Black House Chapter Two
CHIPPER’S BACKGROUND we know. Alice arrived at Maxton’s from a big house on Gale Street, the old part of Gale Street, where she outlived two husbands, raised five sons, and taught piano to four generations of French Landing children, none of whom ever became professional pianists but who all remember her fondly and think of her with affection. Alice came to this place as most people do, in a car driven by one of her children and with a mixture of reluctance and surrender. She had become too old to live alone in the big house in the old section of Gale Street; she had two grown, married sons who were kind enough, but she could not tolerate adding to their cares. Alice Weathers had spent her entire life in French Landing, and she had no desire to live anywhere else; in a way, she had always known that she would end her days in Maxton’s, which though not at all luxurious was agreeable enough. On the day her son Martin had driven her over to inspect the place, she had realized that she knew at least half the people there.
Unlike Alice, Charles Burnside, the tall, skinny old man lying covered by a sheet before us in his metal bed, is not in full possession of his wits, nor is he dreaming of Fred Astaire. The veiny expanse of his bald, narrow head curves down to eyebrows like tangles of gray wire, beneath which, on either side of the fleshy hook of his nose, two narrow eyes shine at his north-facing window and the expanse of woods beyond Maxton’s. Alone of all the residents of Daisy wing, Burny is not asleep. His eyes gleam, and his lips are wormed into a bizarre smile ?? but these details mean nothing, for Charles Burnside’s mind may be as empty as his room. Burny has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for many years, and what looks like an aggressive form of pleasure could be no more than physical satisfaction of a very basic kind. If we had failed to guess that he was the origin of the stench in this room, the stains rising into the sheet that covers him make it clear. He has just evacuated, massively, into his bed, and the very least we can say about his response to the situation is that he does not mind a bit; no sir, shame is not a part of this picture.
But if ?? unlike delightful Alice ?? Burny no longer has a firm grasp on all of his marbles, neither is he a typical Alzheimer’s patient. He might spend a day or two mumbling into his oatmeal like the rest of Chipper’s zombies, then revitalize himself and join the living again. When not un-dead, he usually manages to get down the hall to the bathroom as necessary, and he spends hours either sneaking off on his own or patrolling the grounds, being unpleasant ?? in fact, offensive ?? to all and sundry. Restored from zombiehood, he is sly, secretive, rude, caustic, stubborn, foul-tongued, mean-spirited, and resentful, in other words ?? in the world according to Chipper ?? a blood brother to the other old men who reside at Maxton’s. Some of the nurses, aides, and attendants doubt that Burny really does have Alzheimer’s. They think he is faking it, opting out, lying low, deliberately making them work harder while he rests up and gathers his strength for yet another episode of unpleasantness. We can hardly blame them for their suspicion. If Burny has not been misdiagnosed, he is probably the only advanced Alzheimer’s patient in the world to experience prolonged spells of remission.
In 1996, his seventy-eighth year, the man known as Charles Burnside arrived at Maxton’s in an ambulance from La Riviere General Hospital, not in a vehicle driven by a helpful relative. He had appeared in the emergency room one morning, carrying two heavy suitcases filled with dirty clothing and loudly demanding medical attention. His demands were not coherent, but they were clear. He claimed to have walked a considerable distance to reach the hospital, and he wanted the hospital to take care of him. The distance varied from telling to telling ?? ten miles, fifteen miles, twenty-five. He either had or had not spent some nights sleeping in fields or by the side of the road. His general condition and the way he smelled suggested that he had been wandering the countryside and sleeping rough for perhaps a week. If he had once had a wallet, he had lost it on his journey. La Riviere General cleaned him up, fed him, gave him a bed, and tried to extract a history. Most of his statements trailed off into disjointed babble, but in the absence of any documents, at least these facts seemed reliable: Burnside had been a carpenter, framer, and plasterer in the area for many years, working for himself and general contractors. An aunt who lived in the town of Blair had given him a room.
He had walked the eighteen miles from Blair to La Riviere, then? No, he had started his walk somewhere else, he could not remember where, but it was ten miles away, no, twenty-five miles away, some town, and the people in that town were no-good jackass asswipes. What was the name of his aunt? Althea Burnside. What were her address and telephone number? No idea, couldn’t remember. Did his aunt have a job of any kind? Yes, she was a full-time jackass asswipe. But she had permitted him to live in her house? Who? Permitted what? Charles Burnside needed no one’s permission, he did what he damn well wanted. Had his aunt ordered him out of her house? Who are you talking about, you jackass asshole?
The admitting M.D. entered an initial diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, pending the results of various tests, and the social worker got on the telephone and requested the address and telephone number of an Althea Burnside currently residing in Blair. The telephone company reported no listing for a person of that name in Blair, nor was she listed in Ettrick, Cochrane, Fountain, Sparta, Onalaska, Arden, La Riviere, or any other of the towns and cities within a fifty-mile radius. Widening her net, the social worker consulted the Records Office and the departments of Social Security, Motor Vehicle License, and Taxation for information about Althea and Charles Burnside. Of the two Altheas that popped up out of the system, one owned a diner in Butternut, far to the north of the state, and the other was a black woman who worked in a Milwaukee day-care center. Neither had any connection to the man in La Riviere General. The Charles Burnsides located by the records search were not the social worker’s Charles Burnside. Althea seemed not to exist. Charles, it seemed, was one of those elusive people who go through life without ever paying taxes, registering to vote, applying for a Social Security card, opening a bank account, joining the armed forces, getting a driver’s license, or spending a couple of seasons at the state farm.
Another round of telephone calls resulted in the elusive Charles Burnside’s classification as a ward of the county and his admission to the Maxton Elder Care Facility until accommodation could be found at the state hospital in Whitehall. The ambulance conveyed Burnside to Max-ton’s at the expense of the generous public, and grumpy Chipper slammed him into Daisy wing. Six weeks later, a bed opened up in a ward at the state hospital. Chipper received the telephone call a few minutes after the day’s mail brought him a check, drawn by an Althea Burnside on a bank in De Pere, for Charles Burnside’s maintenance at his facility. Althea Burnside’s address was a De Pere post office box. When the state hospital called, Chipper announced that in the spirit of civic duty he would be happy to continue Mr. Burnside’s status at Max-ton Elder Care. The old fellow had just become his favorite patient. Without putting Chipper through any of the usual shenanigans, Burny had doubled his contribution to the income stream.
For the next six years, the old man slid relentlessly into the darkness of Alzheimer’s. If he was faking, he gave a brilliant performance. Down he went, through the descending way stations of incontinence, incoherence, frequent outbursts of anger, loss of memory, loss of the ability to feed himself, loss of personality. He dwindled into infancy, then into vacuity, and spent his days strapped into a wheelchair. Chipper mourned the inevitable loss of a uniquely cooperative patient. Then, in the summer of the year before these events, the amazing resuscitation occurred. Animation returned to Burny’s slack face, and he began to utter vehement nonsense syllables. Abbalah! Gorg! Munshun! Gorg! He wanted to feed himself, he wanted to exercise his legs, to stagger around and re-acquaint himself with his surroundings. Within a week, he was using English words to insist on wearing his own clothes and going to the bathroom by himself. He put on weight, gained strength, once again became a nuisance. Now, often in the same day, he passes back and forth between late-stage Alzheimer’s lifelessness and a guarded, gleaming surliness so healthy in a man of eighty-five it might be called robust. Burny is like a man who went to Lourdes and experienced a cure but left before it was complete. For Chipper, a miracle is a miracle. As long as the old creep stays alive, who cares if he is wandering the grounds or drooping against the restraining strap in his wheelchair?
We move closer. We try to ignore the stench. We want to see what we can glean from the face of this curious fellow. It was never a pretty face, and now the skin is gray and the cheeks are sunken potholes. Prominent blue veins wind over the gray scalp, spotted as a plover’s egg. The rubbery-looking nose hooks slightly to the right, which adds to the impression of slyness and concealment. The wormy lips curl in a disquieting smile ?? the smile of an arsonist contemplating a burning building ?? that may after all be merely a grimace.
Here is a true American loner, an internal vagrant, a creature of shabby rooms and cheap diners, of aimless journeys resentfully taken, a collector of wounds and injuries lovingly fingered and refingered. Here is a spy with no cause higher than himself. Burny’s real name is Carl Bierstone, and under this name he conducted, in Chicago, from his mid-twenties until the age of forty-six, a secret rampage, an unofficial war, during which he committed wretched deeds for the sake of the pleasures they afforded him. Carl Bierstone is Burny’s great secret, for he cannot allow anyone to know that this former incarnation, this earlier self, still lives inside his skin. Carl Bierstone’s awful pleasures, his foul toys, are also Burny’s, and he must keep them hidden in the darkness, where only he can find them.
So is that the answer to Chipper’s miracle? That Carl Bierstone found a way to creep out through a seam in Burny’s zombiedom and assume control of the foundering ship? The human soul contains an infinity of rooms, after all, some of them vast, some no bigger than a broom closet, some locked, some few imbued with a radiant light. We bow closer to the veiny scalp, the wandering nose, the wire-brush eyebrows; we lean deeper into the stink to examine those interesting eyes. They are like black neon; they glitter like moonlight on a sodden riverbank. All in all, they look un-settlingly gleeful, but not particularly human. Not much help here.
Burny’s lips move: he is still smiling, if you can call that rictus a smile, but he has begun to whisper. What is he saying?
. . . dey are gowering in their bloody holes and govering their eyes, dey are whimbering in derror, my boor loss babbies No, no, dat won’t help, will it? Ah, zee de engynes, yezz, oh dose beeyoodiful beeyoodiful engynes, whad a zight, the beeyoodiful engynes againzt de vire, how they churrn, how dey churrn and burrn I zee a hole, yez yez dere id iz oho zo brighd around de etches zo folded back . . .
Carl Bierstone may be reporting in, but his babble is not of much help. Let us follow the direction of Burny’s mud-glitter gaze in hopes that it might give us a hint as to what has so excited the old boy. Aroused, too, as we observe from the shape beneath the sheet. He and Chipper seem to be in sync here, since both are standing at the ready, except that instead of the benefit of Rebecca Vilas’s expert attentions, Burny’s only stimulation is the view through his window.
The view hardly measures up to Ms. Vilas. Head slightly elevated upon a pillow, Charles Burnside looks raptly out over a brief expanse of lawn to a row of maple trees at the beginning of an extensive woods. Farther back tower the great, leafy heads of oaks. A few birch trunks shine candlelike in the inner darkness. From the height of the oaks and the variety of the trees, we know that we are regarding a remnant of the great climax forest that once blanketed this entire part of the country. Like all of the ancient forest’s traces, the woods extending north and east from Maxton’s speak of profound mysteries in a voice nearly too deep to be heard. Beneath its green canopy, time and serenity embrace bloodshed and death; violence roils on unseen, constantly, absorbed into every aspect of a hushed landscape that never pauses but moves with glacial lack of haste. The spangled, yielding floor covers millions of scattered bones in layer upon layer;all that grows and thrives here thrives on rot. Worlds within worlds churn, and great, systematic universes hum side by side, each ignorantly bringing abundance and catastrophe upon its unguessed-at neighbors.
Does Burny contemplate these woods, is he enlivened by what he sees in them? Or, for that matter, is he in fact still asleep, and does Carl Bierstone caper behind Charles Burnside’s peculiar eyes?
Burny whispers, Fogzes down fogzhulls, radz in radhulls, hyenaz over embdy stomachs wail, oho aha dis iz mozt-mozt gladzome my frenz, more an more de liddle wunz drudge drudge drudge oho on bledding foodzies . . .
Let’s blow this pop stand, okay?
Let’s sail away from old Burny’s ugly mouth ?? enough is enough. Let us seek the fresh air and fly north, over the woods. Foxes down foxholes and rats in ratholes may be wailing, true, that’s how it works, but we are not about to find any starving hyenas in western Wisconsin. Hyenas are always hungry anyhow. No one feels sorry for them, either. You’d have to be a real bleeding heart to pity a creature that does nothing but skulk around the periphery of other species until the moment when, grinning and chuckling, it can plunder their leftovers. Out we go, right through the roof.
East of Maxton’s, the woods carpet the ground for something like a mile or two before a narrow dirt road curves in from Highway 35 like a careless parting in a thick head of hair. The woods continue for another hundred yards or so, then yield to a thirty-year-old housing development consisting of two streets. Basketball hoops, backyard swing sets, tricycles, bicycles, and vehicles by Fisher-Price clutter the driveways of the modest houses on Schubert and Gale. The children who will make use of them lie abed, dreaming of cotton candy, puppy dogs, home runs, excursions to distant territories, and other delightful infinitudes; also asleep are their anxious parents, doomed to become even more so after reading Wendell Green’s contribution to the front page of the day’s Herald.
Something catches our eye ?? that narrow dirt road curving into the woods from Highway 35’s straightaway. More a lane than an actual road, its air of privacy seems at odds with its apparent uselessness. The lane loops off into the woods and, three-fourths of a mile later, comes to an end. What is its point, what is it for? From our height above the earth, the track resembles a faint line sketched by a No. 4 pencil ?? you practically need an eagle’s eye to see it at all ?? but someone went to considerable effort to draw this line through the woods. Trees had to be cut and cleared, stumps to be pried from the ground. If one man did it, the work would have taken months of sweaty, muscle-straining labor. The result of all that inhuman effort has the remarkable property of concealing itself, of evading the eye, so that it fades away if attention wanders, and must be located again. We might think of dwarfs and secret dwarf mines, the path to a dragon’s hidden cache of gold ?? a treasure so safeguarded that access to it has been camouflaged by a magic spell. No, dwarf mines, dragon treasures, and magic spells are too childish, but when we drop down for a closer examination, we see that a weathered NO TRESPASSING sign stands at the beginning of the lane, proof that something is being guarded, even if it is merely privacy.
Having noticed the sign, we look again at the end of the lane. In the darkness under the trees down there, one area seems murkier than the rest. Even as it shrinks back into the gloom, this area possesses an unnatural solidity that distinguishes it from the surrounding trees. Aha oho, we say to ourselves in an echo of Burny’s gibberish, what have we here, a wall of some kind? It seems that featureless. When we reach the midpoint in the curve of the lane, a triangular section of darkness all but obscured by the treetops abruptly defines itself as a peaked roof. Not until we are nearly upon it does the entire structure move into definition as a three-story wooden house, oddly shambling in structure, with a sagging front porch. This house has clearly stood empty for a long time, and after taking in its eccentricity, the first thing we notice is its inhospitability to new tenants. A second NO TRESPASSING sign, leaning sideways at an improbable angle against a newel post, merely underlines the impression given by the building itself.
The peaked roof covers only the central section. To the left, a two-story extension retreats back into the woods. On the right, the building sprouts additions like outsized sheds, more like growths than afterthoughts. In both senses of the word, the building looks unbalanced: an off-kilter mind conceived it, then relentlessly brought it into off-center being. The intractable result deflects inquiry and resists interpretation. An odd, monolithic invulnerability emanates from the bricks and boards, despite the damage done by time and weather. Obviously built in search of seclusion, if not isolation, the house seems still to demand them.
Oddest of all, from our vantage point the house appears to have been painted a uniform black ?? not only the boards, but every inch of the exterior, the porch, the trim, the rain gutters, even the windows. Black, from top to bottom. And that cannot be possible; in this guileless, good-hearted corner of the world, not even the most crazily misanthropic builder would turn his house into its own shadow. We float down to just above ground level and move nearer along the narrow lane . . .
When we come close enough for reliable judgment, which is uncomfortably close, we find that misanthropy can go further than we had supposed. The house is not black now, but it used to be. What it has faded into makes us feel that we might have been too critical about the original color. The house has become the leaden gray-black of thunderheads and dismal seas and the hulls of wrecked ships. Black would be preferable to this utter lifelessness.
We may be certain that very few of the adults who live in the nearby development, or any adults in French Landing or the surrounding towns, have defied the admonition on 35 and ventured up the narrow lane. Almost none so much as notice the sign anymore; none of them know of the existence of the black house. We can be just as certain, however, that a number of their children have explored the lane, and that some of those children wandered far enough to come upon the house. They would have seen it in a way their parents could not, and what they saw would have sent them racing back toward the highway.
The black house seems as out of place in western Wisconsin as a skyscraper or a moated palace. In fact, the black house would be an anomaly anywhere in our world, except perhaps as a “Haunted Mansion,” a “Castle of Terrors,” in an amusement park, where its capacity to repel ticket buyers would put it out of business within a week. Yet in one specific way it might remind us of the dim buildings along the ascent of Chase Street into respectability from the riverbank and Nailhouse Row. The shabby Nelson Hotel, the obscure tavern, the shoe store, and the others, marked with the horizontal stripe drawn by the river’s grease pencil, share the same eerie, dreamlike, half-unreal flavor that saturates the black house.
At this moment in our progress ?? and through everything that follows ?? we would do well to remember that this strange flavor of the dreamlike and slightly unnatural is characteristic of borderlands. It can be detected in every seam between one specific territory and another, however significant or insignificant the border in question. Borderlands places are different from other places; they are borderish.
Say you happen to be driving for the first time through a semirural section of Oostler County in your home state, on your way to visit a recently divorced friend of the opposite sex who has abruptly and, you think, unwisely decamped to a small town in adjacent Orelost County. On the passenger seat beside you, atop a picnic basket containing two bottles of a superior white Bordeaux held tightly in place by various gourmet goodies in exquisite little containers, lies a map carefully folded to expose the relevant area. You may not know your exact location, but you are on the right road and making good time.
Gradually, the landscape alters. The road veers around a nonexistent berm, then begins winding through inexplicable curves; on either side, the trees slouch; beneath their twisted boughs, the intermittent houses grow smaller and seedier. Ahead, a three-legged dog squirms through a hedge and barrels snarling toward your right front tire. A crone wearing a teensy straw hat and what appears to be a shroud glances up red-eyed from a listing porch swing. Two front yards along, a little girl costumed in dirty pink gauze and a foil crown flaps a glittery, star-headed wand over a heap of burning tires. Then a rectangular placard bearing the legend WELCOME TO ORELOST COUNTY glides into view. Soon the trees improve their posture and the road straightens out. Released from anxieties barely noticed until they were gone, you nudge the accelerator and hasten toward your needy friend.
Borderlands taste of unruliness and distortion. The grotesque, the unpredictable, and the lawless take root in them and luxuriate. The central borderlands flavor is of slippage. And while we are in a setting of wondrous natural beauty, we have also been traveling over a natural borderland, delineated by a great river and defined by other, lesser rivers, wide glacial moraines, limestone cliffs, and valleys that remain invisible, like the black house, until you turn the right corner and meet them face to face.
Have you ever seen a furious old wreck in worn-out clothes who pushes an empty shopping cart down deserted streets and rants about a “fushing feef “? Sometimes he wears a baseball cap, sometimes a pair of sunglasses with one cracked lens.
Have you ever moved frightened into a doorway and watched a soldierly man with a zigzag lightning-bolt scar on one side of his face storm into a drunken mob and discover, lying spread-eagled in death on the ground, a boy, his head smashed and his pockets turned out? Have you seen the anger and the pity blaze in that man’s mutilated face?
These are signs of slippage.
Another lies concealed below us on the outskirts of French Landing, and despite the terror and heartbreak that surround this sign, we have no choice but to stand in witness before it. By our witness, we shall do it honor, to the measure of our individual capabilities; by being witnessed, by offering its testimony to our mute gaze, it will repay us in measure far greater.
We are back in midair, and spread out ?? we could say, spread-eagled out ?? beneath us French County sprawls like a topographical map. The morning sunlight, stronger now, glows on green rectangular fields and dazzles off the lightning rods rising from the tops of barns. The roads look clean. Molten pools of light shine from the tops of the few cars drifting toward town along the edges of the fields. Holsteins nudge pasture gates, ready for the confinement of their stanchions and the morning’s date with the milking machine.
At a safe distance from the black house, which has already given us an excellent example of slippage, we are gliding eastward, crossing the long straight ribbon of Eleventh Street and beginning a journey into a transitional area of scattered houses and small businesses before Highway 35 cuts through actual farmland. The 7-Eleven slips by, and the VFW hall, where the flagpole will not display Old Glory for another forty-five minutes. In one of the houses set back from the road, a woman named Wanda Kinderling, the wife of Thornberg Kinderling, a wicked and foolish man serving a life sentence in a California prison, awakens, eyes the level of the vodka in the bottle on her bedside table, and decides to postpone breakfast for another hour. Fifty yards along, gleaming tractors in military rows face the giant steel-and-glass bubble of Ted Goltz’s farm-implement dealership, French County Farm Equipment, where a decent, troubled husband and father named Fred Marshall, whom we shall be meeting before long, will soon report for work.
Beyond the showy glass bubble and the asphalt sea of Goltz’s parking lot, a half mile of stony, long-neglected field eventually degenerates into bare earth and spindly weeds. At the end of a long, overgrown turn-in, what seems to be a pile of rotting lumber stands between an old shed and an antique gas pump. This is our destination. We glide toward the earth. The heap of lumber resolves into a leaning, dilapidated structure on the verge of collapse. An old tin Coca-Cola sign pocked with bullet holes tilts against the front of the building. Beer cans and the milkweed of old cigarette filters litter the scrubby ground. From within comes the steady, somnolent buzz of a great many flies. We wish to retreat into the cleansing air and depart. The black house was pretty bad; in fact, it was terrible, but this . . . this is going to be worse.
One secondary definition of slippage is: the feeling that things in general have just gotten, or very shortly will get, worse.
The ruined boxcar-shaped shack before us used to house a comically ill-run and unsanitary establishment called Ed’s Eats & Dawgs. From behind an eternally messy counter, a chortling 350-pound mass of blubber named Ed Gilbertson once served up greasy, overdone hamburgers, baloney-and-mayonnaise sandwiches ornamented with black thumb-prints, and oozing ice-cream cones to a small, undiscriminating clientele, mostly local children who arrived on bicycles. Now long deceased, Ed was one of the numerous uncles of French Landing’s chief of police, Dale Gilbertson, and a good-hearted slob and dimwit of great local renown. His cook’s apron was of an indescribable filthiness; the state of his hands and fingernails would have brought any visiting health inspector to the verge of nausea; his utensils might as well have been cleaned by cats. Immediately behind the counter, tubs of melting ice cream cooked in the heat from the crusted griddle. Overhead, limp flypaper ribbons hung invisible within the fur of a thousand fly corpses. The unlovely truth is that for decades Ed’s Eats permitted generation upon generation of microbes and germs to multiply unchecked, swarming from floor, counter, and griddle ?? not hesitating to colonize Ed himself! ?? to spatula, fork, and the unwashed ice-cream scoop, thence into the horrible food, finally into the mouths and guts of the kids who ate that stuff, plus those of the occasional mother.
Remarkably, no one ever died from eating at Ed’s, and after a long-overdue heart attack felled its proprietor one day when he mounted a stool for the purpose of finally tacking up a dozen new strips of flypaper, nobody had the heart to raze his little shack and clear away the rubble. For twenty-five years, under the shelter of darkness its rotting shell has welcomed romantic teenage couples, as well as gatherings of boys and girls in need of a secluded place to investigate for the first time in recorded history, or so it seemed to them, the liberation of drunkenness.
The rapt buzzing of the flies tells us that whatever we might be about to witness within this ruin will be neither a pair of spent young lovers nor a few silly, passed-out kids. That soft, greedy uproar, inaudible from the road, declares the presence of ultimate things. We could say that it represents a kind of portal.
We enter. Mild sunlight filtering in through gaps in the eastern wall and the battered roof paints luminous streaks across the gritty floor. Feathers, dust, eddy and stir over animal tracks and the dim impressions left by many long-gone shoes. Threadbare army-surplus blankets speckled with mold lie crumpled against the wall to our left; a few feet away, discarded beer cans and flattened cigarette ends surround a kerosene-burning hurricane lamp with a cracked glass housing. The sunlight lays warm stripes over crisp footprints advancing in a wide curve around the remains of Ed’s appalling counter and into the vacancy formerly occupied by the stove, a sink, and a rank of storage shelves. There, in what once was Ed’s sacred domain, the footprints vanish. Some ferocious activity has scattered the dust and grit, and something that is not an old army blanket, though we wish it were, lies disarrayed against the rear wall, half in, half out of a dark, irregular pool of tacky liquid. Delirious flies hover and settle upon the dark pool. In the far corner, a rust-colored mongrel with quill-like hair gets its teeth into the knuckle of meat and bone protruding from the white object held between its front paws. The white object is a running shoe, a sneaker. A New Balance sneaker, to be exact. To be more exact, a child’s New Balance sneaker, size 5.
We want to invoke our capacity for flight and get the hell out of here. We want to float through the unresisting roof, to regain the harmless air, but we cannot, we must bear witness. An ugly dog is chewing on a child’s severed foot while making every effort to extract the foot from the white New Balance sneaker. The mongrel’s scrawny back arches down and extends, the quilled shoulders and narrow head drop, the bony front legs rigidly clamp the prize, tug tug tug, but the sneaker’s laces are tied ?? too bad for the mutt.
As for the something that is not an old army-surplus blanket, beyond a swirl of dusty tracks and furrows, at the floor’s far edge, its pale form lies flattened and face-up on the floor, its top half extending out of the dark pool. One arm stretches limply out into the grit; the other props upright against the wall. The fingers of both hands curl palmward. Blunt, strawberry-blond hair flops back from the small face. If the eyes and mouth display any recognizable expression, it is that of mild surprise. This is an accident of structure; it means nothing, for the configuration of this child’s face caused her to look faintly surprised even while she was asleep. Bruises like ink stains and eraser smudges lie upon her cheekbones, her temple, her neck. A white T-shirt bearing the logo of the Milwaukee Brewers and smeared with dirt and dried blood covers her torso from neck to navel. The lower half of her body, pale as smoke except where drizzled with blood, lengthens into the dark pool, where the ecstatic flies hover and settle. Her bare, slender left leg incorporates a scabby knee and concludes with the uptick of a bloodstained New Balance sneaker, size 5, laces double-knotted, toe pointed to the ceiling. Where the partner to this leg should be is a vacancy, for her right hip ends, abruptly, at a ragged stump.
We are in the presence of the Fisherman’s third victim, ten-year-old Irma Freneau. The shock waves aroused by her disappearance yesterday afternoon from the sidewalk outside the video store will increase in force and number after Dale Gilbertson comes upon her body, a little over a day from now.
The Fisherman gathered her up on Chase Street and transported her ?? we cannot say how ?? up the length of Chase Street and Lyall Road, past the 7-Eleven and the VFW hall, past the house where Wanda Kinderling seethes and drinks, past the shiny glass spaceship of Goltz’s, and across the border between town and farmland.
She was alive when the Fisherman moved her through the doorway next to the pockmarked Coca-Cola sign. She must have struggled, she must have screamed. The Fisherman brought her to the rear wall and silenced her with blows to the face. Very likely, he strangled her. He lowered her body to the floor and arranged her limbs. Except for the white New Balance sneakers, he removed all the clothing from her waist down, underwear, jeans, shorts, whatever Irma had been wearing when he abducted her. After that, the Fisherman amputated her right leg. Using some sort of long, heavy-bladed knife, and without the assistance of cleaver or saw, he parted flesh and bone until he had managed to detach the leg from the rest of the body. Then, perhaps with no more than two or three downward chops to the ankle, he severed the foot. He tossed it, still contained within the white sneaker, aside. Irma’s foot was not important to the Fisherman ?? all he wanted was her leg.
Here, my friends, we have true slippage.
Irma Freneau’s small, inert body seems to flatten out as if it intends to melt through the rotting floorboards. The drunken flies sing on. The dog keeps trying to yank the whole of its juicy prize out of the sneaker. Were we to bring simpleminded Ed Gilbertson back to life and stand him beside us, he would sink to his knees and weep. We, on the other hand . . .
We are not here to weep. Not like Ed, anyhow, in horrified shame and disbelief. A tremendous mystery has inhabited this hovel, and its effects and traces hover everywhere about us. We have come to observe, register, and record the impressions, the afterimages, left in the comet trail of the mystery. It speaks from their details, therefore it lingers in its own wake, therefore it surrounds us. A deep, deep gravity flows outward from the scene, and this gravity humbles us. Humility is our best, most accurate first response. Without it, we would miss the point; the great mystery would escape us, and we would go on deaf and blind, ignorant as pigs. Let us not go on like pigs. We must honor this scene ?? the flies, the dog worrying the severed foot, the poor, pale body of Irma Freneau, the magnitude of what befell Irma Freneau ?? by acknowledging our littleness. In comparison, we are no more than vapors.
A fat bee wanders in through the empty window frame in the side wall six feet from Irma’s body and makes a slow, exploratory circuit around the rear of the shack. Suspended beneath its blurred wings, the bee looks nearly too heavy for flight, but it proceeds with easy, unhurried deliberation, moving well above the bloody floor in a wide curve. The flies, the mongrel, and Irma pay it no attention.
For us, though, the bee, which continues to drift contentedly about the rear of the horror chamber, has ceased to be a welcome distraction and has been absorbed into the surrounding mystery. It is a detail within the scene, and it, too, commands our humility and speaks. The weighty, burrowing rumble of its wings seems to define the exact center of the undulating sound waves, higher in pitch, produced by the greedy flies: Like a singer at a microphone in front of a chorus, the bee controls the aural background. The sound gathers and comes to a serious point. When the bee ambles into a shaft of yellow light streaming through the eastern wall, its stripes glow black and gold, the wings coalesce into a fan, and the insect becomes an intricate, airborne wonder. The slaughtered girl flattens into the bloody floorboards. Our humility, our sense of littleness, our appreciation of the gravity deeply embedded in this scene grant us the sense of forces and powers beyond our understanding, of a kind of grandeur always present and at work but perceptible only during moments like this.
We have been honored, but the honor is unbearable. The speaking bee circles back to the window and passes into another world, and, following his lead, we move on, out the window, into the sun, and into the upper air.
Smells of shit and urine at Maxton Elder Care; the fragile, slick feel of slippage at the off-kilter house north of Highway 35; the sound of the flies and the sight of the blood at the former Ed’s Eats. Ag! Yuck! Is there no place here in French Landing, we may ask, where there is something nice under the skin? Where what we see is what we get, so to speak?
The short answer: no. French Landing should be marked with big road signs at every point of ingress: WARNING! SLIPPAGE IN PROGRESS! PASS AT YOUR OWN RISK!
The magic at work here is Fishermagic. It has rendered “nice” at least temporarily obsolete. But we can go someplace nice-er, and if we can we probably should, because we need a break. We may not be able to escape slippage, but we can at least visit where no one shits the bed or bleeds on the floor (at least not yet).
So the bee goes its way and we go ours; ours takes us southwest, over more woods exhaling their fragrance of life and oxygen ?? there is no air like this air, at least not in this world ?? and then back to the works of man again.
This section of town is called Libertyville, so named by the French Landing Town Council in 1976. You won’t believe this, but big-bellied Ed Gilbertson, the Hot Dog King himself, was a member of that bicentennial band of town fathers; those were strange days, pretty mama, strange days indeed. Not as strange as these, however; in French Landing, these are the Fisherdays, the slippery slippage days.
The streets of Libertyville have names that adults find colorful and children find painful. Some of the latter have been known to call this area of town Faggotyville. Let us descend now, down through the sweet morning air (it’s warming up already; this will be a Strawberry Fest kind of day for sure). We cruise silently over Camelot Street, past the intersection of Camelot and Avalon, and travel on down Avalon to Maid Marian Way. From Maid Marian we progress to ?? is it any surprise? ?? Robin Hood Lane.
Here, at No. 16, a sweet little Cape Cod honey of a home that looks just right for The Decent Hardworking Family On Its Way Up, we find a kitchen window open. There is the smell of coffee and toast, a wonderful combined odor that denies slippage (if only we did not know better; if only we had not seen the dog at work, eating a foot out of a sneaker as a child might eat the hot dog right out of its bun), and we follow the aroma in. It’s nice to be invisible, isn’t it? To watch in our godlike silence. If only what our godlike eyes saw was just a little less goddamn upsetting! But that is by the way. We’re in it now, for better or for worse, and we had better get on about our business. Daylight’s a-wasting, as they say in this part of the world.
Here in the kitchen of No. 16 is Fred Marshall, whose picture currently graces the Salesman of the Month easel in the showroom of French County Farm Equipment. Fred has also been named Employee of the Year three years out of the last four (two years ago Ted Goltz gave the award to Otto Eisman, just to break the monotony), and when he is on the job no one radiates more charm, personality, or all around niceness. You wanted nice? Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Fred Marshall!
Only now his confident smile is not in evidence, and his hair, always carefully combed on the job, hasn’t yet seen the brush. He’s wearing Nike shorts and a tee with cutoff sleeves instead of his usual pressed khakis and sport shirt. On the counter is the Marshall copy of the La Riviere Herald, open to an inside page.
Fred has his share of problems just lately ?? or, rather, his wife, Judy, has problems, and what’s hers is his, so said the minister when he joined them in holy wedlock ?? and what he’s reading isn’t making him feel any better. Far from it. It’s a sidebar to the lead story on the front page, and of course the author is everyone’s favorite muckraker, Wendell “FISHERMAN STILL AT LARGE” Green.
The sidebar is your basic recap of the first two murders (Gruesome and Gruesomer is how Fred thinks of them), and as he reads, Fred bends first his left leg up behind him and then his right, stretching those all-important thigh muscles and preparing for his morning run. What could be more antislippage than a morning run? What could be nicer? What could possibly spoil such a lovely start to such a beautiful Wisconsin day?
Well, how about this:
Johnny Irkenham’s dreams were simple enough, according to his grief-stricken father. [Grief-stricken father, Fred thinks, stretching and imagining his son asleep upstairs. Dear God, save me from ever being a grief-stricken father. Not knowing, of course, how soon he must assume this role.] “Johnny wanted to be an astronaut,” George Irkenham said, a smile briefly lighting his exhausted face. “When he wasn’t putting out fires for the French Landing F.D. or fighting crime with the Justice League of America, that is.”
These innocent dreams ended in a nightmare we cannot imagine. [But I’m sure you’ll try, Fred thinks, now beginning his toe raises.] Earlier this week, his dismembered body was discovered by Spencer Hovdahl of Centralia. Hovdahl, a First Farmer State Bank loan officer, was inspecting an abandoned French Landing farm owned by John Ellison, who lives in a neighboring county, with an eye to initiating repossession proceedings. “I didn’t want to be there in the first place,” Hovdahl told this reporter. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s the repo stuff. [Knowing Spence Hovdahl as he does, Fred very much doubts if “stuff ” was the word he used.] I wanted to be there even less after I went into the henhouse. It’s all rickety and falling down, and I would have stayed out except for the sound of the bees. I thought there might be a hive in there. Bees are an interest of mine, and I was curious. God help me, I was curious. I hope I’ll never be curious again.”
What he found in the henhouse was the body of seven-year-old John Wesley Irkenham. The corpse had been dismembered, the pieces hung from the hen-house’s decaying rafters by chains. Although Police Chief Dale Gilbertson would neither confirm nor deny it, reliable police sources in La Riviere say that the thighs, torso, and buttocks had been bitten ??
Okay, that’s enough for Fred, everybody out of the pool. He sweeps the newspaper closed and shoves it all the way down the counter to the Mr. Coffee. By God, they never put stuff like that in the paper when he was a kid. And why the Fisherman, for heaven’s sake? Why did they have to tag every monster with a catchy nickname, turn a guy like whoever did this into the Celebrity Sicko of the Month?
Of course, nothing like this had ever happened when he was Tyler’s age, but the principle . . . the goddamned principle of the matter . . .
Fred finishes his toe raises, reminding himself to have a talk with Tyler. It will be harder than their little talk about why his thing sometimes gets hard, but it absolutely must be done. Buddy system, Fred will say. You’ve got to stick with your buddies now, Ty. No more rambling around on your own for a while, okay?
Yet the idea of Ty actually being murdered seems remote to Fred; it is the stuff of TV docudramas or maybe a Wes Craven movie. Call it Scream 4:The Fisherman. In fact, wasn’t there a movie sort of like that? A guy in a fisherman’s slicker wandering around and killing teenagers with a hook? Maybe, but not little kids, not babies like Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham. Jesus, the world was disintegrating right in front of him.
Body parts hanging from chains in a crumbling henhouse, that is the part which haunts him. Can that really be? Can it be here, right here and now in Tom Sawyer?CBecky Thatcher country?
Well, let it go. It’s time to run.
But maybe the paper kind of got lost this morning, Fred thinks, picking it up from the counter and folding it until it looks like a thick paperback book (but part of the headline accuses him even so: FISHERMAN STILL AT L). Maybe the paper just kind of, I don’t know, migrated straight to the old garbage can beside the house.
Yes, good idea. Because Judy has been strange lately, and Wendell Green’s pulsating stories about the Fisherman are not helping (Thighs and torso bitten, Fred thinks as he glides through the early-morning-quiet house toward the door, and while you’re at it, waiter, have them cut me a nice rare chunk of butt). She reads the press accounts obsessively, making no comment, but Fred doesn’t like the way her eyes jump around, or some of the other tics she’s picked up: the obsessive touching of her tongue to her upper lip, for instance . . . and sometimes, this in the last two or three days, he has seen her tongue reach all the way up and pet at her philtrum just below her nose, a feat he would have thought impossible if he had not seen it again last night, during the local news. She goes to bed earlier and earlier, and sometimes she talks in her sleep ?? strange, slurry words that don’t sound like English. Sometimes when Fred speaks to her, she doesn’t respond, simply stares off into space, eyes wide, lips moving slightly, hands kneading together (cuts and scratches have begun to show up on the backs of them, even though she keeps her nails cropped sensibly short).
Ty has noticed his mother’s encroaching oddities, too. On Saturday, while father and son were having lunch together ?? Judy was upstairs taking one of her long naps, another new wrinkle ?? the boy suddenly asked, right out of a blue clear sky, “What’s wrong with Mom?”
“Ty, nothing’s wrong with ?? ”
“There is! Tommy Erbter says she’s a Coke short of a Happy Meal these days.”
And had he almost reached across the tomato soup and toasted-cheese sandwiches and clouted his son? His only child? Good old Ty, who was nothing but concerned? God help him, he had.
Outside the door, at the head of the concrete path leading down to the street, Fred begins to jog slowly in place, taking deep breath after deep breath, depositing the oxygen he will soon withdraw. It is usually the best part of his day (assuming he and Judy don’t make love, that is, and lately there has been precious little of that). He likes the feeling ?? the knowledge ?? that his path might be the beginning of the road to anywhere, that he could start out here in the Libertyville section of French Landing and wind up in New York . . . San Francisco . . . Bombay . . . the mountain passes of Nepal. Every step outside one’s own door invites the world (perhaps even the universe), and this is something Fred Marshall intuitively understands. He sells John Deere tractors and Case cultivators, yes, all right, already, but he is not devoid of imagination. When he and Judy were students at UW-Madison, their first dates were at the coffeehouse just off campus, an espresso-jazz-and-poetry haven called the Chocolate Watchband. It would not be entirely unfair to say that they had fallen in love to the sound of angry drunks declaiming the works of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder into the Chocolate Watchband’s cheap but exquisitely loud sound system.
Fred draws one more deep breath and begins to run. Down Robin Hood Lane to Maid Marian Way, where he gives Deke Purvis a wave. Deke, in his robe and slippers, is just picking Wendell Green’s daily dose of doom up off his own stoop. Then he wheels onto Avalon Street, picking it up a little now, showing his heels to the morning.
He cannot outrun his worries, however.
Judy, Judy, Judy, he thinks in the voice of Cary Grant (a little joke that has long since worn thin with the love of his life).
There is the gibberish when she sleeps. There’s the way her eyes dart hither and yon. And let’s not forget the time ( just three days ago) when he followed her into the kitchen and she wasn’t there ?? she’d turned out to be behind him, coming down the stairs, and how she had done that seems less important to him than why she had done it, gone sneaking up the back stairs and then come tromping down the front ones (because that is what she must have done; it’s the only solution he can think of ). There’s the constant tapping and petting she does with her tongue. Fred knows what it all adds up to: Judy has been acting like a woman in terror. This has been going on since before the murder of Amy St. Pierre, so it can’t be the Fisherman, or not entirely the Fisherman.
And there is a larger issue. Before the last couple of weeks, Fred would have told you that his wife doesn’t have a fearful bone in her body. She might be just five foot two (“Why, you’re no bigger than a minute” was his grandmother’s comment when she first met Fred’s intended), but Judy has the heart of a lion, of a Viking warrior. This isn’t bullshit, or hype, or poetic license; it is the simple truth as Fred sees it, and it is the contrast between what he has always known and what he sees now that scares him the most.
From Avalon he races onto Camelot, crossing the intersection without looking for traffic, going much faster than usual, almost sprinting instead of jogging. He is remembering something that happened about a month after they started going out.
It was the Chocolate Watchband they had gone to, as usual, only this time during the afternoon, to listen to a jazz quartet that had actually been pretty good. Not that they had listened very much, as Fred now recalls it; mostly he had talked to Judy about how little he liked being in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (Moo U, the Letters and Science snooties called it), and how little he liked the unspoken family assumption that when he graduated he would come on back home and help Phil run the family farm in French Landing. The idea of spending his life in harness with Phil gave Fred a severe case of the glooms.
What do you want, then? Judy had asked. Holding his hand on the table, a candle burning inside a jelly glass, the combo onstage working a sweet little number called “I’ll Be There for You.”
I don’t know, he’d said, but I tell you what, Jude, I should be in Business Admin, not Moo U. I’m a hell of a lot better at selling than at planting.
Then why don’t you switch?
Because my family thinks ??
Your family isn’t going to have to live your life, Fred ?? you are.
Talk is cheap, he remembers thinking, but then something had happened on the way back to campus, something so amazing and out of his understanding of how life was supposed to work that it fills him with wonder even now, some thirteen years later.
Still talking about his future and their future together (I could be a farm wife, Judy had said, but only if my husband really wants to be a farmer). Deep into that. Letting their feet carry them along without much interest in exactly where they were. And then, at the intersection of State Street and Gorham, a scream of brakes and a hearty metallic bang had interrupted the conversation. Fred and Judy had looked around and seen a Dodge pickup that had just tangled bumpers with an elderly Ford station wagon.
Getting out of the wagon, which had pretty clearly run the stop sign at the end of Gorham Street, was a middle-aged man in a middle-aged brown suit. He looked scared as well as shaken up, and Fred thought there was good reason for that; the man advancing toward him from the pickup truck was young, heavyset (Fred particularly remembered the belly bulging over the waist of his jeans), and carrying a tire iron. You goddamn careless asshole! Young and Heavyset cried. Look what you done to my truck! This my dad’s truck, you goddamn asshole!
Middle-Aged Suit backing up, eyes wide, hands raised, Fred watching fascinated from in front of Rickman’s Hardware, thinking Oh no, mister, bad idea. You don’t back away from a guy like this, you go toward him, even as mad as he is. You’re provoking him ?? can’t you see that you’re provoking him? So fascinated he didn’t realize that Judy’s hand was no longer in his, listening with a kind of sick foreknowledge as Mr. Middle-Aged Suit, still backing up, blathered about how he was sorry . . . entirely his fault, wasn’t looking, wasn’t thinking . . . insurance papers . . . State Farm . . . draw a diagram . . . get a policeman to take statements . . .
And all the time Young and Heavyset was advancing, thwocking the end of the tire iron into the palm of his hand, not listening. This wasn’t about insurance or compensation; this was about how Mr. Middle-Aged Suit had scared the shit out of him while he was just driving along and minding his own business and listening to Johnny Paycheck sing “Take This Job and Shove It.” Young and Heavyset intended to take a little payback paycheck of his own for getting the shit scared out of him and all jounced around behind the wheel . . . had to take a little, because the other man’s smell was inciting him, that piss-yellow smell of fear and innate defenselessness. It was a case of rabbit and farmyard dog, and all at once the rabbit was clean out of backing room; Mr. Middle-Aged Suit was pressed against the side of his station wagon, and in a moment the tire iron was going to start swinging and the blood was going to start flying.
Except there was no blood and not a single swing, because all at once Judy DeLois was there, no bigger than a minute but standing between them, looking fearlessly up into Young and Heavyset’s burning face.
Fred blinked, wondering how in the name of God she’d gotten there so damned fast. (Much later he would feel the same way when he followed her into the kitchen, only to hear the steady thump of her feet descending the front stairs.) And then? Then Judy slapped Young and Heavyset’s arm! Whack, right on the meaty bicep she slapped him, leaving a white palm print on the sunburned freckled flesh below the sleeve of the guy’s torn blue T-shirt. Fred saw it but couldn’t believe it.
Quit it! Judy shouted up into Young and Heavyset’s surprised, beginning-to-be-bewildered face. Put it down, quit it! Don’t be dumb! You want to go to jail over seven hundred dollars’ worth of bodywork? Put it down! Get it together, big boy! Put . . . that . . . thing . . . DOWN!
There’d been one second when Fred was quite sure Young and Heavyset was going to bring the tire iron down anyway, and right on his pretty little girlfriend’s head. But Judy never flinched; her eyes never left the eyes of the young man with the tire iron, who towered at least a foot over her and must have outweighed her by a couple of hundred pounds. There was certainly no pissy yellow fear smell coming off her that day; her tongue did no nervous patting at her upper lip or her philtrum; her blazing eyes were steadfast.
And, after another moment, Young and Heavyset put the tire iron down.
Fred wasn’t aware that a crowd had gathered until he heard the spontaneous applause from perhaps thirty onlookers. He joined in, never more proud of her than he was at that moment. And for the first time, Judy looked startled. She hung in there, though, startled or not. She got the two of them together, tugging Mr. Middle-Aged Suit forward by one arm, and actually hectored them into shaking hands. By the time the cops arrived, Young and Heavyset and Mr. Middle-Aged Suit were sitting side by side on the curb, studying each other’s insurance papers. Case closed.
Fred and Judy walked on toward the campus, holding hands again. For two blocks Fred didn’t speak. Was he in awe of her? He supposes now that he was. At last he said: That was amazing.
She gave him an uncomfortable little look, an uncomfortable little smile. No it wasn’t, she said. If you want to call it something, call it good citizenship. I could see that guy getting ready to send himself to jail. I didn’t want that to happen. Or the other guy to be hurt.
Yet she said that last almost as an afterthought, and Fred for the first time sensed not only her courage but her unflinching Viking’s heart. She was on the side of Young and Heavyset because . . . well, because the other fellow had been afraid.
Weren’t you worried, though? he asked her. He had still been so stunned by what he’d seen that it hadn’t crossed his mind ?? yet ?? to think he should be a little ashamed; after all, it was his girlfriend who’d stepped in instead of him, and that wasn’t the Gospel According to Hollywood. Weren’t you afraid that in the heat of the moment the guy with the tire iron would take a swing at you?
Judy’s eyes had grown puzzled. It never crossed my mind, she said.
Camelot eventually debouches into Chase Street, where there is a pleasant little gleam of the Mississippi on clear days like this one, but Fred doesn’t go that far. He turns at the top of Liberty Heights and starts back the way he came, his shirt now soaked with sweat. Usually the run makes him feel better, but not today, at least not yet. The fearless Judy of that afternoon on the corner of State and Gorham is so unlike the shifty-eyed, sometimes disconnected Judy who now lives in his house ?? the nap-taking, hand-wringing Judy ?? that Fred has actually spoken to Pat Skarda about it. Yesterday, this was, when the doc was in Goltz’s, looking at riding lawn mowers.
Fred had shown him a couple, a Deere and a Honda, inquired after his family, and then asked (casually, he hoped), Hey, Doc, tell me something ?? do you think it’s possible for a person to just go crazy? Without any warning, like?
Skarda had given him a sharper look than Fred had really liked. Are we talking about an adult or an adolescent, Fred?
Well, we’re not talking about anyone, actually. Big, hearty laugh ?? unconvincing to Fred’s own ears, and judging from Pat Skarda’s look, not very convincing to him, either. Not anyone real, anyway. But as a hypothetical case, let’s say an adult.
Skarda had thought about it, then shook his head. There are few absolutes in medicine, even fewer in psychiatric medicine. That said, I have to tell you that I think it’s very unlikely for a person to “just go crazy.” It may be a fairly rapid process, but it is a process. We hear people say “So-and-so snapped,” but that’s rarely the case. Mental dysfunction ?? neurotic or psychotic behavior ?? takes time to develop, and there are usually signs. How’s your mom these days, Fred?
Mom? Oh hey, she’s fine. Right in the pink.
It had taken him a moment to get a smile started, but once he did, he managed a big one. Big and guileless. Judy? She’s in the pink, too, Doc. Of course she is. Steady as she goes.
Sure. Steady as she goes. Just showing a few signs, that was all.
Maybe they’ll pass, he thinks. Those good old endorphins are finally kicking in, and all at once this seems plausible. Optimism is a more normal state for Fred, who does not believe in slippage, and a little smile breaks on his face ?? the day’s first. Maybe the signs will pass. Maybe whatever’s wrong with her will blow out as fast as it blew in. Maybe it’s even, you know, a menstrual thing. Like PMS.
God, if that was all it was, what a relief ! In the meantime, there’s Ty to think about. He has to have a talk with Tyler about the buddy system, because while Fred doesn’t believe what Wendell Green is apparently trying to insinuate, that the ghost of a fabulous turn-of-the-century cannibal and all-around boogerman named Albert Fish has for some reason turned up here in Coulee Country, someone is certainly out there, and this someone has murdered two little children and done unspeakable (at least unless you’re Wendell Green, it seems) things to the bodies.
Thighs, torso, and buttocks bitten, Fred thinks, and runs faster, although now he’s getting a stitch in his side. Yet this bears repeating: he does not believe that these horrors can actually touch his son, nor does he see how they can have caused Judy’s condition, since her oddities started while Amy St. Pierre was still alive, Johnny Irkenham too, both of them presumably playing happily in their respective backyards.
Maybe this, maybe that . . . but enough of Fred and his worries, all right? Let us rise from the environs of his troubled head and precede him back to No. 16, Robin Hood Lane ?? let’s go directly to the source of his troubles.
The upstairs window of the connubial bedroom is open, and the screen is certainly no problem; we strain ourselves right through, entering with the breeze and the first sounds of the awakening day.
The sounds of French Landing awakening do not awaken Judy Marshall. Nope, she has been starey-eyed since three, conning the shadows for she doesn’t know what, fleeing dreams too horrible to remember. Yet she does remember some things, little as she wants to.
“Saw the eye again,” she remarks to the empty room. Her tongue comes out and with no Fred around to watch her (she knows he’s watching, she is beset but not stupid ), it does not just pet at her philtrum but slathers it in a great big wipe, like a dog licking its chops after a bowl of scraps. “It’s a red eye. His eye. Eye of the King.”
She looks up at the shadows of the trees outside. They dance on the ceiling, making shapes and faces, shapes and faces.
“Eye of the King,” she repeats, and now it starts with the hands: kneading and twisting and squeezing and digging. “Abbalah! Foxes down foxholes! Abbalah-doon, the Crimson King! Rats in their ratholes! Abbalah Munshun! The King is in his Tower, eating bread and honey! The Breakers in the basement, making all the money!”
She shakes her head from side to side. Oh, these voices, out of the darkness they come, and sometimes she awakens with a vision burning behind her eyes, a vision of a vast slaty tower standing in a field of roses. A field of blood. Then the talking begins, the speaking in tongues, testification, words she can’t understand let alone control, a mixed stream of English and gibberish.
“Trudge, trudge, trudge,” she says. “The little ones are trudging on their bleeding footsies . . . oh for Christ’s sake, won’t this ever stop?”
Her tongue yawns out and licks across the tip of her nose; for a moment her nostrils are plugged with her own spit, and her head roars
?? Abbalah, Abbalah-doon, Can-tah Abbalah ??
with those terrible foreign words, those terrible impacted images of the Tower and the burning caves beneath, caves through which little ones trudge on bleeding feet. Her mind strains with them, and there is only one thing that will make them stop, only one way to get relief.
Judy Marshall sits up. On the table beside her there is a lamp, a copy of the latest John Grisham novel, a little pad of paper (a birthday present from Ty, each sheet headed HERE’S ANOTHER GREAT IDEA I HAD!), and a ballpoint pen with LA RIVIERE SHERATON printed on the side.
Judy seizes the pen and scribbles on the pad.
No Abbalah no Abbalah-doon no Tower no Breakers no Crimson King only dreams these are just my dreams
It is enough, but pens are also roads to anywhere, and before she can divorce the tip of this one from the birthday pad, it writes one more line:
The Black House is the doorway to Abbalah the entrance to hell Sheol Mun-shun all these worlds and spirits
No more! Good merciful God, no more! And the worst thing: What if it all begins to make sense?
She throws the pen back on the table, where it rolls to the base of the lamp and lies still. Then she tears the page from the pad, crumples it, and sticks it in her mouth. She chews furiously, not tearing it but at least mashing it sodden, then swallows. There is an awful moment when it sticks in her throat, but then it goes down. Words and worlds recede and Judy falls back against the pillows, exhausted. Her face is pale and sweaty, her eyes huge with unshed tears, but the moving shadows on the ceiling no longer look like faces to her ?? the faces of trudging children, of rats in their ratholes, foxes in foxholes, eye of the King, Abbalah-Abbalah-doon! Now they are just the shadows of the trees again. She is Judy DeLois Marshall, wife of Fred, mother of Ty. This is Libertyville, this is French Landing, this is French County, this is Wisconsin, this is America, this is the Northern Hemisphere, this is the world, and there is no other world than this. Let it be so.
Ah, let it be so.
Her eyes close, and as she finally slips back to sleep we slip across the room to the door, but just before we get there, Judy Marshall says one other thing ?? says it as she crosses over the border and into sleep.
“Burnside is not your name. Where is your hole?”
The bedroom door is closed and so we use the keyhole, passing through it like a sigh. Down the hall we go, past pictures of Judy’s family and Fred’s, including one photo of the Marshall family farm where Fred and Judy spent a horrible but blessedly short period not long after their marriage. Want some good advice? Don’t talk to Judy Marshall about Fred’s brother, Phil. Just don’t get her started, as George Rathbun would undoubtedly say.
No keyhole in the door at the end of the hall and so we slide underneath like a telegram and into a room we immediately know is a boy’s room: we can tell from the mingled smells of dirty athletic socks and neat’s-foot oil. It’s small, this room, but it seems bigger than Fred and Judy’s down the hall, very likely because the odor of anxiety is missing. On the walls are pictures of Shaquille O’Neal, Jeromy Burnitz, last year’s Milwaukee Bucks team . . . and Tyler Marshall’s idol, Mark McGwire. McGwire plays for the Cards, and the Cards are the enemy, but hell, it’s not as if the Milwaukee Brewers are actually competition for anything. The Brew Crew were doormats in the American League, and they are likewise doormats in the National. And McGwire . . . well, he’s a hero, isn’t he? He’s strong, he’s modest, and he can hit the baseball a country mile. Even Tyler’s dad, who roots strictly for Wisconsin teams, thinks McGwire is something special. “The greatest hitter in the history of the game,” he called him after the seventy-home-run season, and Tyler, although little more than an infant in that fabled year, has never forgotten this.
Also on the wall of this little boy who will soon be the Fisherman’s fourth victim (yes, there has already been a third, as we have seen), holding pride of place directly over his bed, is a travel poster showing a great dark castle at the end of a long and misty meadow. At the bottom of the poster, which he has Scotch-taped to the wall (his mom absolutely forbids pushpins), it says COME BACK TO THE AULD SOD in big green letters. Ty is considering taking the poster down long enough to cut this part off. He doesn’t like the poster because he has any interest in Ireland; to him the picture whispers of somewhere else, somewhere Entirely Else. It is like a photograph of some splendid mythical kingdom where there might be unicorns in the forests and dragons in the caves. Never mind Ireland; never mind Harry Potter, either. Hogwarts is fine enough for summer afternoons, but this is a castle in the Kingdom of Entirely Else. It’s the first thing Tyler Marshall sees in the morning, the last thing he sees at night, and that’s just the way he likes it.
He lies curled on his side in his underwear shorts, a human comma with tousled dark blond hair and a thumb that is close to his mouth, really just an inch or so away from being sucked. He is dreaming ?? we can see his eyeballs moving back and forth behind his closed lids. His lips move . . . he’s whispering something . . . Abbalah? Is he whispering his mother’s word? Surely not, but . . .
We lean closer to listen, but before we can hear anything, a circuit in Tyler’s jazzy red clock-radio goes hot, and all at once the voice of George Rathbun fills the room, calling Tyler hence from whatever dreams have been playing themselves out under that tousled thatch.
“Fans, you gotta listen to me now, how many times have I told you this? If you don’t know Henreid Brothers Furniture of French Landing and Centralia, then you don’t know furniture. That’s right, I’m talking Henreid Brothers, home of the Colonial Blowout. Living-room sets dining-room sets bedroom sets, famous names you know and trust like La-Z-Boy, Breton Woods and Moosehead, EVEN A BLIND MAN CAN SEE THAT HENREID BROTHERS MEANS QUALITY!”
Ty Marshall is laughing even before he’s got both eyes fully open. He loves George Rathbun; George is absolutely fly.
And now, without even changing gears from the commercial: “You guys are all ready for the Brewer Bash, ain’tcha? Sent me those postcards with your name, address, and el tel?¦fono on ’em? Hope so, because the contest closed at midnight. If you missed out . . . so solly, Cholly!”
Ty closes his eyes again and mouths the same word over three times: Shit, shit, shit. He did forget to enter, and now he can only hope that his dad (who knows how forgetful his son can be) remembered and entered the contest for him.
“Grand prize?” George is saying. “ONLY the chance for you or the fav-o-rite young person of your acquaintance to be the Brew Crew’s batboy or batgirl for the entire Cincinnati series. ONLY the chance to win an aut-o-graphed Richie Sexson bat, the LUMBER that holds the LIGHTNING! Not to mention fifty free seats on the first-base side with me, George Rathbun, Coulee Country’s Traveling College of Baseball Knowledge. BUT WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS? If you missed out, you’re too late. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly! Oh, I know why I brought it up ?? to make sure you tune in next Friday to see if I speak YOUR NAME over the radio!”
Ty groans. There are only two chances that George will speak his name over the radio: slim and none. Not that he cared so much about being a batboy, dressed in a baggy Brewers uni and running around in front of all those people at Miller Park, but to own Richie Sexson’s own bat, the lumber with the lightning . . . how boss would that’ve been?
Tyler rolls out of bed, sniffs the armpits of yesterday’s T-shirt, tosses it aside, gets another out of the drawer. His dad sometimes asks him why he sets his alarm so early ?? it’s summer vacation, after all ?? and Tyler can’t seem to make him understand that every day is important, especially those filled with warmth and sunlight and no particular responsibilities. It’s as if there’s some little voice deep inside him, warning him not to waste a minute, not a single one, because time is short.
What George Rathbun says next drives the remaining sleep-fog from Tyler’s brain ?? it’s like a dash of cold water. “Say there, Coulee, want to talk about the Fisherman?”
Tyler stops what he’s doing, an odd little chill running up his back and then down his arms. The Fisherman. Some crazy guy killing kids . . . and eating them? Well, he’s heard that rumor, mostly from the bigger kids down at the baseball field or at the French Landing Rec Center, but who would do something so gross? Cannibalism, ack!
George’s voice drops. “Now I’m going to tell you a little secret, so listen close to your Uncle George.” Tyler sits on his bed, holding his sneakers by the laces and listening closely to his Uncle George, as bid-den. It seems odd to hear George Rathbun talking about a subject so . . . so unsporty, but Tyler trusts him. Didn’t George Rathbun predict that the Badgers would go to at least the Elite Eight two years ago, when everyone else said they’d get blown out in the first round of the Big Dance? Yeah, he did. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly.
George’s voice drops further, to what is almost a confidential whisper. “The original Fisherman, boys and girls, Albert Fish, has been dead and gone for sixty-seven years, and s’far’s I know, he never got much west of New Jersey. Furthermore, he was probably a DAMYANKEE FAN! SO COOL IT, COULEE COUNTRY! JUST CAAAALM DOWN!”
Tyler relaxes, smiling, and starts putting on his sneakers. Calm down, you got that right. The day is new, and yeah, okay, his mom’s been a little on the Tinky Winky side lately, but she’ll pull out of it.
Let us leave on this optimistic note ?? make like an amoeba and split, as the redoubtable George Rathbun might say. And speaking of George, that ubiquitous voice of the Coulee Country morning, should we not seek him out? Not a bad idea. Let us do so immediately.