Yoharie. Neighbors are suspicious.
Yoharie has moved in with his settlement money and his blended family. The Witticombes have a mapping methodology for catch-phrasing and rumor-mongering. Trevor Royce has a website for fans of The Totem-Maker, and another for conspiracy theorists. Jeremiah Hibbler, watch captain, suspects that his good buddies have turned against him…and perhaps even Beatty the dog.
A story of the surveillance society.
What’s going on, here? Yoharie is a novel-in-progress, that I’m crafting on this page. I have a volume of notes for the story; I pull out episodes and write them. Eventually, I’ll start putting the puzzle together. Part of the project is a second book that factors into Yoharie‘s plot, The Totem-Maker, a famous fantasy novel of the early 70s. The Totem-Maker‘s author is known only as Southey, and rarely publicly heard from, though said to be living in St. John, New Brunswick, where his (her?) fans gather for an annual full-costume pilgrimage.
Trevor Royce on discovering The Totem-Maker
As you all know, I started out going chapter by chapter, in depth, and after that, character by character. I haven’t got around yet to weighing the book critically. This post is the first in a new series.
I talked a little about how I got started. I never liked seeing first-person narratives in fantasy. The voice isn’t majestic; it doesn’t come down from on high..that’s what, for me (pardon the pun), it comes down to. And of course, fantasy is meant to tackle heroic-sized themes. It’s not about someone’s interior monologue, his neuroses. If you were Homer (for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll accept the bard’s existence at face value), singing the Iliad, you were not going to have Achilles saying to himself, “I hate Agamemnon. What a jerk!” The point was all in the framing of these events in monumental terms: the conflicts of gods, not men.
But that’s the way it is, with something you don’t expect to like, and end up loving. I’ve dedicated a whole blog to The Totem-Maker, so I think everyone knows how I feel. I’ve organized the pilgrimage to St. John, two years now. (Thanks to Edgar for letting me take over!) So I admit it…The Totem-Maker actually gains heroic status from the fact the narrator never has a gender or a name. And to make this device plausible, one can see why Southey (who, for the public record, hasn’t got a gender either. See my post, “Who is Southey?” for more on the controversy!), chose first-person. It would be hard, through all the hero’s adventures, to maintain that mystery. It would be somewhat affected, even, if the narrator, rather than acceding to the name of “Outcast”, had to be continually referred to as “the outcast”—or a series of other epithets. And there are only a handful of occasions when the character is named by the others even this.
So let’s go to an excerpt, from the start of chapter five, “Winter Alone”:
As no one came this way, I had time enough; I could…and of necessity, I did, draw near the fire, ladle water from the boiling pot, and hold this steaming basin at my peril under the blanket, sitting very still. In that way, I whiled my hours thinking, taking myself round the toll-house, listing for myself all I might do for my greater comfort.
At the spinning of wool I was no hand, had I known, even, how to fashion distaff or wheel. If traders crossed this pass, I would offer for their rugs, if rugs they carried…what? I asked myself. What can I make or do of value? I can trap, and so have skins. And had the stock the old toll-keeper had left behind him.
But it was not the time for shearing. Selling would be unwise. I calculated that the earth here would be meagre and gravel-sewn. But winter-hardened or no, still one could chip at soil as at a stone wall. Each day my trench another fingernail’s depth, until perhaps in a month, I would begin to lay there the fire’s ashes. Sift the pebbles, and salvage the dust. And in the spring, I might lay seed, hardy dock, in the barest patch of fair humus. The roots would prime the ground for the next season.
Then, would I demand the toll; and then, would I tender it back for goods, which I had no right to do?
The legend below told below, recorded in the 19th century from the memories of Andrew J. Blackbird, is an example of how peoples who may be considered primitive have varying levels of cultural development; how their descendants recall forgotten ancestors, of tribes whose history has vanished from ours.
Story of the Underground People
Our tradition says that long ago, when the Ottawa tribes of Indians used to go on a warpath either towards the south or towards the west, even as far as the Rocky Mountains, on one of these expeditions towards the Rocky Mountains my remote ancestors were captured and brought to this country as prisoners of war. But they were afterwards adopted as children of the Ottawas, and intermarried with the nations in which they were captives. Subsequently, these captives’ posterity became so famous among the Ottawas on account of their exploits and bravery on the warpath and being great hunters that they became closely connected with the royal families, and were considered the best counselors, best chieftains and warriors among the Ottawas. Thus I am not regularly descended from the Ottawa nations of Indians, but I am descended, as tradition says, from the tribe in the far west known as the Underground race of people. They were so called on account of making their habitations in the ground by making holes large enough for dwelling purposes. It is related that they even made caves in the ground in which to keep their horses every night to prevent them from being stolen by other tribes who were their enemies. It is also related that they were quite an intelligent class of people. By cultivating the soil they raised corn and other vegetables to aid in sustaining life besides hunting and fishing. They were entirely independent, having their own government and language, and possessing their own national emblem, which distinguished them as distinct and separate from all other tribes. This symbolical ensign of my ancestors was represented by a species of small hawk, which the Ottawas called “Pe-pe-gwen”. So we were sometimes called in this country in which we live, the “Pe-pe-gwen tribe”, instead of the “Undergrounds”. And it was customary among the Ottawas that if any one of our number, a descendant of the Undergrounds, should commit any punishable crime, all the Pe-pe-gwen tribe or descendants of the Undergrounds would be called together in a grand council and requested to make restitution for the crime or to punish the guilty one according to the final decision of the council.
There were several great chieftains of the Undergrounds among the Ottawa who were living within my time, and some are here mentioned who were most known to the American people, particularly during the war with Great Britain in 1812. Most of these chieftains were my own uncles. One was called Late Wing, who took a very active part for the cause of the United States in the war of 1812, and he was a great friend to Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan. Wing was pensioned for life for his good services to the United States. He was one of my father’s own brothers. Shaw-be-nee was an uncle of mine on my mother’s side, who also served bravely for the United States in the war of 1812. He traveled free all over the United States in his lifetime. This privilege was granted to him by the Government of the United States for his patriotism and bravery. He died in Illinois about twenty years ago from this writing, and a monument was raised for him by the people in that state. Wa-ke-zoo was another great chieftain who died before my time in the country of Manitoba, out north. He was also one of my father’s brothers. It is related that he was also a prophet and a great magician.
Excerpt from A History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, a Grammar of Their Language, and Personal and Family History of the Author, by Andrew J. Blackbird, The Ypsilanti Job Printing House, 1887 [Public Domain]
Below: excerpt from Trevor Royce’s other blog
Don’t be a tool
The Formula for Ensnarement
(Some of this is cribbed from the Witticombes’ cheat sheet, so the language might get a little high-flown. Thank the Witticombes for all the data-crunching, and don’t forget to download the PDF, so you can witness, too.)
The sweet spot, the point where someone hangs inert between being afraid to break away, and regarding his/her controllers as untrustworthy, is what keeps people usefully zombified. If the people who “follow orders” were given authority to issue orders, the acts of brutality they could be tempted into, would become accountabilities. They have some advantage, then, in resisting a change of status; they need this “low man on the totem pole” framing of their position, so that they can seek their pleasures in a permissive environment.
If the low men (women, too) completely trusted their controllers, they would end up not sufficiently locked into keeping their controllers’ secrets. They would think they were part of a good thing; be inclined to boast and share. They must suspect what they’ve been made party to is not a good thing, that its being brought to light will bring ruin (since the low men are the ones who will be persuaded to acts and errands, this for them is likely true), but still want more of whatever the inducement to participate has been.
Ways to the sweet spot include:
- Opportunities for voyeuristic sadism, as applicable to individual tastes
- Opportunities to obtain those things the enlistee finds pleasurable. The controller becomes a supplier to him of these; may offer to the enlistee the guise of good citizenship as cover for his eagerness
- Flattery: general You are one of us; you get what we’re saying.
- Flattery: specific to subject’s wanna-be heroism You are smarter, more uniquely talented, more trustworthy than others; this assignment is very important, the work is vital to the company, the community, the country
- Suspicious-mindedness Other people are “getting away with things”; some law, procedure, benefit, is unfair to you…to us.
- Fear-mongering. But fear played on is often secondary to stated terror, so interpret carefully. Manson may be lurking in the shrubbery, but they will say the bad thing happened because you failed in your duty.
- Dominant/subordinate relationship: use of jargon, clinical speech, veneer of expertise, authority, specialized experience Holding or having held a professional position; doing or having done “secret work for the government”
- Embarrassment of being exposed*
- Abstraction of personal responsibility Here is where “only following orders” fits in, also every sin of omission—failure to report information, failure to investigate claims.
You may ask how someone sees himself simultaneously as a good citizen, and a citizen not personally responsible for his own acts. The Witticombes would say fragmented communication, token speech as substitute for thought.
*Our work is to free people from this fear, by showing them every day the extent to which they are already exposed.
Don’t make a bigger job for yourself, when the one you have is big enough.
Because ultimately, if we suppose these are cold, genocidal mechanisms, that the poor are being tortured remotely with DEW to get them on Fentanyl, to kill them off without “having done anything”, bureaucratization will for once do some good. The more you expand your “mandate” the more you place power—and the greater power of information—into self-interested, incompetent hands. There’ll be accidents. You can’t take it back, once you’ve disclosed. All you can do is pursue crazy-baiting…
And that’s why we CRers don’t want any chemtrails. We want only witness. Each act of witness is data; all data is witness.
We’ll draw a map. The map will show patterns that can be overlaid with other maps and other patterns. We’ll go back to 1950, say. We’ll match witness with what could have been done, technologically. We’ll go forward to 1980, etc. We’ll trace the rise of new types of incidents, in correlation with new types of technology. You all get the idea.
The thing that had made him hate camping.
Rocks had been falling all this time, but the clip that played itself across the screen of Jeremiah Hibbler’s closed eyes was soundless. It was almost a lie…if there had not been so much rooted pain, telling him he had seen this, and it was true.
It was true, Dad.
I saw it.
He saw himself angelic, imbued with chlorophyll and sunshine, floating.
His anchored self said no. No, that’s crap.
The water of the dam flowed, mist in the air where he stood to cast a silver beam that danced, then lay gentle on the stream, and shivering… The air was clean, clean. But he had become his father, not himself. Jeremiah, four years old, was there, perched on the bank, dangling a bamboo rod.
“You watch. Don’t fall in.”
He felt his father’s anger project through himself. Jeremiah…stupid kid…yeah.
For the second time…he’d been thirteen when his father decided…they were going fishing. He was in the back seat, sitting in the middle, no seatbelt. His brother was always sliding the buckle up tight, so Jeremiah would have to fit himself again. Saying without saying. Fatso.
The light all around the zipper, the zipper skirting a U-shaped opening, a canvas door with a mesh window…the light was cold like snow. Zachary’d had an appointment with the orthodontist, and so that Saturday the family was divided. Mom and Zack. Jeremiah and Dad and Dick.
Hibbler remembered really liking Dick, his father’s bud, even though Dick always made him feel bad, one way or another.
Kate would just go ahead and say it. Dick-shit.
It’s okay, a voice seemed to tell him. The voice was Giarma Yoharie’s. She’d cooed it in just this way, told Valentine…Hibbler struggled now, trying physically to rise. Of all the things he wanted out of his head, this picture of Valentine Yoharie, his bambi-ish tucking of chin and wistful smile, disturbed Hibbler most. But Giarma said to him again, it’s okay. You don’t have to like her. You never did, did you?
All this made for a powerful dissonance. He was not in a limitless heaven, but a place where ugly reverberations were possible. If it was all right not to like Kate…not to love her, he chastised himself—she was his wife—then…he was at fault. He was greatly at fault. That much he knew, and didn’t know yet what was the unspoken word.
What he had done.
Busby said, “Hey, Hibbler! Hibbler, you awake?”
Todwillow’s snigger came from somewhere else. “Don’t bug him, man.”
“So if he comes out brain dead or something…”
“Can’t be brain dead. They’d be harvesting his organs.”
Busby laughed. “Zack’s call.”
Todwillow laughed. “Living will. Probably never signed one.”
Hibbler felt something. An intrusive prod, some dull instrument’s pinpoint of contact…a pen, his mind told him, was what this was. Todwillow, who did not wash often enough, and wore drugstore aftershave. Todwillow leaning over him, poking at him, not touching him. This bodily proximity made a picture for Hibbler, of himself, lying down. And…he realized he knew it…they had rules in this place. They threw people out. Why would they not throw Todwillow out?
In fact, there was a voice. Busby said, “Bullshit, lady.”
“When do you think?”
She sighed, a big sigh of being responsible for people who ask the impossible. Farther away, Zack said, “Oh, you think he can hear? Well, I mean…understand.”
Zack, hey Zack, he said inside himself. You here too? When.
Have you ever even spoken to Valentine? What! You have some magic way of knowing the truth? Truth!
He hadn’t even liked Giarma at that moment, when she’d spit at him, these words. Well, like was how he always said it to himself. And when Kate said it, she knew what he meant.
Giarma didn’t swear.
She’d just said, you are such a pervert. This thing you have about Valentine is your own sex fantasy, what else? Be serious! And then you have to go around sharing it. You can’t even get enough just telling it over to yourself. Tell-ing-it-ov-er-to-your-self. She’d rapped it out like that, razor-voiced…so yeah, he knew what she was thinking.
It was like this…
His mind blasted a picture from Sleeping Beauty, a dragon that loomed over some guy—he thought it was a dragon. One of his kids’ movies. This made him think of Todwillow. But, getting rid of all that, he told himself, this was what it was like when these smart people really threw down on you.
The shimmering moiré parting before his eyes did not reveal a church, a minister’s white robe at his left—his right?—and Kate, in a gown of shiny, crackling fabric…structured something like a tent. He recalled that to kiss the bride, he’d had to get past it, and hadn’t known how.
He’d kind of shuffled his feet nearer until the skirt bowed away, his in-laws in the first pew batting it back. Laughs. His face red. Even so, it was a good memory, that day. But the light vanished, and he was not getting married.
It peeped in again, coyly. It roared like a V10 engine. He’d got outside the tent, and there was no time for zipping things up. Jeremiah jogged in bare feet, thankful to have slept in his jeans…but then again. Another crawling RV. They were letting a bunch of cars get backed up behind. He charged between two, just trying to get across, and almost missed another coming downhill.
“God…ya dumb kid!”
That was probably what she’d rolled down her window specially to yell at him. He didn’t think she’d said “stupid”, and knew she hadn’t cussed. But it was like…suppose she’d knocked him down. Maybe she would have killed him. How much would she have hated him then, for making her do it?
He’d taken a really long piss and Dick’s chuckle, growing into a guffaw, had begun to impress itself on Jeremiah. He’d been a little preoccupied.
“You lay off the hard stuff, buddy.”
There was a deep cut, rock cliffs on either side of the river. Jeremiah heard whoops die and watched the last of the yellow rafts tail away. Maybe if Zack wanted to, they would sometime. He wandered for a while, kind of happy in the woods alone. That early in the morning, already up in the eighties. He didn’t like asking his Dad to give him money for a Coke. He crossed the path behind the shelter where they had the trash can, the vending machines, and the map, stepped over the chain, and waded into ferns in the part you weren’t supposed to go.
The sign said: KEEP ON TRAIL.
Rocks around the waterfall were hidden under needles, dried up moss, dead leaves. That was why people would fall off…they thought they were on ground. That stuff would just crumble away under your shoes. Jeremiah, knowing this, smiled to himself. He felt his way with bare toes, then laid on his stomach and inched forward. Right here, chin hanging over, he caught the brunt of saturated air, atomized water. It was cool…in some way, he began to feel smarter.
“Yeah, the theory is, you’d almost never need to sleep. I mean, you could get by on just a couple hours a night. You get a kind of super clarity.” Todwillow. He’d been telling these things to Kate. Then why Dr. Wethers, saying “ox-y-gen”, grinning like it was dirty?
A crack came, the noise of a stick breaking in two. Then, a string of firecrackers, a whole lot of sticks. A bird flapped, chittering, just under Jeremiah’s nose. Another loud bang, and he saw it—a boulder tumbling huge and square, a full grown tree come down, slowing, buffeted aloft by its own leaves, settling into the river a second, a millisecond, before the boulder splashed…sploshed, maybe—a sound more like that—into its crown’s midst. Jeremiah, astonished, blinked at drops of water flung into his eyes.
“Come on, Dad, come on.”
“Get back over here. Jesus Christ, kid. Kill yourself.”
“No, you have to get up to the edge or you can’t see. It was this huge rock. If fell right into the river.”
Dick had walked around to where the chain came to an end. Like it was stupid to climb over. Hibbler’s father followed his friend, and came to a standstill where he couldn’t see anything.
“You have to be careful…” Jeremiah wanted to tell the part about the crumbly stuff.
Dick pushed himself away from the cedar’s trunk. “Nah. I just saw a couple rafts go past.”
And what did that mean? Why wouldn’t they? Hibbler thought his Dad might have listened…he didn’t blame Dick exactly…he just remembered how now and then, his father had been nice.
Giarma meets Trevor
Roberta swore…or she didn’t swear…
She avowed, maybe.
Dr. Witticombe wasn’t a friendly woman, per se. She didn’t have brio, among her habits of speech. She was, Giarma considered, sort of an exasperated wizard. She came out of her home study, imparted the wisdom you sought from her. Then her eyes strayed to the hall clock.
“He has a blog, Iron Seeds. And another blog, Conspire Right. I don’t really know how he gets his money…advertising, I guess…because, why would I know that? I’m not Kate Hibbler.”
Dr. Witticombe—the other—had laughed through an open doorway. Roberta rolled her eyes. Then she heaved a sigh and shook her head.
“I apologize. I shouldn’t mention the Hibblers at all.”
She’d avowed, though, that you could knock with confidence at Trevor Royce’s door, that his weirdoness was ordinary weirdoness, not the scary kind. Giarma still, home again in her dad’s front hall, putting on gloss in the mirror (of that whatyacallit of Dawn’s…); putting on a fleece vest, to make her shoulder-to-waist area formless and lumpy, resented this deeply. What was wrong with Dawn, she couldn’t do this herself? Was she afraid of him?
Walking to the end of the cul-de-sac, weighed by reluctance, Giarma thought: What a ship of fools this neighborhood is! She also thought, iron seeds, conspiracy…some creepy male vitamins. Does Dawn understand what she wants Val involved with?
He had a doorbell. She found herself riven on Trevor Royce’s stoop, with irritation, certain this bell would play something cute and stupid. It didn’t. He opened the door, after two rounds of classic ding-dong, after a moment in which she’d heard thudding feet approach. He didn’t bug his eyes and jump back, Busby-like, or say, “What can I do for you?”
He did have an ugly beard, like a cartoon-show prospector. He was a little smelly.
“Howdy,” he said. “I think I know you.”
“I’m Giarma Yoharie.”
“I think,” she said, “you’re kind of friends with Dawn.”
“Dawn need something?”
“Um.” She looked past his shoulder.
“Oh, yeah. You wanna come in?”
I sure don’t, buddy. She followed him. “Do you know I have a brother?”
“Yeah. I like your brother. Cool kid.”
His living room looked like the house had been staged by a realtor, and he’d bargained for the furnishings. One wall—the one with no fireplace, no shelves, and no opening to the stairs—was covered in artwork, push-pinned through the paint, drawings or print-outs, most of them, some tacked over posters. They were done in umbers and a persistent purple, brownish-eggplant, a repetition of melancholy-eyed, thin-featured figures, robed and booted. Medieval fashion, as interpreted by comic books.
It seemed to her manifestly not, but she said, “Did you make all that?”
“Nah. People send them to me.”
The purple caught her eye again. A stack of books on his coffee table, the paperback on top yellowed and dog-eared, the hue progressing from book to book, newer and brighter. Oh, yes. That was the thing about Trevor.
“So has Val ever read Totem-Maker?”
Something in this was offending Giarma. She didn’t know what…possibly the insider-y dropping of the article. She said, “That’s a weird question.”
“I’ve never read the Totem-Maker, maybe you’d like to know.”
“Well…so…you have a brother. Sit down.”
She crossed her arms, standing.
“Don’t sit down.”
“Oh, this is getting retarded.”
Giarma pulled a crocheted throw off the recliner, and sat. “Dawn would like you to be Val’s friend. And she wanted me to come over and say so.”
He sat, on the sofa, reaching for the uppermost of his books. “Aren’t we friends?”
“It’s like everyone thinks we ought to be.”
“Welcome to the war zone.”
At this came silence, the awkward one. And her job to break it, because she’d come with a request. “I don’t mean retarded.”
“Because…you think I’d take personal offense?”
She laughed, and Trevor laid the book on the cushion beside him. He drew the one at the bottom of the stack out. “Take this. It’s the edition from 2010. They’ve got an anniversary reboot coming in October, with new art and all. Should’ve asked me to write the foreword.”
“Okay…thanks…so,” she said. Now, a second late, it came to her she should have given his joke a laugh.
“Hey, you wanna look at Iron Seeds?”
He jumped up, tugged on the closet door under the stairs, and where she’d expected coats, Giarma saw a mini-office. He wheeled out a stool. His work desk was the white-laminated-panels-on-metal-legs type, his overhead light, the exposed-bulb-on-metal-arm type. He caught the corner of the desk between thumb and forefinger, and gave it a jog. The screen of his computer lit.
There was no purple here, only black and white. A dark green banner. No art, only a thumbnail of Trevor and his cat. The sidebar had advertising; recent posts took up the main of the page.
“You ought to show this to Val.” It was sort of getting back to the point.
“You got his email, hook him up as a subscriber.” Trevor put his finger on the screen and scrolled to a form. “I don’t want you to give him that book, now. I want you to read it. Fair’s fair.” He edged around her, tapping her shoulder to keep her from crowding him back.
Val was not going to bristle…so why not? For one thing he read fantasy, drew comics. Trevor Royce was his likely-enough soul mate. And, for another, Val drifted with the current. She could have signed him up for a drumming circle, or an artisan bacon club. He would thank her, smile his wistful smile, and ignore the whole thing.
Her dad, though…
The thought occurred. “Trevor,” she said. “Do you mind if I do a little search on your computer?”
A moment later: “Look at that! They really have one. Trevor, can I order something?”
He moved to lean over her shoulder. “Cool.”
She came back to his recliner, and flopped down. “Sorry.”
“Beer and pop in the fridge,” he said. “Or, I’ll make coffee.”
“I’ll make coffee.”
This idea of coins, though I knew they were used in coastal towns, those places ships porting dyed silks, barrels of wine, the horns of animals, put in; and where such things were of great use, and yet of no immediate use…seemed to me a dubious magic. The peddler’s words confused me. That he would give me a thing, a marker in a game…that I would give it back, and by this means have enriched us both. I’d urged on him two of the totems to sell, and he had, in exchange, given me a number of things for my larder. That, I’d thought the end of it.
The totems were nothing of value to me. I disliked their watchfulness, expected evil from it.
But the peddler said even kings would barter for them, bestow titles and estates, if the return proved worthy, if the totem were the right sort. Such grandeur, I took for blatherskite, a traveler’s yarns with which to ply a shut-in.
“I am going to leave you with these, though you don’t like believing in them,” he’d said, and dropped, one by one, a handful of bright gold on my work table. “And when I am back this way, you may like to buy of me something that catches your eye…something more than a loaf of bread and a skein of wool.”
He’d rummaged under the wagon’s canopy, and drawn out a cap, placed this on my head. “Now that’s no use, you not having a mirror. But see this!” He bent, and brought out again a round glass on a handle; this handle some white material that flashed a glorious rainbow in the sun.
“You see,” he said.
I saw a thing I never had, being somewhat shamed to study my reflection in pools of water. The hat was red, with gold braid trimming the visor. The face beneath was strained and dirty.
“It’s what you lack, and why you collect your tolls from pity, and not authority. A proper cap of office.”
“Clink, clink,” Trevor said. He had two mugs. “Just black. I should’ve asked.”
“Oh, that’s fine. If you had some creamer.”
“No, I’ll get it.”
She left his living room, walking her mug with care not to spill it, seeing with a backwards glance that he’d picked up the book, and was checking what passage she’d left it open to on the seat cushion.
The car pulled to the curb, engine running, a hand flashing up to the window. That, over there, the hand was saying to the driver. Well, okay, but why not? Kate grew antsy at Hibbler’s side. She said, tapping the frame of his glasses, an attention-getter Mat Busby used on people, “Who’s in there?”
He didn’t understand her at first. His wife picked up phrases…he’d thought this was one. Like “a penny for your thoughts”, only head-shrinker talk—the kind of thing, again, that Busby came up with.
But she said, “Did you ever see those people?”
Then one of them got out, and still the engine was going. It was a quiet car, maybe a hybrid. The taillights flashed, the noise stopped. The woman climbed the little incline on which the Hibbler house sat, and bent to check a price-tag…Sharpee scribbled on a strip of masking tape. Another woman got out and stood there, holding the driver’s door open.
“Is it ten dollars?”
Todwillow had been getting around all over, walking out to the back yard, disappearing into the garage, long enough Hibbler thought he would just go see what Todwillow was up to. Todwillow seemed next to have slipped inside the house, and left the front door standing open. He came back out, humming.
“Bahp, bahp, bahp, bahp!”
Doing an electric guitar, getting on the other side of the chest. The woman smiled up at him. People did smile at Todwillow, gave him the flat laugh, took a step away…as she was doing.
He’d come out and say, “Messin’ with your mind”, when he felt like saying it. This time he let her in on the joke—that there was one—hovering a finger over something.
“Well, I’m just going to refinish it.”
Kate said, “Do you need help, getting it in your trunk?”
“Are you buying that?” the other woman called out.
“Oh, I don’t know, ten dollars.”
“You know what would be great…if you like doing crafts…you said you were refinishing it?” He saw Kate search for a prop; he knew, all the Yard Sale Success checklists she’d been reading online, she was trying to boost another item. They didn’t have a lot of old furniture.
“I would let you have that basket for half-price, if you’re buying the chest.”
“Oh, I don’t want a basket.”
“Nine dollars and fifty cents,” Todwillow said.
“We have a lot of books. We have kids’ books. If there’s anything special you’re looking for.”
The trunk popped.
The other woman came up, and stood next to her friend.
“It’s ten dollars,” the friend said.
“Up to you.” She, like the first, bent to examine the finish. “Seriously pukey.” She gave Kate a challenging smile. But Todwillow laughed.
“Paint it white.” He grabbed an invisible brush from the air, swished this back and forth. The chest had been pink, magenta pink.
Magenta, a safe name, and crayon-y. Todwillow made that same type of croak, like a minute ago with the guitar, every time he had an occasion to say hot pink, and this in some way creeped Hibbler out. He didn’t call his daughter’s old toy chest hot pink. He’d painted it over in brown, before putting it on the street. The job was cursory. Pukey…maybe a fair call.
“No, ma’am,” Todwillow said. The woman who wanted to buy it had squatted down, testing the weight of the chest. “Hibbler’s gonna put that in your trunk for you.”
He’d done nothing for Cathlyn Burris, when she’d bought the rocking chair and set off towards her house, bumping her knees, half tripping. He’d kept his eyes on her, watched her until she stopped, sat the chair on the sidewalk, sat in the chair, body language humorous, and made (or took) a phone call. He felt keen about this, in a way he couldn’t, to himself, explain; this awkwardness, a sort of punishment.
He could have carried it for her. He felt bad because it hadn’t occurred to him. Or not bad, but fearful of getting away with more than he could hope to. Todwillow was going to use this against him.
So, given the prompt to prove himself an okay guy, Hibbler jumped up, got a grip on, and shouldered the chest. By this inexorability, the bargain was sealed.
Both women edged up to the table.
“Nine dollars and fifty cents,” Kate said.
“No, I know he was joking.”
“No, I have to be fair.”
The woman frowned, heaved a breath, caught her friend’s eye. She put down a ten.
Kate gave her two quarters.
With a little whuff of sound, the car started, then revved, then drew away; the purchaser’s hand in the window again, sketching rationalizing circles.
Kate said, “Why aren’t people nice?”
Todwillow said, “Hibbler, you left a big thumbprint in that pukey paint job.” He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and feigned taking a snapshot of the chest that was no longer there.
The manager’s name was Dawkins; they called him Donk…not clever, but for some reason supernaturally right. Donk’s habit was to cast an eye from Val’s hair to his shoes, a rape-threatening eye. It was the term Val and Sasha, in the kitchen, laughed over, liked using. Donk always said Valentine, in full, because he was saying, you got a girly name.
“It feels like violence,” Val said, low-voiced, and Sasha shook his head.
“Get some green beans out to sides, Red Shirt just went for number three.”
In the ceiling, in dummy sprinkler heads over sides, over meats, over desserts, over exits and the bathroom alcove, were cameras. Customers who brought baggies, usually gallon-sized ziplocks (but some amazingly organized…secreting shopping bags under tables, stacked with snap-lid containers), got ID’d by those with access to the monitors. Red Shirt, Skinhead, Fat Fuck, Bin Laden, Oprah, Cheeto Bandito. These were not, maybe, the Plenty House Buffet’s most valued customers, but Val saw sense in a few of the arguments the ones that got caught offered. It was supposed to be all you could eat. You already paid for it. The restaurant threw a lot of food out. They overcharged.
Besides all that, here was a whole lawsuit waiting to happen…
Sasha had a couple vids taken on his phone. “Yeah, Donk is toast, any time. Any time.”
Val didn’t even think, neither did Sasha, taking into account the one or two people who might on a given day be putting chicken legs down their pants, it was so much the money, as a kind of…state of mind. Donk would say the Plenty House lost thousands.
“But then you have to figure they still got their ten ninety-nine, or whatever. And if people are happy and they come back…I mean it can’t be just, a chicken leg costs a dime…”
“They have to pay me to dump it in the fryer, so that’s chump change divided by a chicken leg. Or a wing. Or is it multiplied? Anyhow, you get the idea, Val.”
“So if you’re full time, and you get health care…”
“Right. More bread crumbs on the bird. Pretty soon, leg costs a dollar.”
“Still, it doesn’t seem right. Isn’t there some kind of thing where you spend money to make money?”
“That’s not Donkanomics, buddy.”
“Yoharie! What’s wrong with you? Move it!”
Val pulled on a pair of plastic gloves. The green bean recipe was only a gallon-sized can dumped into a chafing dish bin, a little jar of pearl onions dumped on top of that, the whole thing stuck in the steamer. The beans were cooked already; it took five minutes to heat them up. There was a clamp-on tool for pulling the bin out, two for lowering it into its slot. He had to wheel his cart out to the floor, get the empty dish set out of the way, drop in the full one.
The gloves were for nothing, since Val didn’t really touch anything, but customers saw you working out there, and it made them happy.
He smiled at a woman holding tongs over baked potatoes, her wrist flopped defeatedly. There was always a runt, a puny spud showcased in its foil wrap, and Val, thinking of all the food they threw out, wondered why. You got no advantage using things up, when you didn’t use things up. Maybe it was for calories. The marketing ideas from Plenty House headquarters could get uberwonky, it was true.
He tried saying it to her: “Take that little one. It’s only a hundred calories.”
She gave a tentative smile, and he coaxed, “Come on.”
She gave a wider smile. “How come you don’t have the ones with cheese?”
“You mean, like, au gratin? Cause you get cheese and bacon, all that shit, over at the fixin’s table.” Well, they called it the Fixin’s Table.
“Yeah, like the casserole kind.”
“Dunno. Better grab that little one.”
She took it.
He didn’t think he’d failed.
She’d been going, not only for the potatoes, but the scones, a kind of weird house specialty. Biscuit dough, dry, tinted orange with cheddar cheese, flavored a little too sweet. Another variety dotted with blueberries. The Plenty House, up at the cash register, sold boxes of these at Christmas (November 1 to December 26), bedded in their candy striped cardboard with shredded green paper—Nasty Old Scones, as he and Sasha called them. There weren’t just four, there were eight. Disappointing.
He’d got a box for Dawn.
“You like those?” he asked, curious to know.
“Oh, I like the cinnamon.” Third type. “Your Dad likes ham on the cheese ones.”
“I gotta try it. Probably takes a lot of greasing up.”
She’d got his meaning, too, after a second.
“I microwave them, hon.”
He’d gone back in, through the front door, to make the purchase. It was really to see Sasha, because Val had been fired that afternoon, for not, somehow or other, getting in this woman’s face enough. She’d got out the door with her side dishes, bent on filling out the Thanksgiving board.
That was Donk’s theory, people did that.
“They pay for a turkey.” He shrugged. “Then they don’t wanna pay for anything else.” This was almost confiding, coming from a guy who’d just sent Val downtown.
It was like that…the Plenty House had a central office in an old mall, and if you got canned, you had to bus in to do your paperwork.
“You don’t fit in well,” the woman had said, and she hadn’t taken her eyes off his piercings and nail color. “With the culture.”
Kate Hibbler and Mat Busby
At one time, it had been the Witticombes, and Cathlyn Burris. Then, awful Trevor; lately, the Yoharies. The Yoharies were different…
“Like every kind of different.”
The annexation was from 1987; the ring of houses around the subdivision’s cul-de-sac once showcases, one for each configuration the builder offered: garage left, garage right, detached garage with mother-in-law apartment, porte-cochère, circular drive, basketball court. One style, touted affordable, was a ranch; one a bungalow. They were beige sided with brown roofs, except for Trevor’s. His idea of dark gunmetal had needed vetoing by the neighborhood association.
And so he’d gone with white, roof green…so acceptable. So (getting away with it) I have to be my own little prima donna self. Even Kate, who didn’t go to meetings because Jeremiah did, could see from hearing him tell it, that Trevor had been forcing the debate. Wasting everyone’s time for his stupid politics.
“Now you’re all having this big discussion, what shade of grey’s too close to black.”
He’d actually said it.
“Well, because, for one thing…” They were looking through Mat’s bay window at the house across the street. It had been a year ago, when the house had sat already unsold for ten months.
“…the whole neighborhood’s old now. That roof had to be replaced. The Karshes couldn’t ask as much as they should’ve.”
Once the median age of the neighborhood flipped, and couples like the Karshes started to downsize…and then, factoring that the economy was changing…
Mat used these words, gestured ineffability, and between the two of them this nutshelled concept—the economy, changing—answered all it was required to.
Dr. Petersen, gone after closing his eye clinic, suddenly, had never been a man you could get to know. Everyone who’d caught him raking, or digging his grumpy fall mums, who’d jogged up to ask him something—would he buy candy to fund the Bombadiers’ Regional Tourney trip; would he sign to protest the trash schedule being staggered with the yard waste—had seemed to catch him on a deadline.
“No, I can’t make time.”
“Just your phone number…”
“I’m not interested, Mrs. Hibbler. Thanks.”
Todwillow’s report: “Nothing goes on in that house. Now and again he gets a call from a patient. Always goes to the answering machine, at his office. Then, I don’t know what, he sits and watches TV. I can pick up the TV.”
He’d kept his mic on Petersen’s house during that period of vacancy, just to see if anyone got in there. In July, a woman came, got out of her car sorting keys; later a van pulled into the drive, a lift whirred down from its open side door, and a man in a wheelchair zimmed out, a second quiet electric motor. Kelly Stomitz, from Stomitz-Burnley, a realtor they all knew, had gone flanking him at a shuffling pace, his wife on the other side.
They’d opened the garage. They’d stalled for a moment first, pointing and discussing. Wheelchair ramp up to the front door. Easy to translate without Todwillow.
“So what’s wrong with her?” Mat, after noting to Kate the guy was probably an amputee from diabetes.
“I’ve got to do something about her hair,” Kate answered him. “I don’t know why she bleaches it and then…” She slued a hand. “Just nothing.”
Quiet had descended, and this was expected. Closing. Then a truck, the type of worker’s truck with tool cabinets on the sides, early every morning. Mat expected this too, and blasted his horn when he pulled out of his drive, took a beat, waved his hand. The workers waved back.
By that time Todwillow had brought intelligence. Yes, a ramp. Knocking out a wall. Putting in a downstairs apartment, a new sunporch. Baker’s—you know, out by the county garage, over on route 203—got the job.
Tristanne was in Grand Rapids, another trip to gather specs from an urgent care center, for the sort of X-ray equipment her company sold. Her travels were those times Kate and Mat fell into pleasant camaraderie, always having their yack at his place. Because of late, Jeremiah tended to be home.
“I think he’s lying and hiding. He comes back lunchtime and gets onto his computer. I know it when he’s on…we have that parental thing for Savannah.”
“You mean old Jer’s sneaking around?”
“No! Women.” She put an emphasis on this, not one to presuppose Mat’s meaning any other thing, but that the idea…Jeremiah, finding some female to have an affair with…was a laugh, please.
Dawn Orse and Yoharie, unmarried—Dawn said so easily—had been moved in for a month or so. Valentine, Yoharie’s weird son…somehow, as Mat thought, they’d had him in the van or something, with his stuff…and no one saw him unload and settle in. Creepy. A girl turned up, older. Mat let his car roll onto the drive, popped the hood and tinkered, catching her coming out.
“Hey, there! How’s your dad?”
Kate gave her name to Jeremiah, snagging him by the arm, jostling his saucer of peanut-butter crackers, drawing him to the window. “See her?”
He’d watched Yoharie’s daughter down the street for a minute. “Pretty girl.”
“Jarmah. I don’t know how it’s spelled. See if she’s on Facebook.”
She wasn’t telling him do it, she just wanted to know. Her husband was secretive until it became clear Giarma Yoharie had moved in, and he had that pretext for lecturing her. Her car was always on the street now.
Thanksgiving, the Yoharies opened their door (Dawn did), at three in the afternoon—coffee, not turkey, Kate and Mat decided—to the Witticombes. Mat had reported Yoharie riding out of his garage on a scooter, since September at irregular intervals; the Hibblers and many others had seen this. Moving at a footpace, keeping company with Dawn.
“You never see her walk alone, though. That’s not really exercise.”
“Fresh air,” Mat said.
Dawn was fat. Kate wanted him to say it. It was one of Todwillow’s talking points…he didn’t let a woman notice another woman’s clothes or figure more than once without cracking one of his lezzie jokes. Because he liked that stuff too much, was Kate’s thought. But scorn (hers for Todwillow) still had conditioned her to reticence.
“That’s how they know each other.” Yoharies and Witticombes, she meant to say. “They go down there to the sac-end and she talks to Trevor, too. He doesn’t talk much.”
“You mean Yoharie.”
“I say hello to him, and he says”—she imitated—“ma’am.”
Mat had two chairs, part of his parents’ old dining suite, featuring round backs that jammed below the shoulders, gold cushions tied on, numbing taped edging that grooved the thighs. These were fitted imperfectly to the curve of the bay window, and the window was uncurtained. The two of them didn’t point or gesture when they talked…not when they were conscious of it. But they looked over their shoulders. Roberta Witticombe waved.
“Do you think I should go…take cookies or something? I mean you don’t, really. It’s not Christmas.”
So it didn’t seem like the Witticombes were nice, and the Hibblers weren’t. That wouldn’t matter if Jeremiah wasn’t a sort of neighborhood ambassador. It fell on Kate as a family duty…she kind of hated him for that.
“Yeah, Beatty, come on.”
Savannah, aged ten, had been so keen on having an Australian Shepherd. Hibbler remembered searching with Kate online for a place they could drive to, open on a Saturday.
Take the girls…don’t take them.
“It has to be both their dog.”
He was against surprises. He remembered never a good one from his growing up years. Kate gave him the point, on the grounds (tacit between them) that Raelyn had been born with a stubborn radar for unfair treatment. She’d bring it home to them, if she felt left out.
(“Honey, can you walk Beatts?” Shrug. “He’s not mine. You better ask her.”)
And yet, their youngest was the responsible one. Raelyn would probably, for a few bucks a week, look after a puppy. Savannah, grown bored with it, wouldn’t.
“Sorry, guys, I’ve got paperwork drawn up for that cutie.”
The kennel owner, saying this, had steered them away from a handsome, keen-eyed yearling with a clean black and white coat. She’d laughed, seeing the girls. “No, I don’t think you’re gonna want that mongrelly one. Look at him.”
The mongrelly one, brindled, splay-footed, had charged round and round in circles, disappearing out the pole-barn door. Reappearing, face decked in trails of slobber. The Hibblers, being played, had agreed…um, yeah…they could put their name on a waiting list, sure…
“I like this one!”
Beatty, in his seven years as a HIbbler, had fattened up…on brownies, grapes, other bad snacks…
Which was a thing, Hibbler interrupted himself, thinking of it.
Because people (like Roberta Witticombe, or way more, Cathlyn Burris) were always waiting ’til you’d done something and couldn’t help it, to get in and tell you…well, in this case, that you were killing your dog.
Beatty didn’t care what he ate. If there was one thing about Beatty, it was that. He wasn’t fierce, even for looking kind of mutant-freaky with his two eyes different colors. No, the dog was friendly, too crazy friendly, wanting to jump on every stranger and hurl himself, with every head pat, into a back-roll.
Cathlyn, who believed in spending money on things like taking your dog to fucking boot camp, was always telling him, “I think Beatty would be very trainable.”
He supposed she thought he didn’t mind if Beatty thudded up against the back of her legs and half knocked her over while she was out jogging. No, Hibbler liked it. He could say that to himself. He chuckled inside when he saw it.
He clipped on his holster, and snugged in the Glock…subcompact, 9mm, street legal; he clipped on the Taser, which he did not take out of its holster putting it away, because he’d accidentally zapped himself with it once. He clipped on his walkie-talkie, to the breast pocket of his shirt, which seemed to him cooler than yet another holster. He had some plastic zip-ties stuffed in his jacket pocket. Not that you couldn’t buy handcuffs, but that Todwillow had joked about him cuffing a perp.
It crossed Hibbler’s mind, true, when he thought of detaining suspects, that he’d never really had a physical fight with anyone. Where there were stakes. He’d done Todwillow’s training exercises—“I give you an F…maybe D minus, cause you try, Chunko.” (Here again, sort of joking).
Hibbler didn’t do a lot of running.
Zack, carrying that gene of fine-weighed judgment Raelyn had inherited—from a grandparent, Hibbler guessed—had never tussled with his brother, either. A little thump on the head, he’d light off. Mom would look out the back door. “Where’s Zack?”
Jeremiah would say, “I don’t know.”
“I thought I saw you guys kicking the soccer ball.”
“Um, yeah, but I don’t know where he went. Just booked.” And this was incriminating. Zack started things. It wasn’t always the older kid’s fault.
“Well, it’s supper time. You’d better find him.”
All the jangle and weight of his equipment gave Hibbler an aura, one donned and doffed…subordinate to Kate in the house, but strong on the street. He was dressed in his black polo and slacks, windbreaker; his cap, neighborhood watch insignia above the bill. He came along with a tick, tick, tick, like a warning.
Giarma Yoharie, bending into the trunk of her car, tensing up. Cathlyn Burris jogging, flipping a hand at him; Roberta Witticombe standing with her camera, deaf to him. Getting a shot, for some reason, of her window boxes.
Well, he knew the reason. She got likes for this dumb shit, and there were other people who posted their flowers under her flowers.
Here’s an old pic of my begonias from 2003. Wow! Can you believe 2003’s such a long time ago now?
He followed everyone’s social accounts. He was jenniesmom; he was ashley13. Todwillow had given him a picture of a little girl, another of a teenager. Todwillow wanted Hibbler to do all of this, and tell him about it, which he wasn’t completely down with. But Todwillow…ex-CBI, don’t forget…was always telling him stories about nasty revenges, weird gadgets that could make you sick, in humiliating public ways, choking and farting. Identity thefts.
Todwillow had Hibbler’s password.
He’d been pretty relentless with his pimping—coming on to Petersen, Kate would say—and still Todwillow hadn’t gotten anything…but that (he said) didn’t prove anything. When Raelyn was selling cookies, Todwillow had wanted her to go knock at Petersen’s door.
“Nothing’ll happen. But if something happens, we just nailed a perv.”
So when they were looking for chaperons for one of Savannah’s class trips, Hibbler had said, no, no. In his mind he wasn’t completely sure this fear was sympathy for Petersen.
He had a problem with that kid, Valentine.
Not just the strip razored around the back of his head, new yesterday…like the blue-tipped hairdo wasn’t enough. Here, it appeared to Hibbler, was another one out of work. Who was going to be around the neighborhood all day, when Hibbler himself had to be at work. In his head, he’d been rehearsing a conversation with Giarma.
“You a lot older than your…brother?”
Instead, he blurted this at her, catching her again at the trunk of her car. Giarma Yoharie always shopped, it seemed, always came back from wherever she went with bags of stuff. Sometimes only groceries…so maybe she at least helped out Mrs…
Nuh uh, Dawn. You had to call her that.
It was weird to Hibbler, that society had got away from addressing women as miss or ma’am (although you did, and got glared at, when you needed to get their attention)…but there wasn’t any answer when a guy’s wife wasn’t married to him. He didn’t want to talk like a friend to Dawn. She didn’t like it, either, wincing and forcing a smile…maybe because he skipped and balked at using her name. He’d just done the same to Giarma.
Her face, as she turned to him, hugging a paper sack with handles, showed undisguised incredulity.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said, and then looked abashed. “What did you want?”
“You a lot older than your brother.” He said it flatly now.
“I’m thirty, Mr. Hibbler. Val is twenty-one. That’s how it is.”
“Hey, hi!” This was Dawn, pulling back the front door.
Giarma darted off. Beatty, who’d been sniffing her boot heels, seemed to bristle like a hedgehog. He whined, wagged, heaved himself onto his back and wriggled. Dawn came out, dropped a black trash bag, crouched and took Beatty by the ears, knuckling his skull. The dog suffered ecstasy for a moment, then jumped to his feet and charged away down the street.
“Silly,” Dawn said. “How’re your kids?”
Hibbler stared at the bag.
“I’ll take that for you, if you want.”
There was no reason for this. The thought had come opportunistically, and in his head Hibbler hadn’t scripted an excuse. He didn’t know what sort of favor he might be offering…but Dawn seemed unsuspicious.
“No, you stupid mutt!” Hibbler yanked him off his back by the collar.
Dawn winced and smiled.
Dawn tapped, passed the open door at Giarma’s sigh, leading with a hanger and floral skirt.
She said: “Here!”
And her stepdaughter (frustrated again, interpreting a call for attention as a request for action) edged round in her chair. “Oh, I couldn’t wear that!”
They were prickly together, trying to become friends.
Yoharie had had no handle on his daughter as a grown-up, and they hadn’t expected her to come to them, just when they’d made the move. She hadn’t visited in the apartment days, but in token, to see her father…pretending hard to see nothing particular about him, and under pressure of the holidays.
At Thanksgiving, she would stop for the length of a meal. “It’s easier traveling in November. I hate driving when it’s cold. You don’t have to cook,” Giarma, confirming, told Dawn on the phone. “Please don’t cook.”
Cooking took place.
Well…her mother needed to be party to family things, too. Dawn couldn’t keep Tina away on pretexts—quickness to suspect was one thing about her mother. She would suspect, she already did, that Yoharie’s kids disliked her. They did. This holiday was a clearinghouse for visits no one wanted to make. Tina brought foil-wrapped casseroles needing carrying up one at a time, a free hand spared for the elevator buttons; things cheesy and potatoey, that couldn’t be served on the couch with sandwiches.
So they had turkey. Giarma picked and sighed.
Tina asked Val, fifteen the year Dawn was thinking of…the year of their first move as a couple (from Yoharie’s terrible little house, and a month or two before Val came to live with them), point-blank if he was gay.
“It’s okay,” Tina said.
That was her mother, saucy gal, tell-it-like-it-is Tina. And if the topic came up, she would tell her friends, too…she actually knows someone who’s gay…
“…and he’s very sweet.”
Well, then. No doubt, Tina would say it. There was no stopping this.
Giarma had sat outraged, saying next to nothing.
“Do you have hobbies?” Tina asked her. “Your name is what? Sorry.”
She’d meant only to start a conversation.
“No, hon, I’m saying. You know when I bought this? Thirty years ago. It’s a size ten.”
“Really?” Giarma put out a hand. “That’s kind of depressing. I wear a six…but this looks snug.”
“Well, that’s the thing. And back then, if you wore a ten, you were fat. You had to be an eight.”
“Hmm…okay. Now I have to try it on. I don’t really like it.” She said this last warningly.
“No, it’s prim…” It had taken Dawn a second to come up with the word, and Giarma had already slipped into the bathroom.
That was how she’d dressed, at eighteen, at her second first job.
Work began with her mother’s friend, who had an H & R Block in an office strip that had just gone up.
“Dawn can come in four hours in the afternoons.”
She heard them from the kitchen. She was cutting slices of cookie dough, quartering the slices, eating two, dropping the others on the sheet. Hearing, not really listening. Her mother caught her on the sofa, on Monday, watching a soap opera. It was still June.
“Dawn! You have to be at work! Put on some shoes. Put on a skirt!”
Her hair in a rubber band, a matronly dirndl (her own purchase, though) digging into her waist under the tee she hadn’t changed, and her patent leather church shoes without hose, Dawn scuttled from her mother’s station wagon, stuck with it.
The office was glass in front, windows over waiting chairs, partitions, desks, a little supply room at the back with a coffee machine. Behind the last set of partitions, two of four, were filing cabinets and a metal typewriter table, sides folded down. Selectric, gathering under its edge hair-tangled paperclips, an emery board, a little pot of rouge-colored glop for dipping fingers…dirty brown stains on the keys.
It all smelled like carpet and cigarette smoke. There was a place two doors away where you took things to have them make copies for you. Dawn’s heels got a good pair of blisters that day.
“Don’t be late again,” Diane said…and she hadn’t been mean. But Dawn somehow held a memory of this.
“Val said he didn’t want it. And I’m finished with it.”
Walking down to the cul-de-sac, she’d seen him in his driveway.
“What is wrong with Jeremiah Hibbler?” had been the thought crossing Giarma’s mind. Her eyes watched Trevor’s garage door jerk, stick, creak, touch concrete. He was just home, just pulled in. And then Hibbler, from nowhere, driving past her…slow…tapped his horn. She’d been within an inch of giving him the finger.
But she’d had counsel on this from Roberta and Cathlyn. And agreed…that an armed creepo needed no stirring up.
“Is he stalking me, Cathlyn?”
“Oh…” Ms. Burris was, like professor Witticombe, busy; her needing to be getting something done present in her body language, and a shying from speech that threatened to grow into conversation. But on this point, she had fallen analytical.
It was the day the Hibblers held their yard sale.
“Well, you can stop by and see if they have anything like a birdbath, or a feeder…something your dad would like.”
Giarma couldn’t counter this, another of Dawn’s subterfuges…a word just bumped into in The Totem-Maker, and not an apt word…
But Dawn, artless though she was, had this idea of pushing Giarma into friendships. Or, at least, neighborlinesses. And she was right. Roberta was right. The instinct to glare at, to frost the Hibblers with silence, would only make Giarma Yoharie conspicuous to them. Kate would call her a snob (she did), and say (to Mat), “I’ve been nice as anything to her.”
She’d met, as she dawdled, Cathlyn struggling up the opposite way with a rocking chair. She lifted her eyes and saw Hibbler, in the distance, struggling with a trunk…to ratchet this into the trunk of a car.
“Here. I’ll give you a hand.”
Giarma gave the logistics a glance and added, “Turn it upside-down. I take one rocker, you take the other…that way they won’t bang into our legs.”
“Hey, smartie…” Cathlyn had just begun, and they’d just been situating the chair, when Hibbler jogged up. The dog Beatty jogged up, lunging nose-thrusts, darting hand-licks.
“I’ll get that,” Hibbler said.
So, lingering at Cathlyn’s for just a minute longer, even though Hibbler had shouldered the rocking chair in the way he’d shouldered the trunk (“chest” he said); lingering because she’d become party to this enterprise, Giarma had asked her question.
“I think, if it matters, he just can’t figure women out. He’s like Beatty with people food. There’s something better than what I get? It’s sexist to say, but don’t you think Kate is sort of a climber…I mean, she’d ditch Jeremiah…? For Mat, I guess. Mat’s got a better house, and no kids.” Cathlyn apologized then, for the dish—as Roberta had. “Ha. Sorry. What a harpy!”
But her idea made Giarma that touch more irritated with Hibbler, his intrusion when she’d been rehearsing a talk with Trevor…
Not a talk…
Just a diplomatic goodbye…
And not a goodbye…
Just a rejecting of his beloved Totem-Maker…
Probably a goodbye…
Worse, she told herself, pushing Trevor’s bell, than if Hibbler were The Creep in its atavistic form, without complications. But that was Kate’s job, to plumb these, if she would…the soul of Jeremiah Hibbler must be securely, therefore—and thankfully—a closed book.
She handed a book to her host and told him she was finished with it. The lie might be apparent. But she’d had Totem three days…had even stayed up past one a.m. reading the first chapters. Before hitting the snag.
“Now, I have a proposition. Maybe you won’t like it.”
She crossed his threshold. He turned up a palm in the direction of the sofa. The room smelled like McDonald’s…the bag was there, on the coffee table.
“Better eat that,” she said. “Don’t let your fries get cold.”
“Have some if you want.”
“No, go on.”
“This time I got you a Diet Coke.”
He went off to the kitchen, and she heard the sound of a hand rummaging in an ice bin. Her hand, though, was in his fries.
Giarma sipped, and waited for Trevor to stop chewing. “What are you proposing?”
“You want half a cheeseburger…?”
“No, no. Maybe a bite.”
He handed it to her. Adapting, she bit, and traded the cheeseburger for a napkin.
“My proposal,” he said. “Take the rest.” He gave her the fries. “You know I have the blog. I always have a ‘first encounter’ feature for newbies. So you’ll let me interview you?”
“I only read part. When I said finished, I meant done.”
“You didn’t like it? That’s okay.”
“I think I do like it…I just think… I got to this chapter, something recalcitrant…? And then the hero…” She broke off. She bit a fry, conjecturing. Trevor was smiling at her.
“Hero or heroine, right? You don’t know. But…The Recalcitrant One.”
“That’s not the thing. Only it’s weird. Or I guess sad.”
“Story of my life. But what’s the thing?”
“He says…I’m just going to say, he…he says, I knew I would die…”
“I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.”
“Well, okay.” Maybe, of his favorite, Trevor could quote each line. “You don’t know my life story,” she told him. “Let’s just say I hate anything gloomy-doomy. I don’t want to read a book if people start dying.”
She saw the corner of his mouth twitch. He half-turned—grinning now, she thought— to slug down some coffee.
“It’s in the first person,” he said. “So…think about it.”
Need a moment to think about it. And then: “Oh…”
“…but even so.” Because he was chuckling, because she had his stack of Totems close to hand, Giarma snatched hers back and gave Trevor a swat on the knee. “It’s a fantasy. Do they have rules in fantasies whether people have to be alive to tell their story?”
She saw that for Trevor, this engaging him on his subject meant he must weigh in seriousness a question she cared nothing about.
“I guess I can’t think of one, a book like that, off hand. But I’ll do a post on it, see what the aud thinks.”
“Audience. You know, followers. Whatever.”
The cat, whom she hadn’t met last visit, jumped onto the arm of Trevor’s chair.
“What’s his name?”
“I thought Elberin was kind of a bad character.”
“Yeah, but it’s a cool name for a cat.”
“Should I take it back, then?” They’d had a fading out, and she was still holding the book in her hand.
“It’s yours. What I said.”
At this second silence, Giarma would have got to her feet…apologized no doubt…for not being into what Trevor was into, for not trusting him enough to believe his gift had been a gift.
She would have said, “Sorry. I have to leave.”
She hesitated, though.
The recognition was unfamiliar…how little of what she felt she would have spoken. The little he’d likely have said in return.
They heard voices, on the walk outside.
“Well, you’re not a kid, are you?”
The other was subdued, but his sister picked up Val in the murmur, and then Trevor too could hear him say:
“I’m just gonna go now, okay?”
Through Trevor’s front door, she heard Hibbler state his case, leaden-paced and dogged. “If you don’t ever think about it, then I guess you just don’t care. Bumping over corners, doing wheelies on the street, not wearing a helmet. No, I can’t cite you any law, since you’re twenty-one, and cause technically you didn’t get on the sidewalk…”
Giarma, who had more duty intervening than Trevor, and would have chosen to let it go, rose from his sofa to follow, to stand behind him. Val never wore a helmet. Right now he was walking his bike, Hibbler backing in front of him, hands flapping mannerisms of a man repeating a thing for the second time. Trevor ushered her off, pulled the door wide, pushed the storm door open.
“Hey, Jeremiah. You know, sometimes I see you go by with your gun and your radio, clattering around the neighborhood…and I say to myself, I wish I had some of that gear.”
“Royce, shut up. You think you got a point, and you don’t.”
“The point is…”
“The point is,” Hibbler said back, “I teach my kids to be safe. I don’t set a bad example.”
“Well, yeah, that’s your job, setting an example for your kids. Other people are just living their lives.”
“Hey, Giarma,” Val said, soft, his bike maneuvered clear. She thought him stymied, fleeing, by what stymied her. To stand, to witness someone defend you…to not yourself step to the plate. The phrase was wrong. She’d just read a scene echoed now by reality, in The Totem-Maker, the language lofty, but the character’s guilt her own.
“Come on in,” she said to her brother.
And so I sat, on a cold evening; a spring evening that promised frost—as it seems one piece of ill-luck must come in company with another—at work by dim hearth-light. If no one wanted me, I liked this hour between dusk and dark for repairing my few garments, my rug and blanket, my shoes and tools. I had never in my life asked that any new thing be given me. The old woman had treated my outgrowing of clothes as a willful act, vaguely embarrassing…as though I might by stealthy trading, aim for a rise in status.
I sewed, and paid no mind to voices at the door.
I heard one say what I was called, the foundling. The sneer was there; a joke now, those expectations I would have proved a blessing, a prophet to inspire pilgrimage—to make the locals rich.
Someone peered at me, through the door, and withdrew his face.
“Yes, tonight is better,” he said, to Elberin, or to Elberin’s servant.
“How much of your own do you need to gather?” The stranger stepped into the room. He lunged for my basket, but only to snag the handle on one side, lift and drop it. “Is this yours to take away? Will your things fit?”
They would, I told him…because I would make do with whatever could be thrust in the basket, and yes, it was mine. This was my station, not to offer protest, never to query. My confusion would waste his time, and I saw already in these evidences, that he was my master now.
“Chapter One,” Trevor said. He shut the book, his own, hardcover. “Val, you want Chapter Two? You wanna do this next week…or tomorrow…? Or, sure, if you’re not liking it, forget it.”
It was evening. Trevor had started the gas in his fireplace, dimmed to a low blue fingering the fake log. They had two pizza boxes on his coffee table, his books, a pot of dirt with no plant, a curling clot of Post-Its sticking together as one, and a cat, on the floor where Giarma sat, her back propped against the sofa, legs stretched under the table. She saw this as a bad habit; her job—if they were having dates—to start nudging. Trevor seemed to eat junk all day. And she doubted Val, silent and unsociable, was in. But for herself, she would like to come back.
“I’ve got to work on my stuff tomorrow…” she told Trevor. “But I can take Two. Whenever you decide.”
“Come on the weekend. Sunday’s when I give myself a day off.”
“She doesn’t have any stuff,” Val said.
Giarma pried a crust from its greasy outline.
“Have this,” she told her brother, offering what was on hand to offer, testing. She had let Val live with her when he’d dropped out of school; she’d been his confidante then, or partner in crime, not thinking his whereabouts any of Joanne’s business…since this exile was Joanne’s fault. Giarma had read it between the lines.
She couldn’t at this moment judge whether Val was kidding, mad at her, or only downhearted. He chewed and looked across at them, sprawled on his belly on the sofa, phone between his elbows.
“Reading out loud,” he said.
Mostly people were really gross, and mostly you hated talking to them. You’d be like, “Hey, awesome!”
You’d get thx. Maybe a poor lil heart.
So, like, I get you. Bitch.
That was one way to be.
Who cared? When she had an assignment, she’d speak all the English her Mom could wish for. She’d buckle down and get it done. The thing her Dad would say.
Savannah joked, but got in answer the Pained Look. Course, Jeremiah was always pained. And Kate was always…impossible.
And Lil Rae, always cold. Cold lil bitch. But in truth, Savannah admired that in her kid sister. No stopping Rae. They could be friends; they just weren’t.
I’m the loser.
She pushed back her chair and something was catching under the wheels. Her black sweater, fallen off. Knowing it, knowing it, she jerked the thin lambswool out of the metal…thing…
She didn’t say fuck, because she didn’t actually use language, by herself. She did it for Kate. She would have to tear that sleeve half way down until it was falling, and then not say anything.
Her mother would say, “Oh, what’d you do to your sweater?” And on the word sweater her voice would pitch up.
Savannah saw bright pink yarn, Frankenstein stitches. That would be weirder.
You were supposed to picture (for this “biography”), you’d become whatever it was people who knew what they were going to major in in college knew they’d be doing for the rest of their lives. Jeremiah didn’t have any college degree, too bad…and Kate had told Savannah she’d have to go to a state school, unless she wanted to take the SAT again. Never in life.
Savannah Hibbler: Female Assassin, she wrote down. Savannah Hibbler: Doctor of Death. Savannah Hibbler: Dictator for Life.
She used glitter pens.
She drew a skull wearing a tiara of flowers.
She said, “Jesus!” out loud, and rolled her eyes.
She began life (she typed on her tablet) as a normal girl.
Then those people came.
Savannah felt bad for Valentine Yoharie. He’d just moved in with his dad…that was sweet, wasn’t it?…poor Mr. Yoharie, his kids coming to stay. Snooty Giarma.
I wish I had all her stuff.
He’d got to drop out of school, Valentine, which was most decidedly awesome. All of a sudden—for her sake (though perhaps unbeknown)—he had to be an example of what that kid down the street was going to turn into, according to her parents.
She subscribed to Trevor’s blogs because her father hated him.
She used Totem-speech.
I would not have asked to be born
A freaking Hibbler.
At Roberta Witticombe’s blog, she looked with envy. If you were friends with the professor down the street, maybe you’d get in on a recommendation. She just liked this thought of Kate, her stingy pride, confounded.
Someone, posting on Roberta’s blog, put up a link, and a picture—a plate of mini bunt cakes. Each had drip icing, white, dusted in purple sugar, and a flower, real.
Candied violets, it said.
Seriously? (someone wrote) Just like the ones in the yard?
Go grab you some. Check out the link! Easy-peasy.
Yeah…but it’s the peasy that gets you.
Savannah had a vision. That you could make something…and it would work out, and people would say, “Oh! That’s so great! Could you make one for me?”
It would be a whole thing to do for a living. And she could leave right away.
“There’s speculation Southey only did it as a kind of meta-joke…not to be inclusive, the way we talk about it now, but just to make a puzzle. One no one could work out the answer to. The few times his publisher issued any communication from him…I say he…”
Trevor looked at Giarma and shrugged.
“Anyway, it was pretty clear he hates Hollywood. He wouldn’t take money…not any amount…to work on a script. Not that we’re talking about a lot. Five figures…it was 1974. So if the creator wouldn’t fix the character one way or the other, no one else had the guts to.”
“But how is it anyone’s got the rights, if Southey doesn’t want them making a movie?”
“Oh, well…you have to take that as a joke, too. It’s sort of legendary he sold the option to Sterling Brodrich.”
He waited. Giarma shook her head.
“Did a mish-mash of TV projects…you know, those days…like a variety special with Dolores del Rio that never got aired, some comedy thing that was a knock-off of Laugh-In…and really, profoundly, not funny. Brodrich was sort of successful with his one cop show…they were gonna slot it into the Mystery Movies, but it was too much like McCloud, so he took it over to ABC.”
Val moved his shoulders, his face an apologetic flinch. It crossed Trevor’s mind to say, “Hey, bud, you’re among friends,” but the mannerism was prelude to a remark:
“I never heard of any of that.”
“Never heard of it?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“The show’s called Sutter. They got some bad vids on YouTube. Doesn’t matter. It’s just I pick up little facts doing my research, and then I gotta check em out…I write about these things. Anyway, serious people were after Totem. Southey let Brodrich have it for three-hundred fourteen dollars. Pi in your eye, right? He knew the movie couldn’t happen, or if Brodrich got it backed, it would end up a cheesy piece of crap. But things changed, you know, by the time your generation came along.”
“What are you, Trevor, like forty?”
Trevor took a beat, and smiled. “Thirty-five.”
“No,” said Val, flushing. “I mean…I meant it the other way. You said my generation.”
“To be fair…”
His glance again took in Giarma.
“It goes back farther than a couple decades. It was a feminist idea, I guess, that the Totem-Maker ought to be a woman.”
“I’m not in charge of feminism,” she told him.
He looked at her with something like pride. Confusing.
He said, to both of them:
“Things have got polarized, don’t you think? Guys who hate the idea of making female versions of male superheroes, for instance…I mean, you say next movie Spiderman’ll be played by a woman—you get death threats. These days. And then, the last time anyone actually got the project started, there was boycott talk right off…from feminists…”
“People split hairs like crazy,” Val said.
Trevor nodded him on, and Giarma discovered in her brother an unexpected conversance with Totem-World. “Like,” he said, “how could the character challenge her enemy to combat…if she was a woman…and not have Mumas refuse, or at least say something?”
“But Southey was careful about all that. I mean, yeah…there are contrivances, ways the story skirts the issue.” Deadpan, he said aside to Giarma, “Ha ha.”
Then: “But, you have Burda the priest—not priestess, right?—and you have Lady Nyma, who sits in the high seat of judgment in that part of Monsecchers. You have the free-lance fighter who gives the rules in the hearing scene. So the culture doesn’t seem to always make distinctions. Male role, female role. Now, there’s a good article I have in the archives…I’m not gonna tell you who wrote it…
“The experience of the person who holds the low place in society is not exclusively male or female, she says…when you’re powerless, you have to weigh everything in terms of how much will you be punished, whether you can risk standing up for yourself. At times you have a chance to obtain something material, or someone will give you a little responsibility, a little respect…”
“And it turns out you’re good at even the crap work…uh huh. They don’t want it back, but they still hate you.”
Yes, Giarma thought, towards her brother, who’d dodged his head…I am going to talk about my job.
Thanks to this habit of thinking things through, idled in fair contentment on his adjustable bed…maybe prompted by all those daytime shows (Yoharie liked his TV going, the noise didn’t bother the birds), during which all those women hosts called a lot of bullshit on a lot of people, he had been counting his faults.
Not that he never the whole time hadn’t figured himself in the wrong…even the first failed marriage, Michelle from high school…
Who might be anywhere now…
She might turn up on the TV.
He thought he wouldn’t know her face, and her last name would be something different. On reflection, he couldn’t recall what it had been to begin with. Johnson came to him…and he was sure it hadn’t been. Like that, though.
He’d dropped out, cause he’d been given a job driving a truck, and what could be sweeter? The two of them got hitched… They were going together, and he wouldn’t see her at school any more, and there were no adults to say otherwise. His mother more or less favored the idea.
(“Because she’s like Tina,” Dawn had said, and in a three-pack-a-day rasp mimicked, “No, he’s not mine…he’s my grandson!” She did another voice, “Oh, hon, you can’t be forty yet!”)
Michelle’s had said, “Yeah, if you guys’re fuckin around, you better.”
Yoharie chuckled, remembering the ten dollar hole. The way his uncle lectured him, reamed him out, for getting the root ball set too high, not peeling back the burlap right…
And then there’d been all the taping and the staking. His smart daughter, who’d (knowing where you did, anything) looked it up on the computer, what the birds wanted…
She’d ordered him that little bubbling fountain.
He’d watched her through the glass, back stiff, white booklet in hand, waving directions over a crossed arm. The pond liner, that Dawn and Val hid under the rocks…
Yeah…these rocks were a tad, maybe…
“Putt putt golf.”
Val said it, twitching the corner of his mouth, like he did.
“Flintstones.” Yoharie almost heard Giarma say this. Louder: “But the plants will fill in…they’ll get moss after a while. It’ll look okay.” Most of the handiwork, planting and raking in mulch and so forth, had been Dawn’s. The kids helped her dig the hole. Yoharie laughed. Hundred-bucker at least. Giarma had stood reading off the instructions for the pump. Val dug a little channel to bury the cord.
And only native plants for his feeder station…his daughter’d steered him to a sumac, a viburnum… Kind of flowering bush. A dwarf hemlock…who knew they had those? Nick used to carry blue spruce, barberry, Norway maple… But coneflowers for Giarma, and big bluestem grass out in the sun, ferns in the shade. Lots of pretty things were in the catalog you weren’t, by her rules, allowed to put in a pond. But some irises you could plant on the margin.
“That’s a way of putting it,” he’d said. “Margin.”
“I didn’t make it up.”
To finish his thought, Giarma had said also…and, he thought, ticked again, “You don’t have to stake trees, Dad.”
His uncle was still living, down in Florida. Nick had never met Giarma or Val. Now…he might ask Giarma if she could hunt down the address. For a year of staying with her dad, she was starting to ease up.
Yoharie scanned round and spotted his phone. He had the hang of this, too, calling his kids, even though they were in the house…a thing that would not have occurred to him. He hated phones, basically. From his growing up years, when his mother would pick up the receiver, sometimes just cut in and say, “Bub, you better hang up.”
Grandma would’ve called Uncle Nick…or an ambulance…why wouldn’t she? He’d told his mother that.
“Shit, you don’t even know what kind of thing could happen!”
Anyhow, his talks with his buds or Michelle were local…mostly. They had comedy shows on HBO, and he would stay on the line, tell all the jokes over again. Yeah, his Mom paid for cable. It was time he’d been wasting, he guessed.
She saw it that way, the son (like his dad) loafing on the sofa… From junior high on, Yoharie never bothered doing homework. They were gonna flunk you, so what? When you were sixteen, you’d leave. And no lie, at sixteen, he’d got down to the real work. Not until the accident ever stopped working.
No…he finished this second thought…he’d always be getting a call at five a.m., the answering machine always catch it before he could haul himself out of bed. It was always one of his bosses, wanting him to fill in someone’s shift. Yoharie had got the habit of dreading that sound, the ring, ring, half-ring.
The person at (whatever his number had been) is not available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone.
So they’d called him. There you go. He’d been on the rig ’til nine the night before, working under lights…company hell-bent to get the job done. Penalties in the contract.
Report from the Trenches
She’d taken atta girl from her boss a couple of times.
The trap, being a complex edifice—capable, for taking knocks, of resettling once more into a workable balance; and partly held together, like a wall grown over in ivy, by organic intrusions—you couldn’t anticipate how an ordinary human impulse might transmogrify into a guilty plea down the road. You didn’t know you were in danger. You didn’t even know how you felt about things.
“It was like you’d say, golly gee, or something. A kind of ha-ha self-consciousness you’re talking funny. Cause, I mean, atta-girl…it’s nineteen fifties, gal Friday stuff. So…I was the only one on the team. I felt like, someone has to joke when I do a good job…it’s like, there has to be that little buffer… He can’t commit to it, being serious, if he’s only talking to Giarma Yoharie. For that matter, he can’t even say my name without that tone of voice, you know, that little tee hee. And you know,” she told Trevor, “it’s been my name my whole life. I’ve heard it. Whatever your stupid comment is.”
Without a doubt though, before she’d crossed the line, the daily clown show had been teasing, in its nature. However.
Trevor was making his face and voice blank, saying this. A proof he offered, maybe. But she didn’t know him.
“Trevor Royce,” she said, folding her arms.
Naïve, starting life, you got advice from magazines, from websites, talk shows. The hosts were chipper, the solutions: “How to Deal with Toxic People”; “Try These Five Office Hacks If You Want a Promotion!”…worked in their scenarios…and you said to yourself, why not?
In Giarma’s case the bad counsel had been, turn it around! Sometimes people just need to hear what they sound like!
Her boss had been late with her performance review…that she was supposed to read and sign. He’d popped out of his office, laid it on her desk, said, “There you go.”
And she’d said: “Atta girl.”
She had thus painted the target on her own back.
Brandon, who joked a lot, by his own account, took it as a jab at his manhood…or maybe upstartery from one too lowly to dare it.
Which made Giarma think of another thing. She told Trevor: “So one time the radio was playing…it was oldies, that song Oh What a Night…I don’t know who that is…”
“Frankie Valli. Or someone else.”
“Covers it.” She half-smiled. “So anyway, I was kind of singing along…I didn’t even know her name…but I was never gonna be the same…and you know, it was like…” He waited, and she gestured in search of expression. That they could pretend to think a woman singing the lyrics to a song was playing into….
Or giving a jumping off point for…
“That kind of lezzie fantasy guys are always so gaga over…cause it was that all day long… And other stuff.”
One of them…because Brandon got his acolytes to pile on…had happened across a weather forecast. And she’d trusted Joel at the time. With innocent eyes, he’d asked Giarma to check and tell him what the temperature was.
69 degrees. Tee hee.
The Theramain Health Group administrative offices housed the worst collection of people in the world. This was no secret at MSW Benefits, where even the Brandonettes dreaded the call. Also, Theramain had once employed Brandon. He told Giarma, “You’ve got a special relationship with the guys. I’m giving that one to you.”
This was his friendly way of saying, “Bitch, I’m gonna throw you in the snake pit.”
She and Brandon always at that point had put on their faces, and smiled at each other through their teeth.
And when she moved to the conference room screen, the Theramen, as she thought of them, took out their phones. She put her flash drive into the company-provided laptop (she seriously did not want to set up her own on their wireless, and they’d been dangerously cooperative at this demurral).
USB device not recognized.
Next: USB flash drive not formatted.
Next: USB drive cannot read media.
But, when she’d rooted in her attaché for the binder with the printed material, one of the guys came up, and sort of swirled his hand over the touchpad.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” he’d grinned at her.
One important member of the team had been away, on “family business”. Giarma, being special to the Theramen, found herself back within a week, one on one with him in his office.
Trevor frowned, and so she said to him: “No, he wasn’t handsy…just SOS, you know?”
The password he gave her was wrong. It wasn’t wrong, of course…she keyed it in one-fingered, careful of capitals, just as he read it out to her. But it wouldn’t take. She got locked out. He dialed for her. She took the phone and spoke to the IT guy. She got a new password. She keyed it in one-fingered, careful of capitals. She got locked out.
She was sensitive to the critic’s take.
Of walls (stone), that she’d seen erected a million times—“Get a sense of humor”; “Grow a thicker hide”…and the several variations: “C’mon, the guys are just letting off steam”; “I dunno…that stuff doesn’t bother me”—the implication was reliable. She’d asked in HR if people ever complained about harassment, an oblique approach to finding some safe patch of ground on which to (in case she did) make a stand.
“Are you wanting to file a complaint?”
What a question.
Go that route, and by all accounts, you might as well go jump off a bridge. But how could Giarma answer no, burning it?
She answered, “Um.” She started to qualify, bit down on the word “no”, and said, “I’m curious.”
She left with a pamphlet.
“You’ve got that thing,” she told Trevor.
His face struggled over a quip, and to his credit, he settled for, “Elucidate.”
“The blog with the conspiracies. Just because…you know how people get paranoid, right?”
She hoped, now it was over, Giarma Yoharie having definitely scurried off in defeat, two things. One, that all their busy planning had become life to them, a time-occupier, a reason for cozy phone calls and hallway tête-à-têtes; thus, that they could not relinquish the daily scapegoat without the wrench of an addict giving up his drug.
So, two, that they would fall into repeating this pattern of behavior; that months must pass and nothing the Yoharie had touched could remain. Failures could not be her fault. Giggly pranks…not to wish evil on others…would have to be played on some up-and-coming stooge.
She’d fallen, herself, into stopping at fast food places for hoagies, snacking on kettle chips, actually dropping the grocery entryway’s BOGO donuts into her shopping cart; a swinging back and forth between comfort-eating and guilt (bulging in your skirts a bad idea anyway, where your tormenters pretended to see tight clothes flirtation).
Slugging coffee, taking long walks, evening declining to darkness, no work done.
The work was watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Or scrolling Twitter. There was real work going begging, but she’d put the kibosh on doing any of it at home. It would never be right; it would never be finished.
Her dad and Dawn had got their new house—bought late summer, move-in ready by All Hallows Eve. Until then, Giarma couldn’t have helped with anything; the drive was ninety minutes both ways, and to lose a weekend day just brought her closer—with less recovery time for herself—to the grinder, cranking up fresh Monday mornings.
Dawn made her crabby. Her dad made her crabby…and guilty. And he hadn’t done anything, only said now they lived where she could come down, he wished she would. He called her Giarma, taking care. Because there was no sweetheart, no kid, no pet name…no dad and daughter history…and every time he called her Giarma, following a painstaking, humble pause, she steeled herself not to feel bad about this, too.
She’d gone at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, the nothingest holiday…
“…I mean, that you have to feel bad about. Another thing. Mother’s Day, you send a gift card. Easter, I buy the M & M’s, that’s all… But Thanksgiving, everyone has to eat turkey, which you would never normally do…and cranberry sauce, which…what is it?”
“Ground up cranberries.”
Because nature had infested her with a pointless empathy; thus she felt other people’s efforts, other people’s failures, so acutely they were like her own, Giarma found Dawn’s brave household almost unbearable. Tina would be there, ruining things. Val, living at Dad’s as an Alternative Adult, could come out of his room or not.
He didn’t…though a forlorn place setting represented him.
“I’m surprised,” Tina said to Giarma, “what with that insurance stuff you do, you can be so quiet.”
Dawn stood, and Giarma did too, for no reason.
“Are you all ready for pie? No, Mom…”
Tina was slow at rising and sitting. She was probably arthritic and didn’t deserve to be hated. Giarma scuttled to the coffee maker, and Dawn asked:
“Do you want ice cream?”
“No. I don’t want any of it.”
There’d been apple, and pumpkin, and pecan. And a plate of cookies. Something of Tina’s…a Sara Lee pound cake, with raspberry syrup and Cool Whip. You could cry.
But Dawn, a rock, truly…beyond all possible thanks for the way she looked after Dad…Giarma wanted never to be rude to.
“Oh…listen…I think I have to quit my job.”
And Dawn, whose patience was not untriable, but whose gallantry was such she was going for the pound cake, a big piece on her own plate, pumpkin pie for Giarma’s dad, glanced up over her shoulder.
She caught Giarma’s eye squarely. She said, “Do it!”
Out along the edge of the landscaping—the spirea bushes and the Japanese lilac, the forsythia, the azalea, the “Aurica” juniper—Hibbler saw his daughter bent, crouch-walking the rubber strip, picking something and putting it in a bowl.
The first owners had planted these shrubs long ago, that Kate had been sold on—“Flowers, no maintenance…pretty good deal!” (per Kelly Stomitz)—or maybe it was the builders, veering from mid-century yew, who’d been sold on this highlighter-pen-color-combo, yellow and pink. And Hibbler, wanting daffodils, had planted King Alfreds under the mulch.
Raelyn, wanting tulips, had asked for pink ones…Angelique. A name she’d rechristened her Barbie. Now and again he talked about tomatoes, melons, corn…and Kate decided they wouldn’t. The girls’ volleyball net was always up, always bisecting the yard, one pole with a poison ivy vine you couldn’t weed-whack, he hadn’t yet got to tackling.
“What’s she doing?” he asked Raelyn.
Hibbler looked down at his untroubling daughter shifting away, moving her iPad into brighter light, punching its keyboard with a pinkie finger…in a way that struck him resigned.
Angelique the Barbie was stuffed away now, in a drawer someplace.
“Are you doing homework?”
Savannah, to this gambit, would answer, “I never do homework.” That was a year or two ago, the topic still live, but Hibbler had spotted the trap. He wasn’t ready to have a whole conversation about homework. He wasn’t now.
Raelyn told him, firmly…even less believably: “Yes.”
Hibbler backed from the inglenook, glancing again out the sink window as he passed, and paused at the door to the deck, hand on the handle. He was going to call Todwillow, was what he decided. Next he decided he was going to visit Todwillow.
Because he’d have to.
He would take a little stroll. There was no harm in it. He would get the weirdness worked out, and he would tell Todwillow he needed to see the cameras.
It was from Todwillow moving to the neighborhood, getting in with Mat Busby…
All the stuff. Hibbler put it that way. They were kind of alike, those two. They talked alike. Their faces both sort of weaseled in…narrowed, that was, towards the nose when they side-grinned at each other. So, pals. And Kate was, with Tristanne. He froze for a second, putting on his vest…not, for today’s purpose, would Hibbler fully accouter.
Yeah, though, Kate was friends with Tristanne; Tristanne was married to Mat. That was what it was.
The Busbys were throwing a tailgate party. This was where you barbequed in your driveway, and watched a game on the garage TV, and made like you were at a college stadium. Hibbler, of the six of them, had never been to a college stadium. Hibbler and Kate, of the six of them, were the only ones with kids.
“The girls can come over for a burger, anyway. Course, they can stay and watch the game. Do they ever?”
“Rae might,” Kate told Tristanne. “Savannah thinks beef is destroying the planet.”
“Well, I mean chips, salad, whatever.”
Savannah did take a burger, a corn-on-the-cob, a kebob of grilled watermelon, and Dr. Wethers teased her about having a beer. She stopped talking, finished eating, left them…but Rae stuck around, playing with Tristanne’s cat.
“See, Dad, Beatty’s okay.”
He pretended he didn’t hear.
Rae wanted a cat. She wanted to show him the dog was safe with a cat. Hibbler wanted no more pets. Rae’s eyes drilled him for two sharp seconds…she got up, and started the walk home. Tristanne, then, edging amidst Adirondack chair and strap-lounger, blocking the TV from guest to guest with a tray of salad things—ranch dip, broccoli, dried up little carrots—had done…he didn’t really know what…or why it irritated him to this day…
She’d paused to catch his eye, and jerked her head, with a sort of sappy frown, in Rae’s direction. Like…what? Hibbler, asking himself this, had spread his hands, frowned back harder, batted with loathing her damn vegetables, knocking the tray against her belly.
Nothing spilled. He’d said sorry. She’d said never mind. He thought Tristanne had taken against him, though, for that. Maybe it was Tristanne who said things.
Todwillow came to the neighborhood watch meeting, and told them they didn’t have a neighborhood watch. When, that time—as he meant—they’d abortively tried having one.
“You know, guys, there are actual ways of doing this.”
He was on his feet and gesturing around, while the rest of them sat. Of the planning committee, the Wittecombes occupied the Busbys’ window seat, Cathlyn Burris one of the dining chairs; Kate, far opposite, another. Hibbler fidgeted on a folding chair from his basement. Dr. Petersen, mouth expressing regretful contempt, perched on its duct-taped mate. (Tristanne had said bring chairs, he’d brought chairs…how did that get to be a loser move?)
Mat had withdrawn to the stairs. His feet jutted into the room. Dr. Wethers chuckled between the dieffenbachia and the hutch, into which niche he’d scooted a third dining chair. Tristanne’s was flush to the table.
As per Hibbler’s rule with Zach growing up, his own Savannah’s with Rae (“I’ll kill you if you take that. I’m sitting there!”)—Mat’s wife sat not in situ. Being hostess, she buzzed, going into the kitchen to check the coffee pot, coming out with bottles of Sprite and Diet Coke no one wanted.
The living room was a gym. The downstairs bedroom, stocked with computer stuff, the Busbys’ office. The den, Mat had sound-proofed, blackout curtained, recess lighted, for his movie viewing. When they entertained the gang, they liked using their pimped garage. When they entertained the profitable, Mat’s golf club.
The Busbys’ dining room, unpurposed, served for those invited/not really invited…the Witticombes, Cathlyn Burris, Petersen.
The Hibblers had never been asked to the club.
But it was the Busbys’ thing, this neighborhood watch. The old people, the Karshes, had been party first time they’d organized one…
Trevor Royce, current occupant of the Karsh house, wasn’t asked.
He was, though, kind of the instigator. Wethers said it first; Mat took it up, and Hibbler, for coming to know Todwillow pretty well, still didn’t know which of them was his original friend.
“Stupid, I’m just gonna say it,” Todwillow said. “You’re writing down everything in a notebook, and you’re passing it every month to whoever’s captain.”
He saw Cathlyn steel herself. “Because, we didn’t want a martial…” She looked at Roberta Witticombe.
“Oh, vibe or whatever. Because it keeps things democratic. Normal.”
Todwillow put on a face. “Keeps things normal. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“We had a spreadsheet.”
“Can I finish?”
Hibbler scanned the group, and saw body language divide them. Kate, Wethers, Mat (so far as he could tell), leaning back, heads tilting. The Witticombes and Cathlyn Burris upright, arms crossed. Petersen, odd man out, and Tristanne, slouched their embarrassment…though, as Hibbler thought of it, everything Petersen did carried that same air of delicate disgust. Tristanne, of anxiety.
“So, did your spreadsheet have a password? No, why would it? Everybody in Dogpatch trusts everybody else. You made it in someone’s WordPerfect from 1988, and traded it around on a floppy disk, right? And then every month, it’s her turn…” He jabbed a finger at Roberta, at Cathlyn, “…and then it’s her turn. Shit! Did you people know you might get a grant to cover your expenses, if you can manage this thing professionally?”
“And so, we’re going to learn how to be cops…”
“Here it comes.”
Cathlyn shifted, almost rising. “There’s no reason for that!”
“What? For what? What are you people mad about? You can have your little pisant neighborhood klatch, if that’s how you like it best. I’m just here to make a few points. There’s a lot more work involved, really getting this off the ground. You don’t like cops, I just hope you don’t have the kind of trouble it looks to me like you’re gonna have in a couple years.”
“You see, what I don’t like here…and as far as I can see…is that you’re saying the Karshes left, and we got Trevor…and then, some of the other older people are bound to leave…”
“Right, right. Now, if you think small time, you’re gonna be small time. Even at this level, you have analytics. There’s a lot of ways thieves can case a neighborhood. The first rule is, you can’t use information, if you can’t touch information.”
“I don’t see why…” Roberta spoke on, as over the voice of a classroom disrupter, when Todwillow broke for emphasis. “…what amounts to a normal pattern…older people do leave. Younger people do come in. They bring their own cultural values, and they usually have less money…”
“So…if a blue car turns up parked on Endeavour, then a month later, a red car goes driving down Atlantis, and if Jane and Alice are the ladies who spotted them, and wrote them down in the little notebook, but maybe it’s Jer’s turn here, and Alice hasn’t brought him over the blotter, so he sees a white car on…you people got an Enterprise Street?”
“Avenue,” Wethers said.
“Figured.” (Mat and Wethers chuckled.) “You have information. What are you gonna do with it? If you don’t know you have it…”
“Why, speaking of data, we would make assumptions not supported by any. Trevor is my next door neighbor. He hasn’t done anything that I know of…”
“So. Think about what happens when you can’t put these three cars together and recognize a trend going on. Nobody knows you’re under assault until the assault comes…”
“Oh, come on, assault! And what the hell? It’s not cute calling us ladies…it’s not cute pretending our names aren’t worth knowing!”
Cathlyn was all the way on her feet.
Dr. Witticombe, the husband, spoke.
“Roberta,” he said, “if I’m not mistaken, Mr. Todwillow is a sort of salesman. This training, or organizing, or whatever it is he’s offering, is a thing we’ll be expected to contract for, coming up with the money…as I would gather, by determining among ourselves some amount we will each contribute. Now,” he broadened his argument, with a nod to Cathlyn, encompassing Kate, Wethers, Hibbler…and Tristanne, just back with the coffee carafe, “if we’d taken the notion of joining, say, a window box club, and the man came with his slideshow and his seed packets, we’d hear him out, I think. We wouldn’t insist on arguing the merits of privet hedges instead. We would, presumably, have settled on the desirable option in foliage, before we’d asked the salesman to make his presentation. The salesman,” he forestalled Todwillow’s vindicated grunt, “might be an obnoxious jerk. But that’s not really the point.”
“I can’t stay.” Petersen rose, patting his belt.
“He’s an eye doctor, and he gets emergency calls?”
Todwillow made the question rhetorical. He’d followed with menacing raptness Petersen’s mute exit, the shutting of his door across the street.
“Maybe he does.” Tristanne looked at Hibbler.
He made himself not notice it. At the clinic—open ten to three, Hibbler locking up a little after five, giving Petersen the berth he needed (so they didn’t leave the parking lot together and have to chat)—pretty much nothing happened. The eye doctor’s security guard didn’t carry a gun. He had a walkie-talkie and no one to talk to.
He’d worked years, his third job out of high school, as manager, appliances, Sears. Held this job when he married Kate, met her through it. They’d closed Sears. Savannah and Raelyn, three years ago, fourteen and ten.
A recruiting firm was what Busby claimed he was regional vice-president of.
“What do you recruit?”
“To introduce people to our products.”
Tristanne’s job made sense, though…her medical stuff. Sense enough for Hibbler, clinical gadgetry he had no reason to care about, but understood the fact of, the physical existence of. As she also sold things, both Busbys travelled, and Hibbler, being at home, was asked by Mat to sign for packages, “wander” over and let workers in.
All his new neighbors’ remodeling, that later…it must have been a Witticombe speaking…was said to be skewing property values just as much as people like Trevor and the Yoharies…
He’d kind of thought he was their friend, but Kate knew more. “Look. When Savannah graduates, maybe we can scale back. There’s no way right now I can be the only one earning.”
“What about Mat’s thing?”
“No. You don’t have the money for that.”
It was a test, Hibbler decided. You had to actually sign up for a seminar, pay cash, or Mat would count it like giving away his product (services) for free.
Hibbler had found a job he could do, selling ATVs. It was part-time. Days were dead, the place way out on the highway. Cathlyn Burris, oddly, told him Dr. Petersen might have something. It was like, again, people talking about his problems and not letting him know they did.
So Hibbler, for humbly asking, now sold ATVs second-shift, until nine o’clock at night, sitting days in a chair at the eye clinic, falling asleep watching training videos…waiting for trouble, if Petersen said so…the Medicare crowd shuffling in and out. The cumulative hours were rough—he felt sometimes like he lived alone in his house, like Saturday morning reminders he was still there, still crumbing up the butter tub, his bacon drippings dotting the counter, got on Kate’s nerves—but he was up to two-thirds his old salary.
Todwillow, later, said, “He was just trying to cover his ass.”
Some records Petersen kept went missing. There definitely hadn’t been a burglary. At least, the alarm never went off—but it was Hibbler’s job to set it.
“No, see”—Todwillow in that jeez-you’re-stupid voice—“he had it planned. But he had to look like he did due diligence. Anyway, you being there spread the responsibility, right?”
Petersen was said to be in Florida; the case against him not criminal as yet. But that dodge, moving state to state, was how bad doctors kept practicing. (He was probably, though, an okay doctor…just a fraudulent biller. Hibbler did not defend Petersen to Todwillow.)
Witticombe’s point having been grudged him by the women, for an hour more they watched their guest lecturer hunch over his laptop; this embedded in one of two attaché-sized plastic cases he’d brought along. Mat and Wethers crowded behind, so Todwillow’s examples—“See what I mean about hiding places…” (some pictures he’d taken walking around their neighborhood); whatever he was mousing over, saying, “I can teach you this software in ten minutes”, were lost on Kate, Cathlyn, Tristanne, both Witticombes, and Hibbler.
Todwillow, to the room, said: “I got three names I’ll print out for you, local law enforcement. If you wanna get in touch with any of these guys, fine…they know me. They’ll get you set up for nothing. Use my name when you call. My experience, you won’t keep up with it. But you’ve been that route, you oughta know.”
He talked on, to Wethers and Mat. Cathlyn said something to Roberta.
Hibbler sat cooling his ankles by the floor register, ears not picking up either conversation.
“Come on, Jeremiah, you’re gonna be watch captain. You need to get on the stick.”
Maybe he’d meant if you’re gonna be… Maybe Todwillow, with his sources, knew something about the future the rest of them didn’t. Hibbler came over and peered around Wethers’s elbow, clueless.
He heard Cathlyn say, “Tristanne, thanks. I’m going.”
Roberta: “Yeah, I think we’re done. Call me, though, if you come up with any ideas.”
“English has a perfectly good neutral pronoun. I happen to have said that the people who think they can’t say one, as in one earns minimum wage, one aspires to form a neighborhood watch, one asks oneself what is the meaning of life, should comprehend, at least, why xe or thon would be bothersome to others. I happen to have gone on to say, that it would be most appropriate to use she where the unknown actor would likelier be she than he…if she were shopping, for example. No,” Dr. Witticombe said, “I am planning to retire in full next year. A semester at home doesn’t make any difference.”
“Bullshitting son of a bitch,” Todwillow murmured. Not that they needed to lower their voices inside the Busbys’ house. Todwillow had opened his other case, got out what looked like two broken stereo speakers. They were now listening, amazing Hibbler, obviously not Mat or Wethers; not Kate, whom Hibbler had never seen surprised—and not Tristanne, who’d rushed back to the kitchen—to three who’d come to a halt a block up the street, having met with a fourth…Trevor Royce. The Witticombes and Cathlyn Burris were telling him how stupid the meeting had been. They’d got off-topic, onto Witticombe’s news, boring their audio voyeurs.
Royce and Witticombe’s wife laughed together, the low chuckle. Against-the-Norm Professor Witticombe, proving again, “He would say a thing like that”.
“So, anyway,” Cathlyn said. Laughter again. Maybe she’d made a face. “But you know, I told you about Cole. One thing he was always doing…he’d get these horror stories from the internet and copy them to everyone. FYI. ICYMI. Our whole job is going to people’s houses talking to them…while we’re supposed to also, you know, be assessing. How does the director try to terrify everyone if they do what they have to, they’ll get gang-targeted, and so forth?”
“He is right, though…no.”
Laughter. “That I don’t think we’d stick with it. The takeaway”—Roberta speaking—“ought to be we all just communicate with each other better. Most of Todwillow’s stuff I think you’re right is a bad trend. What exactly is the demonstrable threat, what needs to be addressed? There isn’t anything. We’re safe. Not supercalifragilistic extra safey-safe…but safe. Fine. So one or two people…Mat Busby…has got a general concern…” A second of nothing, possibly a gesture in the air. “Which is your fault, Trevor.”
“Well, shit, I was joking about painting the house black. I know…you shouldn’t mess with people. What else have I done? I guess I’m a slob. I don’t keep the yard up…I’m counting on the pampas grass.”
“You’ll hate it,” Dennis Witticombe said.
“Yeah, I’ve been hacking it back from the walk.”
Todwillow shrugged at this turn, and switched off his microphone.
“Mat Busby,” Mat said, pitching his voice high.
They really had made him be watch captain. Hibbler couldn’t see it rewarding to feel out Mat, knew he couldn’t Todwillow…
But he thought it sometimes.
Spying on people was shady…well, it had to be.
No one was going to knock on the Witticombes’ door—
“Hey, by the way…”
No. The thought was…it meant something to have been…picked out…made party to a secret. Of this kind, not really on the up-and-up. So you couldn’t tell. You’d be telling on yourself.
Hibbler was a reluctant thinker-through; he would like to postpone all this for some later date when things would probably be different, anyway. He had no confidante to search souls with. Back home, on that day, Kate had said, “Just don’t make a career of it, Joe Friday.” Her eyes strayed to the DVD shelf, a twitch at the side of her mouth telegraphed an edit: “Drebin”.
Again, she said, “You can’t afford it, Jer. Farting around with Todwillow.”
He’d won, by virtue of not quitting his job, the late-shift manager’s slot at the dealer’s. He was earning less than his two-thirds, because Petersen had, a month or so after, shut down the clinic overnight. Hibbler, going to work ignorant, found himself mobbed by Petersen’s patients outside the locked door.
Mat crossed the street to talk to Dawn Orse, Dawn the one seen outdoors most often, after the moving-in, prolonged, builder’s vans lining the street…this time, on the Yoharie, not the Busby, side. Word got around Mr. Yoharie had had an accident, was disabled, an amputee.
Busby got around. But Busby was Robin to Todwillow’s Batman.
Maybe…not wholly fair.
“You home with the kids?”
Mat laughed. “So…you’re out of work.”
“No,” Hibbler said again, but felt…uneasy. That was it, seriously—the idea of making Mat ticked off with him, made Hibbler uneasy. He guessed he didn’t like Mat. They went on being friends.
“No, I’m over at Tri-City.”
“Yeah, with the go-karts. Nice work if you can get it. What you know about Petersen?”
A silence, Hibbler racking his mind for small talk. Some friendly word, gratitude for Mat’s attention.
“So come over.”
That day, he met Todwillow. Todwillow asked him, grinning, about the Yoharies. And then, somehow, Hibbler gave all he could about Petersen.
What’d he’d got was, “Wait ’til you see that kid.”
“She says they never talk about it, and she doesn’t care.”
And a joke. Yoharie had one thing going for him, anyway…he knew how to pick the right woman. Jer?
“I get you.”
People didn’t have to be married.
They didn’t have to be “like everyone around here”.
Hibbler preferred both, but he repeated these mitigations, like everyone. The Yoharies, though, seemed to just get more interesting. The realtor’s sign came down for good. The contractors packed up; Dawn stood on the grass and waved. The kid Valentine, moved in, started coming out. On his little bicycle.
Todwillow by then, long since, had got onto his thing.
It was almost sarcastic…or not sarcastic…disrespectful, in a kind of way. Like, Hibbler thought, when you were in school, and you had a new backpack, maybe new sneakers. And someone scratched all over your stuff, some insult in Sharpie.
What for, but that they’d spotted niceness, possession, pride.
Todwillow made things of things. He was like a…
(Hibbler had reasons for not wanting to say predator—)
But like: “Now yours belongs to me”.
He never found satisfaction in these explanatory trials, yet believed what he suspected, that Todwillow, for hearing Cathlyn Burris describe some guy named Cole…and because it bugged her, evidently…had taken up the habit.
Blood in the water…
Cathlyn had to put herself on the list, so did the Witticombes. Their association was voluntary, not formalized, Roberta strong (and by herself, calling up all her powers, as Hibbler thought of it, strong enough to rule) on forbidding dues, on no-waying liens. So the list was the least you could do. If you wouldn’t, what were you saying? I don’t care about my neighbors, not even to read an email? The Yoharies agreed, Dawn always wiftily up for anything to help, “…but, you know, I can’t leave the house for more than an hour or two.”
(Giarma though, later, when: “Do you wanna be on the list? I need your email”, had given Hibbler that struggling-to-grasp-the-weirdness-of-it face. And: “No.”)
So everyone, most, got Todwillow’s friendly news and tips. So they knew…especially…what drugs teenagers were into, what new slang they were using for code. They got a heads-up, white slavery rings were kidnapping schoolkids in Cleveland… And maybe some people didn’t mind being sorrier than safer, but there were signs to look out for—a check-list Todwillow under this subject line passed along—to tell if the pipeline run by illegals in Florida was beachheading in your area.
“Your girls get along? They good friends?”
It was a game day, Kate doing books at one of her salons, and since Tristanne had greeted him by asking, “How are the girls?”, Todwillow’s appropriating the segue seemed natural enough. It was hard for Hibbler, distracted wanting Tristanne not to sit with them, to frame this proposition in his mind. Did they get along? Were they friends? What would Kate say?
He said: “Hey, if you don’t want Beatty in here…”
“Oh, he’s fine.”
He was stinking up the room, in fact. Dog and cheese popcorn together…not a good thing. Hibbler wasn’t even the sort of person who’d bring Beatty, foisting his mutt on friends. Only, going out the door, you couldn’t get rid of him.
And then, it was the dog he was trying to hinge on, in a way…
“So when Savannah goes to school, she’ll have to take Beatty with her.”
Rae had said this, coolly declarative.
“Oh, jeez,” Savannah said.
“Okay, don’t answer.” Todwillow chuckled. Like he knew kids.
Hibbler said, “Savannah’s going to school in a couple years. I guess.”
“Well, then.” Sarcastic.
“I used to hate my sister. When we had to share a room, growing up. But…”
Tristanne’s were always like Reader’s Digest stories; her anecdotes (a word Hibbler had learned from Reader’s Digest) always uplifting. “When she was in chemo, I went out to live with her for a year… I quit my job…”
This was news, to Hibbler and Todwillow. Somehow Tristanne skirted the outcome, and only Mat would know it. Todwillow, thus, while looking keenly interested, said nothing, and Hibbler said nothing.
The Busbys’ theater set-up meant get-togethers, a few of the gang, or people Mat knew (but not often). Super Bowl, Oscars, March Madness, Kentucky Derby, World Series, Ohio State-Michigan…Penn usually out by then, but not always…
Sometime later, Todwillow commented, “Your older kid’s going through a phase.”
Then they’d had a longer talk…and Hibbler, paying attention since the subject had been raised, could offer a little more about the girls’ rivalry.
He didn’t like the word.
There was Zack, for example. He couldn’t recall their basic not-liking-each-other as a competition. Beat your rival, win the championship. But if his brother hadn’t been there somehow, he couldn’t imagine his growing up years happier for it, his dad less hard on him.
That…he’d let himself ponder aloud…wasn’t (he didn’t think it was) the way things were between Savannah and Rae. His face was red, but the lights were out, and the screen was making everyone’s face blue, green, yellow. Hibbler wasn’t hard on his girls. They wouldn’t think so. He was a good dad…an okay dad.
These steps, plain habit took him through.
He looked, as he walked his beat, for new ideas, ones that could shed a forgiving light on the burden of his theme. Hibbler’s parade of memories, trodden out as he checked one side of the street, cars parked there, anything visible up between properties, might circle one day and come shining home, if he allowed it to.
Some kids were playing basketball. The Kennedys, who lived here, had that type of driveway that went behind the house, so from the sidewalk he could see one back up, shuffle a foot behind the other, catch the ball, vanish. Thump on the backboard. Another kid glided across, hand going, c’mon, c’mon.
He got a picture in his mind, a TV kind of scenario, where he’d wander back, hook the ball, impress the kids with some sort of move, strike up a conversation…use the right words…
They’d trust him, and when he asked, so, you heard anything about some plant you can pick in the back yard, something I guess kids are smoking these days…
Then, the thought came that he’d got this image from Police Squad.
She made him jump, Mrs. Kennedy, yelling out, turning out to be there, watering big Boston ferns lined up on the deck rail.
“Ha! What you been up to?” she said.
“I gotta take down that basketball net. Randy uses it sometimes when he comes home from school. Now it’s just a nuisance. So…you getting rid of them? Run em off?”
“Well…sure. You don’t know who they are?”
“Ask.” She stretched the word, telling him, obvious, isn’t it?
One slammed the ball hard on the concrete, so it ricocheted off the garage door, past Hibbler’s ear. Then they all scrambled…but in truth, more jogged a few light paces, bunched up and sauntered, laughed and cast back a glance or two.
He’d gone, fearing she’d pop out of cover again, catch him off guard while the kids were watching…maybe, after embarrassing him into doing it for her, just run them off herself, which she had the balls to do.
“You kids from the neighborhood?”
He got out his phone, heard them tell each other:
“He’s taking our picture. Oh no!”
“Look out, man.”
Well, it wasn’t as lame as that. Just he couldn’t remember every face that belonged on these streets. He was going to Todwillow’s. Todwillow would be happy to have the picture.
It was a thought too close to home.
The inroads Todwillow made were by formula, or it had begun to seem so, Hibbler catching pattern in it all…while yet, he was tempted to tell himself no, not. Why hadn’t they just been having conversations?
That would be fine, he would not have to hate Todwillow, count him…basically…
And Hibbler got a sense, creeping over the nape of his neck, that he might be in danger, for even thinking this…to mentally name Todwillow these things.
The alternative, though, was to own the act himself, and he couldn’t do that.
“Jeremiah, where’s Beatty?”
Fresh on his humiliation with the kids, was this, the voice that had come to grate on his nerves. Cathlyn Burris made him angry, thud, thud, thudding along in her jogging shoes, wearing those shiny, tight pants runners wore. She made him angry, waving past him, before he’d recovered his social face and an answer.
“Not with me.”
His manager: “Who’s that? Jer. The lady you were talking to?”
That had been Cathlyn, at the Home Depot, shop lights in her cart. Todwillow, spotting such, would say, “Weed.” Cathlyn had said, “These are a nuisance to put up, aren’t they!”
Hibbler had been a little speechless. She did that to him…
Because you couldn’t be uncommunicative, what she might have said. She had training for this; she diffused tensions. She was cheerful, encouraging, constant. He would never shake her…he could be a meth-head, waving a gun. That was to say, a situation dire as that.
“Did she ask you a question?”
“No. Adam. She’s my neighbor.”
“Oh, yeah? She must like you, coming all the way out here.”
Why had she? But, from now on, if she did, he’d have to grin and bear it…
A cartoon they used to have.
He’d been worried, appeasing in the house, clerking part-time, still shouldering two jobs. So Kate would shut up, that he wasn’t trying. Worried, a little, though, that Royce, especially Royce…
Might do whatever his type of idiot did. Make home-crafted medieval weapons, maybe. That he’d turn up, that he’d find some way to tell Kate. Which, Hibbler conceded, was a lot of information to pick up by happenstance, shopping. But here again, Todwillow would have said…
But he wouldn’t.
“I’m busy. Sit down over there.” And more friendly, looking over his shoulder. “Get you in a minute, bud.”
Hibbler would sit, and maybe there’d be a printout, or a magazine, or a newspaper with a can of beer, that when he picked it up to look at, there’d be a ring. Marked, only by accident, maybe…Ten Worst Crimes Inspired by Video Games. Kids that killed their parents.
Then: “So, Jer, how’s it going?”
And it was Hibbler’s job to say it, and he always had to say it. He hadn’t yet got this shorthanded, a thing that could be done, got out of the way because it had to be. Not mentioned.
His daughter, he’d met passing through the sliding doors.
His head bent at first, over the rolling cart, twenty-five pound bags of potting soil, a vacuum cleaner in a box, big tub of dog treats, two dying rosebushes on clearance. Right now he was pushing, and the customer was pulling…not helping, obstructing…because people didn’t really like someone hefting things for them.
(And anyhow, on her own, getting the heavy stuff out of her trunk.)
Savannah, pocketing her phone, raising eyes, had gaped at him with an unfeigned dismay, tingeing towards horror. He hadn’t spotted her anywhere when he’d come back inside, stopping at the cashier’s to say, “Got her,” returning to appliances.
And then she’d said Sunday, at the breakfast table. “Mom. Isn’t Dad still working at the place?”
“What, Tri-City? Or what place, Savannah?”
Rae sat up and looked at faces, with interest. “He got a part-time at Home Depot, Hanbo.”
“Oh. I guess I never heard…”
“Why not the one close?” Savannah said a minute later. Since he was sitting there, all this had been a little off-kilter for Hibbler. His daughter didn’t listen, was the answer, but it was possible, also, that Kate hadn’t wanted to tell.
So he ought to say, “Yeah, I was going to say hello…”
Or any normal remark that would make this family chat normal. But he hadn’t said anything.
Kate, sharp: “Why are you asking?”
He left the table. The corner of his eye caught his younger daughter roll hers, flip back hair from her shoulder. It wasn’t anger, though…what his mother called a snit. People were misunderstanding Hibbler these days. Only that he’d heard in this tone of voice, a whole picture his wife must have got in her mind. He embarrassed Kate; she thought people were gossiping.
I dunno, Savannah said. But, jeez.
He embarrassed Kate; he pretended to her he’d put in for a manager’s slot, when he hadn’t, and wouldn’t. He told her it was all he could do.
“I mean, I’m doing everything I can. Jobs are tough.”
He told Adam his daughter was having a rough time in school, and he needed to be home…home in the afternoons, as much as possible.
They were always tough. But, in his Sears days, he’d seen himself climbing the ladder.
Hibbler could ask…he never had…had he been liked by his salespeople? Had his boss—tall old guy, big head, thin white hair blackened by the grease he slicked it with, long skinny legs, huge gut, voice like Fred Flintstone—liked him? There was a kind of…he didn’t know…place, old people held when he had been their junior. Jeff McElroy boomed out friendly greetings, he moved fast, slapped shoulders, left his office door cracked, but no one went in.
Hibbler didn’t get his own juniors. Sometimes these days, they filled jobs like Adam’s bidding them out online. The Adamses came from other places, they didn’t root for your teams. They didn’t cut you slack because you were Zack’s brother, and Zack was cool…Jeremiah supposed he was. Zack was a lot like Mat Busby.
Online, people could downrate you. The customer could take out her phone, while you were still trying to help, and say: “What is your name?”
All reasons he didn’t trust working anymore. But—
He was doing a job. No one else did this
In a lot of cases, no, being watch captain…like with the basketball kids, kids especially, Hibbler thought… Disrespect. Even so, also, people asked him to take charge of things…stupid things, things they were lazy about… But they asked him, washing their cars, walking their dogs, just throwing open the door, just to ask, what’s going on? Hey, Jer.
Like he was mayor of these streets.
How come they have that sawhorse thing and the green sprayed over by the storm drain…right in front of my driveway, practically, what are they doing?
Let me make a phone call. I’ll email you, tonight or tomorrow.
Thanks, Hibbler. Thanks, Jer.
It was crap, in some ways. City Hall had a website. But Hibbler sort of was boss of this, now. For the people I serve…he was comfortable, not quite with saying it out loud, not to Kate. But going to have a look at whatever. Putting their minds at ease, in case there was any danger. He knew what he’d learned, and it was worth something.
So, Jeremiah Hibbler, Watch Captain. He cared, and they didn’t. They weren’t taking it away.
“We’re raising kids. I get up every day and go to work. Jer, I mean.”
She’d been going to work, saying this, his wife darting and grabbing, that shiny, shiny thing she did to her hair making it swing and hold together like liquid. He felt a little clinical…
This wasn’t sexy.
It was vaguely alien.
“She’s thirty-five, right? Still.” That, from his mother, new.
Once, when he’d been about twenty-six, and Kate had been about twenty-six, she’d been some larger size. Whatever sizes were. She was looking for a floor model…or, with a dip of the head, an okay I admit it smile…a washer-dryer set would be ideal, discounted.
“A warranty would be great. That’s why I don’t want anything from the classifieds. I’ve got tons of towels.”
“I don’t sell towels…” For that second, that she preempted his upselling her, had seemed plausible.
“No, my business. I mean. I have a hair salon.”
“I like your name,” she’d said, when they rang up the sale.
“Ask her out, Jer.”
It wasn’t conscience speaking…it was Jeff McElroy. They wouldn’t, otherwise, have gone to Red Lobster.
Hibbler’s birthday was coming up. He would be forty-six. Kate, if getting younger, was getting also scary-skinny, a thing for a year now noticeable. She’d just borrowed money to open her third salon; she was truthful in this, that she worked all the time. She was becoming drawn, not worn, but in eyeliner and purple shadow, matte beige complexion, contoured cheek hollows, face-framing highlights…if he understood so much.
“Set an example. Or get therapy. I don’t have to make that call for you, do I?”
When he’d asked her, once, “So how… Did you go to school?”
“Well, yeah, you have to. To get a license. But, I have a degree, actually. I was an education major. I just decided.”
She could decide, having that temperament—to chuck it all, buttonhole a helper, score her discounts, her financing…
Hibbler couldn’t, and had never known until this slide, until Petersen, Todwillow, what he might like to do. He’d graduated from high school knowing Zack would go to college. He’d leant, a little, towards police work…but he was Jeremiah Fatso. He’d always had a plan to do more, get it together (without meaning much by saying it) when he could shed some weight.
So what about setting an example?
There were two messages here. Take care of your family, bust your ass, do any work you can scrounge…which, technically, his family was okay. The money existed, it was hers.
Or dream it, believe it, make it happen…
And with kids, wasn’t that what you had to say?
Kate would pretend both were equal, both could be true at once. Not, though, pretend…kill the topic: “Oh, please!”
It was that way, when they got into it, and Hibbler had his choice. Start the yelling, or shrug. “Sorry.”
He’d reached Todwillow’s tree stumps. Todwillow had cut it all down, mowed it flat, the two corner crescents of evergreens, the two maples. He’d bought sod, hired it rolled in. He ran sprinklers, wrinkling noses. Cathlyn, jogging, arced out around his wet sidewalk.
“It goes into the storm drains,” she’d called out to Hibbler, since she couldn’t not say it, and couldn’t say it to Todwillow.
A little oval of metal stuck in near the curb advertised the Green Kings, who kept his yard bright and fake. Hibbler could fancy the stumps trophies, conquered carcasses, rude gestures at the Witticombes, at Cathlyn, probably at Giarma Yoharie.
He walked up the drive, about twenty feet…this particular house made with the garage prominent, the front door niche platformed behind a railing. Todwillow’s American flag flapped, hiding and unhiding visitors, who shuffled past a window, its off-white drape linings, to ring the bell.
He wasn’t ready for this. He left the concrete and went onto Todwillow’s grass.
Tristanne had emailed her news.
She was getting married, in Grand Rapids, the guy a clinic administrator. Friends would be very welcome…she and Bob understood the cost of travel made sharing their day impractical…they were prepared to help, with the hotel at least.
“They’re divorced?” He was a little incredulous. He saw Mat a few times a week. Nothing.
“Not yet. October. Didn’t I read that to you? Well…”
There’d been something in this well. For Kate to be wrong was almost for Kate to let down the barricade. Almost a move to be friends. “No, I don’t know when the divorce is going through. But before October.”
“I don’t see how they can set a date already. It takes a long time… Legal stuff.”
“Why should there be legal stuff? Mat isn’t contesting.”
“They don’t have kids,” Kate had added.
By this, he knew that she knew more. Mat isn’t contesting…
Mat says so…not to you, Jer.
He could, he’d have to get the address off his wife’s computer, accept this invitation. “Listen, Tristanne, the hotel would be great, also if you can pay part of the airfare…”
It was a little funny…
Fairly sure Todwillow was watching, and laughing, as he feinted about, pretending to inspect the empty back yard, Hibbler tamped the smile. Tristanne would be awfully sorry.
He could picture her (he couldn’t picture Bob): “Oh! I can’t stand him!”
But Grand Rapids was a place to look for work. They’d have to introduce Hibbler to their guests, so he’d have a foot in. He would not contest either, though he didn’t think he could survive without Kate.
“You coming in, Jer?”
The voice was Todwillow’s, with that weird quality of nextness, while when Hibbler turned, the back door sat just open, unlatched. Just a little. Todwillow would have stuck his head out and yelled, the noise would have come to Hibbler’s ears from the right direction, with the expected volume, not like something on the radio that popped from the air where the frame of his glasses sat.
He went in. The back bedroom was a kind of command center, ell-configured tables, a bunch of screens, a bunch of binders. Todwillow had what he called a stack, in a closet he’d set up specially air-conditioned.
“You can be alone if you want,” Todwillow said. “I’ve got a place to be. Just…” He clicked in his cheek, and mimed turning the lock button.
Hibbler found himself dry-throated, mute.
Todwillow laughed and left.
You didn’t want the camera feed on any machine of your own. Kids are smart these days. Stuff gets stolen. Todwillow’s private server was the only safe choice. He wasn’t gonna push, he’d told Hibbler, telling these other things, “…but you are the only one who knows your password. I don’t know it.”
As to that, Hibbler had no confidence. Todwillow knew everything. Realistically, he could get the password. You had to trust him, take him for what he claimed to be. You had a daughter who cut classes, whole days of school, threatened to just drop out, said she didn’t go anyplace, just drove around, who cares? Rolled her eyes, wrapped her arms tight and looked oppressed, when he asked (not wanting to, Todwillow’s thing) if she brought boys to her room when he and Kate were at work.
It was set, the view, soft-focused, colors faded, he would not see the things that made the phrase pop into his head. But it was possible to sharpen up, if Savannah sat long hunched over her desk, or another person entered…
The other person was Rae. Rae listened, dismissed something, shot a sidelong look that riveted Hibbler…but she hadn’t looked at him, directly through the lens. Not really.
Rae shook her head, slid to her feet, stooped and picked up a thing, Savannah’s phone, handed it to her.
He took the focus off.
Savannah seemed to have rolled over and buried her face. She cried a lot.
Kate would say, teenagers.
It was this, of course.
It was Giarma he pictured confessing to…because she was young…it was what he thought, of his motives. Being more of a contemporary, she would remember what kids got up to. She would be cooler about it all, because…people her age were used to the gadgetry.
She wouldn’t say, “You let Todwillow put a camera in your daughter’s room! When was it ever, Jeremiah, you didn’t know what that was about?”
Well, it was more his mother’s voice he heard.
And the phrase: monster father.
It would be a bad moment for Yoharie, if someone rang the front bell. He wanted Dawn and the kids to get out—leave him alone, yes—but above all, since they had this nice place, and there was a little money at last, let em get some enjoyment out of life. The settlement was meant to be in lieu of the living he couldn’t make. He didn’t think you weren’t allowed to, aside from paying off the hospital…the therapy…
The bed, the chair…
Done deals, all that stuff over with. He’d let himself get talked into things, and wouldn’t any more. He was not going to buy newer equipment, or start a different line of medication, worry about his breathing or his fiber, get just the one leg that had a knee-joint fitted with a prosthetic, learn to cane himself around for the exercise. Yoharie, in spite of his daughter, didn’t mind if this was fatalistic.
“What are you saying? It’s been eight years since the accident. You waited a long time to get a lot less justice than you deserve, Dad. Don’t talk like you’re giving up!”
He couldn’t argue. He didn’t know Giarma so well, but knew she had arguments already conjured up (she wouldn’t like it if he put it that way) for stuff he had no opinion on anyway. But private in his head, Yoharie had determined to give up therapy. He had an appointment that afternoon; Dawn was coming back to take him, but he wasn’t going. Headache, he figured. He was working on it, how he would get back control of his own information, so he could stop all of this…
And if attrition was the only way, he would stop it one excuse at a time.
“Treat yourself, sweetheart”—that had been the phrase in his mind, the direction he’d been heading. Yoharie balked at this, though; it still sounded likely to cause trouble. That guy from across the street had made a kind of hostile, clucking noise in his cheek, still grinning. But pointing a finger down at Yoharie’s chest and saying, “Three mil. Cool.”
Well, not three mil. Only about half that to begin with, subtracting out what insurance wouldn’t cover, legal fees, buying this place for cash, so the kids could have it one day free and clear. The remodeling. Their neighbor, he thought, had caught something in the paper. Yoharie had puzzled on it, and concluded it was his name.
Different. People remembered.
“No, Dad,” Giarma told him later. “Mat Busby? He googled you. He probably googles everyone.”
Yoharie saw one of his squirrels hanging on to the new suet feeder, trying to nose in through the wire mesh. Now, he told himself, if those rodents won’t leave enough for my woodpeckers…if my little downies (Yoharie had discovered and got fondest of these, next to his hummingbirds) start getting run off all the time, I’ll have to check the Amazon store…
And then he told himself, “Why don’t I just do that? I could have a couple more feeders if I wanted.”
He shoved aside his spiral notebook. He watched it skitter to the floor and settle, splaying itself open. He heard a musical reverberation. The front bell… Westminster cathedral, or something. The kid rolled his eyes whenever this sixteen-note sequence went off, but Yoharie didn’t get tired of it. He’d bought a wind chime, liking the other thing so much, for his flower bed…massive, long tubes of chromatic hot-pink and aqua steel. He was braced for a complaint from the neighbors. But he’d be just as happy having it indoors next to his bed, where he could reach out a hand and start it going.
He had a sort of intercom arrangement that let him speak to callers. Only every time, he had to get the gadget going and figure it out fresh. He could peep at the front porch…if he managed this…on camera. If he wanted to.
He was going to ask Giarma—it occurred to him just then—to find out if you could get the UPS guy to bring packages round to the back.
There was that dog got in the yard sometimes. He thought dogs might be a question…but it was a nice dog. He was moving himself, ruminating on these things, towards the edge of his bed, where he could lower onto the wheelchair.
And there it was, nosing up to the glass. Baird…or Beany.
“Beatty!” Jeremiah Hibbler came up the ramp. He put his own face to the glass. He yelled.
“I don’t want to bother you, Mr. Yoharie!”
“Come on in. Just push the handle.”
Hibbler admonished the dog a couple more times. “Beatty, sit! Beatty! Sit!” He cracked the door and put his head round; Beatty’s came nudging between his knees. “If you don’t mind, I thought I might do you a favor.”
The dog barreled in.
“I don’t know, Mr. Yoharie, if you’ve ever had someone give the place a security check. Did Mat tell you about the neighborhood watch?”
Yoharie hadn’t, a hundred percent, found himself liking Busby. Mat got involved—that would be a nice way of putting it—and so it was looking like Mat would take on the role of representing Yoharie to the neighbors.
The dog plunged into the trash, got out a suet cake’s plastic wrapper. Hibbler, fast, clamped the snout, pressed down on the lower jaw, thrust fingers through the stream of drool. Beatty growled and wagged. Hibbler yanked a raggedy remnant free, flung it dripping back in the can. Yoharie, feeling bad and apologizing, watched Hibbler drag the dog and shove it back outdoors, all in grim silence.
“Uh,” Yoharie said. “Take a kleenex.”
Hibbler wiped, and looked over Yoharie’s equipment: the motorized chair, the hanging grip Yoharie used to haul himself in and out of bed, his tablet, his printer on its stand in the corner…the camera in its box.
Valentine (“Yeah, pretty soon. I mean I’ll get around to it.”), or Giarma, (“Sure, Dad, I can…I will…but wasn’t it Val’s idea? Shouldn’t he set that up?”) or Dawn, who wouldn’t know how—but would, whatever time Yoharie asked…needed to install it, and then he could string a video of his birds. Something Uncle Nick might like, down in Florida.
“Wireless,” Hibbler said, pointing. Yes, there was that too, the doohingus with the flashing lights.
“Your printer.” Hibbler put a finger on the tray and rifled the stack. “You send pictures from your phone?”
Yoharie could not get his mind around the nature of this question.
Hibbler didn’t wait for him. “Here, you want me to hand you these things?” The top thing was a printed photo. Hibbler’s fingers stuck, it seemed, for a second; not long, but long enough to put a special emphasis…
(That there be no mistake about it, Hibbler also leaned and peered, handing across…at one of the framed pictures on Yoharie’s rolling table).
…on Valentine, as a topic raised.
“I see you have two daughters. Or am I wrong?”
Son of a bitch, Yoharie thought.
Giarma would have been his best counsellor here. He couldn’t call to mind any of her sayings that seemed exactly right…maybe this particular attack had never been launched when Giarma had been there to help. Dawn would say, “Now, Yoharie, sometimes people are just stupid. You have to give them a chance.”
To prove it.
Hibbler answered himself. “I guess I am.”
“That’s Val. A few years back.” Yoharie said.
“I don’t know if I told you…lemme see. I met you that time they were unloading your stuff from the van. You remember I came over.”
Hibbler had come over, from out of Mat Busby’s garage, and started waving the driver into position…getting his temper worked up, as Yoharie recalled. (“No! Hold it! You gotta pull it forward, pull it forward! Aw, Christ! No!”)
“You got a neighbor likes to help out,” the moving guy had said.
“And then,” Hibbler said now. “You remember seeing Kate and Raelyn. I think my older girl was there for a while. Over at Mat’s. Thought…um.” He faded.
Yes, Busby’s place seemed a conduit for Hibblers…
Moving day. Giarma hadn’t then come home to live.
Yoharie found he’d lost the picture of that apartment in Rochester. And something persistent interfered with Renata’s face…a woman from the shopping channel who looked like her.
“Dawn,” (he’d ask) “where’re those old picture albums? I think the one I want’s got some kind of pink cover.”
Giarma as a little girl.
Anyway, that would be home to her. He put an end to this interior scene with dialogue. The thing was, Hibbler’s wife got started thinking Valentine…she must have seen him get out of the car…was a high-schooler, that Savannah (very much not the case, as Dawn reported) might like to make a new friend. Val was puny. That was why he needed his Dad’s protection.
“Thought my son was a girl?”
“So, you know I’m captain of the neighborhood watch.”
Now…Hibbler had done that a minute ago, brought up a thing and backed off it…
Yoharie began to think he knew he was having it both ways. And not for the world would he autopsy his own kid, so what was he going to do, pick this fight? Or let it be.
“Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t hearing you.”
“I could go around the house with you, make recommendations. You might want a motion-sensor light in the back yard.”
“Well…yeah. I think you gotta go around with Dawn. I’m not too good on my feet.”
This was a score. Hibbler blushed. It was something, Yoharie told himself. But at once he felt contrite. He had come to this neighborhood wanting to get along with everyone.
“Busby over there was saying something about changing the door locks. He had some kind of thing where you’d punch in a code.”
“Yeah! You ought to always change the locks when you buy a place. Here.” Hibbler came round to the other side of the bed, where Yoharie’s tablet sat propped in its holder on the rolling table, and where Hibbler’s belly left no room for angling towards this, though he took a couple of feints.
“Take that thing.” Yoharie gave it a nudge. “If you wanna look at it.”
The velcro caught Hibbler off guard. Picture frames clattered over, one against the other.
“Hey, what’s your password? I don’t wanna lock you out, trying to guess.” Hibbler bounced into Dawn’s chair.
That seemed courteous. Why was he trying to guess?
However, he was captain of the neighborhood watch. Yoharie didn’t even know whether, like the HOA, the watch had special powers.
“Um. Capital D, small a, capital V, small a l, capital G, small i, fifty-nine. I mean, the numbers five, nine.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll never remember it.” Hibbler stayed absorbed, bent over the tablet, for five or ten minutes. “Here you go.” He showed Yoharie a site he’d found, one that sold wireless locks. “Good idea for you. You could use your phone to open up. You want me to screenshot that? You got any passwords on your drives?”
“No.” This seemed best. Yoharie had no idea what Hibbler had just asked.
“I’m gonna stick it on your desktop, okay?”
He lingered, and Yoharie began to feel he’d have to say, “Dig into that refrigerator and help yourself. Or start up a pot of coffee, if you want.”
He had those two things on his porch, for his own happiness. It took him twenty minutes or so to move all his gear out of the way, pull himself onto the chair, motor over to the credenza. He’d never needed to navigate around playing host before. But Hibbler jumped to his feet.
“So, did you want me to do that survey for you?”
Only after Hibbler bustled through into the kitchen, and Yoharie could hear him walking, swinging doors on their hinges…only after a minute of this, Hibbler talking to someone on his phone…did Yoharie understand what politeness had kept him from prolonging a silence over.
He’d changed his way of putting it, Captain Hibbler. This was the security check Yoharie guessed he’d just agreed to.
His daughter, hashing it out with Dawn. No, he didn’t fight with Giarma, not because she’d beat him hands down, but because he wanted her to love him, this adult who’d been a child once.
“All you see when you look at Val is a boy who wears makeup. Anything else has to be in your own head, cause it’s not there in front of you.”
Giarma canted her head towards the street side of the house. “Them.”
She wouldn’t have it, that he could have messed Val up, having the accident…
(He kind of entertained the thought Jo shouldn’t have named the kid Valentine, but Giarma wouldn’t have that, either. “Cave-man psychology, Dad.”)
Yoharie kept for his daughter a sober, attentive face.
“There’s nothing wrong with Val, is there? No, Dad. So there’s nothing to question, is there?”
But a thirteen-year-old. Yoharie at that age (but sure never saying) could still get nightmares from stupid TV shows, like Kolchak…guy with the rotting skin hiding under Seattle…
Man, that was cool, that underground city. He loved that show. Get it on Netflix, he told himself.
He thought Val had taken it hard. He knew Jo had left, not for that, but because…well, Dawn was a trained LPN. Stuff was easier for her.
He picked up the tablet. On the desktop, he repeated. Yeah, I think I get it. But Yoharie couldn’t find which icon was Hibbler’s.
He put “70’s TV” in the search bar.
“But places the landscape was uniform in appearance…which might be desert, coastlands, tropical forest…and, of course, among the Mediterranean nations early mariners generally kept within sight of land… So we see the building of monumental works—statues, temples, mausoleums. They were navigation aids, practically, as well as the majesty of a god incarnate. Peoples in alpine regions, who of course had a great deal of stone at their disposal…northern Italy, much of Central Europe, being surrounded by natural peaks, divided by great river systems. And in northern Italy again, the Auvergne in France, a peppering of volcanic lakes…picture the imaginative impact of that deep blue jewel, that to reach one must climb a height, arduously…
“And so of course,” (Roberta’s teaching speech had a peppering of of courses) “all these would be invested with the powers of individual gods, each to his own mountain, her own lake, et cetera. These peoples had no need, either of landmarks, or of conjuring awe from manmade things. So we have the theory of lost civilizations.
“My grandmother’s old place… For one, there’s the foundation…beams and clapboards long gone…but, big rough-cut blocks of sandstone, structurally arrayed. Then the concrete cover over the wellhead my father and uncles put down in the 1960s. If you froze this plot of land…in fact, there’s still a fairly intact shed…and plastic bottles, styrofoam, pull-tabs, metal caps… The point, of course, Giarma, the period represented by all this is only about a hundred and eighty years. Would you say plastic bottles and peg-built barns are of the same civilization? That is, if, having no other information, you were comparing finds at some archeological dig?”
Her name invoked, and this rather amazing free education coming from a Totem-World devotee unsuspected, Giarma put effort into the question.
“But…you want to say…”
“Exactly. The ancient record is sparse. The periods by which we measure developments in Egypt alone span millennia. And why would we suppose no one lived in a place for gaps of centuries, merely because we can’t find evidence of what we call civilization? We don’t suppose it, of course… Yet we don’t know. We don’t know where the lines of demarcation are between technologies and peoples. Greece and Rome declined into barbarism, by the canonical way of calling these things. We would of course today have a different valuation of Visigoth or Hun culture…but by tradition there was a Dark Age, there was a Renaissance. Very old and unknown civilizations are no more likely to have progressed linearly.
“And then a drought, a volcanic winter, rumors of plague, a hostile invasion. Almost everything you might produce by handwork, including finished masonry blocks, but also, going back to the idea of the peg-built barn… In the 1830s, when my maternal ancestor’s family raised it, the practice was commonplace enough—to dismantle and move barns, houses, whole. It was logical. Either you would not find the materials you needed in your new home, or you would duplicate labor to no purpose. Provided in leaving, you had time to load wagons.”
“So, cutting to the chase, Roberta—and our Lady Mondegreen is an influencer—puts Totem-World in Etruria. At least a sort of proto-Etruria.”
Giarma, on coffee today, shot Trevor an over-the-rim meeting of the eyes.
She was in a minor social bind. Chapter Four, the character’s reckoning passage before Lady Nyma’s court, was to be read for them by a surprise guest. So he’d emailed. Val had opened Trevor’s door, smiling. With portent, she might (Totemly enough) have said. Trevor had shaved off the beard.
And then Roberta, leaning in to wave from the kitchen. Bustle and food.
And if Professor Witticombe, a hostess Giarma deferred to, did not invite her comment…
Had he maybe changed his picture, online? Or she’d passed him driving home, saw without noticing…
Or did he not want her to notice…would that be the way of going wrong?
In Totem-World, everyone had a moniker.
“You should join in. It’ll say you’re there listening, people’ll say hi. Welcome, Giyo…say you call yourself that… Just ask a question…that’s a good way to get started.”
This mild prod, last session. She wasn’t mad, but she wasn’t ready. (What had Trevor looked like then, specifically?) Reticence had been the right call…to scorn the Totems and find out a person she respected was kind of their doyenne…
She asked: “Is Etruria a real place?”
“You heard of Tuscany?”
Her brother had lately been knocking her with these mumbled, mild rudenesses. He hadn’t wanted her to move home… She shrugged. Dad and Dawn’s wasn’t home. There was no such thing. She didn’t care, either—to be unreasonably irritated with people, she could as well decide unemployment was her thing, that Val poached on.
Trevor handed across his phone, Wikipedia’s entry.
“Oh, them! I love them. Do we think…”
She clicked the image, scrolling on through other Etruscan art than the lounging tomb-couple. The chimera (“Oh! Truly fabulous…”), the god statues, with their non-European faces, and strange authority. “That the character looks like that?”
Here was the special vocabulary. The character, by the author, had not been made male or female. Hearty debate in the World, did Southey have a preference, did he/she plant clues, were phrases such as “…an ex-slave, bearing his mark…”, evidentiary, or only grammatical, was the use of “it”, and “creature” a sign the character was not even human?
No, with emphasis, per Roberta.
(“That is a language equivalent; those are ways of speaking to an inferior. Not without affection, as Pytta, for example. We see several words of the actual languages of the first and second countries… And the structure of the narrative tells us the character writes from a third place, has become by then something like an Abbott/Abbess, or Bishop, in status, and gained…elderhood, if you like. Chronicler of these events. So, going by my own theory, we might take English as a stand-in for proto-Latin…”)
The character had no name, so always was discussed as such, otherwise The Foundling, Tollhouse-Keeper, or, of course, The Totem-Maker. As to appearances—
“Well, there…some of our group make a good case for North America. Southey lives in New Brunswick. The indigenous people near St. John would be Algonquian, Micmac…the word totem is Algonquian. Which may not mean a thing. Totem was written in the 70s…people weren’t over-conscious.”
Roberta held Giarma’s eye for a moment, as if to say this was it—the moment—if she felt inclined to represent. (The How Dare generation? No.)
“But, Central America, also North Africa. You have people who are used to themselves, dark-skinned, dark-eyed, amazed then, to see the parents of Darsale, so pallid, and…probably…red-haired as well as freckled. Does that need to mean a Germanic people versus a Mediterranean people? The geology of the first country is volcanic, a subduction zone; the second…the mountains described must have been formed by continental collision. And the ‘map’ fits, the direction traveled, west to east. If you think of Etrurian Italy, and then Croatia. And lost civilizations, as I was saying…
“You see that in ancient times the thing truly lacking was global trade. If you had developed metalworking, but were forced to leave your home, you might not recreate that level of civilization, supposing the new country had no metal ores. Think of the apocalyptic scenario, the human race scrapping for survival in nuclear winter. We would not forget we’d had computers, we’d had TV, airplanes… We wouldn’t just become knuckle-dragging morons…quit smiling, Trevor—
“Inside ourselves, as it were, we would still be advanced.”
“So you could look at the Cascades and the Rockies. And even Mount Mazama being eight thousand years ago, the huge Crater Lake eruption. Because actually, witness of it has come down…the Klamath Indians have stories. She rags me cause these things have been hashed over in Totem-World ten thousand times. And maybe I am a knuckle-dragging moron.”
Trevor, earnest of eye-contact: “We used to have a ‘thon’, where everyone would make their best case. Actually, the thread’s still live on the blog. In post ice age times you could have a body of water, that would be like a sea, between the two mountain ranges. Or Vikings, being the first Europeans in North America…”
“Only…” Giarma said. “It’s fiction. It’s fantasy.”
“Southey has channeled the ancient spirit, from the lost continent of Atlantis. So it’s all true history. You just have to read the signs.”
“No. We don’t allow it.” Trevor, to Val, a little bit losing patience. If he’d added, “Stay or go”, inside herself, Giarma would second him.
This little book club was a saving grace, she felt it. Life right now reminded her of a huge snowstorm from when she’d been a kid, she and her mother holed up in their apartment. Plenty of good junk in the fridge, nothing to do but watch TV. And then the power went out.
Why was her brother, once regressively anti-social…going back, in some way?
Not over his job. He, she, as long as Dad and Dawn let them under their roof, didn’t need jobs. Need need, knock wood…
Glance over shoulder.
Neverers wanted no movie, no TV series, no prequel, no sequel, no reimagining, no fan fiction, no take-offs, no CGI, no cartoon version, no graphic novel version, no stage version, no video game version, no merchandise. No conventioneering, no costuming, outside their own group’s pilgrimages. (Fair? Well, stay or go.)
And the sanctity of these was preserved by the Neverers Creed: the only dress must be that actually described in the book, the only enactments scenes verbatim from the text. Theories on the War-Maker’s game, and the games of fortune-telling, were acceptable fodder for debate; also after-fates of characters, and these excursions into history, and…topography.
“We don’t allow,” Roberta said, “witchy stuff. Mystical signs and wonders, whatever. People taking the book in that vein. You feel a certain sympathy…with fantasy on general terms, because it reaches people who badly want mysticism. They want to belong and feel safe in the world, and they’re pushed so far to the outside, that a sign, some proof, the kind that fits so tidily anyway, within the tropes of fantasy, is terribly appealing. But you have a problem, one, that this detachment gets encouraged, and people who may need help…
“Um, well, there is a point where the human mind can convince itself apart from what it knows to be true. Believing a book, movie, et cetera, speaks to one in a personal way…”
She did not, in her pause, make either Val or Trevor conspicuous by looking at him. She spoke to Giarma.
“Because magic has always been real, you know. Culturally accepted, practiced. It still is. Now, be comfortable. I mean magic we believe in has psychological power to change our expectations, and so our decisions. And so, our outcomes. In Totem, it is never clear what the iron seeds are. They seem to have wills of their own, that guide or reject the character’s shaping them into idols, to bestow on faction leaders in the war. Their faces and powers may be hallucinatory. Second, then—and I’m not hopping around—you have Todwillow. You know how people who think they’re smart will drink in the wisdom of some tin pot who pulls them into a little corner and says, you don’t believe in witches, I don’t believe in witches. But there are people out there…”
Tap on the temple, mimicking some wiseacre signaling Mat Busby would practice, more than Todwillow. Maybe. Giarma didn’t actually know Todwillow. She thought he was a behind-the-scenes player, Busby his stooge…Hibbler…
“Giarma. Cathlyn is an atheist, she says so.”
Giarma, not to look uncomfortable, drank dregs of cold coffee, nodded.
“She has this nook in her garden, where she has a statue, a trio of female figures. I think even nudes…I don’t know what for. No one would know unless they asked. And I don’t. But. You can imagine.”
“She’d shut him down, though…”
“You’re an optimist, dear. Cathlyn is a perfectly nice person. I would shut him down. But remember there’s Todwillow’s clown, Hibbler. Now look at this.” She picked up her phone; a few seconds later turned face-out an Egyptian god, a dog-headed figure, created so in resin. “Anubis. I made my own shrine. Solidarity.”
Puppet-master, stooge, clown. The hierarchy seemed apt.
“How much? I have to do this.”
The Totem-Maker, Chapter One: “The Little I Can Tell”
I would not have asked to be born under a portent. The day of my arrival on earth began, at daybreak, with a fearsome one.
I knew the story so well, I could for years picture the event vividly; I believed even, alone most hours with my imagination, that this vision was not of my own conjuring. I was despised, and cherished all it promised.
I have come to know the world better. If I were chosen specially for anything, it was at the agency of men, and the thing was to shoulder the thankless task at hand. If I’d possessed any gift, I had by then been well taught not to nurture it, but let it die…envy bites hardest those uneasy hearts for whom glory must walk hand-in-hand with the debasement of others.
The story I recounted, though, in times I call helpless, not innocent, was one the old woman who stirred the pot…who it was always my place to serve…and who would not have me call her mother, had told first, rebukingly. She wanted her days of labor to end in rest. She dreaded the intervention of a god, tidings of great change to come.
“Lotoq,” she said.
The name was allowed to be spoken, because it was thought to be a word of the old tribe that lived at its feet when there had been orchards on the flanks, green forests of pine, herds of game. This was known. But she kept her back to the mountain. Only I stared at it, ran to the open door to take a bold look. Lotoq, living mountain, god or devil, was shaped like a crouching spider. The image the more imposing because of the black ribs of rock that buttressed the snow-covered peak, the web-like wisps that spun above it.
A highway connected our town to the next, and the next after that; it also, like the temple that had risen in a mysterious way when the flood subsided, had been built by these prosperous, forgotten ones. The pavement was sound, the stones surely a thousand-weight each, and cunningly fitted. Almost no grass would grow between.
But nearby it ended, the great stones thrust up from below, as it seemed, splintered and heaved in all directions. It ended at a crevasse, deep, foul-smelling. However the rains fell, this never filled.
That month before my birth, cruel signs began to show themselves. Birds fell from the sky, sudden, and in such quantities as to block chimneys. A terrible groaning shocked the soles of the feet, coming whence none knew…but a glow, burning light in colors no fire of dung or charcoal could produce, seemed to hover, turning the snows of Lotoq to a metal-hued, steaming cloud.
Something awful and tragic had occurred, not long after, somewhere below the opposite flank.
“I cannot go near the place.” A traveler brought word, meaning of a town that had once thrived there. “I think we will never know. I think none escaped.”
And then the scouring flood, that islanded our own town, once situated on a rise, now a barren plain. Many weeks of deprivation followed this, and I was protected from sacrifice, for being born to a mute, a woman who had come with no means of telling: What was her home? What had she seen?
Thus the priests said wait, wait for another sign.
Here was our strange condition. Other deluges had come, kinder rains, rolling pebbles into channels with the relentlessness of falling water. They had carried off the ash.
The ash was insubstantial, and the new streams, that became rivers, grew fast. The land found its depth again, and waxed fertile, spreading outwards from the banksides, still in the years before I knew myself a being, in a place—this place.
The old woman spoke to me only to correct, to give orders. I had nothing then to teach me that adults feared at all, or what they might fear. This doing for myself, doing chores, perfecting them that I not be punished, was all the world held in my knowledge of it.
I hadn’t known it, but learned, how this village from that day of my birth had withered on the vine. Nearly all had survived, but none wished to stay. Under such a vastness of devastation it seemed odd, but it was true…only a day’s march and one came upon green fields, wells that yielded pure water.
They had had to go bind themselves to the land, and do labor, as the holdings skirting Lotoq belonged to three lords. One overseer who kept the vineyards and the cornfields in his master’s stead, was called a fair-minded tyrant; another called brute. The third had refused to welcome any of the refugees.
The Totem-Maker, Chapter Two: “Jealousy”
My place was on a sleeping porch where all the slaves of the house had their pallets. I had traveled for a day, then half another, forced to do this blindfold; allowed to see my bread and leg of fowl by the campfire, but in the morning before full day, blinded again.
The kinder of my three companions told me this was because slaves try to escape. “And truly, a master who has had the bargain of selling one, may willingly enough take him back…to have both money and man.”
“Did you…” I thought about my questions, how to catch out what I hoped to know, raising no suspicion.
“…belong to a good house? Was your work pleasant to you?”
One other of our friends, a sun-scorched fellow older than we, whose brow bore a bowl-shaped indentation, had warning in all his speech (of which there was little), and his looks. The third was a woman…these two went together…whose tasks I longed to shadow, the kitchen being my native place.
But then, it proved the writing had made me desirable to this man, Cime Decima. His family had been granted tax-collection rights, in this quarter of this city unknown to me, and he did not himself make records on tablets. By which, you will suppose, he could not—but I was servant enough, all my years to that time, to have asked nothing more.
“I belong to the family,” my companion said. “I was born in his mother’s house, our master, and he was made a present of me. There is a ceremony, which you may not have in your old place, wherein the mother of the groom chooses those gifts the bride will bring to the altar. Nyma Decima collected a dowry from Guerin Treiva, and traded for coin a slave, an altar-bowl of alabaster, a team and chariot.”
I understood I might do well to note these names, remember them if I were able, and that demurely, my companion suggested this.
“Then given in return to her son,” I said. He had not told me what I wanted to know, if the Decima were just in temper…or mercurial. But he had told me they were of rank, and followed tradition. And that here, traditions of the great families were self-serving and binding.
It was my lady Pytta whom I attended at the first. I was given a livery to wear. I was given a broom as my staff of office, and when she strolled her garden, I preceded her on the path, to swipe at spiders’ webs and clear away fallen leaves…snakes and worms, droppings of birds…
These last were signs, though, to be read; I had done so in my old life, and found it difficult not pausing for a hurried divination.
“You see what an odd creature it is,” Lady Pytta remarked to her waiting-woman. “It will not trouble itself over a serpent, but the dung of a blackbird balks it…”
I bent to one knee, and rose at the tap of her fan.
It seemed politic to share my thought. “Cime’s wife, the gods favor enterprise just now…as I interpret, may you forgive me. There is a change of fortune on the horizon.”
(These were forms of address one used, to charm away rebuke.)
My predictions earned me status in the Decima household as a prodigy. Or, if nothing more, a jester. Divorced now from any shadow of belief…which for myself I had never had (had wanted only, for the sake of those to whom I belonged, earnestly to will into being), I waxed a hint histrionic…I shaded my words, to color their interpretation with wider and happier possibility.
I had no usual work-mate. I shared quarters with the others, and was called for alone. Lady Pytta was full of laughter; she enjoyed paying her visits…her circuit of the high houses, of which to make, as a young wife, she had the duty. And novelty to carry in her train…and so I was given the hood of a priest for a lark.
The other servants were sent away on pretense of concealing my revelations from gossip. It was sainted secrecy, this drawing of the veil of mystery; it made fun for these idle wealthy. I was given the importance of making my preparations and declaring myself ready…flattered to be attended, to have silence fall at the sound of my own voice. I was played upon—kindly I do think—to an even higher pitch, asked to choose, as the women could not among themselves, whose fortune would first be read. The game lasted the spring and summer, and I suppose in all it was only camaraderie, sport.
I had been isolated in childhood; I had not known what rivalry was.
Now autumn must come, following one cycle of the moon, and I was put in that place designed; ordered to accompany on his rounds Cime Decima. I received to complement my livery a pony, indifferently named for his brown coat, Cuerpha. The sun was low and burned in the afternoons. I wrapped a cloth around my head and neck, and sweated under my cap.
“In the planting season,” Cime said.
He was speaking to me, because he had raised his voice. Because his voice had a note of duty; duty done with resignation…and because his deputy, riding beside and not behind, did something with his shoulders on these occasions. Something that suggested an inward laugh.
“We will ride to the fields and take measure of each planted hektar, each left fallow, what grains are sown. Also we inspect the vineyards, the new leaf. The landholder pays in that portion determined, and if the harvest fall short, he is free to make appeal. But there is no appeal if he has not paid his taxes.”
The Totem-Maker, Chapter Three: “I Am the Cause”
If in life, the Fates were not indifferent to us, and did not record in their Book merely the start and end of each wayfarer’s journey; if our sorrows, petty to them, were guided rather by a kind and just deity, a mother’s hand turning our blind eyes to the light, our stubborn hearts to humility, while the flame of the candle yet burned…
A death would be as a bedside story that ends when the hearer drifts off.
And all is well.
If Lom had opened an eye…if he had been able to speak…if he had said, I am resigned to it, I saw the signs of it, Kire, we spoke of this…
The wound was grievous. The hoof had struck him above and behind the ear. As the rim of a bowl, so this weak place in the skull breaks easily. I had stood for a stupid moment not understanding or believing. And Lom, though gone, stood too, in the thick of those fleeing Mumas’s mad charge. The blood flowed like water from a cracked vessel, and all of us nearby, whose bodies had pressured him upright, jumped with horror, or edged away in shock. He fell.
I spun, and saw Mumas had won his cowering deference. No one delayed him now, all parted before him, and he was soon ridden from sight. It was only then, when Vlanna Madla came running with a set, furious face, that I fell myself, to my knees, and clutched at one of the rolls of burnt cloth.
He was gone, he never would know another thing done to his uncaring form, but he was not wholly dead. Such things often are. The blood came through the ball I’d bundled and pressed, with force enough only to tamp the flow.
It seemed no use. Another roll of cloth was folded to make a stretcher. Madla directed this into her counting room. Here, I shook off tears and stupor…
I was not the sufferer. “Mera, if I may…I’ll wait.”
Her chin trembled, and she did not answer. But in the hours after, I learned she’d given orders for quiet and comfort, Lom’s and my own.
The room fell into darkness, and I sat resting a hand on Lom’s chest to feel him breathe, until the numbness in my legs became insistent. Or, perhaps in truth I should say to feel him stop. I wanted to say soothing words and nothing came to my heart…none of what I had been taught of the next world struck me as that a man’s soul would wish to hear.
I stood, and turned to the windows along the back wall, giving onto the unlit alley. Madla had bade her servant leave the shutters open. She’d conversed with him over my head and had not troubled me. Once, he’d returned, cradling a candle flame; then left the untouched supper dish, and Cime’s slaves, alone.
I thought of this, looking over rooftops at stars, listening to hoofbeats, dim voices, lowering my gaze to see lamplight flare in a downstairs room of Mumas’s house. I ought, false shaman that I was, to have kept a blank mind, and let the gods speak…if they would. Deign pity me with wisdom. But I thought of my master, how deeply in defiance of ordinary rules I was now, whether I was forgiven…whether I, of less value than Lom, would be held at fault.
I might be held unlucky, unsafe to keep, as I had in my old home.
And it was Cime I heard speak, shouting for Mumas. Cime, the growing light of torches in the lane and alley making plain, had gathered his household knights, and they had concealed themselves in the dark. They had surrounded Mumas, and allowed him to enter his home.
He came out. From the window, many lengths distant, I could see in the light of his doorway, his hand tremble. He raised a purse, and flung it to the foot of the steps, where Cime gripped his sword unsheathed.
“I suppose the slave is dead. It ought to have been the other. But there, my honored Lord Cime, my purchase. Or, if you won’t take my gold, you may take one of mine.”
They faced each other, silent.
Mumas, bold in his terror. Cime, quivering with insult. But the law held each in check.
“There is no recompense for what you’ve done. Don’t bother with it!”
Cime said this, at last…stooped to take up the purse, hurled it, striking Mumas in the belly. A ripple of speech passed the ranks of his knights. They wondered—among themselves, but for their lord’s ears—if by this he meant challenge. If he would order them into the house of Mumas, to take blood vengeance.
But Cime was Lady Nyma’s son; he was the Emperor’s tax collector, and he couldn’t.
Lom was dead. I knew this, crouching to him once again.
Challenge, I thought of it.
I thought of the law, under which I had no right of being. But the Balancers, who stalk the guilty, are there where justice fails.
Tell me, I asked them, am I wrong?
Excerpt from The Totem-Maker, Chapter Six: “Use for Use”
I couldn’t have easily feigned something devil-may-care, as though I had seen all the world, and chose living here, at the toll-house, on a mountain road so untraveled the law I was trusted with enforcing had weight only with the honest. I would have looked, to the stranger’s eyes, sadly wasted at the end of this long winter. I fumbled with the latch in nerves and eagerness, and promised him with too much chatter I did indeed have a bit of jewelry, one or two stones of value to trade, even if the peddler had brought in his wagon only hard biscuits and salted meat.
He did not feign, either, although what he wanted, I would not have guessed. He walked in, and saw on my work table the seeds I’d been shaping—not managing to break—as I have described, by pounding the face of one against another.
“Now those,” he said. “They are taking on the proper form. One or two look nearly done.”
I ignored this speech, the import, because it was no use to me, allowing myself to understand what I had not been told.
He was holding one under the window’s light, and the eyes seemed to glint, the totem having itself woken this visage, by charm or by wickedness.
I felt a pressure of reticence.
Speaking openly before it, I must speak of it with respect, not knowing its power. I said, “Those are only things I’ve found.” This seemed a chance. I was sure he would trade for it, and I was sure he would cheat me. “The earth,” I said, “is poor here. I know it is within my duties to make of it what I can, for myself.”
“Found them…lying on the ground?”
“No, they were well buried.”
His face was oddly still. I thought he expected me to have gone wrong, but was baffled by this news, uncertain I had. It made me nervous again—and I explained how I’d used the fire ash, laid it out warm, so I could dig. That every day, I’d done this. I bent to touch the top of my boot: the depth I’d got to.
“Well, that makes me think. I don’t guess anyone has done a lot of digging, up here. You’ve seen you can’t crack them. You can’t eat them!”
He winked, laughed, saying this. He was clean, and warmly dressed, and might count my suffering as an outcast entertainment.
“No,” I said.
This idea of coins, though I knew they were used in coastal towns, those places ships porting dyed silks, barrels of wine, the horns of animals, put in; and where such things were of great use, and yet of no immediate use…seemed to me a dubious magic. The peddler’s words confused me. That he would give me a thing, a marker in a game…that I would give it back, and by this means have enriched us both. I’d urged on him two of the totems to sell, and he had, in exchange, given me a number of things for my larder. That, I’d thought the end of it.
The totems were nothing of value to me. I disliked their watchfulness, expected evil from it.
But the peddler said even kings would barter for them, bestow titles and estates, if the return proved worthy, if the totem were of the right sort. Such grandeur, I took for blatherskite, a traveler’s yarns with which to ply a shut-in.
“I am going to leave you with these, though you don’t like believing in them,” he’d said, and dropped, one by one, a handful of bright gold on my work table. “And when I am back this way, you may like to buy of me something that catches your eye…something more than a loaf of bread and a skein of wool.”
He’d rummaged under the wagon’s canopy, and drawn out a cap, placed this on my head. “Now that’s no use, you not having a mirror. But see this!” He bent, and brought out again a round glass on a handle; this handle, some white material that flashed a glorious rainbow in the sun.
“You see,” he said.
I saw a thing I never had, being somewhat shamed to study my reflection in pools of water. The hat was red, with gold braid trimming the visor. The face beneath was strained and dirty.
“It’s what you lack, and why you collect your tolls from pity, and not authority. A proper cap of office.”
Excerpt from The Totem-Maker, Chapter Seven: “The Recalcitrant One”
One, that for so long had refused to be shaped, kept its eyes closed. I knew the totems well now, and knew it contrary. At last, it had woken itself when I’d decided to leave it outdoors.
You dislike the cold, perhaps, I’d said to it. Cold may kill you, for all I know. For all I knew, since nothing I’d done had yet angered or troubled them. The seeds were malleable only when struck one against the other. I had learned that long since, and never found an exception, though my friend the peddler sold me useful tools, and my spending had become…not reckless, nor profligate…but comfortable.
I bought with an eye to the future, a great luxury for me, this idea that I might have possessions for the enjoyment of them; that I might use a thing one day. It was fair, and enough. I need not defend the purchase of it now.
The seeds were stubborn. At times, often at times, I feared them malignant, the totems by instinct resentful towards their maker. But that same expansion within me, the ease of having some sense of my own importance, had made me bold in throwing this one out into the garden. I wondered if it might not take root in the springtime.
“No one has ever seen what it is they come from. You have heard the story of the first tree, that reached to the heavens, and all creatures of earth lived in her branches, until that battle among the gods that toppled her, thus the land was filled with creeping things of every kind, and only the birds, sheltered in her branches that reached still high as a mountain, were given the gift of flight.”
He lifted his staff and showed me with a gesture the veins of white running in the shape of limbs from a trunk through the scoured cliffs. Yes, I’d heard this story and seen this proof.
“But the seed may sprout one day,” he said.
I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.
Morning I went out, as every sunrise brought change to my garden. Good overall, there being few ruminants, or any other sort of beast, in this mountain clearing. And I had for a year, raking patient layers of scant leaf mould into grudging inches of loosed soil, made food grow. I had enough from the selling of totems, enough boldness now from the peddler’s kind promptings, to say to passersby: “I won’t take your money…but I will take your labor.”
No, I was not unscrupulous. I put money of my own in the till. This was bargaining, as my friend had taught me, and by this means I’d cleared more land and raised an outbuilding.
I could not miss the eye. Its countenance had formed such that it seemed curled on its side asleep, but always a powerful one’s magic sang in the air around it. The song was a thin, moaning whistle, melodious, unearthly. I tended Cuerpha, let him run free to graze the scrubbish meadow, with its gravelly soil and smattering of orange flowers. I mucked out the stall, topped the hayrack, and his trough with a bucket from the spring. I came back to the garden and said to it:
“Yes, I fear you. Yes, you are right to suppose it. Any comer who desires you will have you…and I’ll be rid of you. I will be rid of you at the very soonest, even if it earns me nothing.”
Excerpt from The Totem-Maker, Chapter Eight: “From Cliff-Head”
From my aerie, I could see a soft and bluish stretch of coastland, struck at times by sun, blackened others by the undersides of clouds. The grain fields, limning the foothills above, flared ocher in this light of late autumn, and I let a daydream carry me down to what I imagined a place of warmth, of gentler air, a sort of carelessness in the life, that I envied…
Some towns along the coast I could see, their lamps winking on at dusk, and these were as friends known at a distance. I wondered if it meant so much to them—to have such as me walk among them—as I’d been browbeaten by the tribunal into supposing. Would the people of the towns not go about their business, and ignore the outcast peering into shops?
One morning there was great activity on the plain.
I was awake at daybreak…each season the totem craft had made me wealthier, yet always I was frugal as could be with candles and oil, because of my difficulty in being able to trade only with the peddler. The sounds of trumpets and shouting had been there in my dreams; they were there, rising in bouts, as I dressed.
I saddled Cuerpha, the sun yet piercing and obscuring, and fog that always hugged the river, spread to hide the harbor town. This, I’d been told, was called Balbaec. My pony was inclined to have his own way, and we went, after he had stopped for a drink, and after he’d browsed a dotting of fresh-bloomed clover at the roadside, finally to the overlook. The way was strait, abounding in loose stone, and here his mountain-footed breeding told.
We picked our way to the broad cliff-head, the sun high enough by now, the plain clear of mists. It was true…an army camped below. My first thought was, a bit of hardship for the well-to-do. Perhaps it will shed light.
I did not really believe this, on reflection. Refugees might climb the road. I would waive the toll, and pay it myself. I would expect from them, in return, ignorance and curses.