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I FIRST MET HER, this girl that I married a few days later, and that the papers have crucified under the pretense of glorification, on a Friday morning in June, on the parking lot by the Patuxent Building, that my office is in. It was around 9:30, and I was late getting in, on account of a call I'd had, from the buyer I had lined up for a house I'd signed on to sell, who had gone away unexpectedly and wired me to stand by. So I did, he called, and we closed, without even much of a haggle over the $65,000 I asked. As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty good, and whistled as I parked.
But then, when I got out of the car, this girl stepped up and spoke to me by name. She was a quite pretty girl, around eighteen as I thought, a cornhusk blonde with blue eyes, fair skin, and snubby nose, as well as a shape to write home about. She was no more than medium height, but beautifully formed in all departments. She was dressed as girls dress for church, not for school, play, or the supermarket, in dark blue silk, black hat, bag, and shoes. The dress showed plenty of leg, and yet wasn't too terribly short. "Yes?" I answered. "I'm Graham Kirby. What can I do for you?"
"Mr. Kirby, I'm Sonya Lang."
She said it as though I should know who Sonya Lang was, and I did have a vague impression I'd seen her somewhere before, but beyond that I didn't place her or her name. "Oh—?" I said. "What is it, Miss Lang? Or perhaps you'd like to come to my office. It's right here in the building."
"Well—is there some other place we could talk? ... I mean, it's why I waited here, waited until you came, so I would not have to go to your office. The business I have with you, it's better I not be seen there. I called in, to ask you to meet me somewhere, and when they said you'd be in directly, I walked over to wait for you."
It all seemed a bit odd, but in the real estate business, which involves the homes people live in, you get a wacky fallout, and don't pay too much attention. So I guess I was slightly impatient as I told her: "Miss Lang, I've a busy day ahead, and don't have much time to spare. It would help if you'd give me some idea what this is all about—?"
"Okay, Mr. Graham Kirby, I will. I'm pregnant, that's what it's about, by your brother Burwell. I'm pregnant from him raping me, and I badly need your help. I need help on account of my family, on account of my father mostly, who's threatening things I'm afraid of, things that concern you, or should, Mr. Kirby—but before you can do anything, or know what you're trying to do, I'd have to explain to you, how things are with me. Well do we have to talk here, Mr. Kirby? Where the whole street can hear us? Or—"
"Please, Miss Lang! Please!"
My head was spinning, and I cut in with all kinds of stuff, to ease things off a bit and gain a minute to think—like saying how grateful I was, she had shown such discretion, in not going up to my office—virtually meaningless things like that. I'm not sure now, what I said. But then, when my bewilderment diminished, I told her, "We can go to my house, Miss Lang, where we'll have the place to ourselves and you'll be free to say anything. But will you give me a minute? To go up and clear my decks? So I'll be completely free? To talk—or whatever you want of me?"
"Would you care to wait in the car?"
"Yes, that'll be fine."
I put her in, and started around the front, headed for the sidewalk, which led to the building entrance, but then I thought: Wake up, get with it, didn't you hear what this girl said? Suppose you take too long, suppose she gets tired waiting, and takes a notion to blow? What then? You wouldn't know how to find her, and you can't know what she'd pull. A girl pregnant by your brother is not a minor problem. She's the first order of business on anyone's office calendar. I walked back to the car and got in behind the wheel. "I think we'll go now," I said. "I can call my office from home."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Kirby."
So we started out on our ten-minute drive, and on the way she had nothing to say and certainly I didn't. There was time enough, though, for cold rage to move in on me, at Burwell Stuart, for the trouble he'd been to me, and of course to his mother, who of course was also my mother. Actually, he wasn't my brother, but only my half brother, as my mother had married again, after my father died, and Burwell, or Burl as he was called, was the result. I suppose it was natural I didn't like him, as I hadn't liked his father, and in fact was horribly jolted, and not only jolted but ashamed, when my mother married him.
We had lived at Cabin John, on the Potomac above Washington, until I was eight and my father died. Then Harrison Stuart appeared on the scene, a big wheel in Prince George County, which is east and south of Washington, not north of it as Montgomery County is, where Cabin John is located.
My stepfather was a former county commissioner, powerful in Democratic circles, as well as with the ladies. It was his activities with them that embittered me, from the rumors I heard everywhere. He and my mother had a hookup, I would say, rather than a regular marriage, and she may have known of his outside activities, yet not have wanted to joggle the combos he had, which at least he made pay—and big too. But I got along with him so badly that when a lady she knew, by the name of Mrs. Sibert, Mrs. Jane Sibert, offered to take me in and raise me on her farm, I got down on my knees to my mother and begged her to let me go.
So she did, and my pleasant years began—in high school, at Yale, and in real estate, which was the business my father had been in. But it wasn't the end of Burl. His father died when he was fifteen, but even before then, it was clear to all and sundry he would carry the old man's torch.
By the time he was twelve he'd been mixed up with two girls, and then when he was a senior in high school he raped a teacher. He carried her books home one day, and when she asked him in he upped her skirts and raped her. Next day she went boiling over to Mother, to say what she meant to do. But Mother wasn't home, and who opened the door was Burl. The second time around, she decided that being raped wasn't so bad, and it became a scandal in school. So after he graduated she quit, and when he did his hitch in the Army she followed him to Japan when he was stationed there for a while, and then followed him back. On his discharge, he now being twenty-one, it had seemed that they would get married, but then she got killed, when her car hit a culvert wall, with her mother at the wheel, as the two of them were on the way to Bowie, where her parents lived. So that was the end of her, but I heard there were other girls, so his mother never knew, from one week to the next, what to expect. So I was all sulked up, just from thinking about it, and perhaps to cover, to have something to say, perhaps to cool it a little, I asked, in a conversational way, "Sonya, how old are you?"
"I'm almost seventeen."
"What's the matter, Mr. Kirby?"
"Nothing—I took you for older, that's all."
"You mean, when it happened, I was within the law."
"Yes, I guess that's what I mean—if you invoke the law. Sonya, I haven't heard the details, but have you really thought about it, what invoking the law means? It protects the girl, that's true, especially a girl under the age of consent, but she often finds out that its protection is just about the worst thing that can happen to her."
"It's not me. It's my family."
"Oh yes, you mentioned your father."
"How old are you, Mr. Kirby?"
"I was thirty last September."
"Now it's my turn to say ouch."
"I took you for younger, that's all."
In spite of the butterflies I had in my stomach, you could even say blue-tail flies, I found myself liking this girl, and then a funny thing happened. When I pulled up in front of my house, several cars were there, as usual, with open spaces between. To slip into one of them, I pulled up next to a car, then did the usual parking maneuver: I angled toward the center of the street, then dropped back to catch my rear wheels on the curb. Then I pulled up and cut my front wheels, to throw my front end toward the curb. Then I backed and snugged into the open space, with front and rear wheels touching. But of course, half the time I was twisted around, to look out the rear window and see what I was doing.
That brought me facing her. But she twisted around too, and that brought her facing me. Her head touched my coat, and as it did I could swear she inhaled, as though sniffing what I smelled like.CHAPTER 2
I LIVE IN COLLEGE Heights Estates, in a big brick house painted white, with dark green shutters, dark green trees, and dark green grass. College Heights Estates is a swank development, but most of the places are hummocky. The houses stand on rolling ground, or have hills rising behind, or to one side or the other.
My place, though, is on the flat, and for that reason somewhat special. It has a center hall, with steps on one side leading up, powder room and coat closet across on the other side, and beyond the steps a partition, with a door that leads to a den—the kitchen, pantry, and storage area being beyond that. Just inside the front door, before the steps begin, is a wide entrance foyer, with arches on each side, the one on the right leading to the living room, the other to the dining room. Topside, on the second deck, is a master bedroom and three junior bedrooms, the master with its own private bath, the others with a bath off the hall.
It just suggests being a mansion, and I need it like I need Buckingham Palace, but I got it in a trade, so cheap it was practically a gift, and I suppose vanity entered in: I couldn't resist living in it. So I said good-bye to Jane Sibert, bought furniture at the Plaza, and when it arrived moved in.
Once I got it organized, it cost less than you might think. I hired on a gardener, bought him a sit-on-it mower, and let him do his stuff. Also, I took on a cleaning woman, a character named Modesta, to make the bed every day and keep the place in order. Except for breakfast, which I made myself, I took my meals out, mostly at the Royal Arms, a pretty good place near the Plaza, where I practically became a boarder. All in all, at not too much expense, I lived quite stylishly.
I showed Sonya into the living room, saw vac tracks on the rug, and told her: "The cleaning woman's already been here, so we'll have the place to ourselves. If you'll give me a minute to call my office, I'll straighten some things out there, and then be free to hear what you have to tell me."
She said okay and I used the hall extension. Mabel, the switchboard girl, answered, and I had her give me Miss Musick, my secretary, and started it off very breezy: "Helen, something's come up, that may keep me till afternoon, but will you have Jack Kefoe call the owner of that Riverdale house, and tell him I sold it for him? At our advertised price? And will you ask him to call the lawyers and get them started doing their stuff? But he'll know about that." She could have called the owner, but I wanted Jack to do it, as he was the salesman assigned to the deal, and I wanted to reassure him that though I'd closed with the owner, it was still his sale, and that I wasn't cutting in. In my business you keep your salesmen happy, and especially you keep their confidence, so they know you're not playing them tricks.
Then I asked, "Has anything come up?" and she said my mother had called, twice. I said okay, I'd call her back. When I asked, "Anything else?" she mentioned the proofs of our ads for the Sunday papers, which ordinarily are my special concern, but I told her: "Just check them against the copy, and if everything is in order, phone our release in." And then, "Anything else?"
"Yes, Mr. Kirby," she said, after a moment's hesitation. "A girl called, wanting to talk to you, and when I said you were out, she asked when you'd be in, and I told her we expected you any minute. She didn't leave her name, but—Mr. Kirby, she seemed upset and so did your mother. I had the feeling there's some connection, and that—this girl means trouble."
"Fine, I'll duly get the shakes."
"Well you needn't laugh."
"I'll be on my guard against her."
Her habit of imagining things under my bed was kind of a joke between us, and I played it the way I would have, if the girl hadn't been right in my own living room. When I went in there, she was making the grand tour of the pictures I had on the walls, one or two paintings of ancestors Mother had, the rest were big color photos of houses I'd had something to do with, all hung above the bookcases that lined the room, which stopped at eye level.
She said, "I love your books, Mr. Kirby—and that house I've seen—and that one—and that one. They're beautiful, just beautiful." And then, "Was that me she was talking about?"
"Probably. She said a girl called in."
"What did she say about me?"
"That you mean trouble, she thought."
"She didn't know the half."
She laughed, and I asked, "Would you like a Coke?" But at that she bit her lip and it seemed she wanted to cry.
When I asked what the trouble was, she said, "It's what you say to a child—you know nothing else to say, but there she is, so you ask will she have a Coke. Suppose I said yes, what then?"
"I'd get you a Coke, that's all."
"Well, no thanks. I'm not a child!"
She did sob as she said that, and I began to get the picture, of how this girl could crack jokes, for a minute from force of habit, the kind of jokes young kids crack, and then remember the mess she was in, which wasn't a joke at all. I put my arms around her, patted her, and got my handkerchief out. After I'd wiped her eyes I let her blow her nose, which made her laugh again.
I sat her down and said, "Right, let's begin." The furniture's modern and full-size to go with the 30x18 room, upholstered in beige, in contrast with the rug, which is light maroon. But flanking the fireplace are sofas, with a cocktail table between, and I put her on one, taking the other myself, facing her. But facing her that way, as she sank back on the cushions, meant a perfect up-from-the-knees view of the most beautiful legs I'd ever seen, and they rang a bell—I knew I'd seen them before. She asked, "You want to hear it all? You want me to commence at the beginning?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Then, I won't leave anything out."
But I was beginning to note how she talked, in the funny, left-handed way that Southern Maryland people have. She didn't say anything, she said innything. But all I said was:
"Did you know Dale Morgan, Mr. Kirby?"
"The teacher who got killed? No, but I heard of her."
"She was my best friend, and it all began with her. I was just starting at Northwestern High, and she was a teacher there. And then Burl, he raped her. But then when he raped her again, she kind of enjoyed it, and so they fell in love. She followed him to Japan and followed him back, and then got killed when her car hit a culvert. And he was so broken up, I tried to do what I could, to ease the sorrow he felt. He'd pick me up after school and buy me a malt, and at night take me out, to the movies or some kind of club. But then I began to feel, it wasn't a torch for her, but more of a lech for me, if I may use such a word."
"Okay, you're telling it like it was."
"So that made me very unhappy, because while I valued him as a friend, and had thought the world of Miss Dale, I didn't like him that way, for a reason I'd rather not tell."
"Nobody's making you do it."
"Next off, comes the invitation. From a girl I knew at school, and after Miss Dale got killed, the best friend I had, I thought. She called, and asked me to spend the night. So she came and picked me up, after Mother said okay, and drove me to her house. This was two months ago. But her mother wasn't there, and I thought it was kind of funny. And then when the boys came, loaded with six-packs of beer, I knew what was up and ducked—or tried to. Because not to mention my morals, which so far had been okay, there was this thing about Burl, which made him repulsive to me.
Excerpted from Cloud Nine by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1984 Alice M. Piper. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 2, 2014