It was a place of Rochester lamps whose light was the color of burnished gold; of starchy white tablecloths; of waiters in walrus mustaches and ladies in low-cut organdy gowns. Several tables away from where James sat with him Uncle Septemus, a pair of men got up to resemble gypsies walked around the restaurant, dramatically playing their violins. Even though nobody paid much attention- and even though some of the men looked damned uncomfortable with such displays of passion and emotion-the would-be gypsies lent the place its final touch of sophistication.
    “They kind of make me nervous,” James confided.
    “Those gypsies.”
    “Why should they make you nervous?”
    “I don’t know. Like they’d just sneak up behind you all of a sudden.”
    “And then what?”
    “I don’t know. Play some really corny song.”
    “And embarrass you?”
    James nodded. “Yeah, sort of.”
    Uncle Septemus raised his wineglass. He was notorious, within the family, for being an easy drunk. He’d had three glasses of wine so far this evening, and he was showing the effects. His words slurred, and his handsome brown eyes seemed not quite focused.
    “Wait till you’re a little older,” Septemus said.
    “Then what?”
    Septemus smiled. “Then you’ll appreciate things more.”
    “Like gypsy violinists?”
    Septemus laughed. “Like gypsy violinists.” And then his smile died. “And memories.”
    The silver tears came clear and obvious in his brown eyes. “Do you ever think about her, James?”
    “Why, Clarice, of course. My daughter.”
    James felt embarrassed. He should have known who his uncle was talking about. Much of the time, his uncle talked about little else. “Sure.”
    “Are you just saying that?”
    “Huh-uh, Uncle Septemus, honest.”
    Septemus drank from his goblet and then rolled the wine around the fine glass that filled his hand. Septemus was a lover of fine foods, he was. “What’s your favorite memory of her?”
    “My favorite?” James was stalling for time. His favorite? He’d never thought of it that way. “Uh…”
    “Don’t worry,” Septemus said. “I have the same problem. I have so many good memories, I don’t know which one is my favorite.”
    “When we used to go sledding, is one of them. She never got afraid like the other girls. She’d come lickety-split down those hills and sail right onto Hartson Creek. Not afraid at all.”
    Septemus smiled again, looking beyond James now. James wondered what he was seeing.
    Septemus said, “Winter was her favorite time. You’d think it would’ve been spring or summer or even fall but no, it was winter. I remember how she used to get snow all over her face so it looked like she had these big bushy white eyebrows and how red her cheeks would get and how her eyes would sparkle. I think about her eyes a lot.”
    James was afraid his uncle was going to start sobbing right in the middle of the restaurant. James was never prepared for such scenes. All he could do was kind of sit there and sort of scooch down in his seat and more or less hold his breath and hope for the best.
    Septemus said, leaning across, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell your mother?”
    “You promise?”
    “Honest, Uncle Septemus. Honest.”
    “Because she worries about me. I’m sure she’s told you I’m not quite right in the head since Clarice was killed.”
    James felt his cheeks get hot. That’s exactly what his mother had told him, and many times.
    “No, Uncle Septemus, she never said anything like that.”
    “She talks to me. All the time.” Uncle Septemus was staring right at James now.
    “My mother?”
    “No, Clarice.”
    “Clarice talks to you?”
    “Clear as bell. Usually at night, just when I’m going to sleep.”
    Septemus’s eyes seemed to press James back in his chair. “You don’t believe me, do you, James?”
    “No, I believe you.”
    “Do you think I’m crazy?”
    “No, Uncle Septemus, I don’t.” He hesitated before speaking again. “I just think you miss her an awful lot.”
    “More than you can imagine, James.”
    “It was like when Blackie died.”
    “Your dog?”
    “Uh-huh. He was all I thought about all last summer. Sometimes I’d look up on the hill by the railroad tracks and I’d see him running there, black as all get out and going lickety-split, but when I’d tell Mom about it, she’d just kind of get sad looking and say, ‘You’ll get over it, dear.’ But I saw Blackie; I’m sure I did. And I’m sure Clarice speaks to you, too. I’m sure of it, Uncle Septemus.” The tears were back.
    “You’re a good boy, James, and I love you very much. I want you to know that.”
    “I do know that, truly.”
    “And those things I said about being brought up by a man-I only meant it for your own good.”
    “I know.”
    “The world’s a harsh enough place but for men who can’t deal with it-it’s especially harsh for men like that, if you know what I’m talking about.”
    “I know. My friend Ronnie’s got a cousin like that. People make fun of him all the time and about all he can do is run away and hide. It must be awful.”
    “You can bet it is awful, James.” He sipped some more wine. “I’ll say hello for you next time.”
    “To Clarice?”
    “Umm-hmm. If you’d like me to.”
    “Tell her I’m thinking about her.”
    Septemus smiled again. “I’ll be happy to tell her that, James. Happy to.”
    Septemus raised his wineglass. “But for now, let’s toast our adventure for tonight.”
    “Our adventure? Is that the surprise you were telling me about?”
    “Indeed it is, James. Indeed it is.” Earlier Septemus had asked the waiter for two wineglasses. One had stood empty for the length of the dinner. Now Septemus filled it halfway up and handed it over to James.
    “Maybe I hadn’t ought to,” James said. “You know how my mother is with us kids. She won’t even let us sample the cider.”
    “You’re with me now, James, not with your mother.”
    “You sure it’s all right?”
    “It’s man to man tonight, James. It’s what’s expected of you.”
    Septemus raised his glass in toast again. “Now raise yours, James.”
    James raised his.
    “Now we’ll toast,” Septemus said, and brought his glass against James’s. “To our adventure tonight. Now you say it, James.”
    “To our adventure tonight.”
    “Perfect.” They clinked glasses.
    “Uncle Septemus,” James said after he’d had a sip of wine and the stuff tasted sweet and hot at the same time in his throat.
    “What exactly is our adventure going to be, anyway?”
    “You mean you haven’t figured it out yet?”
    “You really haven’t?”
    “Honest, Uncle Septemus. I can’t figure it out at all.”
    “Well, tonight’s the night you become a man.”
    “I do?”
    “You do.” Septemus looked across the table with great patriarchal pride. He smiled. “Tonight I’m taking you to a whorehouse.”
Jack Dwyer #07 - What the Dead Men Say
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