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The Stories of Ray Bradbury
The Stories of Ray Bradbury 115
And yet…you loved him?
Yes, as boys love boys when boys are eight, ten, twelve, and the world is innocent and boys are evil beyond evil because they know not what they do, but do it anyway. So, on some secret level, I had to be hurt. We dear fine friends needed each other. I to be hit. He to strike. My scars were the emblem and symbol of our love.
What else makes you want to murder Ralph so late in time?
The train whistle shrieked. Night country rolled by.
And I recalled one spring when I came to school in a new tweed knicker suit and Ralph knocking me down, rolling me in snow and fresh brown mud. And Ralph laughing and me going home, shame-faced, covered with slime, afraid of a beating, to put on fresh dry clothes.
Yes! And what else?
Remember those toy clay statues you longed to collect from the Tarzan radio show? Statues of Tarzan and Kala the Ape and Numa the Lion, for just twenty-five cents?! Yes, yes! Beautiful! Even now, in memory. O the sound of the Ape Man swinging through green jungles far away, ululating! But who had twenty-five cents in the middle of the Great Depression? No one.
Except Ralph Underhill.
And one day Ralph asked you if you wanted one of the statues.
Wanted! you cried. Yes! Yes!
That was the same week your brother in a strange seizure of love mixed with contempt gave you his old, but expensive, baseball-catcher’s mitt.
‘Well,’ said Ralph, ‘I’ll give you my extra Tarzan statue if you’ll give me that catcher’s mitt.’
Fool! I thought. The statue’s worth twenty-five cents. The glove cost two dollars. No fair! Don’t!
But I raced back to Ralph’s house with the glove and gave it to him and he, smiling a worse contempt than my brother’s, handed me the Tarzan statue and, bursting with joy, I ran home.
My brother didn’t find out about his catcher’s mitt and the statue for two weeks, and when he did he ditched me when we hiked out in farm country and left me lost because I was such a sap. ‘Tarzan statues! Baseball mitts!’ he cried. ‘That’s the last thing I ever give you!’
And somewhere on a country road I just lay down and wept and wanted to die but didn’t know how to give up the final vomit that was my miserable ghost.
The thunder murmured.
The rain fell on the cold Pullman-car windows.
What else? Is that the list?
No. One final thing, more terrible than all the rest.
In all the years you went to Ralph’s house to toss up small bits of gravel on his Fourth of July six-in-the-morning fresh dewy window or to call him forth for the arrival of dawn circuses in the cold fresh blue railroad stations in late June or late August, in all those years, never once did Ralph run to your house.
Never once in all the years did he, or anyone else, prove their friendship by coming by. The door never knocked. The window of your bedroom never faintly clattered and belled with a high-tossed confetti of small dusts and rocks.
And you always knew that the day you stopped going to Ralph’s house, calling up in the morn, that would be the day your friendship ended.
You tested it once. You stayed away for a whole week. Ralph never called. It was as if you had died, and no one came to your funeral.
When you saw Ralph at school, there was no surprise, no query, not even the faintest lint of curiosity to be picked off your coat. Where were you, Doug? I need someone to beat. Where you been, Doug, I got no one to pinch!
Add all the sins up. But especially think on the last:
He never came to my house. He never sang up to my early-morning bed or tossed a wedding rice of gravel on the clear panes to call me down to joy and summer days.
And for this last thing, Ralph Underhill, I thought, sitting in the train at four in the morning, as the storm faded, and I found tears in my eyes, for this last and final thing, for that I shall kill you tomorrow night.
Murder. I thought, after thirty-six years. Why, God, you’re madder than Ahab.
The train wailed. We ran cross-country like a mechanical Greek Fate carried by a black metal Roman Fury.
They say you can’t go home again.
That is a lie.
If you are lucky and time it right, you arrive at sunset when the old town is filled with yellow light.
I got off the train and walked up through Green Town and looked at the courthouse, burning with sunset light. Every tree was hung with gold doubloons of color. Every roof and coping and bit of gingerbread was purest brass and ancient gold.
I sat in the courthouse square with dogs and old men until the sun had set and Green Town was dark. I wanted to savor Ralph Underhill’s death.
No one in history had ever done a crime like this.
I would stay, kill, depart, a stranger among strangers.
How would anyone dare to say, finding Ralph Underhill’s body on his doorstep, that a boy aged twelve, arriving on a kind of Time Machine train, traveled out of hideous self-contempt, had gunned down the Past? It was beyond all reason. I was safe in my pure insanity.
Finally, at eight-thirty on this cool October night. I walked across town, past the ravine.
I never doubted Ralph would still be there.
People do, after all, move away…
I turned down Park Street and walked two hundred yards to a single street-lamp and looked across. Ralph Underhill’s white two-story Victorian house waited for me.
And I could feel him in it.
He was there, forty-eight years old, even as I felt myself here, fortyeight, and full of an old and tired and self-devouring spirit.
I stepped out of the light, opened my suitcase, put the pistol in my right-hand coat pocket, shut the case, and hid it in the bushes where, later, I would grab it and walk down into the ravine and across town to the train.
I walked across the street and stood before his house and it was the same house I had stood before thirty-six years ago. There were the windows upon which I had hurled those spring bouquets of rock in love and total giving. There were the sidewalks, spotted with firecracker burn marks from ancient July Fourths when Ralph and I had just blown up the whole damned world, shrieking celebrations.
I walked up on the porch and saw on the mailbox in small letters: UNDERHILL.
What if his wife answers?
No. I thought, he himself, with absolute Greek-tragic perfection, will open the door and take the wound and almost gladly die for old crimes and minor sins somehow grown to crimes.
I rang the bell.
Will he know me, I wondered, after all this time? In the instant before the first shot, tell him your name. He must know who it is.
I rang the bell again.
The doorknob rattled.
I touched the pistol in my pocket, my heart hammering, but did not take it out.
The door opened.
Ralph Underhill stood there.
He blinked, gazing out at me.
‘Ralph?’ I said.
‘Yes—?’ he said.
We stood there, riven, for what could not have been more than five seconds. But, O Christ, many things happened in those five swift seconds.
I saw Ralph Underhill.
I saw him clearly.
And I had not seen him since I was twelve.
Then, he had towered over me to pummel and beat and scream.
Now he was a little old man.
I am five foot eleven.
But Ralph Underhill had not grown much from his twelfth year on.
The man who stood before me was no more than five feet two inches tall.
I towered over him.
I gasped. I stared. I saw more.
I was forty-eight years old.
But Ralph Underhill, forty-eight, had lost most of his hair, and what remained was threadbare gray, black and white. He looked sixty or sixty-five.
I was in good health.
Ralph Underhill was waxen pale. There was a knowledge of sickness in his face. He had traveled
in some sunless land. He had a ravaged and sunken look. His breath smelled of funeral flowers.
All this, perceived, was like the storm of the night before, gathering all its lightnings and thunders into one bright concussion. We stood in the explosion.
So this is what I came for? I thought. This, then, is the truth. This dreadful instant in time. Not to pull out the weapon. Not to kill. No, no. But simply—
To see Ralph Underhill as he is in this hour.
Just to be here, stand here, and look at him as he has become.
Ralph Underhill lifted one hand in a kind of gesturing wonder. His lips trembled. His eyes flew up and down my body, his mind measured this giant who shadowed his door. At last his voice, so small, so frail, blurted out:
‘Doug?’ he gasped. ‘Is that you?’
I hadn’t expected that. People don’t remember! They can’t! Across the years? Why would he know, bother, summon up, recognize, call?
I had a wild thought that what had happened to Ralph Underhill was that after I left town, half of his life had collapsed. I had been the center of his world, someone to attack, beat, pummel, bruise. His whole life had cracked by my simple act of walking away thirty-six years ago.
Nonsense! Yet, some small crazed mouse of wisdom scuttered about my brain and screeched what it knew: You needed Ralph, but, more! he needed you! And you did the only unforgivable, the wounding, thing! You vanished.
‘Doug?’ he said again, for I was silent there on the porch with my hands at my sides. ‘Is that you?’
This was the moment I had come for.
At some secret blood level. I had always known I would not use the weapon. I had brought it with me, yes, but Time had gotten here before me, and age, and smaller, more terrible deaths…
Six shots through the heart.
But I didn’t use the pistol. I only whispered the sound of the shots with my mouth. With each whisper. Ralph Underhill’s face aged another ten years. By the time I reached the last shot he was one hundred and ten years old.
‘Bang,’ I whispered. ‘Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.’
His body shook with the impact.
‘You’re dead. Oh, God, Ralph, you’re dead.’
I turned and walked down the steps and reached the street before he called:
‘Doug, is that you?’
I did not answer, walking.
‘Answer me,’ he cried, weakly. ‘Doug! Doug Spaulding, is that you? Who is that? Who are you?’
I got my suitcase and walked down into the cricket night and darkness of the ravine and across the bridge and up the stairs, going away.
‘Who is that?’ I heard his voice wail a last time.
A long way off, I looked back.
All the lights were on all over Ralph Underhill’s house. It was as if he had gone around and put them all on after I left.
On the other side of the ravine I stopped on the lawn in front of the house where I had been born.
Then I picked up a few bits of gravel and did the thing that had never been done, ever in my life.
I tossed the few bits of gravel up to tap that window where I had lain every morning of my first twelve years. I called my own name. I called me down in friendship to play in some long summer that no longer was.
I stood waiting just long enough for my other young self to come down to join me.
Then swiftly, fleeing ahead of the dawn, we ran out of Green Town and back, thank you, dear Christ, back toward Now and Today for the rest of my life.
The Better Part of Wisdom
The room was like a great warm hearth, lit by an unseen fire, gone comfortable. The fireplace itself struggled to keep a small blaze going on a few wet logs and some turf, which was no more than smoke and several lazy orange eyes of charcoal. The place was slowly filling, draining, and refilling with music. A single lemon lamp was lit in a far corner, illumining walls painted a summer color of yellow. The hardwood floor was polished so severely it glowed like a dark river upon which floated throw-rugs whose plumage resembled South American wild birds, flashing electric blues, whites, and jungle greens. White porcelain vases, brimming with freshcut hothouse flowers, kept their serene fires burning on four small tables about the room. Above the fireplace, a serious portrait of a young man gazed out with eyes the same color as the ceramics, a deep blue, raw with intelligence and vitality.
Entering the room quietly, one might not have noticed the two men, they were so still.
One sat reclining back upon the pure white couch, eyes closed. The second lay upon the couch so his head was pillowed in the lap of the other. His eyes were shut, too, listening. Rain touched the windows. The music ended.
Instantly there was a soft scratching at the door.
Both men blinked as if to say: People don’t scratch, they knock.
The man who had been lying down leaped to the door and called: ‘Someone there?’
‘By God, there is,’ said an old voice with a faint brogue.
With the door flung wide, the young man pulled a small round old man into the warm-lit room.
‘Tom, boy, ah Tom, and glad I am to see you!’
They fell together in bear-hugs, pawing. Then the old man felt the other person in the room and moved back.
Tom spun around, pointing. ‘Grandpa, this is Frank. Frank, this is Grandpa. I mean—oh hell—’
The old man saved the moment by trotting forward to seize and pull Frank to his feet, where he towered high above this small intruder from the night.
‘Frank, is it?’ the old man yelled up the heights.
‘Yes, sir,’ Frank called back down.
‘I—’ said the grandfather, ‘have been standing outside that door for five minutes—’
‘Five minutes?’ cried both young men, alarmed.
‘—debating whether to knock. I heard the music, you see, and finally I said, damn, if there’s a girl with him he can either shove her out the window in the rain or show the lovely likes of her to the old man. Hell, I said, and knocked, and’—he slung down his battered old valise—‘there is no young girl here. I see—or, by God, you’ve smothered her in the closet, eh!’
‘There is no young girl, Grandfather.’ Tom turned in a circle, his hands out to show.
‘But—’ The grandfather eyed the polished floor, the white throw-rugs, the bright flowers, the watchful portraits on the walls. ‘You’ve borrowed her place, then?’
‘I mean, by the look of the room, there’s a woman’s touch. It looks like them steamship posters I seen in the travel windows half my life.’
‘Well,’ said Frank. ‘We—’
‘The fact is, Grandfather,’ said Tom, clearing his throat, ‘we did this place over. Redecorated.’
‘Redecorated?’ The old man’s jaw dropped. His eyes toured the four walls, stunned. ‘The two of you are responsible? Jesus!’
The old man touched a blue and white ceramic ashtray, and bent to stroke a bright cockatoo throw-rug.
‘Which of you did what?’ he asked, suddenly, squinting one eye at them.
Tom flushed and stammered. ‘Well, we—’
‘Ah, God, no, no, stop!’ cried the old man, lifting one hand. ‘Here I am, fresh in the place, and sniffing about like a crazy hound and no fox. Shut that damn door. Ask me where I’m going, what am I up to, eh, eh? And, while you’re at it, do you have a touch of the Beast in this art gallery?’
‘The Beast it is!’ Tom slammed the door, hustled his grandfather out of his greatcoat, and brought forth three tumblers and a bottle of Irish whiskey, which the old man touched as if it were a newborn babe.
‘Well, that’s more like it. What do we drink to?’
‘Why, you, Grandpa!’
‘No, no.’ The old man gazed at Tom and then at his friend, Frank. ‘Christ,’ he sighed, ‘you’re so
damn young it breaks my bones in the ache. Come now, let’s drink to fresh hearts and apple cheeks and all life up ahead and happiness somewhere for the taking. Yes?’
‘Yes!’ said both, and drank.
And drinking watched each other merrily or warily, half one, half the other. And the young saw in the old bright pink face, lined as it was, cuffed as it was by circumstantial life, the echo of Tom’s face itself peering out through the years. In the old blue eyes, especially, was the sharp bright intelligence that sprang from the old portrait on the wall, that would be young until coins weighted them shut. And around the edges of the old mouth was the smile that blinked and went in Tom’s face, and in the old hands was the quick, surprising action of Tom’s, as if both old man and young had hands that lived to themselves and did sly things by impulse.
So they drank and leaned and smiled and drank again, each a mirror for the other, each delighting in the fact that an ancient man and a raw youth with the same eyes and hands and blood were met on this raining night, and the whiskey was good.
‘Ah, Tom, Tom, it’s a loving sight you are!’ said the grandfather. ‘Dublin’s been sore without you these four years. But, hell, I’m dying. No, don’t ask me how or why. The doctor has the news, damn him, and shot me between the eyes with it. So I said instead of relatives shelling out their cash to come say good-by to the old horse, why not make the farewell tour yourself and shake hands and drink drinks. So here I am this night and tomorrow beyond London to see Lucie and then Glasgow to see Dick. I’ll stay no more than a day each place, so as not to overload anyone. Now shut that mouth, which is hanging open. I am not out collecting sympathies. I am eighty, and it’s time for a damn fine wake, which I have saved money for, so not a word. I have come to see everyone and make sure they are in a fit state of halfgraceful joy so I can kick up my heels and fall dead with a good heart, if that’s possible. I—’
‘Grandfather!’ cried Tom, suddenly, and seized the old man’s hands and then his shoulders.
‘Why, bless you, boy, thanks,’ said the old man, seeing the tears in the young man’s eyes. ‘But just what I find in your gaze is enough.’ He set the boy gently back. ‘Tell me about London, your work, this place. You, too, Frank, a friend of Tom’s is as good as my son’s son! Tell everything, Tom!’