“Are you nuts?” Harmon Jackson asked suddenly.
“I think I must be,” I said. “Anyone who kills anyone else is nuts, in my book. ”
“Well, maybe you ought to give yourself up,” Hannon said. “Get some help. A doctor. You know.”
“You mean like that Grace?” Sylvia asked. “My God, that creepster. I had to go see him after I threw an inkwell at old lady Green. All he did was look up my dress and try to get me to talk about my sex life.”
“Not that you’ve had any,” Pat Fitzgerald said, and there was another laugh.
“And not that it’s any business of his or yours,” she said haughtily, dropped her cigarette on the floor, and mashed it.
“So what are we going to do?” Jack Goldman asked.
“Just get it on,” I said. “That’s all.”
Out on the lawn, a second town police car had arrived. I guessed that the third one was probably down at Junior’s Diner, taking on vital shipments of coffee and doughnuts. Denver was talking with a state trooper in blue pants and one of those almost-Stetsons they wear. Up on the road, Jerry Kesserling was letting a few cars through the roadblock to pick up kids who didn’t ride the bus. The cars picked up and then drove hastily away. Mr. Grace was talking to a guy in a business suit that I didn’t know. The firemen were standing around and smoking cigarettes and wait-ing for someone to tell them to put out a fire or go home.
“Has this got anything to do with you beating up Carlson?” Corky asked.
“How should I know what it has to do with?” I asked him irritably. “If I knew what was making me do it, I probably wouldn’t have to.”
“It’s your parents.” Susan Brooks spoke up suddenly. “It must be your parents.
Ted Jones made a rude noise.
I looked over at her, surprised. Susan Brooks was one of those girls who never say anything unless called upon, the ones that teachers always have to ask to speak up, please. A very studious, very serious girl. A rather pretty but not terribly bright girl-the kind who isn’t allowed to give up and take the general or the commercial courses, because she had a terribly bright older brother or older sister, and teachers expect comparable things from her. In fine, one of those girls who are holding the dirty end of the stick with as much good grace and manners as they can muster. Usually they marry truck drivers and move to the West Coast, where they have kitchen nooks with Formica counters-and they write letters to the Folks Back East as seldom as they can get away with. They make quiet, successful lives for them-selves and grow prettier as the shadow of the bright older brother or sister falls away from them.
“My parents,” I said, tasting it. I thought about telling them I had been hunting with my dad when I was nine. “My Hunting Trip,” by Charles Decker. Subtitle: “Or, How I Overheard My Dad Explain the Cherokee Nose Job.” Too revolting.
I snatched a look at Ted Jones, and the rich, coppery aroma of paydirt filled my nostrils. His face was set in a furious, jeering expression, as if someone had just forced a whole lemon into his mouth and then jammed his jaws together. As if someone had dropped a depth charge into his brains and sent some old, sunken hulk into long and ominous psychic vibrations.
“That’s what it says in all the psychology books,” Susan was going on, all blithely unaware. “In fact . . . ”
She suddenly became aware of the fact that she was speaking (and in a normal tone of voice, and in class) and clammed up. She was wearing a pale-jade-colored blouse, and her bra straps showed through like ghostly, half-erased chalk marks.
“My parents,” I said again, and stopped again. I remembered the hunting trip again, but this time I remembered waking up, seeing the moving branches on the tight canvas of the tent (was the canvas tight?
you bet it was-my dad put that tent up, and everything he did was tight, no loose screws there), looking at the moving branches, needing to whiz, feeling like a little kid again . . . and remembering something that had happened long ago. I didn’t want to talk about that. I hadn’t talked about it with Mr. Grace. This was getting it on for real-and besides, there was Ted. Ted didn’t care for this at all. Perhaps it was all very important to him. Perhaps Ted could still be . . . helped. I suspected it was much too late for me, but even on that level, don’t they say that learning is a good and elegant thing for its own sake? Sure.
Outside, nothing much seemed to be going on. The last town police car had ar-rived, and, just as I had expected, they were handing out coffee-and. Story time chil-luns.
“My parents,” I said:
My parents met at a wedding reception, and although it may have nothing to do with anything-unless you believe in omens-the bride that day was burned to death less than a year later. Her name was Jessie Decker Hannaford. As Jessie Decker, she had been my mom’s roommate at the University of Maine, where they were both majoring in political science. The thing that seemed to have happened was this: Jessie’s husband went out to a special town meeting, and Jessie went into the bathroom to take a shower.
She fell down and hit her head and knocked herself unconscious. In the kitchen, a dish towel fell on a hot stove burner. The house went up like a rocket. Wasn’t it a mercy she didn’t suffer.
So the only good that came of that wedding was my mother’s meeting with Jes-sie Decker Hannaford’s brother. He was an ensign in the Navy. After the recep-tion, he asked my mother if she would like to go dancing. She said yes. They courted for six months, and then they were married. I came along about fourteen months after the nuptials, and I’ve done the math again and again. As near as I can figure, I was conceived on one of the nights just before or just after my father’s sister was being broiled alive in her shower cap. She was my mom’s bridesmaid. I’ve looked at all the wedding pictures, and no matter how often I’ve looked, it always gives me a weird feeling. There is Jessie holding my mother’s bridal train.
Jessie and her husband, Brian Hannaford, smiling in the background as my mom and dad cut the wedding cake. Jessie dancing with the minister. And in all the pictures she is only five months away from the shower and the dishrag on the hot stove burner. You wish you could step into one of those Kodachromes and ap-proach her, say: “You’re never going to be my aunt Jessie unless you stay out of the shower when your husband is away. Be careful, Aunt Jessie. ” But you can’t go back. For want of a shoe the horse was lost, and all that.
But it happened, which is another way of saying I happened, and that’s it. I was an only child; my mother never wanted another. She’s very intellectual, my mother. Reads English mysteries, but never by Agatha Christie. Victor Canning and Hammond Innes were always more her cup of tea. Also magazines like The Manchester Guardian and Monocle and The New York Review of Books. My father, who made a career of the Navy and ended up as a recruiter, was more the all-Amer-ican type. He likes the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Redwings and wore a black armband the day Vince Lombardi died. No shit. And he reads those Richard Stark novels about Parker, the thief. That always amused the hell out of my mother. She finally broke down and told him that Richard Stark was really Donald Westlake, who writes sort of funny mysteries under his real name. My father tried one and hated it. After that he always acted like Westlake/Stark was his private lapdog who turned against him one night and tried to bite his throat.
My earliest memory is of waking up in the dark and thinking I was dead until I saw the shadows moving on the walls and the ceiling-there was a big old elm outside my window, and the wind would move the branches. This particular night-the first night I remember anything-there must have been a full moon (hunter’s moon, do they call it?), because the walls were very bright and the shad-ows were very dark.
The branch shadows looked like great moving fingers. Now when I think of it, they seem like corpse fingers. But I couldn’t have thought that then, could I? I was only three. A kid that little doesn’t even know what a corpse is.