Ted sat silently, stating at me.
It was over, then. We could turn our attention to other things-at least, for the moment. I had a feeling we might be getting back to Ted. Or that he would get back to me.
People moved around restlessly outside.
The clock buzzed.
No one said anything for a long time, or what seemed like a long time. There was a lot to think about now.
Sylvia Ragan finally broke the silence. She threw back her head and laughed- long, hard, and loud.
Several people, including me, jumped. Ted Jones didn’t. He was still on his own trip. “You know what I’d like to do after this is over?” she asked.
“What?” Pig Pen asked. He looked surprised that he had spoken up again. San-dra Cross was looking at me gravely. She had her ankles crossed the way pretty girls do when they want to foil boys who want to look up their dresses.
“I’d like to get this in a detective magazine. ‘Sixty Minutes of Terror with the Placerville Maniac.’ I’d get somebody who writes good to do it. Joe McKennedy or Phil Franks . . . or maybe you, Charlie. How’s that bite your banana?” She guffawed, and Pig Pen joined in tentatively. I think he was fascinated by Sylvia’s fearlessness. Or maybe it was only her blatant sexuality. She sure didn’t have her ankles crossed.
Out on the lawn, two more trooper cars had arrived. The firemen were leaving; the fire alarm had cut out a few minutes ago. Abruptly Mr. Grace disengaged him-self from the crowd and started toward the main
doors. A light breeze flapped the bottom of his sport coat.
“More company,” Corky Herald said.
I got up, went over to the intercom, and switched it back onto TALK-LISTEN. Then I sat down again, sweating a little. Mr. Don-God-Give-Us-Grace was on his way. And he was no lightweight.
A few seconds later there was that hollow chink! that means the line is open. Mr. Grace said, “Charlie?”
His voice was very calm, very rich, very certain.
“How are you, skinner?” I asked.
“Fine, thanks, Charlie. How are you?”
“Keeping my thumb on it,” I said agreeably.
Snickers from some of the boys.
“Charlie, we’ve talked about getting help for you before this. Now, you’ve committed a pretty antisocial act, wouldn’t you agree?”
“By whose standards?”
“Society’s standards, Charlie. First Mr. Carlson, now this. Will you let us help you?”
I almost asked him if my co-students weren’t a part of society, because no one down here seemed too worked up about Mrs. Underwood. But I couldn’t do that. It would have transgressed a set of rules that I was just beginning to grasp.
“How does Ah do it?” I bawled. “Ah already tole dat dere Mr. Denber how sorry Ah is for hittin’ dat 1’il girl wit dat Loosyville Sluggah. Ali wants mah poor paid shrunk! Ali wants mah soul saved an’ made white as snow! How does Ah do it, Rev’rund?”
Pat Fitzgerald, who was nearly as black as the ace of spades, laughed and shook his head.
“Charlie, Charlie,” Mr. Grace said, as if very sad. “Only you can save your soul now.”
I didn’t like that. I stopped shouting and put my hand on the pistol, as if for courage. I didn’t like it at all.
He had a way of slipping it to you. I’d seen him a lot since I bopped Mr. Carlson with the pipe wrench.
He could really slip it in.
“Did Tom tell the police what I said?”
“Don’t you mean ‘Mr. Denver’?”
“Whatever. Did he … ?”
“Yes, he relayed your message.”
“Have they figured out how they’re going to handle me yet?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. I’m more interested in knowing if you’ve figured out how you’re going to handle yourself.”
Oh, he was slipping it to me, all right. Just like he kept slipping it to me after Mr. Carlson. But then I had to go see him. Now I could turn him off anytime I wanted to. Except I couldn’t, and he knew I couldn’t.
It was too normal to be con-sistent. And I was being watched by my peerless peers. They were evaluating me.
“Sweating a little?” I asked the intercom.
“You guys,” I said, an edge of bitterness creeping into my voice. “You’re all the same. ”
“We are? If so, then we all want to help you.”
He was going to be a much tougher nut to strip than old Tom Denver had been. That was obvious. I called Don Grace up in my mind. Short, dapper little fuck. Bald on top, big muttonchop sideburns, as if to make up for it. He favored tweed coats with suede patches on the elbows. A pipe always stuffed with something that came from Copenhagen and smelled like cowshit. A man with a headful of sharp, prying instruments. A mind-fucker, a head-stud. That’s what a shrink is for, my friends and neighbors; their job is to fuck the mentally disturbed and make them pregnant with sanity. It’s a bull’s job, and they go to school to learn how, and all their courses are variations on a theme: Slipping It to the Psychos for Fun and Profit, Mostly Profit. And if you find yourself someday lying on that great ana-lyst’s couch where so many have lain before you, I’d ask you to remember one thing: When you get sanity by stud, the child always looks like the father. And they have a very high suicide rate.
But they get you lonely, and ready to cry, they get you ready to toss it all over if they will just promise to go away for a while. What do we have? What do we really have? Minds like terrified fat men, begging the eyes that look up in the bus terminal or the restaurant and threaten to meet ours to look back down, uninter-ested. We lie awake and picture ourselves in white hats of varying shapes. There’s no maidenhead too tough to withstand the seasoned dork of modern psychiatry. But maybe that was okay.
Maybe now they would play my game, all these shysters and whores.
“Let us help you, Charlie,” Mr. Grace was saying.
“But by letting you help me, I would be helping you.” I said it as if the idea had just occurred to me.
“Don’t want to do that.”
“The next time you ask me a question, I’m going to kill somebody down here. ” I could hear Mr. Grace suck wind, as if someone had just told him his son had been in a car crash. It was a very
un-self-confident sound. It made me feel very good.
Everyone in the room was looking at me tightly. Ted Jones raised his head slowly, as if he had just awakened. I could see the familiar, hating darkness cloud his eyes. Anne Lasky’s eyes were round and frightened. Sylvia Ragan’s fingers were doing a slow and dreamy ballet as they rummaged in her purse for another cigarette. And Sandra Cross was looking at me gravely, gravely, as if I were a doctor, or a priest.
Mr. Grace began to speak.
“Watch it!” I said sharply. “Before you say anything, be careful. You aren’t playing your game any longer. Understand that. You’re playing mine. Statements only. Be very careful. Can you be very careful?”
He didn’t say anything about my game metaphor at all. That was when I began to believe I had him.
“Charlie . . . “Was that almost a plea?
“Very good. Do you think you’ll be able to keep your job after this, Mr. Grace?”
“Charlie, for God’s sake . . . ”
“Ever so much better. ”
“Let them go, Charlie. Save yourself. Please.”
“You’re talking too fast. Pretty soon a question will pop out, and that’ll be the end for somebody.”
“Charlie . . . ”
“How was your military obligation fulfilled?”
“Wh . . . ” Sudden whistling of breath as he cut that off.
“You almost killed somebody,” I said. “Careful, Don. I can call you Don, can’t I? Sure. Weigh those words, Don.”
I was reaching out for him.
I was going to break him.
In that second it seemed as if maybe I could break them all.
“I think I better sign off for the moment, Charlie.”
“If you go before I say you can, I’ll shoot somebody. What you’re going to do is sit there and answer my questions.”
The first sweaty desperation, as well concealed as underarm perspiration at the junior prom: “I really mustn’t, Charlie. I can’t take the responsibility for-”
“Responsibility?”I screamed. “My God, you’ve been taking the responsibil-ity ever since they let you loose from college! Now you want to cop out the first time your bare ass is showing! But I’m in the driver’s seat, and by God you’ll pull the cart! Or I’ll do just what I said. Do you dig it? Do you understand me?”