“Dad was in the doghouse for a few days. That was all. No divorce. No big thing.”
Carol Granger started to say something, and that was when Ted stood up. His face was pale as cheese except for two burning patches of red, one above each cheekbone. He was grinning. Did I tell you he wore his hair in a duck’s ass cut? Grease, out of style, not cool. But Ted got away with it. In that click of a second when he stood up, he looked like the ghost of James Dean come to get me, and my heart quailed.
“I’m going to take that gun away from you now, tin shit,” he said, grinning. His teeth were white and even.
I had to fight hard to keep my voice steady, but I think I did pretty well. “Sit down, Ted.”
Ted didn’t move forward, but I could see how badly he wanted to. “That makes me sick, you know it?
Trying to blame something like this on your folks. ”
“Did I say I was trying to-?”
“Shut up!” he said in a rising, strident voice. “You killed two people!”
“How really observant of you to notice,” I said.
He made a horrible rippling movement with his hands, holding them at waist level, and I knew that in his mind he had just grabbed me and eaten me.
“Put that down, Charlie,” he said, grinning. “Just put that gun down and fight me fair.”
“Why did you quit the football team, Ted?” I asked amiably. It was very hard to sound amiable, but it worked. He looked stunned, suddenly unsure, as if no one but the stolidly predictable coach had ever dared ask him that. He looked as if he had suddenly become aware of the fact that he was the only one standing. It was akin to the look a fellow gets when he realizes his zipper is down, and is trying to think of a nice unobtrusive way to get it back up-so it will look like an act of God.
“Never mind that,” he said. “Put down that gun.” It sounded melodramatic as hell. Phony. He knew it.
“Afraid for your balls? Your ever-loving sack? Was that it?”
Irma Bates gasped. Sylvia, however, was watching with a certain predatory in-terest.
“You . . . ” He sat down suddenly in his seat, and somebody chuckled in the back of the room. I’ve always wondered exactly who that was. Dick Keene? Har-mon Jackson?
But I saw their faces. And what I saw surprised me. You might even say it shocked me. Because there was pleasure there. There had been a showdown, a verbal shootout, you might say, and I had won. But why did that make them happy? Like those maddening pictures you sometimes see in the Sunday paper-“Why are these people laughing? Turn to page 41.” Only, there was no page for me to turn to.
And it’s important to know, you know. I’ve thought and thought, racked what-ever brains I have left, and I don’t know. Maybe it was only Ted himself, hand-some and brave, full of the same natural machismo that keeps the wars well–attended. Simple jealousy, then. The need to see everyone at the same level, gar-gling in the same rat-race choir, to paraphrase Dylan. Take offyour mask, Ted, and sit down with the rest of us regular guys.
Ted was still staring at me, and I knew well enough that he was unbroken. Only, next time he might not be so direct. Maybe next time he would try me on the flank.
Maybe it’s just mob spirit. Jump on the individual.
But I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, although it would ex-plain much. No, the subtle shift from Ted’s end of the seesaw to mine could not be dismissed as some mass grunt of emotion. A mob always wipes out the strange one, the sport, the mutant. That was me, not Ted. Ted was the exact opposite of those things. He was a boy you would have been proud to have down in the rumpus room with your daughter. No, it was in Ted, not in them. It had to be in Ted. I began to feel strange tentacles of excitement in my belly-the way a butterfly col-lector must feel when he thinks he has just seen a new species fluttering in yon bushes.
“I know why Ted quit football,” a voice said slyly. I looked around. It was Pig Pen. Ted had fairly jumped at the sound of his voice. He was beginning to look a wee bit haggard.
“Do tell,” I said.
“If you open your mouth, I’ll kill you,” Ted said deliberately. He turned his grin on Pig Pen.
Pig Pen blinked in a terrified way and licked his lips. He was torn. It was prob-ably the first time in his life that he’d had the ax, and now he didn’t know if he dared to grind it. Of course, almost anyone in the room could have told you how he came by any information he had; Mrs. Dano spent her life attending bazaars, rummage sales, church and school suppers, and Mrs. Dano had the longest, shrewdest nose in Gates Falls. I also suspected she held the record for party-line listening in. She could latch on to anyone’s dirty laundry before you could say have-you-heard-the-latest-about-Sam-Delacorte.
“I . . . ” Pig Pen began, and turned away from Ted as he made an impotent clutching gesture with his hands.
“Go on and tell,” Sylvia Ragan said suddenly. “Don’t let Golden Boy scare you, hon.”
Pig Pen gave her a quivering smile and then blurted out: “Mrs. Jones is an al-coholic. She had to go someplace and dry out. Ted had to help with his family.”
Silence for a second.
“I’m going to kill you, Pig Pen,” Ted said, getting up. His face was dead pale.
“Now, that’s not nice,” I said. “You said so yourself. Sit down.”
Ted glared at me, and for a moment I thought he was going to break and charge at me. If he had, I would have killed him. Maybe he could see it on my face. He sat back down.
“So,” I said. “The skeleton has boogied right out of the closet. Where’s she drying out, Ted?”
“Shut up,” he said thickly. Some of his hair had fallen across his forehead. It looked greasy. It was the first time it had ever looked that way to me.
“Oh, she’s back now,” Pig Pen said, and offered Ted a forgiving smile.
“You said you’d kill Pig Pen,” I said thoughtfully.
“I will kill him,” Ted muttered. His eyes were red and baleful.
“Then you can blame it on your parents,” I said, smiling. “Won’t that be a relief?”
Ted was gripping the edge of his desk tightly. Things weren’t going to his liking at all. Harmon Jackson was smiling nastily. Maybe he had an old grudge against Ted.
“Your father drive her to it?” I asked kindly. “How’d it happen? Home late all the time? Supper burned and all that? Nipping on the cooking sherry a little at first? Hi-ho.”
“I’ll kill you.” he moaned.
I was needling him-needling the shit out of him-and no one was telling me to stop. It was incredible.
They were all watching Ted with a glassy kind of interest, as if they had expected all along that there were a few maggots under there.
“Must be tough, being married to a big-time bank officer,” I said. “Look at it that way. She probably didn’t realize she was belting down the hard stuff so heavy. It can creep up on you, look at it that way. It can get on top of you. And it’s not your fault, is it? Hi-ho.”
“Shut up!” he screamed at me.
“There it was, right under your nose, but it just got out of control, am I right? Kind of disgusting, wasn’t it? Did she really go to pot, Ted? Tell us. Get rid of it. Kind of just slopping around the house, was she?”
“Shut up! Shut up! ”
“Drunk in front of Dialing for Dollars? Seeing bugs in the corners? Or was she quiet about it? Did she see bugs? Did she? Did she go bugs?”
“Yeah, it was disgusting!”He brayed at me suddenly, through a mouthful of spit. “Almost as disgusting as you! Killer! Killer!”
“Did you write her?” I asked softly.
“Why would I write her?” he asked wildly. “Why should I write her? She copped out.”
“And you couldn’t play football.”
Ted Jones said clearly, “Drunk bitch. ”
Carol Granger gasped, and the spell was broken. Ted’s eyes seemed to clear a little. The red light went out of them, and he realized what he had said.
“I’ll get you for this, Charlie,” he said quietly.
“You might. You might get your chance. ” I smiled. “A drunken old bitch of a mother. That surely is disgusting, Ted.”