iii.   The Deal

ON MAY DAY, when I went into the open shed that serves as a garage, a shadow swiftly dipped down from a rafter in the corner of my eye, and I knew that the barn swallows had returned, to build their nest. How they find us in the continental ocean of green I have never understood, nor if they are the same birds, or a pair containing one of the old offspring. Their mysterious arrival used to mark the true beginning of summer for Gloria and me. A few days later, she herself showed up. I had not shot her, or if I had it was in another, slightly different, universe.

“Where have you been?” I asked, a bit timidly. I was unclear as to how long she had been gone; as I age, holes in my memory develop, and because they are holes it is difficult to gauge their size.

“You never listen when I tell you where I’m going,” she said. And she proceeded to tell me where she had been. It was true, as her red lips vivaciously moved, with that rather annoying little self-satisfying roll of her jaw during a theatrical pause, my mind became a blank in which isolated words like “conference” and “the gift shop” and “Singapore” nonsensically bobbed. Could they be having conferences of gift-shop owners in Singapore? She was going on, “And at the Calpurnia Club, we had a wonderful lecturer on English herbaceous borders. I asked her about deer and she said in the United Kingdom they were only a problem in Scotland. But another member, a darling woman called Polly Martingale from Dedham—she said she’s an aunt of a protégé of yours at Sibbes, Dudley, and Wise, Ned Partridge—”

“That slimy son of a bitch is no protégé of mine.”

“—she told me about a product you can get called AgRepel. It’s made up of the ground-up shoulders and whatnot of cows. It smells like death. She gave me the phone number of a man in Boxford who carries it and I want to call him right now. Don’t argue, Ben. For once in your life don’t be oppositional.”

It was a plea of sorts. I had wanted to blurt out some explanation for the missing Tabriz carpet and coffeepot and the other fencible goods but no explanation came; my mouth hung open foolishly. I wondered how many of Deirdre’s curly black hairs were visible on the bed linen, along with how many of our telltale love-juice stains. Gloria gave me a quick probing look out of her frosty blue eyes. Five years younger than I, she is as alert as a bird on the lookout for worms in scanning me for signs of the inevitable decline that will leave her with a widow’s well-heeled freedom. So many of her friends are widows, sole proprietresses of bank accounts no longer joint; blithely, at last, they command to b done all the home projects—the airy wing added to th house’s gloomy core; the indoor lap-pool; the resurface driveway; the elaborate garden fence, its crisscrossed slat doubling as a trellis for roses and clematis; the screened-i gazebo beyond the garden, for reading and romanticall solitary reverie—that the wretched husband, alive, would have forbidden. She envies these women the liberty their weeds betoken. To blunt her death-wish for me it has become my habit to deny Gloria nothing, even though some of her home projects, such as lining our bathroom with mirrors and ripping out the old bent-nosed nickel faucets for brass, Swiss, inhumanly streamlined fixtures, seem bizarre to me. Why all these mirrors in which to count our multiplying wrinkles? Confronting myself in the shaving mirror has become the major hurdle to each day. With the mirrored cabinet door ajar, I can see myself from a dizzying variety of angles, my profile when I bend close receding into that slightly curving infinity a pair of mirrors can conjure out of nothing. The first time I saw my own head in profile, with its slack, opisthognathous jaw and rather flattened back to my skull, I was nine years old, being fitted for my first grown-up jacket at the England Brothers department store on North Street in Pittsfield; I was horrified, discovering this ugly brother inside my own skin. He was a stranger, not any kind of twin. He looked Neandert(h)al. Now I see that ugly brother with his hair thinned and whitened and his dead-looking earlobes elongated as if by African magic, and his eyes shrunk as if by a New Guinea headhunter, and his skin blotched with pink sun-damage and shattered capillaries, not one but dozens of him parabolically receding in the astronomical complexity of Gloria’s multiple mirrors. Still, to live with a woman a man must learn to accommodate her instinct to improve the nest. We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.

“I am not oppositional,” I told her.

The AgRepel, which came in large plastic buckets from Polly Martingale’s man in Boxford, looked like lumpy, dirty white clay and indeed did smell of death. But subtly: we had to get our noses down close to inhale the slaughterhouse redolence, and we wondered, as we lined the rose beds with it and scattered lumps beneath the euonymus and yew bushes, if the deer would lower their heads enough to be repelled.

“Wherever there’s deer shit, put it,” Gloria directed.

“‘Scat,’” I said, “or ‘spoor’ or ‘pellets’ or ‘turds,’ if you must. But don’t keep calling it ‘shit.’” I felt she did it, by now, to offend me.

“It’s shit,” she said. “Because of you and your laziness I have to get down on my knees in my own garden and kneel in tick-lousy deer shit.”

She sounded in my ears not unlike Deirdre; I wondered if one of them had absorbed the other. I protested unconvincingly, “Their excrement doesn’t have the ticks in it. The ticks go from their hides onto field mice, somehow, and then they bite people. But only when they need to.”

The tick and the disease they carried were rather unreal to me, but very real to Gloria. Her face in the shade of its Caribbean sunhat went white with fury at the thought of the deer invading her property and the spirochete invading her bloodstream, bringing chills and fever and aches and possible heart damage and arthritis. People even died of it, she assured me. This omniscient Mrs. Martingale knew somebody who knew somebody from New London who had gone into the hospital and just died.

I marvelled at how thoroughly Gloria was involved in this world, and not, like me, drifting away from it on a limp tether. When I stopped having to take the train into Sibbes Dudley, and Wise each weekday, I split—so it feels—into: number of disinterested parties. My wave function had collapsed.

Against much inner resistance, knowing full well that a child’s innocent heart was being used to blackmail me into sitting still for a fund-raising lecture, I drove an hour along 128, at the height of the morning rush, to participate in Grandparents’ Day at Kevin’s private school, Dimmesdale Academy: all boys, fourth through ninth grades. The grounds spread on the edge of the birthplace of the Revolution, Lexington, a bucolic layout at the end of a winding street of posh colonial-style homes, at their halcyon best in the spring froth of blossom and new leaf. Kevin has recovered from his broken wrist and at the age of eleven is a limber and athletic blond with childhood’s shambling manners and inaudible voice even though his head comes up to my shoulder. His paternal grandparents have retired to Hawaii but Perdita was there, her carelessly bundled hair liberally interwoven with gray; she had always scorned hairdressers, nail polish, and all lipstick but the shade, a milky pink, fashionable when she was in college. I was late, and had trouble finding the registration desk amidst the welter of little clapboard buildings built one at a time since the institution’s one-room-schoolhouse beginnings in 1846. The label identifying me, by my own name and Kevin’s, kept peeling off the lapel of my excessively tweedy coat. Though some grandparents looked ten years younger than I, and some as many or more years older, I was basically among members of my own generation. We had experienced birth in the conformist Fifties, adolescence in the crazed and colorful Sixties, and youth in the anticlimactic drug-riddled, sex-raddled Seventies. We had by and large dodged our proud nation’s wars, the Cold War skirmishes and then the hideous but brief Sino-American holocaust. AIDS, before the development of its astonishingly simple and effective vaccine, had afflicted marginal portions of society, homosexuals and drug-takers and the children of the poor, but not us. Those of us here still held winning tickets in the cancer lottery, and had not fallen to any of the accidents, automotive and industrial and cardiovascular, that thin the ranks of active Americans. It was amazing to me how many we were: white-haired and arthritic, we were like the specialized plants that spring up a week after a forest fire has apparently swept all life into ashes. And our multitudinous grandsons were there to carry mankind deeper into the twenty-first century, to the brink of the unimaginable twenty-second.

I was indignant to have driven an hour and sacrificed a morning of my dwindling life, but there were grandparents present from Arizona and Florida, shaming me once again with my relative lack of family feeling. My passion to survive had only been partially placated by childbearing. Perdita had come out from Boston, where she lives in the semi-slum of the South End with a man considerably younger, called Geoff—diffidently artistic, as is she, and gay in part but perhaps not in the part turned toward her. Lankier even than when I first saw her in the Seventies (on the steps of the Du Bois Library, wearing tight jeans colorfully patched on both buttocks and a belly-exposing tie-dyed halter, puffing what, from the miserly way she pinched it in her fingers, was clearly a joint), she has let the years evolve a hundred florets of intersecting wrinkles on her face, and wears her grizzled hair constrained by a few hairpins, probably rusty. This gaunt old witch contains a beauty that I am one of the last on earth to still descry. To me she will always be that maiden on the shore, whose wet bare feet shed drying sand grain by grain in the cupped warmth of a back dune.

Linked now only by our progeny, we followed Kevin as he conducted us on a tour of the school—the new gym with its gleam of raw steel and unscuffed hardwood, the strained computer facilities, waiting for a donor to expand them— and sat side by side as the headmaster outlined his vision of the future and a choir of unchanged male voices piped through some madrigals and simplified Broadway show times. Perdita possesses that strange faculty of first wives of being instantly intelligible. “Dandelion,” she murmured, and I knew she meant the woman two rows before us, with a head of hair as purely white and as evenly coiffed on her skull as a dandelion poll.

“Muffin,” I answered, and she knew I meant the headmaster, a youngish man both rotund and orotund. The category had been hers, a piece of private college slang back on the U. Mass, campus, dividing all humanity into three types, of which another was “horse” and the third I had forgotten. Could it have been as simple as “bird”? If our universe needs only three dimensions (plus time) to exist, and if three kinds of quarks, with their antiquarks, make up all the hadrons, and three primary colors all the stripes of the rainbow, a triad of categories might be enough.

“Rodney—”she began.

“Still has reading problems,” I finished. This was Kevin’s younger brother, who lacked and would lack all his life the loose-jointed ease of his sibling.

“Less so, Mildred says.”

“He must have inherited post-linearity from Carol.” Carol Eliade was their father, and my oldest daughter’s husband— a son of Romanian immigrants, and a wizard, before the war, at keeping one step ahead of the Japanese in the miniaturization of computer chips. The war (which was perhaps less between us and China than between China and our protégé Japan, over the control of Asia, including separatist Siberia) had left Japan too ruined to compete, although the resilience of a demolished nation is always greater than seems possible. Fresh shoots push through the hot ashes; weeds spring up in new mutations. Global disaster had left intact the faint chemistry between Perdita and me, like a cobweb uniting two rotten old branches. In the math class, which was doing exercises in decimals, I was stimulated by her presence to participate in the riddling drill, which involved a string of solutions that spelled out a trendy phrase, in this case LOVE IS COLOR BLIND. I was still searching for the “B” when Perdita softly pointed out that the little boy sitting next to Kevin had already finished. “He does this every day,” I pointed out in turn, with a competitive snarl that made her laugh. She would always see me as an academically aggressive, socially insecure college student.

Our forty-seven-year-old cobweb broke as we kissed our grandson goodbye and left Kevin running on the newly green, still muddy school field, rapidly shifting a lacrosse stick from hand to hand. The sky always looks so big over flat school fields, with their population of children scurrying in chase of their distant futures, while ominous silver-black clouds unfurl overhead. Driving back to 128, I observed that spring was further along west of Boston than on the North Shore—the green maple flowers, now a chartreuse dusting on the roads, had yielded to half-unfolded leaflets, and tulips were already up in red and yellow rows, along the white picket fences.

“How was the precious Perdita?” Gloria asked on my return. “Still anorectic?”

“O.K.,” I said. “Not unpleasant.”

“Why would she be unpleasant?” she asked. “She’s got this lovely boy-lover in Boston, and still collecting alimony from you.”

“I’m not sure he’s an actual lover,” I said. “My kids say he’s gay. I’ve never met him.”

“And did you pay any attention to Kevin?” she asked, having decided that Perdita was an unprofitable subject for her to pursue. Yet the subject nagged her. My renunciation of my former wife had never been quite complete enough to suit her. She was a systematic woman, Gloria, and there was a residue of Perdita in our life that struck her as an impurity—dirt in a corner, as it were. Yet for me to give her what she wanted would be to expunge Perdita to an unreal degree, leaving me with a clean-swept past. Kevin was a safer topic: “He was dear,” I said. “Still very innocent, even though I swear he’s grown two inches in a month. He was touchingly pleased I came; I guess I had somehow communicated my resistance to driving all that way on a weekday.” Weekdays and weekends were still different to me, out of intractable habit.

“Well,” she said, “you might explain to him that he’s one of ten. You could spend all of your time being a grandfather.”

“Instead of being a useless housebound retiree,” I said, a touch—an almost subliminal touch—combatively.

But my attitude toward Gloria since her return is meek and grateful. She has taken on the lawn and the plantings and wrestles with them and the workmen who come and go—lopping branches, scattering fertilizer—daily. Beds are re-edged; mulch is laid down over Preen. Miraculously, as the greenery outside the window rises into its Maytime flood (the beech leaves unfold like batches of tender umbrellas being raised; the hosta’s unravelling tubes have sprung up all along the driveway), the interior of the house also prospers. The quail reappeared one morning on the dining-room table; dimly remembered doodads cluster more thickly on the mantels and end tables in the living room; one day, I don’t doubt, the great blue living-room rug will reappear, like a revived lawn. Under Gloria’s impassioned care the violated house is healing. Soon there will not be a single telltale scar of my transgressions.

I awake each night around four and after urinating in the bathroom have trouble sliding back into sleep. Some vague wedge of dread jams the process. Gloria, unlike Deirdre, snores, not loudly, usually, but with enough variety of pauses and syncopation to keep me listening. The bed seems a slant surface from which I might fall into an abyss. That acrophobic dream about leaving Boston had widened a crack in me. I used to get back into sleep by trying to remember the dreams I was having, but my dreams these days are repellent shambles of half-forgotten faces contorted by the stress of old predicaments—unwanted pregnancies, amorous alliances swelling out of control, professional reversals in the antiseptic offices on State Street, children’s clinging illnesses, the wounds and rebuffs they would bring home from school in tears, houses in Coverdale whose rugs and wallpaper are soaked in the acid humidity of domestic boredom and discontent, all shot through with a numbed but breathing version of the terror I felt in the basement with Milly’s unbuilt dollhouse. Dreaming, I am unhappy, and yet in morning light I resist waking, lying in bed, collapsing into another doze, long after Gloria’s footsteps have begun to make the house’s well-built endoskeleton of joists and studs and beams tremble with her energy.

Walking down to the mailbox to pick up the Globe, I observe how freshly green leaves displace the forsythia’s confetti of yellow petals, and squint up at the new object that has appeared in our heavens. Like the halo of iridescence that sometimes appears among cirrus clouds, it needs noticing, its very vastness, out of all earthly scale, being a kind of concealment. It is at least twenty times wider than the moon that Newtonian mechanics has appointed to be Earth’s companion, and thrice again that than the abandoned honeycomb men placed in orbit before the cataclysmic war. This new moon, visible at night as a faintly luminous lariat slowly moving across the paralyzed sprinkle of stars, by daytime is imprinted on oxygen’s overarching blue like the trace of a cocktail glass, a sometimes silvery ring of pallor. It may have existed—theories run—in prehistory; it may have hovered over the dinosaur herds, the first amphibians, the dead continents before the seas evolved life-forms more complex than algae. It is a spaceship, that much is clear, from somewhere either in our galaxy or even from another galaxy, for its appearance in our sky indicates that, unless against long astronomical odds its origin is but a few light-years away, its makers and steerers have with an unthinkable technology cut through the physical knot of space-time—have found a way to travel from point to point by the power of the mind. That mind was an alien element in the material cosmos has long been intuitively recognized, but scientists only toward the end of the last millennium formulated its primal place among the forces of creation. The particles smaller than a quark, it was reluctantly proclaimed, are purely mathematical, that is to say, mental. Further, the cosmos is exquisitely constituted in all its chemical and atomic laws to provide enough duration and stability for the evolution of intelligent life. Until such intelligence exists, the universe in only the most preliminary sense exists, somewhat as a play or script exists in textual form as a precondition of its being acted, its sets knocked together, and its lighting projected in three dimensions.

It has been abundantly shown by computer simulation that a universe less than fifteen billion years old and less than fifteen billion light-years across, containing fewer than a billion billion (1018) stars, would have been too small to produce carbon-based life. We—and algae and earthworms and angelfish—needed all those exploding supernovae to make the heavy elements; we needed all the dark matter to slow the pace of gravity so life could emerge. In a universe wherein the gravitational fine-structure constant would be 10-30 instead of, as it is, 10-40, everything would be 105 times smaller and 1010 times denser; our sun would be two kilometers across and burn with a hot blue light for a life of a single year. A planet equivalent to Earth would orbit this star once every twenty days and would rotate once every second, giving it two million days a year. But in the crowded, stronger-gravitied universe, stars would be tearing dark matter away from one another, and the planetary life-forms that might evolve—no bigger than bacteria in any case—would quickly perish. Sufficiently benign conditions require an initial density parameter set with an accuracy of one part in 1060. These are the odds against mind’s being a blind side-product of material forces: one in 1,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000.

And yet I am insufficiently reassured.

The slender torus that floats beyond the clouds but lower than the moon shows that somewhere in the universe mind has triumphed over matter, instead of antagonistically coexisting with it as on our planet. But the minds, or giant mind, behind this perfectly circular intrusion into our skies do not, or does not, communicate. Inspection with telescopes, where such instruments have survived the war, discovers no surface features, except for areas of slightly higher smoothness that may be viewing ports. The pale ring hangs up there like a dead man’s open eye. Are we being studied as if by an ideally non-interactive zoologist suspended in a scent-proof cage above whooping, head-scratching tribes of chimpanzees? Or is it that there can be no more language between above and below than between a man and an underground nest of ants? Yet myrmecologists do communicate, in a fashion, with ant colonies, as does a small cruel boy who pokes a stick into one. We gaze upward at the staring ring and wait for the stick in our nest, the thrust of the Word beyond our poor words. It does not come. Only psychotics and publicity-seeking liars ever get abducted, and no detectable rays, from radio to gamma, emanate from the hovering spacecraft. Perhaps its projection here from the vastness of elsewhere consumed all its energy; perhaps it has simply nothing to say, having passed beyond the word-generating friction of ego-resistant space-time.

So we go about our low business within our shattered civilization as if the enormous low-lustre torus were not there. Many maintain it is not there. Today it seemed to me fainter, more nearly melted into the blue, as if slowly giving up its inscrutable mission. Mass illusions are common throughout history, sometimes manifesting themselves in elaborate consensual detail. Yet my belief remains that the object— seven hundred kilometers in diameter by the best estimates—is real, though composed of a substance impalpable on Earth.

The dread underlying my dreams may be surfacing in reality. There have been more sounds and signs of activity in the woods, now that half the trees are in fresh leaf, making a spotty curtain of green. Yesterday I heard hoots and thrashing sounds in the direction of the railroad tracks, and then a regular hammering too loud to be a metallobioform. I walked through the old hemlock planting, past the thick clump of snowdrops, its heavy-headed ground-breaking flowers melted away like their namesakes, with only a tiny hard green nub left as evidence. Everywhere on the forest floor the carpet of dead leaves is pierced by an oval, shiny, not quite symmetrical leaf—Massachusetts mayflower, I think, also called “false lily-of-the-valley.” And goutweed is springing up, and the miniature red leaf of burgeoning poison ivy. Out of sight of the house, wilderness begins. Dead branches are strewn underfoot; fallen dead trees lean at a slant on the still-living. Some sunken brush piles date from the reign of the previous owner, when he and his sons were young. Others, less settled and covered with needles and leaves, arose in my earlier, more vigorous days here. Ragged, tufted, littered granite escarpments divide the woods here into high and low land; trespassers seeking a way to the beach have worn a wandering path roughly parallel to the creek that creeps, trickling and twinkling, through the marsh that bounds our land. The escarpments make a series of bowls in which interlopers, usually youngsters, feel sheltered and hidden enough to suck on their cigarettes and six-packs, purchased a few steps away, across the tracks where the commuter trains hurtle. The voices and clatter arose from a bowl guarded from above by the spiky trunk of a long-toppled pine, and out of the sight of the tracks. I spied them from above—three young men with dark hair and what seemed heavy torsos clad only in thin white T-shirts, though the May air is cool, and promises rain.

They looked up startled—the human face, a flashing signal in our eyes, even in the side of our vision, as vivid as a deer tail—when I descended, with an unavoidable snapping of dead wood. I felt naked without a gun, though I had no reason to suppose that they had guns.

“Can I help you?” I asked—the standard proprietorial opener. I could feel my heart pumping, my blood rising in counter-aggressive reflex.

The sarcasm escaped them. They looked at me mutely. They were not Americans of direct African descent but distinctly dusky. Portuguese and Spanish blood had in some nocturnal tropical byway swerved to add a Negro tinge to olive skin. Distrustful brown faces, with black eyes as lustrous and vulnerable and angry as Deirdre’s or the gelatinous orb that gazed back at me from the gliding train window last winter.

I restated my question: “Are you aware that this is private property?” They had begun to build something, with no tools other than one rusty hammer, a coffee can full of nails, and a hacksaw pitifully ill-suited to cutting wood. It was hard to guess, from the few branches they had aligned and insecurely fastened together, what kind of structure was intended, here on a slightly raised knoll of land amid the creased granite boulders.

“Who say?” one—the tallest—asked in turn.

“I fear that I say,” I said. “These eleven acres are mine. If you doubt me, let’s go together and call the police.” Our little local downtown, with a blue-sided public telephone beside the convenience store, was not many steps away, across the railroad tracks. Haskells Crossing, our village is called; every crossing, on the B & M line between Gloucester and Boston, was named in the old days, and some of the names stuck, though the old Haskell estate has long been broken up into two-acre house lots. These boys had followed the tracks north, to a better life.

Another of them snickered, but was enough uncertain of the decorum of the encounter to avert his face, so that he directed at the leafing forest floor his mumbly reply: “Yeah you do that. You go find them, mister. They just love to come runnin’, those police do.”

The older, bigger one felt sufficiently on firm ground to offer a proposal. He spoke carefully. “We just want to make a little place here in case it rains.”

“A little cozy place,” the other speaker said. He was trying, I gauged, to match my initial tone of sarcasm. He was the nimble-witted lawyer of the group.

I was feeling ownership of this spot sliding out from under me. I looked at the third boy, the darkest and most slender; he seemed not much older than Kevin, and not as tall. “There is nothing cozy about this place,” I stated firmly to him. “From this time of year on, there are tons of insects. There is poison ivy and scratchy briars. At night there are bats.” My sense of it was they were city boys, out of Salem or Lynn but not all the way from Boston. “A few years ago,” I told them, “there were rabid raccoons; one bite would kill you.” Saying all this to the youngest gave me the courage to face the biggest and say in a voice artificially level, “I suggest you get off my land now.” My hand at my side did itch for a gun, even that borrowed .22 with which I had beheaded the chickadee fifty years ago.

He said, expressionlessly, a surprising thing in reply: “Phil say you pay him rent.”

“Phil? You know Phil?” I was as relieved as if Phil were a dear friend, to have a connection established between these youths and the adult world.

The little lawyer, as if not wanting his client to speak for himself, interposed, “My older sister, she know Deirdre. She told her the land all empty.”

“It is not empty,” I said. “I own it.” I shifted my ground, perhaps disastrously. “There’s lots of empty land, since the war.” I was conceding an abstract squatters’ rights, to entice them to go elsewhere.

“Less lately,” the leader told me, with his deadpan facticity. His lips seemed stung and numbed by the words he was forced to utter. “Less now than there used to be. People movin’ around.”

The youngest one, whom I had appealed to as an image of my touching, grateful grandson, with a sudden wide wave of one thin and limber arm gave a pronouncement almost poetic: “All these trees and dead rocks, they’re not doin’ anybody any good.”

“They’re doing me good,” I told him in a grandpaternal tone. “Me and my wife. They’re part of our living space.”

My tone, or this curious term, made the lawyer of the group snicker again, and then as if to cover up this lapse he pleaded, his widening eyes focused on my face and daring me to look away, “We was thinkin’ just a little watchin’ post for the summer. Cold weather come, nobody can use it, promise.”

“Watching post? What would you watch?” This was my instinctive reply, but a wrong one. I should have instantly rebuffed the seasonal inroad. I was rusty at haggling.

The older one smiled, or at least his blunt, numb appraisal of me and my potential as an obstacle softened. “A lot of stuff goin’ on” was his answer.

“He means pedestrian traffic,” the lawyer said. “You may not know it, man, but tons of people use this path as a way to the water. We’d be doin’ you a favor. We’d be keepin’ people from gettin’ up to your house.”

“All these favors for free?” I asked—another mistake, a sarcasm taken as a concession.

“You said it,” the spokesman eagerly agreed, his eyes staying fixed on my face in a kind of shining impudence. “No charge, absolute protection. We’ll be makin’ the place more tidy, too. Cleanin’ up all this crap.”

It was an area which I visited, as my physical activities became more restricted, no more than once or twice a year. When we first moved here, Gloria and I walked to the beach every week and roamed the woods stacking brush and planning bonfires. No more: this site was mine only by law. A litter of beer cans and plastic soda bottles had built up.

The leader reached down and picked up the hammer. In his plump olive fist it became a weapon. He said to me stolidly, “You ask Deirdre and Phil.”

“No,” I said, sounding prim and excited even in my own ears. “I will speak to my wife about this. And the police.”

“Uh-huh.” “Sure.” “You go do that, mister.” All had spoken, to reinforce one another; the three boys drifted closer together to make a dense unit that, by some force of anti-gravity, propelled me, my face hot with anger and fear, back up the hill. As I climbed the slope, which was slippery with dead needles, my heart labored and raced. Around me in the fresh leaves raindrops began to tick. Rain would chase the interlopers away, was my cowardly consolation.

But I did not, yesterday, describe the incident to Gloria. I did not want her to know more about Deirdre than she had already guessed. The house was healing. Even the useless old coffee-maker that had been stolen had reappeared in a lower kitchen cabinet, tucked behind the extra soup bowls. I did ask her, though, if she would like to borrow the shotgun back from the Pientas. I told her I had seen deer scat in the woods.

Now in the suburban streets where some kind of order is still maintained, and even in the yards of those houses which are abandoned and boarded up or else burned-out shells, the vibrant magenta of crabapple outshouts the milder pink of flowering cherry, the dusky tint of redbud, and the diffident, sideways-drifting clouds of floating dogwood petals. The stunted old apple to the right of the driveway, much topped to keep it from intruding on the view, puts forth a scattered show of thin-skinned white tinged with pink, like an English child’s complexion. The lilac racemes, once tiny dry cones the color of dead grapeskins, are turning large and soft and pale. Nearer to the house, the fattening azalea buds are bright as candy hearts.

However luxuriantly the crabapples down in the village are blooming, there is one in our side yard, toward the Kellys’, that is half dead. Gloria, in a dictatorial whirl restoring the order that I had let, in her absence, slide, asked me to cut it down. “Give it a chance,” I pleaded.

“It’s had its chance,” she said. “Do it, or I’ll call the tree service and they’ll charge three hundred welders and another three hundred to feed it into the chipper. You’re always complaining about money, here’s your chance to save some.”

“Suppose I cut my own hand off.”

“You won’t,” she said, in a tone of stern dissatisfaction.

Reluctantly I descended into the dank and spidery basement, sharpened the chain saw link by link with a dull round file, and adjusted its tension with a wrench and screwdriver. It has taken me years to get the trick of this adjustment; the clamp on the blade is out of sight, so one must feel one’s way, as with sex or (I imagine) a root-canal job.

Quick-moving spring clouds shuffled sunlight in and out of the cool breeze off the sea. Being half dead meant that the tree in its other half was alive, with a pathetic dutiful effort of sap and cell division pushing a scattering of buds toward the cloudy, gusty sky, even as the lower branches snapped off like a mummy’s fingers. As the saw—voracious and smooth-cutting in its first minutes, its bite juicy with fresh bar-oil— sliced off the dry lower limbs, I came to higher, smaller branches still moist, with green cambium, and I called Gloria over before I proceeded. She looked where I showed her the round wounds oozing water, and sighed: “Ben, you never pay attention, but every year we go through this. Some boy with the yard service cuts out the dead wood and we decide to let the rest go and see if the tree will thrive. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t thrive. Some bug is at it. Or it just isn’t happy in this spot; it’s never been happy. Too much salty wind, or the ledge is too close under the soil, or something. Cut it down. Now is the time. We’ll find something else that will be happier. Probably an evergreen—a Douglas fir or a blue spruce.” Seeing me still hesitate, with an expression on my face that must have been pained, she said, with one of the few smiles she has granted me since her return “Sweetie, you’re overidentifying. You can’t be sentimental if you’re going to maintain a property. Here’s your choice: let everything go to wrack and ruin so the value of the place drops to next to nothing, or else put this very unhappy crabapple out of its misery.”

There was a pleasure, actually, in slicing up the helpless tree, amputating inwards, as the severed limbs accumulated in a high tangle on the lawn, and then cutting up the trunk in fireplace lengths as it stood there, a tall stump. The saw resisted, binding in the wet wood. The poor tree was still sending up sap to phantom buds. I dragged the limbs to the burning pit and stacked the trunk lengths in the garage, to be split some winter day. I too was half dead, but my other half was still alive, and victorious. The tree had gone from being my brother to being my fallen enemy. I gloated over its dismembered corpse, and resheathed the dull chain-saw blade in its sheath of orange plastic spelling STIHL.

This was days ago, in the tentative buddings of another season. Today, summer arrived, though it is still May. In Boston, the television said, the temperature hit ninety, and was close to that along the North Shore: the air of a different planet has taken over. The refrigerator works up a sweat. The sea seems sunken, greasy, like the concave underside of a silver ingot. The lilacs explode into pale violet and go limp, so that the branches sag out toward the driveway, brushing the sides of the delivery trucks that grind their way up through a haze of exhaust and pollen. Gloria goes off to Boston in a slinky summer dress that clings to her hips. She leaves it to me to put up all the storm windows remaining and to pull down the screens, and to install the air conditioner in our bedroom. It waits all winter in the closet under the attic stairs, beside the old bureau—a relic of my marriage to Perdita and one of the few items of furniture in the house I can call my own. When I wrestle the air conditioner up into my arms it has put on ten more pounds of weight; lugging it through three doorways and settling it in the open window, where it precariously rests on the aluminum fins that seat the combination windows and screen, stretches the outer limit of my strength. But the year I cannot lift it will bring my death closer in a quantum leap, so I manage to succeed, grunting and cursing and even exclaiming orgasmically in my spurt of muscular effort.

Gloria is not here as an audience but she is here in my mind; I am trying to make her feel guilty in absentia—a hopeless game. After a certain age marriage is mostly, its bitter and tender moments both, a mental game of thrust and parry played on the edge of the grave. If she finds me dead of a heart attack with the air conditioner in my arms she will never forgive herself: good. Why does she insist on having the thing installed, when in a day or two the weather will turn cool again? There is a magic moment, as the ponderous box teeters on its fulcrum of aluminum fins and I struggle with one free hand to lower the wooden sash so it slips into place behind the air conditioner’s frame, when if I lose my sweaty grip the whole intricate and cumbersome caboodle will fall two stories to the flagstones below and sickeningly smash. This, too, would be good, teaching Gloria a lesson.

But it has not thus far happened. And will not this year. The metal monster secure, I tug out the accordion pleats of plastic that, screwed into metal holes, fill the rest of the window spaces, and plug the pompous three-prong plug into the socket that waits all winter for this moment, and turn on the chilling hum (with a low rattle in it as if it needs tc clear its throat), and leave the room. Gloria is the one who must have air conditioning; the Hottentot secreted deep within me, the African grandfather, likes the heat undiluted— humidity-laden, lazy-making, caressing my limbs like an oily loose robe.

Outside, the heat has pressed from nature a host of fresh smells, musty perfumes of renewed rot and expanding tendril. The trees now have a blowsy look. Even the oaks, the last to leaf, have augmented their drooping yellow catkins with red-tinged miniature leaves, jagged and many-lobed. Stimulated by my triumphant wrestle with the air conditioner, I ventured into the woods, where I heard, close at hand, tapping and laughter. The acoustics of this acreage are such that sometimes voices and radio music from the town, across the tracks, sound uncannily near;, but these noises seemed to arise beneath my feet. I took the gun.

Hosts of insects have been awakened within the thickened leaves and shadows. A dead millipede, half crushed as if by an unknowing footstep, lay on the bathroom floor this morning. I puzzled over it, the terrible tangled intricacy left behind by its absconded vitality, and, too squeamish to use my fingers, swept it up into a pan with a brush and dumped it into the toilet, and flushed. Until the flush toilet, did men have any true concept of the end of the world? Dozens of tiny mayflies were attracted to my sweat. Born to live a day, they were crazy for me; I was the love of their tiny lives.

The trespassers heard my footsteps, though I had tried to be stealthy. The three dun faces, darker now that the shade had intensified, were joined by a fourth, paler but still dirty-looking in the light here below the escarpments, near the path worn parallel to the creek still farther below. The fourth face was female, a skinny young girl’s. Their little hut was a pathetic affair nailed together of fallen limbs, the buckling walls reinforced by forked branches broken off by last winter’s particularly heavy snow and still bearing last autumn’s leaves. For a roof, they had found some large scraps of gypsum wallboard, probably dumped by a local remodelling project and dragged across the tracks. They wouldn’t hold up long in a good rain, I wanted to point out. But, peeking in, I saw an essentially cozy space, striped with light and furnished with a few metal-mesh lawn chairs stolen from somewhere in the neighborhood—not, I thought at a glance, from me. Mine had a wider mesh, and were safe in the barn. Where did they bed the girl, if they did?

Her presence among them lent a new tension to our encounter. Stringy and besmirched, she yet was a prize, slim and upright, with bony hips hugged by tight tattered jeans and taut breasts perking up her cotton T-shirt. She had a square jaw and a pale-lashed squint. No one introduced her; I gave her a nod. Her presence imposed a certain courtliness upon us, while bringing out a scent of danger and competition. I was carrying Charlie Pienta’s shotgun, as if inadvertently. “I see you’ve finished your fort,” I said.

“That’s no fort,” the biggest boy, the leader, told me. “We just use it to watch the path.”

“And what do you see?” As if I were his captain and he reporting to me.

“Not much yet,” he said, after a pause in which he grappled with the something wrong, inverted, in his answering my question at all.

The second in command, the quick-mouthed lawyer-type, sensed an opportunity to enlist me in their troop. “Not much yet, but what with the warm weather bein’ here and schools gettin’ out, there’ll be plenty more for sure. They won’t be gettin’ by us.”

“What’ll you do?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Turn ’em back, man.”

“Suppose they don’t want to turn back?”

“We have ways,” the biggest one said, when his lieutenant said nothing.

“Well, this is very nice,” I said, smiling at the stringy blonde girl, as if she and I could share a joke at the expense of these dusky thugs. “That’s more than the police ever did.”

“Police,” the youngest said, the one that reminded me of my eldest grandson. “You ever call the police like you said you would about us?”

I turned to him, surprised and hurt by his challenge. “I’m saving them. I thought I’d give you guys a chance to clear out first. You know,” I went on, my eyes returning to the girl, who must have been about fourteen, and had moved closer to the big mute leader—she was his girl, the gesture said—“this little hut of yours could be knocked down in ten minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it gone some morning when you show up. How do you guys get up here to Haskells Crossing, anyway?”

“Train,” the leader said, as if obliged to speak by the pale girl’s respectful pressure at his side. “From Lynn.”

The little lawyer hastened to repair any breach this admission had made in their security. “Somebody going to be sleepin’ here nights now,” he told me. “Anybody mess with this place, he’ll know it quick.”

I shifted the gun to the other arm, glancing down to see if the safety catch was still on. The last thing I wanted was an accidental blast; but the tension inside me seemed capable of tripping the trigger without my touching it. “I haven’t gone to the police yet,” I admitted. “But the next time I see Spin and Phil, I intend to complain. I pay them good money to keep people like you from bothering me. They should be around any day now.” In fact, now that I mentioned it, they were some days overdue.

The lawyer smiled, a lovable smile that tugged his upper lip high off his teeth, exposing a breadth of violet gum. “We about to tell you,” he said, “Phil and Spin won’t be comin’ round. They asked us to do the collectin’ in their stead. We what you call their proxies.”

“Phil and Spin,” the youngest said, with an expansive upward wave, as if their spirits had come to roost in the tree-tops, “they’re delegatin’!”

“They’re contractin’ out,” the lawyer amplified. “They gettin’ too high up to do the plain collectin’; that’s why they ast us. They said you a real good customer who wouldn’t give us no bad flak. Some of these customers, they need persuadin’.”

I was back, I felt with a happy rush, at work, in my office at Sibbes, Dudley, and Wise, doing a negotiation—shaving percentage points, feeling for weak spots. There were protocols to observe, procedures to follow. “How do I know,” I asked, “you’re empowered to act for Phil and Spin? Show me a document.”

“You go show us Phil and Spin,” said this lawyer in embryo. “Where they be, if they the ones collectin’?”

“The fact that they’re not here,” I said, “doesn’t prove that you are their agents. Show me a written power, a document that Spin has signed.”

“We don’t go so much by documents,” I was told. “We go by the facts on the ground. The fact on the ground is, Phil and Spin are phasin’ out.”

“Phasing out,” I said, acclimating myself to a freshened chill of menace. “And you are suggesting that you’re taking over their territory? Kids like you? You’re playing with grown-ups, boys.” I shifted weight, like a golfer doing his waggle, and the shotgun barrel swung lightly across the line of their feet and knees. They held their breaths.

Then the biggest of the three said, “You got a barn up there, right?”

I was surprised enough to hesitate.

“We been up there,” he prompted. “Nice old shingled barn with horse stalls inside.”

“From the horse-and-buggy days,” I explained. “At the beginning of the last century. You know, the twentieth.” I suspected they were quite innocent of history, of time. “Before the motorcar took hold, people still had buggies pulled by horses. You’ve heard of horsepower?”

Why did I want to teach these boys anything? I had no such impulse with my own grandsons.

“Be a shame,” the biggest said, “that barn burned down. Lot of nice stuff inside.”

Not so nice, really—bachelor furniture Gloria’s sons abandoned in their social rise, a few ancient bow-topped trunks and a dismantled maple bedstead from the attic of my parents’ house, an ornately gold-framed photograph of my mustached grandfather that I had not given to the Pittsfield Historical Society, spare or non-functioning power gardening tools, boxes of books that had overflowed the shelves in the house. Junk, but each a page of my life and a grief to lose to flames and ashes.

“You’re actually saying you’ll burn my barn down,” I stated at last, to keep the negotiations clarified.

“He not sayin’ no such thing,” the lawyer intervened. “He sayin’ only be one cryin’ shame that barn started to burn. Up there on that hill, not much water pressure even if the fire fuzz do manage to show. Public services spread mighty thin these days. They be sayin’ Haskells Crossing too poor to buy gas for the fire engines, these big old expensive pumpers they have from the old days.”

I was impressed by his store of civic information, but I addressed the biggest boy, whom I thought his associate perhaps underestimated and overprotected. “If I do pay you the protection money, how do I know Spin and Phil wouldn’t also try to collect? I can’t pay double. That wouldn’t be fair.”

At least that much was left of the United States after the Chinese war—a belief in fairness, rudimentary rights guaranteed to everyone regardless of creed or color. The boys accepted my point, wide-eyed there in the dappled, cavelike, buggy woods. As the sun passed noon, the shade deepened and dampened the air, and mosquitoes had begun to bite. Each of us in our conference now and then needed to flick a hand in front of a face being buzzed, or to slap a bare arm being bitten. In a universe only slightly otherwise constructed in its subatomic parameters, I reflected, there would have been time only for mosquitoes and sea slugs to evolve before the sun gigantically expanded and then titanically collapsed. “I would want a receipt,” I told them, “and a guarantee that I won’t be solicited by anyone else.”

The second in charge told me, “We not so much into guarantees and receipts—we not signin’ anything the police could use.”

“You told me there are no police,” I reminded him.

This made the pale girl smile. “Enough around to hassle you,” she said. “That’s all they’re good for.”

Her speaking up seemed to put us all on the same side of an unspoken gender divide. I advised the boys firmly, “If you are going to go into business, you must learn business methods. You must create a structure of trust. People aren’t going to give you something for nothing, I don’t care what kind of a world it is.” As if this elementary lecture relieved me for the moment of further obligations, I turned to the skinny female and asked her as if at a party, “And what is your name?”

She had smoky wary eyes, greenish. Her nose was straight, with sore-looking nostrils. Her lips were thin, without lipstick; they began to smile in the complicity of politeness, then she checked herself with sideways glances at her companions.

In the murky shuffling light, infested with the stabs of swirling bugs, the most talkative of the boys became more childlike and aggressive as the girl’s ability to talk another language came into play. He cocked up his oval face at me and puffed out his lips. “She don’t need to tell anybody her name,” he said.

“Doreen,” she said in a voice soft but distinct.

“Are you from around here?” I asked her. My cocktail-party courtesies seemed to stun her protectors. I was asking her, as she sensed, what she was doing with these dusky hoodlums.

“Near here,” she admitted.

“A girl guide,” I ventured. Guiding the interlopers from Lynn around the local terrain: a girl Judas.

My politeness, my grave mature manner, no longer tempted her. “These are my friends,” she told me sharply.

I pictured her naked with the biggest, most stolid boy, in the loosely built hut, while the other two kept watch. She would serve him, inexpertly, fumblingly, but serve him nonetheless. I resented her, knowing that tonight, lying beside oblivious, Boston-exhausted Gloria, I would want her, this wan slice of forest sunlight, as I rarely wanted anything any more. I would shift from my left side to my right side and back again, imagining Doreen and me embowered in the slitted light of that buggy, slapped-up hut. I would resist relieving myself by setting my hand on my genitals—lumps of obsolete purpose in wrinkled sacks of the thinnest skin— knowing that Gloria would spot the semen stain when she made the bed. I would become again an inhibited pubescent lying sleepless and scared of unseen powers in that narrow house on the hill above Hammond Falls.

I doubted that Doreen sensed my lust, it would have seemed so ridiculous to her. But I could have been wrong. I have never decided how alive women are to male desire, their own sex tucked enigmatically between their legs, and how much simply adrift they are, waiting for an irruption whose unpredictability is part of its appeal.

The negotiations could go no further now. “I need some proof that you guys are collecting for Spin and Phil,” I announced, and then was immediately unsure if I had said it aloud or merely thought it. In either case my self-assertion was absorbed in the moist caverns of thickening greenery as I, holding the comforting shotgun, ascended the slippery slope up to my house.

Lobster boats, bright white in the glazed blue morning, with red bumper rails, have reappeared in the bay, sentinels of their patient, barbaric harvest. Each evergreen branch wears a fringe of fresh pale growth; the Austrian pines have erected candles inches long, all it seems in a few warm days. Along the driveway, Siberian iris carelessly dug into the daylily bed have flowered; their complexly folded heads of imperial purple lift on slender stems above the matted jumble of long leaves whose emergence as individual fleurs-de-lys I so eagerly noted not many weeks ago. In the circle in the front (or the back, Gloria would say) of the house, bridal-wreath blossoms bend their thin branches low, and enkianthus hangs out its little red-tinged, berry-size bells, beloved of bees. One day the fat and turbanlike rhododendron buds are about to pop, and the next day they have already opened, with azaleas and lilacs still unwilted, heaping extravagance upon luxury. Can there be enough bees to process so much pollen, so much nectar? The heedless June rush of it—the moon full and the color of cheddar as it rises through the eastward woods, the watchful torus at seven in the morning as faint as a watermark in expensive blue stationery, the dry bit of honeycomb most vivid at noon, unattainable and abandoned in its orbit. It rained last evening; at dinner we could see through the kitchen windows the soft sheets of rain released by the evening drop in temperature; the late light was dimmed by the downpour, whose silver threads thickened and shimmered like strummed harp strings against the backdrop of now-solid green. This morning, a wreckage of shed azalea blossoms was strewn on the drying driveway’s splotched asphalt.

Bringing back milk and orange juice from the so-called convenience store—their convenience more than ours, I think—I was startled as I exited (now that warm weather is here, one has to step over baby strollers parked just outside the door and dodge ungainly boys sucking on candy bars and soda cans while squatting wearily on skateboards) by a long-legged woman in shorts, her hair grayed in quietly dashing stripes, a smile springing into her face like an advertisement for faithful flossing. Did we know each other? I thought not, but we well might have. Her lean, purposefully conditioned body and crisp tan Bermuda shorts, her canary-yellow polo shirt and discreet pearl earrings bespoke the clean and breezy class I had aspired to. We might have met in hallways muffled by plush carpet, at a fast-moving get-together in a Boston apartment before Friday-night Symphony, or beside the striped straightaway at a girls’ day-school track meet, she young enough to be my mistress but old enough to have discarded a couple of husbands, each of whom had left her more comfortably off than she had been before. Or perhaps she had proved true to her first cotillion partner, and together they sat out the world’s recent meltdown like a fast dance they did not have the taste for. They settled for a sloping lawn, a heated swimming pool, twin Mercedes whose vanity plates say HIS and HERS or RAM and EWE. As we passed at an angle there on the soda-stained sidewalk perhaps she sensed, between her legs or at the limbic back of her brain, my adoration. She flinched, or stiffened, as if walking through an automatic door. I would more than have died for her—I would have lived for her.

Born poor, I suppose I am fascinated by the upper classes. Lazily they accept me among them, too confident themselves to care that I am an inwardly sardonic alien. Golf season has begun, and I am over at the club three or four times a week, mingling at lunch, blending into the Wednesday and Saturday foursomes. Some of these men have never held a job. Their life stages have been marked by a succession of games: the child, introduced by his nursemaids to croquet and badminton and then given tennis and sailing and equestrian lessons; the boarding-school boy, hardened at soccer and ice hockey and lacrosse; the college man, persuaded to risk his bones in the football line and test his eyes and nerves on the baseball team, while skiing becomes second nature on beery weekend trips into the White Mountains and the underwater high of scuba-diving is assimilated during rummy winter vacations to the tropics; the suburban husband, partnered with his wife at paddle tennis and matched against his old college roommate at squash; the country squire, ten pounds heavier and rosier in the face, caught up in the physically lighter but financially heavier exertions of polo and yachting; the paunchy man of distinctly mature years, passionate for the pedestrian challenge of golf and the poky interplay of Sunday-morning mixed doubles; and the stoop-shouldered dotard, still amiably feisty, extracting competitive thrills from billiards, bridge, backgammon, and yes, croquet again, in a more formal, white-clad version.

When St. Peter still sat guard at the pearly gates, how would he have judged these lives so devoted to regulated frolic? Not to mention the time-consuming fussing at the fine details of personal comfort, appropriate costume, fashionable vacation site frequented by like-minded others, and three sufficiently ceremonial meals a day? Nothing achieved, St. Peter might have inscribed in his golden ledger, his ever-write quill of angel feather checking off one more admissee to the voluminous, red-lined columns of the damned. But no; his angelic pen hesitates above the lambent parchment, then, moving across the ledger’s gutter to the opposite page, indites with smiling resolution, No harm done, adding a checkmark to the cerulean tabulation of the saved. The elect of New England expect no less, and it is hard to imagine how Heaven could be an improvement for them over their earthly days. The minds of these purely ornamental men are well fortified for the playful monotony of chorally praising God, where sinners, accustomed to variety in their fortunes, would be driven mad.

The summer cycle of, to amuse us old guys, weekend sweeps and senior tournaments has begun, and last week I found myself playing in the third-flight finals against my buddies Red Ruggles and Ken Dixon. My partner was Fred Hanover, a dear, dimly known fellow-member considerably older than I, itself endearing. He is a former club champion. Flashes of calm prowess flicker between spells of topping the ball and of obsession with the sound his pacemaker is making in his chest; he has trouble not listening to his own heartbeat as his life is mechanically ticked away. He and I had avoided simultaneous collapse and ding-donged well enough to beat two previous pairs of oppponents. But playing against Red and Ken was strange for me, on a Sunday morning when the grass was still soaked and a chill breeze cut through my ill-chosen golf shorts.

We teed off in a flurry of friendliness but by the second nine, with the holes even, I had no trouble hating our opponents. My having played so many rounds with them fanned my smoldering fury at Red’s sloppy, muscular whacking— his forearms thickened by a youth of scale-scraping and oyster-shucking—and Ken’s excessively deliberate, time-wasting style, as if running through a long mental checklist before taking off. While the retired pilot hung for what seemed minutes over the ball before unwinding into it with his maddening mechanical consistency, I could not stop staring at, and detesting, his shoes, white shoes which were oddly thick-soled, like the single shoe a cripple wears to even out his stride. But these were two, two shoes exaggeratedly shoelike, like the corny shoes in old-fashioned comic strips, though unimpeachably serious and white. Still, some unfair advantage, or sneaking presumption, seemed involved, and when my turn at last came to drive on the par-five tenth I could not control an impatient quickness in the backswing and on the downswing an overeager boost from the right hand, my right elbow flying. The ball was pulled to the left but, by the same bad mechanics, sliced so that it curved back into the center of the fairway. I settled into the fairway wood with a restricted backswing and moved the ball over the traps and mounds to within fifty yards of the green. Meanwhile, Fred, with a good drive, muffed his second, third, and fourth shots, looking up each time and producing an agonized yelp and an agitated gesture as if to pluck the ticking heart out of his chest. His fifth shot made the transverse bunker and he picked up; the hole was on me. Both Ken and Red had been scrambling and it looked as if a par would win it.

The pin was on the front left of the green, perhaps twelve feet in. I planned a little bump-and-run down through the medium rough that on the second bounce would dribble onto the green and ooze to within a tap-in of the hole. It was as vivid in my mind as a tinted, crosshatched illustration in a how-to-play-golf book. Fred slouched over to my side, with his kindly, sun-battered, games-wise face, his thatch of dry old bleached hair pointing this way and that in the breeze. He pleaded in a soft voice, “Go for the center of the green, Ben. Get safely on.”

He had not in the two previous days ever ventured advice, however in need of it I might have been. He felt pressure, and was communicating it to me. My cunning little bump shot, which had tingled like a done thing in my hands as they lightly gripped the pitching wedge, went up in smoke. “Really?” I said.

The former club champion didn’t back off. “Get it on the dance floor,” he said, his jaw clenched as if these were his dying words.

With masterful self-control I did not chunk the chip but flipped it down the safe, close-cut part of the slope so that the ball skipped onto the green, winding up twenty-five feet from the hole. “Grrrreat,” my partner gratefully growled. He had been so insouciant these two days, his anxiousness grabbed at me now. It was only a game, wasn’t it? I felt almost dizzily tall, walking onto the green with my putter. Fred had picked up, Red had skulled his chip clear across the green, but Ken had methodically—after hesitating so long I thought his cogwheels had jammed—chipped to within six or seven feet. If he sank it, he would salvage a par, and that thought led me, just under the scum of consciousness, not to lag but to try to sink, for an unbeatable birdie.

I was too stirred up to take note of the slope of the green here, or the close mowing that had left the grass the color and texture of toast. I charged the putt and in utter horror, as Fred grunted in the side of my vision, watched the ball (an unlucky found Ultra) skim across the left edge of the hole and nightmarishly keep rolling until I was outside of Ken. An abysmal embarrassment and incompetence possessed me; I walked to the hateful Ultra as if hiking to the ends of a sere and radioactive earth, then, hunched over, went blind, while blood beat against my eardrums like a raging prisoner. Blindly, numbly I lined up my second putt and stabbed at it and of course missed it, out to the right, ignoring the obvious break.

“Sorry, Fred,” I said aloud, wishing him and all witnesses to my wretched three-putt dead. Even Ken’s missing his makable seven-footer did not assuage my shame; it had been my hole to win and I had blown it. I had blown it, I secretly believed, because my partner had inserted his own competitive passion into the Zen zone I was attaining; but there was no way of saying this, and no way of redeeming my jejune blunder but by winning some holes. The harder I tried, the worse I got, overswinging, lunging, “swishing” the clubhead at the last fractional second, letting my right elbow roam away from my side to gain imaginary leverage. In the face of my uselessness, Fred plucked up some ancient proficiency; we scrambled and scrabbled up the slopes of this Sunday-morning match and ended two down on the seventeenth hole. We could have won it, and all my fault we didn’t. Three-putting from twenty-five feet. I couldn’t stop replaying the hole in my head; I took a sleeping pill but woke up at three in the morning back on that tenth green, dizzyingly tall above the receding putter-head, whacking the ball over and over again miles and miles past the hole while Ken, in his unbearable shoes, looked on in smiling wonder, as if a stewardess had just told him she would spend their London stopover in his hotel room after all, and my partner just out of sight around the corner of my skull grunted as if I had punched him beneath his pacemaker. I writhed; I thought of shaking soundly snoring Gloria awake; my eyes cursed the blank ceiling while my teeth suppressed a scream; I wondered what the point of human life was at all, if such dreadful things could happen under the sky.

Next morning, Memorial Monday, while saluting rifles rang out in unison in the town cemetery and television commentators put on their solemnest faces to chat for a minute about the millions who had given their lives pro patria in the recent war, Gloria told me I was taking golf too seriously. She wondered why I didn’t give it up, especially since she could use all the help I could give in the garden, now that warm weather was at last here.

Give up golf? I love those men. They alone forgive me for my warts and stiffnesses, my tainted breath and protruding nostril-hairs, my tremors and white-capped skin cancers. My golf companions too are descending into deterioration, and trying to put a good face on it—joking, under the striped tent the club has erected, with a cold Beck’s in one hand and an oily clutch of salted peanuts in the cupped other, over their own losses and lapses, life being a mess and a scramble at the best, men put here on Earth with hungers they must satisfy or they will die, and then they die anyway, men, men and women too, because for this ceremony of distributing prizes (Ben and Fred, Bradford Flight runners-up, clapclapclap) women, the wives and girlfriends and daughters and granddaughters of the players, have come to the club and are helping fill the tent with human talk and laughter, the chink of glasses and chomp of finger-food, the women in their perky summer skirts and knit polo shirts, women trim and lean and sun-weathered like the woman I saw outside the convenience store, women with their bright soprano voices gilding the brave baritone babble while unseen beyond the tent top the sad moons of transcendent witnessing and hollow endeavor lose and refind their pale shapes among the leisurely, operatic scurry of the fat clouds. Even Gloria came, stealing time from her garden, out of loyalty, wearing that straw hat we had bought years ago on St. Croix. I was touched, and gave her cheek a kiss in the cool shade of the sunny old hat, souvenir of our chummier days.

Going down to the barn to retrieve our two Havaheart traps—deer aren’t our only marauding pests; Gloria claims the woodchucks are just waiting in their endless burrows for her flower garden to ripen—I discovered a human body propped against the barn doors, in a sitting position on the plank ramp. I don’t come down to the barn every day, and the smell of decay was ripe, much stronger than AgRepel. There is musty, which is what the AgRepel seemed, and fetid, which is what I catch when I inadvertently bend down over a toilet bowl whose under-edge has long evaded the scrub brush, and stinking, which is what a skunk, not entirely unpleasantly, does. Then there are putrid, nidorous, and mephitic—blasts from the rotting heart of nature, where Satan with his foul breath writhes encased up to the waist in God’s implacable ice. We turn our faces away, ashamed for Creation.

The body was Spin’s, I could tell by the mustache, and the natty combination of blue pin-striped button-down shirt and yellow paisley necktie with matching pocket handkerchief. His putty-colored summer-weight suit had been weathered out of press by wet nights and the bloating of the body within. The face, round and unformed now as a child’s, was a mottled set of cheesy colors. A toothpick had been thrust into one open eyeball, like a martini olive—a childish cruelty in that—and the bludgeon or rocks that had been used on the top and back of his head had also been forcefully applied to his mouth, perhaps to loosen teeth thought to be gold. The corpse had attracted a cloud of buzzy supplicants, and the hands, rigid and hammer-fingered because of the pooling of blood in the tips, were crawling with small brown ants.

Even as I gagged, choking down regurgitation’s burning acid, something in me soared free above this slumped puddle of deactivated molecules, soupily breaking down en route to their next combination. On the golf course one often passed the litter of a dove or rabbit torn apart by a hawk or fox or owl: a discreet little splash of feathers or fur, as temporary as a dandelion head. Except for the plastic threads in his suit and the tips of his shoelaces, Spin would melt back into the woodsy mulch like a gutted mole. The gallantry of his attempt to dress and talk well, above his station as an enforcer, had fled and mingled with the atoms of the air, purifying their cobalt blue. We had usually ended our monthly conference by professing how much we trusted each other. In ungrateful, chaotic times, we had built up a relationship.

I raced back up to the house. Gloria was off somewhere, I hadn’t been paying attention when she told me where, to the hairdresser or the pedicurist or aerobics or a Calpurnia Club luncheon or lecture. I was alone in the house with my heaving chest and the noisome, clinging afterscent of Spin’s physical remains. I called the number for the police listed at the front of the telephone book. It rang three times and then a sugary automated voice clicked in, telling me to press the number 1 if this was an emergency, to press 2 if I wished to report evidence concerning a crime, 3 if I was requesting information concerning traffic conditions or the payment of traffic fines, and 4 if I wished to speak to the police for any other reason. I punched 2; the same sweet and unhurried voice told me to press 1 if the crime was violent, 2 if it involved theft, 3 if a white-collar crime, and 4 if it was a matter of a neighbor creating or maintaining a public nuisance or any other violation of civic order. I was beginning to sweat; I felt walled into a steel box. I punched 1, and then 4, and the voice told me pleasantly, with spaces between all the words, “We’re sorry. At present, all lines are occupied. But please stay on the line, and a representative will be with you shortly. We value your call, and apologize for this delay.”

Then came some recorded easy-listening music, old standards in arrangements with strings and without vocals. From my childhood I recognized “Moon River” and from my teenage years the Beatles’ “Get Back.” The absence of the original lyrics was a political statement; since the war, the nominal government in Washington did not want any particular voices and themes that might cohere into rebellion. From the years of my marriage with Perdita there came “Call Me,” by Blondie, and “Like a Virgin,” by Madonna, both ghostly and purely soothing when severed from the rasping of their provocative chanteuses. I hung up, tried the procedure again, varied the procedure, but never succeeded in producing a human voice. For a tantalizing second there was a gap in the switching of automated circuits, but then the voiceless music closed in again. The police were impregnable behind their computerized deflectors. I dialled 911 and it was busy. I tried the fire department and got, on musical hold, some baroque tintinnabulation, Bach or Vivaldi, I didn’t wait to determine which.

I hurried back outdoors. The birds—grackles, and a pair of raucous mockingbirds, and the nesting barn swallows— were filling the air with an excited squeak and twitter not much less mechanical than the incidental noises of evolving metallobioforms. The June sunshine beat down like a flattening template, giving each leaf and grass blade its shape. I ran down to the barn—a little lane once used by carriages and roadsters—and, as I had feared would be the case, Spin’s body was no longer there on the plank ramp, leaning against the barn door, whose last coat of paint clung in green flakes like so many iridescent insects. There was just a shadow of dampness where the body had rested, and a lingering stench.

The corpse had been a message, in lieu of a certificate, and the boys had taken it away once it was read. I was being watched, though my quick visual search of the woods revealed only receding depths of fresh leaves, lobed maple and triform hickory and serrated beech, leaves invading and nibbling at the carbon dioxide, forming ragged caves and tunnels of air worming their way down to the tracks and the creek. I was apparently alone on my vegetable planet. A few burnt matches had been left on the barn planks, beside the two-legged shadow of dampness, as a hint of further dire possibility.

Without considering an alternative action, I walked down on the slithery pine needles, gripping trees here and there to halt my sliding, to the boys’ hut. Only the biggest one was there. For the first time, without the intercession of the would-be lawyer and the mollifying presence of the youngest boy and the skinny blonde girl, I felt his weight as a man, his lethal capacity. My face must have shown the shock of my discovery, for he permitted himself the smallest of smiles, under the broad brown nose and opaque black gaze. “So,” I said, with a conspiratorial casualness, “you are qualified to make the collections.”

“Thass right. Spin, like we said, he took early retirement.”

“Phil and Deirdre?” Why did I care? My voice had trembled.

“They’re still around, maybe.”

“Is the monthly charge the same?”

“We were thinkin’ maybe it should go up a little. What with us providin’ on-the-spot service.”

He had mastered the corporate “we,” which diffuses and masks all manner of brutalities and denials. “How much is a little?”

“We were thinkin’, how about two thousand a month? You owe us for May. That makes four.”

“Two and two still make four. That’s some increase, from thirteen fifty to two.”

He shrugged. Though I thought of him as the big one, he was several inches shorter than I. Even weightwise, I was bigger than he, though my pounds could not be mobilized like the rubbery pounds of youth. The chinks in the hut, I noticed, had been stuffed with moss—defense against insects if not yet the cold—and the gypsum-board roof replaced with some plywood scavenged somewhere. They were learning. America is one big education. Two thousand was a lot of welders, for a retired man in a chaotic economy, but it was still far less than the old government had extracted from me, in dollars, for its wars and universal medical care, its mad schemes of spaceships in the sky and equal opportunity for everyone. It would be hard for a boy from Lynn to grasp how much a white financial adviser could stash away over the years. He was asking peanuts.

“I’ll have it for you tomorrow. I need to go to the bank for so much scrip. But I want something for it.”

He was silent, blank.

“I want you and your buddies to stay down here on this side of the—” I didn’t think he’d know the word “escarpment.” I gestured and said, “These big rocks. Stay away from the barn and the house. I haven’t mentioned any of this to my wife but if she finds out you’ll be in another ballgame. She’s a lot tougher than I—nowhere near as reasonable. She has that female thing of territoriality.”

He still stared silently. There was nothing in my assertions and threats that deserved an answer perhaps. All the concessions had been made; I felt a certain craven pleasure and relief.

“Deirdre say,” my opponent said at last, graciously to end the conversation, “you scared shitless of your old lady.”

The spring is so advanced into near-summer it has turned soggy and lost all shape. Azalea, dogwood, lilac, the blossoms of fruit trees are all withered and fallen into the detritus of moist earth. White is the color of the moment—lilies of the valley, bridal wreath, the maple-leaf viburnum that clings to the steep bank in drooping pulpy limbs that take root at their tips. This sinister plant, when on the way down to the mailbox I put my face close to one of its wide compound flowers, has an odor of decay, echoing the mephitic aura around Spin’s body. I can’t believe the boys are going to drag that body elsewhere, to prove themselves to another protection customer, but I would have heard, I think, the sound of a shovel digging a grave on my land; you can’t go down three inches without striking a rock. They came up, all three of them, as far as the barn to collect the packets of sepia paper I had withdrawn from the bank, and Gloria had spotted them from a third-floor window.

I explained who they were—the successors to Spin and Phil.

“I think you’re ridiculous,” she told me, “to have anything to do with men like that. And now boys. I wonder if any of them would like to work for us a few hours each week, helping out on the grounds? I’m devastated that Jeremy is thinking of giving up school and going to Mexico.”

Mexico, which had remained neutral during the Sino-American Conflict, was attracting many of our young people as a land of opportunity. Those who were denied legal admission were sneaking across the border in droves, while the Mexican authorities doubled the border guard and erected more electrified chain-link fences. They were talking of a Chinese-style wall, along Aztec design lines.

“I don’t think these boys want yard work. They’re into criminal activity, and very dangerous. You let me deal with them.”

Gloria had been thought when young to have promise as a dancer, and until her mid-teens had taken ballet lessons. Whenever she wishes to assert herself, she straightens her back and splays her feet, as she did now. “Ben, you really shouldn’t be handing them money. It’s pouring it down the drain and giving them a false sense of reality. Call the police. You say there aren’t any, but I see them all the time—just yesterday morning, three of them, all young and in uniform, were directing traffic around the collapsed road on the way to Magnolia.”

“They were moonlighting,” I said. “Or else it was bandits in stolen uniforms. They rob the armored trucks and UPS vans.”

“They were very courteous to me.”

Jeremy had come to us from a local fundamentalist college. He had a handsome but small head no wider than his powerful, flexible neck, so that at moments he displayed a serpentine grace. I had become dependent upon him; his appearance on a Saturday or Sunday morning would galvanize me into an attack on the outdoors I no longer could muster by myself, however earnestly Gloria nagged. Together, Jeremy and I would lop, haul, dig, Preen, trim, mow. He had long slipped away from fundamentalism and would confide, if he seemed sluggish, that he had been hitting the bars in Gloucester and had gone on to some girl’s apartment. But his natural Christian mannerliness spared me any details that might have made me jealous—whether the girl had a roommate, if she got into the act, if the girls did anything to each other while he watched—details my thick skull craved, out in the laborious sunshine. Jeremy can start all the power tools—the leaf blower, the weed-whacker with its spinning nylon string—that gum up, for me, on their infuriatingly viscid and approximate mixtures of oil and gasoline. As we grub away side by side at some desolate patch of garden which Gloria wants to restore to the supposed state of glory it enjoyed in the fabled days of household staffs and freshly imported Italian gardeners, I reflect on how little it takes to breed a relationship: paternal and filial feelings flow between us like inklings of sexual attraction. One day when a black hornet stung me below the eye, his voice shook in worry and concern, which I tearfully shrugged off. He admires my limberness as we scramble about on the rocks with armfuls of clippings for the burning pile or the compost heap, or together shinny into the ornamental apple trees to clip off the upright suckers that are poking into Gloria’s view of the sea. I encourage him to go to Mexico. I tell him he is lucky to be young in a world that is full of gaps and the opportunities underpopulation affords. My world when I was young, I tell him, was crammed with other so-called baby boomers, so that I advanced and made my little pile only by means of twelve-hour days and claustral conformity to the fully staffed pecking order. As he ducks into his old Nissan with a supple undulation of his sinuous bare-naped neck, I feel an erotic pang.

Sex seems everywhere, now that humid heat has become a daily thing. Warm weather creates sexual hallucinations. In the waiting room of my periodontist, the smiling hygienist summons a male patient (not me) upstairs to a “blow job,” or so I hear her say. Near the beginning of my vast dental experience there was a Miss Edna Wade, assistant to Dr. Gottlieb, one of two Jews in Hammond Falls (the other ran the little local movie theatre, which closed in the Seventies). In cleaning my teeth, Miss Wade pressed her great round breast against my hot ear until its wax melted and I feared the zipper on my fly would rip.

With Gloria off to Boston on a cluster of her errands— shopping for slipcover material, having lunch at the Calpurnia Club and tea at the Ritz with a pre-war friend from the Winsor School, topped by a facial and a pedicure—and the outdoors a forbidding jungle, I went to my cache of pornography, which is tucked behind a uniform set of sturdy Bible commentaries once owned by Gloria’s reverend great-uncle, and excited myself with the absurd combinational permutations of a paperback called Rex and Flora: Virgin into Vixen. When my erection, in response to Flora’s expert administration of fellatio to a delivery boy, had attained fall stretch, with my left hand cupped nurturingly about my balls, I admired it—the inverted lavender heart-shape of the glans, the majestic tensile column with its marblelike blue-green veins and triple-shafted underside. Stout and faithful fellow! My life’s companion. I loved it, or him; erectile heat suffused my system with the warm blood of well-being; for these pumped-up instants I felt no need to justify my earthly existence; all came clear. I wished that my neck were as flexible as Jeremy’s so that I could dip down enough to do an adoring Flora on myself, imbibing at least that first translucent drop of pre-cum (as the porn books spell it) if not the thicker, curdled cream my swollen old prostate gland sluggishly releases, minutes after my climax.

If I did not have so many friends, at the club and at the office, who have had prostate operations and suffer the indignity of incontinence and the desolation of impotence, my erection might have been less prideful. Often enough in my youth it had been a mere embarrassment, an inconvenience to be cleared away, dismissed with a hand or a handy vagina, so as to get on with life’s real business. What was so real, I now try to remember, about that business? Showing up on the dot of 8:35 a.m. at Sibbes, Dudley, and Wise, playing honest lago to the blind and innocent Othello of the filthy rich, trying from the safe distance of State Street to outguess Wall Street in its skittery, dragonish gyrations—chimerical and numerical ephemera, in the backward glance. Nothing as solid and real, I feel, while my grip on my best self slackens, as this stiff prick, a gleam of tasty pre-cum unlicked at its tip.

I am conscious as my days dwindle of how poorly I have observed the world. The plants in their pulpy, modest complexity; the styles of sky and sea which like the whorls of fingerprints never quite repeat; the precise tint and fit of the rust-stained chunks of granite the vanished Italian masons built so lovingly into walls and terraces all over this property and its miles of brothers along the North Shore. Sitting on the toilet yesterday, I suddenly saw as if for the first time the miraculous knit of the Jockey underpants stretched across my knees. Tiny needles, functioning in cunning clusters at inhuman speeds, had contrived to entangle tiny white threads with perfect regularity to form this comfortably pliable, lightweight, and slightly elastic fabric. Engineers had planned and refined generations of machines, giant looms deploying batteries of hooked needles scarcely thicker than a hair yet containing moving parts, minuscule springs and latches, to duplicate mechanically the intricate knitting action of patient human hands. On all sides I am surrounded by such wonders of fabrication, those of human creation most decipherable but no less deserving of praise than those of that blind weaver, Nature.

But in fact I am dull and disintegrating. Strange complaints send dispatches along the neural network. A sharp little come-and-go pain beneath my left ear—the first cry from a lymph node choking on cancer cells? A sensation, upon awaking, of a film upon my eyes, obscuring vision for a half-hour into the day. Sudden thrummings and twitching just beneath the skin of my face. Sudden urgent urinary requests from below my belt. Not to mention arthritic finger joints, nocturnal stomach aches, and the mysterious murmurings and twinges the heart emits as it labors away day and night in the mushy total darkness within my rib cage. Which of my many interior slaves will first rebel and bring down in a chain of revolution my tyrannical reign? How much thankless effort these visceral serfs exert to maintain idle, giddy, fitful consciousness upon its throne inside my skull!

This morning a radio voice between doses of Offenbach and Buxtehude promised temperatures in the eighties; the sea, I noticed, was smoky in its flat calm, somewhat the way it is on the coldest January day, when the sub-zero air pulls vapor up into its crystalline nothingness. The widespread mist this morning blurs the horizon and all but obliterates the little dark strip that is the South Shore—Hingham and Cohasset and all that—where useless old lecherous men are also rising and putting on exquisitely manufactured underpants.

Walking down to the mailbox for the Globe, I pause to study the pink laurel, just now, in mid-June, coming into bloom. Each apparent single bloom, as with my spent rhododendrons, is a cluster of small sticky-stemmed pink-white flowers, each a strict pentagon with a deep-green center, a decorative circle of blood-colored angles and arcs, and ten stamens whose dark-red anthers are socketed halfway up the pentagonal vessel’s side, each white filament arched like a catapult spring, the pistils erect and ruddy-headed in the center, the whole formation as precise and hypnotically concentric as a Hollywood water ballet filmed from above. Amid such patterns infinitely multiplied we make our aimless way; nature’s graph paper, scored in squares finer than a molecule’s width, deserves tracing less coarse than our erratic swoops of consciousness. All this superfine scaffolding, for what? The erection for a few shaky decades of a desperately greedy ego that tramples through the microcosmic underbrush like a blinded, lamenting giant.

The two pretty laurel florets I had on my desk to pose for my description yesterday are shrivelled today to the size of squashed insects. Their etched petals and pistils and anthers had been mostly water and are now returned to the vapor of the air.

And, walking down the driveway, I saw that though the Siberian iris are gone and the daylilies yet to bloom a few white iris have hoisted their flags—those floppy petals that each have, I discover in Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers, distinct names. The upright one is a standard, the lower one a fall, and the smaller ones are called, it seems, style arms.

Gloria’s peonies are in full fluffy romp, and her roses a few days short of unfolding. A clump of great phallic lupine lords it over her small garden behind the former greenhouse, a garden fenced in by a balustrade salvaged by the previous owner when he tore down the seaside veranda. The lupine petals are miniature pouches, purple and white distributed up and down the stalk like school colors in a cheerleader’s pom-pom.

And birds. It has been a wonderful spring for birds. The mother swallow pokes her tiny sharp head over the edge of the nest as she furtively sits hatching her clutch. A shiny brown bird hangs upside down in the farthest extension of the drooping hickory twigs outside my window, worrying at something invisible to me—a grub, an arboreal sweetmeat of some sort. Robins, it has come to me sixty years after my first-grade teacher, Miss Lunt, made so curiously much of them, spend more time hopping along the lawn and driveway than they do in flight or on a branch; and their flight has a frantic beating barrel-bodied quality, like that of pheasants. Without knowing it, they are forsaking the air. In some millions of years robins may be as wingless as dodos and great auks but, instead of extinct, as common as rats, and as little cherished. In noble contrast, the swallows dip and flip through the ether as if they own the invisible element.

Beatrice was in the neighborhood with her two boys and came by for tea. She and Allan live in Wellesley; of my two sons he has more nearly taken my path through life, beginning, however, not in semi-rural poverty but in suburban comfort. He works in Boston finance, not as I was, a hand-holder of individual rich widows and booze-sodden scions, but as the assistant manager of a mutual fund, that marvellous device whereby even the slightly monied masses can partake in a conglomerate portfolio. His is called Pop-Cap, or Low-Yield, or Slo-Grow, or something. For a time he was in Chi-Hi, specializing in issues trading on the Hong Kong and Shanghai exchanges. The great war put a crimp in that. Yet, since by the terms of the Sino-American treaty the island was reassigned back to our faithful allies the British, Allan sees wonderful opportunities ten or so years down the road, when mainland China becomes less radioactive and reacquires an infrastructure.

Beatrice is dark-haired and beginning to go stout. But just beginning—her face is a pearly madonnaesque oval with sumptuous long black eyebrows that thicken toward the bridge of her nose, giving her an aristocratically vexed look. Beneath her pinched white nose her rosebud lips are often pursed and sulky. Her figure’s growing opulence was emphasized in a crisp summer frock, coral in color, that exposed her upper arms and when she crossed her legs, as we sat on the side veranda, gave me plenty of pale thigh from which to avert my eyes. Having so ripe a young woman—“young” changes its meaning; she is about thirty-five—as my guest (Gloria being off to a Garden Club conference in Framingham on die diseases and parasites common to flowering shrubs) had a lyrical illicit side, an incestuous shadow we tried to disperse by sitting out here in the afternoon sunshine while Quentin and Duncan played on the lawn. Played, that is, in spurts of about five minutes; Quentin, though older, was sluggish and suspicious and kept dragging himself to his mother’s side, thumb in mouth though he is almost six, while his three-year-old brother hyperactively scampered and skidded from rock to bush to the croquet balls and mallets I had brought out of a spidery corner of the gardening shed for their visit. I had also found a semi-deflated soccer ball, which in one minute flat had vanished into the nebulous, depressed area of prickly wild roses just off the side lawn.

“Duncan hit me,” Quentin said, removing his thumb for the time it took for this utterance. “With one of those sticks,” he said, popping his thumb back in and rolling upward to his mother’s face eyes the same seductive sherry-brown as her own.

Beatrice still smokes, endearingly. Accepting the child’s heavy head on her bosom without burning him or spilling her tea intensified the look of black-browed vexation that I found attractive.

“Mallet,” I said, pedantically grandpaternal. “Those colored sticks are called croquet mallets. You’re supposed to hit the ball through the little hoops with them. They’re called wickets. Shall Grandpa show you again?”

I had shown them once. Little hyper Duncan had listened intently and then with a whoop of glee had whirled through the layout I had set out, whacking each wicket until it went flying. Now the child, dressed in flowered bib sunshorts, had toddled to Gloria’s rose bed and was rapidly tugging off buds, chanting in anticipation of our rebukes, “Naughty! Naughty!”

“Dunkie, you cut that out!” Beatrice called, but lazily, wearily, in a rote tone the child could ignore. She dragged on her cigarette and let her voluminous exhaling express depths of quiet desperation. The smoke made its way among Quentin’s glossy curls, and the child solemnly blinked his pink eyelids. The languor of the child’s frail, unambitious white limbs disturbingly suggested to me how my daughter-in-law would dispose herself in bed.

I raced off the porch to rescue Gloria’s roses, which had been a bit tough-stemmed for Duncan to damage much. He had pricked himself on a thorn, and his little square stubborn face, yellowish with a child’s unthinkingly acquired tan, creased and wrinkled as a wail of protest built up inside his chest. He squinted up at me dubiously and then, with one shaky suppressed sob, held up his pricked thumb to my face. It was sticky like an old penny candy against my lips; his face gave up on holding back tears. I lifted him into my arms and, though my knees threatened to buckle under the weight of his soul in that curious elderly reflex of mine, carried him into the shelter of the porch.

He showed his mother his wounded thumb. “Grandpa kiss,” he said.

“Thank you, Ben,” Beatrice said. “I can’t keep up with him.”

“Beatrice, who could?” Our first names leaked into the sunny air like rumors of an affair. Undressed, she must have as many white knobs as a thunderhead. “How’s, uh, Number One’s number-two problem?”

“Some days he seems to have the idea,” she allowed, passing the teacup and saucer around Quentin’s obtrusive curly head, “and then he loses it. When Al and I talk poo to him he looks at us as if we’re incredibly crazy and in very poor taste. I guess it is sort of disgusting if you think about it. Like a lot of things. But don’t normal children, if it feels good, forget about its being in bad taste?”

“I would think,” I said, as if I personally didn’t know. I shied my mind away from picturing my daughter-in-law settling her white bulk on the toilet seat and letting her ample fundament part to give nature its daily toll of fecal matter. Feels good, does it? Here on the veranda, as the westering sunlight advanced like a slow tide across the porch boards and lapped at our feet, the click of her cup and the sigh of her exhaled smoke seemed embarrassingly loud. The buggy heat held the muted smells of excrement, sex, death. The kousa dogwoods that Gloria had had the tree service plant, over toward the yew hedge that screened us from the Kellys, bloomed in their unsatisfactory way: white bracts strewn among the green leaves like pieces of paper sewn to the upper side of the boughs. I searched for a topic to fill our silence. “How’s Allan liking his work?”

Beatrice responded pouncingly. “He loves it,” she exclaimed with exasperation. “All that computerized buying and appraising. He can’t stop talking about the wonderful Asians, the ones that are left, their enterprise and diligence and so on. I think he thinks Westerners are relatively decadent, and overweight. Like me. I feel I should be Japanese or something to please him. One of those little Thai beauties he comes home raving about after one of his trips to Bangkok.”

Both boys had begun to wriggle in our arms at the mention of their father’s name. Duncan became a bundle of wiry muscle; as he and Quentin returned to the mallets and balls on the sunstruck lawn, the older boy’s movements were by comparison mincing, female, constipated. He had inherited, perhaps, my melancholia. I thought of it as coming upon me in old age, but in truth I had always moved on the edge of depression. The house in the Berkshires had step-worn floors and moldy wallpaper clinging to the plaster walls of the narrow stairwell. Oilcloth on the kitchen table, linoleum on the floor. Fields of sallow corn stubble outside, and the unheeding rush and swoosh of traffic along Route 8. Great headlong loads of cut logs, tree corpses, went by, from the pine plantations to the north, whose murky aisles of trunks showed a few splotches of sun and hid bear-shaped intimations of mortality. The doll’s house in the neglected basement. The marauding deer in a ruined world. The blurred corpse of the millipede. The laurel florets shrivelled to nothing. As a child I loved life so much the thought of its ever ending cancelled most of the joy I should have taken in it.

“Gloria’s not much here, is she?” Beatrice asked, showing me her profile as she gazed toward the boys, softening any malice in the question.

“Gloria,” I said loyally, “is astonishingly busy. She works like a dog on this place, and then rushes over to the gift shop. Her two partners, she says, are utter featherheads. And then there are appointments with her hairdresser, her manicurist, her aerobics instructor—I can’t keep track of how many people she has on her personal maintenance crew.”

“Gloria is very beautiful,” Beatrice said, but listlessly. “Maybe an aerobics class is what I need. That, or give up alcohol. They say you drop five to ten pounds right away. How do you find it, Ben, not drinking?”

“Like waking up in Kansas every morning. But at least you don’t have a headache or a lot of fuzz in your mouth.”

“I need the lift,” she confessed. “Allan says it’s all right, the Asians drink like fish. He says they never had their heads fucked over by the Judaeo-Christian God. The Japanese killed the missionaries, and the Chinese let them in here and there but never let them get an audience with the emperor. Just kept them waiting outside the palace for generations. Duncan, stop that!”

The smaller boy was tormenting the older, by gleefully pretending to pull down his pants. Young as Duncan was, he knew where his brother’s weak spot was. Quentin wheeled frantically, trying to fend him off. The mockingbird had set up a sympathetic screeching from within the big yew bush the deer had nibbled. In mating season the bird had amused us by perching on the top of the flagpole, leaping up with a complicated call and turning in mid-air and then settling on the top of the flagpole again. The boys’ agitated whirling was like that, only suffused with Quentin’s embarrassment and little Duncan’s ferocity. “Poo!” Duncan kept shouting with fierce glee. “Poo!”

Sunlight had crept up our ankles and bounced dazzlingly off the glass top of the wicker table and the china cups and saucers. When Beatrice bent forward to douse her cigarette in the remains of her tea, sunlight plunged down her coral-colored neckline into the socket of damp, warm space between her breasts. The kiss of the doused cigarette hung in the air. “They’re at each other like that all day,” she said. “I pray for first grade next year.” Her eyes stayed fixed on her plump hand, where it hovered with opened fingers above the cup of cooled tea. Her eyebrows had knit up a vertical wrinkle between them. How nice it would be, I thought, to be beneath her and feel her breasts sway, heavy and liquid, across my face, my open mouth, my closed eyelids.

In his desperation Quentin had seized a croquet mallet and I feared would do his savage little brother an injury; I raced out onto the lawn and took the weapon from him, while snapping, “Stop it! Enough is enough.” The boys, with their workaholic father, were so little used to masculine discipline that both made teary faces and ran to their mother, where she sat on the white wicker sofa in a kind of slumber, a non-intervening goddess. She took my intervention as a criticism, and bestirred herself to depart, replacing her cup on my tray, and attempting to stand. Quentin slouched against her so tuggingly that one strap of her frock slipped down a rounded brown shoulder and bared a milk-white strip of bulbous boob. The darker, areolar flesh around her nipple would be pimpled, I figured, with a delicious roughness. “That was darling, Ben,” she said, readjusting her strap without hurry. “Good tea. You must bring Gloria to Wellesley one of these days; I need all kinds of advice with the garden. It’s getting out of hand, just like the children. Allan works these beastly hours, but the fault is mostly mine. I’ve become such a slob; all I want to do is sleep all day and eat all night, and then throw up in the morning.” She stood, and yawned.

“It sounds like—”

“It is. We’ve been keeping the news to ourselves, hoping it would go away. Seven and a half more months, I can’t stand it! I’m too old to be making babies.”

“Bea, that’s beautiful.” I lurched toward her, barking a shin on the glass-topped wicker table.

“Or plain stupid,” she said, closing her eyes and letting herself be kissed on the cheek much as Duncan had let me kiss his pricked thumb.

“How much of a secret is it?” I asked.

“You can tell Gloria, but not your children, if you don’t mind. Allan’s a little embarrassed, he doesn’t want Matt especially to tease him. It wasn’t planned, of course. We don’t believe in more than two.”

“That’s very old-fashioned of you. The world must be re-populated,” I told her.

“For another slaughter of some kind,” she sighed. “Still, I wouldn’t mind if it were a girl. Among the cousins, the tide seems to have turned that way.”

“Give Jennifer a little competition,” I said encouragingly.

“Competition,” Beatrice said, closing her eyes once more and shuddering. Standing in the slant light, she was cut diagonally in half, like the big-eyed queen of spades. She wears her glossy hair centrally parted and twisted up into a chignon, so the nape of her neck shows, with its symmetrical swirl of fine uncaught hairs. To put one’s lips into that down: like an armpit, but softer.

“Makes the world go round,” I finished for her. “That’s thrilling,” I said, trying to strike the right briskly enthusiastic fatherly-in-law note, “about the baby.” But the prospect of an eleventh grandchild made my life feel even more superfluous and ridiculous, lost in a sea of breeding. The three Wellesley Turnbulls buckled themselves back into their claret-red Mazda with a smoothing show of familial affection and sticky kisses, but the visit left me depressed. My exchange with Beatrice had been all irritable foreplay, ending in biological jealousy of my son; through the interplay of his two boys I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses, like collapsed gyroscopes, that we see dangling from cobwebs—did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?

Lonely, frightened, I walked into the woods and down the slope, grabbing branches to prevent a skid that might break old bones, to see if my friends from Lynn were at their post. I could hear voices, including a female voice, halt as my steps crackled on the sticks underfoot. An extension had been made to the hut, a wing roofed in the corrugated opaque plastic sold in lumber-supply depots and framed in crisp two-by-fours—no more dead branches as supporting timbers. There was a raised plywood floor and a wall of mosquito netting. Two shadows lurked behind the netting, and the face of the blonde girl appeared in a parting. “Oh it’s you,” she said, in a voice flat but not especially hostile.

“Am I interrupting anything?”

“Just sittin’ and socializin’,” the other shadow called out. It was the loose light voice of the youngest of the three boys. “Wasn’t you just havin’ company?”

“My daughter-in-law and two grandsons.”

“That’s some red Mazda she drives. Drives it fast, too.”

I didn’t like the sensation of being spied on; Gloria and I had bought this place because of its privacy. “Where’re your two associates?” I asked.

“Out hustlin’,” the boy said.

“Doing stuff,” the girl amplified, distrustfully.

But I had paid up my tribute until the first of July and was determined not to be rebuffed. “I see you’ve added a screened porch.”

“The bugs were gettin’ bad.”

“You said it.” I slapped loudly at three, one real and two imaginary. “What’s it like in there? Must be nice.”

They were reluctant to respond, but were too young to be coldly discourteous. “Have a look,” the boy called, and the girl lifted a piece of the netting so I could stoop and step in.

It was heavenly inside the tiny shelter. The stolen wire lawn furniture made the perfect minimalist fit, and there was a spare chair for me. Sunlight filtered through the corrugated plastic roof as an underwater tint of speckled green; the trees in my woods took on a vaporous, gesturing presence outside the walls of mosquito netting, which had been fixed to the floor with a tidy row of rocks.

“Just thought,” I said, seating myself, “I’d come down and see how you’re all doing.”

“Not complainin’,” the boy said. Until, the implication was, my visit gave him cause for complaint.

The girl was, a shade, more forthcoming. “José and Ray are off on business,” she volunteered.

“Good, good,” I said, stretching out my legs expansively. “That used to be me, off on the train to Beantown every day, working eight, nine hours at the least, eyeball to eyeball with the other sharks. The trick was to get control of some rich widow’s millions and then churn the money for the benefit of your broker friends. Or administer a nice juicy trust for point eight percent per annum. Pension funds and retirement plans—they were another boondoggle; the poor fat cats couldn’t make head or tail of the quarterly statements. People who have money, by and large, have a subconscious wish to lose it. A kind of financial death-wish—the species’ way of balancing things out. You’ve heard the phrase ‘Rags to riches to rags in three generations.’ Or am I talking too much? I love the netting; it makes this into a really enchanted interior. Another couple of rooms and you might turn this into a little seafood restaurant.” I noticed, through the opening into the first room, walled with branches and roofed in plywood, a bedless mattress striped with slivers of sunlight, like a nest of golden straws. “It must be tough at the end of the day for you guys to go home to your slummy triple-deckers, or wherever you live.”

“Not too tough. Night is really spooky,” the girl said. “There’s things out there. Ticking things.”

“I squash ’em with rocks when I see ’em,” the boy announced, his spindly arms showing how, in vigorous arcs.

“My name’s Ben,” I told the girl. “I believe yours is Doreen. Nice to meet you. How old are you, may I ask? Fourteen?”

“Just about,” she agreed.

“And you”—to the boy—“must be about the age of my grandson Kevin. He’s eleven.”

The child wordlessly nodded, vaguely feeling that much more conversation with me would be a betrayal of his peers. He saw that I was a smooth talker when I wanted to be.

“I’m sixty-six,” I told him. “Imagine that. When I was your age, if anybody had told me I’d be sixty-six some day I’d have laughed in his face. When I was young they used to say, ‘Don’t trust anybody over thirty,’ and now look at me.”

He looked, with his eyes like globules of oil. I asked him, “Shall I call you Kevin Number Two?”

His eyes went to Doreen and outside to the spectral trees and back to me. He knew giving up your name was a possibly fatal concession. “Manolete,” he murmured, just on the edge of my hearing.

“A great bullfighter, once upon a time,” I told him. “A fine and famous name. Carry it proudly, Manolete, as you perform in the arena of life. May your pases always be pure and the crowd ever award you both ears and the tail.” Lest he think I was mocking him, I explained to him, “It’s time that does it. It turns you from eleven to sixty-six in what feels to you a twinkling. Once gone, time leaves no trace. It’s out there in space, out of reach. The arrow of time. Some scientists think its direction is reversible in quantum situations, and others think it would be reversible if the universe were as smooth at the end of time as it was in the beginning. I can’t quite picture it myself.” I turned back to Doreen: “How are Ray and José doing, at business?”

“O.K., I guess.” She didn’t sound convinced.

Manolete, named, was liberated into one of his sudden large gestures, sweeping a hand toward the ceiling, whose tint seemed to hold us at the bottom of a dirty swimming pool. “A lot of old clients from Spin and Phil, they say, Tuck off.’ They say, ‘Show me.’ ”

“Well, you showed me” I pointed out.

Doreen, not to be excluded from our male conversation, volunteered, “They’ve been killing the people’s pet dogs and cats and leaving them at the front door, but a lot of these rich people say all the same they don’t want to pay anything.”

“People are selfish,” I told them. “What you need to do in an operation like yours,” I went on, “is to establish trust. Phil and Spin, people trusted them. They didn’t necessarily like them, but they could relate to them. You all have the disadvantage, may I say, of seeming a little young.”

Manolete’s arm darted toward me like a sword. “Young, we show them young. We got the guns, and we don’t give no fucking damn no how!”

“Well said,” I said. “But what you need, to convince people like me, is something written. I know people your age hardly even bother to learn how to read, but that’s how the people you want to convince deal with one another. With something in writing. Suppose I were to give you an endorsement. It would go something like, ‘I, Benjamin Turn-bull, of this address et cetera, hereby declare that these young entrepreneurs and enforcers of order have supplied their services to me in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. What they promise, they deliver, so help me God. These fine young men can be trusted.’ How does that sound?”

“It sounds like real old-time bullshit,” Manolete said, but with a smile, here underwater.

Doreen asked, “Why would you do that for us?”

Her torn jeans and loose T-shirt and rough short haircut did not conceal that at thirteen going on fourteen she had the beginnings of a figure. Slender pliant waist, budding breasts. At one end of the fertile continuum Beatrice was at the other of. “I like you,” I said. “You’ve brought some fresh faces into my lonely life. And you’re repelling trespassers for me, right?”

“‘Pay or go away,’ we tell the ones on the way to the beach,” Manolete said, with one of his pent-up gestures.

“Exactly,” I said. “Also, it seems to me, if I gave you such a written endorsement to establish your credibility in the neighborhood I might be entitled to a discount.”

“Discount?” Doreen asked. “How much?”

“Oh … what would be fair? Let’s say ten—no, fifteen— percent. Fifteen percent off the monthly charge. Don’t answer me now. Take it up with the other two. But point out to Ray and José that it’s the only way to get their racket on a respectable footing. I would write the endorsement in blue ink on my engraved stationery, that would show everybody it was authentic.”

Mosquitoes, as the long June afternoon slipped into damp shadow here on the eastern side of the hill, were finding their way through gaps in the netting. I slapped several as they approached my ear. Odd, that I who cannot bear to kill a spider, and used to hate it when one would suicidally crawl into the wet paint of some home repair, am heartless about mosquitoes, though they are all prospective mothers seeking a drop of blood to nurture their progeny. That telltale whine of theirs—I wonder why evolution has failed to silence it, through the survival of the unsinging. But evolution has its curious perversities and warps and failures to deliver the obvious. “You need bug repellent,” I said, standing but taking care not to hit my head on the translucent corrugated roof.

“We got it,” Doreen said, less friendly as the light clammily ebbed from this fragile space of shelter. “But it doesn’t work worth squat on those ticking things.”

“I squash ’em,” Manolete boasted again.

Gloria must be back from Boston or wherever she has been. I could hear through the trees the surging motors of cars, but whether on our driveway or elsewhere I couldn’t tell. The acoustics of this hill have always been deceptive. Conversations at the gas station downtown sound as if they were just outside the kitchen window, whereas in my study upstairs—my journal-keeping room—I fail to hear the FedEx truck come up the driveway. By the time its roar strikes my ear the heedless truck is around the curve by the daylily bed and out of sight, having knocked one more low-hanging branch off the hemlock.

“And you have a cooler for drinks, I see,” I said, spotting the white of Styrofoam glowing in a corner of the other room. “For a modest fee, I might let you string up electricity from a plug in my garage. It would take a lot of extension cords, but you could have a fan, and a lamp, and even a little refrigerator. Not free, of course.”

“Hey, Big Guy,” the boy said. “We like it the way it is. The way it is, it’s our own thing.”

That “Big Guy” had been worth the slippery trip into the woods to hear.

The longest day of the year 2020 A.D. happened to be rainy and misty, its early dawn and extended dusk hidden in a white wet mass of droplets. The day was a long pallid worm arching up out of darkness and back again. The paper as I write curls limply and rejects the abrasion of the graphite.

In Gloria’s garden, the peonies are already rather blown and by, though a few buds, their tightly packed silks stained as if tie-dyed, still wait to unfold. The huge white ones have scattered edges and spots of vermillion like bloody clues. The two-toned lupines are by, but the towering foxgloves are at their peak, as are yellow columbines, delicate dancing minikins that seem to disavow any connection with their stems. Bouncing Bet has escaped from the borders to mingle with the weeds out by the old hotbeds, which have been reduced by time to a rubble of broken glass and dried putty.

She cut some roses from the rounded bed toward the sea and won a number of second-place ribbons at the June Garden Club competition. I think she would have won first if she had waited a few more hours to cut her entries, which had opened too wide by the time of the evening judging. The contest is not so much for growing as for cutting. Now the contestants sit about the kitchen in water glasses, as opulent as old actresses, and the ribbons dangle in the library, their strings pinched between the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s history of the last great war but one.

I made an obligatory, multipurposed excursion to Boston. There was a plethora of bare flesh in the train and in North Station and even the streets of the financial district, along its seam with the tourist traps and juvenilia of Quincy Market. Some tans were already ripe and hardened; young female buttocks, poking their hemispheres below the fringed hems of their radically abbreviated denim cut-offs, exposed here and there a pastel rim, shaped like a new moon, of bikini underpants. I thought of Deirdre.

And yet, by and large, how hideous people are! In Mass. General Ambulatory Care Center, where my dermatologist made his semi-annual harvest of my keratoses, sizzling them away with painful squirts of liquid nitrogen, none but the obese, the cankered, the demented, and the crippled crowded into the elevator with me. In the corner of my vision, faces scrambled, so that I had the distinct impression of a much-grafted and patched-together burn victim standing beside me, his face a chaos of ridges and blotches. But when I sneaked a glance in focus, his face was unscarred, and twenty years younger than my sun-damaged own. I practiced my new trick: by focusing mentally on a face in the side of my vision, I was able to generate an impression of swarming deformity on all sides of me, as if I were ascending in an elevator crammed with mutants or ghastly damaged survivors of the recent great war, their raw surfaces radioactive, their mutilation beyond plastic surgery.

In fact, except for the empty office blocks and the apathetic, sometimes deformed male beggars in olive-green fatigues, there is oddly little in contemporary America to recall the global holocaust of less than a decade ago. The national style has always been to move on. Business as usual is the pretense and the ideal, though the President and the legislators down in Washington have as little control over our lives as the Roman emperors in the fifth Christian century did over the populations of Iberia or Thrace. Even before the war, the bureaucracy had metastasized to the point of performing no function but its own growth. The post-war world dreads all centralized power. Our commonwealth scrip is printed not in Boston or centrally located Worcester but by six or seven independent small-town presses; the design varies widely. Still, electronic connections with other regions of the country are reviving, and commerce is imposing its need for an extended infrastructure. There is even talk of air service from New York to California, hit hardest by the Chinese bombers and further reduced—to near-Stone Age conditions, it was said—by earthquakes, brushfires, and mud slides. Reuniting the coasts is a dream demagogues make much of, on talk radio.

The first prize I ever won, awakening me to the possibility that there were prizes to be had, was a freckle contest at a church picnic; we belonged, half-heartedly, to the Cheshire United Congregational, with its skimpily equipped basement Sunday school and its tall plain-glass windows and its paint-poor pillared Greek-temple front. Puritanism lost its salt and savor as it moved west through Massachusetts; it seemed to me that the white light fell cruelly through the clear glass on our faces and Sunday duds, like the remorseless clarity under a microscope. What comfort did the watery Congregational creed bring, I wonder now, to my mother and father as they struggled with poverty, toothaches, chronic unemployment, and constant dissatisfaction? Never mind: as a child I used to win freckle contests, and, though the freckles have faded, the susceptible fair skin has remained, its squamous and basal cells seething with DNA damage. During the long wait in my dermatologist’s office, I studied my fellow-patients with loathing. They all seemed much older than I, doddering and drooling onto the handles of their canes, when in fact they were probably my age. I still peer out of the windows of my eyes with the unforgiving spirit of a young man on the make. My heart spurned all alliance with these disgusting relics of the last, unmourned century; I sought, instead, collusive flirtation with the noticeably nubile nurse who at last ushered me into an examination cell and, handing me a folded robe of blue paper, indicated that I should strip. Why don’t you strip with me, darling?

My dermatologist, himself a relic, gave me an abstracted going over and found nothing that needed the services of a surgeon. I rather enjoy excision, the decisiveness of it—one less set of diseased cells to lug around. He painfully squirted liquid nitrogen onto a few spots of actinic damage on my face and the back of my right hand. The doctor, whose own skin is soft as rose petals but a wilted brown, said that yet another vitamin-A derivative had been found to reverse, somewhat, the deterioration of dermal cells. I waved it away: “At my age—”

He tut-tutted. He was ten years older than I. “Don’t underestimate skin,” he told me. “It’s the last thing to go. People die of a failed heart or a failed liver but never of a failed skin. In Irish bogs, you know, these corpses preserved by the chemicals in the clay, the skin holds up as well as the bones. We see five-thousand-year-old tattoos, clear and blue as the day they were stippled in.” Yet, in his encroaching senility, he forgot to write me the presciption he promised, for the vitamin-A ointment.

Mrs. Fessenden, whose senility has advanced a notch, has developed the fixed fear that all her funds have disappeared in the electronic maze of computerized finance. It is a reasonable fear: data banks blank out, governments fade away, inflation makes a mockery of currency. But the genius of capitalism dictates that wealth, once established, endure, to lure others to labor for it. Wealth survives wars, idiocy, and high personal unworthiness. So from MGH I trudged through the acres of brick-and-concrete rubble (Government Center, they used to call it) where the John E Kennedy Building and City Hall used to stand (both blown up by American sympathizers with the Chinese cause during the war, though all the inhabitants of Chinatown had been interned on the harbor islands) to State Street and my old offices at Sibbes, Dudley, and Wise. Here I had been happy; here I had been, in a small way, mighty. I often dream I am riding the elevator up, and finding everything beyond the receptionist’s desk nightmarishly changed. It was necessary today to secure tangible proof for Mrs. Fessenden that she was still a wealthy woman, however the world wagged. Yet what could I get for her but more suspect computer printouts? They all looked alike and could mean anything, she said. With the grudging help of Ned Partridge, who now has a wispy assistant with the economical name of Gary Gray, I found in a back room of old-fashioned “hard” files some engraved Chicago Municipal Water Authority Board from the 1920s that had been left to her in her father’s estate. They were beautifully ornamented with crosshatched fountains, overflowing urns, nude Nereids, and bearded heads of a jubilant Neptune. Along the bottom edge, above the lacily etched border, ran a tableau of a French fur trader, in company with two buckskinned Indians, surveying the horizon of Lake Michigan from the marshy mouth of the Chicago River. Another of Ned’s assistants, a compactly built girl in a jade-green sheath that clung tightly to her honey-colored skin—Africa had recently bumped into Asia somewhere in her gene map—helped me take state-of-the-art color Xeroxes of these antiquated proofs of financial substance, and collusively agreed to FedEx them, at the expense of the firm, to Mrs. Fessenden in Chestnut Hill.

The air-conditioned offices in their shades of ecru fluorescence formed a kind of paradise and I was tempted to linger. Once I had been welcome here, and it was not the least unkind trick of time that I had become an alien body, a germ to be neutralized and expelled. The comely underlings understood this less well than the higher-ups. One of the disagreeable things about Ned Partridge’s face, besides its papery indoor pallor, is the way in which his long lustreless nose somehow appears in profile even when he is looking at you head-on. In the Picassoesque scramble his fishy eyes seem to intersect, also. “The place isn’t the same without you, Ben,” he told me, with such evident insincerity that the mixed-blood beauty darted an eyelash-begemmed glance in his direction.

“You all seem to be managing,” I said.

“Yeah, but there’s no give-and-take any more. No fun.”

“Was I fun?” I asked incredulously.

“There’s no graciousness,” he went on, avoiding my question. The Afro-Asian assistant demurely lowered her lids on the moist treasure, in its shining lashed vessels, of her gaze.

As if I, a poor boy from outer Hammond Falls, had been the standard-bearer for fading gentility. “You still have Firman Frothingham,” I pointed out. “He’s fun.”

“Yaah, he’s still around, but between us”—his face jumped closer, out of focus—“Frothy’s lost a lot of his fire, his esprit. It’s all cut-throat now,” Ned said, settling back into his chair with a shuffling of lips and nostrils. “Savages,” he snorted. “Everybody carving out their little turf and pulling up the drawbridge. Bingo, and fuck you, Mac. Let Pat show you out, Ben—we have a new floor plan since you left.”

Pat, indeed. Pat pat. As we threaded through the vanilla lambency of the offices, I observed how her green sheath, with its split exposing a golden-brown sliver of thigh, fit her discreetly but undeniably steatopygous buttocks with enough snugness to declare their cleavage. Even her face, as it smiled goodbye forever, had its muscular bulges. She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price.

Then, expelled, I descended to the steamy squalid streets, with their throngs of ghastly hoi polloi. It was as if the world’s population had never been halved. All the sickly marbled tints of Occidental skin spilled and milled about on Congress Street as I bucked through the tumbling flesh toward North Station. Within, the stench of the cheese and pulped tomatoes of Italian fast food nearly made me gag. Overweight girls in their random search for stimulation were staring right through me. The commuter train in summer becomes a cargo carrier to the North Shore beaches, and the vinyl seats take on an aroma of salt water and suntan lotion and of wet towels and sleepy sunburned young bodies dying to take a piss. As we age and appetite dwindles, I notice, we become fussier about our food—we smell unsavory ingredients that youth greedily gobbles up, and also resent the secretive fumes of breeding, from the sour fermented beverages that loosen our inhibitions to the post-coital puddles. Odorous rumors of all those necessary secretions and excessively clever gametes make us queasy.

I write this while doubting its truth. There is a rapacious splendor in the way our ugly, multi-digited species, with its absurd patches of hair and oversized skull, slaughter by slaughter covered the world in waves of anthropic fat, wiping out the mammoth and aurochs and dodo and rhino and pressing the tiger and cheetah and Sus scrofa into unsanitary zoos, where they smell nothing on the night air but people—an ocean of human scent and excrement and semen. I am part of it, still; in the same shameful nook of me that craves perpetuation I am as carnal as ever.

I can remember that first, rapt taste, chalky and exalted like a primal malt ball, of childhood pornography. Grubby pages were passed around, from hand to hand, in that Dark Age of text duplication, in tattered mimeograph and even blurred carbon copy. There was an inspiriting prose tale of a sixth-grade boy whose teacher has him stay late at school; she mounts a ladder to affix a Christmas decoration and lets him look up her legs to see that she is wearing no underpants. Later in the saga she makes him taste her copious fluids and extracts from his fly his silver virgin rod. Amazing! We schoolboys wondered, Did such things truly happen? In some universe, perhaps, but certainly not this. I, a businessman in bud, asked myself who were the adults who showered such delicious fantasies upon us starving juveniles, and how such a business reaped its profit. Another item of sexual samizdat took the female point of view, in rhyme:

I took out my tits, shyly proud of their size,
And blushed as Ted’s finger explored ’tween my thighs.
I gulped when his member was thrust into view,
But he bid me caress it, and lick at it, too.

How often I have wished I recalled more than this one stanza, and cursed myself for having an indifferent memory. But other boys were leaning on me, stabbing with smudged fingers at the fragile, often-folded hectographed copy, threatening to tear the revelatory text into fragments. One detail was unforgettable in its technical interest: as Ted prepared the heroine for her deflowering, he knowingly placed a pillow under her hips. Pillowy ass upon ass-kissing pillow: a sacred secret here, the vaginal canal lifted skyward at the proper tilt, like an ack-ack gun, to bring down ecstasy from on high. I hugged this rakish bit of sexual insiderism to my heart’s foul underside but in the next fifty-five years have found less use for the tip than I would have thought. Education is so wasteful, so hit-or-miss.

In the first narrative, did the student then get up on the ladder, and the teacher, from below, rub her bare breasts against the boy’s feet, in a sort of Biblical laving?

Or have I made all this quite up, in a suspect surge of recovered memory?

Beside the driveway, the laurel bush, whose pentagonal blossoms seemed each a dainty marvel of biological design, has spread around itself a white-and-pink circle of such blossoms, shed, like a young woman who has slipped, while standing, out of her wide petticoats.

How much of summer is over before it begins! Its beginning marks its end, as our birth entails our death. Urzeit gleich Endzeit, somebody once said in the course of my hit-or-miss education. The lawn is dry and tan in spots; a minute or two is snipped from the ends of each successive day; the hard white sails against the bay’s midsummer blue seem as unsubtle as the stencilled border of a pampered child’s nursery. The leaves of the little English oak along the driveway show, I notice on my way to the mailbox, constellations of holes eaten by insects or their fuzzy-headed larvae. The grass and weeds have hastened to go to seed, knowing their time is short. The year is like a life—it is later than you think, the main business is over and done with before you fully begin. There is a kind of tidal retard in our perception of forward motion.

As I tried to explain to my protégés, an explanation for the puzzling fact—puzzling to physicists more than to ordinary men, who can imagine it no other way—that time’s arrow moves in only one direction is that the initial singularity, the universe at the moment of the Big Bang, was utterly or almost utterly smooth, with the consistency of an orange pop-side, whereas the terminal singularity toward which all the billions of galaxies may raggedly collapse will be less smooth, or downright rough, like butter brickle ice cream.

It makes sense: all those blazing suns, red and swollen or white and shrunken or yellow like our moderate own, blue and new or black and collapsed, madly spinning neutron stars or else all-swallowing black holes denser yet, not to mention planets and cinderlike planetoids and picturesque clouds of glowing gas and dark matter hypothetical or real and titanic streaming soups of neutrinos, could scarcely be expected to converge exactly upon a singularity smaller, by many orders of magnitude, than a pinhead. The Weyl curvature, in other words, was very very very near zero at the Big Bang, but will be much larger at the Big Crunch. But, I ignorantly wonder, how does time’s arrow know this, in our trifling immediate vicinity? What keeps it from spinning about like the arrow of a compass, jumping broken cups back on the table intact and restoring me, if not to a childhood self, to the suburban buck I was when still married to Perdita. On one busy summer day, as things worked out on everybody’s schedule, it fell to me to fuck three women— Perdita in the morning, since I was going off on a business trip and we liked to leave each other “topped up”; another, a pretty but futureless interne bond analyst, at lunch hour, in the Parker House, after room service had delivered some club sandwiches and iced tea; and the third in my hotel room in Houston, an overweight gum-chewing whore I picked up in the saddle-brown bar over whiskey and frijoles. Because she was a professional, I explained the situation frankly, and the sheer crassness of the explanation got me so excited that I wound up, to her drawled, grudgingly impressed compliments, coming twice. In all cases, my semen arrowed outward, into darkness, like the minutes of my manhood ticking away.

This morning I alarmed myself. While shaving, without thinking, I began to shave my chin and the area below my lower lip before I did my upper lip. It was as if I had forgotten for a second how to be me. My shaving procedure is invaluable: soften whiskers with hot washcloth, lather bar in soap dish, shave right cheek and jaw first, then left, then upper lip, and lastly the tricky, knobby region of the chin, with its need to hold fast the lower lip with the upper teeth. I have cut myself more often in this region than any other, and save it for last. Suddenly I was tackling it out of sequence. My identity had been usurped by an alien who had not been briefed upon just this trifling detail; another hand than mine had taken over. It was as when a measurement is taken in the quantum realm of an electron’s position or momentum, and the wave function collapses and another universe floridly sprouts on the spot.

All praise be to the holy Lord on this glorious day at the end of June. The sea is speckled with white crests—the manes of white stallions, the superstitious folk say, but for those of us sequestered in prayerful peacefulness on our island hill a divine sign of safety, as the scudding aftermath of a night blow strong enough to hold in their harbors the dragon-headed, square-sailed galley ships of the fair-faced demons from far Lothland. Rumors have arrived from across the narrow water between our fastness and the Munster mainland concerning attacks ever nearer. The seafaring fiends have no end of appetite and cruelty, to which Providence in its miraculous patience lends scope so as to accumulate un-gainsayable proofs toward the eternal damnation of their souls. The saintly monks of Lindisfarne, the makers and inscribes of magically beautiful codices, were stripped and tortured in June of the year 793 after our Lord’s birth of a meek virgin, and the raiders came again in 801 to set the buildings afire, and in 806 to kill scores more of helpless monks. St. Columcille’s fair lona has fallen with much massacre, and Inis Murray was quite destroyed, never to rise, in the second year of this our terrible ninth century. Glen-dalough, Clonfert, Clonmacnoise, and Kildare where none less than St. Brigit rules as high abbess above a holy gathering of both sexes—none could withstand the evil from the sea. The pirates with golden beards have penetrated even to PÁtraic is beloved Armagh and burned the blessed buildings to the ground. The horrors that God in His mercy permits! All to test the faithful, our learned abbot explains—to polish up the devoted to be sparkling angels in the ranks depleted by Satan and his defiant and banished legions.

And still, he says, to ease the fear from the unshaven faces of the young among us, unlikely in the extreme it would be for the Lothlanders to seek out our remote and rocky island, poor as we are, thirty brothers and twice as many of sheep, nine goats and a single dutiful ram, two pair of oxen to drag the plow through our patch of low soil, and a pen of pigs for the bacon to trade (we eat no meat) and for the squealing when the rare strangers come up the lone flint path from the shingle beach. A man like me, unable to read a sign save that of the cross and the great dancing “X” which begins Christ’s name—Brother Guaire has shown me pages he has labored on in the scriptorium, glowing designs that dizzied me endeavoring to follow them down to the end of the knot, all in inks the everlasting colors of jewels—a man like me, thrust by a hard-hearted whore of a mother, before I had the makings of a memory, upon the bosom of the church, and raised by it within the charity of God to serve my betters, gifted though I was with naught but an encouraging way with dumb beasts and the herbs of the garden, such a man, his chief joy the simple smile of creation and one meatless meal a day, bran soaked in goat’s milk or sea bass with bread and uncooked beans, and the gratification of lying stretched cruciform on the dirt floor of his stone hut offering up his hunger and pain to the crucified God, such would not likely attract the fury of the marauding Antichrists from the lands to the north, where all is ice and bewhiskered sea-creatures with soulful eyes like those of men eternally condemned.

The highest pasture on our stony island consists of grass tufts nibbled by the goats; below the upmost ledges in the growing season sheep graze broad-sloped shoulders of green, the winter lambs near the size of their mothers now and all still as gray boulders in the golden morning sun, heads lowered to feed. The occasional bleat of a lamb imagining himself lost drifts down. A pair of hawks whistle one to the other as they hang watchful in the wind. The herbs and medicinal flowers in their frothy rows nod about my knees—the yellows of the cowslips and feverfew, the purples of hyssop and lavender, the dainty useful greens of mint and cabbage. Brother Vergil before he wasted away of flying venom and the weakness of age explained his arrangement by the humors: here thyme and hyssop, warm and drying herbs, to clear phlegm; there burdock and figwort, cool and dry, to cleanse the sanguine system of gout and diarrhea; here senna and hellebore to purge with their heat the clogging of black bile that induces constipation and melancholy; and there rhubarb and dandelion to counteract with their cool moisture the hot and dry tempers inflicted by an excess of yellow bile. Garlic and basil, coriander and goldenseal—the mute plants do hold in their roots and stems and calyxes and corollas a thousand responses to the multitudinous gaps and imbalances the body in its turmoil poses. God through His vast kindness knots into all the crevices of His flowering creation the essential juices of His peace and love, according to the code declared by the wondrously variegated patterns of the flowers and leaves. Dried aerial parts yield decoctions and poultices no malady can resist. For headache, lavender and feverfew; for boils, a poultice from feverfew; for sore throats, infusions of coneflower roots or loosestrife blooms, added to tincture of astringent, phlegm-reducing herbs like silverweed; for hemorrhoids, ointment of pilewort—there is nothing amiss in our workings without cure in God’s garden. Even warrior’s wounds slowly vanish under applications of self-heal and purple-flowered comfrey, called knitbone by the simple folk. Before the birth of Christ, so gracious is God, He was busy revealing these secrets to the pagan Greeks, the king of whose wisdom was named Aristotle. As I bend my back to the weeding of the aisles of my living church of silent adorers, I beg forgiveness for these many deaths by uprooting, for even weeds too humble to have a name no doubt contain properties that, knowingly extracted and combined, would join them to the chorus of cures. God created nothing to no purpose, though many purposes are yet hidden from us, to be revealed no doubt on the day when the living and the dead alike are summoned in their risen bodies to judgment, and all this finespun intricacy singing about us is revealed as but a filigreed shadow of the glorious true world prepared for His faithful. This day cannot be far off, the abbot says. Indeed, that eight centuries have been allowed to pass since our Lord gave Himself to torture and despair on the Cross would cause Paul and those other early saints to marvel at the fullness of time allowed obdurate Mankind for its own salvation. Those who study the mind of Heaven agree that the world must surely end before the year 1000, since a year of more digits than the Trinity would be a certain blasphemy.

The pigs have started a sudden squealing in their pen of wattles and alder stakes. Looking toward the west, where our humped island like a sundial casts its shrinking morning shadow into the flickering silver of the endless western sea, a flock of sails in the fatal square shape has silently appeared. Slender, they sit on the bright sea with the symmetry of letters, the same dragonish upturn before the mast as after. Perhaps I have been the last to read them, rapt here among the rustle of the herbs, tending and gathering. Now my ears take in shouting from the direction of the abbot’s house and the round tower. I run to the cliffs edge and see fair-bearded men with sun flashing from their close-fitting helmets wading in squat armor onto the shingle despite the roughness of the waves. Some have already arrived in our midst. Shouting and pitiful cries rise to disturb the sheep on their high shoulders of meadow. Their bleating and the slow heartbeat of surf on the beach below all but drown the overheard thuds of struggle. Monks in their sackcloth make no more resistance to broadswords and battle-axes than slugs to the gardener’s knife. The careless growth at the cliffs edge clings with its cold dew and milkweed spittle as I hasten bare-legged away, casting aside my basket half full of fennel plucked for a meal that will now never be served. My stone hut’s beehive shape came into my mind but this sanctum for sleep and for prayer would offer no exit with a roaring demon crouching at the entrance. Beyond the lower walled edge, the cliff breaks away into crevices and shallow trickling caves where a man might outwait a storm. Gulls above circle and dip, curious over the stir but safely aloof. The chapel bell, costly iron that nigh sank the raft that brought it a week’s journey around Dingle, begins to ring madly as if to shatter its own Christian voice, jerked into clamor not by the pull of pious hands but by the mocking strength of a Norseman inflamed by mead and bloody plunder.

I catch my breath behind the shoulder of the stone milking house. Through the chinks of its sloping wall, which release to my nostrils like a final scent of earth that of dung-spattered fresh hay, I spy smoke curling from beyond the oak chapel, the dairthech where so many times I saw the gleaming chalice lifted up amid the intertwining chanting of the brothers. I see that what is afire is the wide reed roof of the tech mor, where we were accustomed to eat and talk, not always without natural men’s gaiety, and those who could read would read at the tables, the leaves of parchment turning stiff as wind-filled sails. Now from the chapel’s entrance streams in gesticulating gobbets a parade of the longhaired fiends in their furs and leather breastplates. One holds aloft our precious chalice, its rim of silver filigree picked out with enamels the bright colors of sheep’s blood and noontime sky: the pattern would swirl beneath my eyes in the moment when Christ’s blood, sweet and strong as dark queen’s honey, was tilted into my lips by the abbot’s white hands. My gullet would feel the thick warmth of God’s inmost being.

The Lothlander holding the chalice aloft now lowers it so that his comrades in pagan brutishness can spit into the pristine vessel and, as with a maiden helpless in their midst, perform worse desecrations from the low parts of their bodies. The great altar candlesticks and fine holy cloths and the cedarwood reliquary inlaid with precious metals and containing the bones of the hand of St. Finnian all flow forth on the stream of booty. The illuminated Gospels stored in a locked chest beneath the chapel lectern have been torn apart for the jewels in the covers, and the bright pages are scattered and trampled. It is a devilish sight that makes my innards sicken for more than myself. Brother Guaire! His knots undone! The thatch of the tech mór shows flags of orange flame, and the smoke from this and other fires dyes the scene like the dipping close of a cloud livid with thunder. In the murky tangle of horrors I see the abbot’s small head, pale and benign, being brandished on the end of a bearded fiend’s pike. The bodies of my brothers, naked and dismembered, are tumbled into the sacred well whose miraculous fresh waters, drawn from beneath the salt sea, had sustained our settlement here. God has forsaken us, to test our faith. The animals as they are led away, roped and hauled or driven with staves, bellow as if on the way to slaughter, but it is not the animals being slaughtered. They will live for yet a while. In this universe turned upside down the chickens ascend in a sprawling of feathers as if to join the gulls indifferently soaring above the havoc.

And now a step sounds behind me. My enemy is come. He is young, though tall and shaggy in his armor. Fine-meshed iron mail covers a long-sleeved tunic of green wool heavy with salt spray. He seems newly minted in the foundry of battle; perhaps I will be the first man he has slain. I drive my eyes to seek his face. His helmet is a pointed brazen dome that extends to a flared nose guard. Golden hair flows to his red-caped shoulders from underneath his helmet. When he lifts his cinder-black battle-ax high in both arms, the curly fleece of his beard lifts to reveal the clasp of his cape—an iron face incised with round staring eyes, snakelike horns, and fangs: his god, the enemy and antithesis of my God. He utters some words in his musical heathen tongue. I crouch beneath him, lowering myself to make his ax travel a hand’s breadth farther to reach me. I hurry my thought through one last prayer to Christ; like my doom now will He tower above my resurrected flesh in judgment, in the blinding light of the life to come. Though I sleep a thousand thousand years, I tell myself, it will be to me as an instant. But there are still things of this life to see. The infidel’s dog-white teeth are bared. Terrors swarm out of his deep-socketed eyes like bees bringing home honey from the freckled pits of a tall blue foxglove. I see that the boy is as frightened as I. This instant of time toward which our lives have converged has two sides of terrible brightness. Killer and martyr participate equally in the sacrifice our Lord commands. Poison and medicine are the same extract. Darkness and light are one.

Summer asks that we co-exist with too many other living creatures. The vegetable efflorescence depletes one’s morale. The sky loses color in the humid heat; the sea becomes a parking lot for sailboats. Orange daylilies lord it over the blowsy yards in the village; Queen Anne’s lace and Bouncing Bet brighten the meadows; daisies and chicory dot the ragged roadsides. A dead eviscerated frog appeared on our driveway: dropped by a crow, clumsy or sated? The mysteries of overplenteous life. I ventured into the buggy woods and found the full delegation, minus Doreen, in the hut, smoking cigarettes. “It keeps the mosquitoes down,” the biggest told me. He was José, I reminded myself.

“How’s it going, gentlemen?” I asked the three.

“A lot of kids goin’ to be tryin’ to come through here tomorrow,” the lawyer told me. He was Ray. Tomorrow was Independence Day. Haskells Crossing puts on a fireworks display that attracts masses from the village and beyond. Bare-chested Vikings, already drunk, lug coolers full of beer. No matter how repulsive and futureless these young males are, they always have girls with them, going along: it says something about our species. No man too bad not to attract a woman. If women were fastidious, the species would go extinct. Thug boyfriends pleasantly remind them of their thug fathers.

“And what are you going to do about it?” I asked.

The question was embarrassing. “Keep ’em in line,” Ray finally offered.

“That’s all? You should charge the people to get by,” I told them.

“You want that?”

“What’s the point of being here if you don’t? Not so much they can’t pay; keep it within reason. Say, three welders a head, five for a couple. Children in arms can get in free,” I suggested.

Ray, the little lawyer, asked, “This with your permission?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “For a cut, of course.”

“A cut? How much cut?”

I hadn’t thought it through but proposed, “Twenty percent. One welder out of five. That’s not so much. How else are the people going to get to the fireworks?”

“Supposin’ they say they won’t pay?” José asked. In his plump, seamless face his opaque black irises had a buttoned-on look, an extra protuberance that may have been an illusion produced by their brightness, their luxurious lacquer.

I laughed. A laugh sounds sinister in the woods, dampered by the greenery. “You’re asking me that? A big tough guy like you? Maybe I should find some new protection.”

“You’re sayin’ kill ’em if they don’t pay?”

“That seems extreme. And probably counterproductive. What you want is a happy line of paying customers. But, listen, this is your party. I didn’t ask you to camp here, on my land. Let them pass if you want. You have bigger fish to fry, remember? How are you doing with my neighbors?”

Each waited for the other to speak.

“Not so good, huh?” I said at last.

“They comin’ around,” the lawyer lied.

Manolete gestured suddenly. “They be sorry when we burn their houses down. Pfoom!”

“We have a saying in business,” I told them. “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Manolete, perhaps the brightest as well as the youngest, said in his abrupt, small-boy, explosive way, “Only eggs they layin’ is tellin’ us to get the hell off they fuckin’ property.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Kelly,” Ray interposed, “were reasonable. We show them your letter. They say O.K., they’d contribute something, but only a part of what you paid, since they only have three acres to your eleven.”

He was learning the language, I thought. “Tell them,” I said, “that that may be so but there are six of them and only two Turnbulls. Maybe mention casually that you would hate to see any of their children kidnapped; ransom costs a lot more than protection.”

They took this in, the three brown faces in the sun-slit gloom of their fragile little shelter. José volunteered, “Those Dunhams, they didn’t come up with nothin’. They treated us like dirt. He has his own guns, the cocksucker said.”

The Dunhams were a perfect couple, unless one considered childlessness a flaw. Their impeccable mock-colonial house, visible in winter, lay hidden in the leafy woods not two hundred yards from Gloria’s back garden. Athletic into their fifties, they matched like salt and pepper shakers. Both lithe, both forever smiling though faintly formal even in jogging outfits, their skins glowing with the same shade of suntan, their hair tinged with exactly the same becoming amount of gray, they came from old New England families with about the same amount of money and cachet. The world’s woes, and the woes that parenthood brings, had passed them by; there was a polished, impervious beauty about them that one itched to mar. Their only point of vulnerability was their animals. They had two prize Persian cats, a perfectly trimmed miniature poodle, and a piebald pony who grazed in summer in a little meadow carved from their section of the woods.

“You might think about killing one of their cats,” I told the boys. “They let them out in the morning for exercise and to do their business in the shrubs. Just kill one, leave the body on the porch, and show up for collection the next day. You don’t have to admit to anything, just don’t deny it either. If they don’t pay up then, do the dog, that damned yappy poodle. The horse—before you kill him, get some spray paint and paint his side. If he holds still for it, paint in numbers your monthly charge. Like an invoice on legs.”

In our box of artificial twilight, with its smells of tobacco smoke and sweaty mattress and pine needles masked by plywood, the boys broke into laughter at my wealth of malice.

“Any ideas how we should handle Mrs. Lubbetts?” Ray asked.

I was enjoying this. I loved these willing boys, so superior, in their readiness and accessibility, to my own grandsons.

Pearl Lubbetts was a Jewish widow—Earl Lubbetts had made his pile in potato chips and packaged popcorn—who had taken on over the years the imperious, lockjawed, rough-and-ready manner of a Wasp matriarch. She was usually dressed in Wellingtons and muddy-kneed dungarees, directing teams of local workers on one or another project of excavation, forestry, resodding, or masonry. She had built a private sea-wall to protect her front lawn from the tides, and at a far corner of her property had constructed a modernist beach house which was, as it happened, the only structure in my seaward view, summer and winter. She had cleared the surrounding trees, so nothing impeded my sight line; with its bleached redwood siding and flat white Florida-style roof and its sundeck balustrade like a bone comb, it was an unignorable blot on my view. Metal and glass elements on the roof and walls—flashing, skylights, twirling vents, and complicated tin chimney guards— beamed irritating glints into my visual field, unanswerable emergency signals from the edge of the sea; no matter what the hour between sunrise and sunset, some reflective angle boldly bounced photons right through my windows into my retinas.

“You could burn down her little beach house,” I suggested. “That should give her the idea that you are serious individuals. When you go to collect,” it occurred to me to add, “you might want to wear suits, or at least a jacket and tie. It makes a world of difference, credibilitywise.”

The boys consulted with one another in silent glances. Triangles of white flickered beside their shifting irises.

“Hey, how come you tellin’ us all this stuff?” Ray asked me.

“I like you young fellas. I want you to succeed.”

“What’s in it for you?”

I let a beat of silence go by. “How about twenty percent?” I said.

“Ten plenty,” José said.

Ray’s eyes flicked sideways in surprise at being supplanted as negotiator.

“Ten on the protection, twenty on the admission fees tomorrow,” I offered.

Ray took back the role of spokesman. “How you know we not be cheatin’ you?” he asked.

“The sad way things are in the world now, we all have to work through trust. I trust you, it’s that simple,” I told them.

José, the biggest, was the one to rise, extend his broad but soft hand, and say, “It’s a deal.”