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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 34


  Dad stopped. “Golly,” was all he could say.

  I shared his sense of awe. To describe the interior of the Thaxter mansion in the detail it deserves is impossible, but I was struck by the vastness of it, the high ceilings with exposed beams and chandeliers hanging down. Everything seemed to be shining and gleaming and glinting, and our feet were cushioned by gardens of Oriental weave. The air smelled of cedar and saddle soap. On the walls pictures in gilded frames basked in pools of light. A huge tapestry showing a medieval scene adorned one entire wall, and a wide staircase swept up to the second floor like the sweet curve of Chile Willow’s shoulder. I saw textures of burled wood, burnished leather, crushed velvet, and colored glass, and even the chandelier bulbs were sparkling clean, not a cobweb between them.

  A woman about the same age as Mr. Pritchard appeared from a hallway. She wore a white uniform and had her snowy hair in a bun clasped with silver pins. She had a round, pretty face and clear blue eyes, and she said hello to us in the same accent as her husband. Dad had told me it was British. “Young master Vernon’s with his trains,” she told us. “He’d like you to join him there.”

  “Thank you, Gwendolyn,” Mr. Pritchard said. “If you’ll follow me, gentlemen?” He began walking into a corridor flanked with more rooms, and we were quick to keep up. It was obvious to us that you could put several houses the size of ours in this mansion and still have room left over for a barn. Mr. Pritchard stopped and opened a pair of tall doors and we heard the tinny wail of a train whistle.

  And there was Vernon, naked as the day he escaped the womb. He was leaning over, examining something he held close to his face, and we had quite a view of his rear end.

  Mr. Pritchard cleared his throat. Vernon turned around, a locomotive in his hand, and he smiled so wide I thought his face would split. “Oh, there you are!” he said. “Come on in!” We did. The room had no furniture but a huge table on which toy trains were chugging across a green landscape of miniature hills, forest, and a tiny town. Vernon was attending to the locomotive’s wheels with a shaving brush. “Dust on the tracks,” he explained. “If it builds up, a whole train can crash.”

  I watched the train layout with pure amazement. Seven trains were in motion at the same time. Little switches were being thrown automatically, little signal lights blinking, little cars stopped at little railroad crossings. Sprinkled throughout the green forest were red-leafed Judas trees. The tiny town had matchbox houses and buildings painted to resemble brick and stone. At the terminus of the main street there was a gothic structure with a cupola: the courthouse where I’d fled from Mayor Swope. Roads snaked between the mounded hills. A bridge crossed a river of green-painted glass, and out beyond the town there was a large oblong black-painted mirror. Saxon’s Lake, I realized. Vernon had even painted the shoreline red to represent the rocks there. I saw the baseball field, the swimming pool, the houses and streets of Bruton. Even a single rainbow-splashed house, at the end of what must be Jessamyn Street. I found Route Ten, which ran along the forest that opened up a space for Saxon’s Lake. I was looking for a particular house. Yes, there it was, the size of my thumbnail: Miss Grace’s house of bad girls. In the wooded hills to the west, between Zephyr and the off-map Union Town, there was a round scorch mark where some of the little trees had burned away. “Somethin’ caught fire,” I said.

  “That’s where the meteor fell,” Vernon replied without even glancing at it. He blew on the locomotive’s wheels, a naked Amazing Colossal Man. I found Hilltop Street, and our own house at the edge of the woods. Then I followed the stately curve of Temple Street, and right there stood the cardboard mansion my father and I were standing in.

  “You’re in here, Cory. Both of you are.” Vernon motioned toward a shoebox beside his right hand, near a scatter of railroad cars, disconnected tracks, and wiring. On the shoebox’s lid was written PEOPLE in black crayon. I lifted the lid and looked down at what must’ve been hundreds of tiny toy people, their flesh and hair meticulously painted. None of them wore any clothes.

  One of the moving trains let out a high, birdlike whistle. Another was pulled by a steam engine, which puffed out circles of smoke the size of Cheerios. Dad walked around the gigantic, intricate layout, his mouth agape. “It’s all here, isn’t it?” he asked. “Poulter Hill’s even got tombstones on it! Mr. Thaxter, how’d you do all this?”

  He looked up from his work. “I’m not Mr. Thaxter,” he said. “I’m Vernon.”

  “Oh. All right. Vernon, then. How’d you do all this?”

  “Not overnight, that’s for sure,” Vernon answered, and he smiled again. From a distance his face was boyish; up close, though, you could see the crinkly lines around his eyes and two deeper lines bracketing his mouth. “I did it because I love Zephyr. Always have. Always will.” He glanced at Mr. Pritchard, who’d been waiting by the door. “Thanks, Cyril. You can go now. Oh…wait. Does Mr. Mackenson understand?”

  “Understand what?” Dad asked.

  “Uh…young master Vernon wants to have dinner alone with your son. He wants you to eat in the kitchen.”

  “I don’t get it. Why?”

  Vernon kept staring at Mr. Pritchard. The older man said, “Because he invited your son to dinner. You came along, as I understand, as a chaperon. If you still have any…uh…reservations, let me tell you that the dining room is next to the kitchen. We’ll be there eating our dinner while your son and young master Vernon are in the dining room. It’s what he wants, Mr. Mackenson.” This last sentence was spoken with an air of resignation.

  Dad looked at me, and I shrugged. I could tell he didn’t like this arrangement, and he was close to pulling up stakes.

  “You’re here,” Vernon said. He put the locomotive down on a track, and it clickety-clicked out from under his hand. “Might as well stay.”

  “Might as well,” I echoed to Dad.

  “You’ll enjoy the food. Gwendolyn’s a fine cook,” Mr. Pritchard added.

  Dad folded his arms across his chest and watched the trains. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I guess.”

  “Good!” Now Vernon truly beamed. “That’s all, Cyril.”

  “Yes sir.” Mr. Pritchard left, and the doors closed behind him.

  “You’re a milkman, aren’t you?” Vernon asked.

  “Yes, I am. I work for Green Meadows.”

  “My daddy owns Green Meadows.” Vernon walked past me and around the table to check a connection of wires. “It’s that way.” He pointed off the table with one of his skinny arms in the direction of the dairy. “You know there’s a new grocery store opening in Union Town next month? They’re almost finished with that new shopping center there. Going to be what they call a supermarket. Going to have a whole big section of milk in—can you believe this?—plastic jugs.”

  “Plastic jugs?” Dad grunted. “I’ll be.”

  “Everything’s going plastic,” Vernon said. He reached down and straightened a house. “That’s what the future’s going to be. Plastic, through and through.”

  “I…haven’t seen your father for a good long while, Vernon. I talked to Mr. Dollar yesterday. Talked to Dr. Parrish and Mayor Swope today, too. Even went by the bank to talk to a few people. Nobody’s seen your father for two or more years. Fella at the bank says Mr. Pritchard picks up the important papers and they come back signed by Moorwood.”

  “Yes, that’s right. Cory, how do you like this bird’s-eye view of Zephyr? Kind of makes you feel like you could fly right over the roofs, doesn’t it?”

  “Yes sir.” I’d been thinking the exact same thing just a minute or so before.

  “Oh, don’t ‘sir’ me. Call me Vernon.”

  “Cory’s been taught to respect his elders,” Dad said.

  Vernon looked at him with an expression of surprise and dismay. “Elders? But we’re the same age.”

  Dad didn’t speak for a few seconds. Then he said, “Oh” in a careful voice.

  “Cory, come here and run the trains! Okay?” He was standing ne
xt to a control box with dials and levers on it. “Express freight’s coming through! Toot toot!”

  I walked to the control box, which looked as complicated as dividing fractions. “What do I do?”

  “Anything,” Vernon said. “That’s the fun of it.”

  Hesitantly, I started twisting dials and pushing levers. Some of the trains got faster, others slower. The steam engine was really puffing now. The signal lights blinked and the whistles blew.

  “Is Moorwood still here, Vernon?” my father asked.

  “Resting. He’s upstairs, resting.” Vernon’s attention was fixed on the trains.

  “Can I see him?”

  “Nobody sees him when he’s resting,” Vernon explained.

  “When is he not restin’, then?”

  “I don’t know. He’s always too tired to tell me.”

  “Vernon, would you look at me?” Vernon turned his head toward my dad, but his eyes kept cutting back to the trains. “Is Moorwood still alive?”

  “Alive, alive-o,” Vernon said. “Clams and mussels, alive, alive-o.” He frowned, as if the question had finally registered. “Of course he’s alive! Who do you think runs all this business stuff?”

  “Maybe Mr. Pritchard does?”

  “My daddy is upstairs resting,” Vernon repeated with firm emphasis on the resting. “Are you a milkman or a member of the Inquisition?”

  “Just a milkman,” Dad said. “A curious milkman.”

  “And curiouser and curiouser you get. Pick up the speed, Cory! Number Six is running late!”

  I kept twisting the dials. The trains were zipping around the bends and racing between the hills.

  “I liked your story about the lake,” Vernon said. “That’s why I painted the lake black. It’s got a dark secret deep inside, doesn’t it?”

  “Yes, si—Vernon,” I corrected myself. I’d have to get used to being able to call a grown-up by his first name.

  “I read about it in the Journal.” Vernon reached out toward a hillside to straighten a crooked tree, and his shadow fell over the earth. Then, the task done, he stepped back and gazed down upon the town. “The killer had to know how deep Saxon’s Lake is. So he has to be a local. Maybe he lives in one of those houses, right there in Zephyr. But, if I’m to understand the dead man was never identified and nobody’s turned up missing since March, then he must not have been a local. So: what’s the connection between a man who lives here and a man who lived somewhere far away?”

  “The sheriff would like to know that, too.”

  “Sheriff Amory’s a good man,” Vernon said. “Just not a good sheriff. He’d be the first to admit it. He doesn’t have the hound-dog instinct; he lets the birds fly when he’s got his paws on them.” Vernon scratched a place just below his navel, his head cocked to one side. Then he walked to a brass wallplate and flicked two switches. The room’s lights went off; tiny lights in some of the toy houses came on. The trains followed their headlights around the tracks. “So early in the morning,” he mused. “But if I was going to kill somebody, I’d have killed them early enough to dump them in the lake and be sure nobody was coming along Route Ten. Why’d the killer wait until almost dawn to do it?”

  “I wish I knew,” Dad said.

  I kept playing with the levers, the dials illuminated before me.

  “It must be somebody who doesn’t get home delivery from Green Meadows,” Vernon decided. “He didn’t think about the milkmen’s schedules, did he? You know what I believe?” Dad didn’t answer. “I believe the killer’s a night owl. I think dumping the body into the lake was the last thing he did before he went home and went to bed. I believe if you find a night owl who doesn’t drink milk, you’ve got your killer.”

  “Doesn’t drink milk? How do you figure that?”

  “Milk helps you sleep,” Vernon said. “The killer doesn’t like to sleep, and if he works in the daytime, he’ll drink his coffee black.”

  The only response Dad gave was a muffled grunt, whether in agreement or in sympathy I didn’t know.

  Mr. Pritchard returned to the darkened room to announce that dinner was being served. Then Vernon turned off the trains and said, “Come on with me, Cory,” and I followed him as Dad went with the butler. We walked into a room with suits of armor standing in it, and there was a long table with two places set, one across from the other. Vernon told me to choose a seat, so I sat where I could see the knights. In a few minutes Gwendolyn entered, carrying a silver tray, and so began one of the strangest dinners of my life.

  We had strawberry soup with vanilla wafers crumbled up in it. We had ravioli and chocolate cake on the same plate. We had lemon-lime Fizzies to drink, and Vernon put a whole Fizzie tablet in his mouth and I laughed when the green bubbles boiled out. We had hamburger patties and buttered popcorn, and dessert was a bowl of devil’s food cake batter you ate with a spoon. As I ate these things, I did so with guilty pleasure; a kid’s feast like this was the kind of thing that would’ve made my mother swoon. There wasn’t a vegetable in sight, no carrots, no spinach, no Brussels sprouts. I did get a whiff of what I thought to be beef stew from the kitchen, so I figured Dad was having a grown-up’s meal. He probably had no idea what I was assaulting my stomach with. Vernon was a happy eater; he laughed and laughed and both of us wound up licking our batter bowls in a sugar-sopped delirium.

  Vernon wanted to know all about me. What I liked to do, who my friends were, what books I liked to read, what movies I enjoyed. He’d seen Invaders from Mars, too; it was a linchpin between us. He said he used to have a great big trunk full of superhero comic books, but his daddy had made him throw them away. He said he used to have shelves of Hardy Boys mysteries, until his daddy had gotten mad at him one day and burned them in the fireplace. He said he used to have all the Doc Savage magazines and the Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books and the Shadow and Weird Tales and boxes of Argosy and Boy’s Life magazines, but his daddy had said Vernon had gotten too old for those things and all of them, every one, had gone into the fire or the trash and burned to ashes or been covered in earth. He said he would give a million dollars if he could have them again and he said that if I had any of them I should hold on to them forever because they were magic.

  And once you burn the magic things or cast them out in the garbage, Vernon said, you become a beggar for magic again.

  “‘I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,’” Vernon said.

  “What?” I asked him. I’d never even seen Vernon wearing shorts before.

  “I wrote a book once,” he told me.

  “I know. Mom’s read it.”

  “Would you like to be a writer someday?”

  “I guess,” I said. “I mean…if I could be.”

  “Your story was good. I used to write stories. My daddy said it was fine for me to have a hobby like that, but never to forget that someday all this would be my responsibility.”

  “All what?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. He never would tell me.”

  “Oh.” Somehow this made sense. “How come you didn’t write another book?”

  Vernon started to say something; his mouth opened, then closed again. He sat for a long moment staring at his hands, his fingers smeared with cake batter. His eyes had taken on a shiny glint. “I only had the one in me,” he said at last. “I looked and I looked for another one. But it’s not there. It wasn’t there yesterday, it’s not there today…and I don’t think it’ll be there tomorrow, either.”

  “How come?” I asked. “Can’t you think of a story?”

  “I’ll tell you a story,” he said.

  I waited.

  Vernon drew a long breath and let it go. His eyes were unfocused, as if he were struggling to stay awake but sleep was pulling him under. “There was a boy,” he began, “who wrote a book about a town. A little town, about the size of Zephyr. Yes, very much like Zephyr. This boy wrote a book, and it took him four years to get everything exactly right. And while this boy was writing his book, his
daddy…” He trailed off.

  I waited.

  “His…daddy…” Vernon frowned, trying to find his thoughts again. “Yes,” he said. “His daddy told him he was nothing but a fool. His daddy said it night and day. You fool, you crazy fool. Spending your time writing a book, when you ought to know business. That’s what I raised you for. Business. I didn’t raise you to spend your time disappointing me and throwing your chances away, I raised you for business and your mother is looking at you from her grave because you disappointed her, too. Yes, you broke her heart when you failed college and that’s why she took the pills that reason and that reason alone. Because you failed and all that money was wasted I should’ve just thrown it out the window let the niggers and the white trash have it.” Vernon blinked; something about his face looked shattered. “‘Negroes,’ the boy said. We must be civilized. Do you see, Cory?”

  “I…don’t…”

  “Chapter two,” Vernon said. “Four years. The boy stood it for four years. And he wrote this book about the town, and the people in it who made it what it was. And maybe there wasn’t a real plot to it, maybe there wasn’t anything that grabbed you by the throat and tried to shake you until your bones rattled, but the book was about life. It was the flow and the voices, the little day-to-day things that make up the memory of living. It meandered like the river, and you never knew where you were going until you got there, but the journey was sweet and deep and left you wishing for more. It was alive in a way that the boy’s life was not.” He sat staring at nothing for a moment. I watched his chocolate-smeared fingers gripping at the table’s edge. “He found a publisher,” Vernon went on. “A real New York City publisher. You know, that’s where the heart of things is. That’s where they make the books by the hundreds of thousands, and each one is a child different and special and some walk tall and some are crippled, but they all go out into the world from there. And the boy got a call from New York City and they said they wanted to publish his book but would he consider some changes to make it even better than it was and the boy was so happy and proud he said yes he wanted it to be the very best it could be.” Vernon’s glassy eyes moved, finding pictures in the air.