“My God.” Her round face got rounder as her mouth opened, her eyes went wide, then softened to commiseration. “Poor boy. Who?”

“It was one of those nice old men who sit in the ticket office down at the Venice Short Line stop, been sitting there since Billy Sunday thumped the Bible and William Jennings Bryan made his Cross of Gold speech. I’ve seen them there since I was a kid. Four old men. You felt they’d be there forever, glued to the wooden benches. I don’t think I ever saw one of them up and around. They were there all day, all week, all year, smoking pipes or cigars, and talking politics thirteen to the dozen and deciding what to do with the country. When I was fifteen one of them looked at me and said, ‘You going to grow up and change the world only for the best, boy?’ ‘Yes, sir!’ I said. ‘I think you’ll do it,’ he said. ‘Won’t he, gents?’ ‘Yes,’ they all said, and smiled at me. The old man who asked me that, he’s the one I found in the lion cage last night.”

“In the cage?”

“Under water, in the canal.”

“This calls for one more side of Tosca.”

Fannie was an avalanche getting up, a tide flowing to the machine, a mighty force cranking the windup arm, and God’s whisper putting the needle down on a new surface.

As the music rose, she came back into her chair like a ghost ship, regal and pale, quiet and concerned.

“I know one reason why you’re taking this so hard,” she said. “Peg. She still in Mexico, studying?”

“Been gone three months. Might as well be three years,” I said. “Christ, I’m lonely.”

“And vulnerable,” said Fannie. “Shouldn’t you call her?”

“Christ, Fannie, I can’t afford. And I don’t want to reverse the charges. I’ll just have to hope she’ll phone me in the next day or so.”

“Poor boy. Sick with love.”

“Sick with death. The awful thing is, Fannie, I didn’t even know that old man’s name! And isn’t that a shame?”

The second side of Tosca really did it. I sat there, head down, with the tears running off the tip of my nose into the wine.

“You’ve ruined your St. Emilion,” said Fannie gently, when the record ended.

“Now I’m mad,” I said.

“Why?” Fannie, standing, like a great pomegranate mother, by the phonograph, sharpened a new needle and found a happier record. “Why?”

“Someone killed him, Fannie. Someone stuffed him in that cage. There was no other way for him to have gotten in.”

“Oh, dear,” she murmured.

“When I was twelve, one of my uncles back east was shot in a holdup late at night, in his car. At his funeral, my brother and I vowed we’d find the murderer and do him in. But he’s still in the world somewhere. And that was a long time back in another town. This time, it’s here. Whoever drowned the old man lives within a few blocks of me in Venice. And when I find him…”

“You’ll turn him over to the police.” Fannie leaned forward in one massive but tender motion. “You’ll feel better after a good sleep.”

Then she read my face.

“No,” she said at my funeral, “you won’t feel better. Well, go on. Be the fool all men are. God, what lives we women lead, watching the fools kill each other and the killers kill the killers, and us over on the sidelines yelling stop and nobody listening. Can’t you hear me, love?”

She put another record on and let the needle down like a loving kiss to the grooves, and came surging over to touch my cheek with her great pink chrysanthemum fingers.

“Oh, please, do be careful. I don’t like Venice. Not enough streetlights. And those damned oil wells pumping all night long, no letup, with a case of the moans.”

“Venice won’t get me, Fannie, or whatever it is wandering around Venice,”

Standing in halls, waiting, I thought, outside old men’s and old women’s doors.

Fannie became a giant glacier standing over me.

She must have seen my face again, where everything was given away, nothing hidden. Instinctively, she glanced at her own door, as if a shadow had passed outside. Her intuition stunned me.

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray