Fiction and Drama
There I could never be a boy . . .
“Let’s not sit next to Mr. Berger, if there’s any other pew,” said Jake, as they walked along Main Street.
“Mr. Hamburger,” said Alice.
“If we’re not so late that there’s no choice.”
“Mr. Hamburger and the Three French Fries.”
Jake crossed himself, as the Bergers alone in the congregation did. Alice half kneeled, a kind of fake-out kneel. The Bergers kneeled fully, and conspicuously, whenever the prayerbook gave them the option.
“Did you hear him ask Mother if I could go camping?”
“When he came over to ask her for more money?”
“To tithe. Yes. I pretended to be in the attic or not in the house at all.”
“He only wants to be your friend, considering.” Alice was kinder about other people’s motives. “He doesn’t have a son.”
“Or to be Mother’s friend.”
“I don’t think so.”
“His wife died, you know. That’s why they moved here.”
“He poisoned her,” Alice said, suddenly enchanted.
“He made cyanide out of apple seeds. That’s what the witch did to Snow White. That’s the science behind it, anyway.”
“Wouldn’t they find it out from her body, after?”
“No, because apples are a natural food.”
“He didn’t really kill his wife,” Alice then said, to re-establish things as they in fact were.
A brown-and-blue station wagon slowed down beside them. “You’re the Putnams, aren’t you? Are you on your way to church?”
It was odd to be called the Putnams, as if Mother and Father were with them. Jake recognized the driver. It was Tim Brennan, who had come back home from college because it was summer and because his mother had just finished dying of cancer in her throat.
“Hi,” Jake said. “We are. On our way.” They had never spoken to him before.
“Do you want a ride?” He had thick lips, as if he were black. “I don’t think you’d get in trouble. I’m not really a stranger if I know you from church, am I?”
Alice frowned. She didn’t know that Tim’s mother had died.
“He goes to church every week,” Jake said.
“I don’t remember seeing him,” she whispered.
“He’s been away. At Yale.”
“What if Mother finds out.” Because Jake was letting the rules drop, she felt she had to pick them up.
“She wouldn’t mind. And she isn’t even coming, probably.” That was a foolish thing to have said out loud, if Tim did intend to abduct them.
“Hey,” Tim interjected, over the chuff of the station wagon’s idling engine, “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” He seemed to think neither of them knew about his mother; they were so young, and there was their family situation. “No hard feelings—shall I see you there?”
“Please let’s accept,” said Jake. He felt that it wouldn’t be Christian to refuse. “It’ll be my fault.”
The car seemed to be Tim’s rather than the Brennans’, because there were cassette tapes of rock music all over the floor on the passenger’s side. The tapes didn’t have to be moved because Alice’s feet didn’t necessarily reach the floor. Jake sat in back. In the way back were a sweatshirt and a half-used case of motor oil. Rock music came through the speakers with a watery buzzing, as if the singers were brushing their teeth while they sang.
“This is Elvis,” Tim said.
Jake only listened to classical music, but he didn’t think it was Elvis. He was grateful that it was Alice who asked, “Elvis Presley?”
“No, it’s a new Elvis, from Ireland.” As an introduction, this was a teacher’s ruse, but the openness of the artifice put them at ease.
“It’s okay,” Alice said, diplomatically. “Do you play an instrument?”
“I try to play the guitar sometimes.”
“I play the viola,” she said.
“Can you play by ear?” Jake asked from the back seat. Their grandfather was able to do this, on the piano, but no one else in the family had the knack.
“It’s a little more unusual than the violin,” Alice went on.
“I just play the obvious chords,” Tim answered. “Do you play in the school orchestra? I hear you two are very good students.”
It was strange that he had heard this, because he didn’t have any younger siblings who might have told him. However, Jake knew about Mrs. Brennan somehow.
“I was sorry to hear about your mother,” Jake said.
“Oh thank you.” The tape was between songs, and Tim stopped it. They were almost there. “She had cancer,” he said to Alice, because he could tell she didn’t know.
“I’m sorry too.”
“Here we are. I hope we don’t get into trouble,” Tim said, almost as if he regretted his generous impulse now that there were adults to watch them get out of his car.
Alice and Jake found a pew of their own, and Tim sat with his father, Mr. Brennan.
At home, their mother had baked cheese-toast and warmed up a can of minestrone. She sprinkled paprika on the cheese for effect.
“The sermon was about being kind to the poor even when they are prodigal,” Jacob reported.
“We met Timothy Brennan, who is very nice,” Alice confessed.
Jake kicked her foot under the table. She had already taken off her shoes, however, and she cried out.
“How did you meet him?” Mrs. Putnam asked.
“On the way to church,” Jake said.
“Did he give you a ride?”
They could smell the crusts of the cheese-toast burning. The crusts could be sliced off, but usually a few black grains would fall and stick in the cheddar.
“I don’t care how nice he was,” their mother declared. “You never accept a ride from a stranger. Do you hear me?”
“It was my fault,” Jake said. “I see him in church all the time.” He didn’t want to mention the real reason for his feeling of safety.
“Anyone can go to church,” Mrs. Putnam said, and she left the kitchen. The door to her bedroom upstairs slammed, and Jake rose and turned off the oven and the burner under the soup.
“It was wrong,” said Alice.
“Let’s go to your room,” Jake proposed.
Two Christmases ago, Alice had been given a dollhouse of sanded, unfinished wood. It had two stories and an attic, like the Putnams’ house. On one side there were no walls, so that you could see into all the rooms, like the set of a TV sitcom when the camera pulls away at the end of the show. The house had come with doll-mice in Victorian clothes. Mother had taken Alice to buy some furniture, and Jake had carved a tiny lampstand out of balsa wood, which he lit with a watch battery and a small bulb purchased at Radio Shack. Jake made extra things, too, like miniature books he sewed by hand and dishes from a special clay that could be baked on a cookie sheet in the oven. Since he was too old to play with the dollhouse, he would encourage Alice by sitting next to her and making suggestions.
It was the sort of day when a bit of spring chill was still locked in the house, and summer heat was knocking at the windows lazily, wanting to get in.
“I don’t know how Mimsy will explain why there are no pancakes,” Jake suggested.
“Cream of wheat,” Alice corrected.
The taking of dishes from the dolls’ cupboard and the setting of their table were elaborate, and the tasks were made suspenseful by Mimsy’s failure to notice that there was no cream of wheat until she finished.
“‘Sir John, Sir John,’” Alice made Mimsy whisper at his bedside. Lady Betsy must not be wakened. “ ‘What has become of the cream of wheat?’ ”
“It wouldn’t be too hard to make a tin of it, like an oatmeal canister,” Jacob speculated. “Maybe if you took a piece of cardboard, cut from a toilet-paper roll, and wound it more tightly.”
“Now what did I do with that cream of wheat?” Sir John wondered, temporizing.
“Oh is it mo-o-orning already?” Lady Betsy yawned. Jake’s Lady Betsy was very yodelly.
“Oh no, my lady, I was merely consulting Sir John as to, as to—”
“As to the cinnamon,” Sir John supplied, to relieve Mimsy’s embarrassment. Lady Betsy drifted back to sleep. Then, to Mimsy, Sir John whispered, “ I gave the cream of wheat to a man who wanted it for his cows.”
“But cream of wheat is much too nice for cows,” Mimsy protested, with some of Alice’s partiality.
“Then perhaps it was for his pigs,” Sir John replied, abstractedly. I can’t be sure. You’ll have to find him.”
To keep a story interesting, it helped to add a new character to the cast from time to time. And lately the part of mysterious stranger had been played by an aluminum robot, a replica of a vintage Japanese toy, that a great-aunt had given to Jacob and which he kept in his room. Jacob had to excuse himself from the game to fetch it. It was tall, but not too tall to stand in the rooms of the dollhouse, and there were many opportunities for humor in the mice’s noticing, or failing to notice, that they were talking to a painted-metal robot three times their height rather than a fellow mouse.
Jacob slowly shut the door to Alice’s room behind him. The children didn’t like for their mother, or anyone else, to hear them playing. In the hall he could hear his mother talking on the phone in her bedroom. “Daddy, you seem to think this is my fault.” The robot was on the bookshelf over Jacob’s desk, next to a book of math and logic puzzles that he was working his way through. “There’s someone else,” he heard his mother say. “He has someone else.”
Jacob didn’t know this part of it. For a moment or two he couldn’t see things at the edges of his vision, and the robot’s metal skin became wet where he held it in his hand, as if it were a can of soda taken out of the refrigerator on a humid day. He decided he would never speak to his father again. But he wouldn’t tell Alice.
He opened and shut Alice’s bedroom door in absolute silence.
“Mimsy is going to look at the inn,” Alice said. “It may have been a traveler who needed it for his horse.”
Jacob no longer had any wish to complicate the story. The robot traveler soon apologized that his innocent request and Sir John’s heedless generosity had deprived Lady Betsy of her breakfast. To make it up, the robot invited all the mice to dine with him at the inn on pancakes.
“You didn’t get any lunch,” Mrs. Putnam said, opening Alice’s door. “Come downstairs and eat.” The cheese on the toast would no longer be melted.
“Well, they don’t like pancakes, as you know, but for the sake of politeness they’ll accept,” Alice concluded.
Whenever Jake took a longish walk, like his Tuesday afternoon walks to Mrs. Nilsson’s for piano, he liked to have a problem tumbling loosely in his mind. Lately it was the fourth dimension. He was reading about it in a paperback, once his father’s, that he had found in the attic. On the cover was a painting of Einstein’s face, looking stately, not how he really looked, Jake suspected. The book offered to explain relativity to anyone with patience and a little algebra. The fourth dimension must be to our three what the third is to just two, Jake thought, and he liked to think about it almost randomly, in the hope that an intuitive understanding of it might open to him one day by serendipity. All the books of course said that the human mind was not made to understand it intuitively, but that was the challenge.
He tried to imagine a four-dimensional cube and a four-dimensional pyramid. When he lost interest in these attempts, he took the book on relativity out of his backpack and read it as he walked. Below the pages the sidewalk passed, and it was a game to see the broken flagstones out of the corner of his eye and step over them without losing his place in a sentence.
He wondered how old his father had been when he read the paperback, and he wondered if his father had understood it easily or if he had had to puzzle it out, too.
“Is that book interesting?” asked a voice like a lemon candy.
“Uh huh,” Jacob answered. The voice belonged to Paul, who was in his grade. With him was a thin blond boy named Russell, who was a year younger.
“How did you get to be such a beemo?” Paul asked.
“Just bad luck, I guess.”
“Ha ha. He says it’s bad luck.”
The two boys walked beside him for a while. He shut the book around his index finger to mark the page.
“Where we going?”
“I’m just taking a walk.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Where are you going?”
Paul ordered the younger boy, “Hit him for me,” and Russell punched Jacob smartly in the chest. He couldn’t protest because for a second or two he didn’t have his breath. “Don’t you believe in nonviolence, Jacob?”
If Sam were with him, this wouldn’t be happening. But to get to Mrs. Nilsson’s you didn’t go anywhere near the Wells’s house.
“He won’t answer me!” Paul declared, with the indignation of a grand villain. “Now why don’t you push him till he falls over.”
With both hands Russell grabbed Jacob and shoved him off the sidewalk onto someone’s downward-sloping lawn. “Why are you listening to him?” Jacob yelled. The grass was soft and cool where he fell. “Are you his pawn?”
“He’s my hammer. Hammer in the evening, hammer in the morning. Hammer all day, all over this la-a-and.”
Russell kicked Jacob in the side and twice in the ass, and then they were gone.
He was still holding the paperback against his chest, and there was a new crease in the cover. His backpack was still on his back. Only a few grass stains on his pants would show. He flicked off a little mud with his fingers.
At Mrs. Nilsson’s he washed his hands and face. Her husband kept an orchard in his backyard, and when seated at the piano, Jake could see him among the fruit trees, working.
“It’s a great passion of his, cultivating his orchard,” said Mrs. Nilsson. He was a professor of music. Every fall they gave their students paper bags of apples, pears, and peaches to take home at the end of lessons.
What if Tim Brennan had offered to give Jake a ride to piano? He wasn’t a stranger any more. But the way his mother had said it, when she forbade him, she must have been afraid of something disreputable, maybe sexual.
He began to play for Mrs. Nilsson. They were working on a concerto, the first he’d ever undertaken, in A by Mozart. He knew he was playing mechanically. The piece was supposed to be bright. In the first movement, he found himself pushing the rhythm, almost collapsing it, for no reason. It sounded like a music box forced by someone turning the wind-up key the wrong direction.
“Is everything okay, Jacob? Is there something you’d like to talk about?”
“No.” He preferred to let the thought of the incident subside in quarantine.
They agreed to go back and break down the voices.
“Is Sam there?” Jake asked.
“The line is not secure. I got it.” There was a click, as Mrs. Wells hung up. “So it can be done.”
“But where are we going to get eighty-six dollars? Tell me that.”
“How do they know it was us?”
“We called from your parents’ phone.”
A pause, while Sam considered. “It’s too soon to panic.”
“Did you have any idea it would be so easy?”
“The password is . . . password.”
“Was it the government?”
“It was the government, and the government is not secure.”
“I’m pretty sure I saw the names of chemicals.”
“Pages of classified data flooded the screen.”
“I saw chemicals and crops, like wheat and I think soybeans. I think it was the Department of Agriculture.”
Through a sigh: “Not Defense.”
“Look, we’ll get to Defense eventually. It’s just a different phone number.”
Conspiratorially once more: “The password is . . . password.”
“What if we had talked. What if it had said something,” Jake suggested.
“What if there’s a brain in a tank, hooked up to a military computer.”
Sam humoresqued the Twilight Zone theme song.
“Have you ever thought that maybe none of anything is real?” Jake asked.
“Sometimes I think there’s a team, and they’ve planned everything out as a simulation. Accidents aren’t really accidents, and there aren’t really any other people. Just me and the experiment.”
“Me too. Sometimes I try to do something they haven’t planned for, but I never catch them.”
“Stupid stuff, like turn around suddenly for no reason.”
“Banana,” Sam said, with his voice an octave lower and his hand around the mouthpiece.
“They weren’t planning for me to say that.”
“No, but ve haff recovered quickly and the subject will scarcely notice the discontinuity,” Jake said, in mad-scientist voice.
“It’s called solipsism. Not believing in other people. It’s internally consistent.”
“But why would you tell me that?”
“Just to fake you out. You actually look like a squid. In your tank.”
“I went swimming at Nicky’s yesterday.”
“At his uncle’s I mean.”
“There’s a sauna, and if you pee in the pool it turns red.”
“He has these magazines?”
“Yeah, I think he is.”
“They’re his uncle’s, actually.”
“You aren’t interested in them, are you?”
“No.” Sam sounded cornered.
“They’re degrading, I think.”
“What about the naked body is beautiful and all that.”
“Not for a squid.”
It rained on Tuesday afternoon, so when the phone rang Jacob knew who it would be.
“Jacob, my man,” said Nicky, who then choked—a brief gurgle—as if he had said something privately funny.
“Listen, I have a tremendous favor to ask you. Do you think you can help me out?
“Probably, but tell me what it is.”
“You know, I have a headache, and I think I have a fever, and my mother refuses to let me out of the house. My mother. And Sam can’t do it.”
A month ago Sam had declared that he never would, ever again, because after delivering Nicky’s papers in the rain he had run into him at the Store 24, buying a candy bar with friends from St. Matthew’s. Jacob claimed that he didn’t mind because he knew he was being lied to.
“I’ll pay you five dollars. How about that. I only get a nickel a paper and there are sixty papers, so that’s twice what I’m getting. If you come over after, my mother will pay you. My mother. You know, she doesn’t want me out in this weather.”
“Any pluses or minuses since last week?” Jacob inquired.
“No. You know, unless it says in crayon on the top one.”
Jake had done the route often enough that he had a canvas shoulderbag of his own hanging in the stairs to the basement, where they used to keep Norrie’s leash. He took a baseball cap and his raincoat out of the closet.
“Where are you going?” Alice asked.
“In the rain,” she observed. “Don’t forget the scissors this time.”
He took out of the kitchen drawer a small pair of child’s scissors, beveled instead of pointed, that he used to cut the twine. You could cut the twine with your keys if you had to, but it took a few minutes of sawing.
“Our father’s coming, if you want to wait.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s been almost a week.”
“He’s picking you up for dance. I’m not going to not do my job because he’s picking you up for dance.”
“Don’t you miss him?” she asked.
She picked up her Capezio bag and went to sit on the front stairs, where he couldn’t see her.
There was one family from church on the route, the Robertsons, and he always made sure to give them a paper that was dry and well-printed. On rainy days it was a solitary job because no one was outside, to say hello to. It was easy to be considerate of customers’ preferences, because the houses themselves prompted your memory: inside this storm door; in this mailbox, folded; on this porch’s rocking chair.
By the halfway point, the canvas shoulderbag was dark and sopping even though he carried it under his raincoat. He took papers from the middle, where they were still dry. Since he had his hood over his baseball cap, he could only see ahead of him, like a horse with blinders. Water spotted his glasses. He was coming to the dark house, the one shadowed by cedars twice as tall as it was, where no one ever seemed to be home, when he heard a car slowing down. Probably the driver didn’t want to splash the paperboy. Jake moved away from the road, up the lawn he happened to be walking beside. But the car didn’t pass him. A thought quickened in him: Maybe it was Tim Brennan again, and maybe he would offer to help Jake finish the route. The papers could stay dry in the car, and Jake could dash in and out from the passenger seat. It wouldn’t be right to accept that much help, though, unless it meant they were becoming friends.
The car honked: It was his father. As Jacob walked toward the car, he heard Alice say, “We’re going to be late.”
Mr. Putnam leaned toward the passenger window. “Want to get out of the rain for a minute?”
“That’s all right,” Jacob refused. He didn’t have to be explicit. “The rain is what I’m paid for.”
“It’s what you’re paid for?”
“Nicky’s never really sick.”
“Am I going to see you this weekend?”
“Uh huh.” He swept his arm toward the houses he had not yet delivered papers to.
“We’re going to be late,” Alice repeated.
“Why don’t you sit in the car for a minute.”
“No,” he said sharply. Then he added, “I’m wet,” as if that were the reason.
His father drove off.
“You’re wet,” said Nicky, as if he wasn’t sure he should let Jacob into his mother’s living room. The wall-to-wall carpet there was a pale gold shag.
“It’s clean wet,” said Jacob, and he lifted a foot to show the rinsed sole.
“Come in, come in, come in,” Nicky said, and he choked, to show that he had only been kidding. “Can I take your coat?” he asked, formally.
Jake handed over the canvas shoulderbag with it. “Should I take off my shoes?”
“Would you, please? My mother prefers it. You know my mother.”
Jacob felt unarmed, standing in wet-toed socks on the plush carpet. “It went fine,” he volunteered. “I had one extra paper, which was lucky because the paper on the outside was soaked through. It’s in there if you want it.”
“You keep it,” said Nicky. “This way please.” In the kitchen: “Would you like a coke?”
The week before last, at the Wells’s, Jacob had watched Sam and Nicky drink out of a bottle of whisky in the Wells’s pantry. Jacob hadn’t had any. They had bragged about how strong it was.
“I’d offer you something with it,” Nicky continued in a whisper, “but my mother’s downstairs.” He watched Jacob’s eyes, and he choked again.
“A coke is fine,” Jacob said in his regular voice.
“You are something, you know,” said Nicky. “You know what Patrick says?” Patrick was a popular boy. Like Nicky, he would be going to St. Matthew’s in the fall. “He says you remind him of the robot in Buck Rogers.”
“He said that to me, too.” He had said it while they were waiting together at the bus stop one morning.
“Weren’t you angry?”
“He was being droll.”
“Listen to you. He was being droll.” Nicky shook his head, stagily. “Hey, do you remember that chess set I wanted to show you?”
“I thought you were going to be able to pay me for delivering the papers.”
Nicky set down his glass of coke on the countertop with a knock. “Of course! How rude of me.” He wiped the coke off his lips, which were thick, a bit like Tim Brennan’s had been. “Ma! Ma! Ma!”
Footsteps clicked quickly up the basement stairs. Mrs. Paretti was wearing her eyeglasses pushed up into her hair. The collar of her dress had long, fashionable wings. “Nicky, you shouldn’t shout when there are guests,” she said. “You shouldn’t shout when there aren’t guests.”
“Ma, we need to pay Jacob for the paper route. He asked for five dollars.”
“I’m sure he didn’t ask for anything. Is five dollars what Nicky told you?”
“See, Nicky, why can’t you talk to me like that?”
“Instead of Ma.” She counted out five ones, and Jacob had the feeling that if it had been a number that she could have rounded up, she would have. Jacob thanked her, and she returned to the basement.
“Do you want to play chess?” Nicky asked.
It was almost four. He wasn’t sure when his father would bring Alice home. “Okay.”
Jacob had to promise that he would not throw any of the men or stamp on them or crack them in his fingers. A friend of Mr. Paretti’s had bought the set in Hong Kong, and it was hand-carved. They sat down to play in the den, which was even more richly decorated than the living room.
Jacob tapped Nicky’s left fist, but instead of opening it, Nicky put both fists behind his back again.
“What are you doing?”
“That wasn’t right. I knew which was which.”
“You could tell, because I knew.”
“So I’m white then.”
“No. Choose again. . . . Are you sure you want that one?”
“Yes.” It was white again, and Jacob moved king’s pawn to square four.
“Sam says you can tell what he’s thinking.”
“No, I’ve seen you do it. How do you do it?”
“Come on, it’s your move.”
“He says you think the Force is real.” Choking sound.
“It’s more of a thought experiment,” Jacob said. “You think it’s all B.S.”
“‘B.S.’ Listen to you. Why can’t you say bullshit?”
“I can say bullshit if I want to.”
“Ma!” Nicky half-yelled, as if he were going to report him.
“I’m just kidding you.”
“Do you want to see something?” Nicky asked.
“You don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
“Yes I do.”
“Aren’t you even curious?”
“I’m not curious about that kind of thing.”
“They’re on a shelf in the wardrobe.” On the wardrobe’s doors there was painted a vine with gold leaves. Orange birds were perched on it, facing right and left in alternation.
“Hey,” said Jacob.
“What,” said Nicky.
“Did the Force move that bishop?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was over here a second ago.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m going to cream you anyway.”
“Did the Force move that bishop.”
On Sunday their mother gave them new keys, which were silver instead of gold. She had had the locks changed.
“The front door one works,” Jacob said. “I didn’t check the basement.” He had to leave early today because he was acolyte. His mother’s wet hair was still turbaned in a towel.
“I think you should come back here after church.”
“I promised Sam already.”
“But your father wants to see you.”
“Can’t,” he said. He scraped the rest of his cream of wheat into the garbage and ran some water into the bowl. He felt lightheaded, maybe because he hadn’t eaten much. “Alice!” he shouted up the stairs.
“She hasn’t had any breakfast,” Mrs. Putnam said.
“I’m leaving now.”
“No, I’m coming, too,” Alice said.
“I’ll bring you later, honey. Sit down and have some breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry. Good-bye, Mother.”
Since they were starting their walk so early, there was no chance of anyone offering them a ride. The lawns that they walked past smelled damp and rich.
“So Mr. Berger is living in an apartment complex with this lady,” Jacob began.
“His dead wife?” Alice asked.
“Just some woman, because there are no kids. He’s living in Forest Creek condominiums.”
“I’m glad our father isn’t living there after all.”
“Yes, it’s lucky. And Mr. Berger calls the police to say the lady’s been murdered.”
“It was a shooting death.”
“Okay, gunshots. In the middle of the night. He tells the police on the phone that he woke up with a craving for a piccalilli-and-cheese sandwich and went into the kitchen to make one. But when he turned on the light, it burnt out and he had to replace the bulb.”
Jacob glanced at Alice, who seemed to be paying attention.
“Now because this is the Forest Creek apartments, which are vile and disgusting, the lights in the kitchen are fluorescent, and the replacement bulbs are too long to fit into the ticky-tacky cabinets, so Mr. Berger had to leave his apartment and take the elevator down to his designated cage in the communal basement.”
“In divorce apartments you don’t get your own basement. And when he got back with the light bulb, he discovered his wife had been shot. Now why did the police arrest Mr. Berger as soon as they arrived?”
“Are you making this one up yourself?”
“Is it the piccalilli?”
“What about the piccalilli?”
“Is it the piccalilli is a sign that he’s a queerbait?”
“I don’t see how that would follow.”
“I give up.”
“You just started! Is it the piccalilli . . . ?”
“Is it the piccalilli . . . that nobody would really want to eat that if they were hungry.”
“No. Okay, the piccalilli I just threw in.”
“Is it why would he leave the door unlocked.”
“That’s a good question. But no.”
“But he left the door unlocked for the killer.”
“How would he know there’s a killer around? He just went to get a new fluorescent light bulb, and then he was coming right back.”
“I give up then.”
“Do you really give up? What is it about fluorescent light bulbs?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long do they last?”
“I don’t know.”
“I bet you’ve never seen one burn out, have you.”
“That’s because they don’t.”
“It’s not like a normal light bulb, where there’s a filament. It’s just molecules of gas, and I don’t see how molecules could suddenly ‘break.’”
Inside the air-conditioned church the cold was prickly. “You didn’t like it,” Jacob said.
“I don’t think very many people know that about light bulbs.”
“But how could they burn out? There’s nothing to burn out.”
“I believe you.”
“Ask our father if you don’t believe me.”
Alice had brought The Secret Garden to read until services started, and she sat down on the scratchy olive couch in the coffee room. On Christmas and Easter a sliding door was opened and the couch was turned around, so that the room could accommodate the overflow of the congregation.
“Once people arrive it’ll be quieter in the pews.”
“Spooky,” Alice explained.
A man holding an old-fashioned hat looked into the room just long enough to nod at them. It was Mr. Brennan, alone. He had white hair, and he wore horn-rimmed glasses like a prep school boy’s.
“I have to get ready,” Jacob said.
As Jacob walked through the narthex, he nodded at Mr. Brennan, who stopped him and asked, “If Pastor Greenley is up behind the altar, would you tell him I’m looking for him?”
Mr. Brennan’s eyes were unsteady. He looked as if someone had struck him recently and the blow had somehow landed deep inside his face. He was a little frightening, the way people are when they ask for help with a thing that they would ordinarily be able to manage on their own.
“He’s usually in his office right now,” Jacob said. “But I’ll tell him if I see him.” He wondered if he sounded insolent, knowing more about the pastor’s habits than Mr. Brennan did.
Jacob took a program from the stack that was waiting for the ushers and tucked it into the hymnal on the bench where he would be sitting with the pastor, behind the pulpit. He checked the wicks on the candles and on the tall brass lighter, and twice he sparked the red plastic Bic that he would be using to light the lighter. In the sacristy he put on his robe, and he was peering, as he sometimes did, into the special sink for the leftover Communion wine, which dropped straight down into invisible blackness, into rocks and earth and not into any sewer, when Pastor Greenley came in.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes. Mr. Brennan was looking for you.”
“He told me.” Pastor Greenley carried many people’s secrets.
“Should I light the third candle?”
“No, not today.”
Jacob’s mother arrived after the musical welcome, just as Pastor Greenley was beginning his remarks. She was wearing her blue floral dress, and after she caught Alice’s eye, she smiled at the pastor as if she were a tardy schoolgirl.
For a month or so, Jacob had been trying to memorize the service by not reading whenever he could remember the words. It was another way to focus on the ritual. All the Bergers had it memorized. If you sat next to them, you could see that they were casual about when they turned the pages. When it came time to light the candles, Jacob struggled with a fear, which he knew to be superstitious, that the flame would go out before he got them both lit.
The prayers of the day were printed in the program, and toward the end there was always an indication, as for a cadenza, that here the pastor might voice concerns particular to the congregation. These unscripted prayers made Jacob uneasy, because often he had never heard of the people that Pastor Greenley mentioned. But today he recognized them.
“And be with the Brennan family, as they continue to mourn the loss of Kathleen, and bless them with your love, as you blessed her, and help them to be strong in their remembrance of her. And be especially with Timothy, in his time of grief, and keep him safe from harm, and let him feel the power of your grace wherever he goes.”
He was missing, Jacob realized. He had run away.
The Wells’s house stood on the side of a hill, near the summit, but the slope was so gradual that you didn’t notice unless you climbed the enormous pine tree in their front yard. It was taller than any house or any other tree on the street and in its grandeur so undefended that at the base, the branches were staggered with an inviting regularity, like steps leading up to a monument. Inside the tree, you could not have fallen more than a yard without your arm or your leg hooking over a branch, but no one ever did fall, no matter how fast and incautious. You literally stuck to the tree as you climbed; the bitter, silver pitch was like glue, and it was everywhere.
At the top, the branches were thinner and shorter, and Jacob could bend aside a sprig of needles to see the countryside. Fat-leafed maples were bobbing in the wind as far as he could see. Here and there the slate-edged white triangle of a gable was waved in and out of view. On the horizon in the east was a thick purple haze, which now and then resolved into a few small vertical lines.
“Can you see Boston?” Sam asked. He was still working his way up.
At this height, roads and clearings were only creases and dimples in the trees’ green. Tim Brennan might be anywhere, Jacob thought.
A cloud moved away, and sun hit the distant John Hancock tower. It turned silver. “You could send Morse code from it,” Sam said.
“If you waved it around.”
“If you tilted the windows. You could have a plan for all the workers inside to tilt the windows. They would have to be synchronized. Suppose if aliens took over the capital and the surviving humans were trying to warn the villagers.”
“Where would you hide from the aliens?”
“You could hide up here.”
From the tree top, Grafton did look like a village. To the west you could see the modern spire of Jacob’s church, just over the hill.
“Have you eaten?” Jacob asked. In avoiding his father he was missing lunch.
“No. Are you hungry?”
“Not really. I was just wondering.”
“Let’s go see,” Sam offered.
In the house Sam told his mother that he was starving. “Oh really well there’s that potato salad we had last night in the refrigerator and let’s see what else a whole chicken an entire chicken. From the rotisserie. And my husband has decided that he really likes the mixed nuts they have at Julio’s so we have all these plastic containers of mixed nuts,” Mrs. Wells said as she pulled dishes out and laid them on the kitchen table. Sam and Jake sat down with plates. “And juice. Have any kind of juice you find. I think there’s cranberry and orange.”
When she left, Jacob said, “In church they announced that Tim Brennan is missing.”
“Do you know him?”
“He’s a cool guy. He used to go to St. Matthew’s, even though he’s in our church. He was at college, but he came home and now he’s missing.”
“Were they questioning people?”
“They asked us to pray for him.”
“Where do you think he went?”
“You could live in the woods here in Grafton for months and no one would know.”
“You could eat birds’ eggs if you found their nests.”
“You know,” Sam said, “you could take the milk out of the bin on the back porch, before Mom brought it into the house.”
“Well, you could buy things in the store if no one there recognized you.”
“No, because you’d reek and be covered in filth.”
“Not if you had a friend who would let you in to take a shower once a week,” said Jacob, reckoning that Sam would do that for him if he ever had to run away.
“So maybe it isn’t a casual disappearance. He had worked it out in advance. Did he tell you?”
“I wish he had.”
“But there might be a contact in the community.”
“If he is in Grafton. It’s so warm now outside. There’s that field up behind The Planets.” The Planets was a development where the streets were named after the Roman gods. Jake and Sam had discovered an abandoned plough on a hilltop there. It had curved metal ribs and a seat like a tricycle’s.
“He could have gone back to college,” Sam suggested.
“They don’t announce that in church.”
“Could he be dead?”
“Maybe he ‘upped stakes.’”
“Dead would be upping the stakes.”
“Or is it ‘upped sticks’?”
“‘Sticked ups,’ and I’ll be needing that in small unmarked bills.”
“I don’t think it could be because of a girlfriend,” Jake hazarded.
“Did he have a girlfriend?”
“I think he was too Christian.”
“How could he be too Christian to have a girlfriend?”
“Lancelot was a traitor.”
“The noblest knight in Christendom.”
“What he did with Guinevere was a corruption of love. It wasn’t love.”
“Galahad is boring.” Sam hooted the last word though a horn he made with his hands.
“Galahad is not boring. He found the grail. Neither of us has seen the grail. Nor is it likely to be vouchsafed to us, ignoble and unvaliant sinners as we are, who loiter at the hearth while adventure beckons.”
“Do you want to look for the grail?”
“We are always looking for the grail.”
“Do you know that guy Dougie? His brother shot a squirrel, and he skinned it and sewed the skin on the back of a denim jacket. He wore it to the high school and it stank so bad he was sent home.”
“It was not gallant. A squirrel is no meet foe unto a knight.”
“There would be signs of a hiding place. Small thefts, refuse, a blanket, remains of a fire.”
“A barrow, if he’s dead,” Jake added, mournfully.
“He wouldn’t have buried himself.”
“No. But maybe there was someone else involved in it.”
“Do you think it’s safe?” Sam asked, abruptly.
“To look for him.”
Jake started to answer in his Arthurian voice, but then he dropped into his usual register and said, “Yes. I don’t think we’ll actually find anything really.”
Scrub forests had long ago sprouted in the old farms, and only a portion had been reclaimed for streets and houses, so there were acres and acres of wilderness in Grafton, even though it was a town. The woods were thick with maples and pines; less often there were birches and oaks. Every ten minutes, it seemed, one crossed a stone wall, and in their explorations Sam and Jacob had also found rarer things: wild raspberries, for a quarter of a mile the remains of a canal, a fireplace without a house, a marble bench inside a briar.
If they had to live outdoors, they agreed that they would choose the reservoir. You could swim in it, illegally. The shore was usually empty of people and always peaceful, and there was the possibility of fish. One town away, behind a cemetery, there was an unwatched entrance.
They rode their bicycles north. At the town line the road widened officiously and then bridged the interstate in a formal manner, but then it narrowed again, and they turned off of it onto a curving, shady road that led to a white church, a commons, and a stone library. They coasted down a long hill to a broad cemetery, where Jacob imagined the burials and diggings up of Lucy Westenra as taking place. They chained their bicycles to its fence, behind a mausoleum so as not to be visible from the road, and walked down a dirt path to the shore.
The sun flickered on the water. They had it to themselves. The gravel on the beach was too coarse to hold footprints, so there were no clues, and one direction looked as likely as another. They chose north again, to continue their momentum.
“What do you think a kiss is?” Jacob asked.
“Not the parental kind, I mean.”
“With Kelly O’Brien, for example.”
“If you must.”
“I must.” Sam drew an hourglass outline in the air in front of him.
“I submit that it is a proof of God,” Jake said.
Sam found a flat stone and skimmed it out onto the water. “Seven,” he counted.
“Because in literature a kiss gives all the sense of love and yet is not biological,” Jacob continued.
“Is not sexual.”
“Nine. It could be sexual.”
“It doesn’t lead to reproduction.”
“It could lead to reproduction. I mean, not in itself.”
“But that’s just it. Not in itself.”
“The distinction suggests other distinctions.”
“Do you think Kelly’s sexy?”
“I could see it.”
“Don’t you feel it? When you look at her?”
“You will. Twelve. Did Nicky show you those magazines?”
“He tried to.”
“There’s more than just kisses.”
“I know that.”
“I mean, besides the main thing, there’s more.”
“Did I ask you to pour such poison into the portals of my ears?”
“It’s porches of my ears.”
“Porches doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well I was the ghost, and it was porches.”
“Did I ask you to pour such poison into the verandahs of my ears?”
“Into the unfinished pinewood decks of my ears.”
“Sex without love is folderol,” said Jacob. “It is profane.”
“But didn’t you get—”
“I didn’t look.”
“But why didn’t you look?” Sam threw his rock too low and it shot into the water with a flat plunk. “Zero.”
“Well, one, actually.”
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t even look.”
“Why would I want to? It’s wrong.”
“Who cares,” Sam muttered.
“What do you mean who cares?”
“Don’t what-do-you-mean me.”
“If you’re going to be Nicky’s friend because of those magazines, go ahead.”
“I just like to look at them. You will, too.”
“I never will,” Jacob said coldly. And then, when the spasm passed, he felt terrible, because for a moment he had hated his friend.
They kept walking for the rest of the afternoon, in and out of three fingerlike coves. They found an extinguished campfire, but it was littered with crushed beer cans, and they didn’t think it could be Tim Brennan’s. When the sun was dying and Jacob felt certain that by now his father would already have brought Alice home and left the house in frustration, they turned back.
“We were supposed to suffer together,” Alice said. She was leaning at a 45-degree angle against the door to Jacob’s room, trying to force it open. It was an inch ajar.
“They can’t make you go,” Jacob replied.
“They can’t make you go.”
Jacob’s right sneaker was wedged against the lower corner of the door, the toe bent up by Alice’s pushing so that the sole took the shape of an L and friction held the door shut without any effort on Jacob’s part. Alice had no idea how the trick worked, because she had never pushed the door open far enough to see how he did it.
“What did you do?” Jake asked.
“None of your beeswax.” She made another effort. “Uuuhhiagh. Why won’t you let me in?”
“Do you want to play with the mice?”
“No. You’re a twerp.”
“No, you’re the twerp, remember?”
“His feelings were hurt. I hope you enjoyed yourself with your friend.”
“‘Your friend.’ You know Sam.”
“You hurt his feelings.”
“Did he say that?”
“I could tell. You could have told if you were there.”
“What did you do?”
“We went to his house.” She seemed to be giving up. “We played cards. He didn’t want to do anything.”
Their father had rented a four-story townhouse in Worcester. On his visits, Jacob always wished that Norrie were alive and that they had permission to bring her, because the rooms were for the most part empty and they echoed uncannily. Alice and Jacob had bedrooms of their own. A mattress, a pillow, and a desk lamp were the only furniture in each, and the lamp had to be put on the floor. To do your homework, you sat at the head of the mattress with your back against the cold plaster of the wall. The house must have belonged to gentry once, because in many rooms there was a button to call the servants with, and between the basement and the first-floor kitchen there ran a dumbwaiter, now nailed shut. On the very top floor, which was behind a door locked with two deadbolts, there was a bedroom full of unframed canvases of nude women. Jake and Alice were forbidden to play there for some reason, but they had snuck in once.
Alice was no longer on the other side of the door. Jake did not go out to look for her.
“Was anyone else there?” Mrs. Putnam asked at dinner.
“Ghosts,” Alice answered.
“There are no such things,” their mother said.
“A murdered maid and a murdered cook and a murdered artist,” Alice insisted.
“In the garret,” Jacob added.
“It sounds like an enormous place.”
“It’s horrid,” Alice said.
“It must be costing him a fortune.”
“It’s so horrid,” Alice emphasized. “It isn’t heated.”
“Well, it’s practically summer.”
“It’s still cold. If you take off your shoes you’re sorry almost immediately.”
“Why would someone else be there?” Jacob asked.
“No reason,” Mrs. Putnam said. “A girl at work asked me to lunch the other day. Her name is Chickie. She said she heard I was going through a divorce, as if that were an interest people shared.”
“Yes. She’s very funny. She knows a banker who’s also divorced and she says I should go on a date with him. She’s so loud. Otherwise she’s a very nice person.”
“What kind of a name is Chickie?” Jacob asked.
“I think she’s Italian.”
“Is she your new friend?” Alice asked.
“Maybe. I just met her.”
Jacob wanted to change the subject. “Where do you think Tim Brennan went, the one who gave us a ride to church that time?”
“He’s Jacob’s new friend.”
“Why do you say that? He was nice.”
“Are you going to find him?” Alice teased.
“It probably isn’t nice,” their mother answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Not while your sister is at the table.”
“What isn’t nice?” Jacob persisted.
“Missing children. Usually they don’t find them,” Mrs. Putnam whispered, as if Alice wouldn’t be able to hear her that way.
“But he wasn’t a child.”
“No. I’m sure he’s probably fine.”
“I can’t see the news,” Jacob said.
“I can’t see it either because I’m facing you,” his mother retorted.
“But you pull it away from the wall when it’s a story you want to see.”
“If you’re going to complain, I’ll turn it off. Alice, what are you doing?”
“I’m picking off the fried part.”
“That’s the good part,” Jacob commented.
“It’s perfectly good chicken.”
“But this is its skin.”
“That’s its muscle, underneath,” said Jacob.
“There will be no dissections please. Where have I failed as a parent.”
“I’ll eat the broccoli,” Alice said in apology. She had only dispersed her rice and had no further intentions toward it.
The telephone rang. Their mother rose and went into the kitchen to answer it. Now Jacob could see Tom Brokaw clearly.
“It’s for you, dear,” she called to Jacob. He expected it was Sam. Maybe he had found a clue.
Alice began to negotiate for a new pair of ballet shoes, so Jacob took the phone out onto the back porch. The spiral loops of the white cord were stretched out, and in places, the cord was dented from shutting the door and the screen door over it. The air outdoors was cool. Blue towels, with white socks fastened under the clothespins at each corner, hung from the line that ran on pulleys between the porch and a post in the center of the yard. Below, set in the ground among the roses, the steel lid of a pail glowed like bone in the twilight. Two years ago, when they first moved in, they were instructed to dump their slops into it, because a farmer was still coming by once a week to collect them for his pigs.
“Hell-o,” said Jacob.
“Folderol,” said the phone, in a strange voice. Jacob could hear someone breathing.
“Who is this?” Jacob asked.
“It’s folderol,” the voice answered.
Far down the street, a dog tied up outside barked in unchanging, evenly paced barks, as if it were rationing its strength, the way you are supposed to if thrown overboard far from shore. “Who is this please?” Jacob repeated.
“It’s folderol. Balderdash. Poppycock.”
Jacob recognized his word and remembered when he had said it. “Sam?”
“It’s profane,” the voice continued.
“Folderol!” the voice exclaimed, and then the caller hung up.
The line was silent for a while; then it made a ticking sound, like a cat clicking its claws on linoleum as it stretches to wake itself up; and then the dial tone hummed in Jacob’s ear. It was a prank, and another boy would have been able to laugh it off, or would have lost his temper and then forgotten about it, but with Jacob the caller had by chance hit the fault in the metal, and the bell of his self seemed to fracture instead of ringing with either anger or mirth.
He had to hang up the phone, so he went back inside. He sat down to finish his dinner. His mother and sister had started to argue about Alice’s ambiguous commitment to the viola, and fortunately they did not ask who he had been talking to. He decided that it would no longer be safe to talk to Sam except politely.
A dog will not look directly at what frightens her, and therefore when she stops in her tracks on the sidewalk, her owner may be puzzled as to whether the culprit is the coiled hose in an adjacent garden, the black plastic bag half empty and flapping in the wind at the curb, or the memory of a helicopter overhead. In her fear the dog prudently gives no sign. In a like way, if you had spoken with Jacob the next day, you might have noticed that he had been driven in upon himself, but he would not have let you see why.
He zipped his music into his backpack as usual. Instead of the book on Einstein, he chose one of Norse myths. There was a hero whose enemy changed into a dragon, which he then slew and ate the heart of. This gave him the power to understand the speech of birds, which Jacob envied, but Jacob worried that since the dragon’s heart had been a human’s not long before, eating it was not far from cannibalism. Perhaps in historical fact the hero had eaten his enemy’s heart, and a storyteller had added the transformation into a dragon, as an embellishment, after morals had softened.
All week he had practiced the first movement one hand at a time. Played that way, it sounded like a phone conversation overheard from an adjoining room. The temptation was to imagine the unheard voice as an echo of the heard one, but sometimes in the clef that Jacob was playing, there was an innovation that could only be understood as a reply to an element introduced in the other, silent clef.
“Where are you going?” a voice startled Jacob. It was Paul again. He must have remembered the day and time from last week. Today he was alone.
“Piano lesson. Want to come?”
“You’re funny. I like music too you know. We’re a lot alike. I get a kick from champagne. You see?”
He was actually an inch or so shorter than Jacob, but Jacob hadn’t been in a fight since kindergarten, when he and a boy with the same Christian name had tumbled each other over because they couldn’t stand the ambiguity.
“Are you afraid of me?” Paul asked in a cajoling voice, as if he were a teacher.
“Not today. Your friend isn’t here.”
“You’re a comedian. I hate people who are afraid. I think I’ll have everyone who’s afraid of me killed. Ha ha.” He had a girlish way of emphasizing certain words, and his laugh was a flattened imitation of a spoiled little boy’s.
“Is Russell afraid of you?” Jacob thought that as long as his insouciance matched Paul’s, his bluff would not be called.
“I’ll have to kill Russell, I suppose.” He sighed musically.
“I have some people for you.”
“Oh, do you have people you don’t like?”
“Tell me who!”
“No, forget it.”
“Who?” He skipped a little as he walked beside Jacob. “I think it’s important to know who it is you don’t like. It makes things clearer.”
“I’ll take care of them myself.”
“No you won’t! Liar liar pants on fire, lets a fart and the flames go higher!”
“What would you do to them?”
“I can’t tell you. You’d copy me.”
Jacob decided that there was no way for Paul to call his bluff, because there was almost no one he cared about anymore, not even in the way of vengeance. “It’s better, I think, to forget about people.”
“It isn’t as satisfying.”
“It can be very complete, though.”
“You wouldn’t forget about me, would you, Jacob?”
“I’m sure you won’t let me. Do you ever talk to older boys?”
“Like who? Like pervs?”
“Like in the high school or St. Matthew’s already.”
“No. Is that who you hate?”
“Usually they want something, if they talk to you.”
“What happens to missing children?” Jacob asked abruptly.
“They become whores and then they’re killed by pervs. Boys and girls.”
Paul would know that sort of thing. It was as if the shell that kept out the world was becoming transparent and so plastic that it gave when you nudged it, like the membrane left on an egg after it had been soaked overnight in a bowl of vinegar.
Paul became bored and took a path that led into some woods.
On Saturday their father was supposed to take them for the afternoon, and Jacob didn’t have other plans.
That morning, Alice noticed a pigeon limping and fluttering on the lawn of the rectory across the street, and Jake went with her to investigate. It had a broken leg.
“It’s just a pigeon,” Jacob said.
“A dove,” Alice corrected.
It was frightened, and it pecked at them when they reached to pick it up. Their mother said that anyone bitten would have to get twelve rabies shots at one-hour intervals, directly into the stomach. So they hunched over and spread their arms as if they were giant mother pigeons herding a chick.
“B-gawk b-gawk,” Jacob clowned.
“Do you want to let it die?” Alice asked humorlessly.
“We’re chasing it into the street.”
“Across the street.”
Since it was hopping on one leg, it moved slowly and was easy to guide.
“We’re not building a relationship of trust with it.”
“It’s for its own good. You don’t have to help if you don’t want.”
They obtained permission to keep it on the front porch, which was screened in.
Jacob unfolded newspapers on the floor in preparation while Alice squatted on the grass beside the bird.
“It will just be Pigeon,” she said when he had finished. Jake knew by this that she was limiting her losses.
“I wonder how it broke its leg.”
“It fell off the rectory roof,” she suggested.
“But why didn’t it fly?”
“I don’t know.”
“It can’t hop up the stairs,” he observed.
He found an old moving box, which they laid on its side. They waved their hands to scare the pigeon into it. As Jacob tilted the box upright, one of the bird’s eyes watched him with mechanical fixity. The claws of its working foot scraped the cardboard as it slid downward, and when its tailfeathers hit the bottom—and the mouth of the box paralleled the sky—it beat its wings intemperately. “Hush, hush,” said Alice, but the bird was ready to injure itself.
“It pooped already. Look.”
Trapped in the box, it shook. They wanted to pet it, and it allowed them to out of terror rather than acceptance, so that their kindness felt balked. It had no special markings; it was asphalt-colored with scatterings of white. It held its injured claw retracted against its breast, and the claw was an ugly, striated pink, as if the skin of an earthworm had been wrapped around a coathanger wire. After both of them had touched it, it stopped watching their movements. It seemed to be in shock.
“Does Mother have hamburger meat?” Alice asked. “We could make worms.”
“That was for a chick. Adults eat seeds.”
“Do you think it’s full-grown?”
“Yes.” In fact he thought it was senile.
“We need to call the science museum anyway to ask about a splint,” Alice said. “They’ll know what to feed it.”
Their mother made the phone call. The museum said a pigeon would eat almost anything and did not recommend a splint. “The woman also mentioned germs.”
“We’ll wash our hands,” Alice promised.
“I don’t want it in the house.”
“It wouldn’t be happy there.”
“Your father will be here soon.”
At this warning both children stood up. The alternation of Saturday and Sunday was informal, unlike the schedule for holidays, which had been written into the divorce.
Jacob looked down and saw that the pigeon’s head had sunk so that it sat neckless on its body, the way a snowman’s does. Suddenly he was disgusted by the project of saving it. It was not a chick, which might grow stronger and one day fly away. It was no good to invite attention to a thing without remedy. Again Tim Brennan came into his mind—the danger he was in, his unsolicited, unstipulated gesture of kindness. Jacob felt so strongly about him that he could not picture his face. He wanted to find him, very badly. Probably he couldn’t find him, any more than he could imagine the four-dimensional shape that corresponded to a pyramid, but in that case he wanted to be alone, in order to think about finding him, to pretend that he did know how to find him.
“I can’t go,” said Jacob.
“You have to,” his mother said. “It’s part of the agreement.”
“I didn’t sign the agreement.”
“He’ll say that I turned you against him.”
“I don’t care.”
The children hid in their rooms until they heard the Volkswagen pull into the driveway. Then Jacob knocked on Alice’s door, and she admitted him.
“Where’s your backpack?” she asked.
“I’m not going. I can’t go.”
“You can do your homework there if you need to.”
“That’s not it.”
“What is it? I don’t know why you won’t come.” She looked down at the soft, celadon rug on her floor. Gingerly she raised and lowered her right foot. It made no noise. “Don’t you love our father any more?” she continued. “It’s not his fault that they divorced.”
“Yes it is.”
“I heard Mother talking on the phone. He had a mistress.”
“To take care of his house?”
“No. A girlfriend. He was seeing her all along.”
“As if she were Mother?”
“That’s not true,” she said quickly. “Mother was upset and she made a mistake.” She ran downstairs.
Jacob felt cold and as if he were far away from where in fact he was. His sister’s room was incongruously mild. He stared emptily at the framed embroidery that their grandmother had stitched from a storebought pattern when Alice was born, with the date and how much she weighed inscribed inside a posy of pink, orange, and yellow flowers. It had a dun stain, in the shape of a rowboat seen from above, where an iron had stood too long. He had hurt his sister on purpose but without a reason. He heard his father’s awkward voice calling him downstairs: “I’m going to count to three. We’re leaving now. We’re going to leave without you if you don’t come down right away. Are you going to come with us or not? We’re leaving now.”
When it was quiet again, Jacob took four dollars out of his Bible and left the house by way of the basement.
In the center of town, he chained his bicycle to the No Parking sign outside the pizzeria. They used to eat pizza after baseball games. He checked through the plate-glass windows to make sure his father hadn’t brought Alice here for lunch.
There was no one he knew. The air was thick with olive oil and garlic, and two cooks were at work behind the metal counter. Underneath their white aprons, their T-shirts had been drawn into crazy wrinkles and were bunched up under their armpits.
One of them nodded at Jacob. “Help you?”
“Two pieces of pepperoni, please.”
He sat at a table in the window. He ate slowly, not certain where he was headed. What if Paul was right and Tim Brennan had been killed? He might find the grave. The ground had sunk where he had buried Norrie, even though he had put all the dirt back, plus Norrie. He could look for the same kind of bare, collapsed ground, but in a longer shape. A prudent killer might have added a cairn of rocks, to prevent animals from digging.
A boy from St. Matthew’s came in. His family lived down by the lake. “Hey, Charlie. Hey, Tony.”
“What you been up to? How’s your uncle.”
“He’s practically his old self.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“You don’t live with him.”
“Ha ha. What’ll you have.”
“Slice a pepperoni?”
Jacob avoided their eyes. Their conversation reminded him that he was eating alone.
Outside again, he sat on his bike for a minute, thinking. He let the front wheel twist until it was perpendicular to the frame. A highway to Boston cut Grafton east-to-west, just south of the town’s meridian. A quarter mile south of that ran the old road to Boston, now in disrepair. It was interrupted by stoplights at a gravel pit, a boat store, and a closed gas station. At the west end, toward Worcester, the road passed beneath the lake, where a few mobile homes were parked among the houses on the shore. To the east it ran through scrub forest. Along that stretch of it, No Trespassing Private Property signs were stapled to the trees, but it was easy to find a tear in the fence or a section that had been trampled down.
The wilderness there was not pretty, like the reservoir was, and it was not sociable, like the slope behind St. Matthew’s where high schoolers rode dirtbikes or the woods between developments where they met to drink. But Jacob wanted to go somewhere difficult and solitary, with brambles and interdictions, not because he thought it could serve as penance for what he had said to Alice, but because in his mood it seemed like the only kind of place he might enjoy.
He coasted along the old Boston road. When it was empty and he couldn’t hear any cars coming, he abruptly walked his bike across a grassy ditch and stepped with it through a V that someone had cut in the chain-link fence. A free wire scraped his arm but he pushed into the woods and did not stop until he felt sure that he could not be seen from the road. Under the maples’ canopy there was little underbrush and no path. The ground was muddy and picketed with stunted child-maples, spindly for lack of sun. After a hundred yards he slowed down enough to wipe the blood off his arm and then to lick it off his palm. Whenever Norrie had licked her own blood—sometimes by accident he had cut her nails too close to the quick—she had had a little seizure, and he had to hold her for a minute.
After a debate with himself, he took off his shirt and tied it around the bar of his bicycle. He wasn’t hot. He took it off because he wanted to try the feeling of nakedness. Almost at once a mayfly landed on his chest to drink his sweat. When he tried to brush it away, its chilly body crumbled under his fingers. He wiped them on his jeans. Later he felt the triangles of a spiderweb place themselves across his chest. He shivered, and he quickly smudged himself clean, anxious that the spider might drop down the strands to his skin.
Ahead he could see a clearing. He laid his bike flat in the shadow of a fallen tree, so that the tree would hide it from anyone in the clearing. It didn’t seem likely that anyone besides him would come from the road. He tucked one end of his rolled-up shirt into the waist of his jeans and cautiously, with as little sound as possible, approached the sunlight.
To go without speaking is at first like swimming while holding your breath: mostly you imagine the moment of giving up. Maybe a small part of you wonders how long you will last. But if you are silent long enough, it is as if, underwater, you were calmly to forget about your future collapse into breathing. You no longer prepare in your head something to say if interrupted. You observe and you feel more and more finely, but you think only plain, undressed thoughts. When Jacob stepped out of the woods, the sunlight hit his skin. He closed his eyes reflexively, and the underside of his eyelids turned orange and violet with the heat. He stretched his arms up and tensed his thin muscles. The gesture was prideful, but no one could see him.
The straw from last summer was waist-high; he would have to check for ticks later. After he waded a few paces into it, he saw that the clearing had been cut for a road, which nature was destroying. The pavement was cracked into a mosaic, seamed with grass. He followed it uphill.
It wound back and forth in slow loops. He thought of going back for his bike, but he didn’t. Now the sunlight came through the waving branches of trees, and he felt it on his skin as a pattering.
Near what seemed to be the top of the hill, two cement gateposts announced an entrance, and the road debouched into a much larger clearing. But there was nothing in the clearing, except, at the back, the town’s water tower, painted a bleached, dress-shirt blue. It hurt to look at it, the sun on it was so bright. Down the side ran a metal ladder, which stopped a man’s height above the ground.
He plucked a long piece of straw and stripped the seeds from it absentmindedly. He noticed rocks on the ground, in a line, and then he saw that beyond the line the ground dropped. Had this been a cellar? There was another drop further on, which was deeper, like a grown-up’s pool next to a children’s pool. But they weren’t rectangles, merely. Now that he realized there was a pattern in the rocks, hidden beneath the straw, he walked along the low walls excitedly, tracing them. The two beds were connected by a corridor. In fact they were the transverse bars of a cross of Lorraine. He recognized the thorns and buds of roses, left to run wild. He was standing in the ruins of a Christian garden.
It was a castle under a spell, and not visible by day. A lady was imprisoned in it. Or a hermit lived nearby. He was Sir Lancelot penitent or Sir Gawain wrathful. Or Sir Bors searching, and happening upon a mystery.
There were still stairs extant to carry you up out of the foot of the cross. From these, a path between hedges, which unwatered and untended had not grown enough to lose their shape, led to a concrete octagon floor, which was all that remained of a gazebo. He would have to bring Sam to see this, some day, or maybe Alice. Or perhaps he would keep it for himself.
Sir Gawain marveled at the magic that had enchanted the garden. His steed was tethered without the gate, and he had laid aside his armor, for the sun was wonderly strong. It seemed that here in such a place he might be given a sight of the thing he had been seeking. He set down his sword (Jacob placed the long straw beside him on the gazebo floor) and kneeled to pray, to repent him of his sins.
Something stirred on top of the water tower. The huge tank magnified the sound with a twisting, clanking echo. Jacob sprang up and hid behind one of the hedges.
A person was climbing down. The footfalls on the ladder’s rungs made a rubbery sound through the metal and water. Rubbery and also pointed, somehow. Jacob’s fingers trembled as he buttoned up his shirt.
It was Paul. His first thought was that Paul would find his bike and take it. But probably Paul had ridden here on a bike of his own, and he couldn’t ride two at once.
Paul crouched on the last rung, then dropped his feet off and swung from it. He landed quietly. He hadn’t seen Jacob. Nothing in his manner suggested that he knew himself to be present to another person. Without looking at the abandoned garden where Jacob was hiding, he turned and walked into the woods.
He was gone. Jacob remembered how easily Paul had answered when asked about missing children, and he decided to follow him. He counted to sixty Mississippi before starting.
He crossed the clearing casually, as if he were not about to hunt someone, but when he reached the water tower he edged around it slowly, keeping the cold metal flush against his back. He saw that Paul had followed a path.
Once in the shadows Jacob was less visible. He spotted Paul easily, by the red and blue stripes and the fat white collar of his rugby jersey, jogging downhill. Jacob avoided stepping on leaves or twigs. It was slow work, and as he fell further behind Paul, he grew less careful about it.
Paul didn’t seem to have a bicycle. Jacob’s was behind them, in the other direction. It felt strangely natural to keep pace without betraying his presence. It required an effort of attention, but the effort felt like a familiar one. Once or twice Jacob froze when he saw Paul’s head turn and his line of sight flicker out at an angle. And once Jacob himself turned all the way around, to make sure no one was following him. If Paul were to spot him, he would become the bully again, probably, and Jacob his victim. But until then it was not like that.
After a quarter of an hour, the path crossed the old Boston road, invisibly, and resumed on the north side. Ten minutes later, at the foot of a hill, Paul stepped out of the woods and into a long backyard that turned out to be his, because he walked into the red clapboard house attached to it. Behind him Jacob slipped from tree to tree down the hill, his heart pounding. Still he was undetected. A rusted Ford Falcon, lime green, stood on cinderblocks in the yard. He crept up to it on all fours and slid underneath.
He heard the screen door bang but no other sound from the house. Under the car it was damp and cool. There would be mud and grass stains on his jeans, and it would take a long time to get to his bike and even longer to get home. But he felt that he was on the trail of what he was looking for. A flashing caught his eye. To his right, between the cinderblock pillars under the two front wheels, he could see the late sun scattered in a thousand jolly pieces on the lake. The shore was only a dozen yards away.
“I wonder if it’ll be somewhere nice,” said Mrs. Putnam. She was doing her make-up in the special mirror, with the ring of small bulbs.
“In Grafton?” Jacob asked.
“Oh! I hope we’re driving into Worcester. Should I call and tell you where it is?”
“We’ll be all right.”
“You could call your father, if you had to call someone.” She jumped up. “I’m going to burn those buns a second time.”
For them she was making sloppy joes and boiling a few ears of corn. She ladled the spiced meat onto the buns and called out that it was ready.
“You look very nice,” said Alice, as she took her plate.
“Why thank you.”
“The earrings are very pretty with that dress,” Alice continued.
“Why thank you. They’re the ones you and Jacob gave me last Christmas.”
“I’d sit and have a piece of corn with you but I don’t want to go out with a piece of silk between my two front teeth.” She made a jackrabbit face.
“Will he honk?” Jacob asked.
“God I hope not. Don’t you think he’ll come to the door?” She unsnapped her purse, peered inside, and snapped it shut again. “Is this too nice?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if he’s not dressed up.”
“He will be,” Jacob said, even though he had never met this person. “It’s only polite to look nice.”
“I’m going to go finish up.”
“Well, turnabout is fair play,” Jacob said, once he and Alice were left alone.
“Aren’t you going to put any butter on your corn?”
“It’s the most engaging aspect of corn.”
“Mother stuck the prongs in the ends, for your dainty fingers, and a thick enough pat of butter will lie there, in position, if you roll the corn over it like the platen of a typewriter.”
“I know that, queerbait.”
“Happy, happy child.”
“It’s margarine anyway, dumbhead.”
“Margarine is better for you.”
“Like mud is better than dirt.”
“No fighting!” their mother shouted from upstairs.
Alice had taken bites out of the sloppy joes and released them into her napkin. Jacob pretended that he hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t found any gristle in his, but he could see not really liking the flavor.
They watched the news until a car drove up and the doorbell rang.
“Can you get it?” their mother shouted. Then she came downstairs anyway in her heels. Jacob reached the door first. They kept the new key in it all the time now, ever since the locksmith came the wind blew it open unless the bolt was turned.
“Mother warned you about the bird.”
“Oh yes,” said the man, who wore a brown sports coat and a solid, brick-colored tie. “He’s in the corner there. He didn’t even try to escape.”
“He never does. The real danger is you might step on him.”
“Irene told me to keep an eye out.”
“This is Jacob, and Jacob, this is—” She said his name and immediately Jacob forgot it. “Alice, come here for a second,” she commanded. There were how-do-you-do’s. “You caught them at dinner. I’m almost ready. I’ll be two seconds.”
Mrs. Putnam ran back upstairs and Alice retreated to the dining room. Maybe she would eat something now. The man didn’t look dangerous.
After a minute of standing there, Jacob invited the man to sit down in the living room.
An album cover next to the turntable caught the man’s eye. “Oh do you like Mahler?” the man asked.
“Yes.” Jacob had checked it out from the library a week ago.
“I’ve been listening to some Mahler lately.”
“It’s very moving, sad.” The man made a gesture toward ‘greater things.’
“I don’t know,” Jacob replied. “I find it a little bombastic. There’s an awful lot of apparatus.”
The man nodded. It occurred to Jacob belatedly that the man might have been prepped on Mahler as well as on the pigeon. “You go to the high school?” the man asked.
“In the fall I will. Did you go there?”
“A lot of my friends are going there.”
They looked at their hands. Jacob picked at the skin beside his thumbnail. After the man and his mother left, he washed the dishes.
After that he found Alice playing with the mice. “Go away,” she said.
“What’s going on?”
“You are only allowed to watch,” she relented.
Mimsy had taken it upon herself to invite the robot over for a home-cooked meal, since he had suffered so much at their hands.
“Or rather paws.”
“Shut up or I’ll make you leave.”
“But Mimsy, I’m not sure that he’s the sort who would appreciate a home-cooked meal,” warned Lady Betsy.
“He liked our cream of wheat, didn’t he?” Mimsy observed, undaunted.
“That’s just it, Mimsy dear,” Sir John put in. “He didn’t quite eat the cream of wheat, now did he. He crushed it in a gear that wanted cleaning, and that’s a different thing, what?”
“You are endeavoring to discourage me from having any friends,” Mimsy said.
Sir John and Lady Betsy could see that she was on the verge of tears. “Oh, Mimsy,” they said ensemble, “cook everything that you were dreaming of, and he will appreciate it so much, we’re very sure.”
Mimsy prepared every murine delicacy imaginable. Limburger soufflé. Acorns on the half shell. Sunflower-seed gratin. Cheddar primavera. Fondue.
Lady Betsy remained apprehensive. “Are you quite sure that robots like the sort of thing that we like?” she asked. “Don’t you think that if he had his druthers he’d prefer to mangle a nice morsel of roasted human flesh?”
“My lady!” Mimsy expostulated. “Certainly not! Besides, who could possibly resist a tray of pollen-powdered Edam balls?”
“Indeed,” agreed Lady Betsy, because she did not seriously imagine that anyone could resist them.
At last it was the evening appointed for the feast. Alice wound the robot up, and with a grinding sound, it seesawed on its wheels against the unopened front door.
“Mimsy, your machine would like to come in,” Sir John commented.
“Do be a darling and open the door,” Mimsy requested. “I’m still tossing the clover-and-dandelion salad.”
“Welcome to Mousewood Hall,” Sir John announced.
“Why so you are,” Lady Betsy greeted him, conversationally.
“See here, that’s rather forward of you, young man,” Sir John objected. “We’re all friends here. Why not step into the den and sample one of Mimsy’s brie-and-housedust croquettes?”
“Robot—signal—fading—what—who.” Then he was still.
“He has exhausted his instructions!” Lady Betsy marveled.
“That’s boring. That isn’t how it goes,” Alice interjected.
“If you don’t think he’ll repeat his impertinence, I’ll venture to wind him up again,” Sir John offered.
“Please do,” Mimsy begged, tearfully, “or the dinner will have been in vain.”
Jacob wound up the robot on Sir John’s behalf.
“That’s precisely why we invited you!” Lady Betsy exclaimed.
“Why not dip this walnut into the fondue?” proposed Mimsy.
“Not exactly,” Sir John demurred. “We might gum him up, you know,” he whispered. “And I doubt he would be serviceable around the house in such a state.
“Oh, I didn’t think to prepare any of that,” Mimsy fretted.
“Perhaps I could whip something up, though.”
“Oh darling, please don’t take his rudeness to heart,” Lady Betsy counseled.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to eat any of his food, either,” Mimsy emphatically declared, her patience at an end. “So I must say that I hereby relinquish my designs upon him as a husband!” Teed off at having betrayed her ulterior motive, she stormed upstairs to her room, where she solaced herself with a pawfull of croquettes, discreetly conveyed.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t offer you something more . . . frictionless,” Sir John said, as he saw the robot to the door. “Good night.”
It took longer to get to piano by Boylston Road, but he didn’t want to be ambushed again by Paul. The road ran beside the cemetery. No Putnams were buried there, because the Putnams were out-of-towners, but Jacob liked the 18th-century graves for their piety and skulls, and for the stubby footstones assigned to infants. At the end of the yard, near the church, there was an artificial hill with a door in it, where in the 18th and 19th centuries they had stored winter corpses until the ground thawed. Except during blizzards, it was no longer used, because tractors could now dig in all seasons. Jacob guessed it was too hot to hide a body there in summer.
He pretended not to see Nicky crossing the road to greet him. “Jacob. Jacob! Where you going, man?”
“Hi, Nicky.” How nice it would be to store Nicky in the artificial hill, until the worms crawled in and the worms crawled out.
“Haven’t seen you in a while. How’ve you been?”
“Don’t you have the paper route?” He wondered what lie Nicky had told to get out of it today.
“I’m giving it to Sam. Didn’t he tell you?”
Jacob did not stop walking, so Nicky had to reverse direction to continue the conversation.
Nicky explained: “He’s doing it for me this week and then I’m going to tell Mr. Corvino on Monday and it’ll be his. He didn’t tell you?”
“I thought you were close friends.” He made his half-stifled choking sound.
What if he were to follow Nicky the way he had followed Paul? He didn’t think he would find anything.
“I thought you and Sam were close,” Nicky repeated.
“I hope you burn in hell,” Jacob answered.
“What for?” Nicky was startled and pleased. “You don’t burn in hell for pictures.” He gave his half-choke once more, then headed back into town.
As Jacob passed the last of the cemetery, where all the graves were new, it occurred to him that Tim Brennan’s mother’s would be one of the fresh ones.
When he reached the Nilssons’, a voice hailed him. “Jacob! May I commandeer you for a moment?” It was Mr. Nilsson, holding a chainsaw.
“If you would step up the ladder and hold this branch. If you hold it in place as if it were still attached to the tree.”
“Is something wrong with it?”
“I just want the cut to be a clean one. The center of balance will shift, so don’t topple over.” The saw whirred and ate through the wood neatly. Jacob, the branch, and the ladder swayed slightly after the severance. “I have to slaughter my innocents because my back is too old and decrepit. If I don’t prune, she says she’ll chop them down herself.”
“The fruits of this world. What’re you working on in there, Mozart? It’s a beautiful piece. Go to.”
He left Mr. Nilsson to the reluctant diminution of his orchard. In the lesson room, he played the concerto—the first movement again—for Mrs. Nilsson. He was pressing the keys as if it were any machine, and the result was reasonably pretty.
“Is that it?” Mrs. Nilsson asked when he was finished. “Is that all you have?”
“That’s the whole first movement. I practiced—”
“I mean here.” She patted her chest, between her breasts. A locket there was tossed about inadvertently by her palpitations. “You’re a young man. You are supposed to be full of emotions.”
He wanted to deny this. He wanted to shut her up, in fact.
“I know this is Mozart,” she continued, “and that Mozart is happy happy—”
To cut her off, he started in, fortissimo, and he played the tune, and tune was the word for it, because it had always seemed bland and merry to him, with clumsy anger.
“Sing!” Mrs. Nilsson demanded, over his playing. “Yes, sing!”
He landed on the syncopations as hard as he could, and he sugared the sweet chirrups as heavily as he could, and he tapered the lilting phrases as abruptly as he could. He poured his hate into it, to spite her, to show her how little happiness he felt and how little he wanted to feel it. But his hatred did sing in the music, as if it were a passion for happiness after all, or at least a desperate wish for it.
“There,” said Mrs. Nilsson. The performance had felt false and cruel, but she was pleased, and he sensed that she knew he had been trying to work against her and that she had intended to call this resistance out of him. “Remember how you did that,” she advised. “Remember what you were feeling.”
“Have you seen my good knife?” Mrs. Putnam asked.
“I’m using it,” Jacob admitted.
“Are you using it on cardboard? Now I’m going to have to find someone to sharpen it.”
“I’m sorry. I was making a cage.”
“It has the whole front porch.”
“With an open bottom, so that it can peck things. Be careful, it’s right behind the screen. I don’t think it sees that well.”
“Lunch is ready. Come wash your hands.”
“This way you can have the front porch back.”
The pigeon’s leg still hadn’t healed, and Jacob guessed that it didn’t feel at home living on top of newspapers, so he was going to keep it in the backyard, under a cardboard moving box turned upside-down. He thought it might be able to find and eat grubs that way. He was cutting windows in the box’s sides, big enough to give air and light but small enough to prevent it from escaping. He was cutting a stencil version of the brass descending dove that was affixed to the front of the pulpit at church, whose shape echoed that of the chi-rho on the front of the altar. He had made the wing-holes separate from the body-hole. Unfortunately the curves were wrong. It looked more like a butterfly than a dove, and you couldn’t tell whether it was flying up or down. Practically it would work, however. The pigeon was quite docile now. He carried it in the windowed box to a spot in the backyard where they would be able to monitor it from the kitchen table. It hopped out and waited patiently on the grass for Jacob to unfold the box’s flaps and then replace the box over it.
Mrs. Putnam had made pocket sandwiches with sliced turkey, monterey jack, and alfalfa sprouts. She was pouring dollops of vinaigrette into each pocket when Alice stopped her.
“No salad dressing on mine, please.”
“But it adds a little something.”
“It’s too salty for my taste.”
“Do you think it’ll get enough air?” Jacob asked.
“It’s in the shade,” Alice answered.
“I put Norrie’s water bowl in with it.”
“What plans does your father have for you this weekend?”
“He said he’d like to go hiking. I told him Jacob had been going
“I think it’s so nice that you’re going to see him, Jacob.”
“I never said that.”
“But he chose something he thought you would enjoy.”
“I don’t care.”
“You’re a young man, and you need to see your father. It isn’t good for you just to see your mother.”
“If it’s so good for people to spend time with him, why don’t you do it.”
“Don’t use that tone of voice with me, young man.”
“I’m not going.”
“It’s part of the agreement, and you have to.”
“It’s not fair that you get to not have to go see him, and we don’t.”
“I don’t mind seeing him,” Alice interposed.
“You’ll see him anyway,” Mrs. Putnam ordered.
“I won’t be here then.”
“If I don’t arrange for you to visit him, the court can award him custody.”
“Don’t try to say things like that. I’m not an idiot.”
“I’m not making it up.”
“That would never happen. And if it did I would run away.”
“And you end up dead in a gutter like that boy. Why are you so cussed?”
“What does ‘cussed’ mean?” Alice asked.
“Mulish,” Jacob explained.
“Like your charming brother,” Mrs. Putnam added. “Aren’t you going to eat your sandwich?”
“I did eat it,” Alice replied.
“What did you eat besides the alfalfa sprouts?”
“Don’t worry, I got enough to eat.”
“I bought the turkey because I thought you were getting bored with peanut butter, and I don’t want it to go to waste.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said.
“Are you feeling all right?”
“You shouldn’t have gotten anything expensive. Why don’t I eat some of the turkey, since that’s the good part.”
“I’m worried that you’re not getting enough.”
“I’m fine,” Alice said, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to eat the bread, though. It isn’t as nourishing.”
“Bread is, too, nourishing,” Jacob said.
“What vitamins does it have?” Alice challenged him.
“They put them in extra. Look at the packaging.”
“Then they aren’t naturally occurring.”
“If you eat one slice of the turkey, I’ll be happy,” Mrs. Putnam decided. But after Alice ate two bites, Mrs. Putnam left the table to make some phone calls in her room, and Alice did not make good on her promise to finish the rest of the slice. Like Jacob she had become duplicitous.
“Where do you go, anyway?” she asked her brother.
“I’m looking for the killer.”
“Are there clues?”
“There’s a suspect.”
“You don’t know him. I’m hoping he’ll make a mistake and lead me to the corpus delicti.”
“I don’t think it’s safe. Don’t you think you’d better stop.”
“Oh, it isn’t for real.”
“But what if he catches you? You are watching someone.”
“Sometimes I am.”
“Tell me who in case they off you.”
“I said it isn’t for real, didn’t I.”
“Then I don’t care if they do off you,” she dismissed him.
He never tracked Paul into town. In the wilderness, he had not yet been led to anything resembling a grave, but he had discovered that Paul climbed the water tower nearly every afternoon and stayed up there for about an hour. Once or twice he seemed to have been tanning himself, because he came down shirtless and with the cuffs of his shorts rolled up.
After lunch, Jacob biked to the water tower again. By now he had found the mouth of the crumbling road on a side street, and since Paul’s path ran down the far side of the hill, it was safe to bike up the road nearly to the top, so long as he kept the pedals turning steadily forward even when he was tempted to coast. Something under the derailleur made a light clicking noise if the back wheel turned while the pedals didn’t, and Jacob preferred to approach the ruined garden silently.
At the last turn in the road before the gate, he carried his bike into the underbrush. It was finally a hot hot day. His own sweat on his body smelled like butter melted by the toast that it was spread on. There was no wind. He was careful not to catch any branches in the spokes of his wheels, because if he were to drag one of them along with him and suddenly it snapped back into position, there was no breeze for an observer to attribute the motion to.
In the shade it was cooler, but gnats danced erratically around his head. It was quietest to step on ground that was moist but not too moist, or on the exact centers of dead tufts of grass, intact but long ago wilted. He laid his bike down gently and next to it his backpack, out of which he took a motheaten army-green blanket to cover them.
After ten more minutes of cautious walking, he sat behind the hedge near the gazebo and waited. He couldn’t hear anything. Sometimes Paul didn’t make any noise until he was ready to descend.
While he was waiting, Jacob tended to think generally: The death of a parent would be sad but easier to manage than a divorce. A sin might be occasioned by the discovery of a convenient way of committing it. Yet it would be prideful always to choose the difficult. An hour went by in these abstractions.
He remembered reading that some tribes of Indians exposed their dead on biers in the tops of trees. Perhaps Tim Brennan had offered to talk to Paul, as he had to Jacob. Then Paul might have invited him here. Or somewhere else. Jacob didn’t really want to believe that this garden had anything to do with it.
There was still no sound from the tower.
He picked up a small rock. In one motion he rose, threw it at the water tower, and crouched back down. It panged against the metal. The note sounded was a low A, shifted 8va. further down. It dissipated slowly.
Perhaps Paul was not easily alarmed. Or perhaps he was now waiting for the rock thrower to betray himself. Jacob threw a second rock, with as much expedition as he had thrown the first. It had no response either.
He stood up and approached the tower. He felt an unreal confidence, as if he were in a dream. Even if he were to find Paul, he was not sure that he would come to.
Beneath the ladder was growing queen anne’s lace. The white discs of florets bobbed beneficently when he touched them. Despite their coat of light blue paint, the metal rungs of the ladder were scorching hot, so he climbed quickly. He glanced below him to watch the garden’s cross with two bars become more and more perspicuous, and he glanced above him afraid that the rich blue encircling the crescent of the tower’s rim would be interrupted by a face.
The roof was empty, except for a beach towel. He let go of the handrail as soon as he was safe, and as he shook his hands in the air to cool them, he could feel more heat rising through the soles of his sneakers. The roof was not quite level with the treetops around it; in another few years they would outgrow it definitively. Only at a few angles were there vistas of the surrounding forest, like the corridors of ocean allowed to the sight of a swimmer caught in the trough between tall waves.
What if Paul came late? Jacob would be trapped up here. In his strange calm, he perceived this without panicking. His palms were slippery, so as he descended he reassured himself with the thought of the bones inside his grip, looped around the metal. When a blister popped, he believed for a moment, impassively, that the trickle between his fingers was blood.
He dropped lightly to the ground the way Paul had. It exhilarated him to have seen what he had not dared to before. He was not ready to go home, and he began to walk down Paul’s path. This was foolhardy, because if Paul did set out to visit the tower, they would be facing each other.
He would pretend it was a coincidence, he decided. After all, the first time it had been one.
The dreamlike impunity carried him all the way to the Turners’ backyard. When he crawled beneath the abandoned car, he did it not like a soldier in a trench but as if he were playing at being a crocodile. But once he was underneath, the bang of the screen door woke him, like the clap of a hypnotist. By crawling under the car he had put himself in the wrong again.
“I think it’s the easiest,” said a woman’s voice, probably Paul’s mother.
“Okay,” Paul answered, with a tone of you-asked-for-it.
The car’s smells of grease and rust were mineral and unfamiliar. Somewhere nearby a nest of squirrels was peeping and mewling. Perhaps because the fear had come upon him suddenly this time, Jacob was aware, as he had not been before, of the car’s weight balanced above him.
Paul was swinging a red laundry bag by its drawstring. Jacob had never seen him doing chores before; maybe he was going on a trip. He took it to the waterline, where he set it down beside him while he removed his shoes. Then for some reason his hands were at his face, which was turned away from Jacob. He might have been picking his nose. When a person does not know he is watched, it is hard to distinguish his significant gestures from trivial ones.
Paul stepped into the water. As Paul reached to pick up the bag, Jacob thought he saw it move. There wasn’t a wind, but it could have been the natural unbuckling of the fabric. “I’ll sing you seven, oh,” Paul sang. “Green grow the rushes, oh.”
He waded out a few feet. Like a balloon, the laundry bag resisted going under but Paul held the drawstring in one hand and trod on the neck of the bag with the opposite foot, to force it under. The moment it went below the surface, the young squirrels stopped crying, as if in sympathy or perhaps because they were being fed.
Jacob imagined how the tug of the bag under Paul’s foot would weaken as the air inside dissipated through the fabric. “Three, three, the rivals, two, two, the lily-livered boys . . .” He seemed to lose his place, but in a moment or two he resumed: “One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.”
He hauled up the bag and opened it to look inside. Still looking down into its mouth, he waded back to shore and sat on a rock. Then he drew out of the bag something gray and shaped like a star—a pudgy star with limp points. It was a kitten, which he was holding by one of its paws. Without setting it down, he leaned away to vomit neatly into the lake.
Under the Ford Falcon, Jacob also vomited. He could not raise his head while he did, for fear of dislodging the car from its cinderblocks. He crawled away from the pool he had made. He tried to spit his mouth clean.
Paul examined the drowned litter one by one, as if he were curious. When he was finished, he put them in the garbage and took the laundry bag inside the house.
“Jacob,” Mrs. Putnam called when she heard him come in. “Jacob?”
“I have to use the bathroom.” He ran the water loud so she wouldn’t be able to hear him brushing his teeth. Then he rushed to his room to change his pants and shirt. “Just a minute.” Since he often washed his own clothes, it would be easy to keep her from seeing the dirty ones.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked Alice.
“No,” she said gently, so that he knew it was bad news.
Mrs. Putnam was seated at the kitchen table, and she had poured glasses of water for him and for her. “It’s the neighbors’ cat,” she said.
“Is it dead?” The Czernys had an in-ground pool.
“No,” she answered. “It got to your pigeon.”
“I think your cage sort of held the pigeon in place.”
“But how did the cat get inside?”
“Don’t go look at it. The cage is covering up what’s left. I was about to clean it up for you.”
“No, I’ll do it. I’ll bury it in the other corner.”
“At least this time you’ll know where that cesspool is.”
“I made the windows so small. Maybe it lifted up a corner and went underneath.”
“I was afraid you’d be so upset.”
“It must have gone underneath.”
“You spent so much time taking care of it.”
“Is Alice upset?”
“I think she’s relieved, actually.”
“Maybe I’m a little upset.”
“It would be understandable. I screamed bloody murder at it. I think I took a year off its life.”
“Vicious thing. You should have seen it. It didn’t want to leave.”
“I’ll clean it up in a minute.”
“There isn’t really all of it there any more. But we have to clean it up soon, or the thing will come back for seconds.”
Alice declined to help with the burial. “Mother said it’s disgusting,” she explained.
“There’s a level of ceremony to be maintained,” he said stiffly.
“It’s just a pigeon.”
“You were the one who wanted to rescue it in the first place.”
“It was fine on the porch.”
He gave up on her. “I know what happened to Tim Brennan, by the way,” he added, as a taunt.
There was still dirt caked on the shovel from the last time Jacob had used it, dried to a color lighter than the blade. The backyard still seemed empty without Norrie to greet him as he walked into it. He would bury the pigeon in the southwest corner—efficiently, since no else was concerned with the rituals.
He lifted up the cardboard cage to take a look. There was no head. The wingfeathers and tailfeathers were spread out like an opened fan, or like the petals of a daisy. The chest had been opened and in the center was a moist red lump, which might have been heart or liver. He put the box back over it.
Although it was stupid of him, he had the feeling that he was being punished. It was only for himself, after all, that he wanted to find Tim Brennan. He didn’t think that God had arranged the deaths as a lesson. But in his selfishness he might have wandered into a terrain where God didn’t arrange anything at all.
He dug for a while, because he didn’t want the cat to be able to dig it back up. He wondered how he would feel different if he were a murderer burying his evidence, and he decided that it was unsafe to keep so many secrets to himself.
“Is Sam there?”
“This is Jacob.”
“I’m going to the bowling alley this afternoon to play Asteroids.”
“Yes. If you wanted to go, I would see you there.”
“It’s just a question.”
“Actually they have Ms. Pac-Man too. It’s sort of better.”
“Yeah. When are you going?”
“I don’t know. Now?”
“Meet you at the top of Crescent in five.”
There was a lot to tell, but Jacob didn’t want to rush into it. First he let Sam explain the new video game. “It’s like normal Pac-Man except fruitier. There’s still all the ghosts that are trying to get you.”
Jacob started a neutral topic of conversation. “Do you know anything about consumption?”
“Like with the proletariat and so forth?”
“The disease. It’s in Nicholas Nickleby.”
“The victims become more and more philosophical, until at last they’re so spiritual that they succumb.”
“Is it a brain disease?”
“I think it’s heart and lungs. They cough and spit blood. Or maybe it’s a brain disease too.”
“Never heard of it.”
“I was wondering if it has another name, or if it’s like ague and gout and it vanished at some point.”
“What happened to gout?”
“My father told me that it’s now very rare.”
“I bet it was cured by penicillin,” Sam offered.
“He told me that a long time ago, though,” Jacob qualified. “I don’t see him much these days.”
“Because of the divorce.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sam was at a loss.
It was a silly thing to have said, when they weren’t yet fully reconciled. Now he might not have a chance to talk about the murder. “Do you remember Tim Brennan?” Jacob asked.
“Sort of.” Sam sounded reluctant.
“The missing person,” Jacob continued, undeterred. “I think I know who killed him.”
“I think so.”
He had Sam’s attention. “But it wasn’t in the paper,” Sam protested. “I bet they kept it out of the paper.”
“I don’t think it was the mafia,” Jacob replied, uncertainly.
“The mafia sells the fireworks in school,” Sam said, becoming more excited. “That girl who sells them, Tina, her uncle is in it.”
“I didn’t know you could buy fireworks from Tina.”
“She comes up to you at your locker. Nicky says she sold him speed, too, but his mother made him throw it away.”
“He showed it to her. She didn’t even know he had it until he showed her. The dumbfuck.”
Jacob understood that this betrayal of Nicky was not a return to their old alliance. It reflected a new policy for the handling of confidences. If he told Sam his secrets, Sam would tell Nicky, and they would laugh together about the oddity of what Jacob had imagined. Word might even reach Paul. “That’s funny about Nicky and the speed,” Jacob said stiltedly. He felt as if he had had a close call.
“If the mafia could, they would fish it out of the trash and sell it to him again.”
Jacob cooperated by laughing, but the laugh was only formal. The witticism did not sound original to Sam. In the future, Jacob’s friend might come back to him in unguarded moments but he understood that he could no longer seek him out. It wasn’t Sam’s fault that Jacob was carrying secrets. Although he missed him anew in not being able to say that he missed him, he understood that revelation would drive him further away.
They kept walking down Crescent Avenue, now in silence. It had no sidewalks, and since there had been a heavy rain the night before, to avoid puddles they walked on the unevenly slanted lower swatches of people’s lawns, where the grass yellowed because sprinklers didn’t reach and where some owners set up barricades by placing white-painted boulders at intervals. Ranch houses and split-levels alternated. In front of most of them, off center, a droopy fir poisoned with its needles a widening circle of ground.
It was an old road, probably drawn originally by oxen given their head, and it turned so sharply that Jacob and Sam had no warning when a pickup full of high schoolers rounded a corner and bore down on them. It scared and splashed them. The high schoolers must have been looking out for people to frighten, because the three boys in the open back yelled in unison, “Queerbait!” as if it were a cheer.
“Faggots!” shouted Sam as loud as he could, as soon as he realized why he was wet.
By the time he shouted it, the high schoolers were probably out of earshot, but Jacob said, “Don’t,” anyway.
“Faggots! Faggots!” Sam continued to shout. His face flushed red and the tendons in his neck popped out. He repeated it a few more times, almost doubling over with emphasis. “They can’t hear me, anyway,” he said when he was through.
“They’ll beat us up if they do hear you.”
“I don’t care.”
“They drive around together because they’ve organized it so that not one of them has to find out whether he can beat up a smaller kid on his own.”
“Do you know them?” Jacob asked.
“No, but I see how the system works.”
“I think they graduated in May.”
“They’re faggots,” Sam repeated. But as he said it, he dropped his voice, because they heard the whine of the truck’s engine returning. The high schoolers were coming back. The pickup did a U-turn in front of Sam and Jacob and stopped. The three boys in the back of it jumped out.
The leader had a chipped front tooth and straight, fine black hair that fell below his ears. He addressed Sam: “Did you say something to me?”
“I thought you were trying to say something, and unfortunately I didn’t quite hear it.”
“No. Not really.”
“Not really?” The boy shoved Sam with two hands, jarring him so that his head knocked forward and then recoiled back. “Tell me what you said. I could swear it was a word that began with an F.”
Sam wiped his lip and looked down to see by the blood that he had bitten it. Jacob could tell that Sam’s temper was still high. “I said, ‘Fellows.’ You know, ‘Hi, fellows!’” He was pretending to be pretending to be innocent.
The insolence made the lead boy pause for a moment. “Tell me what you really said, you little queer.”
“‘Fellows.’ I said, ‘Fellows.’” Now Sam was just pretending to be innocent.
The leader put up his fists. “Okay, come on.” He started throwing punches at Sam. Once Sam fell, he started kicking him.
Jacob felt the fingers of the same strange calm that had surrounded him like a fog at the ruined garden, when he climbed the water tower even though Paul might have been waiting at the top. The way he explained it to himself was that he had nothing to lose. He climbed onto one of the border rocks on the edge of the yard where they were standing, and he said, “Leave him alone.” It was in his Arthurian voice, but only Sam would know that because it was without any Arthurian vocabulary.
“Did you say something to me?” the lead boy asked.
“I’m standing on this rock,” Jacob said, too frightened now to be more than descriptive, “and I’m telling you to leave him alone.”
“Come down here.”
“No. I’m standing on this rock. I’m not going to fight you.”
“Get down here.”
“Why? I’m not going to fight you. If you want to hurt me you can do it without my cooperation.”
Sam had managed to stand up. Jacob was careful to look at a spot in the air a foot above the lead boy’s head.
“Oh, let ’em go, Andy,” said one of the boys in the front seat. “They’re scared shitless.”
“Don’t you ever use that kind of language again,” said Andy. The other boys snickered as they climbed back into the pickup truck, which drove away.
It was a full minute before Jacob stepped down from his rock. He knew he had never done anything so brave or so Christian.
“Why’d you do that, man? You’re crazy!” Sam exclaimed.
“I don’t know.”
“Next thing I know, I hear you talking about some rock.”
“I think I was crazy. I know you were. ‘Fellows.’”
They talked about their triumph until they reached the bowling alley, where they spent nearly ten dollars on Ms. Pac-Man.
“What do you think of if I ask you to imagine a piece of pizza?” Jacob asked. He was putting on his shoes and socks in Alice’s room, while she sat in the far corner of her bed, begrudging his presence.
“I’d rather not.” She was still in her rose-print nightgown, because she had decided not to go to church.
“But what comes to mind?”
“Nothing.” She seemed to consider for a moment and then to turn away from what occurred to her. “It’s disgusting.”
“It isn’t so bad if you hold it up and let the grease drain off it. The problem is when the cheese slides off too.”
“How come you’re so vile? Is it on purpose or are you just like that?”
“The stomach has reasons that reason knows not of.”
“Are you coming this afternoon?”
Alice didn’t say anything in reply. Instead her eyes shifted to a focal range that overlooked him.
“I don’t want to talk to him about it,” Jacob said.
Downstairs his mother, in her terrycloth bathrobe, buttonholed him on the same topic. “Your father is picking you up for lunch.”
“I’m not going.”
“I have plans this afternoon, Jacob.”
“I’ll hang out with Sam.”
“The Wellses are spending the day in Boston.”
“Oh.” He knew but he’d forgotten. “I’ll be fine. I’ll take a bike ride so I won’t be in your way.”
“That’s not the point. You’re seeing your father.”
“I’d rather not.”
“I forbid you to take a bike ride.”
“You can’t forbid me from riding it to church.”
“You can walk to church.”
“Then I have to go now. I can’t talk any more or I’ll be late.”
“Fine, go. Go to church.”
But he stopped on the porch. When he turned around, he saw that his mother was watching him through the screen door. Her small fists were white.
“I have to take my bicycle or I’ll be late,” he said. It was a plain defiance.
“Why don’t you care a fraction as much about your family as you do about church?”
In the pews before services he made a show of tearing a flyer in the program into strips, with which to bookmark the three hymns. He looked so preoccupied in his task that no one approached him or spoke to him until the sharing of the peace. Then he shook hands on his right with Mrs. Robertson, who always bowed a little to make a joke out of the formality of handshaking, and on his left with the youngest Berger girl, who was solemn but smiled.
During the recessional he cast his eyes down as if he were lost in thought, but he had to raise them when he neared Pastor Greenley, and when he did, Mr. Berger made a point of speaking to him in a loud voice that the pastor was invited to hear.
“It’s so dedicated of you to come to church even when it’s by yourself. I don’t think my girls would if I weren’t here to crack the whip.”
Hands folded behind him, Pastor Greenley rose up on the balls of his feet and then settled again, instead of voicing his chagrin at the remark.
“My father’s an atheist,” Jacob explained, to suggest that the Putnams varied more in will than in will-power.
“The pastor always says there’s room for one more.”
“It’s agnostics that the pastor says that about.”
“In any case it’s great that you make the effort,” Mr. Berger said, struggling against Jacob to maintain the compliment.
“We take all kinds,” Pastor Greenley clarified, “and hope for the best.”
“Has there been any word about Tim Brennan?” Jacob asked.
“There hasn’t,” the pastor answered.
In the heat outdoors, beside the grille where Jacob’s bicycle was locked, stood Mr. Putnam.
“I need my bike,” Jacob said quietly. It mortified him that the congregants walking past could observe the encounter.
“We can put it in the trunk.”
“It’ll fit. We’ve put it there before.”
“I’ll walk then.” He would come back in an hour or so, after his father had given up, to retrieve it.
“Don’t be a pill. Unlock your bike and let’s go.”
“I’m not going.”
“Today you have to.”
“I didn’t realize that attendance in our family was compulsory.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I didn’t realize that attendance in our family was compulsory.”
“I heard you.” Not far away two elderly couples were greeting each other, and beyond them, three overweight women from the choir were laughing, touching one another on the forearm whenever they scored a joke. Mr. Putnam continued, in a reasonable tone: “It’s part of the agreement that you spend time with both your parents, even if you don’t like it.”
“Not today,” Jacob said stubbornly. “It doesn’t say specifically today.”
“It says one day per weekend, and if you don’t look out you’ll have to spend a whole week with me to make up for lost time.” He took his car keys out of his pocket, to draw the conversation to a close. “How long are you planning to be mad at me?”
“A long time,” Jacob answered, low and hurriedly, and then walked off at a trot. His scalp and face were tingling because they were so full of blood.
“Jacob!” his father called out. “Jacob!”
“Leave me alone!” he shouted, so that everyone in the parking lot turned to witness his escape.
He bought an Orangesicle from an ice cream truck and called it lunch, because the pizza parlor seemed too conspicuous. Not far from church, behind a strip of house lots too marshy to develop, there was an accidental pond where he and Alice occasionally skated in winter. He waited there, slapping at mosquitoes and stirring the water with a twig to watch the dark squiggles of tadpoles. After an hour, he walked back to church and fetched his bike. No one interrupted his errand.
At first he rode south out of habit, but then he deliberately persisted in the direction, because he realized that he was ready to know the answer. It would be better if Sam were with him, as he had been when the high schoolers had got out of the pickup truck, but he could ask Paul without Sam’s help, and he didn’t want to wait any longer.
He hid his bicycle, in case he would need to make a getaway. But instead of hiding himself, as he usually did, he sat in the sliver of shade to the north of the water tower, near the head of Paul’s path.
For a few hours no one came. Around the tower swiveled its shadow, in the shape of the gap of exposed paper between a Spirograph wheel and the circular frame it revolved in. Birds gossiped. There was a light wind in the trees. Jacob fell asleep.
When he opened his eyes, he heard pebbles skittering downhill from incautious footsteps. Then he heard a scramble, as if a climber had had to grab onto underbrush to steady himself. He was still out of sight. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Jacob stood up. He wished that he had told Alice after all. It was as if he believed that Paul could strike him dead by magic, but no one had that power.
“What are you doing here?” Paul asked, as he leaned on a knee to catch his breath. His eyes were scanning for others.
“I followed you.”
“I wanted to know what happened.”
“But how did you follow me if you’re already here?”
“I followed you before.”
“Do you want to go up?” Paul asked. He pointed to the top of the water tower.
Ignoring Jacob for the moment, Paul walked all the way around the water tower, then down to the cruciform garden, where abruptly he screamed, without words. No sound came back to them but the echo.
“We’re alone,” Paul announced.
“I think so.”
He sat down on the cement curb of the tower and tugged up the short sleeves of his T-shirt so that his shoulders could tan. “Aren’t you scared?” he asked.
“No,” Jacob lied.
“It makes it easier if you trust me.”
Jacob nodded. “I won’t go to the police about anything.”
“Want to go up now?” Paul asked.
“I’d rather not.”
“I thought you wanted to know.”
“Can’t you tell me here?”
“I’m not going to do it down here. I’ll go first, since you don’t trust me.”
“I trust you,” Jacob lied.
Paul jumped to catch the lowest rung, switched one hand at a time up to the second rung, and then monkeyed his feet up behind him. On the soles of his sneakers, spots of the beige rubber had worn away to black.
Jacob followed promptly, because it seemed safer not to give Paul much time alone on top to reconnoiter.
“Do you know what the garden is?” Jacob asked, looking down at it.
“It used to be the Masonic Home. Like a hospital. It burned down.” He sat Indian-style on the old tower and took out of his pocket a lighter and a sandwich bag of what looked at first like Q-tips. They were handmade cigarettes, however.
“Is that pot?” Jacob asked.
“How stupid are you?”
Paul lit one of the cigarettes and drew a breath through it. The small orange fire at its tip crackled delicately. He extended the spit end of the cigarette to Jacob.
“No thank you,” Jacob refused. He felt a little relieved at the resolution of the mystery.
“Then what do you want?” Paul demanded, with irritation.
“I thought you knew what happened to a friend of mine.”
“Something you said.”
Paul closed his eyes to concentrate on his smoking. A low, two-rung banister circled the roof, and Jacob sat down with his back to one of the posts supporting it. He kept his knees bent so that his bare calves didn’t touch the hot metal. Sweat trickled from one of his soaked armpits, and as the drops passed over his ribs, he shivered.
I’ll sing you one, oh, Paul hummed. Jacob remembered the words and supplied them in his mind. “Was he nice?” Paul asked.
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nice to the wrong person.”
“I don’t know,” Jacob repeated.
“How long have you been following me?”
“I did it a few times.”
“What’d you see?”
“I saw the animals,” Jacob admitted, because he hoped that Paul would offer an explanation. “In the lake.”
“The kittens.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and held the smoke inside him. When he let his breath go it was pale, almost clear. “Wasn’t that something?” he asked.
“You mean the drowning?”
“One minute they’re animals, and the next minute they’re shaped like animals. I didn’t mind.”
“But you threw up,” Jacob objected.
“I threw up because it was so interesting.”
“I threw up too.”
“I was under the car.”
“I should find it and make you eat it. Do you follow boys a lot?”
“I bet you do.”
“Do you like our house? I like the color. It’s ‘ruby.’”
“It’s very nice.”
“Not as nice as yours. Up in the center.”
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep ours,” Jacob admitted, to reduce the grounds for envy.
“Not with all the deaths,” Paul speculated. “Your friend’s death.” He watched Jacob hatefully, with a broad smile under ungiving eyes, like the frog’s on the tray before its belly was cut.
“Do you know what happened to him?” Jacob asked.
“I don’t know what happened to him, but I know what happened to you. You fell off. You stood up to leave and I pushed you and you fell off.” He looked pleased with his invention.
No tree branches were close enough to jump to. Jacob wondered if he would have to kill Paul. The most reliable way would be to trick him, and the most plausible deceptions would be those that appealed to his scorn for Jacob’s tameness. Jacob looped his arms around the top bar of the banister, for anchorage. “Is that what happened to Tim?” he asked.
“And I buried the body,” Paul answered.
“Where did you bury him?”
“Under the car.”
“No you didn’t.”
“In the lake.” He was taking brief puffs now, because the cigarette was so small that it threatened to burn his fingers where he held it. Jacob doubted that Paul would have the presence of mind to repent before he hit the ground. “I’m bored, Jacob. Why don’t you go home now,” Paul suggested.
“I’ll leave after you.”
“Are you afraid?”
To show that he was not afraid, Paul stood, with his back to Jacob, raised his hands above his head, and yawned in a grand arch, so that even his individual fingers were indulgently extended.
It would have been a clean tackle, and the body would have tumbled easily over the banister. “I could have killed you just now,” Jacob said, when Paul was through.
Paul was startled and he darted a nervous look at Jacob despite himself, as if he had for the first time realized that Jacob did believe what Paul had been taunting him for believing. And Jacob understood from this gesture that he had misunderstood the gestures and words leading up to it. It was Paul whose anger had put him in harm’s way on the top of the water tower. It was Jacob who was murderous. Paul, embarrassed, descended the ladder without answering Jacob’s remark and retreated into the woods.
Jacob’s hands were shaking heavily from the poison in his blood. It was a hot poison, and in the heat it took longer to subside. While he waited for his hands to become steady enough for the ladder, it occurred to him that his quest had come to nothing—he did not know anything about Tim Brennan’s fate and he never would—because it was not given to the impure to find the grail. And yet he could not see how to drive the poison out of him.
It wasn’t yet dinnertime when he got home. The sun and the dampness in the air were unabated. No cars were in the driveway. Jacob carried his bike over his shoulder down the concrete steps to the basement door, only to discover that his mother had locked it, which she almost never did. His new key didn’t work. She had also locked the back screen door, which when locked didn’t open except from the inside. She must have exited through the basement. He guessed that her agitation had been provoked by his disobedience.
He had to go in through the front door. Inside, all the lights were out. Prudentially he said, “Hello?” because on the way home it had occurred to him that his mother’s plans for the afternoon might have been with the banker. There was no answer. There were no sounds at all in the house. Even the refrigerator was silent, as if it had been hours since anyone had disturbed its coolness with an investigation.
After he fetched his bicycle into the basement, he left open the door at the top of the basement stairs, so that the chill would drift up after him. He poured himself a glass of water. On the kitchen table he then found a note in his mother’s loose cursive: “We’re at the hospital. Alice will be fine. Mr. Czerny will drive you.” It was unsigned.
He locked all the doors his mother had locked, and he crossed the side lawn to ring the bell at the Czernys’.
“My mother left a note,” he began.
“Would you like me to take you to the hospital?” Mr. Czerny asked. Even though it was Sunday afternoon, Mr. Czerny was wearing slacks, a dress shirt, and an undershirt. Their house had air conditioning. Jacob stood in the front hall while Mr. Czerny told his wife that they were going. They were Catholics, and a framed portrait of the pope hung on the wall.
Mr. Czerny drove an old Cadillac, the lumbering kind in danger of scraping its front teeth on the road whenever the pavement led it into a dip. The heavy leather seemed to hold Jacob in place as if he were an infant. From time to time he glanced at Mr. Czerny, whose sideburns were wavy and unevenly gray, the single disordered thing in his appearance.
“As I understand it your sister had a fainting spell, but she’s going to be all right.”
“I was out riding my bike,” Jacob explained.
“Your mother said you would need someone to drive you over there.”
“Thank you,” Jacob said prematurely. He would have to remember to say it again when they arrived.
The hospital was in downtown Worcester. As they stepped off the asphalt of the parking lot, the glass doors of the emergency room slid open. Mr. Czerny told the nurse at the desk that they were here to see a patient named Alice Putnam.
“She’s been moved to the juvenile wing. You’ll have to ask there for her room. Take the hallway next to the drinking fountain, all the way to the end, and then it’s on your right.”
“That’s good, that she’s been moved,” Jacob suggested.
“It means that the doctor no longer considers her case to be an acute situation,” the nurse answered cautiously.
Jacob was conscious of the rhythms of his and Mr. Czerny’s footsteps as they walked down the long hall. The man’s strides were longer and more methodical. “It is no doubt a good sign that she’s been moved,” Mr. Czerny reassured him.
In the children’s wing, Mr. Czerny asked a second nurse for further directions. Alice Putnam was in room 714. Jacob didn’t like it that strangers knew where to find her when he didn’t. He and Mr. Czerny took an elevator to her floor.
“Jakie!” Mrs. Putnam cried when she saw him. She and Mr. Putnam were waiting outside 714. She was carrying her big purse, and as she rocked from side to side, hugging Jacob, it knocked against his butt.
His father shook hands with Mr. Czerny. “Oh it was no trouble,” Jacob heard Mr. Czerny say.
“Where were you?” Mrs. Putnam asked, detaching from him and wiping her eyes.
“I’m going to step out now, unless you need me for anything else,” Mr. Czerny excused himself. Both Mr. and Mrs. Putnam thanked him again and let him go.
“She’s going to be fine,” Mrs. Putnam volunteered.
“What happened? Is she in there?”
“You can see her in a minute,” Mr. Putnam instructed him. “The doctor is talking to her right now.” His voice was deeper than usual and his eyes had darkened.
Jacob managed to resent even these signs of worry. “But what happened?” he asked again. He realized, as he asked, that his father would have been the one present at the crisis, and that he would have to hear the story from him.
“She hasn’t been eating,” Mr. Putnam said. It was a fact that Jacob already knew, but it sounded graver when spoken in a hospital corridor. Mr. Putnam stared at him with almost challenging eyes.
“But what happened,” Jacob repeated once more, meeting his gaze.
“We went for pizza, and she didn’t want any,” Mr. Putnam narrated. “I ordered it anyway and she said she wouldn’t eat it. In the middle of arguing with me, she fainted. She hit her head on a table before I could catch her.” He made a gesture to demonstrate, and the gesture was alarmingly quick, as if she were escaping him again, while he remembered it.
Jacob pictured the two of them shouting, unlike themselves, in the small restaurant. He pictured Alice falling, suddenly as fragile as she was stubborn.
“She was bleeding, but it wasn’t a deep cut. The counter boy handed me a glass of water for her, but she wouldn’t drink it. She said, ‘I don’t want any soda.’ I had to promise her that it was only water.”
“That’s the way she is now,” Mrs. Putnam interjected.
“I thought she was confused,” Mr. Putnam continued. “I brought her here because I thought she had had a concussion. But it turns out she wasn’t confused.”
“She’s been so fussy. I should have known what it meant,” said Mrs. Putnam.
“The doctor says they usually disguise what they’re doing,” Mr. Putnam reassured her, somewhat neutrally.
“She thinks she looks more beautiful,” Mrs. Putnam explained to Jacob.
Through the thick door Jacob could not hear even the shape of the conversation between the doctor and his sister. There were only the hospital’s sounds: the bright ding of the elevator just before it opened, the soft double tone on the intercom whenever a doctor was paged, the clapping of a nurse’s shoes as she wheeled a cart down the hall. Jacob walked away from his parents for a drink of water, and then he remained by the fountain, as if he were reading the sign there about the importance of washing your hands between visits to patients.
His father approached him, and he didn’t walk away. “Where did you go today?” his father asked.
“For a bike ride.”
“Anywhere in particular?”
“No.” It did not feel like a lie to Jacob as he said it, because at that moment the world in which he had searched for Tim Brennan seemed cut off and behind him forever.
“I wish you’d agree to see me.”
Jacob shrugged. He was aware in using the gesture that it was a rudeness that could only be used so many times in a conversation with a parent and that it shouldn’t be wasted. As if to recapture it, he said, pretend-casually, “I’m seeing you here.”
“I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry. You don’t know how—”
“Do you have a mistress?” Jacob asked. It was the last chance, really.
“Your mother and I are divorced now, and—”
“Since before,” Jacob interrupted again.
He did not turn around to look at Mrs. Putnam. His lips were chalky. “Did your mother tell you that?”
“It was an accident. I overheard her on the phone with grandfather.”
“It’s a complicated thing,” Mr. Putnam said. “You’re a boy.”
The hospital silence rushed around and between them. Any number of people had died in this silence, but no one had been born in it. They were born in the shouts that they had brought with them to replace it.
“You’re just my little boy.”
“Not really any more,” Jacob said, with a coldness that astonished him.
“I used to be able to make it all better.”
His father was about to cry. He didn’t want that. He had never imagined that.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
His father did cry. As Jacob waited for him to stop, they held each other, and Jacob realized that there was no more of a certain kind of comfort in the world. His anger had been the last piece of it. He had thought that if he held on to it fiercely enough, it would do something or grant him something, but it hadn’t, and now it had melted away like a blade of ice.
“Where were you?” Alice asked.
“Looking,” Jacob answered.
“Did you find him?”
“Maybe he isn’t dead.”
“Maybe,” Jacob considered. “Are you all right?”
“They’re feeding me through my veins.”
“It leaves something to be desired,” Jacob commiserated. He saw that she was now carefully inside herself, as he was, and as neither of them had used to be.
“Supposedly it’s a disease,” she said.
“Then maybe you’ll get better.”
“How was church?”
“Mr. Berger praised my devotion and attendance record.”
“I pointed out that I’m all the more exceptional coming as I do from a family of heathens and libertines.”
“‘Pharisee,’” Alice accused.
“‘Saint,’” Jacob retorted.
“Don’t be mean.”
“Are you going to see Dad now?”
By the next summer, different confusions had fallen on Jacob.
At the last minute, more of his friends had transferred to St. Matthew’s than expected, including Sam, and so in his freshman year Jacob had needed to recruit a new circle of friends. To attract them he had begun to experiment with a more deliberate unfashionableness. He rehearsed his opinions before issuing them. He dressed in bright, unusual colors, and he refused to try contact lenses. He deprecated art and literature created after 1950. When school let out in June, he was relieved, because the performance of himself was threatening to become unwieldy. For vacation he lapsed into unsociability.
On a July afternoon he accepted a ride into Worcester from his mother, who was taking Alice to the Galleria. They dropped Jacob off at the library, where he checked out the next two volumes of The Vicomte de Bragelonne. He had an hour to kill before they picked him up. He could have spent it reading, but Mrs. Nilsson had recommended that he listen to a recording of André Watts playing the Scarlatti sonata that they were working on. The library owned a copy, but Jacob wanted to buy it. Watts had been a favorite of Mr. Nilsson’s, and Mr. Nilsson had died of leukemia in February. Jacob walked to the record store, a few blocks away.
Classical was downstairs; you had to walk through rock and pop to reach it. He found the recording of the Scarlatti recital easily. He browsed through the Debussy selections but he couldn’t afford to purchase two albums.
The cashier’s counter was back upstairs, near the entrance. It was part of Jacob’s new persona to dismiss rock as inelegant. Classical was the underdog. While waiting in line to buy it, he was forced to listen to the majoritarian enemy. He pretended that this made him sullen, and he grimaced.
He didn’t recognize the voice but when he turned around he recognized the young man’s face.
“I gave you a ride to church last summer. My name’s Tim.”
“Hi,” Jacob managed to say.
“You must be in the high school now.”
“Yes,” Jacob admitted, feeling much younger. Because Tim was holding a rock album, the persona that Jacob had invented was capable only of scorning him, which Jacob himself was not capable of. The mystery of last summer rose up and drove every intervening mystery from his mind. He could not move around it.
“Where do you live?” he asked, clumsily.
“In New Haven, like last summer. I’m up visiting my father for a few days.”
Like last summer. In reality he must have gone somewhere very shameful after his disappearance from Grafton, or he would not be lying about it now.
“What’re you getting?” Tim asked, since Jacob asked him no more questions. Jacob showed him the Scarlatti sonatas. Tim shook his head. “You were always such a serious kid,” he said, as if Jacob weren’t a kid anymore.
“What about you?” Jacob asked.
Tim held the rock album up. “I think you’d like it,” he advised Jacob. “It’s melancholy-sweet.”
Jacob nodded politely. Secretly he decided to get it. He didn’t want Tim to see, though. He would walk around the block and come back in and trade the Scarlatti for it.
They were near the front of the line. Soon Jacob would pay and leave the store, and then he would never know. “Last summer they said you were missing,” he risked.
The incurious sales clerk took the Scarlatti album from Jacob and said flatly, “Nine sixteen,” as he bagged it.
“I told my father where I was going, but he didn’t want to hear it,” Tim said.
Jacob could tell it was a painful subject. He didn’t want to cause Tim any discomfort. So it had been a fight of some kind, a misunderstanding.
“I went back to New Haven to stay with my friend,” Tim further explained. “It was too soon after my mother, and I probably shouldn’t have told him. But he’s pretty okay with it now.”
Jacob was holding his album in its plastic bag. To seal it, the clerk had folded the receipt over the top and stapled it shut. Jacob waited awkwardly, not knowing what he was waiting for.
After Tim paid for his album, they walked outside together. Tim shook Jacob’s hand a little ironically, like Mrs. Robertson in church. Since Jacob was thinking, somewhat guiltily, about his secret plan to walk around the block, it felt to him like a false good-bye, although it was in fact a true one.