Voices in the Dark, page 1
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For Bernadine, without whom nothing would be possible; our daughters Cathleen, Krista, Lisa, and Heather; my sister, Julie; and my toughest critic, Nikki Smith.
ON THE LAST DAY OF HIS LIFE HE READ A WARNING IN HIS horoscope and cast the newspaper aside when a woman asked if she might share the bench. Sitting close, her shirt open to a dash of white, she doubled a leg beneath her and said, “Let me guess, you’re fourteen.” He was sixteen, he told her, which was the exact truth, though he was slight for his age and wore braces on his teeth. It was his birthday, which he didn’t tell her. She said, “I was never sixteen.”
His involuntary smile revealed the braces. “You must’ve been, once.”
“No, I skipped it.”
They were in the Public Garden, where daffodils flung out bells and tulips were cups awaiting offerings. Beyond, in the direction of the lagoon where swan boats carried children and tourists, brilliant forsythia clashed with red rhododendron. The Boston sky was veined marble.
“My name’s Mary. What’s yours?”
He would have guessed something less ordinary, Naomi or Daphne. Her auburn hair flowed from each side of the center part, and her left cheek bore a small blemish, like postage, as if she had come a way. Her face, expressive, was a puzzle beyond figuring. His was delicate, marked by pallor, and harbored an air of privacy. His name he meant to keep to himself, but it came out anyway. “Glen.”
“Fits you,” she said.
He hoped not. It was too light a syllable, too quick a sound, which seemed to dismiss him as soon as he said it. He would have preferred Anthony, which had strength and was the name of someone from school.
The woman, her tone winsome, said, “I love Saturdays, don’t you?”
Not particularly, and he let the click of a heel claim his attention. An extremely attractive black woman with dangling chains of hair strutted by on legs as splendid as those of his stepmother, whom he thought the most beautiful creature in the world. Then came a rush of guilt, for his loyalty lay with his mother, with whom he lived.
The woman touched his arm. “Are you all right?”
His heart was racing, his breathing was dense. More than a year ago, a Saturday, the doctor had given him the odds and the minister had laid his future in the hands of God, which made him feel like a tossed coin that would eventually land heads or tails. Heads was hope, tails a tunnel at the end of which, some people claimed, was a blast of light. He didn’t believe it. “I’m fine,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
What had struck was already passing, leaving him with no epiphanies, only vague understandings he didn’t bother to sort out. Instead he watched a trim man with gray locks and dimples feed bread to pigeons. The man didn’t scatter torn pieces but sailed out whole slices onto the grass, which raised a clamor and provoked battles.
The woman said, “Would you rather be alone?”
Though his horoscope hung heavy, warning of a false friend, he said, “No, ma’am.”
“Call me Mary.”
Looking her full in the face, he likened the flaw on her cheek to the bruise on a windfall apple: Eve tempting a callow Adam. She looked thirty-five, but he was no judge. She could have been much older or much younger. With a frown he read his watch. “I’m waiting for my father.”
A shape advanced, but was not familiar. It passed, followed by sauntering youths with legs muscled into jeans, baseball caps worn askew. Pigeons racketed around the man who had finished feeding them, some pied, some shedding fluff, a few nursing hurts. Several, beating their wings, seemed set to fly up at the man. Bigger birds might have done it.
Mary’s whisper heated his ear. “He’s not coming.”
“I would bet on it.”
Her smile, a challenge, went unanswered, for he presumed that all contests were fixed, all events predetermined. Adults kept score. She pulled her leg from under her and softened her smile.
“People tend to disappoint us. Isn’t that the first thing you learned when you were little?”
The question was meaningless, for he had doctored most memories and lately had learned to walk a wire from one mood to another. A drop of rain spotted his shirt, though the sun continued to shine. A sudden breeze raised a disturbance in the woman’s hair.
“We mustn’t let it bother us,” she said. “Worst thing is to dwell on it.”
Dwelling on nothing, he drew in sights and sounds existing only for that moment. Sparrows sprayed from a Norway maple and took flight. Children near the weathered statue of a warrior raced and rolled on grass, arms and legs flying out as if detached.
“The trick is to relax, accept what comes along. Can you do that, Glen?”
He held out a hand to feel for more rain, but his palm stayed dry. The breeze vanished, the world went on. From other benches old men, craning their necks, sunned themselves like turtles on logs.
“You’re an only child, aren’t you?”
Everything she said was a sort of surprise that gave him a turn, as if they had met in another life, planet Pluto, winds whistling around them. “How did you know?”
“Something in your eyes.”
He was interested. He wanted to know more about himself, particularly on this special day, with candles yet to be lit. “What else do you know about me?”
“You’d smile more if it weren’t for those braces.”
“They don’t bother me,” he lied and concentrated on people parading by, the intensity of this man, the lack of it in that one. Here was a woman with effortless steps, another with labored ones, the sun scalloping her. Suddenly he was tired. An eye twitched as he flung his watch a final look.
“I told you,” she said.
She was on her feet, as if a little clock had chimed. Her shirt, plum with white buttons, traced her breathing. In her face was a kind of caring, aloof but vivid, alive but contained, leaving him without thoughts, only sensations.
“Your age, every problem is magnified.”
He knew that, he didn’t need to be told. He had graduated the past week from Phillips Andover, the youngest in his class, fitting into no social cluster, possessing only his own thoughts, with the sin of Onan to put him to sleep at night.
“You mustn’t fear anything.”
“I don’t,” he boasted, but the truth was that he suffered nightsweats, had demons in his dreams, and didn’t feel wholly human in the morning. But the feeling always passed.
“And you won’t. Promise.”
He didn’t want her to leave. Sunstruck, her face was a palimpsest of feelings, with no way for him to read through the rough to the original. Her blemish acquired the textured translucency of a watermark. “I won’t,” he promised, his tone rash, as if he had bitten into the apple with no thought of the worm.
“I won’t forget you,” she said.
Each moment expecting her to look back, he watched her stride toward Beacon Street. A few minutes later he rose reluctantly and strode in the opposite di
In the gray air of the subway station, he sidestepped a derelict who smelled like old fish and bumped through a turnstile. On the platform, people compacted around him. A train flowered with graffiti reverberated by on the opposite tracks, the cars like massive coffins destined for slots in hell. On one side of him was an Hispanic youth with the consumed look of a user and on the other an elderly woman preoccupied with her pocketbook. From behind a man’s voice, private in his ear, startled him. Twisting, he glimpsed gray locks and a dimpled smile aimed at no one.
The crowd shuffled and, at the rumble of an approaching train, pressed forward, forcing him to the verge of the platform, the view of the rails naked. The Hispanic youth gave off a cloying scent of cologne. The woman clutching her pocketbook exuded lilac.
“Better worlds are coming,” the dimpled man whispered in his ear.
The beam of the train, an unearthly eye, appeared abruptly, and in the prick of the moment Glen’s mind filled with childhood drawings his mother had preserved for him on a wall, like cave art. The colors were brilliant, primary, waxing in his mind with the roar of the train.
“Now,” the man said in his ear.
• • •
A half hour away in the bedroom town of Bensington, Police Chief James Morgan was crossing the village green while watching robins worm the ground. With his loose, easy stride, he was a limber figure in an old sports jacket and narrow chinos. His step slowed when he glimpsed a woman near a billowing red maple, and his spirit quickened when she lashed her thighs over a boy’s bicycle, bent forward, and pedaled toward him. But then she glided past him without a word, only a slender smile one might have given a stranger. Picking up speed, she vanished behind explosions of forsythia and moments later reappeared on the street.
From a bench, he craned his neck and watched her sail by the white facade of the town hall, by the Blue Bonnet Restaurant with its window boxes of geraniums, by the war memorial near the ivy-matted library, by the pink brick of the post office. Then he lost sight of her behind a curving bank of parked cars beyond the Congregational church.
Waiting for her to reappear on the far side of the green, he stretched a leg and viewed with mixed feelings the backdrop of chic little shops that had sprung up in the long stretch between Pearl’s Pharmacy and Tuck’s General Store. Brand-new, Minerva’s Tea Room announced itself in tasteful gold leaf lettering. Relatively new, Prescott’s Pantry sold gourmet food and catered private parties, and Elaine’s dolled up children in designer clothes. The Gift Shoppe featured crystal and Wedgwood in its window.
Burger King had sought entry near the green but was relegated to the outskirts of town, near wetland that now harbored a fleet of Japanese cars.
From his vantage point Chief Morgan watched comings and goings of Saturday shoppers at Tuck’s. From the street came the toot of an old station wagon’s horn. A familiar hand waved from the open window, and Morgan waved back. He knew nearly everyone in town, certainly all the natives and not a few of the wealthy newcomers who occupied the Heights, a prestigious area once unmolested woodland and now groomed with extended lawns, ornamental ponds, and geometric gardens surrounding grand houses. As a boy, pretending to be a pioneer blazing a trail, he had wandered those woods.
He pulled his leg in when he heard the crunch of grass. Surprising him, the woman on the bicycle had breezed up from behind and was now wheeling in front of him. Abruptly she braked and stood straddling the crossbar. She was tall, husky, and athletic. Morgan could almost see the gallop in her legs, the spring in her toes. She was from the Heights.
“Are we speaking?”
“It’d be foolish if we didn’t,” he said, his head full of her. A widower, he enjoyed women, and with them he had a livelier voice, a warmer smile, special eyes. Each new woman in his life was a tonic.
“I didn’t mean to stand you up,” she said. She had thick blond hair bundled back, a striking and aggressive face, and an orotund voice thrilling to men and intriguing to other women. Before marrying and moving to Bensington three years ago, she had been a television reporter in Boston. “I’m sorry,” she added.
“It’s okay,” he said, though it was not. Yesterday he had waited two hours for her in the lounge at Rembrandt’s, a restaurant in neighboring Andover. It would have been their first date. “Did you get cold feet?”
“Something like that.”
“You could’ve called.”
“But you didn’t.”
“It wasn’t convenient. Harley was in and out.” Harley was her husband. The marriage, which was not working, was her first, her husband’s second. She shifted her weight over the bar of the bicycle and said, “Did you wait long?”
“No,” he said and wondered what it would be like to be greedily in love again, to wear his whole heart on his sleeve. She had turned thirty, which he knew from a check of the voting list, and he was well into his forties, but with no gray in his hair, he was proud of that. And proud too that he still had his looks, though his nose played slightly too large a part in his face.
“But you’re angry.”
“Maybe it’s all just as well,” he said without meaning a word of it. His truths he told with a smile, his lies with solemnity. “Still friends, aren’t we?”
“I hope so, James.”
“And no reason we can’t bump into each other at the library.”
The library was where they had got to know each other, where she read out-of-town newspapers and borrowed biographies. Fitting herself back onto the bicycle seat, one foot on the ground and the other poised on a pedal, she said, “No reason whatsoever.”
He did not want her to leave, not so quickly. The anticipation of loss was with him always, the chill rooted in childhood when his father was killed in the war and reinforced tenfold when early in his marriage his wife was killed on a winding road.
“I suppose you have to go somewhere,” he said.
“A party,” she replied. “The Gunners.”
“Paul and Beverly.”
“You know them?”
He knew what they looked like, he knew they were rich as God, and he knew they had had a loss of their own, two, maybe three years ago. “Not really,” he said, watching a monarch wobble in an errant breeze, its flight redirected. “I don’t suppose you’ll be at the library on Monday.”
“Let’s not plan anything, James. That way neither of us will be disappointed.”
Too much truthfulness in her face. He would have gratefully accepted a lie, the sort he told, which gave hope and fleeting comfort. He watched her pedal away, her torso flung forward, her bottom arched over the tiny seat, and her legs shedding light. Then he was on his feet.
“Kate,” he called. But she did not hear him.
• • •
Mary Williams lived one flight up in a brownstone on Beacon, near Charles, near the Public Garden, a mere walk from the Ritz, where her grandmother used to take her to breakfast and taught her to eat her egg from a porcelain cup, the continental way; where her grandmother had read the Times, which had no comics she could borrow, though waiters had occasionally amused her and dowagers had made much of her. On days such as this, it did not seem that long ago.
Light streaked through the tall front windows and struck ceramic vases and crystalware, picking out the prettiest. The apartment was spacious, airy, with many rooms, the furniture her grandmother’s. The paintings on the walls of the wide passageway were her own creations, the ones she felt she could show: a meadow imbued with the calm of a Corot, a maiden with a Modigliani neck, a street scene reminiscent of Hopper, nothing that would upset her friend Dudley.
In the kitchen she made herbal tea in a pot smothered with deli
Carrying cup and saucer with her, she passed through the dining room, where a bowl of potpourri emitted a strong fragrance, and into her reading room, where walls of books threw out titles in a learned way. The rolltop desk had been her great-grandfather’s and still sheltered some of his papers. She paused only to trail a hand over the humps of an open Oxford dictionary, as if her fingers absorbed words.
She glanced into her studio, where like bad children, canvases were stacked with their faces to the wall. Her mother had called it her therapy room. In the works was a sketch of a nude male, the model an ex-soldier with a shaved head and a quilt of belly muscles.
Her bedroom faced her friend’s. She went into hers. The bed was an old-fashioned four-poster of dark oak and fretwork, beneath which, for effect, was a chamber pot. On the night table were pencil stubs, a wind-up clock, and a candle rising from a tarnished wreath of gilt. Small ornately framed photographs of family members lined a mantelpiece, her father and her grandmother in the forefront. Sitting on the window seat with a partial view of the street, she sipped her tea and waited.
• • •
The grandest house on the Heights belonged to the Gunners. Built on the converging lines of an English manor and a Dutch colonial, it was approachable through a stone gateway. The driveway was an avenue of tapered arborvitae, which concealed video scanners. The cocktail party was at five, and on the hour automobiles of note began arriving. In a foyer of rosy marble the Gunners greeted guests, who gradually would include nearly everyone from the Heights and many from Andover.
Beverly Gunner’s hair was a golden shell perfectly in place, Paul Gunner’s collar bit into his big neck. He shook the hands of the men and planted kisses on the cheeks of the women. His heavy face was wadded with an importance he deserved. A graduate of MIT, he had worked for a software company only long enough to form his own, which he sold seven years later in a deal spectacular enough to put his picture in Forbes and Fortune. Later he made killings in commercial real estate and got out before the market collapsed, for he heeded the signs the greedy ignored, among them Myles Yarbrough, whose hand he was now pumping with a superior grip. Phoebe Yarbrough, a willowy elegance in waist-cinching silk, he slobbered with a kiss.
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