Black House Chapter Four
THREE YEARS AGO, our old friend traveled down this stretch of 93 in the passenger seat of Dale Gilbertson’s old Caprice, his heart going crazy in his chest, his throat constricting, and his mouth dry, as friendly Dale, in those days little more than a small-town cop whom he had impressed beyond rational measure simply by doing his job more or less as well as he could, piloted him toward a farmhouse and five acres left Dale by his deceased father.“The nice little place” could be purchased for next to nothing, since Dale’s cousins did not particularly want it and it had no value to anyone else.Dale had been holding on to the property for sentimental reasons, but he had no particular interest in it, either.
Dale had scarcely known what to do with a second house, apart from spending a great deal of time keeping it up, a task he had found oddly enjoyable but did not at all mind turning over to someone else. And at this point in their relationship, Dale was so in awe of our friend that, far from resenting the prospect of this man occupying his father’s old house, he considered it an honor.
As for the man in the passenger seat, he was too caught up in his response to the landscape ?? too caught up by the landscape ?? to be embarrassed by Dale’s awe. Under ordinary circumstances, our friend would have urged his admirer into a quiet bar, bought him a beer and said, “Look, I know you were impressed by what I did, but after all, Dale, I’m just another cop, like you. That’s all. And in all honesty, I’m a lot luckier than I deserve to be.” (It would be the truth, too: ever since we last saw him, our friend has been blessed, if it is a blessing, with such extravagantly good luck that he no longer dares to play cards or bet on sporting events. When you win almost all the time, winning tastes like spoiled grape juice.) But these were not ordinary circumstances, and in the swarm of emotion that had been threatening to undo him since they left Centralia on the flat straightaway of Highway 93, Dale’s adulation barely registered. This short drive to a place he had never seen before felt like a long-delayed journey home: everything he saw seemed charged with remembered meaning, a part of him, essential. Everything seemed sacred. He knew he was going to buy the nice little place, no matter what it looked like or how much it cost, not that price could in any way have been an obstacle. He was going to buy it, that was all. Dale’s hero-worship affected him only to the extent that he realized he would be forced to keep his admirer from undercharging him. In the meantime, he struggled against the tears that wanted to fill his eyes.
From above, we see the glacial valleys dividing the landscape to the right of 93 like the imprint of a giant’s fingers. He saw only the sudden narrow roads that split off the highway and slipped into mingled sunshine and darkness. Each road said, Nearly there. The highway said, This is the way. Gazing down, we can observe a roadside parking area, two gasoline pumps, and a long gray roof bearing the fading legend ROY’S STORE; when he looked to his right and saw, past the gas pumps, the wooden stairs rising to a wide, inviting porch and the store’s entrance, he felt as though he had already mounted those stairs a hundred times before and gone inside to pick up bread, milk, beer, cold cuts, work gloves, a screwdriver, a bag of tenpenny nails, whatever he needed from the practical cornucopia crowded onto the shelves, as after that day he would do, a hundred times and more.
Fifty yards down the highway the blue-gray sliver of Tamarack Creek comes winding into Norway Valley. When Dale’s car rolled across the rusting little metal bridge, the bridge said, This is it!, and the casually but expensively dressed man in the passenger seat, who looked as though all he knew of farmland had been learned through the windows next to first-class seats on transcontinental flights and in fact was incapable of telling wheat from hay, felt his heart shiver. On the other side of the bridge, a road sign read NORWAY VALLEY ROAD.
“This is it,” said Dale, and made the right turn into the valley. Our friend covered his mouth with his hand, stifling whatever sounds his shivering heart might cause him to utter.
Here and there, wildflowers bloomed and nodded on the roadside, some of them audacious and bright, others half-hidden in a blanket of vibrant green. “Driving up this road always makes me feel good,” Dale said.
“No wonder,” our friend managed to say.
Most of what Dale said failed to penetrate the whirlwind of emotion roaring through his passenger’s mind and body. That’s the old Lund farm ?? cousins of my mother. The one-room schoolhouse where my great-grandmother taught used to be right over there, only they tore it down way back. This here is Duane Updahl’s place, he’s no relation, thank goodness. Buzz blur mumble. Blur mumble buzz. They once again drove over Tamarack Creek, its glittering blue-gray water laughing and calling out, Here we are! Around a bend in the road they went, and a wealth of luxuriant wildflowers leaned carousing toward the car. In their midst, the blind, attentive faces of tiger lilies tilted to meet our friend’s face. A ripple of feeling distinct from the whirlwind, quieter but no less potent, brought dazzled tears to the surface of his eyes.
Tiger lilies, why? Tiger lilies meant nothing to him. He used the pretense of a yawn to wipe his eyes and hoped that Dale had not noticed.
“Here we are,” Dale said, having noticed or not, and swerved into a long, overgrown drive, hedged with wildflowers and tall grasses, which appeared to lead nowhere except into a great expanse of meadow and banks of waist-high flowers. Beyond the meadow, striped fields sloped upward to the wooded hillside. “You’ll see my dad’s old place in a second. The meadow goes with the house, and my cousins Randy and Kent own the field.”
Our friend could not see the white two-story farmhouse that stands at the end of the last curve of the drive until the moment Dale Gilbert-son swung halfway into the curve, and he did not speak until Dale had pulled up in front of the house, switched off the engine, and both men had left the car. Here was “the nice little place,” sturdy, newly painted, lovingly maintained, modest yet beautiful in its proportions, removed from the road, removed from the world, at the edge of a green and yellow meadow profuse with flowers.
“My God, Dale,” he said, “it’s perfection.”
Here we will find our former traveling companion, who in his own boyhood knew a boy named Richard Sloat and, once, too briefly, knew yet another whose name was, simply, Wolf. In this sturdy, comely, removed white farmhouse we will find our old friend, who once in his boyhood journeyed cross-country from ocean to ocean in pursuit of a certain crucial thing, a necessary object, a great talisman, and who, despite horrendous obstacles and fearful perils, succeeded in finding the object of his search and used it wisely and well. Who, we could say, accomplished a number of miracles, heroically. And who remembers none of this. Here, making breakfast for himself in his kitchen while listening to George Rathbun on KDCU, we at last find the former Los Angeles County lieutenant of police, Homicide Division, Jack Sawyer.
Our Jack. Jacky-boy, as his mother, the late Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer, used to say.
He had followed Dale through the empty house, upstairs and down, into the basement, dutifully admiring the new furnace and water heater Gilbertson had installed the year before his father’s death, the quality of the repairs he had made since then, the shining grain of the wooden floors, the thickness of the insulation in the attic, the solidity of the windows, the many craftsmanlike touches that met his eye.
“Yeah, I did a lot of work on the place,” Dale told him. “It was pretty shipshape to begin with, but I like working with my hands. After a while it turned into sort of a hobby. Whenever I had a couple of hours free, weekends and such, I got in the habit of driving over here and puttering around. I don’t know, maybe it helped me feel like I was staying in touch with my dad. He was a really good guy, my dad. He wanted me to be a farmer, but when I said I was thinking of getting into law enforcement, he supported me straight down the line. Know what he said? ?®Go into farming half hearted, it’ll kick you in the tail sunrise to sundown. You’d wind up feeling no better than a mule. Your mom and I didn’t bring you into this world to turn you into a mule.’ “
“What did she think?” Jack had asked.
“My mom came from a long line of farmers,” Dale had said. “She thought I might find out that being a mule wasn’t so bad after all. By the time she passed away, which was four years before my dad, she’d gotten used to my being a cop. Let’s go out the kitchen door and take a gander at the meadow, okay?”
While they were standing outside and taking their gander, Jack had asked Dale how much he wanted for the house. Dale, who had been waiting for this question, had knocked five thousand off the most he and Sarah had ever thought he could get. Who was he kidding? Dale had wanted Jack Sawyer to buy the house where he had grown up ?? he’d wanted Jack to live near him for at least a couple of weeks during the year. And if Jack did not buy the place, no one else would.
“Are you serious?” Jack had asked.
More dismayed than he wished to admit, Dale had said, “Sounds like a fair deal to me.”
“It isn’t fair to you,” Jack had said. “I’m not going to let you give this place away just because you like me. Raise the asking price, or I walk.”
“You big-city hotshots sure know how to negotiate. All right, make it three thousand more.”
“Five,” Jack said. “Or I’m outta here.”
“Done. But you’re breaking my heart.”
“I hope this is the last time I buy property off one of you low-down Norwegians,” Jack said.
He had purchased the house long-distance, sending a down payment from L.A., exchanging signatures by fax, no mortgage, cash up front. Whatever Jack Sawyer’s background might have been, Dale had thought, it was a lot wealthier than the usual police officer’s. Some weeks later, Jack had reappeared at the center of a self-created tornado, arranging for the telephone to be connected and the electricity billed in his name, scooping up what looked like half the contents of Roy’s Store, zipping off to Arden and La Riviere to buy a new bed, linens, tableware, cast-iron pots and pans and a set of French knives, a compact microwave and a giant television, and a stack of sound equipment so sleek, black, and resplendent that Dale, who had been invited over for a companionable drink, figured it must have cost more than his own annual salary. Much else, besides, had Jack reeled in, some of the much else consisting of items Dale had been surprised to learn could be obtained in French County, Wisconsin. Why would anyone need a sixty-five-dollar corkscrew called a WineMaster? Who was this guy, what kind of family had produced him?
He’d noticed a bag bearing an unfamiliar logo filled with compact discs ?? at fifteen, sixteen dollars a pop, he was looking at a couple hundred dollars’ worth of CDs. Whatever else might have been true of Jack Sawyer, he was into music in a big way. Curious, Dale bent down, pulled out a handful of jewel boxes, and regarded images of people, generally black, generally with instruments pressed to or in their mouths. Clifford Brown, Lester Young, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Desmond. “I never heard of these guys,” he said. “What is this, jazz, I guess?”
“You guess right,” Jack said. “Could I ask you to help me move furniture around and hang pictures, stuff like that, in a month or two? I’m going to have a lot of stuff shipped here.”
“Anytime.” A splendid idea bloomed in Dale’s mind. “Hey, you have to meet my uncle Henry! He’s even a neighbor of yours, lives about a quarter mile down the road. He was married to my aunt Rhoda, my father’s sister, who died three years ago. Henry’s like an encyclopedia of weird music.”
Jack did not take up the assumption that jazz was weird. Maybe it was. Anyhow, it probably sounded weird to Dale. “I wouldn’t have thought farmers had much time to listen to music.”
Dale opened his mouth and uttered a bray of laughter. “Henry isn’t a farmer. Henry . . .” Grinning, Dale raised his hands, palms up and fingers spread, and looked into the middle distance, searching for the right phrase. “He’s like the reverse of a farmer. When you get back, I’ll introduce you to him. You’re going to be crazy about the guy.”
Six weeks later, Jack returned to greet the moving van and tell the men where to put the furniture and other things he had shipped; a few days afterward, when he had unpacked most of the boxes, he telephoned Dale and asked if he was still willing to give him a hand. It was 5:00 on a day so slow that Tom Lund had fallen asleep at his desk, and Dale drove over without even bothering to change out of his uniform.
His first response, after Jack had shaken his hand and ushered him in, was undiluted shock. Having taken a single step past the doorway, Dale froze in his tracks, unable to move any farther. Two or three seconds passed before he realized that it was a good shock, a shock of pleasure. His old house had been transformed: it was as if Jack Sawyer had tricked him and opened the familiar front door upon the interior of another house altogether. The sweep from the living room into the kitchen looked nothing like either the space he remembered from childhood or the clean, bare progression of the recent past. Jack had decorated the house with the wave of a wand, it seemed to Dale, in the process somehow turning it into he hardly knew what ?? a villa on the Riviera, a Park Avenue apartment. (Dale had never been to New York or the south of France.) Then it struck him that, instead of transforming the old place into something it was not, Jack had simply seen more in it than Dale ever had. The leather sofas and chairs, the glowing rugs, the wide tables and discreet lamps, had come from another world but fit in perfectly, as if they had been made specifically for this house. Everything he saw beckoned him in, and he found that he could move again.
“Wow,” he said. “Did I ever sell this place to the right guy.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Jack said. “I have to admit, I do, too. It looks even better than I expected.”
“What am I supposed to do? The place is already organized.”
“We’re going to hang some pictures,” Jack said. “Then it’ll be organized.”
Dale supposed Jack was talking about family photographs. He did not understand why anyone would need help to hang up a bunch of framed photos, but if Jack wanted his assistance, he would assist. Besides that, the pictures would tell him a considerable amount about Jack’s family, still a subject of great interest to him. However, when Jack led him to a stack of flat wooden crates leaning against the kitchen counter, Dale once again got the feeling that he was out of his depth here, that he had entered an unknown world. The crates had been made by hand; they were serious objects built to provide industrial-strength protection. Some of them were five or six feet tall and nearly as wide. These monsters did not have pictures of Mom and Dad inside them. He and Jack had to pry up the corners and loosen the nails along the edges before they could get the crates open. It took a surprising amount of effort to lever the tops off the crates. Dale regretted not stopping at his house long enough to take off his uniform, which was damp with sweat by the time he and Jack had pulled from their cocoons five heavy, rectangular objects thickly swaddled in layers of tissue. Many crates remained.
An hour later, they carried the empty crates down to the basement and came back upstairs to have a beer. Then they sliced open the layers of tissue, exposing paintings and graphics in a variety of frames, including a few that looked as if the artist had nailed them together himself out of barn siding. Jack’s pictures occupied a category Dale vaguely thought of as “modern art.” He did not grasp what some of these things were supposed to be about, although he actually liked almost all of them, especially a couple of landscapes. He knew that he had never heard of the artists, but their names, he thought, would be recognized by the kind of people who lived in big cities and hung out in museums and galleries. All this art ?? all of these images large and small now lined up on the kitchen floor ?? stunned him, not altogether pleasantly. He really had entered another world, and he knew none of its landmarks. Then he remembered that he and Jack Sawyer were going to hang these pictures on the walls of his parents’ old house. Immediately, unexpected warmth flooded into this notion and filled it to the brim. Why shouldn’t adjoining worlds mingle now and then? And wasn’t this other world Jack’s?
“All right,” he said. “I wish Henry, that uncle I was telling you about? Who lives right down the road? I wish he could see this stuff. Henry, he’d know how to appreciate it.”
“Why won’t he be able to see them? I’ll invite him over.”
“Didn’t I say?” Dale asked. “Henry’s blind.”
Paintings went up on the living-room walls, ascended the stairwell, moved into the bedrooms. Jack put up a couple of small pictures in the upstairs bathroom and the little half bath on the ground floor. Dale’s arms began to ache from holding the frames while Jack marked the places where the nails would go in. After the first three paintings, he had removed his necktie and rolled up his sleeves, and he could feel sweat trickling out of his hair and sliding down his face. His unbuttoned collar had soaked through. Jack Sawyer had worked as hard or harder than he, but looked as if he had done nothing more strenuous than think about dinner.
“You’re like an art collector, huh?” Dale said. “Did it take a long time to get all these paintings?”
“I don’t know enough to be a collector,” Jack said. “My father picked up most of this work back in the fifties and sixties. My mother bought a few things, too, when she saw something that turned her on. Like that little Fairfield Porter over there, with the front porch and a lawn and the flowers.”
The little Fairfield Porter, which name Dale assumed to be that of its painter, had appealed to him as soon as he and Jack had pulled it out of its crate. You could hang a picture like that in your own living room. You could almost step into a picture like that. The funny thing was, Dale thought, if you hung it in your living room, most of the people who came in would never really notice it at all.
Jack had said something about being glad to get the paintings out of storage. “So,” Dale said, “your mom and dad gave them to you?”
“I inherited them after my mother’s death,” Jack said. “My father died when I was a kid.”
“Oh, darn, I’m sorry,” Dale said, snapped abruptly out of the world into which Mr. Fairfield Porter had welcomed him. “Had to be tough on you, losing your dad so young.” He thought Jack had given him the explanation for the aura of apartness and isolation that seemed always to envelop him. A second before Jack could respond, Dale told himself he was bullshitting. He had no idea how someone wound up being like Jack Sawyer.
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Fortunately, my mother was even tougher.” Dale seized his opportunity with both hands. “What did your folks do? Were you brought up in California?”
“Born and raised in Los Angeles,” Jack said. “My parents were in the entertainment industry, but don’t hold that against them. They were great people.”
Jack did not invite him to stay for supper ?? that was what stuck with Dale. Over the hour and a half it took them to hang the rest of the pictures, Jack Sawyer remained friendly and good-humored, but Dale, who was not a cop for nothing, sensed something evasive and adamant in his friend’s affability: a door had opened a tiny crack, then slammed shut. The phrase “great people” had placed Jack’s parents out of bounds. When the two men broke for another beer, Dale noticed a pair of bags from a Centralia grocery next to the microwave. It was then nearly 8:00, at least two hours past French County’s suppertime. Jack might reasonably have assumed that Dale had already eaten, were his uniform not evidence to the contrary.
He tossed Jack a softball about the hardest case he had ever solved and sidled up to the counter. The marbled red tips of two sirloin steaks protruded from the nearest bag. His stomach emitted a reverberant clamor. Jack ignored the thunder roll and said, “Thornberg Kinderling was right up there with anything I handled in L.A. I was really grateful for your help.” Dale got the picture. Here was another locked door. This one had declined to open by as much as a crack. History was not spoken here; the past had been nailed shut.
They finished their beers and installed the last of the pictures. Over the next few hours, they spoke of a hundred things, but always within the boundaries Jack Sawyer had established. Dale was sure that his question about Jack’s parents had shortened the evening, but why should that be true? What was the guy hiding? And from whom was he hiding it? After their work was done, Jack thanked him warmly and walked him outside to his car, thereby cutting off any hope of a last-minute reprieve. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly, in the words of the immortal George Rathbun. While they stood in the fragrant darkness beneath the millions of stars arrayed above them, Jack sighed with pleasure and said, “I hope you know how grateful I am. Honestly, I’m sorry I have to go back to L.A. Would you look at how beautiful this is?”
Driving back to French Landing, his the only headlights on the long stretch of Highway 93, Dale wondered if Jack’s parents had been involved in some aspect of the entertainment business embarrassing to their adult son, like pornography. Maybe Dad directed skin flicks, and Mom starred in them. The people who made dirty movies probably raked in the dough, especially if they kept it in the family. Before his odometer ticked off another tenth of a mile, the memory of the little Fairfield Porter turned Dale’s satisfaction to dust. No woman who earned her keep having on-camera sex with strangers would spend actual money on a painting like that.
Let us enter Jack Sawyer’s kitchen. The morning’s Herald lies unfolded on the dining table; a black frying pan recently sprayed with Pam heats atop the circle of blue flames from the gas stove’s front left-hand burner. A tall, fit, distracted-looking man wearing an old USC sweatshirt, jeans, and Italian loafers the color of molasses is swirling a whisk around the interior of a stainless steel bowl containing a large number of raw eggs.
Looking at him as he frowns at a vacant section of air well above the shiny bowl, we observe that the beautiful twelve-year-old boy last seen in a fourth-floor room of a deserted New Hampshire hotel has aged into a man whose good looks contribute only the smallest portion to what makes him interesting. For that Jack Sawyer is interesting declares itself instantly. Even when troubled to distraction by some private concern, some enigma, we might as well say in the face of that contemplative frown, Jack Sawyer cannot help but radiate a persuasive authority. Just by looking at him, you know that he is one of those persons to whom others turn when they feel stumped, threatened, or thwarted by circumstance. Intelligence, resolve, and dependability have shaped the cast of his features so deeply that their attractiveness is irrelevant to their meaning. This man never pauses to admire himself in mirrors ?? vanity plays no part in his character. It makes perfect sense that he should have been a rising star in the Los Angeles Police Department, that his file bulged with commendations, and that he had been selected for several FBI-sponsored programs and training courses designed to aid the progress of rising stars. (A number of Jack’s colleagues and superiors had privately concluded that he would become the police commissioner of a city like San Diego or Seattle around the time he turned forty and, ten to fifteen years later, if all went well, step up to San Francisco or New York.)
More strikingly, Jack’s age seems no more relevant than his attractiveness: he has the air of having passed through lifetimes before this one, of having gone places and seen things beyond the scope of most other people. No wonder Dale Gilbertson admires him; no wonder Dale yearns for Jack’s assistance. In his place, we would want it, too, but our luck would be no better than his. This man has retired, he is out of the game, sorry, damn shame and all that, but a man’s gotta whisk eggs when he’s gotta have omelettes, as John Wayne said to Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.
“And as my momma told me,” Jack says out loud to himself, “she said, ?®Sonny boy,’ said she, ?®when the Duke spoke up, everdangbody lissened up, lessen he was a-grindin’ one of his numerous political axes,’ yes, she did, them were her same exack words, just as she said ’em to me.” A half second later, he adds, “On that fine morning in Beverly Hills,” and finally takes in what he is doing.
What we have here is a spectacularly lonely man. Loneliness has been Jack Sawyer’s familiar for so long that he takes it for granted, but what you can’t fix eventually turns into wallpaper, all right? Plenty of things, such as cerebral palsy and Lou Gehrig’s disease, to name but two, are worse than loneliness. Loneliness is just part of the program, that’s all. Even Dale noticed this aspect of his friend’s character, and despite his many virtues, our chief of police cannot be described as a particularly pyschological human being.
Jack glances at the clock above the stove and sees he has another forty-five minutes before he must drive to French Landing and pick up Henry Leyden at the end of his shift. That’s good; he has plenty of time, he’s keeping it together, the subtext to which is Everything is all right, and nothing’s wrong with me, thank you very much.
When Jack woke up this morning, a small voice in his head announced I am a coppiceman. Like hell I am, he thought, and told the voice to leave him alone. The little voice could go to hell. He had given up on the coppiceman business, he had walked away from the homicide trade . . .
. . . the lights of a carousel reflected on the bald head of a black man lying dead on the Santa Monica Pier . . .
No. Don’t go there. Just . . . just don’t, that’s all.
Jack should not have been in Santa Monica, anyhow. Santa Monica had its own coppicemen. As far as he knew, they were a swell bunch of guys, though perhaps not quite up to the standard set by that ace boy, whizbang, and youngest-ever lieutenant of LAPD’s Homicide Division, himself. The only reason the ace boy and whizbang had been on their turf in the first place was that he had just broken up with this extremely nice, or at least moderately nice, resident of Malibu, Ms. Brooke Greer, a screenwriter greatly esteemed within her genre, the action adventure?Cromantic comedy, also a person of remarkable wit, insight, and bodily charm, and as he sped homeward down the handsome stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway below the Malibu Canyon exit he yielded to an uncharacteristically edgy spell of gloom.
A few seconds after swinging up the California Incline into Santa Monica, he saw the bright ring of the Ferris wheel revolving above the strings of lights and the lively crowd on the pier. A tawdry enchantment, or an enchanted tawdriness, spoke to him from the heart of this scene. On a whim, Jack parked his car and walked down to the array of brilliant lights glowing in the darkness. The last time he had visited the Santa Monica Pier, he had been an excited six-year-old boy pulling on Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer’s hand like a dog straining at a leash.
What happened was accidental. It was too meaningless to be called coincidence. Coincidence brings together two previously unrelated elements of a larger story. Here nothing connected, and there was no larger story.
He came to the pier’s gaudy entrance and noticed that, after all, the Ferris wheel was not revolving. A circle of stationary lights hung over empty gondolas. For a moment, the giant machine looked like an alien invader, cleverly disguised and biding its time until it could do the maximum amount of damage. Jack could almost hear it purring to itself. Right, he thought, an evil Ferris wheel ?? get a grip. You’re shaken up more than you want to admit. Then he looked back down at the scene before him, and finally took in that his fantasy of the pier had hidden a real-life evil rendered far too familiar by his profession. He had stumbled onto the initial stages of a homicide investigation.
Some of the brilliant lights he had seen flashed not from the Ferris wheel but from the tops of Santa Monica patrol cars. Out on the pier, four uniforms were discouraging a crowd of civilians from breaching the circle of crime-scene tape around a brightly illuminated carousel. Jack told himself to leave it alone. He had no role here. Besides that, the carousel aroused some smoky, indistinct feeling, an entire set of unwelcome feelings, in him. The carousel was creepier than the stalled Ferris wheel. Carousels had always spooked him, hadn’t they? Painted midget horses frozen into place with their teeth bared and steel poles rammed through their guts ?? sadistic kitsch.
Walk away, Jack told himself. Your girlfriend dumped you and you’re in a rotten mood.
And as for carousels . . .
The abrupt descent of a mental lead curtain ended the debate about carousels. Feeling as though pushed from within, Jack stepped onto the pier and began moving through the crowd. He was half conscious of taking the most unprofessional action of his career.
When he had pushed his way to the front of the crowd, he ducked under the tape and flashed his badge at a babyfaced cop who tried to order him back. Somewhere nearby, a guitarist began playing a blues melody Jack could almost identify; the title swam to the surface of his mind, then dove out of sight. The infant cop gave him a puzzled look and walked away to consult one of the detectives standing over a long shape Jack did not quite feel like looking at just then. The music annoyed him. It annoyed him a lot. In fact, it bugged the hell out of him. His irritation was out of proportion to its cause, but what kind of idiot thought homicides needed a sound track?
A painted horse reared, frozen in the garish light.
Jack’s stomach tightened, and deep in his chest something fierce and insistent, something at all costs not to be named, flexed itself and threw out its arms. Or extended its wings. The terrible something wished to break free and make itself known. Briefly, Jack feared he would have to throw up. The passing of this sensation bought him a moment of uncomfortable clarity.
Voluntarily, idly, he had walked into craziness, and now he was crazy. You could put it no other way. Marching toward him with an expression nicely combining disbelief and fury was a detective named Angelo Leone, before his expedient transfer to Santa Monica a colleague of Jack’s distinguished by his gross appetites, his capacity for violence and corruption, his contempt for all civilians regardless of color, race, creed, or social status, and, to be fair, his fearlessness and utter loyalty to all police officers who went with the program and did the same things he did, which meant anything they could get away with. Angelo Leone’s disdain for Jack Sawyer, who had not gone with the program, had equaled his resentment at the younger man’s success. In a few seconds, this brutal caveman would be in his face. Instead of trying to figure out how to explain himself to the caveman, he was obsessing about carousels and guitars, attending to the details of going crazy. He had no way of explaining himself. Explanation was impossible. The internal necessity that had pushed him into this position hummed on, but Jack could hardly speak to Angelo Leone of internal necessities. Nor could he offer a rational explanation to his captain, if Leone filed a complaint.
Well, you see, it was like someone else was pulling my strings, like another person was doing the driving . . .
The first words out of Angelo Leone’s fleshy mouth rescued him from disaster.
?? Don’t tell me you’re here for a reason, you ambitious little prick. A piratical career like Leone’s inevitably exposed the pirate to the danger of an official investigation. A strategic sidestep to a neighboring force offered little protection from the covert archaeological digs police officials mounted into records and reputations when the press gave them no other choice. Every decade or two, do-gooders, whistle-blowers, whiners, snitches, pissed-off civilians, and cops too stupid to accept the time-honored program got together, rammed a cherry bomb up the press’s collective anus, and set off an orgy of bloodletting. Leone’s essential, guilt-inspired paranoia had instantly suggested to him that L.A. Homicide’s ace boy might be gilding his r?¦sum?¦.
As Jack had known it would, his claim of having been pulled toward the scene like a fire horse to a fire magnified Leone’s suspicions.
?? Okay, you happened to walk into my investigation. Fine. Now listen to me. If I happen to hear your name in some connection I don’t like anytime during the next six months, make that ever, you’ll be pissing through a tube for the rest of your life. Now get the fuck out of here and let me do my job.
?? I’m gone, Angelo.
Leone’s partner started to come forward across the gleaming pier. Leone grimaced and waved him back. Without intending to do so, without thinking about it, Jack let his eyes drift past the detective and down to the corpse in front of the carousel. Far more powerfully than it had the first time, the ferocious creature at the center of his chest flexed itself, unfurled, and extended its wings, its arms, its talons, whatever they were, and by means of a tremendous upward surge attempted to rip free of its moorings.
The wings, the arms, the talons crushed Jack’s lungs. Hideous claws splayed through his stomach.
There is one act a homicide detective, especially a homicide lieutenant, must never commit, and it is this: confronted with a dead body, he must not puke. Jack struggled to remain on the respectable side of the Forbidden. Bile seared the back of his throat, and he closed his eyes. A constellation of glowing dots wavered across his eyelids. The creature, molten and foul, battered against its restraints.
Lights reflected on the scalp of a bald, black man lying dead beside a carousel . . .
Not you. No, not you. Knock all you like, but you can’t come in.
The wings, arms, talons retracted; the creature dwindled to a dozing speck. Having succeeded in avoiding the Forbidden Act, Jack found himself capable of opening his eyes. He had no idea how much time had passed. Angelo Leone’s corrugated forehead, murky eyes, and carnivorous mouth heaved into view and, from a distance of six inches, occupied all the available space.
?? What are we doing here? Reviewing our situation?
?? I wish that idiot would put his guitar back in its case.
And that was one of the oddest turns of the evening.
?? Guitar? I don’t hear no guitar.
Neither, Jack realized, did he.
Wouldn’t any rational person attempt to put such an episode out of mind? To throw this garbage overboard? You couldn’t do anything with it, you couldn’t use it, so why hold on to it? The incident on the pier meant nothing. It connected to nothing beyond itself, and it led to nothing. It was literally inconsequential, for it had had no consequences. After his lover had sandbagged him Jack had lost his bearings, suffered a momentary aberration, and trespassed upon another jurisdiction’s crime scene. It was no more than an embarrassing mistake.
Fifty-six days and eleven hours later, the ace boy slipped into his captain’s office, laid down his shield and his gun, and announced, much to the captain’s astonishment, his immediate retirement. Knowing nothing of the confrontation with Detective Leone on the Santa Monica Pier, the captain did not inquire as to the possible influence upon his lieutenant’s decision of a stalled carousel and a dead black man; if he had, Jack would have told him he was being ridiculous.
Don’t go there, he advises himself, and does an excellent job of not going there. He receives a few involuntary flashes, no more, strobe-lit snapshots of a wooden pony’s rearing head, of Angelo Leone’s distempered mug, also of one other thing, the object occupying the dead center of the scene in every sense, that which above all must not be witnessed . . . the instant these imagistic lightning bolts appear, he sends them away. It feels like a magical performance. He is doing magic, good magic. He knows perfectly well that these feats of image banishment represent a form of self-protection, and if the motives behind his need for this protective magic remain unclear, the need is motive enough. When you gotta have an omelette, you gotta whisk eggs, to quote that unimpeachable authority, Duke Wayne.
Jack Sawyer has more on his mind than the irrelevancies suggested by a dream voice’s having uttered the word “policeman” in baby talk. These matters, too, he wishes he could send away by the execution of a magic trick, but the wretched matters refuse banishment; they zoom about him like a tribe of wasps.
All in all, he is not doing so well, our Jack. He is marking time and staring at the eggs, which no longer look quite right, though he could not say why. The eggs resist interpretation. The eggs are the least of it. In the periphery of his vision, the banner across the front page of the La Riviere Herald seems to rise off the sheet of newsprint and float toward him. FISHERMAN STILL AT LARGE IN Nope, that’s enough; he turns away with the terrible knowledge of having brought on this Fisherman business by himself. How about IN STATEN ISLAND or IN BROOKLYN, where the real Albert Fish, a tormented piece of work if there ever was one, found two of his victims?
This stuff is making him sick. Two dead kids, the Freneau girl missing and probably dead, body parts eaten, a lunatic who plagiarized from Albert Fish Dale insisted on assaulting him with information. The details enter his system like a contaminant. The more he learns ?? and for a man who truly wished to be out of the loop, Jack has learned an amazing amount ?? the more the poisons swim through his bloodstream, distorting his perceptions. He had come to Norway Valley in flight from a world that had abruptly turned unreliable and rubbery, as if liquefying under thermal pressure. During his last month in Los Angeles, the thermal pressure had become intolerable. Grotesque possibilities leered from darkened windows and the gaps between buildings, threatening to take form. On days off, the sensation of dishwater greasing his lungs made him gasp for breath and fight against nausea, so he worked without stopping, in the process solving more cases than ever before. (His diagnosis was that the work was getting to him, but we can hardly blame the captain for his astonishment at the ace boy’s resignation.)
He had escaped to this obscure pocket of the countryside, this shelter, this haven at the edge of a yellow meadow, removed from the world of threat and madness, removed by nearly twenty miles from French Landing, removed a good distance even from Norway Valley Road. However, the layers of removal had failed to do their job. What he was trying to escape riots around him again, here in his redoubt. If he let himself succumb to self-centered fantasy, he would have to conclude that what he had fled had spent the last three years sniffing his trail and had finally succeeded in tracking him down.
In California, the rigors of his task had overwhelmed him; now the disorders of western Wisconsin must be kept at arm’s length. Sometimes, late at night, he awakens to the echo of the little, poisoned voice wailing, No more coppiceman, I won’t, too close, too close. What was too close, Jack Sawyer refuses to consider; the echo proves that he must avoid any further contamination.
Bad news for Dale, he knows, and he regrets both his inability to join the investigation and to explain his refusal to his friend. Dale’s ass is on the line, no two ways about it. He is a good chief of police, more than good enough for French Landing, but he misjudged the politics and let the staties set him up. With every appearance of respect for local authority, state detectives Brown and Black had bowed low, stepped aside, and permitted Dale Gilbertson, who thought they were doing him a favor, to slip a noose around his neck. Too bad, but Dale has just figured out that he is standing on a trapdoor with a black bag over his face. If the Fisherman murders one more kid Well, Jack Sawyer sends his most profound regrets. He can’t perform a miracle right now, sorry. Jack has more pressing matters on his mind.
Red feathers, for example. Small ones. Little red feathers are much on Jack’s mind, and have been, despite his efforts to magic them away, since a month before the murders started. One morning as he emerged from his bedroom and began to go down to fix breakfast, a single red feather, a plume smaller than a baby’s finger, seemed to float out of the slanted ceiling at the top of the stairs. In its wake, two or three others came drifting toward him. An oval section of plaster two inches across seemed to blink and open like an eye, and the eye released a tight, fat column of feathers that zoomed out of the ceiling as if propelled through a straw. A feather explosion, a feather hurricane, battered his chest, his raised arms, his head.
But this . . .
This never happened.
Something else happened, and it took him a minute or two to figure it out. A wayward brain neuron misfired. A mental receptor lapped up the wrong chemical, or lapped up too much of the right chemical. The switches that nightly triggered the image conduits responded to a false signal and produced a waking dream. The waking dream resembled an hallucination, but hallucinations were experienced by wet-brain alcoholics, drug takers, and crazy people, specifically paranoid schizophrenics, with whom Jack had dealt on many an occasion during his life as a coppiceman. Jack fit into none of those categories, including the last. He knew he was not a paranoid schizophrenic or any other variety of madman. If you thought Jack Sawyer was crazy, you were. He has complete, at least 99 percent complete, faith in his sanity.
Since he is not delusional, the feathers must have flown toward him in a waking dream. The only other explanation involves reality, and the feathers had no connection to reality. What kind of world would this be, if such things could happen to us?
Abruptly George Rathbun bellows, “It pains me to say this, truly it does, for I love our dear old Brew Crew, you know I do, but there come times when love must grit its teeth and face a painful reality ?? for example, take the sorrowful state of our pitching staff. Bud Selig, oh BU-UD, this is Houston calling. Could you Please return to earth immediately? A blind man could throw more strikes than that aggregation of WIMPS, LOSERS, AND AIRHEADS!”
Good old Henry. Henry has George Rathbun down so perfectly you can see the sweat stains under his armpits. But the best of Henry’s inventions ?? in Jack’s opinion ?? has to be that embodiment of hipster cool, the laid-back, authoritative Henry Shake (“the Sheik, the Shake, the Shook of Araby”), who can, if in the mood, tell you the color of the socks worn by Lester Young on the day he recorded “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” and describe the interiors of two dozen famous but mostly long-departed jazz clubs.
. . . and before we get into the very cool, very beautiful, very simp??tico music whispered one Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio, we might pay our respects to the third, inner eye. Let us honor the inner eye, the eye of imagination. It is late on a hot July afternoon in Greenwich Village, New York City. On sun-dazzled Seventh Avenue South, we stroll into the shade of the Vanguard’s marquee, open a white door, and proceed down a long, narrow flight of stairs to a roomy underground cave. The musicians climb onto the stand. Bill Evans slides onto the piano bench and nods at the audience. Scott LaFaro hugs his bass. Paul Motian picks up his brushes. Evans lowers his head way, way down and drops his hands on the keyboard. For those of us who are privileged to be there, nothing will ever be the same again.
“My Foolish Heart” by the Bill Evans Trio, live at the Village Vanguard, the twenty-fifth of June, 1961. I am your host, Henry Shake ?? the Sheik, the Shake, the Shook of Araby.
Smiling, Jack pours the beaten eggs into the frying pan, twice swirls them with a fork, and marginally reduces the gas flame. It occurs to him that he has neglected to make coffee. Nuts to coffee. Coffee is the last thing he needs; he can drink orange juice. A glance at the toaster suggests that he has also neglected to prepare the morning’s toast. Does he require toast, is toast essential? Consider the butter, consider slabs of cholesterol waiting to corrupt his arteries. The omelette is risky enough; in fact, he has the feeling he cracked way too many eggs. Now Jack cannot remember why he wanted to make an omelette in the first place. He rarely eats omelettes. In fact, he tends to buy eggs out of a sense of duty aroused by the two rows of egg-sized depressions near the top of his refrigerator door. If people were not supposed to buy eggs, why would refrigerators come with egg holders?
He nudges a spatula under the edges of the hardening but still runny eggs, tilts the pan to slide them around, scrapes in the mushrooms and scallions, and folds the result in half. All right. Okay. Looks good. A luxurious forty minutes of freedom stretches out before him. In spite of everything, he seems to be functioning pretty well. Control is not an issue here.
Unfolded on the kitchen table, the La Riviere Herald catches Jack’s eye. He has forgotten about the newspaper. The newspaper has not forgotten him, however, and demands its proper share of attention. FISHERMAN STILL AT LARGE IN, and so on. ARCTIC CIRCLE would be nice, but no, he moves nearer to the table and sees that the Fisherman remains a stubbornly local problem. From beneath the headline, Wendell Green’s name leaps up and lodges in his eye like a pebble. Wendell Green is an all-around, comprehensive pest, an ongoing irritant. After reading the first two paragraphs of Green’s article, Jack groans and clamps a hand over his eyes.
I’m a blind man, make me an umpire!
Wendell Green has the confidence of a small-town athletic hero who never left home. Tall, expansive, with a crinkly mat of red-blond hair and a senatorial waistline, Green swaggers through the bars, the courthouses, the public arenas of La Riviere and its surrounding communities, distributing wised-up charm. Wendell Green is a reporter who knows how to act like one, an old-fashioned print journalist, the Herald’s great ornament.
At their first encounter, the great ornament struck Jack as a third-rate phony, and he has seen no reason to change his mind since then. He distrusts Wendell Green. In Jack’s opinion, the reporter’s gregarious facade conceals a limitless capacity for treachery. Green is a blowhard posturing in front of a mirror, but a canny blowhard, and such creatures will do anything to gain their own ends.
After Thornberg Kinderling’s arrest, Green requested an interview. Jack turned him down, as he declined the three invitations that followed his removal to Norway Valley Road. His refusals had not deterred the reporter from staging occasional “accidental” meetings.
The day after the discovery of Amy St. Pierre’s body, Jack emerged from a Chase Street dry cleaner’s shop with a box of freshly laundered shirts under his arm, began walking toward his car, and felt a hand close on his elbow. He looked back and beheld, contorted into a leer of spurious delight, the florid public mask of Wendell Green.
?? Hey, hey, Holly ?? . A bad-boy smirk. I mean, Lieutenant Sawyer. Hey, I’m glad I ran into you. This is where you have your shirts done? They do a good job?
?? If you leave out the part about the buttons.
?? Good one. You’re a funny guy, Lieutenant. Let me give you a tip. Reliable, on Third Street in La Riviere? They live up to their name. No smashee, no breakee. Want your shirts done right, go to a Chink every time. Sam Lee, try him out, Lieutenant.
?? I’m not a lieutenant anymore, Wendell. Call me Jack or Mr. Sawyer. Call me Hollywood, I don’t care. And now ??
He walked toward his car, and Wendell Green walked beside him.
?? Any chance of a few words, Lieutenant? Sorry, Jack? Chief Gilbertson is a close friend of yours, I know, and this tragic case, little girl, apparently mutilated, terrible things, can you can offer us your expertise, step in, give us the benefit of your thoughts?
?? You want to know my thoughts?
?? Anything you can tell me, buddy.
Pure, irresponsible malice inspired Jack to extend an arm over Green’s shoulders and say:
?? Wendell, old buddy, check out a guy named Albert Fish. It was back in the twenties.
?? F-i-s-h. From an old-line WASP New York family. An amazing case. Look it up.
Until that moment, Jack had been barely conscious of remembering the outrages committed by the bizarre Mr. Albert Fish. Butchers more up-to-date ?? Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer ?? had eclipsed Albert Fish, not to mention exotics like Edmund Emil Kemper III, who, after committing eight murders, decapitated his mother, propped her head on his mantel, and used it as a dartboard. (By way of explanation, Edmund III said, “This seemed appropriate.”) Yet the name of Albert Fish, an obscure back number, had surfaced in Jack’s mind, and into Wendell Green’s ready ear he had uttered it.
What had gotten into him? Well, that was the question, wasn’t it?
Whoops, the omelette. Jack grabs a plate from a cabinet, silverware from a drawer, jumps to the stove, turns off the burner, and slides the mess in the pan onto his plate. He sits down and opens the Herald to page 5, where he reads about Milly Kuby’s nearly winning third place at the big statewide spelling bee, but for the substitution of an i for an a in opopanax, the kind of thing that is supposed to be in a local paper. How can you expect a kid to spell opopanax correctly, anyhow?
Jack takes two or three bites of his omelette before the peculiar taste in his mouth distracts him from the monstrous unfairness done to Milly Kuby. The funny taste is like half-burned garbage. He spits the food out of his mouth and sees a wad of gray mush and raw, half-chewed vegetables. The uneaten part of his breakfast does not look any more appetizing. He did not cook this omelette; he ruined it.
He drops his head and groans. A shudder like a loose electrical wire travels here and there through his body, throwing off sparks that singe his throat, his lungs, his suddenly palpitating organs. Opopanax, he thinks. I’m falling apart. Right here and now. Forget I said that. The savage opopanax has gripped me in its claws, shaken me with the fearful opopanax of its opopanax arms, and intends to throw me into the turbulent Opopanax River, where I shall meet my opopanax.
“What is happening to me?” he says aloud. The shrill sound of his voice scares him.
Opopanax tears sting his opopanax eyes, and he gets groaning up off his opopanax, dumps the swill into the garbage disposal, rinses the plate, and decides that it is damn well time to start making sense around here. Opopanax me no opopanaxes. Everybody makes mistakes. Jack examines the door of the refrigerator, trying to remember if he still has an egg or two in there. Sure he does: a whole bunch of eggs, about nine or ten, had nearly filled the entire row of egg-shaped depressions at the top of the door. He could not have squandered all of them; he wasn’t that out of it.
Jacks closes his fingers around the edge of the refrigerator door. Entirely unbidden, the vision of lights reflected on a black man’s bald head.
The person being addressed is not present; the person being addressed is scarcely a person at all.
No, no, not you.
The door swings open under the pressure of his fingers; the refrigerator light illuminates the laden shelves. Jack Sawyer regards the egg holders. They appear to be empty. A closer look reveals, nested within the rounded depression at the end of the first row, the presence of a small, egg-shaped object colored a pale and delicate shade of blue: a nostalgic, tender blue, quite possibly the half-remembered blue of a summer sky observed in early afternoon by a small boy lying face-up on the quarter acre of grass located behind a nice residential property on Rox-bury Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Whoever owns this residential property, boy, you can put your money on one thing: they’re in the entertainment business.
Jack knows the name of this precise shade of blue due to an extended consideration of color samples undertaken in the company of Claire Evinrude, M.D., an oncologist of lovely and brisk dispatch, during the period when they were planning to repaint their then-shared bungalow in the Hollywood Hills. Claire, Dr. Evinrude, had marked this color for the master bedroom; he, recently returned from a big-deal, absurdly selective VICAP course of instruction at Quantico, Virginia, and newly promoted to the rank of lieutenant, had dismissed it as, um, well, maybe a little cold.
Jack, have you ever seen an actual robin’s egg? Dr. Evinrude inquired. Do you have any idea how beautiful they are? Dr. Evinrude’s gray eyes enlarged as she grasped her mental scalpel.
Jack inserts two fingers into the egg receptacle and lifts from it the small, egg-shaped object the color of a robin’s egg. What do you know, this is a robin’s egg. An “actual,” in the words of Dr. Claire Evinrude, robin’s egg, hatched from the body of a robin, sometimes called a robin redbreast. He deposits the egg in the palm of his left hand. There it sits, this pale blue oblate the size of a pecan. The capacity for thought seems to have left him. What the hell did he do, buy a robin’s egg? Sorry, no, this relationship isn’t working, the opopanax is out of whack, Roy’s Store doesn’t sell robin’s eggs, I’m gone.
Slowly, stiffly, awkward as a zombie, Jack progresses across the kitchen floor and reaches the sink. He extends his left hand over the maw at the sink’s center and releases the robin’s egg. Down into the garbage disposal it drops, irretrievably. His right hand switches the machine into action, with the usual noisy results. Growl, grind, snarl, a monster is enjoying a nice little snack. Grrr. The live electrical wire shudders within him, shedding sparks as it twitches, but he has become zombiefied and barely registers the internal shocks. All in all, taking everything into consideration, what Jack Sawyer feels most like doing at this moment . . .
When the red, red . . .
For some reason, he has not called his mother in a long, long while. He cannot think why he has not, and it is about time he did. Robin me no red robins. The voice of Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer, the Queen of the B’s, once his only companion in a rapture-flooded, transcendent, rigorously forgotten New Hampshire hotel room, is precisely the voice Jack needs to hear right about now. Lily Cavanaugh is the one person in the world to whom he can spill the ridiculous mess in which he finds himself. Despite the dim, unwelcome awareness of trespassing beyond the borders of strict rationality and therefore bringing further into question his own uncertain sanity, he moves down the kitchen counter, picks up his cell phone, and punches in the number of the nice residential property on Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, California.
The telephone in his old house rings five times, six times, seven. A man picks up and, in an angry, slightly drunken, sleep-distorted voice, says, “Kimberley . . . whatever the hell this is about . . . for your sake . . . I hope it’s really, really important.”
Jack hits END and snaps his phone shut. Oh God oh hell oh damn. It is just past five A.M. in Beverly Hills, or Westwood, or Hancock Park, or wherever that number now reaches. He forgot his mother was dead. Oh hell oh damn oh God, can you beat that?
Jack’s grief, which has been sharpening itself underground, once again rises up to stab him, as if for the first time, bang, dead-center in the heart. At the same time the idea that even for a second he could have forgotten that his mother was dead strikes him, God knows why, as hugely and irresistibly funny. How ridiculous can you get? The goofy stick has whapped him on the back of the head, and without knowing if he is going to burst into sobs or shouts of laughter, Jack experiences a brief wave of dizziness and leans heavily against the kitchen counter.
Jive-ass turkey, he remembers his mother saying. Lily had been describing her late husband’s recently deceased partner in the days after her suspicious accountants discovered that the partner, Morgan Sloat, had been diverting into his own pockets three-fourths of the income from Sawyer & Sloat’s astonishingly vast real estate holdings. Every year since Phil Sawyer’s death in a so-called hunting accident, Sloat had stolen millions of dollars, many millions, from his late partner’s family. Lily diverted the flow back into the proper channels and sold half the company to its new partners, in the process guaranteeing her son a tremendous financial bonanza, not to mention the annual bonanza that produces the interest Jack’s private foundation funnels off to noble causes. Lily had called Sloat things far more colorful than jive-ass turkey, but that is the term her voice utters in his inner ear.
Way back in May, Jack tells himself, he probably came across that robin’s egg on an absentminded stroll through the meadow and put it in the refrigerator for safekeeping. To keep it safe. Because, after all, it was of a delicate shade of blue, a beautiful blue, to quote Dr. Evinrude. So long had he kept it safe that he’d forgotten all about it. Which, he gratefully recognizes, is why the waking dream presented him with an explosion of red feathers!
Everything happens for a reason, concealed though the reason may be; loosen up and relax long enough to stop being a jive-ass turkey, and the reason might come out of hiding.
Jack bends over the sink and, for the sake of refreshment internal and external, immerses his face in a double handful of cold water. For the moment, the cleansing shock washes away the ruined breakfast, the ridiculous telephone call, and the corrosive image flashes. It is time to strap on his skates and get going. In twenty-five minutes, Jack Sawyer’s best friend and only confidant will, with his customary aura of rotary perception, emerge through the front door of KDCU-AM’s cinder-block building and, applying his golden lighter’s flame to the tip of a cigarette, glide down the walkway to Peninsula Drive. Should rotary perception inform him that Jack Sawyer’s pickup awaits, Henry Leyden will unerringly locate the handle and climb in. This exhibition of blind-man cool is too dazzling to miss.
And miss it he does not, for in spite of the morning’s difficulties, which from the balanced, mature perspective granted by his journey through the lovely countryside eventually seem trivial, Jack’s pickup pulls in front of the Peninsula Drive end of KDCU-AM’s walkway at 7:55, a good five minutes before his friend is to stroll out into the sunlight. Henry will be good for him: just the sight of Henry will be like a dose of soul tonic. Surely Jack cannot be the first man (or woman) in the history of the world who momentarily lost his (or her) grip under stress and kind of halfway forgot that his (or her) mother had shuffled off the old mortal coil and departed for a higher sphere. Stressed-out mortals turned naturally to their mothers for comfort and reassurance. The impulse is coded into our DNA. When he hears the story, Henry will chuckle and advise him to tighten his wig.
On second thought, why cloud Henry’s sky with a story so absurd? The same applies to the robin’s egg, especially since Jack has not spoken to Henry about his waking dream of a feather eruption, and he does not feel like getting involved in a lot of pointless backtracking. Live in the present; let the past stretch out in its grave; keep your chin high and walk around the mud puddles. Don’t look to your friends for therapy.
He switches on the radio and hits the button for KWLA-FM, the UW?CLa Riviere station, home to both the Wisconsin Rat and Henry the Sheik the Shake the Shook. What pours glittering from the cab’s hidden speakers raises the hairs on his arms: Glenn Gould, inner eye luminously open, blazing through something by Bach, he could not say exactly what. But Glenn Gould, but Bach, for sure. One of the Partitas, maybe.
A CD jewel box in one hand, Henry Leyden strolls through the humble doorway at the side of the station, enters the sunlight, and without hesitation begins to glide down the flagged walkway, the rubber soles of his Hershey-brown suede loafers striking the center of each successive flagstone.
Henry . . . Henry is a vision.
Today, Jack observes, Henry comes attired in one of his Malaysian teak forest owner ensembles, a handsome collarless shirt, shimmering braces, and an heirloom straw fedora creased to a fare-thee-well. Had Jack not been so welcomed into Henry’s life, he would not have known that his friend’s capacity for flawless wardrobe assemblage depended upon the profound organization of his enormous walk-in closet long ago established by Rhoda Gilbertson Leyden, Henry’s deceased wife: Rhoda had arranged every article of her husband’s clothing by season, style, and color. Item by item, Henry memorized the entire system. Although blind since birth, therefore incapable of distinguishing between matching and mismatching shades, Henry never errs.
Henry extracts from his shirt pocket a gold lighter and a yellow pack of American Spirits, fires up, exhales a radiant cloud brightened by sunlight to the color of milk, and continues his unwavering progress down the flagstones.
The pink, back-slanting capitals of TROY LUVS MARYANN! YES! sprayed across the sign on the bare lawn suggest that 1) Troy spends a lot of time listening to KDCU-AM, and 2) Maryann loves him back. Good for Troy, good for Maryann. Jack applauds love’s announcement, even in pink spray paint, and wishes the lovers happiness and good fortune. It occurs to him that if at this present stage of his existence he could be said to love anyone, that person would have to be Henry Leyden. Not in the sense that Troy luvs Maryann, or vice versa, but he luvs him all the same, a matter that has never been as clear as it is this moment.
Henry traverses the last of the flagstones and approaches the curb. A single stride brings him to the door of the pickup; his hand closes on the recessed metal bar; he opens the door, steps up, and slides in. His head tilts, cocking his right ear to the music. The dark lenses of his aviator glasses shine.
“How can you do that?” Jack asked. “This time, the music helped, but you don’t need music.”
“I can do that because I am totally, totally bitchrod,” Henry says. “I learned that lovely word from our pothead intern, Morris Rosen, who kindly applied it to me. Morris thinks I am God, but he must have something on the ball, because he figured out that George Rathbun and the Wisconsin Rat are one and the same. I hope the kid keeps his mouth shut.”
“I do, too,” Jack says, “but I’m not going to let you change the subject. How can you always open the door right away? How do you find the handle without groping for it?”
Henry sighs. “The handle tells me where it is. Obviously. All I have to do is listen to it.”
“The door handle makes a sound?”
“Not like your high-tech radio and The Goldberg Variations, no. More like a vibration. The sound of a sound. The sound inside a sound. Isn’t Daniel Barenboim a great piano player? Man, listen to that ?? every note, a different coloration. Makes you want to kiss the lid of his Steinway, baby. Imagine the muscles in his hands.”
“Well, who else could it be?” Slowly, Henry turns his head to Jack. An irritating smile raises the corners of his mouth. “Ah. I see, yes. Knowing you as I do, you poor schmuck, I see you imagined you were listening to Glenn Gould.”
“I did not,” Jack says.
“Maybe for a minute I wondered if it was Gould, but ?? “
“Don’t, don’t, don’t. Don’t even try. Your voice gives you away. There’s a little, whiny topspin on every word; it’s so pathetic. Are we going to drive back to Norway Valley, or would you like to sit here and keep lying to me? I want to tell you something on the way home.”
He holds up the CD. “Let’s put you out of your misery. The pothead gave this to me ?? Dirtysperm doing an old Supremes ditty. Me, I loathe that sort of thing, but it might be perfect for the Wisconsin Rat. Cue up track seven.”
The pianist no longer sounds anything like Glenn Gould, and the music seems to have slowed to half its former velocity. Jack puts himself out of his misery and inserts the CD into the opening beneath the radio. He pushes a button, then another. At an insanely fast tempo, the screeches of madmen subjected to unspeakable tortures come blasting out of the speakers. Jack rocks backward into the seat, jolted. “My God, Henry,” he says, and reaches for the volume control.
“Don’t dare touch that dial,” Henry says. “If this crap doesn’t make your ears bleed, it isn’t doing its job.”
“Ears,” Jack knows, is jazz-speak for the capacity to hear what is going on in music as it unfurls across the air. A musician with good ears soon memorizes the songs and arrangements he is asked to play, picks up or already knows the harmonic movement underlying the theme, and follows the transformations and substitutions to that pattern introduced by his fellow musicians. Whether or not he can accurately read notes written on a staff, a musician with great ears learns melodies and arrangements the first time he hears them, grasps harmonic intricacies through flawless intuition, and immediately identifies the notes and key signatures registered by taxi horns, elevator bells, and mewing cats. Such people inhabit a world defined by the particularities of individual sounds, and Henry Leyden is one of them. As far as Jack is concerned, Henry’s ears are Olympian, in a class by themselves.
It was Henry’s ears that gave him access to Jack’s great secret, the role his mother, Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer, “Lily Cavanaugh,” had occupied in life, and he is the only person ever to discover it. Shortly after Dale introduced them, Jack and Henry Leyden entered into an easy, companionable friendship surprising to both. Each the answer to the other’s loneliness, they spent two or three nights of every week having dinner together, listening to music, and talking about whatever came into their well-stocked minds. Either Jack drove down the road to Henry’s eccentric house, or he picked Henry up and drove him back to his place. After something like six or seven months, Jack wondered if his friend might enjoy spending an hour or so listening to him read aloud from books agreed upon by both parties. Henry replied, Ivey-divey, my man, what a beautiful idea. How about starting with some whacked-out crime novels? They began with Chester Himes and Charles Willeford, changed gear with a batch of contemporary novels, floated through S. J. Perelman and James Thurber, and ventured emboldened into fictional mansions erected by Ford Madox Ford and Vladimir Nabokov. (Marcel Proust lies somewhere ahead, they understand, but Proust can wait; at present they are to embark upon Bleak House.)
One night after Jack had finished the evening’s installment of Ford’s The Good Soldier, Henry cleared his throat and said, Dale said you told him your parents were in the entertainment industry. In show business.
?? That’s right.
?? I don’t want to pry, but would you mind if I asked you some questions? If you feel like answering, just say yes or no.
Already alarmed, Jack said, What’s this about, Henry?
?? I want to see if I’m right about something.
?? Okay. Ask.
?? Thank you. Were your parents in different aspects of the industry?
?? Was one of them in the business end of things, and the other a performer?
?? Was your mother an actress?
?? A famous actress, in a way. She never really got the respect she deserved, but she made a ton of movies all through the fifties and into the mid-sixties, and at the end of her career she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
?? Henry, Jack said. Where did you ??
?? Clam up. I intend to relish this moment. Your mother was Lily Cavanaugh. That’s wonderful. Lily Cavanaugh was always so much more talented than most people gave her credit for. Every time out, she brought those roles she played, those girls, those tough little waitresses and dames with guns in their handbags, up to a new level. Beautiful, smart, gutsy, no pretensions, just lock in and inhabit the part. She was about a hundred times better than anyone else around her.
?? Henry . . .
?? Some of those movies had nice sound tracks, too. Lost Summer, Johnny Mandel? Out of sight.
?? Henry, how did ??
?? You told me; how else could I know? These little things your voice does, that’s how. You slide over the tops of your r’s, and you hit the rest of your consonants in a kind of cadence, and that cadence runs through your sentences.
?? A cadence?
?? Bet your ass, junior. An underlying rhythm, like your own personal drummer. All through The Good Soldier I kept trying to remember where I’d heard it before. Faded in, faded back out. A couple of days ago, I nailed it. Lily Cavanaugh. You can’t me blame for wanting to see if I was right, can you?
?? Blame you? Jack said. I’m too stunned to blame anybody, but give me a couple of minutes.
?? Your secret’s safe. When people see you, you don’t want their first thought to be, Hey, there’s Lily Cavanaugh’s son. Makes sense to me.
Henry Leyden has great ears, all right.
As the pickup rolls through French Landing the din filling the cab makes conversation impossible. Dirtysperm is burning a hole through the marzipan center of “Where Did Our Love Go” and in the process committing hideous atrocities upon those cute little Supremes. Henry, who claims to loathe this kind of thing, slouches in his seat, knees up on the dash, hands steepled below his chin, grinning with pleasure. The shops on Chase Street have opened for business, and half a dozen cars jut at an angle from parking spaces.
Four boys astride bicycles swerve off the sidewalk before Schmitt’s Allsorts and into the road twenty feet in front of the moving pickup. Jack hits his brakes; the boys come to an abrupt halt and line up side by side, waiting for him to pass. Jack trolls forward. Henry straightens up, checks his mysterious sensors, and drops back into position. All is well with Henry. The boys, however, do not know what to make of the uproar growing ever louder as the pickup approaches. They stare at Jack’s windshield in bafflement tinged with distaste, the way their great-grandfathers once stared at the Siamese twins and the Alligator Man in the freak show at the back of the fairground. Everybody knows that the drivers of pickup trucks listen to only two kinds of music, heavy metal or country, so what’s with this creep?
As Jack drives past the boys, the first, a scowling heavyweight with the inflamed face of a schoolyard bully, displays an upraised second finger. The next two continue the imitations of their great-grandfathers having a hot night out in 1921 and gape, idiotically, mouths slack and open. The fourth boy, whose dark blond hair beneath a Brewers cap, bright eyes, and general air of innocence make him the nicest-looking of the group, gazes directly into Jack’s face and gives him a sweet, tentative smile. This is Tyler Marshall, out for a spin ?? though he is completely unaware of it ?? into no-man’s-land.
The boys glide into the background, and Jack glances into the mirror to see them pedaling furiously up the street, Sluggo in front, the smallest, most appealing one in the rear, already falling behind.
“A sidewalk panel of experts has reported in on the Dirtysperm,” Jack says. “Four kids on bikes.” Since he can scarcely make out his words, he does not think Henry will be able to hear them at all.
Henry, it seems, has heard him perfectly, and he responds with a question that disappears into the uproar. Having a reasonably good idea of what it must have been, Jack answers it anyhow. “One firm negative, two undecideds tending toward negative, and one cautious positive.” Henry nods.
Violent marzipan-destruction crashes and thuds to a conclusion on Eleventh Street. As if a haze has blown from the cab, as if the windshield has been freshly washed, the air seems clearer, the colors more vibrant. “Interesting,” Henry says. He reaches unerringly for the EJECT button, extracts the disc from the holder, and slips it into its case. “That was very revealing, don’t you think? Raw, self-centered hatred should never be dismissed automatically. Morris Rosen was right. It’s perfect for the Wisconsin Rat.”
“Hey, I think they could be bigger than Glenn Miller.”
“That reminds me,” Henry says. “You’ll never guess what I’m doing later. I have a gig! Chipper Maxton, actually his second in command, this Rebecca Vilas woman, who I am sure is as gorgeous as she sounds, hired me to put on a record hop as the slam-bang climax to Maxton’s big Strawberry Fest. Well, not me ?? an old, long-neglected persona of mine, Symphonic Stan, the Big-Band Man.”
“Do you need a ride?”
“I do not. The wondrous Miss Vilas has attended to my needs, in the form of a car with a comfy back seat for my turntable and a trunk spacious enough for the speakers and record cartons, which she will be sending. But thanks anyhow.”
“Symphonic Stan?” Jack said.
“A knocked-out, all-frantic, all-zoot-suit embodiment of the big-band era, and a charming, mellifluous gentleman besides. For the residents of Maxton’s, an evocation of their salad days and a joy to behold.”
“Do you actually own a zoot suit?”
Magnificently inexpressive, Henry’s face swings toward him.
“Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. To change the subject, what you said, I mean what George Rathbun said, about the Fisherman this morning probably did a lot of good. I was glad to hear that.”
Henry opens his mouth and summons George Rathbun in all his avuncular glory. ” ?®The original Fisherman, boys and girls, Albert Fish, has been dead and gone for sixty-seven years.’ ” It is uncanny, hearing the voice of that charged-up fat man leap from Henry Leyden’s slender throat. In his own voice, Henry says, “I hope it did some good. After I read your buddy Wendell Green’s nonsense in the paper this morning, I thought George had to say something.”
Henry Leyden enjoys using terms like I read, I was reading, I saw, I was looking at. He knows these phrases disconcert his auditors. And he called Wendell Green “your buddy” because Henry is the only person to whom Jack has ever admitted that he alerted the reporter to the crimes of Albert Fish. Now Jack wishes he had confessed to no one. Glad-handing Wendell Green is not his buddy.
“Having been of some assistance to the press,” Henry says, “you might reasonably be thought in a position to do the same for our boys in blue. Forgive me, Jack, but you opened the door, and I’ll only say this once. Dale is my nephew, after all.”
“I don’t believe you’re doing this to me,” Jack says.
“Doing what, speaking my mind? Dale is my nephew, remember? He could use your expertise, and he is very much of the opinion that you owe him a favor. Hasn’t it occurred to you that you could help him stay in his job? Or that if you love French Landing and Norway Valley as much as you say, you owe these folks a little of your time and talent?”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you, Henry, that I’m retired?” Jack says through gritted teeth. “That investigating homicides is the last thing, I mean, the last thing in the world I want to do?”
“Of course it has,” Henry says. “But ?? and again I hope you’ll forgive me, Jack ?? here you are, the person I know you are, with the skills you have, which are certainly far beyond Dale’s and probably well beyond all these other guys’, and I can’t help wondering what the hell your problem is.”
“I don’t have a problem,” Jack says. “I’m a civilian.”
“You’re the boss. We might as well listen to the rest of the Baren-boim.” Henry runs his fingers over the console and pushes the button for the tuner.
For the next fifteen minutes, the only voice to be heard in the pickup’s cab is that of a Steinway concert grand meditating upon The Goldberg Variations in the Teatro Col?®n, Buenos Aires. A splendid voice it is, too, Jack thinks, and you’d have to be an ignoramus to mistake it for Glenn Gould. A person capable of making that mistake probably couldn’t hear the vibration-like inner sound produced by a General Motors door handle.
When they turn right off Highway 93 onto Norway Valley Road, Henry says, “Stop sulking. I shouldn’t have called you a schmuck. And I shouldn’t have accused you of having a problem, because I’m the one with the problem.”
“You?” Jack looks at him, startled. Long experience has immediately suggested that Henry is about to ask for some kind of unofficial investigative help. Henry is facing the windshield, giving nothing away. “What kind of problem can you have? Did your socks get out of order? Oh ?? are you having trouble with one of the stations?”
“That, I could deal with.” Henry pauses, and the pause stretches into a lengthy silence. “What I was going to say is, I feel like I’m losing my mind. I think I’m going sort of crazy.”
“Come on.” Jack eases up on the gas pedal and cuts his speed in half. Has Henry witnessed a feather explosion? Of course he hasn’t; Henry cannot see anything. And his own feather explosion was merely a waking dream.
Henry quivers like a tuning fork. He is still facing the windshield.
“Tell me what’s going on,” Jack says. “I’m starting to worry about you.” Henry opens his mouth to a crack that might accommodate a communion wafer, then closes it again. Another tremor runs through him.
“Hmm,” he says. “This is harder than I thought.” Astonishingly, his dry, measured voice, the true voice of Henry Leyden, wobbles with a wide, helpless vibrato.
Jack slows the pickup to a crawl, begins to say something, and decides to wait.
“I hear my wife,” Henry says. “At night, when I’m lying in bed. Around three, four in the morning. Rhoda’s footsteps are moving around in the kitchen, they’re coming up the stairs. I must be losing my mind.”
“How often does this happen?”
“How many times? I don’t know, exactly. Three or four.”
“Do you get up and look for her? Call out her name?”
Henry’s voice again sails up and down on the vibrato trampoline. “I’ve done both those things. Because I was sure I heard her. Her footsteps, her way of walking, her tread. Rhoda’s been gone for six years now. Pretty funny, huh? I’d think it was funny, if I didn’t think I was going bats.”
“You call out her name,” Jack says. “And you get out of bed and go downstairs.”
“Like a lunatic, like a madman. ?®Rhoda? Is that you, Rhoda?’ Last night, I went all around the house. ?®Rhoda? Rhoda?’ You’d think I was expecting her to answer.” Henry pays no attention to the tears that leak from beneath his aviator glasses and slip down his cheeks. “And I was, that’s the problem.”
“No one else was in the house,” Jack says. “No signs of disturbance. Nothing misplaced or missing, or anything like that.”
“Not as far as I saw. Everything was still where it should have been. Right where I left it.” He raises a hand and wipes his face.
The entrance to Jack’s looping driveway slides past on the right side of the cab.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Jack says, picturing Henry wandering through his darkened house. “Six years ago, you went through all the grief business that happens when someone you love dies and leaves you, the denial, the bargaining, the anger, the pain, whatever, acceptance, that whole range of emotions, but afterward you still missed Rhoda. No one ever says you keep on missing the dead people you loved, but you do.”
“Now, that’s profound,” Henry says. “And comforting, too.”
“Don’t interrupt. Weirdness happens. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Your mind rebels. It distorts the evidence, it gives false testimony. Who knows why? It just does.”
“In other words, you go batshit,” Henry says. “I believe that is where we came in.”
“What I mean,” Jack says, “is that people can have waking dreams. That’s what is happening to you. It’s nothing to worry about. All right, here’s your drive, you’re home.”
He turns into the grassy entrance and rolls up to the white farmhouse in which Henry and Rhoda Leyden had spent the fifteen lively years between their marriage and the discovery of Rhoda’s liver cancer. For nearly two years after her death, Henry went wandering through his house every evening, turning on the lights.
“Waking dreams? Where’d you get that one?”
“Waking dreams aren’t uncommon,” Jack says. “Especially in people who never get enough sleep, like you.” Or like me, he silently adds. “I’m not making this up, Henry. I’ve had one or two myself. One, anyhow.”
“Waking dreams,” Henry says in a different, considering tone of voice. “Ivey-divey.”
“Think about it. We live in a rational world. People do not return from the dead. Everything happens for a reason, and the reasons are always rational. It’s a matter of chemistry or coincidence. If they weren’t rational, we’d never figure anything out, and we’d never know what was going on.”
“Even a blind man can see that,” Henry says. “Thanks. Words to live by.” He gets out of the cab and closes the door. He moves away, steps back, and leans in through the window. “Do you want to start on Bleak House tonight? I should get home about eight-thirty, something like that.”
“I’ll turn up around nine.”
By way of parting, Henry says, “Ding-dong.” He turns away, walks to his doorstep, and disappears into his house, which is of course unlocked. Around here, only parents lock their doors, and even that’s a new development.
Jack reverses the pickup, swings down the drive and onto Norway Valley Road. He feels as though he has done a doubly good deed, for by helping Henry he has also helped himself. It’s nice, how things turn out sometimes.
When he turns into his own long driveway, a peculiar rattle comes from the ashtray beneath his dashboard. He hears it again at the last curve, just before his house comes into view. The sound is not so much a rattle as a small, dull clunk. A button, a coin ?? something like that. He rolls to a stop at the side of his house, turns off the engine, and opens his door. On an afterthought, he reaches over and pulls out the ashtray.
What Jack finds nestled in the grooves at the bottom of the sliding tray, a tiny robin’s egg, a robin’s egg the size of an almond M&M, expels all the air from his body.
The little egg is so blue a blind man could see it.
Jack’s trembling fingers pluck the egg from the ashtray. Staring at it, he leaves the cab and closes the door. Still staring at the egg, he finally remembers to breathe. His hand revolves on his wrist and releases the egg, which falls in a straight line to the grass. Deliberately, he lifts his foot and smashes it down onto the obscene blue speck. Without looking back, he pockets his keys and moves toward the dubious safety of his house.