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“A beguiling novel . . . Perceptive and captivating.”—The New York Times
“Gorgeous, inexplicably sad and funny.”—Salon
“Drury is an absolutely delightful writer who has carved out a world of his own in American fiction, one that is odd, revealing, and yet filled with love.”—Library Journal
"Here's an author who sees and hears what others either miss or fail to note the significance of."—Richard Russo
Charles The man behind the counter of the gun shop did not understand what Charles wanted, and so he summoned his sister from the back room, and she did not understand either. It was late on a Friday afternoon in October, and Charles seemed to be speaking an unknown language.
Outside, the wind gusted. Sunlight broke through fast clouds and swept across the windows. The sister, in a coarsely woven blue sweater, picked up the feeding rod of a semiautomatic rifle and flicked it at her brother's arm in play. Charles thought of it as a feeding rod, anyway. No doubt there was another name.
"On guard," she said.
"I told you," said the brother, "keep away from me with that."
What Charles wanted seemed simple enough to Charles: for the gun-shop owners to visit the minister's widow and offer to buy the shotgun she kept on pegs above the fireplace.
This is the history of the gun: Years ago it had belonged to Charles's stepfather, who before his death had given it to the Reverend Matthews. It was a .410 side-by-side shotgun made by Hutzel and Pfeil of Cincinnati. In his mind Charles could see the company name engraved in ornate script on the breechblock. When the minister died, his widow inherited the gun. Maybe it was sentimental for Charles to want to retrieve it after all this time, and yet he believed a gun should be used once in a while. A gun should be more than an ornament on the wall of someone with no connection to the original owner.
The sister took the feeding rod in both hands as if she meant to twirl it like a baton.
"What do you call that?"said Charles, on the off-chance that a simple exchange of information would set the conversation back on track.
"It's the long spring-loaded insert that pushes shells into the chamber," she said.
"How much do you want for this gun?" said the sister.
"I'm not selling it."
"Well, let me ask you this," said the brother. "Do you have it on you?"
"It's at her house."
"We can't appraise what we can't see," said the sister.
"Where is it again?"
"The minister's widow's house. In Grafton. Her name is Farina Matthews."
The brother shook his head. "You're asking the shop to act as a go-between."
"We tried it once," said the sister. "Ended up in small claims court. It was a total loser for us."
Charles looked at a fox pelt, dusty orange with gray fringe, tacked to the wall of the shop. The fox had been flattened, its paws flung outward. "What I'm suggesting is -"
"Yeah . . ."
"- you go to her, you buy it from her, then you would hold it free and clear, and then I come in, as if none of this had happened. And I buy it from you."
"We don't make house calls," said the brother. "We're not like doctors."
"Actually we are, in that respect," said the sister. "We're not like old-time doctors, who made house calls."
"If you want to have her stop by the shop, that's a different story."
"She doesn't want to sell it," said Charles. "Not to me, anyway."
"Why is this conversation taking place?" said the brother.
He turned away, presenting the blank white back of his shirt to Charles. Blue gun barrels stood in a row, silver chain laced through the trigger guards. Above the guns there was a license plate - Iowa 1942 - all beat up as if the car or truck it had been on had hit many stumps. The sister pulled a catalogue from under the counter and began turning the pages.
A lone bluebottle buzzed in the gun shop. "Where did you come from?" said the sister. She raised her hand briefly in the fly's direction before returning to her search. "Okay. Here we go. The gun you want, here it is, Hutzel and Pfeil, and it's . . . umm . . . no longer made."
A pheasant rose from dry weeds by the railroad track, the sound of its wings like the spinning of a wheel. Charles and his stepfather fired almost at once as it passed over the right-of-way. White clouds blazed in the sky. The pheasant fell near the tracks. Which of them had hit it was anyone's guess.
"We'll shoot for it," said Charles's stepfather. "I'll be odd."
Indeed you will, thought Charles. He twisted the bill of his hat. "I don't know how," he said.
His stepfather explained. On the count of three they would each display a number of fingers, letting the even- or oddness of the combined total decide who got the pheasant. Did Charles understand? No, but he pretended to. And sure enough, he did not do it right, presenting his fingers too late and nonetheless making a sum that lost the game.
His stepfather walked on, leaving the pheasant for Charles to carry. "If you're going to take the trouble to cheat," he said, "you should at least win."
They crossed to the cabin through a meadow of grass and mint. They could smell the mint as their steps broke the plants. Birch trees grew around the house, which was made of wood, with a plank door. It did not belong to Charles's stepfather but was open for the use of all. Inside, ants wandered over the walls and the rafters. A river ran far below the windows. The stepfather boiled water on a hot plate while Charles gathered newspapers on which they would clean the pheasant. Surveyor 6 had lifted off from the moon, only to land again a few feet away.
&0quot;I didn't cheat," said Charles.
This would have been the fall of 1967. After that Charles knew how to shoot for something, at least in this limited sense.
The minister's widow pushed a lawn aerator on a line between the clothesline and the house. Three sharp stars turned brightly through the grass. She kept an excellent yard and had always made it a point to do so. A van stopped on the street in front of the house. Here comes charles the plumber was written, red on white, above the grille. She gripped the worn wooden handle of the aerator as if she might pick it up and chase the driver away.
"There is nothing to talk about," she said.
"I've just come from the gun shop," said Charles. "They made an estimate. This is more than fair." From a paper envelope he drew three bills.
"Where did you get that?"
She could have used the money - who couldn't use three hundred now and then? - but resolutely she returned to her work. "Why would I do for payment what I wouldn't do for free?"
He laid the bills on the grass in her path. She speared them deftly with the tines of the aerator. "I'm not selling the gun."
"Ask your mother."
"I talked to her," said Charles. "She said it was that time with your boy."
"Is that right?"
"When he was in the runaway car."
She raised the aerator and the impaled money. "Are you threatening me?"
Charles took the bills back. "Mrs. Matthews, I'm trying to buy a gun which can't be any use to you. I know I don't have any right to it. But what happened between my mother and you thirty years ago I can't help. Just let me see it."
"Well, you don't have to cry about it."
"Let me see the gun."
"You already did."
In the summer she had let him into the house. Standing before the mantel he had seemed big and misplaced, and she had worried for her miniature lighthouses of painted clay. Clearly he saw things in the gun that she did not, but it had been left to her by her husband, and she meant to keep it.
Farina Matthews climbed the steps of her house and washed her hands at the kitchen sink while watching the white van move down the road. There goes charles the plumber. She walked through the rooms, past a vase of cloth roses that seemed to watch her. Her husband had called their home Max Gate, after the residence of Thomas Hardy, his favorite author. She did not look at the gun. Her gaze drifted to the piano, on which stood a large and beautifully framed picture of her son. He was a chemist in Albuquerque and had done well for himself, discovering when he was barely out of college a new way of treating synthetic laminate so that it would remember its former shape in a vacuum.
The runaway car business amounted to nothing. That's what Charles would never understand. When her son was four years old, she had left him in the car while getting the mail at the post office. Somehow the youngster had released the brake. The car rolled down the snowy street, but so slowly that her son would never have gotten anywhere. Far from saving him, Charles's mother had made the situation worse by loping alongside the car and shouting as loudly as she could.
And now Charles wanted Farina to sell him the old gun, which complemented her fireplace in such a homey way. When everyone knew he stole and that his plumbing customers were either shady themselves or tolerant of shadiness. I think not, said the minister's widow to herself.
Charles Darling lived with his wife Joan, their son Micah, and Joan's daughter Lyris on two acres south of the town of Boris. The house had been built a hundred years ago and added on to forty years ago, and the two pieces did not much match. The older part was a dormered cottage, the newer part a boot room. All in all, the place was too small, especially since the arrival of Lyris, the daughter whom Joan had placed for adoption sixteen years before.
Behind the house stood a stucco hut with a dirt floor. They called it a barn, but this was an overstatement. The doors latched with a hasp and pin, and the soft ruts of the driveway were thick with grass. Railroad tracks ran behind the back yard, and trees grew on the hill beyond the tracks. Charles went into the barn and looked through his toolboxes for a chain pipe wrench. He had no immediate need for it but had noted its absence and did not like to be out and about without it.
In the house he asked Micah if he had taken the wrench from the barn.
"Describe it," said the boy.
"About yay long and blue, with a chain on the end," said Charles. "Like a bike chain. It's a good heavy wrench. You can't mistake it for anything else."
Micah sat on the deep freeze in the boot room looking at a clothespin as if a secret message had been written on it in very small print. The red hair bristled on his head. He had careful, measuring eyes. "What's a bike chain?"
"How old are you?"
"And you're asking me that."
"I didn't take any wrench."
It bothered Charles that Micah could not ride, and yet there was only so much he himself could do. A father can't ride a bike for a son. "You've got to know these things, Mike."
"Do you want to hear my part in the school play?"
"Get off this," said Charles. "Get off a minute."
Micah jumped down from the freezer. Charles raised the lid and pulled up a clouded blue sack of ice. "Let's hear your part in the school play."
"'You know, as well as I / The fossil record does not lie.'"
"What's the topic?" said Charles.
Charles beat on the ice with a hammer and then made a drink in the kitchen, where Joan sat at the table packing her suitcase for a trip to the city. The orderly stacks of her clothing seemed at odds with the clutter of the kitchen. Curtains lay in heaps under the windows. One of the burners on the stove, missing the knob that turned it on and off, was controlled by a pair of vise grips locked onto the metal stem. Under the table were black suede riding chaps, a green laundry basket with clothes spilling over the sides, and a tin of walnuts. Everything might have been moving a short time before, spinning around Joan and her suitcase.
"Don't say anything," she said. "I'm thinking."
Charles took Micah and the drink outside. The bike leaned against a stone column. Charles turned it upside down so that it rested in the dirt on seat and handlebars, and worked the pedals, blurring the spokes of the rear wheel.
"If you learned how to ride, you would know what the chain was," Charles advised. He righted the bicycle, lifted the boy onto the seat, and gave a push. "Leave now and you can be in Canada by the first snow."
The bicycle wobbled into the cool air of fall. Charles picked up his drink from the ground. Micah could not steady the handlebars but kept wrenching them back and forth in the stylized tango of all beginning riders. Then he fell, on the sand by the road. He disentangled himself from the bike and ran to Charles, holding his elbow, on which blood appeared in dozens of tiny gouges. Charles helped him limp to the house. The boy's breath came at rough intervals. "I don't like learning," he said.
"Learning isn't so bad," said Charles. "It's falling that hurts."
Joan had closed her suitcase. Her arms lay over the lid, her head resting sideways between them, as if she were listening to the heartbeat of the luggage, her blond hair fanned over her shoulders. She looked spent and peaceful, like a pilgrim who has found the sacred site.
She spoke softly into the pale hollow of an elbow. "Did you remember to get my travel-sized samples?"
"I did." Charles reached into the pockets of his coat and laid on the table his keys, the three hundred dollars, and the small containers of face cream and hair conditioner that she would not go without. Joan held reflexive opinions about many subjects, including travel. Everything had to be a certain way long before the time of departure or else she became anxious.
Micah ducked under the table. "Daddy! Here's your wrench." He had found it nestled in the chaps.
"What happened to your elbow?" said Joan. "Oh, Charles, why do you have to roughhouse with him on the very night before I go away?"
"He fell off his bike," said Charles. "Don't read things into it that aren't there."
"And who ends up dressing the wound?"
"Stop arguing," said Micah.
As a rule, Charles and Joan did not let their seven-year-old tell them what to do, but they disagreed often enough lately that they sometimes forgot to remind him of his lack of authority.
Charles sat in a chair, shoving the tin of walnuts with a steel-toed boot to clear space for his feet. The ice of his drink had melted to wafers.
"I would be glad to put a Band-Aid on Micah's arm," he said diplomatically, knowing that Joan would never give up the chance to doctor her son when she was on the verge of going away for the weekend. She was the executive director of a league of animal shelters headquartered in Stone City, and would give a speech at the regional convention on Saturday night.
Joan led Micah upstairs. Charles took the opportunity to raise the lid of her suitcase. Her blouses and skirts, her black swimsuit, lay carefully folded, and under them he found the white Bible with her maiden name printed in gold. He unzipped her flowered cloth makeup bag and removed silver and gold tubes of lipstick, an eyelash curler that looked like some ungodly surgical scissors, and a paintbox for the eyes. Cosmetics bothered Charles. He did not want Joan going to the city with any more makeup than that which was on her face when she left. He did not want her dolling up for strangers in a strange place. Either the men would fall for her or they would not, and she would be left standing alone, with paint masking her pretty features. He buried the makeup in the laundry basket and filled the flowered bag with walnuts and a nutcracker from the tin beneath the table.
Her blouses moved him. Their insubstantiality and frail collars seemed to correspond to something tenuous in Joan's nature. People did not realize what an effort it required for her to simply appear normal, an inhabitant of the regular world. The things she did for work were much more than Charles could have managed. She sat in meetings in clothes unfriendly to the skin. She spoke civilly to people who would just as soon see her fall out of a window so they could take her place. She visited factories, seeking donations, admiring forklifts. She rarely dealt with animals anymore.
Her work life corresponded less and less with her home life. If her board of directors could see this kitchen - the moths that flew from the cupboards or the molasses congealed on the shelves of the refrigerator - their eyes would open wide. "What sort of people live here?" they might ask. But maybe their houses were the same.
A swimsuit, he thought. Where does that fit in?
Lyris came home at suppertime. After three months, she still entered the house gravely. She leaned forward, looking for something.
She had arrived on the eleventh of July with a small suitcase of her own. She'd set it down, picked it up, turned it around, considering whether to stay. Charles wondered what she had left behind in the culling of her possessions.
She had her mother's blond hair, chopped short, as if the beauty parlor responsible had been on a boat on the rolling sea. Her eyes were small but did not seem so because her irises were big and dark. The father's eyes, Charles had thought, with some jealousy, and just as he was thinking this, Lyris's eyes had met his, and he looked away. With her, that first time, were a man and a woman from the Home Bringers, the organization that had found her in Illinois, informed Joan and Charles of her existence, and brought her home.
Joan had seemed as amazed as Charles by the advent of Lyris. Joan had once been an actress, and she had the requisite ability to set aside the past in favor of any given scenario. She seemed to believe some things that were not true more than she did some things that were. Charles figured this was why she was so susceptible to religion. Once she had told Charles of a problem with the elevator in the building where she worked in Stone City. The car, it seemed, would stop between floors, and the doors would open, revealing the wall of the elevator shaft. It was only later that he found out the building had no elevators. When he pointed out this fact, she said that he had misunderstood, that she had only been telling him what someone else had told her, about another building, in another place. But he knew what he had heard, and he remembered how convincingly she had described the cables and rivets and grease of the shaft. No, she said. He was wrong.
At times like these, Charles thought, it was as if Joan were changing scripts. It took her a moment, but she would go on.
Lyris's father had been an actor; he and Joan had been in a drama workshop together in Chicago back in the eighties. Charles could picture the whole chain of events, inaccurately. Lyris had grown up in an orphanage and foster homes, never finding a lasting situation. There were difficult aspects to her life that the Home Bringers related with apparent joy. Her most recent foster parents had been apprehended with bomb-making equipment; the arrests had brought her to the Home Bringers' attention. So they had delivered her from trouble and given her real mother a chance to correct her mistake. There was no doubt in their minds about being in the right. If there were, they would find another line of work. They were small people, with small hands, representing a movement against what they called artificial families. The only love that counted, they said, was blood love.
Charles thought this was way off. Nonetheless, he and Joan now had two children, although it had once been predicted that they could have none. It made Charles happy when doctors and scientists got caught in a mistake. He cheered their miscalculations. Signals arrive from a space telescope, and lo and behold, there are forty billion more galaxies than there were yesterday. An infertile couple winds up having two children. The scientists must have known the guessing game they were playing. Did they laugh derisively behind laboratory walls; did they roll dice to determine the number of galaxies and grains of sand?
He wondered about those scientists.
Now Joan came downstairs saying that the bathroom was becoming a natural spring. She had that right. Water floated the tiles at the base of the toilet and beaded the coupling under the sink, from which the pearly drops made their way in procession down the elbow trap, off the cleanout, through space, and into an overturned hardhat placed on the floor to catch the water. The hat had tire marks on the crown from a time in Colorado when Charles had driven a car over it to see how hard it really was.
"And the carpenter's children shall go without shoes," said Lyris. She wore a middy blouse and a kilt with a giant safety pin.
"That's cobbler," said Charles.
Lyris at sixteen was just as willowy and high-browed as a princess, and her shape was evident, but Charles looked around it. There were many ways their relationship might go wrong, and he meant to avoid them all. He regarded himself as an innovator with no tolerance for the obvious sins. And Lyris had seen enough of the world's selfish ways. As the song said, she was a poor wayfaring stranger.
Lyris took a head of lettuce from the refrigerator and bit into it as if it were an apple. Charles and Joan exchanged an expression of live-and-let-live. Some of her habits were not what they were used to. She ate raw potatoes, ironed her socks, and drank milk from a bowl.
"How was 4-H?" asked Joan. "Honey? Lyris? Did you make corncob dolls with the rest of the girls?"
Lyris boosted herself up to sit on the edge of the counter. "I feel too old for 4-H. Lots of the kids are nine and ten. I would drop out tomorrow if you would let me."
"I'm going away tomorrow," said Joan. "And there certainly are girls your age in 4-H."
"There's Taffy, who everyone kisses up to. But I can't play that game."
"They do! 'Look at my corncob doll, Taffy.' 'What big eyes you have, Taffy.' With that name, I can't take her seriously."
quot;It's short for Octavia," said Joan.
"You should get a goat to raise and show at the fair," said Charles. "That's where the real benefits of 4-H begin to kick in. With livestock."
"Could I really have a goat?" said Lyris.
"I don't know why not," said Charles.
"Do I really want a goat?"
"Health, hands, head," said Charles. "What's the other H?"
"Heart," said Lyris.
Micah braced himself on the banister and leaped up in outrage. Why could she get a goat when he couldn't have a dog, he wanted to know. It was so unfair. He could not believe how unfair it was.
"Goats are like dogs except they don't bite," said Charles. A German shepherd had bit him once on the knee when he had surprised it in a garage.
"Can we not talk about animals right now?" said Joan. "I'll be doing that all weekend. Now let me think. I'm leaving at six in the morning. That means I have to fill up my tank and check the oil and fluid levels and vacuum the mats tonight."
"But you're flying," said Charles.
"To the airport I'm not," said Joan.
"Where's the doll you made?" Micah asked Lyris. He hung on the railing, his elbow bound in gauze.
"I tossed it," said Lyris.
"I was hoping to put it in my Playmobil prison."
"You are a cop in your heart," said Lyris.
"Lyris called me a cop," said Micah.
"She didn't mean it," said Charles. "But you shouldn't go around threatening to imprison your sister's doll. As for the goat, you can help with it, assuming we get one."
"You can put it in a pen," said Lyris.
Two combines worked a field from opposite sides. Night would fall in an hour. Charles's brother, Jerry, was driving to Boris from Pringmar. He passed an irrigation reservoir with a round island of evergreens in the middle. It occurred to him that the trees' lives must be like his own in some ways, though not, fortunately, in others. In town he pulled over by the teen center, where Octavia Perry and some of her friends loitered by the pay phone. The same Taffy who exhibited model 4-H behavior was now smoking and standing with her belly thrust forward and one hand pressed into the small of her back.
"Where's the party?" asked Jerry.
"We don't know yet," said Octavia. "Wait a minute, Mr. Postman." Jerry delivered mail for a living. His pith helmet lay on the seat beside him.
"Look what I got for you," said Jerry. He opened his glovebox and took out a small black chessboard with magnetic pieces. "Pawn to queen four," he said.
Octavia responded with a mirror move of her queen's pawn.
Several moves later, the phone rang in the booth.
"Will he cling to the pawn or let it go?" said Taffy. She wedged the cigarette between her thumb and the tip of her middle finger and fired it into the gutter.
One of Taffy's companions hung up the phone. "The Elephant," he said. "It's at the Elephant."
This was a traditional party site out in the country, named for a formation of trees whose shape against the sky had once been found to resemble the profile of an elephant. The likeness, if any, had given way to the growth of branches. The party would be in a meadow below the trees.
"Bishop to queen's knight five would be a big mistake," said Jerry.
"Oh really," said Taffy. "Look, I don't want to play if you're going to take me for a novice. Are you coming to the party or not?"
"Will there be a keg?" said Jerry.
"Es claro que sí."
The evening sky had rolled like a bolt of blue cloth over the town. Jerry gazed at the cloudy shine of the little pearls in Octavia's earlobes. "Probably what I'll do is go on home and check out the Discovery Channel."
"You're an old man," said Taffy.
"A blanket drawn 'round my shoulders," said Jerry.
"I'm not in love with you."
"A cup of cheer, to while away the hours."
"I'm not in love," said Taffy.
From the town Jerry drove to Charles and Joan's house. Joan sat on the front porch shining her shoes, and Charles lay on a wheeled wooden slab under Joan's car, the front tires of which were up on steel ramps.
"Evening, folks," said Jerry.
"I'm going away," called Joan.
"Joanie, we hardly knew ye."
"Only for the weekend," she said, holding a chamois cloth to the fading light. "It's work-related."
"Then I don't want to hear it," said Jerry. "Charles, I need your help over home. I got some rock salt that has to go down in the cellar."
Soon Charles and his brother were speeding down the road with the evening wind blowing bits of paper and dust around the inside of the car. Jerry explained his plan, which had nothing to do with rock salt. He wanted to fake a police raid on the party at the Elephant. As a postman, he had revolving lights behind his windshield; as a volunteer fireman, he carried a bullhorn. Jerry liked to spoil fun; it was his latest hobby. Once Micah had rigged a tent out of old canvas and a clothesline strung between two trees, and Jerry had pulled out a buck knife and cut the rope, sending the heavy canvas thudding to the ground. He had also taken to making bothersome phone calls to people who advertised cars for sale in the classifieds. "Is it a manual or a stick?" he would ask, usually late at night, just to play with their heads.
Jerry pulled off the road and into the trees that constituted the Elephant. Down in the meadow, shadowy figures moved back and forth among the cars. "La Grange" came from someone's stereo.
"They play the same songs we played," said Charles idly.
"I know it." Jerry put the car in gear. "There's no sense of musical progression." The car rolled out of the woods and down the slope toward the party, yellow light revolving.
"Stay away from your cars," said Charles into the bullhorn, but there was no amplification.
"You've got to push the button. And say vehicles."
"Stay away from your vehicles." Now Charles's words echoed over the meadow to the opposite hillside. "Do not start the engines. Do not drive away."
The lazy party flared to life. Kids ran, doors slammed, headlights cut yellow swaths through the darkness. Dust rose as the fishtailing caravan hit the road. It was good to create so much panic, but at the same time Charles suspected that the young people were having more fun than he was.
Jerry rode the brakes, giving everyone time to get away. He parked the car, and they both got out and took a handcart from the trunk. The kids had abandoned the keg in a ring of matted grass. Charles lifted the cold aluminum barrel onto the cart, Jerry cinched the cloth straps, and they took turns pulling the cart uphill to the car.
"I wonder why they left it," said Charles.
"You know kids," said Jerry. "Always in a hurry."