On September 25 Ben took dinner with the Nortons again. It was Thursday night, and the meal was traditional - beans and franks. Bill Norton grilled the franks on the outdoor grill, and Ann had had her kidney beans simmering in molasses since nine that morning. They ate at the picnic table and afterward they sat smoking, the four of them, talking desultorily of Boston's fading pennant chances.
There was a subtle change in the air; it was still pleasant enough, even in shirt sleeves, but there was a glint of ice in it now. Autumn was waiting in the wings, almost in sight. The large and ancient maple in front of Eva Miller's boardinghouse had already begun to go red.
There had been no change in Ben's relationship with the Nortons. Susan's liking for him was frank and clear and natural. And he liked her very much. In Bill he sensed a steadily increasing liking, held in abeyance by the subconscious taboo that affects all fathers when in the presence of men who are there because of their daughters rather than themselves. If you like another man and you are honest, you speak freely, discuss women over beer, shoot the shit about politics. But no matter how deep the potential liking, it is impossible to open up completely to a man who is dangling your daughter's potential decoration between his legs. Ben reflected that after marriage the possible had become the actual and could you become complete friends with the man who was banging your daughter night after night? There might be a moral there, but Ben doubted it.
Ann Norton continued cool. Susan had told him a little of the Floyd Tibbits situation the night before - of her mother's assumption that her son-in-law problems had been solved neatly and satisfactorily in that direction. Floyd was a known quantity; he was Steady. Ben Mears, on the other hand, had come out of nowhere and might disappear back there just as quickly, possibly with her daughter's heart in his pocket. She distrusted the creative male with an instinctive small-town dislike (one that Edward Arlington Robinson or Sherwood Anderson would have recognized at once), and Ben suspected that down deep she had absorbed a maxim: either faggots or bull studs; sometimes homicidal, suicidal, or maniacal; tend to send young girls packages containing their left ears. Ben's participation in the search for Ralphie Glick seemed to have increased her suspicions rather than allayed them, and he suspected that winning her over was an impossi?bility. He wondered if she knew of Parkins Gillespie's visit to his room.
He was chewing these thoughts over lazily when Ann said, 'Terrible about the Glick boy.'
'Ralphie? Yes,' Bill said.
'No, the older one. He's dead.'
Ben started. 'Who? Danny?'
'He died early yesterday morning.' She seemed surprised that the men did not know. It had been all the talk.
'I heard them talking in Milt's,' Susan said. Her hand found Ben's under the table and he took it willingly. 'How are the Glicks taking it?'
'The same way I would,' Ann said simply. 'They are out of their minds.'
Well they might be, Ben thought. Ten days ago their life had been going about its usual ordained cycle; now their family unit was smashed and in pieces. It gave him a morbid chill.
'Do you think the other Glick boy will ever show up alive?' Bill asked Ben.
'No,' Ben said. 'I think he's dead, too.'
'Like that thing in Houston two years ago,' Susan said. 'If he's dead, I almost hope they don't find him. Whoever could do something like that to a little, defenseless boy - '
'The police are looking around, I guess,' Ben said. 'Rounding up known sex offenders and talking to them.'
'When they find the guy they ought to hang him up by the thumbs,' Bill Norton said. 'Badminton, Ben?'
Ben stood. 'No thanks. Too much like you playing solitaire with me for the dummy. Thanks for the nice meal. I've got work to do tonight.'
Ann Norton lifted her eyebrow and said nothing.
Bill stood. 'How's that new book coming?'
'Good,' Ben said briefly. 'Would you like to walk down the hill with me and have a soda at Spencer's, Susan?'
'Oh, I don't know,' Ann interposed swiftly. 'After Ralphie Glick and all, I'd feel better if - '
'Momma, I'm a big girl,' Susan interposed. 'And there are streetlights all the way up Brock Hill.'
'I'll walk you back up, of course,' Ben said, almost formally. He had left his car at Eva's. The early evening had been too fine to drive.
'They'll be fine,' Bill said. 'You worry too much, Mother.'
'Oh, I suppose I do. Young folks always know best, don't they?' She smiled thinly.
'I'll just get a jacket,' Susan murmured to Ben, and turned up the back walk. She was wearing a red play skirt, thigh-high, and she exposed a lot of leg going up the steps to the door. Ben watched, knowing Ann was watching him watch. Her husband was damping the charcoal fire.
'How long do you intend to stay in the Lot, Ben?' Ann asked, showing polite interest.
'Until the book gets written, anyway,' he said. 'After that, I can't say. It's very lovely in the mornings, and the air tastes good when you breathe it.' He smiled into her eyes. 'I may stay longer.'
She smiled back. 'It gets cold in the winters, Ben. Awfully cold.'
Then Susan was coming back down the steps with a light jacket thrown over her shoulders. 'Ready? I'm going to have a chocolate. Look out, complexion.'
'Your complexion will survive,' he said, and turned to Mr and Mrs Norton. 'Thank you again.'
'Anytime,' Bill said. 'Come on over with a six-pack tomorrow night, if you want. We'll make fun of that goddamn Yastrzemski.'
'That would be fun,' Ben said, 'but what'll we do after the second inning?'
His laughter, hearty and full, followed them around the corner of the house.
'I don't really want to go to Spencer's,' she said as they went down the hill. 'Let's go to the park instead.'
?'What about muggers, lady?' he asked, doing the Bronx for her.
'In the Lot, all muggers have to be in by seven. It's a town ordinance. And it is now exactly eight-oh-three.' Darkness had fallen over them as they walked down the hill, and their shadows waxed and waned in the streetlights.
'Agreeable muggers you have,' he said. 'No one goes to the park after dark?'
'Sometimes the town kids go there to make out if they can't afford the drive-in,' she said, and winked at him. 'So if you see anyone skulking around in the bushes, look the other way.'
They entered from the west side, which faced the Municipal Building. The park was shadowy and a little dreamlike, the concrete walks curving away under the leafy trees, and the wading pool glimmering quietly in the refracted glow from the streetlights. If anyone was here, Ben didn't see him.
They walked around the War Memorial with its long lists of names, the oldest from the Revolutionary War, the newest from Vietnam, carved under the War of 1812. There were six home town names from the most recent conflict, the new cuts in the brass gleaming like fresh wounds. He thought: This town has the wrong name. It ought to be Time. And as if the action was a natural outgrowth of the thought, he looked over his shoulder for the Marsten House, but the bulk of the Municipal Building blocked it out.
She saw his glance and it made her frown. As they spread their jackets on the grass and sat down (they had spurned the park benches without discussion), she said, 'Mom said Parkins Gillespie was checking up on you. The new boy in school must have stolen the milk money, or something like that.'
'He's quite a character,' Ben said.
'Mom had you practically tried and convicted.' It was said lightly, but the lightness faltered and let something serious through.
'Your mother doesn't care for me much, does she?'
'No,' Susan said, holding his hand. 'It was a case of dislike at first sight. I'm very sorry.'
'It's okay,' he said. 'I'm batting five hundred anyway.'
'Daddy?' She smiled. 'He just knows class when he sees it.' The smile faded. 'Ben, what's this new book about?'
'That's hard to say.' He slipped his loafers off and dug his toes into the dewy grass.
'No, I don't mind telling you.' And he found, surpris?ingly, that this was true. He had always thought of a work in progress as a child, a weak child, that had to be protected and cradled. Too much handling would kill it. He had refused to tell Miranda a word about Conway's Daughter or Air Dance, although she had been wildly curious about both of them. But Susan was different. With Miranda there had always been a directed sort of probing, and her questions were more like interrogations.
'Just let me think how to put it together,' he said.
'Can you kiss me while you think?' she asked, lying back on the grass. He was forcibly aware of how short her skirt was; it had given a lot of ground.
'I think that might interfere with the thought processes,' he said softly. 'Let's see.'
He leaned over and kissed her, placing one hand lightly on her waist. She met his mouth firmly, and her hands closed over his. A moment later he felt her tongue for the first time, and he met it with his own. She shifted to return his kiss more fully, and the soft rustle of her cotton skirt seemed loud, almost maddening.
He slid his hand up and she arched her breast into it, soft and full. For the second time since he had known her he felt sixteen, a head-busting sixteen with everything in front of him six lanes wide and no hard traveling in sight.
'Make love to me? Do you want to?'
'Yes,' he said. 'I want that.'
'Here on the grass,' she said.
She was looking up at him, her eyes wide in the dark. She said, 'Make it be good.'
'Slow,' she said. 'Slow. Slow. Here . . . '
They became shadows in the dark.
'There,' he said. 'Oh, Susan.'
They were walking, first aimlessly through the park, and then with more purpose toward Brock Street.
'Are you sorry?' he asked.
She looked up at him and smiled without artifice. 'No. I'm glad.'
They walked hand in hand without speaking.
'The book?' she asked. 'You were going to tell me about that before we were so sweetly interrupted.'
'The book is about the Marsten House,' he said slowly. 'Maybe it didn't start out to be, not wholly. I thought it was going to be about this town. But maybe I'm fooling myself. I researched Hubie Marsten, you know. He was a mobster. The trucking company was just a front.'
She was looking at him in wonder. 'How did you find that out?'
'Some from the Boston police, and more from a woman named Minella Corey, Birdie Marsten's sister. She's seventy-nine now, and she can't remember what she had for breakfast, but she's never forgotten a thing that hap?pened before 1940.'
'And she told you - '
'As much as she knew. She's in a nursing home in New Hampshire, and I don't think anyone's really taken the time to listen to her in years. I asked her if Hubert Marsten had really been a contract killer in the Boston area - the police sure thought he was - and she nodded. "How many?" I asked her. She held her fingers up in front of her eyes and waggled them back and forth and said, "How many times can you count these?"'
'The Boston organization began to get very nervous about Hubert Marsten in 1927,' Ben went on. 'He was picked up for questioning twice, once by the city police and once by the Maiden police. The Boston grab was for a gangland killing, and he was back on the street in two hours. The thing in Malden wasn't business at all. It was the murder of an eleven-year-old boy. The child had been eviscerated.'
'Ben,' she said, and her voice was sick.
'Marsten's employers got him off the hook - I imagine he knew where a few bodies were buried - but that was the end of him in Boston. He moved quietly to 'salem's Lot, just a retired trucking official who got a check once a month. He didn't go out much. At least, not much that we know of.'
'What do you mean?'
'I've spent a lot of time in the library looking at old copies of the Ledger from 1928 to 1939. Four children disappeared in that period. Not that unusual, not in a rural area. Kids get lost, and they sometimes die of exposure. Sometimes kids get buried in a gravelpit slide. Not nice, but it happens.'
'But you don't think that's what happened?'
'I don't know. But I do know that not one of those four were ever found. No hunter turning up a skeleton in 1945 or a contractor digging one up while getting a load of gravel to make cement. Hubert and Birdie lived in that house for eleven years and the kids disappeared, and that's all anyone knows. But I keep thinking about that kid in Maiden. I think about that a lot. Do you know The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson?'
He quoted softly, "'And whatever walked there, walked alone." You asked what my book was about. Essentially, it's about the recurrent power of evil.'
She put her hands on his arm. 'You don't think that Ralphie Glick . . . '
'Was gobbled up by the revengeful spirit of Hubert Marsten, who comes back to life on every third year at the full of the moon?'
'Something like that.'
'You're asking the wrong person if you want to be reassured. Don't forget, I'm the kid who opened the door to an upstairs bedroom and saw him hanging from a beam.' 'That's not an answer.'
'No, it's not. Let me tell you one other thing before I tell you exactly what I think. Something Minella Corey said. She said there are evil men in the world, truly evil men. Sometimes we hear of them, but more often they work in absolute darkness. She said she had been cursed with a knowledge of two such men in her lifetime. One was Adolf Hitler. The other was her brother-in-law, Hubert Marsten.' He paused. 'She said that on the day Hubie shot her sister she was three hundred miles away in Cape Cod. She had taken a job as housekeeper for a rich family that summer. She was making a tossed salad in a large wooden bowl. It was quarter after two in the afternoon. A bolt of pain, "like lightning," she said, went through her head and she heard a shotgun blast. She fell on the floor, she claims. When she picked herself up - she was alone in the house - twenty minutes had passed. She looked in the wooden bowl and screamed. It appeared to her that it was full of blood.'
'God,' Susan murmured.
'A moment later, everything was normal again. No headache, nothing in the salad bowl but salad. But she said she knew - she knew - that her sister was dead, murdered with a shotgun.'
'That's her unsubstantiated story?'
'Unsubstantiated, yes. But she's not some oily trickster; she's an old woman without enough brains left to lie. That part doesn't bother me, anyway. Not very much, at least. There's a large enough body of ESP data now so that a rational man laughs it off at his own expense. The idea that Birdie transmitted the facts of her death three hundred miles over a kind of psychic telegraph isn't half so hard for me to believe as the face of evil - the really monstrous face - that I sometimes think I can see buried in the outlines of that house.
'You asked me what I think. I'll tell you. I think it's relatively easy for people to accept something like telepa?thy or precognition or teleplasm because their willingness to believe doesn't cost them anything. It doesn't keep them awake nights. But the idea that the evil that men do lives after them is more unsettling.'
He looked up at the Marsten House and spoke slowly.
'I think that house might be Hubert Marsten's monu?ment to evil, a kind of psychic sounding board. A super?natural beacon, if you like. Sitting there all these years, maybe holding the essence of Hubie's evil in its old, mold?ering bones.
'And now it's occupied again.
'And there's been another disappearance.' He turned to her and cradled her upturned face in his hands. 'You see, that's something I never counted on when I came back here. I thought the house might have been torn down, but never in my wildest dreams that it had been bought. I saw myself renting it and oh, I don't know. Confronting my own terrors and evils, maybe. Playing ghostbreaker, maybe - be gone in the name of all the saints, Hubie. Or maybe just tapping into the atmosphere of the place to write a book scary enough to make me a million dollars. But no matter what, I felt that I was in control of the situation, and that would make all the difference. I wasn't any nine-year-old kid anymore, ready to run screaming from a magic-lantern show that maybe came out of my own mind and no place else. But now . . . '
'Now what, Ben?'
'Now it's occupied!' he burst out, and beat a fist into his palm. 'I'm not in control of the situation. A little boy has disappeared and I don't know what to make of it. It could have nothing to do with that house, but . . . I don't believe it.' The last four words came out in measured lengths.
'Not necessarily. Maybe just some harmless guy who admired the house when he was a kid and bought it and became . . . possessed.'
'Do you know something about - ' she began, alarmed.
'The new tenant? No. I'm just guessing. But if it is the house, I'd almost rather it was possession than something else.'
He said simply, 'Perhaps it's called another evil man.'
Ann Norton watched them from the window. She had called the drugstore earlier. No, Miss Coogan said, with something like glee. Not here. Haven't been in.
Where have you been, Susan? Oh, where have you been?
Her mouth twisted down into a helpless ugly grimace.
Go away, Ben Mears. Go away and leave her alone.
When she left his arms, she said, 'Do something important for me, Ben.'
'Whatever I can.'
'Don't mention those things to anyone else in town. Anyone.'
He smiled humorlessly. 'Don't worry. I'm not anxious to have people thinking I've been struck nuts.'
'Do you lock your room at Eva's?'
'I'd start locking it.' She looked at him levelly. 'You have to think of yourself as under suspicion.'
'With you, too?'
'You would be, if I didn't love you.'
And then she was gone, hastening up the driveway, leaving him to look after her, stunned by all he had said and more stunned by the four or five words she had said at the end.
He found when he got back to Eva's that he could neither write nor sleep. He was too excited to do either. So he warmed up the Citro?n, and after a moment of indecision, he drove out toward Dell's place.
It was crowded, and the place was smoky and loud. The band, a country-and-western group on trial called the Rangers, was playing a version of 'You've Never Been This Far Before,' which made up in volume for whatever it lost in quality. Perhaps forty couples were gyrating on the floor, most of them wearing blue jeans. Ben, a little amused, thought of Edward Albee's line about monkey nipples.
The stools in front of the bar were held down by con?struction and mill workers, each drinking identical glasses of beer and all wearing nearly identical crepe-soled work boots, laced with rawhide.
Two or three barmaids with bouffant hairdos and their names written in gold thread on their white blouses (Jackie, Toni, Shirley) circulated to the tables and booths. Behind the bar, Dell was drawing beers, and at the far end, a hawk-like man with his hair greased back was making mixed drinks. His face remained utterly blank as he measured liquor into shot glasses, dumped it into his silver shaker, and added whatever went with it.
Ben started toward the bar, skirting the dance floor, and someone called out, 'Ben! Say, fella! How are you, buddy?' Ben looked around and saw Weasel Craig sitting at a table close to the bar, a half-empty beer in front of him.
'Hello, Weasel,' Ben said, sitting down. He was relieved to see a familiar face, and he liked Weasel.
'Decided to get some night life, did you, buddy?' Weasel smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. Ben thought that his check must have come in; his breath alone could have made Milwaukee famous.
'Yeah,' Ben said. He got out a dollar and laid it on the table, which was covered with the circular ghosts of the many beer glasses that had stood there. 'How you doing?'
'Just fine. What do you think of that new band? Great, ain't they?'
They're okay,' Ben said. 'Finish that thing up before it goes flat. I'm buying.'
'I been waitin' to hear somebody say that all night. Jackie!' he bawled. 'Bring my buddy here a pitcher! Budweiser!'
Jackie brought the pitcher on a tray littered with beer?-soaked change and lifted it onto the table, her right arm bulging like a prize fighter's. She looked at the dollar as if it were a new species of cockroach. 'That's a buck fawty,' she said.
Ben put another bill down. She picked them both up, fished sixty cents out of the assorted puddles on her tray, banged them down on the table, and said, 'Weasel Craig, when you yell like that you sound like a rooster gettin' its neck wrung.'
'You're beautiful, darlin',' Weasel said. 'This is Ben Mears. He writes books.'
'Meetcha,' Jackie said, and disappeared into the dim?ness.
Ben poured himself a glass of beer and Weasel followed suit, filling his glass professionally to the top. The foam threatened to overspill and then backed down. 'Here's to you, buddy.'
Ben lifted his glass and drank.
'So how's that writin' goin'?'
'Pretty good, Weasel.'
'I seen you goin' round with that little Norton girl. She's a real peach, she is. You couldn't do no better there.'
'Yes, she's - '
'Matt!' Weasel bawled, almost startling Ben into drop?ping his glass. By God, he thought, he does sound like a rooster saying good-by to this world.
'Matt Burke!' Weasel waved wildly, and a man with white hair raised his hand in greeting and started to cut through the crowd. 'Here's a fella you ought to meet,' Weasel told Ben. 'Matt Burke's one smart son of a whore.' The man coming toward them looked about sixty. He was tall, wearing a clean flannel shirt open at the throat, and his hair, which was as white as Weasel's, was cut in a flattop.
'Hello, Weasel,' he said.
'How are you, buddy?' Weasel said. 'Want you to meet a fella stayin' over to Eva's. Ben Mears. Writes books, he does. He's a lovely fella.' He looked at Ben. 'Me'n Matt grew up together, only he got an education and I got the shaft.' Weasel cackled.
Ben stood up and shook Matt Burke's bunched hand gingerly. 'How are you?'
'Fine, thanks. I've read one of your books, Mr Mears. Air Dance.'
'Make it Ben, please. I hope you liked it.'
'I liked it much better than the critics, apparently,' Matt said, sitting down. 'I think it will gain ground as time goes by. How are you, Weasel?'
'Perky,' Weasel said. 'Just as perky as ever I could be. Jackie!' he bawled. 'Bring Matt a glass!'
'Just wait a minute, y'old fart!' Jackie yelled back, draw?ing laughter from the nearby tables.
'She's a lovely girl,' Weasel said. 'Maureen Talbot's girl.'
'Yes,' Matt said. 'I had Jackie in school. Class of '71. Her mother was '5 l.'
'Matt teaches high school English,' Weasel told Ben. 'You and him should have a lot to talk about.'
'I remember a girl named Maureen Talbot,' Ben said. 'She came and got my aunt's wash and brought it back all folded in a wicker basket. The basket only had one handle.'
'Are you from town, Ben?' Matt asked.
'I spent some time here as a boy. With my Aunt Cynthia.'
Jackie came with a clean glass, and Matt tipped beer into it. 'It really is a small world, then. Your aunt was in a senior class I taught my first year in 'salem's Lot. Is she well?'
'She died in 1972.'
'She went very easily,' Ben said, and refilled his glass. The band had finished its set, and the members were trouping toward the bar. The level of conversation went down a notch.
'Have you come back to Jerusalem's Lot to write a book about us?' Matt asked.
A warning bell went off in Ben's mind.
'In a way, I suppose,' he said.
'This town could do much worse for a biographer. Air Dance was a fine book. I think there might be another fine book in this town. I once thought I might write it.'
'Why didn't you?'
Matt smiled - an easy smile with no trace of bitterness, cynicism, or malice. 'I lacked one vital ingredient. Talent.'
'Don't you believe it,' Weasel said, refilling his glass from the dregs of the pitcher. 'Ole Matt's got a world of talent. Schoolteachin' is a wonnerful job. Nobody appreci?ates schoolteachers, but they're . . . ' He swayed a little in his chair, searching for completion. He was becoming very drunk. 'Salt of the earth,' he finished, took a mouthful of beer, grimaced, and stood up. 'Pardon me while I take a leak.'
He wandered off, bumping into people and hailing them by name. They passed him on with impatience or good cheer, and watching his progress to the men's room was like watching a pinball racket and bounce its way down toward the flipper buttons.
'There goes the wreck of a fine man,' Matt said, and held up one finger. A waitress appeared almost immediately and addressed him as Mr Burke. She seemed a trifle scandalized that her old English Classics teacher should be here, boozing it up with the likes of Weasel Craig. When she turned away to bring them another pitcher, Ben thought Matt looked a trifle bemused.
'I like Weasel,' Ben said. 'I get a feeling there was a lot there once. What happened to him?'
'Oh, there's no story there,' Matt said. 'The bottle got him. It got him a little more each year and now it's got all of him. He won a Silver Star at Anzio in World War II. A cynic might believe his life would have had more meaning if he had died there.'
'I'm not a cynic,' Ben said. 'I like him still. But I think I better give him a ride home tonight.'
'That would be good of you. I come out here now and then to listen to the music. I like loud music. More than ever, since my hearing began to fail. I understand that you're interested in the Marsten House. Is your book about it?'
Ben jumped. 'Who told you that?'
Matt smiled. 'How does that old Marvin Gaye song put it? I heard it through the grapevine. Luscious, vivid idiom, although the image is a bit obscure if you consider it. One conjures up a picture of a man standing with his ear cocked attentively toward a Concord or Tokay. . . . I'm rambling. I ramble a great deal these days but rarely try to keep it in hand anymore. I heard from what the gentlemen of the press would call an informed source - Loretta Starcher, actually. She's the librarian at our local citadel of literature. You've been in several times to look at the Cumberland Ledger articles pertaining to the ancient scandal, and she also got you two true-crime books that had articles on it. By the way, the Lubert one is good - he came to the Lot and researched it himself in 1946 - but the Snow chapter is speculative trash.'
'I know,' Ben said automatically.
The waitress set down a fresh pitcher of beer and Ben suddenly had an uncomfortable image: Here is a fish swimming around comfortably and (he thinks) unobtrus?ively, flicking here and there amongst the kelp and the plankton. Draw away for the long view and there's the kicker: It's a goldfish bowl.
Matt paid the waitress and said, 'Nasty thing that hap?pened up there. It's stayed in the town's consciousness, too. Of course, tales of nastiness and murder are always handed down with slavering delight from generation to generation, while students groan and complain when they're faced with a George Washington Carver or a Jonas Salk. But it's more than that, I think. Perhaps it's due to a geographical freak.'
'Yes,' Ben said, drawn in spite of himself. The teacher had just stated an idea that had been lurking below the level of his consciousness from the day he had arrived back in town, possibly even before that. 'It stands on that hill overlooking the village like - oh, like some kind of dark idol.' He chuckled to make the remark seem trivial - it seemed to him that he had said something so deeply felt in an unguarded way that he must have opened a window on his soul to this stranger. Matt Burke's sudden close scrutiny of him did not make him feel any better.
'That is talent,' he said.
'You have said it precisely. The Marsten House has looked down on us all for almost fifty years, at all our little peccadilloes and sins and lies. Like an idol.'
'Maybe it's seen the good, too,' Ben said.
'There's little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil - or worse, a conscious one. I believe Thomas Wolfe wrote about seven pounds of literature about that.'
'I thought you weren't a cynic.'
'You said that, not I.' Matt smiled and sipped at his beer. The band was moving away from the bar, resplendent in their red shirts and glittering vests and neckerchiefs. The lead singer took his guitar and began to chord it.
'At any rate, you never answered my question. Is your new book about the Marsten House?'
'I suppose it is, in a way.'
'I'm pumping you. Sorry.'
'It's all right,' Ben said, thinking of Susan and feeling uncomfortable. 'I wonder what's keeping Weasel? He's been gone a hell of a long time.'
'Could I presume on short acquaintanceship and ask a rather large favor? If you refuse, I'll more than understand.'
'Sure, ask,' Ben said.
'I have a creative writing class,' Matt said. 'They are intelligent children, eleventh- and twelfth-graders, most of them, and I would like to present someone who makes his living with words to them. Someone who - how shall I say? - has taken the word and made it flesh.'
'I'd be more than happy to,' Ben said, feeling absurdly flattered. 'How long are your periods?'
'Well, I don't suppose I can bore them too badly in that length of time.'
'Oh? I do it quite well, I think,' Matt said. 'Although I'm sure you wouldn't bore them at all. This next week?'
'Sure. Name a day and a time.'
'Tuesday? Period four? That goes from eleven o'clock until ten of twelve. No one will boo you, but I suspect you will hear a great many stomachs rumble.'
'I'll bring some cotton for my ears.'
Matt laughed. 'I'm very pleased. I will meet you at the office, if that's agreeable.'
'Fine. Do you - '
'Mr Burke?' It was Jackie, she of the heavy biceps.
'Weasel's passed out in the men's room. Do you suppose - '
'Oh? Goodness, yes. Ben, would you - '
They got up and crossed the room. The band had begun to play again, something about how the kids in Muskogee still respected the college dean.
The bathroom smelled of sour urine and chlorine. Weasel was propped against the wall between two urinals, and a fellow in an army uniform was pissing approximately two inches from his right ear.
His mouth was open and Ben thought how terribly old he looked, old and ravaged by cold, impersonal forces with no gentle touch in them. The reality of his own dissolution, advancing day by day, came home to him, not for the first time, but with shocking unexpectedness. The pity that welled up in his throat like clear, black waters was as much for himself as for Weasel.
'Here,' Matt said, 'can you get an arm under him when this gentleman finishes relieving himself'?'
'Yes,' Ben said. He looked at the man in the army uniform, who was shaking off in leisurely fashion. 'Hurry it up, can you, buddy?'
'Why? He ain't in no rush.'
Nevertheless, he zipped up and stepped away from the urinal so they could get in.
Ben got an arm around Weasel's back, hooked a hand in his armpit, and lifted. For a moment his buttocks pressed against the tiled wall and he could feel the vibrations from the band. Weasel came up with the limp mail sack weight of utter unconsciousness. Matt slid his head under Weasel's other arm, hooked his own arm around Weasel's waist, and they carried him out the door.
'There goes Weasel,' someone said, and there was laughter.
'Dell ought to cut him off,' Matt said, sounding out of breath. 'He knows how this always turns out.'
They went through the door into the foyer, and then out onto the wooden steps leading down to the parking lot.
'Easy" Ben grunted. 'Don't drop him.'
They went down the stairs, Weasel's limp feet cropping on the risers like blocks of wood.
'The Citro?n . . . over in the last row.'
They carried him over. The coolness in the air was sharper now, and tomorrow the leaves would be blooded. Weasel had begun to grunt deep in his throat and his head jerked weakly on the stalk of his neck.
'Can you put him to bed when you get back to Eva's?' Matt asked.
'Yes, I think so.'
'Good. Look, you can just see the roof tree of the Marsten House over the trees.'
Ben looked. Matt was right; the top angle just peeked above the dark horizon of pines, blotting out the stars at the rim of the visible world with the regular shape of human construction.
Ben opened the passenger door and said, 'Here. Let me have him.'
He took Weasel's full weight and slipped him neatly into the passenger seat and closed the door. Weasel's head lolled against the window, giving it a flattened, grotesque look.
'Tuesday at eleven?'
'I'll be there.'
'Thanks. And thanks for helping Weasel, too.' He held out his hand and Ben shook it.
He got in, started the Citro?n, and headed back toward town. Once the roadhouse neon had disappeared behind the trees, the road was deserted and black, and Ben thought, These roads are haunted now.
Weasel gave a snort and a groan beside him and Ben? jumped. The Citro?n swerved minutely on the road.
Now, why did I think that?
He opened the wing window so that it scooped cold air directly onto Weasel on the ride home, and by the time he drove into Eva Miller's dooryard, Weasel had attained a soupy semi-consciousness.
Ben led him, half stumbling, up the back porch steps and into the kitchen, which was dimly lit by the stove's fluorescent. Weasel moaned, then muttered deep in his throat, 'She's a lovely girl, Jack, -and married women, they know . . . know . . . '
A shadow detached itself from the hall and it was Eva, huge in an old quilted house coat, her hair done up in rollers and covered with a filmy net scarf. Her face was pale and ghostly with night cream.
'Ed,' she said. 'Oh, Ed . . . you do go on, don't you?'
His eyes opened a little at the sound of her voice, and a smile touched his features. 'On and on and on,' he croaked. 'Wouldn't you know it more than the rest?'
'Can you get him up to his room?' she asked Ben.
'Yes, no sweat.'
He tightened his grip on Weasel and somehow jot him up the stairs and down to his room. The door was unlocked and he carried him inside. The minute he laid him on the bed, signs of consciousness ceased and he fell into a deep sleep.
Ben paused a moment to look around. The room was clean, almost sterile, things put away with barrackslike neatness. As he began to work on Weasel's shoes, Eva Miller said from behind him, 'Never mind that, Mr Mears. Go on up, if you like.'
'But he ought to be - '
'I'll undress him.' Her face was grave and full of digni?fied, measured sadness. 'Undress him and give him an alcohol rub to help with his hangover in the morning. I've done it before. Many times.'
'All right,' Ben said, and went upstairs without looking back. He undressed slowly, thought about taking a shower, and decided not to. He got into bed and lay looking at the ceiling and did not sleep for a long time.