He looked at Carol and he knew what she was saying. When she was nineteen she had married her high-school sweetheart, Nick Vereno, and she had been so happy that she had blossomed like her family had never seen her before. For seven months, she had almost looked pretty. But then Nick didn't come home one night, and a week later he told her he had met somebody else. A twenty-eight-year-old exotic dancer with surgically enhanced breasts and a two-year-old kid in tow. Carol's happiness had been switched off like the lights in an empty house, when you leave it for the very last time.
Smitty swigged Coors and said, âYou know what you ought to do, Frank? You ought to insist that this Strange guy does it again. Just to prove that what you saw was genuine. I'll bet you a lobster dinner that he can't.'
âTalking of dinner,' said Frank, âcan I smell something burning?'
âGod damn it,' said Carol. âI forgot you're supposed to keep on adding stock.'
She hurried inside. Smitty, unperturbed, carried on swinging on the swing and drinking his beer. âMaybe you and Margot could use a break,' he suggested.
âWell, if your relationship had been in really good shape, it seems to me that she wouldn't have blamed you for what happened to Danny. Maybe you both need to step back and take a look at what's wrong. There's marriage, you know, and then there's something else. Carol was married to Nick and I know that she still carries this eternal flame for him because he was handsome and charming and everything she thought she ever wanted. But what we have together, Carol and me, is such a closeness that you can't say where one of us ends and the other begins.'
He finished his can and crumpled it up, and tossed it into the trashcan. âNo disrespect to Margot, but she's always been kind of serious, you know, whereas you're always the guy who can't keep a straight face for more than five minutes.' He sniffed. âTake my advice, Frank. Don't force it. Give yourself some space. She's trying to glue herself back together again and you should do the same, with whatever adhesive you can lay your hands on.'
Frank and Smitty drank so many cans of Coors between them that Frank spent the night on the couch. At two thirty-three
. one of the family's golden retrievers came up to him and licked his face, and he woke up shouting â
' in disgust. The dog wagged his tail and kept running to the door and back again to tell him that he wanted to go for a walk.
He shuffled to the kitchen door and let the dog out into the yard. The moon was so bright that it could have been daylight. He stood there and thought about all the words of advice that had been given to him since Danny died. It was almost as if everybody else in the world had been discussing what he should do next, behind his back. The old man with the long-billed baseball cap; Nevile Strange; Lieutenant Chessman, and Smitty.
Give yourself some space. Cross the road and never come back
Carol came up behind him and linked arms with him. âAre you all right?'
âI don't know. I don't think so.'
The next morning, after a breakfast of charred bacon and fried eggs with broken yolks, he kissed Carol and shook hands with Smitty and gave five dollars to each of the boys and then he drove home. Margot's Jeep was already parked in the driveway. He let himself into the house and found Margot standing in the middle of the living room with her arms folded, like a schoolteacher impatiently waiting for an explanation.
âHi,' he said. âAre you OK?'
He tried to focus on her through his hangover. âI'm not sure,' he said slowly. âYou tell me.'
, as a matter of fact, I'm not OK. In fact I'm devastated. I don't know what you're trying to do to me, Frank. I always thought you were cynical. I thought that was par for the course for comedy writers. But I never realized that you were cruel.'
He couldn't understand what she meant. Not until he stepped into living room and she waved her arms at the walls all around her. Her eyes were blurry with tears.
Every one of her
Impressions In White
had been defaced with red aerosol. One of them had been marked with a swastika, another had the word BITCH scrawled across it. A third had a crude vagina sprayed on to it, and yet another said FORGIVE?? The used aerosol can had been dropped on to the white leather couch, leaving splatters and smears.
âChrist â who did this?'
Margot stared at him in disbelief. âWho
this? You're asking
âHey, you don't think that it was me?'
âWho else, Frank? Nobody else has a key, nobody else knows the alarm code. Nobody else knows how much my paintings mean to me. Nobody else despises them like you do, and nobody else thinks that I'm a Nazi and a bitch because I blame you for what happened to Danny.'
Frank opened and closed his mouth and simply couldn't think what to say to her.
âI want you out of here, Frank. I don't care where the hell you go. You can come to the funeral but after that I don't want to see you. Not until we've sorted this out.'
âMargot, I swear to God I didn't do this! I wasn't even here last night. I went to Carol's.'
She stood still for a moment, with one hand on top of her head, as if she were making one of the most important decisions of her life.
âMargotÂ .Â .Â . can you really see me doing something like this? Sure, I got angry with you the other night, but that was frustration more than anything else. I need you, Margot, and you need me. We have to talk all of this out.'
âNo,' she said. âNo, we don't. All you want to do is hurt me, because I won't forget what you did to Danny. I could have
you, yes. I started to forgive you. But that isn't enough for you, is it? You want me to pretend that it never happened at all.'
âMargotÂ .Â .Â .'
âI'm going out, Frank. I'll be back around three. When I come back, I don't want to find you here. Please.'
She walked out and left Frank standing in the middle of the living room, with the red-smeared paintings on every side. He felt as if he had woken up this morning in a parallel universe. He had stayed round at Carol and Smitty's last night, hadn't he? The dog had licked his face and he had stood in the moonlit yard. Or maybe he hadn't. Maybe he had driven around here and spray-painted Margot's
Impressions In White.
He approached the painting with the swastika on it, and touched it. The red paint was still slightly tacky, so it couldn't have been sprayed more than three or four hours ago. He knew for an absolute certainty that he hadn't done it. He
have done it.
But if it wasn't him, who had?
oe says they're not going to cancel under any circumstances but one more bomb and I think they're going to cancel,' Mo said.
âThis is insane. What are they going to do? Put on endless repeats of
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
âFrank, everybody's running scared. What's going to happen if they let off a bomb right in the middle of
Wheel of Fortune
? What if they blow up the new
movie and kill Tom Cruise? The insurance companies are pulling out of movies and television like Napoleon pulling out of Moscow.'
Lizzie Fries lit another More and blew smoke out of her nostrils. âMaybe we could introduce a sympathetic Taliban character and have all our women dress in burkas.'
âIt was only a suggestion,' said Lizzie. She was sixty-two and skeletally thin, with a puffball of dyed orange hair and a face with striking bone structure but lizard-like skin. She always wore pant suits and frilly blouses, and enormous dangly earrings. In her twenties she had been a comedienne and a singer, and even Lucille Ball had said she was going to be the next Lucille Ball. But drink and pills and four failed marriages had destroyed her looks, even though they had never diluted her corrosive sense of humor.
âSo what's the score?' asked Frank. âIs there any point in us finishing the next script? If they're going to cancel, we might as well go play some golf.'
âYou shouldn't even
here,' Mo told him. âLizzie and I can manage. We'll send you the first draft by email and you can tear it to shreds in the privacy of your own home.'
âI wish. Margot's thrown me out.'
âShe's thrown me out.' Frank explained about the sÃ©ance and
Impressions In White
Lizzie waved aside a cloud of smoke. âAre you
you didn't deface those paintings? Me, I can't tell you how often I wake up in the night with an insatiable urge to paint swastikas and vaginas all over the wall.'
âIt wasn't me, Lizzie. I don't know who the hell it could have been, but it wasn't me.'
âWhat about this sÃ©ance?' asked Mo. âI got to tell you, Frank, it sounds to me like you're very close to cracking up. Why don't you stay with Naomi and me for a while, just until you've got your head back together?'
âOh God, just what he needs,' said Lizzie. âChicken soup and old Zero Mostel jokes.'
âThanks for the offer,' said Frank. âI think I need to spend some time on my own.'
âYou're not going to do anything stupid?'
âWhat, like sit in the bath and drop a hairdryer in it? No, Mo, I'm not going to do anything stupid. I just need to rearrange my head.'
He drove to Venice. On the car radio, the chief executive of NBC was repeating his determination not to be intimidated by terrorists.
âThe very first amendment to the American Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and a free media. We at NBC value this freedom beyond the price of gold or rubies. We are not going to allow a maniac minority to destroy the legacy that our founding fathers handed down to us.
âOn the other hand, we are taking every precaution to protect our employees and our property. Everybody who enters an NBC office or studio for whatever reason will be thoroughly searched, and if this causes delay and disruption â well, I'm afraid that's the price we have to pay for vigilance.'
Newscaster Will Chase said, âIn spite of these redoubtable words, a wave of blind panic continues to sweep through Hollywood. Extra police and deputies have been brought in to guard all major TV networks and movie studios, including Fox, Universal, Sony, Warner Brothers, MGM/PathÃ© and Disney at Burbank.
âFashionable restaurants and nightspots frequented by movie and TV celebrities are reporting that business has fallen off overnight. At the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Polo Lounge was described today as a “mausoleum,” and Rodeo Drive as a “ghost town.” Personal protection companies are reporting a desperate shortage of bodyguards and security experts available for hire, and Armet, the Florida-based company which produces “discreetly bomb-proofed” cars and SUVs, say they have been inundated with inquiries from Hollywood's rich, famous and scared.
âThere is no question about it, the TV and movie industry is living in fear, and nobody doubts that there will be another bomb outrage very soon. The only questions are
Frank parked outside Astrid's apartment building. He sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, trying to decide if he was doing the right thing.
He was still sitting there when the old man in the long-billed baseball cap suddenly appeared around the corner, wearing a sagging pair of maroon jogging pants and a faded yellow T-shirt. The old man hesitated for a moment, looking screwy eyed from right to left. He licked his finger and lifted it up as if he were testing which way the wind was blowing. Then he came loping over to Frank's car and tapped on the window.
âHow's it going, Frank?'
âNot too good.'
âShouldn't lose your nerve, Frank. No good never came of losing your nerve.'
âI haven't lost my nerve. I can't decide what to do next, that's all.'
âMaybe it ain't your decision.'
âOh, really? Then whose decision is it?'
âFate, karma, call it whatever you like. Sometimes we're destined to play a part in history and we don't even know it. In which case all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and keep on following that road and see where it takes us.'
âI'm burying my only son on Wednesday.'
The old man laid his hand on the roof of the car. He wore a silver ring on every finger and his nails were blackened and broken. He smelled, too â of urine and alcohol.
âThere's a reason for everything, Frank. It's not always a reason we can understand, or a reason we approve of. But there's a reason all the same.'
âSo what do you think I should do next?' Frank asked him. He was being bitter, but at the same time he really wanted to hear what the old man had to say.
âYou don't have any choice, Frank. You crossed the road. There's no turning back now.'
Frank knew that he was right. He couldn't go back. Yesterday was closed for business. He sat staring at the Buick emblem on his steering wheel and he could almost feel life's rug being dragged out from under him.
After more than a minute of silence, the old man coughed and spat. âThat's a ten spot.'
âSpiritual guidance. Warnings I give for nothing â especially dire warnings; that's my philanthropic duty. But I'm sorry. Spiritual guidance I have to make a nominal charge for.'