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Time and the Riddle
Thirty-One Zen Stories
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
"You never read in bed," Mr. Nutley said to his wife.
"I used to, you remember," Mrs. Nutley replied. "But then I found it was sufficient simply to lie here and compose my thoughts. To get my head together, as the kids say."
"I envy you. You never have any trouble sleeping."
"Oh, I do. At times. To be perfectly honest," she added, "I think women fuss less than men."
"I don't fuss about it," Mr. Nutley protested, putting aside his copy of The New Yorker magazine and switching off his bedside light. "I just find it damned unpleasant. I'm not an insomniac. I just get a notion and it keeps running around in my head."
"Do you have a notion tonight?"
"I find Ralph Thompson a pain in the ass, if you can call that a notion."
"That's certainly not enough to keep you awake. I must say I've always found him pleasant enough—for a neighbor. We could do worse, you know."
"I suppose so."
"Why are you so provoked about him?" Mrs. Nutley asked, pulling the covers closer to her chin against the chill of the bedroom.
"Because I never know whether he's putting me on or not. I find writers and artists insufferable, and he's the most insufferable of the lot. The fact that I drag my butt into the city every day and do an honest day's work makes me what he refers to as a member of the Establishment and an object of what I am certain, he regards as his sense of humor."
"Well, you are upset," said Mrs. Nutley.
"I am not upset. Why is it that I must wait at least an hour before I can think of the proper witty rejoinder to the needling of a horse's ass?"
"Because you are a thoughtful and honest person, and I am thankful that you are. What did he say?"
"The way he said it," Mr. Nutley replied. "A kind of a cross between a leer and a snicker. He said he saw a flying saucer come sailing out of the sunset and settle down in the little valley across the hill."
"Indeed! That isn't even witty. You probably fell into his trap and insisted that there was no such thing as a flying saucer."
"I am going to sleep," said Mr. Nutley. He turned over, stretched, wriggled into the bedclothes, and relapsed into silence. After a minute or so he asked Mrs. Nutley whether she was still awake.
"Well, I said to him, why didn't you go down there and look at it if you knew where it landed? He told me he doesn't trespass on millionaires' property."
"Does he really think we're millionaires?"
"A man who sees flying saucers can think anything. What's got into this country? No one saw flying saucers when I was a kid. No one was mugged when I was a kid. No one took dope when I was a kid. I put it to you—did you ever hear of a flying saucer when you were a kid?"
"Maybe there were no flying saucers when we were kids," Mrs. Nutley suggested.
"Of course there weren't."
"No. I mean that perhaps there were none then, but there are now."
"Well, it doesn't have to be nonsense," Mrs. Nutley said gently. "All sorts of people see them."
"Which proves only that the world is filled with kooks. Tell me something, if there is such a silly thing as a flying saucer, what the devil is it up to?"
"Just what does that mean?"
"Well," said Mrs. Nutley, "we are curious, they are curious. Why not?"
"Because that kind of thinking is exactly what's wrong with the world today. Wild guesses with no foundation. Do you know that yesterday the Dow dropped ten points because someone made a wild guess and put it on the tape? If people like yourself were more in touch with the world and what goes on in the world, we'd all be better off."
"What do you mean by people like myself?"
"People who don't know one damn thing about the world as it really is."
"Like myself?" Mrs. Nutley asked gently. She rarely lost her temper.
"Well, what do you do all day out here in the suburbs or exurbs or whatever it is sixty miles from New York?"
"I keep busy," she replied mildly.
"It's just not enough to keep busy," Mr. Nutley was off on one of his instructive speeches, which, as Mrs. Nutley reflected, came about once every two weeks, when he had a particularly bad bout of insomnia. "A person must justify his existence."
"By making money. You always tell me that we have enough money."
"I never mentioned money. The point is that when the kids went away to college and you decided to go back and get a doctorate in plant biology, I was all for it. Wasn't I?"
"Indeed you were. You were very understanding."
"That's not the point. The point is that two years have gone by since you got that degree and you do absolutely nothing about it. You spend your days here and you just let them slide by."
"Now you're angry at me," said Mrs. Nutley.
"I am not angry."
"I do try to keep busy. I work in the garden. I collect specimens."
"You have a gardener. I pay him one hundred and ten dollars a week. You have a cook. You have a maid. I was reading an article in the Sunday Observer about the aimless life of the upper-middle-class woman."
"Yes, I read the article," said Mrs. Nutley.
"You never let me get to the point, do you?" Mr. Nutley said testily. "We were talking about flying saucers, which you are ready to accept as a fact."
"But now we're talking about something else, aren't we? You're provoked because I don't find a job in some university as a plant biologist and prove that I have a function in life. But then we'd never see each other, would we? And I am fond of you."
"Did I say one word about you getting a job in some university? As a matter of fact, there are four colleges within twenty miles of here, any one of which would be delighted to have you."
"That's a matter of surmise. And I do love my home."
"Then you accept boredom. You accept a dull, senseless existence. You accept—"
"You know you mustn't get worked up at this time of the night," Mrs. Nutley said mildly. "It makes it so much harder for you to get to sleep. Wouldn't you like a nice warm glass of milk?"
"Why do you never let me finish any, thought?"
"I think I'll bring you the milk. You know it always lets you sleep."
Mrs. Nutley got out of bed, turned on her bedside light, put on her robe, and went down to the kitchen. There she heated a pan of milk. From a jar in the cupboard she took a tiny packet of Seconal and dropped the powder into a glass. She added the hot milk and stirred. Then she returned to the bedroom. Her husband drank the milk and she watched approvingly.
"You do put magic into hot milk," Mr. Nutley said. "It's not getting to sleep that makes me cranky."
"It's just that I think of you all alone all day out here—"
"But I do love this old place so."
She waited until his breathing became soft and regular. "Poor dear," she said, sighing. She waited ten minutes more. Then she got out of bed, pulled on old denims, walking boots, shirt and sweater, and moved silently down the stairs and out of the house.
She crossed the gardens to the potting shed, the moon so bright that she never had to use the flashlight hooked to her belt. In the potting shed was the rucksack, filled with the plant specimens she had collected and catalogued over the past three weeks. They were so appreciative of the care with which she catalogued each specimen and the way she wrapped them in wet moss and the way she always left the fungi for the very last day, so they would be fresh and pungent, that she would be left with a warm glow that lasted for days. Not that she wasn't paid properly and sufficiently for her work. Mr. Nutley was absolutely right. A person with a skill should be paid for the skill, and she had an old handbag half full of little diamonds nestling in the drawer of her dressing table. Of course, diamonds were as common in their place as pebbles were here, so she had no guilt about being overpaid.
She slung the rucksack onto her shoulders, left the potting shed, and took the path over the hill into the tiny hidden valley behind it, where the flying saucer lay comfortably hidden from the eyes of the cynical doubters. She walked with a long, easy stride for a woman of fifty, but then outdoor work tended to keep her in good condition, and she couldn't help thinking how beneficial it would be for Mr. Nutley if he could only spend his time out of doors in the country instead of in a stuffy city office.
The Hole in the Floor
"You must have a lot of clout," Robinson said.
"I haven't any clout. My uncle has clout. He's a friend of the Commissioner."
"We never had anyone in the back seat before."
"Except a perpetrator," said Robinson, grinning. He was a black man with a round face and an infectious smile.
"If I had a brain in my head," McCabe said, "I would be a writer and not a cop. There's this guy out in the L.A. police force, and he's a writer. He wrote this book and it became a best seller, and he's loaded but he still wants to be a cop. Beats the hell out of me. I didn't read the book but I saw the movie. Did you see the movie?"
"I saw it."
"It was a lousy movie," said Robinson.
"That's your opinion. L.A. isn't New York."
"You can say that again."
"You been to L.A. ?" McCabe asked me. He was older than Robinson, in his late thirties and going to fat, with a hard, flat face and small, suspicious blue eyes. I like the way he got along with Robinson; there was an easy give and take, and they never pushed each other.
McCabe took a call, and Robinson stepped on the gas and turned on his siren. "This is a mugging," McCabe said.
It was a purse snatch on 116th Street, involving two kids in their teens. The kids had gotten away, and the woman was shaken and tearful but unharmed. Robinson took down the descriptions of the kids and the contents of the purse, while McCabe calmed the woman and pushed the crowd on its way.
"There are maybe ten thousand kids in this city who will do a purse snatch or a mugging, and how do you catch them, and if you catch them, what do you do with them? You said you been to L.A.?"
"A few times, on and off."
"This is a sad city," Robinson said. "It's hanging on, but that's the most you can say. It's just hanging on."
"What's it like?" McCabe wanted to know.
"Downtown it's like this, maybe worse in some places."
"But in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, places like that?"
"It's sunny. When there's no smog."
"What the hell," said McCabe, "no overcoats, no snow—I got six more years, and then I think I'll take the wife and head west."
We stopped, and Robinson wrote out a ticket for a truck parked in front of a fire hydrant.
"You go through the motions," he said. "I guess that's the way it is. Everyone goes through the motions."
"You ever deliver a baby?" I asked him.
He grinned his slow, pleasant grin and looked at me in the rear-view mirror.
"You ask McCabe."
"We did seven of them," McCabe said. "That's just since we been together. I ain't talking about rushing them to the hospital. I'm talking about the whole turn, and that includes slapping them across the ass to make them cry."
"One was twins," Robinson said.
"How did you feel? I mean when you did it, and there was the kid crying and alive?"
"You feel good."
"High as a kite," said Robinson. "It's a good feeling. You feel maybe the way a junkie feels when he can't make a connection and then finally he's got the needle in his arm. High."
"Does it make up for the other things?"
There was a long pause after that before McCabe asked me, "What other things?"
"One son of a bitch," Robinson said slowly, "he put his gun into my stomach and pulled the trigger three times. It don't make up for that."
"Gun misfired," McCabe explained. "Three times. A lousy little Saturday night special—happens maybe once in a thousand times."
"It don't make up for being black," Robinson said.
We cruised for the next ten minutes in silence. Possibly it was the last thing Robinson said; perhaps they resented having me in the back seat. Then they got a call, and McCabe explained that it was an accident in a house on 118th Street.
"It could be anything," Robinson said. "The floors collapse, the ceilings fall down, and the kids are eaten by rats. I grew up in a house like that. I held it against my father. I still hold it against him."
"Where can they go?"
"Away. Away is a big place."
"You can't just write about cops," McCabe said. "Cops are a reaction. A floor falls in and they call the cops. What the hell are we supposed to do? Rebuild these lousy rat-traps?"
We rolled into 118th Street, and there were half a dozen people standing in front of one of the tenements, and one of them told us that it was Mrs. Gonzales who put in the call and that her apartment was in the back, four flights up.
"What happened there?" McCabe wanted to know.
"Who knows? She don't let us in."
We started up the stairs, McCabe and Robinson pushing their coats behind their guns, and myself allowing them to lead the way. A couple of the men outside started to follow us, but McCabe waved them back and told them to clear out. We climbed four flights of stairs, walked to the back of the narrow old-law tenement, and Robinson knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
"Police," Robinson said.
She opened the door to the length of the safety chain, and Robinson and McCabe identified themselves. Then she let us in, through the kitchen, which is where the door is in most of the old-law tenements. The place was neat and clean. Mrs. Gonzales was a skinny little woman of about forty-five. Her husband, she told us, worked for Metropolitan Transit. Her son worked in a butcher shop on Lexington Avenue. She was all alone in the apartment, and she was on the verge of hysteria.
"It's all right now," McCabe said with surprising gentleness. "Just tell us what happened."
She shook her head.
"Something must have happened," Robinson said. "You called the police."
She nodded vigorously.
"All right, Mrs. Gonzales," Robinson said, "so something happened that shocked you. We know about that. It upsets you, it makes you sick. You feel cold and feel like maybe you want to throw up. Do you feel cold now?"
Robinson took a sweater off a hook in the kitchen. "Put this on. You'll feel better."
She put on the sweater.
"Anyone in there?" McCabe asked, nodding toward the other rooms.
"No," she whispered.
"Got any brandy—whiskey?"
She nodded toward a cupboard, and I went there and found a bottle of rum. I poured a few ounces into a glass and handed it to her. She drank it, made a face, and sighed.
"Now tell us what happened."
She nodded and led the way out of the kitchen, through a room which served as a dining room, clean, rug on the floor, cheap ornate furniture, polished and loved, to the door of the next room, which had two beds that served as couches, a chest of drawers, and a hole in the middle of the floor about three and a half or four feet across.
"Goddamn floor fell in," said McCabe.
"The way they build these places," said Robinson.
"The way they built them seventy-five years ago," I said.
Mrs. Gonzales said nothing, stopped at the door to the room, and would go no further.
"Who lives underneath?" McCabe asked.
"Montez. He is a teacher. No one is home now—except the devil."
Robinson entered the bedroom and walked gingerly toward the hole. The ancient floor creaked under his feet but held. He stopped a foot short of the edge of the hole and looked down. He didn't say anything; just stood there and looked down.
"The building should be condemned," said McCabe. "But then where do they go? You want to write about problems, here's a problem. The whole goddamn city is a problem."
Still Robinson stared silently into the hole. I envisioned a corpse below or the results of some unspeakable murder. I started into the room.
"Take it easy," McCabe warned me. "The floor's rotten. We don't want you down there. What do you think?" he asked Robinson.
Still no answer from Robinson.
I moved carefully in on one side of the room, McCabe following on the other side. We both reached the hole at the same time. Robinson was in front of the hole, his back to the door. McCabe and I stood on either side of him.
Excerpted from Time and the Riddle by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1975 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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