SOMEHOW I thought that when the twins returned, when we were settled in again, when we were back at our Liddell and Scotts and had suffered through two or three Greek Prose Composition assignments together, we would all fall back into the comfortable routine of the previous term and everything would be the same as it had been
before. But about this I was wrong.
Charles and Camilla had written to say they would arrive in Hampden on the late train, around midnight on Sunday, and on Monday afternoon, as students began to straggle back to Monmouth House with their skis and their stereos and their cardboard boxes, I had some idea that they might come to see me, but they didn’t. On Tuesday I didn’t hear from them either, or from Henry or anybody but Julian, who had left a cordial little note in my post-office box welcoming me back to school and asking me to translate an ode of Pindar’s for our first class.
On Wednesday I went to Julian’s office to ask him to sign my registration cards. He seemed happy to see me. “You look well,” he said, “but not as well as you ought. Henry’s been keeping me up to date on your recovery.”
“It was a good thing, I suppose, that he came back early,” said Julian, glancing through my cards, “but I was surprised to see him, too. He showed up at my house straight from the airport, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle of the night.”
This was interesting. “Did he stay with you?” I said.
“Yes, but only a few days. He’d been ill himself, you know. In Italy.”
“What was the matter?”
“Henry’s not as strong as he looks. His eyes bother him, he has terrible headaches, sometimes he has a difficult time.… I didn’t think he was in a proper condition to travel, but it was lucky he didn’t stay
on or he wouldn’t have found you. Tell me. How did you end up in such a dreadful place? Wouldn’t your parents give you money, or didn’t you want to ask?”
“I didn’t want to ask.”
“Then you are more of a stoic than I am,” he said, laughing. “But your parents do not seem very fond of you, am I correct?”
“They’re not that crazy about me, no.”
“Why is that, do you suppose? Or is it rude of me to ask? I should think that they would be quite proud, yet you seem more an orphan than our real orphans do. Tell me,” he said, looking up, “why is it that the twins haven’t been in to see me?”
“I haven’t seen them, either.”
“Where can they be? I haven’t even seen Henry. Only you and Edmund. Francis telephoned but I only spoke to him for a moment. He was in a hurry, he said he would stop by later, but he hasn’t.… I don’t think Edmund’s learned a word of Italian, do you?”
“I don’t speak Italian.”
“Nor do I, not anymore. I used to speak it rather well. I lived in Florence for a while but that was nearly thirty years ago. Will you be seeing any of the others this afternoon?”
“Of course, it’s a matter of small importance, but the registration slips should be at the Dean’s office this afternoon and he will be irritated that I haven’t sent them. Not that I care, but he is certainly in a position to make things unpleasant for any of you, if he chooses.”
I was somewhat annoyed. The twins had been in Hampden three days and hadn’t called once. So when I left Julian’s I stopped by their apartment, but they weren’t home.
They weren’t at dinner that night, either. Nobody was. Though I had expected at least to see Bunny, I stopped by his room on the way to the dining hall and found Marion locking his door. She told me, rather officiously, that the two of them had plans and would not be in until late.
I ate alone and walked back to my room in the snowy twilight, with a sour, humorless feeling as if I were the victim of a practical joke. At seven I called Francis, but there was no answer. There was no answer at Henry’s, either.
I read Greek till midnight. After I’d brushed my teeth and washed my face and was almost ready for bed, I went downstairs and called
again. Still no answer anywhere. I got my quarter back after the third call and tossed it up in the air. Then, on a whim, I called Francis’s number in the country.
There was no answer there, either, but something made me hold the line longer than I should have and finally, after about thirty rings, there was a click and Francis said gruffly into the receiver, “Hullo?” He was making his voice deep in an attempt to disguise it but he didn’t fool me; he couldn’t bear to leave a phone unanswered, and I had heard him use that silly voice more than once before.
“Hullo?” he said again, and the forced deepness of his voice broke into a quaver at the end. I pressed the receiver hook and heard the line go dead.
I was tired but I couldn’t sleep; my irritation and perplexity were growing stronger, kept in motion by a ridiculous sense of unease. I turned on the lights and looked through my books until I found a Raymond Chandler novel I had brought from home. I had read it before, and thought that a page or two would put me to sleep, but I had forgotten most of the plot and before I knew it I’d read fifty pages, then a hundred.
Several hours passed and I was wide awake. The radiators were on full blast and the air in my room was hot and dry. I began to feel thirsty. I read until the end of a chapter, and then I got up and put my coat on over my pajamas and went to get a Coke.
Commons was spotless and deserted. Everything smelled of fresh paint. I walked through the laundry room—pristine, brightly lit, its creamy walls alien without the tangle of graffiti which had accumulated during the term before—and bought a can of Coke from the phosphorescent bank of machines which hummed at the end of the hall.
Walking around the other way, I was startled to hear a hollow, tinny music coming from the common rooms. The television was on; Laurel and Hardy, obscured by a blizzard of electronic snow, were trying to move a grand piano up a great many flights of stairs. At first I thought they were playing to an empty room, but then I noticed the top of a shaggy blond head, lolling against the back of the lone couch that faced the set.
I walked over and sat down. “Bunny,” I said. “How are you?”
He looked over at me, eyes glazed, and it took him a second or two to recognize me. He stank of liquor. “Dickie boy,” he said thickly.
“What are you doing?”
He burped. “Feeling pretty sick, to tell you the God’s honest truth.” “Drink too much?”
“Naah,” he said crossly. “Stomach flu.”
Poor Bunny. He never would own up to being drunk; he’d always say he had a headache or needed to get the prescription for his glasses readjusted. He was like that about a lot of things, actually. One morning after he’d had a date with Marion, he showed up at breakfast with his tray full of milk and sugar doughnuts and when he sat down I saw that there was a big purple hickey on his neck above the collar. “How’d you get that, Bun?” I asked him. I was only joking, but he was very offended. “Fell down some stairs,” he said brusquely, and ate his doughnuts in silence.
I played along with the stomach-flu ruse. “Maybe it’s something you picked up overseas,” I said.
“Been to the infirmary?”
“Nope. Nothing they can do. Got to let it run its course. Better not sit so close to me, old man.”
Though I was all the way at the opposite end of the couch, I shifted down even further. We sat looking at the television for a while without saying anything. The reception was terrible. Ollie had just pushed Stan’s hat down over his eyes; Stan was wandering in circles, bumping into things, tugging desperately at the brim with both hands. He ran into Ollie and Ollie smacked him on the head with the heel of his palm. Glancing over at Bunny, I saw that he was gripped by this. His gaze was fixed and his mouth slightly open.
“Bunny,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said without looking away. “Where is everybody?”
“Asleep, probably,” he said irritably. “Do you know if the twins are around?” “I guess.”
“Have you seen them?” “No.”
“What’s wrong with everybody? Are you mad at Henry or something?”
He didn’t answer. Looking at the side of his face, I saw that it was absolutely blank. For a moment I was unnerved and I glanced back at
the television. “Did you have a fight in Rome, or what?”
All of a sudden, he cleared his throat noisily, and I thought he was going to tell me to mind my own business, but instead he pointed at something and cleared his throat again. “Are you going to drink that Coke?” he said.
I had forgotten all about it. It lay sweating and unopened on the sofa. I handed it to him and he cracked it open and took a large greedy drink and burped.
“Pause that refreshes,” he said, and then: “Let me give you a little tip about Henry, old man.”
He took another swig and turned back to the TV. “He’s not what you think he is.”
“What does that mean?” I said after a long pause.
“I mean, he’s not what you think,” he said, louder this time. “Or what Julian thinks or anybody else.” He took another slug of the Coke. “For a while there he had me fooled but good.”
“Yeah,” I said uncertainly, after another long moment. The uncomfortable assumption had begun to dawn on me that maybe this was all some sex-related thing I was better off not knowing. I looked at the side of his face: petulant, irritable, glasses low on the tip of his sharp little nose and the beginnings of jowls at his jawline. Might Henry have made a pass at him in Rome? Incredible, but a possible hypothesis. If he had, certainly, all hell would have broken loose. I could not think of much else that would involve this much whispering and secrecy, or that would have so strong an effect on Bunny. He was the only one of us who had a girlfriend and I was pretty sure he slept with her, but at the same time he was incredibly prudish—touchy, easily offended, at root hypocritical. Besides, there was something unquestionably odd about the way Henry was constantly shelling out money to him: paying his tabs, footing his bills, doling out cash like a husband to a spendthrift wife. Perhaps Bunny had allowed his greed to get the better of him, and was angry to discover that Henry’s largesse had strings attached.
But did it? There were certainly strings somewhere, though—easy
as it seemed on the face of it—I wasn’t sure that this was where those particular strings led. There was of course that thing with Julian in the hallway; still, that had been very different. I had lived with Henry for a month, and there hadn’t been the faintest hint of that sort of tension, which I, being rather more disinclined that way than not, am
quick to pick up on. I had caught a strong breath of it from Francis, a whiff of it at times from Julian; and even Charles, who I knew was interested in women, had a sort of naive, prepubescent shyness of them that a man like my father would have interpreted alarmingly— but with Henry, zero. Geiger counters dead. If anything, it was Camilla he seemed fondest of, Camilla he bent over attentively when she spoke, Camilla who was most often the recipient of his infrequent smiles.
And even if there was a side of him of which I was unaware (which was possible) was it possible that he was attracted to Bunny? The answer to this seemed, almost unquestionably, No. Not only did he behave as if he wasn’t attracted to Bunny, he acted as if he were hardly able to stand him. And it seemed that he, disgusted by Bunny in what appeared to be virtually all respects, would be far more disgusted in that particular one than even I would be. It was possible for me to recognize, in a general sort of way, that Bunny was handsome, but if I brought the lens any closer and tried to focus on him in a sexual light, all I got was a repugnant miasma of sour-smelling shirts and muscles gone to fat and dirty socks. While girls didn’t seem to mind that sort of thing, to me he was about as erotic as an old football coach.
All at once I felt very tired. I stood up. Bunny stared at me, his
“I’m getting sleepy, Bun,” I said. “See you tomorrow, maybe.”
He blinked at me. “Hope you’re not coming down with this damn bug, old man,” he said curtly.
“Me, too,” I said, feeling sorry for him, unaccountably so. “Good night.”
I awoke at six on Thursday morning, intending to do some Greek, but my Liddell and Scott was nowhere to be found. I looked and looked and, with a sinking feeling, remembered: it was at Henry’s house. I had noticed its absence while I was packing; for some reason it wasn’t with my other books. I had made a hurried but diligent search which I finally abandoned, telling myself I’d be back for it later. This put me in a fairly serious fix. My first Greek class wasn’t till Monday, but Julian had given me a good deal of work and the library was still closed, as they were changing the catalogues from Dewey decimal to Library of Congress.
I went downstairs and dialed Henry’s number, and got, as I
expected, no answer. Radiators clanged and hissed in the drafty hall. As I listened to the phone ring for about the thirtieth time, suddenly it occurred to me: why not just run up to North Hampden and get it? He wasn’t there—at least I didn’t think he was— and I had the key. It would be a long drive for him from Francis’s. If I hurried I could be there in fifteen minutes. I hung up and ran out the front door.
In the chilly morning light, Henry’s apartment looked deserted, and his car was neither in the drive nor in any of the places up and down the street where he liked to park when he didn’t want anyone to know he was home. But just to make sure I knocked. Pas de réponse. Hoping I wouldn’t find him standing in the front hall in his bathrobe, peering around a door at me, I turned the key gingerly and stepped inside.
No one was there, but the apartment was a mess—books, papers, empty coffee cups and wineglasses; there was a slight film of dust on everything, and the wine in the glasses had dried to a sticky purplish stain at the bottom. The kitchen was full of dirty dishes and the milk had been left out of the refrigerator and turned bad. Henry, generally, was clean as a cat, and I’d never even seen him take off his coat without hanging it up immediately. A dead fly floated in the bottom of one of the coffee cups.
Nervous, feeling as if I’d stumbled on the scene of a crime, I searched the rooms quickly, my footsteps ringing loud in the silence. Before long I saw my book, lying on the hall table, one of the most obvious places I could have left it. How could I have missed it? I wondered; I’d looked all over the day I’d left; had Henry found it, left it out for me? I grabbed it up quickly and had started out—jittery, anxious to leave—when my eye was caught by a scrap of paper also on the table.
The handwriting was Henry’s:
795 × 4
A telephone number with a 617 area code had been added in Francis’s hand, at the bottom. I picked the sheet up and studied it. It was written on the back of an overdue notice from the library dated only three days before.
Without quite knowing why, I set down my Liddell and Scott and took the paper with me to the telephone in the front room. The area
code was Massachusetts, probably Boston; I checked my watch and then dialed the number, reversing the charges to Dr. Roland’s office.
A wait, two rings, a click. “You have reached the law offices of Robeson Taft on Federal Street,” a recording informed me. “Our switchboard is now closed. Please call within the hours of nine to—”
I hung up, and stood staring at the paper. I was remembering, with some unease, the crack Bunny had made about Henry needing a lawyer. Then I picked up the phone again and dialed directory assistance for the information number of TWA.
“This is Mr. Henry Winter,” I told the operator. “I’m calling, um, to confirm my reservation.”
“Just a moment, Mr. Winter. Your reservation number?”
“Uh,” I said, trying to think fast, pacing back and forth, “I don’t seem to have my information handy right now, maybe you could just
—” Then I noticed the number in the upper right-hand corner. “Wait. Maybe this is it. 219?”
There was the sound of keys being punched in on a computer. I tapped my foot impatiently and glanced out the window for Henry’s car. Then I remembered, with a shock, that Henry didn’t have his car. I hadn’t taken it back to him after I borrowed it on Sunday and it was still parked behind the tennis courts where I’d left it.
In a panicky reflex, I nearly hung up—if Henry didn’t have his car I couldn’t hear him, he might be halfway up the walk that instant—but just then the operator came back on. “All set, Mr. Winter,” she said briskly. “Didn’t the agent who sold you the tickets tell you it wasn’t necessary to confirm on tickets purchased less than three days in advance?”
“No,” I said impatiently, and was about to hang up when I was struck by what she’d said. “Three days?” I repeated.
“Well, generally your reservations are confirmed at date of purchase, especially on non-refundable fares such as these. The agent should have informed you of this when you purchased the tickets on Tuesday.”
Date of purchase? Non-refundable? I stopped pacing. “Let me make sure I have the correct information,” I said.
“Certainly, Mr. Winter,” she said crisply. “TWA flight 401, departing Boston tomorrow from Logan Airport, gate 12, at 8:45 p.m., arriving Buenos Aires, Argentina, at 6:01 a.m. That’s with a stopover in Dallas. Four fares at seven hundred and ninety-five dollars one way, let’s see—” she punched in some more numbers on the computer
—“that comes to a total of three thousand one hundred and eighty dollars plus tax, and you chose to pay for that with your American Express card, am I correct?”
My head began to swim. Buenos Aires? Four tickets? One way?
“I hope you and your family have a pleasant flight on TWA, Mr. Winter,” said the operator cheerily, and hung up. I stood there, holding the receiver, until a dial tone came droning on the other end.
Suddenly something occurred to me. I put down the telephone and went back to the bedroom and threw open the door. The books on the book shelf were gone; the padlocked closet stood open, empty; the unfastened lock swung open from the hasp. For a moment I stood staring at it, at the raised Roman capitals that said YALE across the
bottom, and then went back to the spare bedroom. The closets there were empty, too, nothing but coat hangers jingling on the metal rod. I turned quickly and almost stumbled over two tremendous pigskin suitcases, strapped in black leather, just inside the doorway. I picked one of them up, and the weight nearly toppled me.
My God, I thought, what are they doing? I went back to the hall, replaced the paper, and hurried out the front door with my book.
Once out of North Hampden I walked slowly, extremely puzzled, an undertow of anxiety tugging at my thoughts. I felt as if I needed to do something, but I didn’t know what. Did Bunny know anything about this? Somehow, I thought not, and somehow I thought it better not to ask him. Argentina. What was in Argentina? Grasslands, horses, cowboys of some sort who wore flat-crowned hats with pom-poms hanging from the brim. Borges, the writer. Butch Cassidy, they said, had gone into hiding there, along with Dr. Mengele and Martin Bormann and a score of less pleasant characters.
It seemed that I remembered Henry telling a story, one night at Francis’s house, about some South American country—maybe Argentina, I wasn’t sure. I tried to think. Something about a trip with his father, a business interest, an island off the coast … But Henry’s father traveled a good deal; besides, if there was a connection, what could it possibly be? Four tickets? One way? And if Julian knew about it—and he seemed to know everything about Henry, even more so than the rest—why had he been inquiring about everyone’s whereabouts only the day before?
My head ached. Emerging from the woods near Hampden, into an
expanse of snow-covered meadow that sparkled in the light, I saw twin threads of smoke coming from the age-blacked chimneys at either end of Commons. Everything was cold and quiet except for a milk truck that idled at the rear entrance as two silent, sleepy-looking men unloaded the wire crates and let them fall with a clatter on the asphalt.
The dining halls were open, though at that hour of the morning there were no students, only cafeteria workers and maintenance men eating breakfast before their shifts began. I went upstairs and got myself a cup of coffee and a couple of soft-boiled eggs, which I ate alone at a table near a window in the empty main dining room.
Classes started today, Thursday, but my first class with Julian wasn’t until the next Monday. After breakfast I went back to my room and began to work on the irregular second aorists. Not until almost four in the afternoon did I finally close my books, and when I looked out my window over the meadow, the light fading in the west and the ashes and yews casting long shadows on the snow, it was as if I’d just woken up, sleepy and disoriented, to find it was getting dark and I had slept through the day.
It was the big back-to-school dinner that night—roast beef, green beans almondine, cheese soufflé and some elaborate lentil dish for the vegetarians. I ate dinner alone at the same table where I’d had my breakfast. The halls were packed, everyone smoking, laughing, extra chairs wedged in at full tables, people with plates of food roaming from group to group to say hello. Next to me was a table of art students, branded as such by their ink-grimed fingernails and the self-conscious paint spatters on their clothes; one of them was drawing on a cloth napkin with a black felt marker; another was eating a bowl of rice using inverted paintbrushes for chopsticks. I had never seen them before. As I drank my coffee and gazed around the dining room, it struck me that Georges Laforgue had been right, after all: I really was cut off from the rest of the college—not that I cared to be on intimate terms, by and large, with people who used paintbrushes for cutlery.
There was a life-or-death attempt being made near my table by a
couple of Neanderthals looking to collect money for a beer blast in the sculpture studio. Actually, I did know these two; it was impossible to attend Hampden and not to. One was the son of a famous West Coast racket boss and the other was the son of a movie producer. They were, respectively, president and vice-president of the Student Council, offices they utilized principally in order to organize drinking
contests, wet-T-shirt competitions, and female mud-wrestling tournaments. They were both well over six feet—slack-jawed, unshaven, dumb dumb dumb, the sort who I knew would never go indoors at all after daylight savings in the spring but instead would lounge bare-chested on the lawn with the Styrofoam cooler and the tape deck from dawn till dusk. They were widely held to be good guys, and maybe they were decent enough if you lent them your car for beer runs or sold them pot or something; but both of them—the movie producer’s kid in particular—had a piggish, schizophrenic glitter about the eye that I did not care for at all. Party Pig, people called him, and not entirely with affection, either; but he liked this name and took a kind of a stupid pride in living up to it. He was always getting drunk and doing things like setting fires, or stuffing freshmen down chimneys, or throwing beer kegs through plate glass windows.
Party Pig (a.k.a. Jud) and Frank were making their way to my table.
Frank held out a paint can full of change and crumpled bills. “Hi, guy,” he said. “Keg party in the sculpture studio tonight. Want to give something?”
I put down my coffee and fished in my jacket pocket and found a quarter and some pennies.
“Oh, come on, man,” Jud said, rather menacingly I thought. “You can do better than that.”
Hoi polloi. Barbaroi. “Sorry,” I said, and pushed back from the table and got my coat and left.
I went back to my room and sat at my desk and opened my lexicon, but I didn’t look at it. “Argentina?” I said to the wall.
On Friday morning I went to my French class. Several students dozed in the back, overcome no doubt by the previous evening’s festivities. The odor of disinfectant and chalkboard cleaner, combined with vibrating fluorescents and the monotonous chant of conditional verbs, put me into kind of a trance, too, and I sat at my desk swaying slightly with boredom and fatigue, hardly aware of the passage of time.
When I got out I went downstairs to a pay phone and called Francis’s number in the country and let the phone ring maybe fifty times. No answer.
I walked back to Monmouth House through the snow and went to my room and thought, or, rather, didn’t think, but sat on my bed and stared out the window at the ice-rimed yews below. After a while I
got up and went to my desk, but I couldn’t work, either. One-way tickets, the operator had said. Nonrefundable.
It was eleven a.m. in California. Both my parents would be at work. I went downstairs to my old friend the pay phone and called the number of Francis’s mother’s apartment in Boston, reversing the charges to my father.
“Well, Richard,” she said when she finally figured out who I was. “Darling. How nice of you to call us. I thought you were going to come spend Christmas with us in New York. Where are you, dear? Can I send somebody to pick you up?”
“No, thank you. I’m in Hampden,” I said. “Is Francis there?” “Dear, he’s at school, isn’t he?”
“Excuse me,” I said, suddenly flustered; it had been a mistake to call like this, without planning what to say. “I’m sorry. I think I’ve made a mistake.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I thought he’d said something about going to Boston today.”
“Well, if he’s here, sweetheart, I haven’t seen him. Where did you say you were? Are you sure you don’t want me to send Chris around to get you?”
“No thank you. I’m not in Boston. I’m—”
“You’re calling all the way from school?” she said, alarmed. “Is anything wrong, dear?”
“No, ma’am, of course not,” I said; for a moment I had my customary impulse to hang up but it was too late for that now. “He came by last night while I was really sleepy, and I could’ve sworn he said he was going down to Boston—oh! Here he is now!” I said stupidly, hoping she wouldn’t call my bluff.
“Where, dear? There?”
“I see him coming across the lawn. Thank you so much, Mrs. er, Abernathy,” I said, badly flustered and unable to remember the name of her present husband.
“Call me Olivia, dear. You give that bad boy a kiss for me and tell him to call me on Sunday.”
I made my goodbyes quickly—by now I’d broken out in a sweat— and was just turning to go back up the stairs when Bunny, dressed in one of his smart new suits and chewing briskly on a large wad of gum, came striding down the rear hall towards me. He was the last person I was ready to talk to, but I couldn’t get away. “Hello, old man,” he said. “Where’s Henry got off to?”
“I don’t know,” I said, after an uncertain pause.
“I don’t either,” he said belligerently. “Haven’t seen him since Monday. Nor François or the twins, either. Say, who was that on the phone?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Francis,” I said. “I was talking to Francis.”
“Hmn,” he said, leaning back with his hands in his pockets. “Where was he calling from?”
“Hampden, I guess.” “Not long distance?”
My neck prickled. What did he know about this? “No,” I said. “Not that I know of.”
“Henry didn’t say anything to you about going out of town, did he?”
Bunny was silent. Then he said: “There hasn’t been a single light on at his house the last few nights. And his car is gone. It’s not parked anywhere on Water Street.”
For some strange reason, I laughed. I walked over to the back door, which had a window at the top that faced the parking lot behind the tennis courts. Henry’s car was there, right where I’d parked it, plain as day. I pointed it out to him. “There it is, right there,” I said. “See?”
Bunny’s jaw slowed at its work, and his face clouded with the effort of thinking. “Well, that’s funny.”
A thoughtful pink bubble emerged from his lips, grew slowly, and burst with a pop. “No reason,” he said briskly, resuming his chewing.
“Why would they have gone out of town?”
He reached up and flipped the hair out of his eyes. “You’d be surprised,” he said cheerily. “What are you up to now, old man?”
We went upstairs to my room. On the way he stopped at the house refrigerator and peered inside, stooping down myopically to inventory the contents. “Any of this yours, old soak?” he said.
He reached in and pulled out a frozen cheesecake. Taped to the box was a plaintive note: “Please do not steal this. I am on financial aid. Jenny Drexler.”
“This’d hit the spot about now,” he said, glancing quickly up and down the hall. “Anybody coming?”
He stuck the box underneath his coat and, whistling, walked ahead to my room. Once inside, he spat out his gum and stuck it on the inside rim of my garbage can with a quick, feinting motion, as if he hoped I wouldn’t see him do it, then sat down and began to eat the cheesecake straight from the box with a spoon he’d found on my dresser. “Phew,” he said. “This is terrible. Want some?”
He licked thoughtfully at the spoon. “Too lemony, is what the problem is. And not enough cream cheese.” He paused—thinking, I believed, about this handicap—and then said abruptly: “Tell me. You and Henry spent a lot of time together last month, huh?”
I was suddenly watchful. “I guess.” “Do much talking?”
“He tell you much about when we were in Rome?” he said, looking at me keenly.
“Not a whole lot.”
“He say anything about leaving early?”
At last, I thought, relieved. At last we were going to get to the bottom of this business. “No. No, he didn’t tell me much at all,” I said, which was the truth. “I knew he’d left early when he showed up here. But I didn’t know you were still there. Finally I asked him about it one night, and he said you were. That’s all.”
Bunny took a jaded bite of the cheesecake. “He say why he left?” “No.” Then, when Bunny didn’t respond, I added: “It had something
to do with money, didn’t it?” “Is that what he told you?”
“No.” And then, since he had gone mute again: “But he did say you were short on cash, that he had to pay the rent and stuff. Is that right?”
Bunny, his mouth full, made a brushing, dismissive motion with one hand.
“That Henry,” he said. “I love him, and you love him, but just between the two of us I think he’s got a little bit of Jew blood.”
“What?” I said, startled.
He had just taken another big bite of cheesecake, and it took him a moment to answer me.
“I never heard anybody complain so much about helping out a pal,” he finally said. “I tell you what it is. He’s afraid of people taking advantage of him.”
“How do you mean?”
He swallowed. “I mean, somebody probably told him when he was little, ‘Son, you have a load of money, and someday people are going to try to weasel it out of you.’ ” His hair had fallen over one eye; like an old sea captain, he squinted at me shrewdly through the other. “It’s not a question of the money, y’see,” he said. “He don’t need it himself, it’s the principle of the thing. He wants to know that people like him not for his money, you know, but for himself.”
I was surprised by this exegesis, which was at odds with what I knew to be Henry’s frequent and—by my standards of reckoning— extravagant generosity.
“So it’s not about money?” I said at last. “Nope.”
“Then what is it about, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Bunny leaned forward, his face thoughtful, and for a moment almost transparently frank; and when he opened his mouth again I thought he was going to come right out and say what he meant; but instead, he cleared his throat and said, if I didn’t mind, would I go make him a pot of coffee?
That night, as I was lying on my bed reading Greek, I was startled by a flash of remembrance, almost as if a hidden spotlight had been trained without warning on my face. Argentina. The word itself had lost little of its power to startle and had, due to my ignorance of the physical place it occupied on the globe, assumed a peculiar life of its own. There was the harsh Ar at the beginning, which called up gold, idols, lost cities in the jungle, which in turn led to the hushed and sinister chamber of Gen, with the bright interrogative Tina at the end
—all nonsense, of course, but then it seemed in some muddled way that the name itself, one of the few concrete facts available to me, might itself be a cryptogram or clue. But that wasn’t what made me bolt upright, but the sudden realization of what time it must be— nine-twenty, I saw, when I looked at my watch. So they were all on the plane now (or were they?) hurtling towards the bizarre Argentina of my imagination through the dark skies.
I put down my book and went over and sat in a chair by the window, and didn’t work for the rest of the night.
The weekend passed, as they will do, and for me it went by in Greek, solitary meals in the dining hall, and more of the same old puzzlement
back in my room. My feelings were hurt, and I missed them more than I would have admitted. Bunny was behaving oddly besides. I saw him around a couple of times that weekend, with Marion and her friends, talking importantly as they stared in goony admiration (they were Elementary Education majors, for the most part, who I suppose thought him terribly erudite because he studied Greek and wore some little wire-rimmed glasses). Once I saw him with his old friend Cloke Rayburn. But I didn’t know Cloke well, and I was hesitant to stop and say hello.
I awaited Greek class, on Monday, with acute curiosity. I woke that morning at six. Not wanting to arrive insanely early, I sat around my room fully dressed for quite some time, and it was with something of a thrill that I looked at my watch and realized that if I didn’t hurry, I’d be late. I grabbed my books and dashed out; halfway to the Lyceum, I realized I was running, and forced myself to slow to a walk. I had caught my breath by the time I opened the back door. Slowly,
I climbed the stairs, feet moving, mind oddly blank—the way I’d felt as a kid on Christmas morning when, after a night of almost insane excitement, I would walk down the hall to the closed door behind which my presents lay as if the day were nothing special, suddenly drained of all desire.
They were all there, all of them: the twins, poised and alert in the windowsill; Francis, with his back to me; Henry beside him; and Bunny across the table, reared back in his chair. Telling a story of some sort. “So get this,” he said to Henry and Francis, turning his face sideways to glimpse the twins. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on him; no one had seen me come in. “The warden says, ‘Son, your pardon hasn’t come through from the governor and it’s already five after. Any last words?’ So the guy thinks for a minute, and as they’re leading him into the chamber—” he brought his pencil up close to his eyes and studied it for a moment—“he looks over his shoulder and says, ‘Well, Governor So-and-So has certainly lost my vote in the next election!’ ” Laughing, he tipped back even further in his chair; then he looked up and saw me standing like an idiot in the doorway. “Oh, come in, come in,” he said, bringing the front legs of the wooden chair down with a thump.
The twins glanced up, startled as a pair of deer. Except for a certain
tightness around the jaw, Henry was as serene as the Buddha, but Francis was so white he was almost green.
“We’re just chucking around a couple jokes before class,” said
Bunny genially, leaning back in his chair. He tossed the hair out of his eyes. “Okay. Smith and Jones commit an armed robbery and they both get death row. Of course, they go through all the usual channels of appeal but Smith’s runs out first and he’s slotted for the chair.” He made a resigned, philosophical gesture and then, unexpectedly, winked at me. “So,” he continued, “they let Jones out to see the execution and he’s watching them strap his buddy in”—I saw Charles, his eyes blank, biting down hard into his lower lip—“when the warden comes up. ‘Heard anything on your appeal, Jones?’ he says. “Not much, Warden,” says Jones. ‘Well, then,’ says the warden, looking at his watch, ‘hardly worth going back to your cell then, is it?’ ” He threw back his head and laughed, pleased as all get-out, but no one else even smiled.
When Bunny started in again (“And then there’s the one about the
Old West—this is when they still hung folks …”) Camilla edged over on the windowsill and smiled nervously at me.
I went over and sat between her and Charles. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “How are you?” she said. “Did you wonder where we were?”
“I can’t believe we haven’t seen you,” said Charles quietly, turning towards me and crossing his ankle over his knee. His foot was trembling violently, as if it had a life of its own, and he put a hand on it to still it. “We had a terrible mishap with the apartment.”
I didn’t know what I’d expected to hear from them, but this was not it. “What?” I said.
“We left the key back in Virginia.”
“Aunt Mary-Gray had to drive all the way to Roanoke to Federal Express it.”
“I thought you had someone subletting,” I said suspiciously.
“He left a week ago. Like idiots we told him to mail us the key. The landlady is in Florida. We’ve been in the country at Francis’s the whole time.”
“Trapped like rats.”
“Francis drove us out there and about two miles from the house something terrible happened to the car,” said Charles. “Black smoke and grinding noises.”
“The steering went out. We ran into a ditch.”
They were both talking very rapidly. For a moment, Bunny’s voice rose stridently above them. “… Now this judge had a particular system he liked to follow. He’d hang a cattle thief on a Monday, a
card cheat on a Tuesday, murderers on Wednesday—”
“… so after that,” Charles was saying, “we had to walk to Francis’s and for days we called Henry to come get us. But he wasn’t answering the phone—you know what it’s like to try to get in touch with him—” “There was no food at Francis’s house except some cans of black
olives and a box of Bisquick.”
“Yes. We ate olives and Bisquick.”
Could this be true? I wondered suddenly. Briefly I was cheered—my God, how silly I had been—but then I remembered the way Henry’s apartment had looked, the suitcases by the door.
Bunny was working up to a big finish. “So the judge says, ‘Son, it’s a Friday, and I’d like to go on and hang you today, but I’m going to have to wait until next Tuesday because—”
“There wasn’t any milk, even,” said Camilla. “We had to mix the Bisquick with water.”
There was the slight sound of a throat being cleared and I looked up and saw Julian closing the door behind him.
“Goodness, you magpies,” he said into the abrupt silence that fell. “Where have you all been?”
Charles coughed, his eyes fixed on a point across the room, and began rather mechanically to tell the story of the apartment key and the car in the ditch and the olives and the Bisquick. The wintry sun, coming in at a slant through the window, gave everything a frozen, precisely detailed look; nothing seemed real, and I felt as though this were some complicated film I’d started watching in the middle and couldn’t quite get the drift of. Bunny’s jailhouse jokes had for some reason unsettled me, though I remembered him telling an awful lot of jokes like that, back in the fall. They had been met, then as now, with a strained silence, but then they were silly, bad jokes. I had always assumed the reason he told them was because he had some corny old Lawyer’s Joke Book up in his room or something, right up there on the shelf with Bob Hope’s autobiography, the Fu Manchu novels, and Men of Thought and Deed. (Which, as it eventually turned out, he did.)
“Why didn’t you call me?” said Julian, perplexed and perhaps a
little slighted, when Charles finished his story.
The twins looked at him blankly.
“We never thought of it,” Camilla said.
Julian laughed and recited an aphorism from Xenophon, which was literally about tents and soldiers and the enemy nigh, but which carried the implication that in troubled times it was best to go to one’s
own people for help.
I walked home from class alone, in a state of bewilderment and turmoil. By now my thoughts were so contradictory and disturbing that I could no longer even speculate, only wonder dumbly at what was taking place around me; I had no classes for the rest of the day and the thought of going to back to my room was intolerable. I went to Commons and sat in an armchair by the window for maybe forty-five minutes. Should I go to the library? Take Henry’s car, which I still had, and go for a drive, maybe see if there was a matinee at the movie house in town? Should I go ask Judy Poovey for a Valium?
I decided, finally, that the last of these would be a prerequisite for any other plan. I walked back to Monmouth house and up to Judy’s room, only to find a note in gold paint-marker on the door: “Beth— Come to Manchester for lunch with Tracy and me? I’m in the costume shop till eleven. J.”
I stood staring at Judy’s door, which was adorned with photographs of automobile crashes, lurid headlines cut from the Weekly World News, and a nude Barbie doll hanging from the doorknob by a noose. By now it was one o’clock. I walked back to my pristine white door at the end of the hall, the only one in the suite unobscured by taped-up religious propaganda and posters of the Fleshtones and suicidal epithets from Artaud, and wondered how all these people were able to put up all this crap on their doors so fast and why they did it in the first place.
I lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling, trying to guess when Judy would return, trying to think of what to do in the meantime, when there was a knock at the door.
It was Henry. I opened the door a little wider and stared at him and said nothing.
He gazed back at me with a fixed and patient unconcern. He was level-eyed and calm and had a book tucked under his arm.
“Hello,” he said.
There was another pause, longer than the first. “Hi,” I said, after a while.
“How are you?” “Fine.”
There was another long silence.
“Are you doing anything this afternoon?” he said politely.
“No,” I said, taken aback.
“Would you like to go on a drive with me?” I got my coat.
Once well out of Hampden, we turned off the main highway and onto a stretch of gravel road that I had never seen. “Where are we going?” I said, rather uneasy.
“I thought we might go out and take a look at an estate sale on the Old Quarry Road,” said Henry, unperturbed.
I was as surprised as I’ve ever been at anything in my life when the road finally did bring us out, about an hour later, to a large house with a sign in front that said ESTATE SALE.
Though the house itself was magnificent, the sale turned out not to be much: a grand piano covered with a display of silver and cracked glassware; a grandfather clock; several boxes full of records, kitchen implements, and toys; and some upholstered furniture badly scratched by cats, all out in the garage.
I leafed through a stack of old sheet music, keeping Henry in the corner of my eye. He poked around unconcernedly in the silver; played a disinterested bar of “Träumerei” on the piano with one hand; opened the door of the grandfather clock and had a look at the works; had a long chat with the owner’s niece, who had just come down from the big house, about when was the best time to put out tulip bulbs. After I had gone through the sheet music twice, I moved to the glassware and then the records; Henry bought a garden hoe for twenty-five cents.
“I’m sorry to have dragged you all the way out here,” he said on the way home.
“That’s all right,” I said, slouched down in my seat very close to the door.
“I’m a bit hungry. Are you hungry at all? Would you like to have something to eat?”
We stopped at a diner on the outskirts of Hampden. It was virtually deserted this early in the evening. Henry ordered an enormous dinner
—pea soup, roast beef, a salad, mashed potatoes with gravy, coffee, pie—and ate it silently and with a great deal of methodical relish. I picked erratically at my omelet and had a hard time keeping my eyes
off him as we ate. I felt as though I were in the dining car of a train and had been seated by the steward with another solitary male traveler, some kindly stranger, someone who didn’t even speak my language, perhaps, but who was still content to eat his dinner with me, exuding an air of calm acceptance as if he’d known me all his life. When he’d finished he took his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket (he smoked Lucky Strikes; whenever I think of him I think of that little red bull’s-eye right over his heart) and offered me one, shaking a
couple out of the pack and raising an eyebrow. I shook my head.
He smoked one and then another, and over our second cup of coffee he looked up. “Why have you been so quiet this afternoon?”
“Don’t you want to know about our trip to Argentina?”
I set my cup in its saucer and stared at him. Then I began to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do. Tell me.”
“Don’t you wonder how I know? That you know, I mean?”
That hadn’t occurred to me, and I guess he saw it in my face because now he laughed. “It’s no mystery,” he said. “When I called to cancel the reservations—they didn’t want to do it, of course, nonrefundable tickets and all that, but I think we’ve got it worked out now—anyway, when I called the airline they were rather surprised, as they said I’d called to confirm only the day before.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Who else could it have been? You had the key. I know, I know,” he said when I tried to interrupt him. “I left you that key on purpose. It would have made things easier later on, for various reasons, but by sheer chance you happened in at just the wrong time. I had only left the apartment for a few hours, you see, and I never dreamed that you’d happen in between midnight and seven a.m. I must have missed you by only a few minutes. If you’d happened in an hour or so later everything would have been gone.”
He took a sip of his coffee. I had so many questions it was useless to try to sort them into any coherent order. “Why did you leave me the key?” I said at last.
Henry shrugged. “Because I was pretty sure you wouldn’t use it unless you had to,” he said. “If we’d actually gone, someone would eventually have had to open the apartment for the landlady, and I would have sent you instructions on who to contact and how to dispose of the things I’d left, but I forgot all about that damned Liddell and Scott. Well, I won’t say that. I knew you’d left it there, but I was
in a hurry and somehow I never thought you’d come back for it bei Nacht und Nebel, as it were. But that was silly of me. You have as much trouble sleeping as I do.”
“Let me get this straight. You didn’t go to Argentina at all?”
Henry snorted, and motioned for the check. “Of course not,” he said. “Would I be here if we had?”
Once he’d paid the check he asked me if I wanted to go to Francis’s. “I don’t think he’s there,” he said.
“So why go there?”
“Because my apartment is a mess and I’m staying with him until I can get somebody in to clean it up. Do you happen to know of a good maid service? Francis said the last time he had someone from the employment office in town, they stole two bottles of wine and fifty dollars from his dresser drawer.”
On the way into North Hampden, it was all I could do to keep from deluging Henry with questions, but I kept my mouth shut until we got there.
“He isn’t here, I’m sure,” he said as he unlocked the front door. “Where is he?”
“With Bunny. He took him to Manchester for dinner and then I think to some movie that Bunny wanted to see. Would you like some coffee?”
Francis’s apartment was in an ugly 1970s building owned by the college. It was roomier and more private than the old oak-floored houses we lived in on campus, and as a consequence was much in demand; as a trade-off there were linoleum floors, ill-lit halls, and cheap, modern fixtures like at a Holiday Inn. Francis didn’t seem to mind it much. He had his own furniture there, brought out from the country house, but he’d chosen it carelessly and it was an atrocious mix of styles, upholstery, light and dark woods.
A search revealed that Francis had neither coffee nor tea (“He needs to go to the grocery store,” said Henry, looking over my shoulder into yet another barren cabinet), only a few bottles of Scotch and some Vichy water. I got some ice and a couple of glasses and we took a fifth of Famous Grouse with us into the shadowy living room, our shoes clicking across the ghastly wilderness of white linoleum.
“So you didn’t go,” I said, after we’d sat down and Henry had poured us each a glass.
Henry sighed, and reached into his breast pocket for a cigarette. “Money,” he said, as the match flared brightly in the dim. “I don’t have a trust like Francis, you see, only a monthly allowance. It’s much more than I generally need to live on, and for years I’ve put most of it into a savings account. But Bunny’s just about cleaned that out. There was no way I could put my hands on more than thirty thousand dollars, even if I sold my car.”
“Thirty thousand dollars is a lot of money.” “Yes.”
“Why would you need that much?”
Henry blew a smoke ring half into the yellowy circle of light beneath the lamp, half into the surrounding dark. “Because we weren’t coming back,” he said. “None of us have work visas. Whatever we took would’ve had to last the four of us for a long time. Incidentally,” he said, raising his voice as if I’d tried to interrupt him
—actually, I hadn’t, I was only making a sort of inarticulate noise of stupefaction—“incidentally, Buenos Aires wasn’t our destination at all. It was only a stop along the way.”
“If we’d had the money, I suppose we would have flown to Paris or London, some gateway city with plenty of traffic, and once there to Amsterdam and eventually on to South America. That way we’d have been more difficult to trace, you see. But we didn’t have that kind of money, so the alternative was to go to Argentina and from there take a roundabout course to Uruguay—a dangerous and unstable place in its own right, to my way of thinking, but suitable for our purposes. My father has an interest in some developing property down there. We’d have had no problem finding a place to live.”
“Did he know about this,” I said, “your father?”
“He would have eventually. As a matter of fact I was hoping to ask you to get in touch with him once we were there. Had something unforeseen happened he would’ve been able to help us, even get us out of the country if need be. He knows people down there, people in the government. Otherwise, no one would know.”
“He would do that for you?”
“My father and I are not close,” said Henry, “but I am his only child.” He drank the rest of his Scotch and rattled the ice around in his glass. “But anyway. Even though I didn’t have much ready cash, my credit cards were more than adequate, leaving only the problem of
raising a sum large enough to live on for a while. Which is where Francis came in. He and his mother live off the income of a trust, as I expect you know, but they also have the right to withdraw as much as three percent of the principal per year, which would amount to a sum of about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Generally this isn’t touched when it turns up, but in theory either of them can take it out whenever they like. A law firm in Boston serves as the trustees, and on Thursday morning we left the country house, came into Hampden for a few minutes so the twins and I could get our things, and then we all went to Boston and checked into the Parker House. That’s a lovely hotel, do you know it? No? Dickens used to stay there when he came to America.
“At any rate. Francis had an appointment with his lawyers, and the twins had some things to straighten out with the passport office. It takes more planning than you might think to pick up and leave the country, but everything was pretty much taken care of; we were leaving the next night and there seemed no way things could go wrong. We were a bit worried about the twins, but of course it wouldn’t have posed a problem even if they’d had to wait ten days or so and follow us down later. I had some things to do myself, but not many, and Francis had assured me that getting the money was a simple matter of going downtown and signing some papers. His mother would find out he’d taken it, but what could she do once he was gone?
“But he wasn’t back when he said he would be, and three hours passed, then four. The twins came back, and the three of us had just ordered up some lunch from room service when Francis burst in, half-hysterical. The money for that year was all gone, you see. His mother had checked out every cent of the principal at the first of the year and hadn’t told him about it. It was a nasty surprise, but even nastier given the circumstances. He’d tried everything he could think of—to borrow money on the trust itself, even to assign his interests, which is, if you know anything about trusts, about the most desperate thing one can do. The twins were all for going ahead and taking our chances. But … It was a difficult situation. Once we left we couldn’t come back and anyway, what were we supposed to do when we got there? Live in a treehouse like Wendy and the Lost Boys?” He sighed. “So there we were, with our suitcases packed and passports ready, but no money. I mean, literally none. Between the four of us we had hardly five thousand dollars. There was quite a bit of discussion, but in the
end we decided our only choice was to come back to Hampden. For the time being, at least.”
He said this all quite calmly but I, listening to him, felt a lump growing in the pit of my stomach. The picture was still wholly obscure, but what I saw of it I didn’t like at all. I said nothing for a long time, only looked at the shadows the lamp cast on the ceiling.
“Henry, my God,” I said at last. My voice was flat and strange even to my own ears.
He raised an eyebrow and said nothing, empty glass in hand, face half in shadow.
I looked at him. “My God,” I said. “What have you done?”
He smiled wryly, and leaned forward out of the light to pour himself some more Scotch. “I think you already have a pretty good idea,” he said. “Now let me ask you something. Why have you been covering up for us?”
“You knew we were leaving the country. You knew it all the time and you didn’t tell a soul. Why is that?”
The walls had fallen away and the room was black. Henry’s face, lit starkly by the lamp, was pale against the darkness and stray points of light winked from the rim of his spectacles, glowed in the amber depths of his whiskey glass, shone blue in his eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He smiled. “No?” he said.
I stared at him and didn’t say anything.
“After all, we hadn’t confided in you,” he said. His gaze on mine was steady, intense. “You could have stopped us any time you wanted and yet you didn’t. Why?”
“Henry, what in God’s name have you done?” He smiled. “You tell me,” he said.
And the horrible thing was, somehow, that I did know. “You killed somebody,” I said, “didn’t you?”
He looked at me for a moment, and then, to my utter, utter surprise, he leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“Good for you,” he said. “You’re just as smart as I thought you were. I knew you’d figure it out, sooner or later, that’s what I’ve told the others all along.”
The darkness hung about our tiny circle of lamplight as heavy and palpable as a curtain. With a rush of what was almost motion sickness, I experienced for a moment both the claustrophobic feeling
that the walls had rushed in toward us and the vertiginous one that they receded infinitely, leaving both of us suspended in some boundless expanse of dark. I swallowed, and looked back at Henry. “Who was it?” I said.
He shrugged. “A minor thing, really. An accident.” “Not on purpose?”
“Heavens, no,” he said, surprised. “What happened?”
“I don’t know where to begin.” He paused, and took a drink. “Do you remember last fall, in Julian’s class, when we studied what Plato calls telestic madness? Bakcheia? Dionysiac frenzy?”
“Yes,” I said, rather impatiently. It was just like Henry to bring up something like this right now.
“Well, we decided to try to have one.”
For a moment I thought I hadn’t understood him. “What?” I said. “I said we decided to try to have a bacchanal.”
I looked at him. “You must be joking.” “No.”
“That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.” He shrugged.
“Why would you want to do something like that?” “I was obsessed with the idea.”
“Well, as far as I knew, it hadn’t been done for two thousand years.” He paused, when he saw he hadn’t convinced me. “After all, the appeal to stop being yourself, even for a little while, is very great,” he said. “To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being. There are other advantages, more difficult to speak of, things which ancient sources only hint at and which I myself only understood after the fact.”
“Well, it’s not called a mystery for nothing,” said Henry sourly. “Take my word for it. But one mustn’t underestimate the primal appeal—to lose one’s self, lose it utterly. And in losing it be born to the principle of continuous life, outside the prison of mortality and time. That was attractive to me from the first, even when I knew nothing about the topic and approached it less as potential mystes than anthropologist. Ancient commentators are very circumspect
about the whole thing. It was possible, with a great deal of work, to figure out some of the sacred rituals—the hymns, the sacred objects, what to wear and do and say. More difficult was the mystery itself: how did one propel oneself into such a state, what was the catalyst?” His voice was dreamy, amused. “We tried everything. Drink, drugs, prayer, even small doses of poison. On the night of our first attempt, we simply overdrank and passed out in our chitons in the woods near Francis’s house.”
“You wore chitons?”
“Yes,” said Henry, irritated. “It was all in the interests of science. We made them from bed sheets in Francis’s attic. At any rate. The first night nothing happened at all, except we were hung over and stiff from having slept on the ground. So the next time we didn’t drink as much, but there we all were, in the middle of the night on the hill behind Francis’s house, drunk and in chitons and singing Greek hymns like something from a fraternity initiation, and all at once Bunny began to laugh so hard that he fell over like a ninepin and rolled down the hill.
“It was rather obvious that drink alone wasn’t going to do the trick. Goodness. I couldn’t tell you all the things we tried. Vigils. Fasting. Libations. It depresses me even to think about it. We burned hemlock branches and breathed the fumes. I knew the Pythia had chewed laurel leaves, but that didn’t work either. You found those laurel leaves, if you recall, on the stove in Francis’s kitchen.”
I stared at him. “Why didn’t I know about any of this?” I said.
Henry reached into his pocket for a cigarette. “Well, really,” he said, “I think that’s kind of obvious.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course we weren’t going to tell you. We hardly knew you. You would have thought we were crazy.” He was quiet for a moment. “You see, we had almost nothing to go on,” he said. “I suppose in a certain way I was misled by accounts of the Pythia, the pneuma enthusiastikon, poisonous vapors and so forth. Those processes, though sketchy, are more well documented than Bacchic methods, and I thought for a while that the two must be related. Only after a long period of trial and error did it become evident that they were not, and that what we were missing was something, in all likelihood, quite simple. Which it was.”
“And what might that have been?”
“Only this. To receive the god, in this or any other mystery, one has
to be in a state of euphemia, cultic purity. That is at the very center of bacchic mystery. Even Plato speaks of it. Before the Divine can take over, the mortal self—the dust of us, the part that decays—must be made clean as possible.”
“How is that?”
“Through symbolic acts, most of them fairly universal in the Greek world. Water poured over the head, baths, fasting—Bunny wasn’t so good about the fasting nor about the baths, either, if you ask me but the rest of us went through the motions. The more we did it, though, the more meaningless it all began to seem, until, one day, I was struck by something rather obvious—namely, that any religious ritual is arbitrary unless one is able to see past it to a deeper meaning.” He paused. “Do you know,” he said, “what Julian says about the Divine Comedy?”
“No, Henry, I don’t.”
“That it’s incomprehensible to someone who isn’t a Christian? That if one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours? It was the same with this. It had to be approached on its own terms, not in a voyeuristic light or even a scholarly one. At the first, I suppose, it was impossible to see it any other way, looking at it as we did in fragments, through centuries. The vitality of the act was entirely obsfucated, the beauty, the terror, the sacrifice.” He took one last drag of his cigarette and put it out. “Quite simply,” he said, “we didn’t believe. And belief was the one condition which was absolutely necessary. Belief, and absolute surrender.”
I waited for him to continue.
“At this point, you must understand, we were on the verge of giving up,” he said calmly. “The enterprise had been interesting, but not that interesting; and besides, it was a good deal of trouble. You don’t know how many times you almost stumbled on us.”
“No.” He took a drink of his whiskey. “I don’t suppose you remember coming downstairs one night in the country, about three in the morning,” he said. “Down to the library to get a book. We heard you on the stairs. I was hidden behind the draperies; I could have reached out and touched you if I’d wanted. Another time you woke up before we even got home. We had to slip around to the back door, sneak up the stairs like cat burglars—it was very tiresome, all that creeping around barefoot in the dark. Besides, it was getting cold.
They say that the oreibasia took place in midwinter, but I daresay the Peloponnesus is considerably milder that time of year than Vermont.
“We’d worked on it so long, though, and it seemed senseless, in light of our revelation, not to try once more before the weather turned. Everything got serious all of a sudden. We fasted for three days, longer than we ever had before. A messenger came to me in a dream. Everything was going beautifully, on the brink of taking wing, and I had a feeling that I’d never had, that reality itself was transforming around us in some beautiful and dangerous fashion, that we were being driven by a force we didn’t understand, towards an end I did not know.” He reached for his drink again. “The only problem was Bunny. He didn’t grasp, in some fundamental way, that things had changed significantly. We were closer than we’d ever been, and every day counted; already it was terribly cold, and if it snowed, which it might have any day, we’d have had to wait till spring. I couldn’t bear the thought that, after everything we’d done, he’d ruin it at the last minute. And I knew he would. At the crucial moment he’d start to tell some asinine joke and ruin everything. By the second day I was having my doubts, and then, on the afternoon of the night itself, Charles saw him in Commons having a grilled cheese sandwich and a milk shake. That did it. We decided to slip away without him. To go out on the weekends was too risky, since you’d almost caught us several times already, so we’d been driving out late on Thursday and getting back about three or four the next morning. Except this time we left early, before dinner, and didn’t say a word to him about it.”
He lit a cigarette. There was a long pause.
“So?” I said. “What happened?”
He laughed. “I don’t know what to say.” “What do you mean?”
“I mean that it worked.” “It worked?” “Absolutely.”
“But how could—?” “It worked.”
“I don’t think I understand what you mean when you say ‘it worked.’ ”
“I mean it in the most literal sense.” “But how?”
“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran
white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know.… I mean we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more as if the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”
“But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?”
It came out not as a question but as a statement. He didn’t blink, but sat waiting for me to continue.
“Well? Aren’t they?”
He leaned over to rest his cigarette in the ashtray. “Of course,” he said agreeably, cool as a priest in his dark suit and ascetic spectacles. “You know that as well as I do.”
We sat looking at each other for a moment. “What exactly did you do?” I said.
“Well, really, I think we needn’t go into that now,” he said smoothly. “There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.”
“You saw Dionysus, I suppose?”
I had not meant this at all seriously, and I was startled when he nodded as casually as if I’d asked him if he’d done his homework.
“You saw him corporeally? Goatskin? Thyrsus?”
“How do you know what Dionysus is?” said Henry, a bit sharply. “What do you think it was we saw? A cartoon? A drawing from the side of a vase?”
“I just can’t believe you’re telling me you actually saw—”
“What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is
serious business.” He leaned back in his chair and scrutinized me. “You don’t have to take my word for any of this, you know,” he said. “There were four of us. Charles had a bloody bite-mark on his arm that he had no idea how he’d got, but it wasn’t a human bite. Too big. And strange puncture marks instead of teeth. Camilla said that during part of it, she’d believed she was a deer; and that was odd, too, because the rest of us remember chasing a deer through the woods, for miles it seemed. Actually, it was miles. I know that for a fact. Apparently we ran and ran and ran, because when we came to ourselves we had no idea where we were. Later we figured out that we had got over at least four barbed-wire fences, though how I don’t know, and were well off Francis’s property, seven or eight miles into the country. This is where I come to the rather unfortunate part of my story.
“I have only the vaguest memory of this. I heard something behind
me, or someone, and I wheeled around, almost losing my balance, and swung at whatever it was—a large, indistinct, yellow thing—with my closed fist, my left, which is not my good one. I felt a terrible pain in my knuckles and then, almost instantly, something knocked the breath right out of me. It was dark, you understand; I couldn’t really see. I swung out again with my right, hard as I could and with all my weight behind it, and this time I heard a loud crack and a scream.
“We’re not too clear on what happened after that. Camilla was a good deal ahead, but Charles and Francis were fairly close behind and had soon caught up with me. I have a distinct recollection of being on my feet and seeing the two of them crash through the bushes—God. I can see them now. Their hair was tangled with leaves and mud and their clothes virtually in shreds. They stood there, panting, glassy-eyed and hostile—I didn’t recognize either of them, and I think we might have started to fight had not the moon come from behind a cloud. We stared at each other. Things started to come back. I looked down at my hand and saw it was covered with blood, and worse than blood. Then Charles stepped forward and knelt at something at my feet, and I bent down, too, and saw that it was a man. He was dead. He was about forty years old and he had on a yellow plaid shirt—you know those woolen shirts they wear up here—and his neck was broken, and, unpleasant to say, his brains were all over his face. Really, I do not know how that happened. There was a dreadful mess. I was drenched in blood and there was even blood on my glasses.
“Charles tells a different story. He remembers seeing me by the
body. But he says he also has a memory of struggling with something, pulling as hard as he could, and all of a sudden becoming aware that what he was pulling at was a man’s arm, with his foot braced in the armpit. Francis—well, I can’t say. Every time you talk to him, he remembers something different.”
Henry sighed. “I suppose we’ll never know what really happened,” he said. “We didn’t find her until a good bit later. She was sitting quietly on the bank of a stream with her feet in the water, her robe perfectly white, and no blood anywhere except for her hair. It was dark and clotted, completely soaked. As if she’d tried to dye it red.”
“How could that have happened?”
“We don’t know.” He lit another cigarette. “Anyway, the man was dead. And there we were in the middle of the woods, half-naked and covered with mud with this body on the ground in front of us. We were all in a daze. I was fading in and out, nearly went to sleep; but then Francis went over for a closer look and had a pretty violent attack of the dry heaves. Something about that brought me to my senses. I told Charles to find Camilla and then I knelt down and went through the man’s pockets. There wasn’t much—I found something or other that had his name on it—but of course that wasn’t any help.
“I had no idea what to do. You must remember that it was getting cold, and I hadn’t slept or eaten for a long time, and my mind wasn’t at its clearest. For a few minutes—goodness, how confusing this was— I thought of digging a grave but then I realized that would be madness. We couldn’t linger around all night. We didn’t know where we were, or who might happen along, or even what time it was. Besides, we had nothing to dig a grave with. For a moment I nearly panicked—we couldn’t just leave the body in the open, could we?— but then I realized it was the only thing we could do. My God. We didn’t even know where the car was. I couldn’t picture dragging this corpse over hill and dale for goodness knows how long; and even if we got it to the car, where would we take it?
“So when Charles came back with Camilla, we just left. Which, in retrospect, was the smartest thing we could have done. It’s not as if teams of expert coroners are crawling all over upstate Vermont. It’s a primitive place. People die violent natural deaths all the time. We didn’t even know who the man was; there was nothing to tie us to him. All we had to worry about was finding the car and then making our way home without anyone seeing us.” He leaned over and poured
himself some more Scotch. “Which is exactly what we did.”
I poured myself another glass, too, and we sat without speaking for a minute or more.
“Henry,” I said at last. “Good God.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really, it was more upsetting than you can imagine,” he said. “Once I hit a deer with my car. It was a beautiful creature and to see it struggling, blood everywhere, legs broken … And this was even more distressing but at least I thought it was over. I never dreamed we’d hear anything else about it.” He took a drink of his Scotch. “Unfortunately, that is not the case,” he said. “Bunny has seen to that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You saw him this morning. He’s driven us half mad over this. I am very nearly at the end of my rope.”
There was the sound of a key being turned in the lock. Henry brought up his glass and drank the rest of his whiskey in a long swallow. “That’ll be Francis,” he said, and turned on the overhead light.