Read an Excerpt
“Here is a novel guaranteed to double the national nightmare quotient, so watch out!”
“Buy it today. Anything by Straub is worth several thousand John Sauls and a million V. C. Andrewses.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A deliciously imaginative story of hauntings and monsters.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A book that positively bubbles with invention, jammed with characters, color, events, hackle-raising twists of fate, horrific monsters, terrifying nightmares, and a reality that shimmers and shifts as much as the noxious steam from a witch’s cauldron.”
Berkley Books by Peter Straub
After ten years in Dublin and London, my wife and I moved back to the United States with our our two-year-old son in the summer of 1979. We were so out of touch with American realities that to us Cape Cod, Long Island, and Connecticut’s Fairfield County seemed within an hour or two drive of each other and more or less identical. That is, they all sounded like entertaining places to live. (We had no idea that New York City, specifically Manhattan, would be perfect for us, being the most reliably entertaining place in America.) Victor Temkin, the lively soul then president of Berkley Books, recommended Westport, Connecticut, for the excellence of its school system and its proximity to New York. So we arranged a long-distance rental, arrived in New York to spend a week at the dire, long-vanished Summit Hotel, known to us as The Abyss, then mushed north into Fairfield County, which, not very coincidentally, was the title of the book I intended to write after finishing my work-in-progress, Shadowland. Within a month, our real-estate agent, whom I will call Barbara Baxter, drove us to a terrific old house near Burying Hill Beach on Westport’s Gold Coast, and by the end of the summer we had moved in, along with an army of carpenters headed by a twinkling, white-bearded giant named Ben Rohr.
While sawdust and the sound of hammering filled the air, I charged along through Shadowland, which I finished in the immense, beautiful new office Ben Rohr had created for me from a nest of maids’ rooms and unfinished space on the third floor. Ah, what a place—just coming up off the narrow staircase and turning into the room made me want to get to work. The question was, what was Fairfield County going to be about?
Clearly, the book at least in part would be about the experience of moving to Fairfield County, a subject that occupied me daily, whether I liked it or not. Richard and Laura Allbee recapitulate most of the upsets and discoveries my wife and I encountered during the first year of our reentry into the country we had left a decade earlier. No one ever expects to get culture shock from their own country, but stay away long enough and you can’t avoid it—America refuses to stand still. As we were, the Allbees are as amazed as rubes by the plenitude and abundance of goods in the local supermarket. As we did, they inwardly recoil from the astonishingly intimate confessions uttered by total strangers. (In front of the meat department in Waldbaum’s stupendous grocery, a woman turned to me and said, “My first four abortions were absolute murder.” “Ah,” I said, backpedaling.) In England, everybody smoked and drank, what fun, but in Westport everybody jogged, and the only person choosing a pack from the drugstore’s staggering cigarette cornucopia was me. People assumed intimacy; they actually hid behind a kind of sincerity, of all possible stances; they didn’t know that conversation was supposed to be entertainment, a game, a giddy free-for-all, instead of deadly anecdotes punctuated with opinions about sports and politics, plus financial advice. All of this went into the book, as did some of the locals: Barbara Baxter became cheerful Ronnie Riggley, her cop boyfriend Bobo Farnsworth, Ben Rohr passed virtually unchanged into Ben Roehm, and the social columnist in the Westport News turned into the Hampstead Gazette’s Sarah Spry.
At first, I was vaguely planning to do something Scott Fitzgerald-ish, but the book snapped into clearer focus when the evening news reported that five workmen found mysteriously dead in a Stamford factory had been declared victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. A colorless, odorless gas had seeped into their chamber and before they had any idea of being in peril, killed them all with the efficiency of a machine gun. Suppose the gas were not carbon monoxide but something worse, something more complex and sinister; suppose it traveled like a thinking cloud northward above I-95 the twenty miles from Stamford to Westport and there settled to Earth, creating a bizarre, hallucinatory, generally corpse-strewn disorder? That would make half of the kind of book I wanted to write. The other half came from thinking about why such a colorful tragedy might descend upon charming little Westport/Hampstead.
Without ever admitting it to myself, I knew that this book would be at least a temporary farewell to the supernatural material that had been my daily fare since I first began to butter my own bread by driving a succession of Staedtler Mars-Lumograph 100 B and Blackwing 602 pencils across hundreds of sheets of paper. Undead things in bandages, ancient curses, paranormal powers, the inanimate alarmingly animated, spontaneous combustion, visionary apprehensions, human beings uniting into ad hoc families to combat hideous literal evils, ghosts, ravening beasts, beckoning mirrors, vampiric entities, external horrors, that whole gaudy blaring blinding circus of metaphor made real—at a level just below consciousness, I had decided to take my leave of all this dear, goofy imagery by wrapping it all together in one gigantic package and then . . . blowing it up! Anything like restraint or good taste was verboten, the aesthetic was grounded in a single principle, that of excess.
As a narrative rooted in the principle of excess, Floating Dragon proceeds through a series of sustained, escalating set pieces toward a climactic moment of outright lunacy. Our band of illuminated heroes bursts into “Bye, Bye Blackbird”; a shotgun mutates into a glowing, outrageously phallic sword; a literal dragon explodes into a mountain of fire; an entire town more or less detonates. It is completely shameless. However, it is not without a measure of deliberate and conscious craft.
During the late seventies, I discovered the work of the English novelist Paul Scott, whose Raj Quartet seemed to me a master class in how to organize a great mass of complex material in a way that actually represented its complexity. Scott broke his material into a shifting continuum of third person accounts, quoted documents, and flashbacks in the form of stories told by the characters. The ongoing narrative was in constant motion, refracted through many different points of view. For sheer novelistic technique, I had never seen anything like it, and I went through the Quartet’s more than two thousand pages in a trance of awed delight. My whizbang, Floating Dragon, could never attain or even aspire to Scott’s moral seriousness, but I could at least do my best to honor his method, which seemed the most promising way to stretch my canvas over dozens of different characters each intent on his or her own ends, and four or five separate eras in Hampstead’s history.
I wrote the first third of the novel in my usual old way, by hand, in pencil, then typing up what I had written. At that point Stephen King and I signed the contract for our first collaboration, The Talisman, and agreed to buy computers before we began the work. To accustom myself to a keyboard, I bought an IBM Selectric typewriter, which hummed and buzzed reassuringly through the middle section of Floating Dragon. Before beginning the final third, I bought an IBM Displaywriter, one of the first word processors—it was so expensive that for a couple of days two staff people from IBM headquarters in Stamford showed up to teach me how to use it. (King bought a machine he liked to call his “big Wang.”) I wrote the final section in pencil across something like three hundred pages of lined journal, then typed the results up onto my brand-new monitor and printed them out. At the time, I thought that the epilogue was one of the best things I’d ever written, and I still do. It’s full of the lovely, delicious agony of leave-taking.
I also thought that dedicated horror readers would love my exuberant valentine to their favorite genre, for it represented a kind of love letter to them. Instead, they scorned the book: I had forgotten that true believers dislike and distrust anyone who appears to be having fun with the object of their faith. Ordinary readers, on the other hand, practically vacuumed the book off the shelves, which was extremely reassuring.
Now time and the land are identical,
—John Ashbery, Haunted Landscape
The devil is a dumb spirit. All the devil knows is what you tell him with your own big fat mouth.
—Frederick K. Price
The Death of Stony Friedgood
For Stony Baxter Friedgood, her infrequent adulteries were adventures—picking up a man who thought he was picking her up gave her life a sense of drama missing since she had been twenty and a student at Scripps-Claremont. Not only adventures, they were the salvation of her marriage. In college she had juggled four boyfriends, and only one of them, a mathematics graduate student named Leo Friedgood, had known of the existence of the others. Leo had seemed amused by her secretiveness, as he was amused by her private school nickname. Only after several months did Stony realize the extent to which amusement masked arousal.
She married him just after graduation—no graduate school for Stony, and no more for Leo, who shaved his beard and bought a suit and took a job with Telpro Corporation, which had an office in Santa Monica.
Tabby Smithfield grew to the age of five in an enormous stone house in Hampstead, Connecticut, with four acres of well-tended ground and a burglar alarm on the front gates. The neighborhood, consisting of sixteen houses along Long Island Sound, was impressive enough to attract its own tourists; perhaps six cars a day trolled down Mount Avenue, the drivers and passengers leaning to glimpse the mansions behind the gates. Locally, Mount Avenue was “The Golden Mile,” though it was twice longer than that; it was the original road between Hillhaven, the Victorian suburb of Patchin, and Hampstead. Mount Avenue, the site of the original farm settlements of Hampstead and Hillhaven, had once been the principal coaching road north to New Haven, but its hectic days were long past. Manufacturers with plants in Bridgeport or Woodville, a doctor, and the head of Patchin County’s biggest legal practice lived in the impressive houses, along with others like them, older people who wished no excitement in their private lives. Tourists rubbernecking along the Golden Mile rarely saw them—there might be a visiting movie star taking the sea-laden air along the coastal road or a college president pausing for breath before he made his pitch for funds, but the owners of the houses were invisible.
Outside the gray stone house, however, those taking a fast peek through the opened gates in 1969 might have seen a tall dark-haired man in tennis whites playing with a small boy. Perhaps a uniformed nanny would have been hovering on the steps before the front door, her posture inexplicably tense. And perhaps the boy’s posture too would have seemed awkward, inhabited by the same tension, as if little Tabby Smithfield were half-aware that he was not supposed to be playing with his father. They make an oddly static and incomplete scene, father and son and nanny. They are badly composed: one figure is missing.
Stony Friedgood’s first affair after her marriage was in 1964, with the husband of a friend, a neighbor in their neat row of tract houses: he was unlike Leo, being jovial and blond and easygoing, a very junior banker, and Leo invariably spoke of him with contempt. This affair endured only two months.
Stony’s delicate face, which was sharp-featured and framed in shining brown hair, became familiar in galleries and art museums, in certain bars at certain times. Considered from a utilitarian point of view, one neither Stony’s nor Leo’s parents could have understood, the Friedgoods had a successful marriage. By the time Leo was promoted twice and transferred to Telpro’s New York offices, their income had doubled and Stony weighed only a pound more than when she was a student at Scripps. She left behind her yoga classes, a half-completed gourmet-cooking course, four unused tickets to a concert series, the undigested and already vague memories of six or seven men. Leo left nothing at all behind—the company paid to ship east his sailboat and the eight cases he called his “cellar.”
Monty Smithfield, his grandfather, was the great figure in Tabby’s early childhood. It was Monty who kissed him first when he returned from nursery school, and Monty and his mother took him to his first haircut. Birthdays and Christmases Monty gave him stupefying presents, vast train sets and every possible sort of preschool vehicle from walkers to Big Wheels, even a dwarf pony stabled at a riding school. This was presented with much fanfare at Tabby’s third birthday. August, 1968. Monty had provided a party for twenty children, a band playing Beatle songs and tunes from Disney movies, an ice sculpture of a brontosaurus—Tabby loved dinosaurs then, and only evolution kept Monty Smithfield from buying his grandson a baby monster. “Come on, Clark,” called the jubilant old man as the gardener led out the shaggy little pony. “Mount your son on this great beast.” But Clark Smithfield had gone inside to his bedroom and was at that moment whacking a tennis ball against the elaborate headboard with a well-worn Spaulding racket, trying to chip the paint off one of the wooden curlicues.
Like any child, Tabby had no idea of what his father did for a living, no idea that there was a living to be earned. Clark Smithfield was at home four or five days every week, playing his rock records in the living room of their wing of the big house, going out to tennis matches whenever he could. If at the age of three or four Tabby had been asked what his father did, he would have answered that he played games. Clark never took him to the company of which he was a nominal vice-president; his grandfather did, and showed him off to the secretaries, announcing that here was the future chairman of the board of Smithfield Systems, Inc. Before he showed Tabby the computer room, the old man opened a door and said, “For the record, this is your father’s office.” It was a small dusty room containing an almost bare desk and many photographs of Tabby’s father winning college tennis tournaments; also a Richard Nixon dart board, as dusty as everything else. “Does my daddy work here?” Tabby asked with sweet innocence, and one of the secretaries snickered. “He does,” Tabby insisted valiantly. “He does work here. Look! He plays tennis here!” A spasm of distaste passed over Monty Smithfield’s tidy features, and the old man did not smile for the remainder of the tour.
Whenever his father and grandfather were in the same room—at the family dinners Clark could not avoid, at any occasion when Monty came into his son’s living quarters—an almost visible atmosphere of dislike frosted the air. At these times Tabby saw his father shrink to a child only slightly older than himself. “Why don’t you like Grandpa?” he asked his father once, when Clark was reading him a bedtime story. “Oh, it’s too complicated for you,” Clark sighed.
At times, more frequently as he grew closer to five, Tabby heard them fighting.
Clark and his father argued about the length of Clark’s hair, about Clark’s aspirations as a tennis player (which his father scorned), about Clark’s attitude. Clark and Monty Smithfield normally kept a cool distance from each other, but when Monty decided to harangue his son, they shouted—in the dining room, in both living rooms, in the hallway, on the lawn. These arguments always ended with Clark storming away from his father.
“What are you going to do?” Monty called out to him after a wrangle Tabby witnessed. “Leave home? You can’t afford to—you couldn’t get another job.”
Tabby’s face went white—he didn’t understand the words, but he heard the scorn in them. That day he did not speak until dinnertime.
Clark’s wife and mother were the glue that held the two families in their uneasy harmony: Monty genuinely liked Jean, Tabby’s mother, and Jean and her mother-in-law kept Clark in his job. Maybe if Clark Smithfield had been either a twenty-percent-better tennis player than he was, or a twenty-percent-worse one, the misery in the old house on Mount Avenue would have dissipated. Or if he had been less intransigent, his father less adamant. But Jean and her mother-in-law, thinking that the passage of time would reconcile Clark to his job and Monty to his son, kept the families together. And so they stayed, in their sometimes almost comfortable antagonism. Until the first truly terrible thing that happened to Tabby and his family.
The Friedgoods, who appeared to be a model couple, moved to a builder’s colonial in Hampstead in 1975, when Tabby Smithfield was ten years old and living with his father and stepmother in South Florida. As Leo Friedgood was on his way upward into the world he coveted, Clark Smithfield appeared to be running out his meager luck: he had a job as a bartender, quit that to take a job as salesman for Hollinsworth Vitreous, was fired from that when he got drunk on the yacht belonging to the president of the company and vomited on Robert Hollinsworth’s carpet-weave slippers, did another stint tending bar, and took a job as a security guard. He worked nights and nipped from a bottle whenever his round took him back to the security station. Like his first wife, his mother was also dead—Agnes Smithfield had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage one warm May morning as she discussed the installation of a rock garden with the groundsman and her life had fled before her body struck the ground. Monty Smithfield had sold his big house on Mount Avenue and moved with the housekeeper and cook into a house called “Four Hearths” on Hermitage Road, five minutes inland. His end of Hermitage Road was only two wooded hilly blocks from the place the Friedgoods bought.
Leo was now a division vice-president for Telpro, making nearly fifty thousand dollars a year; he bought his suits at Tripler, grew a thick aggressive mustache and let his hair get long enough to be bushy. Always fleshy, he had put on twenty extra pounds despite a daily mile-long jog, and now—arrogant eyes, dark mustache and unrestrained hair—he had the faintly lawless, buccaneerlike appearance of many a corporate executive who sees himself as a predator in a jungle full of predators.
In 1975, the first year on Cannon Road in Hampstead, Stony joined New Neighbors, High Minds—a book discussion group—the League of Women Voters and a cooking class, the YMCA, and the library. She would have looked for a job, but Leo did not want her to work. She would have tried to get pregnant, but Leo, whose own childhood was an epic of maternal bullying, became irrational when she tried to discuss it. In the Hampstead Gazette she read an ad for a yoga class and quit the New Neighbors. Soon after, she left High Minds and the League too.
The Hampstead Gazette came twice weekly. The little tabloid was Stony’s chief source of information about her new town. From it she learned of the Women’s Art League, and joined that, thinking she would meet painters—one of the boys in California had been a painter. And because she wanted to, of course she did. Pat Dobbin was celebrated locally, neither especially good nor bad; he lived alone in a small house in the woods; he did illustrations—these much better than his paintings—to make a living. During one of Leo’s business trips, she attended an Art League dinner with the painter: she was aware that the midge-sized red-haired woman carrying a notebook was Sarah Spry, author of the weekly social column “What Sarah Saw” in the Gazette, but was not prepared to see this item in the next week’s column:
Sarah Saw: Thistown’s brilliant painter and illustrator PAT DOBBIN (can’t say enough about the boy! Caught his stunning new abstract seascapes at PALMER GALLERY yet?) at the Women’s Art League bash parading in elegant black tie and showing off a lovely mystery woman. Who’s the unknown beauty, Pat? Fess up and tell Sarah.
When Leo returned from his trip, he read this paragraph and asked, “Did you enjoy the Art League thing Friday night? Too bad I couldn’t have gone with you.” His eyes were bright and ironic.
Unlike her husband, Jean Smithfield was a careful driver. When she and Clark left their son with his grandparents for an evening, she always insisted on driving home if Clark went over his normal limit of two drinks before dinner and a couple of glasses of wine while they ate. On nights when Clark complained more than usually about his father or reminisced through ancient tennis matches, she drove home even if it meant listening to Clark railing about her relationship with his father. He would say, “You actually like that old buzzard! Do you know what that does to me? Christ, sometimes I think he turns you on—all those pinstripe suits get to you, don’t they? You dig white hair. You don’t have any more loyalty to me than to let the old man’s phony charm get to you.” If Clark were really bad, he’d pass out before they pulled through the gates. “He’ll never get Tabby,” he would mutter. “He’ll never forget I existed and make Tabby into his son. One thing he’ll never do.” Jean did her best to ignore this ranting.
They usually ate at a French restaurant up toward Patchin on the Post Road. One night in late November in 1970, Jean took a dollar from her bag as they went outside and stationed herself where the valet could see her. “I can drive,” Clark grumped. “Not tonight,” she said, and gave the bill to the boy when he got out of their car. “We ought to have a goddamned Mercedes,” Clark said as he let himself into the passenger seat. “All it takes is money,” she informed him.
Jean pulled out across the oncoming lane and pointed the car toward Pigeon Lane, the next traffic light.
“He’s at it again,” Clark muttered. “He wants to send Tabby to the Academy—public school isn’t good enough for his grandson.”
“You went to the Academy,” Jean said.
“Because my father could afford it!” Clark screamed. “Don’t you get the point, dammit? I’m Tabby’s father, dammit, and . . .”
Jean was looking at him and she saw his face go slack as the sentence died away. Clark no longer looked angry or drunk. He looked worried.
She snapped her head forward and saw a station wagon sliding across the dividing line, coming toward them. Ice, she thought, a patch of . . .
“Move it!” Clark shouted. And Jean twisted the wheel to the right. Another car which had pulled out of the restaurant just behind them struck her left-rear bumper so hard that Jean’s hands flew off the steering wheel.
The station wagon, which had been going nearly fifty miles an hour before it struck the slick of ice, slammed straight into her door. Jean Smithfield tried to say “Tabby” before she died, but the door had crushed her chest and she did not have time.
In the mansion on Mount Avenue, her son woke up screaming.
The nineteen-year-old driver of the station wagon fell out of his car and tried to crawl away across the frozen road. He was bleeding from his scalp. Clark Smithfield, completely unharmed, took one look at his wife and threw up in his lap. Then he got out of the car and fell to his knees. Clark saw the boy who had killed his wife and yelled at him to stop. He struggled to his feet. The boy sat up twenty feet from his ruined car and was covered with snow and black mush that had been snow. Blood dripped from his nose and chin. Clark instantly recognized a fellow drunk. “Animal!” he screamed.
Tabby was rushing around his bedroom still yelling, feeling blindly for the light switch. He knew where nothing was; he was in an inside-out world. He caromed into his bed, slipped on a rag rug, and his screams went up an octave. Within seconds his grandfather and his nanny were at the door.
It took the Hampstead police ten minutes to reach the tangle of cars on the Post Road.
May 17, 1980
On May 17, 1980, the dragon came to Patchin County—no, did not come, for it had been there all along, but decided to show itself. Richard and Laura Allbee, after twelve years in London, had just arrived at their rented house on Fairytale Lane in Hampstead that noon: they were tired and confused, disoriented after two days in New York, more disoriented by suddenly finding themselves in the situation they had been projecting themselves into for months. Clark Smithfield had moved his wife and son into “Four Hearths,” the old colonial on Hermitage Road, only two weeks earlier, and was already practicing the deception that would ruin his son’s faith in him. A small, pretty woman named Patsy McCloud spent most of the day reading War and Remembrance. And what was Graham Williams, the mortal remains of a writer once notorious, doing? What he did every day in April and May of 1980. He had risen from an odoriferous bed at seven, put clothes on over his pajamas, splashed water in the direction of his face, and sat at his desk and put his head in his hands. When he heard the mailman’s truck outside, he ignored it. Chances were that his mailbox had been cherry-bombed anyhow. After thirty minutes of silent prayer, ha ha, he wrote a sentence. Fifteen minutes later, he decided that it was banal and erased it. That was how Graham Williams customarily spent his waking hours.
The Allbees were pretending to be happier than they felt, old Williams was pretending to himself that his book could still catch fire, Patsy McCloud pretended that any minute she was going to get up and do something, Clark Smithfield’s pretense was particularly elaborate. Leo Friedgood’s deception was simpler than all of these, for he was not in New York at all, but twenty minutes down I-95 from Hampstead, at a Telpro plant in a small city called Woodville. And his wife had just decided to have another adventure.
Stony found a parking place in the station lot, went into a lively bar called Franco’s, sat at a table near the bar and opened a book. It took less than fifteen minutes for a man to say, “Do you mind?” and sit down beside her. He was a man she knew, but even though this man was respected in Hampstead, none of the other men in the bar would have met him. His profession kept him from male company. Handsome in a weathered way, professionally discreet, this man was perfect for Stony. Very soon they left the bar, and Stony’s leaf-colored Toyota led the way over the bridge across the Nowhatan River and down the green, already summery streets.
After Jean Smithfield’s burial on the last day of November 1970, Clark stayed home with Tabby for a solid week, and for once his father did not insist on his going to the office. Neither did he blame Clark for getting too drunk to go to the funeral. “I should have been driving,” Clark said more than once. “I wanted to drive—she wanted to protect me, can you bear it? She wanted to protect me.” After the day of the funeral, he did not take a drink until Christmas.
For Tabby, the world had become as it was on the night of his mother’s death; inside out, unknown, dark. His grandfather had taken him to the funeral home and let him touch the casket, and when he did, right there in front of Monty and the neighbors and all of his grown-up relatives, something happened to him. He saw. He saw blackness all around him. He knew he was in that box with his mommy. He let out a wail of blind terror and his grandfather snatched him up. “You’re a good boy, sweet Tabby,” his grandfather crooned, pressing him into the soft blue material of his suit. “You’re going to be okay, darling.” Tabby blinked and turned his head away from the coffin. He did not utter a sound during the burial service, and when they got home, he and Monty found Clark passed out on a chair before the television set. Tabby curled into his father’s lap and would not speak or move.
After those first days Clark Smithfield went to work with his father five days a week until Christmas. He inhabited his office, he signed papers, he read reports. He issued memos and attended meetings. On Saturdays and Sundays he took Tabby downstairs and bounced tennis balls toward him on the concrete floor; Tabby tried to return them with his undersized racket. In the afternoons they took walks up and down the brisk cold length of Mount Avenue. “Mommy’s dead,” Tabby pronounced in his piping child’s voice. “Mommy’s dead, and she’s never coming back because she’s in heaven now.” He pointed a mitten toward the sky. “She’s up there, Daddy.” Clark began to cry again, but this time for his son—for his brave small boy in his blue parka, standing with his mitten in the air and his Snoopy boots on the crusty snow.
On Christmas Day, Monty announced at dinner that he had another present for Tabby, the best present of all. Sitting at the head of the table, he looked gentle and refined, also proud of himself. “Nobody on earth can give better than a good education,” he said. He sipped his burgundy. “And so I can take great pleasure in telling you all that Mr. Cathcart, the headmaster of Greenbank Academy, has agreed to let our Tabby switch to the kindergarten there as soon as school begins again in January.”
His wife said, “Bravo.” Clark started to say something but closed his mouth, and Tabby looked confused.
“You can go to school right across the street,” Monty said. “Doesn’t that sound good, son? And you’ll be going to the same school your father and I both went to.”
“Good,” Tabby said, looking from his grandfather to his father.
“Well, I’m glad that’s settled, anyhow,” Clark’s mother said.
“I don’t want to step on your toes, Clark,” said Monty. “We’ll split the tuition right down the line. But I think I owe it to the boy to give him the best.”
“You always do,” Clark muttered. After dinner he made himself a drink for the first time since the day of his wife’s funeral.
May 17, 1980
Stony waited on her driveway for the man to get out of his car. It was a minute before six, and if Leo had been home, he’d have been parked in front of the television set in the den, papers in his lap, a drink on the table beside him, all warmed for the local New York news.
The man left his car and glanced at the house. “Nice,” he said. His hair lifted a bit in the mild breeze from the Sound. His eyes seemed kind and empty. He buttoned up his raincoat, though it was neither cold nor raining. “Nobody home,” he said. He came toward Stony over the gravel drive and touched her hand. They kissed.
January 6, 1971
At eleven o’clock on January 6, 1971—the day before Tabby was to begin at his new school—Clark Smithfield drove his father’s car through the gates and pulled up in front of the house instead of going around to the garage. He hurried into the house, glanced to both sides, and went up the stairs two at a time.
He could hear Tabby and the nanny talking in Tabby’s room, and gently pushed the door open. His son gave him a broad hilarious smile. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” he sang out. “A man and a lady were kissing!”
“What?” he asked the girl.
“I don’t know, sir. He just said it.”
“They were kissing, Daddy! Like this!” Tabby pursed his lips and moved his blond head from side to side. Then he burst into gleeful laughter.
“Yes,” Clark said. “Emily, you can leave us for a while. I have to take Tabby out for a little bit.”
“You want me to leave?” she asked, getting up from the toy-strewn floor.
“Yes, please, that’s fine,” Clark said. “We’ll be gone a couple of hours. Don’t worry about anything.”
“I won’t,” the girl said. “Give Emily a good-bye kiss, Tabby.” She bent toward him.
“Kissing, Daddy,” Tabby shouted, and tilted his head to meet Emily’s lips with his own.
When the nanny had gone, Clark pulled a green bookbag—Tabby’s catch-all—from a shelf and began stuffing it with random toys and books.
“Hey, don’t do that, Daddy!” Tabby said.
“We’re just going to take a little trip,” Clark said. “On an airplane. Would you like that? It’s a surprise.”
“A surprise for Grandpa?” Tabby shouted.
“A surprise for us.” From Tabby’s closet he pulled a small blue case and threw underwear, socks, shirts, and pants into it. “We’ll need some clothes for you, and then we can go.”
For ten minutes Tabby supervised the packing of his clothes, making sure that his father put his favorite T-shirts in the case. Tabby put on his own coat, mittens, and stocking hat. Clark took his own suitcase from under his bed. “All right, Tabby,” he said, kneeling before his son. “Now, we’re going to go right downstairs, out the door, and into the car. Just this once, we won’t say good-bye to Emily. Do you understand?”
“I already said good-bye to Emily,” Tabby said.
“Okay. Nice and quiet.”
“Nice and quiet,” Tabby called out, and they went down the stairs to the front door. The voices of Emily and the housekeeper drifted quietly from the kitchen.
Clark opened the door. Frigid January air cut into them. The ground was frosted with white, pocked here and there with the tracks of squirrels and raccoons. “Daddy,” Tabby whispered. Clark looked once more back at the interior of the house, back at the marble hall, the thick rugs and plush furniture, the big paintings of ships. “Daddy.”
“What?” He closed the door behind them.
“That man was bad.”
“What man, Tabby?”
Tabby looked confused and lost for a moment—an expression on his son’s face that Clark had come to know well. “It doesn’t matter, Tabby,” he said. “There aren’t any bad men.”
He threw the suitcases into the backseat and drove through the open gates.
When they turned west on the thruway, Tabby shouted out, “We’re going to You Nork!”
“We’re going to the airport, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, the airport. To ride on the airplane. For a surprise.”
“Yeah,” Clark said. And pushed the car up to seventy.
May 17, 1980
When Stony pushed open the bedroom door with her hip, she saw that the man was already in bed. He had propped himself up on two pillows. His skin was very white—against the pink sheets, his face and hairless chest were the color of cottage cheese. His whole face looked glazed. She said, “You don’t waste any time.”
“Time,” the man said. “Never do.”
“You’re sure you’re all right?” His clothes were thrown on the floor beside the bed. Stony held out his drink, but the man appeared not to notice—he was gazing at her glass-eyed—and she put the drink on the bedside table.
“I’m really all right.”
Stony shrugged, sat down and took off her shoes.
“I was here before,” the man said.
Stony pushed her skirt over her hips. “Do you mean in this house? Before we moved in? Did you know the Allenbys?”
He shook his head. “I was here before.”
“Oh, we’ve all been here before,” Stony said. “This is bigger than football.”
May 17, 1980
You were dreaming for a long time and then you were not. You were asleep in a place you did not know, and when you awakened you were someone else. You had a drink in your hand and a woman was looking at you and Dragon the world was yours again.
January 6, 1971
“Airplane,” Tabby said once in a voice full of wonder, and then was silent as Monty Smithfield’s car rolled down the thruway past the lower end of Hampstead, past fields and houses, past Norrington, past the office buildings and high-rise motels of Woodville with their bright signs, under bridges and past the crank of the window at toll booths, past Kingsport, into Westchester County where the thruway grew grimy and pitted, into Queens.
“What’s the matter?” his father asked brusquely as they took the interchange which led to Long Island. For some time everything they passed looked bleakly threatening. From the trim hills and sparkling landscapes of Patchin County they had gone into the land of the alien. Tabby felt that here was the world that had killed his mother. “Don’t you want to take a trip?”
His father cursed. Cars gray with filth complained about them.
“I want to be home,” Tabby said.
“From now on we’re going to have a new home. Everything’s going to be different, Tabby.”
“Everything’s different now.”
“I don’t have any choice, Tabs—I have a new job.” The first time he was to utter that lie; it would become habitual.
* * *
Clark left the car in the long-term parking garage. Gray concrete blocks mounted tomblike on all sides; the air too was gray, smelling of dust and grease. When Tabby opened his door and climbed out, he saw a wide stain on the concrete beside him and thought it was a living thing. A hoarse shout boomed from the level beneath. Portents of a world without love or grace.
“Move it, Tabby. I can’t help it—I’m nervous.”
Tabby moved it. He trotted beside his father all the way to the elevator and stood in the shelter of his legs.
The elevator lurched downward. Inspected by. Permit issued by. In case of emergency use telephone. “The emergency is getting to the airport,” said a man in cowboy boots and a leather jacket. A woman with lion hair laughed, exposing feral lipstick-stained teeth. When she saw Tabby staring at her, she mussed his hair and said, “Cute.”
“Stop daydreaming,” Clark said, pushing his way into cold air. Doors whooshed open; they entered the terminal. Clark loaded the suitcase on the scale, produced a folder. “Nonsmoking,” he said.
“Daddy,” Tabby said. “Please, Daddy.”
“What? What the hell is it now?”
“We didn’t bring Spiderman.”
“We’ll get another one.”
“I don’t want—”
Clark grabbed his hand and jerked him toward the escalator. Tabby cried out in fear and despair, for in that second he saw the wide crowded terminal as filled with dead people—corpses flung here and there, one naked man covered with crawling white sores. It was only the vision of a moment, less than a second even, and when it passed his mouth was still making that noise. “Tabby,” his father said more gently, “you’ll get a new one.”
“Uh huh,” Tabby said, not knowing what had happened to him, but knowing that somewhere on the edges of what he had seen had been a boy with burning clothes, and that the boy had been the most important part of what he had seen. Because he was the boy. Bright red and yellow lights filled his vision, and he swayed on his feet. The little dots of light swarmed.
His father was kneeling beside him, holding him up. They were no longer on the escalator, and people were pushing past them. “Hey, Tabs,” his father was saying. “Are you okay? You want some water?”
“Pretty soon we’ll be on that old airplane. Then we have a nice ride, and then we’ll be in Florida. It’s nice and warm in Florida. There’ll be sun and palm trees and places to swim. And good tennis courts we can play on. Everything’s going to be great.”
Tabby looked past his father’s shoulder and saw a corridor endlessly long down which some half-ran, others rode on a moving belt. “Sure,” he whispered.
“We need this, Tabby.”
The boy nodded.
“Have you ever seen the tops of clouds? We’ll be able to look down and see what’s on top of the clouds.”
Tabby looked up with a flicker of interest.
His father stood; they stepped on the moving belt. Tabby thought of the tops of clouds, of an upside-down world.
Then ahead of them was a wall of light—a curved wall of windows, blindingly bright with sun, before which huge numbers blazed: 43, 44, 45. People eaten by the sunlight lined at desks. Floppy suit bags claimed chairs in the bays before the windows. Animated uniforms strutted down a shadowed arch.
Tabby saw a familiar body, a flame of silver hair. “Grandpa!”
May 17, 1980
You carelessly put down the drink and it spilled to the floor. You watched the woman’s face change and you took her not without tenderness by the wrist.
January 6, 1971
“I thought you’d try a dumb stunt like this,” said the old man. “Did you actually think you’d get away with it?”
Tabby froze between the two men.
“You can come to me, Tabby,” his grandfather said. He extended a hand. “We’ll all go home again and forget about this.”
“To hell with you,” his father said. “Stay put, Tabby. No—go sit down on one of the chairs in there.”
“Just stay there, Tabby,” his grandfather said. “Clark, I pity you. There’s no way in the world this crazy stunt could have worked.”
“Quit calling it a stunt,” Clark said.
The old man shrugged. “Call it what you like. The boy is staying here. You can do what you like.”
“Sit down over there, Tabby,” Clark ordered. Tabby was incapable of going anywhere. “How’d you know I was going to be here?”
“You talk like a child. Nothing could have been easier than to figure out what you were up to. All right, Clark? Are you ready to give up this ridiculous idea?”
“Go to hell. You’re not going to get my son.”
“Come to me, Tabby. We’ll let your father decide how crazy he wants to be.”
Tabby made his own decision; for that comforting voice, for the softness of the cashmere coat and suit with chalky stripes. In that way he thought he was deciding for both of them, for a present that was like the past. He expected no more than that.
He stepped toward Monty Smithfield, and heard his father scream, “Tabby!” His grandfather bent down and took his hand.
“Let go of my son!” his father screamed.
Tabby felt his world shredding—“Get away from him, no-good!” his grandfather yelled—and his soul, what seemed to be his soul, divided in two as if sliced by a cleaver. In such confusion, no reason. Monty’s hand closed hard around his own, hard enough to make him cry out.
“Let go of my son,” Clark growled, “you old bastard.” He took Tabby’s other hand and tried to pull the boy toward him.
For what seemed an endless time, neither of them let go. Tabby was too panicked and shocked to utter a sound. His father and grandfather hauled on his arms as if they wanted to pull him apart. He was only dimly aware of other people rushing toward them. “Let go,” his grandfather barked in a voice not his. “You can’t have him, you can’t have him,” his father said. In their voices he heard that they would indeed pull him apart.
“Daddy, I see something!” he screamed.
He did. He saw something that would not happen for nine years, four months, and eleven days.
May 17, 1980
For a moment you paused in your occupation; you had a witness.
From Stony Baxter Friedgood, the last of life bubbled out.
January 6, 1971
“I see something, Daddy!” Tabby wailed, unable to say any more.
He became aware that his grandfather had dropped his hand. When he opened his eyes he saw a tall man in a blue uniform grasping his grandfather’s shoulder; he was on his knees in front of his father, looking up dazedly, seeing the angry pilot and his grandfather and the others behind them. His grandfather’s face was very red.
“Are we going to settle this here or do we call the cops?” the pilot asked.
Tabby got slowly to his feet.
“I’ve had enough of you,” his grandfather said. “You’re totally irresponsible. Go. Get out of my sight.”
“Just what I had in mind,” his father said in a ragged voice.
“You’ll deserve everything that happens to you. But my grandson will not. That’s the terrible pity—he’ll pay for your stupidity.”
“At least there’s one thing you won’t pay for.”
The old man shrugged himself away from the pilot. “If you think that’s an answer, I’m sorry for you.”
“Okay?” the pilot asked.
“No,” said Monty Smithfield.
“If he leaves the terminal,” said Clark, “yeah, sure.” There was triumph in it.
Tabby backed away and leaned against a sand-filled ashtray. He watched his grandfather shake out his sleeves and turn away down the long corridor. “That bitch Emily called him,” his father said.
Tabby’s legs were trembling.
“What was all that about seeing something?” his father asked. Both of them were watching the old man march straight-backed down the corridor to the moving belt.
“I don’t know.”
They sat in the lounge twenty minutes, neither of them speaking. The animated uniforms glanced at them anxiously from time to time, as if suspecting that it might have been wiser after all to have called the police.
After the Eastern 727 took off, Clark Smithfield unbuckled his seat belt and turned grinning to his son. “From now on we’re a couple of poor guys.”
Were such things here as we do speak about?
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth
What Sarah Didn’t See
May 17, 1980; a wonderful day, you would have said if you lived in Patchin County. No clouds, no moisture to spoil anybody’s picnic on this Saturday—there would be a drought, but now the grass was still green and sappy. At Franco’s, Pat Dobbin and his fellows had a few beers before lunch and looked out the front window at the train station and pitied the commuters so dogged that they went to work in New York on a Saturday like this (Dobbin left before Stony Friedgood came in—he had drawings for a children’s book called The Eagle-Bear Stories he wanted to get back to). Bobby Fritz, the gardener for most of the big houses above Gravesend Beach, rolled back and forth on his giant lawnmower, already working on his summer’s tan. Graham Williams erased a sentence, wrote it inside-out, and smiled. Patsy McCloud carried her Herman Wouk novel outside and sat in a lawn chair to read in the sun. When her husband, Les, jogged by in his red play-suit, she lowered her head and concentrated on the page; and when Les saw her perched on the chair, her neck bent like an awkward bird, he bellowed, “Lunch, girl! Lunch! Get busy!” Patsy read until the end of the chapter. Les would not make the swing back into Charleston Road for half an hour. Then she went inside, not to make the roast-beef-and-onion sandwich he would demand, but to write in her diary.
For we are in the company of diarists. Graham Williams kept a journal, Richard Allbee had done the same since he was a famous twelve-year-old boy, one of the stars of Daddy’s Here, which was brought to several million American homes by the National Broadcasting Company, Ivory soap, Ipana toothpaste, and the Ford Motor Company. Richard did not make an entry until ten at night, Laura already in bed exhausted from packing, when he wrote: Home. But this isn’t home. May it become so. He paused a moment, looked out the window at enfolding night, and put down Still it is beautiful here. Casa nueva, vida nueva.
* * *
If, on that day which was Stony Friedgood’s last and the Allbees’ first day in Patchin County, we had an aerial view of Hampstead, Connecticut, we would first have noticed the profusion of trees—Greenbank, where the Allbees would live, in particular looked forested. The Sound cradled the eastern edge of the town, and here are two strips of bright gold: Sawtell Beach, near the country club, is where most of the town goes to swim and sunbathe. Gravesend Beach is smaller and somewhat rockier. This is where the fishermen come at six in the morning, looking for bluefish from June to late September: it is Greenbank’s local beach. Above it on a steep bluff perches the old Van Horne house. Along what should be the southern edge of town runs the Nowhatan River, fifty feet wide just before it narrows down at the parking lot beside Hampstead’s business district. (In fact, the town extends a mile or two south of the river.) The Yacht Club, a vast assemblage of moored boats, sits in the curve of the estuary across from the country club and its smaller marina—from the air all these boats are little fluttering stamps, brown, red, blue, and white. Hampstead itself, roughly trapezoidal, is divided by the Conrail tracks, highway I-95, and the Post Road. All three of these go through Hillhaven and Patchin, and through Norrington and Woodville as well on their way to New York: but from the look of this town, you would never know that New York existed. On Hampstead’s northwestern edge lie placid little manmade lakes and reservoirs. The great bossy heads of the trees half-obscure the houses and roads beneath them, and obscure too the Mercedeses and Volvos, the Datsuns and Toyotas and Volkswagens which cruise along them. As the lights go on, you can see the massive white-columned front of the Congregational Church on the Post Road just before it dips into the business district—it is flanked, on either side of its extensive lawn, by a bank (which has copied its style), and a mansard-roofed shopping center with a record store, a theater, an ice-cream parlor, a health-food store, a craft shop (macrame holders for pots and giant effigies of Snoopy), and a store where you can buy down jackets and woolly hats for twice what they would cost in Norrington or Woodville.
And very late in the day, when Richard Allbee wrote God help us both in his unpretentious little book, you would have seen the streaming headlamps and flickering rooflights of two patrol cars speeding from the police station along the Post Road, then down leafy Sawtell Road, and up the Greenbank Road to the Friedgood house. Where every window poured light.
Seconds before they reached the Friedgood house, a light went out in the offices of the Hampstead Gazette on Main Street, just across from the bookstore. Sarah Spry finished her column for Wednesday’s paper, and was going home. Once again, Hampstead’s famous, near-famous, and obscure had been immortalized in the Gazette.
This is part of what Sarah wrote for that Wednesday’s column:
WHAT SARAH SAW
Thistown presents a shifting kaleidoscope of moods and impressions. Thistown gives us memories and joys and ever-changing beauties. Our wonderful painters and writers and musicians give us spice . . . how many of you know that famed F. SCOTT FITZGERALD (the Gatsby man) and his family lived a stone’s throw from Sawtell Beach, in the Mr. and Mrs. Irving Fisher house on Bluefish Hill, in the twenties? Or that EUGENE O’NEILL and JOHN BARRYMORE and GEORGE S. KAUFMAN too sojourned for a time here on the shores of Long Island Sound with us? If you ask Ada Hoff of that grand ol’ institution, the Books ‘n Bobs Bookstore right across Main Street from this great newspaper (chuckle), she might tell you of the day when poet w. H. AUDEN dropped in to buy a cookbook by Thistown’s TOMMY BIGELOW—way to go, Tommy!
Just thought I’d mention it, dear ones. This is a week when my poor old brain wanders through the delights of Thistown, admiring our beautiful old Main Street, our grand old churches of all denominations, our precious shoreline, and our colonial past which is preserved in so many of our homes. Why, a week like this makes your tough old scribe feel positively Bi-Centennial!
And as that dashing young dragon-slaying lawyer ULICK BYRNE said to Sarah the other day, Ain’t it grand to live somewhere where absolutely nothing happens at least twice a week?
But you want to know what’s going on, you say?
Sarah saw: That RICHARD ALLBEE, that darling boy from Daddy’s Here (catch a rerun on the late-nite tube and see what a cutie he was), is moving in with his bride, Laura—which is one of my alltime favorite names! Will we be seeing you around the Playhouse, Richard? (But rumor has it he acts no more, alas. . . .)
Sarah saw: a yummy long letter from former residents BUNNY and THAXTER BAINBRIDGE in Los Claros, California, where they met Thistown’s JIX and PETE PETERS, out there visiting grandkids. . . .
A slow week for Sarah.
For Leo Friedgood, there would never be any slow weeks ever again, though of this he was happily ignorant when he took the telephone call at the Yacht Club that Saturday morning. He was puttering with his boat, as he did most warm Saturdays. His eighteen-foot Lightning sloop, the Juicy Lucy, had been in the water only a week, and he wanted to repaint some of the interior trim. Bill Terry, whose Grand Banks boat was docked at the next slip, answered the phone when it rang on the dock and called out, “For you, Leo.” Leo said, “Shit,” put down his paintbrush, and paddled down the gently swaying slip. He was sweaty and his right arm was sore. Despite his bushy bristling appearance, Leo was not at heart a physical man. His ancient KEEP ON TRUCKIN’ sweatshirt bulged over his belly, his jeans bore a constellation of white specks. He wanted another bottle from the six-pack of Coors on the sloop’s deck. “Yeah,” he said into the phone. The mouthpiece stank of cigarettes.
“Mr. Friedgood?” came the anonymous female voice.
“This is Mrs. Winthrop, General Haugejas’ secretary,” the woman said, and Leo felt something icy stir in his gut. General Henry Haugejas—Leo had seen him only once, at a Telpro general meeting, a gray-flannel slab of a man whose face was the color of cooling iron. The face was slablike too. He had been a hero in the Korean War and looked as though he took no more pleasure in that than in anything else; a willful tide of strength and propriety, of sternness and distaste emanated from the stiff red face and armor of gray flannel.
“Oh, yes,” Leo said, regretting that he was not already out on the still-frigid water.
“General Haugejas has requested that you go to our Woodville plant immediately.”
“We don’t have a plant in Woodville,” Leo said.
Mrs. Winthrop silkily answered, “We do if the General says so. I understand that it will be new to you. Here’s how you get there.” She gave him an exit number on I-95, and then a complicated set of directions that seemed designed as much to confuse as to elucidate. “The General wants you there in thirty minutes,” she concluded.
“Hey, hold on,” Leo wailed. “I can’t make that. I’m on my boat. I’ll have to change my clothes. I don’t even have I.D. I can’t get into some—”
“They’ll have your name at the gate,” she said, and Leo could have sworn he heard that she was smiling. “As soon as you check into things, the General wants you to call him at this number.” She rattled off a 212 telephone number he did not recognize. He repeated it, and the secretary hung up.
* * *
In Woodville Leo got lost. Following the directions the secretary had given him, he had found himself in the city’s extensive slums, driving past rotting houses, abandoned gas stations, and tiny bars where groups of black men congregated on the sidewalks. It seemed to Leo that all of them stared at him, a white man conspicuous in a shiny car. He drove in circles, the secretary’s complex set of rights and lefts now a hopeless muddle in his mind. He began to sweat again, knowing that the thirty minutes the General had given him had passed. For a time, no matter where he turned, he seemed to swing back and forth between two poles, the thruway and the Red Devil Lounge with its crowd of lounging, already drunken men.
Going for the third time up a dingy street, he noticed the narrow track between two houses which he had previously taken for a driveway—this time he looked in and saw an iron gate before a slice of high gray wall. As he cruised past the little track, he glimpsed a guardhouse just inside the gate. Leo reversed his car and turned in between the houses, feeling like a trespasser.
For a second he thought he was wrong again, and frustrated rage burned in him. A sign on the gate read WOODVILLE SOLVENT. A uniformed man jumped out of the guardhouse and pulled open the gate. When he approached the car, Leo lowered his window and said, “Hey, do you know where the Telpro plant—”
“Mr. Friedgood?” the guard asked, looking suspiciously at Leo’s grubby clothes.
“Yeah,” Leo said.
“They want you in Research. You’re late.”
“Where’s Research?” Leo stifled the impulse to tell the man to go to hell.
The guard, moon-faced and moon-shaped, pointed across a vast, nearly empty parking lot. His belly wobbled as his arm rose. The only cars in the lot were near a windowless metal door in the high blank facade. “You go in there.”
Leo sped across the lot and parked his Corvette diagonally across two spaces.
A white-coated man with sandy hair and rabbit teeth darted toward him as he reached the top of the iron stairs. “You’re the Telpro man? Mr. Friedgood?”
Leo nodded. He glanced toward the little group of men and women the man addressing him had just left. They too wore white jackets, like doctors. His eyes snagged on a bank of television monitors. “Who are you?” he asked, not looking at the man.
“Ted Wise, the director of research here. Did anybody fill you in?”
Leo was self-conscious in his sweatshirt and paint-spotted jeans. One of the monitors before him showed his mop of hair, the back of his sweatshirt hoisted up above a roll of skin. His self-consciousness fed his anger at finding himself thrown into a plant Telpro had not trusted him to know about until there was a disaster. He yanked the shirt down over his belt. It had come to him that General Haugejas had sent him to the plant the same way he would send a first lieutenant over a hill—because he was expendable.
“Look, the General wants me to report back to him,” Leo said. “Suppose you just stop worrying about what I do or do not know and fill me in fast.” He was still taking in the room; white walls, black-and-white-checkerboard tiles on the floor. The television monitors were set above a desk on which sat a time sheet, a telephone, and a pen. A nervous-looking girl sat at the desk. She swallowed when he glared at her.
In fact the entire group assembled here at this second-floor foyer was as nervous as cats—more than nervous, Leo was realizing. Even as Ted Wise groped for words, the other three men and two women before him exuded a gloom of panic and fear. They were rigid as poles, restraining themselves because he had appeared. Not sensitive, Leo was an intelligent man, and he could see them holding in their twitches—if they let go, they’d roll across the floor like marbles.
At the moment that Wise nerved himself to ask Leo for some identification, Leo finally began to assess what sort of abyss might be before him.
“You want what?” he asked Wise aggressively.
“Just as a precaution, sir.”
He was covering himself; as the General was covering himself by sending Leo Friedgood into this . . . mental hospital. For that was what the interior of the plant resembled. In disgust Leo took his wallet from his back pocket and showed Wise his driver’s license. “The General got me off my boat,” he said grandly. “He wanted me to take care of this thing as quickly as possible. Just show me the problem and then all you basket cases can take a Valium or whatever the hell it is you need.”
“This way, Mr. Friedgood,” Wise said, and the tense little group of five parted to let them pass through a door.
* * *
“We have been in this plant since 1978,” Wise said. “After Woodville Solvent went under a couple of years before, the referee in the bankruptcy sold the buildings and the name to Telpro.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Leo said, as if he knew all about it.
“It took almost six months to make the necessary alterations. When we moved in, we sort of picked up where we left off in Wyoming. All of us—the bunch you see here—had been working out there in another Telpro facility. Until we had to shut down.”
“Something go wrong there too?” Leo asked.
Wise was opening another door, and blinked at the question. “We had been sited in a chemical factory, and the pipes in the drainage system were corroded. Some of the waste penetrated the aquifer to a very minor extent, two parts per million. It was not a serious problem. There was very little feedback.”
Leo peered into the room beyond the door. Sullen-looking monkeys peered back from cages. Zoo odors drifted through the open door. “Primate section,” Wise said. “We have to go through it to get to the testing area.”
“Why don’t you just tell me about your work,” Leo said wearily.
Of course he had known that Telpro had certain Defense Department contracts. One of the divisions he oversaw, a plant in Trenton, manufactured the latching mechanism used in half-tracks; another factory in New Jersey put together circuitry panels that later formed a small part of the Minuteman missile. “But we’re Special Weapons,” Wise said as the seven of them stood in the room full of caged monkeys. Special Weapons was a separate endeavor which reported only to General Haugejas and his staff. They were two microbiologists, a physicist, a chemist, and a research assistant. Other research assistants and laboratory technicians were hired from the local pool. For eighteen months they had been working on a single project. “It’s more complex physically and chemically than this, but for our purposes let’s call it a gas,” Wise said. “It’s odorless and invisible, like carbon monoxide, and highly dispersible in water. It doesn’t have a name yet, but the code is DRG. It’s a . . . you’d have to call it a real wild card. We’ve been working to refine it down so we could increase the predictability factor.”
Predictability was the problem, Leo learned. The Pentagon and Defense Department had been excited about DRG since it had been first synthesized in the early fifties by a German biochemist at MIT named Otto Bruckner. Bruckner had not known what to do with his invention, and the government had happily taken it away from him. “For a long time the project was in limbo,” Wise said. “The government had a lot of simpler concepts it tried to develop, mostly unsuccessfully. In the late seventies, interest in DRG revived again. From the point it came to us, Special Weapons—all of us here—had the job of localizing the effect of Bruckner’s brainchild. We put it through a dozen changes—from ADG 1 and 2 all the way up to what we’ve got now. But it’s still very random in effect. Some people are not affected at all, though only a very few. In some cases inhalation is immediately fatal. Lack of effect and termination are within acceptable parameters, from five to eight percent each. And as a sideline here, let me assure you that the agents in it which cause fatality are relatively short-lived. An exposed population is at immediate risk for no more than twenty-five minutes. It’s with the mid-range that we’re most concerned. You’ve heard of the Army’s experiments with LSD?”
“Of course that was regrettable in the extreme. We have been at pains to avoid any taint of that sort of thing, and our brief does not extend that far in any case. DRG, originally ADG, is far more various in effect than LSD, and all we’ve been working on is the isolation of a strain which would consistently reproduce a single effect.” Wise now seemed very nervous. “We had quite a range of choice. Some of the wilder effects take months to appear. Skin lesions, hallucinations, outright madness, flu, changes in pigmentation, even narcotization—some percentage of a treated population will simply be mildly tranquilized. There may even have been evidence of fugue state and telepathic ability . . . to tell you the truth, the stuff is so various that after a year and a half we’re just beginning to get a handle on it.”
“Okay,” Leo said. “Let’s get to the good part. What happened?”
“Barbara,” Wise said, and a tall dark-haired young woman with puffy eyes came past the wall of cages to open another door.
Leo saw a room within a room, the top half of the inner room lined with glass. Stepping in behind Barbara, he vaguely took in a clutter of laboratory tables, tissue slides, projectors, gas burners. His attention was focused on the three bodies in the glass enclosure. The two farthest from him lay sprawled a few feet apart on a black floor. Their eyes were open, their mouths yawned. They had clean innocent dead faces.
Wise coughed into his fist; his face was pink. “The people in there were preparing the chamber for an infusion of DRG-16.” He wiped his face, and his hands were shaking. “The man nearest the wall is Frank Thorogood, and the man next to him is Harvey Washington. They were research technicians—Thorogood was a graduate student at Patchin University and Washington had no academic qualifications. He performed low-level tasks for all of us. One of them was supposed to connect a line from the storage facility to the vaporizer, which in turn is connected to the mask you see on the floor. Instead he plugged it accidentally into the vent line immediately below the vaporizer, and undiluted DRG flooded into the chamber. Washington and Thorogood died immediately.”
Leo was staring in horror at the third body in the glass chamber. It had bloated—at first Leo thought the body had burst. Lathery white scum coated the hands. The man’s head, a white sponge, had seemed to leak toward a drain in the center of the chamber’s floor. It took Leo a moment to realize that the lather that had once been skin was moving. As he watched—his eyes incapable of shifting away—the froth of the head crawled into the drain. “The third man was Tom Gay, who was one of our best researchers, though he had been working with us only six months or so.”
The woman named Barbara began to cry. One of the men put his arm around her.
“You can see the effect of the lesions. He died only a few minutes before you arrived. We had to watch him go. He knew he couldn’t open the chamber.”
“Jesus Christ,” Leo said, shocked out of his pose. “Look what happened to him.”
Wise said nothing.
“Is it safe to go in there now? Can you get rid of that stuff? I mean, I don’t care what the hell mess you people get yourselves into, but I’m not going in there.” Leo jammed his hands into his pockets. He saw wads of brown hair floating on the lather, and turned away from the glass, his stomach lurching.
“It will be safe in about fifteen minutes. As safe as we can make it, anyhow.”
“Then you go in.”
Wise abruptly turned an alarming scarlet. “I’m afraid that isn’t all. The circulators will more or less vacuum out the traces of DRG-16.”
“It’s still your job, baby.”
“I was going to say, Harvey Washington would have replaced the filters on the exterior vents immediately after the chamber was empty. But Bill Pierce here switched on the circulators before we realized that the filters were still in their boxes.”
“Why the hell don’t you leave the filters in all the time?”
Bill Pierce spoke up. He was taller than Leo, built like a football player, and the sole scientist to wear a beard. “We don’t do that because they have a strong odor, which very quickly leaks back into the chamber. The smell prejudices the experiments. Our procedure was to seal the chamber, make our observations, and to have Harvey Washington install the filters while we dissected the subject. Then we switched on the circulators.” He glared at Leo, full of guilt and challenge. “But when I saw Tom Gay going crazy in there, I just thought of getting the DRG out of the air. I was thinking that if I could change the air fast enough, I could save Tom anyhow—the other two just dropped where they were standing. And I guess I had our old procedure in the back of my mind.”
“So where did that stuff go?” Leo asked. “Wait. Let me guess. The circulators circulated it right outside. That’s the good part, isn’t it? You dummies pumped a batch of this stuff straight into the air right after it zapped three guys in the monkey chamber here. So in about a second and a half we got a million dead shwartzes in Woodville. Right? Right?” Leo inhaled deeply. “And! Not only that, but we got a million lawsuits—and I’m supposed to get you jerks off the hook.” Leo clapped his hands over his eyes.
“Mr. Friedgood,” Wise said, “we’ve just lost three of our colleagues. Bill was acting in accordance with former procedure—for months we did keep the filters in place.”
“You think that’s a defense?” Leo bellowed. “You want me to feel sorry for you?”
“I’m sorry,” Wise said around his rabbit teeth. “We are not quite in control of ourselves. Things may not be as bad as you imagine. Let me explain.” The words were confident, but Ted Wise was still the most scared-looking man Leo had ever seen.
“I’ll do better than write a statement,” Leo was telling the General thirty minutes later. “I’ll get us out of this whole mess. Telpro will never come into it. First of all, these geniuses that you have up here say that because this DRG was vented from the roof of the factory, it’ll carry for miles before it settles. We’ve got a pretty good breeze going right now”—Leo was remembering the sloops, Marlins, and Lightnings, whipping along out on the Sound while he worked on his boat that morning—”and the stuff is going to travel. It could get to Rhode Island before it settles. Maybe it’ll get all the way to Canada. No one in the world is ever going to connect it to Telpro—and if we’re lucky, it’ll blow out over the Sound and kill a few fish. And if we have a good rain anytime in the next week, the worst will never happen at all. Water dilutes the effect fantastically. Bottom line? Somewhere north of here could have a few deaths almost immediately. In a month or two, some citizens of Pawtucket or Stowe might start to go funny in the head—Wise says that the mental effects can take that long to show up. We’ve got no exposure, that’s the bottom line.”
He listened to the General’s voice for a time.
“Months. That was what Wise said.”
The General spoke again.
“He guarantees it, sir.”
Leo heard the General out once more.
“That’s right. Our problem now is to take care of the situation right here. That’s what my idea is all about. One of these geniuses gave me the idea when he said that this DRG stuff is sort of like carbon monoxide. We’ll rig it, is what we’ll do. As far as anybody knows, this is Woodville Solvent. We’ll keep it that way. And we’ll give an anonymous phone call to the television stations in New York, we’ll call the Times, we’ll get all the agencies and public-health people out here, and we’ll have the place all cleaned up and looking like a factory.”
Leo swept his eyes across the six people staring at him from the other side of the desk. “No, they won’t say a word. We’ll announce that the plant is closing while safety inspections are carried out, and you can move them somewhere else and start up all over again after everybody forgets about this. In the meantime, we can talk to this Bruckner guy in Boston and see if he can give us any help. He invented this crap, he ought to know if we can do anything about it.”
“Thank you, sir.” He hung up the phone and turned to the scientists. “Let’s go down and take a look at your furnace. We’re going to hide this mess in plain sight. Some of you yo-yos are going to make the eleven-o’clock news.”
* * *
An hour and a half after his arrival at the plant, Leo Friedgood was seated on a wooden crate in the basement, watching Ted Wise and Bill Pierce work on the furnace. Two unmarked green trucks from an army base in New Jersey sat in the parking lot, and a team of soldiers was carrying out the monkey cages, canisters, crates of laboratory equipment, and boxes of records. What remained of the body of Thomas Gay had been scooped into a zippered bag and removed.
Two hours after that, Leo stood at a window and watched a CBS car pull into the lot just behind a police car. The temperature in the office was over eighty degrees. Everybody knew his lines. Leo turned back to the desk and called the Environmental Protection Agency. Then he called the Patchin County Health Department. At the start of both conversations he introduced himself as Theodore Wise. Turning back to the window, he saw the research director and Bill Pierce leaving the building to confront the police. A tall lean figure in a blue suit—the reporter—a technician and a man carrying a video camera and Portapak left the CBS car. The reporter drifted toward Wise and the policeman. When a sound truck came through the gates, Leo left the window to go downstairs.
Barbara, the research assistant, and two of the scientists stood by the desk in the foyer. Leo smiled at them, descended the stairs, and ambled out of the building.
The famous reporter from CBS stood next to Bill Pierce and held a microphone between them. “Is there any proof to the rumor that this tragedy occurred because of carbon-monoxide poisoning?”
“To the best of my knowledge . . .” Pierce began.
Thus, for several hours, it went. By the time the police had finished, calm still night had descended. And by the time he left to drive home, Leo Friedgood had almost forgotten about the invisible, odorless cloud of something called DRG-16 which was floating high up in the air currents over Patchin County.
Eventually, when Ted Wise and Bill Pierce broke their silence, they and a hundred newspapers would blame this almost thinking cloud for everything that befell Hampstead and Patchin and Old Sarum, Witchley and Redhill and King George, all these excellent towns between Norrington and New Haven with their commuters and artists and country clubs and granite hills and saltbox houses. There would be investigations, there would be indictments, petitions, demonstrations, lawsuits. There would be speeches, pompous, self-serving, and well-meant. All of this would be proper, but beside the point. For the blame for the months of coming turmoil was not the sentient cloud’s.
It was yours, you who lay on your bed now, dazed and satisfied. You who had to begin discovering yourself once more.
Your history, Hampstead’s history. . . .
Two hundred years ago, there was no Hampstead, only Greenbank, a collection of farms and a church above Gravesend Beach. The Beachside Trail (now Mount Avenue) connected Greenbank to Hillhaven and Patchin, of which it was considered an adjunct. Thus when General Tryon sailed down from New Haven to burn Patchin and landed on Kendall Point in 1779, a small detachment of soldiers, only ten or eleven, went down the Beachside Trail to burn Greenbank too. Patchin’s men took potshots over hedges and fences with their Brown Besses, the women and children and animals took shelter on Fairlie Hill or in Patchin Woods; and some lingered in their town, boys and women. Reports said that one or two male residents joined the destruction. The Reverend Eliot, Patchin’s vicar: “The burning parties carried on their business with horrid alacrity, headed by one or two persons who were born and bred in the neighboring towns.” A boy (one of nine fatalities) was shot and killed, at such range that his clothes began to burn. The other eight murders are known to have been committed by Jaegers—German mercenaries—and British soldiers; this one, the murder of the boy, was unobserved and so remains a mystery.
This event, the killing of a thirteen-year-old boy in the midst of a general destruction, is the second stain on the land.
Ten years later, George Washington, the President of the thirteen United States, visited Patchin. His diary mentions that along his route—he took the Beachside Trail—he saw many chimneys standing in the ruins of burned houses.
For the next two hundred years, the same names recur in the parish records: Barr, Wakehouse, Jennings, Annabil, Williams, Winter, Allen, Kent, Moorman, Buddington, Smithfield, Sayre, Green, Tayler. The names go backward, too; the original four farmers on the Beachside Trail, settled in 1640, were named Williams, Smyth, Green, and Tayler. In 1645 they were joined by a landholder named Gideon Winter. (Monty Smithfield’s manor on Mount Avenue was built on the site of Gideon Winter’s farmhouse.)
And some of the names appear in Hampstead criminal records. In 1841, a traveling man who had camped himself like a Gypsy in the woods bordering Anthony Jennings’ onion fields murdered two children named Sarah Allen and Thomas Moorman and roasted the bodies in a pit before he was captured by a posse of farmers led by Jennings. By torchlight they led him back to the Hampstead Common (now lost, cut in half by the Post Road), and under the eye of the town sheriff, put a rope around his neck and tried him on the spot. From his elegant house in Patchin, Judge Thaddeus Barr rode down the Beachside Trail on his bay gelding. He wore his robes and hanging hat and sentenced the man to death—he knew he could never have got the murderer to the county courthouse in Norrington. Under Barr’s questioning, the murderer refused to give his name, saying only, “I am one of your own, Judge.” After his death, he was recognized by a man in the crowd as a feeble-witted cousin of the Tayler family who had been sent to the poor farm as a boy.
In 1898, Robertson Green—known as “Prince” to his friends—a twenty-two-year-old man who had dropped out of divinity school in New Haven and lived in separate quarters in his parents’ big clapboard house on Gravesend Avenue, was tried and convicted for the murder in the spring of that year of a prostitute in Woodville. Details of Prince Green’s life emerged during the trial, and they were bizarre enough to be taken up by the New York tabloids. His habits had altered after his return from New Haven—he had insisted on sleeping in an oaken coffin which he had ordered from Bornley and Holland, the Hampstead undertakers. He never opened his curtains; he invariably dressed in black; he was addicted to laudanum, then readily available at any pharmacist’s shop. He had been visiting the Norrington and Woodville prostitutes since his return from New Haven (Hampstead assumed), and four of these women had been butchered by an unknown person from May to September 1897. Prince Green never confessed to these killings, but he was sentenced to be executed as surely for their deaths as for that of the woman over whose body he was discovered in a Woodville slum back street—Redbone Alley. The New York Journal American quoted the young man’s father as stating that his son had been deranged by excessive absorption in the verse of the decadent poets Dowson and Swinburne. Early on, they had begun calling Green “The Connecticut Ripper”; in some later editions he was called “The Ripper-Poet.” “There were days,” his father said to the reporter, “when he behaved as though he did not know his mother’s name or mine.”
In 1917, legalized murder occurred in France, and boys named Barr and Moorman and Buddington were killed in the trenches. Their names are on the World War I monument erected on the Post Road, just opposite where the Lobster House Restaurant is now.
The model for the soldier who appears on the monument, a lean and handsome young man in puttees and campaign hat, was Johnny Sayre, who in 1952 took his own life with a .45 automatic pistol on the grass leading down to the dock behind the Sawtell Country Club. No one at the time understood what made the fifty-three-year-old John Sayre, who had been a lawyer and a power in town and much admired, decide to end his life. He had canceled his appointments that morning; his secretary told the police that Sayre had seemed distracted and short-tempered for days. Bonnie Sayre told the police that she had not wanted them to go to the club that evening, but that John had insisted—they’d had a date with Graham Williams for two weeks, a premature birthday celebration for John. On his actual birthday, they would be in London. The secretary said that he had skipped lunch and stayed in his office; Bonnie Sayre reported that he had ordered only a salad for dinner. While the rest of them were having their drinks, John had excused himself. Then he had gone outside—he must have been carrying the gun in his belt all the time. They had heard the shot a few minutes later, but it had sounded like a car backfiring in the parking lot, like a door slamming in the rear of the club’s restaurant. A waiter on his break had discovered the body.
Neither Bonnie nor the secretary thought it worthwhile to tell the police that John Sayre had written two names on the jotting pad beside his desk phone on the morning of his suicide: Prince Green and Bates Krell.
The secretary, who had lived in Hampstead only two years, did not know the names. Bonnie Sayre had only the dimmest memory of Prince Green’s crimes. There had been a big house on Gravesend Avenue before which she and her sisters had been forbidden to linger: in it lived two old people who never came out. There was a shadowy memory of shame, of disgrace: of scandal. Bates Krell, now . . . When Bonnie Sayre saw the name deeply scratched into the telephone pad two days after her husband’s death, some half-fledged feeling stirred in her, and it took her a moment to recognize it as unease. He had been of the generation immediately before hers, which is to say, the generation following Prince Green’s. Bates Krell had owned a lobster boat, docked it on the Nowhatan River where the Spaulding Oil Company was now. He had been disreputable, perhaps threatening—a broad, filthy man, bearded and agate-eyed, who hired boys to assist him with his nets and beat them for the most minor infractions. One day he had vanished. His boat sat moored in the Nowhatan River until the state impounded and sold it. There was a story which went through Bonnie’s school, a husband or a father ordering Bates Krell out of town, a story of wives or daughters out on the lobster boat at night . . . but why would her husband invoke this name before he killed himself?
Prince Green, Bates Krell. John Sayre’s pen had nearly torn through the paper.
Now there are no lobster boats along the river, no fishermen at all where once there were many; now there are Spaulding Oil and the Riverside Building, which houses dentists and an insurance company; the Seagull Restaurant and the Blue Tern Bar, where teenagers drink; the Marina Restaurant; and the offices, in a little dingy section of warehouses, of the Scientology movement.
Now no one knows the old Hampstead names; now the hateful anti-Semitism of the twenties and thirties in Hampstead is gone, and the town is more than a quarter Jewish; now people move in from New York and Arizona and Texas; and move out to Washington and Virginia and California. The publisher who bought the green house does not know that eighty years ago well-brought-up girls were ordered by their parents to walk quickly past his six-bedroom brown clapboard house, nor that in his home office on the side of the house a dazed boy used to sleep in a coffin and dream of traveling through the sky on wings like a gull’s, his mouth and hands stained red.
Now Hampstead has a trailer park (carefully hidden behind a screen of trees on the Post Road), two burglaries every hour, five movie theaters, two health-food stores, more than a dozen liquor stores, twenty-one trains a day to New York. Thirteen millionaires live at least a part of the year in Hampstead. There are five banks and three famous actors, a private psychiatric hospital with an active drug-rehabilitation program. In 1979, Hampstead had two rapes and no murders. Until 1980, murders were almost unknown here since the days of Robertson “Prince” Green, who had observed decorum by committing his crimes in Woodville.
The first murder of 1980 was discovered just after nine-forty-five at night on the seventeenth of May when the victim’s husband entered his bedroom. It would be a long time before anyone thought to remember Prince Green and Bates Krell or even John Sayre, the statue of whom at seventeen everyone we shall be concerned with in this story drove past, seeing it or not, four or five times a week.
The thinking cloud, a thousand feet above Woodville and Norrington, preceded Leo Friedgood on his way toward Hampstead. It moved without haste, ultimately without direction. When a curl of air sent its wings sifting down, it brushed random lives.
A week-old infant lying asleep near an open window on this warm May night suddenly died—stiffened and ceased to breathe while her parents watched television in a downstairs room. Six blocks away (we are in Norrington now, in an area called Cumberland Acres), a fourteen-year-old boy cruising past a row of mailboxes on stakes pitched off his bike and lay still on a little mound of gravel, his bicycle sprawled a few feet beside him.
Joseph Ricci, the third of the Dragon’s accidental victims, had been traveling home—much later than usual—to Stratford from a bar near the Kingsport offices of Loewen & Loewen, the accounting firm where he worked. It was a fifty-minute drive each way, but Joe Ricci had grown up in Stratford and could not yet afford a house in Kingsport, which because it was closest to New York was the most expensive of Patchin County’s towns. Joe was twenty-eight; he and his wife, Mary Louise, had a three-year-old son who had his father’s black hair and dark blue eyes.
Joe reached the first of the two toll stations he would have to pass through before he got home. This was at the southwestern edge of Hampstead; the next toll came just before his exit. Joe cranked down his window, held out the book of tickets, and the uniformed woman in the booth extracted the loose ticket from the pack. It was ten past eight—he’d told Mary Louise to expect him at eight, and he still had half an hour’s drive before him. Joe Junior would be in bed already. It irritated Joe to miss his son’s bedtime, especially for an unhappy reason like tonight’s. His immediate superior, Tony Flippo, had asked him the day before to save Saturday night for him. They had to have an important talk. When Tony had asked him to come to Kingsport, Joe assumed that his boss and friend was going to go over some business ideas. They had talked in the past about starting their own office. But tonight Tony had not wanted to talk about Patchin County real estate, in which he fervently wished to invest, nor about the leasing company which was his other fantasy: he’d wanted to complain about his marriage. He wanted to hear himself rehearse his arguments for divorce. Tony was halfway to being in love with Michelle Sparks, one of the firm’s typists.
It had been a pointless evening. Joe Ricci left his window down and gunned his car into the left lane. Two cars sped on before him; his mirror showed a phalanx of cars and a semi pushing on to the northeast. For no reason at all, he found himself reminiscing about his high-school girlfriend.
Then suddenly the almost empty scene before him changed. His first impression was that I-95 was crowded with wrecked cars, bleeding people stumbling toward him; he saw a huge truck canted over on the guardrail, the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances. This vision jumped into his eyes with the power of reality and for a moment he could not breathe or think.
He slammed on his brakes and cut his wheels to the side, realizing finally that he could swerve around the dreadful scene by using the shoulder. His head was buzzing oddly and painfully: for a fraction of a second he was conscious that the fillings in his teeth were vibrating. Yet in the midst of this buzzing pain, he knew that none of what he saw ahead could really be there. He took his foot off the brake and slammed it on the accelerator, wanting only to get past whatever it was on the highway, and the back end of his car fishtailed around.
When he saw his hands on the wheel, he bit through his tongue. Bit right through it—blood oozed over his lips. His hands were covered with white bugs. That was all he could make of the shifting, almost fluid white surface coating his fingers and the backs of his hands. Joe opened his mouth but could not scream. His car was moving toward a swarm of lights. Banshee noises, unearthly screeches, battered him.
The truck behind him, which had been blasting its air horn, crushed in the side of his car and slammed it into the guardrail. Another car struck the rear of the semi, shearing off its roof. It began to burn in a quiet, almost apologetic fashion beneath the truck. A green Ford rolled end over end like a flipping domino, and the car which had struck it piled into the side of the semi and the burning car wedged beneath it.
By the time they closed the Hampstead toll station, there were eight dead. Four cars, including Joe Ricci’s, had incinerated. The state police and two officers from the Hampstead police force watched helplessly as the burning cars smoked and sparked. Twenty minutes later, a tow truck from the garage on that day’s rota sheet began to separate the wrecks.
A Hampstead policeman named Bobo Farnsworth, who had responded to an assist call from the state police, peered in the shattered window of a demolished Le Baron and was amazed to see only charred upholstery and a sagging melted wheel—no grisly mummy lay across the ruined seat. Bobo had seen enough burned-out wrecks to know that in this one a roasted body was inevitable—the hands should be fried to the chest, and the whole black thing no larger than the size of a big dog. He looked closer at the rubble within the car and saw the glint of a belt buckle resting on black liquid near an exposed spring. Mary Louise Ricci, still knowing none of this, fell asleep in the Riccis’ most comfortable chair just as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid blew up a train and picked themselves up from the Bolivian dust in a shower of paper money.
Leo sat in his car while the engine idled, pushing forward a foot every fifteen minutes. From the two out of five toll booths that were open, lines of stationary cars snaked backward halfway to Norrington and Exit 16. Outlaw cars cruised down the two left lanes, which had been officially closed, and tried to nose in farther ahead. Leo noticed with satisfaction that drivers were keeping almost bumper to bumper, refusing to let the outlaws improve their place in line. Ahead, on the other side of the Hampstead toll station, he from time to time saw flickers and flashes of red lights. So there had been a bad accident.
At nine o’clock, still fifty cars from the booth, he switched on his radio and turned to the Woodville station. The news reader described the latest confusion in Iran, and announced the number of days Americans had been hostaged there. He moved onto the fracas about property reassessment in Hampstead. Leo listened to all this with faint interest. Then the news reader pronounced the words “Woodville Solvent.” Leo straightened in his seat and turned up the sound. “This bizarre tragedy resulted in the deaths of two men, Frank Thorogood of Patchin and Harvey Washington, a Woodville resident. Investigations conducted by the Public Health Department indicate that carbon-monoxide poisoning was the cause of death. The plant has been closed indefinitely so that safety-monitoring measures and repairs may be carried out.” The nervous, straining sound of Ted Wise lying through his rabbity teeth cut in. “We became aware of the problem when . . . no one could feel a greater sense of loss than I . . . possible that our owners may decide to terminate . . .” That was new to Leo—he must have been listening to Pierce when Wise decided to be cute and refer to our owners. Of course he had not decided to be cute: he had been too rattled to be anything but stupid. But this was a lapse which only Leo would notice. By the time the news reader had moved on to the weather and the traffic report, Leo was almost smiling with self-satisfaction.
* * *
All traffic funneled into one lane. An imperious policeman waved a flashlight, flares burned, the bars of light on the tops of police cars flashed blue and white and red. The wreckers had towed away most of the crumpled automobiles, but the sixteen-wheeler still sagged against the guardrail: a recumbent elephant. The three lanes blocked off by conical orange markers were littered with broken glass, hubcaps and detached tires, a fender dented in half like a huge silver V. The smell of scorched metal and rubber hung over it all. As Leo inched into his place in the single line of cars, he looked sideways past the policeman with the flashlight and saw an unrecognizable car jammed beneath the undercarriage of the truck. The entire top of the car was sliced off down to the door handles. Inside that improbable cripple had been a human being. Stony, Leo thought, and then recalled with terrible clarity the two young dead men on their backs in the glass room, eyes and mouths open: and again saw white froth sliding toward a drain. He pushed these visions backward into some dark empty chamber in his mind and snapped his head forward as the tall officer waved the flashlight past his window.
Exit 18 was only three miles ahead. Now he was in a sweat to get home. It seemed that a massive and cruel movement of ill luck had touched him, brushing past with muscular haste; or had not brushed past but clung to him as if he were its epicenter. Darts of alarming light irradiated his mirror, burned across his face. At a mule’s pace he crawled the three miles to his exit.
Rational, Leo knew that nothing had happened to his wife; he understood that his fears were the product of his work at the plant in Woodville and of the sudden reminder of mortality slipping behind him on the highway. He was not as tough as he had been impelled to be in Woodville, and now his mind was taking the toll for that callousness. You escaped that, his mind was saying, but this you shall not so easily escape. And after all, were not the news items he had heard proof that his strategy had worked? His mind was punishing itself for that success.
All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Again he saw the two young men, Washington and Thorogood, on their backs in the glass room. He squirted out of the line of cars at his exit, gunned his Corvette up the ramp, and faked a pause at the stop sign.
Leo wound through the quiet Hampstead streets. Lights burned in the big frame houses, ordinary family life went on. A man walked a dog, a large woman in a sweatsuit thumped down Charleston Road. On his corner, a lost-looking teenage boy stood at the edge of the road, gazing at the sky as if for direction. For a second, for less than that, Leo thought he knew the boy, who was fair-haired, perhaps slightly undersized, and wore a striped rugby shirt with the sleeves pushed up on his thin arms. The headlights swept past him, the boy jerked away, and Leo swerved into Cannon Road
On their acre-and-a-half lots, the houses sedately marched uphill, pronouncing themselves good investments, not as grand as the houses on Hermitage Avenue up the hill, but shining forth from their lighted windows a solid affluence. In this world all children were blond, all refrigerators stocked with mineral water, expensive jogging shoes scuffed or virginal sat in every closet. Four houses up, Leo saw Stony’s car parked in the driveway. Then he saw that all the windows were dark. The car left out of the garage, the black empty windows: Leo exhaled, seeing these first signs of disorder. The top of his head suddenly went cold. He turned into the driveway and pulled ahead of his wife’s car.
On his way to the front door, he paused on the gravel drive and looked about him. The boy had vanished from the Charleston Road corner. The big trees loomed up into the darkness, where they coalesced into one tree. All was silence and growing dark. Mr. Leo Friedgood returns home on a Saturday evening from a noble day’s work. Mr. Leo Friedgood surveys his estate. His chest felt tight. Leo turned around and went quickly to his front door.
It was unlocked. The house was darker than the outside, and he switched on the hall light. “Stony.” No answer. “Stony?” He stepped forward, still thinking that there was a happy explanation—she had gone for a walk, she had stepped next door for a drink. But Stony never did either of those things, not at night. Leo turned on the dining-room lights and saw the empty table ringed with solid wooden chairs. “Stony?” The conviction that something terrible had taken place, which had begun in him when he had passed the wrecks on the highway, blossomed out urgently. He was afraid to go into the kitchen.
Okay. Let’s get to the good part. What happened? They had stood beside a wall of gloomy monkeys in cages.
Leo pushed open the kitchen door.
A room within a room, a structure like a glass cube, a tile floor . . .
The mute presences of the range and refrigerator bulked in the dark kitchen. His own tile floor, red, was a shadowy sea. Leo flicked the light. He saw the Johnnie Walker bottle, the only thing out of place, upright beside the sink. His fingers gently found it. They pushed the bottle back into the corner where the draining board met the wall.
Slowly Leo left the kitchen and went back to the dining room. He glanced up the stairs and continued into the living room. Here were silvery couches and padded chairs, a murky glass table, their colors drained by moonlight streaming in through the window. A tall clock ticked resonantly from the corner. He had seen when he had come in that the room was empty. Still he turned on the nearest lamp, and the room sprang into life.
In a little alcove on a far side of the living room was a “den” with bookshelves and a desk. A previous tenant had outfitted this alcove with track lighting which Leo never used. He switched on the desk lamp. Framed diplomas stared down, as did a photograph taken at a Telpro institutional presentation of himself in the proximity of Red Buttons. Of course Stony was not in this little corner.
Irresolutely Leo wandered back to the entry. He looked up the stairs. He called out his wife’s name. Leo went up three steps, peering into the darkness above him. He wiped his palms on the front of his sweatshirt. Then, grasping the handrail, he went up to the top and switched on the light. The door to his bedroom was closed.
Leo went down the hall to the door and put his hand on the brass knob. This is an empty room, he told himself. Nothing has happened, everything is just the same. When I open the door, I’ll know that nothing’s happened and that Stony will be back in a few minutes. He turned the knob and pushed open the door. As soon as he leaned forward and put his head into the room, he smelled the peaty aroma of whiskey. Stony’s flat black shoes sat on the floor beside a neat pile of her clothes. Finally Leo caught the odor of blood, which in fact was very strong in the room. He glanced at what was on the bed, and then found himself back in the upstairs hall without any memory of having left the bedroom.
At ten minutes to ten the lights of two police cars streamed along the leafy streets toward Greenbank and the Sound; having finished her column, Sarah Spry finally left the Gazette building, unaware that the first page would have to be reset on Sunday afternoon. Richard Allbee put down his journal, undressed, got into the water bed in his rented house, touched Laura’s shoulder and found that she was trembling. Graham Williams heard the sirens pass by on the street behind his house and rolled over in bed. Tabby Smithfield, still outside, watched the cars streak past him and stood riveted to the grass before an unknown house on Cannon Road, incapable of moving because a long-forgotten memory had nailed his feet to the ground.
Patsy McCloud did not hear the sirens or see the cars. As he did several times a year, her husband was hitting her upper arms and shoulders, every third or fourth blow slapping her face with his open palm, and she was making too much noise to hear anything but herself. The beating lasted until she ceased any signs of resistance and simply bowed her head into the protection of her raised forearms. Finally the blows were no more than a succession of taps. “You know you drive me crazy sometimes,” Les McCloud said. “Go wash your face, for God’s sake.”
Leo Friedgood, still being questioned by the police, missed the eleven-o’clock news, which reported the apparent suicide, in Boston, of an MIT scientist named Otto Bruckner. Leo would not be left alone until past midnight, when he would take a room at the Colonial Motel on the Post Road and sleep in his clothes, so tranquilized by the police doctor that the noises from the discotheque in the motel’s basement never disturbed him. But on the local news, Ted Wise spoke his piece, Pierce spoke his, and the famous reporter stood sleekly and elegantly upright as he announced that all the agencies had attributed the deaths of the two workers to carbon-monoxide fumes emanating from a faulty furnace. The famous reporter did not neglect to remind his audience of a similar incident in the Bronx four months earlier.
The Sunday edition of the New York Times carried a foot-long obituary of Dr. Otto Bruckner. There were anecdotes about his modesty and absentmindedness, a list of his awards, a reasonable assessment of his place in the development of modern biochemistry. In death Dr. Bruckner was treated fairly by the Times, which is to say he was accorded more stature than he would ever have ascribed to himself. His obituary did not mention his work on DRG.
Nor did the Sunday Times discuss the murder of Stony Baxter Friedgood. There would be only a short article in Monday’s paper. But Stony was not to be forgotten in death. Her photograph would appear four times in the newspaper, the first in a row of black-bordered photographs. In thirteen weeks, over the rest of May, through June and July, six more people were to be murdered just as Stony was. After that the news which came from this section of Patchin County was spotty and unreliable.
For Richard Allbee, the first real shock of being back in his native country had come late at night in the hotel suite he and Laura had taken to wait out the availability of the house on Fairytale Lane. Moving house ranks just behind divorce and death of a spouse as cause for anguish, and Richard had been unable to sleep; he felt as though he had just made the mistake of his life. Nervously he had wandered into the living room, switched on the television and been confronted—in the most concrete possible way—with his own past.
Daddy’s Here was showing on an independent station, as it did every night at twelve-thirty in New York. In almost every large American city, the old series surfaced once a day on one of the less distinguished channels, offering its spurious vision of family life to anyone so fixated that he watched television after midnight or before six in the morning. Daddy’s Here was a staple, it was fodder for the softest programming hours, but Richard had not seen it since the days of its first airing.
In London, that the almost thirty-year-old series still had a life had been curious and funny, but no one in London had seen it—the program had been something to joke about at parties. The ten-year-old me is still going strong, that’s right. What’s more, he’s still getting paid. The ten-year-old me had an excellent lawyer. This was truer than he had known at the time: along with Carter Oldfield, the only other principal actor still alive and the star of the series, Richard got a residual check every month of his life. The excellent lawyer, Phil Sawyer, had been Carter Oldfield’s, and he had persuaded Richard’s parents to accept a lower salary for the trade-off of an income even he had not expected to be lifelong. “Out here, nobody knows how long they’re going to work, so make the program the boy’s annuity,” had been the persuasive sentence. Annuity was a magical word to Mrs. Mary Allbee. The other two chief cast members had turned down Sawyer’s suggestion, but for Richard, beginning ten years after the program’s cancellation, the residuals had begun to arrive. He had been twenty-four, and the unexpected money gave him a freedom he badly needed. There it was every month, enough to keep a young couple afloat as they moved happily into the early days of their marriage. Richard had gone to graduate school in architecture, worked for two years in an architect’s office, moved to England and tried to write a novel, had finally found the work that satisfied him most. For three years the monthly checks had been invested, not spent—they had given the Allbees seven years of wandering without undue care, and after Richard and Laura had settled down in Kensington, the checks had been almost an embarrassment, like a youthful habit not quite outgrown. Richard had his work, Laura was an editor for a women’s magazine, and the green rectangle that meant Daddy’s Here was going into its umpteenth year in Cleveland and Little Rock simply went into Lloyd’s Bank and slowly multiplied itself.
Six years’ worth of episodes, more than two hundred of them circling around the United States, showing the hardworking little Richard Allbee growing from eight to fourteen: growing through a youth utterly unlike his own real one. In the world of Daddy’s Here, no problem existed that was not amusing and could not be solved by Ted Jameson—Carter Oldfield—in thirty minutes. There was no crime, no death or disease, no poverty, no alcoholism: the problems had to do with homework, girlfriends, buying birthday presents.
With a kind of fascinated dread, Richard sat down on the suite’s stiff couch and watched himself move through his professional paces.
He had missed the first five or six minutes, and so had also missed the line, thank God. The line, the sentence which his character, Spunky Jameson, uttered in three programs out of five, which brought sacks full of cookies to the studio, had become a curse; at fourteen he had hoped never to hear it again, and he still hated cookies. The black-and-white images of his past would spare him that much, anyhow. The Jamesons were seated around the table in their pine-and-Formica kitchen, and lovely Ruth Branden—Grace Jameson—was in a dither because she had dented a fender on the family car. She wanted to get it repaired before she told Ted. Flustered, she put salt into Ted’s coffee and sprinkled sugar on the roast. Ted sampled his coffee, squinted, made a quizzical face. “Hey, what’s the matter, Pop?” asked David Jameson, played by Billy Bentley.
“This coffee just doesn’t taste right,” said Carter Oldfield, projecting kindliness and wisdom as well as momentary puzzlement. “Switch brands, honey?”
Ten-year-old Richard Allbee giggled right on cue—he knew about the bent fender.
That was how it had gone, more or less, for six years.
Richard could not help thinking of their fates, of what had happened to the four of them. None of the other three had found fame in movies that each, to different degrees, had desired. Ruth Branden, that beautiful woman, the most professional actor on the set, had contracted breast cancer a year after their cancellation; while working on the pilot for another series, she had collapsed, and the doctors found that a new cancer had spread throughout her internal organs. She was dead in three months. Carter Oldfield was the only one of the cast to still have a career in television—that aura of kindly wisdom had been inextinguishable throughout Oldfield’s sieges of depression and boozing. Oldfield had moved from Daddy’s Here to another long-running series about a law practice in a small Midwestern town. Now he appeared in ubiquitous commercials for a brand of orange juice; “the juice that wakes up your body.” His hair had gone from dark brown to silvery gray, but he still looked much the same. In fact age had improved him—now he was like a hybrid of James Stewart and Melvyn Douglas. Richard smiled, remembering in how many scenes Carter Oldfield had kept his hands in his pockets because they were shakier than poplar leaves. Still, he had survived, and Richard could now think of him with affection. It was not the love with which he remembered Ruth Branden, but the man was a better actor than anyone credited him with being; he had only a one-octave keyboard, but he played it beautifully.
But Billy Bentley . . . that was painful to remember, even more painful than seeing Ruth Branden again. In the days of Daddy’s Here, Richard Allbee had been a boy without a father, without brothers or sisters—his father had apparently vanished days after baby Richard’s arrival home from the hospital. Richard had idolized Billy Bentley. There was something of James Dean in him, something sensitive and rebellious. Ten years old to Richard’s eight, fourteen to his twelve, he had looked five years older, with his dark broad face and fall of hair over his forehead. Billy had been a great, though an unschooled, dancer and had a small but real talent for music. Billy drank beer, smoked cigarettes, drove his own car around the studio lot, and shouted comic things at script girls. At twelve and fourteen, he had been innocently wild. Drugs had ruined him. And that had ruined Daddy’s Here. On a street corner in West Los Angeles, he had tried to buy two nickle bags of heroin from a narcotics detective—he was seventeen and he looked at least twenty-five. The publicity had scuttled the series, scuttled Billy Bentley too.
Billy had disappeared into penal institutions for two years. In his absence he had been like a large unpaid bill, a nagging guilty center of awareness. He had written three times to his “brother.” You still gettin’ high on Seven-Up, Spunky? Walkin’ through “fields of flowers”? In here we got the whole elite of junior dope fiends and life ain’t too bad, Spunks, not too bad. We ain’t finished yet. We’ll see the old red, red robin again someday. In his sophomore year in college, Richard had read that Billy, now twenty-two, had been arrested again on a drug charge. He was still Billy Bentley, actor and former child star of Daddy’s Here. Four years later, out again, he had called Richard in New York—he wanted to do a film about drug addiction, and he was looking for money. Richard had sent him a couple of thousand dollars against Laura’s opposition. Chances were, it went straight into Billy’s arm.
Richard had not cared—he felt he owed him at least that much. He had loved Billy, loved him just as if he had been a real brother. But he had refused to work with him.
That had come up first in Paris, where Richard and Laura were living for six months. Billy had called up in the middle of the night, full of an idea for his resurrection. “Hey man, there are all these dinner theaters out there now—all over the East Coast, man. We’re naturals. They’d drop dead to get us. We just find the right play, and we’re in. And we get on pretty good—hell, I practically raised you.” Richard thought of the last time he had seen Billy: he had looked into the window of Horn and Hardart’s on East Forty-second Street and seen him at a table, his face still broad and dark but all the innocence burned out of it. He wore the clothes of the hip urban poor, corduroy jeans and a Salvation Army suit jacket too large for him. His face was oddly pocked, full of small shadowy scars. Billy looked dangerous, sitting at the table in Horn and Hardart’s; he looked like he did not belong in daylight. “Are you clean now?” Richard asked him.
“Hey, don’t be a drag. I’m on the methadone program, I can get clean anytime I want. I’m ready for work, Spunks. Let’s get something together. People want to see all that old stuff again.”
Richard had said no and felt it like a betrayal. In the second year in London, there had been another midnight phone call—Billy was still thinking about dinner theater. “Billy,” Richard had said, “I was an actor because my mother wanted to see my footprints outside the Chinese Theater. It was fun, but that’s over for me. I’m sorry.”
“I need you, man,” Billy had told him. “Like you needed a dad in the red, red robin days.”
“I’ll send you some money,” Richard had said. “That’s the best I can do.”
“Money ain’t Spunks,” Billy said, and hung up before Richard could ask for his address. Not long after, Richard read of his death in Newsweek. He had been shot to death in what the magazine called “an altercation over drugs.”
Richard thought of all this while watching the innocuous twenty minutes of Daddy’s Here. In the morning, he knew, Laura would listen sympathetically and then say, “Billy didn’t belong to you, lunkhead. You didn’t wreck his life, he did.” That was true—but Laura had not heard Billy Bentley’s half-whispered I need you, and responded with an offer of money. Sorry, Billy, I can’t save your life right now, how about a nice fat check instead?
Welcome home, Richard.
He switched off the set as soon as “When The Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin Along,” the theme song, began to swing joyously beneath the credits.
It must have been because of the accident of unexpectedly seeing himself and Billy Bentley as the children they had been that Richard dreamed of being back in the series on his second night in Hampstead. Richard and Laura spent the Sunday unpacking their clothes—the summer clothes only, for all the rest could wait until they had their own place. The house on Fairytale Lane was theirs for two months only. Already they knew that this was a blessing. Hampstead was even now very humid, and the rented house was not air-conditioned: the attic fan cooled the bedroom floor, but it roared like a jet engine. The huge fireplace in the living room, though spotless, stank of ashes. The kitchen had only a few feet of counter space. What could have been a useful spot beneath some of the upper cabinetry was occupied by a microwave oven, the first one the Allbees had seen. The four bedrooms were small and dark, the stairs ominously steep. Whenever he rolled over on the hated water bed, the resulting wave threatened to knock Laura onto the floor. In the vest-pocket dining room, a large water stain announced that the ceiling would one day introduce itself to the table. All the wiring, to Richard’s experienced eye, had been installed before the second war. A third of the window frames had rotted, leaving a papery, waferlike layer of paint. All in all, the house was a good candidate for Richard’s professional services. He was a restorer of such rotting beauties.
He had worked on a dozen large houses in London, starting with his own, and had built a reputation based on care, exactness, and hard work. He took a deep satisfaction in bringing these abused Victorian and Edwardian structures back to life. What showed in his work was that the man behind it understood where the beauty in such houses lay and knew how to make it shine again. Richard had put himself to school to the buildings an earlier generation had dismissed as monstrosities, and in a short time, guided by an instinct he had not known was his, had learned their secrets. In a few years, he had even a small kind of fame—two magazines had done features about his houses, he was offered more work than he could accept. This would happen, he fervently hoped, in America too. Two couples, one in Rhode Island and the other in Hillhaven, had already contracted for his services. The commissions had given him the impetus to move back to America—that and the impending birth of his child. His son or daughter would be American, and would sound like one. Before he conceived a child, he had not imagined that to be important, but important it was. The child of Laura and himself would not have a Kensington accent—it would have the accent of Connecticut, where both his parents and Laura’s had been born: where he and Laura too had been born, on the same day a year apart. Richard also felt easier about enrolling Lump—the only name they had yet—in a Patchin County school than sending her/him to a London comprehensive.
Her/him? Lump would be a girl, Richard secretly knew, and loved the knowledge.
Shortly before the packers had come, while the London house was still recognizable, Richard had dreamed that he was walking in Kensington Gardens. It was a day five or six years in the future. The sunshine which fell on the lovely broad lawn was sunlight still far out in space; the grass and flowers were the grandchildren of the grass and flowers he knew. The trees were slightly though noticeably taller. This atmosphere of futurity extended to Richard, who in the dream was slightly heavier than his actual hundred and sixty pounds. A child was tugging at his hand. He was taking this future child out to play in the future park, and all was well. Dream-Richard dared not look down at his child, for fear of weeping with joy. Lump was tugging him along toward the Round Pond, and he let Lump pull him, for the moment simply and quietly stunned with happiness. At last he did look down. She was a small, vibrant child with Laura’s straight reddish-blond hair. She wore a little print dress and black childish shoes. Pride and love burst in his chest, and he sobbed, overwhelmed by the force of these emotions, and his bursting feeling woke him up. He had seen her, and she was perfect. The calm radiance of this dream had stayed with him for days.
He had never told Laura about seeing their child in the dream.
* * *
Neither did he tell her of the other dream. Husbands and wives divide psychic responsibilities, and Richard’s duty was to represent the optimistic side of the wrenching move; it was Laura who could express their joint fears and doubts.
So it was Laura who asked, “Is this really going to work?” They were taking a walk, that first Sunday, plunging off into unknown territory. The Allbees had gone down to the steep end of Fairytale Lane and wandered across a bridge, gone past immense trees entangled with creeping vines, been briefly joined by an amiable scurry of rotund dogs. All the houses seemed huge, set at vast distances from each other. A chain saw burped and spat from behind a screen of trees.
“Sure it is,” he said. He put his arm around her shoulders. “It might be a little tough at the start, but good things are going to happen to us here. I already have two customers. That’s a good start.”
“I’m in culture shock.” Laura said.
“We grew up here,” Richard pointed out.
“You grew up in Los Angeles. I grew up in Chicago. This whole state looks like Lake Forest.”
“Can’t be bad.” He caught the flash of her eye and said, “Oh, I know what you mean.”
They had been born here, but it was strange to them: Laura’s father had been transferred to Illinois and she had grown up in a town house similar to their London house; he had grown up in a series of apartments and small rented houses. His first house had been the one he and Laura had bought together. They were used to terraces—row houses—and shops close enough to walk to, they were used to traffic and pubs and parks. Hampstead, neither city nor country, had a dissociated, unreal quality. The name conjured up pictures of the Everyman Cinema and Holly Hill, Galsworthy’s serene white house and brick walks, for both of them.
“I think it will take a year or two,” he said, “but we’ll adjust to this funny place.”
“I’m not sure I want to adjust,” Laura said, and he silently applauded.
At that point a pack of men in short pants and sweat-stained T-shirts burst from around a corner and pounded toward them. “Hey!” shouted the leader, a Viking with flowing hair and a blond bouncing beard. Richard, who was wearing a tweed jacket and a necktie, suddenly felt overdressed for this sunny May morning.
One of the things they had noticed already was that Patchin County was resolutely healthy. Not only did joggers come down Fairytale Lane at all hours, but the stupefyingly lavish grocery stores were filled with people returning from or going to tennis matches. The local drugstore was stocked with an amazing array of cigarettes, but he had been the only person buying them.
Of course there was a culture shock. When Laura went to the grocery store where the customers all seemed to be modeling tennis clothes, she did not recognize the cuts of meat. Most of the breakfast cereals were pap coated with sugar. And strangers spoke to you with astounding directness. “My sister died,” a woman said to Laura over the frozen yogurt. “She just fell over and died, and of course her husband never changed a diaper in his life.” “What a shame,” Laura replied, backpedaling. The men, like the Viking jogger, looked you in the eye and beamed, showing a million white teeth—they looked like talk-show hosts. There was an assumption of intimacy in that glad dopey gaze.
They would get used to all these things—which were finally unimportant—because they had to. And Richard knew that their first days in America were particularly strained because they were supposed to be at home with everything here. That was another expectation, one they had of themselves.
* * *
The Allbees went early to bed that night. While Richard read aloud from their current project, Madame Bovary, they from time to time stroked each other’s thighs, caresses full of comfortable marital tenderness. Laura occasionally smiled to herself as the baby moved, which it had only lately begun to do. Tonight the baby was active, and she wanted Richard to feel it steeplechasing. He fell asleep with his hand on the rising loaf of her belly.
Sometime in the night, he dreamed of being back on the set of Daddy’s Here.
He was not ten years old: he was his own thirty-six. He was saying the line. Billy Bentley, likewise adult, smirked from out of his shadowy, pitted face. “Not tonight, darling,” Ruth Branden said, bustling onto the set through the door from the kitchen. “Don’t you remember? There was an awful murder. There’s something terrible outside. I couldn’t make cookies with that on my mind.”
“Oh, sure, Mom,” he said. “I remember now. No, cookies sure would be a bad idea.”
“Booga-booga-booga,” Billy Bentley said. “There’s a big bad killer and he’s going to get you.”
An episode about a killer? Surely that was wrong. The sponsors would never have . . .
“He’s gonna pounce on you outta the closet.” Billy Bentley grinned at him. “The door is going to swi-i-i-ng open, and he’s gonna crawl on out, coming to get you, babe.”
“Now, David,” said Ruth Branden. “That’s not nice.”
“Dad’s been looking a little weird lately,” Billy said. “The old juicer needs a jolt. About time Dr. Feelgood gave him a happy pill. We’ll be lucky if he makes it to the end of the season.”
“I won’t have you saying such things about your father,” said Ruth Branden, still imperturbably in character.
They were not on the set, Richard finally noticed. They were eating in the vest-pocket dining room. There were no cameras and no crowds of stagehands and studio people looking on.
“Hey, Mom,” he said.
“I want you to go to your bedroom now,” Ruth said. “Lock your door. And make sure the windows are locked too.”
“This isn’t the—”
“Get upstairs,” Ruth Branden shouted, and for a second her face was cronelike, raddled and drawn. “Get up there and lock your door!”
The room had four walls, but somewhere a camera was recording all this. “Scene Two,” called a voice. “Places.”
He was up in the bedroom: pajamas: night. Model airplanes covered the desk, a college pennant was tacked to the wall over the bed. APHOOLIE. (Arhoolie?) This was the set bedroom, and he was now truly Spunky Jameson, for he was in his ten-year-old body. A pair of skis leaned against the wall by the closet. A tennis racket in its zippered case; all the old boyish clutter. He touched his face, ran his hand over his crewcut. Yes. All was right.
He knew what the script called for. SPUNKY walks to window, looks out anxiously, turns back to DAVID. Richard went to the window. He remembered that view. The back wall of the studio, unused flats, dangling ropes. He looked out. What he saw was not the view of the studio, but a street, grass, a neighbor’s picket fence. In moonlight, streetlamps marched down Maple Lane, a street which had never existed. A 1954 Chevy went by, its headlights making lines of tar in the road blackly shine.
He turned around, his mouth dry. “Hey,” he said.
Laura lay asleep on the water bed, her hair spilling over the pillow. Billy Bentley, his face barely visible in the darkness, lay beside her, grinning at him. Richard knew that Billy was naked under the sheets.
“Booga-booga-booga,” Billy said in an evil voice. “Bad stuff coming your way.”
FRONT DOOR SLAMS.
The front door slammed.
DAVID: Guess it’s here now, bro.
“Guess it’s here now, bro,” Billy said. “You sure you got the door locked?”