Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
He was really spooked up, thinking there’d be somebody from school. He was spooked up all the time now, about a hundred things, and once the blackness hit him, it was a million things. He flung himself at the door.
There was nobody he knew. The place was empty except for a cop sitting on the first stool at the counter, just inside the entrance, and down at the far end a guy in chinos and a black sweater, thick with cable stitches. He took a stool about halfway between them, ordered a hamburger and a bottle of beer. He’ll ask for proof I’m eighteen, he thought, and said, “Make it a Coke instead.” At this, the cop looked over at him lazily, noticing him for the first time, and Jeff flushed. He was getting to be so uptight he was doing everything wrong. The cop wouldn’t have given him a glance if he had let the beer order stand; he was forever worrying too much, as if he expected to be found out for God knows what.
The hamburger came and he stared down at it; he wasn’t hungry after all. He drank the Coke slowly, and sat there.
“Anything wrong with it?” the man behind the counter asked, eying the hamburger.
“Any rush about my eating it?”
“You looking for a fight or something?”
Jeff shook his head and sat on, looking ahead. The mirror opposite him was of blue glass; in it he looked as if he were half sick. Well, he was. He finished his Coke, stood up, and reached for money. Halfway to his pocket his hand stopped; if he left, he’d have to go back to that corner where you got the bus to Placquette, be marooned in it, unable to move. He sat down once more, ordering a cup of coffee. The cop was glancing at him again, and in the mirror he saw that the guy in the cable sweater was watching too. He shrugged at the mirror as if to tell them both they could stuff it.
The coffee smelled good, and he poured sugar in it from the sifter. At his left he heard the guy in the cables say something, but he didn’t look up or turn toward him to see if it was to him he was speaking. A moment later the words were repeated.
“You a Yalie?”
It flattered him. “No, are you?” His answer surprised him, it sounded easy and cheerful, and he turned his head toward the speaker as if he were in the mood to talk with people. He saw at once that he was a shade too old to be at Yale, but he had that look or maybe the voice or outfit that said college somewhere.
“I couldn’t hack it,” the other answered. “I cut out after sophomore year.”
“No more student exemption?”
“I’m okay anyway. I’ve got a trick knee.”
He said this with such satisfaction that Jeff grinned, as if he had boasted about having some special talent. The ex-Yalie paid his check, came back to leave a quarter tip, and then nodded at him as he left the café. Jeff nodded back, somehow cheered by the brief exchange. A moment of friendship. Well, companionship then.
He finished his coffee slowly, left a quarter tip himself, paid the check, again told the café owner there was nothing wrong with the hamburger, still untouched on the plate, and went outside.
There on the sidewalk was the guy in chinos and cables. “Well, hi,” Jeff said in surprise. The sleety rain had changed to plain rain, the afternoon light had shifted to a flat even gray.
“Where you off to?” the other said. “Need a lift?” He pointed to a station wagon halfway up the block. “I’m through work for the day, and I don’t have to check out for a while.”
Jeff was staring at the station wagon. “Boy, that’s nifty. I’ve always gone ape over cars.” The wagon was obviously new, gleaming in the rain, one of those styles that looked as if they were made of wood. “Through work on a Sunday? What kind of work?” He was still staring at the car. Again his voice surprised him; he sounded like anybody else, sounded the way he did when everything was all right.
“In a medical lab. They run blood tests for doctors, pap smears, VD, that kind of stuff. I’m a trainee for lab assistant, but I also do pickups and deliveries, so alternate weekends is all I get.”
“Were you a premed at school?”
“Nothing like. I was straight art and all that bullshit.”
They both laughed, and again to Jeff’s surprise, they began to move toward the station wagon. An instant longing to ride in it, maybe even to drive it, stirred in him; his spirits rose, this time really rose. With the connivance of his brother Don, he had learned to drive when he was twelve, and being at the wheel always gave him some fantastic sense of being in charge of the whole damn universe.
“That sure is one neat wagon,” he said, brushing his fingers over the hood, looking down its whole expanse. Behind the driver’s seat was another seat for passengers, but behind that stretched an empty deck with nothing but a few small packages ranged at one side. “Are you going toward Placquette by any chance?”
“That’s not much of a lift. We have a couple of medical clients thataway. My name’s Hank.” He opened the door on the driver’s side.
“Mine’s Jeff Lynn.” He went around to the other door and got in. The smell of the leather was so new he looked at the odometer. Sure enough, only eight hundred miles. Maybe the smart thing to do next summer was to stay away from the office-boy job he’d had last year and find a job out of town somewhere, this sort of job, driving a good-looking rig like this. He’d be eighteen by then and have a real license instead of a learner’s permit.
“Are you in a rush to get to Placquette?” Hank asked. “I’m sort of gone on this wagon too, and we might take off for a spin for a while. I think the weather’s clearing.”
“No special rush.” A sweep of warning went along his nerves as if a thin current of electricity were charging a battery buried deep within him. There was an excitement to it, though, a sense of adventure, maybe even danger.
At the next corner Hank turned off the road that would take them toward Placquette and drove along in a careless zigzag of streets that took them away from the city and yet kept them clear of the highway.
They rode in silence. Soon the rain began with renewed fury and Hank reached out a hand to click on the windshield wipers. Something about the curve of his arm made Jeff remember Hal Jarvis, and there was a leap in his loins and in the same instant he knew why he was there, why Hank wanted him there, knew that he could do nothing but what he was doing. He heard his own breath draw in hard, and in the next second felt Hank’s right hand drift along on his thigh, loose, easy.
His breath drew in tighter and his whole body seemed to expand. He said nothing. Hank removed his hand and the car turned gently around a corner. The rain came down in fluted sheets, as if it were a curtain across the window of life itself. They were on a country lane now, at the outskirts of a village. The car was stopping.
“Let’s wait this rain out a bit,” Hank said, glancing over his shoulder into the rear of the wagon.
Jeff glanced back too, then sharply away. “No. I’ve got to get back.”
“Come on,” Hank said.
“It’s all right. Who’s going to stop you?”
Jeff didn’t answer. He didn’t move. His mind did not move. He seemed anchored deep so that he could not get adrift, yet he felt at the same time caught and tossed by wave upon wave of need, of curiosity, of insistence. A car door thumped; Hank was no longer at the wheel. Behind him, from the inside of the station wagon, Hank said in a new urgency, “It’s what you want, man. Come on.”
Jeff opened his door. Never was he clear, later, how he went back there, but never could he forget that driving necessity that propelled him onward. He had to or he would die. It was all happening in a great swooping free fall, irreversible, free of decision, in the full pull of gravity toward whatever was to be.
That night around midnight he tore out of his sleep, hit by a swoop of depression in an impact so palpable it might have been the thud of a great heavy body, smashing you to the ground, grinding the breath out of you, leaving you stunned and fighting to shake the film from your eyes so you could focus again. It was worse than anything he had ever felt. He’d be better off dead.
He thought again of Mick Munson and his twin brother, Rex. Rex was a senior too, but he went to Hotchkiss instead of Placquette, because his family believed that twins should find their own identity. And one day last spring Rex had hanged himself off a high branch in the woods near Hotchkiss and nobody knew why. The suicide was written up in detail in all the New Haven papers and even in
The New York Times
because Mr. Munson was a big banker type in Hartford with connections in Washington. All the fellows in Mick’s class had met Rex, and they kept talking about it day after day, falling silent only when Mick got back after the funeral. Nobody could understand any part of it because the Munsons led a life where everything was desirable, everything any guy could want, with a second house in Florida—with their own boat, maybe an actual yacht—with a private tennis court not only in the South but also up at their house in Hartford. The papers all said there had been “no known romantic disappointments” in Rex’s life, and the fellows at Placquette said that Mick’s brother was good-looking, got good grades, had never needed a shrink, nothing like it.
And then he had gone out to those woods near his school and climbed up that tree, and rigged up a careful contraption of his own leather belt and his dog’s choke collar of steel chain and he had hanged himself. And nobody knew why.
Well, he knew why. He bet he knew why. Even last spring, when it first happened, he was pretty damn sure he knew why, but now tonight, after this with Hank, he was ten times surer he knew why. Maybe Mick Munson didn’t know about his own twin brother, maybe the big banker didn’t know about his own son, but there had to be a reason that drove him to that tree, and now he’d be willing to lay down his own life that he knew exactly what that reason was.
If only he had never gone near that station wagon. If only he had told Hank to go to hell, if he had got out, walked off in all the rain. Oh, God, if he had only hated it.
He sprang up from bed, and then stopped short. From across the room came Pete’s even breathing. He had to be careful. If he went storming around and woke Pete up, Pete might read in his face that something horrible had happened, and worm it all out of him. He always felt he had to tell somebody, not just Dr. Dudley, but somebody real. If you kept everything locked up forever—
A vision of Mick Munson’s brother swinging from that tree loomed up and he shuddered. The most awful part was that choke chain he had used, slipping his belt through the handle of it, buckling his belt tight around the limb of the tree, and then slipping the loop around his own neck. Choke collars were what you used to train or control vicious dogs; the more they pulled at the leash, the tighter the noose went around their necks, strangling them into obedience.
But Rex Munson wasn’t any vicious dog. He was a smart good-looking kid of eighteen, with everything going for him, everything right, everything anybody knew about. And nobody was allowed to have their dogs with them in their dormitories at school, so he must have brought the choke collar back to school with him purposely, the last time he had been home in that big place in Hartford.
The poor son of a bitch, he thought. The poor lonely son of a bitch. He couldn’t tell anybody either.
ORNING AFTER MORNING
awoke convinced that today would be the day Jeff would call and say, no matter how elliptically, how discreetly coded, that he wished he had not yelled at her, wished that he had not slammed off back to school. Each time she stooped at the front door for the morning mail, she looked for his writing, young in itself, with its quirky mixture of printed and cursive calligraphy. Nothing. Day by day nothing.
And then suddenly one afternoon in November, in the middle of a session of editing with Helena Ludwig, in the middle of a sentence about managing a flashback in an important part of Helena’s new novel, another sentence shaped itself firmly in Tessa’s mind. “He won’t do anything at all. He won’t come home for Thanksgiving or even Christmas.”
This stopped all processes of thought about the manuscript before her, and about the young novelist waiting for her to round out the point she had been making. She saw Helena glance at her inquiringly, and she nodded as if to say, Tes, give me a minute and I will go on with this point of technique.” But all she could think was, He won’t write, he won’t telephone, he won’t be home at all, not even for the holidays. Not home for Thanksgiving, for Christmas? Impossible.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, all were special days to Jeff and the whole family, perhaps because they had always been so important to her. When she was a child, all holidays were made much of by her own parents, were reasons for reunions with all Sachs and Neufeldt cousins, for gifts, for visits and celebrating. Even Christmas, which her no-religion parents diminished by terming it a sort of folk festival, a slightly more elaborate Thanksgiving or Fourth of July, was in fact always a prolonged gala, planned and whispered about beforehand, engendering a delicious mounting of excitement and cupidity in her and in her brother Will, originally Wilhelm and never Bill.
Occasionally, when they were grown, Will and she had discussed the peculiar ardor of holidays in the Sachs household, and had agreed that “ardor” was a good word for it, and that the heated fervor might well have been begotten in the agnosticism of their parents and their fear of robbing their children of the securities of conformity. Apparently Will and she had each absorbed that same fervor; certainly they had each heightened all holidays in their own marriages, and though Will and Amy lived in Phoenix, there was still a vast to-do, by long distance, about what everybody wanted and what the children’s sizes were, and what were the records and books and toys and hobbies that had to be sought for and transmitted in plenty of time. The only exception had been that first Christmas after Roddy.
Tessa sighed. Christmas was too far ahead to worry about, of course, but Thanksgiving was only two weeks off. Margie and Nate, Don and Jenny, Jenny’s parents, the grandchildren, Ken’s old mother—all gathered there together, but no Jeff. No little story could be fobbed off about his being in the school infirmary with the flu, no little fib about his visiting friends.