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Brown quickened his steps down the corridor in order to enter the elevator with Schwarzlose. Watch Brown! Brown is our man. We will remain with Brown all evening and far into the night. He is the engine of our story. Schwarzlose, on the other hand, will soon depart from our sight in the smoking noise of McGinley headquarters.
On the double doors inside the elevator someone had printed with a black felt-marking implement:
When the doors parted, however, the message read:
Up and down, night after night, week after week, Brown and Schwarzlose saw those words. Once, during recent weeks, someone had also written on the double doors, "Janitor, where are you?" and someone else (perhaps the janitor himself) had scrubbed away that message without scrubbing away the other.
Was it Brown who wrote on the elevator doors? No. It wasn't his language, nor would he have thought such a message productive. He wished above all to be productive, to improve the world. Had he done so? Had he made the world in any way better?
He had saved some souls, especially children's, by writing threatening or abusive anonymous letters here and there, or by placing threatening or abusive telephone calls. What hath God wrought? Watson, come here a minute. He hoped he'd never be caught at it. In the front of the telephone book the Company announced its own feelings in these matters:
Annoyance Calls. The laws of the State provide that whoever telephones another person and addresses to or about such other person any lewd, lascivious, or indecent words or language; orwhoever telephones another person repeatedly for the purpose of annoying, molesting, or harassing such other person, or his or her family, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding $500, to which may be added imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months....
Brown never uttered "lewd, lascivious, or indecent words or language." Even his thoughts were mainly free of such language. It was his training. His college was Faith Calvary Central, where he had been "in training for God's team" (here we are quoting his teacher, Dr. Blikey), until he discovered life more widely, when language vanquished God.
But the spirit of daily service nevertheless remained within him, and he performed every day an anonymous deed for justice. One deed a day was three hundred and sixty-five a year. Now and then he missed a day. (Who doesn't miss a day now and then?) Often he felt himself surviving a day without wrath just when his wrath set in, his rage mounted, and he'd make even several telephone calls then, or he'd dash off a flurry of mail. At this moment, elevator descending, rage rising, Brown felt the need to write a letter to a man in Montana about whom he had read an hour ago, for whom he had written a headline:
Montana Father's Shrine for Son
Pledged to World Peace Ideal
Why did that Montana man permit his son to go to war in the first place? Dear Sir, You are certainly mixing up money and love in your mind. Why did you let him go in the first place? My own son ... my wife's son I suppose I should say.... Not his "wife", exactly, either. His letter began to fail in his mind, but these were the lines he'd follow at the rented typewriter in the public library.
"Where are you headed for dinner?" Schwarzlose asked in the elevator.
"I thought I'd stroll over to the library," Brown replied.
"I'll walk along awhile," said Schwarzlose. "Do me a favor tonight. Come back after dinner. The other night you didn't come back."
Death once again to Schwarzlose by phosphorous fire! Yes. Hide inside, thought Brown. Sure, there he'd be inside late at night after hours, crouching somewhere in a closet or a dustbin, and he'd take a couple of those little phosphorous balls from his pocket and drop them and leave. They were inextinguishable, or so Brown had heard. He didn't really know. Nor did he really know why it should be Schwarzlose of all people sitting there by himself in the middle of the night in the city room waiting patiently to be burned up by phosphorous balls. Then, too, why didn't the phosphorous balls burn in Brown's pocket? He wasn't certain. He'd never seen a phosphorous ball:
"Burn, Baby, Burn"
Headlines Writer Chronicle Arsonist --
One Dead in Inferno of Repressed Rage
"My wife wasn't well," said Brown.
"Make her square away," said Schwarzlose -- tough guy, you see, takes no womanly excuses from anybody, carrier, messenger. Why kill the messenger? Brown couldn't help it. Was Cronkite a bad man? No, it seemed not so, and yet Brown was always killing Cronkite for bringing him the bad news. Shoot him in the back while on the air. Then the sign would change from On the Air to Off the Air. But shooting him in the back? Why did it always present itself to Brown in that way? He didn't like it, though it might have been the injection of a bit of fair play at that, a little help to the police, for the cameras on Cronkite would catch a good glimpse of Brown, too, beaming out his face to a hundred million witnesses sitting at home watching murder, war, riots, massacres, and other calamities while eating dinner.
This murder always occurred, too, on the seventeenth floor, with a gun, always, never changing, unvarying, because once having established a fantasy in his mind Brown pursued it in the same way each time, it became a habit with him (even if not a good habit) -- Cronkite and Sevareid by gun on the seventeenth floor, Schwarzlose by phosphorous balls late at night in the Chronicle building, McGinley with a hot harpoon in the office of the Draft Board, and Stanley Krannick with an automobile. He moved in slowly behind Stanley, nudging him behind the knees so that he'd fall forward and be gently ground to death beneath Brown's Goodrich tires, Atlas tires, Firestone tires, but always tires, always gently, always from behind (probably to avoid his eyes, for the same reason prisoners are blindfolded when executed), always Stanley. Stanley was Luella's husband. Man and woman Brown and Luella had been for twenty years, but husband and wife they were not.
"She's really quite well now," said Brown. The two men were walking up Mission Street between Sixth and Seventh. "She lost sleep. A dog across the street keeps barking all night." To be truthful, however, it wasn't Luella but Brown who "lost sleep" because of the dog "across the street." The dog's name was Paprika, and he looms large in our story, for Brown leads us to Paprika, Paprika to Lala Ferne, and Lala beyond.
"Poison it," said Schwarzlose.
Where was Eric Sevareid? Was he in the room with Cronkite? You notice how they nod toward one another without ever being seen together. It was part of the showmanship -- making a show of the news, imagine that, no wonder mad assassins abound. Out comes Sevareid from wherever he was, having seen Walter shot "off the air." Eric's perplexed. He blinks, blink, blink, and then from behind he's shot, down goes big Eric, too, back up, back out, drop the gun in your pocket, and resume walking rapidly down the stairway. Don't fall. Watch your step. He started down. Now people were in motion all over. Seventeen floors to go. Some people were coming up the stairs, and he motioned to them, waved to them, calling "Up here, up here, on the seventeenth floor," while he continued down, hastening past them, floor after floor, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve ... perhaps the numbers would be on the doors ... to the tenth floor, let us say, counting down with the astronauts. They were in trouble tonight, although Cronkite's opinion was that it might be nothing more than faulty radio. Let them die gurgling their frozen oxygen -- Brown's idea -- Brown stepping lightly onto the elevator there on the tenth floor and dropping his gun down the chute between the elevator and the walls of the shaft (clunk, clunk) and descending to the main floor and into the street, which would be Madison Avenue, he supposed (he'd never been there), and casually walking along, inconspicuously removing from his hands his flesh-colored gloves from which he had removed all evidence, if any, of ownership, and all evidence leading to the store from which he had purchased them: Robert Kirk Ltd., on Post Street. At the next corner he dropped them into a wastebin as nonchalantly as you'd toss away an old tobacco pouch, waiting for the first word, listening as he walked for the first report gasped in excitement, "Cronkite was shot on the air ... Sevareid was shot ... no, only Cronkite, I saw it with my own ... no, both, Cronkite on the air and Sevareid off."
It was all a fraud, like the quiz shows of the past, the answers given beforehand. These astronauts tonight weren't in trouble at all, it was faked, and Cronkite an accomplice, messenger, as he'd been the messenger for the Pentagon, reading their handouts on the air, denying the war was a war, although Junie had died in it. Junie was Luella's son. My very dear father of the Montana shrine, Brown wrote in his mind, standing with Schwarzlose before the public library.
"I'm going over and poke my head in McGinley headquarters," said Schwarzlose.
"All right," said Brown, "I'll go too," forsaking the library and following Schwarzlose, as he'd followed him into the elevator.
They crossed the street and entered McGinley headquarters. "Come on," said Schwarzlose, "we'll shake the bastard's hand," knowing full well that such an act of cynicism was impossible for Brown, and the foul language offensive, too. He enjoyed offending Brown.
"I've been here before," said Brown. "What was located here?"
"Some store," said Schwarzlose without interest, reading from a McGinley campaign pamphlet. "Listen to the shit this man is," he said.
McGinley had been, among other things, Chairman of the Draft Board. For that "crime" he would be dead in twenty-four hours -- elected by day, murdered in the evening. Chairman of the Draft Board murdered by violence, enemy of crime criminally murdered. McGinley was an advocate of guns "in the hands of the right people," and one of his most effective campaign slogans had been "The West wasn't won with a registered gun." Upon the wall a great banner read, "Congress shall make no law respecting the right of the people to keep and bear arms. It shall not be infringed." But the lover of the Constitution had distorted it, corrupted it. "That's not the proper reading," said Brown to Schwarzlose.
"It's near enough," said Schwarzlose.
Well, that was Schwarzlose for you, no sense getting mad. "Near enough" had always been good enough for Schwarzlose. "Oh my Lord," said Brown, his heart pained, "it was a toy store. It was Mordecai's Toys." His pained heart dropped like a rock. "My boy and I came here all the time."
"Time marches on," said Schwarzlose, to show that a fact was merely a fact, to prove that, as for himself, he had no tender feelings. "Don't look back, you complicate your life, you're a worrier."
Mordecai's Toys. The first word Junie had learned to read was the word toys, learned from the painted letters on Mordecai's window and at Edna's & Jerry's Toys, too, on Eighteenth Street. Brown and Junie alighted from the streetcar when they saw the painted window, and of course the streetcar was a part of the pleasure, too, streetcar there, buy a toy, streetcar home. Brown's father had been for many years a streetcar motorman, back and forth for thirty-five years on the "M" car through the tunnel. They had been very smart, that Mordecai and wife, they sold good toys for twenty years and retired young to the Avenues. Brown had encountered them one day not long ago on Geary Boulevard, and they had asked for "the wife" and for "the little one" and he hadn't the heart, for their sake, nor the strength for his own, to tell them that "the little one" was grown and gone and dead, thank you.
"They used to hang big stuffed animals from the ceiling," said Brown to Schwarzlose, "and then they had angels floating across the blue sky, the ceiling painted. It was an illusion. Especially giraffes, big stuffed giraffes, although we never bought the expensive stuff. We bought a thousand little Matchbox cars and ... well ... we still have them."
"I've seen enough," said Schwarzlose. "Don't forget to come back after dinner."
"We bought little guns here, too, I suppose. I mean toy guns, not guns that shoot."
"McGinley means guns that shoot," said Schwarzlose tight-lipped, as if he were a tough guy.
Copyright © 1973 by Mark Harris