On the other hand there was a diktat in force, straight from the Federal Bureau of Data Processing, which instructed him to produce a full report in the shortest possible time. Hence Hartz’s flying visit. And that had lasted a whole working day, moreover, when one might have expected the typical “hello-how-interesting-goodbye” pattern. Someone in Washington must have a hunch… or at any rate have gone out so far on a limb as to need results regardless of what they were.
He compromised. For a single day he would talk person-to-person instead of merely replaying facts from store in a living memory.
He quite looked forward to the change.
“You know where you are?”
The totally shaven man licked his lips. His gaze flickered around the stark white walls.
“No, but I figure it must be Tarnover. I always pictured rooms like this in that faceless secret block on the east side of the campus.”
“How do you feel about Tarnover?”
“It makes me want to be scared stiff. But I guess you dose me with something so I can’t.”
“But that wasn’t how you felt when you first came here.”
“Hell, no. In the beginning it seemed wonderful. Should it not to a kid with my background?” That was documented: father disappeared when he was five, mother stood the strain for a year and vanished into an alcoholic haze. But the boy was resilient. They decided he would make an ideal rent-a-child: obviously bright, rather quiet, tolerably well mannered and cleanly in his habits. So, from six to twelve, he lived in a succession of modern, smart, sometimes luxurious company homes occupied by childless married couples posted in on temporary assignment from other cities. He was generally well liked by these “parents” and one couple seriously considered adopting him but decided against landing themselves permanently with a boy of another color. Anyhow, they consoled themselves, he was getting a terrific introduction to the plug-in life-style.
He appeared to accept the decision with good grace.
But several times after that, when left alone in the house for an evening (which was in fact often, for he was a good boy and to be trusted), he went to the phone—with a sense of dreadful guilt—and punched the ten nines as he dimly recalled seeing his mother do, his real mother, during the last terrible few months before something went wrong inside her head. To the blank screen he would pour out a nonstop volley of filth and curses. And wait, shaking, for the calm anonymous voice to say, “Only I heard that. I hope it helped.” Paradoxically: yes, it did.
“What about school, Haflinger?”
“Was it really my name… ? Don’t bother to answer; that was rhetorical. I just didn’t like it. Overtones of ‘half,’ as though I was condemned never to become a finished person. And I didn’t care for Nick, either.”
“Do you know why not?”
“Sure I do. In spite of anything it may say to the contrary on my record, I have excellent juvenile recall. Infantile too, in fact. I found out early about Auld Nick, the Scottish term for the devil. Also ‘to nick,’ meaning to arrest or sometimes to steal. And above all Saint Nick. I never did manage to find out how the same figment could give rise to both Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of thieves.”
“Maybe it was a matter of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Did you know that in Holland Sinter Klaas brought gifts to children in the company of a black man who whipped the ones who hadn’t behaved well enough to deserve a present?”
“That’s news to me, and very interesting, Mr.—Mr. Freeman, isn’t it?”
“You were going to tell me how you remember school.”
“Should have known better than to try and strike up a brotherly chat. Yes, school. Much the same—the teachers turned over even faster than my temporary parents, and every new arrival seemed to have a new theory of education, so we never did learn very much. But of course in most respects it was a hell of a lot worse than—uh—home.” The high walls. The guarded gates. The classrooms where the walls were lined with broken teaching machines, waiting for the engineers who never seemed to come, inevitably vandalized after a couple of days and rendered unrepairable.
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