind enough to introduce me to Mrs. Pamela Glass.”

“Ah, it’s Andrew Nataro, is it?  I thought you looked familiar.  Sit down, sit down.”

His companion hastily rose and excused himself.

“Pray do not leave, sir,” said Nataro.  “This matter is not of such a nature that you need to disturb your meeting.”

Bossard introduced us all around.  His companion was Dr. Thomas Easton, an old friend he was in the habit of meeting at the Bronze Boar at the end of the day.  We sat between them.

“Now, then,” said Bossard when we had made ourselves comfortable.  “What’ll you have to drink?  Some ale?  Bitters?”

“Nothing at all, if you please,” said Nataro.

“As you like.  You’ve been to see Mrs. Glass and heard her story?”

“We have just come from there.”

“Well, Mr. Nataro, I never knew of anything wrong with the house,” said Bossard.  “We sold land in the country for Captain Byrd when he began selling off his property so that he could live as he was accustomed to living.  He was a bibliophile of a sort–books about the sea were his specialty–and he lived well.  But a recluse in his last years.  He timed his life right–died just about the time his funds ran out.”

“And Clayton Byrd?” asked Nataro.

“Different sort of fellow altogether.  Quiet, too, but you’d find him in the pubs and at the cinema sometimes, watching a stage show.  He gambled a little, but carefully.  I gather he surprised his uncle by turning out well.  He had done a turn in Borstal as a boy.  And I suppose he was just as surprised when his uncle asked him to live with him his last years and left everything to him, including the generous insurance he carried.”

“I wasn’t sure, from what Mrs. Glass said, when Clayton Byrd died.”

Bossard flashed a glance at his companion.  “About seven weeks ago or so, eh?”  To Nataro, he added, “Dr. Easton was called.”

“He had a cerebral thrombosis on the street, Mr. Nataro,” explained Dr. Easton.  “Died in three hours.  Very fast.  Only forty-seven and no previous history.  But then, Captain Byrd died of a heart attack.”

“Ah, you attended the Captain, too?”

“Well, not exactly.  I had attended him for some bronchial ailments.  He took good care of his voice.  He liked to sing.  But when he had his heart attack and died, I was in France on holiday.  I had a young resident in and he was called in.”

“Mrs. Glass’ ghost sang,” said Bossard thoughtfully.  “Something about a ‘dead man.’ “

“I would not be surprised if it were an old sea chantey,” said Nataro.

“You don’t mean you think it might be the Captain’s ghost, Mr. Nataro?”

“Say, rather, we may be meant to think it is,” answered Nataro.  “How old was he when he died?”

“Sixty-eight or sixty-seven–something like that,” said Dr. Easton.

“How long ago?”

“Oh, only two years.”

“His nephew hadn’t lived with him very long, then, before the old man died?”

“No.  only a year or so,” said Bossard.  His sudden grin gave him a Dickensian look.  “But it was long enough to give him at least one of his uncle’s enthusiasms–the sea.  He’d kept up all the Captain’s newspapers and magazines and was still buying books about the sea when he died.  Like his uncle, he read very little else.  I suppose a turn he had done as a seaman  bent him that way.  But they were a seafaring family.  The Captain’s father had been a seaman, too, and Randall–the brother in Rhodesia who inherited the property and sold it through us to Mrs. Glass–had served six years in the India trade.”

Nataro sat for a few minutes in thoughtful silence.  Then he said, “The property has little value.”

Bossard looked suddenly unhappy.  “Mr. Nataro, we tried to disuade Mrs. Glass.  Butn these colonials have sentimental impulses no one can curb.  Home to Mrs. Glass meant not London, not England, but Sydenham.  What could we do?  The house was the best we could obtain for her in Sydenham.  But it’s in a declining neighborhood, and no matter how she refurbishes it, its value is bound to go down.”

Nataro came abruptly to his feet.  “Thank you, Mr. Bossard.  And you, Dr. Easton.”

We bade them good day and went out to find a cab.

 

Back in our quarters Nataro ignored the supper Mrs. Jamison had laid for us and went directly to the corner where he kept his chemical apparatus.  There he emptied his pockets of the envelopes he had filled in Mrs. Glass’ library, tossed his hat to the top of the bookcase nearby, and began to subject his findings to chemical analysis.  I ate supper by myself, knowing that it would be fruitless to urge Nataro to join me.  After supper I had a patient to look in on.  I doubt that Nataro heard me leave the room.

On my return in misdeeming Nataro was just finishing.

“Ah, Adams,” he greeted me, “I see by the sour expression you’re wearing you’ve been out calling on your crotchety Mr. Thompson.”

“While you, I suppose, have been tracking down the identity of Mrs. Glass’ ghost?”

“I have turned up indisputable evidence that her visitor is from the nethermost regions,” he said triumphantly, and laid before me a tiny fragment of cinder.  “Do you suppose we dare conclude that coal is burned in Hell?”

I gazed at him in openmouthed astonishment.  His eyes were dancing merrily.  He was expecting an outburst of protest from me.  I choked it back deliberately; I was becoming familiar indeed with all the little games he played.  I said, “Have you determined his identity and his motive?”

“Oh, there’s not much mystery in that,” he said almost contemptuously.  “It’s the background in which I am interested.”

“Not much mystery in it!” I cried.

“No, no,” he answered testily.  “The trappings may be a trifle bizarre, but don’t let them blind you to the facts, all the essentials which have been laid before us.”

I sat down, determined to expose his trickery.  “Nataro, it is either a ghost or it is not a ghost.”

“I can see no way of disputing that position.”

“Then it is not a ghost.”

“On what grounds do you say so?”

“Because there is no such thing as a ghost.”

“Proof?”

“Proof to the contrary?”

“The premise is yours, not mine.  But let us accept it for the nonce.  Pray go on.”

“Therefore it is a sentient being.”

“Ah, that is certainly being cagy,” he said, smiling provocatively.  “Have you decided what his motive might be?”

“To frighten Mrs. Glass from the house.”

“Why?  We’ve been told it’s not worth much and will decline in value with every year to come.”

“Very well, then.  To get his hands on something valuable concealed in the house.  Mrs. Glass took it furnished–as it was, you’ll remember.”

“I remember it very well.  I am also aware that the house stood empty for some weeks and anyone who wanted to lay hands on something in it would have had far more opportunity to do so then than he would after tenancy was resumed.”

I threw up my hands.  “I give up.”

“Come, come, Adams.  You are looking too deep.  Think on it soberly for a while, and the facts will rearrange themselves so as to make for one, and only one, correct solution.”

So saying, he turned to the telephone and rang up Inspector Huxley at his home to request him to make a discreet application for exhumation of the remains of Captain William Byrd and the examination of those remains by Jordan Peckham.

“Would you mind telling me what all that has to do with our client?”  I asked when he had finished.

“I submit that it is too fine a coincidence to dismiss that a heavily insured old man should conveniently die after he has made a will leaving everything to the nephew he has asked to come live with him,” said Nataro.  “There we have a concrete motive with nothing ephemeral about it.”

“But what’s to be gained by an exhumation now?  If what you have suspected is true, the murderer is already dead, beyond punishment.”

Nataro smiled enigmatically.  “Ah, Adams, I am not so much a seeker after punishment as a seeker after truth.  I want the facts.  I mean to have them.  I shall be spending considerable time tomorrow at the British Museum in search of them.”

“Well, you’ll ghosts of another kind there,” I said dryly.

“Old maps and newspapers abound with them,” he answered agreeably, but said no word in that annoyingly typical fashion of his about what he sought.

I would not ask, only to be told, “Facts.”

 

When I walked into our quarters early in the evening of the following Monday, I found Nataro standing at the windows, his face aglow with eager anticipation.

“I was afraid you might not get here in time to help lay Mrs. Glass’ ghost,” he said, without turning.

“But you weren’t watching for me,” I said, “or you wouldn’t still be standing there.”

“Ah, I am delighted to note such growth in your deductive faculty,” he replied/  “I’m waiting for Huxley and Constable Grey.  We may need their help tonight if we are to trap this elusive apparition.  Mrs. Glass has sent word that the string across the library was broken last night.  –Ah, here they come now.”

He turned.  “you’ve had supper, Adams?”

“I dined at the club.”

“Come then.  The amusement is a’stirring.”

He led the way down the stairs and out into Upbrook Mews, where a police car had just drawn up to the curb.  The door of the car sprang open at our approach and Constable Grey got out.  He was fresh faced young man whose work Nataro had come to regard as very promising, and he greeted us with anticipatory pleasure, stepping aside so we could enter the car.  Inspector Martin Huxley, a bluff square-faced man wearing a clipped moustache, occupied the far corner of the seat.

Inspector Huxley spared no words in formal greeting.  “How in the devil did you get on to Captain Byrd’s poisoning?” he asked gruffly.

“Peckham found poison, then?”

“Arsenic.  A massive dose.  Byrd couldn’t have lived much over twelve hours after taking it.  How did you know?”

“I had only a very strong assumption,” said Nataro.

The car was rolling forward now through streets hazed with a light mist and beginning to glow with the yellow lights of the shops, blunting the harsh realities of daylight and lending London a kind of enchantment I loved.  Grey was at the wheel, which he handled with great skill in the often crowded streets.

Inspector Huxley was persistent.  “I hope you haven’t got us out on a wild goose chase,” he went on.  “I have some doubts about following your lead in such matters, Nataro.”

“When I’ve mislead you, they’ll be justified.  Not until then.  Now, another matter–if related.  You’ll recall a disappearance in Southwark two years ago?  Elderly man named Connor Lyman?”

Huxley sat for a few moments in silence.  Then he said, “Man of seventy.  Retired seaman.  Indigent.  No family.  Last seen near the Crystal Palace.  Vanished without a trace.  Presumed drowned in the Thames and carried out to sea.”

“I believe I can find him for you, Huxley.”

Huxley snorted.  “Now, then, Nataro–give it to me short.  What’s this all about?”

Nataro summed up the story of our client’s haunted library, while Huxley sat in thoughtful silence.

“Laying ghosts is hardly in my line,” he said when Nataro had finished.

“Can you find your way to the Sydenham entrance of the abandoned old Nunhead-Crystal Palace High Level Railway Line?” asked Nataro.

“Of course.”

“If not, I have a map with me.  Two, in fact.  If you and Grey will conceal yourself near that entrance, ready to arrest anyone coming out of it, we’ll meet you there in from two to three hours time.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Nataro,” growled Huxley.

“I share that hope, Huxley.”  He turned to Grey and gave him Mrs. Glass’ address.  “Adams and I will leave you there, Huxley.  You’ll have plenty of time to reach the tunnel entrance before we begin our exploration at the other end.”

“It’s murder, then, Nataro?”

“I should hardly think that anyone would willingly take so much arsenic unless eh meant to commit suicide.  No such intention was manifest in Captain Byrd’s life–indeed, quite the contrary.  He loved the life he led and would not have willingly given it up.”

“You’re postulating that Connor Lyman knew Captain Byrd and his nephew?”

“I am convinced inquiry will prove that to be the case.”

Grey let us out of the police car before Mrs. Glass’ house, which loomed with an almost forbiddingly sinister air in the gathering darkness.  Light shone wanly from but one window; curtains were drawn over the rest of them at the front of the house, and the entire dwelling seemed to be waiting upon its foredoomed decay.

Mrs. Glass herself answered our ring.

“Oh, Mr. Nataro!” she cried at sight of us.  “You did get my message.”

“Indeed, I did, Mrs. Glass.  Dr. Adams and I have now come to make an attempt to lay your ghost.”

Mrs. Glass paled a little and stepped back to permit us entrance.

“You’ll want to see the broken thread, Mr. Nataro, she said after she had closed the door.

“If you please.”

She swept past us and led us to the library, where she turned up al the lights.  The black thread could be seen lying on the carpet, broken through about midway, and away from the east wall.

“Nothing has been disturbed, Mrs. Glass?”

“Nothing.  No one has come into this room but me–at my strict order.  Except, of course, whoever broke the thread.”  She shuddered.  “It appears to have been broken by something coming out of the wall!”

“Does it not?” agreed Nataro.

“No ghost could break that thread,” I said.

“There are such phenomena as poltergeists which are said to make all kinds of mischief, including the breaking of dishes,” said Nataro dryly.  “If we had that to deal with, the mere breaking of a thread would offer it no problem.  You heard nothing, Mrs. Glass?”

“Nothing.”

“No rattling of chains, no hollow groans?”

“Nothing, Mr. Nataro.”

“And not even the sound of a book falling?”

“Such a sound an old house might make at any time, I suppose.”

He cocked his head suddenly; a glint came into his eyes.  “And not, I suppose, a sound like that?  Do you hear it?”

“Oh, Mr. Nataro,” cried Mrs. Glass in a low voice.  “That is the sound Mrs. Hanson heard.”

It was the sound of someone singing–singing boisterously.  It seemed to come as from a great distance, out of the very books on the walls.

“And it’s all for me grog, me jolly, jolly grog.  All for me beer and tobacco. For I spent all me tin on lassies drinkin’ gin. Across the ocean I must wander,” murmured Nataro.  “I can barely make out the words.  Captain Byrd’s collection of sea lore is shelved along this wall, too!  A coincidence.”

“Mr. Nataro!  What is it?” asked our client.

“Pray do not disturb yourself, Mrs. Glass.  That is hardly a voice from the other side.  It has too much body.  But we are delaying unnecessarily.  Allow me.”

So saying, he crossed to the bookshelves at the approximate place where she had reported seeing the apparition that haunted the library.  He lifted a dozen books off a shelf and put them to one side.  Then he knocked upon the wall behind.  It gave back a muffled hollow sound.  He nodded in satisfaction and then gave the entire section of shelving the closest scrutiny.

Presently he found what he sought–after having removed half the books from the shelving there–a small lever concealed behind a row of books.  He depressed it.  Instantly there was a soft thud–like the sound a book might make when it struck the carpet–and the section sagged forward, opening into the room like a door ajar.  Mrs. Glass gasped sharply.

“What on earth is that, Mr. Nataro?”

“Unless I am very much mistaken, it is a passage to the abandoned right-of-way of the Nunhead-Crystal Palace Line–and the temporary refuge of your library ghost.”

He pulled the shelving further into the room, exposing a gaping aperture which led into the high bank behind that wall of the house and down into the earth beneath.  Out of the aperture came a voice which was certainly that of an inebriated man, raucously singing.  The voice echoed and reverberated as in a cavern below.

“Pray excuse us, Mrs. Glass,” said Nataro.  “Come, Adams.”

Nataro took a flashlight from his pocket and, crouching, crept into the tunnel.  I followed him.  The earth was shored up for a little way beyond the opening, then the walls were bare, and here and there I found them narrow for me, though Nataro, being slender, managed to slip through with less difficulty.   The aperture was not high enough for some distance to enable one to do more than crawl, and it was a descending passage almost from the opening in Mrs. Glass’ library.

Ahead of us the singing had stopped abruptly.

“Hist!” warned Nataro suddenly.

There was a sound of hurried movement up ahead.

“I fear he has heard us,” Nataro whispered.

He moved forward again and abruptly stood up.  I crowded out to join him.  We stood on the right-of-way of the abandoned Nunhead-Crystal Palace Line.  The rails were still in place and the rail bed was clearly the source of the cinder Nataro had produced for my edification.  Far ahead of us on the line someone was running.

“No matter,” said Nataro.  “There is only one way for him to go.  He could hardly risk going out to where the main line passes.  He must go out by way of the Sydenham entrance.”

We pressed forward, and soon the light revealed a niche hollowed out of the wall.  It contained bedding, a half-eaten loaf of bread, candles, a lantern, and books.  Outside the opening were dozens of empty wine and brandy bottles.

Nataro examined the bedding.

“Just as I thought,” he said, straightening up.  “This has not been here very long–certainly not longer than two months.”

“The time since the younger Byrd’s death,” I cried.

“You advance, Adams, indeed!”

“Then he and Lyman were in it together!”

“of necessity,” said Nataro.  “Come.”

He ran rapidly down the line, I after him.

Up ahead there was a sudden burst of shouting.  “Aha!” cried Nataro.  “They have him!”

After minutes of hard running we burst out of the tunnel at the entrance where Inspector Huxley and Constable Grey waited–the constable manacled to a wild-looking old man, whose fierce glare was indeed alarming.  Graying hair stood out from his head, and his unkempt beard completed a frame of hair around a grimy face out of which blazed two eyes fiery with rage.

“He gave us quite a struggle, Nataro,” said Huxley, still breathing heavily.

“Capital!  Capital!” cried Nataro, rubbing his hands together delightedly.  “Gentlemen, let me introduce you to as wilt an old scoundrel as we’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time.  Captain William Byrd, swindler of insurance companies and, I regret to say, murderer.”

“Lyman!” exclaimed Huxley.

“Ah, Huxley, you had your hands on him.  But I fear you lost him when you gave him to Peckham for autopsy.”

 

“The problem was elementary enough,” said Nataro, as he filled his pipe with the abominable shag he habitually smoked and leaned up against the mantel in our quarters later that night.  “Mrs. Glass told us everything essential to its solution, and Bossard only confirmed it.  The unsolved question was the identity of the victim, and the files of the metropolitan papers gave me a presumptive answer to that in the disappearance of Connor Lyman, a man of similar build and age to Captain Byrd.

“Of course, it was manifest at the outset that this motiveless specter was chancing discovery for survival.  It was not Hanson but the Captain who was raiding the food and liquor stocks at the house.  The cave, of course, was never intended as a permanent hiding place, but only as a refuge to seek when strangers came to the house or when his nephew had some friends in.  he lived in the house; he had always been reclusive and he changed his ways but little.  His nephew, you will recall Bossard’s telling us, continued to subscribe to his magazines and buy the books he wanted, apparently for himself, but obviously for his uncle.  The bedding and supplies were obviously moved into the tunnel after the younger Byrd’s death.

“The manner and place of the ghost’s appearance suggested the opening in the wall.  The cinder in the carpet cried aloud of the abandoned Nunhead-Crystal Palace Line, which the maps I studied in the British Museum confirmed ran almost under the house.  The Captain actually had more freedom than most dead men, for he could wander out along the line by night if he wished.

  “Bossard clearly set forth the motive.  The Captain had sold off everything he had to enable him to continue his way of living.  He needed money.  His insurance policies promised to supply it.  He and his nephew together hatched up the plot.  Lyman was picked as victim, probably out of a circle of acquaintances because, as newspaper descriptions made clear, he had a certain resemblance to the Captain and was, like him, a retired seaman with somewhat parallel tastes.

“They waited until the auspicious occasion when Dr. Easton, who knew the Captain too well to be taken in, was off on a prolonged holiday, lured Lyman to the house, killed him with a lethal dose of arsenic, after which they cleaned up the place to eliminate all external trace of poison and its effects, and called in Dr. Easton’s resident to witness the dying man’s last minutes.  The Captain was by this time in his cave, and the young doctor took Clayton Byrd’s word for the symptoms and signed the death certificate, after which the Byrd’s had ample funds on which to live as the Captain liked.”

“And how close they came to getting away with it!” I cried.

“Indeed!  Clayton Byrd’s unforeseen death–ironically, of a genuine heart attack–was the little detail they had never dreamed of.  On similar turns of fate empires have fallen!

 

 

“Long into the darkness peering, . . . “

Ernest Jacobson had committed murder, plain and simple.  The crime hadn’t been detected.  His wife, Bernadette, was dead and in the ground, and they’d called it an accident.  The police weren’t bothering him.  Nobody blamed him.  In fact, what few acquaintances he had sympathized with him.  Poor old Ernest.  An accident and now he was all alone.  Plain and simple.  That was the kind of murder it had been and that was why it succeeded.

The only trouble was, Ernest Jacobson dreamed.

 

The first dream started with the murder.  It was so clear, so detailed, and so accurate, that it was just like committing the crime all over again.  Once had been bad enough.

“Tom, I’ve got to have a new washing machine.”  It was whine of complaint, like everything she said.

He let his newspaper fall to his lap and glanced up at his wife.  She was standing there, wringing her hands as usual, her pale face sad, wisps of gray hair falling over her forehead; scarcely forty and already looking like an old woman.

“What’s the matter with the washing machine?” he asked her, and he didn’t try to make the question sound friendly.

“Take a look at it, will you, Tom?  I got another shock from it today.  Honestly, I’m going to be electrocuted some time for sure.”

He went down to the basement unwillingly.  The washing machine loomed out in the dim light, high and huge, like an old Model T.  There were more places where the paint had chipped off, he noticed.  Obviously Bernadette hadn’t taken proper care of it.  He squatted down to take a preliminary look and he saw what the trouble was right away.  The wire was worn, just where it went under the machine to the motor.  The insulation had dried and cracked, that was all.

What should he do?  Replace the cord?  No, just some electrical tape.  He went to the tool chest and rummaged around.  No tape.  He remembered now.  He’d asked for some at the hardware store, and when he found out how expensive it was for a skimpy little roll, he’d refused to buy it and walked out.  He wondered now if it was worth even a dollar ninety-nine to keep Bernadette from getting electrocuted.

Then he knew the answer to that question.

She was only an expense.  If he tried to divorce her, he’d have to pay alimony.  He was tired of the nagging, the complaints: fix this, buy me that, this is so old, that’s worn out.  He wanted silence, blessed silence.

His preparations for murder were simple and straight-forward.  The machine was unplugged, so he could work with the wire in safety.  He bent it back and forth dozens of times at the place of wear, then scraped it patiently on the bottom rim of the machine, till the copper strands gleamed bright and bare.  Then he wedged it up under the rim so the wire would be in contact with the metal of the machine itself.  Finally he plugged it in.  Now the whole washer was “hot,” waiting.  Last of all, he doused water on the concrete floor.  The “ground” was waiting too.

Near the bottom of the steps was the pair of old shoes his wife always wore while washing in the basement where she might get her feet wet.  He picked up the shoes, examined the soles.  Both, he saw, were almost worn through.  Calmly, carefully, he dugh at the thin, crumbling leather with a fingernail.  He kept at it till there was a clear hole the size of a nickel.

After that, it was only a matter of getting her downstairs to try the machine.  She was difficult, as she often was.

“I think I’ve fixed it and I want you to try it,” he called up to her.

“I wasn’t planning on  washing tonight . . . “

“Well, I want you to try it anyway.  If it doesn’t act right, then we’ll think about replacing it.”

The promise, vague as it was, lured her.  She came obediently down the stairs.  Her legs he noted were bare.  Automatically she changed into her work shoes.  With her mind on the washing machine, she seemed unaware that the skin of the sole of her foot was in direct contact with the floor.

“How’d everything get so wet?” she asked him.

“I was testing,” he assured her.

He knew his plan wasn’t a sure thing.  Electrical shorts are tricky, unpredictable.  She mightn’t be killed, only injured, or possibly not harmed at all.  But he felt lucky, somehow and about time!

 He watched her.  She approached the machine gingerly, as if doubtful or even afraid.  Her feet were in the film of water that cluing to the floor around the drain.  She reached out to touch the machine with both hands, like a child exploring a new toy.  He waited in an agony of suspense, the moment elongating into a near eternity.

Then her hands were gripping the rim of the metal tub, gripping it and could not let go.  Shudders and spasms racked her body.  What sounds did he hear?  Did he actually hear the crackling of the electric current?  What sounds came from Bernadette?  A scream or a moan?  Or did she make any sound at all?  Was it his own voice instead, uttering an inarticulate cry of triumph?  On and on . . .

Until another sound interrupted it, louder and more insistent, a buzz like a terribly swift jackhammer, clamoring right in his ear.  He reached out a hand, partially to ward off the sound, partially to stifle it.  Finally, he did the latter.  His groping hand found the alarm clock on then bedside table, his numb fingers reached the button and pressed it.

By that time he was fully awake, wide-eyed and shaking and sweating, with the clock in his lap, pulled to the full length of its cord.  Tremblingly he replaced the thing on the table, then wiped his perspiring face with a pajama sleeve.

But it was a time since he recovered from the experience.  Afraid of getting a chill, he burrowed back under the blankets, and stayed there until his quivering body was still.  This was the way he had reacted when he saw Bernadette die,, he remembered now.  His body had jerked and shuddered just as hers had, the two almost in rhythm.

It had been only a dream, hadn‘t it?  But how could a dream of a murder, real as it might have seemed, affect him more deeply than the actual murder itself?  Anyway, the thing was over with now.  Done.  Finished.  He was safe again in the waking world.  He smiled.

Ernest Jacobson’s day was busy, ordinary, untroubled, work-filled.  In the evening he watched television, which was more pleasurable now that he didn’t have to argue with Bernadette over the selection of programs, and went, at last, to bed.

He wasn’t expecting a dream.

 

But it happened.  A dream . . .

“Ernest, I’ve got to have a new washing machine” . . . till Bernadette’s body shuddered in the grip of the electric current.  Her cry–or his.

What then?  Yes, he had gone upstairs.  As he was going now.  In a voice broken by grief and terror, he called a doctor, an ambulance, and the police.

The last arrived first, two uniformed officers in a patrol car who acted with efficiency and compassion of men who had seen things like this before.  It was one of them who told him his wife was dead.

The policemen handled everything.  Ernest stood dumbly by the front door and watched the sheeted corpse being carried out on a stretcher.  He answered a few questions automatically, stunned.

In all the time between the death and the funeral, the only one who seemed unkind was a plainclothes officer named Lavander.  Leon Lavander had a sharp face, thick brows, and under them, black piercing eyes.

Lavander hinted that Ernest Jacobson should have known about the condition of the washing machine, and Ernest kept answering that he certainly would have attended to it had Bernadette ever mentioned the matter.  Then an accusation finally came out in words.  “You know, Mr. Jacobson, I’d call it almost criminal negligence on your part.”

He didn’t crack.  He didn’t even start guiltily.  “Do you think I haven’t  thought bout that myself?  Don’t you think I’ve blamed myself?  That washer was pretty old.  I should have checked it over once in a while.  But it never gave any trouble . . . “

“Okay.  Okay, Mr. Jacobson.  I’m not trying to make a case out of it.”  Lavander’s face looked very sharp, honed like an axe blade, his eyes glittered malevolently, and he added a strange remark.  “Not that I wouldn’t like to.”

 

What was ringing?  The phone?  The doorbell?  Ernest tried to rise from his chair, anything to escape from Lavander’s accusing stare.  His hands reached, to clutch something to help him . . .

And he was wrestling with the alarm clock again, pulling at it, almost pulling it out of the wall.  But now, as he awakened, he knew enough to press the button to shut off that persistent noise.

Shaking in every extremity, sweating profusely, he sought refuge like an animal in its lair and dove under the blankets.  But in the warm dark it was a long time before the shaking stopped and his sweat dried.

“Criminal Negligence.”  What was it anyway?  Maybe something you accuse a homicidal driver of, or maybe a doctor who was careless during an operation.  But him, Ernest Jacobson, for harboring a beat-up washing machine?  He laughed.

But at the bank that day, he made a mistake that took him hours to locate.  In the evening he watched television grimly, until the last late-late show was finished, until the weather report, until, the screen went gray.  Then he stared at the static for a while.

  He succumbed finally, however.  Weariness forced his surrender.  He staggered into bed, letting his eyes close, hoping he wouldn’t dream.

 

“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine . . . Your wife is dead, mr. Jacobson . . . Criminal negligence . . . I’m not trying to make a case . . . not that I wouldn’t like to.”

A knock at the door.  It had happened before . . .  A dream?  He didn’t know who was knocking.  Too late to run.  The house was surrounded.

“Hello, Mr. Jacobson.  Sit down, Mr. Jacobson,” Lavander smiled when he opened t5he door.  Two other plainclothesmen came in and disappeared somewhere on mysterious errands.  T6hopmas sat down, but he sat on the edge of his chair, fearfully.  Lavander sat in the easy chair, made himself comfortable, and took a long time in lighting a curved-stem pipe.

“I’ve just remembered something, Mr. Jacobson, a circumstance of your wife’s death.  I know the memory is correct because I checked with several other people who were on the scene.  It’s been bothering me all this time, but just today it started to make sense.  A funny thing.  Very funny.”

“What’s funny?  What . . . “

“When we found your wife, the cement floor of the basement was all wet.  Do you know what was funny about that?  Just this.  Your wife hadn’t been in the middle of doing washing.  No wet clothes.  The inside of the tub wasn’t wet either.  Only one thing was wet.  The floor.”

Why hadn’t he thought of that?

“can you explain that Mr. Jacobson?”

He tried to speak, but had no voice.  But even if he had, what was he to say?

One of the other plainclothesmen entered from the bedroom.  He was carrying Bernadette’s old shoe, and he handed it to Lavander.

“I remember looking at your wife’s corpse,” Lavander went on.  “On the sole of her foot there was a deep burn, about the size of a nickel.  Yes, this was the shoe she’d been wearing.”  Lavander turned the shoe over and was staring at the bottom of it.  The hole was there, about the size of a nickel.  “A very curious hole this.  Looks like it’s been picked at.  Looks like someone was trying to enlarge it.  This hole was manufactured, Mr. Jacobson.  It’s perfectly obvious.”

Ernest mouthed words, silent, voiceless, futile words.

Lavander tossed the shoe to the man who’d brought it in.  “Label that ‘Exhibit A.’ “

Now the second plainclothesman appeared, coming from the basement.  “I’ve checked the washing machine, Leon.”

“And what did you find?”

“Jacobson’s fingerprints all over it.”

Lavander chewed happily at his pipe stem.

“Not only that, but Jacobson’s prints are on the frayed wire, too.”

“Yes?  Yes?  Yes?”

“And there’s been some funny business with that wire, Leon.”

“I think that should be enough,” Lavander said.  “More than enough.  Label that washing machine ‘Exhibit B.’  what do you say now, Mr. Jacobson?  Ready to confess?”

“No!”  His own scream burst inside his skull.  Did anyone else hear it?

Ernest leaped out of his chair and tried to run.  But quickly strong arms seized him from either side.  The front door opened, uniformed cops flooded in.  a great mass of hostile bodies bore him to the floor by their very weight.

He reached out, groping, searching.  He had it, wrestling with it in his bed as if it were a living thing, until his eyes were fully open and he realized, with a vast sense of relief, that he was awake again.  He was awake and the clock was ringing.  Fumbling he found the button, pressed it.

But he didn’t let go of the clock.  This little box was his savior.  The cord going into the wall was his lifeline.  He cuddled the clock like he would an infant.  He waited there, fondling it, waiting for the awful fear to subside, for reality, the undream world, to establish itself once again.

What a frightening difference between this dream and those preceding it!  The first two dreams had repeated events which had actually occurred.  But this last dream was a fiction, an imagining.  These things hadn’t happened.

Lavander hadn’t connected the wet floor with the lack of wet clothes yet, but he might think of it in the future.  If he did, he might come to look at the shoe and the washing machine.  Warning . . .  Well, I’ll do something about that!

Gleefully he hopped out of bed, replaced the alarm clock, got dressed quickly, ran down the basement stairs.  Yes, there were the shoes.

It wasn’t until then that he realized how fortunate he was.  The shoes hadn’t been carted away with the body.  They had somehow dropped off, and then just lay there.  He stuffed them into his pockets.

The washing machine wasn’t so easily handled.  Wrestling it into the car trunk took a lot of doing, for Ernest wasn’t a big man.  But he managed it because he had to.  The trunk lid closed down far enough to conceal the contents, and he tied the handle to the bumper.  Then he backed the car out and started driving.

He knew of only one sure place, the old quarry beyond town.  The pit had filled with water, which people said was thirty or forty feet deep.  Ernest drove there and found the place abandoned.  No one witnessed his strange actions, he was certain, as he lifted the machine out of the car trunk and pushed it over the cliff.  It made a tremendous splash and sank reassuringly.  He tossed the shoes in after it.

He was late in arriving at the bank that morning, but nobody questioned him.  He worked so cheerfully and diligently that day he didn’t fall behind in his job.

 

“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.”  Her face, Bernadette’s face, leering accusingly down at him; her voice, not whining, but shrieking vindictively . . .

“I’m innocent!” he shrieked in return.

But the white-haired judge, Lieutenant Lavander in black robes, only sneered down at him from his high bench and the twelve stern people in the jury box shook their heads in disbelief.

“Was this your wife’s shoe?”

The lawyer–he was Lavander, too–shoved the incriminating object in front of his face.  Attached to it was a large tag, “Exhibit A.”  There was no sole to the shoe at all, no sole and no heel.

Then came the washing machine, carried into the courtroom by two men wearing diving suits.  The machine was rusted and still dripping with weeds and slime.  Affixed to it was a clean, fresh tag saying, “Exhibit B.”

“Mr. Jacobson,” Lavander said, ‘your fingerprints were all over it, and on the wire where the insulation was scraped off.”

“Impossible!” he shouted at them all.  “This is a frame-up!”

But the twelve men didn’t listen.  Like a chorus they stood up together, and like a chorus, speaking with one voice, they announced their verdict, “Guilty!”

The judge beckoned Ernest to the bench.  He hadn’t the strength to move, but the police dragged him, inert, like a gunnysack pf straw.  Judge Lavander extended a long arm, and the forefinger wagged in Ernest’s face.  “I sentence you  to death . . . in the electric chair . . . “

But there was a bell somewhere, very distant, ringing, weakly, forlornly.  Ernest reached for it . . . the alarm clock . . . more with his desperate mind than with his helpless body; he leaped . . .

 

. . . And got it.  Somehow . . . a little metal cube with rounded edges that had an insistent noise inside it.

“I love you . . . I love you . . . “  He was saying it to the clock, and covering the cold metal with wet grateful kisses.  He didn’t want to press the button to silence the thing.  The sound was too precious, too beautiful, too reassuring.

The bell will wear out!  No . . . no . . .  reluctantly, almost fearfully, he did, at last, press the button . . . and then trembled in the dreadful silence that followed.

A dream, that’s all it was, Ernest Jacobson, you imbecile, you idiot.  Don’t you know the difference between waking and sleeping?  Between dreams and reality?  This is the real world, the real thing, right now, right here.  You’re in bed, alone.  Bernadette’s dead, but they didn’t find you out.  They didn’t really.  The shoes are gone and the washing machine is gone, just like Bernadette, gone.  They can’t come back . . .

The electric chair!  Now they were going to get even with him and kill him with electricity.

Who was going to do that?  Who was they?  The police?  The police couldn’t touch him.  No evidence.  The shoe, the washing machine, the fingerprints . . .  And they’d convicted him!  They were going to send him to the electric chair!  Would their electric chair be real?

It would only seem real.  After all, it was a dream . . .

Which was the dream?

He didn’t know!

 

“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.”

He looked around for somewhere to run.  Anywhere to escape that shrill, nagging voice.

“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.”

When he tried to run, he was stopped by the bars.  No, not bars–cords, electric cords–a maze of electric cords enclosing him like a fly in a spider web.

“Take it easy, fella, you don’t have very long to wait now.”

“Let me out!”

“there’s only one way out of here, fella.  For you, that is.  Through that door.  Just five more minutes.  Can’t you wait?  What’s your hurry?  Why can’t you wait?”

They came for him.  Two huge guards.  He screamed and cringed into the farthest corner.  But they dragged him out of it, yelling and writhing.  The door opened, and it was a basement door, the door to his own basement.  There was the chair . . . somehow like a chair . . . but really . . .  a washing machine!

“No!”

“Relax, fella.  That’s all you have to do.  The electricity will do the rest.  As long as you stqand in this water on the floor . . . “

“I’m innocent!”

“Strap too tight, fella?  It’s just to keep you here till the juice comes on.  Don’t worry about it.  It doesn’t last too long.”

“Bernadette,” he shrieked, “does it last long?’

But she didn’t answer.  She was already dead.  Dead and gone.

“left arm okay.  Now let’s have the other arm.”

No, don’t give them that other arm.  Reach out!  Reach hard!  Reach far!

“Come on, fella . . .  Boy, tat right arm of his is strong.  What’s he trying to reach for?  What’s he trying to hang onto?  Trying to pull the cord out of the wall?  Come on, fella, give up.”

“No!  no!  give me my alarm clock!”

“Give it to him, boys.”

It’s just a dream.  That’s all it is–a dream.  This is my alarm clock, my own . . .

Lieutenant Leon Lavander looked down at the twisted, contorted body, and the stopped to untangle it.  From the very middle of the tightly wrapped ball, and after prying away the rigid grip of the fingers, he drew an electric alarm clock.  While the others looked on, he patiently examined the thing.

“Worn wire right at the terminal,” he explained, showing them.

“Looks as if,” said another plainclothesman, “he didn’t let go as you ought to when you get a shock.  He was holding on for dear life.  You wouldn’t call it suicide would you, Leon?”

“Accidental death,” said Lavander.