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Authors: Keith Korman

End Time

 

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For Maxine

My Tea House of the Hidden Moon

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

—D. H. Lawrence,
Lady Chatterley's Lover

The theatre of life is a confusing and amusing drama. Just as on the stage, some players have greater roles than others. In the book's four male archetypes—the Scientist, Bhakti Singh; the Soldier, Billy Shadow; the Husband, Guy Poole; the Industrialist, Clem Lattimore—you can see the reflections of Bernard Korman, Sensei Masakazu Takahashi, Bert Wheeler, and the late Theron Raines. Men larger than life and deeper than any archetypes—
the best
humanity can offer. Men who can distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, and up from down. No matter how many skies have fallen.

In Granny Sparrow you can see my mother, Joan Raines, not 100 years old, as in the book—but presently in her mid-eighties, still hale and hearty—listening for the whoop of my wolf whistle ring coming out of the tall grass.

But if you ever meet Professor Guppy of the Ant Colony, droning away in some lecture hall, or the Pied Piper, lurking in some tenement of the mind—they're no relation of mine. Just people I've seen in the passing parade. Be warned and give them a wide berth.

As for the
Tea House of the Hidden Moon
 … it dwells in all of us. Silently waiting for the time we need it most.

January 2015

 

PART ONE

Horror Show

Whatever the scientists may say, if we take the supernatural out of life, we leave only the unnatural.

—Nineteenth-century novelist Amelia Edith Barr, author of
Remember the Alamo,
whose husband and three of six children perished in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1867

 

1

Fairfield

The New Haven Line Metro-North train from Manhattan was crowded as always, even at 3 p.m. The first carloads of commuters; the early risers home from the morning shift; union construction workers who finished early in the afternoon; middle-class moms—some with nannies, some without—their preschoolers in tow from a day in the city, a museum, a matinee play, or just Central Park. Fridays the cars often packed wall to wall with the weekender getaways. This Friday no exception.

Somewhere around Norwalk the fight started. A young man clad in a shimmering chartreuse Lycra cycling suit, complete with crème-de-menthe helmet that made him look like the love child of Froggy Long Legs and the Riddler, stood by the pneumatic doors, touring bicycle balanced on the rear wheel, hoping to minimize his own use of space. As the doors opened and the crush of commuters exited the train, one of the bike wheels accidentally touched a business man's head. The man, who looked like he'd never had an easy day in his life, turned on the Green Goblin, his face an evil dirty rag.

“You need a permit for that! You need a damn permit!”

The cyclist came back just as hard. “I have a
damn
permit. You want to see it? Here's my damn permit!” The wheel brushed the graying business man's shoulder. Other commuters were crowding the doors to exit, but the fight was on. The $800 touring bike thrown down half on the platform, half in the car. People trying to step over the damn thing while the two men tangled in a death grip.

A woman holding a folded baby stroller in one arm and her toddler in the other was pushed by the surging crowd onto the bike pedals, cutting her shin. She shrieked as the train doors closed and opened and opened and closed on the fallen bike. The two men were now on the Norwalk platform, wrestling on the ground, biting and kicking and strangling like two of the Three Stooges. Where was Moe? Hey Moe!

Guy Poole, one of a thousand daily commuters traveling north from the city, watched it all from a seat nearby; the thought entered his mind to interfere, break it up—but there were simply too many bodies between him and the two idiots. Better to let it play out.

In the end, the New Haven Line conductor finally noticed, the Norwalk police were called, the train delayed for an hour, and Guy Poole didn't get home to Lauren and the two sweet doggies in Fairfield till 6:30 p.m., just the same as if he'd left the office at five. Why bother leaving early? A simple enough reason: like half of everybody down in corporate Manhattan, the ad agency had fired him that week.

Farewell, Pequod Advertising Group.

Sorry,
downsized,
let him go. When the musical chairs stopped Guy was the one extra account executive looking for a seat, and closest to the door. The personal possessions in his office were cleaned out, boxed, and sent down to Shipping for UPS. They'd probably take it out of his severance. And nobody was giving farewell parties anymore. But that was the least of it, in a world gone mad.

On a brighter note, Poole's severance might last him a little over a year. And that was a blessing. Lauren worked at a local realtor, often bringing in a solid 75K, which would cover groceries, health care, and vet bills. Lauren's Auntie Whitcomb left her a small legacy. The house had been paid off a dozen years ago. And Poole had Lauren. Things could have been a lot worse.

*   *   *

Poole and Lauren owned one of the oldest clapboard houses in Fairfield, a short walk from the village, still listing for a little under a million even during the crash. The Henry Finn House, little brass historical plaque by the front door, almost 3000 square feet, a four-bedroom, three-bath, four-fireplace gem, with a picket fence, a nice hunk of yard. At the front of the house there was the Keeping Room, left over from colonial times. Back when houses were small and cold the Keeping Room was the center of the home with a large fireplace, connected to the kitchen; often where the Puritan adults slept, sending the children into the colder attic. The Keeping Room was a sort of parlor, a place to gather, to get warm, and even write when cold New England winters froze the ink in the inkwells. In more splendid homes there were larger keeping rooms where people even danced and drank and sang songs to pass the nights away. If they weren't Shakers or Quakers.

And when the power went out late last fall in the ice storm, Guy and Lauren actually used the Keeping Room. Four days without power, one night going down to 16 degrees outside. Huddled around the fireplace, with kerosene lamps and candles for light, Poole and Lauren played Parcheesi and went to bed early in their sleeping bags. Their faithful greyhounds, Corky and Peaches, found a spot much to their liking wedged on one of their cushy dog beds in between the two of them.

Some of the best fun they'd ever had, even if they didn't shower for four days. Looking at Lauren's clear face in the candlelight and flutter light of the fire, Poole could almost see her in wimple, apron, and buckled shoes like in Puritan times, and when he caught Lauren's eye it glistened back at him with a flicker of laughter.

“Are you planning to make us stand at dinner, my Husband?” she asked him.

“I'm partial to that custom,” Poole answered her. “But I won't make you say ‘Thee' or ‘Thou,' but you can call me Sir Guy. And as the Parcheesi rules haven't changed, stop your female babbling and throw us the devil dice, Woman.”

He'd had the presence of mind to dribble some antifreeze into the toilet tanks and bowls so the porcelain didn't burst in the freeze. Such forethought let him live as Sir Guy or Master Poole for quite some time thereafter.

On one of those powerless ice-storm nights Poole awoke to put more wood on the fire. He returned to his sleeping bag on the floor, touching it once to make sure it wasn't getting too hot. Before Poole's head fell to the pillow something caught his eye by the dark stairs to the upper bedrooms; a figure crouched in the flickering shadows.

A young lady.

She sat on the bottom step dressed in a little striped dress with puffed sleeves, and an apron with pockets like one of those Sir John Tenniel illustrations out of
Alice in Wonderland
. She held a sparrow in her cupped hands. The tiny bird hopped from one finger to another and then chirped once. Corky lifted his head from his dog bed and stared, but made no sound. Peaches did the same, looking along her long nose toward the stairs. Generally the two dogs liked chasing birds, and squirrels—but not this time. Boy dog and girl dog sniffed curiously, but didn't move from their warm spot by the fire.

Mildly alarmed, Poole had risen on one elbow in his bag and began to struggle out of the thing. “Hello,” he said softly, trying not to wake Lauren or stir up the dogs. “Hello there—what's your na—”

The fire sputtered, a long jet hissing from a log, brighter than before.

The stairs were empty.

Lying back down on his pillow, Poole stared at the fire for a long time, occasionally glancing over to the stairs, as though waiting for the strange figure to return. Corky snuggled up against him, neither dog nor man saying a word. Corky breathed peacefully, and this helped settle his mind. Peaches crawled into a snuggly space on Lauren's sleeping bag, and Guy covered her lanky legs with an extra dog blanket. Neither of the animals made a noise or stirred for the rest of the night. The fire burned well, the Keeping Room stayed warm, and Guy finally fell asleep. When he woke in the morning the two dogs looked at him in that knowing way dogs seem to do, and this strange moment with the girl on the staircase became a secret between them.

*   *   *

At last Poole got off the train at the Fairfield station and walked past a large white Leprechaun Charter bus without looking too closely at it or the passengers. The packed bus closed its door with a hydraulic hiss and rumbled out of town. Scrawled protest signs littered the ground about the station, along with a crowd's refuse, trash barrels overflowing with fast food wrappers and Starbucks coffee cups. Some of the discarded protest signs were hand-scrawled; others with some kind of union label, but Poole didn't pause to examine them. Whatever their complaint it didn't concern him. Probably a school board thing. But there seemed to be an awful lot of discarded stuff.

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