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DARK CITIES UNDERGROUND
THE DOOR IN THE TREE
THUS GREW THE TALE OF WONDERLAND THUS SLOWLY, ONE BY ONE. ITS QUAINT EVENTS WERE HAMMERED OUT ... .
LEWIS CARROLL, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
RUTH BERRY PULLED HER CAR UP TO THE HOUSE IN OAKLAND and turned off the ignition. The car bucked several times after she stopped it and then slowly fell silent, like a dog coming to the end of a barking fit.
She went up the front walk and knocked on the door. There was no answer. "Hello!" she called out. "Is anyone home?"
A path of round white garden stones led around the house to the backyard, and a white gate stood open at the end. She followed the path and knocked.
The man she had come to see had his back to her, shoveling compost from one bin to another. It was late October; everything in the garden had been cut back and pruned except for a few red and orange roses.
The man turned slowly. He was in his fifties, tall and lean, with a narrow face and thinning hair brushed back from his forehead. The hair was black mixed with gray, the eyes brown, the nose long and slightly hooked. Yes, she thought as he turned to face her. There's still a resemblance, after all these years ... .
"Mr. Jones?" she asked.
Jeremy Jones wiped his dirt-caked hands on his jeans. "Yes."
"Hi, I'm Ruth Berry," Ruth said. "Your mother is E. A. Jones, is that right?"
His face became guarded. "I'm sorryI don't talk about my mother."
"Yes, I've heard that about you. I was hoping you mightmake an exception. See, I'm writing a book about her and the Jeremy series"
"I'm afraid not. Sorry."
"But why not? What did she do to you that was so awful? You said in an interview once" She took out her pocket notebook and began to leaf through it. "You said that she stole your childhood. What did you mean by that?"
"Actually I never said that at all. I told youI don't do interviews. This dreadful woman came to the door, and when I turned her away she made up that quote, made up an entire article out of whole cloth."
"What was it like?" Ruth Berry asked softly. "Being the kid in all those stories?"
Jeremy hesitated. There was a moment, Ruth thought, when he might have asked her in, when the innate politeness she sensed in him might have won out over his defensiveness. Then, "I don't know," he said. "That was someone else. Sorry, I'm busy now."
"Here's my card. Give me a call if you change your mind."
To her surprise he took it. "Ruth Berry," he read.
One more try, she thought. What the hell. "Not as strange as Jeremy Jerome Gerontius Jones."
"You have no idea," he said, returning to his compost.
She went back to the car, defeated, and turned the ignition. "Good car," she said when it started. There was absolutely no money to repair it if it broke down, and she didn't see how she could get around the Bay Area without it. She had to try Jeremy again, and then interview Jeremy's motherEsmeralda Ann, her full name wasand then, when the advance from her publisher came through, take a trip to New York to see E. A. Jones's editor. New York was expensive, they said.
The car bucked. Ruth held her breath. It smoothed out and she sighed with relief.
She'd known that it wasn't going to be easy to interview Jeremy Jones: that was why she hadn't called before coming to see him. She would have to try again, though; she couldn't finish her book without him.
She lived in Santa Cruz and had a long trip ahead of her, two hours if the traffic was good. As she navigated the freeway shethought about her book, and about the stroke of luck, her first in a long time, that had gotten her the contract.
Two months earlier a magazine editor she sometimes worked for had asked her to do an article about the new Museum of Neverwas. She had been allowed into the museum a week before it opened, and she and her daughter Gillian walked together through the quiet rooms, exclaiming over lunch boxes and plastic toys, pencils and mugs and t-shirts, computer games and limited edition porcelain figures. The museum had collected practically everything connected with E. A. Jones's books: her notebooks, first editions from all over the world, illustrators' renderings of Jeremy and the Guardian Dog and Iris and the pirates, animation cels from the Disney cartoon. One cabinet held some of Jeremy's childhood drawings; she was surprised to see what a good artist he had been, much better than Gilly or any of her friends at the daycare center.
"Mommy, Mommylook!" Gilly called. "It's the Dragon!"
Ruth made her way to a glass cabinet. Inside stood the famous green dragon, the stuffed animal that Jeremy had taken along with him to Neverwas. But it's brand new, Ruth thought, surprised. They must have bought a new onethis can't be the original. It isn't even scuffed.
She leaned over to read the index card in the case. "Jeremy Jones's beloved stuffed dragon, given to him by his mother, E. A. Jones, in 1954." On a wall nearby hung the original of C. C. Andressen's famous picture, Jeremy clutching the dragon by the ear.
This doesn't look like a beloved toy to me, Ruth thought. Gilly's animals are much more beat up. There isn't even any fur missing from the ear, from either ear. And wait a minute
She went back to look at E. A. Jones's notebooks. Yes, she thought. Look at this. Jones had started writing the stories in 1951, when Jeremy was five, three years before she bought the dragon. But everything Ruth had read had said that Jeremy and the dragon had been the inspiration for the stories.
She took a pamphlet from a stack by the door. It was the usual puff piece, but she noticed that Jeremy's name was not listed among those who would attend the gala opening, even though his biography stated that he lived in Oakland and had donatedthe green dragon. His mother's name was missing from the list as well, though that could be due to ill health or old age. Still, it seemed that he and his mother were estranged.
She studied the biographical information on E. A. Jones in the pamphlet. Esmeralda Ann Schneider, known as Ann, had married Blair Jones, a mechanical engineer, in 1945. Jeremy was born a year later. The couple had gotten divorced when Jeremy was two, and Ann had turned to writing to support herself and her son.
Ruth felt a strong kinship with Ann Jones. Gilly's father Ned had left her shortly after she had told him she was pregnant, and she had never seen or heard from him again.
She tried calling Jeremy and E. A. Jones the next day, but both were out and neither returned her calls. The deadline for the article loomed; she turned it in without interviewing either of them. But in the article she managed to create an air of mystery surrounding the mother and son, to imply that something hung unspoken between them. Two days after the article appeared she got a call from an editor in New York. The editor's curiosity had been piqued by the unanswered questions, and he wondered if she would be interested in writing a book.
THE DAY AFTER Ruth's visit Jerry Jones got a letter in the mail. "Dear Mr. Jones," the letter said. "I am an agent representing a number of fine artists in the Bay Area. Recently I saw some of your work at the Museum of Neverwas and was quite favorably impressed. I hope to discuss an arrangement with you that should prove to be profitable to both of us. Please call or write me to set up an appointment. Sincerely, Barnaby Sattermole."
Jerry read the letter again. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that the "work" Sattermole had seen had been done over forty years ago, by a child of five or six. But that child, as Jerry had told Ms. Berry, was a different person. He even had a different name: Jeremy. His adult name was Jerry; there were fewer questions that way.
Jeremy surfaced every so often, when Jerry had to fill out forms for a driver's license or in a doctor's office. Last name Jones, first name Jeremy, that much was easy enough. But what was his middle name, Jerome or Gerontius? Gerontius called toomuch attention to itself; he would write "Jerome" or "J." But even so there would sometimes be someone who would read the names quietly and then aloud, and then with growing excitement say, "Hey, I read those books when I was a kid. Was that you? Hey, Bill, come over herelook at this" And then the clerk or doctor or whoever would recite one of those awful rhymes that would make Jerry cringe with embarrassment.
It wasn't their fault, Jerry knew that. The kind of doggerel E. A. Jones wrote stayed lodged in the memory and could not be shaken out no matter how many years had passed. He even found himself making up rhymes of his own as he took care of his daily business: "Jeremy Jerome Gerontius Jones / Went to get an auto loan," junk like that. His mother had a lot to answer for.
He looked over the letter again. Barnaby Sattermole probably represented one of those horrible collectors, the kind who had to have every scrap of trivia, no matter how obscure, associated with his mother's books. Jerry supposed he was lucky no one had yet decided to collect him. Still, he wondered how much Sattermole would be willing to pay for his old and useless drawings. He shrugged and put the letter away in a drawer; he'd decide what to do with it later.
"LATER" CAME TWO days after that, when he heard a knock at his door. He almost didn't answer it, thinking it might be that prying woman again. But when he looked through the peephole he saw a short bald man smiling up at him. He opened the door a crack.
"My name is Barnaby Sattermole," the man said. "I wrote you a few days ago, about your artwork. Can I come in?"
"I don't talk about my mother's books. I'm sorry."
"I'm not interested in your mother's books. It's you who interest me. As I said in my letter, I can make you quite a lucrative offer for any pieces of artwork you have lying around."
"All right," Jerry said, unlatching the chain. "But just for a moment. I'm fairly busy right now."
Sattermole strode into the house as though he had been there many times before. Jerry felt the familiar nervousness a stranger always aroused in him. His mother, he thought again, had a lot to answer for.
"Great house," Sattermole said, looking around eagerly.
Jerry, looking with him, couldn't see what had sparked such enthusiasm. It was a cheap stucco-covered bungalow, with thin walls and bad plumbing. He had a ratty couch and two uncomfortable folding chairs, and an old television perched on top of a card table. His ex-wife had taken all the good furniture, everything but the garden. He sometimes thought she would have taken that too if she could.
"Sit down, please," Jerry said, belatedly remembering his nanny Hilda's many lessons on politeness. "Would you like something to drink?"
"No. No, thank you." Sattermole took the couch, crossing his legs and spreading his arms out along the back. Jerry sat gingerly on a chair. "So," Sattermole said, "this was where it all happened."
"Where all what happened?"
"The story." Sattermole smiled broadly; the grin almost split his round face in half. "'The sun was shining brightly as Jeremy Jerome Gerontius Jones pushed back the gate and went into the garden,'" he quoted.
"Mr. Sattermole. I'm sorry, but you said you wouldn't talk about my mother."
"I'm not talking about your mother. I'm talking about you. It was you who pushed back the gate in the garden fence and found yourself in an overgrown field, almost a wood. And you who went through the wood and saw the huge tree with a doorway in its trunk, a doorway bound in iron and topped with spikes. And then you opened the door and found yourself in the tunnels."
Jerry stirred uneasily on his seat. His nervousness increased; he was dealing with a madman. "Mr. Sattermole," he said carefully, "that was fiction. A story. My mother made it up."
"From stories you told her."
"That's what she says."
"What she says? Do you mean that she was the one who visited the Land?"
"No. I mean that there is no Land of Neverwas, that the Land doesn't exist. I may have been the one to make the stories upI don't remember. If that's what she says, then she's probablyright. But I can assure you that I never actually went through a door in a tree trunk."
"Let me ask you something, though. This house that you live in now, was this the one that had the tree in the backyard?"
Jerry sighed. He should have never let this man inside, but now that he was here Jerry was too polite to throw him out. "No," he said. "No, that was the house where I grew up. I moved here with my wife in"
Sattermole seemed uninterested in that. "And the house you grew up in. Where would that be?"
"Mr. Sattermole," Jerry said. Exasperation was driving out nervousness now. "You said you wanted to talk to me about my work. My drawings."
"To be honest, I was hoping you would show me your old house, where the tree stands. I've cleared my calendarwe can go there now, if you're ready."
"I'm sorryI'm afraid I can't"
Sattermole put his hand in his coat pocket. Good God, Jerry thought, what if he has a gun? But Sattermole only drew out a notepad and flipped through it. "What was the address?" he asked.
Someone knocked at the door. With relief, Jerry rose to open it. Ruth Berry stood there, her hand poised to knock again.
Great, Jerry thought. Both the nuts are here nowmaybe they can drive to the asylum together and turn themselves in. He opened the door. "This is Ruth Berry," Jerry said to Sattermole. "She's interested in my mother's works too. And this is Barnaby Sattermole."
He had hoped that they would talk among themselves, compare notes and leave him out of it. But Sattermole's reaction was extraordinary. "What did you tell her about this?" he asked Jerry, stuffing his notepad in his pocket as though it were a confidential document. His tone was loud, hectoring.
"What do you mean?" Jerry said.
"What I said. Did you tell her how to get to the Land?"
"I didn't tell her anything. I told youI don't answer questions about my mother's books. Mr. Sattermole, you said you wanted to talk about my drawings"
"Never mind that. If you didn't tell her anything, then why is she here?"
"For the same reason you are, it seems," Ruth said. "We're both too impolite to take no for an answer."
Sattermole turned reluctantly to face her.
"But it looks like you decided to badger him," Ruth said. "I'm hoping that a more reasonable approach might work."
"Who is this woman?" Sattermole asked Jerry.
"I am capable of answering questions for myself," Ruth said. "But Jerry's already told you. I'm researching his mother's books. Here's my card."
Sattermole took the card without looking at it and hid it away in the same pocket as his notebook. "Why?" he asked.
"What business is that of yours?" Ruth said.
"The Land of Neverwas is my business"
"Mr. Sattermole," Ruth said, "apparently you came here to discuss some drawings of Jerry's. I don't understand how you got from that to Jerry's mother's books, but it seems clear to me that you're here under false pretenses. Either you leave now, or we call the police."
"We? Since when do you speak for Mr. Jones?"
"Where's your phone, Jerry?"
"In the kitchen," Jerry said.
Ruth headed toward the next room. "All right, all right," Sattermole said, backing out. "I'm leaving. I'll leave. But I warn you, Mr. Jonesthis woman wants things from you, dangerous things. I'm the one you should trust. Call me when you're ready to talk. Here's my card. Trust meI know what I'm talking about."
Finally he stood outside, on the porch. Ruth closed the door and latched the chain. Then she turned to Jerry, laughing. "Wow. What a wacko."
Jerry sank onto the couch. "Yeah."
"Are you all right?"
"You look pale. Do you want me to get you some tea or something?"
"No. NoI'm quite all right."
"I guess this is a bad time. I don't want to bother youI'll leave that to Mr. Mole, or whatever his name is. I can come back later."
"No, it's all right. Thank you for getting me out of that. I owe you one."
"GreatI'll take you up on that. Sodo you think you can answer some of my questions, Jerry?"
"What's so funny?"
"The way you call me Jerry. Just now, and before when you asked me where the phone was. As if we've known each other forever."
"Sorry. What would you prefer? Mr. Jones?"
"No. No, Jerry's fine. I envy you, really. I can never be that friendly on a first meeting."
Jerry sighed. "It's a long story," he said.
"I've got time."
He hesitated. After all, he barely knew this woman. "You know, I do feel a little shaken. What a strange man he was. Why don't you give me a call and we'll set up a time to talk?" And if I change my mind, he thought, I'll get out of it somehow.
"All right." She looked disappointed; he supposed he couldn't blame her. "I'll see you later, Jerry."
"Good-bye, Ms. Berry," he said.
Copyright © 1999 by Lisa Goldstein