Are You Haunted
Powell Kenzie has wandered, living the life of a vagabond, since his discharge from the army. The year is 1948. He finds himself in a small town, by watchman Lloyd Guy given temporary berth in the remains of the Drybrook works. On the hill opposite the highway that divides them, is the empty Drybrook house. Powell, taken with an urge to settle, conceives a plan to prove his usefulness. He meets Heinz Rohdl, an immigrant chemist, a man seemingly insane. Then a visitor named Summers arrives to tell a ghost story. Powell finds an ally in Isobel Gilshannon, wife of Dennis Tovey. Tovey himself is of a disreputable local clan, and proves not altogether a friend.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind Saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The walls that remained almost sheltered like a roof, when the wind pitched up and drove the rain. They were edged in dust; dust sifted with charred splinters and shards of glass. It was dry on this lee side. The rest was mud. Powell’s shoes were caked with the worst mired there, clotted pebbles throwing him off-balance. He remembered this, how it felt. Only then he’d had army boots to snug round his ankles. Wet socks were misery.
He would roll tight against the farthest corner. He would pull his jacket over his ears, and sleep. The immigrant Rohdl spoke, from the other side of the wall. “What have I done? If I have done anything, then goddamn. Prove it. Or why should I go?”
Rohdl was welcome to all the territory in this burned out ruin he chose to claim. He called to Powell, “There. You heard that.” Rohdl was a short man. Powell, wanting only to lie down, came to the wall and looked over it, into his eyes. “No. Sorry, I didn’t.”
But the voice was constant, Rohdl said. He heard it, telling him, “Go. Get out of here.”
He could carry on, fighting his ghosts, and it would make no difference to Powell. Powell had grown used, once, to sleeping through thunderous racket. Rohdl might dream aloud, ramble in his delusions. Probably these states, dreaming and waking, shaded into one another, as Rohdl’s English shaded into German. After nightfall, Powell could only listen. Lightning flashed, but his chamber walls were shown, by the daylight intensity of its illumination, to be bare. Nothing scrappable would have passed the shortages of wartime. Tomorrow he might find a sturdy piece of wood and root around in the mud. Without too much effort, he could fill a bucket with washers, bolts, screws, surviving bits of metal trodden deep…if Mr. Guy would lend him a bucket.
He heard crickets, and the repeated call of a whippoorwill. And they would not have started up—he knew this much of nature—unless the storm were retreating. He heard Rohdl.
“You know nothing about me. For a very long time, I will stay.”
He smelled Lloyd Guy’s cigarette. The Big Chief was probably sitting in his Ford, pulled up just inside the gate. When he opened his door, and hurled the butt over the wall―where it might land on Rohdl, Powell thought―Guy would sound the horn. Powell was awake already, hungrier than he let himself think about most days. Guy had bought him a sandwich yesterday, that was the trouble. But he might again today.
He’d slept in shirtsleeves, the night air had been so hot. He’d bundled his suit jacket and used it for a pillow, half-wrapped it over his head, to shut out the morning light.
“Don’t bring your friends out here,” Guy said. Powell sat up, and already Guy was standing there.
“I don’t have friends.”
“I said to her, I’m not gon’ have a woman out here alone. Plain crazy.” Guy took off his straw fedora, and waved it under his chin. “Then, your lady friend told me her husband had gone away, to get water for the radiator. I told her, I seen your old man, but I never seen any car.”
Powell pushed himself to his feet. He wasn’t getting the Big Chief’s point of view. “Why wouldn’t you believe her? You drove me out here yourself. You know I didn’t have anyone with me.”
“I know when people turn up don’t belong here. I got two of ’em right now. And you told me, Mr. Kenzie, you wouldn’t do a job for me. You must not be hurtin’ for money. No, sir, I don’t think she’s married to you, and I don’t think you got a vehicle hid somewheres. But I’ll tell you what I do think. When I haul her up here, and show her to you, I’m gon’ be watchin’ your face close, Mr. Kenzie.”
Continued from “watchin’ your face”
“Only the one house among all the others,” Rohdl’s voice came to them over the wall. “The windows, black as I recall them, but not shuttered. And why did a vine grow there, to poison itself? Why was I stared at and told to go away?”
“See, now, that’un—” Guy cocked his head in the wall’s direction. “I’m not inclined to do anything about him, ’cept run him off, if I find him up at the house again.”
This was a confidence, on the heels of a threat. The house factored into Powell’s nascent scheme, and he needed Guy to trust him, maybe like him. Guy, who was not really a cop, but talked as though he had been once.
“You can’t sleep in the city park, son. But no one’ll mind you, if you spend the night out here. They won’t, ’cause I patrol the Drybrook place, and the old mill. You see, Mr. Kenzie,” Guy had leaned over, and shaken cigarette ash over Powell’s trouser leg, “you gotta stay on my right side.”
And taking Powell for a war veteran down on his luck, he’d talked about a lot he owned that needed cleaning up. Five bucks, for what Guy called a day’s labor. Five bucks if it ended up two days’, or three days’ labor. Yes, Powell was a war veteran, and he was down on his luck—if you looked at it that way—but he didn’t do menial chores. He thought Guy’s patrolman’s job must be easy, just driving around, mostly.
He had said no. And managed to offend the Big Chief, who’d maybe thought the offer charity. Powell wasn’t sure how he was going to work this out.
“Mr. Guy, sir, can I beg a ride to town off you?”
He figured he sounded rude. He generally did, and with no intention. The adults he’d known growing up had broken their silence only when a thing displeased them. His uncle and his mother, at times forced into polite speech, would put quotes on it, their voices sardonic, their eyes shifting to the side.
“Sure, get in the car…but we gotta find that girl. She told me”—Guy raised his eyebrows—“she had to go into the woods. And I couldn’t do anything about that. She may have run off by now, but I better have a look up around the house.”
The Ford skirted the ruin, crossed the highway, and bumped, ascending the dirt and semi-graveled―mostly dirt―lane that climbed the slope. Guy hauled on the steering wheel. Here, where once the house must have had a proper brick-laid drive, deep gouges ground by the comings and goings of the lost and the curious had filled with water. The Ford lurched; it nearly stalled. Powell was grateful when Guy, with the skill of a practiced man, put just the right pressure on the gas pedal. He did not at all wish to leave his seat, to help Guy slosh through mud holes, pushing this behemoth over the hump. They began to move upwards at a crawl.
He saw the Big Chief peering through his side window.
“Do somethin’ useful with yourself there, Kenzie,” Guy said. “Keep an eye out.”
Powell preferred not to spot her. He couldn’t see his face giving anything away; but then…that would depend on how Guy chose to interpret whatever by happenstance appeared there. She might be pretty. She might even be someone he’d panhandled in the town.
He wasn’t looking at the house, because he’d seen it already. This was like any New England farmhouse. Whitewash over brick, green shutters. A broad, flat front, no veranda. He would have hated, himself, not to have a nice front porch for sitting. And why, he thought, looking at the four big maples overarching the front lawn, would you not want to lean back on a swing, sip at a cup of coffee, and watch the colors come out, as the autumn leaves turned?
The driver’s door slammed. Guy had pulled it open all the way, before, with a particular oomph, heaving it shut. Powell, who would at this shock have spilled his imaginary cup of coffee, leaned across the seat to look up into Guy’s face. The Big Chief in his turn bent over, propping his forearm on the cranked down window-edge.
“If you’re waitin’ for me to come round and open the door for you, I ain’t gon’ do it,” he said.
Powell wasn’t endearing himself to Lloyd Guy. Guy had already gone up to the house, and was joggling the door knob. As Powell caught up to him, he dug in his trouser pocket, pulling out a ring of keys.
“Can we go inside?” Powell asked. Guy snorted, and pushed his straw hat back on his head. “Nothin’ to look at inside…but you might as well find out for yourself. I’m gon’ know who was the last person in the house. Then we’ll see what happens next.”
Powell shrugged at this latest implied threat. He waited until Guy had crossed the threshold and couldn’t see him do it. As he stepped into the house, alerted possibly by the eye-catching red of her kerchief, he turned on his heel and gave a glance towards the little fieldstone shed half-hid behind the trunk of a maple.
The girl wasn’t hiding. She was staring back at him, a closed-mouthed smile on her face. She had dark, dark hair and pale skin. Powell, feeling a kinship with any fellow vagabond, shooed at her with his hand, the only warning he could give, before he slipped in after Lloyd Guy.
He saw daylight through the shutters striping the floors. Each stripe sparkled with dust. The Drybrook place was neglected, but only mildly so. The trust must pay for a housekeeping service. And Guy only policed the grounds. Someone else must stop by, now and again, to run a mower over the grass. All that, Powell needed to take into account. Otherwise, the downstairs rooms, having not a stick of furniture, were alike. He saw the old floorboards showed every kind of wear—scratches, paint-spatters, rat holes patched with tin-can lids. The floors must, in their day, have been covered in carpeting. The walls were covered in a moiré patterned paper, a tea-stained yellow, once pure vanilla. That was plain from the rectangles and irregular outlines, the traces of picture frames, an S-curved sofa back, possibly a freestanding cabinet…furnishings that had blocked the fireplace smoke.
Guy was upstairs in one of the bedrooms. Powell heard a floorboard knock against the beam it rested on, then pop back into place a half beat after. Ba-bump. Maybe for pleasure, Guy trod on this a second time, while door hinges made a grinding noise, their torque growing more pronounced as the door swung further from its sash. The knob hit plaster. Powell heard the floorboard bump once more, again the whining hinges. Guy trotted down the stairs.
“What’d you get yourself into?” he asked Powell.
“All I’ve done is stand right here, Mr. Guy. Do they keep this place heated?”
“In the winter. Ain’t runnin’ heat now.”
“Can I look at the kitchen?”
“Jesus! You wanna see the downstairs, I don’t know why you ain’t gone ahead.” But Guy led the way, back through the parlor and around the staircase. They had made a half-circuit of the house, and were headed towards its rear. Here a short hallway was lighted by a pair of mullioned windows, a flight of three steps descended, the proportions colonial, barely two feet across, each worn slick in the center.
The kitchen had been somewhat modernized. Powell yielded to the universal impulse, and opened the icebox door. The electric was off, the shelves were empty. A pale green range that looked as though it might be coal-fired, brooded alone against a yellow wall. The linoleum was a scuffed green and yellow.
“There you go, Mr. Kenzie. Ready to move in? Gon’ make Mrs. Drybrook an offer?”
Powell quit looking at the flooring, and looked at Guy. He would give himself away, standing here, with no smart answer to deflect Guy’s shrewdness. And yet, for a moment, he felt he’d seen something frank in the Big Chief’s blue-eyed gaze.
He had meant to have this conversation anyway.
“What’s that little shed out near the front?” he asked.
“I’d be hard put”—Guy jingled his keys, and thrust them away in his pocket—“to answer a question like that.”
“Sorry. I’m asking, what do they keep in there?”
Powell guessed she had gone, but could picture the way she’d smiled at him. When he’d waved his warning hand, the smile had broadened. And in just the same way, she had waved back, mimicking him.
“Well, I never looked. You just better come out with me and see.”
He trailed after Guy, stalling to gaze back over his shoulder at wildly overgrown lilacs, blossoming branch tips prying into the windows on the unshaded kitchen side. He saw peonies, their buds not yet unfurled, crawling with ants—half a dozen bushes planted around the shed, where through maple leaves, sun dappled. These might billow out in a blowsy pink, but were at the moment white, edged blood red.
“You damn lazy, or what? How long’s it gon’ take you to mosey over here?”
Powell knew no excuse that would improve Guy’s mood. He had been looking at flowers. “I’m sorry,” he said. The door, not high enough anyone could have walked through it upright, was white-washed over rotted, damp wood. Much of this coat had peeled away, much become stained algal green.
Powell believed Guy now. He’d expected some trick, some way in which the Big Chief meant to show him up for a thief, pretending he hadn’t, as watchdog, been over every inch of the place. But someone had piled bricks in front of the shed…not many, but enough. Had some vagrant taken shelter here, Guy would have known it.
“You dig them bricks away, and have yourself a look. Door ain’t locked,” Guy told him.
Powell wasn’t nearly curious enough to bother. He’d thought she might have hidden in there. It was manifest to him she hadn’t. But he must save a little face with Guy. He tossed bricks, one after another, finding vague gratification in the way they burrowed into earth, their sharp corners canting them like monoliths of a miniature temple.
The door broke apart. The rusted lower hinge gave under pressure, three of the punked verticals shredding at the bottom. Powell, not expecting the hinge to snap, had pulled too hard, and the door, pivoting away from his hand, had stubbed up against one of the bricks. He heard an unfriendly laugh from Lloyd Guy.
“You’re makin’ a lot of work for yourself, Mr. Kenzie.”
Powell kept his face turned to the shed’s interior, seeing there an inviting refuge. It was not dark, and the mossy ground beneath its roof was solid. The flat stones, flush as they had been stacked, still allowed light to pierce through innumerable crevices. Guy’s manner was beginning to weigh on Powell. He was like Breedman, another fellow southerner whom Powell had never expected to meet where he’d run across him. Breedman also had been a little lowly, and seized on any opportunity to taunt Powell over his education. He ducked. They hadn’t stored anything here. He found only a pile of burlap sacking, tested it, kicked at it, and when nothing slithered out, Powell sat down. He might wait a while. He had no carpentry skills; he could not fix the door. He had no money; he could not pay for it.
L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia…
Far below was the center of a black cave, lit with an effect of flickering torchlight. He thought it could not have been real torchlight. There had been a terrible fire; it had been not that many years before. But the tiny figures, robed in white, so striking in appearance…
People crowded, less conspicuous in the balcony seats, and so less concerned about fidgeting, coughing, speaking, sometimes eating. Rohdl remembered a hot, close atmosphere that smelled of badly aired furs, carrying layers of human sweat and old perfume decayed to ammonia. A conversation distracted his attention from the aria, when he wanted only to concentrate on this hallucinatory swelter and stink and vision.
“Kant was not precisely correct.”
“Well, then, I have wasted my education. You have learned better things listening to the dreams of factory workers.”
“Social approval is the only model of ethics known to the average person. To be allowed in, or to be kept out. And if you are kept out, then of course, ethics are of no use to you.”
“Do you want to know my name? Why don’t you tell me yours?”
“My name,” he told her, “is Heinz Rohdl. I have been telling you about these people.”
“Yes,” she said, and she reached for the hand with which he had dismissed her interruption…and shook it, though he had not offered to introduce himself. She tilted her head sideways. The gesture, and her small, tight smile, meant something of mischief, perhaps, that Rohdl could not read. He knew that Mr. Guy had gone to look at the shed with Mr. Kenzie.
Continued from “look at the shed”
“I’m Isobel Gilshannon,” she told him.
“So the house is not empty, though they will say it is,” he finished.
They both heard Lloyd Guy’s breathing, as he came towards them, still hidden by the lilacs. They saw him emerge, rummaging in his back pocket, saw his straw hat bloom white in a shaft of sunlight. Rodhl had ushered Isobel to this vantage point, to show her the upstairs window that overlooked the garden. They waited, standing on the back lawn, beside a construction of lead piping, wrapped round and round with brittle vines hung with dried, split pods; but everywhere also, in and among the old, a fecundity of new shoots, tiny hairy tendrils of morning glory. Rohdl had wanted her to note this prematurity, see the rectangle of fierce green, tufted grass inches taller than the rest.
“Gilshannon,” Guy said, slowing his pace. He now held a little notebook in one hand, and a pen in the other. “How you spell that?”
“Chief, you can call me Isobel,” she told him. Being no more than Rohdl’s height, she stood, feet planted, and looked up into Guy’s face. “Have you been playing mean pranks?”
He dropped his arms, dangling pen and notebook, exaggerating his disbelief. His question for Isobel echoed what he’d said to Powell Kenzie.
“How in heck I gon’ answer a thing like that?”
“Mr. Rohdl,” she said, steady in her gaze, “tells me he has seen someone pass by the window, dressed in a white robe.”
Guy looked over her head. Rohdl seemed absorbed, picking away pieces of dead vine, tender in extricating these from the living.
“You come back to the car with me,” he told Isobel. As she followed him he said, the anger in his voice escalating, “Lady, you are some kinda troublemaker. And you got no business here. But…” He stopped, turned around on her, close on the toes of her loafers, forcing her to stop. “Let me tell you. I get into that house every day. Ain’t nobody else been in there. Now how in the…” He wavered. Then showing, to Isobel’s amusement, delicacy towards Rohdl, rather than the woman, Lloyd Guy blasted a whisper in her face, “…in the motherfucking hell, do you get the idea I would be…”
“Playing ghost?” He had not perturbed her. “Oh, maybe you wouldn’t.” She waved her hand. “But you say so yourself. Nobody’s been in there. You’re the only one who wants to keep people out, Mr. Guy. And poor Mr. Rohdl would be easy to spook.”
Powell heard a mechanical sound. A wheel, off its bearings, that creaked with each rotation, but sounded like a death cry, the rhythmic final breaths of a refugee trapped in rubble. He thought of the extraordinary discovery he had made in the cellar at Liége. He recalled a verse, written by a poet of the Great War.
You cannot put dead things on trial
Gibbet the limbs and rags that hang
Already from the blasted stump
I paused beside my father at the station
He held a flag
I may have seen it jostled
From his hand his eyes
Rippled like a shell pool in a gust of wind
It was foolish, and dangerous, maybe, to hide in this little shed. He had better go out. Guy had found the girl. Powell had heard him raise his voice to her, and she’d shut him up, with whatever she’d said back. She hadn’t looked to Powell as though she cared whether Guy meant to run her off the property.
Powell, cowardly and lazy in Guy’s eyes, made an easier target.
“There’s Mr. Kenzie. He musta been takin’ a nap in that shed. I want you both in the car.”
Powell quit studying the dust his fingertips had gathered from the windowsill. Isobel had chosen this booth, at the front, where they could see the street through the window, Powell sliding onto the high-backed wooden bench across from her. The Crown café’s interior looked fifty years old. Its surfaces had slowly abraded under scrub brushes and dust rags. The varnish of their booth had become brittle, and Powell could not touch it without tiny flakes, translucent brown like horehound candy, chipping away. The lights, pendant on iron rods, shined circles over the torn linoleum of the aisle between the lunch counter and the booths. A wide-slatted blind, pulled to an unequal height on one side, exposed dust and dead flies. The staff of the Crown café cleaned, it seemed, from the lunch-counter outwards, their resolve flagging at the restaurant’s shabby margins.
Powell, who’d meant to wander up Washington Street to the Wesleyan chapel basement where he’d cadged his last meal, had been made shy by Isobel. She had taken him by the arm, immediately on their exiting Guy’s Ford. He had in truth a nickel to his name, and with this in mind, Powell had stood a moment too long, after Guy tapped the horn, and leaned all the way across the seat, squinting up at him through the passenger side window. The Big Chief had given Isobel the briefest, dismissive glance. He spoke only to Powell, leaving him with the warning, “You two got plenty time to catch the noon bus outta town.”
“Dennis Tovey, I ought to tell you,” she added. He heard the door, which rang a bell when anyone opened it, and with its own blind jangled and banged so loudly the bell should have been unnecessary. Tovey was what Powell’s mother had called a “banty little man”, short and wiry, straight black hair slicked with pomade tight to his head.
“Though he is really my husband.” She said this to Powell with a show of ruefulness, that left him uncertain whether Isobel and Tovey liked each other.
“I see no food on the table.”
Tovey bowed, clasping hands behind his back. He lifted a placemat, pouched his eyes and peered underneath it in imitation of, Powell guessed, Charlie Chan. Thrusting an arm sleeved in gabardine past Powell’s eyes to part the slats, Tovey darted a glance out the window. He at last perched beside Isobel, one leg jutting in the aisle, head thrown over his shoulder, and murmured something under his breath.
“Well, never mind that,” she told him. “We’ve only been here a minute. Have you got the car?”
Tovey jumped up, having scarcely come to a full sit, crossed to the lunch counter and slapped his hand down.
“But they don’t serve lunch until eleven. That’s what the sign says.” It was around ten thirty. Powell had spoken quietly to Isobel.
“Dennis has been to see Mrs. Drybrook.”
He thought she was paying him no attention. And she’d had no cause to. Dennis came back, followed by an apron-clad woman, still with a magazine place-marked in her left hand, but with two coffee cups in her right. She set these before Isobel and Powell. “Are there three of you?” she asked, stuffing away her story, withdrawing a pad and pencil from her apron pocket, a slight, peevish emphasis on “three”.
Powell pushed his cup across the table, and opened his mouth to say, “No, I can’t.” Isobel’s hand covered his.
“Never mind,” she said again. “I was telling you, wasn’t I? Dennis will have some money.”
They were eating hamburgers, hash browns, and tomato soup, the Crown grown redolent of hot coffee and hot grease; by now, they were not the only customers.
“How much did she give you?” Isobel asked.
“Two dollars for gas, but the tank’s full enough. We’ll be fine going up to the house.”
“She won’t like you running up a tab.” Isobel cradled her soup bowl, and looked down at saltines dissolving to mush. Everything she’d said to Powell, so far, had been underlaid with meaning. Now her voice held no inflection, and Tovey ignored her.
“Where…” Powell began. Isobel, swirling her spoon, paused. Tovey stopped chewing.
“Same place you started out this morning.”
He crowded Isobel into the corner on their side of the booth, and answered Powell with his mouth full. He leaned low over his plate as he forked at his hash browns. He sat up straighter. “That’s the house we’re talking about.”
“I meant—” Powell wished he had money of his own. He’d finished eating first; his plate was clean down to the last pickle seed, and he was still hungry. “Or, I was going to say, where does Mrs. Drybrook live? I don’t see anything wrong with the house.”
“Oh, she must be near eighty, my old auntie. Is she my aunt?” Sly, Tovey bumped Isobel with his forearm.
“Drybrook had only the one son, but it was his second wife who came into the family already cursed…” Isobel gave Powell her closed-mouthed smile, and Tovey bumped her arm again.
“My old granny, then. We’ll just say. Lives in town…got no use for the car.”
“Well,” said Isobel, “we can’t let Mr. Guy see us driving it.”
Tovey led them up High Street, striding past the barber shop and the bank building on the corner. Where Canal Street angled away from the center of town, he stopped and pointed.
“There you go, Kenzie, take a look! Think you can drive that?”
The car was unmistakable. Powell would have bet all the locals knew it. She probably had a garage where they changed the oil and kept the battery charged. A pre-war Buick, twenty years old at least, wouldn’t run at all otherwise. And everyone in town would be used to seeing Mrs. Drybrook on the days she took the car out. Sundays, Powell guessed.
“I can drive it,” he said. “It’s not so different from the car I learned on.”
Tovey, it seemed, had heard nothing in his voice, neither hesitation nor doubt. He nodded, satisfied, and walked again briskly ahead, crossing in front of a city bus, leaving so little leeway that Isobel and Powell were forcibly separated from him, left to scuttle back to the curb. Before they’d caught up, Tovey had got inside, and propped himself against the passenger door, an ankle on his knee. He twirled his hand in the air.
“Get in, Bel. Kenzie’s driving.”
With three of them sharing the seat, Powell found himself jammed tight against Isobel. He hoped he didn’t stink too much. The hamburger she’d bought for Rodhl―asked the waitress to wrap it up, and now held a paper bundle on her lap, along with a bottle of root beer―smelled like ketchup and onions. Tovey’s after-shave smelled like wintergreen. Powell thought he was picking up also, despite the open windows, traces of an undercurrent. But the rule…the one that said you couldn’t tell these things about yourself, held true. He’d been in the army, and he knew it. Isobel’s tolerance might be only for Tovey’s sake.
“I came out with the Chief last time,” Powell said to her, keeping his eyes on the Canal Street traffic, waiting for an opening. “I’m not sure where I’m going.”
“Just head out Canal Street.”
He heard Tovey’s “uh, huh” cut in from the background. Isobel shifted her knees. “When you get to the edge of town, it turns into route seven. You don’t do anything…”
“When I see the sign come up for Mill Road, I’ll holler at you,” Tovey interrupted.
Powell drove, at a grandmotherly pace, and thought about Lloyd Guy’s grapevine. Unless Guy had caught the bus out of town himself, he would certainly know by now what they were up to. But maybe…
He realized he’d formed a jealous impression of Tovey. He looked across the seat. Isobel, her arms folded around the things she carried, cocked her head at him. Tovey, keeping his watch on the sign-posts, noticed this movement.
“Eyes on the road, Kenzie,” he said. “Trust me.”
Tovey was dapper, his speech jaunty, he got around in a hurry…none of which qualities made Powell trust him. These things by themselves, though, didn’t account for his notion that Tovey was from someplace else. The Big Chief knew who belonged here. He hadn’t known about Isobel being here. But Tovey was known to the old lady, trusted by Mrs. Drybrook…well enough she’d let him inside her house, given him the car. Maybe she was his granny. The two years Powell had spent hoboing, moving from town to town, had colored his point of view, he guessed. Because she’d spoken to him at all, already he’d gone soft on Isobel.
Continued from “soft on Isobel”
But he might settle in a small city like this one.
You could feel safe in a place this size; you didn’t exhaust your possibilities too quickly. Everyone was charitable, “community-minded”—this phrase from the county agent who’d tipped Powell a fifty-cent piece after letting him out downtown. But even the charitable didn’t want the same face turning up over and over, just mooching; letting the Baptists, the Methodists, the Unitarians, feed you, not letting them save you. They wanted to help a man onto his feet. He heard these words all the time. People tried to find work for Powell, who looked capable of working.
He had planned to make his proposition to Lloyd Guy. Now first he would have to talk to Tovey and Isobel.
Of course he had never known who the man at the opera was.
He had been fourteen years old; he would not have turned to look. They might believe him eavesdropping, suppose this boy to disapprove of their conversation…grow angry, make complaint. And who was Heinz to disapprove of others, or call attention to himself in any way? The opera had been his haven. He made himself small there in his seat, and hoped never to offend. The street car, coming home, had been lonely and crowded.
But the man had become his bête noire. He had raised so many questions, those Rohdl had asked himself a thousand times.
You have been taught how to behave. It is your wish to obey, to be thought good. You know what you have done is not right. You huddle in a house with no roof; and yet, when you fear your bizarre acts have been seen, you seek to disguise yourselves, to frighten away scrutiny by raising phantoms. If they could be content with mere social approval, these mystifications would not attract them. They would—why would they not, such powerful men?—supersede God, put themselves in his place, rather than fear He would find them out and condemn them.
They had buried their secrets at the mill, and Rohdl had been witness. Carted away in the aftermath were nearly all the proofs, and little might be rooted up today, but the house…he believed they still did things at the house. Mr. Guy had visited…Rohdl never knew what day it was…with his friend, who wore the suit, pale grey, hanging open, shirt buttons straining. And the hat. Was it possible, Rohdl had wondered, noticing these things that made the man disagreeable to him, to have a hat fit so badly? Had he stolen it? This friend of Mr. Guy’s had said, well within earshot, “But your pal over there used to be some kind of scientist. I mean, he’s smart. You have to stay on your toes, Guy. You get a smart loony, it could all be an act.”
And, as Rohdl had supposed, this ostentation had been in its own right an act. They could have said these same things in the car, but Rohdl would not have heard. Himself, he could not be bothered deceiving people. But how did he know whether the things he thought of, he did not sometimes speak aloud? Mr. Guy had brought another vagrant, before he had brought Powell Kenzie. That one had not wished to spend the night.
“Mill Road,” Tovey said. Powell put his hand out the window. Mill Road began where it met route seven; he could turn in only one direction, and already, Powell could see the water tower, and the glazed blocks of the mill’s broken walls.
Tovey was rooting in a pouch of tobacco. “You’re gonna kill the engine, slowing down like that.”
Remembering Guy’s Ford going up the driveway, Powell figured Tovey had foreseen the future. If he thought this old Buick could make it through the mud pits, he’d have to change places with Powell and drive it himself. And if Guy was sitting up there waiting for them, Tovey would be robbed of whatever story he’d meant to foist on Powell, when first he had maneuvered him behind the wheel.
But he wanted to trust Isobel. He could at least ask. “Mrs. Drybrook has a couple of people, doesn’t she, besides Lloyd Guy, working up there?”
“None of those people work for the old lady,” Tovey answered. “Keep going, keep going.”
Powell slowed along the gate that barred entry to the mill. Close by here, the fence was almost down, one post bent near the base, links sagging into weeds. Through some overzealousness, the fence-top round the ruin, like that of an electric plant, had been ringed in barbed wire. But a vehicle must have veered from the road; now anyone might climb over, the warning sign stoved in at the center, no longer legible, and the gate, with its rusted heavy chain and padlock, meaning nothing.
He considered Tovey’s words. Tovey had said, “none of those people”, so he did not count himself among them…but did he, in some respect, work for the old lady?
“Then who,” asked Powell, “do Lloyd Guy and the others get their paychecks from?”
“The trust,” Isobel told him. “But Mrs. Drybrook is a trustee. It was Mrs. Drybrook herself hired Guy.”
Powell, having barely accelerated, saw the tree he’d been watching for. The split trunk looked dead…still, one living branch clawed the sky and dripped with pink flowers. Just here was the way up the hill; he could see a corner of the house exposed. He saw rays of sunlight cut the missing mortar of the chimney’s bricks.
“What are you doing?” Tovey smacked his hand against the dash. “Keep going!”
“This isn’t the driveway?”
“Jeez, Kenzie, you wanna take this car up the driveway?”
Now Powell was worried. He leaned over to look out the window, back down the road. The car swerved, and Tovey blew air through his teeth. But Isobel laughed. “I don’t know where we’re going either.”
“If Mother Hubbard wants to give it some gas, you’ll see in a minute.”
Beyond the Drybrook drive, Mill Road curved, the berm undercut by a wide ditch. A stand of once-pollarded apple trees cankered together with the remains of a rail fence; the whole mess pitched over a brook, and seemed only, for springing off wild new shoots, to poise unfallen. Once Powell had navigated this curve, he saw an old barn, dark-timbered, its patch of grass in use as a turnaround, mashed into circling tracks.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Tovey said. “Only don’t be a dolt, Kenzie. Pull up a ways, and back ’er in.”
Powell was the last to leave his seat. Before he could bring the car to a full stop, Tovey had popped his door and jumped. Isobel, the sardine-can pressure suddenly released, steadied herself with a hand on Powell’s shoulder. She slid out, thudded the passenger door, and looked across at him.
“Wait.” He rested his hands on the warm hood. He raised his voice. “Listen.” Tovey, already passing the barn, and making to strike off, paused without turning.
“The way I see it,” Powell told him, “the trust pays three people to look after this place.” He let this be a question. Hands in his jacket pockets, Tovey jerked his head aside, spat his tobacco, walked back and faced Powell.
“You see it that way.”
“Why would they not have a tenant?”
“Think I didn’t ask the old lady the same thing? Are you a man with a plan, Kenzie?”
“He thinks,” Isobel said, “that we ought to take charge ourselves.”
She made it sound as though, in some private conversation, the two of them had discussed this. Powell didn’t want the enmity of Dennis Tovey. “Sometimes, though,” he elaborated, not looking at her, “people get an idea in their head, and they just can’t see past it. Mrs. Drybrook might own property…”
He kept his back to her. He appreciated she might have meant for him to laugh. He could not place himself at odds with these two, when he needed their collaboration. Powell spoke only to Tovey. “So maybe she figures renters are too much trouble. What I’m talking about, though, is a fair exchange. It’s not the kind of thing,” he added, seeing Tovey crouch suddenly, and fiddle with a shoestring, “you can prove in a week. Being good as your word, I mean. It might take three or four months.”
“Well, what kind of fair exchange…” Tovey stood, and walked to the rear of the car. He bent to examine, as it seemed to Powell, the back tire on the driver’s side. He shot a look behind him, at the double doors of the barn. These were not fully closed.
“…are you gonna use to bribe Lloyd Guy?”
He gave no emphasis to this, other than to rise, and fix Powell with a frank, direct stare. Isobel had slipped away. Tovey, moving towards the barn, and dropping one conversational shoe after the other, had induced Powell to change his position. She’d left, he thought, when her husband’s crouch had first distracted his attention. If she’d been picking his pocket, the dodge might have made sense, but Powell’s pockets were empty.
“Think about it, Tovey,” he urged. “Guy has nothing to lose, does he? He’s the only one who knows what goes on out here. Suppose it’s winter, and he’d just as soon stay home? He gets paid anyway, and he knows the place is looked after. Same deal with the others. They could just hire out their time on another job. Why wouldn’t they like the idea?”
“Yeah.” Tovey, struck by a serious consideration, turned his face away from Powell’s. “I don’t know what the trust pays the lady who cleans. They got a handyman…”
The voice was unfamiliar. The man, leading the way around the side of the barn, trailed by Rohdl and Isobel―Rohdl carrying his bottle of root beer―wore vivid white, a shirt that at each button gapped across his gut. His double-breasted jacket flapped its lapels when he moved his arms. A small hat perched high on an egg-shaped head, and a nasal discourse emanated between jowls that framed the mouth as the jacket framed the gut.
“They used to, in the old days, keep the buggy and the horses down here by the road. When snow piled high, there’d be no getting up or down the hill. So, as the old story has it, all the Drybrooks from that time were gone off to church. Storm blew in fierce. Caught ’em by surprise on the way back…” He had by this time walked to a standstill, lodging himself close to Powell.
Rohdl, following this narrative with a rapt involvement, stared at the man’s face. Isobel laid a palm on the car’s hood.
“Powell, give me a hand up.”
“They got themselves out of the buggy. On the hilltop, every lantern was lit to guide the way. The wind drove the snow so powerfully…well, you see the barn there, Mr. Kenzie, not four feet away from you?”
Powell, half-listening, was startled. He looked into the stranger’s expectant eyes, and said, “You mean…the blizzard was blowing so hard they couldn’t see the barn, from as close as I’m standing?”
“Exactly what I’m saying. The buggy driver, an old servant, took the lead, and Papa Drybrook followed behind. Papa told ’em, ‘Everyone hold hands,’ and they inched along, Mr. Kenzie. That little glowing patch of light from the house seemed like it was always ahead and above, and never any closer.”
Isobel crossed her arms at this juncture, the hint of her ironic smile appearing at one corner of her mouth. But Rohdl repeated the man’s words.
“Never any closer.”
“Well.” The stranger seemed to insist on making Powell his chief auditor. Powell felt obligated to listen, polite-faced…but he believed he’d seen Tovey backing away.
Tovey had had some scheme coming out here to begin with.
“At long last, after a passage of time they had no way of measuring, they reached the house. And what do you think? The two servants they’d left to look after things…”
The tenor of his voice did not change, but a certain omniscient glow suffused his eyes, and still he looked into Powell’s.
“…brought blankets and stoked up the fire. Pretty soon, after the excitement died down, they made a terrible discovery.”
“I suppose they made two terrible discoveries,” Isobel said.
“The youngest Drybrook daughter, thought to be the beauty of the county, betrothed, Mr. Kenzie, to be married that spring, had become separated from her family somewhere on the hillside. They hadn’t known. The blizzard raged far too dangerously now to send a party out to search for her. All winter, the snow remained on the ground. You can well imagine the stricken household. Spring would come, and they knew what it would reveal to them.”
Continued from “reveal to them.”
Rohdl, exercising an internal logic, handed his empty bottle to Isobel. He left them, walking with his head raised, his vision fixed on the contours of the hill, as it rose on the other side of the barn. Isobel shrugged, and tossed the bottle through the car’s open window. Powell was embarrassed. The stranger had got a long friendly ways into the conversation.
“Mister,” he said, “I guess I don’t know your name.”
“No, that wouldn’t be likely,” the man agreed. “I was gonna tell you the rest of the story. Here’s Mr. Rohdl.” Rohdl walked back, tapped Powell on the elbow, and beckoned. “You, Mr. Kenzie, and you, miss.” He gestured to Isobel, not touching her; she slid to earth, and they followed, moving at first parallel to Mill Road, about twenty feet back towards the highway. A rivulet that ran from the hilltop met the ditch here; it had carved a channel too deep to cross.
“You see the little stream. Easily someone might lose her footing.” Rohdl pointed uphill, and they saw where the depression marked the water’s passage, shallower at the summit, vanishing there in brambles.
“But, of course, they knew to avoid that danger,” Rohdl went on. “You see the path they would follow.” The footpath, no doubt traipsed by members of the Drybrook family countless times, had not yet been erased, for being overrun with dandelions and the feathery seed heads of early grass.
“But you see there is an outcrop of rock, the path is narrow. I say they were stopped right there, confused to find their way. For a moment, they dropped their hands. In the wind, no one could speak to be heard. So one took up the hand again that had been hers, and thought it was. This was how it happened. And see…” Again he walked ahead, eager. Powell, having now a broader view of the property, looked for a sign of Tovey. Mournful black windows stared at nothing from the house above, and the hillside, green and wild, seemed as abandoned as though they themselves were not there.
“…here,” Rohdl said. They stood by a shelf of layered, lichened rock.
“She was lost. The snow had made it all seem smooth and level, but when her foot came down, just over the edge, she sank.” Isobel completed Rohdl’s account. “It’s just that deep here. If she struggled, she’d have mired in further.”
“Yes,” said Rohdl. “Well, that is what I thought. There is a science to the lay of the land.”
Isobel, at the sound of jingling coins or keys, and breathing of exertion, turned to look down the way they’d come. Uninvited by Rohdl, briefly reticent, the stranger now climbed the hill to join them.
“And is this,” she called to him, “where they see the ghost?”
“Round about the property, ma’am,” he answered, and took up his story as though there’d been no interruption. “No one can ever say…what the Drybrooks saw…when they still lived up here.” He slowed to a sauntering pace until he’d got himself beside her. “They never liked the story. And they didn’t used to run shifts at the mill, not ’til wartime. They didn’t have a lot of folks out this way, after dark.
“It was Alfin Doyle, who patrolled the mill nights…I guess he worked there up to ’42, when Mr. Drybrook contracted with the government. Well, you know that yourself, ma’am.”
“Alfin Doyle was my grandfather, sir. Indeed.” She stopped, and gave him the steady look she’d given Lloyd Guy. The stranger moved on, ahead of her up the hill. Elevated in this way, he was far taller. But his manner was no less affable. “Mr. Doyle—and he was known for it about the town—said he had seen the ghost many times.”
“I know it,” Isobel said. “That they treated my grandfather like an old fathead. I would never myself have asked him. You be as free with your story as you like, Mr. Summers, and don’t expect me to have heard it.”
“You will be figuring, ma’am…” A gust of wind billowed up his jacket. He resembled a preacher, his small flock with upturned faces waiting for him to speak. But Summers himself waited, while the rumbling of a big engine, a truck coming suddenly over the rise of the road, subsided. He went on.
“…some local kids were playing pranks on the old watchman. Well, they may have been. I’ll tell you how he described the ghost to me.”
“You could call that a mixed blessing, Mr. Doyle,” Summers prompted. Doyle had been employed at the mill since the year 1900. Summers guessed he saw Doyle’s point. They had bought him off, effectively―but no one could call it an early retirement. “Could you turn that fan off? I want to be sure I’m hearing you.”
Doyle hadn’t replied, and Summers, gut mounding to the height of his nose as he sprawled in the visitor’s chair, wasn’t here to harry the old man. Doyle edged round the corner of the desk. When the fan completed a full oscillation to the right, and came back centering itself, he hit the switch. The desk belonged to Mr. Drybrook. Doyle only sat nights in this shed that served as Drybook’s private office.
“I may not understand you, sir,” Doyle said, resuming his seat and wheeling round. “But if you mean being run out of my job is better than being frightened out of my wits…well, it may be so.”
“But, she isn’t so scary, is she? Drybrook told me you had seen her a few times. Your wits seem all right to me.”
“I might have mentioned to you, Mr. Summers, that I have been here more than forty years. When I began, we worked six days a week, Sundays off. And times the mill was closed…that was January to March…off altogether. Think of that, no brass unless you’d saved it! I came to America on Mr. Drybrook’s guarantee of my employment. And you know, do you, Old Drybrook was brother to the one they tell the story about. It was in ’96 Lettie died. A terrible thing, that was…and not so old and forgotten as all that seems to the young. But if she’d been restless, she might have walked long since.
“Now…what have I seen? Mr. Summers, it would take a deal of costumery and a dark night, and me the worse for drink, if I were to be fooled so, by a prankster.
“I see a fog…I have only ever seen her in the fog. And against this mist, she seems…well, it’s more than I can explain. I feel a gripping in my mind, as though something has stopped my senses, and I see the fog pull itself into a picture, grown terribly white and clear in the image of a woman. The face will not stay. I mean, as best I can describe it, sir, she has eyes and a mouth, but the features shift about so, I can’t see them proper. And then I am no longer compelled to look, and she has vanished.” Doyle leaned to the side, and looked at Summers. Summers’s posture remained languid.
“Would you be disappointed,” he said, and at last pushed himself upright, reaching from his chair to the doorknob, employing this as a fulcrum, “if we caught someone?”
“Disappointed to find there is no ghost? Well, she may be there, no minding what our young hooligans get up to. But it’s more than I understand myself, how a thing like it might be done. And what do you think, Mr. Summers?”
“Mr. Doyle, we’re at war now,” Summers told him. “I don’t think anything. They send me down to ask questions, and I go back and tell ’em what I’ve learned.”
Powell felt that, in some way, he had himself been fogged. He turned, and from this vantage saw what was left of the mill. The intact walls were only a few feet high; rooms once beneath the main floor contours now exposed, bulldozed full of rubble. Leveled off for safety’s sake, he supposed. Littering every square foot was glass—myriad glints of it, twinkling under the bright sky. He hadn’t at ground level had the perspective to see the ruin’s scope. The mill must have been illuminated once by skylights, by hundreds of windowpanes high above the workfloor. And these had not been shattered, but fragmented. He’d imagined some accident long ago, in the last century.
“You said they were running shifts during the war?”
“It wasn’t Doyle alone who saw her,” Summers answered him. “Now when they started doing the special work here, they retired most of the hands. Others they moved down to New London, different mill down there Mr. Drybrook owned. But some of the folks who worked the second shift here, the ones who had to leave after dark―because you remember, they had the blackout in those days…they got spooked. We had quite a few sightings for a while.”
“But—” Powell was more interested in the accident than the ghost. “What happened? How did it burn down?”
Summers shook his head. “Blew up.”
“I hope no one…”
He’d been on the verge of a conventional remark. But how tidily arranged the sparkling wreckage was….how densely packed and flush the filled chambers were; how devoid, how sanitized, how stripped clean was the entire site, of any debris much larger than a splinter of glass. The event had been catastrophic. The special work had been something other than the finishing of cloth. He supposed it would be naïve to hope no one had been hurt.
“Hey there, Summers!” Lloyd Guy called out.
Summers put up a hand to shade his eyes, knocking back the small hat on his head, and lifted his gaze to the summit like a forest ranger spotting a wisp of smoke. Powell watched the Big Chief descend at a jog to a little concrete wall that marked the border of the lawn. The wall had split under pressure of slumping earth; the taller half, now tilting towards the road, had become the lower half. With no great alacrity, Guy moved sideways to the place this dovetailed into the bramble patch; balancing himself, arms crooked at the elbows. Where the drop was no more than a foot or so, he put a leg over.
“Where’d you come across them cockleburs?”
“Well, sir. If you’re meaning Mr. Kenzie and Miss Gilshannon, they came out in a car. Very distinctive car. You may want to have a look at it, Mr. Guy, out of curiosity.”
“Oh!” Isobel swung round, and with an impatient fling of the hand, said, “You know Tovey will have driven it off. Mr. Summers, you must have seen him pulling the car away, when the truck went by just now.”
“Miss Gilshannon. I’ve learned a thing or two.” He pursed his mouth and swung his arms; at last, deprived of some confrontational posture he would normally have assumed, had he not been crowded on the path by Summers, Guy hooked his thumbs into his belt. “You,” he said, “been living up at Concord. You stayed down here with your grandfather one time, but he’s dead now.”
“That’s true,” she said, unmoved. “But you forget my husband.”
“Shoot,” Guy said, “as far as Toveys go, there’s three or four named Dennis. Which one is supposed to be the stepson?”
“Well, it can’t be my granddad’s crony! Why should I doubt my husband? What’s it got to do with me, if she’ll give him money when he asks?”
“Ma’am,” Summers said, “I had a conversation with Mr. Guy, as he was driving me out here. I came out, of course, on a job of my own…I wonder if you’ve heard a weather report today?” Summers stepped down the hill, trialed a foot on the cut above the streambed, tilting his shoe and for an instant poising his weight there. This maneuver, watched keenly by Rohdl, brought him past Powell and Isobel, and permitted Summers a companionable hand on Rohdl’s shoulder.
“Heavy fog in the morning. I was concerned about our friend here, as I know you are yourself, ma’am, being kind enough to’ve brought him that sandwich from the café. A conversation,” Summers went on. “Mr. Guy worries about this place. Now I will suppose, ma’am, that your husband worries too. On behalf of his relative. I don’t think you and I, and Mr. Guy, disagree.”
Fog, Powell thought. Heavy fog rolling in, sometime during the night.
He heard Summers telling Isobel she would have to ride with them; Guy would drive them all back to town. He heard Guy, far ahead now, snort—his answer or opinion, and a noise distinct from his climbing grunts and exhalations. Powell had fallen far behind. He had stopped moving and needed to make himself go up to the house. He heard Rohdl raise an objection, and Summers say, “This place has a screen porch, open on three sides. You won’t feel closed in there, sir.”
Continued from “closed in there”
“Get off that stoop or go inside.”
Yes, the door would be unlocked. Powell tried to make amends for being slow…a show of helpfulness. He pushed the door wide, resting his hand on the knob. Guy, carrying in blankets from the Ford, bumped side to side, shoving a hip at him. He stared back at Powell in disbelief.
“Goddamn! Get out of the way when I tell you.” He heaved the blankets to the floor. “You got runnin’ water. Get yourself cleaned up. No electric, remember.”
Isobel slipped through. “Myself, I don’t like the look of it.”
She said this, after casting an eye over the stove, the refrigerator, the cabinets, and the linoleum. But when she looked at Powell, she held his eyes, steady. He fancied he heard her say it, change your mind. He didn’t like the look of things either, but couldn’t think for himself until they’d left him alone.
“Mr. Guy asked me to bring this in,” she told Powell. She lifted a paper bag with its top rolled over, a gesture given to the Chief as an ironic salute. She then set the bag on the counter, and removed from it two bottles of Coca-Cola, two tins of Vienna sausages, two Hershey bars, and a box of saltines.
“You get on back to the car,” Guy said, and followed her to the door; but here he paused, turning to Powell, and added, “I’ll stop by at the usual time tomorrow and see if you been earnin’ your keep.”
Powell tested the handle of the kitchen faucet and jumped as water burst out spitting, like a phantom cat. The water sputtered for a few seconds, ran, but weakly, its color rusty brown. He guessed he shouldn’t have tried the hot. The boiler wasn’t going, so the cleaners would have been using cold. He turned the other handle, and from this, water a shade closer to yellow flowed quietly and thinly.
Powell wondered now how many daylight hours he had left. He once had owned a watch, but for the sake of eating lunch had pawned it. The view from the window over the sink was three-quarters blocked by tree limbs; the sky he saw through these was pale, still blue. The pattern of shadows cast on the ground below, interlocking branches and fluttering leaves, revealed nothing to Powell.
It is a prisoner’s duty to escape. This, he remembered, and a rule for reckoning the hour by the angle of the sun…that there was a rule. Some rhyme about berries, red and blue. He decided to explore upstairs.
From the top of the staircase, he could count five closed doors, not caring at first glance about the narrowest of these. He thought again. Out of curiosity he crossed the landing and opened the cupboard, finding only empty shelves. He peered into corners, crouched to the floor, but nothing had been dropped, nothing overlooked that might give character to the Drybrooks who’d lived here.
The adjacent bedroom had bare floors, three uncurtained windows, pink papered walls…and a pleasing view, here at the front of the house. Through the side window, he could just make out the river. It was spreading over its banks, mud-brown, placid, mirroring the sky. And he could hear the sound of a motor. He hurried to another window, where he caught sight of a red car cresting the rise on route seven.
On the strength of this link to reassuring civilization, Powell made up his mind that, never mind pink, he would pick this room. He crossed the hall, pushed the opposite door open; after putting his head into each room along the way, he stopped in the bathroom. The toilet burbled; Powell waited, and after an interval, took the lid off the tank to jiggle chain and stopper.
Another flight of stairs led from the second to the attic story. He hated going up, but common sense told him to get a picture of it. It would be better, when he started hearing noises after dark, to know the rooms were empty. Powell came to another landing, another five closed doors. He didn’t know why the house was shut up like this. Probably Mrs. Drybrook, else the handyman, had an idea about saving heat in the winter…but it made the place gloomy and secretive, and Powell preferred doors standing open.
Lloyd Guy, he thought, hadn’t bothered. Maybe with the attic he never did. Powell would have heard him go up a second flight of stairs…besides, Guy hadn’t been away long enough. Here were four bedrooms, lit by dormer windows, clean swept, square in shape, utterly unfurnished. He saw no pools of shadow, no nests of bats, a modicum only of cobwebs, collected around the window frames.
He found nothing in the attic story of interest other than a cistern, a sizable wooden box occupying the floor of what otherwise was the cupboard above the one below. Still in use, as he guessed. The city would never run water pipes out this far.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Summers said, “you’re welcome to the bedroom. It might get a little chilly out here.”
Rohdl, having agreed to Summers’s proposal, afterwards had left all, choice and speech alike, to his host.
Having noted the age of the lock assemblies, front and back, Summers since moving in hadn’t bothered using them―he had brought nothing with him but a change of clothes, shirt and slacks tailored to a fat man, packed in his cardboard suitcase.
“Sure, go on in, see what you think.”
For saying this, he’d needed to propel Rohdl indoors, with a mild pressure on the elbow. Right away the chemist crouched near the baseboard, examining a cloth-wrapped electric conduit that projected from the wall.
“Now, what is the meaning of this?” he asked. Summers shrugged. The house belonged to Lloyd Guy. Rohdl next, following daylight, went out through the kitchen, and came to a standstill on the porch Summers had mentioned. Someone, so it appeared, had punched a fist through the rusty screen before trying the latch: the upper panel was torn from its frame. Rohdl fingered this…his fingers crumbled away the wire, and his face became ruminative.
At last he stepped outside. Summers watched him lower a foot to a concrete slab; this on a slow journey having been carried adrift, time and erosion parting it from the threshold. Brown water lapped the sodden lawn, and rippled at times the wind gusted; the river’s edge could be descried only by the stronger flow of current seen beyond a line of young trees. This flooding, here in the low part of town, was why Guy had done nothing with the empty lot next door. But all the while he and Summers had stood in the open, discussing business, circling each other in a desultory way, he’d watched Guy stoop, pick up a crushed tin can, a shoe, a plastic flower pot, hurl each into the flow of water.
The aluminum glider would be iffy for sleeping, Summers thought.
“You have a bad chest, don’t you, Mr. Rohdl? Now, you decide, sir…” He tried persuasion one more time. The floodwaters, the unclean smell of them, had Summers thinking of other Lloyd Guys, making their dispositions along the watershed; of decay, and impermanent things people built.
“I wish never to be shut in a room,” Rohdl answered.
His danger was that he would fail to see something. And how could you know if you had failed to see something?
He started, and pitched the cigarette into the river. They relieved each other silently. Breedman, with his streaming face, whispered this time, “Kenzie. Rot in hell.” He felt frozen with the same indecision, could not scrabble from one hole to another, even as the cellar air quivered. He was trying to think.
Guy’s blanket, which seemed to have straight-jacketed him, smelled like straw. He writhed in its folds, freed one arm and sat up. Neither of Guy’s blankets had proved especially clean. Now Powell’s wet hair had picked up their barnlike odor. He was enveloped in this, and the powdery scent of soap flakes he’d found under the kitchen sink. He was full awake. He was almost heartbroken. He saw a gentle light like that of dawn, but fading. Dusk, rather, grey and cold. For a few minutes more, light glowed outside the room’s windows. The sky went dark, and the night had just begun.
And Powell remembered the shirt he’d washed in his bathwater, thinking he’d hit on a good idea. It was still out there. A single clothespin, forgotten on the line, clipped it between two rusted crosses on the back lawn. Maybe his shirt would be dry by morning. Maybe he would find a dew-drenched mess fallen to the ground.
(more to come)