Maps in a mirror, p.3

Maps in a Mirror, page 3

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  What made it even worse was that occasionally a passerby, violating the unwritten law that New Yorkers are forbidden to look at each other, would gaze at him, shudder, and look away. A short European-looking woman crossed herself. A group of teenagers looking for trouble weren’t looking for him—they grew silent, let him pass in silence, and in silence watched him out of sight.

  They may not be able to see the child, Howard realized, but they see something.

  And as he grew less and less coherent in the ramblings of his mind, memories began flashing on and off, his life passing before his eyes like a drowning man is supposed to see, only, he realized, if a drowning man saw this he would gulp at the water, breathe it deeply just to end the visions. They were memories he had been unable to find for years; memories he would never have wanted to find.

  His poor, confused mother, who was so eager to be a good parent that she read everything, tried everything. Her precocious son Howard read it, too, and understood it better. Nothing she tried ever worked. And he accused her several times of being too demanding, of not demanding enough; of not giving him enough love, of drowning him in phony affection; of trying to take over with his friends, of not liking his friends enough. Until he had badgered and tortured the woman until she was timid every time she spoke to him, careful and longwinded and she phrased everything in such a way that it wouldn’t offend, and while now and then he made her feel wonderful by giving her a hug and saying, “Have I got a wonderful Mom,” there were far more times when he put a patient look on his face and said, “That again, Mom? I thought we went over that years ago.” A failure as a parent, that’s what you are, he reminded her again and again, though not in so many words, and she nodded and believed and died inside with every contact they had. He got everything he wanted from her.

  And Vaughn Robles, who was just a little bit smarter than Howard and Howard wanted very badly to be valedictorian and so Vaughn and Howard became best friends and Vaughn would do anything for Howard and whenever Vaughn got a better grade than Howard he could not help but notice that Howard was hurt, that Howard wondered if he was really worth anything at all. “Am I really worth anything at all, Vaughn? No matter how well I do, there’s always someone ahead of me, and I guess it’s just that before my father died he told me and told me, Howie, be better than your Dad. Be the top. And I promised him I’d be the top but hell, Vaughn, I’m just not cut out for it—” and once he even cried. Vaughn was proud of himself as he sat there and listened to Howard give the valedictory address at high school graduation. What were a few grades, compared to a true friendship? Howard got a scholarship and went away to college and he and Vaughn almost never saw each other again.

  And the teacher he provoked into hitting him and losing his job; and the football player who snubbed him and Howard quietly spread the rumor that the fellow was gay and he was ostracized from the team and finally quit; and the beautiful girls he stole from their boyfriends just to prove that he could do it and the friendships he destroyed just because he didn’t like being excluded and the marriages he wrecked and the co-workers he undercut and he walked along the street with tears streaming down his face, wondering where all these memories had come from and why, after such a long time in hiding, they had come out now. Yet he knew the answer. The answer was slipping behind doorways, climbing lightpoles as he passed, waving obscene flippers at him from the sidewalk almost under his feet.

  And slowly, inexorably, the memories wound their way from the distant past through a hundred tawdry exploitations because he could find people’s weak spots without even trying until finally memory came to the one place where he knew it could not, could not ever go.

  He remembered Rhiannon.

  Born fourteen years ago. Smiled early, walked early, almost never cried. A loving child from the start, and therefore easy prey for Howard. Oh, Alice was a bitch in her own right—Howard wasn’t the only bad parent in the family. But it was Howard who manipulated Rhiannon most. “Daddy’s feelings are hurt, Sweetheart,” and Rhiannon’s eyes would grow wide, and she’d be sorry, and whatever Daddy wanted, Rhiannon would do. But this was normal, this was part of the pattern, this would have fit easily into all his life before, except for last month.

  And even now, after a day of grief at his own life, Howard could not face it. Could not but did. He unwillingly remembered walking by Rhiannon’s almost-closed door, seeing just a flash of cloth moving quickly. He opened the door on impulse, just on impulse, as Rhiannon took off her brassiere and looked at herself in the mirror. Howard had never thought of his daughter with desire, not until that moment, but once the desire formed Howard had no strategy, no pattern in his mind to stop him from trying to get what he wanted. He was uncomfortable, and so he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him and Rhiannon knew no way to say no to her father. When Alice opened the door Rhiannon was crying softly, and Alice looked and after a moment Alice screamed and screamed and Howard got up from the bed and tried to smooth it all over but Rhiannon was still crying and Alice was still screaming, kicking at his crotch, beating him, raking at his face, spitting at him, telling him he was a monster, a monster, until at last he was able to flee the room and the house and, until now, the memory.

  He screamed now as he had not screamed then, and threw himself against a plate-glass window, weeping loudly as the blood gushed from a dozen glass cuts on his right arm, which had gone through the window. One large piece of glass stayed embedded in his forearm. He deliberately scraped his arm against the wall to drive the glass deeper. But the pain in his arm was no match for the pain in his mind, and he felt nothing.

  They rushed him to the hospital, thinking to save his life, but the doctor was surprised to discover that for all the blood there were only superficial wounds, not dangerous at all. “I don’t know why you didn’t reach a vein or an artery,” the doctor said. “I think the glass went everywhere it could possibly go without causing any important damage.”

  After the medical doctor, of course, there was the psychiatrist, but there were many suicidals at the hospital and Howard was not the dangerous kind. “I was insane for a moment, Doctor, that’s all. I don’t want to die, I didn’t want to die then, I’m all right now. You can send me home.” And the psychiatrist let him go home. They bandaged his arm. They did not know that his real relief was that nowhere in the hospital did he see the small, naked, child-shaped creature. He had purged himself. He was free.

  Howard was taken home in an ambulance, and they wheeled him into the house and lifted him from the stretcher to the bed. Through it all Alice hardly said a word except to direct them to the bedroom. Howard lay still on the bed as she stood over him, the two of them alone for the first time since he left the house a month ago.

  “It was kind of you,” Howard said softly, “to let me come back.”

  “They said there wasn’t room enough to keep you, but you needed to be watched and taken care of for a few weeks. So lucky me, I get to watch you.” Her voice was a low monotone, but the acid dripped from every word. It stung.

  “You were right, Alice,” Howard said.

  “Right about what? That marrying you was the worst mistake of my life? No, Howard. Meeting you was my worst mistake.”

  Howard began to cry. Real tears that welled up from places in him that had once been deep but that now rested painfully close to the surface. “I’ve been a monster, Alice. I haven’t had any control over myself. What I did to Rhiannon—Alice, I wanted to die, I wanted to die!”

  Alice’s face was twisted and bitter. “And I wanted you to, Howard. I have never been so disappointed as when the doctor called and said you’d be all right. You’ll never be all right, Howard, you’ll always be—”

  “Let him be, Mother.”

  Rhiannon stood in the doorway.

  “Don’t come in, Rhiannon,” Alice said.

  Rhiannon came in. “Daddy, it’s all right.”

  “What she means,” Alice said, “is that we’ve checked her and sh
e isn’t pregnant. No little monster is going to be born.”

  Rhiannon didn’t look at her mother, just gazed with wide eyes at her father. “You didn’t need to—hurt yourself, Daddy. I forgive you. People lose control sometimes. And it was as much my fault as yours, it really was, you don’t need to feel bad, Father.”

  It was too much for Howard. He cried out, shouted his confession, how he had manipulated her all his life, how he was an utterly selfish and rotten parent, and when it was over Rhiannon came to her father and laid her head on his chest and said, softly, “Father, it’s all right. We are who we are. We’ve done what we’ve done. But it’s all right now. I forgive you.”

  When Rhiannon left, Alice said, “You don’t deserve her.”

  I know.

  “I was going to sleep on the couch, but that would be stupid. Wouldn’t it, Howard?”

  I deserve to be left alone, like a leper.

  “You misunderstand, Howard. I need to stay here to make sure you don’t do anything else. To yourself or to anyone.”

  Yes. Yes, please. I can’t be trusted.

  “Don’t wallow in it, Howard. Don’t enjoy it. Don’t make yourself even more disgusting than you were before.”

  All right.

  They were drifting off to sleep when Alice said, “Oh, when the doctor called he wondered if I knew what had caused those sores all over your arms and chest.”

  But Howard was asleep, and didn’t hear her. Asleep with no dreams at all, the sleep of peace, the sleep of having been forgiven, of being clean. It hadn’t taken that much, after all. Now that it was over, it was easy. He felt as if a great weight had been taken from him.

  He felt as if something heavy was lying on his legs. He awoke, sweating even though the room was not hot. He heard breathing. And it was not Alice’s low-pitched, slow breath, it was quick and high and hard, as if the breather had been exerting himself.

  Itself.

  Themselves.

  One of them lay across his legs, the flippers plucking at the blanket. The other two lay on either side, their eyes wide and intent, creeping slowly toward where his face emerged from the sheets.

  Howard was puzzled. “I thought you’d be gone,” he said to the children. “You’re supposed to be gone now.”

  Alice stirred at the sound of his voice, mumbled in her sleep.

  He saw more of them stirring in the gloomy corners of the room, another writhing slowly along the top of the dresser, another inching up the wall toward the ceiling.

  “I don’t need you anymore,” he said, his voice oddly high-pitched.

  Alice started breathing irregularly, mumbling, “What? What?”

  And Howard said nothing more, just lay there in the sheets, watching the creatures carefully but not daring to make a sound for fear Alice would wake up. He was terribly afraid she would wake up and not see the creatures, which would prove, once and for all, that he had lost his mind.

  He was even more afraid, however, that when she awoke she would see them. That was the one unbearable thought, yet he thought it continuously as they relentlessly approached with nothing at all in their eyes, not even hate, not even anger, not even contempt. We are with you, they seemed to be saying, we will be with you from now on. We will be with you, Howard, forever.

  And Alice rolled over and opened her eyes.

  QUIETUS

  It came to him suddenly, a moment of blackness as he sat working late at his desk. It was as quick as an eye-blink, but before the darkness the papers on his desk had seemed terribly important, and afterward he stared at them blankly, wondering what they were and then realizing that he didn’t really give a damn what they were and he ought to be going home now.

  Ought definitely to be going home now. And C. Mark Tapworth of CMT Enterprises, Inc., arose from his desk without finishing all the work that was on it, the first time he had done such a thing in the twelve years it had taken him to bring the company from nothing to a multi-million-dollar-a-year business. Vaguely it occurred to him that he was not acting normally, but he didn’t really care, it didn’t really matter to him a bit whether any more people bought—bought—

  And for a few seconds C. Mark Tapworth could not remember what it was that his company made.

  It frightened him. It reminded him that his father and his uncles had all died of strokes. It reminded him of his mother’s senility at the fairly young age of sixty-eight. It reminded him of something he had always known and never quite believed, that he was mortal and that all the works of all his days would trivialize gradually until his death, at which time his life would be his only act, the forgotten stone whose fall had set off ripples in the lake that would in time reach the shore having made, after all, no difference.

  I’m tired, he decided. MaryJo is right. I need a rest.

  But he was not the resting kind, not until that moment standing by his desk when again the blackness came, this time a jog in his mind and he remembered nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing, was falling interminably through nothingness.

  Then, mercifully, the world returned to him and he stood trembling, regretting now the many, many nights he had stayed far too late, the many hours he had not spent with MaryJo, had left her alone in their large but childless house; and he imagined her waiting for him forever, a lonely woman dwarfed by the huge living room, waiting patiently for a husband who would, who must, who always had come home.

  Is it my heart? Or a stroke? he wondered. Whatever it was, it was enough that he saw the end of the world lurking in the darkness that had visited him, and like the prophet returning from the mount things that once had mattered overmuch mattered not at all, and things he had long postponed now silently importuned him. He felt a terrible urgency that there was something he must do before—

  Before what? He would not let himself answer. He just walked out through the large room full of ambitious younger men and women trying to impress him by working later than he; noticed but did not care that they were visibly relieved at their reprieve from another endless night. He walked out into the night and got in his car and drove home through a thin mist of rain that made the world retreat a comfortable distance from the windows of his car.

  The children must be upstairs, he realized. No one ran to greet him at the door. The children, a boy and a girl half his height and twice his energy, were admirable creatures who ran down stairs as if they were skiing, who could no more hold completely still than a hummingbird in midair. He could hear their footsteps upstairs, running lightly across the floor. They hadn’t come to greet him at the door because their lives, after all, had more important things in them than mere fathers. He smiled, set down his attaché case, and went to the kitchen.

  MaryJo looked harried, upset. He recognized the signals instantly—she had cried earlier today.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” she said, because she always said Nothing. He knew that in a moment she would tell him. She always told him everything, which had sometimes made him impatient. Now as she moved silently back and forth from counter to counter, from cupboard to stove, making another perfect dinner, he realized that she was not going to tell him. It made him uncomfortable. He began to try to guess.

  “You work too hard,” he said. “I’ve offered to get a maid or a cook. We can certainly afford them.”

  MaryJo only smiled thinly. “I don’t want anyone else mucking around in the kitchen,” she said. “I thought we dropped that subject years ago. Did you—did you have a hard day at the office?”

  Mark almost told her about his strange lapses of memory, but caught himself. This would have to be led up to gradually. MaryJo would not be able to cope with it, not in the state she was already in. “Not too hard. Finished up early.”

  “I know,” she said. “I’m glad.”

  She didn’t sound glad. It irritated him a little. Hurt his feelings. But instead of going off to nurse his wounds, he merely noticed his emotions as if he were a dispassionate observer. He saw himself;
important self-made man, yet at home a little boy who can be hurt, not even by a word, but by a short pause of indecision. Sensitive, sensitive, and he was amused at himself: for a moment he almost saw himself standing a few inches away, could observe even the bemused expression on his own face.

  “Excuse me,” MaryJo said, and she opened a cupboard door as he stepped out of the way. She pulled out a pressure cooker. “We’re out of potato flakes,” she said. “Have to do it the primitive way.” She dropped the peeled potatoes into the pan.

  “The children are awfully quiet today,” he said. “Do you know what they’re doing?”

  MaryJo looked at him with a bewildered expression.

  “They didn’t come meet me at the door. Not that I mind. They’re busy with their own concerns, I know.”

  “Mark,” MaryJo said.

  “All right, you see right through me so easily. But I was only a little hurt. I want to look through today’s mail.” He wandered out of the kitchen. He was vaguely aware that behind him MaryJo had started to cry again. He did not let it worry him much. She cried easily and often.

  He wandered into the living room, and the furniture surprised him. He had expected to see the green sofa and chair that he had bought from Deseret Industries, and the size of the living room and the tasteful antiques looked utterly wrong. Then his mind did a quick turn and he remembered that the old green sofa and chair were fifteen years ago, when he and MaryJo had first married. Why did I expect to see them? he wondered, and he worried again; worried also because he had come into the living room expecting to find the mail, even though for years MaryJo had put it on his desk every day.

  He went into his study and picked up the mail and started sorting through it until he noticed out of the corner of his eye that something large and dark and massive was blocking the lower half of one of the windows. He looked. It was a coffin, a rather plain one, sitting on a rolling table from a mortuary.

 
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