One should not avoid one’s tests, although they are perhaps the most dangerous game one could play and are in the end tests which are taken before ourselves and before no other judge. (Beyond Good and Evil, section 41)
A rolled-up newspaper spun through the air, defining place. What kind of place? The kind of place often described as leafy or even idyllic, where a boy on a bicycle still tossed the paper onto lawns and porches, sometimes over actual picket fences, where the newspaper still brought news.
“Nat,” called a voice inside one of the houses, a simple 1950s roofed box, much like all the others.
“What is it, Mom?”
“T his couldn’t be happening to a better boy,” said Mrs. Smith, the guidance counselor at Clear Creek High. “Or should I say young man?”
She raised her hand, pink and stubby. Was Mrs. Smith going to pinch his cheek? Nat tried not to flinch; he owed her a lot. At the last second, her hand veered away and settled for an upper-arm squeeze instead.
“What a question!” said Miss Brown, the school principal, regarding Mrs. Smith with annoyance. “Young man, of course, as should be perfectly obvious to anyone.” Mrs. Smith and Miss Brown were identical twin sisters, although easily distinguished: Miss Brown had hair the color of shiny pennies, Mrs. Smith’s was gray; Mrs. Smith shook when she laughed, Miss Brown didn’t shake, seldom laughed.
Hiss and pop: fatty juices dripped on open flames. Miss Brown turned to Nat’s mom, who was laying another row of patties on the grill. “And of all the young men I’ve encountered in my thirty-two years of education, some of them very fine young men indeed, this one is the-well, I won’t say it, comparisons-”
“-being odious,” said Mrs. Smith.
“I’ll finish my own sentences, if it’s all the same to you,” said Miss Brown in a low voice, but not so low that Nat didn’t hear.
Even though the comparison hadn’t been made, to Nat’s relief, and even though he suspected that the adage they’d used might be obscure to his mom, her face, already pink from the heat of midday and the glowing coals, went pinker still. “Thank you,” she said, wiping aside a damp wisp of hair-almost as gray now as Mrs. Smith’s, as Nat could see in the bright sunlight, despite her being so much younger-with the back of her wrist. Then she blinked, that single slow blink she always made when she was feeling shy but believed something was required from her anyway; at least, that was Nat’s interpretation. People didn’t understand how brave she was. “I’m obliged to the both of you,” she said, “for getting him into such a place.”
“Don’t thank us,” said Miss Brown.
“He earned it,” said Mrs. Smith.
“This golden opportunity,” said Miss Brown.
“And everything that’s going to come from it,” said Mrs. Smith. “His own doing, from A to Z.” For proof, she held up the County Register- the Fourth of July special edition, with the red-white-and-blue banner at the top of page one and the winning essay in the DAR’s $2,000 “What I Owe America” contest, open to graduating high-school seniors across the state, printed beneath it in fourteen-point letters. Old Glory, the prize essay, and a picture of the winner: Nat, in his yearbook photo, wearing a blazer borrowed from Mr. Beaman, his mom’s boss, tight across the shoulders. Mrs. Smith brandished the paper against the sky-like a weapon, Nat thought, as though defying an enemy.
But what enemy? There were no enemies here in this tiny backyard on the western edge of their little town, with the land stretching flat into the distance. The distance: where on some days, in some lights-like this day, this Fourth of July, in this light-the summits of the Rockies floated white and baseless in the sky, reminding him of… what? Some metaphor that didn’t quite come to mind.
Mr. Beaman himself arrived. Tugging off her apron, Nat’s mom hurried to him, drew him toward Nat. Mr. Beaman was a lawyer, the only one in town other than Mr. Beaman senior. Nat’s mom was his receptionist.
He shook Nat’s hand. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
“Well, I-” said Nat.
“Quite a sum of money,” said Mr. Beaman, giving Nat’s hand a good hard squeeze before letting go.
“A tidy sum,” said Miss Brown.
“Two big ones, Junior,” said Mrs. Smith. “Makes all the difference.”
The difference it made: at Mrs. Smith’s direction, Nat had applied to three colleges-Harvard, because it was number one on the U.S. News and World Report ranking of universities; Inverness, because it was number one on their list of small colleges; and Arapaho State, thirty miles away, in case something went wrong.
The results: admission to Harvard, making Nat the first student ever taken from Clear Creek High, and possibly from the whole county. But Harvard hadn’t offered enough money, not close. Admission to Inverness, also a first, with more money, but still not enough. Arapaho would pay the full shot. That was that: Arapaho. Until this morning. Now, with the $2,000 added to a home equity loan, the savings Nat would accumulate that summer at the mill, and an on-campus job at Inverness, they could swing it. Just. Nat and his mom had each done the figures, figures that covered two sheets of yellow-pad paper still lying on the kitchen table.
Mr. Beaman produced a bottle of pink wine. A ray of sunlight made it glow like a magic potion. A pink day: the wine, Mom’s face, Mrs. Smith’s hands. Pink-the color that separated girls from boys. Inverness was far away. “Glasses, Evie?” said Mr. Beaman.
The long slow blink. “Wineglasses, are you saying?”
“Whatever you’ve got, Evie. Paper cups will do.”
Mr. Beaman unscrewed the bottle, filled five cups. Nat knew almost nothing about wine, but suddenly had a strange thought: I might have to know, from now on. He checked the label, saw pink zinfandel in big letters, also read the serving suggestions- cold, on the rocks, with soda water, with a twist.
“To the big bucks,” said Mr. Beaman. His eyes met Nat’s. Nat couldn’t help recalling that his mother had asked for a raise-from $8.50 to $9.00 an hour-after the Inverness financial aid package had arrived, and been turned down. Mr. Beaman’s eyes slid away.
“To Nat,” said Miss Brown.
“To Nat,” said everyone.
“And four great years at Inverness.”
They drank. The wine was cold and sweet. Nat had tasted wine a few times before, but nothing as good as this. He memorized the name of the winery.
“So,” said Mr. Beaman, “what’s the story with this famous place? Tell you the truth, I’d never heard of it.”
“No?” said Nat’s mom; a little wine slopped over the side of her cup.
“Bosh,” said Mrs. Smith. She dug a copy of U.S. News and World Report from her purse, flipped through, thrust the relevant page under his nose. “See?” she said. “Inverness first, Williams second, Haverford third.”
“Elite,” said Miss Brown.
“Creme de la creme,” said Mrs. Smith. “Imagine the people he’s going to meet.”
“Just odd I hadn’t heard of it, that’s all,” said Mr. Beaman.
Miss Brown and Mrs. Smith both pursed their lips, as though keeping something inside. Miss Brown succeeded, Mrs. Smith did not. “You weren’t a bad student, Junior.”
“Not bad?” he said with irritation. “I graduated ninth in my class.”
“As high as that?” said Mrs. Smith. “Nat was first this year, as I probably needn’t mention.”
“But it’s not just a matter of grades and test scores nowadays,” said Miss Brown. “Nat had his basketball, and his coaching Little League, and the job at the mill.”
“The mill? That counts?”
“It all adds up,” said Miss Brown. “We’re talking about-”
“-the whole package,” said Mrs. Smith. Miss Brown narrowed her eyes at Mrs. Smith but said nothing.
Mr. Beaman drained his cup, studying Nat over its rim. It was very quiet for a moment, one of those small-town moments, with no sound at all but that of a jet plane, almost inaudible. Nat caught his mom studying him too, as though she were trying to figure out some stranger. He grinned at her and she grinned back. Her upper left front tooth was slightly chipped, just like his.
“Why don’t you fetch the brochure to show Mr. Beaman, Nat?” she said.
Nat went into the house, one of the neighbors patting him on the back as he mounted the porch stairs. “Go get ’em.”
The Inverness brochure lay on the kitchen table beside the sheets of calculations. The picture on the front showed well-dressed students and a professor sitting under a red-leafed tree. Nat gazed at it, a beautiful photograph, very clear. The professor had tassels on his loafers and so did two of the boys and one girl. He heard Mrs. Smith through the window screen: “… best boy ever came out of this town.” Nat left the brochure on the table, went out of the house by the front door.
He stood at the foul line in the driveway. The foul line itself was invisible, had faded away years ago, but his feet went to the right spot; the same way he could walk around the house in the dark. He picked up the ball, eyed the back of the rim hanging on the backboard over the garage door, shot. Missed. Bounced the ball a couple of times. Shot. Missed. Nat took one hundred free throws a day, every day. Shot. Missed. Even the day his father left. Shot. Missed. He had a good shot if open, and was not bad at getting open. He’d been the shooting guard for Clear Creek High since sophomore year. Shot. Hit. And made second-team all-star in the Tri-County League this year, and honorable mention in the region. Shot. Missed. Good enough to play for Arapaho State-the coach had already called. Probably good enough to play for Inverness as well: it was only Division III. He bounced the ball a few times; not looking at it, not really bouncing it anymore. The ball more or less bounced itself, almost shuttling on its own between his hand and the pavement. Now when Nat looked up, he was aware of an invisible current of air, tube-shaped, flowing up from his hand to the basket. All he had to do was bend his knees and boost the ball up into that current. Shoot. Hit. Shoot. Hit. Shoot. Hit. He was an 81 percent foul shooter in competition, and here in the driveway he had once made a hundred straight. Forgetting the cookout, the brochure, the essay, aware only of the invisible air current and the ball that had to be tossed into it, Nat hit shot after shot. Unconscious was what they called it. He became a cog in a machine consisting of ball, himself, air current, basket. The other parts of the machine did most of the work, leaving his mind free to wander. It wandered back to those baseless mountaintops in the sky, and suddenly he had his metaphor: they were like sails of ships whose hulls had sunk beneath the horizon. Not that Nat had ever seen sailing ships on the horizon-he’d laid eyes on the ocean only once, from a plane, when his mom’s sister, who lived in San Bernardino, was in the hospital-but he remembered a description of that effect from his reading.
Nat made twenty-five free throws in a row before emerging prematurely from unconsciousness, emerging the moment he remembered he wouldn’t be playing at Inverness even if he could make the team: he’d have to work after class. He missed the next six, then hit a few, missed one, hit some more, missed some more. The invisible current of air was gone, or flowing elsewhere. He made sixty-eight out of a hundred, the lowest in years, maybe ever. As he put up the last shot a quotation drifted into his mind: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral, act 3, scene 2. The ball rattled off the rim. Behind him a car door slammed.
He turned to the street, and there was Patti, climbing out of her father’s pickup. Her father beeped and drove away. Nat saw they already had an Arapaho State sticker on the back window; Patti was starting there in the fall. The ball rolled toward her down the driveway. She let it go, which wasn’t like her at all, maybe didn’t even see it; normally she’d have picked it up and tried to dribble around him.
Patti had the paper in her hand. She raised it, but only a little. It flapped back down at her side, as though very heavy. “Nat?”
“You’re in the paper.”
“You always were a good writer.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Nat heard Mrs. Smith laughing in the backyard. Patti’s face paled several shades.
“A good everything.”
“Hey, come on.”
“Sorry,” she said. Pause. “Nat?”
“Does… does this mean…?”
“It looks like it,” Nat said.
Patti nodded. “Con… congra-” She started crying before she got the full word out.
Nat went to her, put his arms around her. “It’ll be all right,” he said.
She shook in his arms. “No, it won’t. You’ll forget all about me.”
“That will never happen.”
Patti cried. Over the top of her head, Nat saw the paperboy, now off duty, bicycling up the street, baseball glove hanging on the handlebar. Nat knew him, the second baseman on his Little League team, the smallest player and the best. The kid grinned, started to wave; then saw what was happening, looked alarmed, and pedaled off quickly, head down.
“You’ll meet all kinds of girls, prettier than me.”
“Prettier and smarter.”
Nat shook his head. Patti wet his shirt with tears. “And richer,” she said. “I hate Mrs. Smith.”
Nat held her close. His mind fed him a view from high above: he and Patti in the driveway, the basketball on the grass, the folks in the backyard, the town mostly hidden by its trees, everything tiny. He didn’t know what to say to her.
That night Patti went to bed with him for the first time. They’d come close before but she’d always held out, not quite ready. After-in her bedroom, her dad in Denver at his brother’s-she didn’t cry at all. She said: “What were we waiting on?” Nat almost told her he loved her then. It was probably the right thing to do, but he still wasn’t sure he really did. He ended up holding her tight instead.
There were plenty of tears in the weeks that followed.
O ne funny thing about that mental bird’s-eye view. At the end of the summer, when Nat flew out of Denver-second time on a plane-he looked out the window and saw his town, just as he’d imagined it on the Fourth of July. The mill, the high-school fields, the main street, even his street, even his house and the tiny backyard: he saw it all. No one in the backyard, of course. His mom, Patti, and Mrs. Smith would barely be out of the airport parking lot. Nat was thinking about what that drive would be like when, far below, a lake went by. There was no lake in his town. He’d been looking at someplace else.
All journeys fall into one of two categories, to home or from home, each unsatisfactory in its own way.
Freedy heard a man’s voice from inside the house: “Better put your bathing suit on. The pool boy’s out back.”
Freedy stared up at the house, saw nothing but his own reflection in the glass sliders. He looked buff, ripped, diesel, a fuckin’ animal (except for the intelligence in his face, not visible in the distant reflection, but he knew it was there). The intelligence in his face-according to his mother, he had eyes like the actor, name escaped him at the moment, who played Sherlock Holmes in old black-and-white movies-that intelligence was what separated him from all the other fuckin’ animals out there and made him more of a lady’s man. Women liked brains, no getting around it. Brains meant sensitivity. For example, floating in the water near the filter was a little furry thing. Poor little fella, you could say to some woman who happened to come by the pool. That was all it took: sensitivity.
Combine that with the ripped part, the buff part, the diesel part, so obvious in the window-that bare-chested dude, wearing cutoffs and work boots, the skimmer held loose in his hands, was he himself, after all-and what did you have? The kind of dude women went crazy for, absolutely no denying that. Freedy squeezed the skimmer handle a little and a vein popped up in the reflection of his forearm. Amazing. He was an amazing person. But pool boy. He didn’t like that, not one bit. Would they say it if he was black? Not a chance. That would be racist, and none of these people in their big houses in the hills over the Pacific ever spoke a racist word. They were politically correct. Well, on the panel of the van he drove it said: A-1 Pool Design, Engineering, and Maintenance. So that made pool engineer the correct term, didn’t it? The pool engineer’s out back. That’s what he should have said, the asshole inside the house, Dr. Goldstein or Goldberg or whatever his name was. Freedy swept the little furry thing into the skimmer and tossed it over the ridge.
Thong. He turned back to the house and there was Mrs. Goldstein, Goldberg, whatever, walking across the patio in one of those thong bikinis. What a great invention! About forty, maybe even older, what with that sharp face and turned-down mouth, but the body: all these people with their pools, houses, cars, worked out like crazy, probably harder than he did. Except they didn’t have a bottle of andro in their pocket. Or maybe they did. Nothing surprised him anymore. That was one thing he’d learned almost as soon as he’d come to California, three or four years before, the precise number momentarily unavailable. He’d been in a bar down in Venice when a cigar-smoking guy beside him answered his cell phone, listened for a while, and then said: “Nothing surprises me anymore.” Right on the money. Freedy’d used the expression for the first time himself that very day.
The woman in the thong was talking to him.
“Excuse me?” he said.
She raised her hands to shade her eyes, bringing her breasts into play. “I said, are you new?”
New? What? He’d been doing this pool for six months. Three, anyway. “No,” he said.
“Sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Aren’t you a little early?”
“Columbus Day. Traffic was light.”
She nodded. “What’s your name again?”
“Nice to meet you, Freedy. This is when I normally do my laps.”
In a thong? You swim your laps in a thong? Then he got it: Put on your bathing suit. She swam them in the nude.
“Want me to come back some other time?” Pause. “Mrs…”
“Sherman. Bliss Sherman.” From the front of the house came the sound of a car door closing, a car driving off. Had to be hubbie off to work in the Porsche; the Benz didn’t make that throaty sound.
“Nice to meet you too, Bliss.” But Sherman? That was nothing like Goldberg or Goldstein. Freedy dug the schedule out of his pocket: Goldman, 9:00 A.M. He glanced around, noticed a familiar-looking pool house on the next hilltop, about a ten-minute drive away. The Goldmans. He’d come to the wrong house. These Shermans weren’t on the sheet at all. Had he ever been here before? He didn’t think so. They weren’t even clients. Some kind of mistake.
“How long will it take?”
She gave him a closer look; saw the body at last. Now was the moment to hit her with the sensitivity. Freedy checked the pool for more dead rodents, found none.
“To finish up,” said Bliss.
He shrugged, a nice slow shrug to show her those delts, in case she’d missed them. “Fifteen, twenty minutes.”
“I suppose I’ll have to wait till you’re done.” She turned and went back into the house, closing the slider. Freedy watched until she was out of sight: how could you not watch a woman like that in a bathing suit like that? Then he went to work, skimming, checking the pH, adding chlorine, oiling the pump. The whole time, his mind toyed with the image of her butt as she walked away; not quite the whole time-once or twice it occupied itself with the furry thing, spinning over the ridge. He didn’t like that exactly, didn’t like that I suppose I’ll have to wait.
Freedy gathered up the vacuum, skimmer, supply box, knocked on the slider. “All set,” he called. He listened for a reply, heard nothing. He knocked again, called, “Finito,” and walked around to the front of the house. Finito, being some other language, went with the sensitivity.
The van was parked beside the Benz in the driveway. He opened the side door, stowed the gear. While he was doing that, he glanced into the Benz and happened to see some money lying on the seat. That was them. He’d be the same way one day, with his intelligence. He’d own A-1 Pool Design, Maintenance, and Engineering himself. Or maybe a whole chain of pool companies, up and down the coast. Pools and California, they went together. Back where he came from, he didn’t remember a single pool in the whole town-excepting the one up at the college, which didn’t count. What opportunity was there for a person like him in a place like that? None. He knew that oh so well.
But here. Another story. He slammed the van door shut, took out the andro, popped one dry. He was going to be rich, so rich he’d never settle for a lousy 300-series Benz like this one. Was it unlocked? He tried the door. Yup. Unbelievable.
And these Shermans weren’t even on the sheet. He’d cleaned their goddamn pool for nothing, even finishing after he’d figured it out, like some kind of saint, or Martin Luther King Jr. Cleaned their pool like Martin Luther King Jr., while that bare-assed bitch had said exactly. Not even on the sheet. In a funny way, that meant none of this was really happening. What an awesome thought: it reminded him of The X-Files. None of this was really happening. That meant it was like a free play in football, where they throw a flag against the defense while the quarterback’s still dropping back, giving him a chance to throw the bomb with no risk. A free play. He wasn’t even there. The Shermans didn’t even exist, not in terms of A-1. Freedy reached into the Benz and grabbed the money.
Throw the bomb. It was that easy. He felt better than he had in months, better maybe than any time since the first few days after he’d come to California. Here on this hilltop under a huge blue sky, he felt huge too, the way he’d felt back then, before his crummy walk-up on Lincoln, the clunker that wouldn’t fucking start half the time, the rent he owed, the advances on his pay he’d already got, all the way to Thanksgiving. On the hilltop with the Valley on one side and the ocean on the other, he knew what it was like to have been one of those conquistadors who’d discovered the place; Spaniards-not the spics he had to work with, even work for, now.
As for the money, he’d earned it, if you wanted to be technical; he’d done the work. Freedy shoved it into the pocket of his cutoffs, down there with the andro. He took a deep breath, felt great. Sober, unstoned, and great. When was the last time that combo had turned up? And how sharp his senses were all of a sudden, even sharper than usual. He smelled a nice plant smell he couldn’t identify, saw a high-flying bird of some kind, heard a distant splash.
Maybe not so distant. Maybe from the other side of the house, where someone might be swimming her laps, back and forth, in a zone and possibly daydreaming about the so-called pool boy the whole time.
The so-called pool boy crept back around the house.
This was what was going to happen. He would take off his work boots, his socks, his cutoffs, cross the patio while she was swimming the other way, lower himself in the pool, and just stand there in the shallow end, waiting for her to bump into him on her way back. Surprise. But a nice surprise. She’d look up, eyes wide, mouth opening, then see who it was. The expression on her face would change in some exciting way, and she’d say, “I was just thinking about you,” or maybe something subtler, like “What a coincidence.” Yeah, that would be it: she was subtle, educated, rich. Freedy remembered the money in his pocket and felt a little badly. No reason he couldn’t toss it back in the Benz later.
Freedy reached the corner of the house and stopped. He heard rhythmic splashing sounds, and one soft, female grunt. He peeked around the edge of the wall. Just as he’d imagined. Bliss-right name, in terms of what was going to happen… not psychic but some word about the future like that-naked in the pool, swimming her laps, tan all over. This was happening. It was just like porn, except he was in it. Freedy started to get hard right away, really hard, andro hard. He had an important thought: this is going to be the best experience of my life, so far. That meant he should make it last, appreciate it, savor it. Savor: what a perfect word, a word most people wouldn’t have come up with at a time like this, but he knew it well, from the cooking channel. He was intelligent. He had eyes like whatever his name was who had played Sherlock Holmes, according to his mother.
His mother would be five or ten years older than Bliss Sherman. Had she ever had a body like that? Not even on her best day. But enough about her. What the hell was he doing thinking about his mother right now? His mother’s face, Bliss Sherman’s butt, the spinning furry thing: he shook his head to clear away all that confusion and moved silently across the patio. Silent, not to scare her or anything; he just didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
Freedy slipped into the shallow end. The water was cool and clean, made him tingle all over. Of course it was clean: he’d cleaned it himself. He’d made his bed, in other words, and now he got to lie in it-an expression one of his high-school teachers had liked using on him. Look at me now, teach.
He stood in the shallow end, up to his waist, eyes on Bliss Sherman’s ass, curving up out of the water as she touched the far end, turned. He saw she was wearing goggles; he hadn’t imagined goggles, but they made it better somehow, like high heels on a stripper. Another sign of his intelligence, to make that connection. And now, with Bliss almost upon him, just two or three strokes away, he recalled a fragment of a strange cartoon he’d seen on TV, late-night Mexican TV and him maybe tweaked a bit on crystal meth, which was probably why it was no more than a fragment. Some cartoon animal, a duck or a cat, was swimming in a pool like this one, when all of a sudden from the filter outlet came slithering the arm of a giant squid, wrapping round the little critter in coils that left nothing but the webbed feet sticking out. Must have been a duck, then.
Freedy put his hands on his hips. Bliss took one last stroke, then touched. But she didn’t feel that cold tile at the end of the pool, oh no. Her fingertips brushed his dick instead. Couldn’t have been more perfect. Life was full of fascinating shit, if you just made a little effort. Forget about porn. This was better than any porn he’d ever seen: and he was in it!
Her head jerked up then, and as he’d imagined, her eyes, behind the goggles, opened wide, and her mouth opened wide too, and her face went through exciting changes. Everything as he’d foreseen. Freedy started to smile, a friendly, manly smile, as though they were sharing some mutual joke. Like: hey, you were in the middle of daydreaming about ol’ Mr. Dick here, and now-abracadabra. That kind of joke. Sophisticated.
But she forgot to say what a coincidence, or even the less stylish I was just thinking about you. Instead she sprang back quickly into deeper water, deep enough so that her breasts floated on the surface, and sounded almost annoyed or something when she said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Sharing your dreams, babe.” Now if that wasn’t smooth, if that wasn’t cool, what was? Freedy knew very well it was the kind of remark that made women melt. He had said something like it to Estrella on their date last week, and she had melted, by God.
But Bliss didn’t melt, at least not in any way he knew about. She raised her voice, not a pleasant voice to begin with, he now realized, and said: “Get the fuck off my property.”
Women were crazy and men were stupid-where had he heard that? Hard Copy, maybe. There was some truth in it, but not all men were stupid. Some were just the opposite, some knew that female craziness could be controlled by the use of the right physical… something. He couldn’t come up with the right word, but he knew the right physical something to use in this case. Besides, he liked when women said fuck.
Bliss had moved back quickly, but it wasn’t what would be called quick in terms of what someone like Freedy could do. He was quick on a big-league scale, quick like one of those NBA guards. And he was a man, after all-with andro and crystal meth in reserve-and men were plain quicker than women in the first place, weren’t they?
They were. Or at least this man was quicker than this woman. Before she knew it, even before he knew it, to tell the truth, Freedy had closed the distance between them and grabbed one of those floating breasts. Not grabbed. Wrong word-it was much gentler than that, more like the kind of semirough stuff that drove Estrella, for example, wild.
At first Freedy thought it was having the same effect on Bliss, from the way she was screaming. That was the freaky thing about Estrella, or that other girl from Riverside, her name escaping him at the moment. They flat-out screamed with pleasure. But this scream, Bliss’s scream, went on a little too long, and there was nothing pleasant about it. She really had an irritating voice. And what was this? She’d bit his arm or something? Bit him? Not a sex kind of bite, but a hurting bite. Like she was resisting. Like she hadn’t been dreaming the dream.
And also this funny taste. Blood in his mouth? Meaning he’d bitten her back? Yes, her tit was bleeding, but not much, not much more than Estrella’s when they were having a little fun that night after the Marilyn Manson pay-per-view.
But this woman, this woman with the name that didn’t fit, was no Estrella, and that screaming was horrible. Freedy did what the hero always had to do to stop hysteria, swatting her a crisp one across the face.
Didn’t work. Bliss kept screaming, higher and higher, making him want to shut her off immediately, the way he would if he’d been flicking the remote and come across one of those opera singers with the screeching voices. Freedy reared back to give her another one, and would have, but someone yelled, “Stop.”
A third person. Woman, also with an irritating voice. Freedy looked around, spotted her on the second-floor balcony of the house, a younger woman, his own age or even a few years less, wearing boxers and a sleeveless T-shirt. Dynamite bod, better than Bliss’s but a lot like it at the same time. Hair all rumpled, like she’d just got out of bed. And the part that didn’t fit: a gun in her hand. Not a little toy, either, but a fucking monster. What was wrong with these people? His hard-on, which had been throbbing underwater like some kind of pumped-up eel, failed completely.
“Stop,” said the woman on the balcony again. Her gun hand was shaking, but the gun was on him, more or less.
Freedy put his hands in the air, not high, but visible. “Everything’s cool,” he said. “Just a consensual misunderstanding.”
Bliss, crying, or sobbing, climbed out of the pool, her naked body all exposed as she hoisted herself over the side, but not a turn-on at all, maybe even the opposite, in a funny way like those naked Auschwitz people.
“What should I do, Mom?” said the woman on the balcony.
“Don’t let him move,” she said, her voice now up in opera territory. Hysterical, no doubt about it. “Don’t let the pervert move. I’m calling the police.” And she stumbled across the patio and into the house.
Freedy looked up at Bliss’s daughter. “This is way overblown.”
“You’re moving,” she said. “Don’t. I took marksmanship at camp.”
Freedy nodded, kept moving, angling toward the corner of the pool nearest the house. At that end of the patio stood a table shaded by a big umbrella. If he could get out of the water, get behind the umbrella, at least she wouldn’t be able to see him. Then somehow to cross the open space between the umbrella and the corner of the house. Okay: that was the strategy.
“You’re moving,” said the girl.
Freedy held his hands higher now, palms open. He gave her his best smile: he had big white teeth, a dazzling smile, like a movie star, but all natural. “I’m not. Honest.” He kept moving.
The gun went off; Freedy couldn’t believe she’d actually fired it on purpose. Something smacked the water right beside him at the same moment. Then he was on the patio, running low behind the umbrella. A stupid time to get stung by a bee, but he felt it in his thigh. Then he saw the rip in the umbrella, heard the pop of the gun. Or maybe he’d got it in the wrong order. Didn’t matter; in a few strides he was around the house, had scooped up his boots and his cutoffs, jumped in the van, goosed it. And zoom.
Ten minutes later he was bumper-to-bumper on the PCH, like any other citizen, except he wasn’t wearing anything and his right outer thigh was bleeding, front and back. But not heavily, more of a seeping than bleeding, and front and back had to be good, had to mean the slug had gone right through. No biggie. In fact, the whole little adventure didn’t amount to much. A misunderstanding, like he’d said. And since they weren’t even on the schedule, it hadn’t really happened, at least not in terms of anything that counted, such as A-1 and his job. Freedy narrowed his eyes, thought hard. Bliss had assumed he was from their regular pool company. Had she seen the van? No. So any investigation would lead to a dead end. And since no real crime had been committed, it would stop there. Plenty of real crimes for the cops to solve. This was LA. Like his mother often said, especially when she was a little stoned: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” She was a sucker for philosophical puzzles like that. The Shermans weren’t on the schedule. That meant no one in the forest, and no sound.
So it was a normal day. Except for that word pervert: what a disgusting thing to say.
Freedy turned into a Rite-Aid, pulled on his cutoffs, gently, although he was barely bleeding now, and checked the schedule. The Goldmans-maybe best to skip them this week-and then some other people up Las Flores. He was five minutes away, would be early, if anything. Nothing to do now but buy bandages, tape himself up, a normal worker on a normal day. Elementary, my dear Watson. Smiling to himself, Freedy had put on his boots and was opening the door when his beeper went off.
His leg began to throb at once, from hip to toe, with an intensity that made him say, “Oh, fuck,” out loud. A woman loading groceries into a Saab convertible glanced back at him. He closed the door.
Freedy checked the number on the beeper: the office. He sat in the van, taking deep breaths, balling his hands tight, trying to control the pain. Then he remembered the meth, less than a teaspoonful probably, in a twist of foil under the seat. Or in the glove box. Or under the other fucking seat. In his rage, he punched something, hard. The cover popped off the ashtray and there was the meth. Abracadabra. A pinch in each nostril, snort snort, zipped an energy dart up his nose into his brain, through his whole body.
Much better. He corrected that rage thing right away. He hadn’t been in a rage, more like frustration. Rage wasn’t cool. Freedy went to a pay phone and called in.
“A-1,” said one of the office girls.
“Hi there,” said Freedy. “Freedy.”
“Oh. A moment.”
Freedy heard some muffled talking back at the office, but he wasn’t really listening. Instead he stared at the sky, a beautiful blue sky with a lone airplane in it, towing a Marlboro-man banner.
“Freedy?” The boss-not the manager, but the boss. A spic too, but he spoke good English, almost like an American.
“Yup,” said Freedy.
“Where are you at this moment, Freedy?” said the boss. He pronounced it Friddy, one of the only giveaways that he was a spic.
“At a pay phone.”
“Where is the pay phone?”
“You mean with some precision?” Freedy said, just to show him what a real American could do with the language.
“Hard to say,” said Freedy, “since I’m kind of en route at the moment.”
“Wherever the schedule says. I’m always on schedule, you know that.”
“It says the Goldmans, on Piuma.”
“Then it was the Goldmans.”
Pause. “There’s been a slight schedule change, Freedy.”
“So the best thing would be to return to the office.”
“Something’s come up. A big job. Bonuses all around if we’re done by nightfall.”
“So why don’t I go right wherever it is and get started?” But Freedy was just playing now. He knew it was bullshit; bonuses never happened.
“Because I want you to take the compressor.”
“Right,” said Freedy.
“I said right. I’m on my way.” Freedy hung up.
He got back in the van, took two more hits, had a little think, as his mother used to say. He was thinking very clearly, as he always did on meth: different from his mother, the clearly part. Right away he thought about Las Vegas, where he’d never been and always wanted to go. What better time? First he’d stop by his apartment, where he had three hundred dollars in the freezer and a bag of meth. Then drive as far as Bakersfield, say, before abandoning the van and hopping on a bus to Vegas. There: a plan, simple, like all good plans.
Nothing went wrong with the plan until he turned onto Lincoln, about a block from his place. Freedy had a room over a furniture store on the east side. Parked in front of the furniture store was a cruiser. Two more across the street, and a Paki, that would be the furniture store owner, his landlord, was talking to a cop on the sidewalk. Talking with his fucking hands. That’s when it occurred to Freedy that this was a funny kind of speed. Usually he went fast and the world slowed down around him, making it easy to control. This time the world was cranking too.
Freedy spun the wheel, threw the van into a shrieking U-turn, just like the stunt driver whose pool he cleaned on Fridays. In the rearview, he caught a cop glancing up as he floored it. Or maybe not.
But the van-painted the color of the sea, with waves breaking over the fenders-had to go. His own car, his own fucking heap, was in the lot at the office, so that was out. Which left Estrella. She had a Kia, or some shitbox, that she washed and polished twice a week-one of the irritating things about her. Freedy hadn’t been seeing Estrella as much lately, had been getting interested in another waitress in the same place, actually, who worked days like he did instead of nights like Estrella. But it was daytime now, and Estrella would be home.
She had a one-bedroom in Reseda, a garden apartment, meaning the entrance was off the alley. The pain was coming back, or at least Freedy thought it might, so he took two more snorts, moderate ones, and popped an andro before getting out of the van. Couldn’t hurt. He crossed the alley, heart going pitty-pat, real fast, went through the space where a gate must have been at one time, into the dusty yard.
Across the yard, Estrella stood in her doorway. She rose on her tiptoes to kiss the cheek of a big guy who had his arm around her. A big guy with black hair like Estrella’s and copper skin like Estrella’s. He wore a white shirt and a black tie, and carried a suitcase. A jolt went through Freedy, as though he’d downshifted at ninety miles an hour. The cause was a combination of things-amazingly, he had that insight into himself even as he took off, but he was an amazing person-and her sleeping with spics was part of it, for sure. He had the grace to admit it.
They looked up. Did Estrella start to smile at the sight of him? He’d got her a good one before he knew. Then the big guy shouted something, “Hey,” maybe, and tried to push him away, or hit him or something. Mistake. The top blew off at that point, like one of those oil well gushers, except it was red. Not long after, maybe seconds, the big guy was on the ground and Estrella was kneeling over him, tears, the whole bit.
“Don’t expect any sympathy from me, you whore,” said Freedy.
She gave him a strange look, although it was hard to tell since her face was already swelling up. “Mi hermano,” she cried. “Mi hermano.” Or some gibberish like that.
Freedy walked away, silent as Clint Eastwood after a town square gunfight. Overhead the sky was coppery, much the same as Estrella’s skin. The blue sky was on the rich side of town. Freedy had another insight: California sucked.
That night, on a bus to Vegas, Freedy had time to reflect. He felt pretty good, considering. His leg hurt, but nothing he couldn’t control. He wore new jeans and a new western-style shirt, bought with Vegas in mind. That wad of money on Bliss Sherman’s front seat? Turned out to be $650. Win some, lose some. Not a completely bad day. Call it mixed.
His most important accomplishment had been spiritual, if that was the word. He’d realized that California was not for him. That meant it was time to regroup, to center himself. Spiritual, centering: his mother’s lingo. She’d been popping into his mind all day. Was there a reason for that? He thought for the first time of going home. He’d told himself he never would, but how could a week or two hurt? Home cooking, lying up for a while, sleep: what was wrong with that?
In Vegas he picked up a schedule. He’d flown out to California on a coast-to-coast one-way ticket from his mother-high-school graduation present, although a few lost credits kept him from walking with his class. The bus route back wasn’t as simple: Vegas to Denver. Denver to Omaha. Omaha to Chicago. Chicago to Cleveland. Cleveland to Buffalo. Buffalo to Albany. Albany to Pittsfield. Pittsfield to Inverness.
Freedy caught the midnight bus to Chicago and soon fell asleep. He awoke to the sound of low voices, speaking Spanish across the aisle.
“Hey,” said Freedy.
“Is there some word, sounds like hermano?”
“What’s it mean?”
Had Estrella ever mentioned a brother? Now that he thought about it, maybe she had; an accountant, or something surprising like that, in Tijuana. In case there’d been a misunderstanding, Freedy decided not to dime her out to the INS, which had been his plan. That was his sensitive side coming into play again.
Nietzsche says of the New Testament: “a species of rococo taste in every respect.” Using the Christmas story as text, attack or defend in an essay of no more than two double-spaced pages.
The shortest day of the year and therefore the latest dawn, but still it came too soon for Nat. Hunched over his desk in room seventeen on the second floor of Plessey Hall, head almost touching the gooseneck lamp whose similar posture had been mocking him all night, he tried to read faster. The problem was that chapter nine of Introduction to Macroeconomic Theory: A Post-Keynesian Approach for a Global Polity, like all the chapters that had gone before it, resisted fast reading. Three times, each slower than the last, he tried and failed to take in “with or without ignoring the realization that a deficit or surplus in the current account cannot be explained or evaluated without simultaneous explanation of an equal surplus or deficit in the capital account.” What kind of sentence contained two withouts? The words quivered on the page, threatened to change into something else, mere shapes, although interesting ones: he found himself gazing at a z. An unreliable letter, threatening in some obscure way, even unforgiving, or was all that merely the result of its comparative rarity, or association with Zorro?
Association with Zorro? Nat sat back in his chair. What was going on in his mind? What was wrong with him? He’d never studied this hard, at the same time never had a shakier grip on the material, never felt his mind wandering so much. If at all, he began, then stopped himself, aware that he was about to wander some more. He rose, rubbing his eyes, and gazed out his window. Dawn, all over the place. He could almost feel the earth spinning him toward that economics exam.
“They’re shooting again,” he said.
Turning, he saw that his roommate had fallen asleep on the couch, chem lab notes stacked high on his stomach. “Wags, wake up.”
Wags was silent. Nat went over to him. Wags looked terrible, face unshaven and blotchy, hair wild and oily, eyelids and the pockets under his eyes uniformly dark, as though he’d been using some sort of deathly makeup. But Wags’s instructions had been not to let him fall asleep under any circumstances. How long had he been sleeping? Nat didn’t know. He touched Wags’s shoulder. “Wags.”
Nothing. Nat shook his shoulder gently-Wags felt hot-and when gently didn’t work, harder.
Wags smiled, a silvery thread of drool escaping from the corner of his mouth. His eyes remain closed, but he spoke. “I was having the sweetest dream.”
“Can’t remember. Helicopters? It’s collapsing in little pieces down the sides of my brain.” Wags’s concentration on whatever was happening inside his head was so intense that Nat felt his own mind focusing too, without result. Suddenly Wags’s eyes snapped open and he sat up abruptly-Nat could smell him-scattering lab notes all over the floor. “My God. What time is it?”
“After seven? In the morning? Then I’m totally fucked.” He plunged to the floor, snatching up lab notes by the handful, pausing once to glare at Nat. “You want me to flunk out, don’t you?”
“Right,” said Nat. “And then all this will be mine.”
All this: the cramped outer room with their desks, computers, the couch, the cigarette-scorched hardwood floor, and off it the two bedrooms barely big enough for the beds. Wags laughed, a single bark, brief and unhappy.
“They’re shooting again,” Nat told him.
Wags got up, went to the window. “Just getting some establishing shots,” he said. It was the fourth or fifth film crew on the quad since September-filmmakers in need of an ideal college campus came to Inverness-and Wags had become an expert on their movements, mixing with the crews when he could and even landing a role as an extra in a made-for-TV movie about a fraternity brother in need of a bone marrow transplant, scheduled for broadcast in the spring. “Wait a minute,” he said, leaning closer to the window, leaving another oily nose print on the glass. His voice rose. “Is that Marlo Thomas?”
Nat closed the economics book, shut off the gooseneck lamp, went down the hall to the shower. Wags stayed watching at the window, crumpled lab notes in both hands.
After the exam-it had gone better than he’d expected-Nat went to the gym and took his hundred free throws, hitting ninety-one, despite how drained he was. The best he’d done since coming to the school: no explaining it. As he sank the last one, swish, barely disturbing the net, he realized that his answer to the last question had been completely wrong. Monetarism had nothing to do with it, completely irrelevant; they’d wanted all that current and capital account stuff, the two withouts. An essay question, worth one-third of the total grade. The mark of Zorro: he’d done not better than he’d expected, but worse, much worse. He hadn’t pushed himself, not hard enough, not nearly.
Nat stood at the foul line, bouncing the ball. The workload, the speed, how smart everyone was. He thought of Arapaho State, where Patti was getting straight A’s, and where he could be playing on the team instead of entering data in the fund-raising office every afternoon for $5.45 an hour. He thought of the Inverness varsity, whose home games he had watched-they were now one and three-knowing he was good enough to play for them; not start, maybe, but get in for more than garbage time. He thought of his street, his house, the kitchen, his mom.
The sudden feeling that someone was watching him made him turn. Not only no one watching him, but the gym was empty. He’d never seen it like that before. No one on the court, jogging on the track above, lifting behind the glass walls of the weight room. He went into the lobby, also deserted, looked through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Olympic-sized pool. Empty too, the water still.
Outside the same thing: not a person on the quad except him, not a sound from the surrounding dorms-no hip-hop, no techno or industrial, no Lilith Fair. For a moment he felt light-headed. Was he coming down with something? Then it hit him. This morning was the last period on the exam schedule. The departure of the students, the teachers, even the film crew, all vanishing at once like characters in a fairy tale, probably happened just this way every Christmas.
The church bell-the top of the chapel tower visible over the gold-domed roof of Goodrich Hall, weathervane pointing north-tolled the hour. At the same time, a cold wind began to blow; from the west, Nat noticed, despite the weathervane. No snow had fallen yet, but everyone said the Inverness Valley was one of the snowiest places in the east. Nat looked up, saw a line of clouds closing over the sky.
He wasn’t going anywhere for Christmas. There’d been money for only one trip home that semester, and he’d chosen Thanksgiving, although it was shorter, because Patti’s birthday had been the day after. He crossed the quad and went into Baxter to check his mail. Standing before the rows of brass letter boxes, he realized he was still holding the basketball.
Nat put it down, turned the dial to J3, took out a letter.
Dear Nat I’m so sorry about that little insident at Julie’s party. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll never drink like that again. For sure. You were so great about it. At least that’s what Julie said the next day. Joke. Everythings ok but I miss you so much and not looking forward to Xmas at all. One other thing I think I missed my period-but don’t worry, I maybe just got mixed up. I love you soooo much. Patti ps-my present should be there by now.
Nat reached back into the box, found a small package. He took it back to the dorm. Wags’s lab notes still lay all over the floor of the outer room. Nat heard voices in Wags’s bedroom, glanced in the open door. No Wags. Clothes trailing over everything, and the TV on. One of those movie channels Wags liked to watch. An actor from the thirties or forties whose name Wags would know at once but Nat didn’t stared thoughtfully into his glass while an offscreen actress asked what they were doing that night. Nat smelled coffee, noticed a steaming cup on the windowsill, half full. He left the TV on, went to his own bedroom, put Patti’s gift on the bed.
Tacked on the wall was a list of what he wanted to accomplish during the holiday: clean room laundry write home work out get to know town and surroundings
›on next semester
That last one being the most important: Nat had registered for an American novel course that required reading a book a week, and he’d never keep up, would fall behind in everything, without a head start. Book one, Young Goodman Brown and Other Stories, already borrowed from the library, was waiting on the orange crate that served as his bedside table.
Nat sat on the bed, picked up the book, but first reread Patti’s letter. He tried to see what she’d crossed out, partially distinguishing only one word- kissed, pissed, or missed- but nothing else. He swung his feet up on the bed, overcame the urge to take off his sneakers. No time for sleep: two hundred pages of Young Goodman Brown and Other Stories before dinner was the goal. He read the letter one more time. There, in the center of all those unusual silences-his room, the dorm, the whole campus-he could almost hear Patti’s voice. What had happened at Julie’s party didn’t bother him at all; what bothered him was the spelling. That, and the way she dotted the i in her name with a heart. Had she always? If so, it hadn’t mattered before. Why should it matter now?
Nat opened Young Goodman Brown. The title page showed a woodcut of a young man striding down a country road. Someone had drawn a bottle of beer in his hand and a fat joint in his mouth. Nat turned the page.
Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village…
Nat opened his eyes. It was dark. His gaze went to the window, but there was no window, at least not where he was looking. He’d forgotten he wasn’t in his bedroom at home. Rolling over, he checked the clock, read the numbers-11:37-but before he could make sense of them he heard footsteps in the outer room.
“Wags?” he called, but his throat was thick with sleep; he cleared it and tried again. “Wags?” At that moment he remembered that he’d been leaning out of a helicopter in his dream.
Silence from the other room. Then the door to the hall closed. 11:37 P.M. Wouldn’t Wags be home in Pittsburgh by now? Not Pittsburgh exactly, but someplace nearby called Sewickley, as Wags’s parents had mentioned a couple of times on the Parents’ Day visit in October, the significance lost on Nat at the time. Since then he’d learned that the country hid a network of Sewickleys with names like Greenwich, Chagrin Falls, Dover, Lake Forest, Grosse Pointe; that many students at Inverness came from those places; that Wags knew people they knew, and they knew people he knew.
He sat up. Had the door to the hall simply closed, or had it been something else, more of a slam? Nat rose, switched on the lights, peered into the outer room, saw everything as it had been earlier, Wags’s lab notes still strewn on the floor, the screen savers of both computers in motion. He opened the door.
A man was walking away toward the stairs at the far end of the hall, a big man carrying something heavy. Nat took in a ponytail swinging behind his head and an electrical cord trailing between his legs, two dangling things that his half-sleeping mind, still following the logic of dreams, tried to relate. By the time he realized there was no relationship other than the visual one he’d seen at first glance, the man had disappeared down the stairs. Nat went back into Wags’s bedroom. Wags’s TV was gone.
Nat ran into the hall, yelled, “Hey!” He kept running, fully awake now, down the stairs to the first floor. No one there, but he picked up the sound of descending footsteps. Nat followed, heard the clicking of hard shoes on the old brick floor of the basement corridor. He yelled “Hey” again, took the last flight in one leap, swung around the banister post into the basement corridor. No one there.
Nat went down the corridor, slowing because it ended at a padlocked steel door with the word Maintenance stenciled on the front. He walked back the way he had come, passing three other padlocked doors, all of which he knew led to storage lockers for the students, and came to another door, lockless. Nat stood in front of that door. He sensed someone on the other side, tried to think of a way he could summon security and stand guard at the same time. Then came a jolt of adrenaline, and he jerked the door open.
A janitor’s closet, full of brooms, mops, buckets, cleansers. Even empty, it wasn’t big enough for a man with a television, especially one the size of Wags’s. Nat closed the door, went back along the corridor, trying all the padlocks. Fastened, every one.
Nat stayed in the basement corridor for a minute or two, listening for a sound, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
He went upstairs, along the first floor to the main entrance of the dorm. Had he imagined those footsteps on the brick floor, or misinterpreted some sound he had heard? It was one or the other. Nat opened the door to the quad. Surprise.
White. White everywhere: snow had fallen while he slept, fallen heavily, although it wasn’t snowing now, and the stars shone bright. A foot of snow, maybe more, deep, crisp, even. It bent the branches of the old oaks, gave the statue of Emerson a hulking, steroidal profile, rounded the dorm entry pediments and other architectural features whose names Nat was starting to learn: pure, unmarred whiteness, glowing under the old Victorian lampposts as though lit from below.
Nat called campus security from his room and was told to file a report in the morning. He locked the door to the hall, went into Wags’s bedroom, took in the disarray, no worse than before, and the coffee cup on the windowsill, still half full but now cold, satisfied himself that nothing else was missing. Back in the outer room, he picked up Wags’s lab notes and piled them neatly on his desk, even trying to arrange them in some sort of order.
Nat sat on the couch that Bloomingdale’s had delivered after the visit of Wags’s parents and reopened Young Goodman Brown. This time he followed Goodman Brown out of Salem to his meeting in the forest with what Nat supposed was the devil. He paused at the sentence “But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” Nat read it several times and was reaching for his yellow highlighter when he thought: unmarred.
Snow unmarred. And therefore? Nat went downstairs, out to the quad. The night was cold and still, the only movement his own rising breath. He circled the dorm, snow up to his knees, sometimes higher. The only footprints were his, a shadow-filled trench he tramped around the building like a moat in miniature. His feet, still in the sneakers he’d slept in, got cold and then cold and wet. Other than that, no result. Back in his room, he called security again.
This time he reached a recording that gave him a choice between voice mail and an emergency number. Was this an emergency? No footprints except his own: didn’t that mean the thief was still in the dorm, and had been there before the snowfall? A student, then, some other student still on campus, like him, possibly a resident of the dorm, and therefore a freshman, like him, possibly without money to go home, like him. Better to find him in the morning, get him to return the TV without a fuss, without involving security. Nat hung up the phone.
Were there any freshmen who looked like that, big with ponytails? Nat couldn’t recall any, but there were five hundred people in the class, many he still hadn’t even seen. He flipped through the freshman directory, useless because he’d had only a back view of the thief. He came to his own picture-the graduation picture, wearing Mr. Beaman’s blazer-knew with certainty that he didn’t look at all like that anymore. He checked in the mirror and found that he did.
Nat thought of calling Wags in Sewickley, but it was almost one, and he could imagine Wags’s mother picking up the phone. He made sure the front door was locked, took off his wet shoes, put them on the radiator to dry, and went to bed.
Nat’s mother had a funny story she liked to tell about him. When Nattie was very young, before he could talk, he couldn’t bear to go to sleep if any of the dresser drawers in his room were open, even a crack. She didn’t always remember to close them, and would sometimes poke her head in the room to find him laboriously climbing out of his crib and crawling across the floor toward the dresser. Nat thought of this story about half an hour later when he gave up on sleep, unlocked the door, and stepped into the hall.
Plessey Hall had three floors, ten rooms on each, most of them doubles, a few triples, and a single for the RA. Nat started at number thirty on the third floor. He checked for light leaking under the door, listened for any sound, knocked, tried the knob. No light, no sound, no answer to his knock, door locked. All the rooms were just like that down to number one, except for seventeen, his own.
Nat went back to bed, first locking the door. He turned his face to the wall and closed his eyes. Once, climbing out of his crib, he’d somehow tangled the back of his Dr. Denton’s on the corner of the guardrail and hung there outside the crib, not strangling or anything, but helpless. He’d heard his parents shouting at each other in the next room. That was Nattie’s earliest memory.
All Christmas essays that failed to define rococo in the first sentence will be returned unread. They may be resubmitted at the next class. Grades of such resubmissions will be reduced by 10 percent. Those not resubmitted will receive zero.
The next time Nat looked at his bedside clock, it read 10:23. He got out of bed, feeling stiff and sore, as though he’d played some contact sport the previous day, and went to the outer room. Through the window, he saw a morning that could have been painted in a few dull colors: dark gray for the sky and trees, brownish red for the bricks, light gray for the snow, for Emerson, for everything else. One more detail: the footprints. Hard packed, they caught what little light there was, and shone white. Footprints coming and going at the Plessey entrance, crisscrossing between the dorms, meandering over the quad; footprints everywhere. There were even some ski and snowshoe tracks, also white. Had the quad really been unmarred hours before? Nat went into Wags’s bedroom and found the TV still gone. Daytime made it conclusive.
Nat dressed and went outside, headed for the campus security office. A silent campus: as beautiful as in the brochure, but there was more-a sense of gravity, importance, even power-that the brochure, perhaps trying to be friendly, hadn’t conveyed. Nat told himself he was glad to have this time alone. He needed to catch up with himself, if that made sense. The workload, the assignments, the expectations of the teachers: all so demanding, but the real pressure came from the kids. So smart; and so cool, some of them, which was very different from home, where smart and cool were almost always opposites. And here the others, the not so cool, could be strange and fascinating-like Wags, for example, with the little shrine he’d built to Alfred Hitchcock, and the way Nat would sometimes hear him late at night, lying in bed and muttering whole scenes of movie dialogue from memory. So even as the sky darkened still more while he crossed the quad, draining what little color there was and lowering the temperature in seconds, Nat told himself this solitary Christmas would be good.
That thought was still in his mind when he saw he wasn’t quite alone. Across the quad, the main door to Lanark Hall-the residence opposite Plessey, the nicest, by reputation, although Nat had never been inside-opened. Two girls came out-women’s studies majors spoke of women and men, but everyone else on campus said girls and guys-sidestepped down the broad snowy stairs facing each other, carrying something. Nat thought TV at once, because of the mission he was on, and from the way they carried it. The problem was its invisibility. There was nothing to see. Were they pretending to carry something? Was it some sort of pantomime? Nat was about to look around for the film crew when one of the girls lost her footing. He heard a little cry; then the girls were tumbling down the steps, one after the other, a flurry of kicking legs, waving arms, flapping scarves, airborne hats. The object they carried, now free, spun in the air, became visible: an aquarium. It spilled its water in one perfectly shaped wave, a wave topped by a bar of gold.
Everything came crashing down. But no. That was what Nat, moving unconsciously closer as though responding to something gravitational, expected. In fact, only the aquarium crashed. Somehow the two girls landed on their feet, like gymnasts, but without the posturing. He lost sight of the gold object.
The next moment the girls were both on their knees, digging through the snow. Nat reached them in time to hear one say, “Here’s the little bastard.”
“Gentle,” said the other one.
The first girl held up the object in both hands, and Nat saw what it was: a fish. A fish, but unlike any fish, or any living thing, he’d ever seen: a dazzling creature, fat and gold with a wide yellow-lipped mouth, now opening and closing desperately, round yellow eyes, indigo fins, and white polka dots from head to its blue-and-gold tail. A dazzling creature that seemed to contain in its little form all the color lacking in the day.
“Whatever we do better be quick,” said the one holding the fish.
The aquarium lay shattered, the water it had contained now a melting depression in the snow.
“Bathtub?” said the second girl.
“Fresh water,” said the first girl. “Might as well be poison.”
“Then think of something.”
“That’s my role.”
“Not now, Grace, for Christ’s sake.”
They glanced around, as though seeking help, but didn’t seem to see Nat. The fish chose that moment to make a violent flipping motion, flying free. Nat was ready. He caught it in his cupped hands and said: “The bio lab.”
Now they saw him. “Where’s that?” They said it in unison. Nat didn’t reply, partly because the route was complicated, mostly because of how stunned he was by their appearance: one-Grace-light blond, the other darker-haired, both-he couldn’t find the right word, something as absolute as amazing, astonishing, beautiful, but more precise.
He did know where the bio lab was; he was taking a biology course to keep his pre-med option open. Sticking to the beaten footprint tracks and then the plowed paths, he took off as fast as he could with the fish in his hands-around Lanark, up the hill to the chapel, down the other side past the new science complex, across the old quad to the bio lab building. Nat was a good runner, but one girl passed him on the stairs in time to hold the door open, and the other was right beside him.
Nat ran down the dark-paneled first-floor hall. The bio labs were in the oldest building on campus, originally the entire college, later the science building, now closed off except for the first floor. The labs themselves, lining the hall, had thick wooden doors with windows in them, and he’d peered through them all in the first weeks of the semester.
“Here,” he said at the end of the hall, and one of the girls banged the door open. The fish was no longer wriggling in his hands, not moving at all; it was coated in some sort of invisible slime, but Nat could feel the rough scales underneath. He went straight to the dozen numbered tanks on the counter at the back wall, began lowering the fish into the nearest one.
“He can’t be with other fish,” said one of the girls; the darker-haired one.
“He can’t be with other fish?”
“Not ones he doesn’t know. They might hurt him.”
Nat glanced in the tank, saw three brown fish, half the size of the gaudy one, checked the other tanks, all occupied. “Is that something scientific, or just a feeling?”
“Blah, blah, blah,” said the lighter-haired girl, Grace. She leaned over the aquarium, scooped out the three brown fish with her hand, flipped them into the next tank. “Dump him in,” she said to Nat. He had never seen eyes like hers in his life.
“Not so fast,” said the darker-haired girl, dipping her finger in the water, tasting. She nodded to him, finger still between her lips. Nat saw eyes unlike any he had ever seen until moments ago. The fish slipped from his hands, fell into the tank.
“For God’s sake,” said Grace.
“He’s sensitive, that’s all,” said the darker-haired one.
The fish sank down in the water, floated there, but upside down.
“Swim,” said the darker-haired one.
But the fish just hung upside-down in the tank. Grace reached in, turned him over, swam him vigorously back and forth.
“You’re hurting him,” said the darker-haired girl.
“Zip it, Izzie,” said Grace.
Izzie bit her lip. Grace gave the fish a big push and let go. He drifted forward for a moment, listed to one side, almost capsized. Then one indigo fin began making tentative fanning movements, the blue-and-gold tail flicked to one side, back again, and the fish stabilized itself and swam with increasing strength to the middle of the tank, sending a hazy jet of fecal matter to the bottom.
“You stud, Lorenzo,” said Grace.
“The Magnificent,” Nat said.
They both turned to him, their eyes somewhat similar in color to Lorenzo’s, but toned down.
“How did you know that?” said Izzie.
“I meant how do you know about Lorenzo the Magnificent?”
Nat shrugged; it was just one of those things he knew. Their eyes narrowed on him. “What’s your name?” They spoke together, didn’t appear to notice the overlap.
Nat told them.
“Well, Nat,” said Grace. “I guess we-”
“Thanks,” said Izzie.
“Yeah,” said Grace. “Thanks.”
“He means a lot to us,” said Izzie. “We caught him.”
“You caught him?”
“Grace did,” Izzie said.
“But Izzie kept the sharks at bay.”
“With her bangstick.”
“You’re making this up,” said Nat.
“Why do you say that?” said Grace. “Sharks are wicked off Bora Bora, common knowledge.”
“But thanks, is the point,” said Izzie.
“Right,” said Grace. “You saved the goddamn day.” She reached into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out a wad of bills, removed some without counting or even looking, held them out.
“What’s this?” said Nat. He felt his face reddening.
Grace turned to Izzie. “Not enough?” she said in a stage whisper.
Her eyes on Nat, Izzie said: “I think we’ve made a-”
“-mistake?” said Grace. She turned to Nat. “You’re not maintenance or something?”
“I’m a student, actually.” That sounded so stiff, but was how he felt.
“Yikes. What year?”
“Oh, God,” said Izzie. “We almost tipped a classmate.”
“Not PC,” said Grace; and then to Nat: “Well, do you want it?”
They all laughed, Nat as hard as the girls, although he was aware of, and despising, the little part of him that did want the money. He reddened some more. Izzie stopped laughing; then Grace.
“Sorry,” Grace said, putting the money back in her pocket.
“Very,” said Izzie.
“Hey,” said Nat.
An awkward moment. Their gazes all went to Lorenzo, the path of least resistance. He fluttered his fins.
“Will anyone mind if we borrow this one little tank?” Izzie said. “We’ve got to get Lorenzo home for Christmas.”
“I guess not,” said Nat, turning to the adjacent tank in time to see the remains of the three brown fish spiraling slowly to the bottom, milky gobbets trailing black nerves and threads of blood. A single pink fish, smaller than what any of the brown ones had been in life, was swimming lazily around the tank. There was a silence.
“Maybe we should leave a note,” Nat said.
“Saying what?” said Grace.
Izzie patted his arm. Her hand felt neither warm nor cool, meaning they were at exactly the same temperature, a thought he probably would have had nowhere else but in the bio lab. “We’ll bring back some brown ones after vacation,” she said.
Nat carried Lorenzo’s tank out of the bio lab by himself. “Sure you don’t want help?” Izzie said.
“It’s not heavy.” But it got heavier, and Nat was glad they were walking ahead of him, unaware that although he was carrying it, and would do so for as long as he had to, he wasn’t doing it with ease. Glancing down, he caught Lorenzo shitting again.
Grace and Izzie led Nat over the hill, back to the freshman quad, around to the parking lot behind Lanark. There were two cars in the lot; the nearest was one of those second-generation Volkswagen Beetles, a very cool car in Nat’s estimation, and he could easily picture them buzzing around in it. He moved toward it, but they kept going.
The second car was something Nat had seen only in movies, the kind of movies with big stars and holes in the plot. Huge and creamy-the color of farmer’s cream his mom sometimes brought back from the stand on the edge of town-with the top down, despite the cold, and inside soft red leather and dark gleaming wood.
Grace held open the rear door. Nat started to set the tank on the floor, but she said, “Seat’s okay,” and so he put it there. The leather didn’t feel like any leather he’d ever come in contact with. It was a perfect car for Lorenzo. That was what Nat thought.
But what he said was: “I thought freshmen couldn’t have cars on campus.” A dumb remark that came out all by itself.
“We don’t,” Izzie said, tearing off a length of plastic wrap and covering the tank. “We’d been home for two days before we realized we’d forgotten him.”
“You had fish for supper?” Nat said.
A pause. They laughed, first Izzie, then Grace.
“Dinner,” Grace said.
“But yes, that’s exactly what happened,” Izzie said.
They looked at him. He looked at them, saw what he probably would have seen right away if it hadn’t been for the differing color of their hair: they were twins, identical even to the gold flecks in their blue-green irises, gold flecks that gave their eyes that yellow hue similar to Lorenzo’s. He didn’t say, You’re twins, because he knew they must hear it all the time. A silent moment or two went by, as though to allow for the phrase to be said; Nat got the feeling they were waiting for it.
“We’d better get going,” Grace said.
“You’ve been great,” Izzie said.
“The hero du jour,” Grace said, sliding in behind the wheel. Izzie sat beside her. Nat stepped away from the car, saw the RR on the grille. Grace started the car; it made a wonderful sound.
“Where’re you headed?” said Izzie.
“Where do you live? Maybe we could give you a lift.”
“I mean where are you going for Christmas?”
“You’re a faculty kid?” Grace said.
“No,” Nat said, and told them where he was from.
“Yeah?” said Grace. “Do you know Billy Duckworth? He’s from around there somewhere.”
“Wait a minute,” Izzie said. “Are you saying you’re not going home for Christmas?”
“It’s kind of far.”
The girls glanced at each other. “You’re not going anywhere?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You’re staying here?” Grace said.
Nat nodded again.
“But that’s insane,” Izzie said.
The girls glanced at each other again. “Tell you what,” Grace said.
“Yeah,” said Izzie.
Why not? Nat couldn’t think of a reason. True, he hardly knew them, but he hardly knew anyone at Inverness, and what better way to start? He did ask, “Shouldn’t you check with your parents?”
And was told: “No problem.”
He hurried back to his room-how dreary it seemed now, how much he wanted to get out-to throw a few things in his backpack, collect Young Goodman Brown and a few other books, get the money he kept in a shoe in his closet: $70. The list on the wall- clean room, laundry, write home, work out, get to know town and surroundings,› on next semester — seemed yellowed with age, but that had to be the effect of the weak light coming through the window.
“Who’s this?” Izzie called from the outer room; Grace was driving the car around to the lot behind Plessey.
“My mom.” Her picture was on his desk. Patti’s picture was in the bedroom. In the bedroom, out of Izzie’s sight: he smothered that thought at birth.
“You look like her,” Izzie was saying. “In a Y chromosome kind of way.”
He found himself staring at Patti’s picture. Was her smile a little forced? He’d never noticed.
“What’s this thing?” Izzie called.
“A shrine to Alfred Hitchcock.”
Something in her tone made him add, “It’s my roommate’s.”
“Who’s your roommate?”
Nat told her.
“Is he from Sewickley?”
“Oh my God.”
“Oh my God what?” he said, leaving his bedroom.
But when they got to the car that was the first thing she told Grace.
“How did he get in here?” said Grace.
“He’s brilliant,” Nat said. “What are you talking about?”
Izzie got in the front, Nat in the back, beside Lorenzo. Grace drove out of the lot, onto Spring Street, which soon became Route 2. She stepped on the gas. Red-wrapped gifts spilled out from under the front seats.
They floated out of town, or soared, or simply zoomed, but whatever it was had nothing to do with any car ride in Nat’s experience.
“How’s Lorenzo?” Izzie called back.
Nat checked. Lorenzo was doing what he did, the water in his tank almost motionless. “The same.”
Except for Thanksgiving, Nat hadn’t been out of Inverness since his arrival, had seen little of the countryside. Now it scrolled quickly by, dark and austere, but at the same time there was something he liked about it, maybe just that it seemed so ancient. Snow began falling, tiny flakes that never landed, melted in midair by the silent blast from the many vents of the car’s heating system; no one even suggested putting the top up. Nat thought of Mr. Beaman’s snow globe collection; then remembered that his mom would be calling on Christmas Day.
He leaned forward into the space between the girls. Tendrils of their hair-Grace’s light blond, almost silver, Izzie’s darker, almost brown-blown by the wind, brushed his face from both sides. “Could we stop at the next phone booth?” he said. “I forgot to make a call.”
Izzie tossed him a cell phone. He’d never used one, but of course there was nothing to it. He checked the time, dialed Mr. Beaman’s office. His mom answered. Nat wanted to say, “Guess where I’m calling from?” and almost did. Instead he told her he was going to New York with friends, would call from there.
“New York City?” she said. “That’s so exciting. Is it all right with the parents?”
“Be sure to bring them a present. And write a thank-you note after.”
He heard Mr. Beaman calling her in the background. A very clear connection-Nat could even pick up the impatience in his tone.
The hero du jour. It was like one of those fairy tales where the young adventurer performs a bold deed-in this case, the rescue of Lorenzo the Magnificent-and is brought to the castle. They were crossing the George Washington Bridge, towers by the score rising before them, when Nat thought of the perfect present: a bottle of that pink wine, zinfandel, preferably a big one. Thank God he’d memorized the label.
“If we want to create, we have to credit ourselves with much more freedom than previously was given us, and thus free ourselves of morality and bring liveliness to our celebrations.” Identify the quotation and discuss with reference to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy as defined by Nietzsche.
— Pop quiz, Philosophy 322
In a city of towers, Nat was ready for elevators, but not this one. No buttons, for one thing; it simply began rising as the doors closed, rising from the underground garage with a speed unprecedented in his limited experience of elevators, so fast it actually scared him. He glanced at Grace and Izzie: they looked bored, the way people were supposed to look in elevators.
No buttons, but there was a Persian rug. And a Persian cat, asleep on a velvet couch that reminded Nat of pictures he’d seen of furniture at Versailles. In one corner, a tall crystal vase full of flowers; in another, a grinning marble faun missing one pointy ear; in front of the couch, a gilded table bearing a bowl of chocolates.
“Bonbon?” said Grace.
Bonbon? Despite his AP standing in French, the word mystified Nat for a second or two. “No, thanks,” he said. The speed, of both the elevator and the sensory data streaming in, was making him a little sick. Grace took one of the chocolates, bit off half, popped the rest into Izzie’s mouth.
“Yum,” said Izzie.
The doors slid open. They stepped out, Grace and Izzie first with the luggage, Nat following with Lorenzo in his tank, the Persian cat, stretching, last. “Hi, everybody,” Grace called. “We’re home.”
Home. The elevator opened not into a corridor but the apartment itself. That was what the girls had called it: they lived with their father in an apartment in Manhattan, they’d said. Nat knew little of apartments-there were only a few apartment buildings in his town, none occupied by his friends-but he didn’t associate the word with high ceilings, with a curving staircase leading up to other levels, with vastness. All of this apparent at a glance. And on the wall opposite the elevator, a painted nude, the style instantly recognizable, the signature-Renoir-somehow artistic all on its own. Probably a print-Patti had a Renoir print of two little girls combing their hair hanging in her bedroom-but Nat wasn’t sure. As he came to a decision that it was indeed a print, but much better than Patti’s and expertly lit, he was also dealing for the first time with the idea that Renoirs could be bought and sold, and that some people could afford them. On his way by, Nat took a close look, spotted individual brushstrokes, layers of paint on the petals of a rose, and in one corner, the texture of canvas showing through.
Grace and Izzie led Nat into a room that seemed big enough to contain his house. Set in one wall-not taking up the entire wall, but most of it-was a slab of thick glass. On the other side, a scuba diver was scrubbing the glass with a long-handled brush, bubbles rising up and out of sight. A little shark swam by in the background. Then another, not so little. Perhaps this was part of a public aquarium, Nat thought, the backstage part that paying customers never saw, some architectural anomaly, built with the cooperation of Grace and Izzie’s father. Or maybe… maybe what? He couldn’t think of anything else.
Izzie was watching him. “I know just what’s on your mind,” she said.
“But you can forget about it. Not his kind of place. Lorenzo gets the opposite of claustrophobia.” She pointed to a tank Nat hadn’t noticed, mounted on a pedestal-no, part of the pedestal itself, the whole thing somehow full of water. “In there, Nat.”
“Please,” said Grace.
Izzie gave Grace a quick look. “Yes, of course, please.”
Nat hadn’t felt any lack of politeness-he’d heard please in Izzie’s tone. And she’d used his name for the first time; he didn’t know the significance of that, if any, but he’d noted it.
The pedestal tank contained a single fish, a fish of Lorenzo’s species, whatever that was. The two fish looked identical. Izzie found a net under the pedestal, scooped up Lorenzo, lowered him into the second tank. The fish eyed each other, defecating in unison.
“How do you know which one’s him?” Nat said.
“You can’t tell?” said Izzie.
“It’s easy,” Grace said. “The other one’s store-bought. She’s Lorenzo’s babe.”
“You’re hoping they’ll mate?” Nat said.
“If she’s female,” said Izzie.
“And if he’s male,” said Grace. “There’s some dispute about both points right now. Dr. Diveboy-” She nodded at the scuba diver behind the glass; he beamed through his mask, waved his brush. “-can’t seem to figure it out.”
In the tank, Lorenzo’s babe drifted behind a chunk of coral. Lorenzo fluttered his fins for a moment, then swam after her. They circled each other, changing places like cards in a close-up trick, before one swam away, which one, Nat didn’t know.
“You really can’t tell them apart?” Izzie said. “Just by-”
“-how they move, for one thing,” said Grace.
But he couldn’t.
Did Grace and Izzie, being twins, have some advantage when it came to distinguishing Lorenzo from his babe? Grace and Izzie, identical except for the hair. But there had to be differences: he knew, because he responded to them differently. That was scientific reasoning, and maybe because he’d been so recently in the bio lab, Nat began thinking in terms of an experiment. The observation part, in any case: he could make a mental list of perceived differences. For example, Izzie had a way of raising one eyebrow-the right-when asking a certain type of question, questions like You really can’t tell them apart? Did Grace do the same thing? He would watch for it.
They climbed a wide staircase to the floor above, walked along a broad hall lined with abstract bronzes. “How about this one?” Grace said, opening a door. “Oops,” she said. Nat glimpsed a man sleeping on a bed, dressed in a dinner jacket and one shiny black slipper-pump, was that the name? The other lay on the floor.
“Who’s that?” said Izzie as Grace closed the door.
“No idea,” said Grace. She tried another room. Empty. “How’s this?”
Nat went in. “Fine,” he said.
“Make yourself at home. We’ll catch you later.” And they went off down the hall.
Nat closed the door, laid his backpack on the bed, examined the room, the room where he’d be sleeping over Christmas, his first Christmas away from home. Fine. The room was fine, all right: the finest bedroom he’d ever seen. He pressed his hand on the bed, covered with some sort of quilted material-duvet? — and knew it would be the most comfortable bed he’d ever slept in. Then he turned to the window and saw how high he was. Everything taller in the direction he faced had a name and profile familiar to any movie-going American: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center. Out in the water, beyond all the towers, lay an island with a foreshortened form rising from it. The Statue of Liberty. So small from where he stood, he almost didn’t recognize it. But then he did, and felt goose bumps, just the same.
Nat opened the sliding door, stepped onto the balcony. On the floor below, the first floor of Grace and Izzie’s apartment, a tiled deck ran the entire width of the building. He took in small potted trees, wrought-iron furniture, a bar, a telescope, a swimming pool; and a basketball hoop. Condensation rising in thick clouds hid the surface of the pool, but Nat heard the rhythmic splashing of a swimmer beneath. Then a gust of wind tore a hole through the gray and he saw a woman doing the crawl. For a second he thought she was naked-began to step back-then realized she wore a flesh-colored bathing suit. He saw her face as she turned to breathe-a young woman, perhaps an older sister of Grace and Izzie. The clouds reformed. Nat went inside, sat on the bed, reached for his backpack.
Someone knocked at the door.
“Yes?” Nat said.
A tall man-the kind usually called distinguished because his hair was turning silver at the sides-entered. He wore a white shirt, a dark suit, a bow tie.
“Welcome to New York,” the man said. “I understand you’ll be vacationing with us.”
“Excellent. The city’s at its best this time of year. Is there anything you need right now?”
“Anything I need?”
“I assume you’ve found the bathroom? Through that second door. The television and a small fridge are in the armoire, and you can listen to whatever’s on the sound system by turning the volume dial over there.”
“Oh. Thanks. And thanks for having me. I hope it’s all right.”
“I mean on such short notice.” Or maybe none at all. Nat went forward, held out his hand, introduced himself as he’d been trained.
“Pleased to meet you, Nat.” They shook hands. “I’m Albert.”
Nat, unused to calling his friends’ parents by their first names, and unable to remember the last name, if the girls had told him at all, said: “Pleased to meet you, too, sir. It was very nice of your daughters to invite me.”
Albert’s eyebrows rose. “My-?” Then he smiled, a smile quickly erased, the mouth part, anyway. “Mr. Zorn is not due till Christmas Eve. I am Mrs. Zorn’s personal assistant.”
“So if there’s anything you need, food, drink, laundry or dry cleaning service, goods from the outside world, just say.”
“Not at all. It’s always so exciting when the girls are around. Any special dietary requirements, by the way?”
“The kitchen is very flexible.”
“Good,” Nat said, the first word to pop out. He felt his face grow hot.
Albert backed out of the room. Nat had the feeling the man would burst out laughing the moment the door closed, and to stop that, more than anything, he said: “There is one thing, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“No trouble whatever,” said Albert, one heel still raised.
“I’d like to buy a bottle of wine.”
“Shouldn’t be necessary,” Albert said. “We have quite a varied selection on the premises, if it’s something specific you’re interested in.”
“As a gift.”
“Ah. How thoughtful. Wine is something of a hobby with Mr. Zorn.”
Nat wrote the name of Mr. Beaman’s wine on a sheet of paper, handed it to Albert with thirty dollars, not knowing much about the cost of good wine, but sure that would be more than enough. Albert took the note only. “Why don’t we settle accounts later?” he said.
Nat lay on the bed. He wasn’t at all tired, felt lively, even restless, wanted to walk the streets, see the city, do what people do in new places. At the same time, some part of him was a little afraid to leave the room. He had the opposite of claustrophobia, like Lorenzo. Expandrophobia? No, there was a real word; it would come to him.
Nat rose-made himself rise, really-went to the door, put his hand on the knob, paused. Mistaking a personal assistant-was that like a servant of some kind? — for their father. Dumb. And the conversation that followed, also dumb. But he wasn’t dumb. He was good at learning things. And what was the point of coming all this way for college if not for new experiences? Creme de la creme, Mrs. Smith had said. Imagine the people he’s going to meet. He was meeting them now. It suddenly occurred to him that Mrs. Smith and Miss Brown, the women most responsible for his presence at Inverness, were twins, like Grace and Izzie. Was there some meaning to this? None that he could come upon by analysis. Still, he couldn’t help but suspect that in some way this coincidence was a good thing, an indication that he was on the right course. Nat opened the door.
In the hall, Grace was passing by, trailed by another distinguished-looking man, somewhat younger than the first, deeply tanned, carrying a frothy blue drink in a tall glass. This time Nat made no assumptions.
“Anton, Nat,” said Grace. “Nat, Anton. Anton’s my stepmom’s personal trainer. Nat’s a friend from Inverness.”
“Cool,” said Anton.
“What’s so funny?” Grace said. She raised an eyebrow, just like Izzie, except it was the left one.
“I was just thinking about Lorenzo.”
Grace laughed too, touched his arm, said: “I know what you mean.” Her touch: it felt cold, meaning there was a temperature difference, one he hadn’t felt with Izzie. There were many possible variables, of course, but he noted it anyway.
He’d told Grace a little lie. It wasn’t the thought of Lorenzo that had made him laugh, but the word cool, and this guy saying it, and the name Anton, and the frothy blue drink, and personal trainers. Things began to come together in Nat’s mind: the drink, for example, was for the woman in the pool and she was not Grace and Izzie’s sister, but their stepmother, Mrs. Zorn, despite how young she was. He could keep up. He was going to enjoy himself.
At that moment, too, he remembered the opposite of claustrophobia: agoraphobia. He didn’t have it. Five minutes later he was down in the street by himself, taking in New York, his mind going like never before.
“One seeks a midwife for his thoughts, another someone to whom he can be a midwife; thus originates a good conversation.” Thus too does Nietzsche describe both the goal and method of Philosophy 322.
Living at home wasn’t perfect, but at least Freedy could see his old friends, old friends like Ronnie Medeiros.
“Give you twenty bucks for it,” Ronnie said, down in his basement.
“Fuck you, Ronnie. It’s a Panasonic. Look-picture-in-picture.” Ronnie had turned it on to make sure it was working.
“Take it or leave it,” Ronnie said.
Freedy took it. What was he going to do? Return the goddamn thing?
They lifted for a while. Ronnie’s place was in the flats, not far from Freedy’s mom’s. Being in the flats was what made the basement so damp, but why was it so cold? “Why’s it so goddamn cold?”
“California made you soft, is all.”
“Right.” Freedy slid another 45 on each end, meaning he was benching 305, the kind of weight Ronnie could pump only in his dreams. Ronnie spotted him, but didn’t have to lay a finger on the bar, not even on the last lift of three times ten. Freedy looked Ronnie in the eye on that last one, as if to say: Soft, you son of a bitch. The charge he got from that moment of silent communication gave him the strength to bust one more.
“What’s California like, anyway?” said Ronnie. Freedy knew what was going on in Ronnie’s mind, could follow his train of thought: California, the fountain of youth, Ponce whoever he was, Muscle Beach. Freedy had always been strong-would have been the captain of the football team if he’d kept up his grades, or maybe just not dropped out-but never strong like this.
He sat up, rubbed his chest. Ripped. Buff. A fuckin’ animal. Not like Ronnie, who had gone soft since high school, with his pot belly, extra chin, receding hairline, and that stupid hairy thing hanging under his lower lip: he’d turned into a Portagee, which was what he was, of course.
“Whole different scene out there, Ronnie.”
“Run into any movie stars?”
“Matter fact, yeah.”
Freedy named him. “Kind of an asshole.”
“Kind of an asshole? You’re joking.”
“These people are different in real life, Ronnie.”
“You tryin’ to tell me you know him personally?”
Freedy nodded. “Customer of mine.”
“Told you already.”
“That swimming-pool thing?”
“Business. Not thing. Business. I had a pool business. A-1 Pool Design, Engineering, and Maintenance. Still do, once the lawyers get through with all their bullshit. Why I’m taking this little… what’s the word?”
“Yeah, sabbatical.” They knew words like that, growing up in a college town.
There was a silence, except for the cartoons on the Panasonic, and water dripping somewhere nearby. On the TV a shark went snapping after some little critter; recalling to Freedy’s mind that Mexican cartoon of the squid arm snaking out from the filter outlet. And now he remembered where he’d seen the cartoon-in a bar in Mexico featuring one of those live sex shows. An Indian guy and two bleached blondes. A dark place, except for the TV behind the bar and the little stage with blue spotlights shining on tits, ass, and the Indian’s enormous dick. Squid arm and Indian dick: basic psychology, some kind of symbol, like the Eiffel Tower, precise word for the symbol escaping him at the moment; and he’d never think of it here, what with Ronnie stroking that stupid hairy thing under his lower lip and asking dumb questions.
“Huh?” said Freedy.
“A-1,” said Ronnie. “The name of this so-called business.”
“What about it?”
“Sounds like one of those outfits that try to get their name first in the yellow pages.”
“Not what you’d call, you know, creative.”
“Creative?” said Freedy. “You turned into some kind of fag, or what?” He whipped out his wallet, flashed his business card at Ronnie. A-1 Pool Design, Engineering, and Maintenance, Friedrich Knight, Representative. Maybe Ronnie wouldn’t catch that representative bit. That was Freedy’s first thought. His second thought was: maybe the whole A-1 trip should have been kept out of the conversation. By that time, Ronnie had the card in his hand.
“Says here representative, ” said Ronnie. “That’s like rep, right?”
Freedy snatched the card back; not snatched, more like took back swiftly. “Which was before the buyout. The new cards haven’t been delivered. They’re so fuckin’ useless you wouldn’t believe it.”
Ronnie blinked. “Who?”
Freedy slipped the card in his pocket. “Printers, for Christ sake. You not listenin’? And now we’re in this Chapter Eleven shit, and everything’s on hold.”
“Technicality, Ronnie. Ties things up for a while.”
Freedy sighed. “Like in football.”
“Holding and pass interference?”
“That kind of thing.”
“I still think of the fucking Hoosac game,” Ronnie said. “Remember that pussy?”
“Who fumbled on the one?”
“He was on the goal line, Freedy. I was right there.”
“Faculty kid,” said Freedy. The college professors’ kids usually went away to boarding school, but this one hadn’t.
“Cost us the Hoosac game,” Ronnie said. “Thanksgiving, what year was that?”
A long time ago, four, five years, Freedy couldn’t remember.
“You ever think of that game, Freedy?”
“Nah.” Although he did, once or twice-last game he was eligible, junior year-but not because of the score or anything like that. What he remembered was breaking one of the Hoosac player’s legs on a blind-side block after a fumble recovery-a clip, actually, but missed by the ref-and the sound it made, a real Thanksgiving sound.
“ ’Nother set?” he said.
“Nah.” Ronnie’s eyes dipped down at him, still sitting on the bench, checked out those muscles, no doubt about it. “So what’s this chapter shit?”
“Forget it, Ronnie. I bought out the other guy and now we’re waiting on the details. End of story.”
“Bought him out with what?”
Money, you asshole. But Freedy didn’t say it. Because if he did, then the next thing he knew Ronnie would be saying something like Why’re you selling me your old TV for twenty bucks? Or this old TV that’s supposedly yours? “Listen to me, Ronnie.”
“When they do one of these Chapter Elevens it’s like a ref’s time-out.”
“To discuss the offsetting penalties?”
“You got it.”
“And whiles there’s a time-out nothing can happen. Bank accounts all frozen, that kind of shit.”
Ronnie glanced at the TV. The little critter was trapped inside the shark’s mouth, but he had a jar of red-hot pepper in his hand, said Red Hot Pepper Yiaow right on it. “All frozen,” said Ronnie. “I get it.” Water kept dripping, drip drip, from somewhere nearby.
Living at home meant being back in the flats. The flats-at the bottom of the north, cold side of College Hill, sunless most winter afternoons, between the old railroad tracks, where nothing ran anymore except the trash train once a week, and the river-hadn’t changed much. It wasn’t like he had to get used to anything new. A few more potholes in the streets, the house fronts more dilapidated, another line or two on his mother’s face.
She was in the kitchen, pouring lumpy yellow batter into muffin tins. That was what she did: sold her muffins to health stores up and down the valley. Plus cashing her disability checks, welfare, whatever it was, smoking her dope, listening to her music. It was playing right now, and she was swaying to it, there by the counter: Birkenstocks, an Arab kind of robe, thick gray hair almost down to her waist. Freedy disliked all music, but that sixties shit was the worst. He snapped it off.
She turned, not fast. None of her movements was fast. That was part of being centered. “I was enjoying that, Freedy.”
“You’ve heard it a million times.”
She looked at him. She had big dark eyes, deeper-set than they used to be, shadows in shadows. There was also a beauty-mark-sized drop of batter on her chin. “That’s what makes it art,” she said.
“You call that art?”
She sucked in her lips, one of her most annoying habits. “I’m a bit of an artist myself, Freedy, as I think you’re aware.”
He avoided glancing at any of her stuff, which wasn’t easy. Just in the kitchen: her paintings all over the walls, her pottery on the shelves, her macrame hanging from the ceiling, her embroidered place mats, oven mitts, aprons peeking out from every cupboard. All moons and stars and bare trees and cats and longhaired women in serapes.
“So?” he said.
“So I’m enough of an artist to know an artist when I hear one,” she said. “And Cat Stevens is an artist. Of the first water.”
Of the first water? What was she talking about? He could hardly understand her half the time, his own mother. They had nothing in common, didn’t even look alike. She was a wiry little thing; his size must have come from the father, whoever he was-but that was another story. Freedy didn’t even have a name for her: when he was little, he’d called her Hama, some Navajo word for mother. Then she’d wanted him to call her by her first name, like they were friends. Her first name, changed legally, was Starry, had to do with van Gogh, if he was the one who cut off his ear, although Freedy couldn’t remember exactly how. She never revealed her real first name; that person no longer existed, was the answer. Starry Knight-it sounded like a joke. Freedy didn’t call her anything.
“Why’s it so cold in here all time?” Freedy said.
“An old house,” she said. “In winter.”
She sat down at the table, reached for pen and paper. He knew what she was about to do-try to make up one of her goddamn poems, this one about an old house in winter. She’d made up lots of poems at one time, back when the Glass Onion, boarded up now for years, had poetry nights. A golden age in her life-she’d actually said that. Freedy went into his bedroom and closed the door, hard, but nothing out of control, not hard enough to break anything.
His childhood bedroom. Freedy had been born right here. She even had a photo album of the birth, with pictures of her with her legs spread, and her hippie friends around her, and the midwife holding up this bloody bawling thing that was him.
He closed the curtains, kept the lights off, made it dark so he wouldn’t have to see the wall paintings he’d grown up with-jungles and unicorns and toadstools and rainbows, with a bunch of elves thrown in, some of them smoking long pipes. And the lion-it was meant to be a lion but it looked more like a giant in a lion costume-holding up a poem on a scroll.
Soft snow cuddles you
In swaddling clothes
While plastic fantastic planet spins
Its wild, wild way
While away all the groovy ways little boy
In the soft snow arms of mother earth.
Freedy had no idea what the poem was supposed to mean, but it had scared the shit out of him every night for years; as had the lion man, and the elves, who turned wicked-looking at night, and all the electric blue, her favorite color. He lay on the bed, heard the music back on. That “Winterlude” song by Bob Dylan. She started playing it on the first snowy day and didn’t knock off till spring. Freedy hated the song, hated Bob Dylan. He pulled a pillow over his head.
It smelled moldy. The whole house smelled like that. Uneven floors, peeling paint, water marks on the ceiling: it was falling apart. All the kids he’d grown up with lived in houses just the same. Only difference was most of them rented, and the ones that didn’t had big mortgages and were always in danger of default, while they-she-had owned their house outright for as long as he could remember. None of these details had interested him back in high school. But now that he knew more of the world, he couldn’t help thinking more maturely about things. Like: what was the house worth on the open market? And: did she have a will? With some other softening questions in between those two, naturally.
What with the pillow over his head and fucking Bob Dylan coming through the walls, Freedy didn’t hear her knocking, didn’t know she was in the room until she touched his shoulder. He sat up, real fast.
She stepped back. “Don’t scare me,” she said. She handed him the phone and left the room, her eyes drawn for a moment to a red frog on the wall, like she was thinking of some change to make.
“Yeah?” Freedy said into the phone.
“Ever meet my uncle Saul?” said Ronnie.
“You got an uncle named Saul?”
“I never mentioned him?”
“What are you saying-you got some Jewish guy for an uncle?”
“He’s not Jewish. It’s just a name they have back in the old country.”
“So he’s just, you know, wondering, if you got more extra stuff.”
“What extra stuff?”
“Like TVs and shit. Especially HDTVs-you heard of them?”
“Where d’you think they come from, asshole?”
“Oh. Right. That’s a positive, then. ’Cause my uncle Saul does a little dealing in high tech stuff. HDTVs, PowerBooks, digital notepads-”
“Yeah, scanners. Why, you got one?”
“That would interest him, sure.”
“For buying. Didn’t I say he buys and sells high-tech shit?”
“Down in Fitchville.”
Fitchville was the nearest city, if you could call it a city, just off the pike. “What’s he pay?” Freedy said.
“He pays good. He’s a businessman.” Pause. “Like you, Freedy. Think you can get-think you got more extra stuff hanging around?”
“If the answer’s yes, he wants to meet you.”
“Twenty bucks for a Panasonic picture-in-picture, the answer’s no.”
“Not to worry, Freedy. That was just a buddy thing.”
Pause. “You’ve turned into a funny dude, Ronnie.”
“Humorous, Ronnie. Witty.”
“Yeah?” Ronnie laughed; one of those little laughs like a giggle, when you’re pleased with yourself.
Freedy took an andro from his pocket, popped it dry.
“Freedy? You still there?”
Freedy lowered his voice a little, made it more… intimate. Was that the word? Probably: he had a good vocabulary, went with his brainpower. “ ’Member that time we went one-on-one, Ronnie?”
“Not in practice. When we had that little… disagreement.”
Long pause. “About Cheryl Ann?” Ronnie said at last.
“Was that her name?”
No answer. Ronnie remembered, all right.
Freedy let the silence go on-controlling it, really, which was pretty cool-then said: “Tell your uncle Saul I’m in the book.”
“But you’re not in the book, Freedy. You’ve been gone for years.”
Freedy hung up.
“The noble caste was in the beginning always the barbarian caste: their superiority lay, not in their physical strength, but primarily in their psychical-they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means as much as ‘more complete beasts’-).” Attack or defend, with reference to the Kennedy family.
“This is very thoughtful of you, uh…”
“Nat,” said Nat, handing the gift bottle of pink zinfandel-all wrapped up in red and gold from the wine store, the thickest, shiniest wrapping paper he’d ever seen-to Mr. Zorn.
“Nat what, again?” said Mr. Zorn.
Nat repeated his last name. He and Mr. Zorn shook hands for the second time. Mr. Zorn: whose hand felt small in Nat’s; who didn’t look particularly distinguished-nothing as impressive as Albert, Mrs. Zorn’s personal assistant, or Anton, her personal trainer; who stood shorter than Nat by a few inches, perhaps the same height as Grace and Izzie, but not lean like them, not fair like them; who did have their blue-green eyes, but without the gold flecks that changed the whole effect.
“Nat’s the hero du jour,” said Grace.
“Yesterday’s hero du jour,” said Izzie.
“The hero d’hier, then,” said Mr. Zorn; a minor witticism, if one at all, and not spoken loudly, but Nat heard laughter from all parts of the room.
Christmas Eve, five o’clock, party in the library. The Zorns’ library, on yet another floor, above the bedroom level, wasn’t dark-paneled and musty, like the library in an Agatha Christie mystery, but all glass and blond wood, with tall windows and northern views. By now Nat knew that the apartment had 360-degree views of the city, but its size and structure remained unclear to him. The party was not exactly a party, although a waiter was serving drinks and everyone but Nat and the girls was dressed up; it was just a gathering before people-there were about fifteen or twenty in the room, one of whom, a TV network newswoman, Nat recognized-went off for the evening.
Mr. Zorn showed no interest in whatever heroic feat Nat had performed, but peered at the gift bottle, as though attempting to see through the wrapper, and said: “Interested in wine, Nat?”
Wary of a minefield of wine questions, Nat said: “I’m underage.”
Mr. Zorn looked up; a quick look, but careful. Then he smiled at him, not warm, not cold, not emotional at all, but an intelligent smile, if that made sense-Nat had never seen one quite like it. “But quick-witted,” said Mr. Zorn.
“Very,” said Grace.
“Very what?” said Mrs. Zorn, coming up. She wore something black and low-cut that exposed most of her breasts; a huge pear-shaped diamond-had to be a diamond, Nat thought-hung between them. The effort to keep his eyes off the spectacle almost made his head hurt, although no else seemed to be taking any notice.
“Quick-witted,” said Izzie.
“Who are we talking about?” said Mrs. Zorn.
“Nat,” said Grace.
Mrs. Zorn looked blank for a moment, then turned to him: “Really?” she said.
Grace and Izzie both frowned in annoyance, their foreheads furrowing identically.
“I guess not, since I don’t know what to say to that,” Nat said.
Everyone laughed-Mr. Zorn the loudest-except Mrs. Zorn.
Yes, this is fun. Creme de la creme and I’m having fun.
Mr. Zorn raised the gift bottle. “Nat’s brought us a little something.”
“How thoughtful,” said Mrs. Zorn.
“In fact…,” said Mr. Zorn, glancing at a nearby door.
“Not now,” said Grace.
“Pay no attention to Grace,” Mr. Zorn said. “She likes to give me a hard time. That’s how I tell them apart.”
Grace and Izzie exchanged a glance, beyond Nat’s interpretive power. Izzie looked away.
“Not now what?” said Mrs. Zorn. “What is everyone talking about?”
“Too late,” said Izzie.
Mr. Zorn had already taken Nat’s hand, drawn him away. Nat followed him through the doorway, down a dark corridor, into a vaulted stone room. It had a heavy door, studded, creaking, the kind found in fairy-tale castles. Mr. Zorn closed it. Nat looked around.
“Do you like oxymorons, Nat?” said Mr. Zorn.
“Like a cellar on the seventieth floor?” said Nat.
A wine cellar. Wine in racks, wine in bins, wine in cases on the floor: thousands and thousands of bottles, receding into the shadows. Something of a hobby with Mr. Zorn.
“Bordeaux and Burgundy, respectively, along that wall,” said Mr. Zorn. “Italian, Spanish, Portuguese-including port and Madeira-at the back, Australian in the corner, and finally domestic. Plus odds and ends, here and there. Someone’s coming in from Paris to reorganize the whole shebang. What would you like?”
“What would I like?”
“A little sample. It’s to drink. People forget that.”
“Burgundy,” Nat said; the word was in the air and it was also the team color of Clear Creek High.
“Perfect,” said Mr. Zorn. “Especially at Christmas.” He set Nat’s gift bottle on a dark table as heavy and ancient as the door, and moved down the row of bins. Nat realized he did like oxymorons, liked, too, wine cellars on the seventy-first floor. The thought arose-and he banished it at once, untrue-that he was living for the first time.
Mr. Zorn returned, blowing dust off a bottle. “How about this?” he said, holding it so Nat could read the label.
Romanee-Conti. The name meant nothing to Nat. “Looks good,” he said. Then he noticed the date: 1962.
“Crack ’er open,” said Mr. Zorn.
Mr. Zorn handed him a corkscrew. “Do the honors,” he said. “We can try some of yours, too.”
They both eyed the gift bottle. Suddenly the bright wrapping paper seemed a little too bright to Nat. “What the hell, right?” said Mr. Zorn. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
Nat glanced at the corkscrew. The first problem was that he’d never used one. The second problem was harder to put into words, but had to do with the contrast between the two labels: the simple black on white of the Romanee-Conti, with no illustration, versus the red, orange, and yellow of Mr. Beaman’s wine, Blind River Blush, with its picture of a fish leaping high over a bunch of grapes. The third problem was that Blind River Blush had a screw top.
Nat took the bottle of Romanee-Conti from Mr. Zorn. He noticed a tiny price sticker on the back: $2,500. For a moment his fingers went numb; he could see they were holding the bottle, but had no idea how. The problems all compounded. He actually thought of saying he had to go to the bathroom. But no: he was good at solving problems, wasn’t he? He tried to think of some light remark, failed, and went to work.
First, the burgundy-colored foil around the top: he dug his thumbnail under it, stripped it off, exposing the cork. Second, the corkscrew. A strange corkscrew, nothing simple about it. It had at least two moving parts, one the screw itself, which probably wouldn’t function until he swung this other, flanged one open. He swung it open, moved the screw to a right angle with the… handle, yes, must be the handle, stuck the point of the screw into the cork.
“Tried them all,” said Mr. Zorn. “This is the best.”
“The wine, you mean?” said Nat, looking up; he felt sweat on his upper lip.
Mr. Zorn laughed. “Some think so,” he said. “But I was talking about the corkscrew-these simple Parisian waiter’s corkscrews work better than any of the fancy gizmos out there, don’t you think?”
A perfect chance to say, I’ve never actually used this kind before, and hand the whole affair over to Mr. Zorn. But Nat let it go by. He could do it. Twisting the screw deep into the cork, he said, “Really goes in there.” A light remark, perhaps, but idiotic. He felt his ears reddening, a new sensation. But at the same time, he realized what the flanged part was for-had grasped the underlying mechanics-got it in place, applied pressure, levering pressure. The cork began sliding out. Triumph.
“How’s your father, by the way?” said Mr. Zorn.
Nat’s arm jerked convulsively, as though he’d lost all control of it. The cork popped free but his arm continued its wild gesture, striking the gift bottle on the table, knocking it over; the bottle rolled, fell, crashed on the stone floor. A muffled crash, the broken glass held inside the thick wrapping paper. Only the wine leaked out, forming a pink pool at Mr. Zorn’s feet.
“Looks interesting,” he said. “Too bad.”
Or some other observation that Nat, staring at Mr. Zorn across the table, barely heard. “My father?” he said.
“Is he still with those Silicon Valley people?”
“I don’t have a father.”
“You don’t?” Mr. Zorn stared back at him. “Weren’t you on Grace’s floor at Choate?”
“Not the captain of the soccer team?”
“No. I… I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.”
Mr. Zorn’s gaze went to the spilled wine, then to the Romanee-Conti and the corkscrew with the impaled cork, still in Nat’s hands. He laughed. Nat laid the wine and the corkscrew on the table.
Mr. Zorn picked up the corkscrew. “A happy misunderstanding, then,” he said, unscrewing the cork, “since we got to have this nice little visit. Shall we rejoin the others?” He stuck the cork firmly back in the bottle of Romanee-Conti.
The door opened and Grace came in. “Time to go, Nat,” she said. “Paolo’s here.”
“You don’t know Paolo?” said Mr. Zorn.
Nat lost his concentration for a few moments and somehow managed to track pink zinfandel on the oriental rug in the library. No one noticed; the colors were similar.
Paolo had a car with a driver and diplomatic plates. He sat in the back between the girls, his arm over Izzie’s shoulders; Nat sat in front.
“Paolo’s a count,” Grace said.
“That’s very silly,” said Paolo, opening a bottle of champagne. He had a slight accent that somehow made English sound better.
“But true, isn’t it?” said Grace.
“Grace,” said Izzie.
A difference right there: some character difference, but everything was happening fast, and Nat couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Come on, Paolo,” said Grace. “Show us some count ID.”
“Count ID?” said Paolo, drinking from the bottle and passing it to Izzie. “Have you ever in life heard such a concept, Nate?”
“It’s Nat,” said Nat.
“Not Nate?” said Paolo. “I am familiar with Nate as a typical American name, but not Nat.”
Izzie, glancing at Paolo, drank some champagne and passed the bottle to Grace.
“And kings have scepters,” Nat said, “so maybe the concept of count ID isn’t so crazy after all.”
Grace and Izzie both burst out laughing, spraying little jets of champagne.
“Fuck,” said Paolo, even making that word sound almost pretty. He spoke to the driver in Italian; the driver passed him a handkerchief, and Paolo dabbed at his pant leg.
Izzie kissed him on the cheek. In the rearview mirror, Nat saw Grace’s eyes narrow. “Sorry,” Izzie said.
“It’s nothing,” Paolo said. He dabbed some more.
Grace extended the bottle over the seat to Nat. Nat wasn’t much of a drinker, and had made a promise to his mom never to mix drinking and cars, so the reply no thanks formed automatically in his mind. But he hadn’t tasted champagne, and, what the hell, it was Christmas Eve. He drank. It was good, very, very good. He was alive and he knew it, like never before. The driver kept his eyes on the road.
Paolo took them to parties. There was more champagne, at first very, very good, later simply cold and fizzy, after that just wet.
Parties. A Brazilian party where Nat, wedged next to the conga drums, fell under the illusion that the drumskins were playing the drummer’s hands, and not the other way around.
A party in a dance club where they were ushered in past a long line at the door, and where he danced first with Izzie, then with Grace, then with an older woman who had an intense face and cords sticking out on her neck; he shared a frozen rum drink with her and she wriggled her hip against him. He felt immensely strong, strong enough to pick her up and set her on the bar in one easy motion, which he did. She threw back her head and laughed and laughed, the cords in her neck sticking out even more, her stiletto-heeled foot sliding up his leg; Izzie, no, it was Grace, he could tell by her temperature even before he checked the hair, drew him away.
A party in Greenwich Village where he found himself in a bathroom with seven or eight people, where a photograph of the party givers having sex hung over the bathtub, and where a Thai stick, something he’d heard of but never seen, went round and round, with him declining every time until Izzie spoke into his ear: “You’re pretty cute, you know that?” No: it was Grace. This time he had to look; their voices were identical, deeper than most girls’ and a little ragged at the edges, as though they’d been up all night, or had been singing at the top of their lungs, or were fighting some infection. Grace’s tongue tasted smoky.
But how did he know that?
Later, somewhere else, he and Paolo urinated side by side, a bottle of champagne perched on Paolo’s urinal. “Ah, Nat,” said Paolo, pronouncing the name with great care, almost adding a second syllable: Nat-te. “You know what is everyone asking me tonight, Nat-te?” Paolo said.
“Where your scepter is?”
Paolo regarded him from the corner of his eye. For a moment Nat thought Paolo was going to take a swing at him. But Paolo was in the middle of pissing-they both were-and it would have been messy, and Nat knew from the handkerchief episode that Paolo didn’t like messes. “What everyone is asking me, Nat-te, is which one dyes the hair. Because there is one way only to know for sure, if you are following.” Paolo winked at him.
Nat had heard a lot about diversity, had answered test questions about it and written his SAT writing sample on the subject, but he hadn’t understood how different human beings could be, one from the other, until that moment. He thought of Christmas Eve at home: Mom always made an oyster stew, a few friends came over, Patti and her dad the last two years, everyone opened one present, they drank eggnog from little clear-glass cups that appeared only at Christmas, Mom sat at the piano and they sang a few carols. With the time difference, it might still be going on. He turned his wrist to check the time and found his watch was gone.
“I am having a bad feeling you miss the import of the question,” said Paolo, shaking off. “Identical genes, therefore the hair must be identical, therefore one is an artificer. Do I say that right?”
“They’re two different people,” Nat said. “There are other ways to tell them apart.”
“Don’t be silly. Is there no biology studies in America? Even their father cannot tell-which is the reason why the hair color in the first place.” He zipped up. “So we have a big question, and everyone is asking the person in a position to know. To know beyond a shadow of the doubt. Useless to ask, of course, so don’t you bother, Nat-te. I am what used to be called a gentleman.”
“What’s it called now?” said Nat.
But too late: Paolo was gone. Nat went to the sink. It turned out that counts didn’t wash their hands. Maybe he said it aloud. “Counts don’t wash their hands.” He washed his, laughing to himself. Then he thought he heard someone crying, went still, heard nothing but the running water. In the mirror, he saw that now he did look different, a lot.
Nat was still staring at his image, kind of stunned, when one of the stalls behind him opened and Izzie stepped out. She didn’t look at him, either in the mirror or in life, but went out, not speaking.
“Izzie?” Nat hurried after her, but had trouble with the door, somehow locking it for a few seconds, or maybe a minute or two, and when he emerged into a hall swarming with people, she was gone.
“Ever smoked one of these before?” said someone.
“What is it?” said Nat.
“ ‘What is it?’ Who are you, Inspector Gadget?”
Nat didn’t remember anything after that.
He awoke in the night with someone breathing against his ear.
“You’re pretty cute.”
“Boinggg.” She slipped her hand inside his shirt; no, he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
He sat up; no, tried to. “Where are we?”
“Home is the hunter.”
Her hand moved lower. He might not have been wearing pants either. Her hand, so different from Patti’s hand; knew exactly what it was doing, for one thing. Nat thought that moment of the conga drummer’s hands, a mixed-up thought that went away. He put his hand on hers to stop her.
“How did we get here?”
“Public transportation, like good little citizens. You gave up your seat to a transvestite. Tres galant.”
Surely she was making that up. “What time is it?”
“I think I lost my watch.”
“You talk too much.” She put her mouth on his, got her hand free, down between his legs.
Nat turned his head away. “I really can’t, Grace.”
“Different opinion down here.”
Nat tried to see her in the dark, couldn’t. “It’s not that,” he said. “We don’t know each other.”
“I know you.”
“I meant we don’t know each other well enough.”
“If everyone waited for well enough, we’d be extinct.”
Nat laughed. “I know, but-”
“I have this-I have a girlfriend.”
Grace stopped what she was doing. “At school?”
“Inverness, you mean?”
“What other school do you go to?”
“No,” Nat said, “she’s not at Inverness.”
Grace started up again. “Still on the prairie, then. What’s her name?”
“Patti. And there’s no prairie.”
“Let me guess-she spells it with an i. When do we meet her?”
Nat pulled her hand away, sat up, succeeded in sitting up this time, felt dizzy and a little sick. “Yes,” he said, “she does spell it with an i.”
His voice sounded strange to him: harsh and maybe even powerful. Powerful. Was this the immensely strong effect he’d experienced at the dance club, still with him from the champagne? He felt Grace moving away, heard her stand up.
“What convenient morals you have, Grandma,” she said.
She snorted. “Playing dumb’s not you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But was he really surprised when she said: “No? What would you be doing right now if it was Izzie in your bed?” He was not.
He said nothing.
Grace said: “Piss on that,” and left the room.
Nat lay back down. Was it just that he saw Izzie as the underdog and had always been one of those rooters for underdogs? How could someone like Izzie possibly be called an underdog? Was it instead some crazy competitive thing, that Izzie wasn’t available and Grace was? Or simply that he was a little afraid of Grace?
He closed his eyes, thought about returning to Inverness in the morning, even-but just for a moment-of going home. The steps outlined themselves in his mind: packing, paying Albert what he owed for the gift wine, finding the bus station. He slid down into sleep, and was almost there when it hit him that he’d forgotten all about his hundred foul shots, the first day he’d missed since he’d begun in fifth grade. His eyes opened wide. He remembered the basketball hoop on the deck down below, thought about getting up. Thought about it, but stayed where he was, eyes open.
“The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the topmost summit of his spirit.” In a single paragraph, discuss whether Nietzsche would have said the same for women; if so, why; if not, why not?
Early morning: Nat was the only one up in the Zorns’ apartment; at least, he saw or heard no one else. Showered, shaved, dressed, packed, left $30 on his bedside table for Albert, with a note giving his college address in case the wine had cost more-$2,500!-he waited for the elevator. And while he waited, faced the Renoir.
A pink nude-not really pink, since he could see silver, yellow, violet, red, even blue on her skin, but the effect was pink-a pink nude, one foot resting on the edge of a bathtub, bending to towel herself dry. She was fat, but didn’t behave-if the word could be used for a painted figure frozen on canvas-the way fat women did now. Au contraire, as Grace or Izzie would probably say, she seemed confident, even liked her body, if that wasn’t reading too much into it. The problem, and the reason he didn’t like the painting-not liking a Renoir, who did he think he was? — was that he couldn’t see anything else inside her but that self-satisfaction. Women he knew, his mom, Patti, Grace, Izzie, might not feel that self-satisfaction-he was almost sure that none of them did feel it, despite the fact that they all had better bodies than Renoir’s woman-but there was something important in all of them that she seemed to lack. Was there a word for that something? What was it? An angle? A viewpoint? Or-here came an image-the habit of mind of a chess player forced always to play the black pieces, to go second? Nat didn’t know, but he sensed this something in women, wanted to know more about it, didn’t see it here. Did that mean that Renoir hadn’t known much about women? Nat, shying away from that conclusion, was about to move a little closer to the painting in order to examine the pink lady’s eyes and see where he had gone wrong when the elevator opened behind him. He turned.
Mrs. Zorn stepped out. She wore running shoes, black tights, and, despite the cold, a black midriff-baring top. And, despite the cold, she was sweating. A long and serious run: Nat could tell from the line of caked salt running like a blurred thread around her black top. There was a blurriness in her eyes too, but they cleared as soon as she saw him.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Nat.”
“Not as early as you, Mrs. Zorn,” he said, his voice sounding a little hoarse in his ears. “Merry Christmas.”
She nodded; her gaze rested on his backpack. “Going somewhere?”
Mrs. Zorn blinked, a long slow blink, much like his mom’s. This surprised him. With her flawless skin, high cheekbones, taut muscles-even to the extent of abdominal definition, if not quite a six-pack-and with the grape-sized diamond and the oxymoronic wine cellar and the rest of the life she must lead, Mrs. Zorn didn’t seem to have much in common with his mom.
“Weren’t you staying for the holidays?”
“That’s very nice of you, Mrs. Zorn. But I’ve got to be getting back.”
She looked almost alarmed. “I don’t understand.”
“No emergency or anything like that,” Nat said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, that’s all.”
“Studying and stuff.” He thought of the list waiting on his wall: clean room, laundry, write home, work out, get to know town and surroundings, ‘ on next semester. Over Mrs. Zorn’s shoulder, he could see the Persian cat watching him from the couch in the elevator.
“Schoolwork?” said Mrs. Zorn.
“But it’s vacation, and the twins say you’re a brilliant student.”
“I don’t know how they can. First-semester results aren’t even in yet.”
“The girls are always right about this kind of thing. And you’ll miss out on-” She glanced around, like someone seeking help. “How about some breakfast?”
“Thanks, but it’s really not necessary.”
“I’m fixing myself a little something anyway,” said Mrs. Zorn. “It’ll be my pleasure.”
Mrs. Zorn made an omelet, a beautiful glistening omelet with goat cheese-Nat knew that only from a quick glance at the label-onions, and peppers; the best-looking omelet he’d ever seen. She squeezed a glass of orange juice for him, made her frothy blue drink from a big cube of blue ice she took from the freezer and put in the blender, sat down opposite him in a little alcove jutting into the sky; a sky the color of her drink, the cloud level for the moment a few stories below.
“That’s not very fair,” said Nat as Mrs. Zorn divided the omelet into two highly unequal portions, taking one tiny end and giving the rest to Nat.
“This is plenty for me,” said Mrs. Zorn. “Too much.” The alarmed look crossed her face again. “You don’t want coffee, do you?”
He did, but thought it best to shake his head.
“One of the deadliest poisons there is,” she said.
Nat didn’t look up. He cut off a piece of his omelet, tasted it. “My God,” he said.
“You like it?” She didn’t sound surprised.
“My father taught me how to cook,” said Mrs. Zorn. “I hardly ever get a chance, but the staff’s off today, of course.”
A maid in uniform entered, laid a vase of flowers and some folded newspapers on the table, left. A young maid, Hispanic: she resembled one of the cheerleaders at Clear Creek High.
“The cook’s off, anyway,” said Mrs. Zorn, who still hadn’t touched her food. She sipped her blue drink. “Where are you from, Nat?”
He told her.
“I’m from Denver, myself,” she said.
“Do you know the city?”
“My father had a diner in Arvada. He cooked and my mother served.”
Nat was amazed. Arvada was where his own mother had spent the first few years of her life, for one thing. “How long have you lived here?” he said.
“New York, you mean, or this place?”
“Since I was sixteen.”
“Did your parents open another diner?”
“When you moved here.”
“I came by myself. I’d always wanted to be a model, for some reason, and this is where you have to go, here or Paris, and I wasn’t ready for Paris back then. Or ever.”
“And did it… uh, work out?”
“Did what work out?”
“Yes indeed,” said Mrs. Zorn. She stared out the window, where the cloud level had risen and there was nothing to see but swirling fog. “I’m the third Mrs. Z.”
Nat ate more of his omelet, biting down on an onion-filled mouthful that tasted especially delicious.
“You didn’t think I was the twins’ mother, did you?”
“Oh, no,” said Nat. “If anything, I thought you were an older sister.” His true thought, but it sounded a little oily out there in the open.
“Aren’t you a charmer,” said Mrs. Zorn. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I work my ass off to stay like this, and it’s all fading fast, no matter what I do.”
Nat didn’t know what to say to that.
“Maybe not such a charmer,” said Mrs. Zorn. “You’re supposed to say something reassuring, like ‘not at all.’ ”.
“You’re… beautiful,” Nat said, and felt his ears reddening again. He’d never said that to a woman, or girl, before; so strange that the first one would be her, so stupid that his voice would crack on the phrase, like he was thirteen or something. “You must know that,” he added, making what he hoped was a mature recovery.
Mrs. Zorn smiled. “I know it officially. But it’s always nice to hear. How’s the omelet?”
“Enjoy, as the locals like to say,” she said. She took another sip of her blue drink; he noticed it was turning her lips and teeth blue. “What do you know about the second Mrs. Z?” she said.
“No? She’s their mother. The girls, I’m talking about. Lives in Paris. A lifestyle you would not believe. What’s so funny?”
“She was a model too,” Mrs. Zorn continued. “Wanted to be an actress. That became a problem, a marriage buster eventually, because she has a voice like Daffy Duck. With a head cold, but don’t tell the girls I said that.”
“Was she ever in any movies?”
“He financed one for her in the end.” Mrs. Zorn named it, a slasher sequel he’d seen one Friday night at the little two-screen cinema in his town.
“Was she the aerobics instructor?”
“Something like that.”
Nat remembered nothing remarkable about her voice.
“But that was it,” Mrs. Zorn said. “She overplayed her hand. He didn’t like being pressured, not by her, not by those Hollywood people.” Outside the sky darkened and lights went on in the kitchen automatically. “He doesn’t like being pressured by anybody.”
“What does Mr. Zorn do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s complicated,” said Mrs. Zorn. “Let’s just say he takes his cut.”
“You name it.” She glanced at Nat’s plate, saw it was bare. “What else can I get you?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said. “It was great.”
“I’ve enjoyed our little breakfast, too,” said Mrs. Zorn, although she still hadn’t touched her food. She looked directly at him; she really was beautiful, if a little strange with the blue lips and teeth. “You could do me a favor, Nat.”
She reached across the table, touched his hand. If there was a scale of knowingness for a woman’s touch, with Grace much higher than Patti, then Mrs. Zorn was at least that much higher than Grace. “By not leaving,” she said.
“Not leaving?” Nat drew his hand away. She left hers where it was, a beautifully shaped hand, though it surprised him to see one or two liver spots on the back. “I’m sorry, I-”
“The girls seem to like your company. And now with Izzie so upset. We could all use a change of scene, if you want to know the truth. That’s why we’re flying down to the islands today. Please don’t say no.”
“Bora Bora?” said Nat, thinking of Lorenzo.
“Just the Caribbean.”
“Why not? You could bring your books, and if you need some more, that’s no problem-give Albert a list.”
“If you’re really set on Bora Bora, we might-”
“Oh, no. It’s not that. It’s just-the hotel, the airfare-I can’t afford it.” Mrs. Zorn started to speak; he held up his hand, not wanting to even hear her charitable offer. “I’d have to pay my own way, Mrs. Zorn, and since I can’t-don’t you see?”
She laughed. “Let’s not make this into a big production,” she said. “There is no hotel or airfare. It’s not that kind of thing.”
“And it would be good for Izzie to have friends around right now.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“I thought you were there.”
The maid entered. “Phone for you, sir,” she said, and handed a cordless one to Nat.
“Nat? Merry Christmas.”
“Mom? I was going to call you.” And: “How did you get this number?”
“From information. Their name was on the card.”
“Don’t you know? It’s the sweetest thing. They sent flowers, your people. The Zorns. The most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen in my life, Nat. Is Mrs. Zorn around, by any chance?”
“She’s right here.” He handed the phone to Mrs. Zorn. “My mom wants to talk to you.”
“Hello,” said Mrs. Zorn. She listened. From the expression on her face, Nat could tell that she knew nothing about the flowers; it must have been Albert’s doing. And must have happened many times before: Mrs. Zorn didn’t even stumble. “Oh, don’t be silly,” she said. “It’s our pleasure. And your son seems like such a wonderful young man.”
She handed the phone back to Nat. “Mom?”
“She sounds so nice, Nat. And so… grand.” Nat, recalling that Mrs. Zorn and his mom were both from Arvada, missed whatever she said next.
“What was that, Mom?”
“I said hang on. Patti’s here. She wants to say hi.”
“Nat? Merry Christmas.”
“Did you get my package?”
Nat remembered it, sitting unopened on his bed in room seventeen of Plessey Hall. “Yes,” he said. She waited for a reaction; he heard her breathing. “I wasn’t going to open it till Christmas.”
She laughed. “What day do you think it is, you goof?”
“No one’s opened anything yet.” He hadn’t even seen the Zorns’ tree, now that he thought about it.
“What’s it like there?”
“Your mom says you’re staying with some college buddies?”
Nat didn’t reply.
“That was nice of them, inviting you.”
“Been to the Empire State Building yet?”
“No,” Nat said, glancing out the window; the top of it had been visible before the clouds rose.
“What have you been up to, then?”
“I… I wish I could talk to you.”
“No. I… I just… miss you so much.” There was a muffled sound: she was crying. He caught a word or two-“sorry,” “Christmas”-felt Mrs. Zorn’s gaze on his face.
“Me too,” he said, which didn’t even make sense, and therefore couldn’t be a lie, even though she might have inferred that he missed her too. But he didn’t miss her.
“This is costing money,” Patti said, sniffling. “I should go. Love you.”
“Have a good Christmas,” Nat told her.
“Nat?” His mom.
“Have a wonderful holiday. And do something nice for the Zorns, if you can.”
But I should go back to school, Mom. Or maybe home. Couldn’t say it, of course, for a number of reasons.
The maid took the phone away.
“Your mother sounds so nice,” said Mrs. Zorn.
“She is.” He thought he heard that strange, powerful tone in his voice again. Part of it was because she was so much more than that; the rest was the word nice itself. Nice, nice, nice: it was starting to grate on him.
“I’m sure of it,” said Mrs. Zorn.
Nat saw that she had finally eaten her little bit of omelet, finished the frothy blue drink.
“What were you saying about Izzie?”
“Izzie? Oh, yes. She dumped Paolo. Or vice versa. Or both at the same time. She’s not taking it well. It’s a vulnerable age.” Mrs. Zorn looked down at her empty plate. “Like all the others.”
He said yes.
“ ‘No more exploitation’-that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions.” Identify the quotation and discuss in relation to any one organic function. Five hundred words.
No airfare, no hotel: not that kind of thing.
It was the kind of thing where you drove to a private airfield in one of three limousines, sitting beside a friendly-looking man named Andy Ling who asked friendly questions about you; where you boarded a private plane with a big black Z painted on the fuselage; where a square-jawed pilot resembling the hero of Planet of the Apes — Nat couldn’t remember the actor’s name-invited you into the cockpit; where you sat around a white-clothed table in the tail section and ate foie gras before you even knew what it was; where you began to develop a preference for Krug champagne over the others you’d been trying; where the maid who resembled a Clear Creek High cheerleader-go Bisons! — plumped up a soft pillow before placing it behind your head; where you slept and dreamed one of those soaring dreams you sometimes had, but for the first time within a soaring reality, soothed like a baby by the hum of jet engines.
To sleep like a baby; to wake over a world of liquid emerald; to land on a tropic isle; to stand in the open doorway of the plane, feeling for the first time that air, smelling those smells; to be aware of all those old boyhood pirate stories stirring in memory, coming to life.
“Welcome to Aubrey’s Cay,” said Mrs. Zorn; perhaps a little drunk-Nat saw how Anton discreetly helped her down the stairs. “Our little piece of paradise.”
“That’s not true,” Grace said.
Mrs. Zorn, on the black-paved airstrip-it felt soft under Nat’s feet-turned quickly, almost lost her balance. “What’s not true?” she said. Her eyes were concealed by oversized sunglasses, but he suspected they wore that alarmed look again.
“What you said. It’s some kind of lease. We don’t actually own it. Do we, Dad?”
Mr. Zorn, talking on a cell phone in the shade of the starboard wing, didn’t reply.
“Dad. I asked you a question.”
“Your father is busy,” said Mrs. Zorn.
“Piss on that,” said Grace, and strode toward one of the waiting jeeps.
Nat didn’t know what to make of this exchange. Maybe Grace was a little drunk too. All it showed him for sure was that none of this-translucent green sea, white beaches, red-flowering trees by the side of the strip, the air, the smells, not even this tiny orange bird streaking by, which no one seemed to notice-was new to them.
No hotel. None necessary: The Zorns had a big yellow house with red shutters on the east side of the hill that dominated the island. There were two villas on the beach below the house, servants’ quarters in a banana grove halfway down the back of the hill, a boathouse big enough for a cigarette boat and a few smaller ones at the head of the little natural harbor on the west side. Not a big island, but beautiful and all theirs, owned or leased.
Nat’s room was at the end of a marble corridor in the big house. It opened onto a balcony with a view of Tortola and some other islands; on a chaise longue lay a bathing suit. Nat hadn’t brought one. He tried the suit on; the European kind, skimpier than what he would wear, but it fit.
Nat crossed a huge room with a fountain, cool, although all the windows were open to the hot afternoon, looking for anyone who wanted a swim. But no one was around; the house was silent. He walked outside, down stone steps toward the beach. A bright green lizard skittered away from him; he smelled intoxicating smells; passed a tree bearing an applelike green fruit and a sign on the trunk: Manchineel-Touche Pas!; heard a voice drifting down, almost out of range, but clear enough in the still air: “I thought maybe he’d amuse the girls, that’s all.” Mrs. Zorn, almost certainly; followed by low male rumblings. At that moment it occurred to Nat that the friendly-looking man in the limousine, Andy Ling, hadn’t been on the plane.
The path wound past the two villas, both silent, cut through a palm grove-he picked a coconut off the ground, felt its weight, heard the milk sloshing inside-ended at the beach. Nat walked across the white sand, powdery and hot on the soles of his feet, and into the ocean. This green ocean: pale green by the shoreline, so pale it was almost colorless if you looked straight down; which Nat did, and saw a fish swimming by his feet, a fish similar in size and shape to Lorenzo, but not quite as spectacular, simply deep blue with red lips. At first contact, this water-the Caribbean Sea! — felt the same as his own temperature; then it cooled slightly, just enough to tingle against his skin. All his muscles, his whole body, relaxed at once, a more complete release of tension than he could ever remember, as though his physical self had been waiting a lifetime for this moment, his first immersion in salt water.
Nat wasn’t much of a swimmer-Clear Creek High had no pool and the river had become too shallow for swimming-but when the water reached his chest, he slid the rest of the way in and swam a few strokes. Maybe more than a few, because when he stopped and glanced around he was surprised at the distance to the beach. Surprised but not worried: with the increased buoyancy of the salt water, he found he could stay on the surface with almost no effort, and besides, there was that perfect, soothing temperature. He turned his face to the sun, closed his eyes, heard the gentle rippling of the sea around him, the call of a strange bird somewhere above, and nothing else. But that nothing else, that silence, was not like any silence he was used to, but somehow powerful, impending, the background sound, new to him, of the air or sky itself.
Then something grabbed his leg.
Nat kicked out sharply, took a thrashing stroke or two in the wrong direction, out to sea. Whatever was beneath him shot to the surface right before his eyes, a strange and terrifying creature. For a moment Nat couldn’t put the pieces together. Then he saw: snorkel, mask, and wet golden-brown hair he’d mistaken for seaweed.
She spat out her snorkel and said, “Boo.”
Nat stopped thrashing, tried to tread water in some sort of measured way. Her eyes watched him from behind the mask.
“Did I scare you?”
“No.” But his heart was beating fast.
She took off her mask, turned her head, emptied her nostrils into the sea. “That’s the dorkiest thing I’ve ever seen in swimwear,” she said.
“It’s not mine.”
“You stole it from Pee-wee Herman?”
His heartbeat slowed to something a little less crazy. “No need. We’re like this.”
She laughed. He laughed. He noticed that she didn’t appear to be treading water at all, or to be making the least effort to stay afloat, just rose and fell gently with the rhythm of the waves. He also noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit top.
She noticed him noticing. “Maybe you are a bit like him.”
He tore his eyes away.
“Aubrey’s Cay is topless,” she said. “Like St. Bart’s.”
“Just another island. But leads the Caribbean in boobs and baguettes. To quote Paolo.” Her mood changed; he could see it in her eyes, as though someone had hit the dimmer.
“The thing you said to him the other night-‘what’s a gentleman called now,’ or whatever it was?”
“Hey,” said Nat.
“Grace always said he was a jerk. She was his first choice, by the way.”
“She had a boyfriend of her own at the time.”
A wave rippled by, a green wave rippling a green reflection in her eyes. “No. He had personal problems.”
“He was sort of married.”
But he didn’t. Out there, offshore and separated from everyone else, Nat asked a question he might not have asked on land. “Have you had any married boyfriends?”
“What do you take me for?”
Nat laughed. She raised an eyebrow-her right, the opposite of Grace. Did it have something to do with the way the egg had split?
“What are you thinking about?” she said.
“Eggs and you.”
“You’re funny,” Izzie said.
They fell silent. There was no sound but that of the sea; the sea, which began moving her a little closer to him. Their legs touched under the surface. Since the water was so clear they could have glanced down easily and seen this contact, but neither did: they pretended it was happening somewhere else, out of sight. But it was happening, all right; Nat felt something new going through him, or perhaps something he’d known before, just magnified by the emerald water, the deep blue sky, the scented air.
Izzie backed away. Nat saw for the first time that she had a speargun in one hand, dangling down in the water.
“What’s that for?”
“You like seafood?”
“Yes,” he said, although his mom almost never served it.
Izzie checked the sun, lower over the island now, and pulled down her mask. “Jukin’ time,” she said.
“When the big ones come out, country boy.”
She stuck the snorkel in her mouth and swam off at a speed that amazed him, her fins, not quite breaking the surface, churning away. In what seemed like seconds, she had rounded a stony point at the south end of the beach and disappeared.
He thought of Patti. She’d spelled incident wrong. He’d made spelling mistakes too. Maybe Izzie couldn’t spell it either. He thought of testing her on the word, a disgusting idea he quashed almost as soon as it left the gate. And Patti had nice breasts too, although she’d never dream of swimming topless. All this led nowhere, and was still leading nowhere when something tickled his toes. He didn’t panic this time, but peered down through the clear water and saw a little green fish nibbling at him. He swam a few lazy strokes, turned on his back, floated under a purpling sky.
Did he actually fall asleep? It was close: his mind drifted, drifted, down into one of the seagoing sagas of his childhood. Pirates, pistols, parrots, pieces of eight. Only a slight chill, the difference between the ocean temperature and his own making itself felt at last, brought him back to full wakefulness. He treaded water, gazed out to sea.
The sun had sunk behind Aubrey’s Cay, graying the water around him, except for the wave tips, still liquid emerald. In the distance, light still shone bright, blazing on the sail of a lone windsurfer. With the wind at his back, he approached very quickly, skimming toward the point that Izzie had rounded, disappearing for a few seconds, then reappearing, much closer, cutting back toward the beach. With a sound from his board like tearing paper, the windsurfer blew by Nat, about ten yards away: a brown-tanned, barrel-chested, skinny-legged man, wearing a bathing suit even skimpier than Nat’s and a look of glee on his face. He ran his board right onto the beach, skipped nimbly off, noticed Nat, waved. Nat swam in.
The windsurfer-older than Nat had first thought, with a trim gray beard and gray hair, long, wild, matted with salt water-was lowering the sail.
“I saw you were in residence,” he said, nodding up toward the house; a white flag with a black Z on it now flew over the roof. “And so dropped in. You’re the physical trainer, as I recall? Angelo, is it?”
“No,” Nat said, and introduced himself.
“Not the trainer?”
“Ah. Of the girls.” He gave Nat a closer look, or perhaps actually saw him for the first time. “Or of one particularly.”
“I’m a friend of the girls.”
“As am I,” the man said. “A friend of the girls, indeed of the whole lovely family.” He held out his hand. “May I present myself? Leo Uzig.”
They shook hands. Leo Uzig’s was big, out of proportion to the rest of him, except for his head. “Where did you drop in from, Mr. Uzig?” Nat said.
“Excellent question. You see that island? No. The one to the north. Not that. To the right. South, then. Got it. Discovered, and please spare me the politically correct boilerplate, by Drake in 1568, thus the name of the simple but pleasant Sir Francis Inn, where I spend my Christmases. Also explaining, to anticipate your question, my long association with the Zorns, the blanks easily filled in. You, I take it, are a student at some Ivy institution.”
“Not exactly,” said Nat. “I’m at Inverness.”
“What luck,” said Leo Uzig. “We’re fellow inmates, then, you a freshman-you are a freshman?”
“And me chairman of the department of philosophy. If you’ll just help me pull my board above the high-tide line, we can be safely inside before the no-see-ums come out.”
“No-see-ums?” said Nat. Something bit him on the back of the neck.
Dinner on the terrace: mosquito coils burning on the tile floor, candles burning on the table, more stars than Nat had ever seen shining in a soft black sky, everyone barefoot except the servants. Professor Uzig sat at Mr. Zorn’s end of the table, Anton at Mrs. Zorn’s, Albert and Izzie on one side, Grace and Nat on the other. They ate the lobsters Izzie had caught, drank something called goombay smash, then Krug, then a Meursault, and more Krug, while a guitarist brought from Virgin Gorda in the cigarette played in the background and the smells of flowers and of the sea took turns drifting by. Could life really be this sweet? Nat had never even imagined it.
“We’re taking Phil three twenty-two from Leo next semester,” Izzie said across the table to Nat, her nose pink from the sun. “You should too.”
“A three hundred course?” Nat said.
“A misnomer,” said Professor Uzig, “dating back into the academic mists. Three twenty-two is now for freshmen only, selected freshmen.”
“It’s full, isn’t it?” said Grace.
“Oh, yes,” said Professor Uzig, “long full.”
“What’s it about?” said Nat.
“You haven’t heard of the famous course that teaches people to think?” said Mr. Zorn. “Isn’t that the one, Leo?”
“You know my thoughts on that subject,” said Professor Uzig.
“It’s called ‘Superman and Man: Nietzsche and Cobain,’ ” Izzie said. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Cool?” said Grace.
The girls stared across the table at each other. Izzie looked down.
“I don’t know anything about Nietzsche,” Nat said; he didn’t know much about Cobain, either.
Professor Uzig turned to him, his hair washed and dried now, but still wild, his teeth and the whites of his eyes the same color as the Meursault. “Of course you do, young man,” he said.
“Nat,” said Izzie.
A quick smile crossed his face as the professor continued: “That’s like saying you don’t know anything about Christ or-”
“Walt Disney,” said Mr. Zorn.
Everyone laughed, except the professor, and Nat, who wanted to hear what he was going to say.
“Yes, or Walt Disney, I suppose, but that simply demonstrates the power of the trivial in our times,” the professor said. “Nietzsche, on the other hand, is not trivial, and, unlike Mr. Disney, is inside all our minds at all times, whether we are aware or not.”
“That sounds almost scary,” said Mrs. Zorn. “Like that movie, oh, what was it again?”
“ Night of the Living Dead?” said Anton.
“ The Little Shop of Horrors?” said Albert.
“No,” said Mrs. Zorn. “Oh, why won’t it come to me?”
“Go on, Leo,” said Mr. Zorn. Mrs. Zorn’s end of the table quieted.
Professor Uzig was sitting back in his chair, arms crossed. “I think I’ve said enough.”
“Please go on, Leo,” said Mrs. Zorn.
“Yes,” said Grace. “You’re just getting to the good part. What’s Nietzsche saying inside my head?”
“You already know what he’s saying-if you choose to put it that way. None of us would be the way we are without Nietzsche.”
Nat saw Anton-flexing his forearm in the candlelight-pause.
“But give us some idea of his philosophy,” Izzie said.
“So, you want spoon-feeding,” said Professor Uzig. “Since it’s Christmas, then, and such a beautiful night, and since the concept of learning to think, by which I mean to think originally, is in the air, and since, as an original thinker, Nietzsche has no superior-” He paused, took a drink, looked at Mr. Zorn. “Here is some idea of his philosophy, then, as it applies to the act of thinking, thinking of the first water. Our supreme insights, he says, should sound like follies, even crimes.” He downed the rest of his drink, almost the whole glass, in one gulp. “Even crimes.”
“Like Galileo and the Inquisition,” Nat said; it just popped out, he had no business speaking at all.
Professor Uzig turned to him, eyebrows, gray and wild, rising. “Exactly.”
A bare foot pressed itself against his.
Mr. Zorn laughed. “I love your bullshit, Leo, I really do. World-class. But if you picked that quote-or invented it-to goad me into endowing that Leo Uzig chair of yours, the answer’s still no.”
“Does he have to be so rude?” Grace said.
“Grace,” said Mrs. Zorn.
Grace gave her a furious look. It made Mrs. Zorn’s hand shake. Nat saw the reflected candlelight from her rings making jagged patterns on the far wall.
“Nietzsche didn’t mind a little rudeness, did he, Leo?” said Mr. Zorn.
“He was rather correct in his personal dealings, in fact,” said Professor Uzig. “Excluding the period of his madness, of course.”
“Let’s exclude Lizzie Borden’s one bad day while we’re at it,” said Mr. Zorn.
Mr. Zorn was gone by the time Nat got up the next morning; the noise of the takeoff woke him. He went onto his balcony, found the skimpy European bathing suit gone, American-style trunks in its place. He put them on, went down the path to the beach. On the deck of one of the villas lay a pile of snorkeling equipment. He borrowed mask, fins, and snorkel, as well as a large fishnet, and jumped into the sea.
The sea calm, without a ripple, the sun rising directly in front of him, changing the color of everything moment by moment; and the water itself, as he sank into it, still that perfect temperature: it relaxed him to the core. Trailing the net as he’d seen Izzie trail her speargun, he set off toward the point.
Nat saw brightly colored fish, coral heads and fans, a ray, a barracuda, all things the Discovery Channel had prepared him for. It hadn’t prepared him for the feeling of this sea, the experience of being in it. He thought of all kinds of metaphors-amniotic, baptismal, blood-none of them quite right.
Nat was around the point, rising and falling with a swell so gradually begun that he was hardly aware of it, watching a tiny purple-and-gold fish nibble at a piece of coral that resembled antlers, and thinking antlers, St. Nick, and smiling into his mouthpiece, when he heard a low whine. It grew louder. He raised his head, saw that he’d gone much farther than he’d thought, all the way to the back side of the island, and, once again, a surprising distance from shore; was there some sort of current? As he oriented himself, he saw the cigarette boat, source of the whining sound, come shooting out of the natural harbor, throwing a frothing bow wave in front, a rooster tail behind. As it came closer, he could make out Grace at the wheel, Professor Uzig in the stern. Their course would take them hundreds of yards to the north, but Grace suddenly changed it and bore straight at him. Nat felt an adrenaline rush, was just about to do something, maybe dive straight down, when the cigarette veered sharply, reared up like a reined-in horse and settled rocking beside him. Grace and Professor Uzig, a book in his hand, gazed down.
“Scare you?” Grace said.
She laughed. “I’m dropping Leo at the Sir Francis, then going over to Pusser’s for supplies. Want to come?”
“Think I’ll just stay here.”
“Not permanently, I hope,” said Professor Uzig.
“Suit yourself,” Grace said. “And if you spit in your mask, it won’t fog up like that.”
“You’re supposed to spit in it?”
“Unless you’re too dainty.”
She gave him a look. Professor Uzig, laughing, didn’t see it. The book in his hand had a German title. Grace hit the throttle, circled Nat once-she shouted something at him, might have been “Don’t get eaten”-and roared away. Nat caught the name on the stern: Manchineel. He spat in his mask, swished it with seawater, kept going, his vision much improved.
Some time later, how long he didn’t know, but the sun was high in the sky, warming his back even though he’d begun shivering, Nat swam toward shore. He came to a beach he hadn’t noticed before, a small beach beyond the harbor, almost hidden by rocky outcrops at each end. He took off his gear, saw a few strands of seaweed and some shells marking the high-tide line, carried everything above it. That was when he noticed Izzie, previously hidden from his sight on a patch of sand among the rocks. She lay facedown on a towel, reading a book, wearing nothing.
Nat stood there as though cast under a spell, aware of her, aware that his mouth was open. What was the right thing to do? If she’d been wearing something, anything, even just bikini bottoms, he could have spoken. But not like this. Therefore the right thing was to quietly, very quietly, without making the slightest Izzie stiffened, jerked her head around, had the towel over herself in a moment.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know-”
“That’s all right.” She sat up. “I thought it was that creep Anton.”
“He’s a creep?”
Izzie ignored the question, looked past him, saw the snorkel gear, the net. “Catch anything?”
“Didn’t try. I was hoping for one like Lorenzo.”
“Have to go to the Pacific for that. No clown triggerfish here.”
“That’s what he is, a clown triggerfish?”
“Yeah. And sit down. You’re making me squint in the sun. I’ll get wrinkles.”
He sat on the sand.
“What are you reading?”
She held it up: Young Goodman Brown.
He thought: We’ll be in class together. “Have you come to the part about him being the chief horror?” he said.
“That’s where I am right now. You think it’s important?”
“Probably. The ending doesn’t make sense otherwise.”
She looked at him. “Like it down here?”
“How can you even ask?”
“Is it your first time?”
“Everyone’s like that their first time. After a while you learn the truth about the Caribbean.”
“It’s one big slum when the sun doesn’t shine.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Neither do I, actually.”
“Is it something Grace says?”
Pause. “Maybe,” she said. A shadow passed over them. Nat glanced up, saw a pelican; had to be a pelican, with that fish dangling from its long beak. “Let’s go for a swim,” Izzie said.
She rose, dropped the towel, ran down the beach, dove in with a whoop. Nat ran down the beach too, dove in too, even gave a whoop, though he wasn’t one for whooping. She was already thirty or forty yards out, her stroke effortless, her speed astonishing. Nat splashed after her.
Izzie treaded water over a reddish bottom. “That’s my favorite coral head,” she said, gazing down.
“How deep is it?”
“Forty feet, on the bottom.”
“You use scuba, right?”
“Scuba’s for wimps,” she said. The next moment she did a duck dive and kicked down; became blurrier, smaller, and stayed that way for what seemed like a long time; then grew bigger and clearer again. She came bursting through the surface, took a deep breath, handed him something.
“A sand dollar. Keep it for luck.”
He tucked it in the pocket of his trunks. “Are you on the swim team?” he said.
Izzie looked incredulous. “Sis boom bah,” she said.
“But you’re an incredible swimmer.”
“You should see Grace.”
They rose and fell with the sea. Again, it seemed to be pushing her toward him. The reply to her last remark had come at once, but he held it in, held it in, while the sea moved them closer and closer, and the sun made gold sparkles all over the surface, just like those gold sparkles in her eyes, and finally it came bursting out, as though he too had come up from a deep dive.
“I want to see you, ” he said.
One more swell and they were touching. This time Izzie didn’t back away. Her arms went around him; his circled her; they kissed, warm and salty.
After, lying in the sandy patch between the rocks, they were thirsty. Nat climbed a palm tree, not a tall or particularly straight one, but still a palm tree, plucked a coconut-“no, no, the one to the left”-smashed it open on a rock. They drank its milk. Smashing a coconut! Drinking the milk! Some ran down his chin and she licked it off.
“One thing,” she said.
“It might be a good idea to keep this a secret, at least for now.”
“Grace can be funny.”
“Trust me. Who knows her better?”
“What is it we’re keeping secret, exactly?”
“Whatever’s going to happen with us.”
“Keeping it from Grace means keeping it from everybody, doesn’t it?”
“You’re so smart.”
Smart, sweaty, coated here and there with sand. Did keeping it from everybody include Patti? He had to tell her soon, didn’t he? Whether or not he had to morally, he knew that he would tell her the next time they spoke; he couldn’t lie to Patti. At the same time, he thought: Our best ideas should sound like follies.
He said yes.
One more vacation note. There was a birthday party for the twins on the thirty-first. Boats overflowed the natural harbor, four or five planes landed, perhaps a hundred party goers came in all, although not Mr. Zorn, en route to Zurich, or possibly Lahore. Nat learned that Grace had been born on the thirty-first, at 11:53 P.M., but Izzie hadn’t arrived until 12:13 A.M., on the first. They hadn’t been born on the same day, not even in the same year.
Let’s have a little fun today. What would Nietzsche have thought of contemporary American culture?
Saul Medeiros had an auto body place called Saul’s Collision on the outskirts of Fitchville. An auto body place, not a high-tech store: because of that, Freedy left the HDTV in the van-that rusted-out VW van of his mother’s, with the stupid flowers painted on the front-and went into the office.
An old son of a bitch with hairs growing on the top of his nose-no shit-sat behind a greasy desk, and a woman in a quilted parka stood on the other side.
“Will it be as good as new?” she was saying.
“Oh, sure,” the old guy told her, rubbing his chin, unshaven for three or four days. “Hunnert percent.”
“That’s a relief,” she said, leaning over the desk and signing some paper; the old guy’s eyes followed the movements of the pen. “I know it’s crazy, but I’m really attached to that car.”
“Yeah,” said the old guy, “it’s crazy.”
She left. Freedy lounged against the doorpost, cool. The old guy lit a cigarette, looked him over, dropped the match on the floor. It came down to who was going to talk first, although Freedy didn’t know why. He talked first.
“You Saul?” he said.
“Depends who’s asking.”
“Says Saul on the sign on the roof.”
No answer. The old guy folded his stubby arms over his gut.
“Freedy’s asking,” said Freedy. “Me.”
The old guy nodded. “Ronnie mentioned you. My nephew, up the valley.”
“What d’ya think of him?”
“Ronnie. My nephew up the valley.”
“What I think of him? You know, he’s just… he’s Ronnie, right? We played football.”
“How was he?”
“Ronnie. At football. Any good?”
“You know Ronnie. He’s a pussy.”
Saul Medeiros smiled; his teeth were the color of nicotine. “And you? Were you any good?”
“I was a fucking leg breaker, Mr. Medeiros.”
“Attaboy,” said Saul Medeiros. He took a deep drag from his cigarette. “What’s the story with this girl Cheryl Ann?”
“You and Ronnie and this piece of ass, Cheryl Ann.”
“That was a long time ago, Mr. Medeiros. How do you even know about it?”
“One of those family legends. All families have them. Maybe it’s kind of a legend in your family too.”
“No? Don’t think I know your family, comes to that. Know a lot of families in the valley, but not yours.”
“We’re not really from the valley. I am, like. Born here. But my mom came from out of state, back in the sixties.”
“And your old man?”
“He from here?”
“Don’t know where he was from. He was just some hippie, with one of those hippie names.”
“Walrus. They called him Walrus.”
“Googoogajoob,” said Saul Medeiros.
Freedy, suspecting that Saul Medeiros had lapsed into Portagee, remained silent.
“Lot of hippies came here back then,” Saul Medeiros said.
“Must have been a fucked-up time.”
“Hell, no. Never got laid so much in my life.”
That surprised Freedy. Then came another surprise: a mental picture of this toad with the hair on his nose putting it to his mother. “What was your nickname back then?” he asked.
“Some people don’t get nicknames,” Saul Medeiros said. He stubbed out his cigarette. “That it, then?”
“Just getting acquainted, or you got something for me?”
“The second one.”
“Thought so. Let’s go out back.”
Saul Medeiros offered him seventy bucks for the HDTV.
“What’s this,” said Freedy, “the Comedy Channel?” A good line, real quick, real cool, showing that California polish.
“Seventy bucks,” said Saul Medeiros. “Take it or leave it.”
Just what Ronnie had told him, probably where Ronnie had got it from. Freedy decided right then he didn’t like negotiating with the Medeiroses, didn’t like negotiating at all, when it came down to it. For a second or two there, he’d had enough, enough of negotiating, which always meant somebody-like the spics at A-1-cutting a piece out of him. Come to think of it, what was the difference between a spic and a Portagee? Not much, which had to be a brilliant observation, made him feel better and forget all about the speedy little movie that had just flashed through his mind, a movie that ended with Saul Medeiros on the floor. No matter what, bottom line, he himself was no spic or Portagee. He was… whatever the hell he was, kind of depended, it suddenly occurred to him, on who his father actually was. What the fuck: he could be any goddamned thing.
“In a coma or just thinking it over?” said Saul Medeiros.
“Another good one, Saul. I like a sense of humor.”
Saul checked his watch.
“Know what these things cost new?” Freedy said.
Saul shook his head. “Means nothing. Like with a car. Drive one off the lot, it’s worth half. What you pay for that new-car smell.”
“I don’t think it’s half.”
“Don’t tell me. I’m in the business.” He lit another cigarette. “But I’m a soft touch,” he continued behind a cloud of smoke, “so I’ll tell you what. Think you can get more?”
“You got some kind of contact?”
“Trade secret, Saul.”
“Very smart. Thing is, if you’re in a position to get more stuff, then maybe we could build us a working relationship. You follow?”
“Yeah. A working relationship. I can get stuff. Don’t you worry about my end.”
“Good. Then what I’m going to do, an investment in goodwill like they say on Wall Street, is give you ninety for the goddamn TV.”
Freedy smiled. Didn’t actually smile on the outside, much too sharp for that, or if he did he wiped it off his face real quick, but, hey-here he was not just negotiating but negotiating the shit out of an operator like Saul Medeiros.
“Appreciate your sentiments, Saul. Sincerely. But you know what sounds better than ninety?”
Saul smiled that nicotine smile. “Some round number, Freedy?”
Freedy smiled back, on the outside this time. He himself had great teeth. “You got it.”
Which was how Freedy squeezed a C-note out of Saul Medeiros. He really was an amazing person.
On the way home, meaning on the way back from Fitchville to his mother’s place in the flats, all that talk about Cheryl Ann gave Freedy an idea. Cheryl Ann hadn’t made the cheerleading squad-lost by two or three votes, as Freedy remembered-and even then had been kind of chubby, and maybe a little annoying with that loud laugh of hers, showing the fleshy thing that hangs down at the back of the mouth and all, but none of that was important about her. What was important about her was that she’d meet him behind the field house after practice sometimes-and that she must still be around. The fact was that Cheryl Ann remained the only girl who’d given him a blow job; meaning by that a complete one and for free. And she’d still be around, for sure: Freedy’d done some growing up by now-hadn’t he carved out a place for himself across the country? — and knew that a girl like Cheryl Ann would never go anywhere.
Cheryl Ann didn’t live in the flats. Her place was actually on College Hill, on the dark side but still almost halfway up. What was her father? Plumber? Septic guy? Something like that, enough to put them on the Hill. Freedy drove past the Glass Onion, the last of the boarded-up buildings at the bottom, turned onto her street; no need to even think where he was going, not like LA. He parked in front of her house.
Only it was gone. And so were the houses around it, replaced by a huge rounded thing, all glass and smooth red-brown concrete. Freedy drove to the end of the block and checked the street signs. He was in the right spot; everything else was wrong.
Freedy got out of the VW van, walked up to the main entrance, read the bronze plaque: The Avner K. and Rita M. Budnoy Multicultural Studies Center. What was this? Some college shit where Cheryl Ann’s house used to be? Since when was the college on this side of the Hill? He crossed the snowy lawn to the first normal house and knocked on the door. An old bag answered.
“Lookin’ for Cheryl Ann,” Freedy said.
“You don’t mean Cheryl Ann Crane?”
The old bag gave him a long look. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“But you’re looking for Cheryl Ann Crane?”
She waved her hand at the new building. “Long gone. The Cranes sold out to the college, as anyone can plainly see.”
“Long gone where?”
“Florida. What with the money they got paid they set themselves up in Florida. Why couldn’t the college have planned that place just a tich bigger is what I want to know.”
“And Cheryl Ann, she went too?”
“She surely did. Climate must of agreed with her. Hadn’t been there more than three months but she married a doctor. One of those Cubans, but still, a doctor.”
“Cheryl Ann married a doctor?”
“They sent me a picture from the wedding. One of those real dark Cubans, but a doctor.”
“With that fat butt, she married a doctor?”
“Some men can’t resist a fat butt-don’t you know that by now?”
Freedy went home. Not home, but to his mother’s. On the way he sniffed up the last of his crystal meth. Tweak. Zing. Snow started falling, or maybe not.
This was all temporary. What he needed to do was put together one of those nest eggs, and then… start a business, say. Since pools were what he knew, why not a pool business? Had to be in a warm climate, not California, too superficial, like everyone said. Warm climate, not California: Florida! And would it hurt to look up Cheryl Ann while he was at it?
The kitchen was a mess: muffin tins everywhere, jars of ingredients with the tops off all over the counters, milk and eggs that should have been put back in the fridge left wherever she’d happened to put them down. He dug a muffin out of a tin, took a bite, threw the rest in the trash. Didn’t even taste like food.
Freedy stood over the trash, having smelled a familiar smell. He saw the stubbed-out end of a joint in a discarded tuna can. That meant she was in her bedroom, having one of her naps. Get fucked up, take a nap-part of her life cycle.
Freedy heard the mail falling through the slot, went to get it. Electric bill, phone bill, coupons, something about hunger in Guatemala, and a letter addressed to his mother. He held it up to the light, rubbed it between his thumb and index finger, thought he felt a little crinkling. Made him curious, like Curious Whoever-he-was, some monkey she’d always been reading to him about when she wasn’t painting nightmares on his walls. He was curious and she was napping-how the goddamn hippies lost the world.
Freedy had heard about steaming open envelopes but never actually tried. How hard could it be? He plugged in the kettle, always handy for tea-there were dozens of different teas on the shelves, chamomile, lemongrass, raspberry, banana, pick-me-up teas, relax-me teas, teas for thinking, teas for feeling, teas for wiping out cancer. Steam came boiling out of the kettle. Freedy held the envelope over the spout.
Nothing to it. The flap loosened all by itself, and Freedy peeked in the envelope, saw a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded it: no writing on the paper, but C-notes inside. Two of them. Suddenly it was a C-note kind of day: had to be a good omen.
Two C-notes in an envelope and nothing else. Couldn’t be her welfare or her disability or whatever the hell it was: the government didn’t send cash. Some muffin buyer? With no statement, no name? Some pot thing? But drugs weren’t dealt like that. There was an exchange, this for that, at the same time. Still, with her, maybe a pot thing. What else could it be?
Freedy heard her in the hall. Before the kitchen door opened, he had the money resealed and on the counter with the rest of the mail. Moving at the speed of crystal meth.
“Hi, Freedy,” she said, yawning and scratching under her tit. “I had the most amazing dream.”
Freedy kept his mouth shut; he never wanted to hear another one of her dreams.
“What are you up to?” she said after a little silence.
“Just making tea.”
“Why, sure, Freedy, that’s very thoughtful of you.” She sat down. “The mango-ginkgo would be nice-that orange box.”
Freedy had never made tea before, but how hard could it be? He opened the box, took out a handful of teabags, dropped a few into each cup, poured in the boiling water.
They sat at the table, drinking tea. “My goodness, Freedy,” she said after the first sip. “You’ve got a knack.”
“Don’t mention it.”
She smiled at him. “It’s nice having you home, Freedy.”
“Any idea how long you’re-any idea what your plans are?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact. But it’s too early to say, if you know what I mean.”
“I do, Freedy. I know that one very well.” She turned her shadow eyes on him. “We have something in common after all.”
The fuck we do. “This, uh, father thing,” Freedy said.
“Wasn’t that what he was called? My father, I’m talking about.”
“I beg you not to raise your voice, Freedy. You know I can’t deal with violence of any kind.”
“I’d just like a few facts about him, is all. I’m not a Portagee or something, am I?”
“Please, Freedy, no discrimination.”
“But am I?”
“No. You come from bland ethnic stock, just like me.”
Freedy missed that one. “What was his real name, for starters?”
“Real name,” she said. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“Like on the goddamn birth certificate.”
She leaned closer to him; he could smell the pot smoke trapped in all her hair. “I’ve told you before, Freedy. It was a one-time thing. Very special, of course, but one-time. He was a stranger, really, passing through. In a mental sense, more than physical. Try not to judge me too harshly. The times were different then, and the person that was me…” Her eyes focused on something distant. He heard music coming faintly from her bedroom: Cat Stevens, or some other artist of the first water, whatever that meant.
He finished her sentence for her: “No longer fucking exists.”
Later he thought of examining the envelope the money had come in, maybe checking the postmark or whatever that thing was called. By that time the kitchen was cleaned up, sort of, and the envelope gone.
I’m aware that this is known as the course that teaches you how to think. Anyone here for that reason should transfer at once. No one can teach you how to think. You must teach yourself.
“Did you bring a sample of your writing?” asked Professor Uzig.
Second semester, first day back at Inverness, 8:00 A.M., Professor Uzig’s office in Goodrich Hall. Nat, petitioning to enter Philosophy 322, Superman and Man: Nietzsche and Cobain, handed Professor Uzig several essays from the first term, as well as the prize-winning “What I Owe America.”
Professor Uzig flipped quickly through the school essays, came to “What I Owe America,” paused. His eyes darted back and forth, scanning with a speed and intensity that Nat, sitting across his desk, could feel. Professor Uzig glanced up.
“Do you believe this bilge?” he said.
“Which part, specifically?” Nat said; a composed reply, perhaps, but his face had grown hot at once, a change he hoped his fresh tan concealed.
“Here, for example,” said Professor Uzig, turning a page. He seemed so much harsher than the dinner guest at Aubrey’s Cay, didn’t even look the same. He wore a charcoal gray tweed jacket, white shirt, and navy blue tie, his hair was combed, and his tan, which had been much deeper than Nat’s, had almost completely faded. “Where you write, ‘The nation is like a monument continuously under construction and the job of the citizen is to make it better.’ ”
The question: did he believe that? Professor Uzig watched him, the papers steady, absolutely still in his hand, almost an extension of his fingers. It struck Nat that no written material presented any challenge to Professor Uzig, that all texts were instantly transparent to him. “What’s the alternative?” Nat said.
“To your metaphor, or to the action of the citizen, the metaphor accepted?”
“The latter,” said Nat.
Professor Uzig didn’t move, didn’t speak, just watched Nat over the papers in his hand. After a while Nat couldn’t stand the silence any longer, and said: “I meant what’s the better alternative.”
Professor Uzig laid the papers on his desk, aligned them neatly, squarely, and sat back in his chair. “You used continuously in the proper manner,” he said. “And you can write a periodic sentence. Admission is granted.”
“Thank you,” Nat said.
“The first class is today at one-thirty. You will have read the first part of Beyond Good and Evil. ”
Oh, how Nat wished he could have that question back.
A s for continuously, he’d used it by chance, having no clue that it differed from continually until that moment. It was also the first time he’d heard the expression periodic sentence.
Back at his desk in room seventeen on the second floor of Plessey Hall, overlooking the quad, Nat had just begun reading the preface to Beyond Good and Evil — “Supposing truth to be a woman”-when he heard a knock at the door. Unusual, because almost everybody simply walked in.
“Come in,” he said.
A woman in a long fur coat entered. For a moment he didn’t recognize her. Then he did: Wags’s mom. He rose. “Hi.”
“Hello,” she said. “Nat, isn’t it?”
She glanced around the room, then back at him. “Nose to the grindstone, I see.”
“Just trying to keep up. If you’re looking for Wags-Richard-he’s not in right now. I haven’t actually seen him yet.”
“You won’t. Richard won’t be coming back, at least not this semester.”
“But… but we don’t even have the results yet. And he was doing fine. Better than me.”
She gave him a look that might have been cold; but why? They didn’t know each other at all. She took off her black kid gloves, snagging one for a moment on a ring. “He needs rest.”
“Why? What happened?”
“You’d know better than I.”
“What does that mean?”
A cold look, beyond doubt. “No one is blaming you, but it might have been nice if you’d drawn our attention, or the college’s, to the kind of shape he was in.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you? Richard should have been under a doctor’s care. He is now.”
“But for what?”
She regarded him in puzzlement, slightly exaggerated puzzlement. “You act like someone not very bright, yet Richard says you are most emphatically the opposite. Are you really saying you had no idea of the mental state he’s been in?”
“Everyone’s under a lot of stress here.”
“I’m sure. But not everyone is driven to a breakdown.”
“Wags had a breakdown?” Nat wasn’t even sure what the word meant, not in practice.
“Wags, as everyone calls him for some reason, had a breakdown.”
“Is he all right?”
She stood over Wags’s desk, gazing at something he’d scratched into its surface: Help! We’re prisoners of the future! or something like that, as Nat remembered. Her eyes moistened, but nothing leaked out. When she spoke again, her voice had lost its edge. “He’s a little better, in fact, and thanks for asking. They’re probably letting him come home next month.”
“A very nice place, not far from here.” Her hand went to Wags’s chem lab notes, stacked neatly on the desk by Nat before vacation; squared the way Professor Uzig had arranged Nat’s papers on his own desk not long before.
“Do they allow visitors?” Nat said.
“They do,” said Wags’s mom. Her eyes moistened again. Nat looked away.
Nat helped her pack Wags’s things and carry them down to her car. On the last trip, she came out of Wags’s bedroom holding his pillow, and said: “Wasn’t there a TV?”
“Oh,” said Nat.
“The guest room TV, I think it was.”
“Damn it,” he said.
Nat told her about the theft before Christmas, his call to campus security, and how he had forgotten to file a report the next day.
The cold look was back. How to explain about the twins, the shattered aquarium, Lorenzo? “I’m sorry,” he said.
She was already on the phone. Someone from campus security appeared five minutes later. Nat recounted waking up, seeing the thief run off, losing him in the basement corridor. The security officer took notes and said: “Know anything about the TV in the student union?”
“The TV in the student union?” said Nat.
“The high-definition one in the lounge. It disappeared three days ago.”
“No,” Nat said, “I don’t know anything about it.” He felt the gaze of Wags’s mom. “Why would I?”
The security officer was watching him too. All that scrutiny made Nat feel like he’d done something wrong, not just forgetting to file the report, but really wrong. And he hadn’t. He’d never stolen anything in his life, not even a pack of gum. Anger, an uncommon feeling, rose inside him; and he rose with it: a tall kid, and strong. He wanted an answer to that question: why would I? No answer came, but in the silence, Nat got past the uniform of the security guard, the implacable expression on his face, even noticed a resemblance to his next-door neighbor back home, the weekend clerk at the hardware store. His anger subsided. “I was away over Christmas,” he said. “I got back late last night.” He sat down.
The security guard closed his notebook. “A big guy with a ponytail, you say.”
The security guard turned to Wags’s mom. She was wringing the kid gloves gently in her hands. “We’ll do what we can,” he said.
“I don’t really care,” said Wags’s mom.
“Beyond Good and Evil — part one,” said Professor Uzig. Philosophy 322 met in the small domed room at the top of Goodrich Hall, one floor above the professor’s office. Windows all around and lots of wood-mahogany molding, wide-plank pine floor, oval cherrywood table, and sitting at it Professor Uzig, Nat, Grace, Izzie, and four other freshmen, only one of whom, the top student in his English class the previous semester, Nat knew. “Who wants to go first?”
Everyone looked at everyone. No one spoke. Outside, Nat saw a crow fly by, and beyond it a black plume of smoke rose from somewhere in the lower town, an area he’d not yet set foot in. The flats, they called it, probably where the security officer, and all the hardware clerks, maintenance people, gardeners, secretaries, receptionists lived. He looked back across the table, found Izzie gazing at him. Grace too. They both gave him a little nod, the same nod exactly, and at exactly the same instant. And despite the fact that he had barely had time to get through the reading once, finding it by far the hardest text he’d ever come across, despite his certainty that he didn’t understand it well, or possibly at all, a thought came to him, and he uttered it aloud: “Does the very fact that most people think something make it automatically wrong?”
The crow, or another one, cawed nearby.
Then the bright girl from English 103 said, “Yeah. What is all that rising-above-the-common-herd stuff about? Sounds kind of elitist to me.”
Izzie said, “Maybe he is elitist, but there’s something almost… sweet about him at the same time.”
And someone else said: “Sweet? Nietzsche? He was a syphilitic, dangerous bastard.”
And they were off.
They talked about the fatalism of the weak-willed, the charm of the refutable idea, and how living things must vent their strength; about the will to power, Wagner, the Nazis and Hitler, and how the true and selfless may be inextricably linked, possibly identical to, the false and appetitive; they talked about the pressure of the herd and the courage of the original thinker; they talked about Friedrich Nietzsche. Professor Uzig hardly spoke, just sat in his captain’s chair-none of the other chairs had arms-still and neat in his white shirt, navy tie, charcoal gray tweed jacket, but he dominated completely by the intensity of his concentration. Nat could feel him listening, feel him judging, and was sure the others could too. But what judgments he was coming to remained unknown, with one exception. A bearded student wearing a tie-dyed shirt asked when they would be getting to Kurt Cobain, and Professor Uzig replied, “What’s the point of developing powerful analytical tools if all you’re going to do is waste them on popular culture?”
The bearded student said, “But I thought…,” and looked around for help. None came.
Just the same, Nat began to see the connection between Nietzsche and Kurt Cobain, not only Kurt Cobain, but so much of modern life, began to understand what Professor Uzig had been saying down on Aubrey’s Cay about Nietzsche’s influence. For example, hadn’t he read something in part one about how even the laws of physics might be subjective? He was searching for the quotation, leafing quickly through his copy of Beyond Good and Evil, when he heard Professor Uzig saying: “Until tomorrow, then.”
The chapel bell tolled. Class was over. Ninety minutes, gone like that. The sound of the bell, by now so familiar, seemed strange for a moment.
A foot pressed his under the table. He looked across at Izzie, writing in her date book, her golden-brown hair hanging over the page: dyed hair, he knew that now. His mind, already racing, began racing in another direction.
Grace, sitting beside Izzie, caught his eye. “I’m hungry,” she said.
The three of them ate in the lounge at the student union: yogurt for Izzie, chocolate cake for Grace, an apple for Nat, unable to afford much eating off the meal plan. He noticed the empty space where the high-definition TV had been, told them about Wags and the theft of the two TVs.
“Were you scared?”
“He just disappeared?”
Nat took them down to the basement corridor in Plessey Hall. He showed them the padlocked doors to the storage lockers and the maintenance room, and the only unlocked door, the one to the janitor’s closet.
Grace opened it. They regarded the brooms, mops, buckets, cleansers.
“Wags did the same thing the year he was at Choate,” Izzie said.
“What same thing?” said Nat.
“The breakdown thing. Drugs.”
Grace was inside the closet now, rummaging around. Without looking, Izzie reached out and took Nat’s hand.
“Drugs?” he said. “I never saw him with any drugs.”
“The damage was done.”
Inside the closet, Grace said, “I’ve had an original thought.”
“Don’t scare me,” Izzie said.
Grace laughed, turned sideways-Izzie letting go of his hand the instant before-raised one foot high like a trained Thai boxer, and kicked the back wall of the closet with a force that startled Nat. The top half of the wall fell out in one solid panel, dropping into darkness on the other side.
They crowded into the closet, peered through the opening. Beyond lay a narrow unlit tunnel, narrow but tall enough to stand in, with one large-diameter pipe and several smaller ones receding into the shadows and finally disappearing into complete blackness.
“This looks like fun,” Grace said.
“Uh-oh,” said Izzie.
“You still have not learned to gamble and show defiance!”- Thus Spake Zarathustra. Fifteen hundred words on the importance of risk in Nietzsche’s philosophy.
“This,” said Grace as she stepped up and through the open rectangle high in the back of the janitor’s closet in the basement of Plessey Hall, stepping up and through as though it were some athletic event in which she specialized, “reminds me-”
“Of Alice,” said Izzie.
On the other side, Grace turned, made circling motions with her hands as though blocked by some barrier, a mime beyond the looking glass. She laughed, a little laugh, excited, like a giggle. “Where was that cave?”
“The other one-the out-of-bounds one, where the bat flew into your hair.”
“Kashmir,” said Izzie.
“This is like that, only colder,” Grace said. “Nat?”
“Close the door behind you.”
Nat closed the closet door. Everything went black.
“Where the bat flew into Izzie’s hair,” Grace said in the darkness. “But I was the one who screamed.”
“Bats don’t bother me at all,” Izzie said. “And what makes you think you screamed? You’re not the screaming type.”
Nat reached into his pocket, took out a pack of souvenir matches from Pusser’s on Virgin Gorda, lit one. The sudden light captured a surprised look on Izzie’s face; and a terrifying one, unless it was some trick of the match light, weak and yellow-edged, on Grace’s. A terrifying look, as though she’d been reliving the bat experience, or making faces in the dark, practicing a silent scream. The terrifying look, if it was one, vanished at once, replaced by one of disapproval.
“You’re like a Boy Scout,” Grace said. “With those matches.”
“Or a pothead,” Nat replied. There were potheads at Inverness, but not nearly as many as at Clear Creek High.
Izzie laughed. She followed Grace through the opening, just as easily. Nat went last.
The match burned his fingers. He dropped it, lit another. The top of his head brushed the ceiling. “What is this place?” Izzie said.
Hard-packed dirt floor, damp air, a dripping sound, and the three pipes, the fattest one wrapped with asbestos. Nat recognized asbestos: they had some in the basement at home. “I think it’s a steam tunnel,” he said.
“For heating the campus.”
“That’s how they do it?”
Nat laid his hand lightly on the pipe. It felt cold. “Maybe at one time,” he said. He noticed a light switch on the wall, flicked it. Nothing happened.
“For heating the campus?” Grace said. “Does that mean there’s a whole underground network, connecting every building?”
“Makes sense,” Nat said.
“Wow,” Grace said, already on her way. He followed with the match, cupped in his hand.
“Does this have anything to do with the TV thing?” Izzie said.
“Who cares?” said Grace, moving on. Nat heard Izzie coming closer from behind, felt her hand on his shoulder, briefly. He lit another match and kept going.
They walked down, down because the floor seemed to be sloping slightly, down the steam tunnel, Nat leading with the matches after the first hundred feet or so, the twins following. “This is so cool,” one of them said. One of them: but he couldn’t tell which, and it was the kind of thing either might say.
“Who said that?” he asked.
“Me.” They answered together, at once, and both laughed. Nat laughed too. What the hell. And it was pretty cool down in the steam tunnel. He tried to figure out their direction-were they under the quad or going the other way? — and could not. Once he thought he heard a guitar playing somewhere overhead, very faint; after that, nothing but the sounds they made themselves, and from time to time, dripping water.
Nat had used up half the pack of matches before they came to a junction, a kind of crossroads, with an intersecting tunnel. He extended the match flame in all three directions: straight ahead and to the left, neither appearing different from what they’d already explored, and to the right. To the right was different: curtained off with spider webs, silvery and furred with dust. That meant-while Nat was thinking about what it meant, his match touched a silver strand, and flame ran up it like a fuse, followed the geometric pattern of the web, burned itself out in the center.
“That’s like a whole art project, right there,” one of the twins said. But which one: Nat really wanted to know this time. He turned, holding up the match. Their faces glowed in its light; the gold flecks in their eyes sparkled; he learned nothing.
“Maybe we should head back,” he said.
“Why?” said Izzie.
“We’re running out of matches, for one thing.”
“So?” she said. “We can always feel our way back. Why not-”
“Go till the last match,” Grace said.
Why not? Nat could think of reasons, but none that wouldn’t sound wimpy. They weren’t lost or anything like that, hadn’t even left campus; and feeling their way back would be easy with the pipes. “Which way?” he said.
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Grace. She reached out and swept away the unburned webs. The webs: they meant that no one had gone that way in some time. And the corollary: that there had been traffic in the other passages.
They entered the right-hand passage, Nat leading. Now there were no pipes but the asbestos-wrapped one. There were also spiderwebs brushing their faces, and occasional soft things under their feet. Nat heard water dripping again, louder now, and for a moment thought he felt a warm breeze on his face. He was down to four matches when Izzie said, “I kicked something funny.”
They stopped. Nat bent down with his match, saw a magazine on the floor. He picked it up, blew off the dust, rubbed away grime with the heel of his hand: a Playboy magazine from May 1963. Grace took it, leafed through. In the match light, smiling nudes from long ago flickered by. “Incredible,” she said.
“It is?” said Nat.
“She means the hairdos,” Izzie said.
“Not just that,” Grace said. “Look how wholesome they are. Like a bunch of virgins with those tits and asses stuck on.”
“You think?” said Izzie, taking a step forward for a better view. The next moment, the very moment when the thought they look pretty good to me was going through Nat’s mind, there was a cracking sound and Izzie dropped through the floor. Nat reached out for her, losing the match, caught her by the sleeve of her jacket; a sleeve made of some slippery material, and he lost that too, and in the pitch blackness, she fell.
No one screamed. The twins weren’t the screaming type, and neither was he. Silence; the next sound a thump, down below.
Nat dug the matchbook out of his pocket, almost lost his grip on that too, almost couldn’t get a match lit; but he did. Grace was on her hands and knees by then, peering into a hole in the floor: a dirt floor, but beneath an inch or two of dirt lay what was left of a square door or hatch cover. Just the rotted outer frame and the hinges-the rest was splinters and a hole.
“Izzie?” Grace called down into it. “Izzie?”
Nat knelt beside her, lowered the match into the hole. He saw nothing; or almost nothing. Down there somewhere, how far he couldn’t tell, and off to one side, was a globe, a crystal globe that reflected the feeble match light from countless angles.
“What do you think-” he began, and then saw Grace getting a grip on a support beam at the edge of the hole. “No,” he said, grabbing her arm. She shook him off in one violent motion, then heaved herself down into the hole, hanging from the beam by her hands. The next moment she swung forward, like a gymnast on the high bar, but unlike a gymnast, went hurtling into the dark. Her body overprinted the crystal globe, then came a shattering sound, but light and almost musical, and Nat thought: chandelier. Grace, trailing a comet’s tail of match-lit crystals, fell from sight.
Nat heard a thump, much like the first, followed by the tinkle of crystals raining down, and then:
Followed by: “Iz? Are you all right?”
“I was until you landed on my ankle.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything?”
“Spiderwebs in my mouth.”
The match went out.
“We can’t see you.”
He lit another match. Two left in the pack.
“That’s better. Doesn’t he look like the Cheshire Cat?”
Nat leaned through the hole as far as could, held out the match at arm’s length, saw what must have been their faces, two pale ovals tilted up in the dark. “No one’s hurt?”
“It’s kind of soft.”
“Like a bed.”
“What’s down there?”
“Hard to tell.”
“But it’s promising.”
“Wait right there,” Nat said. “I’ll be back.”
“Where are you going?”
“Who said anything about help?”
“How are you going to get out?” Nat said.
He heard a soft crash, followed by tinkling glass, then silence.
“Could this be-?” one of them said.
“Like a sign.”
He heard them laughing together. “What’s going on?” he called.
“Nat? Come on down.”
“We’ve got a candle.”
“A big fat one.”
“What do you mean-so?”
“I mean what about getting back up?” Nat said.
Pause. Nat heard them talking, but too low to distinguish the words. “Just toss the matches down, if you’re going to be like that,” one of them said. Had to be Grace. She must have realized it was a chandelier before she jumped, must have thought she could hang on to it and somehow lower herself down. But still: she’d leaped into darkness, an unknown darkness. He’d seen it.
“Grace?” he said.
The match went out. One left. “How will you find them in the dark?” Nat said.
“No clue,” said Grace. “Wasn’t my idea.”
“If everyone just shuts up,” Izzie said, “we’ll hear them land.”
A dumb idea. Nat heard a giggle: Grace’s giggle, surely. Then came silence, a deep silence down there under the campus. He thought of the land above, the way he’d seen it on the drive out of town in the Rolls, ancient and austere. An uncomfortable thought from down where he was, beneath it, although he didn’t know why. They weren’t lost, or anything like that.
“Trust me,” Izzie said; had to be Izzie.
“Was that you, Izzie?”
Only one left. A dumb idea. Nat dropped the matchbook through the hole, just let it go. He felt the friction strip as it slid off his fingertips.
“Thus speaks the red judge, ‘Why did this criminal murder? He wanted to rob.’ But I say unto you: his soul wanted blood, not robbery; he thirsted after the bliss of the knife.” Identify the quotation; then, if you must watch a movie this weekend, rent the robbery-gone-wrong video of your choice.
“If you’re going to be staying for a while, and of course you’re always welcome, as I’m sure you know-we’re a family, after all, it only takes two, and-”
“Just spit it out.”
“I wondered whether you were considering getting some kind of job. For contributing to the communal pot, to coin a phrase.”
Freedy stared at her across the kitchen table-he was only trying to drink his coffee in peace, for Christ sake, but there she was, head twisted a little, having trouble with the clasp on a huge hoop earring-he stared at her and said nothing. No comment. No comment, at first because he thought he’d heard her asking him to pay for her dope, then when he understood, because it didn’t deserve comment. She was his so-called mother. And look at her. Didn’t she owe him, owe him big-time? And why was it so fucking cold in the house?
Click. The clasp snapped into place. Couldn’t she see how ridiculous she looked, like some gypsy wanna-be? He checked out his own reflection in the little mirror framed with seashells hanging over the sink. No gypsy there: a fuckin’ animal, but with a brain, as the ponytail showed.
She was saying something: “… when you used to help out in the maintenance department, up at the college?”
Was she still on the job kick? “I remember a lot of things.”
A good line. She waited for him to say more, sitting absolutely still. She was good at sitting absolutely still. He remembered a lot of things, but nothing at that moment. Outside the window, an icicle broke off and dropped with a faint thud in the snow.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she said. “The maintenance.”
He thought of answering, No comment. No comment was what people with brains said. But she was pissing him off. “Are you telling me to look for a job?”
“Not telling, Freedy. Nothing like that. And just something temporary. As temporary as you like.”
As temporary as he liked. Was there some meaning in that, some hidden meaning? Freedy was mulling over that when he was hit, from out of nowhere, by an amazing idea, the kind of idea that proved his braininess. It tied things together so nicely, at the same time backing her right against the wall. He showed her that smile of his-a ten-thousand-dollar smile, according to a friend of Estrella’s who worked for a dentist, and said: “Then I’ll need my birth certificate, won’t I?”
“Birth certificate? Why?”
“Job application, what else?” Complete bullshit, of course-all they ever asked for was your license and social, but did she know that? Not a chance: never held down a real job in her life. So now he had her. No surprise there. They weren’t on the same field, not when it came to brainpower. His brainpower came from elsewhere.
She did have one little surprise for him. Freedy had expected the birth certificate would be lost, or unavailable, or not around for some reason or other, but after a minute or two in her bedroom, she came back with it. “Here you go, Freedy.”
He scanned it. Freedy hated official forms. They never made any sense. Like this one, with all these boxes and lines and different size print, even print in different whatever they were called, like old English or something. Standard Certificate of Live Birth: what the hell was that? Like they had certificates of dead births? Didn’t have them for abortions, which he knew for a fact because of Estrella’s. He’d had to drive her. Hours in the waiting room, hours on the freeway going back-flipped-over truck blocking the lanes, he could still see the blood on the pavement-but no certificate.
Freedy’s eyes roamed the stupid form, picked out his own name, and farther down hers, Starry Knight, and down below that was what he was after, must have taken five minutes to find it: FATHER. Full name: Unknown.
Huh? Freedy didn’t say huh — if he did it was real quiet-but that was what he thought. He’d set such a nice trap for her, because Walrus’s real name should have been there, right? Maybe not real name, but the legal one, the way Starry Knight was her legal name. And it wasn’t. The space was blank. Meaning? He looked up at her. She was watching him.
“Don’t lose it, Freedy. It’s the only proof of your existence.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Yes, Freedy.” Her hand came up a little off the table, as though for defense. “You know the way bureaucrats think.”
“That makes it funny?” But he didn’t know what she was talking about.
They stared at each other across the kitchen table.
A job with maintenance: out of the question. Down in the tunnels with his flashlight, although he almost didn’t need it, knowing his way around so well, Freedy got angry just thinking about the idea. What did she want him to do: go backward in life? That wasn’t the way to financial success. Freedy knew the way to financial success, he and Estrella had watched hundreds of infomercials and she’d figured out what they all had in common: make a plan and stick to it. There was one other part, Freedy recalled as he came to the junction of D36 and Z13-aboveground everything had a fancy name, but down in the tunnels it was just A this and B that, the letters standing for tunnels and the numbers for buildings-one other part to the formula, what was it? Oh, yeah: have an idea. First have an idea, then make a plan, then stick to it. He already had his idea, a big one-own a pool company in Florida. And a plan-raise the money for it by ripping off high-tech shit at the college and unloading it on Saul Medeiros. Sticking to the plan meant doing it a lot.
Freedy took the turn into Z. Building 13-Lanark, was that the name? — was a girls’ dorm on the quad, or maybe coed; they were almost all coed now. He hated those words: coed, quad. He hated the whole college scene, the backpacks, the notices stuck up all over the place, the sitting in the grass and talking. And the football team: biggest hoax of all. His high-school coach had once taken them all to a game. They-the fucking high-school team-could have beaten the shit out of Inverness. And he himself could have wrecked anyone they had out there. A joke. Didn’t mean some of the college girls weren’t all right; some were. But what he’d never been able to figure out back then was how any of them could be interested in those college boys. Now that he’d been around a bit, he could see how growing up isolated in their rich little suburbs meant the girls never had a chance to meet a real man, let alone a fuckin’ animal. Back then, he’d never made a move on any of them. He’d been just a kid-a big kid, but not as big as now, and no ponytail-and besides, there’d been Cheryl Ann. Those blow jobs. Married a doctor. The only two thoughts he had about her. He tried to fit them together and could not. Wasn’t she a townie just like him?
Night: no maintenance guys in the tunnels at night. Freedy followed Z tunnel under the campus. He hadn’t liked working maintenance but he liked it down in the tunnels. On slow days the workers would sometimes curl up in corners here and there and sleep, but not him; he’d always roamed around till quitting time.
Freedy liked the sounds too. There were sounds down in the tunnels, but not his. He moved silently. Just another one of his skills. He moved silently, heard switches click, the skittering of tiny animals, and sometimes voices from up top, carried weirdly down by the pipes. Like now, at the junction of N, he heard someone laughing. That was kind of weird too, because the sound was louder than the human sounds he remembered, too loud to have been carried by the pipes. He glanced down N, saw it all screened off with cobwebs, remembered it had always been like that, at least as far back as the time he was a summer worker. N led to the old field house, torn down long ago, and beyond that to building 41, now heated with gas. The college was always doing something new, building, tearing down, switching the distro systems, buying up Cheryl Ann’s old house. What gave them the right? Freedy stood there at the junction of Z and N for a minute or so, listening for that laugh again-a woman’s laugh-but it didn’t come.
Freedy moved on. Z did a funny little thing just before building 13. It came to a sort of drop-off, like one of those manholes, except uncovered. No railing or anything, just a sudden black hole in the floor. The tunnel continued straight down for thirty feet or so, maybe more, and you had to pivot and climb down a steel ladder bolted to the walls. The maintenance guys-old drunks, most of them-liked to scare the high-school boys with their stupid stories. Freedy didn’t remember this particular story-something about a broken neck-but he remembered the drop-off and had his beam on it in plenty of time. He climbed down the ladder, crossed a brick floor, shut off his light, put his ear to the door and listened in the perfect darkness.
Silence; not complete, with that low humming of machine noise, but no human sounds. He opened the door a crack, saw little zones of machine glow in the shadows. All systems go. Freedy stepped into the utilities room in the sub-basement of building 13, silent as, as some animal known for silence-tiger? wolf? — but much, much smarter.
He shone his light around, spotted a fridge in one corner, a small fridge where the maintenance guys would keep their lunches and snacks. Freedy opened it. Each shelf bore a different name tag; he remembered the way they kept their food to themselves. Workies. Freedy helped himself to a ham sandwich intended for someone named Griff. A thick sandwich, the kind wifey might pack for hubbie, but mustard instead of mayo; what kind of wifey was that, Griff? He took a bite or two and dropped the rest in the trash on his way out.
Not out right away of course, but after a careful wolf- or tiger-like peek both ways, and into the sub-basement hall under building 13. Widely spaced low-voltage bulbs in the ceiling cast a dim light. No switches. This was new: had to be a security thing. Freedy didn’t worry. No one around, no reason for anybody but maintenance to be down here-and what difference would it make if anyone did see him? They’d take him for a student, or somebody’s date. It was safe, at least going in. Going out, with the goods-that was a little different. But all of it, the in part and the out part: fun. Yes. At that moment, Freedy understood why people got into skydiving or climbing Mt. Everest. On Everest, though, you wouldn’t have to put up with any of the college shit, like this flyer taped by the stairway: Curious? Come to the weekly Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Club Dance. Music! Food! Prizes! He tore the sheet off the wall, crumpled it up-the sound of the crumpling so clear in contrast to the silent way he’d been moving, clear like the sound system he’d once checked out at some Hollywood guy’s place when no one was home-and went upstairs, into building 13. Lanark, or whatever they called it, a residence, and all the residences had a basement lounge. Freedy checked it out.
TV-but not HDTV; VCR-dying technology, DVD was what the market wanted; microwave-who gave a shit about microwaves? What he had a hankering for, maybe because of the recollection of that killer sound system, was one of those compact stereos, the new kind that hung on a wall, and a laptop or two for dessert. For dessert! That was funny, unlike so-called jokes about bureaucrats. Idea, plan, stick, stick, stick. Freedy left the lounge and went up to the dorm rooms, where the real goodies were.
Stone stairs, each step worn with a depression marking the tread of feet over a hundred years or more; the kind of thing that should have been repaired but was instead considered a point of pride. College shit-they had no idea what the country was all about. Freedy, maybe because of the Everest thing, maybe because he got a little zoned out planting his feet in those depressions, went all the way to the top floor, the third, and entered the hall. Three rooms on each side, all with closed doors but the two at the end; blue light leaked out of one, yellow light, very faint, from the other. Freedy, tiger, wolf, but much, much smarter-there was a word for that kind of animal, started with p, it would come to him-treaded silently down the hall. He peeked into the yellow-lit room.
Good choice. Freedy saw something nice, real nice. The room itself, the living room, sitting room, whatever the hell they called it, wasn’t lit at all; the yellow light came through the partly open bedroom door at the back. And through that opening, Freedy saw a woman, a college girl. A fat college girl, maybe, or if not fat, still far from perfect; and she wore glasses. But that wasn’t the point: the point was she wore jeans and nothing else. Even more-she was doing something interesting. The college girl, kind of fat, glasses, was standing sideways, from Freedy’s viewpoint, and facing a mirror. Freedy couldn’t see a mirror from his angle, but he knew it had to be there, possessed as he was of a brain capable of mental leaps. This girl, not too fat, really, had one of her tits cupped in both hands, was shifting it around a little, gazing at the mirror Freedy couldn’t see; a few moments later, she went through the same routine with the other tit, like she was checking to see if they were identical. Did girls do that? Learned something new every day. An up-close-and-personal moment: it was like they knew each other already, no bullshit, no expense. Add to that the fact of her not being perfect, meant she was probably lonely for a man. In her wildest dreams would she ever think she’d have a chance with a man like him, diesel, buff, a man like him a matter of a few feet away? If he cleared his throat right now, for example: wow. One other thing, an image, a memory. Wasn’t the mind funny, the way it worked? This image Freedy recalled from a porn video, maybe seen on that trip to Mexico, or else the time he’d rented one to watch with Estrella, but she’d been grossed out, letting him down bad. This video memory: a girl with glasses Action central. The girl turned abruptly toward the door, toward him. Started to turn would be more accurate, because Freedy, so quick, was out of sight in the hall almost before the movement began.
But why? Shouldn’t he have stayed where he was, let her see him? He could have delivered some line, like: They both look pretty good to me. How cool was that? Then: Come in, big boy. The college girl saying that, not the video girl. His reflexes had gotten the better of him. He was about to make up for it, to step back into the room and hit her with that line, when the door closed. Then the lock clicked. And some kind of fucking bolt slid into place. Not hard, not frantic, she hadn’t spotted him, simply noticed the open door. Shut out, just like that, by seconds, or tenths of a second. Bad luck, nothing more.
But Freedy was getting tired of bad luck. Now he was in a bad mood. Idea, plan, stick, stick, stick. They made it seem so easy.
Freedy took a deep breath, a trick he’d learned from Estrella, or maybe from the other waitress, the one who worked days, and got a grip. Stick, stick, stick. Meant doing it again and again. Meant sucking it up, being a man. He knew how to do all that, had learned in high-school football. A fucking leg breaker, a Thanksgiving crackerjack. Freedy dug down deep, stuck his head into the blue-lit room.
No one there. He walked right in, on a mission now, in search of stuff and plenty of it.
The blue light came from a computer, a laptop, sitting on a desk. Dessert, but he was in a bad mood, and the joke had lost its appeal. The laptop’s light illuminated another laptop-a second helping, to put it in dessert terms, but he didn’t see the humor in that either-this one closed, on the adjoining desk; a sound system, but not the kind that hung on a wall; a cell phone and a regular phone; and something else, reflecting blue light in the corner. He went closer, saw that this something else was a fish tank. In the fish tank hovered a single fish, bigger than a goldfish and not gold. Some other colors-Freedy didn’t really notice. What he noticed were its eyes, blue from the reflection, focused on him like it was watching. Freedy wished he had something sharp to stick right through them, but not because he was unkind to animals-he’d owned a dog, a pit bull, for a few months after his arrival in LA, and fed it practically every day. He was in a bad mood, period. Could happen to anyone.
Cheer up, he told himself. The laptops, the cell phone: a decent night’s work. Freedy walked over to the open laptop, read what was on the screen:
To: Phil. 322
From: Prof. L. Uzig
Re: Due to the late arrival of the Kaufman edition of Zarathustra, the assignment due
And other college bullshit that he would have stopped reading even if he hadn’t heard a sound. A voice; distant, female. He ripped the plug out of the machine, snapped it shut, glanced out into the hall. Saw nothing, but heard footsteps, faint then less faint, on the stone stairs at the far end. He banged through the exit at his endEmergency Only, Alarm Will Sound, but it didn’t, the college kids disabling everything they could-and zoomed down, two, three, even four stairs at a time.
Easy for him. His body handled it; his mind was elsewhere, working on something important. If he had a problem with women, and that was debatable, it had always been getting past the first step or two in meeting a certain type. Only get past that hurdle, begin from a position already inside their lives, as he had been on the point of doing with the college girl in the yellow-lit room, then they’d see him for what he really was, a stud on the road to big success. After that, well who wouldn’t jump at the chance to hook up with the CEO of a major pool corporation in Florida, maybe the entire Southeast one day? Freedy reminded himself to keep financial control out of greedy little hands, to draw up one of those agreements-prenups, there’d been an infomercial on that too-if he ever got married. Damn: he thought of everything.
Freedy’s bad mood lifted just like that. Out into the night, laptop under his arm. He felt good again.
“Clever people are not credited with their follies: what a deprivation of human rights!” Give one example, citing the U.S. president of your choice.
“You caught it?” Nat said.
“Not cleanly,” said Izzie.
Not cleanly, but she’d caught the matchbook in the dark, with the last match inside, and now a candle burned, down in the hole. Not a hole, Nat could now see, but a room, a bedroom, and as far as he could tell in the dimness, a bedroom of the kind he’d encountered only in stories set in English country houses. Grace and Izzie were sitting on a bed, a red-canopied bed like Scrooge’s except that the canopy had been torn off by Izzie’s fall. Nat could make out something of the intricately carved bedposts, and beyond that, darkpaneled walls and the glint of gilt-framed paintings hanging on them.
“What is this place?” he said.
“Like in that expression,” said Grace.
“Sanctum sanctorum,” said Izzie.
“Yeah,” said Grace. “Sanctum sanctorum. You joining us, Nat?”
Nat paused. There was still the problem of getting back up, of course, candle or not, a problem no one else seemed to recognize. And other problems: he had the feeling there were other problems, but couldn’t think what they were.
“Just jump,” Grace said.
“It’s safe,” said Izzie.
They got off the bed, Grace holding the candle, their faces tilted up at him. He hesitated. The jump itself was no big deal, not with a bed to land on. Then what was stopping him?
“What’s it going to be?” Grace said, and Izzie started smiling as though she knew what was coming. “Man or Superman?”
A long fall, surprisingly long, maybe a bigger deal than he’d thought; a long fall, with those faces tilted up at him and the candlelight catching the gold flecks in their eyes; long enough for an odd image to pop up in his mind: Lorenzo falling out of his aquarium.
A surprisingly long fall, feet first until the thought of Lorenzo broke his concentration, and he dipped out of the perpendicular, landing on the bed, but on his back and hard. He bounced right off, out of control, and caromed into Grace, pinning her to the floor.
“Well, well,” she said.
Izzie picked up the candle, dropped by Grace, peered down at them. “Everyone all right?”
Nat got off quickly. “I’m fine.”
Grace rose more slowly. “He’s heavier than he looks.”
Izzie nodded, an expression that could have meant anything on her face. Grace took the candle, held it up, gazed at what remained of the chandelier: thousands of cut-glass crystal teardrops still shimmering from the impact, and twenty or thirty fat candles like the one Grace held, set in glass holders.
“No electricity?” she said. She turned to the lamp on the bedside table, an oil lamp, Nat saw, with a chimney and a wick. He examined it, found the reservoir dry. Underneath lay a book, coated with dust; everything in the room was thick with it. Grace picked up the book, blew off the dust; she and Izzie blew it off simultaneously. A leather-bound book. With Nat and Izzie looking over her shoulder, Grace leafed through. A French book, probably a novel because of all the dialogue, but he could pick out only a few words- fesses, jolie, and one he didn’t know, couilles- before a picture flashed by.
“Whoa,” said Grace, paging back to it.
The picture: a black-and-white drawing, pornographic, of a woman wearing nothing but one black stocking, in the lap of a mustached man sitting on a piano stool and wearing nothing at all, both of them gazing out at the reader in a matter-of-fact way. A second woman, fully dressed, leaned against the keyboard, gazing down at them.
Then Grace said: “This is better.”
“To say nothing of the dress,” said Izzie.
“Better than what?” said Nat.
“ Playboy, ” said Izzie. And to Grace: “What’s the pub date?”
Grace turned to the front of the book: Mon Jardin, published by Editions Bleues in 1919. She leafed through again, finding a few more illustrations, all featuring the mustached man with different women. “Remind you of anyone?” she said.
“Not funny,” said Izzie.
And Nat knew they were talking about Paolo. He also wondered whether on their little journey under Inverness they would keep unearthing porn. He was about to ask if anyone knew the year the college had gone coed when Izzie said, “What’s that?”
They listened, heard nothing.
“I thought I heard something.”
But there was nothing to hear except the candle flame sizzling in a pool of wax. “I didn’t hear anything,” Grace said. “And I’ve got better hearing.”
“Is that even possible?” Nat said.
“She does,” said Izzie.
“How do you know?”
“We know,” Grace said, closing Mon Jardin and putting it on the table. She moved toward the nearest wall, ran her hand over the paneling. The light shone on an ornate picture frame. They examined the painting, a nude bathing in a stream. Even in the poor light, Nat could see it wasn’t very good; compared to the Renoir, not worth looking at. There were other paintings, much the same.
They came to a leather-padded door studded with brass. Grace opened it. On the other side, a much bigger room, full of shadows.
“It’s like that club,” Izzie said.
“Except more lively,” said Grace. Izzie laughed.
“What club?” said Nat.
“Some old-farts club in New York we had to go to once. Just like this, the furniture, the rugs, the paintings, everything. Except for dust.”
“And the spiderwebs.”
Nat walked into one at that moment; it clung to his eyelashes. He wiped it away, and as he did noticed Greek writing high on one wall-he knew some of the letters from math-painted in gold.
“Were there fraternities here?”
“Something like that,” said Grace. “Didn’t Leo mention it?”
“They kicked them out,” Izzie said. She was opening a glass cabinet full of bottles. “During Prohibition.”
Grace held the candle near the bottles, dust-free in the cabinet: scotch, bourbon, gin, rum, cognac, Armagnac, many still sealed. “This looks good,” she said, taking out a heavy, square bottle: Bas Armagnac, Domaine Boingneres, 1913. She chipped off the wax seal, found a tarnished silver corkscrew on the top shelf, drew the cork. The scent reached Nat a moment later and grew and grew: a heady smell, fiery, sweet, strange; as though France, which he’d never seen, and a long-ago time, when he’d never lived, could be kept in a bottle.
Grace tilted it to her lips, drank. “Ah,” she said, and passed it to Izzie. Then to Nat. He took a sip and decided not to romanticize too much. It was just booze, after all, the very best quality, but just booze. Then the aftertaste hit him and he changed his mind again: yes, France and a long-ago time, in a bottle. He took another drink.
“He likes it,” Izzie said. Nat saw she was watching him closely.
“What else does he like?” said Grace.
The girls looked at each other in silence, their expressions beyond his power of interpretation. But an awkward moment, certainly. Was this the time to bring everything into the open? But what was everything? He and Izzie hadn’t been together alone for more than a few minutes since that one time on the beach at Aubrey’s Cay. More guests had arrived the next day, and Nat had had to share his room with a banker from Singapore. And Grace had always been around. But the biggest impediment was this need for secrecy. It was almost as though that in pretending nothing was happening between them, they were making it reality. Maybe nothing was happening: there was lots of hooking up at Inverness, or at least some, that neither party intended to repeat, if not before it happened, then after. Were he and Izzie like that? And what about Patti? Nat realized he had to do some clear thinking, but down here in this strange place, that wasn’t easy. He found himself taking another drink.
“Hey,” said Grace, “my turn.”
The bottle went round again.
“What’s this?” Izzie said.
“A record player,” Nat said. He’d seen one of these before, probably at a lawn sale. Opening the top, he found a record on the turntable. Victor, read the label: Caro Nome (Rigoletto-G. Verdi), sung by Amelita Galli-Curci.
“Turn it on,” Grace said.
Nat wound a crank at the back, moved a switch beside the turntable. The record began to spin. He lowered the needle onto it.
A little musical intro, almost lost in the fuzziness and scratchiness of the recording, and then came a voice, high, light, penetrating, strange, that made Nat forget about the recording quality. If anything, it made it better. The room, the drink, the music: all from a long-ago time. He’d heard of Verdi, was pretty sure that Rigoletto was an opera, but otherwise knew nothing, had no idea what the song was about, couldn’t understand a word. Still, he stood motionless until it was over.
“Play it again,” Izzie said.
“Isn’t there anything else?” said Grace.
Nat checked a compartment at the base of the player, found a bill from a record store in Albany for $4.45, dated October 6, 1919, and more records, a few by Caruso, the others by singers he’d never heard of. They played them all, Nat operating the machine while Grace and Izzie sat in high-backed purple chairs they dusted off and drew up. The candle burned down, the bottle went around and around until it was empty.
“Time travel happens,” Izzie said.
“Whenever we want,” said Grace, “if we keep this our little secret.”
“But what’s it all about?” Nat said. “No one’s been here in eighty years.”
“How do you know that?”
“The booze would be gone. The question is, who left it like this, and why?”
“Maybe there was an earthquake or something,” Izzie said.
“In New England?” Grace said.
“Possible, isn’t it, Nat?”
“Who cares?” said Grace before he could answer; a good thing because he didn’t know. “The point is we’ve made an amazing discovery.”
Nat found himself nodding in agreement. He didn’t know exactly what the discovery was, or its implications, but he knew she was right.
“Let’s try another bottle,” Grace said.
They tried another bottle, found a few more candles, lit them, put “Caro Nome” back on the turntable, explored. There were no other rooms, and just one other door, directly under the Greek writing. They opened it, saw a stone staircase, followed it up ten steps-Nat counted them for some reason-came to another leather-padded door with brass studs. “This is so much fun,” Grace said, turning the knob, “like one of those interactive-theater evenings, only for smart people.”
The leather-padded brass-studded door opened onto a brick wall.
Izzie did something then that made an indelible impression in Nat’s memory. She gave the wall a push with the fingers of one hand, just a little push, as though it were a prop that would topple at the slightest touch. The bricks were real; it didn’t.
There, at the top of the stone stairs, the bottle went around again. Grande Champagne Cognac, Berry Bros. amp; Rudd, 1908. Nat, trying to remember what furniture he’d seen, building a mental tower that would allow them to climb out of the hole in the bedroom ceiling, realized he was a little drunk.
Grace said: “I could get on your shoulders and Izzie could get on mine.”
“That’s not as easy at it sounds,” Nat said.
“Let’s try it,” said Izzie.
Nat smiled. There was something about her that made him smile, smile right at her in a way he didn’t think he’d ever smiled at anyone else. But she didn’t smile back, didn’t even meet his eye for more than an instant before looking at Grace. Grace was looking at him.
Nat stopped smiling, was about to mention the furniture idea, when he felt a current of warm air flowing past his face. He glanced around, noticed a square metal grate high up in the wall opposite the bricked-in doorway. A big grate, but the wood around it was old and rotted. He got a grip on the bars and tugged. The grate came free in his hands.
Grace laughed, that excited little laugh of hers, full of pleasure. Nat took a candle, stood on his tiptoes, peered into the square hole. He felt the warm air-it fluttered the candle flame-saw down a tin-lined duct, perhaps just big enough for him to squeeze into. Standing the candle on the floor of the duct as deep in as he could reach, he pulled himself up and inside. Just big enough. He felt one of them giving him a little push from behind, heard them talking:
“Did something like this happen in those Alien flicks?”
“It was James Bond.”
But there was nothing frightening about this, and it didn’t require courage. Nat had already spotted a little pool of light not much farther ahead. He wriggled toward it with the candle in front of him.
The light came from above. Nat reached it, squirmed over onto his back, looked up through another grate. High above he saw a dark wooden ceiling, laid out in squares and decorated with carved scrollwork and bunches of grapes. It seemed familiar. Nat was trying to place it when he heard voices. He blew out the candle.
Silence. Then footsteps approached, two sets of footsteps, Nat thought, on a hardwood floor. A foot came into view above him, and another, shod in Birkenstocks with heavy socks underneath; the Birkenstock feet walked over the grate and out of sight. Then came two more feet, these in tassel loafers. A woman said, “I only want to do the right thing.” She stepped forward, a wiry woman with long hair, gray and frizzy.
The tassel loafers stopped, planted right on the grate. Paper rustled. The woman said, “Oops,” and something fluttered down, came to rest on the grate: a hundred-dollar bill. The tassel loafers shifted slightly, and the man wearing them stooped to retrieve it. His face, his furious face, came within two feet of Nat’s: Professor Uzig. He picked up the bill, thrust it at the woman. The footsteps, both sets, moved off. A heavy door opened and closed. Nat waited for a minute or two, heard nothing more, then pushed up the grate and raised himself into the ground-floor lounge of Goodrich Hall. Through the tall windows he saw the night sky, full of stars. The clock on the wall said 3:30. That wouldn’t have been his guess.
Anyone interested in extra credit will receive a one-third grade step-up for any citation from life undermining the following Nietzschean precept: “The will to overcome an emotion is ultimately only the will of another emotion or of several others.”
Nat slept through a dream in which he stood at the foul line, shooting one and one, with no time on the clock and his team down by a single point. He had actually lived such a moment in his senior high-school year against their big rival, Western Tech. But in the dream, he wore the red and white of Western Tech, instead of Clear Creek High’s burgundy and gold. He stood at the foul line bouncing the ball, bouncing and bouncing it, but never taking the shot. An uneasy dream made more so by the hardwood floor that looked like any other court but made cracking and splitting sounds with every bounce; still he remained inside it, sleeping through the ringing phone in the outer room-dimly aware of it, sleeping on. Sleeping on through biology class, the first class he’d missed, unaware of missing it, although as class time came and went the anxiety of his dream might have increased. Then someone’s lips touched his, and he woke up.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she said.
“What time is it?” He tried to sit up; she rolled on top of him; was already in his bed.
Izzie gazed down on him. “Going somewhere?”
“Biol-” Nat started to say, but from the intensity of the light coming through the window, he knew it was too late.
“Biology-the science of living things, correct?” Izzie said; raising an eyebrow the way she did, her right eyebrow, questioning, mocking.
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Why is that?”
“This counts for extra credit.”
“A — plus,” said Izzie, after.
After sex, but still under its spell. They lay in Nat’s narrow bed, the room quiet except for their breathing. Nat noticed that the period of their breaths seemed similar. He held his until her next inhalation, and inhaled at the same time. After that, they breathed in unison, a coincidence, of course, and maybe a bit sappy, but there it was.
“What’s that word,” Izzie said, the vibrations from her voice buzzing against his ear, “when bad beginnings have a good result?”
“Then what happened to Wags was serendipitous for us.”
“Because he’s not around?”
Nat couldn’t agree; on the other hand, his scruples were dwarfed by the power of that us. It seemed to toll in the room, like a steeple bell at the beginning of a story.
“Or am I being too pushy?” Izzie said, sensing but misinterpreting his resistance. “Maybe you don’t want me to come here.”
“Then give me a kiss.”
From beyond came all the normal sounds of Inverness: voices raised across the quad, maniacal laughter in the hall, music from everywhere, someone’s barking dog. “Grace thinks this is like living in the projects,” Izzie said after some time.
She thought. “I don’t know. Maybe not. Grace doesn’t really think so either. She’s got a big personality, that’s all.”
“It must be interesting,” he said.
“Living two lives at once.”
She looked at him, didn’t speak. He leaned forward-he was on top now-his gaze on her whole face, then her eyes, then only one of them, then on those gold flecks in the iris, as though a really close examination of them would reveal everything about her. Her eyelid closed just as his lips touched her. The softest thing. He stayed right there. Had time ever slowed down like this for him before? He got the feeling that he and Izzie had entered a powerful circle of some kind, impermeable. Was this what all that poetry he’d had to study was about, all those novels? Maybe not, because something permeated the circle right away, at least his part of it: the image of Mrs. Smith’s and Miss Brown’s happy faces on the Fourth of July, an unwelcome image that let in unwelcome thoughts: the effort it had taken to get him here, the missed biology class. And Patti.
“What’s wrong?” Izzie said.
She opened her eyes-he felt the eyelid’s tiny struggle against his lips-and turned her head so she could see him. “You’re thinking about something.”
“Is it Grace?”
“Of course not. Why would I be thinking about Grace?”
Izzie didn’t speak.
And Patti. Now messy memories from the Thanksgiving party threatened to spill out in his mind, but the most important, more important than how drunk Patti had got, or the way she’d vomited in bed that night, all over both of them, was the way he’d seen everyone back home, his old friends, changed. He was the changed one, of course. The cliche at the heart of so many coming-of-age stories, but that didn’t make them false. He would call Patti today. He’d changed. It was normal. Out of the corner of his eye, he was suddenly aware of her picture on the upside-down crate at his bedside. Something writhed inside him.
“Then what are you thinking about?” Izzie said.
“That’s not true. I can tell.”
He was wondering whether to drag her through the whole thing, or to simply answer you, which was true-his mind was full of her-if not factually correct at that exact moment, and also might sound a little buttery, when he heard someone entering the outer room. Izzie went still.
“Nat,” called a voice. Grace. He saw fear, real fear in Izzie’s eyes.
“Just a sec,” he said, hurrying out of bed, pulling on sweatpants. He stepped into the outer room, closing the door, he hoped casually, behind him.
Grace looked up from reading something on his desk as he came in, her gaze going to his bare chest first, then to his face. “Morning, sleepyhead,” she said. “And hung over, too.”
“Moi aussi,” she said, although she didn’t look it. “But isn’t it great?”
“What we found?”
“And the way we found it,” Grace said. “Defines serendipitous.” She glanced around as though someone might hear. “You haven’t mentioned it to anybody?”
“No.” He noticed she was wearing overalls, with a hammer, screwdriver, pliers sticking out of the pockets.
“I’ve already been down there today,” she said. “It really is like Alice-through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.”
“What have you been doing?”
“You’ll see.” She pulled a book from her back pocket. “And look at this-plot summaries of all the major operas, so we’ll know what we’re listening to. For example…” She flipped through the pages. “Rigoletto: Gilda-she’s the one who sings that song, ‘Caro Nome,’ means ‘dear name,’ she sings it to her lover, but it isn’t even his real name… and then it looks like there’s some kind of kidnapping-her own father, that’s Rigoletto, helps without knowing it.”
“Doesn’t say,” Grace said, running her eyes over the page. “She dies at the end, by mistake.”
“What kind of mistake?”
Grace checked the text again. “It’s convoluted. And not very believable. But the music makes all that irrelevant, I guess.”
“Last night it did,” Nat said.
“Exactly,” said Grace, closing the book. Her eyes went to his chest again, then back to his face. “I guess it’s my fault,” she said.
“That we got off to maybe a bad start.”
“What do you mean?” he said, wishing she’d talk a little more quietly.
“You and me. That night in New York. At my da-at my father’s. Too much to drink and smoke, et cetera. And I was probably a little too forceful. For you, I mean. For other men, though…”
Her voice trailed off. Nat thought of Paolo, and the married man Izzie had told him about. He felt a little sorry for Grace. “Forget it,” he said.
“You mean that?” The way she asked that little question, the words, the intonation: pure Izzie; he revisited the most obvious fact about them, one he’d been leaving behind, the fact of how alike they were.
“Yes,” he said. “I mean it.”
“A clean slate, then?”
“Sure.” Who could say no to that?
Grace smiled a bright smile. “See you in class,” she said, and left the room; very light on her feet, almost skipping. He went over to the desk to see what she’d been looking at and found Patti’s letter.
Nat went into the bedroom. No Izzie. He opened the closet and, as though it were a children’s game, there she was, hiding behind his Clear Creek letter jacket, worn once at Inverness and never again.
“Has she gone?” said Izzie.
“Yes. What’s this all about?”
“I told you-I just don’t want her to know right now.”
“That anything’s happening between us.”
“Just give me time.”
“But why not?”
Izzie watched him over the letter jacket. “I never did better than Grace in anything, not a single race, a single essay, a single exam, not ever.”
“Until the SATs. I scored twenty points higher on the verbal.”
“Do we have to talk about the SATs?”
Izzie smiled. “I never met anyone like you.”
“That’s because you haven’t led a sheltered life.”
She laughed. “You see? Every time you open your mouth you prove it.” Her eyes went to the Clear Creek jacket. “Can I wear this?”
“You want to wear that?”
“It’s not something Wags left behind, is it?”
“No. It’s my old high-school jacket.”
“Then I want to wear it. Just for a while,” she added when he was silent.
Izzie put it on. She wasn’t wearing anything else. “Now close the door.”
“We’re in the closet.”
Nat closed the door. In the darkness she leaned against him.
“But you’ve had boyfriends before,” he said.
Izzie knew what he meant. “Only ones she’d rejected or didn’t want in the first place, like Paolo,” she said.
“What makes you think she’s interested in me?”
“I know it.”
“I just do.”
But she grabbed the back of his head, pulled him close, kissed his mouth, deeper and deeper. He had sex in his closet with Nat, Clear Creek Basketball, number 8. He’d never had sex three times in a row before-except for Patti hadn’t had sex at all before Izzie-but for some reason this time was the best of all.
After Izzie left, Nat reread Patti’s letter. He held it up to the light, tried again to see what she’d crossed out, with no success until he thought of turning the page over. Then, reading backward, he was able to make out a bit more: what he’d thought might be kissed, pissed, or missed was definitely missed; and the next word was my. The rest remained obliterated. His gaze went to the PS: my present should be there by now.
He’d forgotten all about Patti’s present; last seen on his bed before Christmas. Nat searched the bedroom, found it under the bed. A small package with reindeer wrapping and a card with a reindeer, candy canes dangling from its antlers, on the front: Merry Christmas to the very best person I know. Love, Patti. He sat slowly on the bed, the present in the palm of his hand.
The phone rang in the outer room. He let it. Slowly, more slowly than he’d ever unwrapped a present, he unwrapped Patti’s, taking great care not to rip the paper, also not like him. Inside was a little cardboard box, and on it the words Assad and Son. Assad and Son was the jewelry store on the main street in his town. Nat opened the box, pulled aside some tissue paper, and exposed a small gold number 8 on a gold chain.
Eight, the number he’d worn at Clear Creek. And a gold chain. He’d never worn a gold chain or had any desire to. Nat closed the box without touching the pendant or the chain.
He went to the phone, called Patti at her mom’s. With the time difference, she might not have left for her classes at Arapaho State. I wish I didn’t have to say this on the phone, Patti, but: his mind rehearsed as it rang at the other end. The answering machine took his call. He listened to Patti’s mom’s taped message-she said “God bless” at the end-and at the sound of the beep, hung up.
You’ll meet all kinds of girls, prettier than me. Prettier and smarter. And richer. And richer: she’d said that too. He had a funny thought: what else does she know about my future?
In the small domed room at the top of Goodrich Hall, the smart girl from English 103 was saying, “There’s a lot here we’re going to have to filter out, isn’t there?”
“Such as?” said Professor Uzig, his face so composed and dignified it was hard for Nat to imagine it any other way, certainly not furious. But the memory, not twelve hours old, was strong, reinforced by a quick glance on his way up at the hot-air grate in the ground-floor lounge.
“Like on page one-oh-one,” said the girl from English 103. “ ‘In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man.’ And he’s got sexist opinions like that all over the place.”
“Is it possible to mount a defense in this particular case?” asked Professor Uzig. An odd thing had happened: although the professor’s voice remained unchanged, calm, cultured, confident, he’d gone pale. Did he dislike being challenged? Nat had already seen some of the others challenge him, seen how he turned them back with ease. Then what was it?
“You’re asking us to defend that statement?” Grace said.
“For the sake of argument, Grace, as a lawyer would.”
“That’s what’s wrong with-” She broke off at that moment: Izzie had just entered, a few minutes late, and she was wearing Nat’s letter jacket. Grace’s eyes were on her as she sat down; everyone’s were. Nat had two sudden revelations; the first, what a juvenile garment a high-school letter jacket was, certainly his, burgundy with gold sleeves, the big gold C, Nat in burgundy on one sleeve, 8 on the other; the second, he now understood the meaning of a word that had always been doubly foreign to him: chic.
Izzie, aware of everyone watching, said, “Sorry I’m late.” She might have been addressing Professor Uzig, but she was looking at Grace.
“Carry on, Grace,” said the professor.
Grace faced him, opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Nat, sitting beside her, realized she’d forgotten what she’d been saying. “Lawyers,” he said, softly, so only Grace could hear.
“Lawyers,” said Grace, her tone more passionate than it had been before, almost angry. “That’s what’s wrong with lawyers.”
Professor Uzig, his color back to normal, said, “As your punishment for tardiness, Isobel, it’s up to you to defend Nietzsche’s one hundred and thirty-ninth maxim from Beyond Good and Evil. Page one-oh-one.”
Izzie riffed through her copy, read the sentence, looked up. “Women are more barbaric than men?”
“Barbarous,” said Professor Uzig. “The words are not synonyms, barbarous invariably implying moral condemnation, as barbaric does not. Barbarous, then, and in only these two areas, love and revenge.”
“Barbarous love?” said Izzie. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
“Is it?” said Professor Uzig.
“And what about domestic violence?” said a girl who’d never spoken before; she had an up-from-under way of holding her head that reminded Nat a little of his mother.
“What indeed?” said the professor.
“Well, it’s indefensible, isn’t it?”
“Anyone else?” said Professor Uzig.
Silence. Nat expected Grace might speak, but she was doodling on her pad, a flower with something dripping from it. Professor Uzig’s gaze found him. He had yet another thought about that jacket: wasn’t it the descendant of knightly finery, what a princess-rescuing fairy-tale character might wear? He never wanted to see the goddamn thing again.
“Nat?” said the professor.
“Have you done the reading?”
“And your response to this question?”
“A question of my own,” Nat said. To his surprise he said that aloud, the kind of remark that until very recently, maybe until that moment, would have remained inside. Then he asked the question: “Did Nietzsche believe it?”
“Referring to this passage that seems to shock everyone so much?”
“That’s it. How do we know he believed it?”
“And if he didn’t believe it?”
“Maybe he was just trying to be provocative.”
“In order to provoke what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thought. To provoke thought.”
“What kind of thought?”
“Fresh,” Nat said. “And maybe that’s the connection to Kurt Cobain,” he added, the words popping out on their own, “the provocative part.”
“Oh, dear,” said the professor, “and you were doing so well.”
The bearded student who liked Kurt Cobain leaned forward and said, “Wait a minute. He’s on to something.”
“Something that you can discuss outside class,” said Professor Uzig. “We will begin to separate Nietzsche the provocateur from Nietzsche the philosopher, now that Nat has shown the way.”
“But what about the whole Incesticide CD?” said the bearded student. “The one with ‘Hairspray Queen’ and ‘Mexican Seafood.’ It fits perfectly.”
Grace had been working. She’d repaired the hatch cover, or trap door, in the tunnel, replacing the hinges and adding a pull ring and a rope ladder that unfurled all the way from the frame to the floor below. She’d swept, dusted, cleaned; and that night, by the glow of dozens of candles-in wall sconces, candelabras, and the great chandelier-they saw how magnificent the two rooms really were. They lounged on plush furniture with elaborately carved legs, while the paneled walls gleamed all around, but through pockets of candlelight and shadow, more like an artist’s rendering of Victorian splendor than the real thing, and while Amelita Galli-Curci sang “Caro Nome,” her voice, perhaps because of the recording quality, like some rediscovered instrument from a dead culture.
“We need a name for this place,” Grace said.
“How about the frat?” Nat said.
They both gave him a look.
“The club?” said Izzie, still wearing the letter jacket.
“Yuck,” said Grace.
“The Rigoletto Room?” said Nat.
“That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said.”
“Something underground, like…”
“The burrow?” said Izzie.
“I’ve got it,” Grace said.
“Oh, I like that,” said Izzie. “Didn’t Plato have a cave? This can be Nietzsche’s.”
“I wouldn’t push it that far,” said Grace. “Just ‘the cave’ will do. Nat?”
“The cave,” he said, raising his glass. He gazed through it and saw into the long-ago, or thought he did, and while he was doing that Grace opened another bottle. She poured more cognac in their glasses, heavy crystal glasses she’d found in one of the cupboards, poured cognac from 1899, its color the same as the atmosphere in the room. “Here’s to the cave,” she said, tilting back her head, exposing her perfect throat, draining the glass. Her face reddened at once, and when she spoke her voice was thicker and deeper. “And to Nat’s letter jacket, if that’s what the thing is called.”
Nat sat up straight. Silence, except for Galli-Curci singing her song to the wrong lover, or whatever it was, the details of Rigoletto, never clear in Nat’s mind, now less so.
“It’s sort of funny, isn’t it?” said Izzie, her voice going the other way from Grace’s, thinner and higher; anyone could have told them apart at that moment.
“What is?” said Grace.
“This silly jacket,” Izzie said. “As a fashion statement, I mean. That’s why I borrowed it.”
Enough, Nat thought, and was about to bring everything into the open when he thought he heard a muffled sneeze, not far away. “Shh,” he said. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” they both asked.
They all listened, heard nothing but water dripping, very faint.
Grace turned to him. “You a little wired or something?”
“Spooked, down here in the cave?”
“Not at all. I like it.”
“Me too. The best thing about this dump.” She got up from the divan she’d been lying on, filled everyone’s glass again. “A fashion statement,” she said, pausing before Izzie. “What a weird concept.” She continued to pour, candlelight-colored liquid rising to the top of Izzie’s glass and spilling over.
“Oops. You forgot to say when.” Grace paused-Izzie’s eyes glued to her-plucked at the fabric of the jacket, rubbed it between finger and thumb. “Nice,” she said.
“Want to try it on?” said Izzie, very quiet.
“That’s up to Nat, isn’t it?”
“Of course not,” Nat said.
“I wouldn’t want to violate any high-school code.”
“What are you talking about?” said Izzie; every note false in Nat’s ear. “It’s just a jacket.” She shrugged it off.
Grace put on Nat’s high-school letter jacket, saying, “At least we know it’s going to fit.”
And it did. At that moment Nat realized that Patti had never worn it. Wearing your boyfriend’s jacket had been uncool at Clear Creek High, at least while he was there.
“How do I look?” Grace said.
“Once you had wild dogs in your cellar, but in the end they turned into birds and lovely singers.” What does Zarathustra teach about “suffering the passions”?
“Thought you had a laptop,” said Ronnie Medeiros, rummaging through the stuff in the back of the goddamn hippie van as they drove down to Fitchville. “My uncle has a thing for laptops.”
“You thought wrong,” Freedy said. There was a laptop, of course. Freedy had decided to keep it for himself. He’d never owned a computer before, knew nothing about them, but the CEO of a pool company would need to be completely whatever the word was with computers. So he was going to learn in his spare time. How hard could it be?
“Still,” said Ronnie, climbing into the front, “not a bad haul. My uncle says you’re doin’ good.”
It was starting to snow again, little dark pellets more like buckshot than flakes. Freedy turned on the wipers, turned up the heat. “Why’s it so fucking cold?” he said.
“Maybe you’re low on coolant,” said Ronnie. “Or else the coil’s fucked.”
Freedy glanced sideways at Ronnie, all toasty warm in his plaid hat, wool mittens, and padded jacket out to here. Looked like a complete asshole. He hadn’t been talking about the goddamn car. “Why’s it so fucking cold in general?”
“You mean because there’s s’posta be global warming?”
Freedy wanted to hit him; not brutally, just hard enough to straighten things out, clear the air. “How can you stand it?”
“Hey, it’s home.”
“The flats,” said Freedy. “You call that home?”
“Could do worse.”
“How the fuck would you know? You never been anywhere.”
“That’s not true. I was down to see my cousin in Fall River just last spring.”
“Fall River,” said Freedy. “You heard of Bel-Air, Santa Monica, Rancho…” Rancho what? He couldn’t remember. Like: was the whole thing, his whole California life, his real life, fading away? That scared him. This pool thing-pool business, concern, corporation-was going to happen. No matter what. Have an idea, make a plan, and then… for a moment, he couldn’t remember the third part.
“Jesus,” said Ronnie, throwing his hands up over his face, “you almost hit that guy.”
“Fuck you, Ronnie. I’m in total control.” He must have said it loud, because everything was quiet after. And in the quiet, having a chance to think for once, he remembered the third part from the infomercials: stick to the plan. Idea, plan, stick, stick, stick.
“Everything’s cool,” he said.
“Got any access to crystal meth?”
“You into that?”
“Wouldn’t say into. It’s just, you know, an enhancer.”
“I tried it. Couldn’t sleep for two nights.”
“That’s what’s fun.”
“Not for me. I need my sleep. Can’t perform otherwise.”
Perform? What the hell was he talking about? He wasn’t some high-powered something-Jew word-he was Ronnie Medeiros, Portagee loser. “You got access, yes or no?”
“I know it’s around, Ronnie. This is the U.S. of A. What I’m sayin’ is can you get me some?”
“Sure, for a price.”
“You fuckin’ people.”
“What’s that mean? Who fuckin’ people?”
“What I said.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence, Freedy shivering because of the coolant or the coil or whatever the fuck it was, and still wearing California clothes, and Ronnie toasty warm hunched inside his padded jacket out to here, looking like an asshole. Imagine Ronnie in California. The thought made Freedy laugh out loud, a good long laugh. He could feel Ronnie thinking, What’s so funny? but he didn’t explain. Does the wolf explain, or the tiger?
“Thought there was a laptop,” said Saul Medeiros. It was cold in his office back of the collision place; cold in the office, cold in the car, cold everywhere, like all the heat was on the fritz.
“Fuck I’m sure,” said Freedy. “Think I got it hidden in that goddamn toaster?” A good line, California cool, especially if he’d said it quieter.
“ ’Kay,” said Saul, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his greasy jacket, that nose with the hair growing right on top. “If there’s no laptops, there’s no laptops. But you know why I like laptops?”
“ ’Cause they make you think of pussy,” said Ronnie, smoking in the corner. They both turned to him. “That’s what they make me think of,” Ronnie said. “Every time I see a laptop I think of one of those lawyers, like on TV in a miniskirt.”
“Ronnie?” said Saul.
“How about takin’ the dog for a walk?”
“The junkyard dog, for fuck sake. What other dog is there?”
After Ronnie left, Saul opened a drawer in his desk, took out two nips of V.O. and a jelly donut with sprinkles. He pushed one of the nips across the desk, tore the donut in half, leaving a black thumbprint on powdered sugar, said, “Help yourself.”
“Not hungry,” said Freedy, unscrewing the tiny bottle.
Saul shrugged, ate the donut, speaking between mouthfuls, or actually during them. “What I like about laptops is the way they fly out of here.”
“Yeah?” said Freedy, downing his drink.
“Fly. You’re doin’ pretty good, but you start bringin’ in laptops you’ll be doin’ better. ’Pendin’ on the model, I pay up to three C’s for a laptop.” He raised the V.O. to his lips-lips with sugar powder in the corners-paused. “One thing.”
“You bein’ discreet?”
“Discreet means you never mention my name.”
“Why would I?”
“Otherwise I get anxiety. That’s no good for anybody. Me because of my hypertension. You because…” The ugly little bastard stared at him with his ugly little eyes, one of them bloodshot. Then he polished off his drink and said, “Let’s do business.”
They did business. For Saul that meant shaking his head a lot, saying, “This I can’t move for shit,” “No one wants these anymore,” “There’s a new model out now,” “It’s missing that thingamajig at the back”; for Freedy it meant getting ripped off.
“You’re doin’ good,” said Saul, paying him off.
“Then how come this is all I get?”
Saul did that head-shaking thing again. A tiny green drop quivered at the end of his nose. “Has nothin’ to do with me,” Saul said. “Market forces goin’ on here. Globalization market forces.”
A hundred and seventy-five dollars. Driving back by himself up the highway, Freedy knew he just had to work harder. He was willing. This was the U.S. of A., and he was a native son. Men just like him had built the whole goddamn country, so there was no problem with work. He wasn’t some lazy name-the-ethnic-group. He popped an andro dry, ready to work at the drop of a hat.
But what about fun? There had to be fun too, or what was the point? Female fun, especially. The image of the video girl in glasses, and what had happened to those glasses, jumped up in his mind. He toyed with the idea of paying for it. He’d never paid for it in his life: with his body, it would have been like-something, one of those complicated comparisons. But where, as he rolled into Inverness, shivering now from the cold, would he even find a hooker in this town? In LA… but that was another story.
He had an idea. It came to him, just like that. Proved how amazing he was: he figured out, with help from no one, where hookers might hang out in Inverness. The bus station. Pure inspiration, the kind of inspiration that makes all the losers say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Freedy cruised by the bus station. It was empty. What a town. Not just no hookers. No nobody. He had to really assert control over his hands to stop them from squeezing into fists. While that little struggle was going on, a bus pulled in at the back of the building. Freedy parked in front of the station door, waiting to see who would get out.
One person got out, one measly person. But a woman. Freedy watched her through the glass wall of the station, coming across the floor with a suitcase. Probably not a hooker, not with the suitcase, but how would you tell a hooker in this fucking cold? This woman, a young one, was wearing jeans, hiking boots, a long, hooded sweatshirt. Probably not a hooker. She disappeared into the rest room.
Freedy waited. Why not? The day was shot. And what did that matter? He worked at night. Plus, those jeans-as far up as he could see-had looked pretty good on her.
She came out of the rest room. Surprise: maybe she was a hooker after all, because the hiking boots and jeans were gone, replaced by shoes, not high-heeled but not flat either, and a clingy blue skirt or dress, one of those cocktail things. She still wore the sweatshirt, but even a hooker had to stay warm. Freedy rolled down the window as she came outside.
A good-looking girl, and if a hooker, one of the innocent-on-the-surface types. She turned this way and that, new in town, no doubt about it, and then spotted him. He showed her that smile. And she came; slow, hesitating, shy, but she came.
“Excuse me,” she said, standing on the sidewalk, not putting down the suitcase.
“Hey,” said Freedy, not the smoothest line, maybe, but he made it extra smooth with his voice.
“I’m looking for Inverness College,” she said.
“The college?” What the fuck do you want up there? But he didn’t say that, didn’t even let it show on his face, kept smiling, even bigger.
“Yes,” she said, taking a piece of paper from her jacket pocket. All crumpled up, and she had trouble uncrumpling it, like she was nervous or something. Probably aware all of a sudden of the vibe between them, of how big and buff he was: that would explain it. “Plessey Hall is the name of the building,” she said, reading what was on the paper.
“I just know the numbers,” he said.
The numbers. Not what he’d meant to say at all. Plessey-which one was that? Forty-six? Eighteen? “Tell you what,” he said, “since you’re a stranger and this is a real friendly town, how about you just hop in and I’ll run you right up there.”
“Lickety-split, you know? And you’ll be out of this fu-this wicked cold.”
“That’s very…” Her gaze shifted past him toward the passenger seat. Lying on the seat was a skin magazine that Ronnie had brought along, which was really unfortunate. She backed up two steps. “Very nice of you, but… I just remembered I was supposed to call. When I got in. If they’re already on the way, you see…” And she retreated a few more steps, said, “Thanks so much anyway,” turned, and went inside the station. On the back of her sweatshirt it said Arapaho State College.
Really unfortunate. He could have taken her somewhere, not home because of his goddamned mother, but somewhere-like down in the tunnels! — and then. And then. Lickety-split, down in the tunnels. Instead; instead he picked up the skin mag and flung it out the window. He was going to have to do something about Ronnie Medeiros.
Freedy had calmed down a little by the time he went to work that night. For one thing, Ronnie called to say he had some crystal meth, and he’d gone over to Ronnie’s and scored it for a cheap price, then pumped some iron. For another, he’d done some thinking. CEOs, like Bill Gates, say-oh yes, he’d done his homework, think Bill Gates’s name didn’t come up on infomercials? — CEOs like Bill Gates, who started companies in their garage, did they hang around bus stations, sniffing for cunt? No-first came the money, and then cunt came sniffing for you. That was what Bill Gates and the rest of them had found out. Idea, plan, stick, stick, stick. Clipping a flashlight to his belt, Freedy raised a grate in the parking lot behind the football field and entered tunnel F.
He felt good right away, optimistic, psyched. He was investing in his future. Besides, he just liked being in the tunnels, especially appreciated the current of warm air stirring in this one. Down F he went, down because F was the deepest tunnel, passing under the football field and the rink, intersecting Z, then crossing right under another tunnel-N, as he recalled-somewhere beneath building 68, the one with the dome, going on all the way to building 17, the science building, had some Jewish name. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: science building. Why? Because science meant computers, and computers meant laptops! Inspiration had struck again. Freedy had a vision of himself in his headquarters office down in Florida in the not very distant future, and voices out in the hall whispering, The guy’s fucking brilliant.
It was really going to happen. He was going to do it, and do it by stripping the college bare. His stake sat waiting up above, the stake to get him started in the pool business. It was-what was the word? A perfect word existed, he could feel it coming, coming, comingjustice! The word was justice. The college would get him started: justice. What were colleges for, anyway? Cobwebs brushed by his face; he hardly noticed, just sneezed a good big one and kept going.
How much did he need to get started in Florida? Thousands, right? Saul paid three C’s per laptop. That meant ten laptops was three grand, right there. And what was ten laptops? Cake. There had to be thousands of laptops on College Hill. Say he only got a hundred, for Christ sake. He giggled aloud as he worked out the math. Three zero zero times one zero zero-so many zeros! — that made Freedy stopped dead. Someone was singing, real clear and real close by. A woman, no doubt about it, with a high voice. Sometimes sounds drifted down pipes from above, but never this clear-like it was coming from the other side of the goddamn wall-and never down in F, F being so deep. But she was singing, singing in some foreign language, and what was more, there were instruments playing too. What the fuck? Instruments too, and way down here. That scared him, like something was happening to his mind. Where was he? Freedy flicked on the flash-hadn’t even been using it, hadn’t felt the need-and shone it around. It was just F-steam pipe, cable pipe, phone-line pipe-dipping down a little ahead and bending left, where it passed under N. Just F: but his heart was beating, too fast, too light, not the heavy boom boom it usually did. How much of Ronnie’s meth had he tweaked? Couldn’t recall. He took a few deep breaths, felt better.
But the woman was still singing, still close by. He put his ear to the tunnel wall. Fucked if she really wasn’t singing just on the other side.
What did he have on him? Pliers, couple screwdrivers, pocket knife. He opened the knife, took it to the drywall, cut out a fist-sized hole. The singing grew even louder, even clearer. And what was that? A woman’s laugh? He stuck his hand in, felt not cement or brick, what the tunnels were usually lined with, but nothing. Taking the knife, he cut a neat door in the drywall, stepped through.
He shone the flash. He was in a little square room with a dirt floor, nothing in it but a stool, a heavy old wooden stool-he’d seen a few like it over in storage-placed by the opposite wall. If you sat on it, he saw, you’d have access to a hinged flap in the wall. Freedy blew the dust off the stool, sat down. He opened the flap.
A tiny round hole: he put his eye to it. A spyhole! Amazing. He snapped off the flash.
What Freedy saw he couldn’t take in, not all at once. Candles burning, dozens of them, in a room-no, more than one room, there was at least another through a door at the back-a room straight out of a palace or castle. Music came from somewhere, horrible old scratchy music, not live. But there were live people in the room, live people from the present day, a guy and two girls.
Two girls. One sat on a couch near the guy, the other was standing in front of them. She, the blond one, said, “How do I look?”
She looked fucking incredible. So did the other one, the brown-haired one. Also fucking incredible. The girl at the bus station was pretty, but these two. Fox wasn’t the word. Freedy shifted his peering eye from one to the other, trying to decide which was better-looking, unable to make up his mind. Then the guy said something Freedy missed, and the two girls laughed. That kind of pissed Freedy off. He took a look at the guy-some kid, college kid, that he could break in two. Bust through the wall, break the college kid in two, take the girls back into that other room, where he could see some sort of weird bed, and fuck their brains out. Get them to do a few things together, and then- whoa, Freedy. Getting ahead of yourself, boy. He reached for his stash, took one little sniff, just to stay grounded.
When he peeked back through the hole in the wall, things had changed. They were all up, finishing their drinks, drinks a little lighter in color than Saul’s V.O., and blowing out the candles. The room went dark candle by candle. They went through the doorway to the other room, started blowing out candles there too. Freedy thought he could make out a rope ladder hanging down from above. One of the girls climbed it, then the other, finally the college kid, carrying a candle with him. They all went up the ladder easily, the college kid easiest of all, like he was an athlete or something, but that didn’t fool Freedy. He could snap him in half. Like Thanksgiving. Crack.
The college kid disappeared from view, and everything went dark. Completely black. That didn’t bother Freedy. What bothered him was the fact that the music was still playing, the woman with the strange, high voice singing on and on.
When Freedy got back home that night, his mood was mixed. The bad part was he hadn’t gotten into the science building. He’d found it all right, building 17 at the end of F, but from the other side of the door leading to the utilities room had come voices, maintenance guys working on some electrical problem. So no laptops, just a fax machine and a cordless phone with speed dial he’d grabbed from the lounge in 51. The good part, though, the very good part, was the strange place he’d found where F passed under N somewhere beneath building 68; and those girls. He’d worked in maintenance with guys who were lifers, sorry assholes, and no one had ever said anything about rooms, fancy rooms, under 68. But it existed, and those girls knew about it. That was so promising. Freedy didn’t know how exactly, or at all, just knew that it was.
He went in the house real quiet, what with the phone and the fax, past her bedroom, toward his bedroom at the end of the hall. The door was open and blue light leaked out. Freedy looked in, saw his mother, in that Arab getup, standing before the open laptop. He walked in behind her, but real quiet, stuck the phone and the fax under the bed before he spoke.
“Little Boy is home,” he said, reading the poem title right off the wall.
She jumped, actually got airborne, which was pretty cool, jerked around, said, “Oh my God,” holding on to her tits. “Why do you scare me like that?”
“I said hi. You just didn’t hear me, what with concentrating so hard on my laptop.”
Her gaze went to it. He moved closer to see what was on the screen, saw what had been there before:
To: Phil. 322
From: Prof. L. Uzig and all that.
Then her gaze was on him, that dark, stoned gaze, right into his eyes, like she was trying to see inside. “What’s going on, Freedy?”
“It’s for business purposes,” Freedy said. “I got it off Ronnie Medeiros for a song.”
“I didn’t know Ronnie took Phil three twenty-two,” she said.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Freedy said.
The consequences of our actions take us by the scruff of the neck, altogether indifferent to the fact that we have “improved” in the meantime.
After midnight, aboveground. Grace and Izzie left Plessey Hall to cross the quad, Nat continuing upstairs to his room, seventeen on the second floor. He stopped at the landing, looked out the window. Snow was falling, dark flakes blowing through cubes of light outside the dorm windows, through ovals of light under the Victorian lampposts on the quad. Grace and Izzie were about halfway across, both wearing ski hats with tassels, their gaits, their carriages identical, impossible to tell apart. One swept a handful of snow off Emerson’s bronze leg, flung it at the other. Then they were both running across the quad, chasing each other like little girls, and disappearing in the shadows; Nat thought he could hear their laughter, very faint. At that moment, with the laughter and all, he knew that everything was going to be okay.
It wasn’t that he was drunk-oh, maybe just a little from the cognac, much more from the fact of it being one hundred years old, and from the whole magical experience down there-but the realization that “everything” didn’t amount to much, so why wouldn’t it be okay? What was wrong? He made a short mental list. First came Izzie’s insistence on keeping their relationship secret from Grace. He would have to persuade her to change her mind. Her fear of Grace’s reaction was exaggerated, probably due to years and years of Grace’s dominance, now coming to an end. He reminded himself to learn the ending of the SAT story.
Second, there was Patti. She had to be told-no, he corrected himself-he had to tell her, and as soon as possible. First thing in the morning, even if it meant waking her: he would call Patti, tell her the truth. There was someone else.
Third, he had to catch up in biology. He hadn’t come all this way to miss classes. That was for tomorrow as well. In twenty-four hours he would be caught up.
There. He felt better, as he should have with only three problems in his whole life, the last one trivial; all solvable and solvable soon. Meanwhile, although he hadn’t really known what to expect at Inverness, any half-formed expectations had already been exceeded. He loved the place. Loved it, and knew he could do well. Not only that, but there were other kids from his town who could do well here too. He would make sure Mrs. Smith knew that when he went home for the summer. Mrs. Smith, and how she had brandished the Fourth of July special edition of the County Register at the sky: he understood her now.
Nat came to his door. A note was tucked under the brass 17. He opened it. A note written on economics department stationery, from his first-semester professor:
Nat-Your final exam grade last semester is being changed from a B minus to an A plus, a change that will be reflected in your course grade as well. I’ve reexamined your answer to the last question. I was looking for an analysis of capital and current account theory as it related to the hypothetical and since you didn’t give me that, I gave you zero. On reflection, and having conferred with several colleagues, I believe that your application of monetarist methodology is fresh, cogent, and quite defensible. Have you given much thought yet to your choice of major?
Nat loved Inverness. Had he ever been happier in his life? He was so lucky. He owed them-Mrs. Smith, Miss Brown, his mom; and all the others back home.
Nat opened the door. It was dark in the outer room, the only light coming from his screen saver, but not dark enough to hide the person sleeping under a blanket on Wags’s couch, still not picked up by the movers. Was it Wags himself, released or escaped? Nat found himself smiling at the prospect. But going closer, he saw it was a woman, her face turned away, her hair longer than Wags’s and curlier. He bent over. It was Patti.
Patti. Nat froze right there, and froze was the word, with that icy tingling in his fingertips. What’s she doing here? Answers came, none convincing: some vacation he didn’t know about, a school trip, an internship in an eastern city. To find out, all he had to do was wake her. He didn’t want to. He wanted to let her sleep, there under Wags’s afternoon nap blanket. To simply let her sleep, because nothing had gone wrong yet; to let her sleep before he told her the news. He noticed a small but bright red zit in that curved indentation on the side of the nose where zits liked to form.
“Patti?” he said quietly.
She didn’t wake up, didn’t stir.
“Patti?” A little louder, but only a little, not wanting to scare her, and no more effective. She was probably tired from her trip; had she taken the bus? The bus all the way from Denver? Nat remembered his last trip, a flight in a private jet with a black Z on the tail. He touched her shoulder.
Patti’s eyes opened. For an instant she didn’t know where she was. Then she saw it was him, and the look in her eyes changed completely. She smiled, a smile that could only be called sweet, as sweet, in fact, as he’d ever seen.
“Nat,” she said.
She sat up. “Your hair’s longer. It looks nice.” Her hand moved, no more than an inch or so, as if she’d thought of touching his hair and reconsidered.
“I called you a couple times,” she said, “once from Chicago and once from… somewhere else. I can’t even remember, isn’t that weird? Especially since I was trying to take it all in.”
Like him, him until a little while ago, she’d never really been anywhere. Nat remembered the phone ringing while he’d been in the bedroom with Izzie. He had to tell Patti and tell her now. It would be too cruel to allow her another one of those sweet smiles. He forgot whatever it was he’d rehearsed, just opened his mouth and hoped something not too terrible would come out.
But Patti spoke first. “Oh, Nat,” she said, her voice suddenly unsteady. “I’m pregnant.”
Thoughts poured into Nat’s mind, first-whatever it said about him, good or bad-first came the knowledge of what Patti must have crossed out in her note: I missed my period. Then came more: it could only have been at Patti’s house, before Julie’s party, before the drinking. But they’d used a condom. That raised the possibility of some other guy. Man. Of some other man. Out of the question: he knew Patti, and she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t him. It had to be true. Patti was pregnant and he was the… father. He squirmed from that idea, that word. But he knew there would be no getting away from it, he wouldn’t let himself get away from it, because he’d had a father, too; he’d had a father, briefly, a father who’d ignored his responsibility, who’d walked away.
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
He nodded. “How are you feeling?”
What was the name for it? It came to him. “From the morning sickness?” he said.
She smiled at him again, almost as sweetly as before. “Not that,” she said. “I feel great. My body feels great. Inside is where I’m so messed up.” Patti started crying, first just a silent tear or two, then, maybe catching some expression in his eyes, many more, and far from silent. “And now I’m messing you up too. The best thing that ever happened to me.” Or something like that. Nat couldn’t really tell because of the sobbing. He sat down on Wags’s couch and held her, awkwardly, sitting on the edge.
She leaned against him, leaned with all her weight, holding nothing back. “Oh, Nat,” she said.
He hugged her. If he’d been at all drunk before, physically or psychologically, he wasn’t now.
Her lips moved against his chest. “I can feel you thinking,” she said. Her voice vibrated through his skin. “What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know,” he said. But he did: he was remembering what had happened when they got to Julie’s party. Julie’s family had money, at least what he’d used to think of as having money. Julie’s father, brother of Mr. Beaman, Nat’s mother’s boss, was a pharmacist. They could afford to keep two or three horses in a barn behind their house. The loft had been turned into a guest bedroom. He and Patti had ended up there, in the bed where the vomiting incident happened. But before that, they’d been asleep. He’d awakened with Patti on top of him. She’d rolled off a moment or two later, saying she didn’t feel well. Had he been inside her? Had it happened then? He didn’t know. It was all vague, half remembered, half aware in the first place, the horses stirring uneasily beneath them the only sure thing.
“Are you mad at me?” Patti said.
But she was right. Thoughts like: Are you sure you’re pregnant? How do you know? Those remained unspoken: Patti wouldn’t have been here if she wasn’t sure. And: abortion. He didn’t even know where Patti stood on abortion. He assumed she was for it-he assumed he was for it-but they’d never discussed abortion, not the right and wrong of it. And then there was Patti’s uncle in Denver, a big red-faced Broncos fan who’d taken them to a game, bought them beer and hot dogs, screamed like a maniac at the ref; Patti’s uncle, the priest.
“What are we going-what should I do?”
He looked down at her: curly hair, pale face, blue-lit from the computer screen, against his chest, his shirt dampening with her tears. Her gaze shifted up to his, like a baby watching its mother. That was the image that came to mind, and he hated it.
“Do you love me,” she said, “just a little bit?”
He was silent.
“You don’t have to answer,” she said. “I’m sorry, sorry for everything.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” he said.
She clung to him. “You’re such a good person.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is.”
He didn’t love her. There had been times last summer when he’d thought maybe he did; now, because of the contrast with what he felt for Izzie, he knew for certain he never had. He also knew she was wrong: he had to answer the question. “I don’t love you, Patti,” he said. He said it as plainly as he could, deliberately closing the door to interpretation, but at the same time he held her tight, as tightly as he ever had. Completely crazy, but he couldn’t help it.
Patti sobbed. Half a sob, really, cut off sharply through an effort of will he could feel in the muscles lining her spine. After that, they were silent for what seemed like a long time. Blue-lit snow piled up on the window ledge; his shirt got damper. Then it got no damper, and later less and less, almost dry again.
The chapel bell tolled. Patti yawned, the kind of big yawn impossible to stifle.
“You’re tired,” he said.
“A little.” So quiet, both their voices, but very clear.
“Then sleep,” he said. “It can wait till tomorrow.”
“We’ll think better in the morning.”
He made her sleep in his bed. She lay on her back, under the covers, curly hair spread on the pillow. “You can come in, if you want.”
“That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“Why not?” Patti said. “What could happen now?”
She laughed. That was Patti. He laughed too. At that moment, and just for that moment, he came close to something like love: more craziness.
Patti took his hand. “Nat?”
“What’s gone wrong?” She wasn’t crying anymore; her face was puffy but somehow peaceful too.
“How do you mean?”
“People used to get married at our age. Settle down, have… kids, and everything was all right.”
“Not in my family,” he said.
She let go.
Nat took his sleeping bag into Wags’s room, lay down on Wags’s bed. Wags hadn’t showered enough, especially toward the end, Nat realized now, but he’d compensated with spray-on deodorant, some brand that smelled like evergreens and coconut. Nat closed his eyes; the evergreen-and-coconut smell, rising off the mattress every time he moved, grew stronger and stronger,
You want me to flunk out, don’t you?
Right. And then all this will be mine.
Nat rose, went to the couch in the outer room, tried to sleep where Patti had been sleeping.
At dawn he stopped trying, got up, shaved, showered, put on fresh clothes, tried to look fresh. Patti was still asleep, her face still peaceful, her breathing almost unnoticeable. He left a note on the bedside crate, laying a granola bar on top of it: Gone to class. Back by noon. N.
Nat went to the bio lab, made up the work he’d missed. Problem three, from the old set of problems, taken care of; the precious pre-med option preserved. Problems one and two were now buried under the new ones.
English 104. Izzie wasn’t there. The professor, handing back the Young Goodman Brown essays, said, “I’m a little disappointed with these. Only two of you-” She glanced around the table. “-one of whom is absent, identified the pathos at its core.”
“Which is?” someone asked.
“Page ninety-five,” said the professor, opening her book: “Referring to Goodman Brown: ‘But he himself was the chief horror of the scene.’ ”. Nat stuffed the paper in his backpack without checking the grade and hurried back to Plessey, taking shortcuts through the snow.
Izzie was at his desk in the outer room, playing solitaire on the computer. She turned as Nat came in. He went into the bedroom. The note and granola bar were where he’d left them, but Patti was gone, the bed neatly made.
Izzie was watching him through the doorway. “They went out,” she said.
“Grace and… Patti.”
“Where did they go?”
“For food. She hasn’t eaten in two days.”
Nat glanced back at the bedside crate; perhaps it was just the empty wrapper of the granola bar that he’d seen. But no. And also on the crate, the little box from Assad and Son. Was that where he’d left it? He didn’t think so, and he’d certainly not left it open, as it was now, the gold number 8 and chain nestled in the tissue paper: never worn, as would be clear to anyone who looked inside. He thought of putting the chain on now; his fingers almost touched it.
“Do you want me to leave?” Izzie said.
He would have if Izzie had said anything like She seems so nice. But Izzie didn’t. “No,” Nat said.
They waited in the outer room, Izzie at the desk, Nat on the couch. “You went to English?” she said.
“Did she give the papers back?”
“What did you get?”
“I don’t know.” He handed her the paper. She flipped to the back. “A,” she said. “I guess you were right about that chief horror line.”
“You used it too?”
“Why of course?”
“Don’t you remember? We discussed it on the beach.”
“But I might have been wrong.”
Izzie shook her head. “I trust you.”
“Completely. I didn’t even know what the word meant until you came along.”
“You haven’t known me very long.”
“So? Just look at you.”
“What do you mean?”
“That chipped tooth, for starters.”
“That’s why you trust me?”
“And a million other things.”
“What’s number two?”
Izzie thought. She flushed, very slightly. “I’m not telling.”
They looked at each other, Izzie at the desk, Nat on the couch, but within touching distance in the cramped dormitory room. Nat could feel some force pulling them together, knew that at almost any signal from him, a word or gesture, they could be in the bedroom the next minute. He said no word, made no gesture. They both looked away.
Snow started falling again. It changed to rain. “I hate that,” Izzie said. And back to snow.
Nat checked his watch. “I’m going to look for them.”
They searched the student union, the freshman dining hall, the snack bars, the Rat. They tried Grace and Izzie’s room, the Lanark lounge, the gym. Then they went off campus to the nearby coffee shops and delis where students gathered. It got colder and colder. They stopped at the bottom of the Hill, in front of a boarded-up building with a faded sign: The Glass Onion.
“Where else?” Nat said.
“The cave?” said Izzie.
“Why would she take her down there?”
“Who knows?” Izzie said. “But I’ll look.”
Izzie went down to the basement of Plessey to enter the tunnels through the janitor’s closet. Nat returned to his room. He checked his voice mail, his E-mail: nothing. Grace walked in, alone.
Grace glanced at her watch. “Still at the airport.”
“I took her there.”
“She asked me to. She wanted to go home.”
There was something strange in his tone, strange and new. Grace heard it too. “Albany,” she said, backing up a step. “It’s the closest one with connections to Denver.”
Nat was on his feet. The airport was thirty miles away. He flung open his closet, snatched all the money remaining in his shoe-$32-all the money he had until his next paycheck from the Alumni Office job.
“It’s what she wants,” Grace said as he left the room. And: “Departure’s in twenty minutes. You’ll never make it.” Down the stairs, out the main gate, into a taxi. It was only after he was on his way that he realized Grace was still wearing his Clear Creek letter jacket.
At the airport, Nat checked the first screen he saw. No mention of Denver, but a flight to Chicago, delayed by weather, was now boarding, boarding, boarding at gate eleven. He ran toward the gate area, stopping sharply at security. He’d forgotten about security.
“I need to see someone at gate eleven.”
“Gotta have a gate pass.”
“Where do I get it?”
“Back at ticketing.”
“But there’s no time.”
He raced back to ticketing, got a gate pass, went through security.
“Place your pocket change in the tray and try again.”
He went through again, this time successfully, and ran as fast as he could to gate eleven. Patti, now wearing jeans instead of her blue dress, was handing her boarding pass to the attendant at the ramp.
“Patti.” Too loud: the handful of people still in line all turned to him.
Patti stepped out of the line, not very steadily. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“Of course I came.”
“Doesn’t matter. In a taxi.”
“It’s so expensive. Or did she-did Grace pay for you too?”
“Of course not.”
Patti flinched. He saw how pale she was.
“What is it, Patti?”
“I’m going home, that’s all.”
The last passenger started down the ramp. The attendant waited by the door.
Nat lowered his voice. “But we haven’t talked about anything yet.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“What do you mean? We have to make some decisions.”
“There’s nothing to decide.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not pregnant anymore.”
Nat’s first thought was that she’d lost the baby, had a miscarriage caused by stress, travel, not eating. Then came the second thought.
“The people were very nice,” Patti said. “Didn’t even ask for money, but Grace made a donation.”
“She’s very nice too. I’ll pay her back for the ticket when I can. That’s how we left it.”
“Oh, God. Don’t go, Patti.”
“I’m going.” She looked right into his eyes, spoke without bitterness, with hardly any inflection at all. “I’m just not exactly clear on which one is the one,” she said, “Grace or Izzie? You don’t have to answer.”
Patti nodded. “Good choice.”
“Closing the flight, honey,” said the gate attendant.
Patti turned and walked down the ramp.
A married philosopher belongs to comedy.
He worked on his bio experiment, the effects of trichloroethane and trichloroethylene on Palemontes vulgaris; he worked on his “Faith and Hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter ” essay for English 104; he worked on the Apollonian/Dionysian paper for Philosophy 322; he worked overtime in the Alumni Office; he worked out at the gym. He didn’t socialize, didn’t see anyone, let all his calls, not many, go through voice mail, answered all except the one from Izzie and the one from Grace. There was none from Patti.
Nat worked, without enjoyment, involvement, or even interest. But only for a while: after two days, he began to feel more like himself, at first guilty about it, then less so, finally working the way he always worked, time forgotten. He couldn’t help it.
One of the phone calls he returned was from Professor Uzig, inviting Nat to the traditional Philosophy 322 dinner at his house, Saturday at seven.
“Thanks, but-” said Nat.
“It’s a requirement, actually,” said Professor Uzig. “And you might even win the prize.”
“In the cake. There’s always a prize in the cake.”
“Is this alcoholic?” said the quiet girl who’d tried to connect Nietzsche and domestic violence.
“Kir?” said the hired waiter, passing out drinks in the great room of Professor Uzig’s house. “Yes, ma’am.”
She put her glass back on his tray.
Professor Uzig had a big brick house on College Hill, surprisingly big, surprisingly luxurious, inside and out. A fire blazed on a stone hearth brought from Provence, a portrait of the professor by a famous painter Nat thought he’d heard of hung on the wall, and there were other similar details, pointed out by the host. Professor Uzig was wearing one of those silk things-ascot? foulard? — around his neck, the first time Nat had seen one off the movie screen. Now, having witnessed the scene between the waiter and the girl, the professor, his back to the fire and his students around him, was telling a story about a recent faculty party where some new TA had thought that in loco parentis meant “like a crazy parent.”
Everyone laughed, some more confidently than others. The whole class was there, all dressed up except the Kurt Cobain fan, probably making a statement, and Nat, who hadn’t known. The two of them, in their jeans, stood together next to the shrimp. “What’s this kir shit?” said the Kurt Cobain fan.
“Wine and something else.”
“Think it would be all right to ask for a beer?”
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I get an F and lose my scholarship.”
“You on scholarship too?” asked the Kurt Cobain fan.
“Went to a public high school?”
“Been to Europe?”
“I know,” said Ferg. “Want to see something?”
He led Nat out of the great room, into the library. Books from floor to ceiling, a table covered with papers, periodicals, correspondence, and on a pedestal a bust of Nietzsche, his walrus mustache resembling, in bronze, the armament of an unusual animal. Ferg took a book off a shelf, leafed through, handed it to Nat.
An Inverness course catalog, twenty-five years old, opened to the philosophy section. Philosophy 322, Professor Uzig. Nothing had changed but the name of the course: Superman and Man: Friedrich Nietzsche and Bob Dylan.
“Can you believe it?” said Ferg.
“Pretty funny,” said Nat.
“Funny? You call bait-and-switch funny? He’s been perpetrating a consumer fraud for twenty-five years. I’m seriously thinking of filing a formal complaint to the academic dean.”
“Ask for the beer instead,” Nat said.
Ferg glared at him. “I won’t stop there,” he said, and left the room.
Nat saw more catalogs on a higher shelf, wondered whether there were any from a really long time ago, say, 1919. He was reaching up when he felt someone in the room behind him, knew it was Izzie even before he turned.
“I brought you this,” she said; a glass of beer. Izzie wore black pants, black turtleneck, black headband. Walks in beauty like the night: that was the phrase that popped into his mind. It now made perfect sense.
“I don’t want anything, thanks.” He hadn’t touched alcohol since Patti left, didn’t want to.
She nodded, as though he’d confirmed some impression. “You’re mad.”
Nat saw that the beer was trembling in its glass. Izzie put it down. “You blame me for… Patti.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I didn’t even know she existed.”
“Grace didn’t tell you?”
“You told Grace about Patti?”
More than that, and worse, if his memory of that drunken and stoned night in New York was accurate: he’d used Patti as a shield. “I did,” Nat said. “The thing is-”
Izzie held up her hand. “You don’t have to explain anything,” she said.
“There’s nothing to explain. It was over. I just didn’t do it right.” Couldn’t have done it worse.
“And us?” Izzie said. “Are we over too?”
A door, not to the great room, but another one, opened and Grace came in, carrying a framed photograph. “Hey, Izzie,” she said, then saw Nat. “Oh. Nat.”
“Still speaking to us?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You’re not returning calls.”
He was silent.
“Maybe you misinterpreted what went on,” Grace said.
Grace paused. Her gaze went to Izzie, back to Nat. “Didn’t Patti explain at the airport?”
That raised several questions in Nat’s mind. He voiced the simplest. “How do you know I saw her at the airport?”
“She called me the next morning.”
Grace nodded. “Didn’t have to. No thanks were necessary. But she’s so… sweet. Worried about the money and everything.”
Let me guess-she spells it with an i. “I’m paying,” Nat said. Why hadn’t he thought of that earlier?
“Don’t be silly,” Grace said.
“I’m not being silly.”
“No need to get angry. The amount’s inconsequential.”
“That’s not the point. I’m paying.”
“What’s funny? I can pay.” But not right away-it would probably have to be in installments drawn from coming Alumni Office checks; should he also start looking for a second job, down in the town? How he wished he could just whip out his wallet and hand over whatever the amount was on the spot.
“It’s not that,” Grace said. “Don’t be so touchy.”
“Then what’s funny?”
“I just don’t want this to degenerate into farce, that’s all.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Farce. The maid under the bed, someone else in the closet, British accents, you getting stuck with the bill.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do I have to spell it out?”
Izzie shook her head at Grace, almost imperceptibly, but Nat caught it from the corner of his eye.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Grace said. “Look what I found.” She set the photograph down on the table. Nat took it in at a glance: Professor Uzig when he was young, not much older than they were. Took in that, and the resemblance to the bust of Nietzsche-not the features, Uzig’s being much sharper-but the similar thinking poses, and the fact that the professor when young had worn a mustache much like Nietzsche’s. He stood in front of that place at the bottom of the hill, the Glass Onion, its sign unfaded.
Nat waved his hand in the air, waving away distraction. He clipped the edge of the frame by accident, knocking the photograph over. “Spell it out, whatever it is.”
“No, Grace,” said Izzie.
“Why not?” said Grace. “He’ll feel better in the end.”
“Say it,” said Nat.
Grace said it: “You may not be-you may not have been-the father.”
Nat felt sick, didn’t want to hear another word.
“Something about too much to drink, homecoming weekend at Pismo State or whatever it is, a football player. She wasn’t really too clear. But the kind of thing that goes on here every weekend. A moment of weakness, in this case followed by another-coming here. Her words, not mine. Call her if you don’t believe me.”
“You think I’d do that?”
“I apologize,” Grace said, laying her hand briefly on his. Her fingers were icy; it was cold in Professor Uzig’s library, snow blowing by the leaded windows. Nat sat down, resisted the impulse to put his hands over his face.
“What did that accomplish?” Izzie said.
Grace turned to her, eyes narrowing. Before she could reply, Professor Uzig stuck his head in the room and said, “Dinner, young people.”
“Ah, dessert,” said Professor Uzig when the cake appeared. “The course America likes best.”
“Where are you from, anyway?” said Ferg; he’d built a little palisade of empty beer bottles around his place setting. Everyone else, except for the domestic-violence girl and Nat, was drinking wine.
“Brooklyn,” said Professor Uzig. “Your native soil as well, if I recall.”
Ferg’s mouth opened but no words came.
A startling revelation: Nat had expected some answer like Prague, Munich, Trieste. Startling and with a lesson that applied to him, cut through his misery about Patti, not making it go away, but showing why it must: he was in the right place, doing the right thing. And therefore while he might return to his hometown, would for sure, he would never live there again. As for Patti, who wasn’t in this place: as for Patti-but he hadn’t completed that thought before Izzie, sitting across the table, caught his eye. She smiled, a hesitant smile, as though asking if he was okay; at least, that was his interpretation. He smiled back and started pouring himself a glass of wine. Why not, after all? Then he remembered: He’ll feel better in the end. Feeling better so soon? He stopped pouring, the glass half full.
“With the question of origins out of the way,” said Professor Uzig, rubbing his hands together-white hands, long and hairless, the fingernails gleaming as though coated with some colorless polish-“who wants to play the future game?”
No one said they didn’t. Professor Uzig passed out three-by-five file cards. “Simply write in a sentence or less what you imagine you’ll be doing in twenty years.”
Everyone wrote. Professor Uzig collected the cards, read them silently to himself, his face expressionless. “First card,” he said: “Inner-city doctor.”
That was easy-the domestic-violence girl.
“Not funny, Grace,” said Izzie.
A writer. Everyone guessed the smart girl from English 103, promoted by the English department beyond Nat and Izzie’s 104 to some sophomore-level course.
“I confess,” said the smart girl.
The funny thing, known only to Nat, was that writer had been his thought too, but, not wanting to jinx it, he’d written teacher instead.
“Teacher,” said Professor Uzig, looking around the table. His expression changed abruptly; he went still. Everyone followed his gaze. A woman had appeared between the open French doors to the dining room, an old woman with a ring of white hair. She wore a quilted white housecoat, a white tissue sticking out of one sleeve, and white slippers.
“I thought the department meeting was next week, Leo,” she said; an old person’s voice, all the bottom sounds missing.
The note cards slipped from Professor’s Uzig’s hand. “Correct,” he said. “This is Phil three twenty-two.”
“Phil three twenty-two?” she said. “That’s still going on?” She scanned the faces around the table. “What a bushy-tailed bunch, Leo. I’d forgotten how bushy-tailed these bunches can be. What’s the craze this year? Aboriginal rights? Prescription drugs? Ritual baths?”
Ferg laughed; a loud laugh, choked off almost at once.
The old woman advanced into the room. “What are we drinking?” she said.
“I understood you weren’t feeling too well,” said Professor Uzig.
“You understood right, Leo, as always. I feel like Marie Antoinette after the guillotine, like Cleopatra after the asp, like…” She couldn’t think what else. One of her eyes was tearing; she dabbed at it with the tissue, had trouble sticking it back in her sleeve.
A nurse entered, straightening her cap. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I went to relieve my-I went to the rest room, and the next thing I knew Mrs. Uzig had…” She took the old woman’s elbow.
“Like Anne Boleyn after the… after…”
“Then why not go back to bed?” said Professor Uzig, his voice much gentler than Nat had ever heard it. He hadn’t imagined certain things about Professor Uzig, that he could have been born in Brooklyn, that he’d be caring for an aged mother.
“Come, dear,” said the nurse.
“Come, dear,” mimicked the old woman. “Why should I, when all the fun’s down here?” She picked up Nat’s glass. “How’s the wine?”
“I haven’t actually tried it yet,” said Nat.
“Proving youth is wasted on the young. Are you familiar with that expression?”
“I’ve heard it,” Nat said.
“A careful reply.” She took a sip. “Can’t taste a thing, of course. But I’m sure it’s good-I taught him everything he knows about wine, paying for it in the bargain.”
The nurse tugged a little harder at her elbow.
“You don’t mind sharing your wine, do you, young man?”
“No,” said Nat.
“What’s your name?”
Nat told her.
“Enchantee,” she said, extending her hand as though she expected him to kiss it. “I am Helen Uzig.” Nat shook her hand: skin like paper, green veins almost on the surface, pulsing light and fast against his fingers. “Enchantee,” she repeated, “accent aigu on the second e.”
“Please, dear,” said the nurse, pulling now.
“Keep your panties on,” said Helen Uzig. She looked right at Professor Uzig and repeated the remark. The nurse pulled again, a little harder, and this time the old woman gave way, half walking, half in tow, toward the doorway. “Good night, my bushy-tailed friends,” she said, as the nurse got her out of the room. “And never forget that Nietzsche is something one must grow out of,” she added from down the hall.
There was a silence. Ferg, on his sixth or seventh beer, broke it. “Your mother’s pretty cool.”
“My mother is dead,” said Professor Uzig.
“Huh?” said Ferg.
But Nat got it.
The prize in the cake was a well-preserved piece of eight, found by Professor Uzig himself off Jost van Dyke, pierced to make it wearable as a pendant. It turned up in Grace’s portion.
Once, in Boulder after a high-school student government conference, Nat had found himself in a pickup basketball game that included a few CU players. It was the only basketball he’d ever played where everything had happened too fast. Now, leaving Professor Uzig’s house, snow falling but the moon somehow shining at the same time, an effect-black snow streaks over the disk of the moon-that he’d never seen before, he had that feeling again. He needed to slow things down, to go back to his room, to do nothing. The three of them went down to the cave instead. They were college freshmen. It was Saturday night.
Does the superman make you uneasy?
Saturday night. Freedy’s favorite night of the week, by far. What else was there, if you thought about it? Sunday, Monday, Tuesday nights all sucked, everyone knew that. Wednesday was a little better, Thursday better yet-he’d even been known to cut loose on a Thursday night, like one time down in Tijuana after those fires or earthquakes canceled the Friday schedule. Friday night was famous coast to coast, of course; but at jobs he’d held, A-1 Pool Design, Engineering, and Maintenance, and others not worth remembering, Saturday was a working day-not a normal working day, because no one expected normal work when everyone was a little wasted, although he would expect it, by God, when he got set up down in Florida, whose money was it, anyway? — but still, a working day, taking some of the fun out of Friday night. That left Saturday night, just one goddamn night to be totally… totally whatever. Freedy came alive on Saturday night. He was in the habit.
Totally whatever. That put it perfectly. Saturday morning Freedy lifted over at Ronnie’s, feeling real strong, stronger than he had for a long time, since California, in fact. Then he and Ronnie had a few beers, watched an infomercial about real estate or maybe getting into retail, Freedy wasn’t sure. Didn’t matter: they were always the same, as he told Ronnie. Idea, plan, stick.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Ronnie. “I never thought of that.”
“Works for everything,” Freedy said.
“What do you mean, everything?”
“Give you a for instance, Ronnie. What do you want to do tonight?”
“Just answer. I’ll show you how it works.”
“What I want to do tonight?” said Ronnie. “Get laid, I guess.”
“Okay. That’s the idea part. Now for the plan. How are you going to make it real?”
Ronnie thought. “Head over to Fitchville?”
“Fitchville? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Thing is,” said Ronnie, “there’s sort of a girl.”
“You’ve got some piece in Fitchville?”
“Nothing what you’d call serious.”
What the hell was going on? Ronnie had a girlfriend? How did that compute? “What’s the story?”
“No story. She’s pretty nice.”
“How did you meet her?”
“I still do a little reffin’.”
“You know. Reffin’ basketball. Pays twenty-five bucks a game. I got my certificate way back.”
“So she plays on the team. Point guard.”
“Fuck are you talking about? What team?”
Fitchville South? “You’re fucking some high-school girl?”
“I wouldn’t say fucking, exactly,” said Ronnie. “She’s not ready yet.”
“She’s not ready yet?”
“She’s just a sophomore,” said Ronnie. “But I get hand jobs.”
Fuckin’ pathetic. But that night-sitting in a bar near the state line, a stripper bar, but because of the snow only one stripper had shown up and she was on a break-Freedy’s mind gravitated to the subject of hand jobs. Nothing wrong with hand jobs-American as apple pie. Once Estrella had given him a hand job in the Burger King drive-through in West Covina. Home of the Whopper. He kind of missed Estrella. But what good would that do? She’d fucked it all up with that brother scam or whatever it was. He ordered another beer, and a shot of V.O.; he was starting to like V.O.
He liked hand jobs, too: but a sophomore? Some pimple-faced kid with baby fat? Not cool. The cool thing would be a hand job from some classy girl, the drop-dead fuck-you kind. Not Estrella: take away all her good points and what was left? Just another wetback among millions. Did he know any classy girls of the drop-dead fuck-you kind? No. Had he even actually seen one in real life? The surprising answer to that question came as he was knocking back the last of the V.O. He’d seen two!
Two. Double your pleasure, double your fun. Two, as drop-dead fuck-you as they came. As drop-dead, fuck-you as those TV miniskirt lawyers of Ronnie’s, except these two were real, real flesh and blood, down there in that underground palace where F tunnel hooked beneath building 68. The underground palace-what was that all about? Some mystery, some college shit from the past, buried down there. Who cared? What mattered was that those two classy girls had discovered it too. Probably thought of it as their little secret. An amazing, what was the word? Insight. That was it. An amazing insight. They thought of it as their little secret. But he knew! Amazing. And he was amazing too, because just like that he’d figured out where ideas-the first step on the infomercial road to success-came from. Get an idea, they said, step one, they said, but they never told you where ideas came from. And now he knew. He’d figured it out, all by himself. Was he some unit in the common herd? Oh, no. He was an original, like, thinker. One day he’d be making infomercials of his own. He knew that with absolute certainty. Why? Because he’d figured out where ideas came from. They came “I said c’n I get you another?”
Freedy looked up, up into the face of some waitress, not a classy, drop-dead fuck-you face, more like the opposite. Just the basics-face, tits, cunt. “Saturday night, why not?” he said. So cool.
“Phew,” said waitress, “thought you were on one of those toxic-shock trips there for a sec. Bud and a shot of V.O.?”
“Make it a Bud Light.” Had to keep his head clear.
She went away. Ass. He’d left out ass. Face, tits, cunt, ass. Easy to make a joke of it by saying forget about the face part. That would be crude. There were crude guys around, but not him. He sipped Bud Light like a gentleman, tried the V.O., went back to the beer, back and forth, but like a gentleman, taking his time, cool and moderate. Had to keep his head clear. Why? Because things were happening, were going to happen. He didn’t know what things, but the… elements, yes, the elements were in place. Take Einstein. Had Einstein known what those theories of his were leading to? ’Course not-he just knew things were going to happen. Ka-boom.
But-as Freedy went to the can to piss away several beers and V.O.’s-one thing Einstein must have known about, just like him, was where ideas came from. He went into a cubicle, snorted the tiniest possible snort of meth. Ideas: they came-this was incredible! — from the crashing together, the collision, of two… two things. Two… forces! Yes. Such as: those two drop-dead fuck-you girls thought the underground palace was their little secret. That was force one. But he knew. That was the second force. Ka-boom. And out of that ka-boom-Freedy stepped from the cubicle, saw himself in the mirror, more diesel than ever, smile whiter than ever, like Superman with bigger muscles and a ponytail-out of that ka-boom came an idea, new and fresh: he would go back down to the palace, down where F tunnel hooked under building 68. When? Why not now? It was Saturday night.
He popped an andro, and as he did saw another cubicle open behind him. A guy came out zipping up, a guy in a state trooper’s uniform. A fuckin’ statie, wearing the Smokey hat. You wear it in the crapper? Freedy came close to saying that aloud, probably would have if it hadn’t been for the way the statie was eyeing him in the mirror. What the fuck was that all about? Then he remembered the meth. What cubicle had he been tweaking in? Couldn’t have been the one next to the statie, could it? Hard to tell. Freedy turned on the tap, washed his hands. The statie broke off eye contact-his image stopped staring at Freedy’s was what really happened, as nice a bit of meth thinking as you could ask for, but the main point was that Freedy could stare anybody down, what with those eyes of his that resembled some British actor’s-and went out. “Ever heard of hygiene?” Freedy said; but not loud. He wasn’t afraid of some statie with bad personal habits, wasn’t afraid of any cop, for that matter, but this was no time for distractions. Idea, plan, stick, stick, stick.
Before he even got to his spyhole, Freedy knew they were there. That creepy music, coming down tunnel F: he didn’t like any music, but this kind was the worst. Wasn’t even in English, like the singer was rubbing your nose in it.
Freedy removed his drywall door, went into the little room, put his eye to the spyhole. Ka-boom: drop-dead, fuck-you, better than he’d remembered, one, the darker-haired, dressed all in black, the other, the blonde, in red. And that guy. Freedy had forgotten all about him, the college kid he could break in half.
They were lounging on couches, purple couches with gold fringe, drinking some golden liquid from sparkling glasses and talking, the whole room golden too, from the candlelight. The funny thing was that the blond one, hanging something silver around her neck, was saying exactly what she’d said the first time he’d seen her: “How do I look?”
Some weird time warp, like they’d been waiting for him to come back. But what a ridiculous fuckin’ question. How could she even ask? Drop-dead fuck-you is how she looked. The drop-dead fuck-you ones had to know they were drop-dead fuck-you, didn’t they? Otherwise nothing made sense. Freedy toyed with the idea of saying it, not loud, just cool and matter-of-fact, speaking right through the spyhole. Drop-dead fuck-you is how you look, babe. Then their heads would whip up, real quick, to where the sound came from, and he’d come crashing through the wall. Ka-boom. Toyed with the idea, but remained silent. He was good at silence when he wanted to be; right now, he couldn’t even hear his own breathing.
“Like a pirate,” said the darker-haired one. “Do you think Leo actually found it, or just bought it somewhere?”
“Who knows anything about Leo anymore?” said the blonde.
The darker-haired one thought that over. The college kid, so breakable in two, watched her do it like something special was happening. “Do you think Dad knew all this?” she said.
“Knew all what?” said the blond one.
“Brooklyn,” said the darker-haired one. “Mrs. Uzig.”
Mrs. Uzig? Leo? Bells rang. Maybe something special was happening.
“It would be just like him, wouldn’t it?” said the blond one. “To keep the good stuff to himself.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that,” said the darker-haired one.
The blonde shook her head. “Daddy’s little girl.”
Daddy’s little girl. What the fuck was this all about? Suddenly it hit him, another one of his amazing insights: they were sisters! And this other one, the college kid, was their brother! Three rich kids, fooling around down in the tunnels. It all made sense. Lucky for the college kid, that brother angle-might save him from being broken in two.
“What do you mean, daddy’s little girl?” said the darkerhaired one.
“You find that obscure?” said the blonde.
Totally obscure, but Freedy didn’t care: their bodies! Meanwhile they were exchanging some sort of look. The darker-haired one broke it first, just like the statie with him. Hey! Was this a fight? And were they a little drunk? Probably not-they weren’t behaving like fighters and drunks he knew: no snarling, for one thing; no punching, for another.
The music stopped. It got very quiet. Freedy pressed his forehead to the wall, his eye almost in the room. He could hear the candles burning. “More music?” said the college kid, getting up.
For fuck sake.
“How about the Caruso?” said the blonde.
“ ‘Caro Nome,’ ” said the darker-haired one, real decisive for some reason.
“ ‘Caro Nome,’ ” said the blond one. “Aren’t you getting sick of it?” The darker-haired one didn’t answer. The blond one turned to the college kid. “Aren’t you getting sick of it, Nat?”
“Not yet,” said the college kid, Nat.
From his angle, Freedy had a good look at the blonde’s face when he said that. She was pissed. He had no idea why, but she was. The others didn’t see it: the one called Nat was winding up some old-fashioned record player-maybe an antique, maybe worth a bundle-and the darker-haired one, the little sister, was watching him.
More music. A female voice, the same hideous song that had been playing the first night. The big sister didn’t like it either; Freedy could see that. She got up right away and said: “I’m going to call him.”
“Who?” said the little sister.
“Daddy,” said the big sister, said it funny, like it was in quotes.
“See what he knows about Leo.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“Not in Manila.”
“How do you know he’s in Manila?”
Her voice took on an edge: “Or Singapore, Shanghai, what difference does it make? They’ll track him down.” She was walking toward the unlit room, the bedroom. “See you later,” she said.
Or some foreign shit; this was like another goddamn country.
Freedy’s angle was perfect for seeing what happened after that. The little sister and the Nat guy exchanged a look, like they didn’t know what the hell was going on. Join the club, thought Freedy. Meanwhile, big sister was climbing up the rope ladder in the bedroom. There was just enough spillover light from the candles in the big room to gleam on her blond head. Up and out of sight she went. Freedy heard something close like a lid.
The little sister and the Nat guy made eye contact again, different this time. The little sister got up and walked over toward the record player where the Nat guy was standing. Why did he keep calling her the little sister? She was just as tall as the big sister, with a body just as good in every way. In fact-another one of his insights was coming, he could feel it-they were identical, except for the hair. Except for the hair, they could have been twins.
And the Nat guy was not their brother, oh no, not unless something sicko was going on. Freedy knew that from the way she put her arms around him, the way they kissed, swaying to the music but not dreamy, much hotter than dreamy. Freedy was just settling into what might get pretty interesting when he saw something that actually scared him, scared him, Freedy; made his heart jump inside his chest. It wasn’t that first gleam, barely flickering in the unlit bedroom that did it; he didn’t make the connection. It was when that blond head materialized in the darkness, and big sister, her body hidden in shadow, took in the scene by the record player. Her face.
Actually scared him.
“I love this song, don’t you?” little sister was saying.
“Yes,” said the Nat guy.
“Do you understand the words?”
The Nat guy shook his head. “Is this before the kidnapping or after?”
“Just before,” said the little sister.
Freedy looked beyond them, to the bedroom. Big sister was gone.
“That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” Why? (Or why not?)
“I love that,” Izzie said.
“Your chipped tooth.” She ran the tip of her tongue over it again.
“It’s a flaw.”
“That’s why.” They stood beside the wind-up record player, down in the cave, their arms around each other, music of long ago all around them; the words incomprehensible to Nat, the emotions not. “How did you do it?” Izzie asked.
“Chip your tooth.”
“I was born with it. My mom has the same thing, same tooth.”
“Your mom-” Izzie began, and stopped herself.
“What about her?”
“Oops,” Izzie said.
Nat backed up a little, still holding Izzie, but at arm’s length. “What about her?”
“I hope to meet her one day.”
“That’s not what you were going to say.”
Izzie sighed. “She sounds nice, that’s all.”
But he’d never really discussed his mother with Izzie. “Who says?”
“You can be relentless.”
“I’m used to it. Patti told us about her. There-happy now?”
“Yup.” He was; the sound of her name stabbed him, but he was happy at the same time.
Izzie laughed, moved closer to him. The music played, the candles burned. Happy, and on his way to exhilaration. He spun her, just a half a little spin, to the music.
At that moment, something caught Nat’s eye on the far, and distant, wall. He looked over Izzie’s head, saw only the biggest of all the oil paintings, hanging halfway up. Fauns, sheep, a centaur spying from behind a rock, three nudes bathing by a waterfall.
“Is she relentless too?”
“My mom? No.”
“What does she do?
“I thought I told you.”
“Must have been Grace. Happens all the time.”
“She works in a law office.”
“Your mother’s a lawyer?”
“How big a practice?”
A question that would never have occurred to him. “In what way?”
“How many lawyers?”
Izzie’s eyebrow rose, that right eyebrow that took care of nonverbal communication.
“It’s a small town,” Nat said.
“What’s he like?” said Izzie. “Or she.”
“My mom’s boss?” Mr. Beaman: Whatever you’ve got, Evie. Paper cups will do. “He’s all right, I guess.” She never complained. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s about you,” Izzie said. “And we have something in common.”
“I lived in a small town once myself. In Connecticut. Not Grace. Just me. We were very little and it was just for a year. This was after the divorce. Grace stayed with our mother in the city, my father and I moved to the country. I went to first grade at an ordinary public school.”
“Very funny. I loved it. Especially snow days. They were the best. Did they have snow days where you were?”
“Some.” But not many; Nat’s town prided itself on keeping the schools open no matter what, and anyone with a pickup and a plow was on the road with the first falling flakes, fighting for a chunk of the public-works budget.
“There’s nothing like a snow day,” Izzie said. “Not Christmas, or any other holiday or vacation. You wake up and ka-boom.”
“What do you mean?” Nat said. He himself had earned extra money on snow days, shoveling driveways.
“It’s a different planet,” Izzie said. “This feeling-I couldn’t put it into words back then-of freedom. Real freedom, like I was no longer in the grip of all these forces.”
“The forces, Nat. The responsibilities, the duties, the relationships.”
“Life as we know it.”
“Exactly. Snow days are different. Like after the world ends but you survived.”
“And you get the same feeling down here.”
“Close. How did you know?”
Later they were in the bedroom, on the canopied bed, the candles all out, the silence complete.
And not long after that: “The things you do,” Izzie said.
Anything. They seemed to be able to do anything together, without need of consultation, without fear of a misstep. He moved slightly so she could put her head on his chest if she wanted; she did.
“Think it’s still snowing?” Nat said.
“Got to be,” said Izzie. “That’s why I picked this place-it was snowing when I interviewed.”
Picked this place. Nat thought of Mrs. Smith and Miss Brown, all it had taken to get him here. “And Grace? Is that why she picked it too?”
“She didn’t really care.”
“Where she went. College isn’t really that big a deal, is it? If I liked it, that was good enough for her.”
“And when you went with your father and Grace stayed with your mother?” Nat said. “How was that decided?”
“What a funny question.”
“Because it’s one of my earliest memories, maybe the first. It was supposed to be the other way, me with my mother, Grace with my father. Then there was this goodbye scene in Grand Central Station. Suitcases, porters, the old nanny and the new one, probably the Albert of the time, the four of us. The four of us of the time. And Grace-do you know Grand Central?”
“There’s a mezzanine with a restaurant above the main concourse, or at least there was then. This was before the renovation, when it was still full of homeless people. We were having hot chocolate while someone got the tickets for Connecticut. Grace’s chocolate spilled-I can’t remember how, but I can still see the chocolate flowing across the table and dripping onto her lap. She just watched it, didn’t even flinch. Then she looked up and said she wanted to go with Mommy.”
Silence. And yes, like a snow day, everything muffled, the world disconnected.
“But it was all arranged. That’s what they said, my mother, my father, one of the nannies, someone. No one took her seriously. The next thing, she’d climbed on top of the railing, over the concourse, and spread her arms. I can see that too, much stronger than the spilled chocolate, even. On tiptoes on the railing, like Acapulco. It was in my dreams for years.”
“What was that?” Izzie said.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
They listened, heard nothing but snow day silence, insulated from sound by the earth around them.
“Then what happened?” Nat said.
“This homeless guy, going from table to table with a paper cup, grabbed her and sat her back down in her chair, like it was part of his routine, kind of roughly. Couldn’t have happened now, of course, the way it’s all cleaned up. Then the tickets came. I went to Connecticut and Grace went back to the apartment with our mother. This was on Fifth Avenue, not where we are now. And that was that. The next year, our mother met someone new and moved to Paris, and my father ended up with both of us, back in the city.”
“But I never understood what she was basing her preference on,” Izzie said.
“How do you mean?”
“We hardly spent any time with either of them. I don’t know why it made such a difference.”
Nat didn’t either, but he could see that chocolate dripping into Grace’s little lap as though he’d been there. In the darkness, he felt Izzie’s eyes on him.
“What’s your earliest memory?” she said.
“The same kind of thing.”
Izzie took it for a joke, and laughed.
They climbed the rope ladder, started back through the tunnels, Nat leading the way with a flashlight. “A teacher?” said Izzie; he felt her breath on the back of his ear. “Is that really what you want to be?”
He replied with a question of his own. “What did you put?” The rest of the cards had been forgotten after Mrs. Uzig’s appearance.
“Spearing fish,” Nat said.
Pause. “I wish I had,” Izzie said. “I’m starting to think you know me better than I do.”
He had a troubling thought. “You didn’t put what Grace did?”
“Now I’m not telling.”
“Even if I guess?”
Somewhere during this dialogue they’d stopped, faced each other, embraced; the flashlight beam pointing here and there without guidance.
Izzie started to reply, then made a little sound, a quick inhale. “Look,” she said, and pointed to the quivering circle of light on the tunnel ceiling.
A bat hung upside down from a plastic pipe, its eyes wide open, liquid, intelligent.
“Our cave,” said Izzie. “Our bat.”
The thing hung motionless.
They climbed into the janitor’s closet in the basement of Plessey, out into the hall, upstairs to the main floor. Late night, snow coming down hard.
“Snow day tomorrow,” Izzie said, “for sure.”
She led him out the door and onto the quad, the snow in her hair, on her eyelashes. “Kiss me,” she said. “Kiss me right now.”
He did. Everything was all right, would be all right; whatever problems there were lost their power, like normal forces on a snow day, just as Izzie had said. He loved her, no doubt about it, and would have said so; but she was already gone, running across the quad toward Lanark, snow falling behind her like curtains.
In the morning snow still fell, but not as hard. Nat put on his boots, warm and waterproof, sixteenth-birthday present from his mom, now a little tight, and walked over to the student union cafeteria. Breakfast smells woke him up. He piled food on his tray-scrambled eggs, bacon, corn flakes, English muffin, banana, milk, juice, coffee. The cashier took his meal card, swiped it through the machine, swiped it again, once more. “Card’s blocked,” she said.
“Got a block on it.”
“Have to ask the financial office.”
“But it’s Sunday.”
“Comes to four twenty-five.”
But Nat didn’t have $4.25 on him, had no money at all, and the shoe in his closet was empty. He’d used up all his money getting to the airport and back, would have no more until his next check from the Alumni Office, due the next day.
“Can I owe you?”
“I’ll pay tomorrow.”
“The machine don’t allow that.”
All at once he was very hungry. “I could leave a note, and my student ID.”
“Won’t work.” She put a hand on his tray.
Nat abandoned it, walked away. As he went out the door he glanced back, saw the cashier chewing on a piece of his bacon. That put him in a good mood, a mood that lasted all the way home through the snow. He even took off his gloves, made a snowball, and threw it at Emerson, hitting his oxidized copper head from fifty feet.
He sat at his desk, opened Beyond Good and Evil to where he’d left off, part two, “The Free Spirit,” section 30. His mind felt sharp, much sharper than usual, so sharp he noticed the change. Our supreme insights, he read, must-and should! — sound like follies, in certain cases like crimes- Nat’s gaze left the page as he remembered Professor Uzig referring to this same passage on Aubrey’s Cay, and, as it left the page, happened on the blinking phone light, indicating a message in voice mail.
He checked, found one.
His mom. “Nat? Please call as soon as you-when you can. Okay? It’s me. Mom.”
Eight twenty-five, 6:25 at home. Too early to call. But something was wrong; he could hear that much. Then it hit him: Patti. Something’s gone wrong with Patti. She would never do anything to hurt herself, never-say it right-commit suicide, not Patti; but then he recalled a girl at Clear Creek a few years ahead of him who had committed suicide, and how everyone in the halls had said they couldn’t believe it, not someone like her.
He phoned home.
His mom answered in the middle of the first ring; probably the phone on her bedside table, but there was no sleep in her voice. “Nat?” she said. “Nat.”
“Hi, Mom. I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Oh, no, I’ve been up all-no, you didn’t wake me.”
“What’s wrong, Mom? Is it Patti?”
There was a pause. He knew she was doing that long slow blink. “Patti? I haven’t heard from Patti.”
“I’ve let you down.”
“That couldn’t happen, Mom.”
She started crying. “I’m so sorry.”
Nat just waited. He didn’t have a clue.
She got herself under control. “I lost my job.”
That made no sense. She’d worked for Mr. Beaman for fifteen years. “Did Mr. Beaman retire?” Stupid question: Mr. Beaman was much too young to retire.
“He… he let me go.”
Mr. Beaman fired his mom?
“I was getting stale. That’s what he said. He hired someone much fresher. Barely older than you, Nat.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“I begged him.”
“The day after Christmas. That’s when he… he did it. I’ve been looking for work ever since, but there’s nothing. And meanwhile the bank found out-why wouldn’t they, he does all their closings-and they called in the home equity loan.”
Nat found himself doing something he’d never done in his life: the long slow blink. When his eyes opened, he saw that it had stopped snowing.
“This was Monday, the day before I was going to mail the check for the second semester.”
“How can they do that?”
“The bank? Change in financial status-it’s all in the fine print, all legal.” She started crying again. He’d hardly ever heard her cry, not since he was a kid, couldn’t stand it. “I’ve let you down so bad.”
“No you haven’t, Mom. Stop saying that.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t keep you there, Nattie. You have to come home.”
“A living thing desires above all to vent its strength.” Identify the quotation; what does it imply about the creation of moral values?
A problem, maybe not like any other; still, a problem, and he was good at solving problems, wasn’t he?
He was hungry. There was only the granola bar untouched by Patti, still lying on the bedside crate. He didn’t want it; a granola bar, yes, even three or four, with a tall glass of cold milk to wash them down, but not this particular granola bar.
Nat dressed in warm clothes, went for a walk. A long walk-temperature cold and dropping, the sky brilliant now, its blue almost glaring-through pockets of the campus he hadn’t yet seen. After some time, he wandered down the north, sunless side of College Hill, across some railroad tracks, and into what they called the flats. A dismal place, he saw, bringing to mind the town he’d come from, although his town couldn’t be called dismal, could it? He thought about the yellow legal pad in the kitchen at home, on which he and his mom had done the figures; he thought about the figures themselves, still clear in his memory. He thought about the home equity loan. He shifted numbers around in his head, began to feel the cold.
His mind kept returning to that home equity loan. He was forgetting something, but what? He walked back up to the campus, trod every path, the wind picking up now from the west, lifting some of the new snow, blowing it around; trod every path and fought the impulse to commit it all to memory. He walked until the western sky turned orange and the tree branches went black, but didn’t solve the home equity loan problem.
The answer didn’t come until he was back on the quad, almost at the main Plessey door. The problem wasn’t with the home equity loan itself, he finally realized, but the original mortgage on the house. How would they make the payments now? Specifically, how would they make the payments without him going back and finding a job? That meant that even coming up with money to pay the bills at Inverness wouldn’t be good enough. Thinking had only made the problem worse.
Back in his room, he took off his boots, warm boots but a little tight, which was why his feet were blue. He rested them on the radiator, gazed out the window as shadows fell over the campus, the golden dome on Goodrich Hall holding the last of the light. Later the moon rose. He ate the granola bar.
Nat was at the financial office the next morning, 8:00 A.M. He told the story of his mom’s job and the home equity loan.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said.
Nat could tell she meant it. “That’s all right,” he said.
“I feel so bad,” she went on, “whenever something like this happens. The good news is that as a student in good standing, you’re welcome back at any time, any time, that is, after the resolution of these financial difficulties.”
And the bad news?
“I wish there was something we could do,” she said.
What about making up the difference, he thought, just till the end of the semester? I’ll work two jobs this summer, maybe three, and… But he didn’t say any of that, was already on his feet. They’d been generous with him; wouldn’t they do it if they could? He couldn’t make himself ask for more; and pointless, too, when the answer had already been given.
Nat picked up his check in the Alumni Office, cashed it at the Student Union, filled a tray: bacon and eggs, French toast, cornflakes, juice, milk, coffee; paid cash. He sat at a table by the window. Someone had left the campus newspaper, the Insider, behind. He started reading automatically: he’d eaten many meals alone growing up, liked to read at the same time. The lead story was about a survey of the current activities of last year’s graduates. They were impressive.
Creme de la creme.
Nat stopped reading. He heard talk all around him, student talk rising from other tables. There was only one other solitary eater, a middle-aged man in heavy olive-green work clothes, warming himself over a bowl of something steaming. Nat’s appetite vanished. He left the rest of his food untouched despite all his mom had taught him about waste, despite how hungry he thought he’d been.
Monday: bio, English, econ. He cut them all. Hadn’t paid for them was the fact of the matter.
Nat knocked on the door of Professor Uzig’s office in Goodrich Hall.
He opened the door.
“Ah, Nat.” Blue blazer, blue fountain pen; white shirt, white paper. “How nice to see you. Do we have an appointment?”
“Something’s come up.”
“You intend to drop the course.”
“Drop the course?”
“Your friend-Ferg, is it? — has preceded you.”
“He dropped the course?”
“Within the hour, but still, well before the deadline, and therefore no harm done.”
“I’m not dropping the course,” Nat said. “Not intentionally.”
Professor Uzig looked interested.
“I love the course.” He’d meant to say like. “Nietzsche…”
“I’d barely heard of Nietzsche before I came here. Do you realize that?” That just came bursting out. And more: “Izzie’s right. He was a sweet man.” What was this? He was suddenly close to tears; hadn’t cried since he was a little boy.
Professor Uzig watched him. Nat could sense the power of his mind. He made his face a mask, watched him back.
“Sweet,” said the professor. “A remarkable observation. Izzie’s a remarkable young woman.”
Professor Uzig paused. Nat said nothing.
“Grace is remarkable too,” Professor Uzig went on. “Both remarkable, as one might expect, each in her own way, as one might not.” The professor smiled, as though just happening upon something witty. Nat didn’t: it was the plain truth.
“A sweet man-perhaps true, to some extent,” said Professor Uzig. “But of no use to him in the end. Sweetness is a self-defeating characteristic in combination with genius of that order.”
Nat understood perfectly: Because ambition should be made of sterner stuff. He kept that to himself.
“But you’re not here to bat around peripheral ideas. You came to deliver your unintentional rationale for dropping the course.”
Nat told him. Professor Uzig had a way of listening that Nat had felt before, as though some powerful device, like a radio telescope, was at work. He’d felt it at Aubrey’s Cay, in the classroom under the dome, in Professor Uzig’s dining room on College Hill. He didn’t feel it now.
“That’s the story, then?” said Professor Uzig.
Did he no longer look interested? Was he disappointed, as though the account lacked drama, originality, or something else he valued? A weird idea, even paranoid, Nat decided: his imagination was out of control.
“That’s the story.”
“Very considerate of you to tell me in person,” said Professor Uzig.
Nat didn’t quite get that, wondered where it was leading. When it led nowhere, he said: “I thought you might have some ideas.”
“Ideas? Of what sort?”
“Some way I could stay.”
“This seems to be a purely financial matter.”
He paused as though expecting a reply, so Nat said, “Yes.”
“Those I avoid,” said Professor Uzig.
There was nothing wrong with Nat’s imagination.
He went back to his room in Plessey Hall. Almost immediately he thought of a modification for his bio experiment, a new test run conducted at a higher temperature that might Forget it.
Nat began packing his stuff, first actually folding the odd thing, but soon packing only in his head, staring out the window. Snow lay deep on the quad. Some students were building a huge mound, or ramp, as he realized after a while, a ramp leading up to a tall window over one of the entry pediments of Lanark. He heard laughter and shouting; condensation clouds rose from their mouths; the sunshine was dazzling.
The tall window over the pediment opened and someone emerged; flew out, really, surfing down the ramp on a cafeteria tray. A girl: her hands outspread, body poised, balanced-actually in some control of the tray. It was Izzie. She hit the soft snow at the end of the ramp, went airborne, dove like a surfer bailing out. A male student, two male students hurried to help her, but she was up on her own, laughing and covered with snow, before they reached her.
Nat turned away.
He was good at solving problems. What about calling Mrs. Smith? What about calling Mr. Beaman? What about calling his mom again, to be sure he’d heard right? Could he put her through that? No.
That left winning the lottery. He didn’t have a ticket, had never bought one.
“I don’t get it,” Grace said.
They were down in the cave, the three of them, that night.
“It’s pretty simple,” Nat said.
“You have to go home?” Izzie said. “I don’t understand that part at all.”
“Tomorrow?” said Grace.
“Or the next day. I still have to change my ticket.” His return ticket, to have been used at the end of the semester.
“Home equity loan?” Izzie said. “What is that, exactly?”
Nat explained again.
“But what’s it got to do with Inverness?” Grace said. “It should be none of their business.”
He went over that too.
“And I thought you were on scholarship anyway,” Izzie said.
“Partial. This is about the rest of it.”
“The rest of what?” Izzie said.
“Tuition. Fees. Room and board.”
“Partial?” said Grace. “Can’t they make it complete?”
Nat shook his head. “But I can come back under the old terms whenever we get this straightened out.”
“Like next week?” Izzie said.
“It’s a technicality, then,” Grace said.
Nat smiled. “Next year at the earliest.”
“Next year?” said Izzie.
“You’re leaving Inverness,” Grace said, “just like that?”
“You talk like I’m doing something whimsical.”
“Aren’t you?” Grace said. “This is silly. How much money are we talking about?”
Izzie nodded, as though a shrewd point had been raised. “Good question,” she said. “How much?”
“Over seven thousand dollars.”
They turned to him, each doing that raised-eyebrow thing, Grace the left, Izzie the right.
“This is about seven thousand dollars?” Grace said.
“Closer to eight.”
Grace and Izzie laughed.
“You,” they said together.
“I don’t get it,” Nat said.
“He doesn’t get it,” said Grace. “What’s in the account, Izzie?”
“Our bank account, here at school.”
“Do we have one? I’ve just been using the ATM in Baxter.”
“There must be a bank account,” Grace said. “What does it say on the checkbook?”
“Checkbook?” said Izzie.
Nat held up his hand. “It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t take anything from you.”
“You couldn’t?” Grace said, her glance going quickly to Izzie.
“You don’t really want to be here,” Izzie said. “Is that it?”
Didn’t she know better than that? And how it would be without her? “That’s not it.”
“What I said. I couldn’t take money.” They looked blank. His gaze went to the big oil painting: at that moment Grace and Izzie were almost as unreal to him as the nudes, the fauns, the centaur behind the tree.
“You wouldn’t be taking it,” Grace said.
“We’d be giving it,” said Izzie.
“That’s what can’t happen.”
Silence. They stared at him.
Izzie cocked her ear. “What was that?”
“What?” said Nat.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Grace said.
They listened, heard nothing.
“I have an idea,” Grace said. “What if it was in the form of a loan?”
“A loan!” said Izzie. “You could pay it back later, down the road, whenever.”
“It’s no different.”
“Sure it is,” said Izzie. “Completely different. This would be like the home equity thing.”
“A Nat equity loan,” said Grace.
That was why. “No,” Nat said. “And there are other complications.” He told them about the mortgage payments that had to be made, the utility bills, the food, the car expenses, all of it out of his mom’s pay, now cut off.
They made identical flapping motions with their hands, as though shooing flies.
“This is-” Izzie began.
“-ridiculous,” said Grace.
“What about talking to Leo?” Izzie said.
“Forget it,” said Grace.
“Why do you say that?” Nat asked.
“I talked to my-our father,” Grace said. “He knows all about Helen Uzig, Brooklyn, the whole thing. He checked Leo out when discussions about this faculty chair endowment started getting serious. Leo grew up in Brooklyn, family owned a dry-cleaning business-or was it a candy store? — went to City College of New York, Ph. D. Columbia, got a job at Inverness, where Helen, not Uzig at the time, was head of the phil department. Head of the phil department, and had some money, too. Made him shave off that ludicrous walrus mustache. It’s her house, of course.”
“Does this mean that Ferg guy’s right?” said Izzie. “He’s some kind of fake?”
“Fake?” Nat said. “He’s a brilliant teacher. Anyone can see that. Besides, he’s famous, in philosophical circles. I’ve looked him up.”
“Then go see him,” Grace said.
Nat didn’t answer.
“See?” said Grace.
“See what? It has nothing to do with his qualities as a teacher.”
“Nietzsche would disagree,” Grace said.
Nat was thinking about that when Izzie said: “So what’s he going to do?”
Nat wasn’t sure who she meant.
“About the endowment?” Grace said. “Take his time deciding. Quote.”
Izzie nodded, as though that made sense to her. Nat doubted that either of them really knew what a home mortgage was, but they had no trouble understanding whatever manipulations were going on between Mr. Zorn and Professor Uzig, or Mr. Zorn and the phil department, or Mr. Zorn and Inverness, or whatever it was. Maybe it was a simple matter of Mr. Zorn delaying his decision until after the girls had graduated. Nat discounted that: a small-town, been-nowhere kind of notion; he remembered the gas station owner back home with a son in the Clear Creek football program, and the coach’s free fill-ups.
They were both watching him.
“You’re not trying to find a way,” Grace said.
“I am.” Nat’s voice rose, taking him, taking them all, by surprise.
“You can’t just go,” Izzie said. “You’re here. You’re right here.”
“This kind of thing happens. I’m not the first.”
“So what?” said Grace. She rose. “Let’s have a drink. We’ll think better.”
She poured from the oldest bottle yet, Domaine des Forges, 1893; Izzie wound up the record player, put on “Caro Nome.” Nat didn’t think any better, but probably because he hadn’t eaten, the drink’s effect was immediate.
“We’re lucky,” Izzie said.
“Because we have money?” said Grace. “They say that causes problems of its own.”
“But they’re problems of freedom,” Izzie said. “Other people don’t even get to those.”
They both turned to him, awaiting confirmation from the land of other people. He suspected it wasn’t that simple, but before he could organize his thoughts, Grace said:
“She’s right. Home equity, mortgages, all that step-by-step bullshit-by the time most people get past it, life is over. Piss on that. Working for decades just to get-just hoping to get-where Izzie and I are right now.”
“That makes me feel better,” Nat said.
Izzie laughed, then Grace. “Here’s to the problems of freedom,” Grace said.
They drank. Izzie restarted “Caro Nome.” “Unless,” she said, turning from the record player, “Nat gets lucky too.”
“In what way?” said Grace.
“I don’t know. Writes a best-seller or something.”
Nat was astonished: he’d never mentioned wanting to write to anyone.
Grace and Izzie looked at each other. Nat had the crazy idea that for a moment their brains had hooked up, doubling normal human power.
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” said Grace.
“This isn’t about seven thousand dollars,” said Izzie.
“Or scholarships, home equity, watching our pennies,” said Grace. “It’s about getting all that out of the way.”
“In one stroke,” said Izzie.
“I thought of Powerball,” Nat said.
They glanced at him, said nothing. Grace got up, walked over to Izzie by the record player, refilled her glass, came to Nat on the couch, refilled his, started to refill her own-and dropped the bottle. A heavy, cut-glass bottle that just slipped from her hand, smashed at her feet.
She didn’t seem to notice. “I’m having a thought,” she said.
“Uh-oh,” said Izzie.
“Shut up,” said Grace. “It’s-it’s so good. And it’s all right here, even the sound track.”
Izzie’s eyes widened; maybe she saw it coming. Nat didn’t.
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“We’ll kidnap Izzie.”
“For God’s sake.”
“Or me, then. It doesn’t matter. We’ll kidnap me for ransom.”
“How much?” said Izzie.
“I don’t know,” Grace said. “Tuition, room and board, home equity, mortgage, miscellaneous-how about a million dollars?”
“Sure that’s enough?” said Izzie.
“In terms of the expenses?” Grace said. “Or do you mean-”
“-what a real kidnapper would ask. It has to look realistic, doesn’t it?”
“You’re way ahead of me, Izzie.”
Izzie looked pleased.
“This is a joke, right?” Nat said.
“A joke?” said Grace. “Is that still a negative word in your lexicon? Shouldn’t our supreme insights-”
“-sound like follies,” Izzie said. She giggled, a little giggle just like Grace’s, but that Nat heard now for the first time from her.
“Like follies,” said Grace, “or even crimes.”
She opened the leaded-glass cabinet doors, took out another bottle. “Hey,” she said. “Rouge.” She showed it to Nat.
“Is it a good one?” Izzie said.
“Who knows?” said Grace, looking around for the corkscrew, not spotting it immediately.
“Wait,” Nat said, because he knew. Mr. Zorn’s 1962 bottle of the same wine was worth $2,500. And therefore “Not to worry,” said Grace, striking the neck of the bottle sharply against the edge of a table. It snapped off; she found new glasses, poured.
And therefore that might have been tuition, room, and board right there. Was there more, even one bottle? Nat checked the cabinet, found none.
They drank. “My God,” said Grace.
“Like having a drink with the czar or something,” said Izzie.
The things she sometimes said: perfect, at least to his ear.
Grace raised her glass. “To crimes and follies.”
“You’re serious,” said Nat.
“Why not?” said Grace.
“Why not? Because it’s wrong.”
“Is it?” said Izzie; that surprised him a little; perhaps things would have been different had it been Grace, but it was Izzie. Or if he had eaten more than a granola bar in the past two days, or hadn’t been drinking nectar on an empty stomach, or hadn’t been drinking at all since he’d never been much of a drinker, or this or that. “First of all, it’s not much money,” Izzie said, “nothing at all to him. He wouldn’t even notice.”
“It would do him good,” Grace said.
Izzie glanced at her. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
After a pause, Izzie continued. “Take that horse farm-how much do you think that’s costing?”
“And we don’t even ride anymore,” said Grace.
“Second, there’s no victim, no real crime, no one gets hurt or even scared.”
“I just hide down here for a day or two,” said Grace, “there’s some sort of ransom demand, Izzie goes to pick up the money, I reappear, ka-boom. Nothing’s real.”
“And third,” said Izzie, “it’s just.”
“Like land reform in Latin America,” said Grace.
“Exactly,” said Izzie. “What fortune didn’t start with a little hanky-panky?”
“Hanky-panky?” said Grace, and started to laugh; then Izzie started too, and finally Nat. It seemed like the funniest combination of syllables ever uttered. They laughed till they cried.
Then they sat quietly for a few moments. Izzie looked at Nat, right into his eyes. “Fourth, you can stay.” Nat met her gaze, the candlelight catching those gold flecks in her irises, kept meeting it until he felt Grace watching.
“The best part, of course,” said Grace. “And all those worries-home equity, mortgage, your mother’s job-”
“Finis,” said Izzie.
“So,” said Grace, “how about it?”
Nat was silent. It wasn’t the money itself, but the freedom, just as Izzie had said. To be free of that yellow legal pad and future legal pads with their columns of figures adding up to worry, constriction, settling for second-best, or less. What was that cliche? Play the cards you’re dealt. He’d been dealt a new hand. He’d entered this world of Grace and Izzie where some words- money, for one-had a different meaning. Money perhaps the most different of all: a world where a cash machine was no more than a box where you pushed buttons and out came money, as demanded.
“Or maybe this place is a bit too much,” Grace said to Izzie. “Maybe he’s not that ambitious.”
Izzie turned to him.
That word: and the stern stuff that went with it. To be sweet and brilliant, a self-defeating combination. And if not sweet and brilliant, at least reasonably kind and fairly smart. He had a horrible vision of dying promise, promise dying, dying down the years, its first stage the long flight home. Come east but hadn’t cut it, for one reason or another. The candles, dozens of them, burned, the old wine glowed in the fine glasses, Galli-Curci sang her song from Rigoletto, romantic and alien at once: their sound track. If he went home? It would be the end of him and Izzie, he didn’t fool himself about that. And other changes: change would follow like falling dominoes. Maybe his mom would never find another job; things like that happened every day. Then he’d be working full time. Living at home. Night school. And then? What could he shoot for, what would he end up as, best-case scenario? A small-time lawyer like Mr. Beaman? A nauseating prospect. He suddenly knew one thing for sure: he wanted the big time. Perhaps the desire had been in him from the very beginning, but distrusted, denied, disowned, buried. He wanted it, more than Mrs. Smith, Miss Brown, the whole town put together. He remembered then a quotation from Nietzsche, one he’d highlighted a few days before, meaning to raise it with Professor Uzig: The great epochs of our life are the occasions when we gain the courage to rebaptize our evil qualities as our best qualities. Ambition wasn’t necessarily an evil quality; still, he had no need for the professor’s explanation now.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Think about it?” said Izzie, disappointed, even shocked, as though he’d just revealed some unsuspected and damning flaw. Again: if only that had been Grace’s line.
“What do you want me to say?”
Izzie said: “Say yes.”
He said yes.
They drank. The brief exposure to air had turned the Romanee-Conti 1917 into something thin, tasteless, not wine at all.
“God is refuted but the devil is not”-inevitable conclusion of Nietzschean philosophy?
What the fuck? Freedy almost said it out loud. Bad idea, of course, with him at the spyhole and big sister, little sister, and the college kid on the other side, like in a dollhouse. Freedy knew about dollhouses because there’d been one in his room, his room with the wall paintings and the “Little Boy” poem, when he was very young. Some theory of his mother’s about boys’ toys and girls’ toys, making boys into girls, world peace, more of her crazy shit. He’d smashed it to bits, of course, but only when he’d gotten a little older. Before that, he’d kind of played with it, reaching in, moving the tiny people around, maybe undressing that straw-haired one in the red-and-white checked skirt, and the boy one in the blue overalls, and then… His memory got hazy. But the point was he knew about dollhouses, knew about looking down on the world like a giant, hey! — like God. It was pretty cool.
Like God. Amazing.
Pretty cool, to stare through the spyhole, watch a whole kind of movie happening. Hey! — God the movie nut. Amazing. But there was a downside, he knew that already: not an easy job, what with all the information, coming so fast, so confusing, even for someone with his kind of brainpower. He felt a moment’s passing respect for God: who’d want to do this forever?
Confusing things, like some situation involving the college kid, impossible to understand. Home equity loans, tuition, rooms, boards, seven grand, a lost checkbook. Didn’t add up.
Unless that seven grand was lying around somewhere. Now that would be nice. Freedy was thinking how nice it would be-seven grand, three hundred per laptop, how many laptops was that? — when the college kid looked up, looked him right in the fucking eye. Or almost; his gaze slid up the wall a foot or two, fixed on something Freedy couldn’t see.
But a close call.
And then right away, another: he had to sneeze. What was going on? Did he have allergies all of a sudden, like those women whose pools he’d cleaned in California? He put his finger under his nose the way you were supposed to. That worked, or almost worked: the sneeze that came was tiny, made no sound at all.
Except little sister got a funny look on her face. Smash. Ka-boom. He could be through that wall in a second.
But the moment passed. Freedy’s muscles relaxed, just hung on his bones, heavy and still. Felt good.
Felt good, but that didn’t help him deal with the confusing things. Confusing things, like big sister and little sister were swatting flies or something, and then: Leo. Leo Uzig. This name kept popping up. Professor. On his laptop. Taught a course his mother thought Ronnie was taking. Ronnie? How could that be? Had a wife. Helen Uzig. A wife with money. Wife made him… made him what? What was that? Shave… shave off that-some word he didn’t catch and then two words he did- walrus mustache.
Something walrus mustache. The something word sounded a bit like ridiculous, but wasn’t. He tried to recall it exactly, gave up.
But walrus mustache: he’d caught that.
Plus it turned out Leo Uzig was famous. And his wife had money.
Confusing: but Freedy was an amazing person. Why? Because, despite all the confusion, with all this information whipping by, the moment he heard that Leo Uzig’s wife had money, what was the first thing he thought of? Yes. Money. Specifically, the envelope he’d steamed open, so wisely, it turned out, with the two C’s inside.
It was all coming together. Everything had a meaning. He’d heard that. He’d also heard that nothing meant anything. So what? None of that mattered. What mattered was his future. Pool company. Florida. Stick, stick, stick. And as for getting his hands on big sister and little sister, showing them what a man was, a real man, a buff, diesel, andro-popping, meth-tweaking fuckin’ animal like him? That would be nice.
Meanwhile, he was missing stuff. Action central, Freedy, action central. Action central, like the room with all the monitors, where you could watch everything coming together.
Someone else’s name came up, a name even stranger than Uzig; sounded Chinese maybe, Ni Chi. One of them, Uzig or Ni Chi, was a fake, but before Freedy could sort that out, the dolls in the dollhouse were drinking and talking about money again.
Fine with him, except that the music started up, with that horrible singing.
Turned out that big sister and little sister had money, possibly from hitting the Powerball number. Seven grand meant nothing to them, chicken feed. Why would it, you hit the Powerball number? Maybe this was a celebration. That would explain the wild look on big sister’s face-she was something, drop-dead, fuck-you and wild. Was she a little drunk too? Or a lot. She dropped the bottle; it shattered on that thick purple rug with the blue flowers, but none of them seemed to notice.
And then. Whoa. Kidnapping? A million dollars? They were afraid of kidnappers, because of the Powerball score? No, no no. They… they weren’t afraid of kidnappers-they were planning a kidnapping of their own! To get their hands on the Powerball money? And kidnapping who, exactly? That had to be important.
What was this? They were planning to kidnap one of themselves? Which one? Little sister? Big sister? Before he could get a handle on that, they shifted to the home equity thing again. Out came another bottle. More breaking glass. Were they all stoked on drugs or something? What drugs? Freedy wanted to know.
Something was going down. Big sister and little sister were hot. They were physical. Couldn’t keep still. Freedy could see that. The college kid, he was the still one. Dragging his feet about something or other. A wimp, of course, and so breakable in two. First Freedy would let him have a good one, right in the gut. Then A million dollars wasn’t much money?
No victim? No crime?
Big sister? They were going to kidnap big sister? Maybe yes, maybe no. A strange kind of kidnapping. Big sister was… going to hide out right here, down in the dollhouse? Did he get that right?
And then what? Little sister picks up the money?
Ka-boom? Big sister said ka-boom, the exact same word that had been on his mind at the exact same moment. Had to be an omen, an omen of the very best kind.
Then: they were laughing their heads off. Why? A little hanky-panky. They were going to get naked and fuck each other’s brains out, after all, as he’d secretly hoped, all of them this time, and, for Christ sake, let it be right there in the big room, instead of sneaking off to the bedroom the way little sister and the college kid had last time, where Freedy couldn’t see, not even hear very well.
Freedy waited for the hanky-panky to begin. They took their sweet time. A little bit of talk, mostly silence and waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for the college kid to stop dragging his feet. That was it. Freedy got it now: as soon as the college kid said yes to whatever they wanted him to say yes to, the sisters would come across.
Say it, you asshole. To get those two to come across who wouldn’t say whatever it took? Yes was easy.
The college kid said it. Finally. And guess what? They didn’t come across. Women. Did the college kid know how to handle that, did he get pissed, slap them around? No. Instead they all had another drink, like the best of friends, then started blowing out the candles, climbing that rope ladder, clearing out. Next minute, they were gone, leaving nothing but the blackness, the smell of melting wax, the horrible singing. Nothing had happened, nothing at all. Was it just some sort of game, more college shit? What the fuck?
Maybe because of all these questions, all this confusion, Freedy got a little lost on his way out of the tunnels. He thought he was in F, headed for the subbasement of building 87, at the edge of the backside of the campus and therefore closest to home. Problem was, it took way too long. He finally flicked on his light to see where he was. Good thing: he was in Z, two steps-two goddamn steps-before the drop-off near building 13. He shone the light over the edge, illuminating the steel ladder bolted to the wall and the brick floor thirty feet below, at least, where some workie had broken his neck long ago.
Don’t think he was scared or anything like that. First, his instincts-he was a fuckin’ animal-had protected him, always would. Second, even if he fell, so what? Think he wouldn’t land on his feet, bounce right up? ’Course he would. He shut the light off immediately, just to show the kind of… started with p — predator! Yes! The kind of predator he was, like the wolf or the tiger.
Freedy climbed out of a ventilation hood behind the hockey rink. The snow had stopped falling but lay all over the place, on every roof and tree branch, and piled high on the ground. He hated snow. He hated the cold. A cold wind was blowing from the west, right in his face as he left the campus, started down the Hill. The west, where California was: explain why California was warm while the wind that came from it was cold. There was a lot of shit they didn’t know.
A million. A cool million. Freedy understood the expression now. A million made you cool, inside and out, simple as that. He pictured his corporate HQ, a blue tower, blue being the color of water, eight or nine stories high, with a gym on the roof, overlooking the ocean. And the name: he needed a name. Freedy’s Fine Pool Business. Freedy’s First-Rate Pools and Maintenance. What was that expression she used? First water. Freedy’s First Water Corporation. Nah. Then it hit him. Aqua — or was it agua? — meant water, didn’t it? The Aqua Group. The classiness of that Group part! Or maybe the Agua Group. Which sounded better? He tried them out loud, several times, as he passed the Glass Onion, crossed the tracks, entered the flats, turned onto the old street. Someone was having septic problems, often happened down by the river; he could smell their shit through all that snow.
Freedy went into the kitchen. A fuckin’ mess. Every dish dirty, hardened yellow batter caked to this and that, fridge door hanging open. Why should he close it? Had a pig for a mother. He sniffed once or twice: a pot-smoking pig. And the ants were out, ants in winter, which was pretty unusual.
He switched on the lights in his bedroom, tried to ignore the wall paintings-unicorns, toadstools, dopehead elves, the lion man, the poem with that planet spinning, out of fucking control. He was so busy ignoring things that at first he didn’t notice that the laptop, which he’d left on the bed, was gone.
That laptop was worth three hundred bucks. More important, much more important now, he wanted to have another look at what was on the screen. So where was it? Not there. Crash. Or there. Splatter. So where the fuck was it? Was it possible that someone had ripped him off? Ripped him off? A good way to die. Oh, to get his hands on whoever it was: a killing desire swelled rapidly inside him, like he would burst, and what was this? He had: blood was seeping out of his hand. Or maybe it was just a cut, by-product of the laptop search. Still, a mystical moment: everything did have meaning.
He went into the hall. Next door was the bathroom, next door to that her bedroom. He knocked. No answer. No light shone under the door, but he could hear music, tinny and faint, the way it sounded leaking from headphones, and he could smell pot, stronger than in the kitchen. He opened the door.
Lights out. A good thing: darkness hid the paintings on her walls, paintings he hadn’t seen in years, and never wanted to again. One of them was the picture of his birth, based on that photo she had. A circle of women, all naked, although it couldn’t have been that way in real life, all naked like witches with their unshaved legs and armpits, and in the middle her with her legs spread, and one of the witches holding him up, bawling and red.
His eyes adjusted to the weak light penetrating the shade from the street lamp. She lay in bed, eyes closed, singing along to the music in the headphones, singing that came and went, more like muttering, but he identified it: “Winterlude,” fucking Bob Dylan song he hated. Every winter, from the first flake till the last melting patch in the trees, “Winterlude.” He thought of ripping the headphone jack out of the machine, was seriously considering it, when he noticed the green light flashing under her bed. He bent down-so close he could smell her breath, but there was no chance of her hearing him, not with Bob Dylan in her ears-and retrieved the laptop.
Freedy took the laptop to his room, opened it, pressed the on button. Words popped up on the screen, but nothing about Leo Uzig: snow falls like velvet down
More of her poetry shit. Were all poets ignorant? Down, for example: everyone knew it was made from goose or duck feathers, not velvet. He hit various keys, combinations of keys, trying to make the poetry go away, trying to find out what the computer knew about Leo Uzig. For example, he typed Leo Uzig, spelling both names several ways since he couldn’t remember exactly what he’d glimpsed on the screen that first time, then hitting control; or hitting control first and then the names. But he couldn’t even make the poetry disappear. He closed the thing, not hard, but hard enough to send a message.
Why should he be a computer expert? Soon, very soon, he’d be hiring them. On the other hand, he needed one now. What about Ronnie? It was possible.
Freedy walked over to Ronnie’s, less than a mile away, its yard backing onto the river. The river showed through the gaps between the low shadows of the unlit houses, frozen whiteness under a black sky. Late, probably very late, but Freedy wasn’t the least bit tired; full of energy, in fact. The whole town sacked out except for him: showed how much stronger he was, stronger than the whole town. They’d all faded, collapsed, passed out, while he still patrolled the streets.
Ronnie’s place was dark like the others. Not much of a place, but because of the slope down to the river it had that basement, with sliders around the back, unlike most of the places in the flats, the land being so goddamn wet. That was where Freedy went, around to the back: Ronnie wasn’t the type who’d remember to lock the sliders.
But he had. That Ronnie. The thing with sliders, though, Freedy thought, as he got his hand on the frame and bent his knees a little, the thing with sliders was Pop. Scrape. In he went. That Ronnie. Would he even remember Ronnie in a year or two? He tried to imagine himself sitting in his blue HQ, Agua Group, and remembering Ronnie, a Portagee with that hairy thing growing under his lower lip. No way.
Freedy avoided the bench press, a low shadow in the darkness, heard drip-dripping close by, went upstairs to the kitchen. The house was quiet, the only sound the fridge humming away. Hey! He was hungry. Freedy opened the fridge, found a tub of KFC, polished off a drumstick and a wing-bones and all when it came to the wing, just a small one.
Fueled up, he walked down the hall to Ronnie’s bedroom, laptop in hand. Door closed: he opened it, real silent, first turning the knob all the way. In the darkness, he could make out Ronnie’s head, a dark circle on the less dark rectangle of the pillow. The surprise was the second dark circle on the pillow next to Ronnie’s.
Freedy, gliding softly over to the side of the bed with that second sleeper, remembered the cigar smoker in the Santa Monica barnothing surprises me anymore- remembered that was supposed to be his attitude too. But still, he was only human. Careful, gentle, he got hold of a corner of the bedcovers, pulled them back, real slow.
A girl. Asleep on her side, facing Ronnie, and: her hand wrapped around his limp dick. A girl with a big butt, light enough to see that, a big butt that reminded him of Cheryl Ann. In a flash he figured it out. This was the sophomore from Fitchville South, the one who hadn’t been ready to go beyond hand jobs. She looked ready now. But to make sure, Freedy flicked on the bedside light.
Oh, yes, good and ready, and in the second or so before their eyes opened, Freedy saw how like Cheryl Ann she was, not just the fat butt, but other things too, especially her age. She was about the same age Cheryl Ann had been back in high school, back when Ronnie had made his little play for her, and he and Ronnie’d had their little rat-tat-tat.
Because of those memories, Freedy’s mood was already changing a bit as their eyes opened, becoming less playful. Ronnie gets the girl: what sense did that make?
Moment they saw him, they both jerked wide awake, made startled noises, Ronnie’s higher-pitched than the girl’s. Very next thing, the girl let go of Ronnie, yanking her hand back off Ronnie’s dick like it was on fire, which it most certainly was not. This was fun.
“Well, well,” said Freedy. “Nothing surprises me anymore.” He laid his hand on that fat butt. Why not? He was a regular guy. Should he get rid of Ronnie for ten minutes or so? Was that what Bill Gates would do? Not when he was on a mission, and Freedy was.
There was a funny sound in the air, electric and silent at the same time. It ended when he took his hand off the girl. At least she’d gotten to feel what a real man felt like, if only for a moment. “Done your homework?” he said to her, which was pretty good. No one laughed, but so what? Not everyone appreciated wit, which was why the entertainment industry always ended up appealing to the lowest common whatever it was. “See you in the kitchen, Ronnie,” he said, “if you’ve got a sec.”
Freedy went to the kitchen, switched on the light, opened the laptop on the table. Gray screen with nothing on it. Ronnie appeared a minute or so later, shirt on backward.
“This is kind of unexpected, Freedy.”
Their eyes met. Ronnie licked his lips. “She’s older than she looks.”
“Do I care?” said Freedy. “It’s your constitutional right. But this isn’t just a social visit.” He hit the on button. “I could use some tech support.”
No answer. Normally, you say something normal like that and the other guy says something back. Freedy looked up from the screen-nothing had happened yet; wasn’t there supposed to be a warm-up routine? — and caught an expression he didn’t like on Ronnie’s face.
“Something on your mind, Ronnie?”
“Thought there was no laptop,” Ronnie said.
He’d forgotten all about that. Made him look stupid, stupid in Ronnie’s eyes. Pissed him off. This whole computer business pissed him off. All he wanted was to find out what it knew about Leo Uzig: how hard could that be? He glanced down at the screen to see how it was getting along with the warm-up, saw a message:
Total system failure. Computer will shut off in ten seconds. All files will be
The screen went black. The green light stopped flashing.
That swelling-up thing, like he was going to burst? He felt it again.
“You want it, Ronnie?”
Ronnie was fingering that hairy thing. “Depends on the terms,” he said.
Ronnie, even Ronnie the pervert, was trying to cut a piece out of him. “These terms,” said Freedy, and flung it across the table. An awkward object for throwing, but Ronnie, so slow, managed not to get out of the way, managed not even to block it, managed to get hit in the head. He lay on the floor.
That was when Freedy remembered something important. “Meant to ask you Ronnie-ever take Phil three twenty-two?”
Freedy found a phone book, looked through the Y ’s and then the U ’s. Uzig. Not one of the spellings he’d tried on the laptop, but there it was, a single listing. More than one way to skin a cat. Not that he’d ever actually skinned a cat. Had skinned a squirrel once, one he’d snared in the woods back of But no time for that now. A single listing, the address up on the Hill, high on the Hill, over on the sunny side.
Dawn was just breaking as Freedy arrived. All that meant was the sky switching from black to dark gray. Still, there was enough light for Freedy to see what a big, solid house it was-nice brickwork, a tall black door with shiny brass fittings, expensive-looking extras all over the place. For a moment he felt a little funny, realized that the swelled-up feeling, like he was going to burst, hadn’t quite gone away. He went around to the back.
“Youth as such is something that falsifies and deceives.” Identify the quotation and discuss in five hundred words. No personal references, please.
Nat woke suddenly in the night. He checked the time, saw that he’d been asleep for less than three hours, rolled over, closed his eyes. Sleep had always come easily to Nat and, if interrupted, returned just as easily. But now he couldn’t get back. Couldn’t get back, although he was tired, and the night was still; even more than that, he could almost feel snow blanketing the roofs and window sills and pediments and cornices, sticking to the friezes and architraves and pilasters and capitals-and all those other architectural features of Inverness for which he now knew the names-surely a sleep-inducing image; but sleep wouldn’t come. Did it have to do with the Romanee-Conti 1917? There was a strange taste in his mouth, strange and unpleasant. Was this the taste of Romanee-Conti, too long bottled up? Nat got out of bed to brush his teeth.
Brushing his teeth meant going through the outer room and into the hall bathroom. He opened the bedroom door, and in the darkness of the outer room saw someone crouching by his desk.
Nat flicked on the overhead light. Not someone, not crouching, but a snowman, normal size for a snowman, a robust snowman with green buttonlike things for a smile. Right away, he felt a chill.
He touched the snowman, making sure the snow was real. It was. A snowman in his room, with a red ballpoint for a nose, a baseball cap on backward for a hat, those green buttonlike things for a smile. First he thought: snow days, Izzie’s snow days, keep on snowing, snow days from now until forever. What sense did that make? Something wrong there. Too much to drink, too little sleep, too mixed up. Therefore, second thought: a prank, a college prank. No frats at Inverness. So who would do this? And why? A lot of work in the middle of the night, just for a prank. On the other hand, there had been frats, or something like them, long ago, and he could easily imagine Grace and Izzie putting in that kind of work, Grace especially. Or Izzie especially, given her snow days; snow days, when the forces relented and indoor snowmen became possible. So he was right back to thought one.
Nat stood in his room, gazing at the snowman. Inverness was silent, a rare thing. No banging of the pipes behind Plessey’s walls, no scraps of talk from above, below, beside, no music drifting by from somewhere, no one quietly typing away, not even traffic sounds from beyond the campus. Nothing was happening, nothing but the snowman silently melting, leaving a growing puddle on Nat’s floor. He plucked one of those green buttonlike things from the snowman’s smile, read the single tiny word stamped on it: Pfizer.
Nat turned to the other bedroom, Wags’s old bedroom. The door was closed. Wasn’t it always open these days? He opened it now.
Wags lay on the bare mattress, reading by flashlight.
“Nattie boy,” he said, sitting up, holding out his hand. “A sight for sore eyes, whatever that might mean.”
Nat shook his hand; hot and moist.
“Keeping busy?” Wags said.
“Still in there pitching?”
Nat was silent. Wags wore a trench coat with a price tag hanging from the sleeve; underneath he had on flannel pajamas and mismatched boots, one an expensive-looking hiking boot-Nat spotted the Timberland logo-the other paint-spattered rubber.
“I’m teaching myself Japanese,” Wags said. He showed Nat what he was reading: a comic book. Two Japanese men were about to torture a Japanese woman. The only word on the page was Eeeeee! “I may get a job in the Ginza district,” Wags said, “or possibly come back here and finish up.”
Nat looked around for luggage, books, any of Wags’s possessions, saw nothing but a hospital bracelet on the floor. He remembered Wags’s mom: Are you really saying you had no idea of the mental state he’s been in?
“Present and accounted for.”
“You all right?”
“Never better, Nattie boy. Better never, if you want the obverse, reverse, perverse. Free verse.” Wags laughed, a little hee-hee-hee that petered out. “Sometimes when my mind gets going…,” he began. There was a long pause. “They tested my IQ,” he said at last. “Off the charts. What’s yours?”
“I don’t know.”
“You forgot?” Wags laughed his new hee-hee laugh again. “That would say it all, wouldn’t it? An answering nonanswer of the truest sort.”
Nat laughed too.
“Did you know I spotted a mistake in a PSAT math section my year?” Wags said.
“That must have been your year too, it occurs to me. In retrospect. There’s also introspect, disrespect, and plain old R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. Remember that question with the hexagon and the isosceles triangle?”
“You remember the question?”
“Nothing wrong with my memory, Nattie boy. Nattie boy-o.”
“Do you remember why you built the snowman?”
Pause, even longer this time. “Right there,” said Wags, “that’s why I don’t like you.”
Nat picked up the hospital bracelet. The name of the place was on it, and a phone number.
Wags watched him. “You’re pissed about Sidney,” he said.
“Sidney Greenstreet. The snowman, if that’s how you want to think of him. He was supposed to be a sumo wrestler, but he ended up like Sidney Greenstreet.”
“Who’s Sidney Greenstreet? Is that what you’re asking? Who’s Sidney Greenstreet? I despair. I give up. I just give up, completely and utterly.” Tears welled up in Wags’s eyes, spilled over onto his cheeks, kept coming.
Nat glanced down at the hospital bracelet in his hand.
“I’m on leave,” Wags said; there were still tears but his voice sounded normal, a combination Nat had never witnessed before. “Paid leave, or maybe administrative leave. Semiauthorized. It’s the medication, Nat-they have all these studies, but they’re clueless about what it feels like inside your head.”
“They let you carry your own pills around?”
Wags gave him a long look. “Still in there pitching,” he said again, but without animosity this time. “No, they don’t let you carry your own pills around. Not officially. But I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll defenestrate Sidney.”
It took Nat a moment or two to figure that one out. “And then?” he said.
“And then we’ll be even.”
Wags got up. They went into the outer room, Wags moving stiffly, as though he’d just returned from football practice. They gazed at the snowman. Footsteps sounded in the hall.
“Gestapo,” Wags whispered. His fingers dug into Nat’s arm.
The door opened. Grace came in, then Izzie. Wags let go.
“We couldn’t sleep-we were so-” They saw Wags, broke off.
“Sight for sore eyes,” Wags said. “To the second power.”
“Back already?” Grace said.
“And raring to go. Remember all the defenestrating we used to do at Choate?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Or maybe it was the next year, when I was… wherever I was. Doesn’t matter. The point is we’re going to defenestrate old Sidney.” He extended his hand toward the snowman, as though presenting a friend.
“Sidney?” said Grace.
Wags’s eyes narrowed. For a moment he looked almost dangerous. “Greenstreet,” he said.
“Looks more like Burl Ives to me,” said Izzie.
“Burl Ives? You know about Burl Ives?” Wags’s eyes went to Izzie, to the snowman, back to Izzie. “You may be right,” he said.
Grace walked over to the snowman, removed one of its green teeth, examined it. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, sticking it back on the snowman, but in the middle of its forehead.
Wags bit his lip. “You are?”
“I want to pick your brain.”
Wags went to the snowman, replaced the green tooth where it belonged. He turned to Grace. “Pick away.”
“Still into movies?” she said.
“More than ever. They’ve got HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, plus a decent video library. Why do you ask?”
“I’m writing an essay.”
“On movies?” said Wags. “What course is that?”
“Independent study,” Grace said. “It’s on plot construction.”
“In kidnapping movies specifically,” Grace said.
“Right,” said Wags. “You’ve got to focus.”
“Seen any?” said Grace.
“Name one I haven’t.”
“Any ransom demand scenes that come to mind?”
“Ransom demand scenes? Like how they go about it?”
“That kind of thing.”
“Excellent subject.” Wags rubbed his hands together. “Can I read it when you’re done?”
“This is so much fun,” Wags said. “What college should be all about.” He paused. “We’re just dealing with ransom-type kidnappings, now, not the sicko or political kinds? Or kidnapping by accident or kidnapping to make a nice little family group?”
“Ransom,” said Grace.
“ Ruthless People, of course. Pretty recent. Judge Reinhold demands five hundred thousand dollars, unmarked and sequentially numbered one-hundred-dollar bills. On the phone. No notifying the cops, of course, that’s pretty standard. There’s High and Low, also on the phone.” Wags smacked his forehead, much too hard. “And my God,” he said. “Kurosawa. Japanese. Patterns, patterns, patterns.” He turned to Izzie. “I may be taking a job in the Ginza district.”
“Lucky you,” Grace said. “What’s High and Low?”
“Haven’t seen High and Low? Where they kidnap the chauffeur’s kid by mistake?” A tiny spray of spittle flew from Wags’s mouth when he sounded the s in mistake. “Thirty million yen, as I recall-going to have to find out what that is in dollars-same nonsequential thing, same specifying the denomination. Speaking of chauffeurs, there’s After Dark My Sweet. Patterns and more patterns. Bruce Dern sends a ransom note. But the kid’s got diabetes and Jason Patric’s escaped from an… asylum.” He fell silent, looked down.
“What does it say in the ransom note?” Grace asked.
No answer. Wags kept looking down, hanging his head, bent like one of those old people who can’t straighten. His eyes got silvery. Nat waved Grace and Izzie away. They backed out of the room, Izzie first, then Grace.
“Maybe you should lie down,” Nat said.
Wags looked up, didn’t seem to notice that the girls had gone, maybe because his eyes were overflowing again. “Don’t you want to hear about Night of the Following Day?”
“Later.” But Nat didn’t want to hear it at all. At that moment, looking at Wags in his misery, Nat knew that the kidnapping thing was out. He didn’t understand the connection, but he knew. “First you’re going to lie down,” he said.
Wags stared at him. “Good idea,” he said at last. “Your very best.” Wags started moving in that stiff way, but not toward his old bedroom. Instead, he went to the snowman, gouged all the pills out of his face in one swipe, threw the window open wide, flung them out. The cold wind blew his hair straight back, as though he were going very fast. Then he had his head out in the night and one foot up on the sill.
Nat grabbed him, pulled him back into the room. Who would have imagined that a skinny kid like Wags would be so strong?
“Jason Patric dies at the end, you asshole,” Wags said, wriggling free. Nat went to grab him again. Wags threw a punch. No one had ever thrown a punch at Nat before. He saw it coming, had time to block it or duck, or at least turn his head and not get hit flush on the nose. But no one had thrown a punch at him before, and this one did hit him flush on the nose. His eyes stung, he saw stars and, stepping back to recover, slipped in the snowman’s puddle and went down.
Wags stood over him in fury. “You’re just like all the others,” Wags said, “only worse.” Then Wags’s foot swung into view and Nat started to roll; the foot with the rubber boot, not the Timberland, thank God — Nat’s last thought for a while.
When he opened his eyes, dawn was breaking on a dark day, hardly lighter than night, and his room was cold. The window was open. His head hurt.
He got up, went to the window, looked out. No sign of Wags, no sign that he’d jumped and been carried off or jumped and walked away. Nothing down there but the baseball cap. Nat turned back to the room. The snowman was gone, the floor where he’d stood almost dry. He closed the window.
What next? His head hurt; he felt slow and stupid. Next would be the hospital bracelet, the phone number, a call. Where had he last seen it? Couldn’t remember. He searched the outer room, searched Wags’s old bedroom, didn’t find the bracelet. Wouldn’t need the bracelet if he could remember the name of the place. But he couldn’t. Or he could call Wags’s mom and get the name of the place from her. Rather than that, he went down on his hands and knees to try again. The door opened.
Grace; no, Izzie, he saw, as she came in from the dark hall and the light hit her hair. Izzie. She looked as though she’d just had eight hours’ sleep followed by one of those runner’s-high workouts; her hair still wet and gleaming from the shower. He rose.
“Nat! What happened to you?”
He resisted the urge to touch it. “I’m fine.”
She glanced around. “Wags cleared out?”
“Good.” She closed the door, lowered her voice. “It’s done.”
“The plan, of course. Sure you’re okay?”
But the plan was out. “Done?” he said. “Done in what way?”
“Don’t worry. Everything went smoothly. Grace called, as me, and said she’d been-” She lowered her voice still more. “-you know, kidnapped. We toyed with the idea of asking for yen, the kind of interesting twist that makes things authentic, but then we-”
“Our father. You’re acting funny, Nat, like you’re hearing this for the first time. Sure you’re-”
“She called as you?”
“Why not? No one can tell us apart on the phone. ‘This is Izzie, something terrible’s happened, I’m so scared,’ blah blah blah, million dollars, sequential, nondenominational, whatever it was, blah blah.” Izzie laughed; she had that untamed look of Grace’s in her eye.
“We have to stop this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We just do.”
“Nat. I told you. It’s done. Grace is hiding down in the cave and the money’s on its way.”
“The money’s on its way?”
“It’s nothing to him-didn’t we mention that? He’s sending someone. Someone gives it to me, I give it to no one, Grace reappears. We get back to normal life. Voila.”
He shook his head. That hurt, and had no other effect.
“You and Wags had a little disagreement, didn’t you?” She came closer, brushed her lips against the tip of his nose, barely touching it. “Give me a kiss.”
He kissed her. They’d kissed maybe dozens of times by now, but never like this.
“The fantasist denies reality to himself, the liar does so only to others.” Illustrate with examples from history or literature.
All those years, growing up in this town-Inverness, the name itself snotty and hateful-all those years and he’d never once been inside a house on the Hill. Been in their yards, as he was in the backyard of Leo Uzig’s house now, the summers he worked for one landscaper or another, but never inside. They had nice yards up on the Hill, and this was a nice one, surprisingly big, with different kinds of trees and a high stone wall. A snow-covered terrace led up to double back doors, heavy and black with brass fittings, like the door at the front. No cheap sliders, no bulkhead with stairs down to the basement, nothing easy. Funny thing, though, about people who lived on the Hill, especially those who’d lived there since the time when no one locked their doors-some still didn’t lock them. Freedy tried the polished brass handle. Locked.
He stepped back, almost knocking over the bird feeder, checked the house, hoping for balconies, windows cracked open an inch or two, maybe a One of the double doors opened. An old woman came out with a bag of birdseed in her hand, saw Freedy, stopped. She was all in white-a long white housecoat, white slippers-except for her hat, red with earflaps sticking out to the side. She looked like somebody’s old gran. He himself had no old gran, his mother’s mother, whoever that might have been, belonging to some earlier life. Not to mention the other side, where The other side. Freedy had maybe the most amazing thought of his whole life, a kind of jump or leap, like you turn the key in the ignition and then you’re there, without doing the actual drive. This, this old thing with the watery eyes and the Kleenex sticking out of her goddamn sleeve, could be his gran! They stared at each other. Freedy knew he should say something, but what? No idea. Had he run into a situation he didn’t know how to handle? That would be a first.
He got lucky-a nice change. The old lady spoke first. “Can I help you, young man?” she said.
“I, uh, represent the Aqua Group,” Freedy said; meant to say Agua, too late.
“We’re happy with what we have now.”
“With what you have now?”
“Poland Spring, I believe. Or possibly Mount Monadnock.”
What the fuck was she- Then he got it. “This is swimming pools,” Freedy said. “I was just checking out your space for possible swimming pool installation.”
“Were you?” she said, making a big thing out of that were, like she was pleasantly surprised.
“But it’s the middle of winter.”
“The early bird,” Freedy said.
The old lady smiled. “How right you are.” She gazed beyond him, scanning the trees in the backyard, the smile slowly fading, but not completely. “Perhaps you can help me,” she said, indicating the birdseed. “Before we get to the actual spiel.”
Freedy took the bag from her, spread seed in the feeder.
“Richie,” she called, in a yoo-hoo kind of voice, although she didn’t say yoo-hoo. “Richie.”
“Richie?” said Freedy, glancing around, seeing no one.
“My cardinal,” said the old lady. “Short for Richelieu, of course, but I don’t have to tell you that.”
“None of my business anyway,” said Freedy.
The old lady laughed. “I love a sense of humor. Swimming pools, you say?”
“But now? In the middle of winter?”
“The early bird,” Freedy said again, since it had worked so well the first time.
The old lady nodded. The sky had brightened slightly and he got a good look at her face. Did he resemble her, at all? “Those folk sayings,” she began; but a crow swooped down at the feeder and she threw up her hands in horror. “Oh, no.”
Freedy took a swat at it. He was quick, yes, and a fuckin’ leg breaker, yes, but not bird-quick, so some luck must have been involved. Good luck-a nice change. Supposing, on top of all his other qualities, he was starting to get lucky too? Shudder to think, whatever that meant.
Some luck must have been involved. Why? Because he caught that crow a pretty good one, not on the button, but close enough. It went down and stayed down, a black feather or two drifting in the air.
“My goodness,” said the old lady, gazing down at the crow, then up at Freedy. “What a competent fellow!”
Freedy tried to think of some aw-shucks folk saying that fit; he knew there must be some, even felt one on the tip of his tongue, but it didn’t come.
“And modest as well,” she said. Yes, even things he didn’t do were paying off. This was the start of a lucky day, had to be. He should buy a lottery ticket, maybe go on Jeopardy.
Something caught her eye, something red. “Good morning, Richie.” The cardinal settled on the rim of the feeder. “Isn’t he the most elegant little man you’ve ever seen?” the old lady said, lowering her voice.
Quicker than a crow, Freedy wondered, or slower? Not the time to experiment. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She turned to him. “I’m glad you agree. Now get on with it.”
“Get on with what?”
“Why, swimming pools. I was a champion swimmer.”
“At Camp Glenwhinnie. Many, many ribbons, red and blue. Do you know Camp Glenwhinnie, Mr…?”
“Just call me Freedy.”
“Freedy. What an interesting name. I don’t believe I’ve met a Freedy before. Camp Glenwhinnie, on Lake-is it a diminutive?”
“Freedy. Is it short for anything?”
“Friedrich, I guess.”
“Friedrich? Is that true?”
“Sure.” How dense could she be? “Like the Freed part’s in both of them,” he explained patiently, reminding himself that she was old.
“I meant is that really your name-Friedrich?”
“Want to see my birth certificate?” he said. Amazing. He actually had the goddamn thing in his pocket, almost pulled it out.
Her laughter, abrupt and unexpected, stopped him. “Aren’t you the funny bunny,” she said. “How about coffee?”
“Sounds good,” said Freedy.
“Excuse the mess,” she said, leading him inside. “It’s everybody’s day off.”
Freedy sat at the kitchen table, in a little nook with a good view of the feeder. There was no mess that he could see. Why would there be in a house on the Hill? It was all very nice. He stretched out his legs, trying to get comfortable. And he did, right away; comfortable, up on the Hill.
“Richie,” called the old lady, although the bird couldn’t possibly hear her, “eat up, there’s a good boy.” The fat red fuck stood on the rim of the feeder, doing nothing.
She gave Freedy coffee, poached eggs on toast, bacon-a gran breakfast. They talked about swimming at Camp Whatever-it-was on some lake whose name he didn’t catch, up in Vermont or maybe New Hampshire.
“What kind of pools do you install?” she said.
“Like what, for example?”
“There’s the Malibu. One of our biggest sellers. If that’s a little too pricey, we’ve got the Miami. The Mediterranean’s pretty popular too.”
“This is so exciting-and they all start with M. More bacon?”
“Why didn’t I think of this before?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“I’ll have to check with Leo.”
“Not because of the purse strings-don’t think that for a minute. But he’s sensitive to noise.”
The old lady nodded toward a framed photograph on the wall. Freedy went over for a look. He saw a guy with wild gray hair, wearing a tuxedo and standing at a podium; behind him sat some famous person whose name escaped Freedy. He peered at the man in the tuxedo. Laid his eyes on him but felt no chill, nothing. Did he resemble this man, at all?
“That was last year, in Vienna,” said the old lady.
“Your son, right?”
He turned to her. She was glaring at him.
“What’s up?” Freedy said.
“I hate when people say that,” she said. “Have always hated, hate now, will hate. Leo is my husband.”
Freedy tried to remember what he’d heard in the dollhouse, all so complicated. “You’re not my gran, then,” he said; said without thinking, the words just popping out.
“Your gran?” said the old lady.
The way she said it pissed Freedy off, all that Hill-and-flats shit, just in her tone of voice. He’d been so nice, so polite, even making sure to eat with his mouth closed. And now this. He whipped out his birth certificate, slapped it on the table in front of her, stabbed his finger at the space marked FATHER. Full name: Unknown.
The old lady-old lady, but Leo Uzig’s wife, and therefore the other woman, the one who’d broken up the family he’d never had-gazed at the sheet of paper with her watery eyes. “Is this the contract?” she said.
“Contract?” The voice-male-came from the kitchen door. Freedy turned quickly, saw Leo Uzig. Not a picture on the wall, but the man. Leo Uzig wore a crimson robe and under it a white shirt and knotted tie, but his feet were bare. His feet: he had the kind of second toes that were longer than the first. Freedy’s were the same way. Now he did feel a chill.
“The swimming-pool contract, Leo,” said the old lady. “We have to make a decision. Malibu, Miami, Mediterranean. All beginning with M, as I’m sure you noticed. You most of all.”
“What swimming pool contract?” Uzig said.
“This gentleman is from the pool company,” said the old lady. “Freedy, my husband, Professor Leo Uzig. Leo, Freedy, last name to come.”
“How’s it goin’?” said Freedy, slipping the birth certificate in his pocket.
Uzig didn’t look at him. “Have you signed anything, Helen?”
“And if I have?”
They stared at each other until Freedy said, “Hey. Nothing’s signed. This is just the whatchamacallit. Checking out the dimensions. We’re strictly aboveboard. You know, integrity.”
Now they were both looking at him.
“Thank you, Freedy,” said the old lady, “but I don’t require your help.”
She glanced at Uzig, back to Freedy. “May I present my husband? Professor Dr. Leo Uzig, Freedy. Short for Friedrich.”
She was introducing them again? What the fuck was he supposed to say? Freedy was wondering about that when he noticed that the expression on Uzig’s face, still turned toward him, had changed. Hard to describe how: kind of like Uzig had suddenly realized he’d eaten something bad; Freedy recalled his own very first night in Tijuana, an all-you-can-eat bar called Gringo’s. Leo Uzig looked the same kind of sick. Why wouldn’t he, being married to a crazy old bag and her with the money? Freedy’d figured that one out in two seconds. She had the money, she wanted a pool, and he didn’t. He was way ahead of them. If I don’t watch out, I’m going to make my first sale, and I haven’t even got a fucking backhoe. That was really funny. Freedy caught himself smiling broadly, smiling in the direction of Leo Uzig. No harm in that: no harm in showing him those white teeth, big and perfect.
Uzig smiled back, the kind of smile where teeth don’t show. “Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea,” he said.
“What isn’t?” said Freedy.
“A swimming pool-isn’t that the subject at hand?”
Subject at hand? What was he talking about? Freedy, who’d never talked to a college professor before, expected them to make more sense than that. “Malibu, Miami, and Mediterranean,” he said, because he had to say something and that sounded pretty good. “You’ve got choices.”
Now Uzig’s teeth showed, not bad teeth, but not as good as his. Probably smiling because he liked those names. Who wouldn’t? They were fucking brilliant, and created-yes, created, like those Budweiser lizards-created by him out of the goddamn blue. Maybe he didn’t even need a backhoe. Freedy realized he could have been a college professor himself, probably should have been. His rightful-what was the word? Birthright. He stopped smiling.
“Why don’t we go out and survey the site?” Uzig said.
“Hey,” said Freedy. “Sure.”
“Me too,” said the old lady.
“It’s much too cold,” Uzig told her. He pressed a button on the wall phone. A nurse entered moments later. What about her day off? Freedy almost said something.
“Bath time,” said the nurse.
“I’m clean,” said the old lady.
The nurse led her away.
Uzig put on boots. They went onto the deck. Richie pecked up one last seed and flew away.
They stood on the deck, almost side by side, gazing at the snow-covered yard. Uzig wasn’t as tall as Freedy, but Freedy could sense he was built sort of solid. Nothing like Freedy, of course, but Uzig was older, and probably hadn’t lifted much, maybe didn’t know about andro.
“I don’t believe there are many swimming pools in Inverness,” Uzig said.
“Just another one of the fu-of the dumb things about this town.”
Silence. Silence when the next question should have been where he was from, or how long he’d lived in town, or something like that. Freedy tried to figure out why it hadn’t been asked, gave up, answered it anyway.
“You’ve heard of the flats?”
“That’s where I grew up.” Did his voice sound a little angry? He softened it and said, “The pool business I learned in California.”
What was natural about it? He could have done other things in California, sold cars or tried Rollerblading. Something impressive occurred to him. “The demand curve for pools,” he said. “Up and up.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Uzig.
Demand curve. How sharp was that? Freedy thought of a selling point, remembered someone saying it, really, but it was a good one just the same. “Kids love ’em.”
“I don’t have kids,” said Uzig.
Silence. They looked at each other. Freedy got a very weird feeling: like he was seeing into his own eyes. Reverb, reverb, reverb. That was the feeling. His own eyes resembled the eyes of some British actor, according to his mother. He tried to remember British actor names, came up with only one, the James Bond guy. Were his eyes like the James Bond guy’s? Were Uzig’s? Freedy didn’t know. Still, it couldn’t be bad. The James Bond guy was a big star.
“No kids,” said Freedy. “That’s a shame.” Just toying now. Toying, which proved he was as smart as, maybe smarter than, a college professor. Came by it honestly. That was a good one. “But you know what would be even more of a shame?” he said. “Even more of a shame than having no kids?”
Uzig watched him. His face was still, hard to read. Hard to read if that reverb thing hadn’t been going on. But it was, so Freedy knew him through and through. It was sweet, knowing everything about the other guy when he knew nothing about you; especially when it was a father-son deal. How about that for a mindblower?
“What would be even more of a shame?” Uzig said at last.
“Not to have a pool in a space like this.” Space was the word you used-Freedy’d watched an architect use it over and over on a woman in Palos Verdes. “A crying shame. That’s what it would be.”
“What do you propose?”
Freedy liked that. It made him want to clap Uzig on the back and say, I get the feeling this is the start of something good. It made him want to, so he did; even the clap-on-the-back part, maybe a little harder than he’d meant, but still well within the boundary of two guys hanging out, father-and-son style. “I propose to build you a pool you’ll never forget,” Freedy said. He held out his hand. After a second or two, Uzig extended his. They shook. The old man didn’t have much of a grip, and Freedy did his best to back off on the squeezing part. “How about I throw some specs together and get back to you?” he said.
“As you wish,” said Uzig.
Which Freedy took for yes. He tried to think of something else to say, some way to extend the conversation. Or maybe Uzig would say something. But he didn’t, so Freedy finally said, “Get back to you then. Real soon.” Plenty of opportunity for conversation in the future. He walked home, down College Hill, across the tracks, into the flats, jazzed all the way.
She was on the kitchen phone when he went in, up early for her. Saw him, said something quick and low into the phone, hung up.
“Freedy,” she said.
“The one and only.”
“I’m… glad you’re home. We should have a little talk.”
Fine with him. He had lots to tell her. Should he hit her with the whole thing at once, or But she spoke first. “I-we’ve had some good news, Freedy.”
“The fact is…” She bit her lip. “Maybe artists shouldn’t even have children at all.”
Stoned again. Out of her goddamn mind. He would have pushed past her, gone into his room, except for that good-news part. He waited instead.
“Do you know that song, Freedy, ‘Last Thing on My Mind’?” She started singing, in a little-girl voice that irritated him even more than normal singing: “ ‘Could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind, you know that was the last…’ ”. Her voice trailed off.
Pathetic. He could see Leo Uzig as his father, especially after the reverb thing. What didn’t add up was her as the mother.
“But now maybe I can make it up to you,” she said. “The fact is, I’ve come into a little money.”
“Some. I know you don’t like it here.”
“Who said that?”
“You, Freedy. What with the cold and the lack of opportunity. Maybe I could help… set you up. In a warmer place, if you had some idea.”
“What kind of idea?”
“About what you’d like to do.”
Yes, a lucky day. What was it all about? Choice. He heard that all the time. Bill Gates, all the others, they had choices, they chose from different possibilities. Malibu, Miami, Mediterranean: choice. “I’ve got some ideas,” Freedy said. “How much are we talking about?”
“Some,” she said again.
“Can’t start a pool-” Whoa, don’t give anything away. “ Some won’t cut it in the business world.”
“What… what would be a likely amount?”
“Depends what’s available.”
Her eyes went to the phone. What was she going to do, call the bank? Had to be a dope deal, although he couldn’t imagine her making a big score.
“How would ten thousand do?”
Meaning there had to be four or five times that. Freedy was impressed. “Be a start,” he said.
She nodded, like it wasn’t out of the question, like it could happen.
“There’ll be some travel expenses too,” Freedy said.
“Florida.” Said it out loud. It was real, a real choice. “Let’s call it another two.”
She nodded again. Should have said three, four, even five.
“When can I have it?”
She glanced at the phone again, opened her mouth to reply. Freedy heard a car door close.
He went to the window. A state police cruiser was parked on the street, a statie coming up the walk, but slow because she hadn’t shoveled. Freedy’s first thought: there goes the dope deal. Then he got a good look at the statie’s face: the same statie who’d eyed him in the men’s room of the stripper bar. He backed away from the window.
Didn’t make sense. Ronnie had filed a complaint? What was wrong with him? Did he want to get seriously hurt? That wasn’t Ronnie. But if not Ronnie, what?
No time to figure it out now. He turned to her; her mouth was still open. “I’ve gone back to California,” Freedy said.
“That’s just what to tell him, for fuck sake. Address unknown.”
“Tell who, Freedy?”
There was a knock on the door. Freedy could move. He moved: down the hall to his bedroom, out the window, into the backyard, through some trees, angling toward the river; heading for Ronnie’s. Nothing to it; but he was pissed. This was supposed to be a lucky day.
But as for getting away clean, that was never in doubt. Freedy had only one bad moment, when a helicopter suddenly appeared. What was this? LA? It swept low over the river, passed above him at treetop level, close enough for him to see it had no police markings; no markings at all, except a big black Z.
“You must become who you are.” Identify the quotation and relate to the concept of the Superman.
Just when things were getting promising, just when Freedy’s hard work was starting to pay off, who fucks it all up but Ronnie? Calling the cops? Calling the cops because he was too clumsy to avoid bumping his head on a laptop? This wasn’t like the hairy thing under Ronnie’s lower lip, or the girl from Fitchville South, both a bit funny in a pathetic way. There was nothing funny about this. Calling the cops about a private matter crossed the line-everyone in the flats knew that, and no one would blame Freedy, whatever he did. Ronnie was a disgrace.
The slider to Ronnie’s basement was open a foot or so, off the track, askew. Ronnie had probably gone back to bed, was probably still asleep, maybe even with the girl. Was it a school day? Freedy realized he didn’t know what day it was. Cool, in a way. Did the wolf keep track of the goddamn days, or the tiger?
Freedy went in, saw the weights lying around, saw someone’s cut-off sweatshirt-his Planet Hollywood sweatshirt, found by some pool in the Valley, how the hell did that get here? — on the bench press, heard water dripping. He went upstairs to the kitchen.
All quiet, the fridge still humming away, the tub of KFC on the table. Freedy couldn’t remember taking it out of the fridge, but maybe he had. He helped himself to another drumstick, then noticed the laptop, still lying open and unblinking on the floor. Drumstick in hand, he went down the hall to Ronnie’s bedroom. Door closed. He opened it, went in.
Ronnie was back in bed all right, and alone. Eyes closed, maybe sleeping. Oh yeah-and his head was all wrapped in bandages. Freedy moved to the side of the bed. “Ronnie?” he said, swallowed what he was chewing, and said it again, more clearly, “Ronnie?”
No response, like he was in a… coma, or something. Impossible. Not even Ronnie. Freedy was thinking about giving him a little pat, a little poke, a little shake, when he heard footsteps in the hall; very light footsteps, but would anyone be surprised to learn that Freedy’s hearing was second to none? That was why he was already turned toward the door, readying some high-school joke for the Cheryl Ann substitute, when the footstepper walked in.
But not the girl: Saul Medeiros, Uncle Saul, gnawing on a drumstick, just like him. Saul paused, paused in midchew, and said something, possibly not clear because the drumstick got in the way. It sounded like, “Boys.”
Boys will be boys. Must be what he means, thought Freedy, and he started to relax. The laptop incident-no more than a boys-will-be-boys thing to Uncle Saul. Saul knew what Ronnie was all about; he remembered how Saul had smiled his nicotine-colored smile when Freedy said Ronnie was a pussy. Besides, he and Saul had developed a good working relationship. Not that they’d reached the mentor stage yet, but Two guys appeared behind Uncle Saul.
“Look who’s here, boys,” said Saul.
The two boys were big boys, one about Freedy’s size, the other a lot bigger. Both wore black satin jackets with Saul’s Collision in gold letters and crossed bowling pins on the front, plus gold crests reading Runners-Up ’99. Freedy wanted one.
“This here’s Freedy, boys,” said Saul Medeiros. “Numbnut I was tellin’ you about. Don’t unnerstan’ the… what’m I tryna say? The importance of business ethics.”
The boys didn’t look happy to hear it.
“How can you say that, Saul?” said Freedy.
“Mr. Medeiros,” said Saul.
“How can you say that?” said Freedy, compromising by dropping the Saul; at the same time glancing at the window, hoping to gauge the distance to the ground. Surprisingly far from upstairs at Ronnie’s: that would be the fucking slope to the river, why Ronnie had that basement with the weights, why they were friends.
“How can I say what?”
“Ethics. When you’re the one that called the cops.”
Saul and his two boys all wrinkled their foreheads. “What the fuck are you talking about?” said Saul.
“The statie over at my place right now is what I’m talking about.”
“Nothin’ to do with me,” said Saul. “Never called a cop in my life, never will, except for setting up a payment or some other legitimate business purpose.” The boys nodded their heads. “So don’t question my ethics. You’re the one broke the laptop agreement.”
“The laptop agreement?”
“You forgot?” said Saul. “Forgot we talked about laptops, you and me? Then all of a sudden-no laptops. Okay. I’m reasonable. If there’s no laptops, there’s no laptops. Supply don’t meet demand. Happens all the time-why you got scalpers. But if it turns out there is laptops all along, is laptops but I’m gettin’ some bullshit story there isn’t laptops, then what’s a reasonable, ethical businessman s’posta do?”
“There were no laptops,” Freedy said.
“What’s that-some hallucination on the kitchen floor?”
The boys got a kick out of that one.
“There’s just the one,” Freedy said, “and it wasn’t for sale.”
“How come is that?”
“I was keeping it.”
“Getting into programming?” said Saul.
The boys liked that too.
“I needed it for research,” Freedy said.
“Nothing you’d be interested in. It’s a family matter.”
“Family,” said Saul, “is very funny coming from you.”
The boys nodded.
“What’s that mean?” said Freedy.
“Means we now come to the main event, laptops being like the undercard.”
“Lost me,” said Freedy.
“Don’t you worry-I’ll find you,” Saul said. “Refresh your memory-didn’t we talk about family, you and me? Or are you tellin’ me you forgot that too? Not surprisin’, your ma being a hippie cocksucker down at the old Onion. I done some checkin’, unnerstan’ why you might want to forget the importance of family. Forget family legends. Forget Cheryl Ann.”
Family legends? Cheryl Ann? And that wasn’t very nice about his mother. Was this some kind of Portagee shit? These people were stuck in the past, going nowhere, total losers. It pissed Freedy off to be in the same conversation with them. This was America, after all. “Is this some kind of Portagee shit?” he said.
The drumstick fell from Saul’s hand. “I hear you right?”
Freedy put his drumstick tidily in the ashtray by Ronnie’s bed. “I mean Christ almighty, Saul, Mr. Medeiros, whatever. Is that what this is all about? Portagee shit? Were you getting a piece of Cheryl Ann too? Or-” It suddenly hit him. “-or is it the new one, the schoolgirl from Fitchville South?”
Okay, maybe he wanted that last one back. But how did that work? How did you get things back? Besides, it was another one of his amazing insights. He could believe it, Saul and the sophomore, easy. So he said it. You had to be who you are, had to be who you are and make it work for you-right from the infomercials. Nothing wrong there. But jeez, that girl from Fitchville South: how could she do it with an old prick like that, hair on his nose? Freedy found himself smiling at the thought, shaking his head, maybe not the best time for that either.
Ronnie made a little noise in his sleep, coma, whatever it was, a relaxed sound, almost happy.
“Boys,” said Saul, not loud, almost a question.
“Now, Mr. Medeiros?” said the smaller one, Freedy’s size, or maybe a bit bigger, Freedy realized.
Saul stepped aside.
The boys came into Ronnie’s bedroom, reaching inside their satin jackets. They pulled out tire irons. ’Course, you had a wrecking yard, you had tire irons.
Freedy felt jacked right away, like he was full of andro, stoked on meth. Was he? He’d have to think about that later. Right now he had to deal with the boys. Just because you were big, just because you were strong, just because you dug beating the shit out of somebody, just because you weren’t afraid, none of that made you a fuckin’ leg breaker. What made you a fuckin’ leg breaker came from inside, and the boys didn’t have it.
Ronnie’s bedroom wasn’t big. It could scarcely contain Freedy, the boys, Ronnie and his bed. But that was neither here nor there, whatever that might mean. What was here and there was the smaller of the two boys, the one just a bit bigger than Freedy, moving in on him first. No surprise there: you expected the smaller guy to be quicker. He was quick, had that tire iron swinging sideways at Freedy’s head-smart, much harder to block than a high-low-had the tire iron swinging at him quick. But not crow-quick, and even crow-quick might not have been quick enough. Freedy ducked: takes some nerve to just duck, but it works. Didn’t even duck a lot, only the two or three inches necessary. The tire iron actually clipped his ponytail, for a moment floating free of gravity before his ducking head pulled it down.
The smaller big boy spun halfway around from the force of the missed blow. Freedy kicked him good and hard behind the knee; weak spot on most everybody. Freedy heard a cracking sound-that Thanksgiving sound, he felt like a kid again-and the smaller big boy went down.
Bit of a surprise at that point. The bigger big boy turned out to be just as quick as the smaller one, maybe quicker. He actually connected with the tire iron, actually made Freedy feel pain, shoulder temporarily out of service, maybe the arm too. Someone shouted: might have been Freedy. Then the big boy was on him, like a house. Three hundred pounds or more, saliva slobbering down, some growling: disgusting. Three hundred pounds on top, Freedy on the bottom, one arm not in tip-top shape. Oh, yeah: and the tire iron raised up high, cocked back, now coming down at his head. But what was this? Freedy felt something funny under his hand-left hand, but that was the only one working at the moment-almost as though some angel had put it there. His fingers closed around it-the goddamn KFC chicken bone, dropped by Saul, pig that he was, and gnawed on a bit. One end could almost be called sharp. That was the end that Freedy jabbed up with, up and up with his kind of quick, right up the nose of the bigger big boy, way, way up. The bigger big boy stopped whatever he was doing at that moment, whatever he was doing consciously. The tire iron left his hand, flew across the room, crashed into something; the bigger big boy fell on Freedy, lay there still.
The boys didn’t have it, not what it takes inside.
Problem was, while Freedy struggled to get out from under all that weight, he forgot about the one other guy in the room besides him who did have it inside, who was a fuckin’ leg breaker, as he should have kept in mind the whole time. Just because a guy is old and scrawny and has that sickening hair growing on the top of his nose doesn’t mean he hasn’t got it.
Saul Medeiros kicked him real hard in the balls. The look on his face when he did it was the genuine fuckin’ leg-breaker look. All the air left Freedy’s lungs, and there was no hope of getting more anytime soon. Uncle Saul reared back to give him another one. He wore filthy, oil-stained shit-kickers, what you’d expect down at the wreckers.
But at that moment, when things didn’t look so good, Ronnie came through for him. He sat up, squinting, and said, “Can somebody close the goddamn shade?”
Saul glanced at him, an expression on his face that might have amused Freedy at some other time. A glance that lasted for a second or less, but enough time for Freedy to dig down deep, start a sideways turn, lash out with his top leg. Not a hard lashing out, not hard for Freedy, but Saul was old and scrawny. He fell without any resistance Freedy could feel.
Saul started scrambling to get up. Freedy, still needing that breath, a little sore here and there, started getting up too, but slow, like Superman exposed to whatever that stuff was, k — something. Slow for Freedy and scrambling for Saul turned out to be about the same. Saul had a sharp, shiny hooked thing in his hand, something from the yard Freedy didn’t even know the name of. Didn’t matter. That nose with the hair growing on top? Freedy flattened it with one punch, a left hand by necessity, flattened it flush into the rest of Saul’s mean little face.
That left Saul and the bigger big boy motionless on Ronnie’s floor, the smaller big boy crawling on his belly toward the door making moaning sounds, Ronnie sitting up in bed, his room a mess.
“Hold it right there,” Freedy said to the smaller big boy.
“Don’t,” he said, and kept moving.
Freedy went over to him, bent down.
“Don’t,” said the smaller big boy.
“What are you going to do about it?” said Freedy, and he tore that black satin jacket with the gold letters and the gold crest right off the smaller big boy’s back.
Freedy walked over to the bedside, putting on the jacket, not easily because of his right arm. He looked down at Ronnie. Ronnie squinted up at him.
“Mind getting me a glass of water?”
Freedy stepped over the smaller big boy and went down the hall.
“And maybe a couple aspirin,” Ronnie called after him. “In the drawer by the sink.”
Freedy came back with water and two aspirin in his hand. Ronnie took the aspirin off his open palm, gulped them down.
“Call it even, right?”
Ronnie nodded, winced, stopped nodding.
Down in Ronnie’s basement, on his way out, Freedy had a moment of… not weakness, more like he was tired for a second, what with missing a night’s sleep and all. He sat down on the bench, the padded bench they used for presses, and swallowed an andro. What was this? Three left? As for the meth, he had enough for about that many hits in the Baggie in his pocket, the main supply stowed under his bed in the “Little Boy” room. The question: was this the time to go back and get it? Saul had said he hadn’t called the cops and Freedy believed him. You could say what you liked about Saul Medeiros, but he was true to his word. That meant it was some pot deal of his mother’s, nothing to do with him. So it was safe to go back and get it, right?
Or wrong. Freedy couldn’t make up his mind, which was weird. Just fatigue, probably, and his right arm dangling like that. Good time for a tweak, in fact. What was he thinking of?
Freedy used up a little of his meth, had an idea immediately. Why not call and find out? Ronnie’s cordless lay right there on the stereo. Freedy dialed the number.
“Hello?” said his mother.
“Hi,” said Freedy.
She lowered her voice. “What happened in California?”
She’d mixed it all up. “Happened? I told you to say I’d gone back there, that’s all.”
She spoke faster. “I did. But they’re saying they’ve got a war-”
In the background a man said, “Who is that?”
The line went dead.
Something happened in California? Not that he was aware of. She’d mixed it all up: no surprise there, her head full of smoke, year after year. Still, probably not a pot thing in this case, so it wasn’t safe to go home yet. When would it be? What about the money she’d promised, the ten grand, plus travel expenses? She ruined everything. He pounded the bench, in his frustration forgetting and using his right hand. Made the shoulder, the arm feel a little better, actually.
What now? He needed to sleep, to rest, to sort things out. Where? Only one place he could think of.
Freedy popped up the vent hood behind the hockey rink. He heard sirens down in the flats. Not unusual. He glanced around; no one in sight, nothing to see but his own footprints, leading right to him across the snowy playing fields. What could he do about that? Nothing.
But maybe he wouldn’t have to. As he watched, the sky, already dark for even a cloudy day, darkened more, and the first flakes started falling. The wind picked up. Snow and wind would take care of the footprints for him, like nature was on his side. Luck, on this lucky day, was still with him. One or two more breaks and he’d be golden.
“All my writings are fish-hooks… If nothing got caught I am not to blame. There were no fish.” With reference to Nietzsche’s critics, describe three major arguments of the fish that didn’t bite.
The aquarium was missing. They were sitting in the twins’ room on the third floor of Lanark, Nat at one of the desks, Izzie on Grace’s bed. Outside, the sky, a morning sky but dark, darkened more, and a few flakes began falling, almost invisible in the weak light.
“Where’s Lorenzo?” Nat said.
“We took him down to the cave. She-Grace wanted company in case it was a long wait.”
They fell silent, waited. After a while Izzie picked up a mirror, made a few adjustments to her hair. “I wish you wouldn’t be like this,” she said.
“Like what?” Nat said.
“Brooding, or whatever it is. What’s the point? It’s done.”
“Maybe not? The only way to undo it is to make us look like idiots.”
Nat said nothing. There was an unfamiliar sharpness in her tone; he put it down to tension.
“You know what your problem is?” she said.
Tension, for sure. He’d never heard her on edge like this, not close. She wasn’t herself. Perhaps the girls had made a mistake: maybe Izzie should have waited in the cave while Grace handled things up here.
“What’s my problem?” Nat said.
“Fear of success,” Izzie told him. “Which I always took for psychobabble. Now I’m thinking it exists after all.”
He felt that one, so close to ambition should be made of sterner stuff. It didn’t matter now. Someone with the money was on the way. Someone gave the money to Izzie. Izzie gave the money to no one. Grace emerged. A little hanky-panky, then back to normal life. It sounded simple, like a beginning case study in economics.
She came over to the chair, stood behind him. “Let’s not fight,” she said, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Mmm,” she said. Her hands were cold.
There was a knock at the door. Nat’s eyes met Izzie’s. Was her heart suddenly beating faster too? Probably not, from the casual way she said, “Come in.”
The door opened: a UPS man in his brown uniform.
“Izzie Zorn?” he said, reading the name from the package in his hand.
“I’ll take it,” said Izzie, and laid the package on the other desk. The UPS man went away.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Nat said.
Izzie opened the UPS package, unwrapped bubble wrapping, pulled out what was inside: a laptop. She looked puzzled for a moment, then laid it aside.
“New computer?” Nat said.
“The old one disappeared.”
“Stolen, I guess.”
“When was this?”
“Not too long ago.”
“You never mentioned it.”
“Did you report it?”
“What good would that do?”
“Maybe none,” Nat said. “But there was Wags’s TV, the TV from the lounge, now this.”
“Probably Wags doing it himself,” Izzie said.
That had never occurred to Nat. “Why would he?”
“Why would he build a snowman in your room?”
Nat realized he still had a headache, very faint. “I don’t think Wags-”
Another knock on the door.
“Was I supposed to sign?” Izzie said; and, as casually as before: “Come in.”
The door was opened again, but not by UPS. Two men in suits came in, very nice suits-even Nat knew that. The first man, the smiling one-not Albert, not Anton-was Andy, who’d sat beside him in the limousine to the airport; behind him, not smiling, was Mr. Zorn.
Someone coming with the money: why hadn’t he expected Mr. Zorn? Nat had no idea what to say or do; and felt transparent.
Not Izzie. She leaped up, ran to her father, threw her arms around him, started crying. Actually shaking, wracked with sobs: Nat was amazed, would never have thought her capable of this. It was almost as though she were really afraid for Grace. Mr. Zorn watched him over her shoulder.
The smiling man extended his hand. “Hi, Nat. Andy Ling. Met you over Christmas. More pleasant circumstances.”
They shook hands. “Maybe I’d better go, Mr. Ling.”
“Not necessary,” said Andy. He turned to Mr. Zorn, patting Izzie’s back, his eyes still on Nat. “Is it, Mr. Zorn?”
“We’d appreciate your staying,” said Mr. Zorn.
“Good man,” said Andy. He opened a closet, peered inside, beckoned Nat over. Was Nat supposed to notice something? He noticed shoes; had never seen so many outside a shoe store. Andy Ling lowered his voice. “Why don’t we give them a moment or two?” Andy led Nat into Grace and Izzie’s bathroom, shared, because of their corner room, with no one.
Andy closed the door. He glanced in the toilet, drew aside the shower curtain. “Scared, Nat?” he said.
“Yes,” Nat said. It was true.
Andy opened the medicine cabinet, closed it, ran his eyes over the bottles on the shelf above the sink: nail polish remover, body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, Clairol. “Scared of what, exactly?” said Andy.
“This… this situation.”
Andy turned to him, still smiling. He had one of the friendliest faces Nat had ever seen: asymmetrical, lumpy, cheerful. Nat tried to remember his job description. Albert was Mrs. Zorn’s personal assistant, Anton was her personal trainer, and Andy? He didn’t recall anyone ever telling him.
“I don’t blame you,” Andy said. “Being scared.” He dumped the wastebasket on the floor, poked through the mess, poked through it with his gloved hands; not till that moment did Nat notice he’d kept his winter gloves on the whole time.
The mess: tangled strings of dental floss, balled-up tissues, Q-tips, an empty bottle of Clairol, another bottle, also empty, that Nat recognized: Bidoit Paradis, Grande Champagne, 1880. Andy picked it up, sniffed at the opening, set it on the sink. “Don’t blame you one bit. Something happen to your nose?”
“Just a bump.”
Andy opened the bathroom door and reentered the bedroom. Nat checked himself in the mirror-the nose wasn’t bad, but there were other problems, hard to define-and followed.
Izzie, no longer crying, sat on Grace’s bed, hugging her knees. Mr. Zorn stood by her, gazing out the window.
“Imagine spending four years here,” said Mr. Zorn.
“Doesn’t get any better,” said Andy.
“You agree, Nat?” said Mr. Zorn.
Nat couldn’t manage a reply of any kind.
Mr. Zorn looked past him. “Anything?”
“Nope,” said Andy.
“What’s going on?” said Izzie.
“You’re asking the right question,” said Mr. Zorn.
Andy got down on his hands and knees, checked under the beds. Nat had a premonition of what was coming. Stop, he thought. Enough. He almost said it.
“What are you doing?” Izzie said. “And where’s the briefcase?”
“Briefcase?” said Mr. Zorn.
“Or whatever you brought the money in.”
Mr. Zorn sat down beside her. “Why don’t you tell us the whole story?”
“But I already did,” said Izzie.
In fact, Nat realized, it was Grace who had told the story, told them on the phone as though she were Izzie. How well did she herself remember it? Sequential, nondenominational, whatever it was, blah blah. How well had she listened in the first place?
“Please tell it again,” Andy said, soft and gentle.
Izzie shrugged. She told the story, second hearing for Mr. Zorn and Andy, first for Nat. She didn’t try to sell it at all, didn’t even look at anyone as she spoke, just sat there on Grace’s bed, still hugging her knees, spoke as though it was all unfolding again in her head. She told how Grace had risen in the night, complaining of an upset stomach; how Grace had gone down to the Coke machine in the Lanark basement; how she, Izzie, had fallen back asleep and been awakened by the kidnapper’s phone call. A male voice. Perhaps a slight Japanese accent. He’d put Grace on the line for a moment, to prove he had her. “I’m all right,” Grace had said. Grace had been Grace, poised and cool. But Izzie could tell she was just being brave; they’d have to take her word, the word of a twin, for that. Then the man came back on with the demand: one million dollars in nonsequential low-denomination bills. He would get in touch again to arrange the delivery. Click.
“Click,” Izzie said again, now looking up at her father. She’d done beautifully. Nat’s premonition had probably been false; certainly false, he would have thought, except for one thing: there was no briefcase.
Silence in Grace and Izzie’s room.
Andy sighed. He rose, slowly, as though his legs were tired, and went to the phone on Grace’s desk. “The call came on this phone?” he said.
“About what time, Iz?”
“As close as you can’ll be all right.”
“I didn’t check. Around five-thirty this morning.”
“Give or take how much?”
“Ten minutes either way.”
“Could it be more?”
“How much more?”
“I don’t know. Five minutes, ten, fifteen. It was pretty upsetting.”
“I understand,” Andy said. “So give or take a half hour, either side?”
“Maybe a little more?”
“But not, say, ten hours.”
“Ten hours? What are you talking about?”
Andy turned to Nat. “And where were you at that time, Nat? When the call came.”
“In my room.”
“In Plessey. Across the quad.”
Andy went to the window. “Mind pointing it out?”
Nat pointed to Plessey Hall.
Andy shook his head. “All so picturesque,” he said. “I can’t get over it. The call didn’t come on your phone, by any chance?”
He was still gazing out the window; Nat wasn’t sure for a second if the question was directed at him.
“Yours,” said Andy.
Andy turned to Mr. Zorn. “That it, Mr. Zorn?”
“Other than asking Izzie if there’s anything she’d like to change, yes, that’s it.”
“Change?” said Izzie. “About what?”
“Your story,” said Mr. Zorn.
“I’m not getting this,” Izzie said.
“No?” said Mr. Zorn. “For one thing, there haven’t been any calls, in or out, on this phone since… when, Andy?”
“Seven thirty-three P.M. yesterday. Incoming from room nine in this same dorm. Something about the arrival of a pizza, according to the student who made the call. The next one, the only other one, was Izzie’s call home this morning.”
“Second,” said Mr. Zorn, “Andy made a phone call of his own on our way up here.”
“Spoke to Nat’s mom, out in Colorado,” Andy said. “A very nice woman. She explained all about her unfortunate new circumstances, and their implications. I felt bad.”
“Third,” said Mr. Zorn, “I know your sister.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Izzie shifted down the bed, away from him.
“I know people, Izzie.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I know all I need to know. I did a billion-dollar deal last year-meaning I made a billion-dollar decision-on less information, less essential information, than this. So if you’ll just tell me where Grace is, we’ll get back to work.”
“Have you all gone crazy?” Izzie said. Nat knew they hadn’t. It was over, just like that, the whole plan blown apart effortlessly, as though they’d posted it on the Web by mistake. Nat tried to catch Izzie’s eye, get her to stop. Izzie didn’t look at him.
“She probably has a suite at the Inverness Inn,” said Mr. Zorn.
“Want me to check?” Andy said.
“It really doesn’t matter. She’ll turn up.”
Izzie rose, stood over her father, getting it at last. “You’re not paying?”
“Why pay ransom when there’s no kidnapping?” said Mr. Zorn. “Make any sense to you, Nat?”
“No, sir.” He hated letting Izzie down, but that was the answer. He also hated the way Mr. Zorn was watching him, without anger, without hostility, without scorn, but still punishing. He’d been a guest in this man’s house.
“I take that as a confirmation,” said Mr. Zorn.
“Yes,” said Nat.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Zorn. He rose too. Now they were all on their feet; the room seemed small. “It’s beautiful here, Andy, as you say. The thing to remember, though, is it’s just a big playpen. Won’t do to get too caught up with people like Leo. It might interest you to know, Nat, that I never hire people from this kind of place. I harvest from the top five percent of the state schools every year.” He checked his watch. “Anything else, Andy?”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Zorn.”
Mr. Zorn faced Izzie. “I’m not blaming you, angel. I know what’s going on.”
Izzie was white. “You’re abandoning her? She’s not worth one little million out of that last billion?”
“Izzie, the game’s over.”
“What if… what if it was… me, instead of Grace?”
“You’re not making sense, Izzie.”
Izzie laughed, a strange laugh of real amusement. “You don’t know anything.”
Mr. Zorn gave her a careful look. “Maybe you should have gone to separate schools,” he said. “To escape her influence.”
“Influence?” said Izzie. “You think I don’t know whose bidding you’re doing?”
“Who would that be?”
“Your present wife, of course.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong. She wanted me to hand the money over, on the assumption it was going to Nat.” Mr. Zorn turned to him. “She liked you. But it doesn’t work that way, Nat-might as well learn now.” He paused, looked Nat in the eye. Nat met his gaze; it took just about all the willpower he had. “I can relieve your mind on two things,” Mr. Zorn said. “First, we didn’t tell your mother what was happening, and have no intention of doing so. Second, there will be no legal consequences-as long as you do what I’m sure you knew was the right thing from the beginning.”
“Which is to go on home,” said Andy. “Plus no hard feelings, right, Mr. Zorn? You said to remind you.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Zorn. “No hard feelings, no recriminations, no threats. I never threaten people.”
The nature of the threat-his mother and the law-was clear.
“They’re at the age for adolescent pranks,” Andy said.
“Good point,” said Mr. Zorn. “Imagine if they’d been funneling-is that what they call it, Andy?”
“ ’Fraid so.”
“Funneling quarts of vodka or something.” Mr. Zorn shivered.
“Every parent’s nightmare,” said Andy.
“So we dodged one this time. Let’s think of it that way. Have Grace get in touch when she cools down.”
Nat and Izzie stood by the window, watching Mr. Zorn and Andy Ling walk across the quad. Andy said something that made Mr. Zorn laugh; a big breath cloud rose above him.
“We ended up looking like idiots anyway,” Nat said. He felt worse than an idiot, embarrassed and ashamed; but deep inside he agreed: We dodged one this time.
“Speak for yourself,” said Izzie.
He looked at her in surprise.
“Sorry,” she said; came to him, wrapped her arms around him, shivered, just as her father had done. Mr. Zorn and Andy disappeared from view. “There is a positive side,” Izzie said after a moment or two. Was she, too, aware that they had dodged one this time? Izzie surprised him again. “It’s not often,” she said, “you get the chance to find out what someone really thinks about you.”
“He likes you,” Nat said. “He loves you.”
“You don’t understand.”
“It couldn’t have been clearer,” Nat said. “If he’s got problems, they’re with Grace.”
Izzie’s grip on him tightened. Outside snow was falling harder.
“We’d better go tell her,” Nat said.
“What’s the rush?” Izzie said, her mouth close to his ear; the sound sent one of those odd nerve reactions down his neck and spine. He knew what Izzie was thinking: Grace would say they’d blown it.
But they had to tell her, tell her about the failure of their little scheme; and while they were at it, there was more: “We should tell her about you and me.”
“Both at the same time?” Izzie said. “How much can the poor girl take?”
Nat turned her sideways a little so he could see her face. “You’re acting funny,” he said.
He looked into her eyes, saw the gold flecks, took in Izzie’s whole golden effect. “Maybe there’s no point telling her about us,” he said, “now that I’m going home.”
Did the idea upset Izzie? Nat couldn’t tell. Before, she’d said, You can’t just go. Now she said, “Let’s worry about that later.” She kissed him; then kissed him deeper. At first, he felt nothing. Then he realized this might be the last time-Albany-Chicago-Denver, there was a flight that very afternoon at three-and felt a great deal, much more than he was prepared for.
“Now?” he said.
Izzie drew him toward the bed; the closest bed, which happened to be Grace’s. He steered her the other way, toward her own bed.
“What’s the difference?” she said.
They lay on Izzie’s bed. The last time, he thought: and maybe because of that knowledge, nothing went quite right. It was clumsy, awkward, quick-clumsier, more awkward, quicker, than any of the other times, even the first, on Aubrey’s Cay. He was surprised once more, then, when Izzie cried out at the end, loudly, passionately, instead of making the low moan she sometimes made, or no sound at all.
Izzie came out of the bathroom. “I’ve been thinking-it might be better if I tell her myself,” she said. “Why don’t you wait here?”
“No,” Nat said. Grace almost certainly would blame them-Izzie especially-and he wanted to shield her. “I’m coming.”
“I’d rather do it myself.”
That was Izzie. He smiled at her. “I’m coming.”
She opened her mouth as though to argue, closed it, came over. “Why not? It can’t get any crazier.” She kissed him, running her tongue over his chipped tooth. “What’s that?”
“My chipped tooth.”
“You can always get it fixed.”
Taking a flashlight, they crossed the quad, went down to the Plessey basement, shifted the panel at the back of the janitor’s closet, entered the tunnel. They walked, deep under the campus, Nat leading, their feet silent on the hard-packed dirt floor. All familiar now: the downward slope, the dampening air, the dripping sound from somewhere nearby. At the junction, they turned into the right-hand passage, no longer hung with spiderwebs because of their coming and going. The dripping sound grew louder. Suddenly Izzie screamed and dug her fingers into his shoulder, hard enough to hurt.
“What’s that?” she said.
In the flashlight’s beam, a bat hung from the valve on the steam pipe. “Just the bat,” Nat said.
“Don’t be silly. What’s wrong with you, Izzie?” But he knew: she was afraid of her sister. It made her jumpy. “Why don’t you go back? I’ll tell her myself.”
“Piss on that,” said Izzie.
They walked on, past the bat, hanging motionless. Izzie released her grip on his shoulder.
Nat raised the trapdoor, saw it was dark down in the cave, at least in the bedroom part. Grace was probably asleep. He climbed down the rope ladder, Izzie following, shone the light on the bed. Grace wasn’t in it, but something lay on the pillow. Nat went closer. Because of its color-that of putty-Nat didn’t recognize it until he was within touching distance. He didn’t touch. Lorenzo: Lorenzo lying on the pillow, dead in the open air, all his gaudy beauty faded away.
“Grace?” he called. “Grace?” And hurried, running at the end, into the big room. No candles burning in the big room either. Nat stabbed his light here and there. “Grace? Grace?” The room was a shambles-furniture overturned and broken, paintings knocked off the walls, cabinets smashed, shattered glass everywhere-and Grace was gone.
According to Nietzsche, “Man and woman never cease to misunderstand each other” because (a) women have less need to vent their strength, (b) the religious nature is less developed in men, (c) their emotions run at different tempos and thus are never in sync.
Izzie lit a candle. Huge shadows appeared on the walls. “Where is she?”
She picked up a chair, one of those dainty gilt chairs, a leg now broken off, tossed it aside. Then something else, bang, and something else, crash, as she moved through the two rooms, faster and faster, the huge shadows in wild motion on the walls. “Where is she?” Then, much louder: “Where are you? Where are you?” No response; Nat thought he heard a distant dripping sound. She turned to him. “What’s going on?”
He didn’t know. Where was Grace? His first thought was the studded door in the big room, bricked-in on the other side. He opened it, shone his light around, then up at the grate that led to Goodrich Hall. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t under the bed, under the couches, behind what was left of the old wind-up record player. He knelt over fragments of a record: “Caro Nome,” the label still intact.
Izzie cried out. He hurried to her. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” She pulled a shard of glass from her finger. A fat drop of blood rose to the surface, quivered.
Nat shone his light on the smashed aquarium at her feet, on the chunk of coral Lorenzo had liked to hide behind, on the seaweed almost invisible on the pattern of the rug. He raised the beam up to Izzie’s face. She was sucking on her finger.
Izzie shielded her eyes; he aimed the light away. “Where are you?” she called, so loud and sudden it startled him. “Where are you?”
A painting fell from the wall, startling them both. Nat went to it: the nude bathers with the centaur spying from the bushes. He passed his light over the wall, saw a small hole where the hook must have been.
“Something bad is happening,” Izzie said.
Nat wasn’t so sure. “Suppose she was out in the hall.”
“Your hall, in Lanark. When your father was in the room. What if she came up to tell us something and heard what he was saying about her?”
“What are you getting at?”
“Wouldn’t it make her angry?” Nat said. “It made you angry.”
Izzie watched him, saying nothing.
“Maybe she was angry enough to come back here and… do this.” Do this, down at the subterranean level, in the time he and Izzie had spent in bed, above.
“You don’t know her,” Izzie said. The candle she held lit her face from below, casting cheekbone shadows over her eyes, at the same time lightening her hair. “You talk about her like she’s some kind of monster.”
“Not a monster. But she can be funny. You’re the one who told me that.”
“On the beach.”
“How loyal of me,” Izzie said.
He overcame the urge to shine the light on her face again, to get a better look at her. “What’s wrong with you, Izzie?”
“How can you ask a question like that? Something bad is happening. And you don’t care. You think she’s off by herself, in a sulk.”
“What other explanation is there?”
She gazed at him. “You’re starting to remind me of my father.”
An uncommon feeling stirred inside him, that same anger he’d felt when the campus security officer had implied he knew something about the theft of the HDTV from the student union.
“But here’s an explanation if you need one,” Izzie said. “Wags.”
“Wags? Wags doesn’t even know about this place.”
“Maybe he found out.”
“Maybe she did come up, as you said, but went to your room. What if he was there?”
“Why would he be?”
“Why not? Where else can he go? What if he was there, popping those green pills, kidnapping plots buzzing in his brain?”
“So he made her bring him here.”
“Wags couldn’t make Grace do anything.”
“Or tricked her, then.”
“He couldn’t trick her either.”
Izzie’s face softened. “You think pretty highly of her.”
“It’s not so much that,” Nat said. The soft look faded. “More that Wags is-” He started to say harmless, stopped himself. Wags wasn’t harmless. Plus: leaving Lorenzo on the pillow. That was Wags; he’d probably seen something like it in a movie. “We’d better check my room,” Nat said. He shone his light around the wreckage one more time. There were movies like that, too.
They started up the rope ladder, Izzie first. As he reached for the ladder, Nat stepped on something slippery. He shone his light on it, picked it up: a black satin jacket.
“Wags’s?” said Izzie, coming back down.
Nat had never seen it before.
“The kind of thing that would amuse him,” Izzie said. A black satin jacket, two snaps ripped from the material, with Saul’s Collision in gold and crossed bowling pins on the front, and a gold crest, Runners-Up ’99. “Especially that runners-up part,” Izzie said.
“Sure it’s not Grace’s?” Nat said.
“You think she’d wear something like this?”
“It’s not impossible.”
“Trust me,” Izzie said.
Nat’s room. And there was Wags, sitting at Nat’s computer, fingers on the keyboard, face almost touching the screen.
“With you in a sec,” he said, not turning toward the door. “Just checking out the Fatty Arbuckle Web site.”
Nat glanced in the bedrooms. No sign of Grace.
Izzie jabbed off the monitor.
“Hey,” said Wags as the screen went dark. “I was downloading.” His eyes went to Nat; actually to a spot in midair a few inches off target. “Hope you’re not pissed about our little… debate last night, or the night before, Nattie, my friend. No harm done. And I brought you some chocolates, as a bribe.”
A box of chocolates lay on Wags’s old desk. They’d been gift-wrapped, but now the wrapping was ripped off, the box open, and three or four of the chocolates gone.
“Fact is, roomie, I’m moving back in. I can’t afford to neglect my education for another second. So if you’ll excuse me…” He reached for the monitor button.
Izzie grabbed his wrist. “Where is she?”
“That hurts a bit,” Wags said. “Ouch. I mean it.”
“Where is she?”
With her free hand, the back of her free hand, Izzie smacked Wags across the face; harder than a smack, from the way his head jerked to the side, stunning him. Nat was stunned too.
“Where is Grace?” she said.
Wags gazed up at her, wide-eyed. “Is that like metaphysical or something?”
She raised her hand again; he winced in anticipation, like a dog Nat remembered in his neighborhood.
“Izzie,” he said. She froze, slowly lowered her hand. Her other hand still gripped Wags’s wrist.
Nat went to them, put his hand on Izzie’s. Her hand, so cold, relaxed. He uncoiled it from Wags’s wrist, looked down at Wags. “Do you know where she is?” he said.
“I don’t understand the question,” Wags said, his eyes still locked on Izzie. They filled with tears, like the eyes of a child badgered by the teacher.
“Did you take her down in the tunnels?” Nat said.
“The tunnels under the campus.”
“There are tunnels under the campus?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Real, physical tunnels?”
“You’ve been in them?”
“And you never told me?” Wags smiled, a smile Nat didn’t like at all, with only one side of his mouth turning up and the eyes not participating. “Why am I surprised?”
“No time for therapy,” Izzie said. Wags’s smile, what there was of it, vanished. “Does this belong to you?” She held up the black satin bowling jacket.
She shoved the jacket at him. “Put it on.”
Wags rose, unsteady, as though his legs were weak, put on the jacket. “Is this like Cinderella?” he said. It was much too big.
Izzie reached behind the collar, turned it out. “XXXL,” she said.
“He’s got nothing to do with it,” Nat said.
“With what?” said Wags.
They didn’t answer.
“These tunnels-are they scary?” Wags said. “I’d like to see them, at your earliest convenience. Also, I’m growing partial to the jacket.”
“You can’t have it,” Nat said.
“Can I borrow it?”
Wags took off the jacket, handed it to him obediently.
“What do you want to do?” Nat said.
“Resume my education, I already told you. Beginning with Fatty Arbuckle.”
“I meant do you want me to call your parents or do you want to go back to the hospital?”
“Give me a hard one,” Wags said.
They sent him to the hospital in a taxi.
“Now what?” said Izzie; back in Nat’s room.
“I don’t know,” Nat said. But what could it be? Either Grace had heard her father’s analysis and had some sort of violent psychological reaction or… what? He couldn’t think of anything else. “She must have overheard.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“It’s part of a pattern.”
“Grand Central Station,” Nat said, “all over again.”
“Grand Central Station?”
“When your family was splitting up and Grace stood on the railing.”
A look he hadn’t seen before, at least on her, appeared on Izzie’s face. He wouldn’t have thought her capable of a look like that if he hadn’t seen what she’d done to Wags.
“You know everything about us, don’t you?” she said.
“You didn’t have to tell me.”
“I shouldn’t have.”
They sat in silence. The wind was blowing harder now, driving snowflakes against the glass; they made a soft drumming sound.
“We just sit here, then,” Izzie said, “waiting for her to reappear. Is that the plan?”
Nat had no other; but this one had a flaw. First he just sensed it, an uneasy feeling, then he identified it, then it grew bigger in his mind: the bowling jacket, size XXXL. He picked it up and did what he probably should have done in the first place. He searched the pockets. There were two. Nothing in the left-hand one. Something in the right; something his fingers identified before he even pulled it out: a switchblade knife. There were always a few kids at Clear Creek High who carried them. He pressed the button. The blade, longer than the ones he’d seen, snapped out. Nat knew then that she was right and he was wrong. Something bad was happening.
Izzie held out her hand.
He gave it to her.
“Like this?” she said.